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Front & Center

Robert M. Citino takes a closer look at World War II's most riveting battles, leaders, weapons, and tactics in his blog, Front & Center.

Citino, a faculty member at the University of North Texas, is a military historian who specializes in the Second World War. His most recent books are Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm, The Death of the Wehrmacht, and The German Way of War.

Sympathy for the Neville
By Robert M. Citino

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

IN MOST ACCOUNTS of the 1930s, he's the patsy, the slightly daft gent carrying his signature umbrella, a weakling willing to do anything to appease Adolf Hitler and prevent the Third Reich from launching World War II. Less than a year before the outbreak of human history's most horrific conflict, he stood on the tarmac at London's Heathrow airport, waving a piece of paper and boasting to fellow Britons that the document he and Mr. Hitler had just signed meant nothing less than "peace in our time." The Führer thought otherwise, and ever since, Neville Chamberlain has stood before the bar of history accused, indicted, and convicted of Terminal Stupidity and Toadying to Evil. Indeed, what else is there to say about someone who actually seemed to trust Adolf Hitler?

History is rarely so cut and dried, however, and there is another story to tell about Chamberlain. As a central figure in British politics during a tumultuous decade—first as Chancellor of the Exchequer 1931–1937, then as Prime Minister—Chamberlain had to address a complex of problems that reached well beyond a revived Germany and a ranting dictator. Britain faced threats across the globe: Germany in Europe, Italy in the Mediterranean, and, perhaps most troubling of all, Japan in Asia and the Pacific. A war with any one of those three surely would lead the other two to horn in on British territories or possessions. Notions that Chamberlain did not comprehend the threat Germany posed or that appeasement constituted moral cowardice on his part or that Winston Churchill was the only figure on Britain's political scene calling for rearmament and a hard line against Hitler—all standard to the anti-Chamberlain dossier—oversimplify history to the point of falsity.

In the late 1930s just about every important figure in British government, or at least in the Conservative Party, knew it was time to spend on national defense. In November 1933, 10 months after Hitler seized power, the British cabinet created a committee on defense requirements to study the cost of military modernization and how long the process would take. That planning culminated in early 1935 in a "White Paper." The findings? Even if rearmament began immediately, Britain would not be ready to fight Germany until 1939. The analysis described weapons not yet in production, some of them only prototypes or sketches. The "Thirty-Niners," as rearmament advocates were called, realized wishes took time to become reality, and that until then the thing to do was negotiate, buy time, and avoid a new war.  

And so, from 1935 on, Britain was in a juggling act: trying to appease Hitler, but also feverishly girding for an inevitable war. In that context, Chamberlain's much-maligned policy, distasteful as it appears, made some sense. Engaging Hitler in talks and turning a cheek to his invective gained Britain time to man up. Chamberlain probably did feel his actions might make war unnecessary, and even if he failed he could say—as he did on September 1, 1939—that he acted "with a clear conscience." 

By then Britain was ready to fight—or at least far readier than a year before. "Last September we might have lost a short war," Lieutenant General Henry Pownall, the army's chief planner, wrote at the time. "Now we shouldn't, nor a long one either."

Even the inspirer-in-chief, speaking at the White House in 1954, tacitly endorsed Chamberlain's prewar posture. "It is always better to jaw-jaw than to war-war," Churchill said. But no one will ever completely rehabilitate Neville Chamberlain. In a dark hour, he failed to inspire the British, and always will suffer by comparison to his successor. Once hostilities began, Chamberlain had no more business leading the Empire than I would have, and his famous utterance that Hitler had "missed the bus," hours before Germany invaded Scandinavia in April 1940, confirmed his hopelessness in the strategic and operational arena.

Even so, Chamberlain oversaw the British rearmament that delivered Hurricanes and Spitfires, four-engine heavy bombers, radar, and more—and for those achievements alone, his own country, the United States, and the whole world owe him a huge debt of gratitude. 

Originally published in the January/February issue of World War II magazine. Illustration by Harry Campbell. 

The Kasserine Complex
By Robert M. Citino

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

The U.S. Army was the 11th army to fight the Germans in World War II and, like the others, it got some rough treatment the first time out. A battle in February 1943 at an obscure hunk of rock in North Africa named Kasserine Pass saw the Germans land a big initial blow, encircling one American force and driving others from one position to the next in complete disorder. Just as all seemed lost, however, the seemingly vanquished rallied. A few men here and there at first, guided by a handful of field-grade officers, showed heart as American defenses gradually coalesced, stiffened, and finally halted the Germans.

All's well that ends well, in other words. And yet the battle bit deep into the U.S. Army's psyche, instilling a "Kasserine complex": an insecurity about the army's fighting qualities. The Kasserine complex reappeared in September 1943 during the Salerno landing, where a German counterattack almost threw the American force back into the sea, and reared its head in December 1944 in the Ardennes, where the Battle of the Bulge opened with the Germans smashing an entire U.S. infantry division—the unfortunate 106th.

Even the U.S. Army's eventual victory in the war, which should have killed all doubts, didn't end its Kasserine complex. The decades after 1945 witnessed the rise of a fascination, even identification, with the army's former opponent. The Wehrmacht's combat operations became a kind of gold standard for the U.S. Army, which seemed convinced that the Germans embodied a unique "genius for war," as one book put it. American officials interrogated hundreds of German officers, many in custody for war crimes, about their battlefield techniques, and commissioned them to write reports on all aspects of warmaking, from "operations of encircled forces" and "Russian combat methods" to "German defense tactics against Russian breakthroughs."

Equally fascinating to the U.S. Army were German generals' memoirs. Lost Victories by Erich von Manstein, Panzer Leader by Heinz Guderian, Panzer Battles by Friedrich von Mellenthin, and many more won wide readership. Not only did they seem to embody that German genius, they also spoke to an American officer corps with a new mission: defending Europe against Soviet aggression. After all, who had more experience fighting the Red Army than the Wehrmacht?

The peak of German worship came in the 1980s. Emerging from its post-Vietnam hangover and rededicated to large-scale conventional warfare, the U.S. Army devised a new doctrine, AirLand Battle. Featuring heavy mechanized forces and starring the new M1 Abrams tank, AirLand Battle was nothing less than an attempt to recreate the blitzkrieg. The "new" doctrine swept the field in 1991 in Operation Desert Storm, smashing the Iraqi army and liberating Kuwait in four days with minimal casualties. The doctrine had less success in 2003's Operation Iraqi Freedom. American and Allied forces swiftly overran Iraq with a small, high-tech force. But that operation then fell victim to a vicious insurgency requiring years to suppress—something that would have seemed mighty familiar to Germans who fought in Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union after 1941.

In the end, the Kasserine complex was senseless. The U.S. Army had no reason to copy the Wehrmacht. For all the Germans' battlefield strengths, including mobility, fighting power, and aggressive leadership, they were deficient in other areas: logistics, administration, military intelligence—the very disciplines at which Americans are expert. The two armies' first encounter in World War II might not have satisfied the Americans, but they ultimately prevailed. In the long term, the U.S. Army should have left Kasserine where it belonged: to the pages of a history long since closed.  

Back to the Future
By Robert M. Citino

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Major conventional warfare
seems to have gone out of style. Strategic analysts peering into the future see wars with shadowy "non-state actors" like al-Qaeda, or international crime syndicates like the Zetas in Mexico, or even pirates plying the waters off the Horn of Africa. I know a lot of people in the defense community, and I'm not giving away secrets when I say that is very much how they view things. More and more, the U.S. Army casts its future in terms of "building partner capacity"—helping poorer countries defend themselves against terrorism or natural disaster.

Recently, though, a strange thing happened on the way to the future. Political crisis erupted in Ukraine, Russia seized Crimea after protests by Russian nationals living there, and now all Ukraine seems to be threatened by its larger neighbor. The headlines seem out of place, even shocking, in our post-Cold War world: a chest-thumping dictator, tanks massing at the Ukrainian border, enemy forces threatening the Donbas—the heavy industrial districts of Eastern Ukraine. The headlines read like something out of 1939 or 1940.

Of course, this magazine's readers have probably never been taken in by notions of eternal peace, the abolition of conventional warfare, or of a world so globalized that war between major players would be economic suicide for everyone concerned. You are a savvy bunch and you know that these ideas were common in the 1930s—a time, like our own, when the international financial system came close to collapsing, and when serious economic doldrums seemed unshakeable. War made little sense then, either, and yet a war broke out—one that rocked civilization to its foundations.

The 1930s saw dictators posture and strut, armor mass on borders, and demands arise for boundary rectification. Adolf Hitler's ultimatum to Czechoslovakia to hand over the Sudetenland—where ethnic Germans were clamoring to unify with Germany—nearly led to war in 1938. It would have, had the western powers not abjectly surrendered at Munich.

Next, Hitler demanded Poland yield access across the "Polish corridor" and return Danzig, heavily German but a Free City administered by the League of Nations and meant to give Poland a port. This time, Britain and France hung tough. They had guaranteed Poland's security if Germany invaded, and when Germany did so, the western powers declared war on Germany and World War II was on.

You don't have to read deeply to see the similarities. Ethnic Russians live all over the countries unshackled when the U.S.S.R. crumbled: Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, the Baltic states. If dispossessed Russians have real grievances, Russia can exploit them. If they don't, Russia can foment them. And some potential targets, like Estonia, already have a security guarantee from the West. It's called NATO.

I'm not predicting World War III, and if I were, then you should be backing away slowly; historians make terrible prophets. But this situation should serve as a reason to keep studying World War II. Note how little issues can mushroom into global violence. Take the current U.S. strategic "rebalancing"—moving military resources away from Europe and toward the Pacific—with a grain of salt. Events have a way of upsetting the best-laid strategy. Europe hasn't had a major land war in 70 years, but that is not the same thing as saying it will never have another. And Europe still matters to U.S. security.

And yes, perhaps it might be a good idea to keep some supposedly obsolete heavy metal—M1 tanks and M2 Bradleys and F-16 strike aircraft—oiled and ready. The maniacs of al-Qaeda are still lurking out there, wishing us harm, and the military needs to go after them in its own way. But who knows what else is out there, ready to plunge the world into war? If World War II taught us anything, it's that you can never predict the day or the time.  

Originally published in July/August 2014. 

Lucky Break
By Robert M. Citino

Monday, July 15th, 2013

I've been thinking a lot lately about the endgame of the war in the European Theater, early 1945. For the Germans, things had fallen apart. The Soviets were slashing deeply into East Prussia and crossing the Oder. The western allies first managed to ward off the German offensive into the Ardennes (Operation Wacht am Rhein, the so-called "Battle of the Bulge"), then launched a drive of their own over the German border into the Rhineland, one of the Reich's crucial centers of population and industry. It seemed to be all over, and indeed it would be all over in a few months.

Hitler's Germany was in the throes of collapse, in other words, and the Grand Alliance was ascendant. Heavily armed men on one side, with material abundance on land and in the air, facing flotsam and jetsam on the other, Volksgrenadier and Volkssturm divisions, old men and young boys often armed with nothing more than a single Panzerfaust or Panzerschreck and sent out to face the behemoths pressing into Germany from both sides. Many of them did their duty and beyond—getting blasted into the hereafter in their first encounter with the better armed forces of their adversaries. But in the end, it hardly seemed to matter. Numbers, time, and technology were all on the side of the Allies.

When we cast the narrative that way, it has a way of seeming inevitable. But the more I study the final stages of this vast campaign, the more that a single episode stands out to me. One that doesn't seem foreordained. One that wasn't reliant upon Allied superiority in firepower or numbers. One that had little to do with hordes of M4 Sherman tanks, P-51 fighters, or P-47 "jabos." One, indeed, that could have gone either way, with a little tweak here or there.

One that we can only describe as a stroke of luck.

As 1945 dawned, it was clear that the end of the war was in sight. The Wehrmacht was doomed, and while it might be able to delay the eventual Allied victory, it had no more power to prevent it. Even so, Eisenhower and his armies faced a serious operational problem in the West: the Rhine. It is a major river, one that you don't cross on the fly. It requires a carefully prepared operation, involving engineers, bridging trains, and a great deal of preparatory bombardment, and even weak forces should have been able to defend it adequately.

Certainly that's the way that Eisenhower viewed the situation in early 1945. He was an experienced commander by now, one who had learned to react to his superiors' admonitions to "hurry up" with a grain of salt. If there was one thing that Ike had learned by 1945, it was that operations tended to take their own time, no matter what President Roosevelt or General Marshall or the American press might think, and that it was almost always a slower time frame then Washington envisioned.

But then, on March 7, 1945, Eisenhower's timetable changed. As U.S. 1st Army under the command of General Courtney Hodges approached the Rhine, his recon patrols began to report an unusual situation: uneven German resistance across the front, strong in certain locales, but altogether absent in others. Some forward units met strong German fire, an altogether familiar situation for Hodges since Normandy, but others seemed to be advancing into air. Most fortunate of all was the 9th U.S. Armored Division under Major General John W. Leonard. Tasked with an advance on the Rhine crossing at Remagen, Leonard's boys managed to get to the river without incident. Seizing an opportunity, elements of the division (the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, for the record), then forced passage of the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine. The men of the 27th knew they were taking a chance, crossing a big bridge over a major river with the expectation that the German defenders might blow it at any moment. I wasn't privileged to talk to the brave Americans who crossed the bridge that day in March 1945, but I'm sure it must have been a nail-biting few minutes.

The Germans didn't blow the bridge, however, a result of command confusion and fog of war more than anything else, and soon, almost miraculously, the American army was over the Rhine.

Yep… it seemed like a miracle. Even in the modern age of automatic weapons and firepower and logistics, miracles still happen. Hodges was not an excitable guy, but he seemed stunned. "Brad," he shouted over the phone to his commanding officer, "we've got a bridge!" General Omar Bradley, commander of the U.S. 12 Army Group, was also a pretty phlegmatic personality—not given to excesses of enthusiasm or depression. Indeed, that was one of the reasons why Eisenhower had tapped him for army group command in the first place. But even he had to be impressed. "Hot dog, Courtney!," he shouted back. "This will bust him wide open!"

"Hot dog"! Bradley's joyful shout over that crackling radio link remains one of the great quotes of the war. We live in a more profane era today–and frankly, so did a lot of Bradley's officers and men—and so we can imagine a number of more "colorful" responses to Hodges's report. But even so, Bradley's meaning is loud and clear. He had just gotten some good news, something that he couldn't have expected in his wildest dreams. A stroke of good fortune.

Which leads to a question that we should ponder: how much of World War II (or any war) was due to good luck?

More next time.

Tiso in the Wolf's Lair
By Robert M. Citino

Monday, June 17th, 2013

Last time out we began a discussion of a seemingly insignificant event. Near the end of May 1944, Monsignor Jozef Tiso, the wartime leader of Slovakia, paid a visit to Adolf Hitler at the latter's headquarters in East Prussia–the famous Wolf's Lair. Tiso was one of Germany's minor allies, along with Antonescu of Romania, Pavelic of Croatia, Mannerheim of Finland, Horthy of Hungary. Although none of them ruled great powers, collectively they were playing an increasingly important role in keeping the manpower-strapped Wehrmacht in the field. Hitler's schedule in 1944 contained a parade of such meetings. As the operational situation deteriorated, the minor Axis powers needed nearly constant cajoling to keep them in the war.

We have an interesting recollection of the May 1944 meeting from General Adolf Heusinger, the wartime chief of the Operations Section of the General Staff. According to his account, special orders had come down from on high, specifying that the maps prepared for Tiso's briefing should not disturb the Slovak leader too much ("sie soll ihm nicht zu grosse Bedenken bereiten"). By May 1944, the Wehrmacht was on the run in the Ukraine and in the Baltic region, and the Soviets were deep in the planning cycle for one of the greatest offensives of the war, Operation Bagration, aiming at the destruction of Army Group Center. In the west, the Allies were on the verge of Operation Overlord, the greatest amphibious operation of the war, and perhaps of all time.

Given that ugly picture, the need to draw soothing maps for Tiso took on a special urgency. What to do? Telling the truth was politically unacceptable, but an outright lie would be too tough to sell.

The answer was to alter the maps slightly. Staff officers rendered the German defensive positions in thick lines on the map, while representing the Soviet armored spearheads with thinner, lighter strokes. "That way," Heusinger wrote, the situation "wouldn't appear so dangerous" ("Dann sieht es nicht so gefährlich aus"). After all, "thick" should be able to hold off "thin," right?

Some officers raised objections. Was it really correct to fool Tiso in this fashion? Wouldn't it be better to lay things out as they actually were, so that he could make a more informed judgment about the danger facing Slovakia?

You can probably guess the answer to their questions. They were told that the Führer wanted it this way. Political reasons. And politics were Hitler's business, not the purview of the General Staff. For a planning cell that rarely ventured above or beyond the operational sphere into the realm of strategy, it was the only answer they needed. Anyway, they had already done something quite similar the last time Antonescu visited headquarters.

Still, doubts lingered among some of them, and here the story turns interesting. Heusinger has one staff officer warning everyone to be careful, declaring that this arrangement was a "double-edged sword" and thus a dangerous thing. It was a rose-colored image, he said, "and you have to be clear about that."

I've thought a lot about that warning. This was, after all, an officer corps that was by now clinging to smaller and smaller vestiges of hope. Wonder weapons that might turn the tide for Germany at the last moment. Some miraculous turn of events that would allow the Wehrmacht to defeat the invasion in the West that everyone knew was imminent. A falling out between the western allies and the Soviet Union, unnatural partners at best. Something–anything.

And that's why I think, just perhaps, that there were some people in that room–even the most hardened and experienced military planners–who looked at Tiso's maps, with those big, bold, defensive lines and apparently weak Soviet spearheads, and who actually took some comfort in them. Human beings have been deceiving themselves for a long, long time, and not all of them were working in the Wolf's Lair.

By Robert M. Citino

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Last time out we discussed an Allied deception operation called Starkey.

Designed to simulate a landing in the Pas de Calais in 1943, and thus to draw off German strength from Italy (where the Allies actually were landing at the moment), it failed miserably. The Germans saw through the ploy (which was, to be sure, clumsily planned), refused to bite, and stayed strong on the beaches of Salerno. To make things worse, Starkey wound up fooling the Allies themselves, with U.S. Eighth Air Force commander General Ira C. Eaker interpreting the lack of German reaction as a sign that the Luftwaffe must be on the ropes. In other words, what started as a deception became something else entirely: self-deception.

I don't want to pick on Eaker any more than necessary, or beat Starkey into the ground. I have a very fine graduate student currently writing a dissertation on the whole mess and you can all read the book when it comes out. But it strikes me that what happened to the Allies in 1943 is not an isolated incident, a humorous anecdote that shows how silly our generals can be.

In fact, I would like to propose that the Starkey deception/self-deception loop is so common in war as to be systemic, by which I mean that it is part of the very fabric of military forces in conflict. And I'd like to offer you all Exhibit A.

Imagine being a German staff officer in late May 1944. Your current mission is, to be frank, a yawner. You've planned operations at division, corps, and army level. Poland. Norway, France, the Balkans. You're proud of your career, of your achievements. But this barely qualifies, and you could do it in your sleep. You have received orders to draw up the situation maps for yet another visitor to the Führer in Mauerwald, near Angerburg, East Prussia.

Yes, we are talking about the famous Wolfsschanze, the "Wolf's Lair" in East Prussia. The headquarters of the OKH, the Oberkommando des Heeres (the High Command of the Army). It is a place where a number of world-historical decisions have been taken by Hitler and his generals over the past few years, but you suspect that this will not be one of them. The visitor this time is Monsignor Jozef Tiso, the Vodca (or "Leader") of independent Slovakia. Like all the other minor Axis players, he has taken the local-language equivalent of Führer as his title—just like Antonescu did in Romania and Pavelic in Croatia.

You're a military man, and you pride yourself on remaining outside of politics, but you know who Tiso is. Slovakia is one of Germany's minor allies, and it has contributed a few small formations to the fight in the East. They've given a pretty good accounting of themselves, unlike some of the others, but they barely register in the overall scheme of thing. The situation in the East went critical a long, long time ago, and Germany's own casualties in any given week probably outnumber Slovakia's entire manpower contribution in the entire campaign.

Still, Hitler seems to think that Tiso's visit is an important one. He wants to shore up the Axis. After all, Italy is already gone, and the others—Finland, Romania, Hungary—seem to be wavering. Given the dire strategic situation, maybe Hitler is right. Every ally, even the smallest, counts.

And you know what that means. You weren't surprised when the order came down this morning. It's distasteful to you as a General Staff officer, a professional who takes his job seriously. But it wasn't a surprise. You let out a long sigh. It's happened before.

You've been ordered to alter the maps.

More next time.

By Robert M. Citino

Monday, May 6th, 2013

It's a familiar figure of speech: "What if they gave a war, and no one came?"

I am old enough to recognize this slogan. I was born in 1958, the youngest of five, with my older siblings in college. I grew up during the 60s. Vietnam. Campus radicalism. Jefferson Airplane. Etc, etc.

By and large, World War II doesn't usually fit this model. After all, there wasn't much wriggle room here. What if Adolf Hitler gave a war, and no one came? Any reasonable person can be certain about it: it wouldn't have ended well for anyone.

But actually, there was an interesting moment in World War II when one side did give a war and no one came. In September 1943, the Allies launched a sizable diversionary operation codenamed Starkey. It was part of a series of operational plans put together by Lieutenant General F. E. Morgan, Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC). The first was a contested invasion of Normandy (codenamed Overlord). The second was a quick uncontested landing on the French coast, in the event of a German surrender (Rankin). Finally, Morgan had orders to plan a large deception operation to coincide with these potential invasions, codenamed Cockade. Cockade itself had three parts: a feint against Axis forces based in Norway (Operation Tindall), a phony invasion against German forces based in Brittany (Operation Wadham), and a mock invasion of Pas de Calais (Starkey).

Of the three diversions, the Allies decided on Starkey, timing it coincide with the Allied landings on the Italian mainland at Salerno (Operation Avalanche). The plan was to threaten a landing in northern France, which would hopefully draw the attention of the Germans, prevent them from reinforcing Italy, and thus assist the Allies in getting ashore. A secondary purpose was to test the strength of German air defenses in France, part of the longer range planning for Overlord. To that end, major units of the U.S. Eighth Air Force would fly against targets in northern France, simulating the preparatory stages of an Allied landing.

It all sounds sensible enough. Unfortunately, Starkey misfired from the start. The Allied navies didn't want to commit major units to a diversion, and so withheld the battleships. Likewise, landing craft were in short supply for real operations, and no one wanted to risk too many of them for Starkey. As a result, German coastal defenses, spotting only light Allied forces, remained silent and refused to reveal themselves. The Luftwaffe, too, failed to rise to the bait. To be honest, its attention was focused on Italy, and there wasn't much it could have done anyway. As to major German ground formations, they could only be in one place at a time, and in September 1943 that place happened to be Salerno, where they gave the Anglo-American landing force just about all it could handle. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill probably put it best upon first seeing the plans for Starkey: "I cannot feel that there is enough substance to this."

There you have it. A failed diversion. An enemy who fails to bite. Typical fog of war stuff. End of story, right?

Unfortunately, not in this case. General Ira C. Eaker was the commander of the U.S. 8th Air Force. He had just been through a tough few months. As commander of the American half of the "Combined Air Offensive" (CBO) against Germany, he had known nothing but frustration. Rather than the quick victory over the Luftwaffe that U.S. air force planners had expected, it had been a time of heavy German resistance, high friendly losses in bombers and crews, and minimal results. Voices were already being raised back home about Eaker. Perhaps he wasn't ready, wasn't up to the job. Perhaps someone more aggressive would get the results that had eluded him.

Eaker was an experienced officer, and he could hear the whispers. Maybe that's why he looked at the results of Starkey and saw something different than what other people were seeing. Perhaps, he surmised, the Germans hadn't reacted because they couldn't react. Perhaps their air units had already been crippled by heavy losses and didn't feel like tangling with the Americans. Perhaps the bombing raids up to now had been more destructive than his intelligence officers were reporting. After all, he knew, bomb damage assessment and claims of enemy kills were notoriously difficult to pin down.

As a result, in the words of one scholar of the air war, Eaker looked at Starkey and "immediately claimed victory." The day after Starkey had concluded, Eaker was in an exultant mood. "They refused to attack our bombardment whenever it was supported by our fighters," he wrote. Clearly the Germans were weaker than expected: "The enemy could have concentrated his fighters and overwhelmed and overpowered one of these air task forces of ours. This they did not do. This indicates a breakdown in German air command or communication, or both," he concluded.

Eaker wasn't the first commander in history to misjudge an operation under his purview. What sets this narrative apart is the conclusion he drew. With the German Luftwaffe clearly off balance (as he saw it), the time had come for the forces under his command to land a knock-out blow. He began planning a series of bold airstrikes on various German targets. Leipzig (Operation Suction). Berlin (Operation Halleck). And finally, the massive German ball-bearing complex at Schweinfurt, hit but not taken out in August 1943.

Eaker wasn't the only one getting giddy. His boss, General Henry "Hap" Arnold, commander of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF), was beginning to feed off of the same optimism. On 26 September, he told Eaker that "we obviously must send the maximum number of airplanes against targets within Germany, now that the German Air power appears to be at the critical stage."

They did just that in a single horrible week from October 8th through the 14th, launching one raid after the other, culminating in a massive strike at Schweinfurt. And they got their unescorted bombers shot out of the sky in prodigious numbers, no fewer than 148 aircraft, along with their highly trained crews. By any accounting, it was a "Black Week," a week of disaster. It seems the Luftwaffe wasn't on its last legs after all.

War is never simple, but the failed diversion of Operation Starkey leaves us to ponder one of the most complex questions of World War II: what if we gave a war, and no one came—but we thought they had?


Why Anvil Gets No Respect
By Robert M. Citino

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

Last time out, I wrote about a forgotten campaign: the Allied landing in the south of France in August 1944. The planners first called it Operation Anvil, then renamed it Dragoon just days before it took place. By any accounting, it should be a major part of the narrative of World War II. It put ashore two allied armies—the 7th U.S. and "French Army B" (later redesignated 1st French Army), and they eventually comprised the 6th U.S. Army Group under General Jacob L. Devers. It seized a good-sized port (Toulon) followed by a truly massive one (Marseille). It resulted in far more pressure being put on the Germans than could have been applied by the Overlord landing alone. And yet, you have to look pretty hard to find it in the history books. It usually gets a paragraph in a standard history of the war, and often that lone paragraph contains some pretty disparaging language about the senselessness of it all.

But why? Why has Anvil fallen in to the memory hole for American readers? I think we can identify three reasons:

1. It happened in the Mediterranean. Let's face it, Mediterranean operations have never grabbed the attention of the American people the way that the battles in Normandy and Western Europe have.

2. The French were involved. I teach World War II for a living, and the notion that the French were fighting alongside the Americans and British often evinces a certain amount of surprise from the student body, along with a hefty amount of disinterest. I'm not saying that's a good thing. But it exists.

3. There was no real fight. By the time the Allies landed along the Riviera, the Germans were in trouble—deep trouble—in Normandy. Their front had been ruptured as a result of the U.S. Army's success in Operation Cobra, the cream of the Wehrmacht in the West was desperately trying to escape annihilation near Falaise, and there were many in the Allied high command who felt that Germany might be finished in a month or so. Thus, there wasn't a lot a spare force lying around for the Germans to contest Anvil, and the results showed it. The Allies got ashore without much of a fight. There was no equivalent of Omaha Beach. No fighting in the last ditch. No need for General Norm Cota-style heroics.

I could go on. But instead, let me offer a response to each of these issues.

1. Yes, it happened in the Mediterranean, but it impacted the ETO. It put an army group on the German border within months. This was a far different campaign from the tough fighting in Italy, which after June 1944 truly was a fight to nowhere, and which still remains controversial for students of the war.

2. You don't care about the French army in 1944? Get over it. There were precisely seven armies in the Allied order of battle in Western Europe. Certainly U.S. manpower dominated—providing four of the seven. But America's allies did their part—one British army, one Canadian army, and one French army. Take away any of these three and you have less Allied fighting strength, less forward momentum, and more Germans troops in the reserve to plug holes. It's a different war, and from the Allied perspective, a worse one.

3. Funny, I always thought an uncontested and relatively bloodless landing should be considered a success! Certainly, it's hard to imagine the Dragoon landing being the subject of a movie like Saving Private Ryan. I get that.

In the end, I know that fewer people want to read about a battle that was more about logistics than heroism. But an absence of blood doesn't mean it was any less important. Last time out, I mentioned an amazing statistic, the one about the port of Marseille accounting for 25% of all Allied tonnage shipped into the European theater. It's just one number in a campaign of many numbers, and perhaps for that reason it is easy to underplay. But it is also a number that represents a logistical triumph of the first magnitude, in a war where supply was the principal limiting factor on Allied operations. I never met General Eisenhower, but if he were alive today, I am fairly certain that he would have some choice words for those who downplay the importance of Marseille. Ike was a smart guy, and if he understood one thing about modern war, it was the enormous logistical requirements that supported it.

They say that amateurs talk battle, while professionals talk logistics. I agree. And for this reason alone, maybe we should talk about Anvil-Dragoon a lot more than we do.

No Respect
By Robert M. Citino

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

Life isn't fair, and neither is history. Indeed, some historical events—no matter how vast or significant—seem destined to be forgotten. And World War II is full of them.

Let's say you are launching a complex amphibious invasion of an enemy-held continent in, oh, 1944 or so. You storm ashore in style, naval, land, and air assets working in full harmony, catching your opponent by surprise and brushing aside his weak attempts to stop you. On D-Day alone, you land 94,000 men and over 11,000 vehicles—an amazing achievement by any standard. Friendly casualties are minimal, and by day two your troops have pushed nearly twenty miles inland. The enemy is confused, on the run. In less than two weeks you manage to seize the largest port in your theater, a target of strategic importance that you had originally scheduled for D+40. Soon after that, you land not merely your initial assault corps, but an entire army, and then a complete army group—a massive and irresistible mechanized force that drives the beaten enemy back to his own borders and beyond. Your operation is a complete and utter triumph.

And ever since, the world has yawned.

As a card-carrying military historian™, I have to admit: I am puzzled. Clearly, we should be falling all over ourselves with enthusiasm. We should be devising new superlatives, shouting phrases like "brilliantly conceived!" and "perfectly executed!" and "Napoleonic!" We should be handing out medals all around, reserving spots in our general's hall of fame, and writing book after book about the operational and strategic lessons of this magnificent campaign. Military historians tend to be enthusiastic by nature, and there is nothing we like more than a decisive victory.

Unfortunately, that has not been the case with the event under discussion—not even close. The perceptive reader has already figured out that I am talking about Operation Anvil, the Allied landing in the south of France between Toulon and Cannes on the Riviera coast. It put ashore the VI Corps (under General Lucian King Truscott, Jr., a hard-charging Texan who had proven himself in combat in Italy), which took the key port of Toulon effortlessly and soon thereafter drove the Germans from one of the largest ports in the entire Mediterranean, Marseille. Following VI Corps was Truscott's parent formation, the U.S. Seventh Army (General Alexander "Sandy" Patch), and eventually the 6th Army Group, under the command of General Jacob L. Devers, another one of the U.S. Army's sharpest and most aggressive commanders.

In other words, Anvil was not some minor or irrelevant piece of the puzzle in the Allied war against Germany. In the course of the war against Hitler's Germany, the U.S. Army deployed two army groups in the ETO, and one of them belonged to Devers (the other was General Omar Bradley's 12th Army Group). By that admittedly simple count, Anvil was responsible for half of the U.S. order of battle in Europe. From the beaches in the south of France, 6th Army Group drove north up the Rhône river valley and eventually fell in on the right flank of Eisenhower's battle array as it headed into the heart of Germany. The Wehrmacht defenders never did coalesce in front of 6th AG, and there are some very fine historians today (such as David P. Colley, author of Decision at Strasbourg) who argue that Devers had a real chance to break into Germany ahead of the rest of the Allied armies, thereby shortening the war, if only Ike had recognized the opportunity that beckoned.

As important as Anvil was in the purely operational sphere, however, we can go further. "Amateurs talk operations," the old saying goes, "but professionals talk logistics." Marseille is an immense port, and its capture was a boon to the Allies. It would eventually account for a full 25% of all Allied supplies brought into the ETO. Think of the problems Eisenhower had supplying his armies. Then think about those same problems without possession of Marseille.

So there it is. Landing an entire army group. Capturing a world-class port. Increasing the pressure on the German defenders all along the line until they reached teh break-point. By any reasonable standards, Operation Anvil was one of the keys to Allied victory in World War II.

But like I said, life isn't fair, and neither is history.

Next time: why Anvil gets no respect.


By Robert M. Citino

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

I am all thumbs. Put me at a computer keyboard, and I am trouble. I am the lord of the typo. Put my on an iPhone and things get exponentially worse. Put me on an iPhone with that quaint function known as autocorrect, and I am capable of almost anything. Broken friendships. Broken homes. World War III.

Curiously enough, I believe that my failings as a communicator have helped me as a military historian. I think a lot about how commanders issue their orders, about the precise words they use, and about how their subordinates interpret the orders they receive. Most of us simply assume that the process works. The boss says "do this" and the underlings do it. But it isn't that simple at all.

Take the modern German army, for example. German doctrine has always stressed short, crisp orders, directives that allow subordinates a great deal of leeway in carrying them out. Indeed, this has always been one of the German army's key operational strengths: it tended to act (and react) more quickly than its adversaries, since it spent less time sending detailed and lengthy messages up and down the chain of command.

Such a vibrant command style was a particular benefit in the opening days of World War II. The pace of the new armored operations meant that German commanders had to devise a new language, a sort of "Panzer shorthand." Consider the experience of 7th Panzer Division in the French campaign of 1940, commanded by none other than General Erwin Rommel. A glance at the division's radio traffic from those days is revealing. To call the messages "short" is to understate the case considerably. The neighboring 5th Panzer Division radioed Rommel on May 13, 1940: "Angriff 0430," which might better be rendered, "Our attack is going in at 0430 hours." At 0550 that morning, Rommel requested a situation report from his own 7th Infantry Regiment with a two-word message: "Wie Lage?" ("How situation?"). Its response: "0600 S.R. 7 Fluss Maas überschritten" ("7th Infantry Regiment crossed the Meuse at 0600"). When Rommel wanted his division to pursue the beaten French on May 14, his orders consisted of a terse "Rommel 1930 Verfolgung mit allem Waffen" ("Rommel at 1930: Pursuit with all weapons"), and when he wanted his engineers brought up to help repair the bridges near Arras, his message to the divisional staff was "Rommel Pioniere nach vorne" ("Rommel: Pioneers to the front"). This was the new language of mobile warfare—crisp, concise, and stripped down to essentials.

Sharp, eh? The Wehrmacht on parade, circa 1939–40! One perfect campaign after another.

Erm… not exactly.

Even in these successful campaigns, the Germans had their moments of confusion. On May 13, Rommel received a radio message that his 7th Motorized Regiment was "eingeschlossen," which was bad news indeed, as bad as it gets. "Eingeschlossen" is German for "surrounded." Showing his characteristic aggressiveness, Rommel did just about what you'd expect. He gathered up every man and vehicle he could find and rode off to relieve his trapped formation.

When he arrived at the front, however, he realized that the reports had been wrong. A quick comparison of the relevant transmissions revealed a simple and very understandable typo. It turned out that the regiment had been "eingetroffen" ("struck") by a French attack involving a handful of tanks near Onhaye, not "eingeschlossen." By the time the relief column arrived, the regiment had the situation well in hand all by itself, and it certainly was nowhere near being encircled.

It seems to me that there are two lessons here. The first: while the "fog of war" is an ever-present battlefield feature, it increases with the speed of the operation.

The second? Proofread before you hit that "send" button!

Challenge to the readership: can you think of any other moments in which a garbled transmission, a misunderstood order, or a plain old typo affected the course of a battle?

Oh What a Lucky Man, III
By Robert M. Citino

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

The theme of this column lately has been the way that Americans are keeping alive the memory of World War II. The results are in, and the verdict is "wow!" The recent exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston entitled "War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath" placed World War II at the center. The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana, recently hosted its annual International Conference on World War II, gathering scholars, veterans, and interested observers from all over the world. I was privileged to speak at both of these events, and each time I came away dazzled at the amount of interest that the war continues to generate, nearly 70 hears after the guns fell silent.

After Houston and New Orleans, my next stop was Minnesota, where I paid a visit to the beautiful Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. In January, I received an invitation to speak at the Dr. Harold C. Deutsch World War II History Round Table, which has held monthly meetings for decades at the Fort Snelling History Center in St. Paul. I never met Dr. Deutsch, but I know him as one of the giants, a dean of military history in the United States, and an expert on the German army in World War II. He founded the roundtable many years ago, and after my visit, I don't think he could have a better tribute than the organization that bears his name.
When I was in New Orleans, I remember being amazed at how invested the crowd was in the topic. The enthusiasm in the room was palpable, and the questions from the participants kept me on my toes. The World War II History Round Table was more of the same. I was speaking on what I consider to be a fairly arcane topic. It wasn't D-Day, or Patton, or the Battle of the Bulge. Nothing that a "typical American audience" could sink its teeth into. I study the Wehrmacht, and I try to analyze the writings of German army officers in the original German, attempting to uncover subtle shades of meaning that might not be obvious in English translations. Sure, go ahead and laugh. A thrill a minute? Maybe not to most people, but it is for me.

And once again, this is what made my jaw drop about my trip to Minnesota. Here I was, speaking about the strategic relationship between the Allied landing on the island of Sicily and the German offensive at Kursk. It's a complex topic, requiring a careful analysis of a very small period of time in the summer of 1943. Early in the evening, I am a bit worried about the audience. How many people are going to come and hear this talk? My host, Professor Joe Fitzharris from the University of St. Thomas, assures me that there will be a good turnout. But Joe is a friend of mine, a nice guy. Maybe he's just trying to let me down easy.

We drive out to the Ft. Snelling History Center that night. I notice a fair number of cars in the parking lot. We walk into the building. Again, a bunch of folks in the lobby. And then we enter the hall. Are there 250 people here? 300? 400? The room is packed. Enthusiastic. Once again, it's all ages. Scholars. Older veterans. Ordinary folks. High school kids and their moms. It's unbelievable.

Understand: they're not here to hear me. They come to hear about World War II. They want to learn. They want to know. They show up every month, and they've been doing so for decades.

Oh, have I mentioned? This was Minnesota in January. I will let you imagine the weather. Not as bad is it could be, not quite Moscow or Stalingrad. But it's bad. Bad enough to imagine all the reasons why a reasonable Minnesotan might say, "Naw… I'm not going out tonight." But they did come out, and their interest and questions made for a great night of history.

And so, sitting here in warm Corinth, Texas, I want to take this opportunity to put on my stocking cap and scarf, button my coat, and offer my respect to the good folks at the Harold C. Deutsch World War II History Round Table.

Oh What a Lucky Man, II
By Robert M. Citino

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

    Last week I told you about the incredible photo exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston. "War/Photography:  Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath" was a jaw-dropper, featuring images that went well beyond the battlefield.  Photographs of young soldiers in training, civilians on the homefront, war photographers, the sadness of separation, sweetness of homecoming:  this show had it all.  It also had something that I can't say I "enjoyed," exactly, but I still supported:  the cost of war.  The dead.  The suffering.  The mangled.  No one in his or her right mind should ever celebrate war.  Even the victors should pause and reflect on whether it was all worth it.  Indeed, maybe the victors need to do it more than anyone.

    One week later, I was a lucky man again when I was invited to speak at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, LA.  The Museum was hosting its annual International Conference on World War II.  This one was devoted to "Stemming the Nazi Tide:  The End of the Beginning, 1942-1943," part of the Museum's 70th Anniversary Conference Series.  Once again, it was an out-of-body experience.  My colleagues on the podium were a who's who of authors and scholars, including Gerhard Weinberg, Christopher Browning, Rick Atkinson, and the guru of Eastern Front studies, David Glantz.  Heck, I don't have to tell any of you how great these guys are.  It was an honor even to be among them. 

    When I think back on it, however, it was the crowd who blew my mind.  There were veterans galore, of course, men who had been there, who were proud of it, and who still liked getting together to talk about it.  I knew they would be in attendance, and I loved them all.  What I didn't expect, however, were the hundreds and hundreds of people from all walks of life who still think that World War II matters.  The students asking one earnest and perceptive question after another.  That enthusiastic high school teacher from Arizona who is fighting the good fight in the educational trenches, reminding her students that world history didn't suddenly begin in 1995.  She told me about her World War II class, and suddenly I would have given anything to be back in high school.  Individuals of all ages who could throw down on various details of the war, on tanks, aircraft, equipment, and doctrine.  T-34s and KV-1s. Shermans and Tigers.  Stumorviks and Stukas.  It just didn't stop.

    After a few hours in that reception hall, in the midst of a loud, happy throng all talking at once, I actually got giddy.  World War II is an intoxicating topic that has kept me interested for decades, and it is wonderful to have a moment that reminds me of something I tend to forget:  I am not alone.

    Oh, and have I mentioned the star of the show:  the Museum itself?  If you haven't seen it yet, my advice is to stop what you're doing, book a plane to NOLA immediately, and plan to stay for 3-4 days.  The Museum was undergoing a renovation while I was there, and now it's done.  So be sure to look up when you enter the U.S. Freedom Pavilion.  Your eyes aren't deceiving you.  That's a B-17 hanging from the ceiling.

    That's what I'm talking about.  A B-17, right there over your head.  What an airplane.
What a museum!

    More next week:  yet another group keeping the flame alive.

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Oh What a Lucky Man I Am
By Robert M. Citino

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

I've said it many times: I'm a lucky guy. Beautiful wife. Wonderful family. I get to live in Texas. (No offense to the other states. I've lived in a few and they're not bad at all.)

Another way I'm lucky is that I get invited to speak a lot. I fly around the country on someone else's dime and per diem and I see incredible sights. I meet great people, all because people think I know something about World War II. Shhhh…. Don't tell anyone, or they'll all want in.

In the last few weeks, I've been invited to three places that have reinforced the notion that military history, and especially the study of World War II, have never been more popular. We historians sit around a lot and mope about the modern age, which seems determined to forget the history of the past century. You can't blame them. War is so unpleasant, and the industrial-strength wars of the 20th century have been the most unpleasant of all. Even so, the entire purpose of history is to encourage memory, and it sometimes demoralizes even the most ardent history professor when you utter the words "Battle of the Bulge" in class and a lot of students stare at you blankly.

That is why my past few weeks have been so energizing. At the end of November, I spoke at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. On Veterans Day, the museum opened an incredible new exhibition titled "War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath." When I saw it, my jaw dropped. Think about every famous war photograph you've ever seen, not just from World War II but from the Crimean War to the present. Then imagine being in a room with every single one of them. I'm pretty hard-headed about this stuff—I've been teaching military history for years. Even so, my mind reeled.

I don't want to belabor the exhibit with too many words. A picture is worth 1000 words, as they say. But let me share a few of the images, and urge you all to get out and see this before it closes on February 3rd.

Just for starters, let's think about why the United States won World War II. How about this 1942 photo of the Douglas Aircraft Co. Plant, Long Beach, California?

Or, let's say you aren't satisfied with U.S. material abundance as the source of wartime victory. You want heroes? How about Lieutenant Brink Bass, a U.S. Navy pilot in the South Pacific? Here he is as an ordinary guy getting his service haircut.

And here he is a bit later, transformed by the camera. Lieutenant Bass: war god.

Or perhaps you're a hard-headed type, someone who doesn't go in for heroic poses or photographs. Here is the harsh reality of war, a photograph of the aftermath of the fighting at Buna on New Guinea.

Like I said, it is an amazing exhibit, and I learned more in a couple of hours than I thought possible.

More next week: another group keeping alive the memory of World War II.

Hollywood's War: Beginnings and Endings
By Robert M. Citino

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

I have been writing this column for years, and if your attention hasn't drifted, you probably know that I am not that fond of war movies. I say it every year at this time. Don't like them, don't watch them, don't care to discuss them

And then I turn around and write yet another column about war movies! Am I a hypocrite? Maybe. But it might be more correct simply to plead nolo contendre, "no contest." You're an adult, you're conscious, you live in America: chances are you see a war movie or two. This Christmas, sitting around with "the fam"—my wife and daughters who are visiting us from various parts of the country—I saw two movies dealing with World War II, one about the start and one about the end.

It is easy enough to make light of The Sound of Music. It is so earnest. The lovely Julie Andrews as a governess. Christopher Plummer's widower Captain Von Trapp. A blended family that can harmonize like pros at the drop of a hat. The Songs! The Alps! The hills are alive!

It's corny, sure, but when I watched this movie on ABC tonight, it struck me as pretty serious stuff. Even this relatively simple musical has some big themes. Nazi terror. Personal danger. The Anschluss. Indeed, at one point, Captain Von Trapp sings the haunting air "Edelweiss," defending the independence of Austria and defying the notion of a Nazi takeover of his native land. "Bless my homeland forever," Plummer sings. He begins to weep as he sings the song, and he cannot continue. Andrews joins in to assist him, and eventually so does the audience.

It is a powerful scene, however jaded you might be. It expresses a basic truth. No one wants to be oppressed by anyone. Freedom is a right, and the urge to live free is a universal one. Damn straight, I thought. Suddenly, The Sound of Music didn't seem so trivial. Sure, I realized, there were millions of Germans (and Austrians) who supported Hitler, but there were also a sizable number who didn't, and their voices need to be part of the narrative we tell.

It is equally easy to scoff at the entire notion of White Christmas. Bing, Danny, and the "Haynes Sisters" all add up to an amazing musical, sure. The dance sequence with Danny Kaye and Vera Ellen ("The Best Things Happen When You're Dancing") is absolutely exquisite, one of the greatest ever filmed.

But the plot… that's another story. The narrative of General Waverly (ably performed by Dean Jagger) and his failed ski resort in Pine Tree, Vermont, seems like a classic example of "who cares?" Hundreds of thousands of Americans—and millions of men worldwide—died in World War II. Many millions more had their lives shattered: horrible injuries to body and mind and spirit that would never heal. The ripple effects among loved ones, parents and wives and children, were equally tragic. As I've written here many times, no one should ever romanticize World War II. Those who fought it paid some heavy dues, and the bill kept coming due for the rest of their lives. So it isn't snowing? Who cares?

But even here, there were moments in the film that made me reconsider taking such a hard line. That scene early on where the men of the "151st Division" (and I'll bet that General George C. Marshall WISHED there were 151 divisions in the U.S. Army!) are gathered for their Christmas show is a case in point. The setting is Europe, and presumably the Ardennes, in December 1944. Bing, looking a little old to be a captain in the wartime U.S. Army, sings the men the classic title tune. "May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white." The soldiers are young—far too young to be facing death. They are silent. Some stare off into space. Some lean on their rifles, clearly moved.

Schmalz? Of course it is! Hollywood has sold schmalz to the world for a century now, at a very tidy profit. But even a silly Hollywood film can touch a basic truth. In World War II, a lot of men on all sides spent Christmas of 1944 wishing that they were somewhere else. Somewhere far, far away. Somewhere called home.

We can take the same broad view about the rest of the film. Forget about the general and his ski resort. He's not the first guy who made a bad business investment! Let us call to mind all those men (and not a few women) who gave up the best years of their lives to fight this horrible war. They did their duty, they fought, and they suffered. Some were brave and some were cowards, some had their bodies broken and some saw their best friends die. Postwar emotions ran the gamut from pride to shame, from denial to anger. At the end of the day, General Waverly wasn't exactly unique. A lot of men had trouble fitting back in to peacetime. The more you'd invested in the war, in fact, whether time or emotion or heroism, the harder it was to forget.

It's the ultimate hokey scene—the General in his old uniform and the men from his now defunct division singing, "We love him, we love him…" But at the end of a war, it's exactly what society needs to tell those who fought. The ones who charged enemy positions without fear, and the ones who spent entire nights cowering in foxholes waiting for the next shell to blow them to smithereens. War places cruel demands on a chosen few, and the rest of us should, at the very least, try to understand.

It is Christmas Day as I write this… Night, actually. Like any person of good will, I have a single wish for all of humankind: let us have peace.


Unique: the Pacific War, Part 2
By Robert M. Citino

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

Last week I made a startling claim about the uniqueness of the Pacific War.

Well, startling for me, anyway. I've come up in a school that distrusts the very word "unique." Most historians eschew the concept. Indeed, the very job of a historian is to compare events from various epochs and to show how all events of the present owe something to those of the past.

As a card-carrying historian, I get that. But even so, I still think that the Pacific War was unlike anything before or since. At sea, the distances involved dwarfed any previous military conflict. Consider the battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, for example. The deployment area was some 450,000 square miles, more than the American states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico combined. As a result, traditional notions of fleet battle, with battleships steaming line ahead and exchanging gunfire with their counterparts similarly arrayed, never came into play. Rather, the opposing fleets stayed hundreds of miles apart and the aircraft carrier became the principal weapon of destruction. The encounter at the Coral Sea in May 1942 was a milestone for that reason, the first naval battle in history in which the hostile ships never came within sight of one another.

While the fleets and carriers were roaming free over a major portion of the globe—maneuver personified, we might call it—the fighting on land was of a very different character. Here, individual islands witnessed one brutal battle of attrition after another, with Japanese soldiers fighting to the last man and U.S. forces having to vaporize them one by one with superior firepower. Today, we tend to see the typical battle as a "storm landing," an amphibious assault on a tiny island, with the Japanese defending on the water's edge and the Americans landing under fire. Think of Tarawa in November 1943, for example. But anyone with a cursory understanding of the Pacific knows that it is filled with larger islands like New Guinea and Leyte, and here the Japanese had no prospect of defeating a landing. On the big islands, U.S. forces often landed unopposed, then had to confront a series of heavily fortified ridges, hills, and caves in the interior. Finally, there were many islands like Peleliu, where the Japanese decided to follow both strategies: carrying out a murderous defense at the water's edge as well as a fight to the death in the interior. Any way you sliced it, it could take months for U.S. infantry to wipe out Japanese resistance. It was a ugly business of brutal close assaults, demolition charges, and flamethrowers.

In close quarters like these, the conditions were horrid for both sides. Historian Ronald Spector put it best when he wrote that the "real enemy" in the Pacific wasn't a hostile army. It was the jungle. Let us take Guadalcanal, for example. It was an island covered by tropical rain forest: razor-sharp grasses, crawling vines, ferns bigger than a man, tangled roots, giant hardwood trees that blocked out the sun. On "the Canal," as U.S. combatants called it, the heat and humidity was such that your men could make something like one to two miles per day before exhaustion set in. The Japanese didn't have it any easier than the Americans did. Tales of the Japanese being skilled at jungle warfare are mythological. Sure, they might have trained for it a little better, but they weren't raised in it any more than a boy from Cleveland, Ohio was, and there were just as many jungles on Japan as there are in America—that is to say, none. Visibility for both sides was nil, a few hundred yards at most. It was a world of giant ants, massive wasps, and mosquitos that gave you malaria. Quinine (the standard anti-malarial medicine) was always in short supply. American scientists, ever inventive, did manage to devise a synthetic substitute called Atabrine. Unfortunately, rumors had already spread among U.S. troops that Atabrine suppressed your sexual desire or made you impotent. So there was that. A more immediate threat was the humidity. It was a constant, clinging menace to you, your rifle, your clothing, your skin, and your feet. One nasty word: fungus.

Jungle wasn't the only problem in the Pacific, however. Even a non-jungle island like Iwo Jima could be a nightmare. Iwo was a hunk of volcanic rock four miles long by two miles wide, made up of gritty, irritating ash that stunk like sulfur. That was bad enough, until you realize that the entire island was honeycombed by Japanese tunnels, some as deep as 75 feet. U.S. troops have fought in some rotten places since 1945, from the Chosin Reservoir in Korea to the Iron Triangle in Vietnam to the Shar-i Kot valley in Afghanistan. As bad as they were, none of them was worse than Iwo Jima or Guadalcanal.

The point I am making here is that the Pacific Theater was a mess. Whether jungle island or tiny coral atoll or volcano: the fighting was never less than horrible, dehumanizing, and brutalizing. Both sides wound up doing what troops often do in such circumstances: committing atrocities. The Japanese mutilated American dead and the Americans began collecting body parts from Japanese corpses.

I don't want to appear naive or overly negative here about the way that we should remember the war. Hell, my dad fought on Guadalcanal. I have no problem at all with emphasizing the heroic side of the struggle in the Pacific. I thrill to the U.S. flag-raising on Iwo Jima, for example, and photos of the Japanese surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri make me proud to be an American.

At the same time that we remember this war in the ideal sense, however, we should also take note of the real. Indeed, it is precisely the horrible reality of the Pacific War that brings the acts of heroism on both sides into sharper focus.

A last point. What we need to avoid above all costs is romanticizing any of what happened. It is too easy to neglect the horror, the brutality. Too easy to forget, or to gloss it over. Too easy to turn the South Pacific into…well, South Pacific.

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Unique: the Pacific War
By Robert M. Citino

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

No historian is supposed to use the word "unique."

After all, everyone knows that nothing is completely unique. Human beings have been living on planet earth for a long time, and every historical event hearkens back to something that happened a long time ago. Alexander the Great invaded Afghanistan (although he called it Bactria) in ancient times; so did the Soviet Union and the United States more than two thousand years later. Both Charles X of Sweden and Napoleon I of France invaded Russia, and both of them came to grief. Hitler tried it too. Both the French and the United States attempted to pacify Vietnam, and both of them failed. Like the Bible says, "There is nothing new under the sun."

But from 1941–1945, something happened that I would say was unique. Something unlike anything that had happened before or since.

I am speaking of World War II in the Pacific Ocean. Once Japan had conquered its "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere," it set up a defensive perimeter in the Pacific, fortifying hundreds of islands in the Solomons, Gilberts, and Marshalls. Backing the perimeter would be huge naval and air bases on the island of Truk in the Carolines and Rabaul on New Britain. Once established in its perimeter, Japan was certain that the U.S. would have no choice but to accept a fait accompli. After all, no U.S. president in his right mind would sacrifice tens of thousands of young Americans in bloody frontal assaults on one obscure island after another, nor would the American people stand for it. Japan viewed the U.S. as a commercial nation, one that knew how to read a balance sheet, how to weigh costs and benefits. By contrast, Japanese superiority in the spiritual realm, bravery, and willingness to die would make the difference. The spirit of Japan, they called it: Yamato-Damashii.

A sensible strategy? Perhaps. But it fell apart early, on day one in fact, with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Intended as a surprise blow by the Japanese leadership, it appeared to be something very different to the American people: a "sneak attack," a devious stroke carried out at the very moment that Japanese envoys were in Washington to negotiate. The very next day, President Roosevelt gave a short speech to Congress. While it barely stretched beyond the 7-minute mark, it summed up the mood. Pearl Harbor wasn't just an operational defeat. It was a crime, Roosevelt said, a "date which would live in infamy."

Americans went from antiwar to rabidly prowar overnight. They were now determined to do the very thing that Japan felt they would refuse to do. They demanded a war to the death against Japan, fighting across the vast Pacific Ocean one island, one atoll, one jungle at a time. And they lived up to that pledge, on places like New Guinea or Tarawa.

Oh…and one little detail. That Japanese raid that smashed the U.S. Pacific Fleet? It missed one little detail. Look at this photograph. Tell me what you see. Tell me what is missing.

More next week.

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