Messines 5

The Battle of Messines Ridge – 1917

From the opening months of the World War I, Flanders was the decisive sector for the British Army.  It was in an around the medieval Belgian town of Ypres that the original BEF had decimated themselves fending off German attacks from October to December, 1914.  Ypres and the salient surrounding it was where the British would see the hardest and most prolonged fighting of all the places where the British would fight in World War I.

The Battle of Messines Ridge fought from 7-14 June, 1914 was not really a separate battle at all but rather the opening phase of what would come to be known variously as the Third Battle of  Ypres or Passchendaele.

Messines 1

 

The Battlefield: Then and Now
The Battlefield: Then and Now

The Messines Ridge is on the southern shoulder of what was then the Ypres salient.  It is commanding terrain the possession of which allowed the German army to see almost all the way into the center of the city of Ypres itself and observe British movements inside the salient allowing the Germans to target British concentrations of troops very accurately.

The Ridge itself is not very high, about 90 feet, but that was more than high enough for military purposes given the flat nature of the terrain in Flanders near the coast.  I never fully appreciated the advantage to be gained from possession of a 90 foot ridge-line until my first visit to the battlefield in 2004 while on R&R from my tour in Iraq.  In Flanders a 90 foot difference in elevation makes all the difference in the world.

Possession of the Messines Ridge would allow the British to deny observation of a significant portion of their rear area to the German army and would also serve as an excellent stepping off point for follow on offensive operations both to expand the salient and effect the ever elusive breakout that all generals from any side fervently wished for.

The immediate commander and primary planner for the British forces in the lead-up to Messines Ridge was Gen. Herbert Plumer who had the unfortunate reputation with Haig of being a plodder.  Plumer reputation among the troops however was different.  He was on of the few British generals who the troops adored or even loved because of his well-known concern for their welfare and desire to avoid excessive casualties.

Aerial Photo of the Messines Ridge around St. Eloi taken on 23 Apr 1917 during planning for the battle
Aerial Photo of the Messines Ridge around St. Eloi taken on 23 Apr 1917 during planning for the battle

The plan Plumer came up with to take the ridge entailed the explosion of 25 mines that the Royal Army had laboriously emplaced under the ridge in the months leading up to the commencement of the offensive.  The mines ranged in size from the 96,500 lb St. Eloi mine to the 30,000 lb Petit Bois mines.  These were set to essentially demolish and demoralize the German front line trenches whereupon the British troops were expected to easily occupy them before the stunned Germans could react and throw them out.

A creeping barrage by 2/3 of the 2,200 artillery pieces available was to “shoot the attacking infantry in” once the mines exploded.  The rest of the artillery was reserved for use in the counter battery role to suppress German artillery to a depth of 9,000 yards along the attack front.

A preliminary bombardment lasting almost two weeks was also planned for the preparing the battlefield and hindering the Germans from reinforcing the sector to be attacked.  (NOTE:  preliminary bombardments of this style were not meant so much to destroy defensive works so much as to demoralize the enemy, injure defenders, and keep the enemies head down allowing attacking infantry to assault when the time came)

The Messines battle was the opening act of what was ultimately planned to be a British rupture of the German defenses in Flanders.  The overall plan failed.

At approximately  3:10 a.m. on the morning of June 7th, 1917 19 of the 25 emplaced mines exploded.  The 4 Birdcage mines were not detonated because the Germans had already evacuated the area by Zero-Hour and two failed to explode. The mines were wildly successful and the British troops did indeed essentially waltz into the German positions and establish occupancy.

The Germans attempted to counterattack on day one but they were unable to keep the British from occupying and holding the entirety of the first three lines of German trenches except for a portion of their third line which they retook from II ANZAC Corps.

On the morning of 8 June the II ANZAC Corps retook the section of the German third line they had been ejected from.  The rest of the British assault divisions set about consolidating the defenses in the newly won positions while the British artillery provided disrupting fire on German counterattacks while a portion of the artillery was displaced forward.

German artillery unleashed a massive bombardment on the captured trenches during which it is estimated that the British suffered up to 90% of their casualties during the battle.

Once large-scale German counterattacks stopped on 14 June the Messines sector settled down until the Passchendaele battle restarted active fighting in the beginning of July.

The Battle for Messines Ridge was one of the few arguably successful offensives of World War I prior to the offensives of the Last Hundred Days in 1918.

Messines 4

Book Review Featured Image

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.

Book Review Featured Image

Review: Gulf War Ghosts by W.P. Armstrong

I will admit up front that I normally shy away from historical fiction like it is the plague.  Gulf War Ghosts has made me rethink that position.  This is historical fiction that uses a historical period as the setting but dos not try to play what if games with events.  The setting is the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf war and the plot revolves around mysterious attacks on several American soldiers. With the exception of one mistake one of my biggest pet peeves about any writing having to do with military units was a non-issue.  That is, he gets the format and style of unit designations correct.  There is none of the typical mistake of saying A Company, 1st Division or other mistakes of that nature in the book.  The one mistake I noticed is when he refers to the 2nd Squadron, 8th Cavalry.  Squadron is typically the designation for battalion size Cavalry units but 2-8 Cav was and still is an Armor Battalion and is so designated as 2nd Battalion, 8th US Cavalry.  That is nitpicking though and I am probably one of the few people who looks out for that kind of stuff in books anyway. Because this is a novella the plot moves fast and while by the middle you get an idea where it is going it is written so well that you keep reading to find out exactly what happens.  At just shy of 70 pages printed, this only takes an hour or two to read.  That is an hour or two well spent.  This is an excellent story with an interesting twist and I highly recommend it.

Update:  My quibble about unit designations has been corrected in an update to the novella.

Book Review Featured Image

Book Review: Bizarre Tales from World War II by William Breuer

Bizarre Tales from World War II is an interesting and fun book to read for the many anecdotes it contains.  It is essentially a Ripley’s of WWII stories illustrating that adage that often “the truth is stranger than fiction.”

Strange things happen in war and WWII, being the largest war in human history had more than its fair share of strange things occur.  This book brings together in one place a recounting of many anecdotes of odd and unexplainable things that happened in the six years of WWII.

The book itself is 203 pages of text separated into six chronological parts/chapters with 11 pages of notes and an index.  The stories don’t seem to follow a pattern except in the time period when they occurred.

The only complaint, and it is minor, that I could possibly level against the book is that it seems to favor stories from the European theater over the Pacific.  Given that the war in the Pacific took place over just as large, if not a larger area, than that in Europe I find it difficult to believe there are not more strange tales to come out of the Pacific.

This is an entertaining read and the format of unconnected short tales of strangeness lends itself well to reading when you are pressed for time.  The average story is only 2-3 pages long and took me less than five minutes to read.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the vagaries of fate in wartime or just in WWII itself.  This book offers a little something for everyone interested in histories largest and deadliest war.

Military History and Book Reviews