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At approximately 1:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division landed heavily in a French pasture near the village of Ste. Marie-du-Mont in Normandy. Major General Maxwell Taylor had no time to reflect on the fact that he was the first United States general ever to parachute into combat, as well as the first American general on enemy soil in Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of France.
Manipulating his shroud lines, Taylor narrowly avoided a tree. Next he struggled to extricate himself from his harness. From a nearby field came the sound of a German machine pistol like 'a ripping seat of pants. After ten frustrating minutes of fighting buckles and snaps, Taylor used a knife to cut himself free. Pistol in one hand and an identifying metal cricket in the other, the general set out in the darkness in search of American soldiers.
The 101st was one of three Allied airborne divisions supporting the amphibious assault on Normandy. The British 6th Airborne Division had the task of securing bridges on the eastern flank of the landing beaches. The U.S. 82nd Division had as its primary missions the sealing of the central Cotentin Penin-sula from any attack from the south and the destruction of bridges over the Douve River north of its junction with the Merderet. The 101st was to secure the exits of four causeways behind Utah Beach, Exits 1, 2, 3, and 4; destroy bridges over the Douve northwest of Carentan; and capture two bridges northeast of the town.
These were ambitious objectives, particularly because a few weeks earlier the role, if any, to be played by the Allied airborne had been very much in question. Although airborne advocates such as Generals Matthew B. Ridgway, James M. Gavin, and Taylor were sold on the concept of vertical envelopment, the Allied high command was not. In Sicily, elements of the 82nd had been dropped so haphazardly that some paratroopers drowned in the Mediterranean. In addition, despite an elaborate system of recognition signals, aircraft carrying American paratroopers from North Africa to Sicily had been shot down by trigger-happy gunners on U.S. Navy vessels.
In the weeks leading up to Overlord, Air Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, General Dwight D. Eisenhower's deputy for air, had predicted disaster for the airborne operations. German fighters and flak, he believed, would inflict severe losses on the slow-moving C-47 transports. Moreover, while some soldiers could be evacuated from the beaches if Overlord should fail, paratroopers dropped farther inland would be at the mercy of German defenders. Leigh-Mallory was even more caustic with regard to the proposed glider landings, predicting that casualties will not only prove fatal to success of the operation itself but will…jeopardize all future airborne operations. Nevertheless, Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley insisted that the airborne assault was essential to the success of Overlord, and Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower supported him.
If gliders were to be used, Leigh-Mallory wanted operations to begin at dusk on June 6 rather than in the pre-dawn. Ridgway, however, argued successfully that the lightly armed airborne troops would require their pack artillery and communications from the outset on D-Day. Ridgway carried his point, but the glider operation remained a challenge. Tall poles erected in possible landing areas — Rommel asparagus — were one problem; the Norman hedgerows were another. A typical hedgerow, designed to control cattle, began with a stone wall about three feet high. Soil was then packed around the wall, and shrubs and trees planted on top. For the Germans, every hedgerow was a natural defensive barrier; for an incoming glider, every hedgerow was a potential deathtrap.
And the Germans were ready. Five divisions, plus several smaller units, were stationed in the area of the Allied landings. One of these was the 91st Air Landing Division, which had been en route to Brittany when diverted to the Cotentin Peninsula. Another potent reinforcement was the thirty-five-hundred-man 6th Fallschirmjäger (Paratroop) Regiment.
The 101st's role called for its parachute component, sixty-six hundred men in three regiments, to land in darkness and secure the four causeways leading inland from Utah Beach. It was a vital assignment, for the Germans had flooded low-lying areas behind the beaches, obliging any invading force to funnel across a few causeways in order to move inland. Overlord would be primarily a parachute operation for the 101st, because the one area where Leigh-Mallory carried the day concerned the gliders. Since they would come in after the Germans had been alerted by paratroop landings, the division was allocated only fifty-two gliders, enough for about three hundred men and some pack artillery. Most of the division's 327th Glider Infantry Regiment became part of the amphibious landing.
Army airborne divisions were elite units, and paratroopers were volunteers. Most officers were in their twenties, and many enlisted men were no more than seventeen or eighteen. But the 101st Division, unlike the 82nd, was as yet unbloodied. The practice in World War I had been to allow a new division to get its bearings in a quiet sector before moving into the front lines. There would be no quiet sector for Taylor's Screaming Eagles. They would drop into German-occupied Normandy, where training and zeal would have to compensate for lack of combat experience.
If the 101st was an elite unit, the Troop Carrier Command (TCC) was not. The air corps' best pilots opted for fighters and bombers; the transports got what was left. Moreover, TCC pilots had not been trained in night flying or in formation flying in bad weather. As Stephen Ambrose has noted, The possibility of a midair collision was on every pilot's mind. During the first hours of D-Day, when the great armada of C-47s encountered both clouds and groundfire, formation flying went by the board and many paratroopers were dropped wherever it seemed most convenient.
For a variety of reasons, the American paratroopers underwent a wild night. In the words of one survivor, men landed in pastures, plowed fields, grain fields, orchards, and hedgerows. They landed at the base of antiglider poles, in tall trees and small trees. They landed on rooftops, in cemeteries, town squares, backyards, paved roads, and in roadside ditches. They landed in canals, rivers, bogs, and flooded areas.
Private John Fitzgerald jumped, looked up to check his parachute, and watched as enemy bullets ripped through it.I was mesmerized by the scene, he later recalled, adding that
Every color of the rainbow was flashing through the sky. Equipment bundles attached to chutes that did not fully open came hurtling past me, helmets that had been ripped off by the opening shock, troopers floated past. Below me, figures were running in all directions….My chute floated into the branches of an apple tree and dumped me to the ground with a thud.
Not everyone was so fortunate as Fitzgerald. More than one entire stick, or planeload, of paratroopers was dropped into the Channel and drowned. Private Donald Burgett watched from the ground as one C-47 came in low across the field where he had just landed. The parachutes were just starting to open as the troopers hit the ground. Burgett thought they made a sound like ripe pumpkins being thrown down and bursting. Some luckier ones were dropped on Utah Beach itself, or in water shallow enough to permit them to discard heavy equipment and make their way to land. Still others landed in marshes that had been flooded by the Germans and barely avoided the fate of those dropped in the Channel.
At dawn, of the sixty-six hundred paratroopers of the 101st, perhaps one thousand were at or near division objectives. Others were as far as ten miles away. The glider operation proved far more precise than the parachute drop, with forty-nine out of fifty-two gliders reaching their landing zones. But glider landings were hardly landings at all. No glider that went into Normandy ever saw service again, and some were so thoroughly destroyed that soldiers had difficulty removing the cargo. Taylor's assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. Donald F. Pratt, went in by glider and became the first American general to die in Normandy.We slid over 800 feet on wet grass and smashed into trees at 50 miles per hour, his pilot recalled. Pratt was crushed by his glider's cargo and died of a broken neck.
With pistol in hand, Taylor had initially made his way along a hedgerow in what he supposed to be the direction of others in his stick. After about twenty minutes he detected movement along one hedgerow. When he heard the click of a cricket he responded with a double-click.There in the dim moonlight was the first American soldier to greet me, Taylor would recall, a sight of martial beauty. The two embraced silently, then moved off in search of others.
It took the remainder of the short summer night for Taylor to assemble a few dozen soldiers, most of them assigned to division headquarters. He gathered his officers in a clearing, where they decided to stay put until they could get their bearings. By daylight, Taylor had with him perhaps ninety men, including Chief of Staff Colonel Jerry Higgins, artillery commander Brig. Gen. Tony McAuliffe, division engineer Lt. Col. John Pappas, and Lt. Col. Julian Ewell, a battalion commander in the 501st Regiment. The group was so short of riflemen that Taylor was heard to remark, Never before have so few been commanded by so many. But the dawn's first rays revealed the distinctive onion-shaped steeple of the Ste. Marie-du-Mont church nearby, and the Americans knew where they were.
Scattered across the Cotentin Peninsula, American paratroopers implemented a directive laid down in training: If a unit did not reach its drop zone, it should carry out those missions assigned to the area where it found itself. The headquarters group was close to its drop zone and did not have to implement a fallback plan. Taylor sent several officers off to establish a division headquarters at the village of Hiesville, while he and the remainder of his band set out toward Utah Beach.
The men of the 101st had had little time to get to know their commanding general. Forty-three years old and a graduate of West Point, Taylor was given command of the division in March after his predecessor, Maj. Gen. William C. Lee, had suffered a heart attack. There was nothing avuncular about Taylor, and he did not inspire universal affection. When he spoke to one of his men, he addressed him crisply as soldier. But there was something about Taylor that suggested confidence and competence. In England he had told his men: All paratroopers are hell-raisers. During the first 24 hours after you jump, raise all the hell you can.
There were many small clashes in the early hours of June 6, but the initial German reaction to the airborne landings was confusion and uncertainty. In the words of historian David Howarth, The Americans knew what was happening, but few of them knew where they were; the Germans knew where they were, but none of them knew what was happening. Reports of paratrooper landings poured into German headquarters, but no pattern was discernable.
Captain Ernst During commanded a German machine gun company at Brevands, near where the Vire River empties into the Channel. He had been asleep for a couple of hours when, shortly after midnight on the night of June 5-6, he was awakened by the sound of explosions:
There was the noise of many planes coming from the direction of Ste. Mre-Eglise. I thought to myself, This is it! I got dressed as quickly as I could….When I got to my command post I telephoned battalion headquarters two miles to the rear and said, Paratroops have landed here. The answer came back, Here, too, then the line went dead….Then I heard strange sounds — a kind of click, click, click at regular intervals. It sounded like the castanets of Spanish dancers. I couldn't explain it….I felt very uneasy and isolated.
Elsewhere, a German patrol mistook Taylor's jumpmaster, Major Larry Legere, and a companion for French farmers. Challenged by the Germans, Legere explained in French that they were returning from a visit to his cousin. As he spoke, he pulled the pin of a grenade, which exploded among the unsuspecting Germans.
Prisoners were an encumbrance for small groups of paratroopers, and those taken were expected to be totally docile. When one group of prisoners attempted to jump their captors, Sergeant Bill Guarnere shot each in turn with his pistol.No remorse, he recalled many years later.No pity. It was as easy as stepping on a bug.
After a hike of about four miles, Taylor's group made its first real contact with the enemy at about 9 a.m. near Pouppeville, at the base of the southernmost causeway leading to Utah Beach. The German garrison put up stiff resistance from inside the stone houses of the village, and Taylor nearly became a casualty when a badly aimed grenade from one of his soldiers bounced off a house and exploded among the paratroopers. By noon, however, the Americans had occupied the village, killing or wounding thirty Germans and taking forty prisoners at the cost of twenty U.S. casualties.
One of Taylor's aides saw troops moving to the east and fired an identification flare. The newcomers were an advance party from the U.S. 4th Division, and they were able to tell the paratroopers that the landings at Utah Beach were going smoothly. Word also arrived that troopers from the 101st had reached the remaining causeways from the beach.
To the north, causeway Exits 3 and 4 had been the objectives of the 502nd Regiment, led by acting commander Lt. Col. John Mike Michaelis. He and his three battalion commanders gathered what men they could find and headed toward their objectives. Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Cole's battalion captured the unguarded Exit 3 without a fight before moving north to where Michaelis was encountering considerable resistance.
Near Exit 4, Colonel Pat Cassidy, commanding a battalion of the 502nd, had ordered one of his noncoms, Sergeant Harrison Summers, to assemble some men and clear out a nearby barracks complex, code-named X,Y,Z. Summers knew none of the men in his impromptu squad, and as they neared the stone farm buildings serving as barracks, Summers set out on his own. Armed with a submachine gun, he kicked open the door of the first building, ducked inside, and opened fire, killing four German soldiers. He was joined there by a captain from the 82nd, but as the two moved toward a second building the captain fell dead. Summers, alone, slipped into the building, where he gunned down six more Germans.
Summers' squad had largely been spectators thus far, but now Private John Camien joined the sergeant. The two went through five more buildings, killing thirty more enemy soldiers. The final building in the complex turned out to be the mess hall. Bursting through the door, the amazed Americans found fifteen Germans still at breakfast and shot them all. By this time Summers and Camien had the support of a bazooka team, and some fifty Germans still in the complex chose to run for it. Many were cut down, while others were taken prisoner.
A second important clash took place near Exit 2, where the Germans had a battery of 105mm cannons dug into hedgerows overlooking Utah Beach. Captain Richard Winters of the 506th was given a dozen men and directed to take care of the battery.
Winters went to work, telling his makeshift command to discard all their equipment except weapons and ammunition. He explained that their attack would be supported by flanking fire — two machine guns as close to the enemy as possible. Winters' force brought the enemy guns under fire from three sides, one by one. In turn, the Germans withdrew. One of the attacking Americans, Sergeant Carwood Lipton, recalled: We fought as a team without standout stars….We didn't have anyone who leaped up and charged a machine-gun. We knocked it out or made it withdraw by maneuver and teamwork or mortar fire.
Historian Max Hastings has noted that all wars become a matter of small private battles to those who are fighting them. This was notably true in the struggle for Normandy, where one could rarely see more than one hundred to two hundred yards in any direction, and where infantry was often out of touch with armor. The attrition within infantry units was high, and nowhere higher than in the airborne divisions, which had yet to locate their glider-borne artillery. It took the 101st three days to collect scattered paratroopers, acquire some vehicles, and clear out areas of resistance north of the Douve River.
There was a lot to learn. Although the Americans had been briefed about hedgerows, they were not prepared for their size. A trooper from the 82nd, Sergeant Fred Schlemmer, recalled, We assumed that they would be similar to the English hedgerows, which were like small fences that the fox hunters jumped over. Instead, the invaders were confronted with great banks of foliage that made every road a potential revetment ideal for defense.
As evening turned into night, Taylor made his way to the division headquarters at Hiesville, satisfied that the landings at Utah Beach were proceeding well but ignorant of the situation elsewhere because his radios were still missing. In quickly securing the invasion causeways, the 101st had made a major contribution to the success of Overlord. In a second mission, however — destruction of the Douve River bridges — his men had run into difficulties. The unit responsible, Colonel Howard R.Jumpy Johnson's 501st Regiment, had been badly scattered and subsequently encountered severe resistance. Johnson gained a toehold on the river at the La Barquette locks but could not reach the bridges.
Elsewhere the record was also mixed. The British glider forces had found their landing zones and quickly captured bridges over the Orne River. Ridgway's 82nd Division, however, had had a dreadful drop; not only were its paratroopers scattered but fewer than half of its gliders had reached their designated landing areas. A force from the 82nd, aided by some men of the 101st, captured Ste. Mre-Eglise shortly after dawn on D-Day, but was subjected to fierce enemy counterattacks for the remainder of the day.
As darkness fell on D-Day, the extent of the Allied foothold was less than Eisenhower had hoped. Instead of controlling beachheads six miles deep, as the high command had projected, Allied forces were no more than five miles inland anywhere, and their hold in several areas was precarious. In contrast to the relative ease with which Utah Beach had been secured, the landings on Omaha Beach had been extremely costly; the U.S. 1st and 29th Divisions clung to an enclave less than a mile deep. Bodies, wrecked landing craft, and detritus of war littered the area where twenty-five hundred Americans had died.
Carentan, with about four thousand residents, was the most important population center in the American sector of Normandy. Located on the main highway from Caen to Cherbourg, it was a stop on the Paris-Cherbourg train line as well. More immediate, it was the designated place where Lt. Gen. J. Lawton Collins' VII Corps from Utah Beach was to link up with the V Corps from Omaha Beach. The commander of the 6th Fallschirmjäger Regiment, Lt. Col. Friedrich A. von der Heydte, had been instructed by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to defend the town to the last man.
By the evening of June 7, Taylor had decided that he must seize St. Côme-du-Mont on the Carentan-Cherbourg road before proceeding against Carentan itself. As long as enemy forces held St. Côme-du-Mont they could threaten the advance from Utah Beach, while capture of the village would eliminate this threat and remove the last important point of resistance north of the Douve.
Taylor ordered the 506th's Colonel Robert F. Sink, one of his most aggressive regimental commanders, to attack St. Côme-du-Mont on the morning of June 8. Sink gathered nearly four battalions from various units and attacked at daybreak. The morning saw sharp fighting and repeated German counterattacks. By early afternoon, however, the village was in U.S. hands and the surviving Germans had retreated across the Douve. Taylor told Collins that the river had been secured.All right, the VII Corps commander replied, Now take Carentan.
Bradley and Collins were eager to maintain some momentum to compensate for the slow buildup on the beaches. The Allied enclaves remained vulnerable, especially to armor, and might have been in serious jeopardy had Adolf Hitler committed his panzer reserves and released the Fifteenth Army from around Calais, where it served as a hedge against a second Allied landing. Fortunately for the Allies, the Germans were showing the effects of incessant air attacks during the buildup to D-Day. So uncertain was the prospect of division-level reinforcement that local commanders were compelled to feed small units into gaps in the line.
That same day, Taylor met with his senior commanders and outlined a plan for attacking Carentan from three sides. The 327th was to cross the Douve near Brevands and clear the area north of the town, while Colonel Sink's 506th was to move to the west around Carentan and seize a rise known as Hill 30. Meanwhile, the 502nd would advance south along the main highway.
If Taylor had any favorite among his four regiments it was the hard-fighting 506th, with whom he had spent much of D-Day. He also had confidence in the 502nd, even though it had a new commanding officer. Colonel George Moseley, its colorful commander, had broken his leg in landing and was being trundled about in a wheelbarrow when Taylor found him. Taylor ordered the colonel to an aid station and turned over command of the 502nd to Colonel Mike Michaelis.
The advance on Carentan was begun by the 502nd on the morning of June 10. Progress was slow because of German resistance and continuing problems posed by flooded marshlands. Later that morning, the 327th crossed the Douve but soon bogged down. Taylor had harbored reservations about its commander for several days; he now sacked him after a mishandled attack. Calling for Colonel Joseph H.Bud Harper, who had been acting as a beachmaster, Taylor gave him command of the glider infantry and briefed him on his role in the move against Carentan. The forty-two-year-old Harper, who had been an agriculture major at the University of Delaware, would lead the glider infantry regiment for the remainder of the war.
The toughest fighting may have been along the exposed St. Côme-du-Mont-Carentan highway, also known as the Carentan Causeway but later referred to by U.S. paratroopers as Purple Heart Lane. The two-lane road ran straight as an arrow, and the surrounding flooded marshlands made off-road movement difficult.
On the afternoon of June 10, Colonel Cole's 502nd battalion began a cautious advance along the highway toward Carentan. Resistance was stiff, and even included an attack by enemy dive bombers. Cole's battalion was nearing the town when it came under heavy fire from a nearby farmhouse. Shortly after first light on the eleventh, after ordering smoke from the artillery, Cole led his three companies in one of the few bayonet charges of the war.
At first only about sixty paratroopers followed Cole and his executive officer, Major John Stopka. Then more soldiers sprinted out of the ditches, and the attack gained momentum. The Americans overran the farmhouse and kept going, grenading and bayoneting enemy soldiers in rifle pits and behind hedgerows. Cole, who survived Normandy only to die in Holland, became the first Screaming Eagle to earn the Medal of Honor.
Even as Cole led his charge, the 327th advanced against Carentan from the northeast, moving through a wooded area adjoining a canal. Three companies crossed the canal on the morning of June 11, but were able to advance only a few hundred yards before being halted by heavy fire. That evening, however, the advance resumed. Sink's 506th pressed toward Hill 30 southeast of Carentan, and Taylor moved Johnson's 501st from a defensive position north of the Douve and threw it into the attack.By this time fighting had reached the outskirts of Carentan and the town was taking a beating. It was under fire not only from the airborne's artillery but also from massive naval guns offshore and from tank destroyers up from Omaha Beach. In the early hours of June 12, Sink captured Hill 30 and sent a battalion into Carentan itself. The other attackers made their way into the town within hours.
The airborne pincers had achieved their objective, but the Germans slipped away. Colonel von der Heydte pulled out of Carentan on the night of June 11 and set up a new defense line to the southwest. The German commander would be sharply criticized for his withdrawal because the 17th Panzer Division was even then moving to reinforce Carentan, but the Germans were almost out of ammunition, and withdrawal may have been the only prudent course.
Taylor himself was in Carentan on the morning of June 12, eager to continue the attack. But the advance south was sluggish, reflecting the weariness of troops who had been in almost continuous action for six days. In any case, an immediate threat from the enemy ruled out any further advance. At dawn on June 13, tanks from the 17th Panzer appeared and drove the 506th and 501st back to the outskirts of Carentan. Because airborne divisions had few antitank weapons, the situation was serious. Taylor would recall that he might have had considerable difficulty had not General Bradley, unsolicited, sent us the reinforcement of a combat command of the 2nd Armored Division. Bradley was in fact quite concerned for the 101st, because he had Ultra intelligence — decoded German radio messages — indicating that a panzer attack was imminent. Bradley later recalled, This was one of the few times in the war when I unreservedly believed Ultra and reacted to it tactically.
By midmorning on June 13 an element of the 2nd Armored was in Carentan, and Taylor was conferring with the task force commander, Brig. Gen. Maurice Rose. That afternoon, Sherman tanks equipped with bulldozer blades turned south, with paratroopers deployed on each side. The tanks crashed through hedgerows, driving the German panzers back several miles. The next afternoon, soldiers from Sink's 506th were running routine patrols in Carentan.
The 101st's role in Operation Overlord was almost over. On June 29 the division was withdrawn from Carentan and moved north for occupation duty near Cherbourg. The troops were due some relief. Since D-Day the division had suffered more than forty-six hundred casualties, over one-third of its strength.
For the Allied high command, however, the work of the airborne divisions, on which such care had been lavished, was a source of relief and satisfaction. Despite heavy casualties — and those in the 82nd were even higher than those in the 101st — the airborne component had made a major contribution to the success of Overlord. Bradley, who had told Eisenhower that he could not order landings at Utah Beach without the airborne operation, was elated. As for Eisenhower, asked many years later what had been his most satisfying moment in the war, he replied that it was when he heard that his two airborne divisions had reached Normandy.
Taylor, in assessing the campaign in his official report, considered both tangibles and intangibles. The most visible benefit had been the 101st's contribution to the almost bloodless landing at Utah Beach. Less quantifiable was the confusion that the parachute landings had sown in the mind of the enemy.An airborne landing at night, Taylor wrote, has a devastating effect on the enemy. It upsets his command organization and prevents the movement of his reserves and artillery. Although the attacker's plans may go awry in the fog of war, the disruptive effect of the attack on the enemy more than compensates.
At the same time, Taylor was not inclined toward complacency. He called attention to the heavy losses in equipment delivered by parachute, estimating these to be about 60 percent. The general had harsh words for the Troop Carrier Command, noting that the scattered drop of his division had undone much of the careful training the men had undergone.
Taylor drew a number of conclusions from the Normandy operation. First, an airborne division should not be expected to function as a unit for at least twenty-four hours after landing. In this initial period, any results must come from the aggressive action of small groups. Second, airborne units require prompt support from heavier forces. In Taylor's judgment, the pre-D-Day assumption that an airborne division could maintain itself independently for two or three days should be revised downward. Third, the element of surprise inherent in an airborne operation should be exploited to the fullest. For that reason, and to mitigate the absence of heavy weapons, it may be more economical of lives to land directly on the enemy than to come down at a distance and close with him.
Taylor's final conclusion was rooted in personal experience.There is an im-mediate requirement, he wrote, for a quick release harness. He had not forgotten his ten uncomfortable minutes in that Norman pasture.
The campaign in Normandy was only the first for the Screaming Eagles, who would serve in Holland during the Arnhem campaign and whose legendary defense of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge would blunt Hitler's last offensive. The 101st would become the first entire division to be awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation, now called the Presidential Unit Citation.
Decades later, British historian John Keegan reflected on the contribution of the American airborne to the success of D-Day: Like pioneers in an unknown land, ignorant of its language and landmarks, uncertain of what danger the next thicket or stream-bottom might hold, confident only in themselves and their mastery of the weapons in their hands, the best and bravest of them had stifled their fears, marched forth and planted the roots of settlement in the soil that was there for the taking.
In an impromptu speech at Cherbourg as the 101st prepared to return to Britain, Taylor put the matter more bluntly: You hit the ground running toward the enemy. You have proved the German soldier is no superman. You have beaten him on his own ground and you can beat him on any ground. And so they would.
This article was written by John M. Taylor and originally published in the Summer 2004 edition of MHQ. For more great articles, subscribe to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History today!
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