A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations

Carrying troops into combat, or at least close enough that they can walk to it, was a fairly basic art for thousands of years. Horses or boats did the job until motorized vehicles started to be used in large numbers in the beginning of the 20th century. 

During World War II, airborne and glider troops made mass assaults with thousands of troops possible at long ranges. While this was a huge leap forward, airborne operations came with some major liabilities. As seen during the D-Day landings, the accuracy of these drops was lacking, and troops could end up far from their intended drop zones. Just as importantly, parachutes and gliders were both one-way trips, and troops were largely on their own until their leg counterparts could catch up.

Helicopters promised to change all that. Which helicopter was officially “first” is subject to some dispute, but vertical flight was largely a novelty for many years. Toward the end of World War II, some primitive rotary-wing aircraft saw limited action in the Pacific doing rescue missions, but they were far from a decisive arm.

A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations
Retired Sgt. Maj. Mike Zacker, secretary of the board of directors and docent at the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum and Historical Foundation, poses in front of an HRS-1 at the museum aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., September 2014. Zacker spent 18 years of his 30-year career working on the HRS-1 and similar helicopters. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Christopher Johns.

After World War II, the Marine Corps first saw the utility of helicopters in an air assault role. As the service contemplated how amphibious assaults would remain viable in the Atomic Age, it concluded that the ability to cover much greater distances would be necessary. The Corps stood up Marine Helicopter Squadron One, HMX-1, and experimented with employing helicopters in amphibious warfare, developing the first doctrine on the subject.

The Korean War launched the helicopter from infancy to adolescence. The Marine Corps performed the first mass resupply via helicopter on Sept. 13, 1951. Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron 161 (HMR-161) used HRS-1 helicopters to deliver 74 Marines and more than 18,000 pounds of supplies to an area known as the Punchbowl. A week later, they performed the first combat troop lift, delivering 224 Marines to a hilltop in the area.

It took nearly two more years for the Army to perform its first helicopter assault, but true to form, it was bigger than the Marines’. On July 13, 1953, Army H-19 helicopters of the 1st Transportation Helicopter Battalion lifted more than 800 Republic of Korea troops.

A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations
An American Huey helicopter spraying Agent Orange over Vietnam in 1963. Army photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Kennedy administration’s focus on “brushfire wars” and shift to a doctrine of “flexible response” contrasted with Eisenhower’s “massive retaliation” and gave birth to what the Army would call “air assault.” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara insisted on increasing the tactical mobility of the US Army. Under Lt. Gen. Hamilton Howse, the Army conducted a series of experiments at Fort Bragg in the early 1960s, leading to the formation of the 11th Air Assault Division at Fort Benning, which soon became the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile).

The “1st Air Cav” became one of the most storied units of the Vietnam War, which became known as the “helicopter war.” Given the terrain and the enemy insurgency in that conflict, helicopters — usually the UH-1 “Huey” — gave US forces a tactical advantage. Large insertions of troops into “hot” landing zones would become a trademark of the conflict, and ultimately, more than 5,000 of the roughly 12,000 helicopters used during that war were lost. 

After Vietnam, the Marines returned to their traditional focus on amphibious assault and using helicopters accordingly. The Army returned to focusing on Europe and deterring the Soviet bloc. Helicopters, now mostly the UH-60 Black Hawk instead of the Huey, formed the most mobile element first in “Active Defense” and later in “AirLand Battle.”

A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations
A UH-60 Black Hawk lifts off during the Ghazni offensive in Afghanistan in support of soldiers from 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Sept. 2, 2018. Army photo by 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

Fortunately, Europe never needed American helicopter assaults to save it, but 1991 gave those aircraft a chance to shine. The 101st Air Assault Division mounted a brigade-sized lift to envelop the northern flank of Iraqi troops defending Kuwait as part of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s famous “left hook” attack. The operation validated the utility of helicopter-borne forces in maneuver warfare, as opposed to the counterinsurgency role they served in Vietnam.

In almost a “back to the future” moment, after 9/11, helicopters once again became the preferred tool to maneuver quickly against enemy insurgents, first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq. While generally on a smaller scale than the largest assaults of the Vietnam era, tactical movement by helicopter has been essential throughout what became known as the Global War on Terror. 

Modern helicopter insertions look different from those in Vietnam. Insertions into hot landing zones are rare, and losses are less common. This can be attributed to improvements in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) technology, as well as tactics. While there have been some failures, such as Operation Anaconda, by and large, helicopters have been key to major successes, including the raid that killed Usama bin Laden in 2011.

A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations
The MV-22 Osprey’s mission for the US Marine Corps is the transportation of troops, equipment, and supplies from ships and land bases for combat assault and assault support. Photo courtesy of the US Navy.

As the military exits Iraq and Afghanistan and shifts toward potential threats in the Pacific, the role of the helicopter will undoubtedly change once again. The mobility helicopters provided in the geographical constraints of Vietnam and Afghanistan seems limited in comparison with the vastness of the Pacific. 

Vietnam-era Hueys could fly around 120 knots for about 275 miles. The Black Hawks that succeeded them in the US Army can reach 150 and about 300 miles in a basic configuration. A big leap in performance will be necessary if rotary-wing aircraft are to remain a part of future war plans.

The Marine Corps, with its amphibious mission, had to face this problem much sooner. The Marines invested in the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor, which cruises nearly twice as fast and flies twice as far as traditional helicopters. The Marines first deployed the Osprey in 2007 and replaced the last of its CH-46 helicopters with it in 2017.

The Army will have to invest in a similar capability to prepare for the type of conflict envisioned in the National Defense Strategy. It is moving ahead with the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft program, which aims to produce an aircraft with the necessary speed and range to fight in tomorrow’s battlefields. Both Bell and a joint Sikorsky-Boeing team are competing, but whichever wins, it’s a certainty that air assault will continue to have a long future.

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

Articles

Here’s where the term ‘Bravo Zulu’ comes from

Everyone’s a critic. After you complete a job, someone is going to tell you how you did. If you messed up, you’re gonna hear about it.


In the military, if you did good work, you may have heard the term “Bravo Zulu,” which means “well done,” — but…why?

Since the Navy has strong traditions, motivated sailors tend to uphold those traditions and use nautical terms in their everyday dialogue. But why not just say “well done,” right?

A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations

According to the Navy, the popular term comes from the Allied Naval Signal Book created by NATO as a system of signals displayed by either a flag hoist or voice radio to communicate and relay messages back and forth between various naval vessels.

The system is comprised of letters and/or numbers that are represented by flags and pennants which have meaning either by themselves or in different combinations.

Related: Here’s the history behind ‘Reveille’

The Navy uses a system of 68 flags covering the 26 letters of the alphabet, 10 numeral, 10 numeral pennants, 4 substitutes, and 18 special flags and pennants.

When a ship wants to relay a message like “well done,” they will hold up the two flags like shown below.

A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations

If a vessel wants to communicate another message like “action is being carried out” they would hang up the “Bravo Alpha” flag or “action is not being carried out” the “Bravo India” flag will get hoisted.

A hoisted “Bravo” flag by itself means the vessel is “carrying dangerous cargo” which is far different than doing a job “well done.” For more nautical messages click here.

You’re welcome, America.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why the M113 APC will be around for a long time

To put it bluntly, the M113 armored personnel carrier looks like a big box on tracks. It’s equipped with a primary weapon that’s over 75 years old that isn’t particularly effective against its modern contemporaries. And yet it’s served with the United States Army for nearly sixty years and, even when it’s retired, it’ll stick around for a long time.

When it entered operational service in 1960, it was intended to haul 11 troops into battle. It had a crew of two: A driver and a vehicle commander who handled the vehicle’s primary weapon, the M2 “Ma Deuce” heavy machine gun.


A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations

M113s lead the way for troops in South Vietnam.

(US Army)

The M113 saw a lot of action in the Vietnam War, where it proved very versatile. Some versions were equipped with the M61 Vulcan, a 20mm Gatling gun, and were used as effective anti-aircraft vehicles. Others were outfitted with launchers for the BGM-71 TOW missile.

A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations

Some M113s were modified to carry mortars, like this one with a M120 120mm mortar.

(U.S. Army photo by SPC Joshua E. Powell)

Other variants quickly emerged, including a command vehicle, a smoke generator, an ambulance, and a cargo carrier. Two mortar carriers, the M106 (which carried a 107mm mortar) and the M125 (packing an 81mm mortar) also served, paving the way for the introduction of the M1064 (equipped with a 120mm mortar). The M113 chassis also carried the MIM-72 Chapparal surface-to-air missile and the MGM-72 Lance ballistic missile.

A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations

The M113 could carry 11 troops — two more than the M1126 Stryker.

(US Army)

Versions of this vehicle have served with nations across the world, including Canada, Norway, Egypt, and Italy. Over 80,000 M113s of all variants have been produced, which means it’ll be around for years with one nation or anything long after the U.S. retired it.

Learn more about this senior citizen of armored vehicles in the video below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KZjpOZQabM

www.youtube.com

MIGHTY HISTORY

The first and only female Buffalo Soldier joined the Army disguised as a man

Before women were allowed to join the military, Cathay Williams decided that she wouldn’t let her gender, or the color of her skin, get in the way of her ambitions. She became the first known African American woman in American history to join the armed forces by disguising herself as a man.


Williams was born into slavery in the year 1842 in Independence, Mo. She was a house slave for William Johnson, a planter in Jefferson City, Mo. During the beginning of the Civil War, Williams was claimed to have been “freed” by Union soldiers, but was forced to work for the Federal Army as a paid cook and laundress.

During her time serving in the Federal Army, she gained an insight into military life by answering directly to two Union Generals, one of whom was General Philip Sheridan. After the war ended, Williams did not have the means of supporting herself, but she wasn’t about to let her newly garnered freedom get snuffed out like a flame.

A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations
In 1866, Cathay Williams became the first African-American woman to enlist in the U.S. Army. She posed as a man, enlisting under the pseudonym William Cathay. (Image from U.S. Army)

In November 1866, Williams disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the U.S. Army as William Cathay. Full-on medical exams weren’t mandatory at the time, and Williams was able to pas a quick, general health check before filing in among the ranks.

She was found fit for duty and assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry, Company A, an all-black regiment in St. Louis, Mo. which, eventually, became a part of the renowned Buffalo Soldiers. Apparently, the only two people knew her secret — a friend and a cousin — both of whom served alongside her in the same regiment. They never divulged her charade.

Williams traveled with her regiment and helped protect miners and immigrants from Apache attacks at Fort Cummings, Mo. Unfortunately, military service took its toll on Williams. She was in and out of the hospital for most of her service due to neuralgia (pain caused by a pinched nerve). Surprisingly, it was six months after her first hospitalization when they found out that she was a woman.

After the truth was revealed, Williams was discharged from the Army honorably on October 14, 1868. Little of her life is known after she was discharged, except for her attempts to get a pension for the disabilities that she incurred from military service.

Sadly, Williams never received compensation for her medical issues. The Pension Bureau claimed her illnesses were pre-existing and, because she was a woman, her service was not considered legal, disqualifying her from pension pay.

She may not have intended to become a prominent figure in history, but one thing is for sure, Cathay Williams will forever be regarded as the first and only female Buffalo Soldier to have served in the U.S. Army.

Articles

This is why the Navy wears bell bottoms, and it’s not for fashion

The Navy dress uniform — also known as “cracker jacks” — is one of the most iconic symbols in the military today. You can spot a Navy sailor from a mile away after they don the familiar dressing.


Every piece of the uniform from head-to-toe has some symbolic or practical use — and the famous bell bottoms are no different.

During the ’60s and ’70s, bell bottoms were all the rage in fashion culture as men and women of all ages walked the streets with the popular look.

Related: This is why sailors have 13 buttons on their trousers

A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations
A girl in the 1970s sporting some fashionable bell buttons near a beach. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

But the fad didn’t make its debut on a famous red carpet or in an elegant fashion show — it’s the brilliant invention of the U.S. Navy.

Although no one has been officially accredited with inventing the bell bottom trouser, the flared out look was introduced for sailors to wear in 1817. The new design was made to allow the young men who washed down the ship’s deck to roll their pant legs up above their knees to protect the material.

A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations
Young sailors aboard a ship play tug-of-war in their classic bell bottoms. (Source: Pinterest)

This modification also improved the time it took to take them off when the sailors needed to abandon ship in a moments notice. The trousers also doubled as a life preserver by knotting the pant legs.

Also Read: This is why some Marines wear the ‘French Fourragere,’ and some don’t

Years later in 1901, the Navy authorized the first use of denim jumpers commonly known as “dungarees.” This new fabric was approved to be worn by both officers and enlisted personnel.

The dungarees also featured the unique bell bottom look and are considered iconic in their own right.

What’s your favorite Navy uniform? Comment below. And don’t forget to submit your photos in the comment section wearing your dress uniform.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Trick shooter Ed McGivern used his legendary skills to train law enforcement officers

The names Elmer Keith, Jeff Cooper, and Jack O’Connor are legend in the shooting world. If you Google “famous gun writers,” they’re among the top results. If you scroll a good ways, you’ll come to a fella named Ed McGivern. The only thing he ever wrote of note is a tough-to-find book called Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting, published in 1938. However, a lot of police officers and federal agents across the US back in the 1930s knew McGivern well from the training they received from this one-time trick shooter and legendary pistol expert.

When it came to pistol shooting, especially revolvers, there were few who wielded a hand cannon with more speed and skill than McGivern. His shooting feats were nothing short of superhuman: The man clearly had eyesight and reflexes that were far keener than the average person’s. The fantastical shooting and quick-draw abilities of fictional pistoleers were present in the very real-life McGivern, though he didn’t exactly cut the typical figure of a gunslinger. At just 5-foot-6, he was a small, barrel-shaped man who was the fastest gun on the planet during the years between the two world wars.

A traveling trick shooter

McGivern bolstered his income performing as a trick shooter in the 1920s and ’30s, traveling all over the United States to put on astonishing displays for giddy crowds. He routinely shot at an assortment of stationary and airborne targets, like clay pigeons and lead disks the size of a quarter. You want to really understand how good McGivern was? Go to a safe shooting area, throw a tin can in the air, and see if you can draw and hit it before it lands on the ground. Unless you’re Jerry Miculek or Julie Golob, you probably didn’t even get close.

A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations
Jerry Miculek is widely regarded as the fastest and most proficient speed shooter in the world, and he’s beaten several long-standing records set by trick shooter Ed McGivern. Photo courtesy of reddit.

McGivern could hit the can six times before it hit the dirt, on the draw. He could also throw playing cards in the air and cut them in two, edgewise, with a bullet. He could hit two aerial targets with two revolvers at the same time. Like I said, he was superhuman.

He set a revolver world record while on tour in 1932 that remains unbroken to this day and got him into the Guinness Book of World Records, until Guinness removed all shooting records a few years ago. McGivern fired two consecutive, five-shot groups from a revolver at a distance of 15 feet that “could be covered by a half-dollar piece” in a blinding 0.45 seconds (as clocked by shot timer). The diameter of a half-dollar was a hair over 1.2 inches. 

But this pistol prodigy went largely unnoticed for much of his life, working primarily as a sign painter in the small Montana town where he lived for 30 years.

Changing gigs

Unfortunately, arthritis eventually put an end to McGivern’s trick shooting career in his late 50s, so he decided to travel around and spread his knowledge instead of entertaining folks. 

He worked with law enforcement personnel all over the country. He taught marksmanship to police officers and federal agents from various LE agencies, including at the FBI’s training headquarters in Quantico, translating his exhibition-shooting experience into practical skills that focused on putting a lot of rounds on a target, accurately and quickly, under varying circumstances. At the time, most law enforcement in the US were still carrying double-action revolvers, McGivern’s specialty.

A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations

He started his trick shooting career using semi-auto handguns but realized he could shoot quite a bit faster with double-action revolvers. If there’s any doubt this is generally true, check out Miculek firing 12 shots from a revolver in under three seconds back in 1999. 

When it came to training law enforcement, McGivern taught them how to shoot fast and accurately at close targets, but he was a firm believer that a .357 Magnum revolver, with proper technique, could be used to effectively engage man-sized targets with repeatable accuracy at distances of 600 yards. He preferred to use a gun outfitted with a small-diameter rear aperture sight with a gold bead front sight for this kind of shooting, though he experimented with various peep sights and telescopic scopes.

In fact, McGivern was friends with Elmer Keith and was instrumental in creating the earliest magnum revolver cartridges. While Keith was (most likely) integral to the creation of the .357 Magnum, he ultimately went on to deride it when he developed the .44 Special into what would become the .44 Remington Magnum, a superior cartridge in his mind. McGivern, on the other hand, believed the .357 Mag was the ultimate revolver cartridge and devoted a whole lot of his time and effort to pushing the round to its limits with what would have been considered a service revolver at the time, both in terms of speed and close- and long-range accuracy.

Time has proved that McGivern may have ultimately been correct in his assessment of the .357 Magnum. Despite Keith’s proselytizing, the .44 Mag was always considered too overpowered for law enforcement use, while many departments and agencies adopted .357 wheelguns as replacements for or as an alternate option to .38 Special revolvers.

Today, despite a foray into use of the more powerful .40 S&W for semi-autos, the 9 mm chambering, with modern ammunition, reigns supreme in the LE and military worlds—and the characteristics of a 9 mm +P cartridge are more similar to a .357 load than they are to a .44 Mag. Perhaps McGivern was more on the money because he focused on volume of fire and LE applications, whereas Keith was more hunting focused.

A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations
Ed McGivern stands with officers of the Lewistown Police Department. Following his exploits as a trick shooter, McGivern trained the police department, the Fergus County Sheriff’s officers, the Montana Highway Patrol, and later the FBI, on firearms techniques. He did this free of charge. Screenshot from mtmemory.org.

The feats

Here’s a quick list of some of McGivern’s most famous shots with a double-action revolver. Think you could pull off any of them?

  • Hang a target, like a clay pigeon or lead quarter, from a string. Cut the string with the first shot, and hit the falling target with a second before it hits the ground.
  • String up three clays, one stationary, and set the other two swinging back and forth so they cross in front of the stationary target. Break all three clays with a single shot.
  • Drop a coin from shoulder height, and with the same hand, draw and fire as many shots as possible before the coin lands. (McGivern could fire two to three shots.)
  • Lay 10 revolvers on a bench with five rounds loaded in each. Proceed to shoot them in succession in double action for a total of 50 rounds in less than 21 seconds, with no misses on the target. McGivern could also do this with 20 guns, 100 shots, and 47 seconds.
  • McGivern did this reaction-time display with real guns and blanks, but if you want to try it, definitely use airsoft guns, safety glasses, and protective clothing. Face an opponent who is holding an aimed, cocked airsoft revolver at about 5 yards. Draw and fire from a regulation holster before your opponent can pull the trigger.
  • Balance two clays on top of each other with their edges facing the shooter. Break the bottom clay with the first shot, and break the top one with the second before it hits the bench.
  • Throw a target in the air, have a friend toss you a pistol, and hit the target before it hits the ground.
  • Shoot a 5-inch bull’s-eye pasted on a 24-inch square of plywood that’s tossed in the air at distances of 25 to 50 yards.
  • Draw, fire, and score a lethal hit on a man-sized target 15 to 18 feet away in 0.4 seconds or less. McGivern set a one-time record with this often repeated mainstay.

McGivern died on Dec. 12, 1957, at the age of 83 in Butte, Montana.

Jerry Miculek is one of the most remarkable competition shooters of our day, and it’s a privilege to see him shoot in person, as I imagine it must have been to see McGivern put on one of his trick-shooting displays.

Miculek has broken several of McGivern’s long-standing records, but there’s one he can’t beat. When Miculek tried to top the record of 10 shots in 0.45 seconds, he couldn’t score a better time than 0.57 seconds. McGivern set that record back in 1932 when he was 57 years old — and if Miculek can’t beat it, I don’t know who can.

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

MIGHTY HISTORY

These strange WWII forts are eerily abandoned today

Naval fortifications aren’t unusual in themselves. Land-based coastal artillery and forts to block enemy landings and bombardments have existed for centuries. In England, dozens still exist from the Napoleonic Wars and before, although they are now put to more peaceful uses. During World War II, British engineer Guy Maunsell gave this old idea a makeover. His forts were designed to destroy incoming enemy aircraft and, contrary to standard practice, they’d be sited out at sea. At a time of limited resources and unprecedented demand, the Maunsell sea forts could have been regarded as expensive white elephants of doubtful military value. They soon proved their worth.


Also read: How Marines get an official history lesson on Iwo Jima

The location of the forts was unusual: the Thames Estuary to protect London and the Mersey Estuary, guarding the vital convoy port of Liverpool. Unusual, perhaps, but entirely sound. Liverpool received countless convoys delivering the goods that Britain needed and that Roosevelt’s “great arsenal of democracy” could provide. Because of its location, Liverpool was quite vulnerable to bombers flying across England, then turning and attacking from the West. The Thames Estuary forts were directly on the Luftwaffe’s flight path to bomb London and industrial centers like the city of Birmingham.

Maunsell designed two types of fort, which would be built on the coast and moved, virtually intact, to carefully chosen spots guaranteed to provide maximum protection. Innovative in concept and design, they were also heavily armed. Searchlights, heavy 3.75-inch quick-firing guns, and Bofors 40mm cannon initially gave Luftwaffe crews a nasty surprise, as they were located in the water, where no guns were expected. The Thames Estuary forts proved particularly effective.

A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations
The Thames forts

Granted, the forts couldn’t completely stop mass raids, but by their installation in 1942, raids of that style were increasingly rare. The Germans’ defeat in the Battle of Britain and the worsening situation on the Eastern Front were becoming a sinkhole into which Luftwaffe resources, now increasingly scarce, disappeared. Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering was also falling out of favor with Hitler for failing to defeat the RAF in 1940. Losing the Battle of Britain and then invading the Soviet Union forced Hitler into what he’d most wanted to avoid, fighting on two fronts. He was loath to forgive Goering’s failure and the resulting crisis.

Maunsell’s designs were innovative and came in two forms: Army and Navy. Navy forts were smaller and, as you’d expect, crewed by sailors. The Army forts had a more complicated design, comprising separate platforms linked by catwalks and carrying more guns than their naval counterparts. Most of the Army forts were concentrated off Liverpool while most Navy forts guarded against bombers attempting to use the Thames Estuary as a landmark for attacking London.

More: 5 of the world’s strongest fortifications ever

The forts depended on supplies coming from the sea. Without regular deliveries of food, water, ammunition and rotating crewmen on and off duty, they’d have been useless. The Thames estuary forts also did far more than destroy incoming bombers. At the time, London had one of the largest dock complexes, making the Channel the world’s busiest shipping lane. German aircraft routinely tried to lay minefields in the area, but the Thames Estuary forts were there to hinder them.

Later in the war, Hitler’s Vergeltungswaffen (“vengeance weapons”) often flew over the forts toward London. Their guns could do nothing about the V2, a supersonic rocket and the world’s first ballistic missile. They could, however, pick off the slower, pulsejet-powered V1s nicknamed “buzz bombs” and “doodlebugs”. Efforts to stop V1s raining down on Central London were a top priority and the Thames forts destroyed over 30 of them along with 22 enemy aircraft. One fort’s gunners even destroyed an E-boat, despite not being designed to handle enemy torpedo boats.

With the war over, the forts became redundant. One by one, they were decommissioned and abandoned to crumble into the sea. Many were damaged by under-scouring, time and tide eroding the bedrock and steel legs supporting them. Saltwater steadily corroded the metal. One fort was demolished after a ship collided with it. One by one throughout the 1950s, the Maunsell sea forts were abandoned and mostly destroyed, but their story didn’t quite end there.

A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations
The Red Sands Forts were used as pirate radio bases in the 1960s.

In the 1960s, pirate radio stations used some of the old forts as broadcasting stations. Pirate radio broadcasted their (usually rock) music illegally, without the proper licensing needed. Annoyed though the authorities were, there was nothing they could do as the forts were in international waters. That is, until the British territorial waters were extended – from including three miles offshore to a full 12. With the extension, the pirates lost their advantage and were quickly shut down.

The Liverpool forts were demolished in the 1950s, considered a danger to the shipping they’d once protected. Most of the surviving Thames forts are extremely hazardous to board, as they’re simply too badly damaged by the ravages of time and tide. Only a couple of the forts remain, and one of them, Fort Roughs (just outside British territorial waters) was taken over by pirate radio in the 1960s. It later declared itself an independent nation named Sealand. Granted, no government has ever recognized Sealand as an independent state and probably never will, but technically at least, it remains the world’s smallest independent island state.

Related: This is how the War of Independence was won in the trenches

In 2005, an artist named Stephen Turner took on a strange project. He decided to live in one of the remaining sea forts, Shivering Sands Fort, for 36 days — the length of a typical tour of duty during World War II. Turner posted updates during his time to a website and later wrote a book about his experience alone on the waters.

Maunsell’s forts are long gone, as are most of the troops who once manned them. But they served their purpose well. They destroyed almost two full squadrons of bombers before they could hit London. Nearly thirty V1’s that would have caused great destruction (and killed countless Londoners) never reached their targets. Today the V2s, bombers, buzz bombs, and most of the Maunsell sea forts reside permanently on the ocean bottom.

All told, they did far more than merely boost morale.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How a simple name change connects Marine special operators to their past

Given how long America has been fighting wars, one would think that special operations were among the first thing Americans developed and perfected. But it wasn’t — not really. The tactics used in the Revolutionary War were considered guerrilla tactics and U.S. troops were the first to openly fire at officers.


This did not endear America to the rest of the world community.

A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations

Despite this long history, America’s special operations community is relatively young. During World War II, the British created their famous Commando units. Seeing this, President Franklin Roosevelt asked his military leadership for something similar to what the British were doing.

The Marine Corps was first tasked with creating such an elite group. Already the smallest branch and specialized in amphibious landings, they created two battalions: the 1st Raider Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Merritt A. “Red Mike” Edson, and the 2nd Raider Battalion, commanded by Maj. Evans Carlson.

Related: 3 key differences between Recon Marines and Marine Raiders

Each man had their own ideas on how they would command their units. For example, the 2nd Raiders had a much more relaxed posture when it came to military discipline, quickly creating unit cohesion.

Many in the Marine Corps’ hierarchy didn’t like the idea of a small Marine Corps unit — most believed that the Raiders did the exact same thing as the rest of the Corps. The major difference was, however, that the Raiders worked as a small force and didn’t participated in big landings. In fact, they would land during the night and move into the Japanese-held territories, creating havoc, disrupting enemy supply lines, and taking them completely by surprise.

A brief history of helicopter warfare and the future of air assault operations
Marine Raiders on Tulagi Island.

One of the biggest successes of the Marine Raiders was how they worked in support of bigger forces — a tactic developed to perfection today by modern special operators.

The Marine Raiders were later turned into the 4th Marine Division in 1944. The Raiders were only around for two years, but are heralded as some of the best warriors in the whole Pacific Campaign. The Marine Raiders left a huge legacy for special operations in America.

In 2014, Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos announced that the 1st Marine Special Operation Battalion would be renamed the 1st Raider Battalion, connecting the Raiders of the past with the Raiders of today.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How the Red Army used cavalry to deadly effect on WWII’s Eastern Front

In terms of technological advancement on the battlefield, World War II oversaw a complete transition from the fighting of the 19th century to the advanced mechanized warfare of the future. By the end of the war, the world would reach the atomic age. At the war’s start, however, the armies of Europe and Asia were still using cavalry and horses.

That doesn’t mean the horse-mounted units weren’t effective. The opposite is actually true, and the most efficient uses of cavalry came on World War II’s Eastern Front, in Poland and later the Soviet Union.

After launching Operation Barabarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the Germans made sweeping advances into Soviet territory, inflicting havey damage on the Red Army and capturing hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops. 

Then, the German soldiers brutalized those prisoners of war. The advance also took a heavy toll on Soviet civilians. When the Germans were defeated at Stalingrad in 1943 and forced to fall back, the Red Army made sure the German soldiers paid a heavy price for all of their transgressions. 

A trademark of the German invasion was the constant encirclement, capture or defeat of entire Soviet divisions. When it came time to make an envelopment of their own, the communist troops would give Hitler’s soldiers a taste of their own medicine. 

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A Russian soldier guiding a military horse in the dead of winter.

By Fall 1943, the German Army was pushed all the way back to what is today Ukraine, after coming within 100 miles of taking the Soviet capital of Moscow. German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s Army Group South fell back to the Dnieper River, where the Germans were supposed to have constructed a series of fortifications in case the invasion failed.

These fortifications were supposed to have been built for the situation they now found themselves in. Except the fortifications had never been built. The Germans were forced back further and the Soviets were coming right for them. 

The German 8th Army reformed a 62-mile front, with the town of Korsun in its center. The Germans were low on supplies, ammunition, and pretty much anything else needed to fight a war. The Russians, on the other hand, were flush with fresh troops and American-made equipment and vehicles. 

By early February, Russian Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov decided he would use the same tactic he used to crush the German 6th Army at Stalingrad, a double envelopment. Just four days after the attack began, the envelopment of the German 8th began to form around Korsun. The move was much worse than the Germans originally thought – the Red Army had formed a double envelopment, the Korsun Pocket.

Relief to the pocket was hampered by both the weather and by German dictator Adolf HItler. Hitler ordered German forces outside the pocket to try to encircle the Red Army instead of helping the pocket simply break out. Then the weather turned unseasonably warm, turning the roads from frozen dirt to mud. 

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SS Cavalry Brigade in Russia, 1941 (Adendorf, Peter, Wikimedia)

The Germans were barely able to move and the Korsun Pocket was soon whittled down to just seven square miles. The Wehrmacht had to break out or be destroyed and without orders from Hitler, made the attempt on Feb. 16, three weeks into the battle. 

But the Soviets were ready for the attempt, and brought every tank and gun they could to stem the German breakout. As the Germans advanced, the Soviet brought T-34 tanks into their formation, driving over hundreds of infantrymen. Then, the Cossacks attacked. 

Horse-mounted cavalry armed with sabers poured into the German defenders, and as they broke and ran for the safety of nearby hills and streams, they were literally cut down by the Cossack cavalry. Those who tried to surrender with their hands raised in the air found their hands lopped off. 

For three hours, the heavy horsemen hunted the Germans. 20,000 were killed in the Korsun Pocket fighting and 8,000 were eventually taken prisoner. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

This ‘shotgun’ is the most awesome firearm ever made

At the onset of the industrial revolution, people were looking at ways to mass-produce and commercialize nearly everything. But what about something as manual as duck hunting? Was there any way to mass-hunt ducks with some sort of firearm capable of knocking, say, 50 to 100 ducks out of the air all at once? Yes, in fact, there was. It was called the punt gun.


Back in the first decade of the 19th century, there existed a monster of a shotgun. Each of these guns was custom made for the ambitious hunter that wanted one, but in all cases, the barrels were somewhere between ten and thirteen feet in length. Most were muzzle-loaded while others had false breaches to load the over one pound of ammunition.

The overly-large shotgun weighed over 100 lbs. While many of the existing photos are of hunters jokingly posing like they’re using as a conventional shotgun, realistically, the recoil would’ve likely ripped someone’s arm off.

Instead, the gun was fastened to a punt — a flat-bottomed rowboat. The firer would position the boat towards a large flock of waterfowl and fire. The massive amount shot deployed with a single firing would most certainly take out enough birds to supply the hunter for an entire day. In order to properly mount the gun, the boats themselves needed to be specially-reinforced to account for the immense, destructive force.

 

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Not unlike the A-10 Warthog and its GAU-8 Avenger. (Photo by Sydney Harold Smith)

 

But these guns have nothing on the granddaddy of all punt guns – Irish Tom, the world’s largest. Created in Great Britain in the 1930s by W.W. Greener and the Whitworth Factory of Manchester, this gun weighed over 300 lbs, had a 14′ 1″ barrel, and fired 3lbs 2oz of buckshot. The original owner, Stanley Duncan, claimed his best shot downed 100 ducks.

Just a handful of market hunters equipped with punt guns was enough to nearly drive ducks to extinction, ultimately leading to the gun being outlawed. Original and modern remakes can be scarcely found by collectors.

In the UK, punt guns are also used ceremoniously. Ever since Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, 21 punt guns have been fired during every coronation and jubilee in Cowbit Wash, Lincolnshire.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How the first ‘night vision’ scope turned the tide against Japan on Okinawa

It’s the little things in life that make life worth living. During World War II, those little things literally made life worth living, allowing American GIs to survive in situations they may not have otherwise. It helps that they also wreaked havoc on the enemy.

Sergeant Stanley G. Tiemann of the U.S. Army’s 546th Engineer Detachment at Ft. Lewis, Wash sighting a T3 carbine with an M2 infrared vision scope.

Even as late as 1945, as the United States’ “island hopping” campaign was in full swing, the Americans weren’t too keen on night fighting. With some exceptions, notably U.S. Army Rangers in Europe, the Americans didn’t operate at night until the development of early types of night vision. The game changer in the Pacific was the .30-caliber T3 Winchester carbine with infrared night sight.

Other belligerents in the war had different policies. The Soviet Union, for example, was just fine fighting at night, a fringe benefit of having so many people to throw at the enemy. The Red Army was like the U.S. Postal Service: Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stayed those couriers of death from putting rounds downrange.

On the Axis side, the Germans pretty much had to move at night, otherwise Allied air superiority would strafe them into oblivion. Japanese troops loved night combat, and they were very, very good at it. 

Japanese forces in the Pacific Theater used night combat tactics to even the score against larger, better equipped forces. Sneakily infiltrating enemy camps and slitting throats was a favored method of not just taking out enemy troops, but also causing mass fear among the ranks. 

Night attackers were usually carried out by small Japanese units to achieve some objective. Surprise and secrecy was their key to success in these operations. Infantry assaults were often conducted with no artillery support, as the units normally targeted the enemy’s softest points. The main strategy for a Japanese night assault was to close with the enemy as fast as possible and overwhelm them in hand-to-hand combat. 

As the war ground on and Japanese combat veterans were replaced by raw recruits, the Americans gained the upper hand in night fighting. Early warning systems such as microphones became used in the field, along with other warning devices. But nothing took a toll on the Japanese like the infrared night sight. 

night vision scope
An infantryman armed with an M16A1 rifle and an AN/PVS-2 Starlight scope for use at night.

In late 1943, American scientists were studying ways to shine infrared light on objects in the dark while developing a telescope device that could see the infrared light. They were able to develop a six-volt, rifle-mounted scope that could illuminate objects up to 70 yards away, visible only through the telescope. 

It took two years to perfect the technology, build it onto an infantry weapon and get it to the front lines, but they did it. By the time the U.S. Army and U.S. Marines were ready to invade the island of Okinawa, the Japanese nighttime advantage was lost. 

The Battle of Okinawa was one of the fiercest battles of the entire Pacific War. It took an estimated 250,000 American troops to dislodge more than 70,000 Japanese troops and 40,000 Okinawan draftees. Though the battle for the island took around three months, the fighting took a heavy toll on the Japanese  – partly due to the infrared scope on the Army’s T3 carbine. 

A later development in night vision technology, the AN/PVS-7 Cyclops 3rd generation goggle. 

An estimated 30% of Japanese forces killed by small arms fire on Okinawa were sighted and shot by soldiers equipped with the night vision scope. It was an astonishing feat, considering only 200 of the scopes ever made it to the Pacific. 

When Japanese night infiltration was effective, it was often due to inclement weather, such as monsoon-level winds and rains. 

Infrared technology for small unit combat continued into the Korean War, mounted on other .30-caliber rifles, eventually evolving into the helmet-mounted goggles enjoyed by U.S. troops and their allies today.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The insane victory that inspired the Confederate army’s only medal

The Confederate Army had better things to do than decide how it would award medals to its fighting men. In that era, Americans weren’t really into medals and ribbons, as it was considered a very European military tradition. The Civil War changed all that. The brutality of the war, combined with the feats of heroics performed by those who fought it inspired the need for such awards.

That being said, the Confederacy had its heroes as well, but aside from a Confederate Congressional “Roll of Honor,” nothing much was ever done in terms of awards and decorations – until the Second Battle of Sabine Pass.


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Sabine Pass is a small outlet from Lake Sabine that pours into the Gulf of Mexico, bordering both Texas and Louisiana. During the Civil War, it was a lightly defended Western outpost, far from the central fighting of the war. As a result, the shoddy earthwork fortifications at the pass had mostly old smoothbore cannon to defend it, eight guns in total. But then the French installed a pro-French Emperor in Mexico, opening the possibility for Confederate supplies to reach Mexico by rail, then onto Europe under French-flagged ships, completely circumventing the Union blockade and providing the South with crucial money, arms, and supplies.

The Union sent 5,000 troops, 18 transports, and four armed gunboats to capture the pass and cut the South off from French Mexico. Defending the fort were the Jeff Davis Guards, named for the Confederate President, 47 Irish immigrants from bigger cities in Texas, and well-trained and drilled artillerymen. This was the largest amphibious assault ever taken by the United States until this point so you’d think the Union would have come prepared. You’d be wrong. So wrong.

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Only the lightest of the Union ships could enter the river, due to the shallow nature of the entryway. Four steamers and 150 Union sharpshooters were to cross the sandbars then take out the fort and its guns so the rest of the Union force could take the town and then move on to Houston. That never happened. Instead, accurate cannon fire from the fort hit one of the steamers in her boiler, disabling another and grounding the USS Arizona. The two ships surrendered, and the rest of the invasion force ended up running back to New Orleans.

In all, the battle last 45 minutes. The Davis Guards fired 137 rounds from their eight guns, dwarfing the Union’s rate of fire and ensuring those guns couldn’t be used for weeks after the battle. The handful of Confederates then went to capture the Union troops on the disabled ships, taking 315 Union troops prisoner. The Union forces suffered a further 19 killed and nine wounded at the cost of zero casualties to the Confederates. It was the most lopsided victory of the war.

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Richard Dowling, commander of the Davis Guards, wearing his medal.

Grateful Texans decided to reward the men for not only staying at their posts in the face of overwhelming odds, but for actually winning. They cast medals from Mexican silver coins, engraving “DG” on one side with a Malta Cross and the date of the battle on the other. It was hung on the uniform by a green ribbon, representing the Irish heritage of the fort’s defenders. In all, 47 were awarded to the men, with two more awarded to their officers, and one struck just for their namesake, Jefferson Davis. Davis ensured the Confederate Congress authorized the medal for wear, the only medal so authorized.

The President had his on him when he was captured after the war’s end.

MIGHTY HISTORY

What could’ve happened if the Cuban missile crisis had turned into all-out nuclear war

The most intense period of the Cold War came during the Cuban Missile Crisis on Oct. 27, 1962, but it could have been much worse had it escalated into a shooting war. Here is how it may have gone down.


After months of building tensions, the discovery of ballistic missile sites on Cuba on Oct. 14 forced a confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

 

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A CIA map showing the range of the medium range ballistic missiles successfully deployed to Cuba in Oct. 1962. The intermediate range ballistic missiles with their range shown by the larger arrow never arrived in Cuba. Photo: Wikipedia/James H. Hansen

On Oct. 27, multiple events nearly triggered a war. Perhaps the most dangerous moment was when the Soviet B-59 submarine deployed to Cuba was “signaled” by the USS Beale and USS Cony through the use of sonar, practice depth charges, and hand grenades. The Soviet submarine was carrying a 15-ton nuclear torpedo but was ordered to use it only if American forces blew a hole in the hull or orders came down from Moscow.

Despite the orders limiting use of the torpedo, submarine commander Capt. Vitali Savistky was urged by his political officer to fire. It was only through the urging of Capt. Vasili Arkhipov that it wasn’t fired. If it had, the Cuban Missile Crisis could have easily erupted into all-out nuclear war.

The most obvious target for the torpedo would have been the aircraft carrier USS Randolph that was part of the force shadowing the B-59. With a 15-kiloton warhead, the torpedo would have sank the Randolph and likely other nearby ships.

For comparison, an 8-kiloton explosion looks like this:

Just the loss of the Randolph would have meant over 3,000 sailors and Marines were dead. The fact that the B-59 would have also been destroyed would be little solace and America would be forced to respond. Since a U-2 had already been shot down and the pilot killed over Cuba, the most likely retaliation route for the Americans would have been the bombing of Soviet missile sites in Cuba.

The Air Force had a plan for this, but it expected hundreds of sorties would be needed to wipe out 90 percent of the missiles. With only a few sorties available before a Soviet response, at least one-third of the 24 sites and 36 medium-range ballistic missiles would survive.

To prevent those missiles from being used, America could have ordered an amphibious invasion, an airborne assault, and an overland push from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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The proposed invasion of Cuba would have been over four times the size of the landings at Inchon, Korea in 1950. These massed troops would’ve been easy targets for Soviet tactical nuclear missiles. Photo: US Navy

This would’ve likely triggered a massacre of American troops.

The U.S. plans for an invasion of Cuba projected 18,500 casualties in the first 10 days of fighting to take the island. But they estimated Soviet forces on the island at 10,000 to 12,000 with no tactical nuclear weapons.

In reality, the Soviets had 40,000 troops and 92 tactical nukes. 12 Luna missiles carried 2-kiloton warheads to a maximum range of 17 nautical miles. 80 Sopka-variant cruise missiles with a range of 40 nautical miles carried 12-kiloton warheads.

With tactical nuclear weapons on the island, America would have actually lost nearly all of the 180,000 troops in the invasion as well as all the Marines still on Guantanamo Bay. Luckily, the family members had already been evacuated.

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Guantanamo Bay would’ve quickly fallen to tactical nukes. Photo: Department of Defense

At this point, both sides would be forced into full nuclear war. Russia would have to attempt a pre-emptive strike to limit the number of nukes coming at them. America would try to limit the Soviet attack as well as punish Russia for its losses in Cuba.

More: This is what the Air Force thought nuclear war would look like in 1960

The surviving missile launchers in Cuba would be the first to fire. Air Force strikes that made it through during the attempted invasion and bombing would have wiped out at least 16 launchers and 24 missiles. But the surviving eight launchers would begin preparations to fire as soon as the first sites were struck.

They would get off their first wave of missiles with a 1-megaton warhead on each. Two would be sent to Washington D.C. and the other six to major U.S. bases and cities in the American Southeast. The launchers, and nearly all of Cuba, would be wiped out before the remaining four missiles could be prepared for launch.

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Photo: US Air Force

This is because the Strategic Air Command bombers around the U.S. and NATO countries would take off and begin striking targets in Russia and Warsaw Pact countries. The force consisted of 1,306 bombers with 2,962 nuclear bombs.

Brand new Minuteman-I missiles as well as older Atlas missiles would fly from U.S. silos while Thor and Jupiter missiles would take off from Italy, Britain, and Turkey. These 308 ballistic missiles were capable of delivering 761 megatons of devastation to targets across the Soviet Union.

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Photo: US Navy

 

Seven American nuclear missile submarines, dispatched to staging points in the oceans since Oct. 22, carried 112 Polaris A-1 and A-2 submarine launched ballistic missiles. Each missile carried a 1-megaton nuclear warhead.

Facing off against this force was the relatively modest Soviet arsenal: 36 intercontinental ballistic missiles carried a combined yield of 108-204 megatons. Only 138 bombers were available. A mere 30 submarines carried about 84 missiles with a combined yield of less than 100 megatons.

The exchange would go wildly in America’s favor, but vast swaths of Europe, China, and North America would lay in ruins alongside the deceased Soviet Union. The American military would count losses in the hundreds of thousands in a single day of fighting.

Fortunately, none of this ended up happening. Through secret back-channel negotiations, U.S. President Kennedy and Soviet Secretary Nikita Kruschev worked out a deal that removed Russian missiles from Cuba, as long as the U.S. removed its missiles from Turkey and Italy.

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