When Britain's top tank slaughtered America's - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s

During the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, the countries fought each other with arms purchased from their allies, namely the U.S. and Great Britain. Ultimately, this lead to battle after battle in which Britain’s top tank, the Centurion, mopped the floor with America’s top tank, the M48 Patton.


When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s
M48 Pattons were advanced and capable tanks during the Cold War. The M48s in this column in Vietnam were fitted with sandbags on the turrets to turn them into mobile pillboxes.
(U.S. Army)

To understand the war and its odd forces makeup, you have to go back to immediately post-World War II as the British Empire went through a controlled implosion. The longtime colony of India, which, prior to occupation, had been its own large but fractured nation, was granted independence in 1947. But, in an acknowledgement of the fact that India was filled with disparate peoples, the colony was split into two countries: India and Pakistan.

Pakistan was made up of the Muslim-majority areas of the former colony and India was made up of more secular and Hindi peoples, which had a large overlap. The big problem was that the Muslim-majority areas were on either side of the secular/Hindi area, and so Pakistan was split with almost all of northern India in the middle.

Fighting broke out in 1947 over which nation would get control of Kashmir, an area which adjoined both countries. U.N. mediation eventually resulted in splitting the administration of the area with both nations taking control of a section of the disputed area. Neither side was happy with the final line.

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s
A Sherman tank in action against German troops in 1944. The Sherman was a mainstay of World War II, but was outdated by the 1965 when India drove them into combat against Pakistan.
(Sgt. Christie, No. 5 Army Film and Photographic Unit)

Both India and Pakistan were granted access to U.S. and British weapon stockpiles so they could defend themselves against larger neighbors, like China. Consequently, India ended up with a large number of Centurion tanks and Pakistan had a large number of Pattons. In 1965, the re-armed and still-hostile nations fought again over their shared border and India sent forces into Kashmir territory administrated by Pakistan.

There was back-and-forth fighting, but Pakistani counterattacks were making good progress on the southern end of the battlefield. A full third of Pakistan’s entire armored force at the time, composed largely of American-made M4 Sherman tanks and cutting-edge M48 Patton tanks, conducted an armored thrust into the plains of Khem Karn.

Indian defenses in the area were limited. At the village of Assal Uttar, an Indian commander with three tank regiments totaling about 135 tanks faced a Pakistani force of six regiments and about 264 tanks.

The British Centurion tank could've been a top tank in World War II, but it was released just month after the conflict ended. Instead, it became a top-tier Cold War tank, but Indian Army Centurions often lacked the numerous, vital upgrades made tot he platform between 1946 and 1965.

(Library and Archives of Canada)
The British Centurion tank could’ve been a top tank in World War II, but it was released just month after the conflict ended. Instead, it became a top-tier Cold War tank, but Indian Army Centurions often lacked the numerous, vital upgrades made tot he platform between 1946 and 1965.
(Library and Archives of Canada)

 

And while there is an argument to be made that the Centurion fielded by India was one of the best tanks at the time, India’s Centurions lacked important upgrades and were fielded next to outdated Shermans and weak AMX-13s. Pakistan, meanwhile, had Patton tanks with decent bells and whistles, meaning they had better armor and better armor penetration then their enemies.

But Indian officers had a plan. Pakistani forces parked for the night near a low-lying area surrounded by mature sugarcane fields. Indian forces slowly crept up through the large sugarcane stalks and other troops released stored water into the low-lying areas, turning them into a swamp overnight.

When dawn came on September 10, 1965, the Pakistani tanks continued their advance but quickly sunk into the mud, some of them sinking down to their turrets. The forward tanks were stuck, and the tanks behind them couldn’t maneuver well without abandoning their peers. And then the Indians attacked.

A military officer stands with a destroyed, American-made Sherman tank during the Indo-Pakistani War. At Assal Uttar, Indian Sherman and Centurion tanks took on American-made Patton tanks and annihilated them.

(Public Domain)
A military officer stands with a destroyed, American-made Sherman tank during the Indo-Pakistani War. At Assal Uttar, Indian Sherman and Centurion tanks took on American-made Patton tanks and annihilated them.
(Public Domain)

With the sugar stalks as concealment, the Indian Shermans and Centurions were able to fire first even though the Pattons had longer range weapons, and Pakistani tanks that were unable to maneuver couldn’t point their thicker front armor towards the threat, especially since shots were coming from three sides.

The Indian tanks poured their fire into the valley and were joined by infantry and artillery forces, quickly dismantling the Pakistani column. The destruction was so widespread that historians weren’t able to pinpoint the exact number of Pakistani tanks destroyed, but Pakistan acknowledged that over half of its tank losses in the war came from that battle. It’s estimated at 99 tanks or more were lost on that single day.

India lost 10 tanks, which is tragic for the crews and still expensive, but an outstanding outcome in a battle where the enemy lost approximately 10 times as many.

MIGHTY CULTURE

Old Ironsides and Operation Torch: The Army’s 1st Armored Division

They’re the oldest and the most recognized armored division in the Army. The first division to see combat in Germany during WWII and the first mash-up of reconnaissance and cavalry units in all of Army history. Here’s everything you thought you knew but didn’t about America’s Tank Division.


Kentucky Wonders, Fire and Brimstone or Old Ironsides?

After the division was organized in 1940, commanding general Maj. Gen. Bruce Magruder was the division’s first commander. His friend, Gen. George Patton, had just named the 2nd Armored Division “Hell on Wheels,” and Magruder didn’t want to be left behind. So, he held a contest to find an appropriate nickname for the new division.

Over two hundred names were submitted, including “Kentucky Wonders” and “Fire and Brimstone.” Gen. Magruder hated all the names submitted and decided to take the weekend to find the best one. It just so happened he’d recently purchased a painting of the USS Constitution, whose nickname was, wait for it, Old Ironsides. It’s said that Magruder was impressed by the correlation between the Navy’s unwavering spirit during the war and his new division’s. It was then that he landed on the nickname Old Ironsides, and the name’s been the same ever since.

The first enemy contact was in North Africa, and it was rough.

Contrary to what many think, the Old Ironsides didn’t engage with the Germans as their first combat experience. Instead, they traveled to North Africa and participated in Operation Torch, part of the Allied Invasion.

Operation Torch was intended to draw Axis forces away from the Eastern Front and relieve pressure on the Soviet Union. It was a compromise between the US and British planners. The mission was planned as a pincer movement with the Old Ironsides landing on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. The primary objective for the Old Ironsides was to work toward securing bridgeheads for opening a second front to the rear of German and Italian forces. Allied soldiers experienced unexpected resistance from Vichy-French units, but the Old Ironsides helped suppress all resistance and were heading toward Tunisia within three days.

The invasion of Africa helped win the war

The invasion of North Africa accomplished a great deal for the Allies since American and British forces finally had the offensive against the Germans and Italians. For the first time, US and UK directives were able to dictate the tempo of events. Forced to fight on both the western and eastern fronts, the German-Italian forces had the additional burden of having to plan and prepare for attacks in North Africa.

However, the harsh conditions of North Africa were quick teachers for the new Old Ironsides soldiers. In February 1943, the Old Ironsides met a better trained German armored force at Kasserine Pass, and the division sustained heavy losses in both service members and equipment.

The division was forced to withdraw, but the Old Ironsides used their retreat time to review the battle and prepare for the next one. After three more months of hard fighting, the Allies claimed victory in North Africa.

The Old Ironsides were recognized publicly for their efforts and then moved to Naples to support Allied forces there.

The Infamous Winter Line Attack

As part of the 5th Army, the 1st Armored Division took part in the attack on the Winter Line in November 1943. Old Ironsides flanked Axis forces in the landings at Anzio and then participated in the liberation of Rome in June. The unit continued to serve in the Italian Campaign until German forces surrendered in May 1945. One month later, Old Ironsides was moved to Germany as part of the US occupation forces stationed there.

WWII to present 

In the drawdown after WWII, the 1st Armored Division was deactivated in 1946 but was then reactivated in 1951 at Fort Hood, where it was the first Army unit to field the new M48 Patton tank. Currently, the unit home is Fort Bliss, Texas, but it previously was housed at Baumholder, Germany. With the relocation, the unit went from roughly 9,000 soldiers to more than 34,000.

In 2019, the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team turned its smaller vehicles in for Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is the toolkit spies carried in their butts

Spies have had all sorts of great tools and gadgets, from self-inflating blow-up dolls during the Cold War to special listening devices deployed around the world today. But perhaps one of the most surprising devices was the rectal toolkit issued to some CIA officers deployed into Soviet-era Europe.


A CIA-Issued Rectal Tool Kit For Spies

www.youtube.com

As more and more CIA officers were sent into dangerous places in Europe, including the democratic enclave of West Berlin, the dark times called for dark solutions that could be stored in a dark place — a place so dark the sun don’t shine.

Talkin’ about butts. The CIA turned to officers’ butts.

There was a high chance that CIA officers and assets could and would be jailed by secret police, even if it was just on suspicion of being aligned with the U.S. or other western countries. So, the CIA wanted to give these people the best possible chance of escaping custody. But since assets would likely be strip searched, there was really only a couple places left to hide the tools.

And so the large capsule was created, filled with tiny tools that would help officers pick locks and cut through fine materials. The exact tools and materials used varied between different “rectal toolkits,” but all of them were made with materials that were thought unlikely to splinter. They were also very carefully made to prevent leaks that would allow, uh, outside materials into the capsule.

If an officer were captured, he would go through the search, hopefully retain his toolkit, and then fish it out after the guards had left. Not exactly the moment that anyone dreams about when joining an espionage service, but still way better suffering a prolonged hostile interrogation.

Searches of the CIA history archives have not shown a specific case where a U.S. asset fished out this toolkit and used it to make good their escape, so it’s not clear if it saved any specific person’s life or government secrets from Soviet spies.

Articles

Did the phone call for fire scene in ‘Heartbreak Ridge’ really happen?

While typically rooted in true events, war films often take “creative liberties” in the portrayal of military members and their exploits. Heartbreak Ridge is no exception, but there’s one famously far-fetched scene in the cult classic that may have actually happened.

The 1986 film depicts the efforts of Medal of Honor recipient and thoroughly crusty Gunnery Sgt. Tom Highway (Clint Eastwood) as he whips a group of undisciplined Marines into combat shape just in time for the 1983 invasion of Grenada. While Heartbreak Ridge is known for its over-the-top depictions, the scene where Gunny Highway finds himself in a jail cell for bar fighting and urinating on a police cruiser might be the most accurate depiction of a battle-hardened Marine staff NCO in history.

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s
Gunny Highway stands trial for urinating on a police cruiser. Screenshot from Heartbreak Ridge. (Warner Bros.)

In the film’s depiction of Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada, there is no shortage of hip firing from the highly trained Recon Marines, who use almost no structure or tactical maneuvering. And at a climactic point in the battle, the pinned-down Marines use a house phone and credit card to make a collect call back to Fort Bragg to request air support. 

As unlikely as that last one seems, it may have actually happened. 

Operation Urgent Fury is infamous for the innumerable blunders and SNAFUs that occurred before and during the operation. The US military of the early ’80s was a largely untested force that was undergoing a large-scale downsizing and restructuring (stop me if this sounds eerily familiar). 

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s
Gunnery Sgt. Highway whipping young Marines into shape. Screenshot from Heartbreak Ridge. (Warner Bros.)

President Ronald Reagan sent an initial force of 2,000 troops to rescue the nearly 1,000 Americans in Grenada at the time and settle the turmoil there, but the Pentagon ultimately had to send in roughly 4,000 additional military members to complete the operation. Short notice, bad planning and intel, and poor interservice communication plagued the operation.

US forces ultimately succeeded, and that was due, in no short part, to the boots on the ground doing what they do best — adapting and overcoming. Many stories are told from this operation, but none encapsulate the event and also the versatility of the American warrior quite as well as the legend of the American who called for indirect fire from a pay phone. 

As the tale goes, US service members were pinned down by enemy fire and were in dire need of artillery to gain the upper hand. Communication to any kind of support was cut off, spurring one quick-thinking soldier to action. The soldier allegedly took out his credit card and utilized the nearest pay phone to call Fort Bragg. The call was relayed through several channels and the necessary artillery was provided — saving the soldiers and winning the day.

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s
War movie or Discover card ad? Mario Van Peebles as Cpl. Stitch Jones. Screenshot from Heartbreak Ridge. (Warner Bros.)

To date, there are a couple of different versions of this legend. One involves a Navy SEAL making the call from a governor’s mansion for air support from an AC-130. However, Marines claimed the fire came from a naval destroyer positioned just off the island. Another involves a member of the 82nd Airborne actually using a pay phone to call his wife back at Fort Bragg who then relayed the message to his command. 

We may never know what really went down, but the legend of the phone call for fire inspired screenwriter and Vietnam veteran James Carabatsos to incorporate the impromptu call in his script for Heartbreak Ridge

Now you know. And knowing is half the battle. 

This article originally appeared on Coffee or Die. Follow @CoffeeOrDieMag on Twitter.

Feature image: Warner Bros.

popular

This is what happened to the USS Constitution’s original guns

If you visit the USS Constitution in Boston these days, the cannons you’ll see on her gun deck aren’t the originals launched with the ship. The guns aboard the ship are replicas, and only two of them are capable of firing salute charges. Even when the sailors aboard Constitution fire salutes, it’s a far cry from the way cannons were loaded and fired when Old Ironsides was first laid.

In fact, they’re inaccurate replicas, with 18 of them even bearing the Royal Cipher of King George II.


When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s
The creator thought the ship’s original guns were confiscated from the British. He was wrong.
(USS Constitution Museum Collection)

 

USS Constitution was first launched in 1797 and saw action against the Royal Navy during the War of 1812. She took down five British warships, victories that stunned not only the Royal Navy, but the rest of the world. Her most famous victory was against the HMS Guerriere, the victory that earned her the nickname “Old Ironsides” when the Guerriere’s 526-pound broadsides bounced off Constitution’s hull as if it were made of iron. But the 30 24-pounder long guns and 20 32-pounder carronades it launched with weren’t captured from the British during the Revolution.

The guns aboard Constitution were never designed to stay solely aboard the ship, as weapons at that time were moved as needed. Shortly before the Civil War, she took an illegal American slaver as a prize off the coast of Angola and was decommissioned. The ship was turned into a training ship for Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy. Eventually, she was turned into housing for sailors until the turn of the 20th Century.

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s
The Constitution being refitted as training ship for Midshipmen.

 

It was around 1906 that Congress decided to restore Constitution to her former glory. After public outcry against the ship being used for target practice by the Navy halted its planned sinking, $100,000 was appropriated to restore the ship as a museum. This included new casts of cannon for her decks. Some 54 guns were going to be cast for the restoration. But the Naval Constructor in charge of the armaments, believing there was no documentation about the original guns, used a French design instead. So rather than long guns and carronades, the designer saved money by using the same gun on every deck.

In 1925, the Navy rectified this and went all-out in restoring Constitution. The new restoration scrapped all of the 1906 guns for being historically inaccurate. After four years in drydock, the guns the Navy used to replace the 1906 guns were also inaccurate. These were the aforementioned British-style weapons – but at least they represent the kinds of weapons found on the gun decks and spar decks. Two of them even fire salutes.

The two saluting guns aboard Constitution were retrofitted to fire 40mm shells of black powder just in time for the United States Centennial in 1976. On Nov. 11, 1976, the commanding officer of the ship decided to fire the salute guns in the morning and in the evening from the ship’s mooring in Boston Harbor – a tradition it has carried on ever since.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The horrifying way Iran used kids to clear mines

The only good mines are one that are cleared — or better yet, never used in the first place. Today mines are generally seen as relics of bygone eras, deadly weapons that remain dangerous long after the war is fought. Forgotten minefields all over the world kill civilians by the score – more than 8,600 in 2016 alone. Many of those killed by mines are children.

Many who join armed forces around the world do so with the idea that they can keep their children and families – along with the children and families of their fellow countrymen – safe from the imminent dangers of impending war. When faced with an existential threat, countries will go to horrifying lengths to defend themselves. Apparently, using children to clear mines isn’t off-limits.

 

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s
This isn’t World War I, it’s the 1980s. No one told Saddam or Khomeini.

Such was the case in the early 1980s, the nascent years of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran fought a brutal war against Iraq since 1980, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein smelled blood in the disorganized post-Revolution Iran and attempted to seize its access to the Persian Gulf by force.

The Iran-Iraq War was particularly brutal, even as far as warfare in the Middle East is concerned. The war was defined by eight years of stalemates and failed offensives, indiscriminate ballistic missile attacks — often using chemical weapons — and insane asymmetrical warfare.

Insane symmetrical warfare is a very clean term for the tactics Iran used to level the playing field of the Western-backed, technologically superior Iraqis. Iran recently purged its professional military of those loyal to the deposed Shah and was by no means ready to fight a war with a series of Revolutionary militias. The Ayatollah Khomeini was no military commander. He saw a success in war in terms of casualties inflicted on the enemy versus the number his forces took, a World War I-era approach to warfare.

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s
They also dug trenches. A lot of trenches.

 

To Khomeini, as long as the math worked and his fighters were sufficiently motivated by religious fanaticism and revolutionary spirit, he could push all the way to Baghdad. So he enlisted large numbers of civilians with little or no military training to execute his plans. This entrenched incompetence included the field command leadership who most often sent men to die in droves using human wave attacks, another World War I relic. The horror doesn’t stop there.

The New York Times’ Terence Smith, writing about Iran in 1984, described the use of child soldiers by Iran to clear minefields. Young boys, aged 12-17 years, wore red headbands with the words ‘Sar Allah’ in Farsi (Warriors of God) and small metal keys that the Ayatollah declared were their tickets to Paradise if they were martyred in their mission. Many were sent into battle against Iraqi tanks without any protection and bound by ropes to prevent desertion.

They were the first wave, making the way for Iranian tanks by clearing barbed wire and minefields with their bodies.

 

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s
Iranian child soldiers marching off to fight Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War.

 

These children weren’t the only human wave attackers, but they certainly were the most notable – and effective. In the same interview, Smith notes the Iranian commanders are unapologetic. Iraq has many tanks and a lot of support. Iran has very few. What Iran had is exactly what the Ayatollah predicted, a large population filled with religious fervor.

The total number of casualties inflicted on Iran and Iraq throughout the war isn’t clearly known, but what is known is a number ranging anywhere between 500,000 to one million killed and wounded in the eight-year slugfest.

MIGHTY HISTORY

13 new photos from the Air Force’s D-Day flyover

Seventy-five years ago, tens of thousands of men were churning their way through the hedgerows of Normandy, fighting tooth and nail to liberate French towns and to ensure the security of the tenuous toehold that the Allies had opened against Germany in Operation Overlord on D-Day. This toehold would grow until it was a massive front that made it all the way to Berlin in less than a year.


Now, 75 years later, the U.S. and Allied militaries are celebrating their forebears’ success with a series of events in the U.K. and France. As part of these celebrations, the U.S. Air Force flew two F-15E Strike Eagles with special, heritage paint jobs over the fields and hedgerows of modern day Normandy on June 9, 2019. Here are 13 photos from an Air Force photographer sent to document the event:

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s

(U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)

The special Strike Eagles are part of the 48th Fighter Wing and took off from Royal Air Force Base Lakenheath, England, for the flyover. During the D-Day invasion, U.S. Army Air Corps fighters and bombers took off from English air bases to support the landings on the beaches, pushing back the Luftwaffe screens and reducing the number of bombers and dive bombers that troops on the ground would have to endure.

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s

(U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)

The Army Air Corps’ bombs softened targets and reduced enemy artillery positions and other defenses, but the fight in the hedgerows was still bloody and vicious. And the German coastal artillery had to be eliminated to keep as many pilots in the sky as possible.

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s

(U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)

But the pilots who preceded the modern Air Force began the important preparations for D-Day months ahead of time, sending increased bomber formations against Germany, including Berlin, for five months ahead of D-Day. These bomber formations doomed the Luftwaffe, Germany’s air force, in two ways.

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s

(U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)

First, there’s the obvious. The bombers destroyed German factories and war machines, annihilating German equipment and crippling the country’s ability to rebuild it. But Germany responded by sending up their fighters to stop the bombers, and that’s where new American fighters came into the fray.

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s

(U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)

The P-47s with drop tanks led the charge in 1943, but other fighters joined the fray at the end of ’43 and start of ’44. The P-51B, along with other fighters including the British Spitfires and Typhoons, slayed the German fighters that rose to counter the bombers. By June 1944, the Luftwaffe was a shadow of its former self.

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s

(U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)

Army Air Corps pilots gave their lives to prepare for June 6, 1944, and other pilots would make the ultimate sacrifice on D-Day and in the weeks and months that followed. But that perseverance and sacrifice paid dividends, allowing for the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945.

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s

(U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s

(U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s

(U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s

(U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s

(U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s

(U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s

(U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)

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.


When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s

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.

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s

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.

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s

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 HISTORY

‘Vinegar’ Joe Stilwell lost the best WWII assignments twice

Army Maj. Gen. “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell was at the top of the list for high commands as America entered World War I. A 1904 West Point graduate with lots of intelligence experience in World War I and extensive time in the Pacific, he was expected to take on some of the most important commands and win.


And initially, it looked like that would happen, but two of the biggest commands of the war slipped through his fingers. He was assigned to lead the invasion of North Africa when America was ready to deploy forces across the Atlantic, but was recalled to take another mission. He was later assigned to lead the invasion of Japan…until the atomic bombs made it unnecessary.

 

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s
General Chiang Kai-shek, Madam Chiang Kai-shek, and Lt. Gen. Joseph Stilwell celebrate the day after the Doolittle Raid strikes Tokyo. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense Capt. Fred L. Eldridge)

Instead, Stilwell spent most of the war in what was an important backwater, the Chinese-Burma-India Theater. Stilwell was in the middle of preparing Operation Gymnast, the landings of North Africa which would later be conducted as Operation Torch, when he learned that he was on the short list to command U.S. forces in CBI.

Stilwell didn’t want the job. He hoped to invade North Africa. From there, he would have a decent shot at commanding the European theater or at least all troops taking the fight to Italy.

This was a reasonable expectation. Operation Gymnast became Operation Torch and was passed to then-Brig. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower’s success in North Africa led to an appointment as Supreme Allied Commander Europe. A few years later, he used his status as a war hero to run for president.

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s
Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Stilwell eats C-rations as a Christmas meal in 1943 while not-at-all wishing that he had commanded the invasion of North Africa instead of that punk kid Dwight Eisenhower. (Photo: U.S. Army)

 

Stilwell, meanwhile, was sent to the CBI theater where he was charged three major jobs. He was to command all U.S. forces in the theater, lead the Lend-Lease program in China, and serve as the chief of staff for Chiang Kai-shek, the Supreme Allied Commander for the China theater.

He was facing a tough job, but Stilwell dove into it. He assumed control of an integrated force in Burma in 1942 and prepared an offensive against the Japanese.

 

When Britain’s top tank slaughtered America’s
American forces assigned to GALAHAD rest in Burma during a movement in World War II. GALAHAD would be better known by history as Merrill’s Marauders. (Photo: U.S. Army)

 

But it was too late for that. Before Stilwell could lay the groundwork, a new Japanese thrust overcame Chinese forces and sent them reeling back. The rest of the Allied forces in the area, mostly Americans under Stilwell, were forced to follow. This caused the loss of Burma and a severing of important logistical corridors.

The overall retreat was so disorderly that important railways were shut down thanks to crashes and traffic jams. Stilwell had to lead a group from his headquarters on vehicles and then on foot after the air corridors were closed. The vehicles eventually had to be abandoned because of the bad roads, and so Stilwell and a select group walked through the jungle out of Burma.

The group has started with 80 members and emerged from the jungle with 114, having picked up 34 strays and suffered no losses — possibly the only large group to do so.

 

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Kachin Rangers stand in formation. (Photo: U.S. Army)

 

For the next two years, Stilwell had to rely on a small group of Americans leading guerrilla operations in Burma to keep the Japanese off kilter. Army Col. Carl F. Eifler led a small group of U.S. soldiers who recruited the local Kachin people into an insurgency against the Japanese. The force was credited with killing 5,428 Japanese troops and recovering 574 isolated Allied troops, mostly downed aircrews.

But Stilwell didn’t want to disrupt the Japanese in Burma, he wanted it back. In 1944, he was able to lead a force that retook the region. One of the most famous units in the effort was Merrill’s Marauders, led by Maj. Gen. Frank Merrill. Merrill was one of the survivors that left Burma with Stilwell. Merrill had survived the evacuation despite suffering a heart attack.

 

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Merrill’s Marauders move through the China-Burma-India Theater on the Ledo Road. (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

Stilwell was finally removed from CBI in 1944, mainly due to staff and national politics. He was sent to the Ryukyu Islands where he took over the 10th Army on Okinawa. It was in this position that he was tapped to lead the invasion of Japan, Operation Downfall.

Luckily for him and his men, though not for his career and legacy, the invasion was made unnecessary by the Japanese surrendering to MacArthur in 1945.

MIGHTY HISTORY

8 disgusting diseases older troops had to worry about

So, it turns out there’s a reason your local medic wants to look at your body parts and fill you with pills, and it’s not because they’re a pervert — I mean, they probably are, but that’s not why they’re doing it. See, your ancestors fought in wars where it was fairly common their kidneys to swell up and burn, their genitals to start dripping pus, and their livers to grow holes and leak bile into their blood.

If you consider any of the descriptions above humorous or entertaining (sicko), then read on!


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Soldiers undergo delousing on the Serbian front of World War I, an effort to reduce diseases like trench fever.

(Popular Science Magazine)

Trench fever

Trench fever was a fever characterized by skin lesions, sore muscles and joints, and headaches — yeah, not much fun. It was first recognized in 1915 as it spread through the trenches of World War I, but it also broke out in some German units in World War II.

It was spread through infected body lice and usually cleared up in a couple of months, but became chronic in rare cases. At least, with trench fever, the lesions were mostly confined to your skin and back… unlike the next entry.

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Front and back cover of a truly disturbing book given to World War I troops headed back to the states, apparently filled to the brim will all sorts of disgusting genital bacteria.

(National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology)

Literal blue balls (thanks to genital lesions!)

We’re not including a photo here for obvious reasons. A soft chancre is an “infectious, painful, ragged venereal ulcer” that develops at the site of Haemophilus ducreyi. The bacteria can also cause “buboes, or ‘blue balls'” according to a 1918 pamphlet issued by the War Department.

After a regrettable Google search and lots of crying, this author can confirm that the ulcers look very painful, but nothing about the affected organs looks particularly blue.

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Treatment for gonorrhea in 1911. Yes, the doctor is holding what you think he is, and that injection is going where you hoped it wouldn’t.

The clap and syphilis

While gonorrhea — also known as “the clap” — and syphilis are still common STDs, early detection on military bases and a lack of fraternization with locals has made it less of a problem in modern wars than when your grandparents fought. But for troops marching across Europe, hitting on as many French girls as they could, getting a series of sores on their genitals or seeing the dreaded discharge come out of their naughty bits was a real possibility.

And, back then, the only sure-fire test available for diagnoses was getting “rodded off the range,” a test where a doctor slid a cotton swab into a man’s “barrel” and swirled it around 5-10 times. Now, blood and urine tests are used instead. Big win for modern science.

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Not today, tuberculosis. Not today.

Tuberculosis

Another disease that was a bigger problem for grandpa than it is for you, tuberculosis is a nasty infection that usually hits the lungs, causing bloody coughs, but can also wreck your liver, kidneys, and other organs. It causes chest pain, breathing troubles, fatigue, chills, and other issues that absolutely suck, especially while in a World War I trench.

It is spread through the air and infected surfaces, which is a big problem when thousands of dudes are sleeping on top of each other in crowded bunkers.

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Typhoid Mary, famous for being imprisoned by New York authorities after she was found to be a carrier of typhoid fever.

(Public domain)

Typhoid fever

Typhoid fever, caused by salmonella that infects the intestines, was a huge problem in the Civil War and World War I. Back then, the particularly bad sanitation practices allowed fecal material from infected troops to make it into the food and into the digestive tracts of healthy ones. It triggered skin lesions, diarrhea or constipation, trouble breathing, and fever, among other symptoms.

In the Civil War, doctors hadn’t even figured out the disease yet, and treatment basically involved throwing a bunch of home remedies at the problem while continuing the study the disease’s spread. By World War I, we at least knew what caused it and had a vaccine, but still no cure. It wasn’t until after World War II that the disease became treatable.

War nephritis

Nephritis is inflammation of the kidneys. “War nephritis” was named by doctors in World War I who were looking into a sudden increase in cases with additional symptoms, like headaches, vertigo, and shallow breath.

While it’s still very possible to experience nephritis in war today, the worsened symptoms observed in World War I were thought to be tied to conditions in the trenches and along the front. Nephritis limits the kidneys’ ability to filter the blood, and exposure to the cold and wet conditions of wartime Europe made the problem much worse.

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This is your intestines on dysentery.

Dysentery

Dysentery has a reputation for being a particularly bad case of diarrhea, but that’s not a full picture of the problem. It’s diarrhea that can last for months and include bloody stools. Even when treated, it could lead to secondary infections, like hepatitis and liver abscesses. The liver degradation leads to a buildup of toxins in the blood and body.

So, yeah, pretty horrible. And troops shifting between different fronts and battlefields in World War I allowed different versions of the disease to reach new places and vulnerable populations. Today, it’s easier to diagnose and treat, but the best safeguard is good hygiene and sanitation.

“Soldier’s heart” or effort syndrome

Effort syndrome, also known as “soldier’s heart syndrome,” wasn’t well understood, but it was a tendency for soldiers in the Civil War and World War I to experience heart palpitations, shortness of breath, exhaustion, and cold extremities. It’s thought that the syndrome may have been caused by a previous disease, like fever, jaundice, dysentery, etc. combining with the stress and rigors of war.

Over 36,000 troops were discharged in World War I for heart ailments.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is how you quickly ascended to pope during the cutthroat renaissance

Imagine Games of Thrones comes to life in the Vatican but with good writers. Of the 19 popes who took office during the Renaissance, not a single one of them was canonized, or even regarded as Venerable or Blessed. The Renaissance Papacy, which spread from the end of the Western Schism in 1417 and the Protestant Reformation in the second half of the 16th century, was an ear of wealth, corruption, nepotism, debauchery and unprecedented political power for the papacy. Plots, alliances, briberies, betrayals and murder were common occurrences in the corridors of the Roman palaces. Theology had little to do with the results of the elections. Everybody’s gangsta until the Pope has you assassinated.

Mo’ money, mo’ prayers

Indeed, one of the most famous Renaissance popes is the notorious Alexander VI, previously known as Rodrigo Borgia. His talent for intrigue and appetite for women of a shaky moral compass are far more renowned than his piety. Although a golden age for papal supremacy, papal moral prestige experienced a sharp decline during the Renaissance. Adrian VI, who was Pope for one year only, said mass every day of his papacy, but there is little to no evidence that Julius II and Leo X, the previous popes, ever celebrated mass. That abandon of religiosity was an important factor in the rise of Martin Luther’s Protestant doctrine, eventually leading to a new religious schism.

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Coat of arms of Alexander VI – Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome (Public Domain)

According to the prominent historian Eamon Duffy, “the Renaissance papacy invokes images of a Hollywood spectacular, all decadence and drag. Contemporaries viewed Renaissance Rome as we now view Nixon’s Washington, a city of expense-account whores and political graft, where everything and everyone had a price, where nothing and nobody could be trusted. The popes themselves seemed to set the tone.”

The “OG” mafia families

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Cardinals in red vestments during the funeral of Pope John Paul II. (GPO1961, Flickr)

During that time, the papacy was a popularity contest worthy of a reality TV show. The College of Cardinals, the entity in charge of electing the pope, was composed in the majority of members of the most powerful families in Italy and representatives of the Catholic monarchies of Europe. To play the game one must use nepotism, trade of favors and influence. During the Renaissance Papacy, the Houses of Borgia, Della Rovere, and Medici each saw two of their members elected as pope. These houses were the mafia of the Italian Renaissance, using their influence to place their own family members in a position of power and to brutally eliminate their rivals. The bloody ascension of Ceasar Borgia is a perfect representation of the atmosphere of the time.

Don’t hate the player, hate the game

In order to curry the favor of the people and expand their finances, the popes of this period extended the sale of indulgences, ecclesiastic favors that could absolve the buyer of his sins. They also encouraged the humanist trend and slackened the reins of morality, allowing for greater freedom of thinking and even greater debauchery. The popes also became patrons of the arts. It’s under their influence that artists such as Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Raphaël flourished. Sixtus IV (reigned 1471 to 1484) even commissioned the Sistine Chapel, one of the most beautiful building of the catholic world to this day.

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Pope Sixtus IV appoints Platina as Prefect of the Library, by Melozzo da Forlì, accompanied by his relatives (Public Domain)

The path to papacy often involved no small amounts of political alliances, bribery, favors and the occasional murder. Wealth, influence and a devious intellect will get you elected instead of devotion. However, the popes elected in such a treacherous atmosphere did not stay in office for very long. Out of the nineteen popes, only five staying in power for more than ten years, and six help the office for five years or less.

Money, dazzle and backstabbing made the ascension to papacy quick, but it did not help to keep the job. As swiftly as you became pope, plotters would see you leave just as quickly.

MIGHTY HISTORY

3 lesser-known Marine Corps tanks


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M1917s lined up for inspection in China. (USMC photo)

1. M1917 Light Tank

Originally referred to as the “Six-ton Special Tractor”, the M1917 was America’s first mass-produced tank. Built under license as a near-copy of the French Renault FT-17, the tank was meant to accompany the American Expeditionary Force to France in WWI. However, production was not fast enough and the first tanks arrived in Europe just days before the armistice.

Armed with either a Browning .30-caliber machine gun or a French 37mm Puteaux one-pounder infantry cannon, the tanks were crewed by the Light Tank Platoon USMC out of Quantico. After extensive training with the tanks in the states, the platoon was sent to China for a tour of duty in 1927.

Officially assigned to protect the Peking-Tientsin railway, the Marine tankers saw no action in China. Instead, they performed limited maneuvers, went on good-will shows and publicity parades, and stood inspections. However, despite limited employment, the M1917 did set the foundation for the Marine Corps’ future amphibious armor doctrine that would be so crucial in the Pacific islands during WWII.

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A Satan on Saipan. (USMC photo)

2. M3A1 “Satan” Flame Tank

Japanese concrete bunkers proved to be imposing obstacles to Marines in the Pacific during WWII. Though flamethrowers were effective at neutralizing the bunkers, the short range of the weapon system meant that the operator had to get as close as possible to his target. As a result, the average life expectancy of a flamethrower operator on the battlefield was just five minutes.

Rather than expose Marines wearing what was essentially a bomb on their backs, the Corps began to experiment with the concept of flamethrowers mounted in armored vehicles in 1943. The first iteration saw the flamethrower mounted in the pistol port of an M3 Light Tank. However, this gave the flamethrower a limited field of fire and the weapon was placed in the bow turret instead.

Still based on the M3 Stuart Light Tank, the Satan was one of the first flamethrower tanks in the Marine Corps arsenal. With the flamethrower in the bow turret, the gunner held the fuel tanks between his knees. While it wasn’t exactly a comfort to have such a volatile piece of equipment in such a sensitive area, the operator was at least behind the armor of a tank, albeit light. Satan Flame Tanks saw action with the Marine Corps on Saipan and Tinian.

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A ramped up M48 Patton tank in Vietnam. (Jack Butcher)

3. Artillery Tanks

Improvise, adapt and overcome; Marines make do. The hard-chargers of the United States Marine Corps are famed for their ability to create clever solutions to otherwise impossible problems on the battlefield, and the tankers are no exception. In Korea and Vietnam, when dedicated indirect fire assets like mortars or artillery guns weren’t available, Marines moved earth and ramped their tanks up to rain fire down on their enemies.

The tanks were driven into the ramped pits on a sharp incline and their guns were raised so that they could fire longer distances between enemy lines. Of course, this method of fire delivery wasn’t terribly accurate. Rather, the tank artillery was used more fore area effect harassing fire. Still, the unconventional use of equipment by the Marines highlights their ingenuity.

That is a point that those who lament the loss of Marine Corps tanks can hold on to. Impressive as they are, the tanks are just equipment. The warfighter, the Marine, is the true lethal tool that makes America’s enemies reconsider a violent course of action. Tanks or no tanks, no one in their right mind wants to be in a fight with a United States Marine.

MIGHTY HISTORY

6 reasons why Vikings were just like our Marines, long before Tun Tavern

Troops today love to liken themselves to the warfighters of old — Spartans, crusaders, knights, pirates, or whatever else. It helps our troops buy into the classic warrior mentality and it makes us feel more badass. When it comes to U.S. Marines, there’s really one comparison that stands out above the rest as apt: the Vikings of the middle-ages.


I’m not going to sit here and tell you, young Marine, which historical badass you should try to emulate — you do you. But if you’re looking for some inspiration from history’s toughest customers; if you’re looking for some sea-faring, slightly-degenerate tough guys that howl for a fight, you’d do well to start your search with the Vikings.

Here’s where Vikings and modern Marines overlap:

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1. Both were masters at disembarking amphibious landing ships to fight on land

First and foremost, there are no two groups in history more feared for their ability to storm beaches and absolutely destroy everything within range than Vikings and U.S. Marines. The Vikings are famous for their sieges on Northumbria while the Marines are known for successes during the South Pacific campaign of WWII. For both groups, their presence alone is often enough to force a surrender.

But their skills on the coastline don’t discredit their ability to fight inland. Vikings, accustomed to the frigid north, fared extremely well when fighting in the Holy Lands — not too far from there was where the Marines fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah.

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Hell, one of the stories of Thor is about him basically trying to drink an entire ocean made of booze.

2. Both are known for intense post-combat partying

Another key trait of the Viking lifestyle that isn’t too far off from what happens in the average lower-enlisted barracks of any Marine Corps installation: consuming volumes of alcohol that would incapacitate mere mortals is just the pregame for Vikings and lance corporals.

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​I’m highly confident that a Jomsviking leaderwould have been completely cool with wall-to-wall counselling to solve any issues.

3. Both share a deep brotherhood with their fellow fighters

Most troops, regardless of era, become friends with the guys to their left and right, but Marines and Vikings are known for taking that brotherhood to a new level.

The Viking mercenaries, known as the Jomsvikings, followed a strict code that revolved around brotherhood among their ranks and their motto is roughly translated as, “one shield, one brotherhood.” This way of live was written into their 11 codes of conduct. It doesn’t matter who you were before you became a Jomsviking, but so as long as you’re a brother, you will not fight with each other and you will avenge another should they fall in combat. And if there was infighting, the dispute was mediated by the leadership (or chain of command).

All of these things are essentially within the UCMJ.

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Or the story of Harald “Bluetooth”… because he ate a blueberry that one time.. Yep, Vikings were creative like that.

4. Both had a penchant for giving each other nicknames

Giving someone a terrible nickname after they made a silly mistake is one of the more bizarre tidbits of Viking lore — but it is exactly what Marines still do to one another today. The platoon idiot is “boot,” the big guy in the unit is “Pvt Pyle,” and you know damn well that certain guy they call “Mad Dog” did something to earn that name.

History speaks of the famed viking warrior named Kolbeinn Butter Penis (named after his sexual exploits) and Eystein Foul-Fart (named for the noxious small that came from his ass). Hell, even Erik the Red got his name because he was a ginger — or because he was a violent sociopath at the age of ten… nobody can say for certain there.

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On the topic of Valhalla, Marines hold Tun Tavern with about the same level of respect.

5. Both believe that the older the fighter, the more terrifying the man

There’s an old, anonymous saying that’s often attributed to Viking culture:

Beware of an old man in a profession where men usually die young.

The only thing more terrifying than a 47-year-old Master Gunnery Sergeant who’s fueled entirely by alcohol, tobacco, and hatred was a 47-year-old, bearded-out berserker who’s lived in the woods for the better part of twenty years.

Unlike their contemporaries, Vikings had a special place in their groups for the older warrior men and treated their cumulative knowledge as sacred. Younger Vikings would pick their brains, trying to learn their tactics. And, at the end of the day, the old viking were said to fight even more ferociously in battle, knowing that their time was short. After all, dying sick in bed won’t get the Valkyries’ attention — only through glorious combat could they earn entry into the hall of Valhalla.

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Ah, vikings. You unruly, blood-thirsty a**holes. Some things never change.

6. Both enjoyed fighting more than anything else

The most glaringly obvious similarity between these two groups of warriors is how sacredly they hold the concept of fighting. Much like a Marine being told their deployment got pushed back a few months, Vikings would complain if they weren’t given their time on the battlefield.

Vikings’ culture wasn’t based entirely on fighting, but man, were they good at it. That’s probably why nobody ever talks about the Vikings’ expansive trading network. There’s also a reason why people never really talk about a Water Dog’s “water purification skills.”

H/T: to Ruddy Cano, U.S. Marine Corps veteran and fellow We Are The Mighty contributor, for helping with this article.

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