HACKSAW RIDGE–A True Tale, Truly Told

Bayard & Holmes

~ Piper Bayard

HACKSAW RIDGE is the true story of WWII hero Pfc. Desmond Doss, the first Conscientious Objector to earn the Medal of Honor.

 

hacksaw-ridge-movie-poster-one-man-stayed-2016

 

When Doss was drafted into the US Army during WWII, he chose to serve as a combat medic rather than go to a CO work camp, and he fought for the right to do so without carrying a weapon. During the Battle of Okinawa, the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment. A bloody battle ensued, resulting in heavy casualties driving the Battalion back. Doss refused to seek cover. He carried seventy-five injured men off the fire-swept battlefield and lowered them down the ridge to friendly hands below. HACKSAW RIDGE tracks Doss’s life through his commitment as a Conscientious Objector, his fight to be allowed to serve in combat without bearing arms, and his heroic rescue of seventy-five fellow soldiers.

The production quality of HACKSAW RIDGE is excellent, with award-worthy acting and cinematography.

The talented Andrew Garfield is brilliant as Pfc. Desmond Doss, and Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, and Teresa Palmer are outstanding in their supporting roles. However, the movie is every bit as graphic, and then some, as you would expect from BRAVEHEART producer Mel Gibson. The “R” rating is well-deserved, and people under the age of 17 should not be admitted for good reason. I would also warn veterans about seeing this movie. It does not pull any punches in either the graphics or the audio, and it might be too intense for someone who has seen combat in real life.

 

Doss pulling a man from the battlefield. Image from HACKSAW RIDGE.

Doss pulling a man from the battlefield.
Image from HACKSAW RIDGE.

 

HACKSAW RIDGE does an exceptional job presenting the conflicting-but-legitimate points of view of Doss, his fellow soldiers, and his officers.

Pfc. Desmond Doss was a devout Seventh Day Adventist who refused to touch a firearm or work on Saturdays. The story ably traces how Doss’s religion and home atmosphere solidified his commitment to never touch a weapon while instilling in him a deep sense of duty to serve his country. His faith was inseparable from his character and is portrayed realistically as such in the movie. Equally realistic are the reactions of Doss’s fellow soldiers to his “red lines.” They were suspect of Doss’s religious devotion, wondering if he was actually simply a coward who would get them killed on the battlefield. Doss’s officers were concerned, as well, about sending a man into the field who refused to fight, and they wanted him out. HACKSAW RIDGE gives a balanced and respectful presentation of the competing interests and motivations at work in the situation without over-dramatizing or unrealistically vilifying any of the men involved.

Some reviews have characterized HACKSAW RIDGE as “religious pomp and pornographic violence,” or “war propaganda.”

On the contrary, Doss was a deeply religious man, and religious beliefs were the foundation of his heroism in real life. The movie simply portrays him as such. As for the accusations of “pornographic violence,” I would invite those reviewers to do a tour or two in combat and then get back to us. Regarding the label “war propaganda,” a true tale truly told is not propaganda. HACKSAW RIDGE is true to Desmond Doss’s amazing life story with little dramatic embellishment. Interviews with Doss, his captain, and with soldiers who knew him at the end of the movie confirm the events and the characters as factual.

 

Image from HACKSAW RIDGE. Waiting for Doss to finish his prayers. This was true.

Image from HACKSAW RIDGE.
Waiting for Doss to finish his prayers.
This was true.

 

In fact, the movie HACKSAW RIDGE is not big enough to portray all of Doss’s heroic deeds.

For example, the film shows cargo nets hung from the top of the ridge. What it doesn’t show is that Doss was one of the three men to carry the massive cargo nets up the ridge and mount them there under the nose of the Japanese. (See article below, History vs. Hollywood, for historical picture of Doss with the nets at the top of the ridge.) After the battle wherein Doss brought down all seventy-five casualties on his own, he continued to assist wounded soldiers and to inspire the men in the 1st Battalion to go on to win a foothold on the ridge, even after being wounded by shrapnel and sniper fire. It’s worth reading the full text of his Medal of Honor citation below.

 

Andrew Garfield as Pfc. Desmond Doss Check out those cargo nets on that 400 ft. ridge. Image from HACKSAW RIDGE.

Andrew Garfield as Pfc. Desmond Doss
Check out those cargo nets on that 400 ft. ridge.
Image from HACKSAW RIDGE.

 

In summary, this is a true story well told about a man of faith, whose faith gave him strength to rescue over seventy-five men from the battlefield during one of the bloodiest conflicts of WWII.

Those offended by displays of Christian faith or the horrors of war might find this movie is not for them. I would encourage those people to be open-minded and accepting of diversity and go anyway to learn about genuine historical events and a very real man who deserves an excellent movie. Those who are comfortable with religious conviction and who understand that war is hell will be amazed at the story of war hero Desmond Doss.

I give HACKSAW RIDGE our highest Bayard & Holmes rating, a .44 magnum, with one caveat.

Though the violence is realistic, it is extreme, just as one might expect the Battle of Okinawa to be. With excellent production and outstanding acting, it’s worth paying the prime time price for if you can stand the crowd.

 

 

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President Harry Truman awarding Medal of Honor to Conscientious Objector Desmond Doss public domain, wikimedia commons

President Harry Truman awarding Medal of Honor to
Conscientious Objector Desmond Doss
public domain, wikimedia commons

 

The text of Pfc. Desmond Doss’s Medal of Honor citation speaks for itself, telling the story of his remarkable courage under fire:

“He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet [120 m] high. As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machinegun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying all 75 casualties one-by-one to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands. On May 2, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards [180 m] forward of the lines on the same escarpment; and 2 days later he treated 4 men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within 8 yards [7.3 m] of enemy forces in a cave’s mouth, where he dressed his comrades’ wounds before making 4 separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety. On May 5, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small arms fire and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Pfc. Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet [7.6 m] from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards [91 m] to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire. On May 21, in a night attack on high ground near Shuri, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, fearlessly risking the chance that he would be mistaken for an infiltrating Japanese and giving aid to the injured until he was himself seriously wounded in the legs by the explosion of a grenade. Rather than call another aid man from cover, he cared for his own injuries and waited 5 hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover. The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Pfc. Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, crawled off the litter; and directed the bearers to give their first attention to the other man. Awaiting the litter bearers’ return, he was again struck, by a sniper bullet while being carried off the field by a comrade, this time suffering a compound fracture of 1 arm. With magnificent fortitude he bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint and then crawled 300 yards [270 m] over rough terrain to the aid station. Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions Pfc. Doss saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.”

 

For more about Pfc. Desmond Doss and how HACKSAW RIDGE compares to Doss’s real life, see HistoryvsHollywood.com Hacksaw Ridge and Bayard & Holmes article, The Medal of Honor Recipient Who Wouldn’t Fight.

 

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Bayard & Holmes Official Photo

Piper Bayard is an author and a recovering attorney. Her writing partner, Jay Holmes, is an anonymous senior member of the intelligence community and a field veteran from the Cold War through the current Global War on Terror. Together, they are the bestselling authors of the international spy thriller, THE SPY BRIDE.

Watch for their upcoming non-fiction release, CHINA — THE PIRATE OF THE SOUTH CHINA SEA.

 

cover-3-china-the-pirate-of-the-south-china-sea

Keep in touch through updates at Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing.

You can contact Bayard & Holmes in comments below, at their site, Bayard & Holmes, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Bayard & Holmes, or at their email, BH@BayardandHolmes.com.

 

The Medal of Honor Recipient Who Wouldn’t Fight

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

During WWII, dozens of the bloody campaigns raged around the globe, involving millions of US military personnel. Four hundred sixty-four of those Americans received the Medal of Honor — two hundred sixty-six of them posthumously. Most of the recipients received the medal for incredible feats of valor while attacking the enemy. However, in a few instances, the medal was given to a recipient that never attempted to harm the enemy. Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector from Virginia, was one of those recipients.

 

President Harry Truman awarding Medal of Honor to Conscientious Objector Desmond Doss public domain, wikimedia commons

President Harry Truman awarding Medal of Honor to
Conscientious Objector Desmond Doss
public domain, wikimedia commons

 

Seventy years ago, on October 12, 1945, President Truman awarded Desmond Doss the Medal of Honor for his conduct during the US campaign to take Okinawa from the Japanese imperial forces.

The US undertook the invasion of Okinawa to establish large air bases for operations during the anticipated invasion of Japan. On April 1, 1945, 250,000 combat troops, organized into three US Marines Divisions and four US Army Divisions, stormed the shores of Okinawa.

The landings, themselves, were conducted without much resistance from the approximately 90,000 Japanese defenders. By 1945, the Japanese had decided that it was unwise to expose their forces to vastly superior US naval gunfire and US air support on the narrow beach zones where the concentrated fire would devastate them. Instead, they built strong defensive positions inland from the beaches, where the US advantages in naval gunfire and air support were negated by the close proximity of the attacking US troops.

To defend Okinawa, the Japanese military had perfected two other major defensive innovations.

The first of these was Kamikaze (Divine Wind) suicide air units. Most of us are familiar with the Kamikaze fighter plane units that were unleashed with devastating effect against the US Navy’s amphibious fleet during the US invasion of the Philippines in October of 1944. By the time the US invaded Okinawa, the Japanese had further refined their aerial Kamikaze weapons. In particular, they had developed a man-guided rocket-propelled bomb. These fast moving rocket bombs were difficult to shoot down, and, in combination with the slower Kamikaze fighter craft and light bombers, they managed to kill nearly 5,000 US sailors while sinking twenty amphibious assault ships and twelve destroyers.

On land, the Japanese introduced their second highly effective and savage innovation – the child suicide bomber. The occupying Japanese conscripted middle school children to conduct suicide bomb attacks against the invading US troops. US Marines and soldiers were hesitant to shoot at civilians that ran toward their lines because some of them were simply trying to escape the Japanese. Unfortunately, many of the children carried explosives under their loose fitting shirts. In some instances, the Japanese troops sent forward young mothers with babies. When US troops left their cover to try to assist the women and babies, Japanese snipers killed the US rescuers.

This combination of the aerial Kamikaze and the child suicide bombers greatly complicated the battle for the US forces.

The Japanese commanders in Tokyo, pleased with the effectiveness of the suicide bombers, ordered the conscription of all boys aged fifteen and older and all girls aged seventeen and older to be trained and equipped as suicide troops for the defense of the home islands against the awaited US invasion.

Such was the savage nature of the fighting on Okinawa, which made Desmond Doss’s conduct all the more remarkable.

Because of his religious beliefs, Doss was a conscientious objector. He did not want to engage in combat. His beliefs, however, did not keep him from serving in the US Army as a combat medic.

The text of Doss’s Medal of Honor citation speaks for itself, telling the story of his remarkable courage under fire:

“He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet [120 m] high. As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machinegun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying all 75 casualties one-by-one to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands. On May 2, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards [180 m] forward of the lines on the same escarpment; and 2 days later he treated 4 men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within 8 yards [7.3 m] of enemy forces in a cave’s mouth, where he dressed his comrades’ wounds before making 4 separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety. On May 5, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small arms fire and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Pfc. Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet [7.6 m] from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards [91 m] to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire. On May 21, in a night attack on high ground near Shuri, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, fearlessly risking the chance that he would be mistaken for an infiltrating Japanese and giving aid to the injured until he was himself seriously wounded in the legs by the explosion of a grenade. Rather than call another aid man from cover, he cared for his own injuries and waited 5 hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover. The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Pfc. Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, crawled off the litter; and directed the bearers to give their first attention to the other man. Awaiting the litter bearers’ return, he was again struck, by a sniper bullet while being carried off the field by a comrade, this time suffering a compound fracture of 1 arm. With magnificent fortitude he bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint and then crawled 300 yards [270 m] over rough terrain to the aid station. Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions Pfc. Doss saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.”

After his discharge from the US Army, Desmond Doss spent five years in treatment for his injuries and for tuberculosis. He died in March, 2006.

Of the thousands of stories of outstanding courage during WWII, Desmond Doss’s story is one of the most remarkable. He did not act with a burst of adrenaline for a few minutes to achieve remarkable results, but rather he acted calmly and repeatedly risked his life under fire for several days in order to save his wounded comrades. In the midst of one of the most savage battles of history, Desmond Doss, conscientious objector and Medal of Honor recipient, still stands as an outstanding example of courage and compassion.

Pfc. Doss’s story is being brought to the big screen on November 4, 2016, in the movie HACKSAW RIDGE. Watch for the Bayard & Holmes review.

 

 

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Bayard & Holmes Official Photo

Piper Bayard is an author and a recovering attorney. Her writing partner, Jay Holmes, is an anonymous senior member of the intelligence community and a field veteran from the Cold War through the current Global War on Terror. Together, they are the bestselling authors of the international spy thriller, THE SPY BRIDE.

Watch for their upcoming non-fiction release, CHINA — THE PIRATE OF THE SOUTH CHINA SEA.

 

cover-3-china-the-pirate-of-the-south-china-sea

 

Keep in touch through updates at Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing.

You can contact Bayard & Holmes in comments below, at their site, Bayard & Holmes, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Bayard & Holmes, or at their email, BH@BayardandHolmes.com.

 

ANTHROPOID — Espionage Legend on the Big Screen

Bayard & Holmes

~ Piper Bayard & Jay Holmes

ANTHROPOID brings one of history’s legendary espionage events to the big screen – the WWII assassination of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich by two Czech paratroopers and a few Czech resistance fighters.

 

2016 Aug Anthropoid Movie Poster

 

Heydrich, also known as the Butcher of Prague, was the architect of Hitler’s death camps and third in command after Hitler and Himmler. Jan Kubis (played by Jamie Dornan) and Jozef Gabcik (played by Cillian Murphy) trained for months in the UK and then parachuted into Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Once in Prague, they met up with the dwindling group of Czech resistance fighters, who helped them plan and execute Operation Anthropoid. Heydrich was the highest ranking Nazi officer assassinated during WWII.

Piper Bayard:

This movie is a symphony compared to a Bourne movie rock concert.

If you’re looking for unrealistic characters who do unrealistic things to thwart unrealistic villains with unrealistic explosions and quippy dialogue, this is not the movie for you.  On the other hand, if you enjoy historically accurate war dramas about real events and real people, then you will likely find ANTHROPOID captivating and informative.

ANTHROPOID thankfully makes no effort to glamorize espionage, war, or the ordinary people made extraordinary by the demands of integrity and circumstance.

Courage falters, equipment fails, and humans make stupid mistakes, while at the same time they rise over and over again with a stubborn courage and devotion to their mission and to the Czechoslovakian people. While historical sources differ on the details, the main events surrounding the assassination are well portrayed.

 

Jamie Dornan as Jan Kubis and Cillian Murphy as Jozef Gabcik

Jamie Dornan as Jan Kubis and
Cillian Murphy as Jozef Gabcik

 

The tension and conflict are well drawn in spite of a script that is at times a bit stiff.

The stakes are clear. There is no doubt that not only are the lives of the Czech resistance fighters on the line, but also the lives of their families and the people of Czechoslovakia. The drama is not manufactured, but rather real, and raw, and tremendous in the fact that in spite of all human fears and failings, Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik carried on and succeeded in one of the greatest assassinations in history.

Jay Holmes:

In the way of disclosure, I must explain that I could not view Anthropoid with the objectivity that a reviewer should always employ.

Though I was not alive at the time of the operation, and I am not of Czech descent, I admire the operatives that conducted the operation, and I have always considered the Nazis to be contemptible. That combination makes it difficult for me to be completely objective in reviewing a movie like ANTHROPOID, but I am happy to share my impressions.

 

The real Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik Image by UK Govt., public domain

The real Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik
Image by UK Govt., public domain

 

Most war movies and action films that depict historic events are created with an emphasis on watchability, and the pace of events, the characters, and the dialogue sacrifice accuracy to make them more fun to watch. ANTHROPOID is not fun to watch, but it is an excellent movie all the same.

I am fairly well read on Operation Anthropoid, and I was once fortunate enough to meet a retired member of British Intelligence that had helped prepare the mission.

It is my impression that the movie ANTHROPOID succeeded in closely portraying the actions and moods of the men and women that were involved in the operation. For me, this made the movie more acceptable. It seems to me that the writer, producer, and actors were perhaps somewhat reverent in their attention to detail and accuracy. The movie may be the best memorial to Operation Anthropoid yet created. As such, I applaud it.

 

Reinhard Heydrich's car after the attack. Image in German Federal Archive, public domain

Reinhard Heydrich’s car after the attack.
Image in German Federal Archive, public domain

 

Interestingly, the process of researching and producing the movie has reawakened the Czech public’s interest in the event.

The Czech Government has now agreed to do forensic work to try to identify bodies from unmarked graves of that period and location to try to locate and rebury the Czech resistance fighters involved in Operation Anthropoid, and give them a proper military burial. I commend the Czech people for pursuing this course. The makers of Anthropoid can be proud that their movie has a tangible result beyond, and more important than, the box office.

Our Rating:

Overall the early reviews of the movie have been tepid. We will depart from the trend and give Anthropoid the Bayard and Holmes .44 magnum – our highest rating.

If the events of WWII and the moral questions surrounding those events matter to you, or if you are interested in raw espionage legend and the feats of real operatives, then you should make the short pilgrimage to see ANTHROPOID. Enjoy the symphony.

 

 

Ben MacIntyre’s DOUBLE CROSS: The True Story of the D-Day Spies

Bayard & Holmes

~  Jay Holmes

DOUBLE CROSS, by writer-at-large and associate editor of the Times of London Ben MacIntyre, addresses one of the more complex and important intelligence operations of World War Two. It explains how the UK’s MI-5 Counter Intelligence division quite effectively turned and managed German spies in an attempt to deceive Germany about the Allied plans for the invasion of Western Europe in 1944.

 

Double Cross The True Story of the D-Day Spies Ben MacIntyre Paperback Cover

 

In DOUBLE CROSS, McIntyre manages to present personalities from both sides of that terrible war in very human form.

He demonstrates how imperfect people from diverse backgrounds working for MI-5 shared that one essential quality that any effective intelligence person must have. They shared a genuine commitment to their mission. In this case, their mission was to help defeat Nazi Germany. By most traditional standards, the agents would not appear to be “cut from the right cloth.” In some instances their handlers committed blunders in dealing with them. The book clearly shows the reasons why each of them might have failed miserably, as well as why they didn’t.

The first thing about this book that jumps out is its readability.

Great Britain’s operation for running double agents involved many people and many details. The details can be tedious to consider, but without considering enough of them, these operations can’t be reasonably understood. MacIntyre has done a brilliant job of presenting enough details without making the book read like a boring bureaucratic report. I envy his ability to present such a complex and important piece of history in such a readable form.

Good history writers do good research—lots of it—and Ben MacIntyre certainly did his. But he did something else as well. He very skillfully analyzed the collected data and produced an accurate and clear interpretation of the facts. I’ve never met Ben MacIntyre, but if he was never a spook, he should have been one. For us.

I had previously read and enjoyed a couple of MacIntyre’s books, but so far, this must be his masterpiece.

I have no hesitation in giving this book a Five Star rating on the Five Star scale. It’s not a movie but I can’t help but assign our Bayard and Holmes “.44-Magnum” rating because I so rarely get to use that top assessment. Anyone with interest in World War Two or the world of intelligence operations, or who simply likes good action stories, should absolutely read this book. It’s purely a great book.

Bravo to Ben MacIntyre for staying awake and on course through so many hours of work reading thousands of pages of documents to get to the critical facts. Well done!

You can find DOUBLE CROSS, along with MacIntyre’s other books, at Ben MacIntyre: Books, Biography, Blog, Audiobooks, Kindle.

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Bayard & Holmes Official Photo

Piper Bayard is an author and a recovering attorney. Her writing partner, Jay Holmes, is an anonymous senior member of the intelligence community and a field veteran from the Cold War through the current Global War on Terror.

Together, they are the bestselling authors of the international spy thriller, THE SPY BRIDE, now available on kindle and in paperback at Amazon and on nook and paperback at Barnes & Noble.

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The Triumph and Defeat of Japanese Militarism

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

On February 26, 1936, a group of young Imperial Japan Army officers led a violent coup against the Japanese government in an attempt to restore absolute power for the monarchy.

From a Western point of view, the coup appeared to be an effort to install military rule over civil authority. That was, indeed, one of the goals of the coup leaders and supporters, but they also intended to murder or remove senior army officers from rival military factions.

 

Flag of The Righteous Army wikimedia commons, public domain

Flag of The Righteous Army
wikimedia commons, public domain

 

In the decade leading up to the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, most Western diplomats viewed the internal politics of Japan as being a rivalry between a “Peace Faction” and a “War Faction.”

The reality was quite different. The actual “Peace Faction” in Japan was quite small and lacked significant power. The actual “War Faction,” the real power in Japan, was a variety of military factions and supporting wealthy industrialists.

The principal military faction consisted of senior military officers that were aligned with Japan’s growing industrial giants.

They wanted to pursue a thorough physical modernization of the Japanese Army and Navy prior to conducting any wars against Western nations. At the time, they were concerned with building an Army to defeat the Soviet Union and conquer vast areas of eastern USSR and eastern China, and their basic intent was to defeat communism before communism could destroy Japan.

This principal military faction, as well as other factions, believed that sufficient oil, iron, and coal for Japan’s industry and war machine could be obtained from the conquered areas of China, Korea, and the USSR. However, while large quantities of steel were produced in the Japanese-occupied areas of China, Japan failed to locate and develop any significant new oil fields from their territories on the Asian mainland. Oil, then as now, remained a critical factor in political decisions.

The coup leaders believed the Japanese military did not need more modernization, and they didn’t like the influence the wealthy industrialists held over the Emperor. They viewed Emperor Hirohito as the victim of these industrialists, and they naively believed they needed to rescue him from them, as well as from the corrupt politicians and military officers.

By February 22, the eight principle coup leaders had managed to recruit eighteen more young officers. They began to finalize their plans. The coup leaders dubbed themselves “The Righteous Army.” They mobilized over 1,400 soldiers under their command. Most of the soldiers were ignorant of any conspiracy and were told simply that they had been called out to defend the Emperor from unspecified conspirators.

In the early morning hours of February 26, the coup leaders divided their 1,400 troops into six groups. At 5:00 a.m., they conducted simultaneous attacks on the Prime Minister’s residence, the Tokyo police headquarters, the War Ministry, and the homes of three prominent politicians.

The attack on the Prime Minister’s Palace succeeded in capturing the palace. The attackers murdered the Prime Minister’s brother-in-law, mistakenly identifying him as the Prime Minister, which left them unaware that the Prime Minister escaped. The attack on the Police headquarters succeeded, as well, but due to lack of proper preparations, the other four attacks on political targets failed.

The entire conspiracy was based on the notion that the conspirators would rescue the Emperor from the corrupt industrialists and their military lackeys.

Unfortunately for them, the conspirators failed to understand that Emperor Hirohito felt no need to be rescued by the Righteous Army or any other faction. In spite of popular perceptions, the Emperor agreed with the aims of the industrialists and the military modernists. He was also being well compensated financially by the new industries being built in Japanese-occupied Manchuria and Korea.

The conspirators gained entrance to the Royal Palace grounds by posing as a relief force. Once the subterfuge of the young officers leading the “relief troops” was discovered, they were expelled. The Emperor subsequently instructed his staff to issue a proclamation denouncing the coup.

The Emperor’s staff wisely made that proclamation vague, and the conspiracy leaders mistook it as a declaration that they had been victorious.

It took an additional three days to convince them to stand down and return to their barracks. When they finally abandoned the captured grounds of the Police headquarters and the Prime Minister’s Palace, the officers and over a hundred co-conspirators were arrested. Nineteen of the officers were executed, and three others committed suicide.

The coup itself was dramatic enough, but the aftereffects were even more dramatic.

The military underwent a reorganization that left the modernist “pro-war” faction in control of the Army and Navy. The civil government ended up under tighter military control. Anyone in the government or military that even vaguely resembled anything like a peace supporter was assassinated or marginalized.

Japan was already at war with China, and the path toward expanding and escalating that war now shone more brightly than ever.

The civilian influence over government policy dwindled after the coup attempt, while the most aggressive military expansionists used the reorganization to consolidate their power and further their agendas, shaking out anything like a peace faction. The only question that remained was whether Japan should secure oil by capturing the Western USSR or by striking south and capturing Borneo and Sumatra.

In May of 1939, a force of 35,000 Japanese attempted to capture part of eastern Mongolia. The Japanese underestimated the Soviet commitment to defending their Mongolian allies. By September, 65,000 Mongolian and Soviet troops had expelled the Japanese. In the aftermath, the Japanese commanders in Tokyo decided that it would be best to capture and secure oil, tin, and rubber sources in the southwest Pacific region before building up forces in northwest Manchuria for a major assault against the USSR.

Planning for a surprise attack on US Naval forces in Pearl Harbor, the conquest of the Philippines, and the conquests of Borneo and Sumatra now began in earnest.

In the summer of 1941, when the German Army invaded the USSR, its early successes confirmed for the Japanese the wisdom of first striking southward. They were certain that the Germans would prevent the USSR from causing any trouble in Japan while Japan swept up the valuable resource areas of the Southwest Pacific.

The Japanese were right about the USSR being busy with the German invasion, but they grossly underestimated the determination and ability of the US to mobilize vast military forces to defeat them in the Pacific. That miscalculation was not fully understood until August of 1945, when Tokyo lay in ruins, and nuclear weapons had been dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

 

US General Douglas MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito September 27, 1945 public domain, wikimedia commons

US General Douglas MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito
September 27, 1945
public domain, wikimedia commons

 

On May 3, 1947, Japan adopted a modern democratic constitution, formally ending its era of military dominance over its government. In the final chapter of the struggle for control over modern Japan, the “war factions” were brought to their knees, and the small and previously powerless “peace faction” had the last word.

The Medal of Honor Recipient Who Wouldn’t Fight

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

During WWII, dozens of the bloody campaigns raged around the globe, involving millions of US military personnel. Four hundred sixty-four of those Americans received the Medal of Honor — two hundred sixty-six of them posthumously. Most of the recipients received the medal for incredible feats of valor while attacking the enemy. However, in a few instances, the medal was given to a recipient that never attempted to harm the enemy. US Army Pfc. Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector from Virginia, was one of those recipients.

 

President Harry Truman awarding Medal of Honor to Conscientious Objector Desmond Doss public domain, wikimedia commons

President Harry Truman awarding Medal of Honor to
Conscientious Objector Desmond Doss
public domain, wikimedia commons

 

Seventy years ago, on October 12, 1945, President Truman awarded Desmond Doss the Medal of Honor for his conduct during the US campaign to take Okinawa from the Japanese imperial forces.

The US undertook the invasion of Okinawa to establish large air bases for operations during the anticipated invasion of Japan. On April 1, 1945, 250,000 combat troops, organized into three US Marines Divisions and four US Army Divisions, stormed the shores of Okinawa.

The landings, themselves, were conducted without much resistance from the approximately 90,000 Japanese defenders. By 1945, the Japanese had decided that it was unwise to expose their forces to vastly superior US naval gunfire and US air support on the narrow beach zones where the concentrated fire would devastate them. Instead, they built strong defensive positions inland from the beaches, where the US advantages in naval gunfire and air support were negated by the close proximity of the attacking US troops.

To defend Okinawa, the Japanese military had perfected two other major defensive innovations.

The first of these was Kamikaze (Divine Wind) suicide air units. Most of us are familiar with the Kamikaze fighter plane units that were unleashed with devastating effect against the US Navy’s amphibious fleet during the US invasion of the Philippines in October of 1944. By the time the US invaded Okinawa, the Japanese had further refined their aerial Kamikaze weapons. In particular, they had developed a man-guided rocket-propelled bomb. These fast moving rocket bombs were difficult to shoot down, and, in combination with the slower Kamikaze fighter craft and light bombers, they managed to kill nearly 5,000 US sailors while sinking twenty amphibious assault ships and twelve destroyers.

On land, the Japanese introduced their second highly effective and savage innovation – the child suicide bomber. The occupying Japanese conscripted middle school children to conduct suicide bomb attacks against the invading US troops. US Marines and soldiers were hesitant to shoot at civilians that ran toward their lines because some of them were simply trying to escape the Japanese. Unfortunately, many of the children carried explosives under their loose fitting shirts. In some instances, the Japanese troops sent forward young mothers with babies. When US troops left their cover to try to assist the women and babies, Japanese snipers killed the US rescuers.

This combination of the aerial Kamikaze and the child suicide bombers greatly complicated the battle for the US forces.

The Japanese commanders in Tokyo, pleased with the effectiveness of the suicide bombers, ordered the conscription of all boys aged fifteen and older and all girls aged seventeen and older to be trained and equipped as suicide troops for the defense of the home islands against the awaited US invasion.

Such was the savage nature of the fighting on Okinawa, which made Desmond Doss’s conduct all the more remarkable.

Because of his religious beliefs, Doss was a conscientious objector. He did not want to engage in combat. His beliefs, however, did not keep him from serving in the US Army as a combat medic.

The text of Doss’s Medal of Honor citation speaks for itself, telling the story of his remarkable courage under fire:

“He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet [120 m] high. As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machinegun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying all 75 casualties one-by-one to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands. On May 2, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards [180 m] forward of the lines on the same escarpment; and 2 days later he treated 4 men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within 8 yards [7.3 m] of enemy forces in a cave’s mouth, where he dressed his comrades’ wounds before making 4 separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety. On May 5, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small arms fire and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Pfc. Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet [7.6 m] from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards [91 m] to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire. On May 21, in a night attack on high ground near Shuri, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, fearlessly risking the chance that he would be mistaken for an infiltrating Japanese and giving aid to the injured until he was himself seriously wounded in the legs by the explosion of a grenade. Rather than call another aid man from cover, he cared for his own injuries and waited 5 hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover. The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Pfc. Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, crawled off the litter; and directed the bearers to give their first attention to the other man. Awaiting the litter bearers’ return, he was again struck, by a sniper bullet while being carried off the field by a comrade, this time suffering a compound fracture of 1 arm. With magnificent fortitude he bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint and then crawled 300 yards [270 m] over rough terrain to the aid station. Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions Pfc. Doss saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.”

After his discharge from the US Army, Desmond Doss spent five years in treatment for his injuries and for tuberculosis. He died in March, 2006.

Of the thousands of stories of outstanding courage during WWII, Desmond Doss’s story is one of the most remarkable. He did not act with a burst of adrenaline for a few minutes to achieve remarkable results, but rather he acted calmly and repeatedly risked his life under fire for several days in order to save his wounded comrades. In the midst of one of the most savage battles of history, Desmond Doss, conscientious objector and Medal of Honor recipient, still stands as an outstanding example of courage and compassion.

Manila–Triumph Over Devastation

By Jay Holmes

In The Scream Heard Around the World–Manila, Part 1, we saw the far-reaching effects of a speech given by Carlos Cespedes in Cuba and how it spawned a movement for freedom in both Cuba and the Philippines. In The Battle That Wasn’t–Manila, Part 2, we looked at how the reach of that scream carried on through a poem by Dr. Jose Rizal and influenced the course of a nation. In A Nation Becoming and the Battle for Manila, we investigated the challenges the budding Philippine nation faced, as well as the WWII Japanese invasion and the Bataan Death March. Today, we review the Japanese occupation of Manila, WWII, and the realization of Dr. Rizal’s dream.

After the Japanese defeated the main formations of U.S. and Philippine forces at Corregidor in May of 1942, it took them two more months to defeat them on the other major islands. Throughout the Archipelago, a few thousand U.S. and Philippine forces that had managed to avoid death or capture served as nuclei for the formation of various guerilla groups. By way of submarine delivery and a few airdrops, the Allies were able to keep them supplied with weapons, ammunition, explosives, radios and medicine.

A few additional U.S. troops were inserted into the islands to help organize and coordinate the various guerilla groups. The allied guerilla activities caused the Japanese to retain more infantry and aircraft in the Philippines than they had intended. With airpower, the Japanese were able to prevent the guerillas from billeting in large formations or moving on roads and trails except at night. Though the guerillas were usually unable to cause significant casualties to the occupying Japanese troops, the drain on Japanese forces further hampered the Japanese advance to the South and the Southeast. This helped the Allies in coming to grips with the Japanese in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

 

Tanks line up for the invasion of Cape Sansapor, Dutch, New Guinea, 1944

Tanks line up for the invasion of Cape Sansapor,
Dutch, New Guinea, 1944

 

By the middle of 1944, General MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Command (SWPC) had managed to leapfrog its way up the northern coast of New Guinea. In September, Allied forces captured Morotai in the Dutch East Indies. The Allies quickly built a large, reinforced runway on the island, which provided SWPC with a valuable base of operations for heavy bombers and long-range reconnaissance against the Japanese forces in the southern half of the Philippines. The U.S. Navy sent carrier groups under Task Force 38, commanded by Admiral William Halsey, to conduct repeated raids against the various Japanese airbases in the central and northern Philippines. The raids were highly successful in destroying Japanese planes at a surprisingly low cost to the pilots of TF 38.

 

Admiral William F. Halsey, 1944 image from U.S. Navy

Admiral William F. Halsey, 1944
image from U.S. Navy

 

The Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) had allocated resources to SWPC for an invasion of the southern Philippines in late December. Halsey and his staff were convinced that Japanese airpower had suffered a terrible attrition not just in numbers, but also in declining quality of pilots. Based on intelligence information from guerilla groups throughout the Philippines and on the minimal opposition that pilots had faced during their repeated raids, Halsey felt certain that the U.S. invasion of the Philippines should be moved up from December to October, and that they should strike in the central Philippines to quickly defeat the main Japanese formations. General Douglas MacArthur concurred with Halsey’s assessment.

By 1944, based on Admiral Halsey’s many successes against the Japanese, his reputation had grown to epic proportions, and he had the trust of both the CCS and the Allied political leaders. Wisely, MacArthur left it to Halsey to make the recommendation to the CCS that the invasion timetable be moved up. With offensive operations taking place on multiple fronts from Europe to the Pacific, the competition for supplies and shipping to support operations was a limiting factor in Allied offensive operations around the globe. Halsey’s reputation carried the day, and the CCS quickly agreed to his recommendations.

 

Gen. Douglas MacArthur wades ashore at Leyte Philippine Islands, Oct. 1944

Gen. Douglas MacArthur wades ashore at Leyte
Philippine Islands, Oct. 1944

 

On October 20, 1944, the U.S. Sixth Army landed on the eastern shore of Leyte, northeast of Mindanao Island. The Japanese general staff underestimated the strength of the U.S. forces supporting the invasion. In conjunction with waves of kamikaze air attacks, the Japanese launched a complicated, three pronged attack with the majority of their remaining naval ships in an attempt to destroy the U.S. landing forces.

A series of large naval battles ensued from October 23 through 26. The combined might of the U.S. surface ships, carrier planes, and submarines ensured a disastrous defeat for the Japanese Navy. The defeat was so complete that the Japanese Navy was never again able to attempt any major engagements for the remainder of the war. Henceforth, the entire Japanese Navy became a kamikaze force.

Once the U.S. 6th Army was ashore on Leyte Island, the Philippine guerillas attached themselves to them, volunteering to handle scouting and sabotage missions. The newly supplied guerillas were able to befuddle Japanese defensive maneuvers on Leyte by blowing up the right bridges and telephone lines at just the right time while the 6th Army conducted its offensive. Their efforts undoubtedly saved thousands of U.S. lives.

 

U.S. Navy gun crews cover landing on Mindoro Island, 1944 image from U.S. National Archives

U.S. Navy gun crews cover landing on Mindoro Island, 1944
image from U.S. National Archives

 

Although fierce fighting by well dug-in Japanese troops continued for several months, the 6th Army was able to launch an attack on nearby Mindoro Island on December 15, 1944. Mindoro Island is located south of Luzon, and it offered a perfect location for fighter bases to support any future operations against the large Japanese Army formations on Luzon Island. The Japanese had expected the next assault to come elsewhere, and they had not reinforced their garrison on Mindoro. The results of their miscalculation were disastrous. The 6th Army had complete control of Mindoro by December 18.

To confuse the Japanese about allied intentions, Philippine guerillas conducted major sabotage operations in southern Luzon while the U.S. conducted air raids against southern Luzon. When U.S. minesweepers appeared in southern Luzon harbors the Japanese were convinced that a landing and would soon be conducted. It would, but in another area much further north.

 

U.S. Coast Guard landing barges sweep through waters of Lingayan Gulf carrying first wave of invaders to the beaches of Luzon. 1945

U.S. Coast Guard landing barges sweep through waters of Lingayan Gulf carrying first wave of invaders
to the beaches of Luzon. 1945
image from U.S. National Archives

 

On January 9, 1945, U.S. forces stormed ashore at Lingayan Gulf. The surprised Japanese offered little resistance. In an amphibious assault that out-scaled the Normandy landings, the U.S. landed 176,000 troops within three days. Japanese General Yamashita, the Tiger of Manila, could see a very effective trap for his army forming in southern Luzon, and he ordered half his army to retreat to the northern mountains of Luzon while the other half moved to block the expected allied assault on Manila. Yamashita hoped to minimize the U.S. advantages of complete air supremacy and armored formations by fighting a prolonged defensive action in the mountains of northern Luzon. It was a wise move on his part.

In the late hours of February 3, the lead elements of the U.S. 1st Cavalry reached Santo Tomas University on the outskirts of Manila. The campus had been used as a prison for U.S., Philippine, Australian, New Zealand, and Dutch civilians. The U.S. troops were shocked by the emaciated condition of the prisoners.  The nightmare was just beginning.

Before they could be ensnared, General Yamashita took his southern force out of the Luzon area to join the rest of his army in the north. Before Yamashita had left Manila, he placed Vice Admiral Denshichi Okochi in charge. He ordered Okochi to destroy the port facilities, declare Manila an open city, and escape northward.

MacArthur’s staff ordered that fire from tanks and artillery only be used selectively and at close ranges to avoid as many civilian casualties as possible. Sadly, an estimated 1,200 Filipinos died from U.S. fire. Sadly, that was the least of the suffering for the inhabitants of Manila.

Admiral Okochi had ignored Yamashita’s orders. Instead of leaving, he used his force of 20,000, consisting of Naval Special Troops and other naval and army troops, to make a last stand in Manila. In a war defined by ruthless Japanese atrocities, Okochi and his men engaged in one of the worst atrocities of the war in the Pacific. Women of all ages were raped and murdered. Hospitals were set afire with patients tied to their beds. Babies were torn from their mothers’ arms and mutilated.

It took the allied forces another month of non-stop, heavy urban fighting to clear the Japanese from Manila. In the final hours of the battle, Admiral Okochi and his staff committed ritual seppuku. At his orders, his forces had raped, tortured, mutilated and murdered about 100,000 Filipino civilian inhabitants of Manila. The fighting reduced most of the city’s historical buildings to rubble.  Allied commanders had grown accustomed to the Japanese military’s barbaric crimes. However, Okochi’s savagery against civilians in Manila and the many other war crimes committed against Philippine civilians and POWs further inflamed Allied anger against Japan and ultimately helped President Truman make his difficult final decision to use atomic bombs against Japan in August of 1945.

 

Japanese surrender in the Philippines, Sept. 15, 1945 image from wikimedia commons

Japanese surrender in the Philippines, Sept. 15, 1945
image from wikimedia commons

 

On February 27, 1945, Manila was considered safe for the return of the Philippine government. At Malacañang Palace, a formal ceremony was conducted to install Sergio Osmeña as the President of all of the Philippines. The last pockets of Japanese defenders were not cleared until March 3. At a horrible cost, Manila, or the little that was left of it, was now free. Fighting continued in the Philippines until after the Japanese surrendered on September 2. About 15,000 Allies had lost their lives. Fighting against superior U.S. firepower and U.S. air supremacy, the Japanese had lost about 338,000 soldiers and sailors. During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, about one million Filipino civilians were murdered or lost their lives to starvation and Japanese abuse.

After the war, the Philippine people rebuilt Manila into a capital city. The ground beneath the city is considered by the Philippine people to be their most sacred ground.

In 1946, fifty hard years after revolutionary scholar and poet Dr. José Rizal left his goodbye poem to Manila, My Last Farewell, in his prison cell on his execution day, the Philippine people received their independence. His dream was finally realized.

Worst Intelligence Failure in US History — Response to Operation Drumbeat

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

If you ask historians to name the worst Intelligence failure in US history, many will name the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. I will depart from that conventional wisdom. Pearl Harbor was, indeed, a major intelligence failure for both Japan and the US, but, in and of itself, it was not the worst US intelligence failure during WWII. In my opinion, that title goes to the US response to Operation Drumbeat.

 

Large troop convoy on its way to North Africa. Image at Imperial War Museum, public domain.

Large troop convoy on its way to North Africa.
Image at Imperial War Museum, public domain.

 

If we consider the strategic outlook in the US military and the US government in general prior to Pearl Harbor, we can see mitigating circumstances that partially explain, if not forgive, the intelligence failures on both sides. On the Japanese side, the Japanese Army largely determined military decisions. The accepted wisdom in the Japanese Army was that any war with the US would last less than a year and would end with the US accepting Japanese domination of Malaysia, Indonesia, and China. This critical miscalculation explains why the Japanese were willing to attack Pearl Harbor.

On the American side of the equation, most military and civilian leaders were focused on the war in Europe. Whereas prior to December 7, 1941, German submarines had gotten US attention by attacking US merchant ships and US Navy destroyers, the Japanese had not attacked US shipping. It was clear that an attack against Pearl Harbor was possible, but other possibilities seemed far more likely. Everyone in the Japanese and US governments knew that Japan wanted and absolutely needed more oil. Everyone on both sides also understood that Japan had thus far directed all its military efforts in the twentieth century against Asia. Japanese attacks against Indonesia and Malaysia seemed to be their next obvious move. Indeed, the Japanese did follow their Pearl Harbor success with southward thrusts into the weakly defended Philippines, as well as Malaysia and Indonesia.

However, the far greater intelligence failure by the US occurred after Pearl Harbor.

It was a less forgivable, more prolonged, and more agonizing failure that led to far greater costs in lives and material. The intelligence failure that I refer to is the US failure to predict and counteract the onslaught of German U-Boats against US merchant shipping.

 

Depth charge explosion, c. 1943. Note merchant ship on left horizon. Image at Library of Congress, public domain.

Depth charge explosion, c. 1943.
Note merchant ship on left horizon.
Image at Library of Congress, public domain.

 

Nearly every American can remember seeing pictures of the battleship USS Arizona exploding in Pearl Harbor. That and other photographic imagery of the Pearl Harbor attack helped to create strong feelings for most Americans. On the other hand, the losses to German submarines were rarely photographed and occurred over many months. Those attacks lacked the “shock and awe” value of the Pearl Harbor attack.

At Pearl Harbor, the US lost two old battleships. Two more were sunk, but then salvaged and repaired. Another battleship and two heavy cruisers were damaged and then repaired. Those losses and the losses of between 2,500 and 3,000 American lives were significant, but they were not as severe as our losses to German submarines during Operation Drumbeat.

Germany declared war on the US on December 11, 1941 and enacted Operation Drumbeat – an operation in which most German submarines were sent to the US Atlantic coast specifically to destroy merchant shipping on that coast and to inflict as much damage as possible.

By January of 1942, allied trans-Atlantic shipping had, for the most part, belatedly been organized into convoys with inadequate, but significantly effective, naval escorts. The UK’s Royal Navy and, to a lesser degree, the US Navy, US Coast Guard, and Canadian Navy ships primarily provided these escorts. They were undermanned and poorly equipped, but they made it more difficult and far more risky for German submarines to conduct effective attacks against them.

 

Deck of U-Boat &123, January 1942. Image by German Federal Archives.

Deck of U-Boat &123, January 1942.
Image by German Federal Archives.

 

The German submariners referred to 1940 and 1941 as the “happy times.” By the end of 1941, the equation was changing. They were still effective in sinking allied merchant ships, but with increasing risks to themselves. Then, after Admiral Karl Dönitz unleashed Operation Drumbeat, the German submariners experienced their second “happy times.”

From January 1942 to August 1942, German submarines, aided in small measure by Italian submarines, sank approximately 400 allied merchant ships along the Atlantic coast for a loss of 22 submarines.

The Germans were amazed by the lack of a credible US response. They could not believe that the US was foolish enough to not immediately institute blackouts of coastal cities or to organize convoys.

While I feel strongly that it is important to accurately calculate the death toll of the merchant sailors, it is impossible to do so. My best estimate is that nearly 6,000 died in those 400 sinkings. Along with them, thousands of tons of weapons and ammunition, millions of barrels of oil, and precious food supplies were lost. Across the Atlantic, the UK desperately needed every gallon of fuel and pound of food that we could ship to them.

 

Officers watching for submarines on the bridge of a destroyer that was escorting a large convoy. Image at Imperial War Museum, public domain.

Officers watching for submarines on the bridge of a destroyer that was escorting a large convoy.
Image at Imperial War Museum, public domain.

 

I apologize to family members of the merchant marine sailors that served so courageously during WWII for my inability to accurately state their losses. Several factors prevent an accurate count.

The first confounding factor is that there was no central registry for merchant sailors at sea. Each shipping company kept its own records, and many did so poorly. Sailors were often added to a crew immediately prior to sailing and were not always counted in the casualty lists. Secondly, many of the sailors survived the sinkings but later died of their wounds. A third factor that, until recent years, had been ignored is the fact that the allies made a concerted effort to understate shipping losses in order to not damage the public’s morale. The losses were appalling, and, sadly, they were greater than they needed to be.

By the time Operation Drumbeat came to bear in January of 1942, the US and her allies had a clear understanding of what had occurred during the first year and a half of U-Boat attacks against allied shipping.

The UK had been slow in instituting convoy measures for several reasons.

 

Captain Frederic John Walker RN on the bridge of HMS STARLING. Image at Imperial War Museum, public domain.

Captain Frederic John Walker RN on the bridge of HMS STARLING.
Image at Imperial War Museum, public domain.

 

 

The biggest reason was that merchant sailors and their shipping company bosses were not accustomed to being under military control. In democratic nations, there was no clear legal authority to order convoying. By the end of 1941, the UK had learned the bitter lessons of submarine warfare, and shipping companies had come to accept the need for convoys. At the same time, thanks to the brilliant efforts of men like Captain Frederic John “Johnnie” Walker RN, Captain Donald MacIntyre RN, and Captain John Waters USCG, the allies were developing more effective tactics for combating German submarines.

 

Commander Donald MacIntyre RN on the bridge of HMS HESPERUS. Image at Imperial War Museum, public domain.

Commander Donald MacIntyre RN on the bridge of HMS HESPERUS.
Image at Imperial War Museum, public domain.

 

Given all that had occurred in the North Atlantic by January 1942, the US response to Operation Drumbeat seems unforgivable.

There are few intelligence failures in US history that can compare with this one. It is true that the US Navy and US Coast Guard were limited in the ships and planes that they could employ against Operation Drumbeat, but those that were available were poorly employed. It’s astounding that the US government did not use its authority to immediately order convoying for all coastal shipping and blackouts for all coastal lighting. Once these simple measures were phased in by the end of August, the monthly losses in merchant shipping began to decline, and German submarine losses increased. While the US was not in a position to use all the readily available intelligence to formulate a completely effective response to Operation Drumbeat, better and more timely efforts would have resulted in far fewer dead merchant sailors and much less loss of ships and critical cargoes.

 

Scientist surveys sunken German U-Boat U-701 of the coast of North Carolina. Image by NOAA's National Ocean Service.

Scientist surveys sunken German U-Boat U-701 of the coast of North Carolina.
Image by NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

 

The primary lesson to be learned from this intelligence debacle:

Even when a perfect response is not available, the best possible preparations must be pursued in a timely fashion.

In out next installment, we will consider one of the many intelligence failures of the US Civil War.

Intelligence Fail: How Mussolini’s Ego Saved the Soviet Union

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

In previous articles, we examined the intelligence failures around Operation Barbarossa, the 1941 German invasion of the USSR, from both the German and the Soviet points of view. An important side of the equation that is usually ignored, however, is the Italian contribution to the eventual Soviet success.

 

Allies Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler Image from the US Holocaust Memorial Mueum public domain

Allies Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler
Image from the US Holocaust Memorial Mueum
public domain

 

In the fall of 1936, Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini and German Dictator Adolf Hitler announced a military treaty between their respective nations. From the beginning of this alliance, Hitler was convinced that Italy, a junior partner, could at best be most useful in countering British naval power in the Mediterranean and possibly in threatening Great Britain’s hold on the Suez Canal. From Mussolini’s point of view, the alliance with Nazi Germany entitled Italy to be treated as an equal partner. Mussolini expected the alliance to offer Italy opportunities to develop a Mediterranean empire that would stretch across northwest Africa and westward from Italy across the Adriatic.

In March of 1938, without any prior consultation with its Italian ally, Germany entered Austria and managed a coup that is remembered as “bloodless.”

The annexation of Austria was not actually bloodless, but Austrian resistance collapsed quickly, and Nazi propaganda efforts were somewhat successful in convincing the world that Germany was welcomed by the Austrian people. Mussolini was stunned both that Hitler had succeeded so easily in Austria and that Hitler had not consulted, or even forewarned him, of the invasion.

On September 29, 1938, France, Italy, Great Britain, and Germany signed the now infamous Munich Agreement, which granted the Western portion of Czechoslovakia to Germany. While in this case Mussolini was consulted, his role was limited to helping bolster the feeble notion that the Munich Agreement was legitimate, given the fact that the Czechs were not consulted at all about how their country would be carved up.

In March of 1939, Hitler again surprised Mussolini by granting independence to the Slovakian areas of Czechoslovakia and annexing the remaining portion of that country. By this point, Mussolini was beginning to understand that Hitler had no intention of treating him as an equal partner in their alliance.

Mussolini felt that he had to do something to improve his prestige. Without consulting Germany, Italy invaded Albania in April of 1939.

 

Italian Troops in Albania public domain

Italian Troops in Albania
public domain

 

Albania had a poorly trained and minimally equipped army of 15,000 men. It was further impeded by the fact that it was already in a state of political turmoil due to tensions between communist, royalist, and democratic nationalist factions.

The 100,000 Italian invaders managed a rare Italian victory, installed a puppet government, and declared that Albania was now part of Italy.

Hitler saw the Italian annexation of Albania as being a sensible move and was likely informed in advance by his intelligence agencies. From Germany’s point of view, having Italy in control of the entrance of the Adriatic Sea from the Mediterranean supported its long-term strategy for the coming war.

In August of 1939, again without consulting his Italian ally, Hitler signed a non-aggression pact with the USSR. Mussolini was angered and embarrassed at having been left out. He would likely have been far angrier if he had known that the pact included a secret agreement for a postwar division of Eastern Europe between Germany and the USSR.

The following month, Germany and the USSR invaded and divided Poland. France and Great Britain then declared war against Germany.

In April of 1940, Hitler once again went on the warpath and unleashed his army on Denmark and Norway. Denmark fell in a day, and Norway managed to resist until June.

Hitler was quite pleased with himself, while Mussolini was feeling more and more like Hitler’s weaker little brother.

Mussolini decided he had to do something to prove that Italy was a modern military powerhouse. He confided to his generals that “to sit at the peace table you have to make war.” This was his way of voicing concern about post war division of spoils between Germany and Italy after what he expected would be a quick war.

In September of 1940, Mussolini made his “big move.” He attacked British-occupied Egypt. He did so after prior consultation with Hitler. Unfortunately for Mussolini and Italy, things did not go quite as they expected.

 

Royal Air Force preparing to raid Italian positions at Tobruk public domain

Royal Air Force preparing to raid Italian positions at Tobruk
public domain

 

The British in Egypt were badly outnumbered both in men and aircraft, but their planes, tanks, and equipment were vastly superior to what the Italians had. The Italian attack on Egypt, which should have been a quick success for Italy, turned into an embarrassing failure.

In February of 1941, Hitler had to send German divisions and aircraft to help Italy try to invade Egypt. By the time Germany was able to send adequate reinforcements to North Africa, Great Britain had also reinforced Egypt. In spite of the best efforts of Hitler’s Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, his German Africa Corps, and three full corps of Italian troops, Rommel never reached the Suez Canal.

When compared to the immense scale of operations on the Eastern Front, the Axis defeat in North Africa might seem less important, but their failed North Africa campaign denied the Germans the use of several of their best divisions, along with considerable resources of the overtaxed German Luftwaffe.

In October of 1940, having achieved no success in North Africa, Mussolini did a huge favor for the USSR. He invaded Greece.

 

Greek Forces in Korce, November 1940 public domain

Greek Forces in Korce, November 1940
public domain

 

Mussolini was certain of a rapid victory over the smaller Greek Army. The Greeks were not convinced. The Italian invasion turned into an Italian retreat, and the Italians were in danger of being forced out of Albania by the Greek Army and Greek partisans.

Hitler was taken completely by surprise. He and his General Staff were focused on preparing Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the USSR. They had not informed their ally Italy of their intentions.

The UK and the US suspected the planned German invasion of the USSR. The Soviet Army expected the German invasion but could not convince Stalin. In fact, everyone except Stalin and Mussolini expected a German invasion of the USSR. Even when Germany moved massive amounts of men, equipment, and supplies to Poland, the Italian diplomatic and intelligence communities managed to miss what should have been obvious to them. This ignorance of Germany’s planned April 1941 invasion of the USSR, was instrumental to Mussolini’s decision to invade Greece.

It was an intelligence failure that sank Mussolini’s military into dire trouble.

Hitler was furious. He refused to see that he had helped Mussolini stumble into this terrible mistake by not informing him of his Operation Barbarossa. Italy plunged head first into an ill-timed operation in Greece instead of concentrating on the far more crucial campaign in North Africa.

Hitler considered leaving the Italians to suffer their growing disaster in Greece on their own. However, as the Italian debacle dragged on towards the spring of 1941, Hitler decided that he had to save his Italian ally from complete defeat – not because Italy was his ally, but because Greece was no longer neutral and was now accepting aid from the UK. This meant that Greece had to be defeated, because if the British RAF was allowed to operate air bases in that country, their bombers would be within range of the oilfields of Romania. Without Romanian oil, the German Army would have ground to a halt in the USSR.

 

Royal Air Force Operations Over Albania and Greece, 1940 Image from Imperial War Museums public domain

Royal Air Force Operations Over Albania and Greece, 1940
Image from Imperial War Museums
public domain

 

In April of 1941, Germany and Bulgaria invaded Greece. By early June, Greece was defeated. So, all well that ends well? No. It ended well, but it ended too late.

By June, the German Army should have been halfway to Moscow with trucks of supplies following it on mostly dry, passable roads. The Russian road network was primitive, and the Germans could not afford to have their Army’s logistics further strangled by nearly impassable muddy roads.

By the time Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, it was two months behind schedule, thanks to Mussolini’s decision to invade Greece. It was also without valuable troops and equipment that now had to occupy the previously neutral Greece. Before the German Army got close to Moscow and Stalingrad, supply problems on bad roads were limiting their armored operations. When it did get to the gates of Moscow, snow began to fall, and the German Army was without winter clothing and equipment.

In the end, the vastly numerically superior Soviet Army and Soviet production defeated Hitler on the Eastern Front. However, if Operation Barbarossa had started on time, Stalin might have lost Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad. He could conceivably have decided to conclude a peace treaty with Germany, and an early departure by the USSR would have been disastrous for the Western Allies.

The great intelligence lesson to be learned from Italy’s failure to anticipate Operation Barbarossa: No nation should take for granted their ally’s intentions. Even friends need to watch each other.

In our next installment, we will consider a great American intelligence failure in WWII.

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Related Articles in the Intelligence Fail Series:

Hitler and a Most Important Intelligence Lesson

Operation Barbarossa, the Soviet View

 

Intelligence Fail–Operation Barbarossa, the Soviet View

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

In our last post, we discussed the intelligence lesson to be learned by Hitler’s choice to invade the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. On the other side, the Soviet Union’s reaction to that invasion provides us with one of history’s most glaring examples of bad intelligence assessments.

Intelligence professionals that read this series should be aware that I use the term “assessment” in the generic English sense rather than in the technical professional sense. All intelligence agencies have their own requirements and rules for what an “intelligence assessment” should look like. We are not following any of those requirements other than the ones that coincide with the researching and writing of history.

To understand the Soviet Union’s failure to adequately prepare for the German invasion of June 22, 1941, it’s important to consider the decision making process of the Soviet Union.

 

Josef Stalin in Berlin, 1945 Image from US Library of Congress,  public domain.

Josef Stalin in Berlin, 1945
Image from US Library of Congress,
public domain.

 

Josef Stalin was a dictator that only nominally reported to the Communist Party of the USSR. In reality, the Communist Party lacked the will or practical authority to oppose any decisions taken by Stalin.

By 1941, everyone in the USSR understood that disagreeing with Stalin about anything was likely to lead to arrest, torture, and possible execution. Not surprisingly, Stalin had grown accustomed to people agreeing with him. While he may have enjoyed his success in bending the entire USSR to his will, it had an isolating effect that would prove disastrous.

Even though Hitler vastly underestimated the war fighting capability of the USSR, he understood that the USSR had a much larger military than did Poland or France. Accordingly, he instructed the German military to move approximately 3.8 million troops into position to invade the USSR. Some of those troops were not for employment in the spearheads of the invasion, and, therefore, did not need to be kept close to the Soviet borders. Still, even in the pre-satellite age, it was difficult to disguise German troop buildups.

 

The six lines of attack comprising Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941. From The Battle of Russia, the fifth film in the Why We Fight series by US Govt. public domain

The six lines of attack comprising Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941.
From The Battle of Russia, the fifth film in the Why We Fight series by US Govt.
public domain

 

So how did Stalin manage to ignore the massive German buildup leading to Operation Barbarossa?

There are various opinions about the details of how and why Stalin failed to anticipate a German invasion, but some aspects are nearly universally accepted. One might assume that the Soviet NKVD (the precursor to the KGB) and military intelligence forces were inadequate or perhaps nearly blind to all evidence. This was clearly not the case.

The Soviet Union leadership considered itself to be in a perpetual state of war with the rest of the world. From their point of view, the character and intensity of that war varied, but there was no such thing as real “peace” with Western nations. The Soviet State also operated on the assumption that it was and would always be in a state of war with a significant portion of its own citizens.

These two fundamental assumptions caused the USSR to invest heavily in intelligence efforts. Both the NKVD and Soviet military intelligence accurately assessed that Hitler was planning an invasion of the USSR. They had done an excellent job of penetrating Hitler’s Foreign Office, intelligence services, military staffs, and industry. They were receiving more than enough information from a variety of independent sources to be certain that Operation Barbarossa was imminent.

In addition to its direct sources in Germany, Stalin’s intelligence community was aware of US and UK assessments of Hitler’s intentions.

When diplomats from the US and the UK informed Stalin of German plans to invade the USSR, Stalin had already heard this from his spies in the UK and the US. He assumed that all the warnings coming from the Western nations were part of a Western conspiracy to force him to go to war with Hitler prematurely. Stalin preferred to let the West demolish itself, and he planned to step into a convenient power vacuum of a destroyed Western Europe.

Opinions vary about precisely how, in the face of so much corroborative information, Stalin failed to anticipate the German invasion. In one sense, he didn’t.

Just as Hitler understood that carving up Poland with the USSR would in no way appease Stalin’s long term goal of annihilating Western nations and governments, Stalin clearly understood that Germany would try to attack the USSR. Stalin’s basic reaction to that reality was to attempt to outsmart the Western nations.

Remember, from Stalin’s point of view, the UK, France, and other Western enemies were as much a threat to the Soviet system and Soviet ambitions as was Germany. All Westerners were Stalin’s enemies, and all of them needed to be accounted for in the Soviet geopolitical calculus of the day.

In addition to considering the threat from his Western neighbors, Stalin had to consider the very real threat of invasion by the Japanese military to the east. Japan had already conquered vast swaths of China, and it could not be completely ignored.

Stalin responded to the threats that surrounded him by using his vast NKVD resources to try to maneuver Western countries into war with themselves and by counting on the Japanese to continue being strategically diverted with their slaughter of the Chinese. From Stalin’s point of view, Hitler’s invasion of his Western neighbors perfectly fit into his plans.

 

Wehrmacht troops cross the USSR borders in Operation Barbarossa, June 22, 1941. public domain

Wehrmacht troops cross the USSR borders in Operation Barbarossa,
June 22, 1941.
public domain

 

Stalin never doubted that Hitler would invade the USSR, but since Germany was still busy dealing with the undefeated UK, he was certain that Hitler would not make the mistake of throwing Germany into the same sort of two-front war that brought that country to ruin in 1918.

When Stalin’s magnificent intelligence services explained to him that Hitler was not going to wait for the fall of the UK to invade the USSR, his megalomaniacal personality enabled him to ignore them. When anyone in his intelligence, diplomatic, or military organizations foolishly attempted to argue the point with him, he accused them of being enemy agents and had them murdered or banished to labor camps.

Since June 22, 1941, Stalin’s miserable intelligence assessment of German intentions has been a popular topic of study. As more files have been obtained from the now defunct USSR, more explanations are offered as to precisely how Stalin managed to deceive himself.

 

German soldiers in Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa, June 1941. Image from German Federal Archives, wikimedia commons.

German soldiers in Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa,
June 1941.
Image from German Federal Archives, wikimedia commons.

 

Thus far, the various theories and occasional new evidence have not changed the essential facts of the case.

Stalin failed to prepare for Operation Barbarossa because he refused to acknowledge that anyone might understand the strategic situation as well as or better than he could. The results of his grand miscalculation were devastating for the USSR. We cannot assume that the best possible preparations by the USSR would have completely and bloodlessly defeated the German invasion, but it is reasonable to assume that the USSR would have suffered far fewer casualties in halting the German advances.

There is one other “what if” that we usually ignore when examining Stalin’s grotesque mismanagement of the Soviet military machine. If indeed Stalin had been able to defeat Hitler’s invasion more efficiently, then Soviet forces likely would have advanced further west before the Allied Forces reached the same positions. Then the post-war division of European nations might have left even more European nations enslaved by Soviet occupation.

Stalin’s horrendous failure to anticipate Operation Barbarossa reinforces the lesson that even the best intelligence is only useful when leaders use it effectively. Stalin’s failure in 1941 also demonstrates another important lesson from Intelligence history . . .

Nations and their leaders should be aware that their own plans and ambitions can blind them to their enemies’ intentions.

In our next segment we will consider an oft-ignored intelligence wild card in Operation Barbarossa.