This is how the 'Miracle at Dunkirk' saved World War II for the Allies - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

From May 26 to Jun. 4, 1940, one of the largest evacuations in human history saved approximately 338,000 Allied troops and gave the Allies the strength to continue resisting Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich.


The operation was more successful than the planners’ wildest dreams, partially because of the skill and bravery of boat crews and troops but also because of horrible decisions by the German high command.

The days leading up to the evacuation were characterized by one of the most effective German Blitzkriegs. British, Belgian, and French forces were falling back across France and a thrust by Germany through the Ardennes successfully cut the Allied force in half. By May 19, Britain was looking for ways to get its expeditionary force back across the channel.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
Troops line up on the beaches in hopes of rescue at Dunkirk. Photo: Imperial War Museum

A failed counterattack on May 21 sealed France’s fate but Germany’s advances made it appear impossible to stage a large evacuation. The Germans crossed the canals near Dunkirk by May 24 and were about to capture Dunkirk, the last port the British could feasibly use. Luckily, Hitler ordered his Panzers to stop advancing and to even fall back a short distance to the canals.

Hitler’s reasoning is a source of debate, but two main factors are thought to have been uppermost in his mind.

First, Hermann Goering may have been successful in his attempts to convince the fuhrer that the Luftwaffe could kill the troops on the beaches of Dunkirk . Also, there was a chance that Hitler believed that Britain was more likely to surrender if it hadn’t been embarrassed and didn’t have the slaughter of approximately 200,000 of its own troops to rally around.

Unfortunately for Hitler, Britain sent nearly the entirety of the Royal Air Force, including planes from the defensive-in-nature British Metropolitan Air Force, to cover Operation Dynamo. Working with French and British navy ships in the waters below, they were able to establish a weak air superiority over the beaches and parts of the channel, limiting the chances for the Luftwaffe to attack.

On May 25, King George VI declared a national day of prayer and attended a special service at Westminster Abbey. The next day, Operation Dynamo kicked off. Almost 400,000 British, Belgian, and French troops lined up in the water and on the beaches in hopes of rescue. Senior commanders were skeptical that they could get even 25 percent of them to safety.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
British troops walk through the water to waiting ships. Photo: Imperial War Museum

In a perimeter around Dunkirk, British and French units prepared to fight delaying actions, often to the last man, to give their buddies a chance to retreat. On May 26, these troops were sorely tested. The Belgian King Leopold, whose troops were cut off in small pockets and being quickly overwhelmed, surrendered and Hitler allowed the Panzers to attack Dunkirk.

As the tanks crashed against the defenders, the Royal Air Force and other planes desperately fought to keep the Germans away from the ships. The Royal Navy was attempting to evacuate as many men as possible, but found itself unable to keep up.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
Soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force fire at low flying German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation

British leaders finally announced to the public how desperate the situation on the beaches was. Dunkirk was burning to the ground and troops were being bombed on the sand and strafed as they stood neck-deep in the water. The public responded valiantly, cobbling together hundreds of privately-owned vessels to form a flotilla of “Little Ships” that became a symbol of British perseverance.

The action drug on for days as six destroyers, eight personnel ships, and about 200 small craft were sunk and tens of thousands of men were killed or captured. But, 338,000 troops were rescued, approximately 140,000 from the British Expeditionary Force and 198,000 from the Polish, French, and Belgian armies. Forty-thousand were lost, either captured or killed.

In Britain, “Dunkirk Spirit” became a symbol of national pride, an embodiment of how Britons could come together to face down any foe and overcome any challenge. Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke in the House of Commons, saying that Britain would fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields, and in the streets.

MIGHTY HISTORY

What happened when 200 insurgents attacked these 49 Americans

It would go on to be known as the Battle of Wanat, the most costly single engagement for U.S. forces in Afghanistan to that point. Nine U.S. soldiers would make the ultimate sacrifice alongside another 31 U.S. and Afghan troops who were injured. But their defense allowed 46 paratroopers, three Marines, and their Afghan allies to hold against a coordinated attack by over 200 insurgents.


(Writer’s note: This article contains descriptions of real-world violence and there is a video embedded that shows attack helicopters firing on insurgents on the burning outpost. Obviously, viewer/reader discretion is advised.)

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

View of the 120mm mortar at COP Kahler days before the Battle of Wanat.

(U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jesse Queck)

The attack on the U.S. forces near Wanat in Afghanistan centered on Kahler, a combat outpost in the area. COP Kahler was a strong position, but it faced a number of defensive weaknesses. First, it wasn’t the high ground in the valley. That’s a compromise military leaders sometimes have to make, but you really don’t want to have to defend a position where an enemy can fire on it from above.

Another problem was that civilian buildings came close to the outpost. This included a mosque that the attackers would misuse as a fortress to get an advantageous position against the defenders.

Finally, and probably most importantly, COP Kahler was not yet done. Engineers had been working for weeks to prepare for construction, but the actual building only began on July 9, four days before the attack would come. And a number of important defensive measures wouldn’t be complete for weeks or potentially months.

Some of the defensive positions on July 13 were still just concertina wire and guns, though some positions were protected by boulders, HESCOs, or hasty earthworks. The task force had planned for the possibility that an attack would come early, while the outpost was still vulnerable. But the intelligence estimates did not anticipate an attack by hundreds, and the assets at the base didn’t either.

But Chosen Company of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment was holding and building Kahler, and they had prepared well for an attack with what they had.

The defenders’ TOW missile launcher was mounted on a HMMWV that could be driven around the site, but a platform was quickly built to give it better fields of view and fire. And there were two mortars, a 120mm and a 60mm, to provide additional muscle.

And the Americans had built observation posts in the territory around the outpost. These would allow American forces to inflict casualties from higher ground, but it would also deny the enemy a chance to occupy those three positions, meaning that was three fewer positions the insurgents could attack from.

And the engineers were busy from July 9 to 13, filling as many HESCOs and digging out as many fighting positions as they could. They were able to provide significant protection to the 120mm and many fighting positions before the attacks came. The 60mm mortar had a pit and a few sandbags, providing some protection. (Some of the defenses and fighting can be seen in this video.)

There were signs in the buildup to the attack that it was coming. Men in the nearby bazaar were seen watching the Americans and seemingly doing pace counts to figure out distances. The number of children in the village slowly dropped, and Afghan contractors refused to bid on some services for the base.

So when Capt. Matthew Myer saw five shepherds traveling together near the base he immediately prepared for a complex attack, using his TOW and mortars to hit the men shifting around the base. Five shepherds will rarely travel together because that many shepherds signals that there are either too many shepherds or too many goats in one area for normal grazing.

But before Myer could give the order to attack, two bursts of machine gun fire signaled the enemy forces, and then a rain of rockets came onto the U.S. warriors. The Battle of Wanat was on, and the enemy had seized the initiative.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

A Army graphic shows the defenses at COP Kahler during the Battle of Wanat. Notice OP Topside which is physically separated from the rest of the defenses. The hotel and mosque were key buildings controlled by insurgents during the battle.

(U.S. Army Combat Studies Institute)

That first volley came in the first hours of July 13, and it contained a very large amount of RPGs. While the Army history of the battle gives no official number to the rockets that hit the base, quotes from the men who fought in the battle described an absolute rain of rockets that left dozens and dozens of tail fins on the ground around the Americans. A radiotelephone operator later said that the “RPG fire was like machine gun fire.”

The insurgent forces had sneaked up close to the outpost and unleashed hell, and the volume of fire indicated that there had either been a major buildup of rockets at these positions or else runners were keeping the shooters well supplied. This rain of explosions took the TOW launcher out of the fight and suppressed a mortar and some machine guns and grenade launchers.

Myers and his men were suddenly struggling to achieve fire superiority. The mortar crew got at least four high-explosive rounds off despite the incoming fire, but were driven back from the weapon by the RPGs and machine gun fire. Rounds were flying in from buildings and trees near the outpost, and the fire was concentrated on the mortarmen.

But they weren’t the only ones in trouble. Another main objective of the enemy force was cutting one of the observation posts, OP Topside, off from the main force. While the OPs provided protection to the COP, they would also be vulnerable to enemy attack until the engineers were done clearing vegetation from the fields of fire.

A mortar crewman was injured by an RPG, and then another was hurt while dragging the first casualty to safety at the command post. The TOW launcher and HMMWV exploded, and it injured an Afghan soldier, knocked out some American communications equipment, and dropped two unexploded but unstable missiles back onto the defenders.

The artillery assets supporting the outpost sent death back at the attackers whenever they could, but they were firing 155mm howitzers at high angle. Danger close starts at just over 700 yards, and anything closer than 600 yards in rough terrain is simply too risky to fire. The automatic grenade launchers on the base had a similar problem.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

Defenders at Kahler the day before the Battle of Wanat.

(U.S. Army soldiers)

The weapons that were available were fired at such a high rate that many of them began to overheat, and then the only .50-cal went down after an enemy round struck it in the feed tray cover.

But the worst of the fighting for the Americans took place at OP Topside. Only nine Americans were there at the start of the fighting, and the insurgent activity made reinforcing them a dangerous and tricky task, though the paratroopers would do so successfully multiple times.

The OP had its own artillery observer, but he was wounded in that first RPG volley. A paratrooper at Topside was killed in that same volley, and another died just moments later while attempting to throw a grenade. Another was wounded so badly that he could not fight.

The six men able to fight, including the forward observer, were forced to work through their own injuries and beat back the attack. Fortunately, the observer had sent a list of pre-planned targets back to the gun lines days before, and so artillery was able to send some assistance despite the fact that the observer could not conduct the calls for fire.

The defenders attempted to get the upper hand, but their own crew-served weapons went down from overheating or ammo shortages, and then one gunner was killed while firing his M4.

Finally, reinforcements from the main COP moved out. But the three-man team lost one soldier en route to a wound in the arm. Soon after they arrived, the enemy made it through the wire.

The attack was repulsed, but the two reinforcements were killed, and so was another soldier. A short time later, a sergeant moved forward to suppress fighters in a nearby building and was killed. Only one soldier was left in fighting shape with another three seriously wounded.

The defender managed to take out an enemy position with a light anti-tank weapon, giving most of the survivors just enough time to fall back to another position. But in their haste, they missed that the forward observer was severely wounded but still alive.

This artilleryman grabbed a grenade launcher and fired every round he had and threw every hand grenade he could reach. Just before he was forced to make a last stand at the OP, four men from the COP reinforced him, and Topside remained in American hands.

But a new attack, once again led by RPGs, strained this control. Every paratrooper on the OP was wounded, and one would die soon after. A platoon sergeant gathered a new force of seven paratroopers and two Marines and once again reinforced the OP, arriving shortly before the Apache attack helicopters.

Gun runs by the helicopters with their 30mm cannons finally drove the attackers back and allowed this larger force to protect the OP. Another platoon from Chosen Company arrived to help out their brothers-in-arms. This force brought multiple machine guns and two automatic grenade launchers with them on HMMWVs as well as multiple anti-tank rocket launchers.

The quick reaction force assaulted into the bazaar, driving the enemy from nearby buildings while suppressing other positions with the trucks. QRF fighters threw out smoke to mark insurgent positions and the Apaches eliminated them. Slowly, the volley of RPG fire lessened and, four hours after the attack began, the terrorist forces finally began to retreat.

Medical evacuation crews landed under fire to get the wounded out, in at least one case evacuating a casualty while an Apache made a gun run just 30 yards away. This limited American losses to the nine paratroopers already killed. A massive surge in U.S. and Afghan forces occurred July 13 with Afghan commandos coming in to clear the nearby village house-to-house and gain intelligence.

The biggest surprise for the Afghan commandos came when they searched the Afghan National Police station near the compound. A massive cache of weapons was there with most of them having been recently fired. But the evidence was that they had fired in support of the insurgents, not against them. The police chief and others were arrested.

Over the following days, American air assets pummeled insurgent positions, and future Chief of Staff of the Army Mark Milley set up operations in Wanat. An estimated 20-50 enemy fighters were killed in the fighting.

Despite the hard-won tactical success, senior leaders decided that holding Wanat was simply too costly and drained resources from more fruitful fights elsewhere. Chosen Company was pulled out.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The KGB tailed this Frenchman for 8 years, but was he a spy?

Fifty-five years ago, on Sept. 11, 1963, a plane took off from Kyiv for Vienna. On board was Julien Galeotti, a French citizen accused of espionage and expelled from the Soviet Union.

Recently released documents from the KGB archive in Kyiv have revealed details of Galeotti’s story and brought to light the remarkable photographs he took during his travels in the Soviet Union. For eight years, KGB agents followed the man they called “The Moustache.”

But was he a spy?


Galeotti made his first trip to the Soviet Union as a tourist in 1955, with stops in Moscow and Leningrad, which is now St. Petersburg. From the beginning, he attracted the attention of the KGB.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

Julien Galeotti.


According to reports filed on him, KGB agents believed the snap-happy Galeotti was trying to make secret “compromising photos” in the Soviet Union aimed at “discrediting and mocking intentionally created ugly images and insignificant aspects” of Soviet life.

In one photograph taken in front of the newly constructed main building of Moscow State University, the KGB alleged Galeotti had set up “clearly posed French citizens depicting unemployed people.”

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

Soviet citizens relaxing on a Moscow bench or French tourists posing as the unemployed?

The next year, Galeotti was back, this time taking a cruise from the southern French port of Nice on to the Black Sea, with stops in Odesa, Sevastopol, and Yalta in Ukraine, as well as Sochi in Russia and Batumi in Georgia. He made similar cruises in 1957, 1959, 1961, and 1963.

Over the years, he took photographs of Soviet citizens standing in lines for basic goods. He photographed a beggar in an Odesa market and military vessels in port.

“At 14:00, he went into the courtyard of Lenin Street, No. 59, and took a photograph of a trash container,” a KGB report from August 12, 1957, said about Galeotti’s time in Odesa. “Then, walking along Provoznaya Street, he photographed poorly dressed citizens.”

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

Residents of Odesa at a public transport stop in 1963.

Soviet agents followed him the entire time, watching him both on board the cruise ship and ashore. According to their reports, Galeotti tried to become friendly with the crews of the ships, showed an interest in Soviet ports and whether military ships were present, and organized anti-Soviet shows and skits aboard the cruise ships.

On his final trip to the Soviet Union in 1963, Galeotti was back in Sevastopol, the Crimean Peninsula port city that was home to the Black Sea Fleet. The KGB arranged to have civilian militia (druzhinniki) headed by KGB agents stationed at sensitive viewing points overlooking Soviet military vessels in anticipation that Galeotti would want to take photos there.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

Galeotti’s photo of the Soviet tank rolling down an Odesa street in 1963.

An operational group was set up with the intention of detaining him. The pretext for arresting him was based on the “statements of Soviet citizens,” including a letter from the captain of the cruise ship.

When agents arrested Galeotti in Sevastopol on Aug. 22, 1963, they didn’t find any film on him. He’d managed to pass his rolls to another French citizen who, according to the intelligence reports, hid them in the seat of his Soviet tourist agency bus. That French citizen spent the rest of the cruise aboard ship without disembarking in the Soviet Union again, and the KGB eventually recovered the rolls of film from the bus.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

A market in Odesa in 1963.

Galeotti spent nearly three weeks in custody, first in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, and then in Kyiv, where he was taken for further questioning.

At first, Galeotti denied being a French agent. He said all of his photographs were taken out of personal interest. But eventually he confessed that he had worked with the French secret services, but only during his last trip to the Soviet Union when he’d been asked to photograph military objects in Sevastopol. Later in the interrogation, he admitted that he’d carried out such assignments from his first trip to the Soviet Union.

He said that when he returned to France after each trip, he sent the film to the photo studio of his father, a former French intelligence agent.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

A KGB surveillance photo of Galeotti in Odesa in 1963.

Galeotti “repented of his actions, saying that he had made a terrible mistake that he would never repeat,” the KGB reported following his interrogation.

According to the file, Moscow decided merely to expel Galeotti because, at the time, two KGB operatives had gone missing in France. It was decided “to exploit the situation as part of a more comprehensive plan.” KGB agents continued to follow and photograph The Moustache until the very moment that his plane left the ground.

Upon returning to France, Galeotti told journalists: “I can’t go back to the Soviet Union anymore. But then again, I don’t want to.”

This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.

popular

The British actually had an effective plan in 1776

One of the biggest questions of the Revolutionary War is this: How did the British of 1776, with immense advantages in troops and ships and an effective plan, manage to lose the war? 


When you look at the material state of affairs, the 13 colonies really didn’t stand a chance. So, how did the British lose the war despite all of their advantages?

 

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
British troops marching in Concord. (Engraving by Amos Doolittle)

 

The reason was not a lack of strategy. After the battles of Lexington and Concord, the British assumed that the American uprising was a number of local rebellions. It wasn’t until 1776 that they realized that they were dealing with a uniform rebellion across all 13 colonies. Granted, some states were more rebellious than others (Massachusetts being the most notable), but they had a big problem due to the sheer size of East Coast.

Like this? Read: Rarely seen illustrations of the Revolutionary War

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

At the Battle of Long Island, the actions of the Delaware Regiment kept the American defeat from becoming a disaster. Fighting alongside the 1st Maryland Regiment, the soldiers from Delaware may well have prevented the capture of the majority of Washington’s army — an event that might have ended the colonial rebellion. (Image courtesy of DoD)

So, they came up with a strategy.  The British plan was to first seize New York City to use as a forward base. Next, they’d move one force north while a second force, from Canada, moved south. The goal was to meet somewhere near Albany in 1777. This would cut New England off from the rest of the colonies and, hopefully, strangle the rebellion.

This was not a bad strategy. The problem was, after coming up with the plan, they flubbed the execution. They seized New York and, in fact, George Washington had a close call trying to escape the British. But then, Washington, with a successful Christmas strike on Trenton and beating Hessian mercenaries at the Battle of Princeton, drew the attention of General Howe. Instead of going north, Howe chased after Washington’s army and the Continental Congress, completely discarding the strategy. There was no on-scene commander-in-chief to reign him in.

 

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
This 1777 mezzotint shows General William Howe, who would blow up the British strategy by chasing after Washington and the Continental Congress in Pennsylvania. (Image from Brown University Military History Collection)

The British force moving south from Canada was eventually defeated at the Battle of Saratoga and forced to surrender. Meanwhile, Howe managed to seize Philadelphia but didn’t get the Continental Congress. Meanwhile, Washington’s army battled well at the Battle of Germantown. The combination of defeats at Saratoga and Germantown doomed the British strategy. The French and Spanish, now convinced the colonists had a chance, joined in and forced Britain into a multi-front war.

Watch the video below to see a rundown of how British strategy evolved during the Revolutionary War.

 

(Civil War Trust | YouTube)

MIGHTY HISTORY

These letters home give a peek at life in Vietnam War

Letters are a very personal and specific method of communicating, filled with all the details about feelings and moments that would get left out of official reports and summaries. That’s why they’re so loved by historians.


This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

Military police escort a captured Viet Cong fighter during the Tet Offensive.

(U.S. Army Don Hirst)

In these letters from the U.S. Army Heritage Education Center, a man identified as “Cofty” writes to his family about his experiences fighting in the jungles and front lines of Vietnam.

The first letter comes from Feb. 2, 1968, near the start of the Tet Offensive. The author and his unit were part of forces sent to counter the North Vietnamese attacks which had slammed into major U.S. posts at Long Binh and Bien Hoa. Saigon was also already under attack.

Though the writer couldn’t know it at the time, his unit was quite successful in driving the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces back, and attacks on Bien Hoa Air Base and Long Binh Post would cease the same day he wrote this letter.

(The author mistakenly put that his unit moved out on the 31st of December. The post-it notation on the letter is to amend “December” to “January.” The letter was written on February 2, 1968.)

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

The attack on the prisoner of war camp resulted in about 26 North Vietnamese dead and no U.S. or South Vietnamese casualties. There were at least two platoons involved in the fighting there, an infantry platoon and a cavalry platoon. It seems that the author was likely part of the cavalry platoon as, in an earlier letter available below, he refers to his squadron and his troop. Troops and squadrons are unit types predominantly used in cavalry organizations.

(A cavalry troop is roughly the same size as an infantry company, and a cavalry squadron is roughly the same size as an infantry battalion.)

While Bien Hoa Air Base and Long Binh Post would be relatively safe within hours of this letter being completed, attacks would continue across the front for months, including in Saigon where an embassy was partially overrun and then re-secured.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

Marines push through the alleys of Hue City in February 1968, attempting to retake areas seized by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces during the Tet Offensive.

(U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. W. F. Dickman)

North Vietnamese forces launched approximately 120 attacks during the surprise offensive, greatly overstretching their forces and creating a situation where U.S. and South Vietnamese forces could quickly counterattack and retake the ground.

The offensive resulted in a large military defeat for the North Vietnamese, but early successes by the communist forces broke American morale at home, and the NVA achieved a major strategic victory despite their severe losses.

The other letter from this young soldier is dated January 19, a few weeks before the Tet Offensive began. It provides a little more “day-in-the-life” as the author details what search and destroy missions were, where his unit was located, and how hard it was to fight in the jungles near Cambodia.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
MIGHTY HISTORY

This Air Force unit caught spy satellite photos as they fell from space

When the Cold War was at its peak, America began spying on the Russians from space with the Corona Program. Corona used a system of satellites that flew over Russia, taking photos of sensitive and classified areas.


The problem with the early spy satellites was that digital photography had not been invented yet and digital scanning was in its infancy. The earliest spy satellites had to take their photos with film and then send the film back to earth.

 

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
Graphic: National Reconnaissance Office

 

So, the Air Force set up the 6593rd Test Group and then the 6594th Test Squadron at Hickham Air Force Base, Hawaii. These units flew under the path of the satellites and caught the film that the satellites dropped to earth. Some of the first objects ever designed to re-enter the atmosphere, the canisters were about the size of a garbage can and carried large parachutes to slow their descent.

When they first entered the atmosphere, the canisters would resemble falling stars as the air around the fast-moving object compressed and began to burn. After the chute deployed, the canister slowed down and 6594th and 6593rd pilots would have to spot the canisters and snag them with a recovery system installed on modified cargo planes. They originally used the C-119 Flying Boxcar but switched over to C-130s.

 

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
Photo: US Air Force

The canisters used a Mark 8 parachute with a cone that up from the center of the parachute. The pilots would spot the canisters and crews would then deploy a “loop” made of nylon rope with brass hooks. The loop trailed beneath the aircraft as the pilot flew directly over the chute, hopefully catching the chute. Using a winch, the crew would then pull the chute and canister into the modified C-119 or C-130 aircraft.

“I liked to recover a parachute close up to the belly of the airplane,” said Lt. Col. Harold E. Mitchell, pilot of the first successful midair film recovery, Discoverer 14. “They didn’t like that because you could invert the parachute… Many times when the parachute went through, though, it passed close under the belly of the airplane, and went over the top of the loop and it wouldn’t deflate. It became a drag chute.”

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
Photo: US Air Force

 

When the pilot missed the chute or it slipped off the hooks, the canister would fall into the Pacific ocean. For these instances, the units employed rescue swimmers who would deploy off of helicopters to retrieve the capsules.

Each successful recovery provided a treasure trove of imagery. The first successful recovery documented 1,650,000 square miles of the Soviet Union, more than 24 U-2 missions provided.

Over the course of the Cold War, the Corona Program was key in tracking Russian military developments. One of their most important discoveries was showing that the “missile gap” worried over by U.S. planners, a belief that the Soviet Union had drastically more missiles than the U.S., was backward. The U.S. had the larger and more capable stockpile.

The 6593rd deactivated in 1972 and the 6594th followed suit in 1986.

Blake Stilwell contributed to this article.

NOW: That time a US Navy aircraft carrier was shut down by a race riot

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MIGHTY HISTORY

That time Union soldiers stole a train to wreak havoc in Georgia

By April 1862, the American Civil War was a year old and neither side had the upper hand. The fighting was particularly brutal in Tennessee, a border state heavily divided between Union and Confederate sympathizers. Grant won a pyrrhic victory at the Battle of Shiloh in western Tennessee while Union operations in the eastern part of the state stalled.


This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

One enterprising Union supporter — a civilian merchant, scout, and part-time spy, James J. Andrews — proposed a plan to Union Maj. Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel that would cut off the supply lines to Chattanooga and allow Union forces to take the city. This would help Mitchel in his ultimate goal of cutting off Memphis from the Confederates.

The plan called for Andrews to lead a group of volunteers to Atlanta where they would steal a train and then race towards Chattanooga while laying waste to the railway, telegraph wires, and bridges.

Mitchel agreed to the audacious plan.

So Andrews gathered 22 volunteers from the 2nd, 21st, and 33rd Ohio regiments stationed in Nashville with Mitchel. He also recruited another civilian, William Hunter Campbell.

Andrews ordered his raiding party to arrive in Marietta, Georgia, by midnight on April 10th, 1862. They were to travel in small groups and wear civilian clothes. Bad weather caused a 24-hour delay and two members of the party were caught in transit. On the morning of April 12th, the rest of the raiders – minus two who overslept and missed the mission – boarded a train in Marietta.

It was one year to the day since the war had started.

The train stopped just outside of Marietta at Big Shanty (modern day Kennesaw) for fuel and to allow the passengers to eat breakfast. The town had no communication lines and couldn’t alert stations further down the track. While the others ate, Andrews and his team sprang into action. They uncoupled most of the cars leaving only three empty boxcars, the tender, and a locomotive called the General to make their escape.

As the train pulled away, The General‘s engineer and two other men ran after the train for two miles before commandeering a handcart and following the train on the rails.

As they went, the raiders cut telegraph lines and tore up tracks to slow down their pursuers and disrupt future travel.

But as the raiders crossed the Etowah River, Andrews made a potentially fatal decision. He and his men spotted another engine, the Yonah, on a spur track. One raider suggested they destroy the engine and burn the bridge over the river. Unwilling to start a fight, Andrews chose instead to continue on.

Although slowed by a missing rail, the General‘s engineer, William Fuller, was still in hot pursuit on a handcart when he came upon the Yonah. He commandeered it and continued the chase.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

Andrews and his men continued cutting telegraph lines and disrupting train traffic. When they reached Kingston, Georgia, they ran into a large traffic jam. General Mitchel did not halt his advance to wait for the raiders, so trainloads of supplies and civilians were pouring out of Chattanooga, clogging the lines. This traffic jam cost the raiders an hour — with the still intact bridge across the Etowah River allowing their pursuers to catch up.

The General departed the station just as the Yonah arrived. Andrews’ raiders stopped to cut the telegraph lines and remove another section of track. During that time, Fuller and his party abandoned their train and took one that was ahead of the traffic jam at Kingston. They took off after the Union men but were stopped by the damaged track.

Abandoning their train again they continued to pursue the raiders on foot. They commandeered a southbound train called Texas but since the Southerners didn’t have a turntable to change directions, Fuller ran the train in reverse. He also picked up a small group of Confederate soldiers to help retake the train.

In an effort to slow down their pursuers, the raiders uncoupled two of their three boxcars. When this didn’t work, they tried to use the last boxcar to burn a bridge. The car ignited but the bridge itself failed to catch. The increasingly desperate raiders watched as Fuller’s train pushed the burning boxcar off the bridge and continued the chase.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

By this time the General was running out of wood and water to power its boiler. Unable to proceed with the planned destruction of Tunnel Hill – which would have completely shut down the line – Andrews ordered the train stopped and the raiders to scatter just 18 miles short of their goal at Chattanooga.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

All the raiders, including the two men who overslept and missed the train, were captured within two weeks. Andrews, Campbell, and six Union soldiers were tried as spies and executed. The rest were interred in POW camps in the South.

Six of the raiders received the first Medals of Honor ever. Their exploits would come to be known as “the Great Locomotive Chase.”

Articles

4 incredible women in military history you need to know about

International Women’s Day has been celebrated across the world since 1909, and is used as a day to laud the important contributions women make.


Women have long-since served in the U.S. military, even before they were officially allowed to enlist. From covert spy operations to battles on the front lines, women have been there for all of it.

Nancy Morgan Hart

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
Public domain image

During the American Revolution, Hart was supposed to stay and take care of her children at their Georgia home while her husband fought in the war, like many military spouses today do. However, Nancy couldn’t sit idly by while a war raged around her.

Related: The only 7 women to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross

Pretending to be a crazy man, Hart was able to gain access to British camps in Augusta, where she successfully gathered intelligence and reported it back to the Continental Army. Hart also wasn’t afraid to defend her home against the enemy, as evidenced when six Loyalist soldiers entered her home and demand she feed them. While they were occupied with food, she hid their weapons and held them hostage with one, killing two when they tried to overpower her, until her husband and a neighbor came home.

Dr. Mary E. Walker

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
Library of congress photo

Walker volunteered her expertise as a surgeon with the Union Army at the beginning of the Civil War, despite women not being allowed to serve as doctors. She was captured and became a prisoner-of-war after she was caught crossing enemy lines to treat wounded soldiers. She was considered a spy by the Confederates and was held until eventually released in a prisoner exchange.

For her bravery and willingness to confront the enemy to save Union soldiers, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor, after a recommendation by Gen. William Sherman, becoming the first and only women ever to be awarded the highest military honor.

Col. Eileen Collins

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
NASA photo

Collins became the first female to pilot a shuttle in space in 1995, and was also the first female commander of a U.S. spacecraft in 1999.

During her time in the Air Force, Collins served as an instructor for the T-38 Talon at Vance Air Force Base, and eventually transitioned to an assistant professor role at the U.S. Air Force Academy, teaching mathematics and instructing T-41 pilots.

Sarah Emma Edmonds

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
Public domain image

Edmonds fled to Michigan from Canada, escaping an abusive marriage. While traveling, she found that dressing like a man made life considerably easier, and eventually joined the military as a male nurse out of a sense of obligation. Edmonds used the alias “Franklin Thompson,” and served as a spy for Union soldiers until she was confronted with a bout of Malaria. Knowing she would be punished if Army doctors discovered she was a woman, Edmonds abandoned her male disguise and continued to serve as a female nurse in Washington D.C.

After she wrote a memoir about her time as a spy, Edmonds contributions to the war were accepted, and she received an honorable discharge, as well as a government pension for her service.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Donner Party really should have taken the Army’s advice

At some point while growing up, every kid is issued a stern warning from their parents to not touch the hot stove when it’s on. Most kids take that advice at face value and never risk it. But then there are the other kids; the ones who repeatedly try to poke at the red hot coils. Eventually, there comes a time where the curious kids get burnt. This is basically what happened to the ill-fated and infamous Donner Party in 1847. History often paints the pioneers as unfortunate travelers, but it also often glosses over the fact that they were issued repeated warnings by the United States Army, who told them to stay away.

Spoiler alert: They didn’t stay away and it didn’t end well for thirty-nine of them — and if they were petty enough, the Army could’ve issued the survivors a “so, what did we learn?


This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

This information in important to the rest of the story.

(“Battle of Churubusco,” John Cameron, lithograph, 1846)

Manifest Destiny was in full force during the 1840s and countless pioneers moved out west in search of greener pastures. When Mexico saw the influx of new settlers coming into and setting up shop in disputed territory, their army attacked American troops in March, 1846, along the Rio Grande River, beginning the Mexican-American War.

The Army knew full well that the coming battles could stretch across the West and into places where settlers were building new lives. So, they issued a warning to pioneers, advising them to either wait for the war before venturing into the southwest or to proceed with extreme caution. After all, the soldiers had a war to fight; they couldn’t dote on individual settlers.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

Just take a wild guess who they listened to: the grizzled Ranger or the sketchy salesman?

(“Advice on the Prairie,” William Ranney, painting, 1857)

That warning didn’t stop George Donner and James Reed from saddling up the wagons to make their way along the Oregon Trail and find new homes in California. The path was well-traveled and would take them through Wyoming, Idaho, and, eventually, down the California Trail near Ft. Hall, Idaho. This was the prescribed route made by the Army for all travelers. The route was generally pleasant, had several Army posts along the way, was seldom ambushed by Natives, and took about four to six months to traverse.

But they caught wind of a faster route that saved time by cutting through Utah. This information came from a writer/salesman, Lansford Hastings, who’d never actually been on his so-called Hastings Cutoff. This new route cut about 300 miles from the trip. Accounting for an average speed of about 12 miles per day, that would theoretically save them about a month of travel. It was important to make it to California before the winter, because as the Army told them, the winter would be deadly.

On their travels, the party randomly met James Clyman, an old Army Ranger turned mountain man. He strongly advised against this alternate route. Clyman had traveled all across the United States and her territories — he even wrote about Hugh Glass (you know, the guy from The Revenant) because he was there with him. There wasn’t a human being alive more suited to give counsel about these lands. He was very serious about them turning around and taking the established route.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

Let this be a lesson for you. If a bunch of people with years of experience tell you something… maybe listen.

(“Encampment,” Daniel A. Jenks, watercolors, 1858)

You know this story doesn’t have a happy ending, so you know which advice they followed. The shortcut, turns out, was absolutely horrible and added months to their journey. Instead of making it to the Pacific Ocean by early September, they found themselves in Truckee Meadows (near present-day Reno, Nevada) by late October.

One of the party’s scouts, William Bryant, had taken the regular route ahead and made it safely to the Army’s Fort Sutter. He heard about their new route and the soldiers sent a dire warning. The warning implored them stay in Reno for the winter and to not even think about crossing the Sierra Nevada in this weather.

Truckee Meadows was beautiful. It had bountiful food, sturdy trees, flowing water in the winter. In a word, it was perfect! They could have as easily made their new lives there. They could’ve been happy. But wintering in Reno would have made too much sense, so they decided to try and push through the terrible wintry mountains — in spite of all of the warnings.

Now, it’s hard to say if they actually had to resort to cannibalism or not — some survivors suggested they did, others said they didn’t, and historical evidence is inconclusive — but it was still the definition of a sh*tshow. It took the Army months to find them (since they were kind of busy with the aforementioned war) but at least forty-eight people made it out.

Thirty-nine did not.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why a popular deployment medication caused crazy nightmares

Before service members deploy, they undergo several different medical screenings to check if they’re capable of making it through the long stretch.


We get poked and prodded with all types of needles and probes prior to getting the “green light” to take the fight to the enemy.

After acquiring your smallpox vaccination — which means you’re going to get stuck in the arm about 30 times by a needle containing a semi-friendly version of the virus —  you’ll receive a bag full of antibiotics that you’re ordered to take every day.

That’s where things get interesting.

Related: Why the most dreaded injection is called the ‘peanut butter’ shot

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
LCpl. Daniel Breneiser, right, gets vaccinated against smallpox by HN Nathan Stallfus aboard USS Ponce before heading out. (Photo from U.S. Navy)

Since most countries don’t have the same medical technology as the U.S., troops can get violently sick just from occupying the foreign area. The World Health Organization reported that over 75% of all people living in Afghanistan are at risk for malaria.

In the ongoing efforts of the War on Terrorism, thousands of troops have deployed to the Middle East. Each person runs the risk of exposure if they’re stung by an infected, parasitic mosquito.

To prevent malaria, service members are ordered to take one of two medications: Doxycycline or Mefloquine (the latter of which was developed by the U.S. Army).

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
Cpl. Timothy Dobson, a fire team leader with second platoon, Ground Combat Element, Security Cooperation Task Force Africa Partnership Station 2011 takes doxycycline once per day in accordance with a weekly dosage of mefloquine to prevent the spread of Malaria. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Timothy L. Solano)

Also Read: This SEAL was shot 27 times before walking himself to the medevac

Countless troops report having minor to severe nightmares after taking the preventive antibiotic over a period of time — but why? Mefloquine is a neurotoxic derivative antimalarial medication that is linked to causing “serious and potentially lasting neuropsychiatric adverse reactions.”

Mefloquine is a neurotoxic derivative antimalarial medication that is linked to causing “serious and potentially lasting neuropsychiatric adverse reactions.”

According to the Dr. Remington Nevin, the symptoms for taking the preventive medication includes severe insomnia, crippling anxiety, and nightmares. Multiple service members were instructed to take the medication while without being informed of the potential side effects.

In 2009, the Army did indeed depopularized the use of mefloquine.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The US accidentally built a fort to repel Canada… in Canada

The War of 1812 was a conflict between the United States and Great Britain, though it could be argued that Canadians and Native Americans were most affected by it. The northern theater of the war, especially near the border of Canada and the Great Lakes, saw some of the most intense fighting — so much so that, after the Treaty of Ghent, President James Madison decided to build a fort at the northern end of Lake Champlain to prevent future invasion.


The only problem… was that the fort was built on the wrong side of the border.

The Americans didn’t discover the error until two years later, when a surveyor found the fort was being built north of the 45th parallel.

 

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
Oops.

Construction halted on the fort, which earned the moniker “Fort Blunder,” until 1842, when the U.S. moved the boundary line north (see the current boundary in the image above) — because pride.

Also read: This War of 1812 veteran saw the Battle of Gettysburg from his porch – then joined it

The Webster-Ashburton Treaty resolved a number of border issues between what would one day become Canada and the United States, who promptly began to build another fort — this one named for revolutionary war hero General Richard Montgomery. The fort was built from the same limestone slabs that helped raise the Brooklyn Bridge, and, though it was never fully garrisoned, it was armed and ready for action.

As the United States’ relationships with Great Britain and Canada flourished, Fort Montgomery’s function dwindled. In 1926, it was auctioned off by the U.S. government and sold to a private bidder.

War of 1812: This is the only time since the War of 1812 that enemy forces occupied US soil

Today, it’s actually for sale… but no one wants it (except for me — I absolutely want it and I am currently looking for a $3 million donation for this cause. The parties there will be epic. Bring your boat and everyone you know…), though in 2009, it was placed on The Preservation League of New York State’s list of Seven to Save.

MIGHTY HISTORY

A Tale of Two Bases – JBLM’s interesting history

Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) is the combined base of the Army’s Fort Lewis and the Air Force’s McChord Air Force Base. Both sections of the base are just south of Tacoma, Washington on the far west side of the state. IIn fact, JBLM’s strategic location provides quick access to the nearby deep-water ports in Tacoma, Seattle, and Olympia. Of course, this allows for quick-deployment of equipment and personnel. Additionally, McChord Field and Sea-Tac Airport can deploy units, giving the base the ability to engage in both combat and humanitarian airlift. 

A Tale of Two Bases 

After the Great Depression left Tacoma Field in shambles, it was donated to the US War Department. There, the US government built McChord Field, officially opening in June 1940. 

McChord Field was an active and productive base during World War II. B-17, B-24, and B-29 Superfortress crews trained here. Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) frequently stopped at McChord Field as well to ferry crews to the bomber unit or an east coast gathering base. 

Meanwhile, Fort Lewis Army Base was already next door and had been for a while. It was established in 1917 as Camp Lewis when around 60,000 men immediately moved in to train for World War I. When the war ended, Fort Lewis didn’t see much action again until World War II. Interestingly, it served as an internment program for prisoners of war from 1942-1943. 

McChord Field leaves the nest

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies

The two installations of Fort Lewis and McChord Field, both operating as one base at the time, were very busy places throughout the second World War. Then, in 1947, the National Security Act established the US Air Force and the two officially separated. Naturally, that’s when McChord Field became McChord Air Force Base.

As separate entities, the size and military significance of both Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base grew throughout the Cold War and other global conflicts. McChord had three important duties: air defense, humanitarian support, and transport and airlift. 

Vigorous training and troop deployment continued at Fort Lewis. In the 1970s, the base started developing the Volunteer Army. Then in the 1980s, Fort Lewis took over I Corps, providing administrative oversight of the Army across all units in the Asia-Pacific region. It also began training Rapid-Response Units and developed the country’s first Striker Combat Teams. It sounds like between the two bases, they sure had their work cut out for them.

In the end, they were meant to be together

In 2010, Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base merged into JBLM in response to recommendations by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. The idea was to get the services and management of the two neighboring bases streamlined for better efficiency. JBLM was among the first joint bases across the nation. Today, it is the only one led by the Army. More than 7,200 active-duty troops and civilians support this joint base. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

This black tank battalion earned 11 Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor

“Patton’s Panthers” was one of the most effective tank battalions in World War II, fighting a continuous 183 days at the front and inflicting heavy casualties on the Germans while crews racked up accolades from their peers, including three Medal of Honor nominations in their first month of combat.


In the end, the men of the 761st Tank Battalion were awarded a Medal of Honor, 11 Silver Stars, and about 300 Purple Hearts despite facing racism as the first black armored unit in combat and the second in U.S. military history.

 

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
Tank Commander Harvey Woodard of the 761st Tank Battalion assesses terrain near Nancy, France, in November 1944. (Photo: Gen. George Patton Museum and Center of Leadership)

The first black armored unit was the 758th Tank Battalion which received 98 black enlisted men in 1941. The 761st followed in March 1942 as a light tank battalion but converted to medium tanks in September 1943.

At a time when most tank units were getting months of training, as little as three months in some cases, the 761st received over two years before shipping to France in October 1944. A historian for the unit, former Sgt. Wayne D. Robinson, theorized that this extended training time came because big Army couldn’t decide what to do with black forces.

But the Panthers got called to the show in 1944 and landed in France that October. Immediately, they made an impact on the attitudes of their peers in other units. Its first day of combat came on Oct. 31 when it fought for a vital hill. After just over a week of fighting, it was tasked with hitting German-held towns on Nov. 8.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
Tank crews from the 761st Tank Battalion await orders to clean out scattered Nazi machine gun nests in Coburg, Germany, April 25, 1945. (Photo: National Archives)

It was on that day that the battalion struck a German roadblock that could spell doom. The tanks were forced to stop, making them easy targets for German guns.

Despite fierce German fire, Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers rushed out of his tank and attached a cable to the roadblock before dragging it out of the way. The American tanks pushed forward through the opening and the attack was successful.

The next day, Charlie Company 1st Sgt. Samuel Turley found his company under heavy German fire with wrecked tanks. He ordered the crews to dismount and organized a resistance before climbing from a ditch to lay down cover fire. His gamble saved his men, but he was cut down by German machine gun fire.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
Soldiers from Dog Company of the 761st Tank Battalion check equipment before leaving England for combat in France in the fall of 1944. (Photo: Gen. George Patton Museum and Center of Leadership)

The day after that, on Nov. 10, Sgt. Warren G.H. Crecy fought his way forward to save his men under fire until his tank was destroyed. He then commandeered another vehicle and killed his attackers with a .30-caliber machine gun before turning the weapon on German artillery observers.

On Nov. 11, Crecy was back at it. His tank was immobilized and he attempted to get it going until he saw German units attacking the nearby infantry. So he climbed onto his .50-cal. and gave them cover. Later that day, he destroyed machine gun nests and an anti-tank weapon.

Rivers was back in the spotlight Nov. 16-19. A mine shot fragments through his leg and destroyed his knee on Nov. 16. Despite the recommendation that he immediately evacuate, Rivers led the way across a brand-new bridge the next day and took on four German tanks, killing two and driving two more back.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
Lt. Gen. George Patton awards the Silver Star to Pvt. Ernest A. Jenkins of the 761st Tank Battalion. (Photo: Gen. George Patton Museum and Center of Leadership)

By Nov. 18, Rivers’ leg was infected but he still refused to go home. The next day, Rivers directed fierce fire onto German anti-tank guns until two rounds pierced his own tank and went through his head, killing him instantly.

All three men, Rivers, Crecy, and Turley, were nominated for the Medal of Honor but only Rivers received it.

The next month the 761st conducted assaults aimed at breaking up the German forces at the Battle of the Bulge, slowing German resupply and taking the pressure off the units under siege despite the fact that the 761st was fighting a numerically superior enemy.

This is how the ‘Miracle at Dunkirk’ saved World War II for the Allies
Gunner Cpl. Carlton Chapman poses in his M4 Sherman tank near Nancy, France, Nov. 5, 1944. (Photo: National Archives)

After another month and a half of fighting, the 761st threw itself against a dug in and numerically superior enemy once again while leading the armored spearhead through the Siegfried Line and fought “the fiercest of enemy resistance in the most heavily defended area of the war theater” for 72 hours according to its Presidential Unit Citation.

On May 5, 1945, the 761st linked up with Russian Forces in Steyr, Austria. Over the course of the war, the unit had lost nearly 50 percent of its starting forces and 71 tanks. It was also credited with inflicting 130,000 casualties.

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