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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.

By Robert M. Citino

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Last weekend, I met a hero.

Oh, I know, "hero" is a cliché of military history. I've always been skeptical of the term. How do you judge a hero? What is the qualification? Do you have to blow up a tank with your bare hands? Hold a lost position all by yourself? Be Audie Murphy?

I've thought about this a lot. My dad spent 18 months of his life on the island of Guadalcanal with the Americal Division. He never gave me a lot of details or told a lot of stories, except for that time when he met Eleanor Roosevelt—the moment that let the entire Citino family share in the American dream. But Dad was a medic, and I know enough about World War II to know that he did some pretty heroic things in that time. And he was my hero, anyway.

This weekend I met another hero: James Megellas, U.S. Army LTC (retired). Maggie, as his friends call him (and I hope he'll include me in the list) was a Wisconsin boy, mid-way through his senior year at Ripon College when Pearl Harbor happened. He graduated ROTC in 1942 and accepted a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the army infantry. Originally assigned to the Signal Corps because of his math skills, he wanted to see combat and volunteered to become a paratrooper.

And what a paratrooper! By the end of the war, he had fought at Salerno, at Anzio, in Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, and the campaign into Germany. Along the way, he became the most decorated officer in the 82nd Airborne Division: a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, Presidential Citation w/cluster, the Belgium Fourragère, six Campaign Stars, and Master Parachutist badge. In 1945, General Jim Gavin, commander of the 82nd Airborne, selected him to receive the Military Order of Wilhelm Orange Lanyard from the Dutch Minister of War in 1945, the first American so honored by the Government of Holland.

If there was a defining moment in this heroic career, it came in September 1944. Jim jumped into the Netherlands as part of Operation Market Garden. Ordered to seize the two critical bridges at Nijmegen, Jim's company had to cross the Waal river in flimsy boats while under murderous machine gun and 20mm antiaircraft fire. If you're trying to picture this, think four words: A Bridge Too Far. The movie. Robert Redford in front of the boat reciting the "Hail Mary." The chaplain in the back chanting "Thy will be done." A bunch of young boys certain they were going to die, but doing what they were told to do, anyway. Maggie was there.

On Saturday, at the University of North Texas, he gave a talk about that horrible day. He's 95, but in some ways he's still the same young platoon leader in that boat. You could still see the emotion, the fire. The same determination to do what had to be done. Jim doesn't romanticize war, or relish it. He told the crowd about friends, young men he had known for years, cut down by random bursts of fire. An officer who said, that morning, "I'm not gonna make it." They all tried to reassure the poor fellow, but they knew a deeper truth about war: you know when your number's up. Maybe it's truths like that one that led Jim to write a book nearly 60 years later, All the Way to Berlin (2003), one of the best books on war I have ever read (and you should read it too). Maybe that's why, at the age of 89, Jim agreed to travel to Afghanistan and visit his old outfit, the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The young men there gave him a hero's welcome, and he's been back two times since then.

It wasn't until the very end of the war, Jim told the audience, that he actually realized what it had all been about. What they had been fighting for. The cause for which his friends had died. His battalion liberated a concentration camp. A patrol reported back that they had just come across a German installation of some sort. "A bunch of skinny guys," the man said. Jim went forward and came across a concentration camp, with inmates in the advanced stages of malnutrition, many close to death (and many who would soon die). In that room in Denton, Texas where Jim was speaking this weekend, you could have heard a pin drop.
I don't go in much for "greatest generation" rhetoric. But in this case, I will make an exception. Thanks, Jim.

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Niwi: Nine Men
By Robert M. Citino

Monday, November 5th, 2012

Last week, I wrote a teaser about the 1940 campaign. For most military historians, the German victory in France remains a kind of gold standard: a rapid, decisive, and relatively bloodless victory that smashed the French army and drove the British from the continent in a humiliating evacuation that was without parallel in modern times. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) survived, but only by abandoning all of its vehicles and equipment and carrying out a hasty evacuation from Dunkirk. Even the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had to remind his countrymen that wars were not won through successful evacuations. He got that right.

Even this great German victory was not without problems, however. No military operation works perfectly. The great German philosopher of war, Karl von Clausewitz, summed it up nicely. "Everything in war is very simple," he wrote, "but the simplest thing is difficult." His point, which no student of history can dispute, is that war always seems simple in theory. We are here; they are there; we need to go there. But how to get "there" is the problem.

Consider an airborne plan in the 1940 campaign, the one that had German paratroopers (Fallschirmjägern) landing on targets in Belgium, the small towns of Nives and Witry (hence the "Niwi" landing). The point was to seize crucial crossroads in the Ardennes Forest in order to smooth the passage of the great German armored offensive through Belgium, unhinge the local defenses and clear a path to the Meuse River. The faster the Panzers reached the Meuse, the more likely it was that the French defenders would be surprised and unprepared, and the greater the chances of a breakthrough in this sector.

The plan seemed logical enough. One reinforced company of paratroopers would land at Nives to support the advance of the 2nd Panzer Division. Another one would land at Witry in the attack sector of the 1st Panzer Division. But the operation itself turned into a classic embodiment of what the U.S. military would call a SNAFU ("situation normal all fouled up," although "fouled" really isn't the word). Everything that could go wrong in the Niwi operation did go wrong. The landing lacked sufficient transport aircraft, and so the Luftwaffe's commander, Hermann Göring, hit on the bright idea of using Fi 156 liaison aircraft (the famous Fieseler Storch) to carry his paratroopers forward. The Storch could carry only two men in addition to the pilot, however. With 400 men in the initial landings, a landing supported by a handful of transport planes had suddenly grown into 100 aircraft flying in two waves, with a round trip of two hours each. Clausewitz would no doubt have shaken his head and chuckled. A simple idea had become a monster.

The Germans went forward anyway, as modern military establishments tend to do. Once a plan has taken weeks or months or years to work out, few commanders will simply abandon it. The Storchs took off early on the morning of May 10th, 1940, flying low to avoid detection and antiaircraft. The northern group almost immediately flew off course due to navigation errors and small arms fire from the ground, and most of the southern group flew into a random fog bank. When it emerged into the clear, it spotted a large flight of Storchs. Breathing more easily now, it fell into formation behind them, without realizing that they were the main body of the northern group.

When all was said and done, the northern group arrived well over strength, but nowhere near Nives, and the southern group at Witry landed with precisely five planes—nine men in all. The former group had a relatively easy time, spreading out and driving back the Belgian forces in this sector. The Witry force, by contrast, spent the day in a relative panic, with its commander later writing that he felt like a "highwayman" as he and his tiny band did their best to block the road from Neufchâteau to Witry. They were a small enough force that they could have been arrested. Somehow they managed to survive, however, and they still held the road by the end of the day.

On the surface, the Niwi landing is a classic example of a battle against the odds. A bold action on one side can always paralyze a hesitant enemy. Everyone recognizes the advantage of acting decisively, and the history of World War II is filled with similar heroic exploits.

But let us go one level deeper. As the Panzers crossed the border into Belgium—a gambit that required an immediate breakthrough of light Belgian defenses and a rapid passage of the Ardennes–they ran into unexpectedly tough resistance. The German 1st Motorcycle Battalion motored into the village of Bodange and suddenly came under heavy fire from a series of elevated positions. The Germans had to go to ground, call in heavy weapons fire, and eventually summon their field artillery. Only then were they able to get forward, but even so, they had lost a full day of their scheduled advance.

It wasn't until later that they found out why. Early on the morning of May 10th, the Belgian high command sent orders to that tiny force at Bodange to retreat if attacked. The orders never arrived, however. The Belgians didn't know it, but a small enemy force had cut their communications links to the rear: nine German paratroopers occupying the road from Neufchâteau to Witry. Since those brave Belgian boys never got their orders to withdraw, they stood and fought, and they almost disrupted the German plan altogether.

Consider it: a plan of one million men, nearly ruined because of nine misplaced paratroopers. Like Clausewitz wrote a century earlier, none of this is as simple as it looks.

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Niwi: The Fog of War
By Robert M. Citino

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

Military historians love to emphasize the planning process. They like to talk about "perfect plans," showing how the genius of the great commander can manifest itself even before the shooting starts. A good plan, we argue, can overwhelm the enemy, leading to quick victory and avoiding high casualties. We all know that war is horrible, and we all like to think that a perfect plan can bring things to a conclusion before the fighting becomes too unpleasant or bloody.

Exhibit A in this civilized view of warfare is the German operational plan for the invasion of France and the Low Countries in 1940. Fall Gelb, they called it: "Case Yellow." I've spent a lifetime talking, teaching, and writing about it, and I will never tire of it.

How do you defeat a hostile coalition that outnumbers you? Maybe you launch a feint into central Belgium by Army Group B, while your main thrust (Army Group A) actually sends all of your Panzers through the forbidding and densely forested terrain of the Ardennes. The enemy won't be expecting this, because the Ardennes is impassable to tanks and supposedly "impregnable." He swallows your feint whole, rushing north to meet it with his entire strength. As a result, your southern drive through the Ardennes encounters only reserve formations, second line troops, and old men. You smash them, and the next thing you know, your Panzers are cutting clear across the rear of the Allied armies fighting north in Belgium. You reach the English Channel, slicing their lines of communications to ribbons, and cutting them off from supply. Oh sure, some of the enemy manages to evacuate from Dunkirk. Disappointing, yes, but not so much when you realize that they only escaped by abandoning all their tanks and equipment. Even allowing for the failure at Dunkirk, you have just won one of the most decisive victories in all of military history.


I am no more immune to this portrait than anyone who studies the war. But as I have come to analyze Case Yellow more carefully and to know it more intimately, I have been forced to acknowledge a number of ideas that were first put into print by the great Prussian philosopher of war, Karl von Clausewitz. A career of warfighting in the Napoleonic wars had left Sir Karl feeling pretty jaundiced about the notion of a perfect plan. He'd seen enough supposedly foolproof plans that failed, enough "brilliant" commanders claiming to have the solution, enough of the random events that screwed up even the best planned military operation. Downed bridges. Weather blowing up suddenly: storms, blizzards, fog. Messengers carrying important dispatches who got sick, or got lost, or whose horse pulled up lame. Regiments that didn't get their orders, who were supposed to march in sequence and who instead showed up simultaneously at a crossroads claiming precedence on the one route forward. Clausewitz wasn't all that impressed with anything claiming to be a perfect plan. He knew that war is not chess. Here are the profound words of the great sage himself, taken from his book Vom Kriege ("On War"), published in the 1830s:

Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war…. Friction is the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper.

Nota bene: "Real war" is different from "war on paper." The actual campaign rarely, if ever, mirrors the campaign plan. And, we might add, it rarely resembles the precisely conceived and perfectly executed plan that the military historian likes to portray in his books. Sitting in your study decades later, Napoleon or Moltke or Schlieffen or Patton might look like idiots, and it is easy to spot their "errors." Clausewitz reminds us that none of this is as easy as it looks, and that we should be careful before we call any general a moron.

But, we might ask, what about 1940? Wasn't this an example of military genius on one side wiping up the floor with a hapless adversary? Wasn't this the ultimate chess game, with the Germans being the masters and the French the novices? Wasn't Case Yellow the perfect campaign?

The answer to that question is, "no." No operational plan is perfect. Treating war as chess is a mistake, if only because in chess, no one is shooting at you. In war, even if you succeed, you should be humble and hesitate to claim any sort of omniscience. Even in the 1940 campaign, a lot of things went wrong for the Germans. What we usually see as a pushover contained its share of problems, mistakes, and SNAFUs.

Imagine being a German paratrooper, a Fallschirmjäger. Part of the German army's elite. Smart. Aggressive. Focused rigorously on the mission. A model soldier. On the eve of the great offensive in the west, you and 400 of your comrades are preparing for an airdrop into the Ardennes, to drop into the rear of the defenders and pave the way for the great Panzer drive. Your objectives: the villages of Nives and Witry.

No army in the 20th century had better troops. And no army wasted them on a more senseless mission.

Tune in next time.

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Ugly: A Last Note on the Ethiopian Campaign
By Robert M. Citino

Monday, October 8th, 2012

Over the last few weeks, I've been writing about the Italian campaign in Ethiopia (1935–36), one of the many wars between the two world wars. We often speak of the "interwar" period, but in fact it was chock full of conflict: the Russo-Polish War, the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay, the Japanese invasion of China, and many more. While it may have been interwar, it clearly wasn't anything approaching "peace."

The point I've been making is that analysts of the day took the Italian war very seriously—far more seriously than we do today. While anyone conversant in the history of World War II tends to laugh at the Italian armed forces, they were actually the first in history to carry out a mechanized campaign, with tanks, trucks, and aircraft working together in relative harmony. The Italians ended a long-running debate about whether such a thing was even possible, showing the traditionalists, conservative nay-sayers, and horse cavalry fanatics that a new age had dawned in military affairs, and that the future of warfare belonged to the machine. The Italians attacked with tanks, used ground-support aircraft to help break through Ethiopian defenses and harry the enemy as he attempted to retreat, and employed air transport assets to supply their forward elements and to leapfrog their headquarters formations forward hundreds of miles at a bound. All in all, it was an admirable achievement, and any standard military history should applaud it. If there's one thing we historians love, it is progress, and this campaign seemed to be a living embodiment of the concept.

But there is one last factor we have to discuss, in order to treat this campaign as seriously as it deserves. We need to delve into the morality of it all. As a historian who lives in the world of logic and cause and effect, I am not at all comfortable handing down condemnations. A wise man once said, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone," and I try to keep that admonition in mind at all times.

Still, this was an ugly campaign, and the Italians arguably crossed a series of lines in conducting it. Machine guns and heavy artillery against poorly armed feudal levies? Strafing and bombing runs against an enemy almost completely devoid of antiarcraft weapons? It's easy enough to answer with the stock phrase, "fortunes of war." After all, more sophisticated forces have been winning battles for centuries, slaughtering their adversaries on the process. Nothing to see here, move along. Mussolini's nineteen-year-old son Vittorio, an Italian air force pilot, even called it a "magnificent sport." He was nineteen and feeling the adrenaline, so no one should treat him too harshly. But what kind of society celebrates such words?

And it gets worse. The Italians repeatedly dropped poison gas on the Ethiopians. It was something that later European air forces in World War II would refrain from doing, almost certainly from fear of reprisal. But the Italians had no need to fear Ethiopia on this score. Haile Selassie had neither the scientific base nor the delivery systems to hit the enemy in kind, and the Italians knew it. As to Ethiopian preparation for chemical warfare—gas masks, protective clothing, decontamination procedures—we can sum it up in a single word: zero.

Put yourself into the shoes of an Ethiopian soldier. You are a young man who has answered the call of your local Ras and marched out to defend the empire. The Italians don't scare you. You have been hearing the tales for years about the last time the Italians invaded. How your fathers and grandfathers smashed them at Adoua. You march off confidently, ready to shine in the eyes of your family and loved ones. Then, even before you have a chance to prove your valor, a small flight of Italian aircraft appears overhead. A small stick of bombs dropped, but no real explosions. Stillness at first. Then a whiff of something strange. A sickly sweet smell. What is happening? A sudden panic—you can't breathe! What are your last words as you die a horrible, choking death? If you're like most young soldiers, you probably cry out for your mother.

Let me ask my readers. Who is more admirable? The well-trained technician raining down chemical death on a hapless enemy? Or a young boy bravely trying to defend his own home?

I'll tell you how I feel, and you are free to disagree. I was born an Italian American on the west side of Cleveland, Ohio, in the midst of an ethnic melting pot of Irish, Italians, and Hispanics. I don't apologize for who I am. I love being Italian.

But at the same time, I'm a historian, and the Ethiopian Campaign can't help but make me sick. Invasion. Mechanized slaughter. Air attack. Poison gas. Hell, after the victory, Italian occupation troops had orders to round up and shoot as many Coptic Christian priests as possible, in order to reduce the possible of resistance amongst the recently conquered Ethiopian population.

We often treat Mussolini as some sort of clown. He was hardly that. The historical record shows that he was deadly serious—as serious, in his own way, as Hitler. And that anonymous Ethiopian warrior fighting to defend his family? I have a word for him, an ancient and honorable word: hero.

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Sitting in Judgment: the Ethiopia Campaign
By Robert M. Citino

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Last week I wrote about the Italian campaign in Ethiopia (or Abyssinia, as many in the world still called it) in 1935–36. It barely registers in the western historical consciousness today. After all, there are two things that military historians in the U.S. have little respect for: the Italian army, and the fighting quality of the African "natives."

The point I've been trying to make in these last few posts, however, is that this campaign deserves more attention than it usually gets. First, it was more evenly matched than we usually think. Ethiopian "natives," even if fighting as feudal levies more loyal to a local chief ("ras") than to a central government, were a tough enemy. They were savvy, hardy, and capable of prodigious marches in the high altitude of the Ethiopian plateau. The Italian army invading this forbidding country was mechanized, to be sure, but in a very light way, spearheaded by thinly armored "tanks" that barely register as such. Virtually all of its infantry was truck-mobile (i.e., motorized, rather than mechanized) and very fragile in combat. Indeed, the opinion of the day was that this was going to be one hard campaign.

No doubt, there were some things to admire in the Italian military achievement. The invaders displayed genius in areas of planning, organization, and supply. They built roads galore through the wilderness, as their Roman ancestors had and as they continue to do today in the United States. They were the first army in the world to operate large motorized and mechanized units in the field, after all the years of discussion, debate, and dissent. They were the first to demonstrate that it was possible to keep an "army on wheels" supplied, fed, and in command over vast distances—distances much larger than any European army was likely to face, and in much rougher country. They were the first to demonstrate the awesome power of the air arm, which had done something that no European force had done for decades: carry out a successful pursuit. Italian fighters and bombers had apparently replaced the cavalry, taking on a mission that the horse could no longer perform.

Indeed, they did more than that: air forces could be used to supply the ground component. After the fight at Mai Ceu, the Italian Eritrean Corps (20,000 men) force-marched around the left flank of the disintegrating Ethiopian army to Dessie, cutting themselves loose from their supply lines on the ground. Italian aircraft supplied the vast column for the entire 200-mile length of the march, even dropping livestock by parachute. Supplied with over 113 tons of airdropped supplies, the Eritreans made it to Dessie in less than a week, an average of over 30 miles per day.

The exclamation points on this success? Marshal Pietro Badoglio transferred his army headquarters by air to Dessie on April 20, a true innovation. Twelve heavy Caproni-133 bombers brought the marshal and his entire army staff 110 miles forward in just 90 minutes. To a world accustomed to World War I maneuver rates, this was not merely impressive. It was positively insane. More than a hundred miles in an hour and a half? As my high school daughter likes to say nowadays: are you serious? This was nothing sort of a new paradigm, a veritable revolution in military affairs. Consider Badoglio's final lunge from Dessie to Addis in the last days of the war. Setting out from Dessie on April 26 with a gigantic motorized column, including some 1,700 trucks, the force made over 250 miles in just 10 days, facing steep ascents, sudden plunging ravines, and everything in between. Badoglio called it, in the bombastic Fascist style, "the March of the Iron Will."

That's how they saw it at the time, in 1936. A few years later, a lot of things had happened. A much larger conflict had broken out, and it would enter the history books as World War II. The Ethiopian War now seemed positively quaint to most western analysts. This new war was intense, European-on-European fighting. The real thing, as it were. Blitzkrieg (allegedly). Fall Weiss. Barbarossa! In this new war, the Italian army soon looked like a joke. The "not ready for prime time players," a parody commanded by a clown and led in the field by amateurs. It is an unfair and simplistic picture, but so ingrained now that it will take generations to pass away, if it ever does.

The point here is not to rehabilitate the reputation of the Italian army—probably impossible in any event. It is merely to reiterate a point I've made here a few times: history is not merely "what happened." It's what people think happened. In 1936, a lot of people thought that the Italian army was pretty formidable, and that the "Ethiopian campaign" was some kind of classic achievement.
I wonder: what ideas do we hold today that might look foolish in a decade or so?

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One Tough Campaign
By Robert M. Citino

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Last week I had some fun here, talking about a mighty warlord of the 1930s deciding to launch a war against a smaller and weaker adversary, and in the process precipitating World War II. Trying to be clever, I saved what television producers call the "reveal" for the end. Was it Hitler? No way! Hirohito! Nope.

No. The real warmonger of the mid-1930s was none other than the Duce, the lord of Italy, the "first Fascist": Benito Mussolini. And the land he was invading? Well, let's just say that it isn't a place that we Americans tend to think about a lot today. It was Abyssinia. Or Ethiopia. Even now, historians can't seem to decide what to call it.

Whatever. It was a big country. Mountainous. A land filled with brave men. We like to refer to them today as "warriors," but that strikes me as a loaded term. It is how imperialists and interlopers have traditionally referred to the "natives"—primitive and underarmed and outclassed. Tribesman who were easy meat for western armies. It's almost a term of military contempt.

In this case, I would recommend dropping all that baggage. The armed population of Ethiopia was simply…brave. Were they as well armed as a modern western army? Of course not. Tanks? No. Planes? No. I think Emperor Haile Selassie I owned a single trimotor aircraft, in fact. Antiaircraft guns, one of the main signifiers of modern armament in the 1930s? Unfortunately not.

But did the Ethiopians have firearms, aggressive commanders, and troops who were reasonably well trained in modern tactics? Did their army understand how to use the terrain to best advantage (then, as ever, a principal aspect of the military art)?

You bet.

And this is the point, I think, of the campaign of 1935–36. Although we largely ignore it today, the invasion of Ethiopia was the subject of a great deal of interest at the time. The Ethiopians had a martial reputation very different from their portrayal by modern writers. They were then known as one of the few colonial peoples in the last century to inflict a major defeat on a European power—these same Italians, in fact—at the battle of Adowa in 1896. Their land was remote, mountainous, and forbidding in the extreme. Most of the informed military opinion of the day spoke of the upcoming campaign in terms of its difficulties, not its alleged ease.

And they were right—easy it wasn't. On October 3, 1935, an Italian army of some 100,000 men (General Emilio de Bono in overall command) invaded Ethiopia from Italian Somaliland. His force included nine full divisions, supported by tanks and the modern aircraft of the Italian air force (the Regia Aeronautica). The main thrust, under de Bono himself, came from the north, based on the Eritrean base of Asmara. A second, much smaller, came from the south under General Rodolfo Graziani, operating out of Somaliland with Mogadishu as its base.

The northern advance crossed the border without incident, but soon bogged down. Part of it was de Bono's cautious nature. Part of it was the need to build a supply road back to his base. Part of it was the horrendous terrain. The Ethiopians took advantage of Italian hesitancy, however, and by December they were across the entire Italian front in force. They launched a series of powerful counterthrusts, which came close to breaking the Italian front. They never did manage to coordinate their attacks, however, and after some fairly dark nights, de Bono was able to marshal enough firepower to rout them.

In December, Marshal Pietro Badoglio replaced de Bono as the commander in the north and launched a series of multi-corps assaults that crushed the Ethiopian main force. Playing a conspicuous role here was the Italian air force. From the first day of the war, it operated with total impunity, harrying Ethiopian ground troops and bombing rear areas. Its real value, however, soon revealed itself: completing the destruction of already defeated Ethiopian forces as they were attempting to retreat. It was "magnificent sport," in the words of Mussolini's 19-year old son and Italian air force pilot, Vittorio. After the last great battle, at Mai Ceu (May 31—April 1, 1936), all that remained was the speedy occupation of the vast Ethiopian plateau. Badoglio entered Addis Ababa on May 5.

The campaign in the south was very different. The Ogaden Desert was the theater, and much smaller armies were in play. Italian commander General Rodolfo Graziani led a much more mobile force than Badoglio's, organized into smaller task forces (gruppi) of tanks, armored cars, and truck-borne infantry, along with considerable support from the air. All this was very much in tune with the times. This was the era of the prophets, the Fullers and the Liddell Harts, preaching a new gospel of mechanization as a way to break the deadlock of trench warfare. Mobility was all the rage.

Did it work in the Ogaden? Yep.

Sure it did. Maybe.

Despite all his advantages in weapons and mobility, Graziani moved very slowly. Perhaps this was an omen for his later career in the Western Desert during World War II, but to be fair, it was also a warning sign to anyone who believed in a magic solution called "mechanization." Graziani advanced in fits and starts. He paused repeatedly, then destroyed a clumsy and poorly supplied Ethiopian counterattack at Dolo. After that he sat for months. Not until April 18, six months into the war and two weeks after the destruction of the main Ethiopian army at Mai Ceu, was he prepared to resume his advance. Even then, his force took ten full days to chew through the Ethiopian positions in front of Negelli.

So, let's add it up. Certainly, a triumph for the Italians. Total victory. A big win, the sort that ended with a parade through the streets of the enemy's capital, and the hostile commander fleeing into exile. It was exactly the sort of win that had become extremely rare in the past half century.

The world was impressed. Observers of the campaign, both civilian and military, praised the Italian army, its efficiency, its drive, and its ability to improvise in such a difficult environment. Herbert Matthews of the New York Times called the conquest of Ethiopia "a difficult job superbly done," and that would sum up the tone of much of the contemporary reportage.

All this is very different from our view today. Too many writers simply laugh at the Italian army. But perhaps this campaign is a classic example of confusing OUR thoughts (those of us who are alive today) with THEIR thoughts (those who were living then). It raises the question of what we should be about as historians. Is our job to lecture past generations about what they ought to have thought? Or should we try to figure out why they were thinking the way they were?

If you've been reading this column for long, I hope you know that I subscribe to that latter point of view. Was there a actually a time in history when it made perfect intellectual sense to respect the fighting qualities of Mussolini's Italian army?
More next week.

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Launching the War
By Robert M. Citino

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

As you all know, the decade of the 1930s was an era of crisis. The horrible bloodletting of World War I was in the rear-view mirror by now, but it was clear that it had solved nothing. The globe was still split into haves and have-nots, established powers and johnny-come-lately newcomers. An arms race was threatening the peace, actually more like a series of arms races: on land, at sea, and in the air. The international body established to deal with tensions in the diplomatic sphere, disarming them before they could erupt into violence, seemed ever more impotent. The League of Nations tended to react to crises with words, not deeds: speeches, declarations, ultimata, expulsions. None of them seemed to work, unfortunately. The collapse of the international economy was a monster that trampled all attempts at compromise or reason. The rising powers—"revisionists," they called themselves—took note of the weakness of the status quo, and drew up their plans accordingly.

Then, one day, one of the aggressors decided to march. On the surface, there was no casus belli, no cause for war. The real issue seemed to be testing the will of the democracies and their decadent populations, seeing if they still had the guts for the hard test of war, or if a century of material prosperity and world power had enervated them and sapped their strength. Perhaps they were too old and weak and tired to defend themselves. Perhaps it was time they gave way to vibrant younger powers like Italy, Japan, or Germany. Maybe they should retire and let the stronger states inherit the earth.

And so one of the aggressors unleashed that oldest cliché of all: Shakespeare's "dogs of war." I've never used it in print before, but this is as good a time as any. Because the notion of "unleashing the dogs" is a good one. When you launch a war, you are entering the realm of the uncertain. You are taking your chances. Will you be able to control subsequent events, or will they control you? Will the passions you unleash eventually devour everything you value? Six months from now, are you going to be shaking your head, binding up your wounds, and saying, "what in the world was I thinking?"

We might ask the same questions about the war under discussion here. It is a gamble from the start. The resources to fight it are short, from manpower to weapons to supplies. You have identified your enemy's weaknesses, yes, but he also has some real strengths: a reputation for martial valor and a determination to die for the cause, characteristics that fill the history books of his country. Moreover, his land is primitive, the terrain difficult, the road network nearly non-existent, and his soldiers will probably give a good account of themselves.

You have advantages too, of course, or you wouldn't even be considering war: modern technology, state of the art weapons (for the 1930s), and a doctrine for using them that has been worked out laboriously in maneuvers, exercises, and wargames. You know the difficulties that will accompany this campaign, but you are also confident that your new tanks and mechanized formations will be able to overcome enemy resistance quickly. Above all, you are certain that you can play the terror card: air power. Strafing, bombing, even poison gas if need be. If these weapons work as advertised, maybe you won't even have to fight an extended land campaign.

And this last point is crucial. The international situation is a question mark, as always. You have worked hard to isolate your enemy, but diplomacy is always a question mark, a game in which today's winner can suddenly morph into tomorrow's loser. You have been very clever up to now, certainly, isolating your enemy, playing upon the divisions in the camp of the Great Powers, and thereby winning maximum freedom of maneuver for yourself.

But worries remain, and they keep you up at night. What if your enemy manages to line up allies? What if this nice little isolated war you have planned turns into a struggle against an enemy coalition, one that that vastly outnumbers and outproduces you? Your entire operational plan rests upon winning a quick war and presenting the world with a fait accompli–then as always the strongest card to play in foreign affairs.

Still, the timing seems propitious. Your enemies are divided. Your strength, while not optimal, should be sufficient. Above all, you have confidence in your personal star, one that is justified by previous events. If you had been timid in past moments of crisis, you would hardly sit in the seat of power that you currently hold. Your boldness has made you one of the two or three men currently deciding the course of world history. It is an incredible thought, when you consider where you were just 15 years before, a humble front-line soldier in World War I. A swine from the trenches. Back in the day, you spoke for your fellow veterans, and you rode their anger to power. Now you stand tall, ready to restore the Fatherland to greatness.

And so you decide to act. Your name is Benito Mussolini, you are the commander in chief of the Italian armed forces, and you are about to sign orders for the invasion of Ethiopia.

More next week.

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United Nations: The Axis Allies
By Robert M. Citino

Friday, August 24th, 2012

One of the toughest questions a historian of World War II has to answer is, "How did the Germans stay in the field so long?" Their plan to conquer the Soviet Union in a single quick campaign in 1941 came to grief in front of Moscow. Their attempt to reboot the campaign in 1942—version 2.0, we might say—was even worse, with an entire field army surrounded and destroyed at Stalingrad. Their last great offensive in the East, at Kursk in 1943, ran into a brick wall, went nowhere, and gave the Soviet army an opening to launch a series of powerful counterblows at Orel and Belgorod that never really stopped until the end of the war in 1945.

As far as the Wehrmacht was concerned, the war was irrevocably lost during those last two years. But apparently the German phrase for "we've lost the war" is very different from "we surrender." So how did the Reich manage to hang tough those last two years, when it was an inferior power fighting a pure war of attrition against vastly superior enemies?

Thanks to Rolf-Dieter Müller, director of Germany's Military History Research Institute (Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt) in Potsdam, we have at least a partial answer to these questions. In his book The Unknown Eastern Front, Müller rejects most of the commonly accepted views. It wasn't merely loyalty to Adolf Hitler, he says, or the ideological conditioning of the National Socialist era, or the Wehrmacht's incredible ability to improvise (the explanation that most military historians put forth).

Rather, he says, it was something much simpler. It was bodies—human beings willing to fight to the death for the cause. But where did those bodies come from? After all, Germany had been outnumbered from the beginning in this war, and there were a finite number of replacements coming from the home country.

Müller has an answer. He argues that it was non-German foreigners who kept the German war going when the Reich's own human resources no longer sufficed to keep a viable army in the field. These non-German forces ran the gamut. They included entire field armies, like the ones supplied by the Romanians, Hungarians, Italians, and Finns. But they also included smaller volunteer "legions" recruited from occupied countries like France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Baltic states, or formations recruited from enemy prisoners of war, such as the bewildering multinational horde of prisoners taken during the campaign in the Soviet Union: Balts and Georgians, Azeris and Turkmen, and many more. Finally, there were the Hilfswilligen or Hiwis, 100,000s of Soviet "auxiliary volunteers," who manned much of the Wehrmacht's logistical network during the vast campaigns in the Soviet Union.

Consider a few numbers. In June 1941, 3,000,000 German soldiers took part in Operation Barbarossa. Alongside them were no fewer than 1,000,000 non-Germans. For the rest of the war, German strength in the East sank to about 2,500,000 (a result of casualties and catastrophic defeats). During that time, the number of foreigners doubled to 2,000,000. The vast majority of this influx consisted of former Soviet soldiers or citizens who were ready (if not eager) to fight alongside the Wehrmacht or to assist it in some way as auxiliaries.

More numbers. The German-Soviet front on June 22nd, 1941 was 2,000 kilometers long; Finnish armies were covering 600 kilometers of that total and the Hungarians and Romanians between them another 600. Together, they allowed the Wehrmacht to treat the greatest military campaign of all time as an "economy of force" operation. As Müller puts it, they allowed the German high command "to concentrate the bulk of its Eastern Army in the central thrust towards Moscow."

The situation was even more pronounced in 1942. Operation Blue, the offensive towards Stalingrad and into the Caucasus, would have been unthinkable without foreign soldiers. As German spearheads drove towards the Volga and the oil cities of the Caucasus, immensely long flanks developed along the Don river and out on the Kalmyk Steppe. And who was holding those flanks? Hungarian, Italian, and Romanian armies.

They came to grief, of course. As brave as these foreign soldiers were, none of their armies approached the Germans in terms of professionalism, training, or technology. The Germans promised to equip them, but that was a fantasy. The Wehrmacht could barely supply itself, and the foreign allies had to fight without sufficient armor, antitank guns, or air power. Their failure in often impossible situation—the collapse of the Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies on the flanks of Stalingrad, for example—led Hitler to blame them for the defeat, and many of his rambling monologues later in the war took the cowardice and racial degeneracy of his allies as a major theme.

But this is a historical injustice, and things would only get worse after the war ended. The postwar world, including both sides in the burgeoning Cold War, would paint these forgotten soldiers with a very broad brush, labeling them all as "collaborators." It was an ugly word, and anyone unfortunate enough to have fought alongside the Germans knew that a grisly fate awaited him if he were handed back to the Soviets at the end of the war. The NKVD shot them wholesale–just as it shot hundreds of thousands in all the lands it re-occupied.

"Hell yes," you might say! "Fortunes of war!" They fought for Hitler and they paid the piper. But calling them all collaborators is too simple, since it implies that they were all criminals. While we may identify various motives, most of these soldiers were fighting for some sort of freedom for their homeland. Müller asks a fundamental question. What loyalty did a young man in Estonia, to give one example, owe to the Soviet regime then occupying his country, murdering and deporting thousands of unfortunates for "anti-Soviet" activities? Why would any intelligent person expect him to fight for Stalin?

In the postwar era, the Wehrmacht's foreign helpers would vanish down the Sta-linist memory hole. They were an embarrassment to a Soviet regime that was selling the notion of the "Great Patriotic War," in which all Soviet citizens had come together in defense of the homeland, and as a result they simply disappeared in the histories. In point of fact, however, as Müller shows, many millions of Soviet citizens "voted with their feet" during World War II, and they had marched against Stalin.

Whether they deserve respect for that decision is an open question, subject to various interpretations. They may have been silly, trying to win independence by fighting alongside Hitler's Germany. But let us leave these questions in abeyance for a moment. Don't these millions of men deserve more attention from students of World War II than they have usually gotten? Müller says yes, and I have to agree.

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By Robert M. Citino

Monday, August 13th, 2012

Everyone knows that World War II was a holocaust—a fire that consumed millions of people across the globe, not only soldiers, but millions upon millions of civilians.

And of course, it was also a Holocaust—an attempted genocide of the Jewish people, one that came perilously close to success. Any attempt to analyze World War II in strictly "military" or "strategic" terms is missing a crucial point: this war was different. To make that statement is not an attempt to justify anything and everything that the Allies did in the course of the war. It is merely to state the obvious. The German war was more than a Griff nach der Weltmacht, a "grab for world power." It was an attempt to do something awful: exterminate an entire ethnic group, solely for the crime of existing. A lot of people don't like to hear me say that, if my mailbag is an accurate reflection of their sentiment, but that only makes me want to say it more often. World War II in Europe is inseparable from the Holocaust.

I recently had occasion to think about the degree to which those two events are intertwined when I read a doctoral dissertation, a manuscript that will almost certainly become a book in the near future. The notion that the Germans wasted resources on the Holocaust that they sorely needed to prosecute the military conflict is a truism. Scholars talk about it all the time. But up to now, there haven't been many studies that attempted to prove the link. The one I read did just that by concentrating on a crucial area of German logistics. The lifeline of the Wehrmacht's multiple-front war was the European rail network, the same system that supported the killing of Jews during the Holocaust. The work I read asked a few fundamental questions: how many trains did the Reichsbahn need to ship Jewish victims to the death camps? How many German divisions, how many tanks, how many thousands of tons of supplies could those same trains have carried?

The answer to all of these questions? A hell of a lot. Now, certainly, we have to make distinctions: supplying a field army is a non-stop, everyday commitment of hundreds of thousands of tons of cargo. Shipping helpless victims to their death is a one-way ride. But even accounting for that crucial difference, this war saw numerous moments in which the Wehrmacht could have used trains for troops, tanks, and ammunition that were instead carrying old men, women, and children to the death camps. The manuscript that I read identified four specific crisis points: Operation Typhoon in the fall of 1941, the climactic German drive on Moscow, taking place at the same time as the first large-scale Jewish deportations; Operation Blue, the Stalingrad campaign in 1942, linked with Operation Reinhard, the mass deportation of Jews from all over Europe to a series of newly established death camps in the East; the Kursk campaign, fought out at the very moment that the Germans were liquidating the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto; and the 1944 Overlord/Normandy campaign, taking place at the very moment of the German invasion of Hungary, the deposition of Admiral Miklós Horthy's regime, and the destruction of the last surviving Jewish community of any real size in Europe.

The Soviet defeat of Operation Blue, for example, acquires a new light when we consider that in the course of 1942, the Germans were deep in the process of shipping some two million Jews via rail to the camps. Likewise, the logistical requirements for the extermination of Hungarian Jewry in 1944 were massive. Occurring as it did during simultaneous military crises in East and West, it rendered the Germans far less able to respond to threats in Normandy and Byelorussia in anything resembling a timely fashion.

Now, let's be honest: it will never be easy to prove that the devotion of railcars to the Holocaust lost the battle of Kursk in 1943 or led to the destruction of Army Group Center in 1944. But let us also remember that immortal principle of war that the U.S. Army calls "concentration of force." You identify your main enemy, you gather your strength in a single-minded fashion, and you crush it. Anything else is a diversion. A distraction. A waste. I like to think I have a pretty good understanding of war's infinite variation, the way it resists rules or prescriptions or detailed instruction manuals. Even so, I believe in concentration of force. It's just common sense.

In that light, think about the summer of 1944. The Soviets have just crushed an entire army group of yours in the East. The Anglo-Americans have landed in Normandy and, after some tough fighting, have broken out of your bridgehead and smashed your main force in the West. This is what we call "an emergency."

Clearly, it is a time for stirring slogans. Rally round the flag! Every man for the Fatherland! Victory or death! Ein Volk steht auf!

Instead, in this moment of destiny for Germany, you decide to cry "Death to the Jews!"

Hannah Arendt once famously wrote that the Holocaust proved the banality—the ordinary nature—of evil. She may be right, but perhaps we need to rethink it: sometimes evil isn't merely "ordinary." Sometimes it is absolutely illogical.

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In Defense of… Italian Coastal Divisions?
By Robert M. Citino

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Hope that title caught your eye.

In my capacity as a World War II historian and columnist, I receive a lot of mail. Some of it is friendly, some of it is cranky, and some is downright hostile, but I do have to say this: it is almost always interesting. My mailbag reinforces a notion that has guided me from the beginning: the war still matters. It matters for a lot of reasons and it matters deeply to a lot of people. And they know their stuff!

Recently I received a note from Bologna, Italy, from an interested reader who had just finished my most recent book, The Wehrmacht Retreats. The book deals with German operations in the year 1943, and so there is an entire chapter devoted to the Allied invasion of Sicily, Operation Husky. As with most scholars who write on this campaign, I came down pretty hard on the Italians, describing what I have always believed was essentially a vanishing act. Although there were 100,000s of Italian troops on the island, the majority seemed to fade away within a few days of the Allied landing. The reasons were many: an impression of overwhelming and irresistible Allied strength (true), an Italian morale collapse as the hard hand of war descended for the first time on the homeland (understandable), and a refusal on the part of many Italian soldiers to die for Benito Mussolini (utterly sensible, I thought).

Whatever the reasons, they ran. I was especially dismissive of the so-called coastal divisions, who neither got the job done nor seemed particularly inclined to do so. "Resistance was spotty," I wrote, discussing resistance against the British landings, "with Italian coastal batteries firing sporadically or not at all and with virtually no opposition on land." The same was true in front of the Americans, I said: "Faced with the Allied onslaught, the vast majority of those Italian coastal troops (and not a few of the regulars) greeted the invasion by deserting their posts, throwing down their weapons and surrendering, or trading their uniforms for civilian garb and making off into the rugged Sicilian interior." I was writing with assurance. If there was one thing in World War II that I was sure of, this was it: the Big Italian Bug-Out.

My new friend from Bologna wanted me to think a little harder about this traditional narrative, and for a simple reason, he said: "Because details matter." The gist of his comments was that it is necessary to recognize more shades of grey in the analysis than I had been willing to admit. The coastal defense units were essentially territorial militia consisting of over-aged reservists—dads and uncles, we might say. Given their training, equipment, and morale, they "didn't perform at all so badly as the received wisdom states." He offered this reasonable comparison: "It is highly doubtful whether the British Home Guard would have performed any better in 1940 facing a German invasion." Yes, many of them fled, but a lot of these older guys fought against what we might call impossible odds. Tough British regiments like the Seaforth Highlanders ran into resistance almost from the moment they landed, and they weren't the only ones. Military historians like to criticize the British for the slow speed of their advance in Sicily, but the lackadaisical pace wasn't just the fault of their overcautious doctrine. Italian units, including the despised coastal defense units, repeatedly stopped them cold and inflicted casualties in the opening days of the campaign. He also points out that British might have low-balled their casualty figures. A common figure is 2,300 Commonwealth dead during the fighting on Sicily. My Italian friend thinks that figure doesn't wash, and he has a point. There are 1,049 Commonwealth dead buried at Syracuse (killed in the "landings and earliest days of the invasion, therefore killed in action fighting mainly against Italians"), another 2,142 buried at Catania, and 490 more Canadians at Agira. The true number appears to be closer to 3,700 dead. Officer casualties within the Commonwealth armies were especially high, a fact noted in many histories, but usually attributed to German resistance, not Italian.

Just so we aren't picking on the British exclusively (and maybe because he didn't want me getting too smug), he also pointed out that "of the 598 American prisoners taken in Sicily by the Axis, many were paratroopers picked up without much fight, or any fight at all, by Italian NAPs, anti-paratroop teams, little more than badly armed peasants."

Ouch—that hurt! But in that pain was a learning experience, and not just about Sicily. The lesson is one I've had to learn before: don't ever take anything you know about World War II for granted.

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Just Right: the B-17/P-51 Combination
By Robert M. Citino

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

The past few weeks I've written about photos my fellow professors have posted to me via Facebook. They're all globetrotters, visiting battlefields the world over during the summer, and they love to lord it over a stay-at-home like me. And hell, I admit: I don't mind. In fact, I love it.

Nowadays, however, it isn't just your colleagues who send you photos that make you sit up and take notice. I am fortunate to have some amazing students at the University of North Texas. We have a well staffed military history program here, and it attracts very fine students. I have one current student whom I'll call K. She sits in the front row, where all the good ones sit. She can throw down on World War II like nobody's business, she knows her Panzer IVs from her Panzer Vs, and she can become Highly Offended when I make the occasional disparaging comment about the Desert Fox. She knows her Wehrmacht.

Yeah. I actually get paid to teach students like this. I do love my job.

As befits someone with her interests, K also studies the Second World War outside of the classroom. She has a gig working at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas, located at Love Field, or as I like to call it, the thinking man's DFW. Recently, the museum played host to some beautiful visiting aircraft, a B-17 (nicknamed "Nine o Nine"), a B-24 ("Witchcraft"), and a P-51 ("Betty Jane"). Student K took some sweet photos of all of them while they were in town, and I post a couple of them here for your edification.

In the past few weeks, I posted an Italian tank that was arguably too light for its mission, and a German gun that was arguably too heavy. What I found interesting about the images I'm sharing today was the synergy between them. Let's look first at the "Nine o Nine." The B-17 Flying Fortress was invented before the war. It represented a school of thought, as yet untested, called strategic bombing. Its foundational notions were that the bomber would "always get through," that precision daylight bombing could destroy the enemy's crucial industrial nodes, and that air power could force the foe to his knees in a very brief period, without the massed infantry assaults and the million-man casualties that were the inevitable result. It was a happy notion of wars won quickly and bloodlessly, and it captivated the U.S. public and the decision-making elite alike.

Like a lot of prewar notions, this one failed spectacularly. The B-17, for all its heavy defensive armament guns and alleged invulnerability, proved highly vulnerable indeed in the skies over Western Europe in 1943. Once their short-ranged fighter escorts had to turn back (roughly at the German border), the bombers had to go it alone against the Luftwaffe and the flak, and the losses were usually horrific. Anyone who still thinks of the American bomber offensive over Europe as a clean "above it all" venture just isn't reading the current literature. "Wild blue yonder"? Hardly. How about "nightmare"?

Imagine being a B-17 crew approaching the German border, and–quite literally–watching your fighter escorts peeling off for home. Then imagine looking ahead, and seeing a horde of Luftwaffe fighter aircraft waiting for you. Licking their chops. Maybe even smiling,

Willkommen. Welcome to Germany.

And that's where "Betty Jane," our magnificent P-51, comes into play. Every student of the war knows the tortured story of this aircraft's development. An American airframe that consistently puzzled its designers by underperforming. Engine problems. Low altitude. Short range. The bright idea of attaching a British Rolls-Royce Merlin engine changed everything. Suddenly, the Allies had a super-plane that had the range to accompany the bombers all the way into Germany, not to mention a fighter that could challenge the Luftwaffe to plane-to-plane dogfights and almost always win. Those skilled German aces who swept the skies free in 1940-41 suddenly looked all too mortal. It was the iron and unforgiving logic of 1944.

And this, I think, is the point. It's not just this or that weapon system. It's the combination that counts. The B-17? An interesting and perhaps failed experiment. The P-51? A serendipitous, even random, outcome of coalition warfare; a stroke of luck that no one could have predicted. But you put these two aircraft together, the "Nine o Nine" and the "Betty Jane," and what do you get?

You get victory.

Thanks, K. My students continue to teach me things. Like I say: I love my job.

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Going Heavy: the sIG 33
By Robert M. Citino

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

I'm a lucky guy. I have a thousand friends. Many are scholars, and they are interesting, educated, and globe-trotting. A lot of them take advantage of the summer to do their research, and they all make sure to post their photos to me on Facebook. Last week I discussed a Historian Friend of Mine visiting eastern Europe and posting a beautiful image of a museum-quality piece from World War II.

This time, I thought I'd throw you all a curve ball, really shake things up a bit. I thought I'd discuss another Historian Friend of Mine doing the exact same thing.

Well, let me be honest. It's not exactly the same. Last week, the photo was of a light tank, more precisely a tankette, from the Italian Regio Esercito. This time, it is of a heavy gun, an artillery piece from the fearsome arsenal of the Wehrmacht. In other words, we are moving from the hapless to the heroic. Every student of the war recognizes the Italians as the comic relief of a very unfunny war, while the Wehrmacht still represents a kind of tactical and operational gold standard. Whatever we may think of the German army's morals, we very rarely laugh at it.

So, let me introduce to you this week's featured weapon. The German "sIG 33," a heavy infantry gun (in German, a "schweres Infanterie Geschütz"). This was a marvel of German engineering, an elegant design of the sort that anyone who owns a modern Krups coffee grinder will instantly recognize. It was the standard German heavy infantry gun of the war, and the largest weapon ever classified as an infantry gun by any nation. While it was originally designed to be horse drawn, later versions received solid rubber tires and air brakes for towing by truck. In the 1938 version, the one that went to war, the sIG 33 could deliver a 149.1 mm shell an effective range of 4,700 meters (nearly three miles). As World War II artillery pieces went, it was light, mobile, and lethal.

So there we have it. Laughable Italians. Lethal Germans. The entire story of the Axis war effort. An Italian tank that was little more than a tin can, a "rolling coffin," contrasted with a German gun capable of probing, pinning, and pulverizing its enemy.

As always, however, the actual history of the World War II battlefield confounds all our neat little schemes. Sure, the Italian CV-33 turned out to be a joke. It barely survived its peacetime maneuvers, it met tough opposition in Ethiopia, and by the time Italy entered the war in 1940 it was altogether obsolete.

But let us be equally honest about the sIG 33. Conceived by the finest military minds in the world, and then designed by some very gifted engineers, it seemed an ideal solution to a serious problem: how to provide the infantry with the heavy fire support it needed to overcome modern defensive systems echeloned in depth. And it did just that, 150mm worth. It provided a level of firepower that in the previous world war would have been deployed only at corps-level, but was now available to the regiment. It worked in Poland in small numbers, and then in France in larger ones.

By the spring of 1941, however, we might say that it met its match. Anyone who studies war for a living will recognize the situation. A flare up. An unexpected crisis. A quiet zone that suddenly becomes a trouble spot. What does that equal? There can be only one answer.

The Balkans.

A coup in the Yugoslavian capital of Belgrade in March 1941 overthrew the pro-Axis regency of Prince Paul. The new men in power wanted neither war, nor alliance with Germany, "ni rat ni pakt" in the Serbo-Croatian. Hitler (rightly or wrongly, we can leave the point moot for the moment) decided to invade Yugoslavia in order to pacify the Balkans before his big grab for world power in the Soviet Union in June 1941.

It was a hastily planned operation, so "ad hoc" that it never even got a proper name. It went into the books as "Operation 25," and like everything the Germans did up to this point in the war, it worked like a charm. It overran Yugoslavia in record time with near-zero casualties. Three German terms suffice to explain it: Panzer, Stuka, Kesselschlacht.

This campaign ended differently from earlier ones, however. The Germans conquered Yugoslavia but had a hard time holding it. With the Wehrmacht aiming at bigger game in Russia, the forces left in the Balkans were relatively small. And they had enemies galore, "cetniks" aligned with the previous royal regime in Belgrade and "partisans" aiming to build a new communist Yugoslavia. Josip Broz was the leader of the latter faction, although the world would come to know him by his alias of "Tito." Cetnik and partisan might have hated each other–this was the Balkans, after all–but both of them managed to hate the "Nijemci" with equal ferocity.

As a result, German garrison forces in Yugoslavia soon came under attack from all directions. They held the towns, but the roads and countryside between them were anything but secure, and a trip from one town to another almost always led to roadblocks, ambush, and disaster. Perhaps a heavy mechanized force might have been able to solve the problem, but by late 1941 the German Panzers were in no condition to help. They had their hands full at places like Minsk, Smolensk, and Moscow.

And this is where the sIG 33 comes back into the picture. Let me pose four questions to the very discerning readership of this column. In the mountainous theater of the Balkans, just how useful was this big infantry gun, weighing a full 1,800 kilograms (nearly 4,000 pounds)? How often, when second-rate German troops ran into a partisan ambush on an obscure mountain road, did they actually manage to deploy it? And even when they did, how often did it get into action too late? Finally, how many of these German guns were overrun?

Four questions; four answers. In order, I would say: not very; rarely; almost always; and all too often.

So sure, go ahead: laugh at those idiot Italians who placed their ill-designed tank into situations for which it was hopelessly unsuited. But just be sure to reserve some of your laughter for the German Wehrmacht. War almost always surprises the participants.

And oh, did I mention? My friend took this photo of the German sIG 33 on the grounds of the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It's actually very close to Caffe Tito.

Why am I not surprised?

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Going Light: World War II on Facebook
By Robert M. Citino

Friday, June 15th, 2012

We all live in a new age. Call it the "Age of Facebook." The good side is that we can stay in touch with our friends, keeping our relationships fresh and vibrant even with people who are thousands of miles away. The bad side? Well, let's just say that it can be difficult to go on vacation. Sure, you may decide to stay home this summer, but there are plenty of your friends who are traveling, and they make sure to post one photo after another on your wall. Like it or not, those images remind you that there is a big world out there, and that those of us who are staying home in places like Corinth, Texas, may be missing it.

Yep. Call it the story of my life.

Just today, for example, I got no fewer than three posts on my wall that reminded me of the old adage: "Military History Never Sleeps." Alright, it's an adage that I've just invented, but it is no less true for that.

I have one famous historian friend (name available upon request) who is currently traversing the battlefields of Eastern Europe in World War I. In the course of his travels, he came across a museum model of the Italian tank designated CV-33, at left. The CV stands for "carro veloce" or "fast vehicle." Oh, did I call it a tank? Sorry. I meant to say, "tankette." It was a tiny model with a two-man crew, built for speed rather than pounding, and armed only with a machine gun.

Cue laughter! It's easy to mock, and why not? After all, it was Italian. It proved nearly worthless in World War II, far too light to take the pounding inherent in modern combat. Heck, it even failed against the Ethiopian army in the campaign of 1935–36. The indifferently armed but valiant warriors of Haile Selassie laughed at it, going to ground in the face of its fire, maneuvering around it in nimble fashion, jumping on top of it, and smashing its machine gun barrels with big rocks. Trying to imagine the CV-33 going up against the monstrous tanks of 1944–45 is a nightmare, or perhaps a joke.

Still, I couldn't help thinking that the Italians designed and deployed this vehicle for a reason. They were no dumber or smarter than anyone else. In the 1930s, the Italian army was doing what all armies do: planning realistically for combat against its neighbors. And who were those neighbors? Most probably France in the west and Yugoslavia in the east. And where would the fighting have taken place? Almost certainly in the Alps: Italy's northern terrain boundary. Any realistic plan for future wars, in other words, would have highlighted the infantry, fighting in the mountains and supported at the most by light armor. A vehicle, we might say, something like the CV-33.

Sure, it proved to be a bad choice, like a lot of choices the Italians made. It is important to realize, however, that not all the bad decisions resulted from the fact that the Italians were clowns, or that Mussolini was an idiot. The Italians were not the only army in 1939 equipped with something like the CV-33 tankette. Indeed, everyone had them. Everyone was considering lightning-quick maneuver carried out by lightly armored vehicles. The British army was filled with them, and the German Wehrmacht, the hard-core "Blitzkrieg" army par excellence, went to war with something called the Pzkw. I, a vehicle very akin to the tankette in the photo.

In other words, the image I saw made me realize that it is easy to label some decisions "correct" and others "incorrect." It brought home to me the simple fact that the historical actors had good reason for their supposedly absurd decisions. It is easy to sit here in our comfortable studies and cast judgment, but only if we fail to consider the context.

I think I know a lot about World War II. But Facebook teaches me something new every day.

More next week!

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit


Irrational Actors: The Battle of Leyte Gulf
By Robert M. Citino

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Last week we were discussing the Battle of Leyte Gulf, especially the lopsided balance of forces. By now the U.S. Navy had become an all-conquering behemoth and the Imperial Japanese Navy had become the Incredible Shrinking Fleet. The Americans had more destroyers than the Japanese had carrier aircraft, U.S. destroyers at Leyte alone outnumbered all of those in the entire Japanese navy, and the Japanese had more or less lost the ability to destroy an American ship in conventional combat. If ever a moment had come for the IJN leadership to have an "agonizing reappraisal," one of those long, dark nights of the soul when you wonder where your life is heading, this was the one.

Unfortunately, no one in Tokyo appeared to be in a reflective mood. It is easy to assume that the side losing a war decisively will see reason and try to extricate itself before being crushed. Call it the "rational actor model," the notion that human beings are thinking creatures, that they try to seek pleasure and avoid pain, that they 1) add things up and then 2) act upon the math. The rational actor model is an appealing way to analyze historical events. Indeed, it is the bedrock principle of historical scholarship. You analyze even the craziest event of the past, and then you try to explain just what the heck the historical actors were thinking. Trying to make sense of it all is the historian's job description.

The only problem is that all too often, it isn't true. Things don't make sense. Let's be honest: In extreme circumstances, people tend to fool themselves, perhaps even lie to themselves. They engage in groupthink, a kind of communal pep talk that says if They All Simply Pull Together, things will get better. The rational actor model? Try to sell that to the Wehrmacht in 1943.

And so the Japanese responded to their brutal plight—outnumbered, outproduced, and outclassed—by launching another offensive in late 1944. "Sho Ichi Go" (Victory Plan 1) was unusual in that it was a massive engagement fought after the issue of the war had already been decided. The United States had already achieved both naval and air supremacy in the Marianas in summer 1944. The decisive battle was over. Now, in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese were seeking little more than a "fitting place to die." Their planning documents actually use that phrase, along with an eagerness to "bloom as flowers of death."

Which seems to make no sense at all. But perhaps that's just me. Maybe I am just too wedded to the material world.

Or maybe not. Maybe it makes no sense at all.

Let us leave that point in abeyance for the time being. What really intrigues me about Leyte Gulf is how powerfully this non-rational strategy ("irrational" has too many overtones of "crazy") seemed to impact the operational plan. The more you hold to Clausewitz's notion that "even the simplest thing is difficult" in war, the more ridiculous Victory Plan 1 plan looks. Historians often lash the IJN, quite rightly, for the complexity of its operational plans throughout the war, but this one raised complexity to the level of a parody. Consider these ingredients: a continental-sized theater of operations, comprising 1000s of miles of open ocean; limited Japanese resources split up into no fewer than four task forces (Kurita's First Strike Force, further separated into Force A under Kurita and Force C under Nishimura, sailing up from the south; Shima's Second Strike Force, sailing down from the north; and Ozawa's Carrier Force, carrying very few aircraft and used here essentially as a decoy); all of them carrying out a baroque series of converging and diverging thrusts.

It seems like a perfectly reasonable plan, but only if you happened to be planning an assault on a nearby hill by an infantry company. It was nearly impossible to carry out for any fleet at any time in the war. Hell, it would have been difficult to carry out as a fleet exercise in the absence of an enemy. The chance of the IJN executing it with limited resources in 1944? How does "absolute zero" sound?

The resulting battle shook out into four far-flung engagements (the difficult Japanese passage of the Sibuyan Sea, the last great battle-line action in history in the Surigao Strait, the uneven but heroic fight between Kurita and the "tin can sailors" off of Samar, and, of course, Admiral William F. Halsey's foolhardy side trip to Cape Engaño). The resulting quadripartite structure is probably beyond any human ability to analyze properly. Even calling it the Battle of Leyte Gulf is a misnomer. It wasn't a battle, but a massive, nearly formless melee, and it was fought in all sort of places beyond Leyte Gulf. But whatever it was, none of it worked.

Oh sure, we all know that the U.S. Navy had some bad moments, most of them courtesy of Bull Halsey. I talk to a lot of people nowadays who think he should have been relieved for cause a long time before Leyte Gulf. It is fair to ask, however, if the Navy could have busted a commander whom most Americans regarded as one of their greatest wartime heroes? Let's just say, "the world wonders." At any rate, any navy can afford bad moments, perhaps even a few bad commanders, when it outnumbers its opponent so decisively.

As for the Japanese, what they cooked up at Leyte Gulf may have been fascinating, but it was hardly war. Their next stop down the road seems almost logical: the kamikaze.

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit


Playing the Odds: Leyte Gulf
By Robert M. Citino

Monday, May 21st, 2012

The Marianas turkey shoot of June 1944 was arguably the finest hour in the history of the U.S. Navy. It has it all: complete dominance over the enemy, an inspiring level of bravery at all levels, bold command decisions tempered by caution and care for the lower ranks. The Marianas will always read like a heroic naval epic, with the operative word being "heroic."

The battle that took place a few months later in the Leyte Gulf, however, was a very different story. Here we can see the war against Japan moving from the realm of the heroic into the realm of the challenging, with both sides trying to deal with problems so huge that they simply became overwhelming. These were systemic problems, issues that emerge from the nature of war itself, heavily laden with chance, uncertainty and fog. As every student of the war knows, "Pacific" derives from an old Latin word meaning "too damn big," and fighting a war in this vast ocean was never going to be easy. It didn't matter how brave the sailors were, in other words, or how skilled their commanders, or how advanced their technology. Things were still bound to go wrong.

In the battle of Leyte Gulf, the area of deployment for the opposing forces was some 450,000 square miles. If that number doesn't impress you, think of it this way: it was an area greater than the American states of Utah (85,000 sq. mi.), Colorado (104,000), Arizona (114,000), and New Mexico combined (122,000). Likewise, the battle itself (the extreme range of tactical action) covered at least 115,000 square miles. While there are many ways we can parse this figure, perhaps the best is that it was an area slightly smaller than the British Isles.

And this adds up to a problem. Take the greatest warfighting commanders of the 1940s. Throw in the finest aircraft, the best trained pilots, and the most powerful weapons, and what do you get? Not enough. All the radar in the world, all the Nimitzes and the Spruances and the Mitschers, all the Lightnings, Corsairs, and Helldivers: none of them were enough to dispel the fog of war in a theater of operations twice the size of my sprawling home state of Texas. Indeed, our entire modern conception of warfighting has been to replace the Napoleonic-style "genius"—someone who shows up once in a thousand years, perhaps—with large planning staffs, carefully formulated doctrine, and standard operating procedures. Such an increasingly bureaucratic notion of war is no guarantee of success, unfortunately, especially since both sides tend to adhere to it.

It is in that light that we should consider the clash in the Leyte Gulf. American forces should have wiped the floor—er, the surface—with the Imperial Japanese Navy. The numerical balance was ridiculous. Ponder this: at Leyte, the U.S. Navy had more destroyers in its order of battle than the Imperial Japanese Navy had carrier aircraft.

Yeah. My reaction precisely.

There were more U.S. ships at Leyte than there were Japanese planes. It's practically unbelievable, and particularly so when one thinks back to the dark days of Pearl Harbor, less than three years before, when the USN seemed helpless and the IJN all-conquering.

Would you like more numbers? How about this one: by October 1944, the U.S. Navy had more destroyers in its two task forces at Leyte than the Japanese had in their entire navy covering the Pacific, the Asian and Southeast Asian coasts, and the home islands combined. By this point in the war, moreover, U.S. carriers had become all but invulnerable to conventional attack from air or sea. It would be a crucial factor in the Japanese turn toward kamikaze tactics in the Philippines, but as bad as the suicide bombings were, they never came anywhere near to defeating the U.S. Navy.

If we add it all up, it's hard to escape the notion that the Battle of Leyte Gulf was a unique event in naval history: a vast engagement fought after the issue of the war had already been decided, that is, after the U.S. Navy had achieved both naval and air supremacy in the summer of 1944. To be ruthlessly logical, there was no clear reason for the Japanese to have offered battle at all by this time Even if they found some specious reason to do so, the U.S. Navy should have swatted them like a fly. If ever a battle should have been a pushover, it was the Leyte Gulf.

As our Prussian friend Carl von Clausewitz explained nearly two centuries ago, however, war is not necessarily the province of logic or predictability. It exists in a very different realm, one of passion, illogic, and chance. Had he been alive in 1944, he might have shaken his head and chuckled as he saw his theories confirmed. The Japanese shook their fists at fate and decided to give battle anyway. In the swirling and chaotic complexity of this immense Pacific mega-theater, they almost beat the odds. Indeed, they came within a hair of smashing a heavily laden U.S. invasion fleet and winning a dramatic victory. There would be moments at Leyte when the American commanders were gazing at their charts and situations maps with absolute horror, wondering how they had blown their advantage and plunged into disaster.

More next time.

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Let There Be Light: Admiral Mitscher’s Decision
By Robert M. Citino

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

Last week, we ended on a pretty grim note: U.S. naval aviators taking off for the unknown at the end of the battle of the Battle of the Philippine Sea.

It is customary today to think of this battle as the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot," a shattering blow that broke the back of Japanese carrier aviation. In a single day of combat, the Imperial Japanese Navy lost hundreds of aircraft (which, by this point of the war, Japan could barely replace) and hundreds of pilots (completely irreplaceable).

The next day was a very different story, however. After establishing nothing less than full-spectrum naval dominance on June 19th, 1944, the 20th would see the U.S. Navy having a very difficult time locating the main body of the Japanese fleet, always the most critical and most frustrating activity in the Pacific War. It wasn't until late in the day that Admiral Raymond Spruance was able to get a fix on his Japanese counterpart, but there were only a few hours of daylight left and the enemy was at extreme range. Belying his reputation as a cautious commander, he gave orders for a full-scale raid by his carrier aircraft, involving more than 200 planes. Everyone knew, from Spruance down to the pilots, that they would barely have enough fuel for the return trip and—even worse—that they would have to find their way home in the dark. The raid went well enough, considering all the problems in getting it launched. U.S. aircraft sunk the Japanese carrier Hiyo and badly damaged the Zuikaku, along with a few other ships. It wasn't any sort of knockout blow, however.

But we barely remember all that today. Usually in the Pacific War, the return flight after a raid was a kind of denouement. Here it was the horrific climax of the story. As night fell, plane after plane ran out of gas and dropped into the sea. Radio discipline seemed to break down for a time. Some pilots became completely disoriented, others snapped and began sobbing. Who can blame them? It was a pitch black night in the middle of the world's biggest ocean.

Consider for a moment the tough decision they had to make: when to ditch the aircraft. Running your tanks dry got you closer to home, but left you with an uncontrolled drop at the end. Ditching a few moments earlier left you with some power and control when you hit the water, but left you farther out at sea. It was a bad scene, either way.

You might think it couldn't get any more dramatic, but you'd be wrong. With his pilots desperate for any kind of assistance, Admiral Marc Mitscher made a gutsy call, the kind we pay flag officers to make. He ordered the entire carrier fleet illuminated, and the dark Pacific night suddenly turned to daylight, as every light in the fleet was turned on to guide the fliers. It was a dangerous thing to do in the middle of an unfriendly ocean. Nighttime light discipline is part of Naval Operations 101, after all, and a single Japanese submarine in the vicinity might have made Mitscher look pretty foolish. He was accepting risk to the fleet in order to save his fliers, however. It was a decision in the best traditions of the U.S. Navy, and—I must say—one of the few moments of the war I wish I could have witnessed personally.

It wasn't a perfect solution. Pilots were scrambling to land on any carrier they could find, and with most of the aircraft running on fumes, some of those landings were pretty rough. Some even tried to land on the occasional destroyer and had to be frantically waved off. About 100 aircraft were lost in the raid, and no fewer than 80 of those losses took place during the landing. But with a group of destroyers left behind to search the area in daylight, only 16 pilots and 33 crewmen were lost.

It sounds like a miracle. The entire complement of aircraft could well have been lost. But it strikes me that none of this in a miracle. Instead, the shining end of the "mission beyond darkness" is an example of higher commanders calculating and managing risk. Mitscher and his able chief of staff, Captain Arleigh Burke, knew the risks involved, but they were willing to take them. There just might be a couple of Japanese submarines out there, licking their chops and slapping high fives as they saw those lights come on. But there definitely were pilots calling for help, and they were calling for it now.

And so, Mitscher and Burke said, "Let there be light." At the end of the day, a large number of U.S. naval aviators were glad they did.

On a personal note, by my count, this is the 100th column I have written for Front & Center. I'd like to acknowledge my readers, those who comment on the columns, those who like what I have to say (and those who seem to be driven crazy by it). Thanks, and I hope you'll all keep reading!

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit

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