In the early 1900s the navies of the world were quickly expanding their submarine fleets and with them the technology that they used to fight.
One problem submarines faced as they matured was how to communicate underwater. Radio communication was only a couple decades old and radio waves barely transmit underwater. To allow submarines to communicate with naval forts, each other, and surface vessels, the U.S. Navy tested an improvised “violin” for submarines that allowed communication at ranges of up to five miles.
The violins had a single string stretched between two large, metal rods connected to the hull of the submarine. A wheel with a rough edges spun in close proximity to the string. A Morse-code operator could tap a button that pressed the spinning wheel to the string, sending a vibration through the string, the rods, and then the submarine hull itself. This vibration would continue through the water to underwater microphones on ships and coastal installations. The tests began in 1913 with three violins being installed on three ships. There’s no sign that these violins were ever used in combat.
While France fell quickly to Germany after the invasion of Belgium in 1940, there were pockets of troops that proved French technology and martial prowess, including the crew of a Char B1 tank that slaughtered an entire German Panzer company while shrugging off 140 enemy rounds.
For France, the hostilities technically began in September, 1939, when they declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland. But September to the following May is referred to as the “Phony War” because of the small amount of fighting that actually happened.
There were some battles, though, including a 1939 armored advance past the Maginot Line where some of France’s newest tanks, B1 Chars, proved themselves to be nearly invincible. They had thick, sloped armor over their entire body and a turret which German tanks simply had no means of penetrating — except at point-blank range.
The foray past the Maginot Line was short-lived, however. Not all of the French forces were impervious to damage, and the generals saw an attack against massed German forces as a waste of men and resources while the war was so limited.
And so widespread deployment of the B1, of which France had manufactured almost 800, was limited until the German invasion of Belgium in 1940. Even then, the B1s were generally held in reserve unless it was clear they were needed because their exorbitant cost and huge fuel consumption made it risky and costly to send them out.
But when they encountered German units, they were devastating. They could only be killed by a group of Panzers working together to get the 75mm gun on a Panzer IV into close range, or by coordination with Stuka dive bombers and German artillery.
French forces were split up. Infantry and faster tanks were the first thrusts against German advances with slower tanks, like the B1, serving either in reserve or as “plugs” to stop gaps in the line. On May 15, the French town of Stonne became the site of major fighting with French and German forces sawing back and forth over the beleaguered people.
The following morning, German tanks set an ambush along a road through the town, hiding behind the crumbling buildings and planning to slaughter any French tanks that pushed forward. It was an entire company with 11 Panzer IIIs and two Panzer IVs, all ready to engage the first tank that entered their sites.
The French tank triggered its two strongest guns almost simultaneously, hitting one German tank with a 75mm shell and a second with a 47mm shell. Both German tanks were destroyed. One was the rear-most tank in the street, the other was the furthest forward.
Whether the Germans liked it or not, they were now trapped with a pissed-off Char B1. German rounds flew at the French tanks as the 11 surviving German tanks opened fire, but the Panzer IVs were too far away for their rounds to penetrate, and the Panzer IIIs were under-gunned.
Round after round, 140 in total, slammed into Eure, deforming its armor and chipping off chunks of steel, but not penetrating, and not hurting the crew.
Meanwhile, the French crew reloaded their guns and kept firing, picking off German tank after tank after tank until all 13 were destroyed. And then it rolled on, because the Char B1 was a beast. It took out enemy guns as the other French tanks, including additional B1s, entered the town and secured it.
Before sunrise, Stonne was back in French hands. And it remained so for the entire day. The Germans simply couldn’t find the Chars with anything strong enough to kill them.
But Chars cost 10 times what other tanks did, and consumed fuel at a much faster rate as well. They could only cruise for six hours without resupply from fuel trucks. Most of them were either killed by German bombers and artillery or were destroyed by their crews when they ran out of fuel or ammo.
The Germans eventually did come through Belgium, then France, and then they captured Paris. A few dozen B1s remained in Allied control, serving in Free French forces, but even more were captured and pressed into German service, fighting out the war in their opponents’ hands.
Today, 11 survive as museum pieces — one of the original B1s and ten of the upgraded B1 bis design.
Churchill was a dedicated anti-Communist. Even before the war’s end, the British PM expanded his anti-Communist rhetoric. He would later employ the same anti-Stalinist zeal in his public comments to people living inside the Iron Curtain (a term he coined in a 1946 speech).
The Prime Minister’s 1946 speech argued the Soviets were determined to expand their influence across Europe and into Asia – a conclusion U.S. President Harry S. Truman also held.
This essentially meant Churchill was ready to start World War III.
Dubbed “Unthinkable” by Britain’s General Staff, the plan called for American, British, and Polish troops — as well as soldiers from the newly-defeated Wehrmacht — to completely surprise the Soviets from the Baltic to the Mediterranean.
The differential in land forces between the West and the Soviet Union could not be offset by the air and naval superiority the Americans and British would have. The West just could not muster the manpower to match the Soviets. Churchill’s Defence Minister warned him that a quick victory would be “beyond our power” and that they should be prepared for “a long, protracted war against heavy odds.”
Manpower wasn’t the only issue. The Defence Minister’s plans relied on American allies — and the Pacific War was still in full swing. The United States was preparing for the invasion of mainland Japan. The rest of Europe was in tatters and could not assist the British in their efforts.
Then there was the question of how to defend the British Isles. The Russians could not mount the same submarine threat the Germans did during World War II. And the British Defence Ministry concluded the Russians certainly couldn’t launch an invasion from the sea.
But rocket attacks were a different challenge altogether. British planners were well aware of this threat and included it in the report to Churchill. Once the Russians began making these weapons en masse, the British expected a “far heavier scale of attack than the Germans were able to develop and no way of effectively reducing this.”
With Russian superiority in mainland Europe, the hypothetical rocket-based devastation of the British Isles in the scenario, and the insistence of President Truman that the United States would not participate, Churchill shelved the idea forever.
Nothing screams Americana more than rock and roll, blue jeans, and the toughness of our fighting men and women. If you mix them all together, you get the Navy SEALs who fought in the jungles of Vietnam. They were unquestionably rugged, they were probably rocking out to some CCR, and they wore blue jeans throughout.
In a speech delivered to Congress in May, 1961, President John F. Kennedy recognized the need for special operations as a measure against guerrilla warfare. Meanwhile, the Navy was already putting together elite units for exactly that task. The Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams grew into the SEALs we know today and they were baptized in the waters of Vietnam.
Navy SEALs are truly masters of both hiding and seeking.
These men were experts in hand-to-hand combat, high-altitude parachuting, demolitions, and foreign languages — all skills that would prove useful in Vietnam. At the beginning of 1962, SEALs were mobilized into South Vietnam to take on an advisory role. Less than a year later, they were participating in the covert, CIA-sponsored Phoenix Program.
Details of the Phoenix Program are blurry (as covert CIA stuff tends to be), but what is known is that it involved the SEALs doing what they do best: Capturing and assassinating high-value targets. This meant that they would infiltrate deep behind enemy lines and directly engage the enemy when they thought they were safe.
The SEALs were constantly on the move through rough and unforgiving terrain to complete their mission. As anyone who’s ever donned a military uniform can tell you, the “lowest bidder” joke wears off after you’ve ripped a hole in the crotch of your seventeenth pair of trousers.
So, which one of these guys are you gonna scold for wearing blue jeans? None of them? Good choice.
So, SEALs wore whatever was durable enough to complete the mission — and Vietnam demanded blue jeans. It allowed the SEALs to sneak into enemy compounds without worrying about catching their pants on a branch, loudly ripping some fabric, and blowing the element of surprise. It also didn’t hurt that jeans are damn comfy.
SEALs, along with the rest of the Special Operations community, have an advantage over most conventional troops: No one outside of Special Operations is ballsy enough to walk up to a bearded SEAL and berate them for not being in uniform. Anyone who dared was quickly laughed at and then soiled their regulation uniform trousers as they watched the SEAL flex.
If you want to operate like a SEAL, then you need to dress like one. 5.11 Tactical‘s got you covered.
French-born Odette Sansom was a sickly child. She wrestled with a slew of childhood illnesses, including a bout with polio that left her blind for three years. The adversity she overcame as a youth was good preparation for what she would do as an adult: joining the British “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.”
Sansom’s accomplishments in World War II earned her the Order of the British Empire, a knighthood of the French Légion d’Honneur, and she was the first woman to be awarded the George Cross for “acts of the greatest heroism.” Her life foreshadowed the fortitude she would require as she was tortured by the Gestapo, to whom she would never give any information.
Sansom’s wartime story begins in 1941, as the British Admiralty was looking for native-born recruits they could send to Nazi-occupied France. Odette Sansom was a French-born woman who initially responded to the office’s request for photos of the French coastline — except she accidentally sent her photos to the War Office instead of the Admiralty. Soon, the Special Operations Executive, the department responsible for infiltrating Hitler’s Fortress Europe, would recruit her for much, much more.
After less than a year of training, Sansom found herself on a boat headed to France, landing near Cassis in 1942. She was picked up by a spy ring run out of Cannes, where she would work as a radio operator for her group leader, Peter Churchill, relaying secret information back to London. This was always a very dangerous task as the Gestapo were always looking for outgoing radio signals.
Sansom and Churchill.
(Imperial War Museum)
For more than a year, Lise, Sansom’s code name, kept one step ahead of the Gestapo. Along with her radio work, she acted as a courier for all of Southern France, sending messages between resistance cells and SOE operatives. Her skill and professionalism kept her alive, but accidents happen to even the best of operatives, and for Lise, it would be her undoing.
An agent riding a train fell asleep while carrying a list of 200 SOE agents operating in France in 1943. Eventually, that list fell into the hands of Nazi counterintelligence agents. A German double agent calling himself “Colonel Henri” infiltrated the group and betrayed them all. Colonel Henri was really Hugo Bleicher, the notorious Nazi spy hunter.
Sansom and Churchill were arrested and sent to Frenses Prison near Paris. The two were tortured and sentenced to death – a sentence that would never be carried out. While Churchill had no relations with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, his famous name saved both their lives.
Sansom told the Nazis that Churchill was related to the Prime Minister and that she was the younger Churchill’s wife – and that she was also his boss, and not the other way around. This served the dual purpose of keeping the pressure off of Churchill, even though the Nazis only tortured Sansom even more, while keeping the two alive.
But while Sansom and Churchill survived the torture and execution orders, they spent much of the rest of the war in solitary confinement and suffering cruel, brutal treatment at the hands of her SS captors in the Ravensbrück concentration camp until it was liberated by the Red Army in 1945. But Sansom wasn’t liberated by the Russians. The camp commander drove her to an American position and surrendered himself to the U.S., with a “Churchill” as a bargaining chip.
Ravensbrück was a primary camp for women and political prisoners.
Though she physically came out of the war an emaciated shadow of her former self, the treatment left her with no ill will towards anyone. She would testify against the Nazis who imprisoned and tortured her during the Nuremberg Trials, but her main activities after the war involved helping ease the suffering of those affected by the war.
“How strong the reserves upon which you draw you never realize until you need them, but believe me they do not fail you,” she once said.
The American War of Independence, as the British like to call it, was the the rebels’ war to lose.
With the superior military and economy of Britain, many expected the rebellion in the colonies to be over quickly. So, how did the world’s greatest superpower of the time fail to subdue an insurrection in the small colonies of America?
The truth is there are numerous reasons, but at least four of those happen to be costly mistakes on the part of the British.
1. The Battle of Bunker Hill
The British had a knack for defeating the Americans at such a high cost that they themselves often had to retreat after the battle.
This began very early in the war with the Battle of Bunker Hill. The British charged the American redoubts on Breed’s Hill repeatedly and although they eventually drove the Americans back, they lost so many experienced officers and men that General Clinton remarked, “A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.”
Due to the British military system, those loses were difficult to replace.
The British attack was a blunder for several reasons.
As the British advanced across open ground they were mowed down by American sharpshooters. Their return volleys were ineffectual because of the American defenses. Once the British successfully stormed the redoubt on their third attempt, the Americans simply retreated, as they lacked bayonets with which to fight the redcoats.
Worst of all for the British, they could have simply cut off the neck of the peninsula and left the Americans with nowhere to run.
2. Howe’s capture of Philadelphia
Gen. Howe’s capture of Philadelphia was rife with tactical and strategic blunders that likely spelled the beginning of the end of Britain’s hopes of quelling the American Revolution.
Howe’s first major blunder was wanting to take Philadelphia in the first place. Typical Continental strategy of the day said to drive the enemy from the field and take his capital, at which point he will capitulate. However, after taking several American cities and defeating the Americans in multiple battles, this outcome had failed to materialize.
Yet, Howe, the commander-in-chief of British forces in America, failed to realize this and strove to capture Philadelphia.
This action might not have gone down as such an incredible blunder if it hadn’t been for another issue — it left Gen. Burgoyne’s troops without support in the Hudson River Valley.
As most American high school students know, American forces under Gen. Horatio Gates were able to surround and capture the British force at the Battle of Saratoga. This victory brought the much needed support of France and ended British hopes of conquering New England.
Howe would successfully capture Philadelphia but the Continental Congress escaped into the Pennsylvania countryside. In order to secure New York, Howe would have to abandon Philadelphia the next year.
3. The Battle of Cowpens
The Battle of Cowpens was a major turning point towards the end of the war, and another costly blunder for the British.
British forces, led by the young, brash, Col. Banastre Tarleton, were seeking to advance into North Carolina after successfully subduing much of Georgia and South Carolina.
Tarleton’s arrogance and overconfidence were playing right into a trap that the American commander, Daniel Morgan, had set for him. Morgan planned to use his militia as bait, to lure Tarleton into a false sense of victory and then hit him hard with his Continental Regulars.
Tarleton helped Morgan’s cause by driving his force relentlessly in pursuit of the Americans. His men had nearly run out of food and had been roused at two in the morning to continue their pursuit of Morgan. They arrived at the battlefield weak and exhausted.
Once engaged, Morgan’s ruse worked like a charm. The British force suffered over 100 men killed, 200 men wounded, and 500 men and two cannons captured. Combined with a defeat at King’s Mountain prior to the battle, the British position in the South was becoming more precarious.
4. The Battle of Guilford Courthouse
Exasperated by the losses at King’s Mountain and Cowpens, Lord Cornwallis sallied forth against Gen. Nathaniel Greene’s numerically superior force.
Determined to pin down Greene and decisively defeat his army in the south, Cornwallis sought battle at Guilford Courthouse where Greene’s army was camped. Despite being outnumbered two-to-one, Cornwallis’ troops engaged.
The battle was the largest of the southern theatre and despite his numerical advantage, Greene was unable to defeat Cornwallis’ veteran troops. After over two hours of intense combat, Greene withdrew his army from the field.
Though Cornwallis had defeated Greene, his victory was pyrrhic, and failed to decisively destroy the Patriot army. Cornwallis had lost nearly a quarter of his force killed or wounded in the battle. Losses that were increasingly difficult to absorb for the British army.
Cornwallis’ fateful decision forced him to withdraw to Yorktown to await reinforcements. At Yorktown, Cornwallis’ tactical blunders would cost the British the war. First, he failed to breakout when he had the chance, then he gave up his outer defenses, hastening his defeat.
With no reinforcements and under siege, Cornwallis surrendered his force to Gen. Washington, effectively ending hostilities in the American Revolution.
The Commander-In-Chief is more than just an American leader, the office is of global importance. As the “Leader of the Free World,” the American President has to be able to travel all over the U.S. and around the world – safely. So of course, the United States Air Force has a special plane for the President. This wasn’t always the case, however. What we call “Air Force One” isn’t the name of the plane, it’s the callsign for any plane the POTUS happens to be on (so yes, if President Biden went Groupon skydiving in a decades-old rust bucket Cessna, that plane would be Air Force One for a brief, shining moment).
The specially designed planes commonly seen as a referred to as Air Force One are two Boeing VC-25s, military versions of the 747 with some common and classified special air countermeasures. This also wasn’t always so. Earlier planes used by the President had few special features and were just like any other aircraft. Air Force One was introduced as the Presidential call sign after another plane with the same call sign entered the same airspace as President Eisenhower’s in 1953.
Although it was after he left office, Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to fly in a powered plane (because of course he was. I’m surprised he didn’t invent powered flight). He flew in a Wright Flyer near St. Louis in 1910.
The first specially outfitted plane for America’s Chief Executive was a Douglas Dolphin, in service from 1933 through 1939. Built for President Roosevelt, there are no photos of him actually flying in it, but it was there if he needed. The plane was specially outfitted with luxury upholstery and a sleeping compartment.
FDR was the first president to fly while in office, however. A Pan-Am Boeing 314 called the Dixie Clipper flew him to the Casablanca Conference in Morocco in 1943. German u-boats made travel by sea a risky prospect for American VIPs.
A modified C-87 Liberator dubbed Guess Where II was specially designed by the U.S. military to ferry President Roosevelt on international trips. It might have been the first official plane specifically designed to be Air Force One, but it was not accepted for this use.
A C-54 Skymaster was reconfigured by the U.S. Secret Service to be the President’s official mode of international transportation. Nicknamed Sacred Cow, the aircraft was fitted with a sleeping area, radio phone, and an elevator to accommodate President Roosevelt in his wheelchair. He was able to use it only once before he died, on a trip to the Yalta Conference in 1945.
President Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 into law, creating (among other things) an independent United States Air Force. He also updated the Presidential aircraft, a C-118 Liftmaster, painted with the head of a bald eagle and nicknamed for the president’s hometown of Independence, Missouri.
When President Eisenhower’s plane (callsign Air Force 8610) was confused with an Eastern Airlines 8610, Ike was flying in a Lockheed C-121 Constellation called Columbine II. After that, any aircraft carrying the President would be called Air Force One. Eisenhower put these presidential aircraft into service, two C-121s called Columbine II and III.
In 1962, President Kennedy updated the Presidential airplane yet again, this time equipping them with jet engines. The Air Force purchased a Boeing C-137 jet for the purpose. The plane was designed by famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy to much fanfare from the Press and public. The plane, name Special Air Mission (SAM) 26000 served Presidents Kennedy through Clinton and participated in many of the late 20th century’s most iconic moments. SAM 26000 is now on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
The next plane introduced to the President was SAM 27000, which served Presidents Nixon through George W. Bush. SAM 27000 was carrying President Nixon back to California after he resigned the Presidency. As Gerald Ford was sworn into office, the pilots requested their call sign be changed from Air Force One to SAM 27000. SAM 27000’s last flight took George W. Bush to Waco, Texas, where it was decommissioned. The plane is now on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif.
President Reagan did not make any changes to the Air Force One program, but a new plane was built during his presidency. It would be in service until 1990, when it would carry President George H.W. Bush. The plane now featured defenses from electro-magnetic pulses and secure communications systems. SAM 28000 and SAM 29000 are two military-grade Boeing 747s specially designed to carry the President. The interiors were designed by then-First Lady Nancy Reagan.
The Boeing 747-8 was the Air Force One plane during the most recent Trump administration.
What could you do with some tin cans, an old washing machine, sausage casings, and salt water? If you’re Dr. Willem Kolff, you could replace a human kidney. The Netherlander spent his formative years studying medicine in the Netherlands, especially interested in how a young twenty-something could be dying of renal failure. It was in the middle of World War II that he managed to become the father of artificial organs.
Thanks for nothing, MacGyver.
Kolff came to the Dutch University of Groningen in 1938, two years before the Nazis invaded Holland. As he watched a 22-year-old die slowly from kidney failure, he came to believe if he could find a way to remove the toxins from his body – the job normally performed by the kidneys – he could have saved the man’s life. Eventually, using sausage casings and salt water, he discovered the sausage casings would effectively separate urea, the waste products filtered by the kidneys, from the salt water.
Then, the Nazis invaded Holland.
His hospital in Groningen was soon filled with Nazi sympathizers. Rather than accept this and allow his advances to be used by the Third Reich, Kolff left the city and moved to rural Holland. While there, he not only defied the Nazis but took in some 800 people whom he hid from the Gestapo in his hospital, all the while continuing to work on his artificial kidney.
The first artificial kidney, created by Dr. Kolff.
Eventually, Kolff would complete the artificial kidney, as the rest of Europe was engulfed in World War II. His design used 50 yards of sausage casing wrapped around a wooden drum, all in a salt solution. As the blood was fed into the device, the machine was rotated, which cleaned the blood. Using orange juice cans and a washing machine, he designed a water pump based on Ford motor designs. The first 15 patients died on these early dialysis machines. Then a 67-year-old woman survived.
It changed the medical world forever. Thousands of people who would otherwise die a painful death from kidney failure now had a chance at survival. By 1956, Kolff was an American citizen. He would later develop the means to oxygenate blood during bypass surgery and even an artificial heart.
Developed by German Engineers during the 1930s as a defensive strategy of the Third Reich, the self-contained anti-personnel mine was originally named Schrapnellmine or S-Mine. Considered one of the deadliest tools on the battlefield, the French first encounter this version of bouncing mines in 1939 as it devastated their forces.
Dubbed the “Bouncing Betty” by American infantrymen, these mines were buried just underground, only exposing three prongs on the top which were usually camouflaged by the nearby grass vegetation.
Once these prongs were disturbed by a foot or vehicle, the mine would shoot itself upward to around 3 feet or at its victim’s waist level using its black powder propellant. The fuse was designed with a half a second delay to allow its aerial travel.
As it detonated, ball bearings contained inside flew out rapidly and acted as the casualty producing element. The S-mine was lethal at 66 feet, but the American training manuals stated that serious casualties could be taken up to 460 feet.
The landmine had great psychological effects on ground troops as it was known to inflict serious wounds rather than kill.
Although the Schrapnellmine was highly effective and constructed mostly out of metallic parts, detection was quite simple using metal detectors. However, at the time, such heavy and expensive gear wasn’t available to all infantry units as they fought their way through the front lines.
So allied forces had to probe the soil with their knives and bayonets to search for the dangerous mines. When they were discovered, a soldier could disarm the Bouncing Betty with a sewing needle inserted in place of the mine’s safety pin.
Production of the Bouncing Betty ended in 1945 after Germany had manufactured 2 million of the mines.
The very first man to go to space was a Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, who rose to the top of his class thanks to his stunning memory, quick reactions, and poise during emergencies. That poise would come in handy since his spacecraft couldn’t survive re-entry, used compromised design components, and ultimately took the astronaut through an 8g spin cycle on his way back to Earth.
The first manned space mission was launched with Vostok 1, and Yuri Gagarin at the helm. Gagarin had trained for years to be the first human to leave the atmosphere and had gotten the mission because his peers in cosmonaut training had voted that he was the best choice.
But it was a dangerous honor. After all, only animals had entered space before, and the U.S. and Soviet Union had less than stellar records of getting mammals back alive.
And the plan for getting Gagarin back wasn’t one to inspire confidence. First, while Gagarin had been selected partially based on his reflexes, he was locked out of the controls. And it wasn’t certain the spacecraft could slow itself down during re-entry. Instead, it relied on Gagarin ejecting at almost 4.5 miles above the Earth, right after he dealt with all the tumult of hitting the atmosphere.
As a bonus, there was a chance that the controls would simply fail in space, so Gagarin flew with 10 days worth of food in case he had to wait until his orbit decayed naturally.
The actual launch on April 12, 1961, went well. The rocket made it into space, the launch vehicle broke away, and Gagarin rode through one orbit of the Earth. So far, so good. But then, the service module failed to separate from the spacecraft.
When the two-module spacecraft hit the atmosphere, the modules tumbled around each other and began to burn up.
Because, again, the capsule had little protection for the cosmonaut, and he couldn’t be certain he would survive the capsule’s impact with the Earth. So he had to activate his ejection seat almost 4.5 miles up. Gagarin and his capsule traveled separately from there. Gagarin landed near a farm and walked up, in full orange spacesuit and helmet, to the farmers for help.
He was quickly named a Hero of the Soviet Union and put on a high shelf where he couldn’t be broken. He was able to lobby for a potential return to space though, but a tragic training accident ended his life while he was still preparing for the mission.
On March 27, 1968, he was piloting a MiG-15, entered a steep dive, and crashed into a forest. An investigation in 2010 concluded that a vent was left partially open. This vent was supposed to be closed as the plane entered high-altitude flight so the pilots would have enough air in the cockpit. The investigator supposed that Gagarin and his co-pilot entered a steep dive to get back to a safe altitude to close the vent, but passed out and could never pull out of it.
An Israeli pilot only known as “Lt. H” was flying at a low level near 350 knots in an A-4 Skyhawk one day. He was flying over the desert near the Dead Sea in September 1985. He was flying straight and level when the next thing he knows he is laying on the floor of the valley near where he was previously flying. All he knows is that he has a massive headache and no memory of how he got there.
Eventually, H did remember seeing a small object coming at him at a high speed. As he approached, he instinctively ducked to avoid hitting the object, but to no avail.
“I couldn’t tell what it was,” he told the New York Times. ”As it got closer, instinctively I ducked. That’s all I remember. I woke up on the ground with a parachute around me and my neck broken.”
His command knows exactly what happened – he ran head-on into a migrating flock of birds. One of those birds penetrated the canopy and flew into the cockpit, then hit H in the head, knocking him unconscious. What happened next was nothing short of miraculous.
This wasn’t an ordinary bird, it was a Honey Buzzard.
The Israelis found H laying in the desert, as H remembers. But they also found feathers and blood on the helmet of their young IDF lieutenant. They sent the evidence to a lab in Amsterdam to get some answers. That’s how they discovered what kind of bird the Skyhawk hit and how it was able to break into the jet’s canopy. It turns out Israel in the 1980s was smack-dab in the center of a migration corridor for storks, pelicans, and predatory birds like the Honey Buzzard.
It turns out the bird crashed through the front windshield and eventually hit the pilot’s ejection seat lever after knocking him out. Lieutenant H’s parachute opened on its own, and that’s how H ended up on the ground with a headache.
The bird, however, probably went down with the Skyhawk.
They served in battles on the Great Plains, Cuba, Mexico, the Philippines and France. They fought the Native Americans, protected American pioneers, took on ranchers to protect farmers, battled with Pancho Villa, protected our southern border, charged up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt, served under Black Jack Pershing, served as the first park rangers for our National Parks, inspired the Smokey Bear and Drill Instructor hat, had Bob Marley write a song about them and earned Medals of Honor along the way.
They also did all this in the face of extreme racism and prejudice from the people they served with, people they protected and the government who put them in harm’s way.
The Buffalo Soldiers first came into existence immediately after the Civil War. The Union Army had seen the bravery of African Americans in the war and set about creating units for them. In 1866, they drew up what would eventually be 2 Cavalry Regiments (9th and 10th) and 2 Infantry Regiments (24th and 25th)
The United States reduced the number of its soldiers to 25,000 at the end of the war, and African Americans made up 10% of the Army’s ranks. They were paid $13/month, which was the same as a white man who served (which was unheard of at the time). They were also prohibited from being stationed East of the Mississippi River as Congress and the Army feared reaction to black troops (especially in the South during Reconstruction) would not be civil.
So the newly formed units were sent West.
The origins of the name ‘Buffalo Soldier’ are contested to this day. Some believe they were given the name as a sign of respect from the Cheyenne or Comanche. Others say it was because they wore buffalo hide coats to keep warm on the prairie or because they fought with the nobility of a buffalo. Another legend that is less politically correct is that the Apaches saw the hair of the African American soldiers and likened it to a buffalo’s mane. In any case, the troops gradually adopted the name as their own and wore it as a badge of honor.
The first part of the history of the Buffalo Soldiers takes place during the Indian Wars. Americans were expanding out West and into direct conflict with the Native Americans who fought to maintain their lands. The Buffalo Soldiers had plenty of tasks outside of fighting. They built roads, protected mail carriers, enforced land settlement disputes, protected farmers from free-range cattlemen and fought the Native Americans.
Fighting over 177 engagements, the Buffalo Soldiers went up against the Apache, Comanche, Kiowas, Cree, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe Indians. They worked to keep Indians on reservations, protected settlers from raids, and protected settlers’ interests from as far north as Montana down to southern Texas. They also enforced settlement rules, making sure that land wasn’t (ironically) illegally taken by settlers.
In the midst of all this, the Buffalo Soldiers experienced extreme racist behavior from their fellow soldiers and the people they were protecting. African Americans, for a long time, could not become officers and command Buffalo Soldiers. White officers would sometimes refuse to take commands in Buffalo Soldier units, thinking it was beneath them. George Custer famously refused to command black troops convinced they wouldn’t fight (they came to his rescue later on). They were also subject to abuse from the very people they were protecting. White settlers would ask for help only to attack Buffalo Soldiers when they were the ones who were sent to help.
(Who knew Blazing Saddles was based on a true story?)
At the turn of the century, as the Indian Wars wound down, the Buffalo Soldiers were sent overseas as part of America’s foray into foreign affairs. They were sent to the Philippines to help put down insurrections and also fought in the Spanish-American War. When Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill, the Buffalo Soldiers charged alongside him. One of their 1st Lieutenants was a young man named Jack Pershing.
Cuba was not Pershing’s first command with the Buffalo Soldiers, nor would it be his last. Pershing was so impressed with the courage of the soldiers he commanded, he sought for other units to emulate their discipline and standards. Ironically when he ended up at West Point as an instructor and tried to enforce the same standards, he earned the despicable nickname N***** Jack. This was eventually softened to ‘Black Jack’ Pershing. Pershing would later command the Buffalo Soldiers on the border but bow to political racism when it came to the Great War.
After Cuba, the Buffalo Soldiers were sent to California. At the time, several National Parks had been established and there was a need to protect the lands. At Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, the Buffalo Soldiers became the first park rangers chasing after poachers, ejecting settlers and squatters, keeping illegal logging in check, and building infrastructure so that people could visit.
On a side note, the Buffalo Soldiers adopted the ‘Montana crease’ in their hats in Cuba. When they ended up at Yosemite the creased hats became synonymous with the park. The style was later adopted by park rangers, Smokey Bear, border patrol agents, highway patrolmen, and your ferocious drill instructor.
In the lead up to World War I, the U.S. at first took an isolationist role. That said, there was worry that the Germans would try to interfere with U.S. sovereignty. The Buffalo Soldiers were sent to the border with Mexico as the Mexican Revolution had caused instability on the border, and the U.S. was worried about Mexican and German interference with the border.
Back under the command of Black Jack Pershing, the Buffalo Soldiers chased after Pancho Villa after his incursion into New Mexico. They later battled Mexican forces and German military advisors in the Battle of Ambos Nogales in 1918.
Although successful in that battle, there was a bittersweet element to it.
The Buffalo Soldiers watched as Black Jack Pershing, one of their biggest advocates, took command of the American Expeditionary Force as they headed over to Europe to fight in the Great War.
The Buffalo Soldiers did not go. President Woodrow Wilson was openly racist and did not want them to fight alongside white soldiers. They were kept home, while segregated support units were sent to work behind the lines. It only added to the hurt when some of those support units were lent to the French to fight under their command.
In World War II, the reorganization of the Army led to the creation of the 92nd Infantry Division, the Buffalo Division. Other segregated units were organized, and many took on the name and traditions of the Buffalo Soldiers.
After World War II, the legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers was instrumental in desegregating the Army. By the time the Korean conflict started, the descendant units of the Buffalo Soldiers were absorbed into other units as part of integration.
The legacy of the Buffalo Soldier cannot be denied. Given the opportunity to serve, African Americans came through time and time again, even in the face of racism and prejudice. The history of these men goes hand in hand in the expansion into the West, the establishment of our National Parks, protection of our borders and the fight for freedom.
During World War II, the Allies, especially Britain, worked hard to convince Germany that every attack it saw was a feint and that every shadow in its vision was another Allied army coming to crush it. These deception operations led to the creation of an entire, fake invasion of Norway that was supposed to keep German defenders away from Normandy on D-Day.
Norwegian soldiers on the Narvik front in World War II.
The overall deception operation was known as Operation Bodyguard, a reference to a speech by Prime Minister Winston Churchill that said Truth was too precious and fragile to go anywhere without a Bodyguard of Lies. And when it came to D-Day, Bodyguard was on steroids.
To understand how deception operations worked for D-Day, it’s important to understand that the actual landings at Normandy weren’t necessarily logical. The Normandy landings took no deepwater port, and the terrain in the area forced the Allied invaders to fight through thousands of hedgerows to break out into the rest of France. Even after that, it was over 600 miles from there to Berlin, and the bulk of that was through German homeland.
So, while the D-Day landings of Operation Neptune were successful and Germany lost the war, it wasn’t the easiest or, arguably, even the most logical course of action. After all, there were two succulent nuts that would be easier to crack than Normandy.
German troops in the Balkans in 1941.
(Bundesarchiv Bild, CC BY-SA 3.0)
The first and likely the easiest 1944 target for the Allies would’ve been an invasion into the Balkans, the soft underbelly of Europe. Allied troops were already holding the lowest third of Italy, all of North Africa, and Turkey, so they had plenty of places to invade from. And taking the Balkans from Hitler would’ve robbed him of much of his oil, copper, and bauxite, among other materials.
But another juicy target was Norway. Norway had been captured by Germany early in the war because Hitler knew that he needed a large Atlantic coastline to prevent his navy being bottled up in the Baltic and North seas like it had in World War I. And, the German presence in Norway helped keep Sweden neutral and amenable. If Norway fell, Sweden might allow Allied forces in its borders or, worse, join the alliance itself.
From Sweden or Norway, the Allies could easily bomb northern German factories and take back Denmark. And an invasion through Denmark would put the Allied forces less than 450 miles from Berlin, and only half of that path would be through German home territory.
And so Allied strategists played up the possibility of a Norway invasion, seeking to keep as many German units as possible deployed there to make the actual landings in France much easier.
Danish troops during Germany’s invasion in 1940.
This led to Operation Mespot, a coordinated plan to move troops, create false planning documents, and pass fake intelligence that would indicate an invasion into Norway, through friendly Sweden, and into Denmark in the summer of 1944, right as the actual D-Day invasions were taking place. According to the Mespot deception, the D-Day landings were the feint to draw German defenders from real invasions in the Baltics.
The part that related directly to an invasion of Norway was Operation Fortitude North, and it called for a British and American landing in the North. There, the forces would link up with Russian soldiers and press south. In order to sell this subterfuge, Britain ordered dozens of double agents from Germany to report on the movements of the “4th Army,” a fake organization that would be a major force in the invasion.
Those second two units were real, and the 52nd had actually been training for a potential invasion of Norway. So Germany wasn’t completely crazy.
The British 4th Army was a field army in World War I, and military deception planners revived the unit in World War II on paper in order to create fake units to deceive German defenders.
(Imperial War Museum)
The American troops were supposedly talkative, and German agents were told stories of another infantry division and three Ranger battalions training in Iceland. German double agents there were told to verify this false intelligence, and they did. In the end, Germany thought 79 divisions were training in England for invasions when there were only 52, and they believed that the main target might be Norway.
Since Hitler was already obsessed with a Baltic invasion, all of this intel fed into his fears and demanded a response. And so one was given. 464,000 German troops were held in Norway to fight off an Allied invasion. While many would have been there regardless, 150,000 were otherwise “surplus” troops who likely would’ve been sent to France to combat the landings if Germany had known Norway was relatively safe.
There was also a Panzer division and 1,500 coastal defense guns, many of which could have been moved if Germany had better intelligence.
British forces land on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
(Sgt. Mapham J, No. 5 Army Film Photographic Unit)
All of this had a real effect for Allied troops on the French beaches. Combined with the success of the famous Ghost Army, deception operations towards the Balkans, and German missteps, the D-Day landings faced much less resistance than they otherwise would have.
While Germany was defending Normandy, Denmark, and Greece, it was getting pummeled in France.