Monday, January 31, 2011

The Battle of Holtzwihr, 26 January 1945

The Battle of the Week 2011-04

The Congressional Medal of Honor is the United States' highest award for valor. Originally commissioned during the Civil War to recognize valor in combat, it has grown more important--and harder to receive--in the years since. Official criteria for the Medal read in part: awarded in the name of Congress to a person who...distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States....

The part about "gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty" makes the Medal appropriately hard to receive, and it means many recipients don't survive earning it. Since the U.S. entered World War II, 856 men have received the Medal of Honor; 527 of those awards were posthumous. Since Vietnam, Congress has awarded ten Medals, nine of them posthumously. Reading a Medal of Honor citation is often enough to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up as I wonder, "How could a human being do that?"

Audie Murphy's actions at Holtzwihr on 26 January 1945 evoke just that sort of reaction. His name is almost cliché in Army circles, a catchphrase for bravery we use when we want to praise (or make fun of) another soldier. "That guy's a doggone Audie Murphy" probably means he's done something exceptionally brave or gone out of his way to get the job done; "You're a real Audie Murphy" probably means you're talking too much about yourself and you need to shut up and get to work. But for all we throw his name around, surprisingly few of us really know the details of his heroism in World War II--and heroism it certainly was, whatever you think of his career after the war.

Murphy's Company B, 15th Infantry Regiment, assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division, was part of the Colmar Offensive, an operation intended to push the last German troops out of France in late January 1945. On the 24th and 25th of January it had been cut to pieces in an attack through heavy woods on the fortified village of Holtzwihr. All the company's officers except Murphy (by this time a first lieutenant) were killed, and 102 of its 120 men killed or wounded.

By the morning of the 26th, Company B faced Holtzwihr from the edge of the forest. Murphy and his 18 remaining men, reinforced by two M10 tank destroyers, sat astride a road that ran into the forest behind them--a road the Germans needed to control if they were to mount a counterattack into the woods with their armor. Murphy's mission was to hold his position until he could be relieved by fresh troops, but by two o'clock no relief had come. The Germans decided it was time to start their counterattack.

The men of Company B watched as six tanks and 250 or so infantrymen began forming in front of the village for an attack. Murphy immediately called for artillery support, but artillery could only even the odds so much--the company was going to have a hard fight on its hands very quickly.

As soon as the enemy tanks came within range, the two tank destroyers opened fire with their 90mm main guns--to no effect. The shells bounced off the Panzers' thick armor. See, a WWII tank destroyer looked much like a tank, but mounted a heavier gun and much thinner armor. The German tanks paid little attention to either, and shortly one tank destroyer was burning and the other, after doing some damage to the infantry with its machine guns, slid into a ditch and became useless. Company B faced the counterattack alone.

Murphy knew his handful of men could never hold the road on their own, so he ordered them to fall back into the woods while he stayed behind directing artillery fire over a field phone. The shells fell thick among the advancing Germans, but still they came on. Shortly his carbine was out of ammunition.

He was preparing to fall back and rejoin his men in the woods when he noticed the .50 caliber machine gun on the burning tank destroyer was still undamaged. Realizing the machine gun was his best chance to slow the Germans down and keep his men alive, he jumped onto the vehicle and started firing.

Very few weapons on the battlefield convey moral authority to an infantryman like a .50 cal. The M2, or "Ma Deuce", our soldiers use in Iraq and Afghanistan today is much the same weapon Murphy used that day. It can fire its half-inch-diameter bullet more than a mile with devastating force; nothing that walks on a battlefield, and not many that roll, will take a .50 cal bullet and keep going. A single shot will go through two men and into a third. Infantrymen stop moving and put their heads down when they hear the thud-thud-thud of a .50 and see their friends going down around them. And tanks don't like to roll into forest without infantry covering them--without them, enemy infantry can easily use the cover of the trees to get close.

So even though he couldn't kill the tanks with the .50 cal, Murphy could stop their infantry cover--and that stopped the tanks. The smoke billowing around him from the burning tank destroyer obscured him from view, and the artillery bursting around them masked the sounds of his firing so the German infantry could not tell where it was coming from. For more than an hour he stayed there, gunning down any Germans that tried to move toward him. Finally the clouds cleared enough to allow American aircraft to start strafing the German positions, and they began to fall back. Murphy, by this time bleeding from a leg wound, returned to his company and organized a counterattack that drove the Germans from the field and regained the company its earlier position. American forces took Holtzwihr the following day.

Audie Murphy received the Medal of Honor for his actions at Holtwihr. And historians and soldiers alike read the story of his bravery, scratch their heads and wonder, "How does a human being do that?"

It's just the sort of over-the-top ridiculous hero story we scoff at when we see it in movies and books. The kind of story we say could never happen. Except Audie Murphy really did it.

Have a historical story you want to see here? A battle you want me to write up? Let me know! And in the meantime...

Get your nerd on!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The First Battle of Monte Cassino, 17 January-11 February 1944

Battle of the Week 2011-03

By January 1944, Allied troops had been slogging their way up the boot of Italy for four months. They had already broken through two of the three German defensive lines across the peninsula, and now stood poised to begin their assault on the third and strongest, the Gustav Line.
But the Allies in Italy were exhausted from their efforts. Four months on the move, facing stubborn German resistance, had taken their toll: the U.S. 36th Infantry Division, the National Guard "T-Patchers" from Texas, went into the battle severely understrength--and more than 1,100 of its officers and men were green recruits who had just joined the division during a two-week rest out of the line.

But key to a successful offensive is an army's ability to keep pressure on its enemy, so back into the fight the 36th had to go. The next phase of the liberation of Italy was to be a two-pronged attack: two divisions of the Fifth Army were to make an amphibious landing at Anzio, above the Gustav Line, and drive toward Rome, while the remainder attacked the defenses directly to keep the Germans from repositioning forces to the north and driving the Anzio divisions back into the Mediterranean. It was an ambitious plan, and a risky one, but it carried at least a reasonable chance of success.

The attack was to happen in three phases: first, the British X Corps would cross the Garigliano River on the 17th of January and seize the high ground above the Rapido (Rah-PEE-do) river to protect the Americans' left flank as they crossed. The American II Corps, led by the 36th Infantry Division, was then to cross the Rapido and occupy the high ground beyond the town of Cassino. These two assaults were to attract German reserves from Rome and Anzio, clearing the way for the landings. The Gustav Line breached, the Fifth Army would then march on Rome from Anzio and the Cassino area simultaneously.

Of course, it didn't quite work out that way. The British attack kicked off on the 17th as scheduled, surprising the Germans and making significant progress the first night. But by the 19th, the Germans had moved two armored divisions to the area to block the Allied advance and the attack stalled.

The T-Patchers were supposed to begin their attack across the Rapido on the night of the 20th. But the Brits were supposed to be on their left, securing their flank, and they weren't. What's more, the engineers couldn't bring the boats they had assembled for the crossing any closer to the river than two miles because the Germans covered the entire river valley with observation and artillery fire. The already-exhausted infantrymen would have to carry them the rest of the way themselves.

Of course, after they got the boats to the river, they then had to get them across the river, assemble, and begin the long climb to their objectives. If you've ever hiked in the mountains, you can appreciate the challenge of a good climb--but imagine making that climb through barbed-wire obstacles and minefields, loaded down with 50 pounds of gear or more, all while machine guns dug in above you pour fire down at you and observers higher up direct artillery down on your head. The outcome of the Rapido River assault was entirely predictable, and it met the predicted outcome so thoroughly that after two days of fighting, the battered T-Patchers had to withdraw. Their enemies, unaware they had just beaten back a major offensive, reported to their superiors that the Allies had conducted a reconnaissance in force across the river and inflicted minimal casualties.

The attack continued for three more weeks, the 36th Division replaced on the line by the 34th, but in the end the Americans couldn't penetrate the Gustav line and the battle ground to a halt. In all, the Allies fought four battles over the same ground in their attempt to breach the Gustav line, finally managing to push north by the end of May.

It's likely the operations on the Gustav Line had a positive impact on the outcome of the war: after all, they ultimately resulted in the liberation and conversion of Italy, and they certainly forced the Germans to commit troops to the peninsula they might otherwise have moved to France to resist the Allied invasion there. But the men of the T-Patch division had to swallow the reality that their attack, for all the blood and sweat they had spent and all the friends they had left in that bloody river valley, had accomplished nothing.

See you next week!

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Siege of Leningrad, September 1941 - January 1944

Battle of the Week 2011-02

Imagine a war unlike any you've ever heard of--more troops, more guns, more tanks, more planes than have ever been put into the field before. Imagine death and destruction on a scale you've read about in novels, but never dreamed could be real, could find its way to your home, your doorstep.

Imagine a vast army deployed across a front wider than any that's ever been attempted before, and winning. Advancing mile after mile across your own country, seemingly unstoppable. Everything your country has thrown at it has been crushed, mangled, destroyed, annihilated. Nothing seems to stop the relentless march.

Imagine that army is made up of soldiers who have been trained to believe your people, the people of your country, are less than they. Less than people, in fact. Less than dogs. Unfit to live. To them, you and your family are fit only to be killed--the strong worked to death, the weak and young and old shot or bayoneted or thrown from high places to reduce the burden they might otherwise put on the army's resources.

And that army has surrounded your city, cut off all access except a narrow avenue across a lake, and settled in to starve you out. No assault, no occupation. All you have to do is survive. But as days drag into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years, as your daily allowance of food is cut in half and then in half again until you are eating less in a day than you did in a meal before, that seems less and less likely. And crows and rats and dogs look more like food than anything else.

It's never happened here. But it happened to Leningrad, the city the world now calls St. Petersburg, in Russia.

We don't study much about the Eastern Front of World War II here in the U.S. After all, we weren't involved directly, although we invaded Normandy partly to draw the Germans west and ease the pressure on the Soviet Union. And for most of the years since the war, the Soviets were our enemies, anyway--and who needs to study the history of one's enemy, right?

Turns out we could learn a thing or two from a study of the Eastern Front. Many of the greatest battles of World War II were fought there: the Battle of Kursk was the largest tank battle ever fought, and more Soviet soldiers fell in the battle for Stalingrad than American soldiers fell in the entire war. In all, perhaps twenty million Soviet citizens died on the Eastern Front. If the war between Germany and the Soviet Union comprised the entire scope of World War II--if the Germans had never invaded France, had never tried to subdue Britain, if the Japanese had never invaded Manchuria or bombed Pearl Harbor, if the United States had never become involved in the war at all--it would still have been the deadliest, most destructive war in human history.

Leningrad was only one act in that vast drama, but to those who lived and died there, it was the central act of the war. The city languished under siege for nearly nine hundred days; a child born on September 8th, 1941, when the siege began, would be walking and talking before he knew a day of peace, if he survived that long. Some time around the 12th of January, 1942, the Soviet army managed to open a narrow corridor across the frozen Lake Ladoga, and this remained open off and on until the siege was lifted, carrying supplies in and people out. But for a city whose population was three million when the siege began, a single corridor was not nearly sufficient. As many as three quarters of a million Leningraders died in the siege.

It's never happened here, or anywhere else. Only in Leningrad. We would do well not to forget, wherever we come from.


Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Battle of New Orleans, 8 January 1814

Battle of the Week 2011-01

The War of 1812 was, for the most part, a series of embarrassments for the young United States.

It was ill-conceived by both sides: the British, busy with Napoleon in Spain, had neither the manpower nor the resources to fight a decisive campaign on this side of the Atlantic, while the Americans, busy expanding into the lands opened by the purchase of Louisiana, had no business declaring war against what was still one of the world's three greatest military powers. But British impressment of American sailors and a continued British presence in Canada were unacceptable insults, so off to war we marched.

The next two and a half years saw sporadic conflict, a good many men killed and wounded, and no change whatsoever in the combatant's relative positions on the world stage. It saw a few indecisive American victories and a number of indecisive American defeats, including perhaps the greatest embarrassment ever to American arms: the capture of Washington, D.C. and the burning of the White House and Capitol.

But it also brought a few of the moments we remember as our finest, such as the U.S.S. Constitution's many victories against British men-of-war and the defense of Fort McHenry--the incident that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen "The Star-Spangled Banner."

It's ironic that the greatest American victory of the war took place two weeks after it ended. The Peace of Ghent ended hostilities between the United States and Great Britain on 24 December 1814. But in 1814, word could travel no faster than a man could ride on horseback or by ship, so neither Andrew Jackson nor his adversary, Major General Sir Edward Pakenham, had heard the news by the time their forces clashed on the 8th of January.

The battle itself was an entirely one-sided affair: the British regulars, in true British fashion, advanced across a wide field against Jackson's motley force of riflemen from Kentucky and Tennessee, militiamen from the city, pirates, freed slaves, and Indians, who lay, in true American fashion, armed with rifles and entrenched behind a canal. In such conditions the British Brown Bess was no match at all for the American rifles, and the numbers tell the story as well as I can. In half an hour more than two thousand British soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured, to just seven killed and six wounded on the American side. Among the British dead was Pakenham himself. The British withdrew to their camps, and a week later took to their ships and left New Orleans to the Americans.

The battle itself decided nothing, since the war was already over, although we may speculate whether the British would have been inclined to give up control of the Mississippi River, treaty or no treaty, had they won the battle and captured the town. But it provided a needed shot in the arm for the young United States, a victory to be proud of on the heels of a war that gave us few such moments. And it made an American hero of Jackson, who rose to widespread fame thanks to his wartime exploits and became President of the United States in 1829.

I'll be back next week with another battle. Go get your nerd on!