Historians can educate the public about our military past in more than one way. Take a look at three different approaches to explain the accomplishments and sacrifices of the 4th Infantry Division in World War II.
For myself, I use the written word through, books and blogs. My book, Battle Hardened, highlights the service of my father while discussing the campaigns of the 4th Infantry Division. Bill Chapman's story becomes a vehicle for showing military operations from the vantage of a single soldier.
The Furious Fourth, an organization in Pennsylvania, provides living history displays at various events and venues. Using an impressive collection of uniforms, weaponry and equipment from World War II, they honor the soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division by demonstrating how they lived and fought.
Hats off to Mike Kerhin who has found another method to convey the story of his father's service, producing a video account. Using the resources of Atomic Productions, he explains the 4th Infantry Division's campaigns through photos and film clips. Much like I did in Battle Hardened, Mike tells the story from his father's perspective. The result is an endearing account of a soldier in the midst of a brutal campaign. You can see his video presentation about his father, Tom Kerhin, on the weblink below.
I write stories—stories drawn from past military conflicts where cold calculation and tactical expertise play in high stakes contests under some of the most intense and brutal conditions people will ever face. My stories relate what men (and now women) endured in combat. However, I feel it is important to put those experiences within the context of the mission and higher-level decisions that placed the soldiers, sailors and airmen in harm’s way. I have no interest in rehashing overdone topics or fanning nationalistic fervor. The campaigns and battles that hold the most appeal to me are ones that instruct readers on the application of the military art, yet are unfamiliar or misunderstood. To absorb new lessons from past wars I try to unearth overlooked facts, examine different perspectives or explore fresh analyses.
Why I Wrote About an Obscure War
Curiosity first drew me to the West Indies expedition of 1740-42, the subject of my latest publication. Much had been written about the War of Jenkins’ Ear 275 years ago but not much since. The more I researched, the more I became fascinated by the scale of the campaign, the magnitude of the British-American failure and the squabbling over the many reasons for its miscarriage. The list of British oversights, misfortunes and errors has more entries than Kevin Bacon’s address book: poor strategic planning, a yellow fever epidemic, slow proceedings by the army, lack of cooperation between land and sea forces, lousy recruits, ladders that were too short, etc. However, none of the most cited causes could explain the debacle. This expedition needed another look.
Unnoticed details emerged that made me question commonly accepted facts. The vast majority of British and Americans (and Spaniards) who perished died from disease rather than combat. Yellow fever was the supposed culprit, yet the deaths soared after the British withdrew from Cartagena and continued after the surviving troops had gained immunity from the flavivirus. Yellow fever could not have beaten the British at Cartagena nor could it have caused the majority of later deaths. Another interesting oversight, no one had ever put together the details of the British army’s climactic assault on Castillo San Felipe de Barajas.
British, Spanish and American historians have written about the expedition but mostly from their own national perspectives. I thought it important to look at all three points of view to get a more complete picture of events. Comparing the decisions and timelines of the opposing commanders unveiled key decision points in the Cartagena campaign missed by previous accounts and revealed the true drama of the struggle. The British had the Spaniards on their heels when they abruptly gave up, much to the astonishment and delight of their opponents.
Because Admiral Vernon’s narrative dominated public discourse, the majority of historical treatments have come through the lenses of naval historians who pointed accusing fingers at the pace of the army’s siege operations. What has been missing is a critique of land operations based on the tactical doctrine of that era.
Lessons from Doctrine
An analysis of the terrain, military situation and the tactics of siege warfare turned up an interesting conclusion. The general, who had been roundly faulted for the campaign’s demise, had been condemned for what he did right. When he later deviated from sound doctrine the army suffered a terrible setback. I also found myself at odds with most histories of the expedition which laud the conduct of Admiral Vernon, the sea commander who, at the least, must share blame for the expedition’s collapse.
Finally, my focus on this colonial era military adventure sharpened once I understood that its lessons on force projection, joint operations and preservation of the force’s health and morale are as salient today as they were in the eighteenth century. The commanders and common servicemen in 1740-42 struggled under conditions that were both challenging and unfamiliar for people coming from the temperate zone. Their ability or inability to see through the mass of confusing facts and assumptions and to correctly perceive the most critical issues produced a disastrous defeat for Britain and an unexpected victory for Spain. The conditions of warfare have changed drastically since the War of Jenkins’ Ear, but modern warriors still face the same dilemmas as those confronting the Britons, Americans and Spaniards who fought in the Caribbean tropics so long ago.
When I was a battalion commander, I confessed a military truth to my troops. “I can’t win a battle. I carry a .45 cal. pistol—no way can I defeat an enemy force. It takes riflemen, tank crews, squad leaders, sometimes junior officers, to win a battle…But I can sure lose one.” I finished with a commitment. “If you follow orders and fight with vigor, I’ll do my part to follow sound tactical principles that will give you the chance to win.”
The relationship between troops and their commander depends on this implicit bond. When either party falls down on their promise, the results can be terrible.
When Troops Fail
Military history provides a few examples of troops failing to deliver victory despite
the clever and bold plans of their generals. General Grant caught Lee off-guard during the Overland Campaign of 1864.
He sent a large force south of the James River to attack a thin Confederate defensive line around Petersburg while Lee guarded the front north of the river. The Union troops, already depleted by heavy casualties at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, mounted only a half-hearted assault against a small but determined Confederate force. Grant’s army squandered this opportunity to break the Confederate defense and had to spend another nine months investing Petersburg. At Kips Bay, New York in 1776, Washington had pre-positioned a patriot force where the British made an amphibious landing. The patriots barely fired a shot in the battle. Washington became apoplectic when his troops panicked and fled before the small British landing party.
Even in these situations, commanders do not escape responsibility for the poor performance of their men. In the above examples, Grant had allowed the fighting spirit of his command to dull through heavy losses and lack of confidence. Washington should not have expected the ill-trained and inexperienced militia unit to stand firm against a bayonet charge from British regulars.
When Generals Fail
The sadder and more common tragedy arises when brave, capable soldiers die needlessly through the errors and inattention of their commanders.
The 1944 fight on the Schnee Eifel portion of the Siegfried Line, discussed in my book Battle Hardened, demonstrates the effect of poor decision-making and faulty terrain analysis. The V Corps Commander, MG Leonard Gerow, channeled the 4th Infantry Division into a forlorn attack on the wet, wooded ridge that lacked roads to support a major advance. The division’s attack plan forced the 12th Infantry Regiment to fight along the narrow crest of the Schnee Eifel, a plan similar to climbing a fence by crawling over it lengthwise. The American infantrymen outfought the slapped-together German troops, from one pillbox to the next, in a series of localized shootouts. The narrow crest road, often interdicted by German artillery, constricted the Americans’ maneuver and supply operations. Instead of breaking through, the attack crawled, even though the GIs killed and captured the defenders they faced.
History provides several egregious examples of generals ignoring basic tactics.
In 1758, General James Abercrombie brought an overwhelming force against the French at Fort Carillon, now known as Ticonderoga. Abercrombie disregarded a commanding hill that he could have used to pummel the French flank with artillery. Instead, he left his guns in the rear and threw his infantry into a frontal attack against hasty French entrenchments.
The French infantry swept the ground with musket fire from behind breastworks that could have been blown to pieces by artillery. The British, with the help of some colonial troops, pressed the attack but withered under French musket fire. When his first attack failed, Abercrombie ordered another, unsupported, frontal attack with the same result. The British suffered 2,500 casualties in the futile assaults. Abercrombie still had a huge advantage in strength but decided to withdraw. The rapid retreat stunned the French who could hardly believe they so easily defeated the massive British force.
Another British general, Thomas Wentworth, failed as miserably. He commanded a British and colonial American expedition that tried to capture Cartagena in 1741.
The British had to seize a stone castle that dominated the Caribbean town. Rather than batter down the fortress walls with artillery, Wentworth ordered several thousand infantrymen to assault the castle. The redcoats approached the fort only to discover that their ladders could not reach the top of the parapets. With no breach in the walls and no way to climb them, the attacking force stood helpless beneath the castle. Exposed to enemy fire, they suffered heavy losses. The attack accomplished nothing, except waste lives.
These examples illustrate the point I originally made. The troops are the ones who kill the enemy and break his will in battle. As stated in the U.S. Army’s leadership manual, “What they ask in return is competent leadership.” The general’s role is to give the soldiers the chance to achieve victory. He does that by giving them the resources they need and employing them in a tactically sound manner. Failing that, victory becomes unobtainable.
After the euphoria of victory in Europe wore off, the western Allies paid grudging homage to the fighting ability of the German Wehrmacht. People noted Germany’s early successes in World War II and vigorous defense in the war’s last stages. Despite the massive Soviet and Allied forces arrayed against Nazi Germany in 1944-45, they held out for eleven months, fighting a two-front war. Military leaders admitted that Nazi Germany had been a formidable opponent.
Most historians attributed the tough German defense to their combat experience, superior generalship and Allied supply challenges. Years later military historians started making a more controversial assessment. Colonel Trevor DuPuy, citing battlefield statistics, stated “the German ground soldier consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50% higher rate than they incurred from opposing British and American troops UNDER ALL CIRCUMSTANCES. This was true when they were attacking and when they were defending.”
Others, such as Max Hastings and Antony Beevor, also remarked on the superior battlefield prowess of German infantry. The fanatic SS troops earned special mention for their fierceness. These historians credited the fighting skills of the Nazis for much of the German Army’s success. The Nazis' willingness to prolong the fight against overwhelming odds helped keep the Allies bottled up in the Normandy hedgerows for seven weeks.
Did German infantrymen outfight their American counterparts?
My research into the 4th Infantry Division’s combat actions from June 6, 1944 to May 8, 1945, draws a different answer, depending on the time frame of the action. In Normandy, yes, the Germans fought with greater skill and determination than the Americans. After the devastating loss in the Falaise-Argentan Pocket, no. American infantrymen matched and sometimes over-matched the Germans. After the Battle of the Bulge, just the opposite. The GIs trounced the demoralized German troops, even the ardent SS, as they drove into the Fatherland.
Two Battles with Different Results
Besides the slow pace of the Allied advance against the out-numbered Germans, the campaign in Normandy provides plenty of anecdotal evidence of Germans getting the better of the Americans.
Private Dick Stodghill related an incident when 4th Infantry Division troops attacked across an open field south of Carentan. The American infantry trailed behind six tanks when German anti-tank guns knocked out the tanks in rapid succession.
Machine guns pinned down the American riflemen in the field, stopping the attack. The enemy, members of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division, were not content with merely stopping the attack. A dozen Panzergrenadiers jumped over a hedgerow and ran to the abandoned American tanks. Before the Americans could shoot them, the SS soldiers climbed into the tanks then turned the tanks’ guns against the exposed American infantry. It was that kind of bold, confident and clever action that frustrated the Allies in the summer of 1944.
An attack by part of the 4th Infantry Division, nine months later, tells a different story. A battalion-size German force from the 212th Volks Grenadier Division, augmented with a company of SS, defended a series of bunkers inside a woodland. A battalion-size American force, augmented with tanks, attacked the entrenched Germans. The American infantry concentrated their fire against one bunker at a time. After suppressing the defenders, a tank came forward to blast the bunker. An infantryman finished off the dug-in Germans with a satchel charge. Down the line the experienced American infantry repeated the process and dislodged the German defenders. In a desperate attempt to turn back the Americans, the Germans counterattacked but got mowed down by tank, machine gun and rifle fire. The battle ended with the Americans killing twenty Germans for every man they lost.
What accounts for the disparate outcomes? In future posts I will address the issues contributing to the German soldiers’ initial combat advantage and the Americans’ ability to turn the tables on them.