Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Invasion of Crete

On May 20th, 1941, Nazi German paratroopers (or "Fallschirmjager") attacked and took the British held island of Crete in the Mediterranean sea by airborne assault. The Nazi paratroopers, landing on an enemy held island and capturing it by suprise (despite being outnumbered by the British and Greek defenders), proved to the world that airborne assaults were indeed successful against a numerically superior foe.

Two German paratroopers recover a crate full of ammunition and guns that was dropped by parachute on Crete.

After recovering the weapons, the Nazis head torwards the allied airfields to secure them. This denied the British the ability to send in re-enforcements by plane.

A German Officer.

The soldier in the foreground is wearing a unique style of German helmet, specially designed for paratroopers: it does not have the signature ear protection on the side that German helmets are known for. The blue-ish colored cloth belt he wears on his front is a ammunition bandolier.

The battle of Crete was a German victory; but a costly one. The surviving British and Greek troops were evacuated by ship, and as for the Germans, their losses were so costly that for the rest of the war they would be fighting as ground troops, like regular infantry, rather than jumping out of airplanes behind enemy lines.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Turning Back The Empire, Part III: Victory

In our last entry, part II of this three-part series on the Guadalcanal campaign, we ended with the conclusion of the fight for the Tenaru River, an American victory that foiled a Japanese attempt to drive the Americans off of Guadalcanal.

The end of August and the arrival of September found the American Marines on Guadalcanal battered, tired, but none the less alive and continually ready to fight. The success of the Tenaru River battle bolstered the Marines fighting spirit; but by no means were the Americans enjoying the comfort of complete victory. The Japanese bombed the Marines at Henderson Field from the air daily; and the Japanese command knew that the only way to achieve victory was to land more troops on the island, then to take Henderson Field as soon as possible, therefore annihilating the Americans, placing the island once and for all under complete Japanese control.

Here are two examples of Japanese air force pilots who took part in the Guadalcanal campaign:

a Japanese fighter pilot, his back to the morning sun. A fighter pilot receiving instructions from his superior at the Japanese air base at Tulagi (one of many islands off Guadalcanal's coast still under Japanese control). On September 13th, after days of continual air bombardment, the Japanese attempted to take Henderson Field by attacking a ridge to the South of the Field, held by two battalions of Marines. The ridge guarded the Southern--or inland--side of Henderson Field, the island coast being to the North. Therefore it was the North side of Henderson field that was the most strongest fortified part of the American line, since Japanese troops would have to land on the beaches to the North of Henderson field to attack the Americans. To land troops on the coast far from Henderson field, and to march them through the thick jungle to attack the relatively weak Southern portion of the American line, therefore, would surely bring success.

The Japanese were well adapted to attacking strait through the thickest of jungles, as the Japanese conquest of British-Held Singapore proved earlier that year.

And so, the attack on the ridge was launched just before midnight, and lasted well into the following morning. The Marines, while inferior in numbers, were strong in their position. The grassy field that the Japanese soldiers had to cross to get to the ridge was completely bare of trees; rather, they had to attack in the open. The Japanese had sent snipers around the flanks of the ridge to fire on the Marine positions from the rear; they kept quite busy harassing the Americans during the battle. The troops attacking the ridge head-on enjoyed no such luxury; mown down in large numbers in the wall of fire from the Marines machine guns, rifles, and grenades as they pressed up the slope, the Japanese met their chosen alternative to defeat: death. Handfuls of soldiers broke through portions of the Marines lines on the ridge, but were quickly driven back each time. On the break of the following morning--September 14th--the frontal assaults had been driven back, and the rest of the day for the Marines was spent evading snipers and fighting off pockets of Japanese resistance.

One more Japanese land battle to take Henderson Field failed, with the Japanese suffering hundreds of casualties. On the 18th of September, the Marines were finally re-enforced by more Marines and U.S. Army troops. This was exactly what the exhausted Marines on Guadalcanal needed; combat losses and deadly tropical diseases had been taking their toll through the American ranks, but with fresh troops, equipment, and supplies, things were now looking less bleak.

A U.S. soldier cleans his rifle. Weapons maintenance was essential in jungle combat; high temperatures and humidity could reduce metal gun parts to rusted junk in a single day if not properly cared for.

Problems for the American armed forces stationed on this tiny island were by no means over, however; rather, on the night of October 14th, a Japanese fleet sailed within extremely close range of the Americans and shelled their positions intensely with the soul objective of causing as much damage to Henderson field as possible. Nearly half of the 90 or so airplanes of the "cactus air force" (the nickname given to the detachment of Navy and Marine fighter and bomber aircraft stationed at Guadalcanal) were either destroyed or badly damaged. Ammunition and gasoline stores were transformed into flaming wrecks, and several Americans were killed or injured. But ingenuity prevailed the following day as the Americans repaired the airplanes with spare parts, and gas was siphoned from the tanks of destroyed B-17 bombers to be used in other surviving aircraft. As both sides poured re-enforcements onto the island, preparing for the knock-down, drag-out fight that was sure to come, two new arrivals--the American battleships U.S.S. Washington and U.S.S. South Dakota--won a narrow but critical victory against a huge Japanese ship fleet. Several Japanese troop transports, each full of soldiers to be landed on Guadalcanal to support the fight against the Americans, were sunk in the battle.

By December, American Army and Marine re-enforcements were arriving in such numbers that the 1st and 7th Marine regiments were allowed to pull out of Guadalcanal for a long-awaited and well deserved rest. General Vandegrift, who was the commander of the two Marine regiments who landed on Guadalcanal in August, was replaced by General Alexander M. Patch of the U.S. Army. General Patch, who now possessed superior ground, air, and firepower, took the offensive against the Japanese still on Guadalcanal, attacking the Japanese held high ground overlooking the American held areas, chiefly at a low mountain called Gifu.
Fighting was fierce, back-and-fourth, and when Gifu finally fell the Americans found that the Japanese had been preoccupied with evacuating Guadalcanal for good. Nearly 10,000 troops had been pulled out of Guadalcanal during night evacuation runs, to fight elsewhere in the Pacific.

On February 9th, 1943, General Patch sent

this message via radio to his superior,

Admiral Halsey:

"Total and complete defeat of Japanese forces
on Guadalcanal effected 1625 today"

(Note: "1625" means 4:25 p.m.)

The Guadalcanal campaign was over. It took nearly six months, from August to February, to win this first American land victory against the seemingly invincible Japanese armed forces. The United states lost 1,600 men in land and air combat; in Naval engagements, 2,000 sailors had given their lives. The Japanese lost a total of 20,000 men in the campaign to keep Guadalcanal under their control.

The victory of Guadalcanal was the major turning point in the war in the Pacific. The Japanese defeat at the Naval battle of Midway early in 1942 was a hard blow, and the first American victory of the war, but the Guadalcanal campaign was the first major step to winning the war, a goal that would be achieved in September 1945.