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.
Some military expeditions require the combined skills and resources of two or more armed services to achieve an objective. Amphibious operations use armies to seize overseas objectives and the navy to get them there. In the past, the commanding general and admiral shared command, “each supreme in his own sphere.” Kings and governments expected them to work together to obtain victory, though cooperation could not be guaranteed.
Joint operations challenged leaders because generals and admirals did not understand their partner’s capabilities and limitations. In his book, The Influence of Seapower Upon History: 1660-1783, Alfred Thayer Mahan characterized such misunderstandings.
“The army thought that the navy might have beaten down stone ramparts ten feet thick; and the navy wondered why the army had not walked up the same ramparts, which were thirty feet perpendicular.”
Failed Joint Operations - Santiago de Cuba
In my book, Disaster on the Spanish Main, I discuss the inept command structure of the British attempt to capture Santiago de Cuba in 1741. A massive British expeditionary force had just returned to Jamaica from their failed siege of Cartagena. The two commanders Vice Adm. Edward Vernon and Maj. Gen. Thomas Wentworth then set their sights on Santiago. Wentworth wanted the navy to blast its way past Castillo San Pedro de la Rocha and land his troops inside the harbor. Vernon refused to risk his ships in the narrow channel under the castillo’s guns.
Without consulting the army, Vernon landed the troops at Guantanamo Bay, fifty miles east of Santiago. He expected the army to march across enemy territory, over forest trails with no draft animals then assault a castle. Once the general saw the terrain and the distance to be marched, he refused to budge. Instead of working through their differences, both commanders became obstinate and accused the other of sabotaging the operation. After the mission was abandoned some of the army officers sent a proposal to London. They begged that in future amphibious operations, “the chief command of the whole should be lodg’d in a single person.”
Tragic Joint Operations - Operation Cobra
In World War II, General Eisenhower managed to get unified command of the three combatant arms for the Normandy landings. Eisenhower, a big proponent of joint operations, once said, “When you put sea, ground and air power together, the result you get is not the sum of their separate powers. You multiply their powers, rather than add.” Under a single commander, Allied forces worked together more effectively but still had issues sorting out combined missions.
To achieve a breakout in Normandy Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley planned to bomb part of the German defensive front. He wanted to drive into a void created by heavy bombing. Bradley plotted a “target box” just beyond a highway to be saturated by British and American strategic bombers.
During a planning session the general and air staffs disagreed about the direction of the air attack. Bradley wanted a parallel approach to the target box, so the bombers would not fly over his troops. The air commanders opposed the parallel approach because it jammed the planes into a narrow corridor. They argued for a perpendicular flight path that posed less risk for their crews. The meeting broke up without a clear understanding of how the bombers would make their runs. Without consulting Bradley, the air commanders later decided to attack the target box at a right angle to the front.
Operation Cobra achieved mixed results. The strategic bombers inflicted serious destruction, though not total, on the German defense. The benefit of the carpet bombing got offset by numerous short bomb loads dropped on friendly troops. The units making the attack suffered confusion and the loss of over 100 killed and nearly 500 wounded. Bradley’s penetration succeeded in breaking through but he swore off using strategic bombers ever again.
Successful Joint Operations - Fort Fisher
There have been notable examples of successful joint operations. During the Civil War the Confederates fortified the point of land at the entrance to the Cape Fear River. This fortification, Fort Fisher, had kept the vital port of Wilmington open to blockade runners. After an abortive attempt on Fort Fisher in December 1864, the Union organized a second attack in January.
Rear Adm. David Porter and Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry coordinated an amphibious landing north of the fort. The navy provided massive fire support against Confederate positions while Union troops came ashore on January 13. The ships shifted their fire to the fort as the army cut off the peninsula and made its approach. After a continual bombardment the army and a supporting force of marines assaulted the fort’s northern face. The troops penetrated the fort while communicating their progress with the navy. The ships kept shifting their fire ahead of the advance until the Confederates surrendered. Careful planning and communication produced a decisive Union victory against a formidable defensive position.
In sum, joint operations depend on each armed service understanding the resources, tactics and shortcomings of the others. The operational plan demands input from each service to involve joint assets to their fullest capability. A single unified commander should settle disputes and disagreements between services. During execution, all services must overcome systems incompatibilities to inter-communicate and keep the battle properly coordinated. When joint planning, communication and control come together the results can achieve the multiplicative effect Eisenhower described.
This week marks 75 years since the German Army’s last
offensive in France, Operation Luttich, or the Battle of Mortain. Hitler personally
ordered the surprise panzer attack on August 7 for the purpose of regaining the
initiative in the West. The Germans tried to slice through the flank of the
American breakout and drive to the Normandy coast. They hoped to cut off Patton’s
Third Army and push the Allies back to the beaches. It failed miserably. The
panzers only made local penetrations then spent days holding off American
counterattacks. By the time they gave up, Patton’s army had circled behind them
in a bold sweeping maneuver. As a result, the Allies slaughtered much of the
German Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies as they retreated through the
Falaise-Argentan Gap. General Omar Bradley called the German decision to attack
Mortain, “The greatest tactical blunder I’ve ever heard of.”
In retrospect, the attack at Mortain looks like a hopeless,
forlorn misadventure. First, gathering the panzer divisions to form the strike
force robbed the rest of the western front of the resources necessary to hold
their defense together. Second, even with the collected panzers, they lacked
the strength to achieve a breakthrough at Mortain. Third, after the initial
attack stalled, the Germans sent more forces “into the lion’s mouth.” Fourth,
they stayed too long and let the Allies crush their armies in Normandy. Fifth, the
huge losses forced the Germans to abandon France rather than fight a delaying
action. Most historians agree with General Bradley. The Battle of Mortain was a
foolish military debacle that caused the collapse of the German western front.
It serves as another example of Hitler’s poor military judgment.
From a tactical perspective, I agree. Mortain was a disaster
for the Germans. However, Hitler’s decision makes more sense when viewed from a
strategic point of view.
Within a few days of the Normandy Landings, the Allies held
a firm lodgment in France. The German high command had a choice. They could
draw forces from the eastern front to crush the Allied foothold in Normandy or
contain it with the troops they had. They chose the latter. Hitler focused on
the eastern front. As long as the Allies could be stalemated in hedgerow
country, he wasn’t worried.
The July breakout, code name Operation Cobra, changed the
strategic situation. The Allies forced their way out of Normandy and moved
boldly into central France. Suddenly, Hitler and the German high command
perceived the strategic threat of a true second front forming in the west.
Looking at the narrow breakout between Avranches and
Mortain, Hitler saw an opportunity to restore the strategic situation. A
powerful panzer thrust might sever the Allied penetration and choke off Patton’s
Army. The German commander in the west, Field Marshal von Kluge, warned about risking
everything on an iffy attack. The rest of the western front could give way while
the Germans committed their panzers at Mortain. Always a gambler, Hitler went
all in. If it worked, the second front would be contained, once again. If it
failed, the Germans would have to abandon France, something they would have to
Hitler’s mistake was launching such a panzer attack in 1944 and expecting the results of 1940. The German armored thrust at Mortain had no chance of success. The Allied armies amassed too much firepower to simply charge through with panzers. The four panzer divisions were not strong enough to break through the single American infantry division defending Mortain. Allied dominance of the air prevented any major movement during daylight. Furthermore, the Americans had plenty of tanks in the vicinity to blunt any German penetration. In the end, General Bradley allowed Patton to continue his sweep while he drove back the Germans with infantry divisions.
Books on Mortain
I wrote extensively about the 12th Infantry Regiment's involvement in the American counterattack at Mortain in my book Battle Hardened. The entire battle is described in depth by Mark J. Reardon's Victory at Mortain.
I believe historians have misread the Battle of Mortain.
They have concentrated on German tactical failures and the disastrous results that
followed. Bradley and others have written the battle off as a huge blunder. In
truth, Mortain was Hitler’s last effort at retrieving a crumbling strategic
situation with another desperate gamble.
Of the thousands of Allied soldiers who landed on D-Day,
none stood up more than Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt. The 4th
Division’s beloved General Teddy landed with the first wave on Utah Beach. Once
on land, he realized the division’s landing craft had dropped the initial wave
in the wrong spot. His call to bring the other waves ashore in the same
location spared the troops from confusion and disorder. He personally greeted
each succeeding wave to point the way inland for each unit. Because of his
hands-on leadership, the 4th Division adapted to the change in
landing sites without trouble. One man made a huge difference in the success at
The Army awarded Teddy Roosevelt the Medal of Honor for his
courage and leadership on D-Day. It added to his collection of medals. He had a
Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart from World War I and four Silver
Stars. General Bradley even overcame his misgivings about Roosevelt and promoted
him to division commander, though Roosevelt died before he could take command.
Casual Leadership Style
Bradley had good reason to think twice about elevating
General Teddy. He was the type of officer enlisted men loved and superiors
despised. Courageous to the point of fearlessness, Roosevelt led by example.
His landing with the first wave was no act of bravado. He could be found at the
front in most tough situations. He could also be found drinking with the
enlisted men after hours. His devil-may-care attitude about military civilities
and formalities grated higher ranking generals. General Bradley had relieved
him from a position with the 1st Infantry Division for numerous
oversights on matters of discipline.
My father had a notable encounter with General Teddy at Utah Beach, when he noticed that Roosevelt was not wearing his helmet. It was typical behavior for the self-assured general. You can read about the incident in my book Battle Hardened.
Businessman, Soldier and Statesman
By the time he fought in Normandy, General Teddy had reached
a point when he may not have cared a flip if his actions brought censure or a scolding
from a superior officer. His reputation and legacy were beyond rebuke. He had
already enjoyed surpassing success as a businessman and statesman. Coming out
of Harvard, he earned a fortune on Wall Street. He volunteered to serve as a private
in World War I but was commissioned, instead. He ended the war as a colonel
then helped found the American Legion.
Wherever he went, he earned the respect and affection of the people who depended on him. As an example, the people of Puerto Rico nicknamed him the “Hillbilly in the Governor’s Mansion” because of his embrace of their culture while serving as their governor. Filipinos called him “One Shot Teddy” in admiration of his hunting skills while Governor-General of the Philippines. For those who have the time, I suggest reading about his many accomplishments and political offices held.
General Roosevelt died from a heart attack on July 12, 1944. Stepping out from the shadow of an American
giant, Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. (he was actually the III) made his own mark in the
world and at Utah Beach. Well-loved and sorely missed, he deserves to be