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- The Battle of Dunkirk lasted from around May 25 to June 3, 1940. After the Phoney War the Battle of France began in earnest in mid-May 1940. German armour burst through the Ardennes region and advanced rapidly. The combined British, French and Belgium forces were rapidly split around Armentieres. The German forces then swept north to capture Calais, holding a large body of Allied soldiers trapped against the coast on the Franco-Belgium border. It became clear the battle was lost and the question now became how many Allied soldiers could be removed to the relative safety of England before their resistance was crushed.
From May 22 preparations for the evacution began, codenamed Operation Dynamo, commanded from Dover by Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay. He called for as many naval vessels as possible as well as every ship capable of carrying a 1,000 men within reach. It initially was intended to recover around 45,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force over two days, this was soon stretched to 120,000 men over five days. On May 27 a request was placed to civilians to provide all shallow draught vessels of 30 to 100 feet for the operation, that night was the first rescue attempt - a large number of craft together with Merchant Marine and Royal Navy vessels were gathered at Sheerness and sent to Dunkirk and the surrounding beaches to recover Allied troops, due to heavy German fire only 8,000 soldiers were recovered.
Another ten destroyers were recalled for May 28 and attempted rescue operations in the early morning but were unable to closely approach the beaches although several thousand were rescued. It was decided that smaller vessels would be more useful and boatyards were scoured for suitable craft, gathering them at Sheerness, Chatham and Dover. The Allied held area was reduced to a 30 km block by May 28. Operations over the rest of May 28 were more successful, with a further 16,000 men recovered but German air operations increased and many vessels were sunk or badly damaged including nine destroyers.
On May 29 there was an unexpected reprieve, the German armour stopped its advance on Dunkirk leaving the operation to the slower infantry, but due to problems only 14,000 men were evacuated that day. On the evening of May 30 another major group of smaller vessels was dispatched and returned with around 30,000 men. By May 31 the Allied forces were compressed into a 5 km deep strip from La Panne, through Bray-Dunes to Dunkirk but on that day over 68,000 troops were evacuated with another 10,000 or so overnight. On June 1 another 65,000 were rescued and the operations continued until June 4, evacuating a total of 338,226 troops aboard around 700 different vessels.
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- Battle of Normandy, also known as D-Day or Operation Overlord - The landings at Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, and the events which occurred thereafter constitute the most well known battle of World War II.
Combined British, French, American, and Canadian forces landed at several points along the Normandy coastline. The beaches were codenamed. The British and Canadian beaches were to the east, and, from east to west were: Sword Beach, which extended from Ouistreham at the mouth of the river Orne to Saint Aubin sur Mer, Juno Beach from Saint Aubin sur Mer to La Riviere, and Gold Beach, from La Riviere to a few kilometres west of Longues sur Mer. The American beaches were Omaha Beach and Utah Beach.
This area had been extensively fortified by the Germans, and comprised a part of the Atlantic Wall. It was manned with a haphazard collection of troops of German and other nationalities, mainly Russians, who had elected to fight for the Germans. The area immediately behind the coastline had been flooded by the Germans as a precaution against parachutist assault.
Prior to the battle, the Allies had carefully mapped and tested the landing area, paying particular attention to weather conditions in the English Channel. The weather conditions at the only time when the landings were practicable were particularly adverse. The German forces were not expecting the landings to occur because of this.
In addition to the main beachhead assaults, troops were parachute dropped behind enemy lines and these were further supported by troops arriving in gliders at key points. Coordinated activities with the French resistance forces, the Maquis, helped disrupt Axis lines of communications.
Additionally, the Allies conducted an effective feint using dummy weaponry and forces to simulate a landing further east in the Pas de Calais, Operation Fortitude. This drew the German's tanks and best armies away from Normandy. Also in the Allies favor, much of the German command had been called back to (Paris?) for wargames and thus were not present on the critical first day, when the allies could have been thrown off the beaches. Unlike the Allied forces, the German army was not conditioned to take individual initiative, and thus many groups waited for orders, while being overrun by the allies.
Once the beachhead was established, two artificial Mulberry Harbours were towed across the English Channel in segments. One was constructed at Arromanches, the other at Omaha Beach. This facilitated the landing of heavy weaponry and materials where previously this was impractical.
Chronology and Timeline
The Normandy landings were long foreshadowed by a considerable amount of political manoeuvring amongst the allies. There was a considerable amount of disagreement about timing, appointments of command, and where exactly the landings were to take place. The opening of a second front had been long postponed (it had been initially mooted in 1942), and had been a particular source of strain between the allies. Churchill in particular was concerned to land and advance in Europe before the Soviet forces rolled up and gained control over swathes of territory.
The appointment of Montgomery was questioned by the Americans, who would have preferred General Alexander to have commanded the British forces. Montgomery himself had doubts about the appointment of Eisenhower above his head, since he considered that Eisenhower had little practical field experience.
Normandy presented serious logistical problems, not the least of which being that the only viable port, Cherbourg, was heavily defended and many among the higher echelons of command argued that the Pas de Calais would make a more suitable landing area on these grounds alone.
- June 5th/6th US 82nd Airborne Division and 101st Airborne Division are parachuted into the area surrounding Ste Mere Eglise.
- June 6th - D-Day landings
- June 25th - 29th Operation Epsom, an offensive to the west of Caen, repulsed by the German defenders.
- July 7th - Caen finally captured.
- July 17th - Erwin Rommel severely injured when his car was strafed by an Allied aircraft.
- July 18th - 20th - Operation Goodwood initiated.
- August 3rd - 9th - Operation Totalize, a trap to capture retreating German armour starts.
- August 16th Operation Dragoon, a joint American/French landing on the French Riviera, begins.
Although ultimately successful, the Normandy landings were extremely costly in terms of men and material. The failure of the 3rd Division to take Caen, an overly ambitious target, on the first day was to have serious repercussions on the conduct of the war for well over a month, seriously delaying any forward progress. The fortuitous capture of Villers-Bocage followed by the failure to reinforce it, and its subsequent recapture by the Germans, was again to hamper any attempt to extend the Caen bridgehead and push on. By D+11, June 17th, the Allies worst fears had materialised: the assault had stagnated.
A lot of the problem came down to the nature of the terrain in which much of the post-landing fighting took place, the bocages. These were essentially small fields separated by high earth banks covered in dense shrubbery, which were eminently defensible. (to be continued)
The toehold that the allies established at Normandy was vital for Britain and the U.S. to bring the war to Germany's front door. It could be debated that the Soviets alone were sufficient to crush Germany by this point, and that this battle was unnecessary for the purpose of defeating the German Reich. By the time D-Day happened, the Red Army was steadily advancing towards Germany and about 3/4s of the German forces were in the East. The US and British only faced about a quarter of the German army in France. Yet given the Soviet's claim over Eastern Europe, one could ask if the result would have been a complete occupation of Europe by communist forces. American and British presence helped define the extent that communism would spread, and ensure that democracy would be safe in western europe. Thus the battle of Normandy needs to be understood both within the context of WWII and in that of the Cold War that would follow.
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- The Battle of Stalingrad was a major turning point in World War II. While not Germany's first setback, it was one of the most important, and one from which it never recovered.
The first major setback for the Third Reich at war occurred at the outskirts of Moscow at the end of 1941 when the Soviet Union counter-attacked and drove the Germans back. The reasons for the scale of the defeat included the German's lack of preparation for the harshness of the Russian winter and the overextension of their supply lines across their newly-captured areas.
In the spring of 1942, a new target was set for Army Group South, which was to drive towards the Volga at Stalingrad (today Volgograd), the city that bore the name of the Soviet leader and stood astride the route to the Urals. Commencing their offensive on June 28, the German armies reached the outskirts of Stalingrad on August 23, 1942 after successful campaigns that added the cities of Kharkov, Sevastopol and Rostov to their conquests on the Eastern front.
The battle at Stalingrad was one of the most uncompromising engagements of the entire war. With both sides promoting a no retreat, no surrender policy, intense street fighting ensued - often descending into hand-to-hand bayonet contests - and parts of the city changed hands as many as three or four times a day.
On November 19, 1942 the Red Army unleashed a massive counterattack on the German forces around Stalingrad and, using a pincer strategy, quickly managed to encircle the Germans fighting for supremacy within the city. This severed the already strained Nazi supply lines and left 300,000 Wehrmacht soldiers with diminishing ammunition and food supplies.
Adolf Hitler reiterated his order of no surrender to his trapped armies and, after assurances from Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering, promised that all the necessary supplies would be dropped in by the Luftwaffe. In fact, only a fraction of the transports actually managed to reach their target as the Soviet anti-aircraft defences surrounding Stalingrad proved far stronger than anticipated.
Meanwhile, during the first few days of January 1943, the rest of Army Group South began its withdrawal from the Caucasus, dashing the encircled soldiers' last hopes for release. A month later (January 31, 1943) the main German forces in Stalingrad, hungry and alone (there were stories of soldiers on watch dropping dead from hunger), surrendered to the Soviet Union in what was to prove the first big defeat of the Third Reich and the beginning of the end for Hitler. The last German units surrendered on February 2. The prisoners included 6th Army commander Geneneral Friedrich Paulus, newly promoted to Field-Marshal. No German Field-Marshall had ever been taken alive in war, and it is believed that Hitler awarded Paulus with the honor to ensure Paulus did not surrender.
The historian William L. Shirer, in his monumental history of World War II, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, eloquently summarized the importance of the Battle of Stalingrad with these words:
Coupled with El Alamein and the British-American landings in North Africa it marked the great turning point in World War II. The high tide of Nazi conquest which had rolled over most of Europe to the frontier of Asia on the Volga and in Africa almost to the Nile had now begun to ebb and it would never flow back again. The time of the great Nazi blitz offensives, with thousands of tanks and planes spreading terror in the ranks of the enemy armies and cutting them to pieces, had come to an end.
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- First Battle of El Alamein took place in North Africa from July 1 - 27, 1942. The Allied Eighth Army under General Claude Auchinleck had retreated from Mersa Matruh to the Alamein Line, a forty mile gap between El Alamein and the Qattara Depression.
On July 1 the German-Italian Afrika Korps led by Erwin Rommel attacked. The Allied line near El Alamein was not overrun until the evening and this hold up stalled the Axis advance.
On July 2 Rommel concentrated his forces in the north, intending to breaking through around El Alamein. Auchinleck ordered a counter-attack at the centre of the Axis line but the attack failed. The Allies also attacked in the south and were more successful against the Italians. As a result of the Allied resistance, Rommel decided to regroup and defend the line reached
Auchinleck attacked again on July 10 at Tel el Eisa in the north and over one thousand prisoners were taken. Rommel's counter at Tel el Eisa achieved little. Auchinleck then attacked again in the centre at the Ruweisat Ridge in two battles - the First and Second Battles of Ruweisat on July 14 and July 21. Neither battle was succcessful and the failure of armour to reach the infantry in time at the Second Battle led to the loss of 700 men. Despite this another two attacks were launched on July 27. One in the north at Tel el Eisa was a moderate failure. The other at Miteiriya was more calametous, the minefields were not cleared and the infantry was left without armour support when faced with a German counter-attack.
The Eighth Army was exhausted and by July 31 Auchinleck ordered an end to offensive operations and the strengthening of the defences to meet a major counter-offensive.
The battle was a stalemate, but the Axis advance on Alexandria (and then Cairo) was halted. See Second Battle of El Alamein for the sequel.
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- Operation Market Garden
was an Allied military operation in World War II, which took place in September of 1944. It was an attempt to take bridges over the main rivers of the German-occupied Netherlands, enabling the Allies to advance into Germany without any remaining major obstacles.
The operation was successful up to the capture of the Rhine bridge at Nijmegen, but is generally considered a failure as the final bridge at Arnhem was not held, resulting in the destruction of the British 1st Airborne division.
After the breakout from the Normandy beachheads in August, the Allied forces had pushed back the German army hundreds of miles over a period of only a few weeks. By the end of August enough Allied troops were on land to form several armies. To the east, on the right, the US had two complete armies, the 1st under Hodges and the 3rd under Patton, in a line running north-south near the German frontier. To their left the British 2nd Army under Bernard Montgomery held the north-east corner in a line running from Antwerp to the US lines roughly along the northern border of Belgium. On their left, on the Atlantic coast, was the Canadian 1st army who had recently advanced to a line just south of the British.
At this point the offensive halted as supplies ran low. The only source of supplies in Allied hands were the shallow docks built on the original invasion beaches, and the nearby deep-water port of Cherbourg at the tip of the Cotentin. Both of these were of limited use, as the D-Day pre-invasion "softening up" air strikes had effectively destroyed all rail transportation in the area. The massive port of Antwerp lay in British hands, but the river estuary leading inland to this port (the Westerschelde) in front of the Canadians was still in German control.
Clearly the primary concern for the Allies should have been the advance of the Canadian army to remove the remaining German forces from the area and open Antwerp. However the Canadians had little "pull" compared to the two prima-donna generals, Patton and Montgomery. Both consistantly asked for all available supplies to be given to them for quick advances, but Eisenhower refused, and maintained a strategy of broad attack across the entire front. As the offensive faltered both Montgomery and Patton argued anew for thrusting attacks, and Eisenhower eventually asked both for their plans.
Patton favoured an attack east from his current positions to take the city of Metz, and then into the industrial area of the Saar. However this required passing the Seigfried Line of defenses at the German border, and left them in front of the equally heavily defended Rhine. As a defensive manuver it was an excellent plan, as it would leave the Allies in control of the easily defended west bank of the Rhine. But as an offensive plan it did little other than take more land, and left them in an only slightly better position to assult Germany.
Montgomery instead suggested an attack north to Arnhem, deep inside the Netherlands, which would bypass the Seigfried Line (which stopped about 20km south of there), cross the Rhine, and capture the entire German 15th army behind their lines between Arnhem and the shores of the IJsselmeer. This would also have the side effect of cutting off the V-2 launch sites, which were bombarding London at this time.
Eisenhower continued to dither, as he was most interested in the opening of Antwerp to supplies. Montgomery pointed out that there were already enough supplies in the field if he would be given those of Patton's army. His plan also ringed the entire Antwerp area well behind Allied lines, allowing it to be easily opened once the attack was completed.
The final straw was the addition of the newly-formed 1st Allied Airborne Army into the mix. This consisted of three US and two British airborne divisions, and an additional Polish brigade, which had formed up in England after the the removal of the airborne forces from France after the Normandy breakout. Eisenhower had been under intense pressure from the US to use these forces as soon as possible, so Montgomery changed his plan to use the 1st to capture three important bridges, opening the entire attack route to a very rapid advance by the 2nd Army.
The plan of action consisted of two coordinated operations, Market which was the use of the airborne troops, and Garden consisting of the British 2nd Army moving north along highway 69, spearheaded by 30 Corp.
Market would employ three of the five divisions of the 1st Airborne army. The US 101st Airborne Division would drop in two locations just north of the 30 Corp to take the bridges northwest of Eindhoven at Son and Veghel. The 82nd Airborne Division would drop quite a bit northeast of them to take the bridges at Grave and Nijmegen, and finally the British 1st would drop at the extreme north end of the route, to take the road and rail bridges at Arnhem.
Market would be the largest airborne operation in history, delivering the 101st, 82nd, 1st and the Polish Airborne brigade in a series of three huge operations known as "lifts". Commander of the 1st Army, Browning, then added his own HQ to the first lift so that he could command from the front.
Garden consisted primarly of 30 Corp., the core of the 2nd Army. They were expected to arrive at the south end of the 101st's area on the launch day, the 82nd by the second day, and the 1st by the third or fourth day at the latest. They would also deliver several additional infantry divisions to take over the defensive operations from the airborne, freeing them for other operations as soon as possible.
Still, four days is a long time for an airborne force to fight unsupplied, and they are lightly armed to start with. But it seemed that the German resistance at this point was even lighter. Most of the German 15th Army in the area appeared to be fleeing the field from in front of the Canadians, and they were known to have no Panzer gruppen. 30 Corp would therefore be facing very limited resistance on their route up highway 69, and little armor. Meanwhile the German defenders would be spread out over 100km trying to contain the pockets of airborne forces, from the British 2nd Army in the south, to Arnhem in the north.
All was not what it seemed. In fact the rout of 15th army had largely ended by this point, and most of the men had escaped out from the pocket between the Canadian 1st and the Westerschelde, adding 80,000 men to the area just to the northwest of the attack route. Much more alarming was the withdrawal of the 9SS and 10SS Panzer divisions from the 17th Army in front of Patton, to rest and refit in the rear. A suitable quiet spot was selected, which happened to be Arnhem. This meant another 9,000 troops in the area, all of them elite armored forces with heavy weapons.
Several reports started leaking out from the Netherlands reporting on both of these facts, but by this time the planning was in late stages and the reports were basically ignored. When a recce flight was sent in on behalf of the 1st Airborne Army, it returned with pictures clearly showing tanks deployed just to the northeast of Arnhem, perhaps only 15km from where the British would be dropping. These were dismissed out of hand, with the claim that they probably couldn't run and were broken down.
Worse, RAF Transport Command reported that they were desperately short of aircraft and would be barely able to support the operation. Any losses or bad weather would upset this ability. The problem was so accute that they flatly refused to drop the British to the north of their target bridge because it would put them in range of flak guns just to the north at Deelen. Another suitable drop zone just to the south of the bridge was also rejected because it was thought to be marshy, and thus unsuitable for dropping the gliders containing the force's heavier equipment. Instead they demanded a drop zone 15km away from the bridge, which would have to be taken and held overnight until the 3rd lift — the force would have to be split in half for over a day.
Realizing the seriousness of the problem, the plan was then hastily changed to add a small force of machine-gun equipped Land Rovers to the first lift. These would race forward from the drop zone to the bridge as soon as possible, holding it until the infantry could arrive. Three brigades would follow on foot, with the fourth and all the glider pilots holding the drop zones while they waited for the next two lifts.
In a staggeringly short period of one week, everything was ready.
Day 1, Sunday September 17, 1944
Operation Market/Garden opened with successes all around. The first lift was in daylight for accuracy, and almost all of the troops arrived on top of their target drop zones without incident. This contrasted strongly with previous operations where night drops resulted in the units being scattered by up to 20km in some cases.
In the south the 101st met little resistance and easily captured the small bridge at Veghel. However the similar bridge at Son was blown up as they approached it, after being delayed by a short engagement with German anti-tank guns. Later that day several small attacks by units of the 15th Army were beat off, while small units of the 101st had moved south of Son.
To their north the 82nd arrived, and the small group dropped near Grave took the bridge intact in a rush. However the main force of the 82nd found their task of securing the high ground to the east of Nijmegen much harder than they expected, and they continued to try for the rest of the day. One force tasked with taking the bridge made their attempt, but due to miscommunication they didn't start until late in the day and never made it. This left the Nijmegen bridge in German hands.
Meanwhile the 1st Airborne landed almost without a hitch, with the exception that the Land Rover force lost over half its vehicles on landing, and the rest were ambushed on their way into Arnhem. Thus the only hope of capturing the bridge was on foot.
This too proved very difficult. Two of the three brigades found themselves slowed down by small German units of a training battalion rushing to hem them in. Luckily one of the three, led by Col. Frost, found their route largely undefended, and arrived at the bridge in the afternoon and set up defensive positions. Continued attempts by the other two were meeting increased resistance, so eventually the decision was made to wait for the second lift and try again tomorrow.
This is of vital importance. Unlike any of the bridges to the south, which were over smaller rivers and canals and could be bridged by engineering units, the Nijmegen and Arnhem bridges crossed two arms of the Rhine, and there was no possibility of bridging either. To make matters worse, the British airborne were on the far side of their bridge. If either Nijmegen or Arnhem bridges were not captured and held, there was absolutely no way for 30 Corp to reach them. Yet at the end of Day 1, only a small force held Arnhem, and Nijmegen was German.
To makes matters worse, the British radios didn't work. Their long-range VFH sets were delivered with the wrong crystals, thus operating on a frequency no-one was listening to. Meanwhile the shorter range sets for use between the brigades didn't work for no obvious reason (at the time) and the various brigades were completely cut off from each other.
30 Corp didn't start their advance until 2pm, although the reasons for this planned delay are unclear. Soon after starting they ran into a force of anti-tank units dug in on the road, and it took several hours for them to be cleared, along with the loss of several of the elite Guards Armored's tanks. By the time the light started giving out at 5pm they were still 15km south of Eindhoven. The operation was already behind schedule.
On the German side things were not much better, largely because it wasn't clear at the start what was going on. Model, in direct command of the forces in the area, was completely confused by the British dropping in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, and concluded they were commandos attempting to kidnap him. Meanwhile Bittrich, commander of the 9th and 10th (collectively the 2nd SS Panzer Corp), had a clearer head and immediately sent a recce squadron of the 9th to Nijmegen to reinforce the bridge defense there.
Day 2, Monday the 18th
Early in the day the force of the 9th Panzer sent south the day before concluded they were not needed in Nijmegen, and attempted to return to Arnhem. They were aware of the British troops at the bridge, but attempted to cross by force anyway and were beaten back with staggering losses. Meanwhile the attempt to move the other two British brigades into the bridge area were both easily beat off by the newly arrived forces of the 10th SS. Lift two arrived late due to fog in England, but put down successfully in the afternoon.
To their south the 82nd was having troubles of its own. Grave was well protected, but German forces contined to press on the 82nd deployed to the east of Nijmegen. In the morning they took one of their landing zones, target for the second lift which was to arrive at 1pm. Troops from the entire area, even as far as the town itself, rushed to the drop zone and by 3pm it was back in their control. Due to the delay in England the second lift didn't arrive until 3:30.
The 101st, faced with the loss of the bridge at Son, attempted to take the similar bridge a few kilometers away at Best. However they found their approach heavily blocked, and eventually gave up. Other units continued moving to the south and eventually reached the northern end of Eindhoven. At about noon they were met by recce units from 30 Corp. At 4pm they made radio contact with the main force to the south and told them about the Son bridge, asking for a Bailey Bridge to be brought forward.
30 Corp soon arrived in Eindhoven, and by that night were camped out south of Son while they waited for the Royal Engineers to erect the new bridge. Thus ended Day 2, with the operation already 36 hours behind schedule.
Day 3, Tuesday the 19th
By this point most of the 1st was in place, and only the Polish brigade was yet to arrive in the 3rd lift later that day. Yet another attempt was made to reinforce Frost at the bridge, and this time resistance was even stronger. It appeared that there was no longer any hope of reaching the bridge, and the isolated units then retreated to set up strong lines to the west of the town, in Oosterbeek. Meanwhile at the bridge tanks were arriving to take up the fight, which was becoming desperate.
At 5pm a small part of the Polish units in the third lift finally arrived, but fell directly into the waiting guns of the Germans camped out arround the area – with the radios not working they still had no way to tell the HQ that the landing zone was taken and many of the Polish troops were killed. At the same time several of the supply drop points were also in German hands, and the 1st retrieved only 10% of the supplies dropped to them.
Things were going somewhat better for the 82nd, who found advanced units of 30 Corp arriving that morning. With the support of tanks they were able to quickly beat off the Germans in the area, at which point they decided to make a combined effort to take the bridge; the Guards Armored and 505th (part of the 82nd) would attack from the south while the 504th would cross the river in boats and take the north. The boats were called for to make the attempt in the late afternoon, but due to huge traffic problems to the south, they never arrived. Once again 30 Corp was held up in front of a bridge.
To their south the units of the 101st sent to take Best the day before found themselves facing a renewed attack that morning and gave ground. However as more British tanks arrived the Germans were beaten off by late afternoon. Later a small force of Panthers arrived at Son, seemingly out of nowhere, and started firing on the Bailey bridge. These too were beaten back by anti-tank guns that recently landed, and the bridge was secured.
Day 4, Wednesday the 20th
Frost's force at the bridge continued to hold out. Around noon the radios started working and they learned that the rest of the division had no hopes of relieving them, and that 30 Corp was stuck to their south in front of Nijmegen bridge. By the afternoon the Germans had complete control of the Arnhem bridge and started lighting fire to the houses the British were defending. The rest of the division had now set up defensive positions in Oosterbeek to the west of Arnhem, waiting for the arrival of 30 Corp.
In Nijmegen the boats still hadn't arrived during the night, so the troops continued to wait. They didn't arrive until the afternoon, but time was so short they decided to do the crossing in daylight. In what is generally considered to be one of the bravest actions in military history, they made the crossing in 26 rowboats into well defended positions. They took the banks and pressed to the bridge, which caused the Germans to pull back from their positions on the southern side. That freed the Guards Armored, who rushed across the bridge and met the airborne troops. Nijmegen bridge was now in Allied hands after four long days days.
Meanwhile the Germans organized another attack on the heights on the east side of town, this time making significant progess. Eventually the only remaining bridge suitable for tanks fell to the Germans, but was retaken by forces of the 82nd and Coldstream Guards.
To the south the running battles between the 101st and various German units continued, eventually with several Panthers once again rushing in and cutting off the roads, only leaving when they ran low on ammo.
Day 5, Thursday the 21th
Although hard pressed, things were looking up for Market/Garden this morning. 30 Corp was across the Nijmegen bridge and less than an hour's drive from the ongoing battle at the foot on Arnhem bridge. But it was too late, Frost's force was down to two houses, a handful of men, and had used up every bullet they had. With a last radio message "out of ammo, god save the king", his remaining force surrendered.
At the same time the rest of the Polish brigade, now two days late due to weather, arrived. The situation north of the river was obviously too hostile to land, so a new drop zone on the south side across from the 1st was selected. The landings went well, but the ferry they planned to use to reach the British had been sunk. Their force was largely wasted as a result.
Meanwhile the lead elements of Guards Armored sat still. Their commander refused to move them forward while Nijmegen to their south was still under constant threat, and radioed back along to the line for the 43rd infantry division to move up to take over the town. However by this point there was a 30 mile long traffic jam behind them, and the 43rd didn't arrive until the next day. But the GA were close enough by this point that they were in radio contact with the units in Oosterbeek, and starting shelling any German units who attempted to approach them.
German attacks continued all along the route, but by this point the Allied forces had clearly started to gain the upper hand. Not only were the Germans attacks stalled, the British and 101st continued to take more and more area.
Day 6, Friday the 22nd, Black Friday
The Poles continued to sit and watch the battle from the sidelines, with British artillery flying overhead from Nijmegen. That afternoon two British airborne soldiers swam the Rhine and informed them of the desperate situation, asking for any help they could give. The Poles were equipped only with inflatable rubber rafts, but promised to try a crossing that night. This operation was opposed, and only 52 soldiers made it across.
By this point much of the battle area was now in allied hands, and it appeared all of the problem was at the north end of the line with 30 Corp. However the Germans had other ideas, and during the previous night had organized two mixed armored divisions on either side of highway 69 at about the middle of the line north of Veghel (south of Grave). They attacked and only one side was stopped, while the other made it to the highway and cut the line. Any advance on Arnhem was now impossible.
Day 7, Saturday the 23rd
The Germans had figured out what the Poles were attempting and spent the rest of the day trying to cut the British off from the riverside. The British managed to hold on, and both sides suffered heavy losses. The Germans also attacked the Poles on the south side in order to tie them down, but several tanks arrived from 30 Corp and they were beaten off. Boats and engineers from the Canadian army arrived that day, and another river crossing that night landed another 150 troops.
To the south several more German attacks from their road crossing were stopped, but the road was still cut. 30 Corp then sent a unit of the Guards Armored south the 20km and re-took the road. The rest of the force to the north continued to wait for infantry to move up, still only a few kilometers from Arnhem.
Day 8, Sunday the 24th
Yet another German force attacked the road, this time to the south of Veghel. Several units were in the area, but were unable to stop them, and the Germans quickly set up defensive positions for the night.
It was not clear to the Allies at this point how much of a danger these actions represented. But it was on this day that the operation was essentially stopped and the decision made to go over to the defense. The 1st Airborne, or what remained of them, would be withdrawn that night. The lines would then be solidified where they were, with the new front line in Nijmegen.
Day 9, Monday the 25th
At 10pm the withdrawal of the remains of the 1st begins, as British and Canadian engineer units start ferrying the troops across the Rhine. By early the next morning they had withdrawn some 2000 of them, but another 300 were still on the north at first light when German fire stopped the effort. They surrendered. Of the 10,000 troops of the 1st Airborne Division, only 2,000 escaped.
To the south the newly-arrived 50th Infantry attacked the Germans holding the highway. By the next day they had been surrounded and their resistance ended. The corridor was now secure, but with nowhere to go.
It's always easy to second-guess a battle, and it's likely the case that this is even more true of Market/Garden than any other battle in modern history.
One certain problem with the plan was that the entire operation required both bridges over the Rhine to be captured and held. Had the Nijmegen bridge been destroyed or remained in German hands, the British would be cut off kilometers to the north with no hope whatsoever. Even with Nijmegen successfully taken, things would be little better if Arnhem bridge fell. This would require a forced crossing of the Rhine to relieve the airborne, and there was no planning to allow for this very possible eventuality.
Given this, it's astounding in retrospect that the plans placed so little effort on capturing the important bridges immediately with forces dropped right on them. In the case of Veghel and Grave, where this was done, the bridges were captured with only a few shots being fired. There seems little reason to suspect the same wouldn't have been true of Arnhem and Nijmegen, but with the troops over an hour's march away, or told to to other things, there was little hope of their success.
This is even more confusing when you consider the 1st para-landing troops. They were to land along with the glider-landing forces to secure the drop zone. This makes little sense considering that it was up to the glider forces to hold the zone, and the paratroops were going to pick up and walk off emmediately anyway. There's simply no reason they couldn't have been dropped right on the south side of the bridge.
Just as baffling is the end-game actions on the part of 30 Corp. Although Frost's force was likely lost under any circumstance, Arnhem was not the only available bridge. At a minimum had they pushed north they would have arrived at the south end and secured it, leaving the way open for another crossing to the north at some other point. There was the smaller possibility of arriving with Frost's force intact. This "lack of guts" on the part of the GA is odd.
The commander of 30 Corp asked for another course of action. About 25km to the west of the action was another bridge similar to Arnhem, at Rhenen, which he predicted was undefended due to all efforts being directed on Oosterbeek. In fact this was the case, and had the GA dashed over, it is almost certain they would have crossed unopposed and fell onto the rear of the German lines on the west of Oosterbeek. However by this time it appears Montgomery was spooked by the continued resistance of the German forces and refused to take the chance.
In the end Montgomery still called Market Garden 90% successful and said:
In my prejudiced view, if the operation had been properly backed from its inception, and given the aircraft, ground forces, and administrative resources necessary for the job, it would have succeeded in spite of my mistakes, or the adverse weather, or the presence of the 2nd SS Panzer Corps in the Arnhem area. I remain Market Garden's unrepentant advocate.
The story of Operation Market Garden is, among others, told in the Cornelius Ryan novel A Bridge Too Far and its subsequent film adaptation by Richard Attenborough.
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- Second Battle of El Alamein took place October 23 to November 3, 1942. Following the First Battle of El Alamein which had stalled the Axis advance British
General Bernard Montgomery took command of the Eighth Army from Claude Auchinleck in August 1942. Success in the battle turned the tide in the North African campaign.
The British Plan
With Operation Lightfoot, following a massive build-up of forces, Montgomery hoped to cut two corridors through the Axis minefields in the north. Armour would then pass through and defeat the German armour. diversionary attacks in the south would keep the rest of the Axis forces from moving northwards. Montgomery expected a twelve-day battle in three stages - "The break-in, the dog-fight and the final break of the enemy."
The British practised a number of deceptions in the months prior to the battle to wrong-foot the Axis command not only as to the exact whereabouts of the forthcoming battle, but as to when the battle was likely to occur. This operation was codenamed "Operation Bertram". A dummy pipeline was built, stage by stage, the construction of which would lead the Axis to believe the attack would occur much later than it in fact did, and much further south. To further the illusion, dummy tanks made of plywood frames placed over jeeps were constructed and deployed in the south. In a reverse feint, the tanks for battle in the north were disguised as supply lorries by placing a removable plywood superstructure over them.
The Axis were dug-in along two lines, called by the Allies the Oxalic Line and the Pierson Line. They had laid around half a million mines, mainly anti-tank.
The battle opened at 2140 hours on October 23 with an sustained artillery barrage. The initial objective was the Oxalic Line with the armour intending to advance over this and on to the Pierson Line. However the minefields were not yet fully cleared when the assault began.
On the first day the assault to create the northern corridor fell three miles short of the Pierson line. While further south they had made better progress but were stalled at the Miteirya Ridge.
On October 24 the Axis commander General Stumme died of a heart-attack and General Ritta von Thoma took command of the Axis forces, while Rommel was ordered to return to Africa, arriving on October 25.
For the Allies in the south, after another abortive assault on the Miteirya Ridge, the attack was abandoned. Montgomery switched the focus of the attack to the north. There was a successful night attack over the 25-26th. The Axis counter-attack failed. The Allies had lost 6,200 men against Axis losses of 2,500, but while Rommel had only 370 tanks fit for action Montgomery still had over 900.
Montgomery felt the the offensive was losing momentum and decided to regroup. There were a number of small actions but by October 29 the Axis line was still intact. Montgomery was still confident and prepared his forces for Operation Supercharge. The endless small operations and the attrition of the Allied airforce had by then reduced Rommel's effective tank strength to only 102.
The second major Allied offensive of the battle was along the coast, initially to capture the Rahman Track and then take the high ground at Tel el Aqqaqir. The attack began on November 2 1942. By the 3rd Rommel had only 35 tanks fit for action, despite containing the British advance, the pressure on his forces made a retreat necessary. However the same day Rommel received a "Victory or Death" message from Adolf Hitler, halting the withdrawal. But the Allied pressure was too great and the German forces had to withdraw on the night of November 3-4. By November 6 the Axis forces were in full retreat and over 30,000 soldiers had surrendered.
The battle was Montgomery's greatest triumph. He took the name "Lord Montgomery of Alamein" when he was raised to the peerage. The success of his plan led Montgomery to prefer overwhelming superiority in all his subsequent battles, leading to a reputation, with some, for being overcautiousness.
The Torch landings in Morocco later that month marked the effective end of the Axis threat in north Africa.
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- The Battle of Monte Cassino iwas, in fact, a desperate and costly series of battles fought by the Allies during January and February of 1944 with the intention of liberating and linking up with allies contained within the Anzio pocket. The eventual connection of the forces was to lead to the capture of Rome on June 4th 1944.
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- The Battle of Ardennes (1944) (a.k.a. Battle of the Bulge.) was the last major German offensive on the western front in World War II.
Beginning on December 16, 1944, the German forces attacked through the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. The German plan for the "von Rundstedt Offensive" was to split the Allied advance and then cut nortwards to seize Antwerp. The territory was heavily forested and mountainous, there appeared little chance of an armoured assault in this sector. The battle started in very poor weather, this grounded Allied aircraft and greatly aided the German advance.
The first few days were vital, and although many American troops were over-run or surrendered, unexpectedly strong resistance in certain areas greatly slowed the German advance.
On December 21 the German forces had completely surrounded Bastogne, defended by the 101st Airborne Division. When General Anthony McAuliffe was awakened by a German invitation to surrender, he gave a one-syllable reply that has been variously reported and was probably unprintable. However, there is no disagreement as to what he wrote on the paper delivered to the Germans: "NUTS!" That reply had to be explained both to the Germans and to non-American Allies.
By December 24 the German advance was effectively stalled short of the Meuse River, they had outrun their supply lines, and shortages of fuel and ammunition were becoming critical. Improving weather brought the massive Allied air superiority back into play. The Germans retreated from Bastogne on January 13.
The battle officially ended on January 27, 1945.
The Americans lost 75,522 men (killed, wounded, missing or captured), the British lost 1,408 and the Germans lost 67,675 men.
The German losses were critical in reducing the length of the war, vital and irreplaceable men and equipment had been wasted in a few weeks.
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- Battle of Britain - A major conflict of World War II, the Battle of Britain covers the attempts of the German Luftwaffe to gain control of British airspace and destroy the Royal Air Force (RAF), and, later to demoralise the British population in the hope of either obtaining neutrality or, if that did not occur, make possible the invasion of Britain through the English Channel.
The Battle of Britain began on August 1940. After the French collapsed under the Blitzkrieg and surrendered in June, the Germans were not exactly sure what to do next. Adolf Hitler (and the German people) believed the war was over and the Britons would come to terms very soon. Patriotic myth states that stubborn as they are, Albion refused to give in. In reality there was a considerable section of the public and politicians who believed it was time to negotiate with Hitler. Winston Churchill, however, was the master of the Cabinet and would not countenance peace, putting Lord Halifax (one of the pro-peace members of the Cabinet) on the air to reject Hitler's terms.
More direct measures were thought of, but it was not until July that an invasion plan was prepared by the OKW (Armed Forces High Command). The operation, code-named Seelöwe (Sea-Lion), planned for an invasion sometime in mid-September. The plan called for landings in the Dover area, first with two airborne divisions, and then with another nine delivered by sea. All preparations were supposed to be made by mid-June to late-August.
Much of the plan relied on makeshift solutions, including the use of river barges as troop transports, and using discarded aircraft engines for motorizing them. Others were better thought out, like swimming tanks or using snorkels on the heavier tanks so they could be landed further out on sea and march to land on the seabed.
Hindsight suggests that the entire operation was not seriously planned with actual execution in mind, especially when compared to the careful planning of Operation Barbarossa. Regardless it was patently impossible to prepare for the in two months. Indeed Churchill did not take the invasion threat seriously, sending troops to Africa in the summer of 1940, but he was concerned over the potential air threat and energetic in securing resources for the RAF.
But before Seelöwe could begin the Luftwaffe had to destroy the British RAF -- otherwise the ships for the sea invasion would have been destroyed by British aircraft. Thus a plan was hatched to directly attack the RAF airfields and aircraft production centers, Göring called his plans Adlerangriff (Eagle Attack), beginning on August 11 with Adlertag (Eagle Day). But even before this there was to be a month of attacks on Channel convoys and the RAF out over the water. This period of fighting was called Kanalkampf by the Germans.
The British were fully aware of the German goals, strategy, and often even tactics due to their ability to read the German Enigma cypher, which was used for most high-security German military radio communications. This fact, not revealed until the 1970s, was crucial in forming British tactics. They had also killed or turned all German agents in Britain.
The Germans didn't keep using any single strategy, even when it was on the verge of defeating the RAF largely because they didn't have any real idea of its success, but also because Hitler's style encouraged competing interests in the High Command to try their pet theories in tactics.
The Battle can be crudely divided into four sections:
- July - August 11: Kanalkampf
- August 12 - August 24: Adlerangriff
- August 25 - September 6: German's attack RAF planes and airfields almost exclusively. The critical period of the battle
- September 7 onwards: London and other major cities are bombed.
Adlertag began with the Luftwaffe bombing ports, airfields, aircraft industries, radar installations, etc. Over the course of the next weeks, they flew 12,039 sorties and dropped over 11,000 tons of high explosive bombs and over 616 tons of incendiary bombs.
At first, the main targets for the German Luftwaffe were radar installations and airports, in an attempt to destroy (either on the ground, or in the air defending the ground targets) or render useless the British fighter planes.
The attacks against the radar installations were not seen as very successful, and appears that Göring continued to underestimate the value of the radar to the RAF, and so eventually called off attacks on the stations. In fact the radar was absolutely vital to the RAF and the attacks were generally succeeding -- a fact the RAF masked with a successful deception campaign. Attacks on the airbases and factories were also successful, but it was largely impossible for the Luftwaffe to assess the damage on these inland targets.
Thanks to radar and the intelligence from the decoded Enigma messages the RAF reacted very effectively to the German raids. Hugh Dowding's communications and infrastructure linking radar and other information sources to the decision makers was arguably as important as radar. Rather than sending up large numbers of fighters to meet German raids (and thus running the risk of of having all the planes on the ground for refuelling and repairs when another raid arrives), British commanders (such as Keith Park of 11 Group) ordered that only a very few fighters up to meet each raid, harassing the German bombers enough to make accurate bombing very difficult and causing far more British losses than German.
Despite the success of Dowding's measured response, soon after the Battle of Britain some proponents of the Big Wing theory would complain that large numbers of RAF fighters should have been gathered together to strike German attacks with greater force. Because the reasons behind their strategy, the Enigma decrypts, were still secret, Dowding and Park could not defend their actions as they needed to, and were given much lower positions, Keith Park eventually climbing back to lead Malta's air strategy.
Both sides suffered horribly, but British pilot losses were smaller since most of the fights were fought over British soil, whereas every German crew that had to bail out was lost to the German war effort. Also J.M. Mitchell had designed the Spitfire with a lot of thought for pilot safety when attacked.
Thanks to the seemingly endless numbers of planes the Germans had at their disposal, the Fighter Command began to lose this battle of attrition. This remained largely unknown to the Luftwaffe, which was growing desperate to deliver on the original timetable. What they could see is that for some reason the RAF always had at least a small number of planes to attack with, no matter how many times they sent in a raids. Something needed to be done to force the RAF to commit all of their planes -- or so they thought.
One thing that was sure to force their hand would be to attack a large, very public target. That target was London. The first such raid on 7th of September was intended as revenge for the British attack on Berlin on 25th/26th August, which in turn was a response to a German bomber accidentally dropping bombs on London. Although the docks of London were the main target attacked, the British suffered 448 dead and more than 1,300 wounded.
Together with the change of targets came a change in strategy. The success in the Battle of Britain was no longer seen as prerequisite for Seelöwe, but was meant to be decisive in itself. Goering believed that the British would surrender as soon as the RAF was beaten.
On 16th of September the Germans estimated British fighter strength to be no more than 300 planes, when they actually had 572 Spitfires and Hurricanes. What was even less clear was that switching off of the airfields would allow the RAF to work on their aircraft and allow their pilots rest.
But without a doubt the most damaging aspect of the switch to London was the ranges involved. By the time the German fighters arrived over the city, they were already so low on fuel as to have to turn home. This left all too many raids completely undefended as their fighters turned for home after minor combat on the way to target.
The result was a series of disastrous raids. On September 19th Operation Seelöwe was postponed indefinitely. But the battle of Britain was not over. From October 1940 until the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, almost 40,000 additional sorties were flown and more than 38,000 tons of high explosive bombs and more than 3,500 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped. Between August and September the RAF stated German losses at 1600 aircraft destroyed and over 500 probables, however despite most of the fighting occurring over land only 315 wrecks were identified. British Fighter Command lost between 900 and 1900 Hurricanes and Spitfires (depending on which figures you care to believe).
Overall the Battle of Britain was a British victory, although on a small scale compared to later battles it was significant, especially in increasing American anti-Nazi opinion. Although the Germans came very close to beating the RAF and thus setting the prerequisites for Seelöwe, the switch to terror strategy allowed the RAF to recuperate and to defend against the attacks. The terror strategy in itself could not force the British to surrender. Even though the Germans launched some spectacular attacks against important British industries, they could not destroy the British industrial potential.
Total British civilian losses from July to December 1940 were 23,002 dead and 32,138 wounded.
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- Battle of Hurtgen Forest is name given to series of battles fought in the Hurtgen Forest, afterwards known to both Americans and Germans simply as the Hurtgenwald. The American High Command was flush with success after the breakout at Normandy and the race to Germany, and therefore overconfident. The battles took place between September 13, 1944, through February 10, 1945, in a corridor barely 50 square miles on the border of Germany. They were characterized by the American High Command not recognizing the true objectives of the forest, the dams that controlled the height of the Roer River, until December. Had the Germans blown the dams, they could have flooded a region far to the south, delaying American advances. Multiple divisions were sent in, only to be wrecked and replaced by still more divisions. Air, artillery, and armor, all advantages of the Americans at this time were nullified because of the terrain, and the Germans were happy to delay the much stronger force using smaller numbers and good defensive positions.
- "For us the Hurtgen was one of the most costly, most unproductive, and most ill-advised battles that our army has ever fought." --Gen. James Gavin, Commander, 82nd Airborne Division, 1944-1945
- "The German Command could not understand the reason for the strong American attacks in the Hurtgen Forest...the fighting in the wooded area denied the American troops the advantages offered them by their air and armored forces, the superiority of which had been decisive in all the battles waged before." -- Generalmajor von Gersdorff, Chief of Staff, German 7th Army, 1944-1945
"The forest up there was a helluva eerie place to fight...Show me a man who went through the battle...and who says he never had a feeling of fear, and I'll show you a liar. You can't get all of the dead because you can't find them, and they stay there to remind the guys advancing as to what might hit them. You can't get protection. You can't see...Artillery slashes the trees like a scythe. Everything is tangled. You can scarcely walk. Everybody is cold and wet, and the mixture of cold rain and sleet keeps falling. Then they jump off again, and soon there is only a handful of old men left." --T.Sgt. George Morgan, 1st Battalion, 22d Infantry
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- Battle of Leyte On 12 March 1944, the Joint Chiefs of Staff directed General MacArthur to plan an invasion of Mindanao, the southernmost island of the archipelago, starting on 15 November. The general responded in June with a two-phase operational plan which included the seizure of southern Mindanao on 25 October to serve as a staging area for a larger amphibious assault against Leyte three weeks later. Luzon, the largest island in the archipelago and the location of the headquarters for Japanese forces in the islands, would eventually have to be taken to secure the Philippines. However, Mindanao and Leyte had features that made them desirable, if not necessary, preliminary operations to the liberation of Luzon. For one, both islands were accessible. Generally exposed coastlines—Mindanao to the south and Leyte to the east—would allow American forces approaching from either direction to preserve uninterrupted lines of communication from recently secured bases. In contrast, an amphibious strike directly against Luzon in the northern Philippines would be more difficult to support. Second and critical to forces operating together for the first time, both islands were known to be defended by garrisons much smaller than that on Luzon. MacArthur's staff estimated Japanese combat strength on Mindanao to be 50,000 with another 50,000 in the Visayas, the central Philippine Islands which included Leyte. They estimated that Luzon had 180,000 defenders.
Preparation for the invasion of the Philippines was greatly assisted by ULTRA, the Allied top secret interception, decryption, and dissemination program against Japanese radio traffic.
The campaign for Leyte cost American forces a total of 15,584 casualties, of which 3,504 were killed in action. In their failed defense of Leyte, the Japanese lost an estimated 49,000 troops, most of them combat forces. Although General Yamashita still had some 250,000 troops on Luzon, the additional loss of air and naval support at Leyte so narrowed his options that he now had to fight a defensive, almost passive, battle of attrition on Luzon, clearly the largest and most important island in the Philippines. In effect, once the decisive battle of Leyte was lost, the Japanese themselves gave up all hope of retaining the Philippines, conceding to the Allies in the process a critical bastion from which Japan could be easily cut off from her resources in the East Indies and from which the final assaults on the Japanese home islands could be launched.
The campaign for Leyte proved the first and most decisive operation in the American reconquest of the Philippines. The Japanese invested heavily in Leyte, and lost. The campaign cost their army four divisions and several separate combat units, while the navy lost twenty-six major warships, and forty-six large transports and merchantmen. The struggle also reduced Japanese land-based air capability in the Philippines by more than 50 percent, forcing them to depend on suicidal kamikaze pilots.
In the end the Japanese decision to stake everything on the battle for Leyte only hastened their final collapse as they lacked the ability to coordinate the mass of air, ground and naval forces that they committed to the struggle. Even before the fighting on Leyte ended, MacArthur's forces had moved on to invade Luzon and the rest of the Philippines, thereby consolidating their hold on this former Japanese bastion and completing a final major step toward Japan itself.
Note: Quotes for The Battle of Leyte are taken from CMH (Center for Military History) Online
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- Battle of Peleliu Like the bloody World War II island campaigns before it, Peleliu was a fight to capture an airstrip on a speck of coral in the western Pacific. And, as with previous island battles, the Americans would prevail, but at a higher cost than anticipated, against the determined resistance of the Japanse forces.
By the summer of 1944 victories in the Southwest and Central Pacific had brought the war even closer to Japan, with American bombers now able to strike at the Japanese homeland itself. But there was disagreement by the U.S. Joint Chiefs over two proposed strategies to crush the Japanese Empire. One strategy proposed by General Douglas MacArthur called for the recapture of the Philippines, followed by the capture of Okinawa then Formosa for an attack at the Chinese mainland. From there, the eventual invasion of Japan would come. Admiral Chester Nimitz, on the other hand, favored a more direct strategy of bypassing the Philippines, but seizing Okinawa and Formosa as staging areas for the future invasion of Japan's southernmost islands.
As for Peleliu, both commanders' strategies included the invasion of this island, but for different reasons, and the 1st Marine Division had already been chosen to make the assault. To settle this dispute, President Franklin Roosevelt traveled to Pearl Harbor to meet personally with both commanders and hear their respective arguments. After a review of both positions, MacArthur's strategy was chosen. However, before MacArthur could retake the Philippines, the Palau Islands - Peleliu specifically, would have to be neutralized to protect his right flank. What followed would be a ferocious battle lasting more than two months and costing over 12,000 lives.
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- TheBattle of Okinawa fought on the island of Okinawa in the Ryukuku Islands was the largest amphibious assault during the Pacific campaign of World War II. The official name for the Okinawa campaign was Operation ICEBERG. The attack on Okinawa marked the entrance of the United States upon an advanced stage in the long execution of its strategy in the Pacific. Some 4,000 miles of ocean, and more than three years of war, separated Okinawa from Pearl Harbor. In 1942 and 1943 the Americans had contained the enemy and thrown him back; in 1944 their attack gathered momentum, and a series of fierce island campaigns carried them toward the Japanese inner stronghold in great strides.
The casualty figures were extremely high and are reflected in the length of time (nearly 6 months, from early April 1945 until September 1945) which it took to take the island and obtain a surrender from the Japanese forces.
The price paid for Okinawa was dear. The final toll of American casualties was the highest experienced in any campaign against the Japanese. Total American battle casualties were 49,151, of which 12,520 were killed or missing and 36,631 wounded. Army losses were 4,582 killed, 93 missing, and 18,ogg wounded; Marine losses, including those of the Tactical Air Force, were 2,938 killed and missing and 13,708 wounded; Navy casualties totaled 4,907 killed and missing and 4,824 wounded. Nonbattle casualties during the campaign amounted to 15,613 for the Army and 10,598 for the Marines. The losses in ships were 36 sunk and 368 damaged, most of them as a result of air action. Losses in the air were 763 planes from 1 April to 1 July.
The high cost of the victory was due to the fact that the battle had been fought against a capably led Japanese army of greater strength than anticipated, over difficult terrain heavily and expertly fortified, and thousands of miles from home. The campaign had lasted considerably longer than was expected. But Americans had demonstrated again on Okinawa that they could, ultimately, wrest from the Japanese whatever ground they wanted.
The cost of the battle to the Japanese was even higher than to the Americans. Approximately 110,000 of the enemy lost their lives in the attempt to hold Okinawa, and 7,400 more were taken prisoners. The enemy lost 7,800 airplanes, 16 ships sunk, and 4 ships damaged. More important, the Japanese lost 640 square miles of territory within 350 miles of Kyushu.
The military value of Okinawa exceeded all hope. It was sufficiently large to mount great numbers of troops; it provided numerous airfield sites close to the enemy's homeland; and it furnished fleet anchorage helping the Navy to keep in action at Japan's doors. As soon as the fighting ended, American forces on Okinawa set themselves to preparing for the battles on the main islands of Japan, their thoughts sober as they remembered the bitter bloodshed behind and also envisioned an even more desperate struggle to come.
The sequel to Okinawa, however, was contrary to all expectation. In the midst of feverish preparations on the island in August 1945, with the day for the assault on Kyushu drawing near, there came the almost unbelievable and joyous news that the war was over. The battle of Okinawa was the last of World War II.
Note: Quotes for The Battle of Okinawa are taken from CMH (Center for Military History) Online
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- Battle of Lugou Bridge is well known among Chinese as Incident of July 7, Lugouqiao Incident or July 7 Lugouqiao. Note: All Chinese and Japanese personal names here are preceded by family names.
On July 7 1937, the Japanese Imperial Army attacked the bridge. Despite determined resistance by KMT forces, Japanese army managed to take the bridge and eventually Beijing which was abandoned by KMT.
The battle officially marked Japanese large scale invasion of China, and is often considered to be the start of the second Sino-Japanese War. With the Japanese victory its Imperial Army could move on to the North China Plain (north of Huang he) without much resistance since their tanks were formidable against the low-tech Chinese armies (KMT and CCP).
Prelude to Battle
After the Incident of September 18 in 1931, Japan had occupied Manchuria and had created an nominally independent state of Manchukuo with Ai-xin-jue-luo Pu-yi (the last emperor of China) as its sovereign. That state is widely regarded to have been a puppet government with real power concentrated in the hands of the Japanese, which constituted the only significant military forces in Manchuria. Although the Kuomintang and the international community refused to recognize the legality of the Japanese occupation, a truce had been negotiated in 1931.
At the end of 1932, Japanese Guandong Army invaded Chahaer Province. (KMT's 29th Army, lead by General Song Zhe Yuan and armed only with spears and obsolete rifles, resisted the aggression, resulting in the War of Resistance at the Great Wall. The province fell to the Japanese after the predictable victory therefore areas to the west of Beijing fell to the Japanese.
In 1933, Japan annexed Rehe Province using the security of Manzhouguo as a pretext. Consequently all areas north of the Great wall and hence north of Beijing fell to Japan. In 1935, Japan annexed eastern portion of Hebei Province, established yet another puppet government, Eastern Ji Anticommunist Automated Government. Later that year, Ho Ying Qin and Umemura mirou signed an agreement, known as the Ho-Umemura Agreement by which the Japanese could deploy troops around Beijing at will. As a result at the start of 1937, Beijing was surrounded at north, west and east by areas occupied by Japanese.
Japanese installations of various puppet governments were deliberate attempts to annex whole country of China by nibbling. The puppet government at Nanjing with Wang Jingwei as head was another obvious example.
Geography around the bridge and Beijing
Beijing locates on the Yen Mountain which is the only highlands north of the North China Plain.
Lugou Bridge locates in Fengtai, a suburb area south of Beijing. It is also known as the Marco Polo Bridge because the bridge was believed to be described in the works of Marco Polo.)
4 strategic posts secured Beijing from outside the city.
East of the city: Tongzhou Town
Northwest: Nankou Town at Changping Prefecture
South: Fengtai Town
Southwest: Lugou Bridge at Wanping Prefecture where Wanping Town was located. The bridge was the choke-point of Pinghan Railway (Beijing-Wuhan Railway) and guarded the only passage leading Beijing to KMT-controlled area from the south. Nanwan Town located between Wanping town and Beijing.
Before the start of the battle, all the first 3 posts were under Japanese control except the southwest. The west end of the bridge was controlled by the Japanese as the east by KMT. If the bridge fell, the city will be completely cut off and easily captured.
China: At this time of the war, the Chinese armies (KMT and CCP) were mostly infantry equipped with rifles, spears and sabres. Some soldiers were recruited from peasants and local gangsters, thus well under trained and equipped compared to the Japanese Imperial Army. Outnumbering the enemy and exploiting the battlefield landscape to their advantages had been their only ways to defeat the enemy.
Japan: Subduing the cities guaranteed the fall of the north of Huang he portion of the North China Plain since the Japanese mechanised divisions were formidable against the Chinese armies which had virtually no aircrafts and any anti-tank weaponry.
The 29th Army, composed mostly of Feng yu xiang's forces and infantry, secured the cities of Beijing and Tianjin and the Hebei Province.
The Japanese Guandong Army at the region was a combination of infantry, tanks, mechanized forces, artilleries and cavalries.
same as Phase I except 132th was moved to garrison Nanwan Town which is between Wanping Town and Beijing.
3th Division of Guandong Army from Chahaer Province and 15(9?)th Division from Manchuria and troops from Phase I were all commanded by General Hashimoto. Strength of Japanese Army sharply increased from around 1000 to around 3000. 34th(?) Army of Guandong army was on its way from Manchuria and Korea.
Course of the Battle
Beginning late June 1937, the Japanese army (several hundreds) deployed at the west end of the bridge was practising while Kuomintang forces, garrisoned in Wanping Town, watched closely. At dawn of July 7, the Japanese army telegraphed the KMT forces saying that a soldier was missing and believed to be hiding inside the town. The Japanese demanded that its army should enter the town to search for the missing soldier, who was later found unharmed. There are some disputes among historians over the incident with some historians believing that this was an unintentional accident while others believing that the entire incident was fabricated by the Kwantung Army in order to provide a pretext for the invasion of central China.
Colonel Ji denied the request backed by his superior, General Song. In the evening of July 7, Matsui gave Ji an ultimatum that KMT troops must let Japanese troops enter the town within the next hour or the town will be fired. Nevertheless Japanese artillery had already aimed at the town when the ultimatum was sent. At midnight July 8, Japanese artillery units started bombarding the town while the infantry with tanks matched across the bridge at dawn. With order from Song, Ji led the KMT forces of about 1000 to defend at all cost. The Japanese army partially overran the bridge and vicinity in the afternoon. KMT force, after reinforcement by nearby units, outnumbered the Japanese and retook it completely next day. Japanese army then halted the attack and offered negotiation, marking the end of Phase I. Nevertheless Japanese army still concentrated at the west end of the bridge.
During the meeting of all senior (KMT officers in Beijing on July 12, Qin insisted that KMT forces must remain defending and resisted any temptation of negotiating with the Japanese whom he did not trust. Zhang in turn argued the incident on July 7 could still be settled by negotiation. Song then sent Zhang as KMT representative to Tianjin to meet General Hashimoto, the commander of all Japanese forces around the cities of Beijing and Tianjin and in Chahaer and Rehe Provinces.
At the beginning Hashimoto told Zhang that the Japanese hoped the incident on July 7 to be settled peacefully. Zhang was encouraged by his friendly gesture and telegraphed Song that any increasedKMT forces concentration around Beijing would be viewed as an escalation and angered the Japanese. However Song thought Hashimoto was only buying time since he received various reconnaissance reports indicating increasing accumulation of Japanese forces from Manchuria and Korea around Beijing. As the recent Chinese victory relied on outnumbering the opponent, he transferred Zhao's 132th accompanied with Qin to station at Nanwan Town which was between the bridge and Beijing to keep up the pressure from concentration of Japanese forces. Similar to most KMT and CCP, 29th Army was under equipped with only rifles with respect to better armed, trained and commanded Japanese troops whose tanks the Chinese armies stiil did not have any weapon (like mortars) capable of destroying them.
On July 31 (end of the month), Japanese promised not to invade Beijing and Tianjin upon agreement of all following terms:
1) KMT must wipe out all anti-Japanese organizations and halt all anti-Japanese activities inside the cities.
2) KMT must take all responsibilities of the incident on July 7.
3) Song, not any other inferior personnel of 29th Army, must apologize.
Zhang accepted the first term and the commander of the battalion under Ji's command will be relieved as an agreement to the second. However Zhang told Hashimoto that he could not decide on behalf of Song, thus cannot agree on the third term at the time. He then returned to Beijing. Hashimoto also hinted that the Japanese would prefer Zhang as the commander of KMT troops around the city. As soon as Zhang's departure, the Japanese launched full scale attack on Beijing.
On August 10, three days after Zhang heading for the city, the bridge and Wanping Town fell to the Japanese. Nanwan Town fell on next day with both divisions (37th and 132th) shattered. Zhao was mortally wounded on battlefield and Qin retreated with the remnants back to the city. In the evening after the fall of Nanwan Town, Zhang finally arrived (He had to pass through enemy lines to reach the city.). Several days after, Song relieved himself of all non-military posts and appointed Zhang to take his posts and Mayor of Beijing. Qin and Song then led 29th Army out of the city which was going to be encircled within hours and left Zhang with virtually no troops. Japanese armies enter the city on August 18 without much resistance and installed Zhang as mayor. However Zhang thought he was betrayed and left the city secretly a week later.
With the fall of Beijing on August 18 and Tianjin on 21st, the North Chain Plain was helpless against Japanese mechanized divisions who occupied it by the end of the year. Chinese armies (KMT and CCP) were on constant retreat until the hard fought Chinese victory at Tai er zhuang.
There are some disputes among historians over KMT handling of Japanese troops approaching Beijing with some historians believing that Zhang and Song intentionally cooperate secretly with Zhang appointment of non-military posts in Beijing. Song and Qin can then safely retreat from the city to keep the fighting ability of 29th Army. Others believed that the Japanese completely sold Zhang out as the Japanese still invaded the cities even though KMG agreed all terms. Zhang was vilified relentlessly by the Chinese media, some of which (like the Shanghai Daily) reviled him as the traitor of the country. Upon arrival at Nanjing he apologized publicly. Since he later died fighting against the Japanese, Zhang was pardoned for his activities in Beijing by KMT
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- The Battle of Hundred Regiments also known as the Hundred Regiments Offensive was a major engagement of China's People's Liberation Army commanded by Peng Dehuai against the Japanese Imperial Army in Central China in August and September, 1940.
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- The Battle of the River Plate (December 13, 1939) resulted in the eventual sinking of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee by scuttling, ending her successful three-month campaign against British merchant shipping.
The British light cruisers Ajax, Exeter and Achilles engaged the battleship close to the estuary of the River Plate between Argentina and Uruguay. Following intense gunnery action where the battleship had the advantage of longer range guns, while the British were able to divide fire, the Graf Spee eventually headed for Montevideo harbour in Uruguay.
Intense negotiations were undertaken, Uruguay being neutral. Rather than face internment or risk being destroyed in further action, Captain Langsdorff of the Graf Spee was given instructions from Hitler to scuttle her in the Rio Plata estuary (December 17).
The prisoners taken by the Graf Spee prior to her sinking of enemy ships were transferred to her German supply ship Altmark, from which they were freed (February 16, 1940) by a boarding party from the British destroyer Cossack while in Jøssingfjord, in neutral Norwegian waters.
A film of the battle and the Graf Spee's end entitled The Battle of the River Plate (US Title: Pursuit of the Graf Spee) is regularly shown on television.
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- The Battle of Midway was fought in World War II and took place on June 4, 1942. The United States fended off a Japanese attack on its fleet, marking a turning point in the war in the Pacific theatre.
Fought just a month after the Battle of the Coral Sea, Midway was the classic carrier battle, in which skill, daring, and luck all played a part. The attack on the island of Midway, which also included a feint to Alaska by a smaller fleet, was a ploy by the Japanese to draw the American carrier fleet into a trap. With the American carriers destroyed, the Japanese hoped to invade Hawaii.
At dawn on June 4, Japanese carrier aircraft bombed and heavily damaged the base on Midway. U.S. carrier forces had the advantage of knowing, through decryption of Japanese communications, what the enemy was up to. When the Japanese aircraft returned to their carriers, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo decided to re-arm them with bombs for a second strike at Midway. They were to attack Admiral Raymond Spruance's carrier group, which had at last been detected and was rapidly approaching. With torpedoes and bombs stacked and fuel hoses snaked across their decks, the Japanese carriers made vulnerable and highly volatile targets. The Japanese had no chance by this time.
Spruance immediately launched an attack from the carriers USS Enterprise and USS Hornet. Anti-aircraft fire and fighters shot down 35 of 41 torpedo bombers, but this action brought the Zeros down so low that the American dive-bombers could attack almost without opposition. Five minutes later three Japanese carriers, the Akagi, Kaga and Soryu, were ablaze, abandoned, or crippled.
Aircraft from the Japanese carrier Hiryu struck the USS Yorktown, which survived this and a second attack, only to be sunk by a Japanese submarine on June 7. Aircraft from the Enterprise in turn attacked the Hiryu and set her ablaze. Having scored a decisive victory, American forces retired. The loss of four carriers stopped the expansion of the Japanese empire in the Pacific and put Japan on the defensive. It had been six months to the day since the attack on Pearl Harbor, vindicating Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in a way he cannot have welcomed. Yamamoto had predicted that Japan could prevail for only six months to a year against the Allies.
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- The Battle of Pearl Harbor occurred on December 7, 1941. Planes of the Japanese Navy attacked the American naval base and Army air field at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii. Eighteen ships were sunk or damaged, and around 2400 Americans lost their lives. The Japanese suffered minimal casualties.
The Japanese deployed six aircraft carriers for the attack, Akagi, Hiryu, Kaga, Shokaku, Soryu, Zuikaku, with a total of 441 planes, including fighters, torpedo-bombers, dive-bombers, and fighter-bombers. Of these, 55 were lost during the battle.
The Japanese planes bombed the US Army air base at Hickham Field and the ships anchored in Battleship Row. The American battleship USS Arizona was sunk with a loss of 1100 men, nearly half of the American dead. Seven other battleships and twelve other ships were sunk or damaged.
This, like the Battle of Lexington and Concord, was a comparatively minor battle that had history-altering consequences. It drew the United States into World War II and led to the demise of the Japanese Empire and Nazi Germany as well. America's ultimate victory in this war and its emergence as a world power has shaped international politics ever since.
The purpose of the attack on Pearl Harbor was to neutralize American naval power in the Pacific. The Japanese wanted license to do as they pleased in the Pacific and Asia, and thought they could get this by eliminating American influence. Specifically, Japan had been embroiled in a war with China which had come to a stalemate after many years of fighting. Japan thought by cutting China off from American (as well as British) aid, China would be weakened, and the stalemate could be broken. Japan also knew that American naval power could not be neutralized indefinitely, but thought that by dealing it a heavy blow at Pearl Harbor, the American Navy could be neutralized long enough for Japan to achieve its objectives in Asia and the Pacific.
In terms of its strategic objectives, the attack on Pearl Harbor must be viewed as a complete failure. In the first place, the main Japanese target was the three American aircraft carriers stationed in the Pacific, but these were not in Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack and escaped unharmed.
Whether it was even possible to achieve these objectives, while half the American fleet (including three more aircraft carriers) was stationed in the Atlantic and therefore quite safe, is debatable. What is certain is that on December 8, 1941, the American Navy remained perfectly capable of operations in the Pacific and a major obstacle to the designs of the Japanese government.
Furthermore, although the Japanese forces inexplicably did not consider them an important target, the base also had large fuel oil storage facilities and a successful bombing of them could not only have resulted in massive fires that could have devastated the base, but it would have also have crippled much of the Pacific Fleet by robbing them of a major fuel supply and fueling center thousands of miles from the mainland.
A related question is why Nazi Germany declared war on the United States December 8, 1941 immediately following the Japanese attack. This doubly outraged the American public and allowed the United States to greatly step up its support of England while recovering from the setback in the Pacific.
Despite the perception of this battle as a devastating blow to America, only three ships were permanently lost to the Navy. These were the battleships USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, and USS Utah. Five ships that were sunk during the attack were later raised and returned to duty. Of the 22 Japanese ships that took part in the attack, only one was to survive the war.
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- Battle of Guadalcanal - Guadalcanal is a ten square mile island in the Soloman Island chain, and largely jungle. It was discovered in 1568 by the Spanish but it was part of the British Empire when the Japanese occupied it early in WWII. The U.S. forces chose this as their first major large-scale invasion of a Japanese held island. Guadalcanal was a major turning point in the war. Many ships were sunk (on both sides), but Japan was forced to retreat. It is said that prior to Guadalcanal, the Japanese had always advanced against the US, yet following the battle, they always retreated.
The battle hinged around the airfield which the Americans named Henderson Field, a muddy airstrip hanging onto the edge of the island. It was considered "an unsinkable aircraft carrier". Fighting started on 7th August, 1942 when 11,000 Marines landed at Lunga Point and ended in U.S. victory on 8th February, 1943. There were 24,000 Japanese casualties and 6,000 American.
There were six major naval battles around the island - Savo on 9th August, Eastern Solomons on 24th August, Cape of Hope/Esperance on 11th-12th Sepetember, Santa Cruz Island on 26th and 28th October, Guadalcanal on 12th-13th November and Tassafaronga on 30th November. The Americans lost two aircraft carriers, eight cruisers and fourteen destroyers.
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- Bombing of Dresden Dresden, the capital of the German state of Saxony, was fire-bombed by Allied air forces (the British RAF and the USAAF) over three days (February 13-15, 1945) near the end of World War II.
It was widely considered a city of little war-related industrial or strategic importance. Dresden itself was most noted as a cultural centre, with noted architecture in the Zwinger Palace, the Dresden State Opera House and its historic churches. It has been claimed that the bombing was at the request of Russia, to attack a German armoured division in transit through the city.
The fire-bombing consisted of dropping large amounts of high-explosive to expose the timbers within buildings, followed by incendiary devices (fire-sticks) to ignite them and then more high-explosive to hamper the efforts of the fire services. This eventually created a self-sustaining 'fire storm' with temperatures peaking at over 1500 degrees C.
Although precise numbers are difficult to attain, documentation of the rescue operations puts the number of dead at about 25,000. Larger numbers seem to derive from claims by Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, he added a 0 to the numbers of bodies, cremated and estimated dead on the final report from the police. The accepted sources show some variation, and 35,000 or up to 50,000 are possible.
The Dresden bombing is a strongly debated decision, and the action is still widely perceived as lacking military justification, even within the context of the controversial area bombing policy pursued against Germany by Britain's Bomber Command in 1942-1945. The city has never regained its pre-war population of 630,000.
There are anecdotes of the pilots and crew having problems years later. Some had nightmares, some thought they would go to hell as war criminals, some had unshakable visions of the fires and the burning cities.
Author Kurt Vonnegut had been captured during the Battle of the Bulge and was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the bombing. He later wrote about his experiences and feelings in his novel Slaughterhouse Five. Until the publication of the novel, Allied authorities had been extremely reluctant to discuss the Dresden fire-bombing, lending credence to the rumors of casualties exceeding that of Hiroshima.
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- Battle of the Atlantic (1940) is the name given to the conflicts in the Atlantic ocean throughout World War II.
Britain, as an island nation, has always been highly dependent on sea-going trade. During WWII this was even more the case, and Britain needed to import over 1 million tons of supplies every week to be able to feed and equip its population and war machine.
The day that war was declared between Britain and Germany, the first action of the naval campaign started. British naval vessels dredged up and cut German transatlantic communication cables, forcing the Germans to communicate to their interests in the Americas by less secure means for the rest of the war.
The mining threat
Much of the early action by German forces involved mining convoy routes and ports around Britain. The U-boat fleet, which was to dominate so much of the battle of the Atlantic, was very small at the beginning of the war. Mines could be laid by boats, by aircraft, and also by submarines.
The mining was highly effective, and initially involved the use of contact mines, which meant that a ship had to physically strike one of the mines in order to detonate it. In most cases the mines were placed in "friendly" waters to defend against enemy ships and submarines, where they were suspended on the end of a rope or chain just below the surface of the water. By WWII most nations had also developed mines that could be dropped from aircraft, which could then be placed in enemy harbours although they simply floated on the surface. The use of dredging and nets was effective against this type of mine, but nonetheless was time-consuming, and involved the closing of harbors whilst it was completed.
Into this arena came a new mine threat. Most contact mines leave holes in ship's hulls, but some ships surviving mine blasts were limping back to port with buckled plates, popped rivets, and broken backs. This appeared to be due to a new type of mine that was detonating at a distance from the ships, and doing the damage with the shockwave of the explosion.
These mines were devastating; often ships that had successfully run the gauntlet of the Atlantic crossing were destroyed entering freshly mineswept harbors on Britain's coast. More shipping was now being lost than could be replaced, and Churchill ordered that the recovery, intact, of one of these new mines was to be given highest priority.
Then the British experienced a stroke of luck in November 1939. A German mine was dropped from an aircraft laying mines onto mud flats in the Thames estuary, well above the waterline. As if this was not sufficiently good fortune, the land happened to belong to the army, and a base, including men and workshops were close at hand.
Experts were quickly dispatched from London to investigate the mine. When they disarmed the mine they discovered a previously unknown type of detonator mechanism, so they had a good idea that they were on to one of the new mines. What they didn't realise at the time was that the safety pin on the mine had not been removed before it was dropped; another piece of incredible good fortune.
The mine was rushed to labs at Portsmouth, where scientists discovered a new type of arming mechanism inside. The arming mechanism had a sensitivity level that could be set, and the units on the scale were milligauss. Gauss is a measurement for the strength of a magnetic field, and so they knew why it went off before coming into contact with the ship.
By using the detector from the mine, they were able to study the effect of a ship passing over it. A ship, or any large ferrous object passing through the earth's magnetic field will concentrate the field at that point. The detector from the mine measured this effect, and was designed to go off at the mid-point of the ship passing overhead.
From this crucial data, methods were developed to clear the mines. Early methods included the use of large electromagnets dragged behind ships, or on the undersides of low-flying aircraft (a number of older bombers like the Vickers Wellington were used for this purpose). However both of these methods had the disadvantage of "sweeping" only a small strip at a time.
A better solution was found in the form of electrical cables dragged behind ships, passing a large current through the seawater. This induced a huge magnetic field and swept the entire area between the two ships. The older methods continued to be used in smaller areas, the Suez Canal continued to be swept by aircraft for instance.
While these methods were useful for clearing mines from local ports, they were of little or no use for enemy controlled areas. These were typically visited by warships only, and the majority of the fleet then underwent a massive de-gaussing process, where their magnetic fields were reduced to such a degree that it was no longer "noticed" by the mines. This started in late 1939, and by 1940 British warships were largely immune for the few months at a time until they once again built up a field. Many of the boats that sailed to Dunkirk were de-gaussed in a marathon four-day effort by hard-pressed de-gaussing stations.
The Germans had also developed a pressure-activated mine and planned to deploy it as well, but they saved it for later use when it became clear the British had beaten the magnetic system. They were then sown across likely invasion areas off the coast of France. This system had the disadvantage of requiring a periodic resetting of the trigger mechanism, so they were attached to chains and cables so they could be pulled to the surface and reset. Unlike the contact mine, however, in this case the mine lay on the ocean floor, and the cable ran to a float on the surface.
In 1944 General Erwin Rommel timed the resetting so that the mines would be at their best effectiveness during late April and into May - the best time for an allied invasion of France during the early summer. In June they were getting past the point of effectiveness and he ordered them pulled in for maintenance. The allies launched D-Day on June 6th, and the mines could not be replaced until it was too late.
The happy time
Prior to the war the admiral of the U-boats, Karl Doenitz, had advocated a system known as the wolfpack, in which teams of U-boats would gang up on convoys and simply overwhelm the defending warships accompanying them. He also developed a theory of destroying an enemy fleet, not by attacking their ships directly, but by cutting off their supplies so they could not be used - an economic war. In order to be effective he calculated that he would need 300 of the latest Atlantic Boats (the Type VII), which would create enough havoc among British shipping that she would be knocked out of the war.
However the U-boat was still looked upon by much of the naval world as a poor-man's weapon, and deliberately hunting merchant ships to be used only by cowards. This was true in the Kriegsmarine as well, and the Grand Admiral, Erich Raeder, successfully lobbied for monies to be spent on large capital ships instead. These were of even more dubious use considering the huge British fleet facing them, and even Raeder himself suggested they would be wiped out very quickly in the event of war.
Thus the U-boat fleet started the war consisting mainly of the short range Type II which was useful primarily for mine-laying and operations in and around the British coastal areas. They had neither the range nor the supplies to operate far from land, and as a result the RAF was able to counter the U-boats to some degree with standing patrols by Coastal Command aircraft. Early operations of aircraft against the U-boats were somewhat comical, but the crews gained experience quickly and the Western Approaches were soon cleared of the threat.
Meanwhile Royal Navy destroyers were being equipped with increasingly powerful sonar systems (known to the RN as ASDIC) and were able to block the exits into the North Sea and the Channel with some success. ASDIC was unable to find U-boats on the surface where they spend the vast majority of their time, but with aircraft cover forcing them underwater, running to the Atlantic could be a somewhat dangerous operation.
However with the fall of France the Kriegsmarine gained direct access to the Atlantic ocean. Huge fortified concrete ports for the U-boats were built, which resisted any successful bombing throughout the course of the war. Most of the U-boat fleet was moved to these bases where they also had excellent air cover, making it much harder for both the RAF and RN to do anything about it.
In addition the new Type VIIc design started arriving in large numbers in 1940. The VII was much more powerful than the Type II it replaced, including both a rapid-fire 88mm deck gun and four forward tubes. It also was much larger than the Type II, and could spend long times at sea, well away from land. Earlier VIIa and VIIb's had already reached service in small numbers, but the c was put into full production and eventually 585 of them would be delivered.
The Type VII dramatically increased the problems for the British. The boats would operate long distances from shore, meaning that they were well out of the range of land-based aircraft to harass them. The only counter was the Royal Navy's ships, but there were far too few of them to cover the vast amount of the sea that these boats operated in.
The RN had yet to institute the policy of convoys, primarily because it slows most of the boats down to the speed of the slowest member. The few Type VII's already delivered were able to escape into the Atlantic at night and then wait for ships to pass. They would then run on the surface and hunt down the scattered cargo ships with their gun. The early operations were spectacularly successful, and the U-boat crews were heroes to the people in the motherland. The crews referred to this as the 'happy time'.
The RN quickly introduced a convoy system which allowed them to concentrate their warships near the one place the U-boats were guaranteed to be found - the convoys. This had some effect, but not what they had hoped. The speed of these newer boats compared to their WWI counterparts meant that they could often run to the front of the convoy, wait for the convoy to sail into into torpedo range underwater, fire a salvo, and leave long before the escorts could get to them.
However the German effort also had problems of its own. Their torpedoes continued to fail with an alarming rate, and the director in charge of their development continued to claim it was the crews' fault. Eventually this came to a head when one U-boat ace shot three perfect hits into the side of the HMS Ark Royal, only to watch all three explode harmlessly far away from the ship's side. Scenes like this continued until the matter was finally taken to hand in April 1940, although it wasn't until early 1942 that the problems were completely addressed.
Another issue was finding the convoys in a very large ocean. The Germans had nowhere near the number of patrol boats or tracking stations needed to make accurate fixes from shore. Instead they had a small handful of very long range aircraft (namely the Fw 200 Condor) used as spotters. To this they added codebreaking efforts, which eventually succeeded in breaking the British Merchant Marine code book, allowing them to time the convoys as they left North America from Halifax, Nova Scotia.
But the primary source of tracking was the U-boats themselves. They were strung out in lines across the North Atlantic waiting for a passing convoy. When spotting one, they would radio the position back to Kriegsmarine headquarters, where a furious effort would break out to vector other U-boats onto the attack. As the numbers of U-boats and the proficiency of the headquarters grew, they were eventually able to consistently form the wolfpacks that Dönitz wanted.
At the same time a number of technical developments looked set to aid the Allies. Firstly, new depth charges were developed that fired in front of the destroyers rather than simply dropping them over the side as the destroyer passed over. The sonar contact was lost directly underneath the boat, and the U-boats often used this to escape. In addition, depth charges were fired in patterns, to 'box' the enemy in with explosions. The shockwaves would then destroy the U-boat by crushing it in the middle of these explosions. A device used to achieve this was called Hedge-hog, a nick-name derived from the firing spindles. This fired twelve charges at precisely timed and angle trajectories to hit a point in front of the ship.
Aircraft ranges were also improving all the time, but the Atlantic was far too large to be covered completely (at the time). A stop-gap measure was instituted by fitting ramps to the front of some of the cargo ships known as CAMs, armed with an obsolete plane such as the Hawker Hurricane. When a German spotter plane approached, the fighter was fired off the end of the ramp with a large RATO rocket, eventually ditching in the water to allow the pilot to be picked up by one of the escort ships.
One of the most significant developments was improved direction-finding radio equipment. A new design enabled the operator to instantly see the direction of a broadcast. Since U-boats had to surface to radio, they gave their positions away as soon as they radioed in the position of a convoy. A destroyer could then engage the U-boat, preventing a coherent attack on the convoy.
In general the Royal Navy slowly gained the upper hand through until the end of 1941. Although they were doing limited damage to the U-boats themselves, they were managing to keep them from the convoys to an increasing degree. Shipping losses were high, but managable.
This changed when the US joined the war, by declaring war against Japan in retaliation for Pearl Harbor. Germany then declared war on the US and promptly attacked US shipping.
Dönitz had only 12 boats of the Type IX class that were able to make the long trip to the US east coast, and half of them were removed by Hitler's direct command to counter British forces. One of those was under repair, leaving only five ships to set out for the US on the so-called Operation Drumbeat (Paukenschlag). What followed is considered by many to be one of the most victorious naval campaigns since Trafalgar.
The US, having no direct experience of modern naval war on its own shores, did not employ shore-side black-outs. The U-boats simply stood off the shore of the eastern sea-board and picked off ships as they were silhouetted against the lights of the coast. Worse, the US commander, King, was a terrible anglophobe and rejected the RN's calls for a convoy system out of hand as the whimperings of weaklings. Instead he saved the US's destroyer fleet for action in the Pacific against the Japanese, leaving the U-Boats free to do what they wanted.
The first boats started shooting on January 13th, 1942, and by the time they left for France on February 6th they had sunk 156,939 tonnes of shipping without loss. After six months of this the statistics were equally grim. The first batch of Type IX's had been replaced by Type VII's and IX's refueling at sea from modified Type XIV Milk Cows (themselves modified Type IX's) and had sunk 397 ships totalling over 2 million tons.
It wasn't until May that King saw the error of his ways and instituted a convoy system. This quickly led to the loss of seven U-boats. But the US did not have enough ships to cover all the holes, and the U-boats continued to operate freely in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico (where they effectively closed several US ports) until July.
The U-boat crews called this the second happy time.
Operation Drumbeat did have one other effect. It was so successful that Dönitz's policy of economic war was seen even by Hitler to be the only effective use of the U-boat, and he was given complete command to use them as he saw fit. Meanwhile Dönitz's commander, Raeder, was being demoted as a result of a disastrous operation in which several German capital ships had been beaten off by a small number of RN destroyers. Dönitz was eventually made Grand Admiral of the fleet, and all building priorities turned to the U-boats.
With the US quickly arranging convoys, ship losses to the U-boats quickly dropped and Dönitz realized his boats were better used elsewhere. At the end of July 1942 he shifted attention back to the North Atlantic, where the battle would enter its final terrible phase.
By this point there were more than enough U-boats spread across the Atlantic to allow several wolfpacks to attack the same convoy. In most cases 10 to 15 boats would attack in one or two waves, following the convoys by day and attacking at night. Losses quickly started ramping up, and in October 56 ships of over 258,000 tones were sunk in the limited area between Greenland and Ireland that was still free of the ever-increasing allied air patrols.
Operations died down over the winter, but in the spring they started up again with the same ferocity. In March another 260,000 tones were sunk, and the supply situation in England was such that there was talk of being unable to continue the war effort. Supplies of fuel were particularily low, and any attempt to form massive US armies in England were hopeless.
It appeared that Dönitz was winning the war. And yet March was the end of the battle. In April losses of U-boats shot up while their kills of ships fell dramatically. By May the wolfpack was no longer. The Battle of the Atlantic was won by the allies in two months.
There was no one reason for this, but a number of them that conspired to all take effect at almost the same time. The result was a huge blow that Dönitz was unable to recover from. The four major changes were largely technological.
Among these was the introduction of an effective sea-scanning radar small enough to be carried on the patrol aircraft. Although they had long been known to be able to detect a surfaced boat from many miles, the aircraft themselves had limited range. This changed with the improved supply of the very long range Shorts Sunderland and B-24 Liberator aircraft, which could cover much larger areas of the ocean.
But even they couldn't cover it all. The remaining holes were closed by the introduction of the small escort carrier. Flying Grumman Avengers primarily, they formed into the same convoys and provided air cover and patrol all the way across the Atlantic.
In addition the British introduced the new River class frigates, built with a single purpose in mind - killing U-boats. They were faster, better armed, and had better radar and ASDIC. Formed into hunter-killer groups (one of the major tactical reasons for the victory) by the new commander of the Western Approaches, they would sail far from the convoys in small groups, making it almost impossible for the wolfpacks to form up under their constant harassment.
But by far the single biggest element to the victory was the cracking of the Enigma code machine. This had been a running battle between upgrades to the machine and British efforts to crack it, dating back well before the war. By 1943 the machine had lost the race and an increasing amount of German naval radio traffic was being read. The Royal Navy knew where the packs were forming and sent in the hunter-killer groups to destroy them.
The efforts were so successful that it's a wonder the Kriegsmarine didn't realize that this was happening. In fact it appears that they seemed to have some idea, but repeated questions by Dönitz sent to German's intelligence services always resulted in claims there was no way the code could be broken. One would think that simply looking at the statistics would be enough - U-boat losses indeed dropped every time a new version of the code was introduced - but time lags, luck, pigheadedness, and astounding efforts on the British part kept this from ever becoming clear.
In the next months the vast majority of the U-boat fleet would be sunk, typically with all hands.
With the battle won, US supplies started to pour into England for the eventual invasion of France. This was clear even to the Germans, who became desperate to re-start the battle.
Several attempts were made to salvage the Type VII force. Notable among these attempts were the fitting of massively improved anti-aircraft batteries, radar detectors, and finally the addition of the Schnorkel device to allow them to run underwater off their diesel engines to avoid radar.
None of these were truly effective however, and by 1943 allied air power was so strong that the U-boats were being attacked even in the Bay of Biscay as they left port. Their short lives consisted of watching in fear until they were sunk by the one plane they didn't see.
The last, and most impressive, attempt to re-open the battle is the stuff of legend. Since even before the war the rocket designer Hellmuth Walter had been advocating the use of hydrogen peroxide (known as Perhydrol) as a fuel. His engines were to become famous for their use in rocket powered aircraft - notably the Me 163 Komet - but most of his early efforts were spent on systems for submarine propulsion.
In these cases the hydrogen peroxide was reduced and the resulting gases used to spin a turbine at about 20,000rpm, which was then geared to a propeller. This allowed the submarine to run underwater at all times, as their was no need for air to run the engines. However the system also used up tremendous amounts of fuel, and any boat based on the design would either have to be absolutely huge, or have terribly limited range.
Thus the system saw only limited developement even though a prototype was running in 1940. But when problems with the existing U-Boat designs became evident in 1942, the work was stepped up. Eventually two engineers came up with a simple solution to the problem.
Instead of running the submarine 100% on the perhydrol, use it strictly for bursts of speed when needed. Most of the operations would then be carried out as with a normal boat, using a diesel engine to charge batteries. However while a conventional design would use the diesel as the primary engine and the batteries for short periods of underwater power, in this case the boat would run almost all the time on batteries in a low-speed cruise, turning on the perhydrol during attacks. The diesel was now dedicated entirely to charging the batteries, which it needed only three hours to do.
The result was the elektroboot, finalized in January 1943. Although the design would remain a paper-tiger, it did look impressive indeed. When underwater the Type XXI managed to run at 17 knots, faster than a Type VII running full out on the surface and almost as fast as the ships attacking her. For most of the trip it ran silent underwater on batteries, surfacing only at night, and then only to Schnorkel depth. Weapons were likewise upgraded, with automated systems allowing the torpedo tubes to be reloaded in less than 1/4 the time, firing homing torpedoes that would attack on their own. Even the interior was improved, it was much larger and fitted with everything from showers to a meat refrigerator for long patrols.
The design was to be produced in two versions, primarily the Type XXI, and smaller numbers of the smaller Type XXIII. Both they were much larger and more difficult to build than the existing designs, the Type XXI taking some 18 months. Work didn't really get started until 1944, and only small numbers were ever built. In their few uses, the designs proved invincible, trivially avoiding attacking ships and never even being seen by the patrol aircraft.