Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Posts Tagged ‘D-Day

Onward Through the Fog, Exercise Tiger

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In my last post about the battle of Kiska, I discussed a battle that was fought even though the enemy side didn’t show up. Nonetheless hundreds of casualties were incurred by friendly fire before the “fighting” was over. I should also have added that in modern warfare, IE since gunpowder, about ten percent of wartime casualties are caused by friendly fire. While some incidents are harder to understand than others, it’s easy enough to understand that when one has millions of people firing deadly long range weapons at each other, mistakes will be made. General Grant’s right hand man, Stonewall Jackson, was killed by friendly fire. And equipment malfunctions. The Tang, America’s number one submarine ace of World War Two … was sunk by their own torpedo that swerved back and hit them. In fact if Kiska had been defended by the Japanese, there likely would have been more deaths by friendly fire, since there would have been a lot more fire, period.

In any event, while there are other battles in history that have been fought even though one side didn’t show up, I thought it would be interesting to write about a battle that was fought when the enemy made an unscheduled appearance. I am talking about Exercise Tiger, another American embarrassment in World War Two. Well, maybe not embarrassment, more like “let’s not mention this happened, OK?” This occurred while the allies, especially the Americans, were preparing for the D-Day landings. Eisenhower decided the American troops needed to practice the invasion under realistic conditions, and Exercise Tiger was born. Basically, an area of coastline with a good beach was evacuated (about 3,000 locals were moved,) and American troops would practice landing on it under realistic conditions. There would be a bombardment of the coast beforehand, and the bombardment would continue inland from the beach even after the troops hand landed. This way the troops would have some exposure to real gunfire in their proximity. More than 30,000 troops were involved, this was a big deal.

The exercise started on the morning of 27 April 1944. The shelling of the beach was to end half an hour before the troops waded ashore, giving officers on the shore half an hour to make sure no live rounds were laying around the beach. The shelling was delayed by an hour though. Some of the landing craft didn’t get the message … so numerous landing craft put ashore half an hour before the bombardment was finished. Oops. It was ugly, to say the least. Several hundred troops were killed, and many more wounded. Not an auspicious start to what was simply supposed to be a training exercise.

The next day, things got worse. A convoy of American LSTs (a large ship for landing troops and tanks on a  beach) sailed out to practise landing the follow-up force to the landings of the day before. They had two British warships escorting them, however one of the warships developed mechanical problems and had to return to base. Unfortunately the Americans and British were using different radio frequencies, so the Americans weren’t informed about this. And  since no one expected to be attacked, the ships were travelling in a big line. Think ducks in a row.  Then the British escort ship received a message stating that German ships had been sighted in the area the previous night. The British assumed the Americans had also been informed of this.   They hadn’t. So when nine warships appeared on the horizon, the Americans thought they were part of the exercise. And in a  way, they were, just not a scheduled part of it. The nine warships were in fact German E-boats, or torpedo boats as they are called in America. They had no trouble telling friend from foe, and swooped in to attack the more or less defenceless American LSTs.

This is where it got really ugly. Two LSTs sank, one was severely damaged. A fourth was damaged by friendly fire. The remaining American ships and the British escort returned fire and the Germans fled, but the damage had been done. More than 600 Americans drowned. Later it turned out that many had drowned because in their haste they had donned their life vests wrong, so when they jumped in the water their vests flipped them upside down … head underwater. The survivors were sworn to secrecy, partly because the news would hurt morale and partly because they didn’t want to give the Germans intelligence and propaganda fodder. It’s been claimed by some that they were sworn to secrecy for life, but that isn’t the case. They were sworn to secrecy until the end of the war. And in fact the Allies announced the catastrophe quietly, both during and after the war, but it was overshadowed by greater events and more or less forgotten for decades.

Fortunately this story has a silver lining. Yes, the troops got some training under extremely realistic conditions. More importantly, major deficiencies in training and planning for D-Day were revealed. Three major changes were made. The British and Americans started using the same radio frequencies. A force of small rescue boats was added to D-Day invasion plans for rescuing troops in the water if their ships were sunk. And of course troops all got much better training on how to don and use their life vests. So no doubt these deaths saved many lives on D-Day, they didn’t die in vain.

God rest their souls.

(The above image is LST-289, hit and set afire by E-boats, it still made it back to port. Since the eighties efforts to memorialize these forgotten casualties have been underway, here’s a few links: The Slapton Sands Memorial Tank website. Yes, a Sherman Tank that sank in the disaster has been hauled out onto the beach and used a a memorial. The Slapton village memorial site. And of course the official US memorial site.)

Written by unitedcats

September 10, 2012 at 7:44 am

D-Day, Dishonouring Their Memory

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DDay storming beaches

Today, well yesterday, was the 67th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion. This was a salient event in American history, glorified in such movies as “The Longest Day” or “Saving Private Ryan.” And, unlike certain recent minor military operations involving a few dozen commandos and a few helicopters, it was in fact one of the greatest military operations in American history. Heck, in many senses it was one of the greatest military operations in history, period. It was the largest amphibious landing in history, and it was probably the most carefully planned military operation in history. Americans have every reason to be proud of their contribution to D-Day, and I honour the memory of all who fought that day.

There are however some problems with the battle as it is popularly understood in America. The first being as I alluded to just now, while Americans have every reason to be proud of their role in D-Day, they weren’t the only troops going ashore that day. There were five beaches invaded on D-Day, two of them were invaded by Americans, two of them by the British, and one of them by Canadians. In other words, only about 40% of the troops that waded ashore on June 6 1944 were Americans. While not disputing the crucial role America played that day, it was not an exclusively American victory. And it does a disservice to our allies that most Americans are ignorant of this. It’s not surprising that Americans don’t know this though, in “Saving Private Ryan” for example, there are no references to Canada and only one disparaging reference to the British.

A second and more important point that is misrepresented in American popular understanding of this battle is the idea that it was a “key” battle in the war or even a “turning point” in the war. Well, yes, it was an important battle, but the war was over by June 6 1944. The Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942/43 was the turning point of the war, and the Battle of Kursk in the summer of 43 was the death knell for Germany. Even if the Allied landing at Normandy had been repulsed by the Germans, the Russian steamroller would still have made its way to Berlin. D-Day shortened the war and prevented the Stalin from occupying all of Western Europe, but in the greater scheme of things it wasn’t the war winning battle it is often portrayed as in the USA.

And lastly, a point that is always completely overlooked, the outcome of the battle wasn’t really in doubt. Not only was the battle the most carefully planned operation in history, the forces the Allies deployed were simply overwhelming. The air power advantage alone shows this. The Allies flew something like 20,000 sorties (flights) over the Normandy beachhead on D-Day, the Germans a few hundred. And this included the German Luftwaffe throwing “everything they had” at the Allies on Hitler’s express orders. The German’s basically had no chance of repulsing the D-Day invasion. I’m not belittling the Allied effort here, I’m just pointing out that they had so carefully planned this operation and had arrayed such overwhelming resources for it that in retrospect, they couldn’t lose.

Why does any of this matter? Because the myth of World War Two, and that very much includes D-Day, has been relentlessly used to justify far less justifiable wars since then. Frankly every time an American invokes “The Greatest Generation” to justify some senseless colonial war of choice, they are dishonouring the memory of those who fought and died in World War Two. Shame on them.

(The above image is Public Domain under US copyright law. It’s GIs running up the beach on D-Day. I chose it because it captures to reality 0f the moment, and it’s an image that doesn’t seem to have been repeated a  million times on the Internet. A few of these guys might still be alive today, some of them may have been dead within hours of this picture being taken. War is hell.)

Written by unitedcats

June 7, 2011 at 5:44 am

Ten World War Two Allied military blunders (Part 2)

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This is the second part of ten Allied military blunders of World War Two. The comments I made at the beginning of the first article still apply. The only thing I would add is that I have tried to select lesser known blunders, especially ones that made for an interesting story. With no further ado:

6. The British campaign in Norway. This one is complicated. Basically at the beginning of World War Two Germany invaded Norway to secure important bases and transport routes for Swedish iron ore. The British (and French) hastily assembled forces to prevent the Germans from occupying all of Norway. Carefully laid plan vs hasty slapdash plan, guess who won? While the Germans lost ships they could ill afford to lose, British losses were significant too. And, basically, pointless. Wikipedia: Allied Campaign in Norway

7. The sinking of the HMS Glorious. This one is still a mystery. The British Aircraft Carrier Glorious was ferrying planes out of Norway after the failed British intervention there, and was given permission to travel essentially alone back to Britain through an area where German surface ships might be operating, no convincing explanation of why this was allowed has ever surfaced. More puzzling, even though visibility was excellent, the Glorious had no planes in the air, and didn’t even have anyone in its crow’s nest to scan the horizon! And as a result, they were caught completely by surprise by the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The two escorting British destroyers made basically suicidal attacks to lay smoke screens and delay the Germans so that the Glorious could get some planes in the air, they were both blown out of the water as destroyers are simply no match for battlecruisers. And the Scharnhorst’s gunner then made a direct hit on the Glorious at a distance of nearly 15 miles, one of the longest range hits ever made with naval guns, destroying the two planes that were being readied and blowing a big hole in the carrier’s flight deck and making it impossible to launch planes. Within two ours of sighting the Germans, the Glorious and its escorts ere sunk, with a loss of over 1500 men, fewer than 50 survived. As one last clusterfuck, either the Glorious didn’t radio for help, or no one received the message, because the British didn’t know the Glorious had been sunk until they heard it on German news broadcasts. Wikipedia: The sinking of the HMS Glorious

8. Operation Menace. After the fall of France one of the major issues was where would France’s colonies go, with the Free French or with the German installed Vichy government in France. Dakar, an important West African port in the now nation of Senegal went with the Vichy government. De Gaulle insisted that the French forces there would quickly come over to the Free French if he showed up, Churchill believed him, and a hastily assembled force was sent to Dakar: Operation Menace. It was a comedy of errors from the beginning, secrecy as so poorly kept that African natives in fishing boats called out “You’re going to Dakar?” to the fleet as it passed by. When they arrived, it turned out their maps were hopelessly out of date and the French defenders were far better armed than had been thought. And they had no intention of surrendering to a British fleet, De Gaulle, or anyone. Even after the British had arrived, a small fleet of French ships was able to slip by and reinforce the defenders! For several days the British tried to knock out the French shore batteries and a French battleship that was operating as a floating gun battery in the harbour. Several small ships and a few French subs were sunk, but the French defenders kept fighting. An invasion force landed, but in the face of strong resistence it as withdrawn, as De Gaulle wisely didn’t want Frenchmen killing Frenchmen. The fight ended when a French sub managed to torpedo and heavily damage a key British ship, a heavy cruiser. De Gaulle’s reputation was badly tarnished by the whole pointless affair. Wikipedia: Operation Menace

As an aside to this story, a few years later the captain of the French submarine, now fighting for the Allies, was personally decorated by the captain of the British cruiser he had torpedoed at Dakar. He mentioned this during the ceremony, and in a wonderful example of British aplomb, the cruiser captain’s reply was “Good shot!”

9. The British intervention in Greece. One would think that the failure of the intervention in Norway would have taught the British a lesson. Nope. When Germany and Italy invaded Greece, Churchill insisted that the bulk of forces in North Africa be rushed to Greece. Yes, a handful of British troops would stop the by then massive German armies; it was, basically nuts. The British forces in Greece were routed, and large numbers of them captured. And worse, the British forces in North Africa had just routed the Italians and were poised to capture all of Italian North Africa. Instead, their withdrawal meant the Germans had time to send Rommel and the Afrika Corps to Libya, and the rest is history. Wikipedia: Operation Lustre

10. Exercise Tiger. OK, four mistakes where Churchill was partly (or wholly) responsible for is enough, now one where Churchill wasn’t involved, Exercise Tiger. This took place in April 1944, and a was full scale practice run for the D-Day landing on Utah Beach two months later, as Eisenhower thought that the troops needed realistic training. Well, they got it. Blunders were made from the start. The British and Americans were using different radio frequencies for one, and communication between the two sides was compromised. So that when one of the two British warships escorting the invasion convoy broke down, the American troop ships weren’t informed. The other British ship led the convoy in a line, making them an easy target for German torpedo boats, or E-boats as they were called. One reference even states that when the E-boats were sighted, they were mistaken for friendlies. The E-boats attacked, and sank several troop ships. It gets worse, of the nearly seven hundred men who died, hundreds drowned becasue they hadn’t been trained on how to properly wear their life vests, so that when they inflated their vests, they were flipped upside down and drowned. The exercise continued, and as part of the realism, Eisenhower had ships using live fire shelling the beach past where the invading troops were supposed to go. There was some confusion at this point, because another nearly 300 men were killed by this fire. Basically nearly a thousand men died rehearsing the landing on Utah beach … where only about 200 men died. There’s a rumour that the survivors were sworn to secrecy forever, which isn’t true. They were sworn to secrecy for the duration of the war, but the news was quietly released even before the end of the war. The whole embarrassing mess isn’t very well documented, but the reasons for that seem pretty obvious to me. No one wants to remember a world class screw up. Wikipedia: Exercise Tiger.

And that’s that. No, I didn’t get all my information from Wikipedia, I just provided those links so people curious to know more have a place to start. As always when talking about historical events, they are subject to interpretation and debate. I’ve noticed that sometimes historians weigh in and correct or add information my history posts, such comments are welcome and appreciated.

(The above image is Public Domain under US copyright law as far as I can tell. It’s the HMS Glorious under fire taken from the deck f the Scharnhorst. People are dying in this photo, an aspect of wars that isn’t appreciated enough.)