We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France


One-day Normandy tour choices: Omaha Beach sector

Earlier today, someone asked me about tours in Normandy and, while they are not using one of my three favorite guides, I provided some commentary on places to see. Most guides will tailor their tour at your request and there are some places I see as better spots to visit than others. There are some sites that are basically meaningless without a guide and others in which you’re not really using the guide’s knowledge.

If you have a single day to tour the battlefield with a guide, you want to maximize your time with the tour guide, sticking to sites that are close to each other and where the guide can provide the most impact. Each guide’s knowledge and enthusiasm is different, so I’m just providing my commentary.

I would say that due to the stark images and the general silence and emptiness of the German military cemetery at La Cambe, that it is a must, especially if your guide has stories to relate while you’re there. The small museum there is very well-done. Every guide should be able to relate some of the story of the cemetery and place it in context, so it is better with a guide. You might find it odd that I place this first, but I think that you don’t get as much of both the German perspective and a reminder of the horror that is war anywhere else in Normandy.

Now, since I’m looking at all this from an American perspective, I will only talk about the American sector in this post. My experience in the British and Canadian sector is far more limited, so I can’t speak as well to that.

Pointe du Hoc is absolutely required. If you’re not read The Boys of Pointe du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion by Douglas Brinkley or watched Reagan’s historic speech in 1984 (speech written by then-unheralded Peggy Noonan), you really ought to do so before you go. Reading that will give you the structure and provide an emotive basis for your visit, but nothing really can prepare you for the level of destruction visited upon the landscape by the bombardment. Going down into one of the craters will truly give you a sense of it, but you’ll also get to see how most of the fortifications survived intact, requiring the Rangers to root the Germans out the hard way. Some guides will go with you into the bunkers and continue to explain, while others will simply let you wander. I prefer those who have more stories to tell, so it might be useful to determine in advance which kind of visit to Pointe du Hoc that the guide plans on.

Of course, as an American, you must visit the American cemetery. It is incredibly moving and feels like you’re back in the US, in a good way. You’ll note that all of our boys are facing home. The American cemetery does not allow guides to conduct tours on the grounds, so you are generally given some guidelines and advice, then explore on your own. I prefer to tour that by myself rather than using the guide’s time.

The Church at Angoville au Plainis one of the more moving stories in Normandy and if at all possible, you should try to visit there with Paul Woodadge, whose book, Angels of Mercy: Two Screaming Eagle Medics in Angoville-au-Plain on D-Day, details the experience of two American paratrooper medics caring for the wounded between enemy lines during the battle. Since this is more in the northern, airborne sector of the American battle zone, I would suggest it only be done as part of an American airborne tour rather than combined with the American cemetery or Omaha Beach. While someone who has read Paul’s book will understand what happened here, someone who has not will have no real understanding without a tour guide to explain. Similarly, having the guide present will make one who feels familiar with the story learn far more.

On Sunday, they were showing Tom Brokaw visiting the village of Graignes with three veterans of the fight there. A number of paratroopers of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment were mis-dropped by about 20 miles and gathered at the village. They held off the 17th SS Division, helping their comrades secure Carentan, allowing a link up between the landings at Utah and Omaha. It would be particularly hard to experience this without a guide, even if you read Tragedy at Graignes: The Bud Sophian Story. It is also remote from much of the other sites.

If you’re only doing a one-day tour, I would recommend you visit Omaha Beach, the American and German cemeteries and Pointe du Hoc. If you manage to study Angoville au Plain or Graignes, you might seek one of those, but likely need to skip something. If you’re seriously into paratroopers or gliders, or have a veteran or other link to Utah Beach, visit those with the guide rather than thinking you can visit everything.

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Mattis on reading

There’s no mistaking the respect of the Marines for many of their Generals and high in the pantheon must be General James N. Mattis. Back in 2004, “a colleague wrote to him asking about the ‘importance of reading and military history for officers,’ many of whom found themselves ‘too busy to read.'” Mattis responded in an email that has since gone viral. Mattis continues the grand tradition of well-read Marine officers who also excel in combat, following the example of none other than Chesty Puller, who carried a copy of Douglas Southall Freeman’s “Lee’s Lieutenants” with him in the Pacific. In his email, he dispenses with those who think there is nothing to learn for the modern warrior from books:

For all the “4th Generation of War” intellectuals running around today saying that the nature of war has fundamentally changed, the tactics are wholly new, etc, I must respectfully say … “Not really”: Alex the Great would not be in the least bit perplexed by the enemy that we face right now in Iraq, and our leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying (studying, vice just reading) the men who have gone before us.

Unfortunately, Mattis had been planning on retiring this year. Evidence of the regard in which he is held are two hilarious articles posted on the military satire site, The Duffel Blog: Chaos: General James Mattis Announced As Next Commandant Of Marine Corps and James Mattis Retires To Search For Ancient Artifact.
At the Iwo Jima Alumni Association‘s annual reunion, Mattis spoke and I asked him if he’d ever had the chance to visit Iwo Jima or other Pacific battlefields with veterans of WWII. While he had done so on Okinawa, he’s not been to Iwo Jima. Mattis’ retirement may enable him to make that trip during the 70th anniversary of the battle with the IJAA. It might be the last trip authorized by Japan, as it may be the last trip involving veterans of the battle.


Dahlquist: A first evaluation

In my continued research for our WWII seminars, I’d picked up a copy of Franz Steidl’s Lost Battalions, which details the encirclement of the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment just prior to the Battle for the Colmar Pocket. Steidl explains the events leading up to the “losing” of the battalion, making sure that the reader gets a sense of the complexity of the fight of the 36th Infantry Division in the Vosges. He also provides information on a German battalion that was similarly “lost” in the same area, allowing us more insight by seeing both sides.

Steidl has extensively interviewed members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the storied Japanese-American unit that fought to relieve 1/141 when it was trapped, so his book provides excellent detail on their role. It also shaped his original view of General John E. Dahlquist. Many soldiers and historians felt that Dahlquist over-used the 442nd in that fight and some speculated that it was because they were Japanese.

In my initial view of Dahlquist, he seemed a pretty unremarkable man for someone who was awarded a 4th star in 1954. He’d served in the Army since the close of the First World War, attending and teaching in various Army schools. He even authored an Army manual on the machinegun before serving on theatre staff in 1942. Nonetheless, little stood out about him, except a photo of him chatting amiably with Goering after the 36th had captured him. Dahlquist generated quite the controversy with Goering. That photo didn’t look like a captor and his captive, but, rather, two equals conversing. When Goering had been brought to Dahlquist, the General had dismissed his translator, as he spoke fluent German, so perhaps it is what it looked like.

I’d read previously how decimated the 442nd had been in the Vosges and the animosity some of them held for the General. Steidl’s work does reveal how hard Dahlquist pushed them. They were most certainly over-used, but looking at the 36th’s fight, it seems that all of the organic battalions of the 36th were over-used.

The Division had been in the fight since 15 August 1944, without relief. At Montelimar, elements of the Division tried to stop the escape of two German Divisions and elements from every other unit fleeing southern France. The 36th suffered mightily in that fight, though it did inflict many casualties and capture many troops. As it fought north, the Germans took advantage of every piece of terrain, keeping the door open for others to retreat. When the 36th hit the Vosges Mountains, the fight transitioned from some kind of chase into a slugging match. The Germans felt their were fighting on their home ground and the Alsatian towns in the area have a distinctively German look and feel to them. Dahlquist began pleading with higher command for some kind of relief, but there was none.

Steidl recounts multiple instances of Dahlquist coming out to the front lines and one instance of him leading an individual platoon into combat. Personal bravery and a commitment to the fight were not qualities that Dahlquist lacked. His Division was stretched and he was being pushed by higher command to keep moving forward in spite of it.

More than once, Dahlquist seems to have over-extended his Division. At Montelimar, his regiments went in piecemeal, with the 143rd accidentally heading north instead of west to Montelimar, requiring them to loop back west. The Lost Battalion (1/141) pushed beyond the range of its supports. At Sigolsheim, he again had units cut off – they fought until they were forced to surrender. How much of these instances can be blamed on Dahlquist remains to be seen. Shortages of supplies and troops, coupled with aggressiveness, certainly contributed.

Looking at his post-war career, Dahlquist certainly must have impressed the right people and, in war time, that’s usually the sign of a darn good officer. For me, the book is still out on Dahlquist, but he’s far from the enigmatic cypher that I’d first imagined.



Naval Institute Annual Meeting
11 April 2012, 15:49
Filed under: Books, Navy | Tags: ,

Today, I spent the day in Crystal City, attending the 138th Annual Meeting of the US Naval Institute. I had joined the Institute a few years ago, after getting Gators of Neptune as a Christmas present. I’ve joined a few other organizations to help increase my knowledge, get exposure to veterans and, perhaps, an audience for this blog and future writings. I belong to the Society of the 3rd Infantry Division due to the Operation Dragoon and Colmar Pocket seminars that I help out with, and I belong to the Marine Corps Association & Foundation due to my interest in their history. I expect I will continue to add to this list as time passes.

The meeting was terrific. VADM Daley started the meeting by reading the Mission and Vision statements of the Institute aloud. This was music to my ears, as last year there was a tremendous alarm when the Board had decided to reword the mission to identify the Institute as an advocate for sea power (I read about it first on CDR Salamander’s blog.) The mission has returned to proper focus after much pressure from the membership:

To providing an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak and write in order to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to national defense.

I think the experience of the past year has done a great deal to improve the Institute. The uprising of the membership may have served as a reminder of exactly what it is that the Institute is – a membership organization. The strength of the Institute is its members, as VADM Daley pointed out in his comments. He noted how the staff has been energized by the feedback from the membership and that communication is central to the completion of the Mission.

One of the key goals of this association of naval minds (officer AND enlisted) is to expand the active duty membership. It was noted that USNI is basically invisible to the junior officers and enlisted personnel of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. That needs to change. With the recent update of the website (launched last Friday) and with plans to roll out an app with the next 2 to 2-1/2 months, they’re making strides to reach them. The Admiral also noted that members could sponsor undergraduate gift memberships ($20 for students, about 5000 students in NROTC, USNA and USCGA) to expand exposure to new officers. So, if anyone has about $100,000 and wants all those undergrads to become members, bring it on!

In the discussion about the prime value that the Institute provides, RADM “T.C.” Cropper cited “Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal”, which he uses every day to train his leaders how to fight. Of course, there was a little chuckle at this moment, because that particular book is not published by the Naval Institute Press, though it does exemplify the type of books the Press publishes and, as another member in attendance noted, the Institute “owns the bibliography” having published so many books on naval history in the past.

Admiral Daley noted that he expects a rich harvest of leadership lessons from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from junior officers who fought those wars and the Naval Institute Press stands ready to publish those works. A common theme of the day was that the Institute is a dynamic entity that is dependent upon an engaged membership. Having met a few of the younger authors at the Awards Dinner (CDR Matthew Harper, who wrote “Chinese Missiles and the Walmart Factor” and CDR In H. Ha, who wrote “Away All… Hovercraft!“), I know that they’re already engaging some bright young minds. I have great expectations going forward.

I would encourage everyone to go check out the Institute, read some articles, buy some books (eBooks even!) and consider joining. You’ll find a serious-minded dedicated community standing ready to share knowledge and welcome new ideas.

For another report on the meeting, check out the Steel Jawed Scribe’s blog.



Holding the line for 30 years

When Private Maurice E. Lloyd went out to his foxhole on New Year’s Eve 1945, he may have cursed the cold, but assuredly, he must have thought he’d be warming up in one of the houses behind the lines before too long. Sadly, it would be 30 years before Maurice left the front line.

One of my Christmas present this year was Edward Longacre’s War in the Ruins.War in the Ruins cover Longacre is best known as Civil War cavalry historian, so when I saw that he was speaking up in Carlisle, I had asked Eric Wittenburg about him. Eric had good things to say and my sister-in-law picked up the book for me based on a review she’d read. (Yes, my wife’s sister is brilliant!)

The 100th Infantry Division, nicknamed the “Century” Division, moved into line on the 1st of November 1944 and fought their way toward Germany. When the Germans attacked to start the Battle of the Bulge, the Century Division, fell back a little bit to shorten up their lines as troops were rushed into the Bulge. The Germans tried to take advantage of this a few weeks later, launching Operation Nordwind.

The commune of Lemberg sits in the midst of forest northwest of Strasbourg. The patron saint of Lemberg is Saint Maurice, who Century Division historian Frank Gurley identified as having been a soldier who defended France in 303 AD. Thus, Église Saint-Maurice de Lemberg sits in the midst of the town, looking in modern photos like the tower was destroyed in the fighting and replaced after the war.

When the Germans attacked on New Year’s Eve, Lloyd stood his ground, fighting off Germans until he was mortally wounded. Longacre relates,

Because he refused to withdraw, his fate was preordained: at some point, a Mauser bullet spun him about and knocked him down. The enemy rushed past, leaving him for dead. Desperately wounded, “Mo” Lloyd dragged himself across the frozen earth into a dense thicket, where he found refuge in a log-covered foxhole. (p.14)

When the area was re-taken, the fight swept past Private Lloyd’s well-hidden position and he waited, BAR at the ready, for 30 years, until a local man and his son followed their hunting dog to Maurice Lloyd’s foxhole. Today, the only foxhole in France with a monument was defended by Private Maurice Lloyd for 30 years.



Weekend Wanderings, Thanksgiving 2011
27 November 2011, 11:30
Filed under: Books, Marines, Weekend Wanderings, WWII | Tags: , , , , ,

I haven’t posted a set of Wanderings of late, but have been accumulating some interesting links. Hopefully, you didn’t over-eat on Thanksgiving or, if you are not a celebrant, on a lovely fall weekend.



Weekend Wanderings, Columbus Day Weekend 2011

If you stood in the right field near Le Muy in southern France or near Sainte-Mère-Église in Normandy, you could have seen paratroopers rain down upon you in 1944. This week, I felt as if I was having a similar experience with paratrooper books.

  • Jim Broumley’s The Boldest Plan is the Best: The Combat History of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion during WWII just arrived on Amazon and I’ve ordered my copy. I’ve been trying to find a copy of Stand in the Door: The Wartime History of the Elite 509th Parachute Infantry Batallion by Charles Doyle and Terrell Stewart, but there are few copies available, so the prices are exhorbitant. Broumley draws the extensive veteran recollections included in Stand in the Door and adds a great deal of material from other sources. He’s blogging, so you can catch up with his activities any time. Since he’s in Pennsylvania, maybe we can get him to drive down for the Dragoon event next year (2-5 August 2012).
  • On Tuesday, I got my much-delayed copy of LIONS OF CARENTAN, THE: Fallschirmjager Regiment 6, 1943-1945, which I’m very excited about. One of the challenges for me in studying WWII has been that I’ve read so little that comes from the Axis perspective. In my studies of the American Civil War, I’ve looked at both sides, examining the available forces, the tactical and strategic decisions and the aftermath. That allows a level of understanding that examining only one side can never give you. The Lions of Carentan is one of the ways I’ve been expanding my knowledge so that I can understand both sides and relate the events more effectively.
  • In the steady collapse of Borders bookstores, I often raided the sales. It was perhaps the most liberating book purchasing experience I’ve had as, with prices slashed, I simply gave a book a brief once-over and put it in my stack to buy. Normally, I take hours and read multiple reviews before committing my hard-earned cash to purchasing a book. So, I purchased a book titled “Overlord: The Illustrated History of the D-Day Landings”. It’s honestly a great book. It uses a lot of images from the Osprey series to di splay uniforms and equipment in action while providing some truly excellent maps. In each sector of Normandy, it also lists the order of battle and commanders (down to regimental level). None of the Allied-centric works I’ve read provide that information, so I find it immensely useful.
  • There’s a new American Civil War magazine out, The Civil War Monitor. It has an experienced editor (Terry Johnston, who had edited North and South for many years) and comes highly recommended (by Eric Wittenburg).



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