The 6 best defensive stands in military history - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

The 6 best defensive stands in military history

What happens when a military unit is outnumbered, outgunned and low on supplies? Most of the time, they get overrun and the defenders are killed to the last man. It’s probably happened more times than we can count, but the world will never know because the victors write history. 

The most incredible stories we do hear about are the ones where the outnumbered defenders win the day. This could happen for a lot of reasons, but the most common is simply the attackers are outclassed. All the numbers and advanced weapons in the world have a hard time standing up to a unit that is simply better than the rest. 

Some stories come because the defenders emerged victorious. Others are remembered because their stand was so great, the story had to be told. Here are 6 of the best. 

1. The Siege of Jadotville, 1961

What do 158 Irish soldiers with little to no combat experience do when upward of 5,000 African rebels and mercenaries start barging in on their position with no end in sight? Ask for some whiskey, of course. 

Congolese rebels declared independence from the rest of the country after Belgium granted Congo its independence. One rebel sect decided to seize the mineral deposits in the Katanga region by force and claim it for themselves. The only thing standing in their way was a UN peacekeeping force of Irishmen carrying WWII-era weapons. 

defensive stand
The siege was so legendary that it was made into a Netflix movie.

When the rebels came at them with heavy mortars, human wave attacks and even air support, the Irish just dug in. For three days, low on water and ammunition, and getting strafed from the air, the Irish fought off the rebels, killing 300 and losing zero. Eventually the defenders of Jadotville had to surrender or die of thirst. They were taken prisoner but were soon released to the UN, still with no losses.

2. Sihang Warehouse, 1937

There aren’t a lot of Chinese victories to celebrate in the early days of World War II, but the story of the 800 Heroes in Shanghai is definitely one of them. After massively crushing the Chinese for months, the Japanese entered Shanghai with the intention of defeating the Chinese nationalist government decisively. The Chinese were able to leave the city relatively intact only because of the fighting at the Sihang Warehouse.

Only around 450 untested Chinese troops actually made it to the six-story warehouse, but their goal was to buy time for the Chinese to retreat to the west. An estimated 20,000 Japanese soldiers laid siege to the warehouse for five days as wave after wave of attack was repelled. 

They couldn’t level the building with naval guns, bombs, artillery or chemical attacks, because the Western powers were watching across the nearby Wusong River. Any collateral damage might bring them into the war. 

The Chinese soldiers’ last stand allowed the Chinese army to survive, and for Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek to focus the world’s attention on Japanese aggression in China. 

3. The Battle of Camaron, 1863

While the U.S. was fighting the Civil War, Mexico was engulfed in a conflict of its own. The French had invaded Mexico to install a monarch friendly to French interests in the Western Hemisphere. At Camaron, 65 members of the French Foreign Legion found themselves besieged by 3,300 Mexican soldiers whose only goal was their demise. 

When the Mexicans demanded the French surrender, the Legionnaires responded they still had plenty of ammunition. Over the course of the next few hours, the French used it to good effect. Although they systematically lost ground and men with that ammunition, the Mexicans paid dearly for their repeated attacks. When the ammo was gone, the few remaining men launched a bayonet charge. 

When all was said and done, the French finally negotiated a surrender, which allowed for them to keep their weapons and gear. All but 19 Legionnaires were killed in the siege, but the Mexicans lost 490, killed or wounded.

4. The Battered Bastards of Bastogne, 1944

The 6 best defensive stands in military history
Photo taken by a U.S. Army Signal Corps photographer on 26 December 1944 in BastogneBelgium as troops of the 101st Airborne Division watch C-47s drop supplies to them. Jeeps and trucks are parked in a large field in the near distance.

The Battle of the Bulge was one hell of a way to spend Christmas. It was the last German offensive of World War II, and it was supposed to retake the harbor of Antwerp from the Allies and blunt the European offensive that would soon see the fall of the German Reich. It all depended on who controlled the converging roads at Bastogne, which cut through the dense Ardennes forest. 

Unfortunately for the Germans, it was controlled by the men of the 101st Airborne Division. The Bulge eventually surrounded Bastogne, and when the the German Army demanded the 101st’s surrender, they got the now-famous reply: “Nuts!” 

For a week the Germans relentlessly attacked the Americans at Bastogne. For more than a week, they hit the paratroopers, who were outnumbered 5-to-1, lacked cold weather gear in the December snows, had no senior leadership or air power to support them. But the Germans couldn’t advance without Bastogne.

They never got the chance. The day after Christmas, the U.S. Third Army under Gen. George S. Patton made contact with the German Army and broke the siege, eventually pushing back the armored advance. 

5. Battle of Longewala, 1971

Even though the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 lasted just under two weeks, there was still a lot of heroism to be found. Pakistan launched a surprise air attack on 11 Indian air bases on Dec. 3, 1971. The next day, its ground forces began rolling toward India. One of the first stops for Pakistan was the lightly-defended outpost at Longewala but they threw 2,000 soldiers and 40 tanks at it just for good measure. They should have brought more.

The defenders of Longewala decided that they could either stand and defend their base or try to outrun a tank battalion on foot. Even though there were only 120 of them and just a recoilless rifle to use against the tanks, they decided to stay and fight. The recoilless rifle was much more effective than expected and wreaked havoc on the attackers. 

The 6 best defensive stands in military history
One of the three HAL Marut used by the IAF against Pakistani armor at Longewala (Ayush 1988, Wikipedia)

With the full moon in play and the tanks burning against the night sky, the oncoming infantry was a shooting gallery for Indian machine guns. By the time the sun came up the next day and the cloud cover cleared, the Indian Air Force made mincemeat of the Pakistani attack. They lost nearly every tank and a tenth of their infantry. The Indian defenders lost just two men. 

6. Pavlov’s House, Stalingrad, 1943

The Battle of Stalingrad might have been the most pivotal battle of World War II. For six months, Soviet and German Forces fought each other in some of the war’s most brutal urban combat. The Germans were fighting to take Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s namesake city while the Soviets were fighting for their existence. 

As the USSR sustained terrible losses, one soldier, Sgt. Yakov Pavlov, took a building that became a symbol of the Soviet struggle against the German invader. Just a month after the Germans began the assault on the city. Pavlov captured a four-story building looking over what was once a city square. The building defended a key bank of the Volga, which the USSR needed to cross to send troops and supplies. Pavlov would hold the building at all costs.

For 60 days, he reinforced and rebuilt the building, destroying tanks with a roof-mounted anti-tank rifle and mowing down wave after wave of attackers, several times a day. Pavlov and his comrades held the building for 60 full days, defending Soviet landings and civilians hiding inside the structure. The Soviet troops said more Germans died trying to take Pavlov’s House than did trying to take Paris.

The apartment building still stands in what is today Volgograd, with a memorial to Sgt. Pavlov attached to one corner. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

This how the Army introduced the plastic explosive in the 1960s

Today, plastic explosives are a given. But 50 years ago, they were the latest in demolition technology. One of the most notable, of course, is C4.


Officially, it is called the M118 demolition charge, and was called Flex-X back then. Prior to the introduction of Flex-X, explosives had to be secured to what the engineers wanted to blow up.

C4, though, was more like Play-Doh or used chewing gum in that it could be stuck to whatever needs to go away.

 

The 6 best defensive stands in military history
Composition C-4 demolition charges await use as explosive ordnance disposal technicians conduct demolition operations supervisor training. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Kathryn Whittenberger)

The explosive had some other advantages as well. It could be used underwater, which means that divers could plant it on a pier without having to surface and risk being seen.

The explosive was also very insensitive. The video below shows troops dropping a weight on the Flex-X to no effect. It wouldn’t even go off when shot by multiple rounds from a M14 service rifle or when tossed into a campfire.

It also took much less time to set up – almost 60 percent less – when compared to earlier explosives, thanks to that Play-Doh/chewing gum consistency. That would save the lives of the engineers, who would spend less time away from cover.

Cold weather had little effect on the explosive’s ability to stick to whatever needed to be blown up. Other explosives needed to be taped or otherwise secured to the target.

According to the Federation of American Scientists, the M118 came in a box of 20 charges, each of which had four eight-ounce sheets of C4. A sales sheet from one manufacturer notes that the M118 is intended for breaching, ordnance disposal, demolition, and cutting metal.

The explosive replaced stocks of TNT, dynamite, and PETN in U.S. military stockpiles.

Articles

The last surviving witness of Lincoln’s assassination was a contestant on a celebrity game show

The 6 best defensive stands in military history


Samuel J. Seymour was present at Ford’s Theatre the night — April 14, 1865 — that President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Seymour ended up being the longest survivor witness of this tragically historic moment, living long enough to be interviewed on television. On on February 9, 1956, he appeared on an episode of the CBS show I’ve Got a Secret at the age of 95 — Seymour incorrectly states he is 96, but when you’re that old, you’re allowed to say whatever you want — in which celebrity panelists try to determine each contestant’s secret by asking a series of “yes-or-no” questions.

The panelists — Bill Cullen, Jayne Meadows, Henry Morgan, and Lucille Ball — figure out Seymour’s secret without much difficulty, allowing host Garry Moore to summarize Seymour’s memory of that fateful evening. Moore explains that, at the age of five, Seymour did not understand that the president was shot, and therefore was only concerned about the well-being of the man who fell from the balcony. Seymour died shortly after on April 12 of that same year. Watch the video below.

Articles

This video shows rare footage from an actual Vietcong ambush

A former first lieutenant with the 221st Signal Company in Vietnam, Paul Berkowitz, created a website to help former unit members connect. And one day, he was surprised to receive an audio tape from former member Rick Ekstrand. It was the audio portion of film shot on Hill 724 in Vietnam where a pitched battle followed a highly successful Vietnam ambush in November 1967.


The 6 best defensive stands in military history
Paratroopers with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team fighting on Hill 823 during the Battle of Dak To. (Photo: U.S. Army)

During the Battle of Dak To, U.S. troops maneuvered against a series of hills covered with thick jungle vegetation, including Hill 724. In this footage from Nov. 7, two American companies attempted to maneuver on the hill and were ambushed by a North Vietnamese Army Regiment.

Alpha Company, the lead regiment, was pinned down and the two companies were outnumbered 10 to 1. Rockets, mortars, artillery, and machine gun fire rained down on the men as the camera operator narrated and filmed. Check out the amazing footage below from the American Heroes Channel:

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How the Persian Immortals became masters of psychological warfare

War is just as much a psychological battle as it is physical. If you’re able to convince your enemy that they have no chance of surviving before the first drop of blood is spilled, you’ve already won. No warriors in history have embodied this concept better than the Anausa or, as they’re more commonly known, the Persian Immortals.

Even their very name, “Immortal,” is a part of the mind tricks they played on their enemies. In order to keep up the image of being unkillable, they wore matching uniforms and hastily recovered their dead or wounded, fueling the illusion that none fell in battle. But that barely even scratches the surface of the psychological warfare the Persians employed to conquer 44 percent of all humanity at the height of their power in 480 B.C.


The 6 best defensive stands in military history
As over-the-top as the rest of “300” was, this is an entirely accurate scene. The rest of the movie, though? Ehhh…(Warner Bros. Pictures)

As with many early civilizations, much of the history of Achaemenid Empire (to Empire for which the Immortals fought) has been lost to time. The history we do have comes from the Greek scholar, Herodotus. Though he opposed Persia, he kept detailed battle plans of the Immortals and those that faced them.

One such example happened to make its way into the 2006 film, “300.” A Spartan at Thermopylae scoffed at a Persian envoy who said their arrows could “black out the sky” by replying, “then we’ll fight in the shade.” That wasn’t just a boast — that actually happened.

The Immortals were well aware that their arrows were inferior to Spartan steel. So, instead of making them stronger, they made more of them so that every archer could unleash them in one, rapid moment, literally blacking out the sky with arrows.

The 6 best defensive stands in military history
“Cats! Our only weakness!” – Some Egyptian, probably. (Ancient History Museum)

Another example of the ferocity of the Immortals was when the Persians defeated the Egyptians at the Battle of Pelusium. The Persians knew that the Egyptians were faithful to the Egyptian Goddess of Cats, Bastet. To the Egyptians, any harm done to a cat was considered great sacrilege.

Knowing this, the Persians simply drew cats on their shields and let loose a bunch of cats onto the battlefield. This alone was enough to make many Egyptians immediately surrender. When the other Egyptians manned their catapults, the Persians would let them know that they had cats with them — and that unleashed the artillery could mean killing a few felines.

If the Immortals didn’t have enough time to prepare for an individual opponent, they’d resort to their shock-and-awe cavalry, armed with sagaris, or long axes. The lightweight ax made it easy for Immortals to twirl them over their heads and swing fast enough to make an enemy’s blood splash far enough back to intimidate their foes.

At the Battle of the Granicus in 334 B.C., Alexander II of Macedon was nearly scalped by an Immortal cavalryman named Spithridates. His ax sliced clean straight through Alexander’s helmet and was just millimeters away from being a fatal blow.

After that moment, Alexander swore to the destruction of Persia. He studied their tactics and instructed his men on how to counter their advances. This took away the Persian’s edge in battle, and Alexander, from then on, took on the moniker of “the Great.”


Features images: Wikimedia Commons

MIGHTY CULTURE

The Queen of England has a champion who fights for her

It sounds like a big job description: “Queen’s Champion and Standard Bearer of England.” Although these days, the title seems more ceremonial than functional, it still sounds like a big deal. Since the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, whomever holds the Manor of Scrivelsby in Lincolnshire, England, also has to fight for the monarch at their coronation, should a challenger arise in the middle of it.


The 6 best defensive stands in military history

Francis John Fane Marmion Dymoke is the current champion, but this is his father, the previous champion. A World War II veteran, he died in 2015.

The Dymokes have been the standard bearers for the reigning English monarch since the mid-14th Century, and would ride into Westminster Abbey in full shining armor, on a horse, in full plumage and regalia. To repeat, they ride a horse into Westminster in the middle of a coronation. They then throw a gauntlet – they literally throw a gauntlet – on the ground and announce that whomever dares challenge the King or Queen’s right to the throne must face him in combat. When no one does, the new monarch then drinks wine from a golden cup to honor his or her Champion.

The King or Queen could not fight in such combat unless it were someone their equal who would challenge them, and that usually meant a war.

The 6 best defensive stands in military history

Dope.

The tradition has taken a few different forms over the last few monarch coronations, and was left out of Queen Victoria’s coronation entirely.

And sadly, at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, the Champion did not get to throw the gauntlet or threaten the crowd, but he did his duty to carry the Royal Standard in the procession. When Prince Charles (or at this rate, William) takes the throne, this is a tradition we in America would like to see revived to its full former glory.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The story of the iconic 1st Marine Division ‘White House’ at Pendleton

The building has withstood the test of time. It has seen generations of Marines enter and leave its halls. It has seen Marines off to several wars from the shores of Pacific Islands, the mountains of North Korea, the jungles of Vietnam, and the deserts of the Middle East. It has served as the operational and cultural epicenter of the 1st Marine Division — the most storied and consequential Division in the United States Marine Corps. It has seen its share of history both for the division and the Corps.

The building has even been reviewed as a historical site, still bearing the simple style and white paint associated with World War II era buildings, which were originally meant to be temporary. Few of its kind are still standing across the nation, yet it remains, bold in both color and design, while its peers have been replaced over the decades. If you walk through the musty halls that were once treaded by the likes of Chesty Puller and James Mattis, you can see the artwork — paintings of past commanders, old battle scenes ripped from the pages of history and photos of Marines from modern wars.


“It’s a unique building,” said Colonel Christopher S. Dowling, former Chief of Staff of the 1st Marine Division. “When it was built in 1942-1943 it was supposed to only last five years, five years — that was it.”

The 6 best defensive stands in military history

U.S. Marine Corps Col. Christopher S. Dowling.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Audrey M. C. Rampton)

Humanity creates things that last; tools which pass through dozens of hands before becoming worn beyond use, structures that stand strong for decades, centuries and even several millennia. There are also occasions where we make things for a simple and easy use, where they are only meant to last for short periods of time. Building 1133 of Camp Pendleton, better known as “the white house” was one such structure. Acting as both a headquarters and administration building for the growing conflict in the Pacific, it even expanded to accommodate the needs of the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions that also participated in World War II’s Pacific Theatre.

“The sergeant major’s office is my favorite room,” said USMC Sgt. Maj. William T. Sowers, former sergeant major of the 1st Marine Division. “The amount of detail in the wood and the fire place gives it that really old feeling and gives off the air of a museum.”

In the early years it did not have the nickname “the white house”. It stood amongst many buildings that were painted the same cheap, bare off-white and was not unique beyond its purpose. Styled like many of the buildings to ensure the security of the command, it served many Marines throughout the Pacific for the course of World War II.

The 6 best defensive stands in military history

The 1st Marine Division Headquarters Building on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Joseph Prado)

The structure grew upon the Marines that called it home and in 1946 it was officially ordained the 1st Marine Division Headquarters building. This would lead to it being modified decades later, not once, but twice to ensure the building could continue to function and support the many Marines that passed through its halls. Though the renovations have ensured the building has stayed with both the times and technology of the era from phone wiring to internet within its walls, its overall structure and design are still the same as it was when first built.

“It was not as iconic to us during our time,” said U.S. Marine Corps Retired General Matthew P. Caulfield. “We never knew it as ‘the white house’. We never thought about the fact it was the division command post during World War II. We simply knew it as the place we work, though we sometimes referred to it as ‘the head shed’.”

Due to the era in which ‘the white house’ was made, there were many developmental needs required of it during that time. One of the largest was the need to withstand a possible attack. A Japanese invasion of the U.S. was a realistic threat in the 40s. To ensure the safety of the command staff, the building was meant to be indistinguishable from the rest. To those born in the last 40 years, the very concept of a military attack on the U.S. is simply something that would not and could not happen. But in 1940, when Camp Pendleton was officially opened, thousands of Marines marched up from San Diego for combat exercises against a fake enemy. It caused a panic within the civilian population. People initially thought a Japanese invasion had occurred. The base’s presence even led to a drop in the housing market, a fact that is inconceivable to most Southern California home owners today.

The 6 best defensive stands in military history

The main gate of Camp Pendleton.

The threat of attack from the skies influenced much of what would become Camp Pendleton as we know it today. The camps on base are spread wide across the camp’s more than 195 square miles, originally designed to protect the base from being crippled in one decisive airstrike, according to Dowling. In the attics of the White House and other buildings from the era, there is still evidence of the original plywood roofing used. Pressed wood was used at the time for two reasons: actual wood planks were in immediate need to build and replace decks of Navy ships, and pressed wood was less likely to create deadly wood debris if the buildings were stuck by a Japanese bomber.

“The white house” was designed by Myron B. Hunt, Harold C. Chambers and E. L. Ellingwood. Their firms handled the development of several buildings across Camp Pendleton during the 1940s. Based on the U.S. Navy B-1 barracks, which was a common design to further make the building indistinguishable from other building on base at the time, making it less of a target for Japanese bombers after Pearl Harbor. Few of these barracks are still left standing after the 70 plus years since their development. The B-1, much like its sibling structure, “the white house” was only a temporary design meant to last for the duration of the war. In 1983 congress would pass the Military Construction Authorization Bill of 1983, which demolished many of the older temporary structures of World War II in favor of new designs. Some structures were renovated due to their historical significance. “The white house” interior was included in these renovations. The building underwent changes to its exterior but maintained its current shape with only a few minor changes.

Since its construction many people have entered “the white house” and many more have driven past it. It is an iconic symbol of the 1st Marine Division with dozens of memorials surrounding it, capturing the sacrifice of every Marine who fought with the Division during its many battles through our history. From officers arriving at its doors in 1940 Ford staff cars, to 1968 Volkswagen Beatles, and even more recently, a 2018 name your make and model. When one steps out of their vehicle, they would gaze up at the white building marked by the iconic blue diamond and the battle streamers the division has earned.

The 6 best defensive stands in military history

The 1st Marine Division Headquarters Building on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, May 17, 2018.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Joseph Prado)

In the old days it would support the entire command staff, but now much of the command is spread out across Camp Pendleton. Many Blue Diamond alum have even thought of making it into a museum, given the many historical pieces that already line its halls. It gives off that feeling of having entered a place engrained with history.

“The iconic building of the ‘Blue Diamond,’ it is the division,” said Sowers. “Many people assume that this is the main command post for the Marine Expeditionary Force or even the Marine Corps Installations West.”

Many of the older veterans were not using to dealing with the commands of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said Sowers. When they thought of “the white house” they’d think of the commanding general who presided over all they knew of the Marines on the West Coast at that time.

Generals, majors, sergeants and lance corporals have walked its halls over the last 70 years. Some still live amongst us while others have given the ultimate sacrifice. Their memories and actions live through both the 1st Marine Division and “the white house” itself, which has been an unchanging monument to the Marines of the 1st Marine Division. No matter the age in which one served the Division, all have known that building in one way or another. It is a testament to both the Division and the Marines that have served. Our ideals have become engrained into its very structure and it has become a permanent member in both the hearts and minds of the Marines of the 1st Marine Division.

This article originally appeared on the United States Marine Corps. Follow @USMC on Twitter.

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A sixth grade history project exonerated the captain of the USS Indianapolis

In 1945, the USS Indianapolis completed its top secret mission of delivering atomic bomb components to Tinian Island in the Pacific Theater of World War II. The heavy cruiser was sunk on its way to join a task force near Okinawa. Of the ship’s 1195 crewmembers, only 316 survived the sinking and the subsequent time adrift at sea in the middle of nowhere. Among the survivors was the captain of the Indianapolis, Charles B. McVay III.


McVay would be charged with negligence in the loss of the ship. Even though he was restored to active duty after his court-martial and retired a rear admiral, the guilt of the loss haunted him for the rest of his life. He committed suicide with his Navy revolver on his own front lawn with a toy sailor in his hand.

The 6 best defensive stands in military history
Even he doubted his own innocence. (US Navy)

McVay did everything he could in the wake of the torpedoing of the Indianapolis. He sounded the alarm, giving the order to abandon ship and was one of the last men off. Many of the survivors of the sinking publicly stated he was not to blame for its loss. But this wasn’t enough for the family members of the ship’s crew, who hounded McVay year after year, blaming him for the loss of their sons.

The Navy was partly to blame. They didn’t warn Indianapolis that the submarine I-58 was operating along the area of the ship’s course to Okinawa. They also didn’t warn the ship to zigzag in its pattern to evade enemy submarines. When the Indianapolis radioed a distress signal, it was picked up by three Navy stations, who ignored the call because one was drunk, the other had a commander who didn’t want to be disturbed, and the last thought it was a trap.

(National Archives)

Three and a half days later, the survivors were rescued from the open water, suffering from salt water poisoning, exposure, hypothermia, and the largest case of shark attacks ever recorded. It was truly a horrifying scene. The horror is what led to McVay’s court martial, one of very few commanders to face such a trial concerning the loss of a ship. Even though the Japanese commander of I-58, the man who actually destroyed the Indianapolis, told the U.S. Navy that standard Navy evasion techniques would not have worked – Indianapolis was doomed from the get-go. Even that didn’t satisfy McVay’s critics.

It wasn’t until sixth-grader Hunter Scott began a history project in school about the sinking of the Indianapolis. He poured through official Navy documents until he found the evidence he needed to conclusively prove that McVay wasn’t responsible for the loss of his ship. His project caught the attention of then-Congressman Joe Scarborough and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich who helped pass a Congressional resolution exonerating McVay. It was signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000.

USS Indianapolis
Admiral Raymond Spruance, Commander, U.S. Fifth Fleet, awards a Purple Heart to RM1c Joseph Moran and his fellow survivors of the loss of USS Indianapolis (CA-35) at Base Hospital #18 Guam. The other two Sailors pictured are BGM3c Glenn Morgan (left) and S1c Louis Bitonti (right). (U.S. Navy photo/Released)

Hunter Scott, the onetime sixth-grader and eternal friend to the crew of the Indianapolis, is now a naval aviator. He attended the University of North Carolina on a Navy ROTC scholarship and joined active duty in 2007. He even spoke at the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.


Feature image: US Navy photo

MIGHTY HISTORY

This heavy French tank could be pierced with a pistol

French tank designers had an ambitious idea before World War I: What if they could create a vehicle with the protection of an armored car but the firepower of an artillery gun?


The 6 best defensive stands in military history
Saint Chamond tanks sit in a line in World War I.
(Public domain)

 

The design that eventually emerged packed a massive 75mm artillery gun into the nose of a tank named the Saint Chamond, but the offensive focus of the designers left glaring oversights in mobility and armor, allowing even pistol rounds through in some circumstances.

While French officers had considered designing an armored weapon platform before the war, the outbreak of hostilities put the effort on old. As Britain started building their first tanks, France got in on the action with two heavy tank designs of their own, the Schneider and the Saint Chamond.

The Saint Chamond was basically built around the French 75mm cannon, and this was significant firepower in World War I. Most Brtitish tanks had 57mm cannons, and the rest of of the world simply didn’t have tanks.

A Saint Chamond tank sits in a museum in western France.
(Fat Yankey, CC BY-SA 2.5)
 

But the design compromises needed to make space for the massive cannon were significant. The vehicle drove on relatively thin and short treads, and the weight of the vehicle pushed it hard against the soil, making it questionable whether the tank would be able to navigate the muddy craters of No Man’s Land.

Worse, the cannon needed to be mounted at the front, and it couldn’t fit properly between the treads while leaving room for the cannon’s crew. So, instead, the entire length of the cannon had to sit forward of the treads, causing the tank’s center of balance to be far forwards of the center of the vehicle. As the French would later learn, this made it nearly impossible to cross trenches in the St. Chamond. Instead, crews would tip into the trench and get their gun stuck in the dirt.

Thanks to the limited traction from the treads, the tank couldn’t even back away from the trench and get back into the fight. Once tipped forward, they usually needed towed out.

But, worst of all, in an attempt to keep the already-heavy vehicle from getting too much heavier, they opted for light armor on the sides of the tank. While the front was only a little thicker, it was, at least, sloped. Col. Jean Baptiste Eugene Estienne, a French artillery officer who is now known as the Father of French Tanks, saw the Saint Chamond and tested its armor by firing his pistol at it.

The 6 best defensive stands in military history
The only surviving Saint Chamond heavy tank takes part in Tank Fest 2017, 100 years after the tank first entered service.
(Alan Wilson, CC BY-SA 2.0)
 

The pistol round passed through the quarter-inch armor.

In the designers’ defense, the St. Chamond’s armor was soon upgraded to 11mm at a minimum, a little under a half-inch. The front armor was up to 19mm, almost .75 inches.

But still, when the British and French tanks made their combat debuts, the shortcomings of early tank design were quickly made apparent. Crews from both countries complained of bullets punching through the sides or, nearly as bad, impacting the armor so hard that bits of metal exploded off from the hull and tore through the crew.

French tanks had even worse trouble crossing muddy sections than their British counterparts, getting bogged down quickly. And that was if the engines held up. Often, they would breakdown instead.

The 6 best defensive stands in military history
The French Saint Chamond tank had a powerful, impressive gun, but it had weak armor and was front-heavy.
(Public domain)
 

As the war continued, though, France did find a successful design: the Renault FT, a light tank with a rotating turret, 37mm gun, and decent speed. It did have even lighter armor than the St, Chamond, but its configuration allowed the road wheels to help protect the crew from the sides, and the speed let them overwhelm German defenses before too many rounds could hit them.

Best, the Renault FT could be produced in much higher numbers, meaning that German defenders couldn’t often concentrate fire on any single target.

The design was so successful that it was one of the designs America licensed for its tank corps as it joined the war and stood up its armored forces. America ordered over 4,000 of the tank, known in American inventories as M1917s, but none of them reached the actual forces in France until after the armistice.

Still, the design was liked by U.S. Army Capts. Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton, officers who would create America’s armored strength and later rise to even greater fame in World War II.

Today, the closest modern equivalent to the St. Chamond isn’t even a tank. After all, the vehicle was created to carry a large cannon into battle, and, by the end of the war, it was used more as mobile artillery than to directly attack enemy trenches. As such, it’s more like the M109 Paladin than the M1 Abrams.

And, as artillery, the St. Chamond wasn’t bad. Its weak armor wasn’t a big deal when far from the front lines, and it wasn’t important that an armored artillery platform couldn’t quickly cross a trench.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Historic Iwo Jima footage shows individual Marines amid the larger battle

When most Americans think of the World War II battle for Iwo Jima – if they think of it at all, 75 years later – they think of one image: Marines raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi, the island’s highest point.


That moment, captured in black and white by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal and as a color film by Marine Sergeant William Genaust, is powerful, embodying the spirit of the Marine Corps.

But these pictures are far from the only images of the bloodiest fight in the Marines’ history. A larger library of film, and the men captured on them, is similarly emotionally affecting. It can even bring Americans alive today closer to a war that ended in the middle of the last century.

Take for instance, just one scene: Two Marines kneel with a dog before a grave marker. It is in the final frames of a film documenting the dedication of one of the three cemeteries on the island. Those two Marines are among hundreds present to remember the more than 6,000 Americans killed on the island in over a month of fighting. The sequence is intentionally framed by the cinematographer, who was clearly looking for the right image to end the roll of film in his camera.

I came across this film clip in my work as a curator of a collection of motion picture films shot by Marine Corps photographers from World War II through the 1970s. In a partnership between the History Division of the Marine Corps and the University of South Carolina, where I work, we are digitizing these films, seeking to provide direct public access to the video and expand historical understanding of the Marine Corps’ role in society.

Over the past two years of scanning, I have come to realize that our work also enables a more powerful relationship with the past by fostering individual connections with videos, something that the digitizing of the large quantity of footage makes possible.

The 6 best defensive stands in military history

The campaign within the battle

Iwo Jima, an island in the western Pacific less than 1,000 miles south of Tokyo, was considered a key potential stepping stone toward an invasion of Japan itself.

During the battle to take the island from the Japanese, more than 70,000 Marines and attached Army and Navy personnel set foot on Iwo Jima. That included combat soldiers, but also medical corpsmen, chaplains, service and supply soldiers and others. More than 6,800 Americans were killed on the island and on ships and landing craft aiding in the attack; more than 19,200 were wounded.

More than 50 Marine combat cameramen operated across the eight square miles of Iwo Jima during the battle, which stretched from Feb. 19 to March 26, 1945. Many shot still images, but at least 26 shot motion pictures. Three of these Marine cinematographers were killed in action.

Even before the battle began, Marine Corps leaders knew they wanted a comprehensive visual account of the battle. Beyond a historical record, combat photography from Iwo Jima would assist in planning and training for the invasion of the Japanese main islands. Some Marine cameramen were assigned to the front lines of individual units, and others to specific activities, like engineering and medical operations.

Most of the cameramen on Iwo Jima used 100-foot film reels that could capture about two and a half minutes of film. Sgt. Genaust, who shot the color sequence atop Suribachi, shot at least 25 reels – just over an hour of film – before he was killed, roughly halfway through the campaign.

Other cameramen who survived the entire battle produced significantly more. Sgt. Francis Cockrell was assigned to document the work of the 5th Division’s medical activities. Shooting at least 89 reels, he probably produced almost four hours of film.

Sgt. Louis L. Louft fought with the 13th Marines, an artillery regiment; his more than 100 film reels likely resulted in more than four hours of content. Landing on the beach with engineers of the 4th Division on Feb. 25, 1945, Pfc. Angelo S. Abramo compiled over three hours of material in the month of fighting he witnessed.

Even taking a conservative average of an hour of film from each of the 26 combat cameramen, that suggests there was at least 24 hours of unique film from the battle. Many surviving elements of this record are now part of the film library of the Marine Corps History Division, which we’re working with. The remainder are cataloged by the National Archives and Records Administration.

While military historians visiting the History Division in the past have used this large library, the bulk of its films have not been readily available to the public, something that mass digitization is finally making possible.

For many decades, the visual records made by Marines have been seen by the public only piecemeal, often with selected portions used as mere stock footage in films, documentaries and news programs, chosen because a shot has action, not because of the historical context of the imagery.

Even when they are used responsibly by documentary filmmakers, the editing and selection of scenes imposes the filmmaker’s interpretation on the images. As a historian and archivist, though, I believe it is important for people to directly engage with historical sources of all types, including the films from Iwo Jima.

The ‘highest and purest’ form

After the battle, the Americans buried their dead in temporary cemeteries, awaiting transportation back to the U.S. The film segment just before the graveside scene shows a service honoring the Americans of all backgrounds who had bled and died together.

At that service, Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, the Marines’ first-ever Jewish chaplain, gave a eulogy that has become one of the Marine Corps’ most treasured texts. Noting the diversity of the dead, Gittelsohn said, “Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor … together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color.”

Gittelsohn called their collective sacrifice “the highest and purest democracy.”

Connecting to the present

After the dedication ceremonies, Marines walked the 5th Division cemetery, looking for familiar names. The photographers were there, and one recorded the footage of the two Marines – names not known – and the dog, at a grave with only the number 322 as a visible marking.

The image stood out. The two Marines looking directly at the camera seemed to reach across the decades to compel a response. Researchers at the History Division identified the Marine beneath marker 322 as Pfc. Ernest Langbeen from Chicago. It felt appropriate and important to add his name to the online description for that film, so I did.

I then located members of the Langbeen family, and told them that this part of their family’s history existed in the History Division’s collections and was now preserved and available online after more than seven decades.

Speaking with the family, I learned more about the Marine in grave 322. One of the two Marines in the picture may well be his best friend from before the war, a friend who joined the Corps with him. They asked to serve together and were assigned to the same unit, the 13th Regiment.

Now, family members who never knew this Marine have a new connection to their history and the country’s history. More connections will come for others. The digital archive we’re building will make it easier for researchers and the public at large to explore the military and personal history in each frame of every film.

The visual library of more than 80 online videos from Iwo Jima carries in it countless Pfc. Langbeens, ordinary Americans whose lives were disrupted by a global war. Each film holds traces of lives cut short or otherwise irrevocably altered.

The films are a reminder that, 75 years after World War II, all Americans remain tied to Iwo Jima, as well as battlegrounds across the world like Monte Cassino, Peleliu, Bataan and Colleville-sur-mer. Americans may find their relatives in this footage, or they may not. But what they will find is evidence of the sacrifices made by those fighting on their behalf, sacrifices that connect each and every American to the battle of Iwo Jima.

This article originally appeared on Real Clear Defense. Follow @RCDefense on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

A sailor snuck ‘Remember Pearl Harbor’ onto Tojo’s dentures before his war crime trial

Japanese Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo took office just a month before the Pearl Harbor attacks, but had served as the Army minister for over a year before that and helped to draft the plan — from the attack at Pearl Harbor through the hopeful Japanese victory — for war with the western powers.


After Japan’s surrender, Tojo knew that he would be arrested and executed. He attempted suicide on Sep. 11, 1945 as American soldiers moved into position around his house but he survived.

 

The 6 best defensive stands in military history
Photo: Navy Medicine

As Tojo awaited trial in 1946, the Navy sent Lt. j.g. Dr. George Foster, an oral surgeon, to examine the prime minister’s heavily damaged teeth. The surgeon removed all but seven of Tojo’s and then consulted with a Navy dental prosthetics officer, Lt. j.g. Dr. Jack Mallory.

Mallory recommended complete upper and lower dentures, but Tojo refused because he thought it would be a waste of effort to make both dentures for someone about to be executed. Instead, he asked for only an upper set of dentures so he could speak well at his trial.

Mallory and his friends devised a prank. They decided to engrave “Remember Pearl Harbor” on the back of the general’s dentures. Knowing that he would get in trouble if caught, Mallory opted to engrave the message in Morse code instead of standard letters.

Only Foster and Mallory knew that Mallory had gone through with the joke.

The 6 best defensive stands in military history
Tōjō meets with Minister of Munitions Nobusuke Kishi, who later became a prime minister in postwar Japan.

You could see it clearly when it was dried, but 99 percent of the time you couldn’t tell,” Mallory told the Chico News and Review in 2002.

The secret got out though. Mallory bragged about the prank to two new members of the dental team and one of them told his parents in a letter. The parents passed the story on and it was broadcast on a Texas radio show.

When word began to circulate through Tokyo, Mallory went to his superior and confessed.

Army Maj. William Hill told the young dentist, “That’s funny as hell but we could get our asses kicked for doing it.”

Mallory and Foster knew a guard at the prison and got access to the prison on Feb. 14, 1947, to grind the message off of the dentures. Their mission was successful.

An Army colonel found out about the story the next morning and summoned the dentists to his office, but both men denied the rumors.

Tojo later complained that the dentures fit differently after they were adjusted that February night, but there are no signs that he ever knew about the trick the dentists played on him. He was sentenced to death during the trial and executed in 1948.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is why President Truman turned down the Medal of Honor

Whenever he awarded the Medal of Honor as President of the United States, Harry Truman always remarked that he would rather have had the medal than be President. But when the time came for him to receive one he not only made it known he wouldn’t accept it, he actively blocked every effort.


In 1971, the former President was pushing 87 years old. Congress moved to award him the Medal he always wanted, but upon first hearing about it, “Give ’em Hell Harry” squashed any notion of the award.

 

The 6 best defensive stands in military history
Sitting President Richard Nixon visiting Truman at the Truman Library in 1969.

“I don’t consider that I have done anything which should be the reason for any award, Congressional or otherwise,” Truman wrote upon hearing about the idea.

The former President was appreciative and considered the thought behind the move as an honor in and of itself. He sent a letter to his former political ally and Representative in Congress, William J. Randall, to be read to the chamber while it was in session.

The gist of the letter was that the Medal of Honor was an award for bravery in combat. Giving it to Truman just because he’s a former President would water down the award’s importance.

The 6 best defensive stands in military history
Truman presented hundreds of Medals of Honor as President.

“Therefore, I close by saying thanks, but I will not accept a Congressional Medal of Honor,” he wrote in 1971. The former President and WWI artillery officer would die in December 1972 — the very next year — at age 88.

“Harry S. Truman will be remembered as one of the most courageous Presidents in our history, who led the Nation and the world through a critical period with exceptional vision and determination,” President Nixon wrote of Truman when he died. “Embroiled in controversy during his Presidency, his stature in the eyes of history has risen steadily ever since. He did what had to be done, when it had to be done.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

This German city faked its way to safety during WWII

The city of Konstanz put itself in the record books in World War II. Not for its fighting heroics or involvement in the war, however. But for something else altogether: bluffing their way to safety. With their creative fix to making it through the war unscathed, this town was able to save its citizens and its buildings, coming out on the other side completely intact. 

And how they did it is less sophisticated than you might think. They didn’t crack hidden communications or scramble GPS — this was WWII after all — they left their lights on. Yes, just like Motel 6, the town refused to go dark.

This is significant because, at the time, German towns went under blackouts during bombing raids. These were nighttime attacks when bombs were sent upon Germany and their Axis partners.

It’s a concept that’s so simple, it’s smart; without allowing American pilots light to see their targets, it was harder to be hit by subsequent bombs. 

They got the idea as the neighboring town, Kreuzlingen, Switzerland, kept their lights on. Konstanz simply followed suit, pretending to be another country.

And it worked. While flying overhead, U.S. pilots assumed the lights were in Switzerland — a neutral country in the war — and avoided them as a target. 

Bombing raids in WWII

During the second World War, bombing raids were a regular event. Known as air raids or strategic bombings, these events targeted key areas, with the goal to cripple enemy forces. Target areas included civilian housing, political buildings or important infrastructure, industrial markets, such as warehouses or factories, and areas of transportation, like railways or harbors. The attacks were often paired with ground forces and were most common at night to cause destruction and disrupt enemy activity. 

Berlin alone saw 314 bombings, leaving at least a third of the city in ruins, and by 1945, Germany lost an average of more than 13,000 civilians a month to bombings. 

The history of Konstanz

Konstanz is more than 1,000 years old and is located in South Germany near Lake Constance. It sits near the edge of the Swiss Alps and was home to a Roman Catholic principality for more than 1,200 years. Unlike actual Switzerland, however, they were quite active in the war. The town created parts for submarine radars, developed flying torpedos, and manufactured gun parts. 

It’s a town full of cobblestone streets, epic stone buildings, and plenty of old world charm. Because of their successful stunt, the town is also one of the few German cities that has original buildings that are still intact. Because of this, it’s now a common tourist attraction. 

The impact on the future

While something as simple as lights near the border was effective against technology during WWII, it’s unlikely that a similar tactic could be pulled off today. With more sophisticated machines, like GPS targeting down to the exact coordinate, a city — even right against the border — would likely have a different fate. 

However, their braveness and ingenuity is still celebrated to this day, including their buildings and structures, which can still be toured today. 

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