Category Archives: American Military History

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Book Review: The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe 1940-1945 by Richard Overy

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe 1940-1945 is one of those books that is going to end up a standard work for a long time to come.  It is the single most comprehensive history of the Allied bombing of Germany and occupied Europe during WWII that I have seen since the strategic bombing survey published by the US government in the immediate post-war years.

I have a review copy of the book so the page counts may be a little different in the published version.  The book itself is 561 pages with 78 pages of notes, a 26 pages bibliography, and an 18 page index.  It is divided into six chapters.  The first three chapters are a chronological account of the air war over Germany and the last three are thematic dealing with the logic of bombing and the campaigns in Italy and the occupied countries.

Every book about the war talks about the bombing campaign and most take for granted that it was effective at least partially in reducing Germany’s war-making ability.  This book examines the war in detail and tries to establish the effectiveness, if any, of the Allied bombing offensive.  The answer is mixed at best.

It has always struck me as odd that despite the expenditure of hundreds of tons of bombs and the devastation of the center and surrounding regions of most industrial towns in Germany, german war production continued to increase throughout the war.  Indeed, the most productive war of the month in terms of number of tanks and aircraft constructed was march of 1945.  Given that, how could it be said that the bombing campaign was successful as many historians and the leaders of the campaign claimed?

The point of bombing was not to kill civilians, but to reduce the war making capacity of Germany.  What Dr. Overy makes clear is that while industrial capacity was negatively affected in the wake of many raids, what was lost was regained and then some so rapidly that production halts were temporary at best.  he attributes this to two causes; one, bombing accuracy was abysmal, and two, the Germans were very good at repairing damage and getting production lines running again.

It was considered a good raid by the british if there bombs fell within 5 miles of the target and three Americans thought within 3 miles was good.  Bombing accuracy was so bad because the bombers flew very high to avoid AA fire and in the case of the English, they flew at night.  The lower the bombers flew, the more accurate they were but they also suffered horrendous losses at low altitude due to AA fire and German fighters.

Added to bombing inaccuracy, was the depth and responsiveness of the German Civil and Air Defense Systems.  The Germans had a multitude of agencies tasked with dealing with raiding damage and the German people themselves pitched in to make things good.  The striking thing is that the Germans could have been even more effective if they had streamlined their civil defense organizations and avoided having a plethora of agencies trying to do the same thing.

The story of the bombing of italy shows that where the germans were very good, the Italians were very bad and italian civilians suffered as a result.  Of special interest is the discussion of the bombing of occupied countries and the response of the occupied people to the destruction and loss of life inherent in being bombed to get their freedom.

This is an outstanding book and I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks they are knowledgeable about the Allied Bombing campaign of WWII.  The book dispels some myths and puts the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of strategic bombing in context to who the war was won and the Nazis defeated.

Periodic World Craziness Update # 31

The latest month’s wackiness in the world of international relations, politics, and  brinkmanship.

 Ukraine battles militants, Russia demands cash for gas:  The hijinks continue.  I am very curious to see what happens in the Elections on 25 May.  If the current regime is selected they gain instant credibility and legitimacy and I would expect them to double down on their efforts to crush the eastern separatists.

Hard for NATO to defend Baltic states from Russia – Spiegel:  This should not be news for anyone who has paid attention to the anemic state of the militaries of mos NATO countries.  The question is will Russia even go after the Baltic states?  I think the answer to that right now is no.

China Suspends Cybersecurity Cooperation With U.S. After Charges:  I sometimes wonder when China is going to come out in the open and make it clear that they are an enemy of the United States and the rest of the world.  So far they have been able to have it both ways and benefit from selling products to the West while acting contrary to Western interests.  Eventually that will cease when they can no longer achieve their geo-strategic goals through threats and bluster.

Egypt’s Brotherhood entrenched for war of attrition:  It looks as though the Egyptians should prepare themselves for years of low-level conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood.  A template is probably the decades long Turkish war with the PKK.

Poroshenko Declares Victory in Ukraine Presidential Election:  The question becomes will Poroschenko be able to get eastern Ukraine under control?  I think not.  I do however, think that his election will solidify the rest of Ukraine in determination to not allow the east to secede.  Putin is backing off for now, but I fully expect him to renew support for the rebels if it is convenient for him to do so.  Don’t think for a minute that Putin will not snap up more territory if he thinks he can do so cheaply.

China Sinking Fishing Vessel Raises Tensions With Vietnam:  Lest we forget that Ukraine is not the only flashpoint.  China continues its efforts to wrest control of offshore resources away from other asian countries.  Asia has the potential to be an even wider regional war than anything between Russia and the Ukraine.

Ukrainian separatists report heavy losses in Donetsk airport battle:  It looks like the Ukraine is not going to stand down and the election gives new legitimacy to Ukrainian efforts to stamp out the rebels.  The ball is definitely in the court of Putin now.  Will he step up support for the rebels?

U.S. to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan:  I will believe it when I see it.  I just cannot see Karzai signing the new SOFA after the stink and resistance to doing so he has made so far.  Karzai seem determined to cut his own throat, or maybe he does not realize that 20 minutes after the US turns out the lights he becomes target # 1 for the Taliban.

Lithuania accuses Russia of harassing ships in Baltic Sea:  If these incidents are true then Russia has decided to move the area of their hijinks since it is apparent that the Ukraine is willing to fight to to avoid losing any more territory and Putin is apparently unwilling to commit conventional forces to separate Eastern Ukraine from the rest of the country.

Syria Elections a Forum to Celebrate Assad:  In other news, Assad gets reelected in a landslide, (who expected that?) and vows to continue his whooping of the rebels.  Absent foreign intervention there is now no question that assad will win.  Foreign intervention is likely not forthcoming mainly because of the significant jihadi presence among the rebels.  If there is one thing you can say for Assad it is that he generally keeps hi pet Jihadis under pretty tight control.

 Ukraine military launches offensive against rebels:  Given the rhetoric and legitimacy of Ukraines newly elected president I suspect the Ukrainians are fixing to get serious about retaking the east from the rebels.  I also fully expect that the pleas for western military assistance in the form of arms and armaments will increase as well.  What I cannot guess at is how those entreaties will be met.  The US should have plenty of excess equipment sitting around given how the admin is intent on gutting the US military.  We could give the Ukrainians MRAPs instead of giving them to local police in the US.

Militants Overrun Iraq’s Second-Largest City As Government Forces Flee:  Just so that we are not all distracted by events in Ukraine, let us not forget that the civil war in Iraq continues and the government forces are not doing so well.  If the Iraqi government were smart they would supply weapons to the Kurds and give them a free had to deal with the insurgents.  Since the government is not smart and focuses on sectarian policies they will not do so.

80% of Syria rebels are Islamist, senior IDF officer says:  These are the folks that the president is talking about arming.  Is ousting Assad worth providing arms and training to people ideologically affiliated with those who carried out the 9/11 attacks?

Insurgents in northern Iraq seize key cities, advance toward Baghdad:  The meltdown in Iraq continues.  It sure is nice to see that the corrupt government of Maliki is getting what many have said it would over the years.  His sectarian policies are finally bearing fruit and reigniting the Iraqi Civil War.  Now watch as the ISIS guys stay far away from the Kurds.  Mainly because the Kurds don’t mess around, they will kill an insurgent and then go find the insurgents family and kill them too.  That is how deal with Arab rebels, threaten to destroy their entire families, and then do it.

Ukraine minister: 3 tanks crossed border from Russia:  If true, this is yet another act of war on the part of Russia.

Photo of the Antietam battlefield taken on the day of the battle by Alexander Gardner

The Battle of Antietam – 17 September, 1862

The Battle of Antietam is interesting for several reasons the most important of which for me is that it is the single bloodiest day in American military history. There have been bloodier battles in American wars but no single day matches the blood spilled on those Maryland fields that early day in 1862. The Union victory at Antietam, if you can call it a victory, also provided Abe Lincoln with the opportunity to promulgate the Emancipation Proclamation. An executive act that was totally unconstitutional but that he did anyway for domestic and foreign political reasons.

Antietam was the final battle of Lee’s first invasion of the North and while it was not a decisive battle it changed things because of what came after.  If anything, from a purely tactical and operational standpoint the battle was a draw.  Both sides essentially beat themselves bloody over a few square miles of Maryland territory that neither considered vital.  The battle is only considered a Union victory because Lee took his army and left instead of renewing the fighting for a second day leaving the Army of the Potomac in possession of the battlefield.

The commander of the 75,000 man, six Corps strong Union Army of the Potomac was General George B. McClellan.  He was opposed the 39,000 man two Corps Confederate Army of Northern Virginia commanded by General Robert E. Lee.

In the fall of 1862 following the Confederate victory at Second Manassas Lee decided to invade Maryland. There were several competing reasons for this decision. One was that it was thought that that best way to force the Union to a negotiated settlement was to inflict a defeat on Northern forces on northern soil. Another was the hope that by successfully taking the war to the North the Southern states could win foreign recognition and potentially aid. It was also believed that Maryland was the state still in the Union whose population was the most sympathetic to the southern cause. Lastly, Lee believed that by invading Maryland and threatening the capture of Washington D.C. he could force the Army of the Potomac under McClellan to accept battle on his terms.

The invasion began on 3 Sep. 1862 and almost immediately (McClellan was a notorious slowpoke) provoked a reaction from the Union forces garrisoned in and around Washington D.C.

Movements at the Battle of Antietam Sep. 3-17, 1962 Map Courtesy CivilWar.org
Movements at the Battle of Antietam Sep. 3-17, 1962
Map Courtesy CivilWar.org

There were several skirmishes and minor battles prior to the culminating battle of the campaign at Antietam. The most significant of these was Stonewall Jackson’s capture of the federal garrison and Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry on Sep. 15th. This was the largest surrender of Federal troops during the war and the loss of weapons was considerable. The Confederates captured roughly 13,000 small arms, 200 wagons, and 73 artillery pieces when they took the Arsenal.

In the days leading up to the battle McClellan was slowly gathering all the disparate forces of the Army of the Potomac together and began to converge them west of Frederick in the vicinity of Sharpsburg.  By contrast Lee’s army straggled in from their scattered positions in Maryland on 15 & 16 Sep. but McClellan’s habitual caution allowed Lee the time to consolidate his position prior to the Union assault on the morning of the 17th.

The first engagements between the two armies was on the night of 16 Sep when the Federal I Corps (Hooker) encountered rebel pickets.
During the night the Federal  XII Corps (Mansfield) moved up in support of I Corps.

At around 0600 on 17 Sep Hooker’s Corps advanced and attacked the Confederate Left in the area of the North and East Woods and the Cornfield that was held by Stonewall Jackson’s Corps.  The attack was almost successful until Hooker’s Corps was hit in the flank by Hood’s division who drove off the Union attack.  As the I Corps retreated Mansfield was told that he was needed to cover the broken I Corps or the battle was lost before it really began.

As the XII Corps moved up to the attack Mansfield, it’s commander was mortally wounded and confusion briefly reigned as the 1st Division commander established his command of the Corps
At 0800 the XII Corps finally got into the fight and after heavy combat took and held the Dunker Church area unsupported by other Federal troops.

Morning attacks of the battle. Map Courtesy USACMH
Morning attacks of the battle.
Map Courtesy USACMH

At about 0830 the II Corps (Sumner) entered the battle passing through the area where I and XII Corps had been so severely handled by Jackson’s Corps earlier.  As the II Corps advanced into the battered formation of Jackson’s Corps they were  hit in the flank by Fresh troops Lee had sent from his right and last Confederate reserves who managed to halt the attack in and around the Dunker Church and Cornfield.  The failed attack by II Corps ended the first phase of the battle.

In the afternoon Sumner wanted to attack the Confederate left again because he believed the Rebels were more badly damaged than him and with the reinforcements from VI Corps he had the chance to

Afternoon movement's during the battle. Map Courtesy USACMH
Afternoon movement’s during the battle.
Map Courtesy USACMH

crush the Confederate left.  The matter was referred to McClellan who denied permission for the attack and probably squandered the Union’s best chance to decisively defeat Lee’s Army, which was exhausted of reserves.  The IX Corps (Burnside) begins to enter the battle around the Burnside Bridge at approximately 1300.  At 1600 the IX Corps attacks towards Sharpsburg but the attack falters as the Corps is attacked in the flank by the Division of A.P. Hill and falls back to the bridge by 1700.  This was the last major Federal assault of the day and ended the battle although skirmishing continued.

On 18 September both armies remained in position and Lee considered renewing the battle but taking his own casualties and federal strength into account he instead stars withdrawing his army south.  McLellan chose not to pursue the retreating Confederates out of a belief that Lee was falling back on significant reinforcements.

Battle casualties near the Dunker Church. Image: Library of Congress
Battle casualties near the Dunker Church.
Image: Library of Congress

With 3,782 dead and a total of 22,000 casualties out of 114,000 troops engaged the Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day in the history of American Arms.   The next costliest battle I can think of that took place on one day and is continually mentioned is the D-Day invasion of Normandy. At D-Day the US had roughly 1,400 dead and a further 3,500 wounded out of approximately 80,000 invasion troops.  Casualties at Antietam were roughly 19% while at D-Day they were 4.5 % of troops engaged.

An afterword is that an image was captured at Antietam that was a rarity prior to WWI.  Namely, Alexander Gardener captured an image of the battle as it was happening.  If you look at the below image on the right side you can see Union cavalry lined up awaiting orders and on the left side you can see the infantry of both armies on the fighting wreathed in the smoke from artillery and their rifles.  If you blow the image up you can even see a couple of places where guys are dragging casualties away from the line.  Why this has not become an iconic image of the Civil War I have no idea.

Photo of the Antietam battlefield taken on the day of the battle by Alexander Gardner
Photo of the Antietam battlefield taken on the day of the battle by Alexander Gardner

 

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Book Review: D-Day – Minute-by-Minute by Jonathan Mayo

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Next Week is the 70th Anniversary of D-Day the Allied invasion of Europe.  I would guess that most people don’t think about it and if they do the picture that comes to their mind is a scene from Saving Private Ryan.  The movie gives a good idea but the words of those who were there are priceless gems in my opinion.

D-Day: Minute by Minute is a description of the events of D-day in the order in which they occurred taken from transcripts and interviews of those that were there.

It gives the reader a sense of the disordered perspective the average participant has in combat. All is chaos and confusion and it take courage and determination just to keep going, much less fight effectively.  It says much for the soldiers, sailors, and airman of the allied armies that they persevered despite the chaos of the landings.

The book itself is separated into three chapters that cover the period leading up to D-Day, the 5th of June, and D-Day itself.  By far the greatest portion of the book is dedicated to D-Day, 198 pages.  There is brief introduction and a postscript that details what happened to the people whose stories are told in the main narrative.  It also includes a 16 page, very tightly packed bibliography.

The minute-by-minute format is very appealing for an event as momentous as D-Day.  It gives the reader a sense of how the day played out and what I thought was more important, that the issue of whether the Allies would succeed or fail was in doubt until late in the afternoon.  One of the best things about this book is that although it focuses on retelling events from the Allied perspective it does not ignore the Germans fighting them and the recollections of several of the Normandy beach defenders are included as well.

This is an outstanding book and should be required reading in High School history classes.  I doubt that will happen though.  Everybody, whether history buff or not, should read this book.  I highly recommend it.  That it has been released near the 70th anniversary of the landings is appropriate as it gives voice to the generation that fought there and is rapidly passing away.

Periodic World Craziness Update # 30

The latest month’s wackiness in the world of international relations, politics, and  brinkmanship.

 Ukraine Falters in Drive to Curb Unrest in East:  Perhaps the biggest mistake the Kiev government could make right now is to make threats they are unwilling or incapable of following through on.   Nothing could damage their credibility and legitimacy more than doing so.  It would seem they have done just that in regards to the protester seizure of government buildings in the eastern part of the country.

Fragile Europe Weakens U.S. Push for Russia Sanctions:  Who would have thought the current US admin could demonstrate more resolve than the EU right now?  Of course, Obama must follow through or he shows himself to the the paper tiger he has demonstrated before.  The disconnect among the western powers over Ukraine and the response to Russian aggression just makes the situation more fraught with peril than a strong united stand would be.

Ukraine pushes tanks and troops into separatist east:  So let me get this straight.  The Ukraine is acting to regain control of Ukrainian territory from Russian inspired insurgents and Medvedev, the Russian PM, deigns to blame Ukraine for starting a potential civil war by acting to protect their sovereignty?  If Russia had not instigated things in the Crimea last month this would not be happening.  Russia is to blame here and if a civil war or wider war starts there is no question where the war guilt lies.

Apparent Ukrainian troop defections escalate tensions in eastern Ukraine:  The Ukrainian slide into civil war that only Russia can stabilize continues.  Putin’s plan is either working great or he is using events to his advantage much better than is the West.

Japanese ship seized in wartime claims row:  Meanwhile, tensions between China and Japan continue to ratchet up.  The world is just an interesting place right now.  I would be curious to know exactly how big a percentage of China’s carrying trade moves in Japanese hulls and how much a suspension of such commerce would hurt China?  One thing is certain. China is more economically vulnerable than any other potential hostile power right now.

Putin Warns of Consequences as Ukraine Steps Up Offensive:  The richest part of this story is Putin’s hypocritical quote: “If it’s true that the current regime in Kiev sent the army against citizens inside its country, then it is a very serious crime against its own nation,…”  Pot meet kettle who has been waging a war against it’s own citizens for damn near twenty years in Chechnya.  So, If Ukrainians do what Putin does it is a crime huh?  Expect the Russo-Ukrainian War to start before this update gets posted.

Ukraine official says he fears a Russian invasionExclusive: Putin Halts All Talks With White House:  The slide toward war continues.  The big question to me is if the West will stay out of it because they falsely don;t see there strategic interests threatened by Russian aggression and expansion.  Interesting Times indeed.

Russian jets cross into Ukraine airspace:  Yet one more step towards armed Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine.  What impotent steps will the West take now?

Pro-Russia rebels hold German-led observers hostage:  It will be interesting to see the steps Germany and the EU take in response to the kidnapping of these OSCE observers.  I am guessing it will be demands for their release under threat of even more sanctions.

Ukraine crisis: Mayor of second city Gennady Kernes fights for his life after assassination attempt blamed on Kremlin:  The assassination of public officials is a very worrying sign as that is the next logical step in the slide towards civil war and a very good indicator of how much the Kiev government is losing their grasp on events.

 Ukraine crisis: Kremlin insists it cannot control pro-Russian separatists and calls for dialogue with West:  If you believe Putin has not control or influence I have some ocean-front property for sale cheap.

Ukraine crisis: ‘This is not some kind of a short-lived uprising. It is a war’:  It is not a war yet but if the Kiev government cannot regain control quickly or if they suffer a major setback it could rabidly devolve into a civil war.

Iran and Assad have won in Syria, say top Tehran foreign policy figures:  While I hate to agree with anything coming out of Tehran, they are right.  It is clear that absent majore western intervention that is patently not forthcoming it is now only a matter of months before Assad defeats the rebels.  Then again, I don;t think the West ever had a dog in that fight to begin with.  If anything, the West should have refused all support as soon as it became clear that Islamists were among the rebels.

Pro-Russian Separatists Declare Victory in East Ukraine Vote:  Of course, it was to be expected that the separatists would claim overwhelming victory on the election they are holding at the barrel of a gun now isn’t it.