The Thirty-Eight Minute War

As you may have guessed, this article is about a war that lasted less than forty minutes. Throughout recorded human history there have been thousands of wars and conflicts with the average duration being around 2 years. Some lasted less than a month but very few can claim to last less than a week and only one can have the distinction of being the shortest conflict ever fought.

That accolade is held by the Anglo-Zanzibar War which raged from 09:02am to 09:40am on 27 August 1896.

The immediate cause of the war was the death of the pro-british Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini two days earlier on 25 August and the subsequent succession of his cousin Khalid bin Barghash who declared himself as sultan. The British preferred Hamud bin Muhammed, who was more favourable to British interests. A treaty signed in 1886 required one condition for accession to the sultanate to be that the candidate must first obtain permission from the British consul. As Khalid had not fulfilled this requirement the British authorities considered this a casus belli (an act justifying war) and sent an ultimatum to Khalid demanding that he order his forces to stand down and leave the palace by 09:00am on 27 August. In response, Khalid mobilised his palace guard and barricaded himself, along with his force, in the palace.

By the time that the ultimatum had expired the British had gathered three cruisers, two gunboats, 150 marines and sailors and a further 900 Zanzibaris loyal to Britain in the harbour area. Around 2,800 Zanzibaris defended the palace; most were pressed from the local populace, but this number also included the sultan’s palace guard and his servants and slaves. The defenders possessed several artillery pieces and machine guns, which were set in front of the palace sighted at the British ships in the bay.

The ships opened fire on the palace at 09:02am and the bombardment set the palace on fire, disabling the defender’s artillery.

A small naval action took place, with the British sinking the Zanzibari royal yacht HHS Glasgow and two smaller vessels. Some potshots were fired at the pro-British Zanzibari troops as they advanced on the palace and the flag was shot down. Fire ceased at 09:40 and the war was over.

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Sultan Khalid’s forces had sustained roughly 500 casualties during the brief skirmish, while only one British sailor aboard the gunboat HMS Thrush was injured before making a full recovery. Khalid received asylum in the German consulate before escaping to German East Africa where he was captured by the British in 1916 and exiled to Saint Helena. He was allowed to return to East Africa where he died in 1927.

The pro-British Hamud bin Muhammed was quickly placed in power at the head of a puppet government which issued the final decree outlawing slavery on the island in 1897. The war marked the end of the Zanzibar Sultanate as a sovereign state and ushered in a period of heavy British influence that lasted until 1963.

The Rest is History

 

 

 

Three Campaigns of the Chinese Civil War – How the Red Flag Rose in China

China is the most populous country on the planet. It has always had a massive population. From a military logistics point of view this equates to more canon fodder – an unsympathetic view to take, but true nonetheless. Six of the five deadliest conflicts in human history involved Chinese soldiers (it would have been six if they had been allowed to fight during World War One – although they were used as labour) with three of the conflicts raging exclusively in China. Few people in the west realise how many casualties the Chinese suffered during World War Two – second only to the Soviet Union, between 15 and 20 million in all, one third of all casualties in the war, in case you were wondering.

So the country is no stranger to armed insurrection, invasion nor civil strife. The first half of the 20th century appeared to be shaping up for more of the same. After being thoroughly humiliated by European, Japanese and American powers near the turn of the century the country fell into a seemingly endless series of wars between the old imperial regime, opportunistic warlords, a republic of questionable democratic ideals and communists. However, by 1927 the various conflicts had coalesced into the Chinese Civil War, fought between the Nationalists (the Kuomintang) under Chiang Kai-Shek and the Communists who were led by Mao Zedong. Chiang’s army gained the upper hand in the fighting and nearly destroyed the Communists in 1934 but Mao, along with 100,000 men, escaped and retreated 6,000 miles in what became known as the Long March – only 20,000 survived the arduous trek.

However, some respite for the demoralised communist army was near.

The civil war was temporarily suspended in the late 1930s and early 1940s as the combatants were forced to turn their attention on the Imperial Japanese armed forces who had invaded their country. Mao and his army fought in the rural northern provinces, primarily employing guerilla hit-and-run tactics. He also used the time to solidify his support from the local peasants whilst stockpiling weapons provided by the Allies and captured from the Japanese. During the war the Communists actually gained strength. Meanwhile the Nationalists faced stronger Japanese opposition in the south, greatly weakening their army.

In 1946, a year after the end of World War Two, the Chinese Civil War resumed in earnest. Thanks to the Soviet army, who had liberated Manchuria (north-east China) and turned over large stockpiles of captured weapons to the Communists, the balance of power began to shift against the Nationalist regime. From 1946 to 1948 the war raged with no significant advantage being gained by either side. However, throughout this period the Communists continued to grow ever stronger.

By September 1948 the Communists had enough manpower and material to gain the initiative and launched a series of three successful campaigns that all but ended the war in near total Communist victory (the Nationalists managed to hold onto the island of Taiwan where the Kuomintang are currently in opposition in the legislature).

Liaoshen Campaign (12 September 1948 – 2 November 1948)

For the first time since the beginning of the civil war the Communist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had expanded so considerably in Manchuria that it surpassed the Nationalists in total operational strength. In response to the deteriorating situation against Communist offensives, Chiang Kai-Shek decided to replace the commander of his armies in the region. However, this proved problematic as he often clashed with the new commander, Wei Lihuang, over tactics. Wei believed that it was better to “preserve the status quo” and concentrate on defending the cities of Shenyang and Changchun, whilst Chiang felt the army should pull back and defend the Shanhai Pass and prevent the PLA from entering the North China Plain.

By Spring 1948, the PLA were in control of of the countryside across north-east China, forcing the Nationalists into defensive pockets in Shenyang, Changchun and Jinzhou. The Communists had also seized control of the Jingha Railway, cutting off the Nationalist land supply lines to Shenyang and Changchun.

The city of Jinzhou was a vital point in the passage from Manchuria to the North China Plain. Between 12 and 28 September the Communists launched a series of attacks and maneuvers that cut Jinzhou off from its supply lines, effectively isolating the city. The Nationalists attempted to reinforce Jinzhou and break the PLA encirclement attempt as well as fortify their positions in another vital point of the passage, the city of Huludao.

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By 8 October, the PLA had amasssed 250,000 troops and completed the encirclement of Jinzhou. Between 10 and 15 October, the Nationalist reinforcements for the city from both the west and east began closing in on the Communists, but were decisively stopped in the Blocking Battle of Tashan. This halt of the enemy allowed the PLA to assault Jinzhou, capturing the city on 15 October along with 80,000 soldiers of the garrison.

Next up. Changchun.

Changchun had been encircled for more than five months prior to the Liaoshen Campaign. The weakened and starving garrison were unable to break out of the city despite Chiang Kai-Shek ordering them to do so. Following news of the fall of Jinzhou the entire Nationalist 60th Army in the east of the city simply switched sides and the Nationalist Seventh Army agreed to terms of surrender on 19 October with the remaining forces in Changchun surrendering on 23 October.

In a desperate response to the heavy defeats in Jinzhou and Changchun, the Nationalist Ninth Army Group attempted a counteroffensive in Heishan county, north of Jinzhou. The Communists successfully defended their positions and subsequently encircled and destroyed the Nationalist army group.

Now it was Shenyang’s turn.

The PLA began to move in on the city which fell into disarray and the Nationalist Eighth Army Group collapsed as their commander fled the danger via plane on 30 October. On 1 November, the Communist forces launched the final assault on Shenyang. The 140,000 strong Nationalist garrison quickly surrendered. On 2 November the Communists moved to capture nearby Yingkou on the coast – the Nationalist 52nd Army narrowly escaping by ship. The remaining Nationalist forces in the area managed to preserve strength and made an orderly withdraw from Huludao to Tianjin.

The northeast was completely clear of Nationalist forces and the Liaoshen Campaign effectively came to an end. However, the Communist leadership did not sit back on its haunches and savour its victory for long. Instead they launched two more campaigns running simultaneously. One in the north, the Pingjin Campaign, aimed at ending Nationalist dominance of the North China Plain and concentrated around the cities of Beiping (Beijing) and Tianjin (Hence the name Pingjin). The southern action, the Huaihai Campaign (named after the Huai River and the Lung Hai Railway), was a major offensive against the Kuomintang headquarters in the city of Xuzhou.

Huahai Campaign (6 November 1948 – 10 January 1949)

After the city of Jinan in Shandong province fell in September 1948 (an unrelated action to the Liaoshen Campaign), the PLA began planning for a larger campaign to engage the remaining Nationalists in the province – the bulk of which was based around Xuzhou. In the face of the deteriorating situation in the northeast, the Kuomintang government decided to deploy their forces on both sides of the Tianjin-Pukou Railway to prevent the PLA from advancing south to the Yangtze River.

The Communist War Council approved a plan to encircle the Nationalist Sixth and Seventh Armies stationed in the Shandong province and dispatched their forces to assault the garrisons in Henan and Anhui provinces with the objective of breaking through to Shandong.

The attack began on 6 November and the two Nationalist armies began retreating to Xuzhou by crossing the Grand Canal. On 8 November, 23,000 Nationalist troops defected to the Communist side, exposing the retreat route of the Seventh Army. 70,000 PLA soldiers marched on, surrounding the main force of the Seventh Army east of Xuzhou, and intercepted the remaining force as they were crossing a river. The Nationalist garrison in Xuzhou planned to rescue the Seventh Army, but the Communists had anticipated this move (thanks, in part, to superior intelligence) and deployed more than half of their force to block the relief effort. The Seventh Army managed to hold out for 16 days without supplies and reinforcements, inflicting nearly 50,000 casualties on the PLA forces. But in the end it was not enough and the Seventh Army was destroyed after it’s ferocious fight for survival.

Now that the Seventh Army was no longer in existence, the east flank of Xuzhou was completely exposed to PLA attack and Chiang Kai-Shek was persuaded to re-locate the Nationalist headquarters to the south.

The Nationalist Twelfth Army was marching, from Henan province, to reinforce their beleaguered comrades… but, they were intercepted and after nearly a month of bloody fighting they too ceased to exist. Only 8,000 survivors managed to penetrate and breakout from the enemy encirclement. Many of the newly captured Nationalist POWs joined the Communist forces. Chiang did try and save the Twelfth Army by ordering three armies to relieve them. I’m sure you can guess what happened by this point – that’s right, the Communists caught up with these reinforcements and they too were encircled only 9 miles from Xuzhou. How were the Communists able to catch them so quickly? Again, superior intelligence.

On 15 December the Sixteenth Army broke out from the Communist encirclement, but at great cost – although the General of the Army, Sun Yuanling, eventually made it safely back to Nanjing, most of his officers and men were killed or captured in the process.

Another General, Du Yuming, one of the most capable strategists in the Nationalist Army, decided to hold out as Chiang had ordered. He came up with three different options for the current situation: recall Nationalist troops from Xi’an and Wuhan provinces to battle the Communists; wait for reinforcements; or break out on their own. Du was disappointed when Chiang selected the riskiest option for his army – breakout. Time was running out though.

There was a full month of heavy snowfall, which made it impossible for the Nationalist Air Forces to provide air support to the besieged ground units. As food and ammunition began to diminish, many soldiers killed and ate their horses whilst Communist forces enticed them with food to surrender – around 10,000 did so. On 6 January, the PLA launched a huge offensive on the Thirteenth Army, who promptly withdrew to the Second Army’s defensive lines. Four days later General Du Yuming was captured whilst the Sixth and Eighth Armies retreated to the south of the Huai River.

This was arguably the most successful of the Three Campaigns. The Nationalist forces suffered over 500,000 casualties, including much of their most elite forces under direct command of Chiang Kai-Shek. This greatly weakened Chiang within the Kuomintang government and he announced his temporary retirement. As the PLA began to approach the Yangtze river, the momentum was completely shifting toward the Communists and without any effective measures to stop them from crossing, the Nationalist government began to lose support from the United States and American military aid began to dry up.

Pingjin Campaign (29 November 1948 – 31 January 1949)

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After the great success of the Liaoshen Campaign, the balance of power in Northern China had shifted in favour of the Communists and their People’s Liberation Army. After the Communist Fourth Field Army entered the North China Plain, the Nationalists abandoned Chengde, Baoding, the Shanhai Pass, and Qinhuangdao and withdrew their remaining forces to the cities of Beiping, Tianjin and Zhangjiakou and strengthened the defences of these garrisons. The Nationalists were hoping to preserve their strength and reinforce Xuzhou – where we know there was another campaign underway – or alternatively retreat to the nearby Suiyuan province if necessary.

On 29 November 1948 the PLA launched an assault on Zhangjiakou (later identified as one of the most strategically important cities in China and aptly named “Beijing’s Northern Door”). The Nationalist 35th and 104th Armies were sent to reinforce the city, only to be recalled to defend Beiping on 5 December as it became obvious that it was at risk of becoming encircled by the enemy.

As had become custom by this point, on their return from Zhangjiakou, the 35th Army found themselves encircled by the PLA at Xinbao’an and friendly forces sent to relieve them were, themselves, intercepted. The PLA launched their offensive against the city on 21 December, destroying the 35th Army.

After capturing both Zhangjiakou and Xinbao’an, the Communists began to amass troops around the Tianjin area from 2 January 1949. Almost immediately after the conclusion of the Huaihai Campaign (10 January) in the south, the PLA launched its final assault on Tianjin on 14 January. After nearly 30 hours of fighting, the Nationalist 62nd and 86th Armies were destroyed – a total of 130,000 men were either killed or captured. The remaining forces retreated south by boat on 17 January.

That’s the “jin” part. Time for the “Ping”.

Now that Tianjin had fallen into enemy hands and the Communists held the north and had recently driven the Nationalists further south in their Huaihai Campaign, the Nationalist garrison in Beiping was effectively left isolated – one tiny dot of blue in a sea of red. The garrison’s commander, General Fu Zuoyi, realising that resisitence was futile, decided to negotiate a peace settlement on 21 January and within the following week 260,000 Nationalist troops exited the city in anticipation of the immediate surrender. The PLA’s Fourth Field Army entered Beiping on 31 January to take control of the city, marking the end of the Pingjin Campaign.

The Aftermath

In only a period of several months, Mao Zedong’s Communists had achieved near total victory through three exceptionally successful campaigns. Chiang Kai-Shek’s support, both inside and outside of the country, dwindled with each successive Communist victory – and they came in quick and often. US Secretary of State, George C. Marshall stated that:

The present regime has lost the confidence of the people, reflected in the refusal of soldiers to fight and the refusal of the people to cooperate in economic reforms.

Within weeks of Marshall’s announcement (20 December 1949) the Communists had overran the remaining Nationalist positions in Xuzhou, forcing the Nationalists south of the Yangtze River and captured the whole northern sector of the country. The remaining Nationalist army and Kuomintang government continued their retreat until they finally withdrew to the island of Formosa, which was later renamed Taiwan. Here, Chiang Kai-Shek regained power and developed the island into an Asian economic power – to this day, the island, officially called the Republic of China, still lays claim to the whole of the Chinese mainland. Mainland China, however, remains firmly in control of the Communist Party and Mao Zedong’s political descendants.

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The Communist takeover of China achieved by the battles of the Three Campaigns greatly influenced not only that country but the entire world. Over the next two decades, Mao focused on consolidating and then wielding his complete control over his country, ruthlessly putting down any opposition. Under Mao’s rule, an estimated 65 million Chinese citizens died in his pursuit of his new socialist country – anyone who got in his way was simply done away with through execution, imprisonment and even forced famine!

Fortunately for the rest of the world, Mao remained focused on his own country, disagreeing with the Soviets on political and philosophical aspects of Communism and the two nations suspicioulsy eyed one another as potential enemies rather than natural allies. China’s internal struggles and regional disputes with it’s neighbours have restricted its influence on the world. Even though it remains the largest and strongest Communist nation and the only potential Communist threat to the West, China remains more interested in internal and regional disputes than in international matters – although it has, in recent years, began to expand its soft power through trade and international development, particularly in Africa.

Had the Nationalists held back the Communist onslaught during the battles of the Three Campaigns, China would likely have played a very different role in subsequent world events. There would have been no Communist China to support North Korea during the Korean War or North Vietnam’s efforts to take over South Vietnam. Had Chiang Kai-Shek with his outward views and Western links been victorious then China may have taken a more assertive role in recent world history. Instead, the Liaoshen, Huaihai and Pingjin Campaigns would keep China firmly under the yoke of one man and locked in his inward looking bubble for decades rather than opening to the outside world earlier than 1978 – only 2 years after Mao’s death.

The Rest is History

Tank Vs Tank

For thousands of years the battlefield was dominated by cavalry. With the industrial advances of the 19th century came death and destruction on an unprecedented scale and the advent of flight in the early years of the 20th century only added to the dangers faced by land-based forces.

In an effort to avoid the machine gunfire, high explosive artillery shells and airplanes, the soldiers dug in to the earth during World War One. The pockmarked, scorched, muddy no-man’s land filled with razor wire between the opposing trenches spewing thousands of bullets a minute did not make an ideal field for cavalry to sprint across. Something new was required to fight this war. Enter the tank – the metal cavalry.

Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux – 1918

Unsurprisingly, the first tank-on-tank engagement occurred during the first conflict that saw the new weapon take to the field: the First World War.

By early 1918, the Russians had been knocked out of the war freeing up large numbers of German men and equipment to fight on the Western Front. Buoyed by these newly accessible resources but concerned that the entry of the United States into the war would negate their numerical advantage if they did not attack quickly, the German commander, Erich Ludendorff, chose to punch through the allied front line and wheel north to the sea hoping that the French would seek armistice terms. In March, the German Army launched the Spring Offensive in North-West France, focusing their forces against the under strength British Third and Fifth Armies in the Somme area.

Within a month the Germans had advanced to the town of Villers-Bretonneux and on the evening of 23/24 April began bombarding the area before attacking the town with four divisions. The German infantry, supported by thirteen tanks broke through the Allied lines creating a 4.8km wide gap. The town fell to the Germans and the vital railway junction of Amiens became vulnerable to capture.

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Three British Mark IV tanks were quickly dispatched to the Cachy switch line at the first reports of the German advance through the town and ordered to hold it against the enemy. Two of the tanks were “female” variants armed with 0.303 inch machine guns whilst the other machine was “male” and armed with two 6-pounder guns and machine guns. The male was commanded by Lieutenant Frank Mitchell and only manned by four of the usual eight crewmen as the others had been gassed. The three tanks were advancing when they encountered a German A7V tank nicknamed “Nixe” and commanded by 2nd Lieutenant Wilhelm Biltz.

Nixe fired on the two female tanks, damaging them and exposing the crews. Both retreated as their machine guns were useless against the armour of the hulking A7V and its eighteen man crew. Lieutenant Mitchell’s tank continued to fire at Nixe while on the move to avoid German artillery fire as well as the gun of the tank. The movement meant that Mitchell’s gunner found it difficult to properly aim the 6-pounders until the Mark IV stopped to allow for a clean shot. The gunner scored three direct hits (six shells in all). The Nixe heeled over onto its side, probably as a result of crossing an incline at the wrong angle. The surviving German crew, including Biltz, fled from the vehicle and the British fired at them as they fled, killing nine.

And so ended the first ever engagement between tanks. But the battle was not over!

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Two more A7V tanks, supported by infantry, appeared and were driven off by the Mark IV gunner’s accuracy. Mitchell’s tank continued to attack the German infantry using canister shot (think massive shotgun shell). Seven of the new British Whippet medium tanks arrived to support the Mark IV and encountered several German battalions “forming up in the open” and killed many infantrymen with their machine guns and by running them over.

The Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux was a great success for the Allies, who defeated the German attempt to capture the strategically important French city of Amiens and  recaptured Villers-Bretonneux while outnumbered. Lieutenant Frank Mitchell and his crew’s defence of the Cachy switch line played no small part in this victory and the engagement they had with Nixe will forever be remembered as the first firefight between tanks.

Battle of Kursk – 1943

The Eastern Front of the Second World War saw some unbelievably massive battles of envelopment and re-envelopment involving millions of men across hundreds of miles of front. The Battle of Kursk was one such engagement which occurred 450km south-west of Moscow during the Soviet push-back on Nazi Germany.

The battle began when the Germans launched Operation Citadel on 5 July with the objective of pinching off the Kursk salient (a bulge that protrudes into enemy territory) with attacks on the base of the salient from north and south simultaneously. For this attack the Germans had amassed nearly 800,000 soldiers, 3,000 tanks and 10,000 artillery pieces.

However, the Russian military leaders had not been idly sitting by and their intelligence had alerted them to this massive enemy buildup. They were aware of the numbers facing them, the location of the attacks, and thanks to captured Germans they even knew when the attack was coming. The Russian leaders decided on a grand defensive strategy, committing 1.9 million men, over 5,000 tanks and 25,000 artillery pieces to the area. Large numbers of anti-tank artillery were placed in the locations most likely to see German tanks used in depth. 400,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines were laid and 300,000 civilians helped the army dig thousands of miles of trenches, repair roads and construct defences around the salient.

Germany started the attack at 04:30 on 5 July with an artillery barrage followed by a combined armour and infantry attack beginning an hour later: heavy tanks at the front, followed by the medium tanks with the infantry bringing up the rear. Within the first 24 hours of fighting they had gained 10km of territory but at a huge cost: 25,000 casualties. The next few days saw a similar pattern and by 10 July the German IX Army had lost 2/3 of its tank force.

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After the German offensive stalled on the northern side of the salient, on 12 July the Soviets commenced Operation Kutuzov against the rear of the German forces whilst simultaneously launching powerful counterattacks the same day on the southern side which led to the largest single armoured action of the war at the Battle of Prokhorovka. On 12 July, 87km southeast of Kursk, 600 Soviet tanks engaged 300 German tanks with neither side gaining the upper hand.

In all areas the Russians now outnumbered their German opponents by 2:1. Unable to call on reinforcements from the southern sector the Germans were unable to hold off the Russian onslaught in the north and by 19 July the Russians had pushed 70km forward. The Russian air force ensured that the Luftwaffe were incapable of supplying the army with the supplies it desperately needed. Faced with the collapse of its forces in the northern sector of the battle, General Model asked for Hitler’s permission to withdraw, warning that the Wehrmacht faced another Stalingrad if the withdrawal was not permitted. Hitler allowed the request and the German forces to the north withdrew nearly 100km.

A similar situation was occurring in the southern sector of the salient. Here the Germans had around 300,000 men and about 600 tanks whilst the Russians had nearly 1 million men and many more tanks. The Soviet counter-offensive in this sector began on 3 August and the partisans operating behind German lines here derailed more than 1,000 train loads of troops which massively hindered the Wehrmacht’s ability to easily move troops around the area. German morale plummeted and the Russians captured the city of Kharkov by 23 August. The liberation of Kharkov is usually seen as the end of the Battle of Kursk.

By the end of the battle nearly 1 million German soldiers and 2.5 million Russians had been committed to the fight as well as 5,000 Soviet and 3,000 German tanks. The Germans suffered 250,000 casualties whilst the Russians suffered 250,000 deaths and a staggering 600,000 wounded! It is alleged that one SS commander immobolised 22 Soviet tanks in under one hour! Despite the horrific costs to the Soviet armies, the Battle of Kursk was hailed as a great Russian victory as the Axis forces lost the ability to initiate any future strategic offensive operations for the duration of the war. From this point on until the remainder of the war the Soviet Army held the initiative over the Germans in the Eastern Front and reclaimed 2,000km of territory.

The vast flat steppes of western Russia provided the ideal grounds for these grand maneuvering battles utilising huge numbers of armoured vehicles. The Battle of Kursk was the largest example of this and to this day remains the largest tank battle in history.

Battle of 73 Easting – 1991

We looked at the first tank-on-tank engagement and the largest tank battle in history so its only fitting that we end with “the last great tank battle of the 20th century.” This battle occurred in the deserts of southern Iraq during the last major conflict of the century: the Gulf War, fought between Iraq and a coalition of over 30 countries led by the United States.

Following an extensive bombing campaign Coalition forces launched their invasion of Iraq on 24 February 1991. One of the main fronts of the attack was the US VII Corps whose aim it was to get in behind Iraqi forces, prevent a retreat from Kuwait and destroy five divisions of the elite Iraqi Republican Guard. The US 2nd Armoured Cavalry Regiment (2ACR) spearheaded the advance of VII Corps. 2ACR was a reconnaissance division whose principal mission was to identify enemy positions and strip away security forces in preparation for other troops to move up for the full attack.

The regiment consisted of 4,500 men divided into five squadrons, three of which were ground squadrons made up mostly of M1A1 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. Their main opponents were the Tawakalna Division of the Republican Guard who were tasked with defending the supply route along the IPSA Pipeline Road. The Division had committed a mechanised brigade and an armoured brigade to the area, focusing on the road as they did not believe an advance from the featureless desert was possible… the Iraqis failed to realise that the American forces were in possession of GPS.

On the afternoon of 26 February, much of VII Corps was between the 50 and 60 Easting lines (geographic coordinate lines running eastward). 2 ACR was ordered to advance as far as 70 Easting. They were to engage with the Republican Guard without becoming decisively engaged so as to maintain manoeuvrability while preventing the enemy from moving.

73 Easting was not one single, isolated engagement but rather part of a wider line of fighting spread across the Iraqi desert. As with many of the battles of the First World War, it was the intensity and significance of the fighting that made 73 Easting worthy of the identification as a battle in its own right.

After meeting and eliminating several isolated outposts, the troops of 2 ACR occupied a village but it was at 73 Easting that the heaviest fighting took place. Around 16:40, E Troop of 2ACR, led by Captain HR McMaster (future US National Security Advisor to President Donald Trump), surprised an Iraqi company of eight tanks locked into defensive positions on a slope at the 70 Easting. After clearing this threat, McMaster saw an Iraqi company in Soviet-produced T-72 tanks three kilometres to the east. He made the call to pass the original 70 Easting limit and fought through an infantry position and onto the high ground. A unit of eighteen T-72s stood their ground against the American forces but surprise, superior equipment and better training provided the Americans with a significant advantage. McMaster and his tanks destroyed yet another enemy tank unit.

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A platoon was sent north from E Troop to regain contact with other coalition forces. Instead they ran into another Iraqi position, this one occupied by a further thirteen T-72s, which they destroyed.

More of 2ACR began to arrive and the unit took up positions overlooking a wadi (a dried up river valley) near 73 Easting. By 18:30, Iraqi tanks and infantry began to stream up the wadi with the aim of driving back the Americans and creating a safe line of retreat. For the next several hours, the Iraqis tried to drive off their opposite number but were held off. By the time that the fighting began to slacken off around 22:00, dozens of Iraqi tanks had been destroyed.

Sporadic fighting continued throughout the night and another fierce firefight was fought the following day around a nearby objective but the Battle of 73 Easting was over. 73 Easting had a been a huge tank battle, in which the Coalition forces destroyed 160 tanks and 180 personnel carriers – the 2nd squadron of 2ACR alone contributed 55 tanks and 45 armoured vehicles. 2ACR captured 2,000 Iraqi soldiers at a loss of 6 KIA and 19 wounded and advanced 250 kilometres.

Strategically, the battle kept the Iraqis occupied while other advances around the country took place. The war ended with a total Coalition victory on 28 February.

The Rest is History

 

 

 

The Battle of Loudoun Hill – Robert the Bruce’s Turning Fortunes

Ask any schoolchild in Scotland who Scotland’s greatest king was, and they will, undoubtedly, answer “Robert the Bruce”. That he was Scotland’s greatest king is up for debate, but he is certainly the nation’s most famous king and stands tall in the pantheon of Scotland’s independence heroes.

Now ask those same schoolchildren what the Bruce’s most important military victory was, and they will, of course, answer the Battle of Bannockburn. This battle was his most impressive and one of the most significant battles in that it finally drove the English from Scotland and opened the north of England to Scottish raids which would eventually culminate, in 1328, to England accepting Scottish sovereignty. However, Robert Bruce’s most important victory, arguably, was at the Battle of Loudoun Hill in Ayrshire. This was the Bruce’s first major victory and the turning point in his fortunes.

The Rebel King

In 1305, the Scottish independence fighter, William Wallace was captured and brutally executed in London. King Edward I of England’s control of Scotland seemed assured.

However, in 1306, Robert the Bruce began to make moves against Edward. He murdered John ‘the Red’ Comyn , his main rival for the crown of Scotland within sacred ground in the Greyfriars Kirk, Dumfries. He immediately moved to have himself inaugurated as King of Scots at Scone in March 1306. An enraged Edward declared that no quarter would be given to Bruce or to those who supported him and dispatched Sir Aymer de Valence, the Earl of Pembroke with an army to deal with Bruce’s rebellion.

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Valence, who happened to be the brother-in-law of the murdered Comyn, inflicted a heavy defeat on Bruce at the Battle of Methven in June 1306. Fleeing west, Bruce was then defeated a second time at Dalrigh by a force from the Clan Macdougall whose leader was also a relation of Comyn. Following this defeat, the remainder of Bruce’s army was dispersed and many of his family members were captured, each facing execution or lengthy periods of imprisonment. Robert the Bruce, himself, evaded capture and fled the mainland and went into hiding amongst the Western Isles or possibly in Ireland. It was during this low point in King Robert’s life that the legend of the tenacious spider spinning it’s web is said to have inspired him to continue his efforts.

Bruce returned to the mainland in early 1307 at Turnberry. He now switched to using guerrilla tactics; they had worked for William Wallace before the disaster at Falkirk, after all. Robert’s forces ambushed the English at Glen Trool in April 1307 before meeting the enemy in pitched battle at Loudoun Hill.

The Battle

Bruce had learned his lesson from his defeat at Methven. There he had been unprepared and ambushed after taking Valence at his word. Bruce had been prepared to observe the gentlemanly conventions of feudal warfare and invited Valence to leave the walls of Perth and join Bruce in battle. Valence declined and the king, perhaps naively believing that the refusal was a sign of weakness, retired only a few miles, to nearby Methven where he made camp for the night. Before dawn on 19th June 1306, Bruce’s army was taken by surprise and almost destroyed.

The lesson had been learned. Chivalry was dead.

Nearly one year later, Robert the Bruce and Aymer de Valence would again face one another. The outcome would be very different. Valence challenged Bruce to fight after the Scot’s success at Glen Trool. Bruce accepted the challenge and the battle was fought on the plains under Loudoun Hill on 10th May 1307.

Bruce took the opportunity of the challenge to prepare his ground, cutting three ditches inward from the edge of the bogs, leaving 90 metre gaps in the centre which were to be guarded by dismounted pikemen, while soil embankments with ditches protected the flanks. This forced the English to approach through the narrow front created by their opponents, restricting their movements and deployment capabilities effectively neutralising their numerical advantage. It was reminiscent of William Wallace’s great victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, with the same filtering effect at work.

King Robert gathered his small force of 500 to 600 men and awaited the approach of Valence’s 3,000 strong army. The English force was split into two squadrons as they advanced on the smaller army. The Scots used their spears to great effect against both men and horses, leaving many dead and wounded. The English assault began to collapse. The Scots seeing their enemy begin to falter, charged their opponents who broke and fled the field. However, the Scottish army would have been unable to chase down their routing opponents for long due to them being on foot and not horseback.

None of the sources for the battle provide any indication of the losses suffered by either force, but we can safely assume that the number of casualties would have been lower than other medieval battlefields due to the lack of any meaningful pursuit of the routed English army.

The Aftermath

King Edward finally began to recognise that Bruce was a serious threat and resolved to deal with him personally. This approach had proved successful for him in the past. He gathered a new army and began his march northwards. However, Edward developed dysentery and his health was failing fast, and on 7th July 1307 Edward died at Burgh-by-Sands, near Carlisle. Without his leadership, the planned invasion faded away. His son, Edward II, made an attempt to continue the invasion but he had too many responsibilities demanding his immediate attention at home. For the next seven years, Edward II was too busy with domestic issues to send any major force north of the border against Bruce.

Robert Bruce did not just sit on his haunches for those seven years. He took the opportunity in the reduction of English activity to consolidate his position within Scotland. He moved to challenge his internal enemies, principally the Comyn family and their allies. The king moved his Royal Army north and fought a series of actions, including the Battles of Barra and Pass of Brander, that delivered Scotland into his hands. He also turned the former Comyn lands in the north-east into a stronghold of his own support through terror tactics and placing his own friends on the seats of power in the area.

By the time that Edward II came back “seven years later” it was to relieve the beleaguered English garrison at Stirling Castle. He never made it. He and his army were stopped just short at the Bannock Burn.

The Rest is History

To learn more on King Robert’s time in exile and the lead up to the Battle of Loudoun Hill then I highly recommend the Netflix movie Outlaw King. The film does contain some artistic licence and historical inaccuracies but it is a highly entertaining watch and the history, generally, is pretty spot on if a little out of sync.

“Not One Step Back” – The Battle of Stalingrad

Considered by many historians to be the largest and bloodiest battle in history, the Battle of Stalingrad was undoubtedly hell on earth for those who fought it and the civilians who lived and died throughout the conflict. Fought between 23rd August 1942 and 2nd February 1943, it is estimated that between 1.8 and 2 million people lost their lives.

The battle is generally considered to be the turning point of World War II in Europe: the point at which the allies finally halted the unstoppable juggernaut that was the German Wehrmacht. The German army was bled dry at Stalingrad and German High Command was forced to pull troops from other theatres of the war to replace the manpower lost in the rubble of the ruined city. One of the great ironies of the war was that the German Sixth Army need not have gotten itself entangled in the city in the first place as other German forces were well on their way to the Caucasus and Caspian oilfields when Hitler gave the order to capture the city which bore the name of his ideological adversary.

During the opening stage of the war on the Eastern Front, the Soviets had experienced heavy losses along with mass retreat and desertion. Less than one month before the attack on Stalingrad on 28th July 1942 Joseph Stalin issued Order No. 227 to re-establish order and discipline in the Red Army. It is famous for the line “Not one step back!” which became a Soviet slogan of resistance.

Attack on the City

Despite the failure of Operation Barbarossa to decisively defeat the Soviet Union in a single campaign, the Wehrmacht had succeeded in capturing vast expanses of Soviet territory, including Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic republics. With the initial operations being very successful, the Germans decided that their summer offensive in 1942, codenamed Case Blue, would focus on the southern parts of the Soviet Union. The initial objectives were the region’s strategically important natural resources: the coalmines of the Donets Basin and the oilfields outside Maykop, Grozny and Baku.

En Route

On 23rd July, Hitler personally rewrote the operational objectives for the campaign, greatly expanding them to include the occupation of the city of Stalingrad and the destruction of its industrial capacities. This expansion of objectives was a substantial factor in Germany’s failure at Stalingrad, caused in no small part by Hitler’s hubris and German underestimation of Soviet reserves. Both sides began to attach propaganda value to the city simply because it bore Stalin’s name. It was assumed that the capture of Stalingrad would secure the northern and western flanks of the German armies as they advanced on Baku, with the aim of capturing the Caspian petroleum resources for the Third Reich.

The battle began with heavy bombing from the Luftwaffe. Generaloberst Wolfram von Richthofen’s (cousin of Manfred von Richthofen, the World War One aerial ace, also known as the Red Baron) Luftflotte 4 air fleet dropped 1,000 tons of bombs in 48 hours! Some 400,000 civilians were trapped inside the city as Stalin, in very characteristic fashion for lack of empathy and human suffering, had prevented the civilian population from evacuating in the belief that their presence would encourage greater resistance from the city’s defenders. Much of the city was quickly turned to rubble, although some factories continued production: incredibly, the Tractor Factory continued to produce T-34 tanks until the German troops were through the doors.

Soviet reinforcements were rushed to the east bank of the River Volga, many from as far away as Siberia. The Luftwaffe, who had complete control of the skies, destroyed all the regular ferries before targeting troop barges being slowly towed across the river by lumbering tugs.

Civilian Defender’s

Prior to the attack on the city, the Soviets realized that there were tremendous constraints of both time and resources and ordered that anyone strong enough to hold a rifle be sent to fight – the lucky ones would receive said rifle. Civilians, including women and children, were put to work building trenchworks and defensive fortifications in and around Stalingrad.

Incredibly, the initial defence of the city fell upon the 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment which was a unit made up of mostly young female volunteers who had no training for engaging ground targets. Despite this, the AA gunners stayed at their posts and bravely fought the advancing Panzer tanks. The 16th Panzer Division reportedly fought the AA gunners “shot for shot” until all 37 AA guns were destroyed or overrun. The men of the 16th Panzer were shocked to find that they had been fighting female soldiers.

Poorly armed worker’s militias composed of civilians not directly involved in war production were organized by the NKVD (Stalin’s secret police) in the early stages of the battle. These civilians were often sent into battle without rifles, presumably as human shields to soak up German ammunition; poor souls of one totalitarian regime sent to die in front of the guns of another totalitarian regime. Staff and students from the technical university displayed great courage and ingenuity in forming a tank destroyer unit. They assembled tanks from leftover parts at the Tractor Factory and, unpainted and lacking gunsights, drove them straight from the factory floor to the front line.

Street Fighting Men

German High Command had intended to avoid urban, street-to-street conflict where possible. However, with the prize of Stalin’s city on the line this seemed an impossibility and the fighting soon degenerated into some of the most brutal close-quarter combat since the invention of gunpowder. German military doctrine was based on the principle of combined arms: close cooperation between tanks, infantry, engineers, artillery and the air force. The Soviets adopted the tactic of always keeping their front-line forces as close as possible to the Germans to counter the advantage that the Germans had in supporting fire. Vasiliy Chuikov, commander of the 62nd Army, called this tactic “hugging” and it proved to be very effective.

The Red Army converted multi-floored apartment blocks, factories, warehouses, street corner residences and office buildings into a series of well defended strongpoints manned with 5-10 soldiers. Stalingrad had become an impregnable wasteland of rubble, military detritus and mini fortresses. Bitter fighting raged for every street, factory, ruined house, basement and even staircase. The battle was even taken below the city and into the sewer, with the Germans calling this underground urban warfare RattenKreig (Rat War).

Each building had to be cleared room by room. German soldiers bitterly joked about capturing the kitchen but still needing to fight for the living room and the bedroom. Some of the taller buildings in the city even experienced vicious floor-by-floor combat with Germans and Soviets on different levels of the building firing at each other through holes in the floors.

Fighting on and around the Mamayev Kurgan, a prominent hill south of the industrial sector in the north of the city, was particularly merciless with the position changing hands many times. This hill would later play a pivotal role in the battle.

In another part of the city, Sergeant Yakov Pavlov led a Red Army platoon who had fortified a four-story building that oversaw a square 300 metres from the river bank. This building was later known as Pavlov’s House. The soldiers surrounded the structure with minefields, set up machine-gun positions at the windows and breached the walls in the basement for better communications. The soldiers found about ten civilians hiding inside the basement of the house. These soldiers held their ground for two months without relief. As testament to the doggedness of the defenders, Pavlov’s House was labelled Festung (Fortress) on German maps.

Pavlov's_House

Aside from the prospect of close quarter combat at any moment whilst on the front line was the terror of being shot from afar. Both sides used snipers to inflict casualties in the ruined city. The most famous Soviet sniper of the battle was Vasily Zaytsev with 225 confirmed kills. The 2001 film Enemy at the Gates, stars Jude Law as a fictionalised version of Zaytsev.

Operation Uranus

After three months of bitter fighting through the streets of Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht finally reached the banks of the river Volga in November 1942, capturing 90% of the city and splitting the Soviet forces into two narrow pockets. Despite this, fighting, especially on the slopes of Mamayev Kurgan and inside the factory area, continued. The German 6th Army had already lost 60,548 men, including 12,782 killed on reaching the banks of the river by 20th November.

By this time, ice floes had begun to appear on the Volga. Recognising that the Axis troops were ill prepared for offensive operations during the winter, the Stavka (Soviet High Command) decided to conduct several offensive operations themselves.

Snow Tank

The other Axis powers of Italy, Hungary and Romania also had forces in the south of Russia. These troops were generally less-well equipped, less-well trained and less-well fed than their counterparts in German uniform. This, unsurprisingly, led to poor morale within the ranks of these armies. Red Army Marshal Georgy Zhukov stated that “Compared with the Germans, the troops of the satellites were not so well armed, less experienced and less efficient, even in defence.” These were the troops who were tasked with protecting Army Group B’s flanks and they were thinly stretched. It was not uncommon, for example north of Stalingrad, to find a single Hungarian platoon (approximately 40 men) defending a stretch of 1-2 kilometres. Similarly, the southern flank was held only by the Romanian 4th Army and beyond that, a single German division (10,000 -20,000 men) covered 400 kilometres. These numbers demonstrate how wildly massive the Eastern Front was.

German General Friedrich Paulus had requested permission to withdraw the 6th Army behind the relative safety of the river Don. His request was rejected outright by Adolf Hitler. This would prove to be one of the Fuhrer’s many costly mistakes over the war.

On 19th November, the Red Army launched Operation Uranus. Thinly spread, deployed in exposed positions, poorly equipped and outnumbered, the Romanian 3rd Army, which held the northern flank of the German 6th Army was overrun. No preparations had been made to defend key points behind the front lines and the response of the Germans was indecisive with poor weather conditions preventing the Luftwaffe from staging an effective air action against the Soviet offensive.

“Compared with the Germans, the troops of the satellites were not so well armed, less experienced and less efficient, even in defence.” – Marshal Zhukov

The next day, on 20th November, the Soviets launched a second offensive to the south of Stalingrad, focusing on points held by the Romanian 4th Army. This Romanian force too was swept aside with relative ease by large numbers of Soviet tanks. The two Soviet forces raced west and linked up on the 23rd November at the town of Kalach 72 kilometres west of Stalingrad. The German 6th Army was now cut off from their comrades and surrounded in what they referred to as a Kessel or cauldron.

The Kessel

The surrounded Axis personnel comprised nearly 300,000 Germans, Romanians, Italians, Croatians and Soviets who had volunteered for the German army. Army Group Don was hastily formed under Field Marshal Erich von Manstein who advised Hitler not to order the 6th Army to break out, stating that he could break through the enemy lines and relieve them. This advice, along with Hermann Göring’s boast that the Luftwaffe could supply the besieged troops with an air bridge sealed the 6th Army’s fate.

On November 27th, Paulus thought to assuage his beleaguered troops by concluding with the slogan “Hold on! The Fuhrer will get us out!” The Russian winter and heavy shelling of the airfields hampered the Stalingrad air bridge and the men trapped inside the Kessel began to suffer visibly from shortages in food and munitions.

The Soviets consolidated their forces around Stalingrad and fierce fighting to shrink the pocket began. Army Group Don undertook Operation Winter Storm in order to relieve the trapped 6th Army and it was initially successful. By 18th December, von Manstein’s forces had pushed the Soviets back to within 48 kilometres of the 6th Army’s positions. The starving and encircled Axis forces made no attempt to reach the relief army. Some German officers requested that Paulus defy Hitler’s orders to stand fast and instead attempt a break out, but Paulus refused. On the 23rd December, von Manstein’s forces abandoned the attempt to relieve Stalingrad and went, instead, on the defensive against continued Soviet onslaughts. It was noted by Zhukov that “The military and political leadership of Nazi Germany sought not to relieve them, but to get them to fight as long as possible so as to tie up Soviet forces.” German High Command sought to gain as much time as possible in order to withdraw forces from the Caucasus and redeploy troops to form a new front to check a Soviet counter-offensive.

The Stavka began a massive propaganda campaign at the end of November in an attempt to persuade the Axis forces to surrender. Aircraft dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets describing the hopelessness of their situation and a delegation of German communist exiles broadcast political messages over loudspeaker. These attempts proved futile. On 6th January, two weeks after Army Group Don aborted its relief operation, General Rokossovsky offered Paulus terms for an honourable surrender. Paulus chose to ignore the deal.

The Soviet’s final push to crush the encircled German troops began on 10th January 1943. Pushing from the west, soldiers on the Don Front drove the enemy back into the city, whilst at the same time, troops intensified attacks from the banks of the Volga. On 26th January the two forces joined at the Mamayev Kurgan hill, cutting the German forces into two separate Kessels, one in the north, the other in the south of the city. General Paulus was repeatedly forced to give up his quarters during the retreat further into the city.

On January 30th, the tenth anniversary of Hitler’s coming to power, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels read a proclamation that included the sentence: “The heroic struggle of our soldiers on the Volga should be a warning for everybody to do the utmost for the struggle for Germany’s freedom and the future of our people, and thus in a wider sense for the maintenance of our entire continent.” Hitler promoted Paulus to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall. The implication was clear: no German field marshal had ever surrendered and if Paulus were to do so he would shame himself as the highest ranking German officer ever to be captured. Hitler expected Paulus to choose suicide over disgrace.

POW

In the morning hours of January 31st, a German officer emerged from a department store in the aptly named Square of Fallen Soldiers with a white flag and offered terms of surrender. A group of Red Army officers were escorted into the basement where Paulus’ army staff were assembled (minus Field Marshal Paulus himself) and discussed the terms of surrender. The south Kessel had fallen but the soldiers trapped in the north Kessel in the Tractor Factory held out until 2nd February.

Around 91,000 exhausted, ill, wounded and starving soldiers were taken prisoner, including a whopping 22 generals. Hitler was apoplectic and reportedly stated that Paulus could have “freed himself from all sorrow and ascended into eternity and national immortality, but he prefers to go to Moscow.”

Aftermath of Carnage

The disaster at Stalingrad marked the first time that the Nazi government publicly acknowledged a failure in its war effort, although the public was not officially told of the imminent catastrophe until the end of January. On February 18th, Goebbels gave his famous Sportpalast speech, encouraging Germans to adopt a total war that would claim all resources and efforts from the entire population. With the prospect of the “Bolshevik hordes” from “Asia” threatening to cross into Europe, fighting on seemed like the only way out for the terrified population. Which they did, with greater intensity than before, as the war raged for a further two years.

Of the 91,000 Prisoners of War captured in the Kessel it was not until 1955 that the last of the 5,000-6,000 survivors were repatriated to West Germany. The other 85,000 men became casualties of ruthless Stalinist policies.

When Red Army troops recaptured Stalingrad, they counted 7,655 civilian survivors who had miraculously survived in the ruins of the frozen city. As the clean-up began, mass graves filled with residents that the Germans had executed were discovered. Several thousand German prisoners were put to work in February 1943, clearing bodies and defusing bombs and would eventually help rebuild the city that they had destroyed.

The Rest is History

For a more in-depth look into the Battle, I highly recommend Stalingrad by Antony Beevor which I listened to as an audiobook.