From Small Causes, Great Events - Part 4
by Larry Parker
Operation Cobra, the breakout from Normandy 24-27 July 1944, began with one of the most concentrated and intense carpet bombings in the history of modern warfare. 1500 B-17s and B-24s dropped 2000 tons of High Explosive and an even greater payload of fragmentation bombs on an area five miles wide by one mile deep. The heavies were augmented by 1000 medium bombers and fighter bombers. In just under three hours 2500 planes disgorged over 5000 tons of ordnance plus white phosphorus and a new agent called napalm, saturating the target zone with over 11,000 bombs per square mile. The Panzer Lehr division defending the area, already weakened by six weeks of fighting, was devastated. So great was the concussion that twenty-five ton tanks were flipped onto their turrets. The blast smashed radios and obliterated Headquarters sundering command and control. General Fritz Bayerlein, commanding the elite Panzer Lehr, estimated that seventy per cent of his men were dead, wounded or rendered senseless and incapable of resistance by the shock effect. Regrettably precision munitions were thirty years in the future. Cloud cover, flak, nerves and aim point miscalculations resulted in the fratricide of American forces waiting to begin the ground assault once the air armada had completed its mission. 136 men were killed, another 621 wounded, primarily from the 30th Infantry Division. Indeed the 30th suffered more casualties in three hours from the Army Air Force (AAF) than from the enemy on any day of the war.
A survivor of Operation Cobra wrote, “One’s life is held in balance by a little piece of metal smaller than a man’s finger.” Depending upon the vagaries of combat that “little piece of metal” might kill, wound, graze or miss completely. Should that “little piece of metal” kill the outcome seems inevitable; at that point we tend to disregard the fact that up until the moment of impact, the moment of finality, the preceding moments were infinitely variable, containing a multitude of possibilities. We forget how unpredictable the world looked mere seconds before the fragment struck. This is the trap of hind sight bias. To use another example, because the West dominated much of recent history we assume that dominance was inevitable. It was not. Western dominance was and remains a close run thing. Had the Persians won at Salamis, had Pilate pardoned Christ, had the Chinese harnessed steam power before the West, had any one of thousands of events turned out differently, what would the world look like today?
Instead of using cause and effect to limit possibilities, to close our minds to all the ways the course of history might have progressed, we should take the opposite view. Indeed we must take the opposite view for if cause and effect is valid then the assumption that if key links in the causal chain were broken history would have followed a completely different path is equally valid. This approach to history has a number of things to recommend it. Among them:
• The world we live in is but one of many possible worlds that might have come to pass had key details changed but a little.
• Without cause and effect and its handmaiden counter factual examination history would be limited to a strictly narrative description of what happened; a catalogue of events rather than the rousing tale of triumph and tragedy that fascinates and educates the reader.
• With the use of “what if” scenarios we gain a greater appreciation of the fragility of history and with that heightened awareness a greater understanding of how and why things turned out as they did.
• The recognition that history is contingent rather than inevitable puts current events into even greater perspective. For example neither the continuing dominance of the West, nor its demise is foreordained. That chapter is still being written in the ongoing clash between Western civilization and the forces of radical Islam.
• In addition to its educational value, thoughtful consideration of alternate realities is a hell of a lot of fun.
Section One: Roads not taken
Reflecting on the meeting between General Jackson and General Lee prior to the battle of Chancellorsville, Captain Justus Scheibert, a Prussian Army officer attached to the Army of Northern Virginia as an observer, wrote, “There are going to be great events and many a mother’s son will embrace the grass! When those two men get together history becomes pregnant and bears bloody for us and hell for the Yankees!” Conversely, when great men do not keep their rendezvous with destiny, either through fateful personal choices or the hazards of providence, history is not made.
Everyone remembers Raymond Gram right? Born in Cortland, New York on 25 March 1887 Gram was the quintessential preacher’s son. After just one year at Oberlin College where his father taught Theology Gram dropped out. A series of various and sundry jobs followed until he found his calling in journalism. Determined to prove himself after what he considered to be his early failures Gram drove himself to succeed in his chosen career and he did. By twenty-three Gram was Managing Editor of the Indianapolis Sun. He went on to become the London Bureau Chief for the Philadelphia Public Ledger. 1913 found Gram working as the Bureau Chief for Berlin and Germany writing for the Chicago Daily News. Gram truly made his mark in 1914 covering the great opening battles of World War One. He was also the first to report on the existence of BIG BERTHA, the 420MM howitzer built by Krupp used to crush the fortresses at Liege. Gram then cemented his burgeoning reputation with his coverage of the disastrous Allied landings at Gallipoli.
After World War One Gram moved into and excelled in the new medium of radio where his expertise in world events, reassuring manner and articulate voice garnered him a large and loyal audience. Indeed so strong was his following that in 1932 CBS offered Gram a job. Gram declined choosing instead to work for the Mutual Broadcasting System. The position with CBS eventually went to a man who would become the archetype of radio and television journalism; a man who would set the standard for all broadcast journalists who followed; the icon of early nightly news - Edward R. Murrow. Although Gram performed yeoman service prior to and during World War Two broadcasting early warnings about Hitler and Nazism to an isolationist American public and later on the war itself and he remained a very popular radio commentator his career had reached its zenith. After the Second World War Gram worked successfully for ABC, BBC and VOA. Ironically however, during the early 1950’s Gram was hired to write news copy for none other than Edward R. Murrow. Sic Gloria Transit Mundi.
|General Frederick N. Funston|
And who could forget the colorful General Frederick N. Funston commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) during the Great War. Standing five feet, five inches tall and weighing 120 pounds what this bantam rooster of a man lacked in stature he more than made up for in personality. Born 11 September 1865 Funston did not show much promise as a youth; after failing the admissions test to West Point in 1884 he attended the University of Kansas from 1885 – 1888 but did not graduate. Following his aborted academic career Funston worked as a trainman for the Santa Fe Railroad, as a reporter in Kansas City, Missouri and as a botanist on an exploration and surveying expedition in Death Valley in 1891. He then traveled to Alaska where he worked for the Department of Agriculture for two years.
The Cuban Revolution changed everything for the itinerant Funston. In 1896 he attended a speech given by the Civil War hero, General Daniel E. Sickles at Madison Square Garden in New York City. So moved was Funston by Sickles’ rousing speech that he joined the Cuban Revolutionary Army fighting for independence from Spain. Funston served with distinction in Cuba but its tropical clime took its toll. Suffering from malaria Funston was granted leave to recuperate in the United States shortly after America entered the war with Spain. While convalescing Funston was commissioned as a Colonel in the 20th Kansas Infantry on 13 May 1898. That same year he landed in the Philippines where his bravery in battle launched a meteoric career. His heroic actions at Calumpit, Bulacan earned Funston the Medal of Honor and promotion to Brigadier General of Volunteers. The citation regarding his actions in April 1889 reads in part while under heavy fire he “Crossed the river on a raft and by his skill and daring enabled the general commanding to carry the enemy’s entrenched position on the north bank of the river and to drive him with great loss from the important and strategic position of Calumpit. In 1901 he played a key role in capture of Filipino President Emilio Aginaldo. That exploit made Funston a national hero. It also saved his career. As a volunteer, prior to that feat of arms, Funston had been slated to be mustered out. In recognition for his service however, the Army appointed him a Brigadier General in the Regular Army, a remarkable achievement for someone who had been commissioned just three years earlier.
Funston next saw combat during the conflict with Mexico (1914-1916). He took part in the occupation of Veracruz and the hunt for Pancho Villa. Promoted to Major General in November 1914 Funston finished the Bandit War commanding US forces protecting the Texas border from Seditionista raiders.
When America entered World War One Funston was one of the most highly decorated and best known Generals on active duty and President Wilson’s first choice to lead the AEF. Unfortunately for Funston, fortunately for the United States Funston died of a massive heart attack before the appointment could be made and the position went to John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. I say fortunately for in addition to the qualities that made him successful on the battlefield – personal bravery, tactical brilliance and extreme ruthlessness – Funston was also impulsive and intemperate, in truth, positively incendiary – qualities that made him a loose cannon off the battlefield. For example, when questioned about the brutal handling of Filipino insurgents Funston stated, “I personally strung up thirty-five Filipinos without a trial, so what’s all the fuss over ‘dispatching’ a few ‘treacherous savages’? If there had been more, the war would have been over long ago.” He then threw fuel on the fire by adding, “Impromptu domestic hangings might also hasten the end of the war. For starters, all Americans who recently petitioned Congress to sue for peace in the Philippines should be dragged out of their homes and lynched.” Political Correctness was not Funston’s forte!
As Pershing and, a quarter of a century later, Eisenhower would quickly learn, coalition warfare with the British and the French required the utmost effort to ensure any measure of cooperation and coordination; on the grand strategic level tact trumped tactics, statesmanship surpassed strategy, in other words, maintaining a working alliance was a diplomats game. Diplomacy, statesmanship and tact were skills Funston did not possess. Had he commanded the AEF who knows what the repercussions would have been?
Richard Nugent O’Connor future General and Knight was born on 21 August 1889 in Srinagar, Kashmir, India the son of a Major in the Royal Irish Fusiliers stationed there. During his adventurous life, his biography reads like a Kipling novel, O’Connor became a General, was Knighted (Knight of the Order of the Thistle and Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath), and earned the Distinguished Service Cross twice, the Military Cross, the French Legion of Honor, the French Croix de Guerre with palm and the Italian Silver Medal of Military Valor. O’Connor received his baptism of fire in the trenches of France during World War One serving at Arras and Bullecourt finishing the Great War as a brevet Lieutenant Colonel. Sadly the War to End all Wars merely sowed the seeds for further conflict. World War Two found O’Connor in command of the Western Desert Force facing a numerically superior Italian army dug in near Sidi Barrani, Egypt. The Western Desert Force consisted of the 7th Armored Division, the 4th Indian Infantry Division and two detached Brigades totaling 36,000 men. The opposing Italian army was five times as large with more tanks, artillery pieces and planes in support but was severely handicapped by a lack of infantry mobility and logistical transport. O’Connor launched Operation Compass on 8 December 1940 with just 31,000 men, 275 tanks and 120 guns. Never the less by 10 December the Italians had been completely driven out of Egypt leaving behind 38,000 prisoners. That was just the beginning of the Italian disaster. Bardia fell on 3 January 1941 along with another 40,000 men and 400 guns; Tobruk on 22 January with an additional 27,000 men captured. By 9 February 1941 the victorious Brit’s were at El Agheila deep inside Libya. The Italian army had ceased to exist having lost over 130,000 men, 400 tanks, 1292 artillery pieces and huge stocks of military supplies. There was nothing to prevent a continued push all the way to Tunisia uncovering the soft underbelly of Europe. The Axis invasion of Greece however, ended that bright prospect. Churchill ordered all available forces to Greece with disastrous results. Meanwhile Hitler sent General Erwin Rommel and the lead elements of what would become the Deutsches Afrika Korps to Libya to bolster his floundering ally. Realizing the British had no intention of attacking and in fact troops were being withdrawn Rommel lost no time in launching a counter offensive on 24 March 1941 pushing all the way to Buq Buq, Egypt by 25 April. As luck would have it on 6 April O’Connor was captured by a German patrol near Martuba. By this chance event the Germans removed the one man in the British chain of command at that time who, given the resources, had the skill and audacity to match the Desert Fox. As a result the North African war would see saw back and forth until 12 May 1943.
O’Connor spent the next two and one-half years as an Italian POW at the Castello di Vincigliata near Florence. He made three attempts to escape finally succeeding after the Italians surrendered in September 1943. Upon his return to England O’Connor was promoted to Lieutenant General and given command of VIII Corps for the Normandy invasion. VIII Corps fought from Caen to the Rhine. On 27 November 1944 O’Connor was transferred to India. Promoted to full General he finished the war as General Officer Commanding in Chief of the Northwestern Army in India.
Conventional wisdom holds that the rigidly binding alliance system made World War One inevitable once the initial spark had been struck; that when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia the other Great Powers were drawn into the vortex like rudderless ships into a maelstrom. That perception is true as far as it goes but is not entirely accurate. There were alternative scenarios that could have played out. In the same manner conventional wisdom holds that Germany was locked into the Schlieffen Plan. That impression is also not entirely true. The Schlieffen Plan dominated strategic military thinking however, Germany had numerous contingency war plans including a plan to hold in the west and strike first against Russia. Under this plan General Hermann von Staab, Chief of the Railway Department, guaranteed delivery of four armies totaling one million men to the Eastern Front in ten days. Regular exercises were conducted, just as they were for the Schlieffen Plan, to ensure mobilization schedules, railroad timetables, etc., were kept up to date. The fact that General Staab put seven armies totaling nearly two million men on the Western Front in a similar period of time gives credence to the validity of the Russia First Plan.
For a brief moment Kaiser Wilhelm II, grandson of Queen Victoria, considered implementing the Russia First alternate plan, rather than go to war with his English cousins. Summoning his closest advisors to the Charlottenburg Palace Wilhelm expressed his concerns regarding the events that were beginning to spin out of control. Unfortunately for millions of young men General Helmuth von Moltke II (Moltke the Younger), Chief of the German General Staff, after a heated and protracted argument convinced the Kaiser to press forward with the Schlieffen Plan over the strenuous objections of Admiral Tirpitz who was not eager to throw his prized fleet against the Royal Navy. The rest as they say is history but consider for a moment the possibilities had Germany marched east. Without the violation of Belgian neutrality there was no casus belli for England to enter the war, hence no need for the U-Boat campaign that eventually drew the United States into the fray. If France had honored her commitments to Russia she would have been forced to attack on a narrow and heavily fortified front or been placed in the awkward position of drawing worldwide censure for crossing the Belgian border herself. The onus of armed aggression would have fallen on France and Russia rather than Germany, an important diplomatic distinction and a clever political maneuver had it been made. Under those circumstances Italy might have honored her commitment to the Central Powers rather than joining the Triple Entente (Allies) as she did historically. Considering what Germany accomplished at Tannenberg with 170,000 men and the Masuria Lakes with 215,000 men the prospects for Russia would have been dismal at best. It is a pity that no one in a position of power recalled the words attributed to Otto von Bismarck, “The whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian Grenadier.”
Section Two: Close run things
In an interview with Thomas Creevey regarding the Battle of Waterloo and using the word ‘nice’ in its archaic form meaning “uncertain or delicately balanced” Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington remarked, “It has been a damned nice thing – the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.” The Battle of Waterloo is but one of countless examples of “damned nice things” that had the contest gone the other way would have changed the outcome of the conflict and thus the course of history as we know it.
Strategically Glendale or Frayser’s Farm, the fifth of the Seven Days Battles, was the most promising. Had Lee’s Lieutenants moved as ordered McClellan’s army could have been cut in half and defeated in detail. For a host of reasons, none of them sound, the planned convergence of overwhelming force at the vital crossroads at Glendale did not materialize; out of 70,000 Confederates in the area 49,000 did not reach the battlefield. Jackson, noted for the rapid marching of his famous “foot cavalry” moved with a completely uncharacteristic somnambulistic slowness; finding their path blocked by felled trees Huger’s column cut a new road rather than remove the obstacles; only the forces of Hill and Longstreet actually engaged the enemy. These gallant men penetrated the Union line near Willis Church, routing a Federal division but without the support of the remainder of the Confederate army Union counterattacks sealed the breach. The result was a tactical disaster for the South as it allowed McClellan to withdraw to an even stronger position on Malvern Hill where Lee’s much smaller army would bleed profusely again. Writing after the war, Confederate Chief of Artillery General Edward Porter Alexander declared that “on two occasions in the four years, we were within reach of military successes so great that we might have hoped to end the war with our independence. ... The first was at Bull Run [in] July 1861 ... This [second] chance of June 30, 1862 impresses me as the best of all.” A dejected General Lee summed up the outcome stating, “Under ordinary circumstances the Federal army should have been destroyed.”
|South Mountain 14 September 1862|
After his victory at Second Manassas (Bull Run) General Robert E. Lee was determined to carry the war to the North. In order to secure his line of communications the first step in the campaign was to take Harper’s Ferry. Dividing his army of just 40,000 men into four columns Lee sent his Lieutenants to surround and lay siege to that critical position. Armed with a copy of Lee’s Special Orders 191 giving him perfect intelligence regarding Lee’s planned movements and leading an army of 87,000 men General George B. McClellan was in position to utterly destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. Only the South Mountain range screened by a few troops stood between Lee and disaster. As McClellan pressed forward intense fighting flared up at Fox’s Gap, Turner’s Gap and Crampton’s Gap drawing increasing numbers of troops from sides. By dusk the Confederate defenders had been driven back with heavy casualties. Had McClellan seized the moment and pushed forward he could have defeated Lee’s Army in detail. Crippled by extreme caution bordering on paranoia McClellan instead delayed twenty-four hours. That one day reprieve gave Lee time to consolidate his army at Sharpsburg precipitating the bloody Battle of Antietam and discarding the best chance of ending the Civil War in 1862.
Desperate to at least weaken, if not break the siege at Petersburg General Lee resorted to the maneuver that had worked so well previously when Richmond was threatened. Hoping to draw off at a significant portion of General Grant’s massive army he sent General Jubal Early to demonstrate against Washington and vulnerable points north. After ransoming the cities of Hagerstown and Frederick, Maryland Early encountered a hurriedly assembled force on the banks of the Monocacy River. These scratch Union troops, commanded by General Lew Wallace, who as the scapegoat of Shiloh had been relegated to minor posts, were able to delay Early long enough for reinforcements to man the extensive defenses of Washington. Repulsed on 11 July 1864 at the Battle of Fort Stevens Early retreated into Virginia. Had the Confederates arrived one day earlier, as originally planned, Washington would have been theirs for the taking. It is highly unlikely Lincoln would have survived such a disaster in the 1864 elections.
Orson Scott Card wrote, “The great forces of history can be manipulated by astonishingly small groups of determined people.” For example, the Bolsheviks were only one of numerous groups agitating for reform or revolution in Czarist Russia. Others included the Social Democrats (Russia’s largest Marxist party), the Socialist Revolutionaries (the largest Socialist party in Russia), the Constitutional Democrats or Kadets, the Octobrists and, of course, the Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks were merely the best organized and most ruthless of the competing groups. By the same token, when the German Army sent Adolph Hitler to spy on the German Workers Party (DAP) in 1919 it numbered a few hundred members. Ironically Hitler liked what he heard, joined and eventually took over changing the party’s name to the Nationalist Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP). Under Hitler’s leadership the party grew from a small fringe group into a force to be reckoned with. Even so as late as the Reichstag elections of March 1933 the NSDAP took only 43.9% of the vote, earning only 288 out of 879 seats. Again however better organization and greater ruthlessness enabled Hitler and the Nazi’s to maneuver their way into complete and total power. So when someone tells you radical, militant Islam is not a mortal threat to the United States standby for serious trouble in the near future.
Section Three: The Devil is in the Details.
Details bore us. Details are the bane of our existence. Who has time for a multi-page instruction manual or insurance policy or closing contract with all its fine print, much less an extensive check list for something we have done hundreds of times? Details equal tedium. Details also frequently mean the difference between success and failure.
|A Matter of Life and Death / A Matter of Seconds|
Regarding the planned assault on Cemetery Ridge popularly known as Picket’s Charge General Longstreet opined, “General (Lee), I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions and armies and should know, as well as any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arranged for battle can take that position.” Longstreet was correct in his assessment. In order to reach the enemy the units led by Anderson, Pettigrew, Picket and Trimble would have to cross 1400 yards of open ground crisscrossed by fences that would delay and disorganize the attacking ranks. At seventy yards per minute or ‘common time’ the standard rate of march during the Civil War, that meant spending twenty to twenty-five minutes subject to the fire of well sited Union batteries. Those who survived that storm of shot and shell and canister then had to charge uphill against 5,300 entrenched infantry with thousands more Federals close at hand for support. The only way Lee’s grand frontal assault could have succeeded would have been through an effective artillery barrage that destroyed the Union works and drove the Federal cannon from their positions. Lee’s master artillerist Edward Porter Alexander assembled some 150 cannon that spit death and destruction at Cemetery Ridge for nearly two hours for just this purpose. Their efforts were in vain.
Throughout the war Confederate artillery units lacked sufficient long range ammunition and were plagued with notoriously poor powder and fuses. These things they had learned to compensate for. On 03 July 1863 another factor came into play. An explosion at a factory in Virginia had destroyed their normal source of fuses. Just before setting out on the Gettysburg campaign they had received a shipment of fuses from Charleston, South Carolina. Unbeknownst to the artillery officers and men these new fuses burned slower than rated. The vast majority of their shells sailed harmlessly over the Federal position, detonating well beyond the Union lines. Through all the dust and dirt, smoke and confusion, what seemed to be an effective barrage was in fact an illusion created when their Union counterparts’ simply ceased fire to conserve ammunition or temporarily pulled their artillery pieces off the ridgeline to the safety of the reverse slope. As a result Lee’s brave men faced a largely intact Union line and were decimated in the course of their gallant charge.
|So Close and yet So Far Away|
During the numerous Maori uprising in New Zealand the British encountered a particularly formidable fortification at Rangiriri. Built on an isthmus the stronghold’s flanks were protected by the Waikato River and Lake Waikare leaving only a narrow approach available for attack by infantry. Following a two hour bombardment by artillery and four armored gunboats 600 men of from the 12th, 14th and 65th Foot launched a ground assault. The British carried the two outer trench systems but the attack came to an abrupt halt when they reached the inner redoubt. The scaling ladders they carried did not reach the top of the citadel’s ramparts.
Seventy-five per cent of the American Expeditionary Force carried this weapon. Sergeant Alvin York earned the Medal of Honor with this weapon. What was it – the iconic 1903 Springfield? No. When the United States entered World War One the Army had 600,000 Springfield’s and 160,000 obsolete 30-40 Krag’s on hand in inventory. Springfield Armory and Rock Island Arsenal could not produce enough of these superb rifles to fully equip the rapidly expanding American Army. So the government turned to Remington, Eddystone and Winchester who had recently completed production of the Pattern 1914 Enfield for the British. Designated the M1917 Enfield and re-chambered from 303 to 30-06 these factories produced 2,193,429 American Enfield’s during the war. After the Great War the 1903 Springfield was retained as the standard service rifle and the Enfield was relegated to storage however it would see action again in World War Two. During the 1930’s thousands of M1917 Enfield’s were shipped to China and the Philippines. 618,000 veteran rifles were exported to the British in 1940. In 1941 the M1917 Enfield served the American soldier again alongside the 1903 Springfield and the M1 Garand.
On 29 May 1453 after a seven week siege that began on 06 April 1453 the last bastion of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire fell to the twenty-one year old Sultan Mehmed II. The defeat of Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos marked the end of the world’s longest lived empire and was a severe blow to Christianity for without this bulwark of western civilization standing guard between Europe and Asia Minor the armies of the Ottoman Turks were now free to ravage the Balkans and march to the very gates of Vienna. Not all the consequences of this loss negative however. Fearing forced conversion to Islam or persecution thousands fled the doomed city, many to Italy where their intellectual abilities helped fuel the Renaissance. Under Ottoman rule all churches including the famed Hagia Sophia were converted into mosques and Constantinople itself was renamed Istanbul. If you were to search Ottoman literature for the significance of this name you would find nothing for Istanbul is but a corruption of Eis Stin Bolin, Greek for “to the city.”
Section Four: Missed Opportunities
“Look into my face; my name is Might-have-been; I am also cal’d No-More, Too-late, Farewell.” Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Upon taking command of the Pacific Fleet after the disaster of Pearl Harbor Admiral Nimitz wrote extensively of the dire situation the Navy faced, three crucial errors made by the Japanese and one stroke of luck that “helped very materially to shorten the war.” First, the Japanese left the shipyards and other naval repair facilities intact. Had those been destroyed what remained of the fleet would have been forced to operate from the west coast of the United States initially. Second, the 4.5 million barrels (247,500,000 gallons) of fuel oil stored in above ground tanks were not attacked. Had those stocks been destroyed it would have taken years to accumulate that much fuel severely restricting operations. Three, the submarine base at Quarry Point was left unscathed. The American sub fleet sailed immediately after Pearl Harbor and would account for seventy-five per cent of Japanese merchant marine shipping sunk during the course of the war. Many officers in the Japanese strike force argued passionately for follow on strikes to accomplish just these things but Admiral Nagumo took counsel of his fears and broke off the attack. As for the stroke of luck, Nimitz was thankful that the fleet had been in port. Had the fleet been at sea as many as 20,000 men would have been lost and the ships sunk in deep water. As it was all the ships sunk or damaged in the relatively shallow waters of Pearl Harbor except the Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah were raised, repaired and christened “the ghost fleet” re-joined the fight.
Hard pounding this, Gentlemen; let’s see who will pound the longest.
Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington
The curriculum of West Point includes the great strategists, the great tacticians, and the great battles. By graduation Cadets are well versed in Clausewitz, Jomini, Cannae and Jackson’s Valley Campaign. They fully understand the value of maneuver warfare and flanking attacks. In the crucible of battle however senior commanders all too often ignore the lessons of their youth. No more was this unfortunate truth found to be valid than during the Battle of Hurtgen Forest 19 September through 16 December 1944.
Seldom in the annals of military history has there been ground better suited for defense. Densely forested with few roads or open areas the fifty square mile area of the Hurtgenwald was cut by numerous streams and steep ravines negating the American advantage in mobility, artillery and air superiority. To this already formidable defense the Nazi’s had added the bunkers, barbed wire and mines of the West Wall or Siegfried Line giving the Wehrmacht’s depleted divisions and the second rate Volksstrum units parity with the much stronger, better equipped and better supplied Americans. Severe winter conditions exacerbated the difficulties faced by the attacking GI’s.
The Germans had to hold the Hurtgen Forest. It protected the Ruhr dam and served as a staging area for the impending Ardennes Offensive. Courtney Hodges’ First Army did not have to take it. To the southeast lay open terrain where superior mobility and airpower would have been decisive. The Hurtgen Forest could have been enveloped and its defenders starved into submission with little risk as the German forces stationed there were far too weak to attack out of that area and were therefore a negligible threat in that regard.
Once battle was joined however its successful conclusion seemed to become a matter of pride. Division after division was fed into the meat grinder in a replay of the worst of World War One style fighting. In three months the American army sustained 33,000 casualties killed, wounded, captured or incapacitated through frostbite, trench foot and other effects of the severe winter conditions.
Charles B. McDonald, a US Army historian and former company commander who served in the Hurtgen battle, described it as “a misconceived and basically fruitless battle that should have been avoided.” Unfortunately for the GI’s involved the Hurtgen Forest was not the first time nor would it be the last time the US Army brass would pound its way to victory.
Section Five: Conclusion.
We know what events occurred historically therefore that path seems more plausible than others. For example, few experts in the 1980’s would have predicted the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union. In hindsight its fall seems inevitable. Given a few changes however it might have staggered along for decades longer. After all the Eastern Roman Empire and Ottoman Empire survived for hundreds of years on sheer momentum; long after a growing, thriving, vital culture had passed away.
As the preceding stories have shown nothing in history is fixed. There are far too many variables, great and small, for that to be the case. It just seems that way in retrospect. Peter Tsouras explains this phenomenon best in his introduction to OVER THE TOP, ALTERNATE HISTORIES OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR, “All this need not have happened in just the way it did. Nothing was preordained or inevitable. Europe was not subject to some god curse pronounced from the Oracle of Delphi. History does not roll down some prearranged groove. It rolls all over the place. It is contingency writ large, subject to vast and ever-shifting influences. It most resembles a kaleidoscope in which every turn of the tube presents a new picture, with no two ever alike.”
[i]. Franco did send troops to support the German invasion of the Soviet Union with the strict condition they would fight exclusively against Communism on the Eastern Front. In that manner Franco could repay Hitler for his support during the Spanish Civil War but not overtly provoke any of the Western Allies. Officially designated the Division Espanola de Voluntarios by the Spanish government and incorporated into the Wehrmacht as the 250th Infantry Division the unit was comprised of 2,612 officers and 15,492 enlisted men, a total of 18,104 soldiers. Organized in triangular fashion its three regiments named Madrid, Valencia and Seville each contained three battalions comprised of four companies plus two weapons companies. The infantry units were supported by an artillery regiment of four battalions consisting of four battalions with three batteries apiece. Approximately fifty per cent of the volunteers were professional soldiers. The remainder was a mix of Falangists (members of the Spanish Fascist party), Carlists and defeated Republicans hoping to redeem themselves in the eyes of the victorious Nationalists. Forbidden to wear the uniform of the Spanish Army they adopted the red berets of the Carlists, the khaki trousers of the Spanish Legion and the blue shirts of the Falangists as their dress uniform, hence the nickname Division Azul in Spanish, Blaue Division in German or Blue Division in English. After training in Bavaria the Blue Division joined the German 16th Army, part of Army Group North providing commendable service on the Volkhov River Front and the Izhora River Front during the siege of Leningrad. Heavily attacked during the Battle of Krasny Bor the Blue Division cemented its reputation as a solid unit. Between its inception on 24 June 1941 and its disestablishment on 10 October 1943 forty-seven thousand men would rotate through the ranks on crucible of the Eastern Front. During this period 4,954 were killed, 8,700 wounded and 372 captured. When recalled to Spain and disbanded by Franco approximately 3000 men, mostly Falangists, ignored their orders and continued to fight primarily in Waffen SS units such as the Wallonien and Nordland Divisions serving until the fall of Berlin.
[ii]. In January 1917 the US Army ranked 17th in the world - 107,641 Regular Army soldiers posted in small detachments throughout the country and 132,000 National Guardsmen of dubious quality. The best trained, immediately available combat force was the Marine Corps but it mustered only 15,500 personnel and these were scattered around the world. Divisions existed only on organizational charts; the Army had conducted no large scale operations since 1865, it had no tanks, planes or other heavy equipment in its inventory worth mentioning and lacked the logistic capability to conduct distant, lengthy campaigns. That said America's military potential was vast. By March 1918, just over one year later, the AEF in France numbered 318,000 men, by August the total deployed reached an astounding 1,300,000 and not one lost to German U-boats while crossing the Atlantic. This amazing effort and Hindenburg's assessment that, "The American infantry in the Argonne won the war........without the American blow in the Argonne, we could have made a satisfactory peace at the end of a stalemate" makes one truly question Hitler's sanity when he declared war on the US in 1941 and the sanity of our leaders who gut our military after every war rather than maintaining a credible deterrent force. This policy guarantees the unnecessary deaths of thousands each and every time the next war is forced upon us.
[iii]. The general public does not give World War I the attention it merits. Compared to the Blitzkrieg campaigns of World War II, the stagnant trench warfare of the Great War is dismissed as an unnecessary bloodbath. While there is a kernel of truth in that outlook the wider repercussions are missed. Had the Kaiser been victorious the rise of Nazism in Germany, Fascism in Italy, Imperialism in Japan and Bolshevism in Russia is much less likely. As it was Allied victory came at a terrible price: 1918 marked the beginning of the end of the British and French Empires, the financial capital of the world shifted from London to Wall Street, the United States became the world's leading industrial power, slighted at the negotiating table Japan would side with the Axis twenty years later, the division of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Ottoman Empire without regard to religious sects, tribal loyalties or history laid the foundation for the unrest that continues to play out in the Balkans and Middle East to this day.
[iv]. To be fair to Kaiser Wilhelm there is ample evidence that he was little more than a figure head without real power. Divided by competing factions the Reichstag also wielded little influence on matters of foreign affairs and military strategy. The real power behind the throne was the Army General Staff.
[v]. When the Christians and Muslims were not killing one another they were trading and European lust for the pearls of Persia, the gold of India, the silks of China and the spices of Indonesia made the land of Islam fabulously wealthy, in effect funding the very armies they were fighting. In the same manner today, when we purchase oil from the Middle East we fund the very people who have vowed to destroy Western Civilization proof, if you needed any, that we never learn anything from history.
[vi]. While the Ottomans ruled the Balkans the Muslims abused both Protestant Serbs and Catholic Croats. During its reign the Austro-Hungarian Empire held all parties in an uneasy truce. At the end of World War I the Allies carved Serbian dominated Yugoslavia out of the Hapsburg corpse. As a result from 1918 to 1941 the Croats and Muslims suffered. During World War II the Croats collaborated with the Nazis taking their revenge tenfold. While Tito was in power the Communists ruthlessly suppressed all factions. When The USSR and consequently the Warsaw Pact dissolved, independence came with a terrible price. The lid came off the pot that had simmered for decades boiling over into genocide.
[vii]. Quite advanced for their time the Wampanoag class had sleek clipper-ship hulls designed by Donald McKay and powerful engines provided by Benjamin Franklin Isherwood. Armed with ten nine-inch smoothbore cannon and three sixty pounder rifled guns these ships were 3-4 knots faster than any vessel in the British fleet. Their existence greatly influenced England's agreement to arbitration of America's damage claims regarding the commerce raider CSS Alabama.
[viii]. The term "Manifest Destiny" has a long and fascinating history. Having conquered Wales, Ireland and Scotland, England's expansionist impulses found outlet in the New World in the form of the thirteen colonies. Born of colonization and given its vast, open frontier continued expansion came naturally to colonial America. The roots of Manifest Destiny in the United States can be traced to John Winthrop's "City upon a Hill" sermon given in 1630. He was echoed by Thomas Paine, who wrote in Common Sense in 1776, "We have it in our power to begin the world again." To this concept in 1787 James Madison added, "This form of government in order to effect its purposes, must operate not within a small but an extensive sphere." Thomas Jefferson took concrete action of this idea with the Louisiana Purchase. First termed, "Continentalism" John Quincy Adams, instrumental in obtaining Florida from Spain and formulation of the Monroe Doctrine, wrote to his father in 1811, "The whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation. . . I believe it is indispensable that they should be associated in one federal Union." In 1843 Andrew Jackson described the process as "extending the area of freedom." In 1845 New York journalist John L. O'Sullivan gave nave to America's self-imposed mission in the world when he wrote of, "our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us." The appellation struck a resonant chord with congress and the general public. No less a luminary than Herman Melville took up the call for continental and maritime expansion, writing in 1850, "We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people - the Israel of our time: we bear the ark of the liberties of the world." In 1863 Abraham Lincoln described the United States as, "the last, best hope of Earth." This romantic notion took a more commercial form at the turn of the century when Theodore Roosevelt wrote that it was "of the utmost importance" that the United States secure "the commanding position in the international business world...especially at a time when foreign markets are essential." Even the noted progressive idealist Woodrow Wilson acknowledged, "If America is not to have free enterprise, then she can have freedom of no sort whatever...We need foreign markets." Only later did he speak of making the world "safe for Democracy." In one form or another, the concept of Manifest Destiny continues to influence American foreign policy to this day.
[ix]. During the period under consideration the American economy grew fourfold - from $9.1 billion (GNP 1869-1873) to $37.1 billion (GNP 1897-1901).
[x]. The story is probably apocryphal but it is worth repeating. Reportedly Cutlar and Griffin had previously lived amicably. When Cutlar complained to his neighbor, "It was eating my potatoes" Griffin replied, "It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig."
[xi]. The Football War may have been the last conflict in which piston driven fighters clashed. Both sides flew World War II era aircraft: P-51 Mustangs, F4U Corsairs and C-47 Skytrains modified to serve as bombers.
[xii]. If you think graft is rampant in the United States - it is, however it has not quite reached Central American standards. During the Football War the Third Military Zone of the Honduran Army mustered only half the personnel listed on its Table of Organization and Equipment (TO&E). The funds allocated for the missing soldiers had been pocketed by senior army officers.
Copyright © 2015 Larry Parker
Written by Larry Parker. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Larry Parker at:
About the Author:
Lieutenant Commander Larry Parker, United States Navy, served as a Surface Warfare Officer, with afloat tours onboard USS De Wert (FFG-45) as
Ordnance & Fire Control Officer, USS Portland (LSD-37) as First Lieutenant, and USS Butte (AE-27) as Operations Officer.
Rotations ashore included Navy Reserve Center Cheyenne, Navy & Marine Corps Reserve Center Denver and Navy Reserve Readiness
Command Region 16 Minneapolis. He retired in July 2000 and taught Navy Junior ROTC until June 2011. LCDR Parker holds a Bachelor's
degree in English and History from the University of Kansas and a Master's degree in Military Studies - Land Warfare from American Military University.
In his free time LCDR Parker pursues a lifelong passion for military history. His articles are the result of extensive research and personal
experience in surface warfare, fleet logistics and amphibious operations.
Published online: 04/19/2015.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.