The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

The mathematician who saved hundreds of flight crews

Abraham Wald, a Jewish mathematician, was driven out of Romania and Europe by the Nazi advance and emigrated to the U.S. where he would serve in the Statistical Research Group, a bunch of egg heads who used math to make the military better at everything from firing rockets to shooting down enemy fighters. And Wald was the one who convinced the Navy that they were about to armor the completely wrong parts of their planes, saving hundreds of flight crews in the process.


Abraham Wald, a mathematician who helped save hundreds of air crews by writing brainiac papers.

(Mathematisches Forschungsinstitut Oberwolfach, CC BY-SA 2.0)

To understand how Wald, sitting in New York for most of the war, saved so many lives, it’s important to understand what role academics and subject matter experts had in the war. The U.S. and Britain especially, but really all the great wartime powers, put some stock in the ability of their academics to solve tricky problems and make warfighters more efficient, more lethal, or more safe.

Some of this was having physicists and engineers create better weapons, like how the Applied Physics Laboratory was created to develop proximity fuses that made artillery and anti-aircraft weapons more effective. Some of this was having mathematicians figure out the best mix of rounds to load into machine guns of different types for the gunners to more quickly kill their targets. One great example is all the physicists and other scientists who worked on atom bombs.

But Wald was a statistician, and his job was to look at wartime processes and figure out how they could be improved. Wald was still, technically, an enemy alien, so he had an odd setup at the Statistical Research Group.

Planes hit in the fuel supply and engines often didn’t make it back to base, throwing off Navy and Army Air Corps data.

(U.S. Air Force)

As Jordan Ellenberg wrote in How Not To Be Wrong, there was a running joke in the SRG that Wald’s secretaries had to rip notepaper out of his hands as soon as he finished writing on it because he didn’t have the clearance to read his own work.

But Wald was an amazing mathematician, and it’s not like he was the type of Hungarian who might harbor sympathies for Hitler. Remember, he had fled Austria because Hitler would have had him killed, same as Albert Einstein and plenty of others. So, Wald used math to try to help the Allies kill the Axis, and he was in the SRG when the Navy came to them with a seemingly straightforward problem.

The Navy, and the Army Air Corps, was losing a lot of planes and crews to enemy fire. So, the Navy modeled where its planes showed the most bullet holes per square foot. Its officers reasoned that adding armor to these places would stop more bullets with the limited amount of armor they could add to each plane. They wanted the SRG to figure out the best balance of armor in each often-hit location.

(Adding armor adds weight, and planes can only takeoff with a certain amount of weight that needs to be balanced between plane and crew, ammo, fuel, and armor. Add too much armor, and you have a super safe bomber that can’t carry any bombs.)

While doomed planes did, sometimes, manage to land, they were usually lost at sea or in enemy territory. Abraham Wald successfully argued that the military should estimate where they were hit when determining what parts of planes they should armor.

(U.S. Navy)

But Wald picked out a flaw in their dataset that had eluded most others, a flaw that’s now known as “survivor bias.” The Navy and, really anyone else in the war, could typically only study the aircraft, vehicles, and men who survived a battle. After all, if a plane is shot down over the target, it lands on or near the target in territory the enemy controls. If it goes down while headed back to a carrier or island base, it will be lost at sea.

So the only planes the Navy was looking at were the ones that had landed back at ship or base. So, these weren’t examples of where planes were most commonly hit; they were examples of where planes could be hit and keep flying, because the crew and vital components had survived the bullet strikes.

Now, a lot of popular history says that Wald told the Navy to armor the opposite areas (or, told the Army Air Corps to armor the opposite areas, depending on which legend you see). But he didn’t, actually. What he did do was figure out a highly technical way to estimate where downed planes had been hit, and then he used that data to figure out how likely a hit to any given area was to down a plane.

What he found was that the Navy wanted to armor the least vulnerable parts of the plane. Basically, the Navy wasn’t seeing many hits to the engine and fuel supply, so the Navy officers decided those areas didn’t need as much protection. But Wald’s work found that those were the most vulnerable areas.

And that makes sense. After all, if you start leaking gas while still far from home, you likely won’t make it home. Have an engine destroyed even a few miles from home, and you likely won’t make it home. So the military took Wald’s work and applied armor to the areas he had defined as most vulnerable, primarily the engines, instead of putting armor on the areas with the most observed hits. And, guess what? Planes started surviving more hits.

Now, it didn’t win the war on its own, of course. Just like giving the Navy proximity fuses to make gunners more effective against enemy planes didn’t stop every Japanese dive bomber or Kamikaze attack, the armor didn’t save every plane and crew.

But winning a war isn’t about winning every engagement. It’s about paying less than you are willing to pay for victory and suffering less than you’re willing to suffer for each defeat. If you can do that, you’ll eventually win.

And Wald had driven down the price of success and the likelihood of failure for airplanes. Ironically, he died five years after the war in a plane crash, robbing us of his expertise in Korea and Vietnam, though his papers written during World War II continued to influence military decisions for decades.

MIGHTY TRENDING

Why the LEGION Act is a big deal for veterans

In July 2019, President Trump signed into law the Let Everyone Get Involved in Opportunities for National Service Act – the LEGION Act. In brief, the legislation says the United States has been in a period of constant warfare since Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese Empire bombed Pearl Harbor and brought the United States into World War II.


What this means for other areas of the law is up for other people to debate. What this means for veterans is that servicemen and women who were killed or wounded in previously undeclared periods of war are now eligible for expanded benefits.

The most apparent benefit of the new LEGION Act legislation is that now every veteran who served since the bombing of Pearl Harbor is eligible to join the American Legion. This will affect some 1,600 veterans who were killed or wounded during their service, which just so happened to be during a previously undeclared period of global conflict. The American Legion says this act honors their service and sacrifice.

“This new law honors the memories of those veterans while allowing other veterans from those previously undeclared eras to receive all the American Legion benefits they have earned through their service,” said American Legion National Judge Advocate Kevin Bartlett.

This also means the eligibility window will run until the U.S. is no longer at war, which – historically speaking – may never happen.

The war in Afghanistan alone has outlasted two uniform designs.

Veterans with an interest in joining the American Legion still need to meet the other requirements of membership, such as having an honorable discharge. Joining the Legion means more than finding cheap drinks at the local post. The American Legion is not only a club for veterans, it’s also a powerful lobby in Congress and offers its membership benefits like temporary financial assistance, scholarship eligibility, and even help in getting VA disability claims through the system.

By expanding its network to include thousands of new veterans, the American Legion is better able to leverage its membership with members of Congress as well as state and local elected officials and legislative bodies – after all, it was the American Legion who drafted the first GI Bill legislation and helped to create the Department of Veterans Affairs.

So feel free to stop by for more than just a cheap beer.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This Nazi officer risked his life to save an American soldier

It may surprise amateur historians to discover that wars can take a humanitarian turn. There are many, many recorded instances of exceptional displays of humanity, even during the most brutal fighting. Considering the Nazis’ monstrous reputation, it would surprise many others to discover that kind of kindness among the German officers in World War II.

Even in the Wehrmacht’s most desperate days, there were some among them who retained their humanity in the middle of one of the world’s deadliest conflicts. In the Hürtgen War Cemetery in Hürtgen, Germany, you’ll find a small monument to one of these brave souls.


“No man hath greater love than he who layeth down his life for his enemy.”

As the Allies pressed their post-Normandy advantage against the Nazis in Europe, they began to outrun their supply lines. Unfortunately, the men and materiel required to bring down the Nazi regime weren’t as fast at replacing the men and materiel who were actively taking down the regime. The Allies were forced to slow down and, in some places, pause as their supplies caught up to their breakneck drive toward Germany.

This lull gave the Germans time to regroup and rest.

The worst was yet to come.

Before the Allies could enter Germany, there were a few things they had to consider. They had to cross the Rhine, the city Aachen was under siege and refused to surrender, and the Allies were afraid the Germans would destroy the Ruhr Dam. To avoid this, the Allies needed to enter the dense woods that lay between the city and the dam and do it before the Germans thought to blow the dam.

During the relatively brief lull in the fighting, the Germans made good use of the Hürtgen Forest. Its hills and ravines were loaded with minefields, booby traps, barbed wire, and anything else they could think of that might halt the Allied advance or end it entirely. What’s more, deep inside the woods were the overgrown and abandoned remains of the concrete Siegfried Line. The advantage in numbers and air superiority the Allied troops enjoyed would be completely negated by the forest. The dark woods were now almost impenetrable, and the Allies were walking into it.

This is not the place you want to assault.

For four months, the Allies sent men into the German-held meat grinder trying to dislodge the Nazis. Among the Germans trying to keep the Americans out was a Lt. Friedrich Lengfeld. Lengfeld was a young officer who had just taken command of his unit in November 1944, after his commander was killed in combat. He and his men were holed up in a lodge of some kind, sheltering themselves from the elements and trying to stave off their hunger. Next to their shelter was a minefield known as the Wilde Sau.

An American attack pushed Lengfeld’s Germans from their shelter, but his men quickly counterattacked and retook it the day after. The U.S. troops scrambled out so fast that one of them walked right into the Wilde Sau and immediately stepped on a mine. The man survived and began calling for help.

None came. And to this day, no one knows who the wounded American was.

This road once bisected the Wilde Sau minefield.

Lieutenant Lengfeld ordered his troops that no one was to fire at any Americans who would come for the man. Hours passed, the man begged anyone within earshot to help him. But no one came. The man cried for his compatriots the entire time, but still, no one came to his aid. Lengfeld decided he would help, and took a team of his medics along a road that led to the minefield. He was determined to help the man, but while his team had placed anti-tank mines along the road, he did not know the location of anti-personnel mines. Lengfeld stepped on one immediately, shredding his back. He would die later that night.

In 1994, a monument was erected at the Hürtgen Forest Cemetery, bearing the name and wartime deeds of Lt. Friedrich Lengfeld. It read:

Here in Huertgen Forest on November 12, 1944,
Lt. Lengfeld, a German officer, gave his life
while trying to save the life of an American
soldier lying severely wounded in the “Wilde
Sau” minefield and appealing for medical aid.

The monument was placed there by the American members of the 22nd Infantry Regiment to honor Lt. Lengfeld.

MIGHTY TRENDING

Japan’s first woman fighter pilot was inspired by ‘Top Gun’

When Misa Matsushima joined the Japan Air Self Defense Force, she was one of 13,707 women service members who made up just 6.1% of all Japanese troops.

Four years later, now 1st Lt. Matsushima is in even more rarified air: The 26-year-old was named as Japan’s first female fighter pilot on Aug 24, 2018.


For Matsushima, the achievement was inspired by the movie that made the fighter jock a mainstream figure.

“Ever since I saw the movie ‘Top Gun’ when I was in primary school, I have always admired fighter jet pilots,” Matsushima told reporters on Aug 23, 2018.

“As the first female (fighter) pilot, I will open the way. I would like work hard to meet people’s expectations and show my gratitude to people who have been supporting me,” she added. “I want to become a full-fledged pilot, no different from men, as soon as possible.”

1st. Lt. Misashi Matsushima, the first woman fighter pilot in Japan’s Air Self Defense Force.

(Japan Air Self Defense Force / Twitter)

Originally from Yokohama in eastern Japan, Matsushima graduated from the National Defense Academy in 2014. After that she got her pilot’s license and moved to fighter-pilot training with the JASDF.

Matsushima completed the fighter-pilot course alongside five men and is expected to start flying F-15s in six months to a year. The F-15J that the JASDF flies is a twin-engine fighter designed for air-to-air combat. It can hit a top speed of Mach 2.5 — nearly 2,000 mph.

She has to undergo further training to qualify to scramble the jet to intercept aircraft that enter Japanese airspace. She will be stationed at Nyutabaru air base on the eastern coast of Kyushu, the southern most of Japan’s four main islands.

Her appointment comes amid a broader move toward gender equality in Japan’s armed forces, which are also trying to grow their ranks.

Japan’s Air Self Defense Force opened many of its positions to women in 1993, but they were still barred from fighter and reconnaissance aircraft until 2015, when the prohibition was lifted as part of an effort to increase the number of women in the service. Matsushima had planned to fly transport planes before the restriction was lifted.

1st. Lt. Misashi Matsushima, the first woman fighter pilot in Japan’s Air Self Defense Force.

(Japan Air Self Defense Force / Twitter)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged in 2013 to empower more women to join the workforce, a landmark move for a leader in a society that has long been male-dominated.

Spring 2018, Japan’s Defense Ministry began several initiatives to boost the number of women in the military from the current 6.1% of the 228,000-strong force to 9% by 2030. Women are 16% of the US’s military’s roughly 1.29 million enlisted personnel.

Other women have achieved similar feats. Ryoko Azuma became the first woman to command a warship squadron in early 2018, a decade after Tokyo lifted a ban on women serving on warships. Women are still barred from submarines.

But Japan remains profoundly unequal for women. The country slid three spots in the World Economic Forum’s global gender-equality rankings for 2017, falling from 111 to 114 out of 144 countries. That drop was driven largely by the low proportion of women lawmakers and Cabinet ministers.

Matsushima’s accomplishment comes amid a broader push by the hawkish Abe government to grow the military. The Defense Ministry said in early August 2018 that it would raise the maximum age for military recruits form 26 to 32 to expand the pool of potential soldiers that has shrunk due to the country’s low birth rates and aging population.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.

MIGHTY TRENDING

Constant B-52 flights rattle China in disputed waters

The US military has stepped up to regularly challenge Beijing’s dominance in the South China Sea and has achieved one of its main missions — controlling the narrative — with the help of B-52 nuclear-capable bombers.

For years, Beijing has laid unilateral and illegal claims to about 90% of the South China Sea, a rich shipping lane where trillions of dollars in annual trade pass and untold billions in oil resources lie.

Through environmentally damaging dredging, China built up island fortresses around the waterway.


Chinese President Xi Jinping stood next to former President Barack Obama in the White House’s Rose Garden and promised not to militarize the islands. But China has flown its own nuclear bombers, fighter jets, and other military aviation to the artificial land features that now hold radar and missile sites.

The US’s main way of challenging China’s claims to these waters have been freedom of navigation operations, or sailing a US Navy destroyer close to the islands to show that its military doesn’t respect Beijing’s claims, as they violate international law.

“US military aircraft, you have violated our China sovereignty and infringed on our security and our rights. You need to leave immediately and keep far out,” a recent Chinese warning blared to the US, according to The New York Times.

A B-52H Stratofortress.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Brittany Y. Auld)

China built not only islands, but its own narrative insisting on its ownership of the South China Sea. Any US military flights in the South China Sea used to make prominent news because Beijing would heavily object using its substantial media clout.

In August 2018, the US flew B-52s over the South China Sea four times.

“Is the US trying to exert more pressure on China’s trade by sending a B-52 bombers to the South China Sea?” China’s nationalist, state-affiliated tabloid Global Times asked at the time.

But on Sept. 24, 2018, the US flew four B-52s clear across the South China Sea with hardly a peep from US or Chinese media.

Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn, a Pentagon spokesman, told Business Insider the B-52 flights were a matter of course.

“The movement of these aircraft require them to fly multiple routes, to include in the vicinity of the South China Sea, part of regularly scheduled operations designed to enhance our interoperability with our partners and allies in the region. The United States military will continue to fly sail and operate wherever international law allows at a times and places of our choosing,” Eastburn said in an email.

By making US military transit across the South China Sea a non-news item, something that happens regularly and without incident, the US has started to turn the tide against China’s unilateral claims.

By declaring the South China Sea as its own and trying to pressure the US into backing down in the face of missiles and fighter jets, Beijing may have opened itself up to being challenged by a superior force.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.

MIGHTY TRENDING

US and Polish combat controllers train near Krakow

Clouds make way for the first pass of combat controllers from the U.S. and Polish forces as they free fall out of an MC130J Commando during a culmination exercise near Krakow, Poland recently. The joint team is determined to put all their recent training into action as they steer their parachutes onto the calculated target.

“We are in Poland to strengthen our already capable POLSOF allies by advising them on how we conduct special operations air land integration,” said the 321st Special Tactics Squadron commander, assigned to the 352nd Special Operations Wing, based in the United Kingdom. “This will give our Polish allies the ability to survey, secure and control an austere airfield anywhere in Poland.”


The exercise was based on a real-world scenario which featured jumping into and seizing an unimproved airfield, where they completed tasks such as deploying undetected into hostile combat and austere environments, while simultaneously conducting air traffic control and command and control.

Pararescuemen from the U.S. Air Force’s 321st Special Tactics Squadron assigned to the 352nd Special Operations Wing in England, conduct a medic response scenario during a culmination exercise near Krakow.

(Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Pena)

“The CULMEX was our final chance to see everything we’ve trained with our Polish counterparts,” said the 321st STS mission commander. “The 321 STS is extremely impressed with the high level of partnership and competency demonstrated by the soldiers of the Polish Special Operations Forces from Military Unit NIL.”

By sharing methods and developing best practices, U.S. and NATO partners around the world remain ready to respond to any potential real-world contingencies in Eastern Europe.

The team deployed to Poland months prior, in order to build upon Polish Special Operations Command’s ability to conduct special operations air-to-land integration.

“We’ve been planning for two months,” said a 321st STS combat controller. “We’ve practiced basics of assault zones, air traffic control, completing surveys and what we call the global-access piece; our capability to find airfields anywhere in the world to forward project highly trained manpower and equipment whenever needed.”

Along with developing joint leaders, this deployment gave the units the opportunity to establish professional development at the tactical level.

A combat controller from U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command’s 321st Special Tactics Squadron assigned to the 352nd Special Operations Wing in England, prepares to free fall out of an MC130J during a culmination exercise near Krakow.

(Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Pena)

“It helped us to learn our job better too; I feel like anytime you’re training with another unit, it makes you that much better at your own skills. It allowed some of our younger guys to become leaders and put them in positions where they may not have been before,” said a 321st STS combat controller.

“We are very proud of our relationship with POLSOF and other NATO allies,” said the 321st STS commander. “We look forward to building and maintaining our abilities to conduct special operations (air-to-land) integration in Europe as a joint and ready force.”

Through these types of joint training exercises, special operation commands across the force stand ready to operate anytime, anyplace.

“This will ultimately increase the reach and the responsiveness of U.S. and NATO forces, deterring enemy aggression in Eastern Europe,” said the 321st STS commander. “Should the day come where we have to fight together in combat, I am confident in our joint capabilities.”

This article originally appeared on the United States Air Force. Follow @usairforce on Twitter.

MIGHTY TRENDING

Spec Ops leaders tell Congress they’re in the ‘risk business’

Calling the breadth and capability of the U.S. Special Operations Forces “astonishing,” the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict discussed the global posture of the nation’s special operations enterprise during a hearing Feb. 14, 2019, on Capitol Hill.

Owen O. West appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee with Army Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.

West said that while special operations forces make up just 3 percent of the joint force, they have absorbed more than 40 percent of the casualties since 2001. “This sacrifice serves as a powerful reminder that special operators are in the risk business,” he said.


The assistant secretary said the National Defense Strategy has challenged all of DOD to increase focus on long-term strategic competition with Russia and China, and the SOF enterprise is in the midst of transformation; “something special operators have always done very well.”

Assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict Owen West.

Any transformation starts with people, West said, noting, “In November, Gen. Thomas and I issued the first-ever joint vision for the [special operations forces] enterprise, challenging professionals to relentlessly pursue the decisive competitive advantage.”

Not stretched thin

West told the committee he is “proud to report to you that our SOF is neither overstretched nor breaking, but very healthy and eager to defend the nation against increasingly adaptive foes.”

As an integral part of the joint force, special operations troops are integrated into every facet of the NDS, Thomas told the committee.

“For the last 18 years, our No. 1 priority has been the effort against violent extremist organizations,” the general said. “As part of the joint force, we continue to be the … major supporting effort in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Lake Chad Basin; everywhere [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-] affiliated organizations are. We are relentlessly pursuing them to ensure this country never, ever endures another 9/11.”

A more lethal force

Thomas noted that Socom remains focused on finishing the effort by, with and through the United States’ many coalition partners.

“At the same time, again, as part of the joint force, we’re endeavoring to provide a more lethal and capable special operations force to confront peer competitors,” the commander said.

To build a more lethal force, strengthen alliances and partnerships and reform for greater performance and efficiency, Socom is reshaping and focusing its forces on capabilities, while also developing new technological and tactical approaches to accomplish the diverse mission that Socom will face in the future, Thomas said.

“The emergency security challenges will require Socom to be an organization of empowered SOF professionals — globally networked, partnered and integrated in relentlessly seeking advantage — in every domain for the joint force in the nation,” the general said.

A CV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft takes off with a team of special tactics airmen assigned to the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron during exercise Emerald Warrior 19.1 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Jan. 22, 2019.

(Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Rose Gudex)

In addition to its responsibility to man, train and equip the world’s most capable special operations forces, over the past few years, Socom has experienced considerable development in another legislative role as a combatant command, he said.

Global mission sets

“We are currently assigned the role as the coordinating authority for three major global mission sets: counterterrorism, countering weapons of mass destruction and recently, messaging and countermessaging,” Thomas said.

“These roles require us to lead planning efforts, continually address joint force progress toward campaign objectives, and recommend improvements for modifications to our campaign approach to the secretary of defense,” he explained.

In parallel, Socom is pursuing an aggressive partnership with the other combatant commands with global portfolios: U.S. Cyber Command, U.S. Strategic Command, U.S. Transportation Command and U.S. Space Command, Thomas said, which is designed to leverage Socom’s respective capabilities to provide more agile solutions to DOD.

Emerging technologies

“We are increasing our investments in a wide spectrum of emerging technologies to include artificial intelligence/machine learning, automated systems, advanced robotics, augmented reality, biomedical monitoring, and advanced armor and munitions development, to name a few,” the general said.

“Leveraging our proven ability to rapidly develop and field cutting-edge technology flowing from our focus on the tactical edge of combat,” Thomas said, ” joint experimentation initiative will bring together innovative efforts from across our special operations force tactical formations to ensure that commanders’ combat requirements are addressed with the most advanced concepts available.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

Pound for pound, these were the deadliest boats of World War II

They were made of wood, carried no heavy guns, and would sink at the drop of a hat. But they were fast, hard to hit, and could kill nearly anything afloat. Pound for pound, the deadliest boats of World War II weren’t the carriers or the legendary battleships, they were the humble patrol torpedo boats.


Battle Stations: PT Boats (War History Documentary)

youtu.be

America invested heavily in capital ships in the inter-war years, concentrating on battleships and carriers that could project power across the deep oceans. Combined with destroyers and cruisers to protect them, this resulted in fleets that could move thousands of miles across the ocean and pummel enemy shores. It was a good, solid investment.

But these large ships were expensive and relatively slow, and building them required lots of metal and manpower. There was still an open niche for a fast attack craft like the Italian motor torpedo boats that had famously sunk the SMS Szent Istvan in World War I.

Boat builders who had made their name in racing lined up to compete for Navy contracts. They held demonstrations and sea trials in 1940 and 1941, culminating in the “Pinewood Derbies” of July 1941.

PT-658 transits the water at the Portland Rose Festival in 2006. The boat was restored by volunteers and features its full armament and original engines.

(U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ralph Radford)

These were essentially races between different boats with either weapons or copper weights installed to mimic combat armament, allowing the Navy to see what designs were fastest, most nimble, and could survive the quick turns with a combat load.

Not all the vessels made it through. Some experienced hull and deck failures, but others zipped through the course at up to 46 miles per hour. A few boats impressed the Navy, especially what would become the ELCO Patrol Torpedo Boat. Higgins and Hulkins also showed off impressive designs, and all three contractors were given orders for Navy boats.

The Navy standardized the overall designs and armament, though the contractors took some liberties, especially Higgins. They were all to be approximately 50 tons, made of mahogany, and carry two .50-cal. machine guns. Many got up to four torpedo tubes and a 20mm anti-aircraft gun, while a few even got mortars or rockets.

They were powered by aviation fuel and three powerful engines.

U.S. Navy patrol boats zip through the water during exercises of the U.S. east coast on July 12, 1942.

(U.S. Navy)

All of this combined to create a light, powerful craft that was fast as hell. Two gunners on a PT boat at Pearl Harbor were credited with the first Japanese kill by the U.S. in World War II when they downed an enemy plane.

The little boats would distinguish themselves over and over again, even though there were only 29 in the Navy at the start of the war. Gen. Douglas MacArthur slipped out of the Philippines on a two-day trip through the enemy fleet with Lt. John D. Bulkeley on a PT boat. Bulkeley would earn a Medal of Honor for his actions.

The boats launched constant attacks against Japanese ships, hitting them with Mk. 8 torpedoes. The Coast Guard used 83-foot designs for their submarine hunters and patrol boats, many of which saw service at D-Day where they served as the “Matchstick Fleet” that rescued drowning soldiers.

Also at D-Day, similar landing craft made by Higgins were modified to fire rockets at the shore to suppress shore positions.

Navy Lt. j.g. John F. Kennedy on PT-109.

(U.S. Navy)

But it was during island hopping across the Pacific where the torpedo boats really earned their fame. As Japan’s fleet took heavy losses in 1942 and 1943, it relied on its army to try and hold islands against the U.S. advance, and the Navy’s “Mosquito Fleet” was sent to prey on the ships of the “Tokyo Express.”

Japan’s destroyers and similar vessels could slaughter torpedo boats when they could hit them, but the U.S. patrols generally operated at night and would hit the larger ships with their deadly torpedoes, using their speed to escape danger. It wasn’t perfect, though, as Lt. j.g. John F. Kennedy would learn when PT-109 was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, forcing Kennedy and 11 survivors to swim through shark-infested water for hours.

The patrol boats served across the world, from the Pacific to the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, and thousands of sailors from the Coast Guard and Navy served on these small vessels, downing tens of thousands of tons of enemy shipping.

MIGHTY TACTICAL

This is the stealth bomber patrolling near China to prevent a war

With its precision, stealth, long-range capability and payload capacity, the B-2 Spirit is one of the most versatile airframes in the Air Force’s inventory. The combination of its unique capabilities enables global reach and allows the Air Force to bypass the enemy’s most sophisticated defenses.


The B-2 Spirit’s low-observable, or stealth, characteristics give it the ability to penetrate an enemy’s most sophisticated defenses and threaten its most valued, and heavily defended targets. Its ability to penetrate air defenses and threaten effective retaliation provides a strong deterrent and combat capability to the Air Force well into the 21st century.

Development

The revolutionary blending of low-observable technologies with high aerodynamic efficiency and large payload capacity gives the B-2 important advantages over existing bombers. Its low observability provides greater freedom of action at high altitudes, increasing its range and providing a better field of view for aircraft sensors. Its unrefueled range is approximately 6,000 nautical miles.

The B-2’s low observability is derived from a combination of reduced infrared, acoustic, electromagnetic, visual and radar signatures. These signatures make it difficult for the sophisticated defensive systems to detect, track and engage the B-2. Many aspects of the low-observability process remain classified; however, the B-2’s composite materials, special coatings and flying-wing design all contribute to its stealth attributes.

The B-2 Spirit is a multi-role bomber capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear munitions.

(US Air Force photo by Gary Ell)

Operational history

The first B-2 was publicly displayed Nov. 22, 1988, in Palmdale, California and flew for the first time on July 17, 1989. The B-2 Combined Test Force at the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California, was responsible for flight testing, engineering, manufacturing and developing the B-2.

Whiteman AFB, Missouri, is the only operational base for the B-2. The first aircraft, Spirit of Missouri, was delivered Dec. 17, 1993. Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, is responsible for managing the B-2’s maintenance.

The B-2’s combat effectiveness and mettle was proved in Operation Allied Force, where it was responsible for destroying 33 percent of all Serbian targets in the first eight weeks, flying nonstop from Whiteman AFB to Kosovo and back.

In support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the B-2 flew one of its longest missions to date from Whiteman AFB to Afghanistan and back. The B-2 completed its first-ever combat deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, flying 22 sorties from a forward operating location, 27 sorties from Whiteman AFB and releasing more than 1.5 million pounds of munitions.

A B-2 Spirit drops Joint Direct Attack Munitions separation test vehicles over Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Aug. 8, 2003.

(US Air Force photo)

The aircraft received full operational capability status in December 2003. On Feb. 1, 2009, Air Force Global Strike Command assumed responsibility for the B-2 from Air Combat Command.

On Jan. 18, 2017, two B-2s attacked an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria training camp 19 miles southwest of Sirte, Libya, killing more than 80 militants. The B-2s dropped 108 500-pound precision-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs. These strikes were followed by an MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle firing Hellfire missiles. The 34-hour-round-trip flight from Whiteman AFB was made possible with 15 aerial refuelings conducted by KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extender crews from five different bases.

A U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker from the 100th Air Refueling Wing refuels a U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit from the 509th Bomb Wing during a mission that targeted Islamic State training camps in Libya, Jan. 18, 2017.

(US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kate Thornton)

After getting pulled from theater in 2010, the B-2s rejoined the B-52 Stratofortress and the B-1B Lancer in continuous rotations to Andersen AFB, Guam, in 2016. The Continuous Bomber Presence mission, established in 2004, provides significant rapid global strike capability demonstrating U.S. commitment to deterrence. The mission also offers assurance to U.S. allies and strengthens regional security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Bomber rotations also provide the Pacific Air Forces and U.S. Pacific Command global strike capabilities and extended deterrence against any potential adversary while also strengthening regional alliances and long-standing military-to-military partnerships throughout the region.

U.S. military members stand with players of the Kansas City Royals during a military recognition ceremony at Kauffman Stadium as a B-2 Spirit performs a flyover, Kansas City, Mo., Sept. 11, 2018.

(US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Alexander W. Riedel)

Did you know

  • The B-2 can fly 6,000 nautical miles unrefueled and 10,000 nautical miles with just one aerial refueling, giving it the ability to fly to any point in the globe within hours.
  • The B-2 has a crew of two pilots—a pilot in the left seat and mission commander in the right, compared to the B-1B’s crew of four and the B-52’s crew of five.

Active squadrons

  • 13th Bomb Squadron established in 2005.
  • 393rd Bomb Squadron established in 1993.

Both squadrons are located at Whiteman AFB and fall under Air Force Global Strike Command.

Aircraft stats

  • Primary function: multi-role heavy bomber
  • Contractor: Northrop Grumman Corp.
  • Contractor Team: Boeing Military Airplanes Co., Hughes Radar Systems Group, General Electric Aircraft Engine Group and Vought Aircraft Industries, Inc.
  • Power plant: four General Electric F118-GE-100 engines
  • Thrust: 17,300 pounds each engine
  • Wingspan: 172 feet
  • Length: 69 feet (20.9 meters)
  • Height: 17 feet (5.1 meters)
  • Weight: 160,000 pounds (72,575 kilograms)
  • Maximum takeoff weight: 336,500 pounds (152,634 kilograms)
  • Fuel capacity: 167,000 pounds (75750 kilograms)
  • Payload: 40,000 pounds (18,144 kilograms)
  • Speed: high subsonic
  • Range: intercontinental
  • Ceiling: 50,000 feet (15,240 meters)
  • Armament: conventional or nuclear weapons
  • Crew: two pilots
  • Unit cost: Approximately id=”listicle-2626058834″.157 billion (fiscal 1998 constant dollars)
  • Initial operating capability: April 1997
  • Inventory: active force: 20 (1 test)
  • Maximum speed: Mach 0.95 (550 knots, 630 mph, 1,010 kilometers per hour) at 40,000 feet altitude
  • Cruise speed: Mach 0.85[63] (487 knots, 560 mph, 900 kilometers per hour) at 40,000 feet altitude
  • Range: 6,000 nautical miles (11,100 kilometers (6,900 miles))
  • Service ceiling: 50,000 feet (15,200 meters)

(Source: AF.mil)

This article originally appeared on Airman Magazine. Follow @AirmanMagazine on Twitter.

MIGHTY MOVIES

The 9 most essential World War II books

From action-packed eyewitness accounts such as Guadalcanal Diary to devastating Holocaust memoirs like The Diary of Anne Frank and Night to the thrilling espionage tale of Operation Mincemeat, World War II is the subject of some of the most fascinating and influential nonfiction books ever written. Every year, seemingly dozens of new titles emerge to offer fresh perspectives and uncover fascinating details about the deadliest conflict in human history. These nine classics cover the war from the Eastern Front to the South Pacific and investigate its murky origins and complex legacies. Make your next great read one of these essential World War II books.


1. Hiroshima

Vintage; Reprint edition

By John Hersey

Originally published in the August 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker, this compassionate and richly observed portrait of six survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima caused an immediate sensation. It was the first–and only–time the magazine had devoted an entire issue to a single article. Newsstands sold out within hours, and radio stations interrupted their regular programming to broadcast readings of the complete text.

More than a year after the Japanese city was destroyed, Americans were getting the first full account of the horrors of nuclear warfare. Hersey described stone facades permanently etched with the silhouettes of vaporized people and soldiers whose eyes were melted by the atomic flash. Widely recognized as one of the earliest examples of New Journalism (the style of reporting made most famous by Joan Didion), Hiroshima profoundly impacted the debate over nuclear weapons and played a key role in the healing process between America and Japan.

2. With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

Presidio Press

By E.B. Sledge

With brutal honesty and lucid prose, Eugene Bondurant Sledge provides a grunt’s-eye view of infantry combat in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Nicknamed “Sledgehammer” by his comrades, Sledge fought with the 1st Marine Division in the grueling battles of Peleliu and Okinawa. Using notes he secretly kept in a pocket-sized New Testament, Sledge describes the terror of life on the front lines and documents acts of savagery committed by both sides. But he also admires the courage of his fellow soldiers and pauses, when he can, to observe his natural surroundings–an interest that would lead to a later career as a biology professor. With the Old Breed was one of the main sources for Ken Burns’s documentary The War and helped to form the basis for the HBO mini-series The Pacific.

3. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

RosettaBooks

By William Shirer

First published in 1960, this National Book Award winner and New York Times bestseller traces the rise and fall of Nazi Germany from Adolf Hitler’s birth in 1889 to the end of World War II in 1945. As a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and one of “Murrow’s Boys” at the CBS Radio Network, Shirer reported from Berlin and Vienna in the years before the war and followed the German Army during the invasion of France.

After the war, he drew on his own experiences and a wealth of newly available documents, including the diaries of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and General Franz Halder and testimony from the Nuremberg trials, to write this 1,250-page volume. The book was a huge commercial success, selling one million hardcover copies and going through twenty printings in its first year. Although its scholarly reputation is often debated, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich remains one of the most influential tomes about World War II to this day.

4. Maus

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

By Art Spiegelman

This Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel recasts the Holocaust with Nazis as cats, Jews as mice, and Poles as pigs. Originally serialized in the alternative comics magazine Raw, the story moves back and forth between present-day Rego Park, New York and Nazi-occupied Poland. In New York, cartoonist Art Spiegelman tries to mend his fractured relationship with his father, Vladek, by drawing a book-length comic based on Vladek’s wartime experiences. In Poland, Vladek and his wife, Anja, endure forced relocation to the Sosnowiec Ghetto; the death of their first son, Richieu; and imprisonment in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Hailed by The Wall Street Journal as “the most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust,” Maus elevated the critical reputation of comics and inspired countless artists, including Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel, and Marjane Satrapi.

5. The Longest Day

Simon & Schuster

By Cornelius Ryan

Based on interviews with more than 1,100 D-Day survivors, The Longest Day is the definitive account of the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Ryan experienced the battle firsthand as a 24-year-old reporter for the Daily Telegraph. When the bomber he was flying in was hit and had to return to England, he jumped into a patrol boat and returned to cover the fighting on the French beaches. Fifteen years later, Ryan set out to tell “what actually happened, rather than what generals or others thought happened.” The result is a masterpiece of military history packed with novelistic details, from the U.S. paratrooper who won $2,500 at cards on the eve of the battle but deliberately lost it all so as not to run out of luck to Field Marshal Rommel’s reason for being 600 miles away when the invasion began–he was bringing his wife her birthday present.

6. In the Garden of Beasts

Broadway Books

By Erik Larson

This #1 New York Times bestseller is the riveting story of William E. Dodd, the American ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937. Dodd, a history professor, was not Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first choice for the job, and he arrived in Berlin with little appetite for the endless socializing expected of a diplomat and little sense of the dangers posed by Germany’s newly-appointed chancellor, Adolf Hitler.

While Dodd struggled to find his place, his 24-year-old daughter, Martha, took to her glamorous new life with verve. Beautiful and sexually adventurous, her high-profile paramours included Rudolph Diels, the chief of the Gestapo, and Boris Winogradov, an attache to the Soviet Embassy who recruited her as a spy. Part political thriller, part family drama, In the Garden of Beasts brings fresh perspective to the question of why it took the world so long to recognize the threat of the Third Reich.

7. An Army at Dawn

Henry Holt and Co.

By Rick Atkinson

While most American history buffs are well versed in the Allied push across Europe after the Normandy landings and the key battles for control of the Pacific, the North African campaign is a less familiar subject. Drawing on personal diaries and letters from soldiers as well as official documents kept in British, American, French, Italian, and German war archives, Rick Atkinson corrects the record in this Pulitzer Prize-winning history, the first volume in The Liberation Trilogy. From the amphibious invasion of Morocco and Algeria in November 1942 to the Allies’ watershed victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein and the US Army’s coming-of-age at the Battle of Hill 609 in Tunisia, An Army at Dawn seamlessly integrates big-picture military strategy with boots-on-the-ground perspective. Atkinson is particularly insightful on the clash of egos between the old-school British commanders and their upstart American counterparts.

8. Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943

Penguin Books

By Anthony Beevor

With more than one million casualties, the five-month siege of Stalingrad was the bloodiest battle of World War II and a decisive turning point in the fight for Europe. Antony Beevor, a former British Army officer, brilliantly balances the huge scale of the conflict with a soldier’s-eye view of some of the most horrific conditions in the history of modern warfare.

He begins with Operation Barbarossa, the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union that was plagued by bad weather, long supply lines, and difficult terrain, and analyzes how the Luftwaffe’s carpet bombing of Stalingrad helped to create the treacherous, rubble-strewn conditions that allowed Soviet snipers to wage a gruesome war of attrition. Most captivatingly, Atkinson portrays Stalingrad as the terrifying outcome of totalitarianism: Hitler lived in a fantasy world and refused to listen to German officers who tried to save the Sixth Army from complete destruction, while Stalin’s demands for total obeisance resulted in the executions of 13,500 Red Army soldiers.

9. Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization

Simon & Schuster

By Nicholson Baker

In this highly unusual and captivating work, novelist Nicholson Baker tells the story of the buildup to World War II in vignettes. Each short piece contains a fact or a quotation drawn from primary sources including newspaper articles, radio speeches, personal diaries, and government transcripts.

Through the steady accumulation of detail, Baker suggests that Allied leaders were not as reluctant to enter the global conflict as most historians contend. He goes back to as far as 1920 to quote Winston Churchill on the proposed bombing of civilian targets in Iraq (“I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes”), then skips ahead to the prime minister’s preferred military strategy in 1941: “One of our great aims is the delivery on German towns of the largest possible quantity of bombs per night.” Turning to the American scene, Baker draws from sources suggesting that Franklin D. Roosevelt may have deliberately goaded the Japanese into bombing Pearl Harbor so the US could enter the war.

Some scholars were harsh in their judgment of Human Smoke, but by returning to the primary material, Baker rescues pacifism as an honorable concept and reminds readers that when military leaders rush to apply new technologies to warfare, it is often civilians who suffer the most.

This article originally appeared on Explore The Archive. Follow @explore_archive on Twitter.

MIGHTY TRENDING

This is the first enlisted woman to graduate Sapper Leader Course

Sgt. Hailey Falk is the Army’s first enlisted female soldier to graduate from the rigorous Sapper Leader Course since the program’s inception in 1985.

Falk, 23, received her Sapper Tab, Dec. 7, 2018, after completing the “demanding 28-day leadership development course for combat engineers that reinforces critical skills and teaches advanced techniques needed across the Army.” She is assigned to B Company, 39th Engineer Battalion “Bull Strike,” 2nd Brigade Combat Team “Strike,” 101st Airborne Division, at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.


“Sgt. Falk’s success as the first enlisted [female] graduate represents a step forward in the process of recognizing success in the combat arms field by performance, not by gender,” said Capt. John D. Baer, B Company commander, 39th BEB. “The combat engineer MOS [12 Bravo] opened to females in 2015, and Sgt. Falk’s graduation from the Sapper Leader Course reinforces the wisdom in that decision by proving that both genders can achieve success in the enlisted combat arms career field.

(U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Michel Sauret)

According to the Army, the mission of the course is to “train and certify the next generation of Sapper leaders, to serve as members of Combined Arms team, through training in small unit tactics and combat engineer battle drills in a physically demanding, stressful and austere environment.”

Sapper Leader Course

Falk was promoted to sergeant in 2017. With a high Army Physical Fitness Test score and a dedication to physical fitness, Falk’s leadership saw her potential to succeed at the Sapper Leader Course.

“Sgt. Falk is an outstanding noncommissioned officer and embodies the be, know, do leadership model and esprit de corps. She accepts the most difficult task without hesitation. As an NCO she leads from the front and drives troops forward to accomplish all missions,” said Staff Sgt. William Frye, Falk’s squad leader.

Each platoon in B Company rallied to help Falk and her fellow soldiers succeed at Fort Leonard Wood.

Among the challenges Falk faced at the leader course was the Sapper physical fitness test. The test is graded by Army standards to the individual’s age and gender. The minimum passing criteria is 230 total score, with no less than 70 points in each event.

The Sapper Leader Course not only challenged Falk physically, but mentally. According to the Army, the Sapper Leader Course is designed “to build esprit de corps by training soldiers in troop leading procedures, demolitions (conventional and expedient) and mountaineering operations. The course culminates in an intense field training exercise that reinforces the use of the battle drills and specialized engineer techniques learned throughout the course.”

At the end of the course, Falk’s instructor delivered the news that she had passed.

A Sapper Leader Course 06-17 squad detonates a silhouette charge to create an entrance through a wall during urban breaching exercises as part of the course.

(Photo by Stephen Standifird)

“At that moment, that’s when it hit me that I did all this. Now, it didn’t seem hard anymore,” she said. “During it seemed like the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Then, after, I [thought] I could do this again, honestly.”

Baer said Falk’s success should be a challenge to all combat engineers of any gender.

“There are physiological differences between genders, and female combat engineers often have to work harder to meet the strenuous physical demands of combat relative to their male peers. Additionally, the unit’s operational demands prevent an extended preparation time for the school,” Baer said. “Sgt. Falk has humbly taken on these challenges, succeeding purely through hard work and mental toughness.”

As the first female enlisted soldier to graduate from the Sapper Leader Course, Falk said she encourages other soldiers to try it and plans to encourage those under her command to enroll in the school.

“I would say ‘go for it.’ Don’t be scared of failure. As long as you work hard for it and you don’t give up, you can push through it,” she said. “It’s not just you, there are other people who are working to help you get it. All of your battle buddies are earning your tab for you. You can’t just earn it yourself. Everyone has to work together.”

Her Army future

A week after graduation, Falk said she is catching up on her sleep and preparing for her next adventure — attending Pathfinder School in January.

“[I’m] hoping to get as many [Army] schools as I can,” she said. “I’m ready to do anything at this point. I just got through that, I guess I can do anything.”

Her squad leader and company commander agree Falk has a bright future.

A U.S. Marine climbs a rope while maneuvering through an obstacle course during a Sapper Leaders Course on Camp Pendleton, Calif., October 20, 2017.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Pfc. Dalton S. Swanbeck)

“With Sgt. Falk graduating Sapper Leader Course, she now has no limits. She has faced and overcome the many challenges of one of the Army’s hardest schools,” Frye said. “Her unit now has one more lethal fighter among the ranks who is now an expert in mobility, counter mobility and survivability, ready to provide her task force with the tools to accomplish the most difficult missions.”

“Graduation from the course represents months of diligent preparation and an exceptional quantity of mental stamina,” Baer said. “Sgt. Falk has exhibited these qualities throughout her career in the 101st, and I suspect this is just the beginning of her success in the military.”

Falk remains humble about her accomplishment and credits her leadership and unit for her success.

“I still don’t think it’s a big deal, [but] I couldn’t have done it without everyone,” she said. “I’m just glad I have the support system back here. My first sergeant, my sergeant major came [to graduation]. A lot of people from the unit came to support. I owe it to all of them because without all the training — even though I didn’t want to do it at the time — the training that we do, that I dread, it ended up paying off.”

This article originally appeared on the United States Army. Follow @USArmy on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

A WW1 explosion in Belgium was so big that it was heard in London

On the morning of June 7, 1917, after a dry quip to journalists about how he didn’t know whether he and his men’s actions “shall change history tomorrow,” but would “certainly alter the geography,” a British major general ordered a series of mines set off, detonating an almost 1 million pounds of explosives, killing about 1,000 German soldiers, and causing leaders in London —about 130 miles away — to hear the explosion.


A howitzer crew provides fire support during the infantry assault at the Battle of Messines Ridge.

(National Library of Scotland)

It all started soon after World War I descended from a fast-paced maneuver war into the trench-warfare stalemate that would define the conflict. Allied troops facing Germans in Belgium were, like their brethren in the trenches southward across France, quickly demoralized as the war ground on, thousands died, and almost no significant changes were made to the balance of the war.

People were dying by the thousands to seemingly no effect. So, some British officers came up with a plan to shift the line in Belgium by putting in years of work that would guarantee an eventual victory far in the future.

The plan was changed, overhauled, and refined plenty of times in those two years, but the basic underpinnings stayed the same. Near the village of Messines in Belgium, British tunnelers got to work digging towards and then under the German lines along the ridge that dominated the area. This digging operation would continue for two years.

Sappers dig a communication trench near Messines Ridge after the explosion that essentially handed the area to the British. Engineers had worked for nearly two years to dig the original tunnels that made the explosion possible.

(Imperial War Museums)

Shafts were dug across the front, and some were dug as deep as 100 feet and then filled with strong explosives. On top of these subterranean towers of explosives, each major stockpile had a mine that would act as the initiation device.

On June 6, 1917, the night before detonation, British Maj. Gen. Charles Harington brought some journalists together and made his quip,

“Gentlemen, I do not know whether we shall change history tomorrow. But we shall certainly alter the geography.”

Around dawn the following morning, the order was given to set off the mines. This was done by individual soldiers with different devices, resulting in 19 separate explosions that came right on the heels of each other. In France, it was reported by some as an earthquake. In London, some reported hearing an unexplained boom whose source would only later be revealed.

For German soldiers and officers, this was obviously a nightmare. For those directly over the explosion, the nightmare was over instantly. The Earth erupted around them like a volcano. The earth shook and shot into the sky. Men were wrecked by the blast and then survivors were buried alive in the debris. Approximately 1 millions pounds of explosives were used in the blast.

Soldiers share a smoke on June 10 during the Battle of Messines. The Battle of Messines Ridge had kicked off the British advance and given them a huge advantage when engineers successfully set off nearly 1 million pounds of explosives beneath a key ridge.

(Imperial War Museums)

But the slight breaks between explosions meant that, for minutes afterwards, German troops and officers were terrified that more explosions were coming, that they would be killed or buried in a sudden tower of fire and dirt.

Meanwhile, British troops had been staged to take advantage of the sudden opening in the lines. Many were knocked down by the initial blast despite staging hundreds of yards away. But they stood up and attacked the German lines. What had been a ridge was now a series of major craters, and the British were determined to take them.

The British had known that a large explosion was coming, though many individual soldiers didn’t know the exact details, and so they were able to rally much faster than the Germans. The British infantry assault, preceded by a creeping artillery barrage, successfully captured 7,000 survivors in addition to the 10,000 that the explosions had killed.

And the British were left holding what was left of the ridge. The Germans retreated and this allowed Britain to launch more attacks into Ypres. The Battle of Messines Ridge had been a great success, though the Ypres Offensive it enabled was less so. The idea for the larger offensive had been to capture the German U-Boat pens on the Belgian coast, but the openings at Messines Ridge didn’t eliminate the German defenses further on.

The Ypres Offensive was launched on July 31, just weeks after the explosions at Messines, but Germans fiercely contested the assaults and launched counterattacks of their own. The offensive was, ostensibly, an Allied victory. The Allies took Ypres and a lot of other territory, but suffered 275,000 casualties to Germany’s 220,000.

And, just a year later, a massive German troop buildup forced Britain to abandon the territory for more defensible territory to the west.

That’s why most of the world has forgotten the detonation at Messines Ridge. It was one of the largest man-made explosions in history at the time and it allowed the British to pull a victory, seemingly out of thin air. But its strategic impact didn’t last.

MIGHTY TRENDING

Syrian forces cleared out of its bases to avoid a US attack

Syrian forces, and their allies are withdrawing from military bases likely to be targeted in a potential US airstrike.

Pro-Assad militants, and some Syrian government forces, are moving people and equipment out of the way ahead of an impending attack by the United States.


The movements were reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights NGO, and also by The New York Times.

Satellite imagery also showed ten Russian warships and a submarine leaving a port in western Syria.

The clear-out came after President Donald Trump warned his foes to “get ready” for a US missile strike, apparently contradicting his former opinion that telegraphing military action is a big mistake.

On April 8, 2018, the US president warned of a “big price” to pay and agreed with France’s Emmanuel Macron to coordinate a “strong, joint response” to Assad over the attacks.

In a tweet on April 11, 2018, Trump warned Russia that US missiles “will be coming, nice, and new and ‘smart!'”

There are potential advantages to telegraphing your actions — the main one being that it helps avoid accidental escalation in a busy conflict zone where Russia is also active.

On April 12, 2018 Trump also reintroduced some ambiguity, saying that the attack “could be very soon or not so soon at all!”