Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Dieppe Raid

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A tiny raid with giant consequences...

A proof of concept, championed by Lord Mountbatten, the plan called for the capture of a port occupied by the enemy, to test delivery of the troops and combat techniques and equipment.

Begun at 5:00 AM on August 19, 1942, the Dieppe Raid lasted just under six hours. During that time, over 60% of the mostly Canadian troops would be killed or captured. It was a tremendous failure. And it was an invaluable lesson.

Common thought is that the British – and by extension, the Americans – learned several things from this operation that would facilitate a successful campaign on D-Day. While this is certainly feasible, one must question if things had to go so badly for these lessons to be learned.

To start with, there were some rather arrogant decisions made leading up to the operation:

  • The raid was considered ill-conceived by Bernard Montgomery and Mountbatten's superiors but they made no effort to stop the operation or alter the plans.
  • With a gung-ho attitude, the Canadian government, expressed a desire to provide most of the troops in order to give them combat experience.
  • BBC radio broadcasts helpfully informed the French that a raid was coming, though not with the exact location. Yes, really.
  • Enemy defenses were not bombed before the raid to soften them up even though Dieppe was in range of British air fields.
  • Tanks were assigned to the beach landing without extensive reconnaissance of the terrain to check for suitability.
  • Initially, paratroopers were to seize artillery positions during the assault. This one smart idea was quashed and British commandos were tasked to take those same positions by coming in just before the the invasion proper.
  • The raid was a foolish frontal assault through the surf, onto the beach and surrounding cliffs, and into the town with little preparation of the avenues of approach.
  • Planned so close to sunrise, any delay meant losing the advantage of attacking in darkness. And, of course, there were delays.

    Once the operation began, here is what went wrong:
    • British radar spotted a German naval patrol earlier in the day. They failed to inform the fleet and a commando detachment was attacked while at sea, incurring many casualties and alerting beach defenses that an attack was in progress.
    • Of the 556 members of the Canadian Royal Regiment who landed on Blue Beach, facing Germans who were alerted to the attack by the naval skirmish above, there would be 464 casualties.
    • On Green Beach, the South Saskatchewan Regiment incurred heavy losses without achieving any of its goals. This was partly due to most the battalion landing in the wrong place.
    • On Red Beach and White Beach, the main landings were accompanied by naval and air bombardment which proved to be largely ineffective. 
    • Worse, of the 58 tanks planned to assist the troops on the beach, only 15 survived the surf, the sand, and the seawall. And, these 15 were late in arriving.
    • Due to general confusion, and a smoke screen laid down by the Royal Navy, an officer on board one of the vessels (not on the beach) ordered reserve units to move in. These units came under concentrated German machine gun and artillery fire.
    • Observing the trouble these new units were encountering, more reserve troops were ordered in.
    • Any armor that survived to reach the seawall was stopped there by tank obstacles and, ironically, were best used by providing covering fire during the general retreat. Not a single tank crew member returned to England.
        And here is what little went right:
        • The commando force that had been heavily depleted by the 'surprise' naval encounter succeeded in one part of their mission in that they tied up, or made ineffective, the artillery positions they were attacking east of the main landings.
        • Another commando force, succeeded in its mission to neutralize artillery west of the landings.
        • Sergeant Jack Nissenthall of the Royal Air Force leading a special team to a radar station in Pourville in order to study German technology, failed in his primary mission. However when he succeeded in cutting telephone lines to the station, the Germans inside made the mistake of using a radio to reach out to other radar installations. Using triangulation, British listening posts were able to determine the exact locations of many of these stations.
          The lessons that were learned:
          1. Landing sites needed more thorough preparation by aerial and naval bombardment.
          2. In order for these bombings to be more effective, reconnaissance needed to be better.
          3. Armor had to be more reliable to protect troops and engineers on the beach.
          4. Plans needed to be less complicated.
          5. D-Day would include large scale paratrooper landings to seize key roads and bridges, create confusion behind enemy lines, and to disrupt troops movement and communications.This is best seen in episode two of Band of Brothers.
          Although the numbers of dead, wounded, and captured were small compared to most beach landings against entrenched enemy forces during the war, the percentage of casualties was exceptionally high. Compare the casualties on any beach during D-Day, and what you had in Dieppe was a foolish plan, poorly executed. It is surprising that a little over two years after the debacle at Dunkirk, there were some in command amongst the allies who still thought they could succeed over German might merely by showing up to the battle in style.

          To quote Lord Mountbatten himself:
          “I have no doubt that the Battle of Normandy was won on the beaches of Dieppe. For every man who died in Dieppe, at least ten more must have been spared in Normandy in 1944.”

          Wednesday, September 29, 2010

          A Second Front – Part One

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          Now fully engaged, as he would be for the remainder of the war, Stalin did what he knew best. He spent people.

          Having a near endless supply of farm-boys, factory workers, miners, trappers, and other unskilled civilians from his vast empire, he undertook a simple but ruthless strategy; he would out-man the Germans. The military was required to slow the enemy, yield, and then counterattack. Hold. Attack. Yield. Counterattack. In the meantime, farms were burned, supplies moved ever backwards, as the season advanced.

          This strategy was one few nations could afford because it required millions of expendable people and vast tracts of land. Both would have to be sacrificed in enormous quantities because that was the only way to fight an enemy possessed of superior weaponry, better training, fighting experience, and hell-bent on moving forward.

          If we can presume Stalin had few qualms with the costs of the campaign, what exactly would he then worry about?

          There was in all of this, a deep-rooted fear. Hitler was fighting one war, as he always had, and now it was on Russian soil. Stalin wondered if the Allies would be content to let Germany and Russia duke it out until they were both so weak that they, the U.S. and Britain, could swoop in and seal the victory. Would a greatly weakened Russia then have to cede territories to the capitalists when they decided how to split the free world between them?

          Perhaps Stalin simply expected some sort of fairness from the Allies. After all the the numbers of English dead and injured during the Battle of Britain were but a tiny fraction of what Russia was losing day by day.

          Thus, Stalin repeatedly asked Churchill (and Roosevelt) to begin a second front by invading France. The tangible results of such an action would be an immediate reduction of pressure on Russian forces as Germany would have to move troops to the opposite end of Europe. Then of course, the machinery of war, supplies and armaments, would have be stretched even more in order to keep two massive campaigns running. As it turns out, this is the way the war eventually played itself out, but this was not soon enough for Stalin.

          Following is a summary of what Russia endured, the events around them strengthening a belief that the Allies were deliberate in delaying the invasion of Europe for selfish reasons:

          • June: Operation Barbarossa begins. Within a week, 600,000 Russian soldiers are killed, wounded, or captured!
          • July: Stalin sends the first request for a second front to the Allies. 180,000 men are lost defending Smolensk.
          • August – September: 450,000 Russian soldiers are captured defending Kiev and Leningrad.
          • September: The siege of Leningrad begins. See LENINGRAD below.
          • October – November: Over 650,000 Russian soldiers are captured defending Moscow.
          • December: Germany now has almost 2.5 million Russian prisoners, most of whom would end up dying from starvation, exposure, disease, and torture. Still, somehow, this month marks the failure of Operation Barbarossa.
          • December: The year ends with no second front.
          • January – March: Following Germany's failure to capture Moscow, Russia counterattacks. While the operation is successful in taking pressure off Moscow, it costs Russia between 500,000 and 1,000,000 men, killed, wounded, or captured.
          • May: Stalin sends his foreign minister to London and Washington. Vyacheslav Molotov returns in June with an agreement from Churchill and Roosevelt that they will create a second front.
          • July: Germany attacks a force of 60,000 Russians behind their lines (there as a result of the earlier operations out of Moscow.) The entire Russian force is taken or destroyed.
          • July: Germany also begins attacking Stalingrad. See STALINGRAD below.
          • December: The year ends with no second front.
          • February – March: With a tremendously costly victory in Stalingrad, the war starts to turn around for Russia. However, there will still be millions of casualties to come.
          • July – August: Over 860,000 men are killed or injured in a stunning victory over German armor in Kursk.
          • December: The year ends with no second front.
          • June – August: Over 700,000 soldiers are killed or wounded capturing Minsk and reaching the Polish border.

          This marks the end of battles lost, battles won, and the long wait for, and in the case of the 1944 listing above, a reaction to the opening of a second front.

          On June 6th, 1944, the Allies landed in Normandy, France, to begin taking Europe back.

          Lest you think the nightmare was over for Stalin, consider that the war would last almost another year, with the Russian military continuing to sustain the highest numbers of casualties in any theater of operation. Quite simply, they had the capacity to produce and lose tremendous quantities of soldiers and equipment, and they would continue to do so all the way to Berlin.


          Lasting from July 1942 until February of 1943, The Siege of Stalingrad would cost Russia an estimated 1.1 million troops and an unknown number of civilians.


          Lasting from September 1941 until January of 1944, The Siege of Leningrad would cost Russia an unknown number of troops and an unknown number of civilians.

          • November: 11,000 civilians die of cold or starvation.
          • December: 50,000 civilians die of cold or starvation.
          • In January and February: 200,000 civilians die.

          In total, almost two years later, 1.5 million civilians would have vanished from the population. We will never know how many of these would manage to escape the city and somehow survive the war zone and deadly weather. It is safe to assume most died in or near Leningrad.

          Within the city, there was no talking for lack of energy. If someone fell in the street, he or she was ignored or searched for a precious ration card. There was no crying at funerals. There were no coffins for burials. Holes were made with explosives and bodies thrown in to remain uncovered. Snow would take care of that. And, there was cannibalism.

          Have no doubt, Russia lost more people during the war than any other nation. But, they also produced more soldiers, tanks, aircraft, and weapons than any other. Therefore, in the end, without Russia, the war would never have been won.

          Monday, September 27, 2010

          Operation Barbarossa

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          Hitler failed because he repeated Napoleon's mistake. Yes, and no...

          Why Napoleon failed in Russia:
          1. He invaded Russia.
          2. He invaded Russia in June, perilously close to the brutal winter season.
          3. He presumed rapid advances and victories would cause the enemy to seek peace.
          4. His supply train was hampered by disease, starvation, deserters behind his lines, weather, and finding nothing but devastated land all around due to Russia's scorched earth policy.
          5. He reached Moscow in September and took it without a fight. Since the Russians had evacuated Moscow and removed all the supplies they could take with them, French troops found nothing to take as spoils. With winter upon them, they took to burning anything they could find and were likely responsible for a fire that destroyed most of the city, housing that the French needed for shelter.
          6. With no shelter, and no supplies, Napoleon ordered a retreat in October, during which the Russian army herded him down the same roads he had taken coming up. These same roads, of course, ran through scorched earth yielding no supplies to the defeated army.
          7. What was to be a quick campaign, capturing Moscow and accepting Russian surrender, turned into a quick defeat.
          8. He survived to raise more troops and fight another day.

          Why Hitler failed in Russia: (Changes are in bold.)
          1. He invaded Russia.
          2. He invaded Russia in June, perilously close to the brutal winter season.
          3. He presumed rapid advances and victories would cause the enemy to seek peace.
          4. His supply train was hampered by ... weather, and finding nothing but devastated land all around due to Russia's scorched earth policy.
          5. He reached Moscow in September October and never took it.
          6. With no shelter, and no supplies, Napoleon Hitler ordered no retreats.
          7. What was to be a quick campaign, capturing Moscow and accepting Russian surrender, turned into a quick defeat a four-year campaign.
          8. He survived to raise more troops and fight another day. Germany would never recover from the tremendous loss of men and equipment. The Russians would push them back all the way to Berlin.

          With all that said, let me clearly state that Hitler had no choice on whether he should have attacked Russia or not. It was clear from Stalin's posturing on the German border that Russia was preparing for war. While we have since learned that Stalin was at least a year away from beginning actions against Germany, this plays exactly into why Germany had to invade Russia when they did. Indeed, early successes proved that German training and strength might succeed where Napoleon had succeeded failed.

          I will leave you with this, a gem of a chart. From the left, the beige line shows the might of French forces from Napoleon's initial entry into Russian territory and then depicting losses on the way to Moscow. The black line then shows the retreat back through the same territories.

          click image to enlarge (on most screens there are two zoom levels)