75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Halle Germany by the American Army and a German WWI Naval Hero

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Graf Luckner – US Intelligence Photo – National Archives

My first military history book I wrote was Cruise of the Sea Eagle.  It was the story of Count Felix Von Luckner who, in WWI, went raiding on the high seas in the three-mastered windjammer.  No, I am not making this shit up.  Von Luckner raided the Atlantic and Pacific – only taking one life in his operations.  His ship was wrecked on an island in the Pacific (cue the Gilligan’s Island theme) and he was captured by New Zealanders, and escaped.  His story is amazing on many levels.  But today, I’d like to focus on one instance in particular – the saving of his hometown, Halle.

 

US National Archives.  Sketches of the Sea Eagle (Seeadler) 

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US Navy Photo – the wreckage of the Seeadler on Mopelia Island

By WWII, Von Luckner was an old man.  The Nazi’s didn’t want anything to do with him, because he didn’t buy into their ideology.  He was relegated to living in his home town, Halle.

On April 19, 1945, 75 years ago, the US Army came to liberate the town.  It had been spared a lot of carnage and devastation in the war.  The German commander was prepared to slug it out, making the Americans lay waste to the city.  Graf Luckner sneaked through the battle lines and connected with General Terry Allen of the US Army.  Von Luckner acted as an intermediary, negotiating the German surrender of Halle, saving his home town.

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General Allen with Von Luckner

In doing research for the book, my wife and I went to Halle, which had just emerged from being part of East Germany.  The city was very much as it appeared during WWII.  Much of this is because Von Luckner had spared the city.  Ironically, the East German’s version of events is that the American Army was never there –  that the Russians had liberated the town.  Revisionist history at its worst.

Today being the 75th anniversary of their liberation is special and brings me back to our visit there.  We have some wonderful memories of this beautiful German town and look forward to our return one day.

You can take part in the Von Luckner story by being part of his historical society.  Von Luckner Society

Our Current Pandemic and the Call for the US Military to Step-In – Presenting the US Navy’s War Plan White – May 1946

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Gratuitous self-promotion during a time of crisis, or filling people with some reading material?  You make the call

A few years ago I wrote a book about the early US War Plans to invade various countries (Never Wars)

There were a few plans I did not write about.  One was the US/UK plan to invade Ireland during WWII.  I found a lot of it, but not enough to make it meaningful to historians.  Another was War Plan White.  This plan called for the use of the US military on American soil to restore order, put down civil unrest, or respond to a crisis or emergency situation.  The version I found was 1946.

There have been a lot of variations on War Plan White over the decades.  In the 1902 and 1921 striking coal workers threatened to cripple the economy.  There were early drafts, which I never found copies of, during the Anarchist Movement as well.  Likewise the US Army was employed against US citizens during the Bonus Army protests in 1932.

With this COVID-19 pandemic, I have heard cries from the uniformed about the need to deploy the Army in hard hit areas.  As Teddy Roosevelt understood when he was tempted to do so during a miner strike, “The Army doesn’t know how to dig coal.”  Likewise the military, while experts in attacking enemies or defending our country; they are not necessarily the right response to a health care crisis. It isn’t something that the Army is trained for, nor do they have expertise in this area.  That isn’t a knock on the military, but a realization that sending in the military to assist in such matters may not have the intended consequences or results.

Since I had some time on my hands, I found the US Navy’s War Plan White copy that I found at the National Archives and thought I would share it for those interested.  It provides a glimpse of the Navy’s role in such an emergency situation, for those curious about such matters.  I tried to find the Army’s copy of White but was less-than-successful.  For those of you not familiar with the US National Archives, it is often a complicated search for the proverbial needle in a haystack when you look for a specific document.

This 1946 Navy copy of White is an interesting read.  You have to understand, the military, in that post-WWII-era, operated like, well, the military.  That meant that the law, under White, would be executed according to military justice – which is significantly different than civil law. What you also see is the preoccupation to secure Washington DC.

While far from a gripping read, I thought folks might like to see a very old template of what such an effort might look like.  Besides, people have time on their hands, so a little historical reading is probably a bit of a welcome diversion.   No doubt a revised set of White plans is being updated as we speak.  Let that setttle in for a moment.

The lesson with this War Plan is simple:  Be careful what you ask for…

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I apologize for the lousy photography.  Frankly, I’m surprised I didn’t delete these files after I decided not the use them.  Also, page 11 was blank – thus not included.

Review of: Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment by Cory M. Pfarr

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People forget sometimes that I am a military historian on top of writing in other more popular genres.  This book has been nagging me for weeks to read it, so I did and it was not quite what I expected, but proved to be more.  This is an unsolicited review.

Like many people, I have read a lot of books on Gettysburg over the years.  In many there has been an undercurrent of sorts, taking jabs, sometimes less than gentle, at General James Longstreet.  Some historians have laid the failure at Gettysburg at his feet.  I knew the stories all too well.  Longstreet was a Republican and after the war took an active role in the Federal Government.  In his post-war assessments and writings he was candid about Gettysburg and less-than-artfully pointed the finger for some of the blame on General Robert E. Lee.  To many in the south, this was akin to sacrilege.

After the war the mythos of the Lost Cause emerged.  In this, Southerners attempted to deflect that the war had to do with slavery, shifting more to the narrative that it was really about states rights.  There is plenty of foundation for that thinking and I won’t turn this into a states-rights vs. slavery debate because it gives even me a headache at times.  At the same time they tended to iconize the Southern leaders, placing them on pedestals.  They railed against Reconstruction, the Republican Party, and the north.  When I wrote about Bert Hall’s father (In my book, The Bad Boy), I had to study the Confederates that migrated to Mexico to attempt to reform the Confederacy there – so prevalent was this determination to remain sovereign on their part.  There was a certain dignity to it, that the South had been fighting what was a doomed lost cause from the beginning but did so nobly and with honor.

Highest on those pillars of untouchable Southern leaders is Robert E. Lee.  So when Longstreet even hinted that Lee was to blame for the defeat at Gettysburg, he became a pariah amongst his own people.  Former generals lined up to contort history as much as possible to make it look like he was the reason that the Confederacy lost that battle.  Historians that followed often used these heavily slanted accounts to further besmirch Longstreet’s leadership.

Which brings me to this book.  Mr. Pfarr has written something of a unique book on Gettysburg.  Rather than retell the battle minute-by-minute, he raises the critiques of Longstreet by various former officers and historians, and compares them to facts and a cold dose of reality.  Being a true crime author, I love it when someone compares conflicting accounts of events, sometimes from the same person, to show how the telling of events is corrupted and twisted over time.

This is a good solid book, but it is aimed more at scholarly researchers rather than casual readers.  I really enjoyed the opening chapters where you see Longstreet in his later years.  Once you get into the battle itself you don’t get the entire picture of Gettysburg, but rather the points of contention around Longstreet.  Believe me, there was plenty of blame to go around for the failure there, not just with Lee but with other subordinates.

I think Mr. Pfarr, much like a well-organized lawyer, has made a compelling case in support of Longstreet.  He does not claim that the general is perfect by any stretch, but he casts enough doubt to make you want to reconsider Longstreet’s true role and contribution in the battle.  My only real critique about the book is what isn’t there, which is a chapter that really delves into the Lost Cause mythology. I don’t subscribe to the Lost Cause, but there is a lot of fertile ground that would have been great to explore for context.

So, if you like more academic works of military history, this is a must for Civil War reader.  I anxiously await Mr. Pfarr’s next book.

A Pleasant Surprise – The US Planned Invasion of Canada

 

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My wife and I went to Barnes and Noble two weeks ago.  I don’t spend a lot of time in bookstores…usually because I am writing books, not looking for them.  I hadn’t been to a B&N in a long time, at least two years. I had to admit I found myself wondering just how long the place would stay open – there were more employees than customers.

I wandered through the genres I write about, just seeing what was on the shelves, when I finally drifted to the magazine rack.  There I spotted “What If… Book of Alternate History.”  I love this genre so I scarfed a copy.  In line with my wife, I opened it and saw there was a section on What if the US had invaded Canada?  Wow.  I wrote about that (twice) in my book NeverWars (Fonthill Media).  War Plan Red covered this much better in the 1930’s, but the earlier plan, for the 1904-1916 version was a fun read.  So I wondered if the author had used any of the same sources as me.

I flipped to that page and was surprised.  I was the author.

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I remember writing it for a British history magazine years earlier and it never dawned on me that they would reprint it.  What a weird surprise.

I do recommend the magazine – there are some wonderful articles in it as well as a list of the best alternate history novels.

Rorke’s Drift Anniversary

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January 22 is the anniversary of one of history’s most infamous battles – Rorke’s Drift.  I became enamored with this battle after a veteran on my newspaper route in high school recommended I watch the movie, Zulu.  Yes, I know the movie has a number of inaccuracies, but it was compelling.  It harkens to the Alamo, but in this case the Texicans would have won.  At Rorke’s Drift, on 22 January 1879, 150 British soldiers successfully defended the outpost from almost 4000 Zulu warriors.  Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded for the battle, more than any other single engagement.

The prelude to the battle was a disaster for the British Army.  At Isandlwana scant miles from the outpost, the 24th Regiment of Foot suffered a staggering defeat and were slaughtered.  The small detachment at Rorke’s Drift were alone in hostile territory, horribly outnumbered by an emboldened enemy fresh from a victory.  The outpost was exposed, surrounded by hillsides.  On paper, defeat appeared inevitable.

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The outpost prior to the battle

The British troops formed a defensive perimeter around the outpost, using the buildings, fences and barricade of mealie bags.  The Zulus were armed with spears and captured rifles, but the defenders had firing discipline and steely resolve.  Sweltering in their brilliant red uniforms, the British (and a handful of Natal troops) repulsed wave after wave of attackers.  To this day, it remains a victory of pride and honor for the British Army.

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Lieutenant John Chard: “The army doesn’t like more than one disaster in a day.”
Bromhead: “Looks bad in the newspapers and upsets civilians at their breakfast.”
From Zulu

Anniversary of the Battle of Midway

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The Yorktown, listing badly

This year, 2017, marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway (June 4-6).  While often referred to as “the turning point of the war in the Pacific,” Midway was more than that.  It solidified a change of military doctrine on the high seas.  Gone was the era of the battleship.  Carrier warfare was what would determine the fate of the Pacific and would reshape our navy into the modern era.

Midway was one of those battles that could have, and possibly should have, gone horribly wrong for the United States.  Six months after Pearl Harbor and our only real victory against the Japanese was Doolittle’s Raid.  We were outnumbered in carriers and experience by the Japanese.  Coming out of the Battle of Coral Sea, the USS Yorktown was badly damaged. The thinking then was that she was going to take several months in drydock in the US to become operational.  The navy got her ready for battle in 72 hours, with some repair crews remaining on the ship and fixing her while at sea.

One of our best admirals, Bull Halsey, was ill.  In his place was Admiral Raymond Spruance.  Fuzzy historians (my phrase – copyright pending) like to say that he was a cruiser commander, but Spruance was well versed in carrier tactics.

The US knew the essence of the Japanese plan. Naval intelligence had broken the Japanese code and learned the basics of the plan.  Admiral Yamamoto’s Plan MI was to strike at the Aleutian Islands to lure away the Americans with a diversion there, then to attack and land troops on Midway. Doing so would lure the understrength American fleet (which he believed only consisted of two carriers, the Hornet and the Enterprise) into a battle they could not win.

Knowing the plan and achieving victory were two different things.  The Americans scouted the Japanese approaches from the air.  Midway dug in like a tick on exposed skin.  The Japanese did not fully expect the US fleet to engage them, they were expecting them to be lured off towards their diversion.

Initially the battle went badly for the American navy.  The Japanese struck at Midway, pulverizing their air defenders and bombing the island hard.  The Imperial Navy scouts spotted the American ships and the Japanese began to swap out contact bombs intended for Midway, to torpedoes to deal with the new threat.  That was when they were pounced upon.  While the Americans failed to do significant damage and suffered heavy losses, the attack threw off the Japanese plans.  As they tried to regroup, another American force, three squadrons from the Yorktown and the Enterprise, hit them again.  The battle was furious and fast, ultimately ending the day with three of the four Japanese carriers crippled or sunk. The infamous line was broadcast back to the carriers by Lieutenant Commander Robert Dixon after sinking the Shosho, “Scratch one flattop!”

The Japanese struck back, catching the Yorktown and hitting her hard – with an over 20 degree list and no working propulsion.  The Japanese thought they had sunk her.  They were wrong though.  The Yorktown was salvaged for another day of battle, though it was destined to be her last.

The next day brought about another strike by the Japanese, this time all but sinking the Yorktown (it would fall prey to a Japanese submarine after the battle. Believing they had already sunk one of the two American carriers the day before, they surmised they had taken out the last American carrier.  US Navy dive bombers took out the last Japanese carrier, forcing the invasion force to retreat.

The US had traded one carrier for four and had, in one battle, tipped the scales of the war in the Pacific.  Pearl Harbor had truly been avenged.

I first learned of this battle from Walter Lord’s book Incredible Victory.  Alan Andrews, a veteran of Vietnam on my paper route loaned me his dog-eared copy and I devoured it.

There are myths around the battle that survive to this day.  One is that the Navy War College wargamed the Battle of Midway many times over the years but was never able to duplicate the US victory.  While accepted as truth, I have not found any credible source for this story.  At the same time, it is hard to doubt it.  Midway was a rare combination of strategy, tactics, and blind luck that would be difficult to properly simulate.

To commemorate the anniversary of the battle I re-watched the 1976 movie Midway.  I wished I hadn’t.  First off, they reused (poorly) a lot of footage from Tora Tora Tora.  Then they intermixed real-life combat footage that made the battle hard to watch from a historian’s perspective.  All of the additional plot lines were unnecessary.  The only fun I had was watching Tom Selleck and Erik Estrada in early career roles in the film. It left me wondering when they would make a good version of this film, one that tells the true story, not the Hollywood dribble.

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While playing SPI’s War in the Pacific.  “I need an ensign to go over there to map 13 and move my carrier task force three hexes north.”

Review of Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager

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I picked up this book hard copy – a rarity for me, in the airport coming home from vacation and had it completed by the time we landed.  Granted, I’m a fast reader, but the message here is that this is not a deep book.  It is one, however, that is a good geopolitical read.

My printed copy clearly had some issues, with two inserts covering up errors or putting in text that was missing in the final copy.  There were a good number of pictures and maps, which were useful.  This was a foreign war against a terrorist state where religion played a part.  Hmm, the parallels to today seem pretty obvious. 

The authors do a fair job of giving you the context – both overseas and in the US at the time.  It was good to know, but what makes this book, as with most history, is the characters.  This had some outstanding heroes and some villains that seemed to have come from central casting.  The war itself was oddly balanced – the fledgling US against a well-established albeit minor state.  It is a strange balance but one that works.

As a military historian, I wanted a little more. I didn’t get the feeling of being there, though I am sure from the footnotes, that there was a wealth of material that could have been brought to bear in this regard. There were plenty of opportunities to provide readers with a wealth of detail that simply were overlooked.  The authors clearly wanted this to be an overview of America’s first foreign conflict…and therein lies the rub.  

If you are looking for the definitive book on the war with the Tripoli pirates, this is not it.  There is not a wealth of new material here on the subject.  In fact, I didn’t learn anything new and that left me wanting.  Again, I’m a history reader and writer – so I always want new data. 

If you only have passing knowledge of these conflict, I recommend this book.  Otherwise this book doesn’t break any new ground – but it is well written.  Personally, I wanted more.  As such, I give it three out of five stars. 

 

 

Centennial of the formation of the Lafayette Escadrille

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Lafayette – we have arrived.  The Lafayette Escadrille

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Escadrille Américaine, later known as the Lafayette Escadrille.  Sadly, most Americans know little of this unit today, but at the time, the exploits of these pilots in the Great War were daily newspaper articles.  In 1916, young boys wanted to be these heroes of the air and young men headed off the Europe to join them.  Ladies wrote them, sent packages and gifts, swooning over these young aviators.

America would not declare war for another year and it would be many months later before any American squadrons arrived and joined the fight.  In the meantime the men of the Lafayette Escadrille (and the broader Lafayette Flying Corps) would be the core of the American Air Service, the only combat-experienced American aviators.

While the Lafayette Escadrille was a squadron whose ranks were Americans, they were led by a French commanding officer.  The unit is often confused with the Lafayette Flying Corps (which most men were joint members of.)  The flying corps was much larger and its member were Americans that were seeded into French escadrilles. Both of these volunteer organizations were at war long before America as a nation stepped up to the plate.

Many of the members of the unit began in the American Ambulance Service and the French Foreign Legion.  They came to Europe for many reasons, most believing that the war would be over in a few months.  When they formed the Escadrille Américaine it spurred an international incident because America was officially neutral.  The eloquent solution was to rename the organization to the Lafayette Escadrille.

Most of the original founders came from rich families.  There were a few rogues in the mix – namely men like Raoul Lufberry and Bert Hall; older more seasoned than the high society college boys.  The war they fought was one of bitter stinging cold open cockpits.   Parachutes were not part of their kits.  They flew planes that were spruce and metal covered with doped linen.  Their cockpits were not armored and often the men sat next to or on top of their fuel.  Death could come at any angle at any moment – yet that did not deter these brave men.

There was a romantic air about these men (pun unintended). Their mascots were two pet lions – Whiskey and Soda.  They had a bottle of champagne that was a “Bottle of Death” reserved for the last surviving member to toast his fallen comrades.  In may respects, their exploits were crafted for Hollywood.  Two movies have been made about the unit, but both sadly missed any degree of historical accuracy.

The Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps were to become the heart and soul of the American Air Service.  Without these men, America’s aviation pursuits in WWI would have been a disaster – with countless more casualties.  The formation of the escadrille marked the start of a true US Air Force.

This week, the French honored the Americans at their massive memorial outside of Paris.  I received my invitation to attend but was too late.  That was okay.  I’ve had the honor to write about such men in my books Lost Eagles and The Bad Boy – Bert Hall, Aviator and Mercenary of the Skies.  I have enjoyed the honor to chronicle exploits of such men.  And in this week, marking the centennial of the start of their incredible historical journey, I wanted to take a moment to remember what these volunteers did for the American Air Force.

Review of Bombs Away – Harry Turtledove – Alternate History

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I was intrigued with the premise of this alternate history novel.  In the Korea War, General MacArthur convinces President Truman to allow him to use nuclear bombs against the Chinese surging into the Korean peninsula.  I knew one thing, the Godfather of the genre, Harry Turtledove, was going to take us on a ride.

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“Harry, I have an idea.  Let’s toast a few hundred thousand Chinese…”

It is a neat period of history and Turtledove’s twist of history was going to be a good combination I felt and I wasn’t let down.  The Russians respond to the use of nuclear weapons by using some of their own.  Rather than a horrific holocaust in a blinding few minutes, this is a bomber war and both sides sparingly use their weapons of mass destruction.  It is a slow, almost ponderous and grinding war of attrition – one that is entirely plausible.

Turtledove has his usual ensemble of characters to tell us the story, right down to his traditional Jewish character.  When it comes to Turtledove, this is expected and somewhat anticipated.  The book felt like a well worn glove that fit on my hand just right.

I had no idea that this was the first book of a series, which I have to admit, left me a little bit hanging.  So you’re not left with a strong conclusion in this book, instead you’re left set up for the next book in the series.  That was a little bit disappointing but that was the only thing I didn’t enjoy.

This book is old-school Turtledove at his best.  The characters really stand out and the plot takes us on a very intricate war.  The battle of Fulda Gap, which we all anticipated in the 1980’s, is fascinating in the 1950’s.  I love T34’s tangling with contemporary American armor.

I give this book a five out of five stars.  I devoured it in a weekend and now have to twiddle my thumbs until the next book comes out in April.

The 180th Anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo

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No matter how bad-ass you are, you are never going to be Davy Crockett at the Alamo bad-ass.

This week marks the 180th anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo (February 23-March 6, 1836.)  I have always held this battle in reverence since my reading of Bill Davis’s outstanding book:  Three Roads to the Alamo.  It’s one of those books I read every two years or so…it’s that good.  As a bagpiper myself, the fact that John McGregor was at the Alamo, playing his pipes in battle, offers a fascinating mental picture for me.  Yes, the defenders had a bagpiper with them, how kick-ass is that?

On paper, the fight was one-sided.  Santa Anna’s 1800 troops against 185-200 Texas volunteers.  The defenders of the old mission were not professional soldiers by any stretch.  When you think of the Alamo, it is hard not to wonder what was going through the minds of the volunteers.  They knew the odds against them.  Surrounded, they knew they were cut off and that reinforcements were not coming.  There’s a special bond formed among men facing such calamity that is impossible to put in words.  We know it, we think we understand it, but how many of us would have remained there in the mission and opted to fight – knowing what the final fate was going to be?

The Alamo brought unlikely men together, as if it was destined to be a crossroads in history.  Travis and Bowie were both struggling with debt and had played land speculation.  These were not heroic figures up until this battle.  Only the last days of their lives forever changed public opinion of these brave men.  Both were drawn through circumstance to be at the mission 180 years ago.

Perhaps the most intriguing character that came to the defense of the impromptu fort was former congressman David Crockett.   A failed politician he was, at the time, more hype than reality.  The Alamo changed that.  Crockett and his party’s arrival at a juncture of history ensconced him as a Texan and American hero.

There is a transformative ability that the siege of the Alamo has.  It took men, and even the efforts to carve out Texas as a nation, and make them a reality.  Last stands are not the property of America, but it became one of the few that the entire nation adopted as its own.

Hollywood further solidified this battle in history.  Be it Fess Parker, John Wayne, or Billy Bob Thorton; the Alamo is destined to be something the entertainment industry will never let us forget.  Gaming wise, SPI put out a fairly good game of the Battle of the Alamo but few boardgames have tried to capture the fight.

Militarily, the battle, like many epic stands, on its own, was not strategic.  The same could be said of Rorke’s Drift.  The Alamo did buy several days for the Texian forces to assemble, but overall, the Alamo did not determine the fate of the war.  Their devastating defeat however served as a rallying point for the Texians to eventually drive to victory.

The men didn’t have to fight to the brutal end but chose to.  That kind of resolve, especially in our modern age, is unheard of.  There are images, scenes of the siege that stick in our minds.  Did Travis draw a line in the sand with his sword, challenging men who wanted to leave to cross the line?  Did Davy Crockett survive the fight only to be slaughtered afterwards?

In the end, those details simply don’t matter.  The Alamo is a symbol in American and Texas history.  And on this 180th anniversary I merely wanted to take a few moments to remember the resolve of brave men everywhere in our armed forces.  The men at the Alamo set a standard for heroic behavior that few of us would have the courage today to set up and embrace.