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The pass of Thermopylae is best known for the doomed stand of King Leonidas and the 300 Spartans. Less known is that this was just one battle at that spot. Over a span of 2500 years at least 27 military actions were fought over that patch of ground.
The Killing Ground: A Biography of Thermopylae by Myke Cole and Michael Livingston recounts the known actions fought there, from the 6th century BC to World War II. It examines the terrain over which these battles were fought and what is known of each action.
They open the book with an exploring the battlefield and its geography, including its changes over 2500 years. Geography explains why that patch of Greece is so blood soaked. Thermopylae, along with the adjacent Oti Pass, are gateways to Central Greece and the Peloponnese beyond. Going north or south you must cross them. Hold both and you bar passage. The authors show the path is porous, with many passages. They spend time showing how flanking any one position is easy.
In 1918 the British Army was at a peak. In a hundred-day campaign, it shoved the German Army almost back to the German border – not through German exhaustion, but by outfighting and outmaneuvering them. By 1940, it abandoned World War I’s hard-earned lessons, deteriorating into the worst army of any major power.
“Victory to Defeat: The British Army 1918-40,” by Richard Dannatt and Robert Lyman traces this collapse, examining the reasons behind it.
The authors open describing how the 1918 British Army developed combined-arms tactics that peeled German defensive lines apart like rotted cardboard. Artillery, tanks, and aircraft played a role, but infantry armed with light machine guns and rifle grenades did the real work.
Ronald Reagan made the Second Ranger Battalion famous with his 1984 “Boys of Point Du Hoc” speech. There he extolled the exploits of the Rangers who scaled those heights on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Ever since then, many believe the Rangers started and ended their World War II efforts on that day in June.
“The Last Hill: The Epic Story of a Ranger Battalion and the Battle That Defined WWII,” by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin shows that D-Day was the start of the Battalion’s World War II combat. They faced other challenges throughout 1944.
Many nations have created military alliances over the centuries. Few have gone beyond coordination of military activities. Yet in World War II, the United States and Great Britain forged a collaborative association virtually unique in history. It led Winston Churchill, in his post-war Iron Curtain speech to speak of a special relation between the two nations.
“Churchill’s American Arsenal: The Partnership Behind the Innovations that Won World War Two,” by Larrie D. Ferreiro, examines that alliance and the fruits that emerged from it, including victory.
Ferreiro shows it could have gone differently. His opening chapter shows the rivalries and jealousies that existed between the two nations in the years leading up to World War I and between the two world wars. Both nations suspected the motives of the other. He also shows how an accommodation formed due to the threat posed by Hitler, and examines the results of that partnership.
At the Battle of Saratoga, the tide of the Revolutionary War turned in favor of unlikely victors: the American patriots.
What were the major strategy elements at play in the Saratoga Campaign, and why did it prove so crucial? Where did England misstep, and what did the Americans get right? To find out, we chat with Kevin Weddle *03, Professor of Military Theory and Strategy at the Army War College.
Allan Mallinson may be Britain’s most important living military historian, with several significant books on military history. He also wrote the Matthew Hervey novels. These followed the fictional career of a 19th-century British cavalry officer, similar to Bernard Cornwall’s Richard Sharpe series. He retired from the British Army in 2004 as a Brigadier.
“The Shape of Battle: The Art of War from the Battle of Hastings to D-Day and Beyond,” by Allan Mallison, examines six battles that shaped British – and world – history. All six battles focus on Britain’s fighting forces. The six battles he examines are Hastings in 1066, Towton in 1461, Waterloo in 1815, Sword Beach in 1944, Imjin River in 1951, and Helmand in 2009.
All six are significant. Hastings was where William of Normandy defeated Harold of England to merge Normandy and Britain into what became modern England. Towton was the bloodiest battle of the War of the Roses, a nasty dynastic struggle that put the Tudor family on the British throne. Waterloo saw the final defeat of Napoleon and the start of the Pax Britannica. Sword Beach was the key British contribution to the D-Day landing of June 6, 1944, in World War II. Imjin River was a Korean War battle where a British brigade stopped a Red Chinese horde from breaking UN lines during a major Chinese offensive. Operation Panther’s Claw in Helmand Province in Afghanistan was one of Britain’s principal contributions to the Global War on Terror.
On June 14th, 1777, after more than two years of war with Great Britain, and nearly a year after declaring independence, the Congress of the United States passed the Flag Resolution. It states:
[T]he flag of the thirteen United States (shall) be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.
On the bitter cold morning of February 3, 1943, the passenger ship, S.S. Dorchester, was steaming in convoy nearing the frozen coast of Greenland. The 902 souls aboard depended on convoy procedure and three small Coast Guard cutters to protect them from the ravening wolf packs of U-boats, still dominating the North Atlantic. The servicemen, merchant seamen, and civilian workers were destined for a critical support base in Greenland, so were only 150 miles from safe harbor. It was then, in the pre-dawn darkness, that a torpedo slammed into the hull, deep below the waterline.
A diligent sonar operator on a sister ship, the Tampa, had alerted the convoy of suspicious sonar contact. Dorchester’s civilian captain had ordered everyone into life vests, but too many of the young men failed to act, lacking effective unit leadership. The U-boat surfaced and fired a spread of three torpedoes, one of which struck home with devastating effect. We know of this from post-war records from the U-boat command. The ship, an old coastal steamer, was going down rapidly. The ship’s radio was knocked out, but one cutter saw the blast and came charging to the rescue with another, while the third shepherded the rest of the convoy to safe harbor.
The convoy had been short enough, or the civilian captain insufficiently steeped in the need for military emergency drills, that the crew and passengers were stumbling and panicky in their response. Life vests still needed to be handed out, and the limited lifeboats needed to be successfully lowered and filled. Into the chaos stepped four men, not one of them a combat officer. Indeed, they were all four junior Army chaplains, holding the military rank of lieutenant: Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed. The four men must have berthed together, as they suddenly acted as a unit.
Bill Yenne has been writing aviation history for half a century. Sometimes groundbreaking, his books is always informative and entertaining
“America’s Few: Marine Aces of the South Pacific,” by Bill Yenne is his latest. It tells the story of the two dozen US Marine Corps aviators who achieved double digit ace status: ten or more kills.
All spent time in the South Pacific Theater in World War II, fighting in or from the Solomon Islands between October 1942 and May 1944. A few scored kills outside that period (including one who shot down two aircraft during the Korean War). All achieved double-ace status as a result of their exploits in the Solomons or over Rabaul.
The United States suffered its biggest World War II defeat in the Philippines. More US soldiers were captured there than in any other campaign in United States military history. The number of Filipino soldiers surrendered dwarfed the US totals. Despite that, after the surrender of US forces, the war in the Philippines continued in a guerilla struggle.
“War and Resistance in the Philippines, 1942-1944,” by James Kelly Morningstar, documents that struggle. It is the first generally-accessible attempt to place the guerilla struggle in the Philippines in a single, coherent story.
Morningstar starts by describing the Japanese invasion of the Philippines and the conventional struggle that followed. He shows the difficulties faced by Allied forces in the Philippines, both US and Filipino. He captures the tensions between the US and Philippine government. The Philippines were a reluctant colony of the United States, but on a path to independence when Japan invaded. The nascent Philippine Army was still forming and unprepared. US forces were underequipped, despite major commitments of aircraft.
In a 1979 interview Marine Corps General Robert Barrow stated “Amateurs talk about strategy and tactics. Professionals talk about logistics.” History has demonstrated its applicability many times.
“Logistics: The Key To Victory,” by Jeremy Black, is a study of the role logistics played in warfare throughout history. Most prior books on logistics focused on its tactical aspects – how to get supplies where they are needed. Black’s book examines the strategic role of logistics.
Black looks at logistics through a new lens. Often logistics is treated as if it emerged during the Napoleonic Era (the late 18th and early 19th centuries), and is relevant only thereafter. Black starts at the beginning, showing the importance of logistics as civilization emerged. Black demonstrates the dominance of logistics in ancient times, can be captured in two words: campaign season. Ancient warfare was constrained by the availability of food and water, from Ancient Egypt onwards.
Medic! That cry on the battlefield means a soldier is wounded. It also means someone will almost always respond, a normally-unarmed battlefield medic. This is the known and expected outcome of that call. But where did battlefield medicine start and how did evolve?
“Battlefield Medics: How Warfare Changed the History of Medicine,” by Martin King, tells that story. He starts at the origins of battlefield medicine and traces its progress through the present. He also shows its impact on all modern medicine.
The story starts in Ancient Egypt. Pharaoh’s armies had an organized medical service. The treatments of the day were limited to first aid, herbal medicine, and a lot of prayer. Surgery was rarely attempted. Dissection lay in the future.
Today is the 246th Birthday of the United States Army. On June 14th, 1775, the Second Continental Congress passed the following:
“Resolved, That six companies of expert riflemen, be immediately raised in Pennsylvania, two in Maryland, and two in Virginia… [and] as soon as completed, shall march and join the army near Boston, to be there employed as light infantry, under the command of the chief Officer in that army.” (here)
Thomas S. Power, the Strategic Air Command’s leader in the late 1950s and early 1960s was easily caricatured. The ultimate bomber baron, he was routinely mocked as a warmonger. Dr. Strangelove’s General Buck Turgidson was a parody of Power. After retirement, to ease the path of the fighter mafia in taking control of the Air Force, its establishment tacitly supported criticism of Power.
“To Rule the Skies: General Thomas S. Power and the Rise of the Strategic Air Command in the Cold War,” by Brent D. Ziarnick is a new biography of Power. It provides a more balanced view of Power’s life and his contributions to the Strategic Air Command and to peace. In it Ziarnick overturns many conventional wisdom myths about Power.
Power came from an immigrant family in New York City. Ziarnick traces Power from these origins to his eventual rise to command. Power never attended college, and may not have graduated high school. He scrabbled his way into the Army Air Corps studying to be a flying cadet at night, working construction during the day.
One of the most storied commanders of World War II was German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. A hero in his own country he was Britain’s most admired enemy during that war. He gained much of his reputation while commanding the Afrika Korps against the British in Egypt. Rommel claimed his success was due to his ability to think like his opposite number, putting himself inside the mind of his opponent. It turned out Rommel was not reading his enemy’s mind. He was reading his mail.
“War of Shadows: Codebreakers, Spies, and the Secret Struggle to Drive the Nazis from the Middle East,” by Gershom Gorenberg, examines espionage and signal intelligence during the 1940-42 African campaigns.
Gorenberg takes a fresh look at World War II in Africa using previously unpublished memoirs and interviews of surviving participants (some made years ago, saved and archived) and recently declassified war records. Many records, especially those relating to wartime espionage and signal intelligence remained classified into the opening years of the twenty-first century.
Why do men fight, and why are willing they willing to continue to fight to the last man, preferring death to surrender? T. E. Lawrence’s said men go to war “because the women were watching.” According to Michael Walsh, in his new book, Lawrence’s answer holds more truth than irony. Men fight for their families.
“Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All is Lost,” by Michael Walsh, investigates the last man phenomena. It explores why men fight, and why they are willing to continue fighting even when they know they will lose.
Walsh examines history through the lens of combat, starting with the Ancient Greek Battle of Thermopylae and continuing through the Marine retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in the Twentieth Century. In thirteen chapters he explores sixteen last-stand battles. Some, including Thermopylae, Masada, and the Alamo, the defenders lost and dying almost to the last man. In others, like Rorke’s Drift and the Battle of Pavlov’s House at Stalingrad, defenders triumphed against terrible odds.
As the war turned against them in World War II, Japan tried a new tactic: the kamikaze. Pilots used their aircraft as one-way bombs against Allied warships and transports. The campaign started during the invasion of the Philippines in October 1944 and continued until the last day of the war.
“Rain of Steel: Mitscher’s Task Force 58, Ukagi’s Thunder Gods and the Kamikaze War off Okinawa,” by Stephen L. Moore, examines the most intense phase of the kamikaze campaign, that fought during the Allied invasion of Okinawa.
Moore touches on the whole of the kamikaze effort. He looks at its origins, how the Japanese developed it, and their kamikaze attacks prior to and after the conquest of Okinawa. He also examines the US reaction to the campaign, including the tactics developed to counter the kamikazes. The meat of the book is the fighting off Okinawa, however.
Professor Paul Rahe, of Hillsdale College, is writing a multi-volume study of Sparta’s grand strategy during the Fifth Century BC. The first book “The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge” looked at Sparta during the Persian War.
“Sparta’s Second Attic War: The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, 446-418 B. C,” by Paul A. Rahe continues his study of the Peloponnesian Wars. The third volume in the series, it examines the second phase of the war between Sparta and Athens, fought between 431 and 421 BC.
The book picks up where his previous volume, Sparta’s First Attic War leaves off, in 446 BC. It covers more than the active phases of the war. Rahe examines the build-up to the active war and its immediate aftermath, including Sparta’s victorious war with Argos and her allies in 418 BC.