World War II
Today seventy years ago Operation Cobra began, the breakout of First United States Army from the Normandy Peninsula. By the end of July the First Army had shattered the German forces before them and broken out of Normandy. The stage was set for Patton and his Third Army, which became operational on August 1, 1944. My favorite living historian Victor Davis Hanson describes the military masterpiece that followed:
When Patton’s Third Army finally became operational seven weeks after D-Day, it was supposed to play only a secondary role — guarding the southern flank of the armies of General Bradley and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery while securing the Atlantic ports.
Despite having the longest route to the German border, Patton headed east. The Third Army took off in a type of American blitzkrieg not seen since Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s rapid marches through Georgia and the Carolinas during the Civil War.
In fact, his theatrics masked a deeply learned and analytical military mind. Patton sought to avoid casualties by encircling German armies. In innovative fashion, he partnered with American tactical air forces to cover his flanks as his armored columns raced around static German formations.
Naturally rambunctious American GIs fought best, Patton insisted, when “rolling” forward, especially in summertime. Only then, for a brief moment, might the clear skies facilitate overwhelming American air support. In August his soldiers could camp outside, while his speeding tanks still had dry roads.
Allied supplies had been redirected northward for the normally cautious General Montgomery’s reckless Market Garden gambit. That proved a harebrained scheme to leapfrog over the bridges of the Rhine River; it devoured Allied blood and treasure, and accomplished almost nothing in return.
Meanwhile, the cutoff of Patton’s supplies would prove disastrous. Scattered and fleeing German forces regrouped. Their resistance stiffened as the weather grew worse and as shortened supply lines began to favor the defense.
Historians still argue over Patton’s August miracle. Could a racing Third Army really have burst into Germany so far ahead of Allied lines? Could the Allies ever have adequately supplied Patton’s charging columns given the growing distance from the Normandy ports? How could a supreme commander like Eisenhower handle Patton, who at any given moment could — and would — let loose with politically incorrect bombast?
We do not know the answers to all those questions. Nor will we ever quite know the full price that America paid for having a profane Patton stewing in exile for nearly a year rather than exercising his leadership in Italy or Normandy. Continue reading
There was a little sergeant. His name was Culin, and he had an idea. And his idea was that we could fasten knives, great big steel knives in front of these tanks, and as they came along they would cut off these banks right at ground level—they would go through on the level keel—would carry with themselves a little bit of camouflage for a while. And this idea was brought to the captain, to the major, to the colonel, and it got high enough that somebody did something about it—and that was General Bradley—and he did it very quickly. Because this seemed like a crazy idea, they did not even go to the engineers very fast, because they were afraid of the technical advice, and then someone did have a big questions, “Where are you going to find the steel for all this thing?” Well now, happily the Germans tried to keep us from going on the beaches with great steel “chevaux de frise”—big crosses, there were all big bars of steel down on the beach where the Germans left it. And he got it—got these things sharpened up—and it worked fine. The biggest and happiest group I suppose in all the Allied Armies that night were those that knew that this thing worked. And it worked beautifully.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 10, 1961
Curtis Grubb Culin III, a native of New Jersey, was a Sergeant with the 102nd Cavalry Recon Squadron in the 2nd Armored Division during the Normandy Campaign. He, like most Allied troops fighting in Normandy, was frustrated by hedgerows, those tangled messes of bushes and shrub trees that delineated boundaries between fields in the Normandy countryside and served as ready made fortifications for German machine guns and snipers. Culin mentioned that one day he was discussing the problem that the hedgerows presented for their tanks when a “hillbilly”, Culin’s phrase, suggested putting teeth on the tanks.
That is just what Culin did, welding tusk like blades to the front of a tank that allowed it to cleave its way through the densest of hedgerows. Ultimately demonstrated to General Bradley, he put the idea into mass production, using the metal crosses that littered the beach defenses installed by the Germans to make the blades on some of the tanks. By the launch of Operation Cobra, the breakout from Normandy on July 25, 60% of First Army tanks had been teethed. Continue reading
“I never liked being called the ‘most decorated’ soldier. There were so many guys who should have gotten medals and never did–
guys who were killed.”
Today would be the 88th birthday of Audie Murphy if he had not died in a plane crash, fittingly enough on Memorial Day weekend, forty-three years ago.
In the Fifties actor Audie Murphy achieved stardom, mainly in Westerns. Murphy looked like a typical Hollywood “pretty boy” but he was anything but. From a family of 12 in Texas, he was the sixth child, Murphy had dropped out of school in the fifth grade to help support his dirt poor family after his worthless father ran off. His mother died in 1941. In 1942 he enlisted in the Army at 16, lying about his birthday, partially to help support his younger brothers and sister and partially because he dreamed of a military career. He served with the Third Infantry Division in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany. By the end of the War, just before his 19th birthday, he was a First Lieutenant and had earned, in hellish combat, a Medal of Honor, a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit, a French Legion of Honor, a French Croix de Guerre, a Belgian Croix de Guerre, two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts. He was the most decorated soldier of the US Army in World War 2. Here is his Medal of Honor Citation which helps explain why Murphy entitled his war memoir To Hell and Back:
Second Lt. Murphy commanded Company B, which was attacked by six tanks and waves of infantry. 2d Lt. Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to a prepared position in a woods, while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him, to his right, one of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. 2d Lt. Murphy continued to direct artillery fire, which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, 2d Lt. Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer, which was in danger of blowing up at any moment, and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to German fire from three sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate 2d Lt. Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad that was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards, only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound, but ignored it and continued his single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way back to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack, which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he killed or wounded about 50. 2d Lt. Murphy’s indomitable courage and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his company from possible encirclement and destruction, and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy’s objective. Continue reading
Bookworm of Bookworm Room has a first rate post in which she notes the decline in American appreciation of heroism from World War II to today. She quotes this passage from the superb memoir of the novelist George MacDonald Fraser, Quartered Safe Out Here, about his experiences fighting as a British soldier in Burma during World War II, to describe the change that has come over the West in the past seventy years:
An outsider might have thought, mistakenly, that the section was unmoved by the deaths of Gale and Little. There was no outward show of sorrow, no reminiscences or eulogies, no Hollywood heart-searchings or phony philosophy. Forster asked “W’ee’s on foorst stag?”; Grandarse said “Not me, any roads; Ah’s aboot knackered”, and rolled up in his blanket; Nick cleaned Tich’s rifle; I washed and dried his pialla; the new section commander – that young corporal who earlier in the day had earned the Military Medal — told off the stag roster; we went to sleep. And that was that. It was not callousness or indifference or lack of feeling for two comrades who had been alive that morning and were now names for the war memorial; it was just that there was nothing to be said.
It was part of war; men died, more would die, that was past, and what mattered now was the business in hand; those who lived would get on with it. Whatever sorrow was felt, there was no point in talking or brooding about it, much less in making, for form’s sake, a parade of it. Better and healthier to forget it, and look to tomorrow.
The celebrated British stiff upper lip, the resolve to conceal emotion which is not only embarrassing and useless, but harmful, is just plain common sense.
But that was half a century ago. Things are different now, when the media seem to feel they have a duty to dwell on emotion, the more harrowing the better, and to encourage its indulgence. The cameras close on stricken families at funerals, interviewers probe relentlessly to uncover grief, pain, fear, and shock, know no reticence or even decency in their eagerness to make the viewers’ flesh creep, and wallow in the sentimental cliché (victims are always “innocent”, relatives must be “loved ones”). And the obscene intrusion is justified as “caring” and “compassionate” when it is the exact opposite.
The pity is that the public shapes its behaviour to the media’s demands. The bereaved feel obliged to weep and lament for the cameras (and feel a flattering importance at their attention). Even young soldiers, on the eye of action in the Gulf, confessed, under a nauseating inquisition designed to uncover their fears, to being frightened — of course they were frightened, just as we were, but no interviewer in our time was so shameless, cruel, or unpatriotic as to badger us into admitting our human weakness for public consumption, and thereby undermining public morale, and our own. In such a climate, it is not to be wondered at that a general should agonise publicly about the fears and soul-searchings of command — Slim and Montgomery and MacArthur had them, too, but they would rather have been shot than admit it. They knew the value of the stiff upper lip.
The damage that fashionable attitudes, reflected (and created) by television, have done to the public spirit, is incalculable. It has been weakened to the point where it is taken for granted that anyone who has suffered loss and hardship must be in need of “counselling”; that soldiers will suffer from “post-battle traumatic stress” and need psychiatric help. One wonders how Londoners survived the Blitz without the interference of unqualified, jargonmumbling “counsellors”, or how an overwhelming number of 1940s servicemen returned successfully to civilian life without benefit of brain-washing. Certainly, a small minority needed help; war can leave terrible mental scars — but the numbers will increase, and the scars enlarge, in proportion to society’s insistence on raising spectres which would be better left alone. Tell people they should feel something, and they’ll not only feel it, they’ll regard themselves as entitled and obliged to feel it. Continue reading
One of the most highly decorated chaplains of World War II, Father Elmer W. Heindl used to joke that his decorations were simply due to him being in the wrong place at the right time. Born on June 14, 1910 in Rochester, New York, the oldest of six children, Heindl decided at an early age that he was meant to be a priest and was ordained on June 6, 1936. He said that being born on Flag Day indicated to him that during his life he would do something to honor the Stars and Stripes. Continue reading
My fellow Americans: Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.
And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:
Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.
Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.
They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.
They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest-until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.
For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.
Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom. Continue reading
Today, seventy years on, this is heart warming:
As a Frenchman and as a priest, I’m really aware of what we owe this young generation of soldiers who died for us French to be free,” said Father Pujos, 44, who is a parochial vicar and chaplain at St. Catherine School.
His grandparents and parents, Jerome and Sylvie Pujos, always spoke to him about it. When he was young, his grandmother took him to the American cemetery in Normandy to pay their respect for the soldiers.
Eisenhower, on D-Day morning distributed to the troops a general order, which is like a handbill, and everybody read it. And he said “we are about to embark upon the great crusade, which we have been preparing for, for many months” etc.
Now at first none of us could believe it was anything like a crusade, because we were playing dice, and we were thinking about girls all the time and getting drunk as possible and so forth. It wasn’t like a crusade, there was not religious dimension to whatever. When they finally got across France and into Germany, and saw the German death camps, they realized that they had been in engaged in something like a crusade, although none of them called it that. And it all began to make a kind of sense to us.
Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened, he will fight savagely.
But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man to man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our home fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory!
I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!
Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower
A leap year baby, Francis L. Sampson was born on February 29, 1912 in Cherokee Iowa.
A quarter of a century later he graduated from Notre Dame and made a bee-line for St. Paul’s Seminary at Saint Paul Minnesota. Ordained a priest for the Des Moines Iowa diocese on June 1, 1941, he served briefly as a parish priest at Neola, Iowa and taught at Dowling High School in Des Moines.
Eager to become a chaplain, as soon as he received permission from his Bishop Father Sampson enlisted in the United States Army in 1942. Always looking for a challenge, he became regimental chaplain of the 501st Parachute Regiment of the 101rst Airborne. In his memoirs, Look Out Below!, Father Sampson wrote about his joining a very tough branch of the service: Continue reading
Chaplain, I am a strong believer in Prayer. There are three ways that men get what they want; by planning, by working, and by Praying. Any great military operation takes careful planning, or thinking. Then you must have well-trained troops to carry it out: that’s working. But between the plan and the operation there is always an unknown. That unknown spells defeat or victory, success or failure. It is the reaction of the actors to the ordeal when it actually comes. Some people call that getting the breaks; I call it God. God has His part, or margin in everything, That’s where prayer comes in. Up to now, in the Third Army, God has been very good to us. We have never retreated; we have suffered no defeats, no famine, no epidemics. This is because a lot of people back home are praying for us. We were lucky in Africa, in Sicily, and in Italy. Simply because people prayed. But we have to pray for ourselves, too. A good soldier is not made merely by making him think and work. There is something in every soldier that goes deeper than thinking or working–it’s his “guts.” It is something that he has built in there: it is a world of truth and power that is higher than himself. Great living is not all output of thought and work. A man has to have intake as well. I don’t know what you it, but I call it Religion, Prayer, or God.
General George S. Patton, Jr to Monsignor James H. O’Neil, Chief Chaplain, Third Army
I am sure old Blood and Guts would have had something to say about this, both colorful and devout:
Mother Margaret Georgina Patton first came to the Abbey in the early 1970’s while a freshman at Bennington College amidst the social turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War. She was personally implicated in the conflict through her father George S. Patton’s distinguished service during three tours of duty, one as colonel, commanding the 11th Blackhorse Armored Cavalry Regiment. In conversations with our Foundress Lady Abbess Benedict, she discovered that her grandfather General George S. Patton Jr. and the American 3rd Army had liberated the Abbey of Notre Dame de Jouarre from Nazi occupation during World War II. Mother Benedict, an American who had entered Jouarre in 1936, had the inspiration to found a monastery in the United States in response to what she described as the “lifting of oppression” by the American soldiers on the day Jouarre was liberated. As Mother Margaret Georgina became drawn to monastic life at Regina Laudis she could begin to claim the rich genealogy of her military family. She completed her B.A. in English at Dartmouth College in 1976, and entered Regina Laudis in 1982 . Continue reading
In the afternoon of the same day, Wednesday, June 7th, the Pope received, in a memorable and moving general audience in the Sala Clementina, some seven hundred grimy Allied soldiers, most of them fresh from battle and all of them in the highest spirits. There were British, French, Americans, Poles, Indians, and men from all the Dominions. The contrast between these varieties of battle-dress and the plumed Swiss Guard in their sixteenth-century uniforms who marshalled them made the deepest impression : here were the centuries meeting, as well as the nations of the free world, at an historic moment in history. The Pope said in English from the throne : “We bless all you here in person, and We send Our blessing to your loved ones at home. We pray that God in His love and mercy may be with you always. Goodbye. Bless you all.” Then he administered the Apostolic Benediction as the soldiers knelt, and came down from the throne, passing among the men as he made his way to leave. Hundreds of soldiers pressed round the common father, trying to kiss his hand or his cassock, and altogether too enthusiastic for the Swiss Guard ; but the Pope himself was entirely unperturbed, smiling, and speaking all the time to those nearest to him. Every soldier who attended was given a rosary which he had specially blessed, in a little envelope bearing the papal crest.
The Tablet, June 17, 1944
The Italian theatre of operations was the forgotten theatre of operations in World War II Europe. The American, British, Poles, New Zealanders, Australians, South Africans, Brazilians and other Allied troops fought a long and grinding campaign against a formidable German defense, with advances often painfully won from mountain top to mountain top, up the tough spine of the Italian boot. Typical of how events in Italy were overshadowed by events elsewhere in Europe was the liberation of Rome on June 5, 1944, a very hard won objective of the Allied 5th American Army and the 8th British Army, which was immediately overshadowed by D-Day the next day.
The above video is color footage showing the entrance of some of the American troops into Rome on June 5, 1944, and an audience they had with Pope Pius XII.
The Pope, like almost all Romans, was joyous to be free from Nazi occupation, and he made that clear when he met with General Mark Clark. Continue reading
“There is one great thing that you men will all be able to say after this war is over and you are home once again. You may be thankful that twenty years from now when you are sitting by the fireplace with your grandson on your knee and he asks you what you did in the great World War II, you WON’T have to cough, shift him to the other knee and say, “Well, your Granddaddy shoveled sh-t in Louisiana.” No, Sir, you can look him straight in the eye and say, “Son, your Granddaddy rode with the Great Third Army and a Son-of-a-G-dd—ed-B—h named Georgie Patton!”
General George S. Patton, Jr., June 5, 1944
General George S. Patton, Jr., not only had high military skills, he was also a skilled actor, using that skill to inspire his troops and sometimes to terrify his immediate subordinates. After Patton was placed in the dog house due to the slapping of a private on Sicily, Army Chief of Staff George Marshall came up with the idea of using Patton as a decoy: Marshall wrote to Eisenhower on October 21, 1943: “It seems evident to us that Patton’s movements are of great importance to German reactions and therefore should be carefully considered. I had thought and spoke to [Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Walter Bedell] Smith about Patton being given a trip to Cairo and Cyprus but the Corsican visit appeals to me as carrying much more of a threat [to northern Italy].” Eisenhower responded, “As it is I am quite sure that we must do everything possible to keep [the Germans] confused and the point you have suggested concerning Patton’s movements appeals to me as having a great deal of merit. This possibility had not previously occurred to me.”
Ironically, although the Germans after his dash across France at the head of Third Army would regard Patton as one of ablest Allied generals, prior to that time his name figures little in German intelligence reports, while constant attention was paid to the movements of Montgomery. The plan to use Patton as a decoy was therefore based on a faulty premise, but of course Eisenhower and Marshall were completely unaware of that. Continue reading
An interesting look at World War II on a global scale day by day. Amazing to recall how seventy years ago battles were being fought that set the course of our world, and greatly impacted the lives of us all from that time to the present. Continue reading
Seventy years ago was a busy time at Stalag III, a German POW camp near the town of Sagan. 76 Allied pows escaped the camp in the largest mass escape of Allied prisoners during the War. The plan of the escape was conceived by RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, the officer in charge of the camp escape committee. He announced his plan to the committee in the Spring of 1943 beginning with these words:
Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time. By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun.
The plan involved three tunnels, Tom, Dick and Harry. More than 600 POWs were involved in the construction. In the midst of the construction of the tunnels, the American POWs were moved to another compound and, contra Hollywood, no Americans as a result participated in the actual escape, although they had helped with the construction of the tunnels prior to their move.
On March 24, 1944, a moonless night, 76 men made good their escape. The Germans realized what was going on when the 77th man was seen climbing out of the tunnel. 73 of the prisoners were eventually recaptured, with three making good their escape. Hitler was enraged by the escapes and ordered the execution of the escapees. German officers up to and including Reichsfuhrer Herman Goering were appalled, arguing that such executions would violate the Geneva Convention. Hitler eventually compromised with fifty of the recaptured escapees murdered by the SS, including Squadron Leader Bushell. It should be noted that the German officers at Stalag III strictly observed the Geneva Convention, and one can imagine their feelings at having their military honor stained by the SS. Indeed a later camp commandant, Oberst Franz Braune, allowed a memorial to the murdered men to be erected by the prisoners and he contributed to it. (In regard to the East Front both sides waged a war of extermination with prisoners starved to death and murdered by the hundreds of thousands.) Continue reading
An interesting training film made by Warner Brothers for the United States Army Air Corps in 1943. Burgess Meredith has the feature role as the tail gunner in training. Ronald Reagan is in a supporting role as the pilot of the B-17. Both of them were Lieutenants in the Army Air Corps and both would complete their service as Captains. A cut above the usual training films of the period.
I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words.
Edward R. Murrow at Buchenwald, April 15, 1945
1944 was seventy years ago, and on this blog we will have numerous posts depicting the battles fought in the wake of D-Day up through the fall of the Third Reich. As we recall this, I think it is also important to recall the type of tyranny that the Third Reich was, and why it was necessary to utterly vanquish it at a hideous cost in human lives.
When Buchenwald death camp was liberated, General Patton was so outraged that he ordered military police to go to Weimar, the nearest town, and bring 1000 German civilians back to tour the camp to see what their leaders had done. The MPs were just as outraged, and brought back 2000. Edward R. Murrow did a radio broadcast from Buchenwald on April 15, 1945 that is absolutely unforgettable. Evil can grow so strong in this world that it has to be stopped, no matter the cost. Here is the transcript of Murrow’s broadcast:
Permit me to tell you what you would have seen and heard had you had been with me on Thursday. It will not be pleasant listening. If you are at lunch, or if you have no appetite to hear what Germans have done, now is a good time to switch off the radio for I propose to tell you of Buchenwald. It is on a small hill about four miles outside Weimar, and it was one of the largest concentration camps in Germany, and it was built to last. Continue reading
Hollywood director Frank Capra directed many classic films including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. However, he thought his best work was the Why We Fight series of films that he directed for the Army during World War II. Sicilian born Capra was the son of Italian immigrants and was an American patriot to his fingertips. He served in the Army during World War I as a Second Lieutenant. Immediately after Peal Harbor he enlisted in the Army. He was put to work making films explaining to American GIs why the US had to fight and win World War II. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall explained to Capra the importance of this task:
Now, Capra, I want to nail down with you a plan to make a series of documented, factual-information films – the first in our history – that will explain to our boys in the Army why we are fighting, and the principles for which we are fighting … You have an opportunity to contribute enormously to your country and the cause of freedom. Are you aware of that, sir?
The films he produced are widely considered to be masterpieces today. Continue reading