The Cost of a Propaganda Coup

Today is one of those days in American history where a lot of interesting things happened. It is the start of Paul Revere’s ride, the commencement of the bombardment of New Orleans in 1862.  The SF Earthquake of 1906 happened today, as did the Doolittle Raid, the Yamamoto Assassination, the 1986 naval skirmish between the U.S. and the Libyans. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.

The Doolittle Raid will probably be the most remembered of today’s many anniversaries. On April 18, 1942, sixteen B-25 bombers took off from the USS Hornet and attacked targets in and around Tokyo. The planes flew on to China (one crew made it to Soviet territory), but were all lost in crash landings or the crews bailed out. To the United States populace, starved for any glimmer of good news, the daring raid was a huge lift to national morale. To the Japanese, it was a tremendous shock to discover they were vulnerable to air attack. Their response was to push forward with the Midway plan–and exact revenge on the Chinese.

Most books and articles written about the Raid don’t talk about that latter reaction. Passing mention is made to the fact of the Japanese retribution in China and how most of the airfields the planes were to use were overrun by Imperial Army troops. The truth is that the Chinese paid dearly for America’s propaganda victory.

In the wake of the attacks, Japanese troops destroyed entire cities–one of more than 50,000 people. They killed, raped and tortured hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians before unleashing bacteriological agents created by Unit 731 upon the surviving population.As a result, cholera and other diseases claimed countless others in the wake of the retribution attacks.

So, today, I want to honor those victims and use my little spot on the web to remind all of us that, while China may be an American economic rival now, our histories are interconnected. The loss of the FilAmerican Army on Bataan was keenly felt in America that April. The Doolittle Raid gave us hope that we could strike back and fight what seemed to many an unstoppable Imperial power. And yet, far more died in China as a result than were captured in the Philippines. Those who so courageously helped our aviators once they were on the ground paid a terrible price. One Chinese civilian was tied up, doused with kerosene and his wife was forced to light him on fire.

For freedom and peace to flourish, those who seek to institutionalize cruelty, who seek to justify barbarism with ideology, must be stopped. World War II taught us that only nations who stand together, put aside their differences and their own faults, can stem that terrible tide. It is a lesson that I wish all our world leaders would remember and take to heart.

For further reading, please check out:

And Scott’s brand new book can be found here:

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Jordan’s Warriors


Jordanian check point, Logar Province, Afghanistan. September 2010.


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Without Norway, No Normandy: The Hidden Role the Norwegians Played in WWII

North Atlantic079This week, Bloomberg News reported that the new Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, was in Washington D.C. for meetings and asked the White House for some time with the President while he was here. According to reports, the White House staff did not even respond. This broke with a long standing tradition that when the Secretary General of NATO was in D.C., the President always made time to see him. Full article is here:

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Norwegian Resistance fighters played a well-known role in stopping the Nazi atomic bomb program by destroying the only available heavy water and heavy water production facility available to the Germans. Those attacks, carried out with help from the British SOE, are considered the most effective guerrilla operations in Western Europe during WWII.

At this perilous moment in history, with so many challenges facing our brothers and sisters in Europe, it is important to remember the historical bonds our nations have forged in the defense of common principles. It is also important for Americans to remember that the contributions made by every nation, especially during WWII, all played important roles in the ultimate victory that restored peace to Europe for a generation.

Jen Stoltenberg is Norwegian. He served as Prime Minister and as the head of the Labor Party, as well as in many other positions since his election to Parliament in the early 1990s. Today’s post is an homage to the Secretary General’s nation and its vital (if virtually unknown) contribution to the victory in Europe during WWII. I


The Ships that Saved the Cause

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In the spring of 1940, as Norway succumbed to the German onslaught, the Royal Navy evacuated King Haakon VII and much of his government’s senior leadership. The fight would continue, despite the conquest of their homeland. Setting up in London, the Norwegian government-in-exile possessed an ace-in-the-hole that soon played a crucial role in the ultimate defeat of the Third Reich.

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In 1939, though Norway’s population barely topped three million people, the country boosted the world’s fourth largest merchant marine force.  With a thousand, modern vessels, the Norwegians could haul more cargo than just about anyone else on the planet. Want oil moved across the Atlantic? Call the Norwegians. Their fleet included a whopping twenty percent of all tankers on the planet in 1939. The Norwegians were the masters of the seafaring arteries between Europe and the rest of the world.7655 atlantic convoy bound for sicily (1 of 1)

North Atlantic054Despite the German invasion and the Luftwaffe’s depredations, the fleet survived virtually intact. When King Haakon reached London, he delivered the 4.8 million ton Norwegian merchant marine to the Allied cause. This was manna from heaven for Great Britain, whose survival soon depended on these ships. By 1942, forty percent of Britain’s oil rode to the Home Islands aboard Norwegian tankers. Without their contribution, England would surely have been doomed, but the Norwegian crews never received credit for this crucial component to the Allied victory.

The price paid to keep Britain in the war was a steep one. Fully half of the Norwegian merchant fleet was destroyed by U-boats, mines and the Luftwaffe. These five hundred ships took three thousand unheralded, heroic men down with them.North Atlantic194

Though the German conquest of Norway seemed at the time to be a tremendous victory, there was a hidden dimension the Third Reich never envisioned. The Nazi invasion in the north ultimately delivered to the British the very means of their salvation.


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Photo of the Day

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A Red Air Force SB-2 light bomber lies in a field near Vitebesk on July 8, 1941. The brave crew faced daunting odds in trying to attack the advancing German Army in skies controlled by the Luftwaffe.


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Photo of the Day: The Shepherds of the Arctic Sea

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Two Royal Navy escort carriers, HMS Emperor and HMS Strike pitch in the heavy swells of the Arctic Sea during a convoy escort operation to the Soviet Union. An RN destroyer can be seen at right, providing the carriers with an anti-submarine screen.


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Joint Attack

US Army WWII Series M3 Stuart light tanks support Biritsh Army infantry Tunisia prolly 1943-1

Two American M3 Stuart light tanks support a company of British infantry during the fighting in Tunisia in early 1943.


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The Franco-American Air Connection

WWI Series USAAS Spad XIII with multiple sqn emblems 1918 (1 of 1)

By the fall of 1918, most of the U.S. combat fighter squadrons flew the French-made Spad XIII in battle.

In 1917, when the United States entered the Great War, the Army Air Service was a tiny, primitive and incapable force. In the span of a year, the AAS went from backwards and poorly equipped to a state of the art, modern organization that went toe to toe with the best aviators and aircraft in the world during the final months of the war. That incredible transformation only happened because of massive French assistance. The French helped train American aviators, provided advisors and equipped most of the USAAS squadrons that saw combat on the Western Front. That free-flow of knowledge, experience and material support laid the foundations for American air power.

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French Nieuport 17’s trained America’s first generation of fighter pilots.

In the early 1930’s, French military aviation was considered to be the most advanced in the world. But in the span of about five years, all that changed. The Great Depression hammered budgets, and poor policy decisions on the part of the French government played havoc with the French aircraft industry. Production rates plummeted. Suppliers and contractors to the major aviation companies went out of business. Construction techniques became outdated, and factories were not modernized.



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French ground crews re-arm an American-built Hawk 75.


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A French naval air force ceremony in front of an American-made Consolidated PBY Catalina.

As the threat from Nazi Germany grew, the French made a furious effort to modernize and catch up in 38-39 after watching many nations surpass their once great L’Armee De L’Air. While the nation initiated a crash effort to modernize and increase production of a new and formidable generation of aircraft, including the LEO 451 and the D.520, France turned to the United States to help fill the gap. American firms began churning out aircraft for the L’Armee de L’Air, including the Curtiss Hawk 75, the Martin 167 Maryland bomber, and the Douglas DB-7 (A-20 Havoc). The Hawk 75’s and Martin 167’s saw combat in 1940 with the French, but most of the DB-7’s ended up with the RAF after the Fall of France.

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A French Martin B-26 Marauder. Several medium bomb squadrons flew these in both the MTO and ETO.

In 1942, the U.S. began supplying the Free French with a whole new generation of fighters and bombers. French squadrons went into combat in the MTO and ETO in American-made Martin B-26 Marauders, Bell P-39 Airacobras and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts.

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French ground crews working on a P-47 Thunderbolt during the winter of ’44-45.

After the war, as the French sought to rebuild their military as the Cold War intensified, American designs once again played a crucial role in the L’Armee de L’Air until France’s aviation industry could get back on its feet. American F8F Bearcats, B-26 Invaders and jets such as the F-84 carried the French cockade through the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. That support helped establish  post-war French air power.

In the years since, French and American combat aviators have served alongside each other over Iraq, over Serbia and Afghanistan, carrying the hundred year aerial alliance into a new century against new and pernicious threats. I was fortunate to see the French in action while I was in Afghanistan in 2010. I remember watching two of their Eurofighters take off from Kandahar and thinking, The spirits of all those Spad and Thunderbolt pilots rides on their shoulders.


The birth of America's bomber force was greatly assisted by the French. Here, a Breuget 14 serves with one of the first bomber squadrons to see service with the USAAS.

The birth of America’s bomber force was greatly assisted by the French. Here, a Breuget 14 serves with one of the first bomber squadrons to see service with the USAAS.

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The Bond

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French refugees pass a wrecked German panzer jaeger Marder II as they flee the fighting in Normandy in the summer of 1944.

The American experience of World War II is inextricably linked to the experience of the French. From the outset of the war, when the United States provided aircraft and arms to France through the raising and

Free French Moroccan infantry in Siena, Italy on July 3, 1944.

Free French Moroccan infantry in Siena, Italy on July 3, 1944.

equipping of the Free French Army, to the shared moments on battlefields from the Bocage country to the Colmar Pocket, the people of the United States and France built a common history and heritage together. And in that adversity rose a bond that exists in few other places between few other people. These photos show, in microcosm, how that bond was cemented.








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A U.S. tanker with a group of parentless French children at a Displaced Persons center in Hoyen, France on September 18, 1944.


A French Foreign Legion communications team during an amphibious assault exercise in North Africa, spring 1943.


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Liberation Day in a French town, care of the 45th Infantry Division. September 1944.


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American medics from the 79th Infantry Division frantically work to save the life of a French woman who had just stepped on a German anti-tank mine. The blast severed both of her legs. Normandy, July 8, 1944.


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American Soldiers from the 79th Infantry Division receive wine from French civilians during a lull in the fighting around Drusenheim, France on January 6, 1945.

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American medics gingerly evacuate a badly wounded French boy on August 2, 1944. He was hiding in a barn when the Germans set fire to it. He escaped with critical burns, but was found by advancing American troops and immediately MEDEVAC’d to the nearest aid station.


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The 2nd Free French Armored Division

The 2nd Free French Armored Division comes ashore at Utah Beach.

The 2nd Free French Armored Division comes ashore at Utah Beach.

Perhaps no French unit achieved the level of fame during World War II that the 2nd Free French Armored Division did. Formed from about 15,000 men from different Free French units that had been fighting in North Africa since 1940, the 2nd included some 3,600 Colonial troops, primarily Moroccans and Algerians, along with a contingent of Spanish Republican volunteers. The rest of the division was drawn from French troops and citizens who had escaped France proper during the German invasion, or who had been out of the nation when the 3rd Republic sued for peace in June 1940.

Organized and equipped like a U.S. Army armored division, the 2nd included three tank regiments, a tank destroyer regiment and three mechanized infantry regiments, along with engineers, artillery, truck and logistical support units. The division employed M4 Sherman tanks, American halftracks, M8 75mm motor gun carriages and other American vehicles. The Soldiers were equipped with standard U.S. Army gear, including M1 rifles, M1919 light machine guns, etc.

The division rejoined the fight in July 1944 when it landed at Utah Beach. The 2nd was thrown straight into the fray and ended up in the middle of the Falaise Pocket battle, forming the crucial hinge between Canadian and American units. During the fighting that August, the French tankers and armored infantry all but destroyed the remnants of the German 9th Panzer Division, knocking out over a hundred armored vehicles and taking almost nine thousand prisoners. But by the end of the battle, the 2nd had paid a steep price–about a thousand killed, wounded and missing.

Another shot of the division's M4 Shermans coming ashore  at Utah.

Another shot of the division’s M4 Shermans coming ashore at Utah.

At the end of the month, General Philippe LeClerc, the divisional commander, was ordered to drive on Paris with the U.S. 4th Infantry DIvision. What followed was the unit’s most lasting moment. Fighting side by side with American troops, the Free French could sense their hour of redemption was at hand. They fought like banshees, pushing toward their capital with impassioned fury, taking heavy losses at times. Some five hundred more men from the 2nd were killed and wounded, but the division forced its way into Paris and accepted the German surrender. The moment triggered a national catharsis, with French citizens celebrating in the streets and showering the Allied troops with tokens of their appreciation. France’s national honor had been restored, but much fighting lay ahead.

The 2nd pushed on East, destroying the 112th Panzer Brigade the following month in a chaotic battle at Dompaire. They liberated parts of the Vosges Mountains and wrested Strasbourg from German control at the end of November 1944 in daring actions that later led the division to be awarded an American Presidential Unit Citation. During this phase of its combat career, the 2nd fell under the U.S. Army’s  XV Corps.

Paris, August 26, 1944. The 2nd Free French Armored DIvision's most famous hour.

Paris, August 26, 1944. The 2nd Free French Armored DIvision’s most famous hour.

An M10 Wolverine tank destroyer from the Régiment Blindé de Fusiliers Marins, 2nd Free French Armored Division, outside Halloville, France on November 13, 1944.

After Strasbourg, the 2nd was shifted west to clear out German pocket of resistance along the coast, but it was transferred back to the main front in April 1945 in time to strike deep into the heart of the 3rd Reich. Soldiers of the 2nd were among the first Allied troops to reach Hitler’s Eagles Nest, and ended the war in Bavaria.

From July 1944 through May 1945, the division suffered about six thousand casualties out of approximately 15,000 men. It was deactivated in 1946 after serving France and the cause of Freedom with great and courageous distinction.


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Where a Generation Gave its Soul

Aerial view of Verdun, 1916.

Aerial view of Verdun, 1916.

In February 1916, the German Army unleashed a surprise offensive against the French defenders in the Verdun sector of the Western Front. Verdun was one of the fortress cities built by the French after the 1871 war. In the rolling hills around the town, a series of reinforced concrete and underground forts had been built. Heavily protected, extremely well armed with such innovations as retracting gun turrets, the Verdun forts were supposed to break up any German offensive, or at least stall it long enough for the army to counter-attack.

French military aviation came of age at Verdun, and the fighting there produced such fighter legends as Jean Navarre and Charles Guynemer.

But after the Germans took out the Belgian forts at Liege so quickly in 1914, the French Army assumed the day of the massive concrete fort had come and gone. Now, thanks to modern heavy artillery, almost any defensive structure could be pummeled to ruins before any troops had to be sent in to occupy it. As a result of that conclusion, the French stripped the forts around Verdun, sending the garrisons and much of the artillery into the front lines elsewhere on the Western Front.

Nevertheless, the forts remained a source of considerable national pride, something that the Germans were counting on that February. The idea behind the German offensive was not necessarily to capture ground, but rather to force the French Army to defend a region considered vital to France’s national morale. If the vaunted impregnable fortress Verdun could fall, how could the Germans be stopped? So, the Germans counted on the French throwing everything they could spare into the defense of Verdun, and when they did, they would bleed the Gaulic army white with massed artillery bombardments, gas attacks and limited infantry assaults, heavily supported by machine guns and the new flamethrowers just arriving in the front line German units.

That was the rational anyway.

The German offensive began with one of the most intense artillery barrages in human history. The French front lines were almost totally destroyed by the shelling, and the initial waves of German infantry pushed deep into French territory. But as the French Army reacted and threw in reinforcements, the lines gradually hardened again. Repeated French counter-attacks slowed the Germans, but came at such a cost that some divisions lasted only a few days in the battle before they had to be pulled out and reformed. Losses ran over sixty percent in those units, and in others, entire companies were swallowed up in the inferno.

The Morte Homme, a small hill and ridge that was the scene of heavy fighting, became one of the symbolic points of  French resistance at Verdun.

The Morte Homme, a small hill and ridge that was the scene of heavy fighting, became one of the symbolic points of French resistance at Verdun.

The Germans scored a huge propaganda victory when a small group of their soldiers captured the most modern of the Verdun Forts, Douaumont, by a coup de main. The truth was, there was only a tiny French garrison left inside the fort, and once the Germans found a way inside, the place was doomed to fall. But, lesson learned. After that, the French Army resupplied and reinforced the remaining forts.

The offensive continued with both sides throwing fresh troops into the fray. The battle became less about the ground and more about the spirit and resolve of each nation. Both sides and staked their prestige and national pride on the outcome, though ultimately Verdun had much more importance in the French psyche than the German. Ultimately, an offensive designed with one objective: kill as many French soldiers as possible, became a test of national will.

The French committed an entire generation of its young men to the defense of Verdun. Well over half of the French Army passed through the salient during the 1916 campaign, and more than any other WWI battle, it left an indelible mark on France’s soldiers. They fought in mud and water-filled trenches and shell craters, living among the rotting remains of the dead. Scavengers–birds, rats, feral dogs–fed off those remains in No Man’s Land, and veterans later wrote how the corpses splayed between the lines would sometimes twitch and jerk as animals ate them from the inside out.


Battered Douaumont.

Battered Douaumont.

The medical logistical system never kept pace with the flow of wounded. Men writhed for hours, sometimes days unattended where they fell as they waited for stretcher bearers to come relieve their suffering. But even then, they faced hours of travel to the nearest aid station, where the wounded were laid out often without protection from the elements as overwhelmed surgeons did what they could. Gas gangrene, infection, pneumonia and shock claimed countless victims. Those who survived were scarred forever by the sights, smells and sounds of those facilities.




As Verdun became a carnival of horrors, the vitality of the French Army was pulverized in its killing grounds. And yet, the French troops continued to fight with near suicidal determination. In July, 1916, the Germans surrounded Fort Vaux, one of the last of the remaining fixed emplacements defending Verdun. For a week, Fort Vaux’s defenders held out against staggering odds. They fought the Germans corridor to corridor in  darkened, underground passageways. The Germans used gas, bayonets and grenades to clear the fort gallery by gallery. The dead stacked up, and the French survivors took to drinking their own urine to slake their thirst after the Germans captured Vaux’s water supply. When the fort’s commander, Colonel Raynal, finally surrendered his battered force after a week of furious fighting, the Germans were so taken by his stout defense that they allowed him to carry his sword into captivity.

Aerial view of Fort Vaux and the thousands of shell craters that pockmarked the terrain around it.

Aerial view of Fort Vaux and the thousands of shell craters that pockmarked the terrain around it.

By late summer, the German offensives had played out, and they could not devote anymore troops to the Verdun Sector as a result of the British offensive along the Somme River. The French mustered their reserves and wrested the initiative from the Germans with a series of bold attacks that recaptured almost all the ground lost earlier in the year. The French had won the Battle of Verdun, but it had cost them the soul of a generation. Men, no matter how motivated, well-trained and patriotic, will always have a breaking point, and the brutal losses and psychological trauma of Verdun pushed the French Army to the breaking point. After a failed offensive in April 1917, much of the French Army mutinied in their trenches. Order was restored by June, thanks to Marshal Petain, but the French Army would never be the same again.

To understand the French Army of World War II, Indo-China and Algeria, one first has to understand the impact Verdun had on the nation and its fighting men. They’d saved the Republic, but mortgaged the future to do it. And the land around Verdun reflected the damage done to the nation. Endless fields of shell craters, one atop the other, still bear silent testimony to the ferocity of the artillery bombardments. The shelling destroyed much of the top soil, and for years little would grow on those battlefields. It took a national reforestation program to change that.

Farmers still encounter human remains. Some are taken to the Ossuary at Verdun, where visitors can see through glass windows the bones of thousands of unknown soldiers–French, German and (later in 1918) American. I was there in 1984 and peered in through the glass. The sight changed my own life forever.

Something like 550,000 French Soldiers are known to have been killed or wounded, or went missing during the Battle of Verdun. The Germans lost at least 430,000. About eight million French males served in the army between 1914-18. Of those, almost 1.4 million were killed, and 4.2 million wounded severely. It has been estimated that 90% of all French men between the ages of 18 and 24 either died during the war, or came home with debilitating physical wounds.

A generation lost to the defense of a nation. America has never known such a complete and devastating sacrifice. Here is to hoping we never will.

If you read one book about World War I, read Alistar Horne’s treatment of Verdun called, The Price of Glory. It is one of the great works of military history. Find it here:




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