Just 60 years ago, there were no man-made objects above the planet Earth. Now, there are nearly 500,000 objects circling over Earth in various orbits. These include debris, inactive, and active satellites.
The tiny Sputnik, which means “satellite” or “fellow traveler” in Russian, was the first man-made satellite to be launched into Earth’s orbit on Oct. 4, 1957, and it changed the course of human history.
The 58cm diameter, 83.6kg metallic orb, with four antennae that transmitted radio pulses, that was launched by the Soviet Union heralded the space race between the USSR and the US – ushering in an era of scientific advances, not only in military, but also in communications and navigation technologies.
There are approximately 1,500 active satellites currently orbiting the Earth. Modern society is heavily dependent on satellite technology, which is used for television and radio broadcasting, telephone calls, GPS navigation, mapping, weather forecasting, and other functions.
Class of satellite orbit
Low Earth Orbit
80km – 1,700km
Communications, Earth observation, development (International Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope)
Medium Earth Orbit
1,700km – 35,700km
2 – 24 hrs
Navigation (GPS, GLONASS, Galileo)
Communications (Sirius Satellite Radio)
The US share of satellites
US government and private entities own over 40 percent of all satellites currently in orbit. Most operational satellites currently in orbit are for used for communications, Earth observation, technology development, navigation, and space science.
They have lifetimes ranging from months to 30-plus years after launch.
Immediately after the birth of aviation, there was a race to beat records, improve techniques, and push aerial boundaries. Being the first female to break the sound barrier is just one of the many records that Jacqueline Cochran holds, solidifying her place in history as a pioneer of the Golden Age of flying.
Jacqueline Cochran was born Bessie Lee Pittman on May 11, 1906, in Muscogee, Florida. Growing up in poverty, by just six years old, she started working at her family’s cotton mill in Georgia. Her childhood was rough, but it ingrained in her a will and resolve that catapulted her in achieving personal goals.
A young Jacqueline Cochran on the precipice of her aviation career.
She went on to marry George Cochran at the young age of 14 and changed her name to Jacqueline Cochran. Her marriage didn’t last, but that didn’t stop her from making a name for herself in the business world. In the early 1930s, she decided to venture into becoming a beautician and, eventually, owned her own cosmetics company that lasted well into the 1970s.
Jacqueline Cochran simultaneously ran her successful cosmetic line during her aviation career.
However, it seemed that ordinary life was not suited for Cochran. She wanted to make a difference in the war efforts of the time and felt that flying would offer the hand-hold to do so. In 1932, her ambitions reached into the world of aviation and she began to train and study. After just three short weeks of instruction, she received her pilot’s license and set her sights even higher.
Above, Jacqueline Cochran in the cockpit of a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk.
Cochran obtained many prestigious titles, including being the first woman to win the Bendix Trophy during the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race. She set an international altitude and speed record while becoming the first woman to make a blind landing. She earned the Distinguished Service Medal for leading the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WAFS) and continued to set speed records for 15-, 100-, and 500-km courses after breaking the sound barrier in an F-86 Sabre in 1953.
Chuck Yeager championed for Jacqueline Cochran and supplied her with guidance before she broke the sound barrier.
In addition to all these impressive records, she had time to lend a hand to the advancement of female aviators when she gained command over the British Air Transport Auxiliary, consisting of a select group of female pilots. In the U.S., Cochran directed the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) in 1942, which provided more than one thousand pilots to the armed forces.
At the time of her death in 1980, her persistence and drive for excellence attributed to her collection of more speed, distance, and altitude records than anyone in the world, male or female.
“Jackie was an irresistible force… Generous, egotistical, compassionate, sensitive, aggressive — indeed an explosive study in contradictions — Jackie was consistent only in the overflowing energy with which she attacked the challenge of being alive.”
Meyer Lansky was the mind behind the mob. Active in the criminal underworld since the days before Prohibition, Lansky – the “Mob’s Accountant” – was able to figure out how to make mafia earnings and turn them into legitimate businesses. It was because of his acumen that the mob was able to form a kind of national crime syndicate with the likes of Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel. He would become the highest-ranking non-Italian in the Mafia.
His kids were going to do something very different.
To the Sicilians, being in the mafia was an honorable occupation. According to the onetime head of the Bonnano crime family, Joe Bonnano, one of the terms that designated a mafioso was loosely translated as “Man of Honor.” For Jewish men like Meyer Lanksy, however, it wasn’t so honorable. In fact, Lanksy found the business shameful, despite spending his life building it. Still, he wanted a different life for his children.
One of his children, Paul, would actually attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point – on his own merit.
Meyer Lansky with his family: Sons (from left) Paul and Buddy, who had cerebral palsy, daughter Sandra, and first wife Ana.
“The Lansky boy has justified the confidence which was placed in him,” wrote Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver upon appointing Paul Lanksy to West Point. It was a far cry from the life his father lived, having created Las Vegas with his friends, other legendary members of America’s most notorious organized crime families. The younger Lansky would graduate from the Academy in 1954 and join the Air Force.
Lansky was in the Air Force until 1963, ultimately resigning his commission while at the rank of Captain so he could take a civilian engineering job in Tacoma, Wash. He stayed far from his famous father’s profession, going so far as to pretend that he and the elder Lansky had some sort of falling out and didn’t speak.
If you thought that air warfare was reserved for a time after airplanes were invented, you thought wrong. During the American Civil War, the Union troops used hot air balloons to spy on Confederate troops.
The idea to use balloons was the brainchild of Salmon P. Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, and Joseph Henry, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. They suggested that the military should create the balloon corps under the command of Thaddeus Lowe to do some “aerial reconnaissance” for the Union.
On June 17, 1861, Lowe demonstrated his balloon in front of President Abraham Lincoln. He went up to the lofty height of 500 feet and flew the balloon the short distance between the Washington Mall to where the National Air and Space Museum now stands. Lincoln had doubtless seen hot air balloons do such things at fairs for years; what made this journey special was that the balloon was hooked up to a cable that linked an air bound Lowe to the War Department.
In the first air-to-ground communication in America, Lowe sent the following telegram to Lincoln from his balloon: “The city, with its girdle of encampments, presents a superb scene…”
Soon after, Lincoln wrote to General Winfield Scott about Lowe’s abilities. However, when Lowe presented himself to the general, he found that Scott was less than impressed. Lincoln ultimately had to personally intervene to get the general to accept Lowe into the ranks.
In August 1861, the first army balloon was constructed and named The Union. The balloon depended on tapping into Washington D.C.’s natural gas lines, so it wasn’t able to go very far. However, the next month Lowe was able to take his balloon up to 1000 feet and spy on the Confederate troops residing at Fall’s Church, VA. With his direction, Union troops were able to accurately aim at enemy troops without actually seeing them. This was a military first, and the success resulted in the establishment of the Balloon Corps.
The first order of business was to hire more aeronauts. Around October 1861, a number of balloons were tethered along the Potomac River. From their vantage point, the people manning the balloons were able to see any Confederate activity up to a day’s march away, giving the Union time to prepare a plan of defence.
After a short period of time, balloon technology advanced. Lowe himself invented a way to make gas portable: a wooden tank lined with copper, set up on a wagon that also carried water, iron, and sulfuric acid. Combined, these wagons produced hydrogen gas which lifted the balloons up. The army had twelve wagons built to aid the balloons in long-distance missions. Each of them weighed 1000 pounds.
Throughout 1862, Lowe continued to go on reconnaissance missions, noting on maps where Confederate troops were located. When he travelled at night, he would count campfires. It wasn’t all good news, though. The Confederate troops quickly caught on to what was happening and started shooting at the balloons with guns and cannons. Luckily for the people in the balloons, it was pretty difficult for soldiers on the ground to actually hit them—and it was easy for the soldiers in the balloon to gun down anyone who took a shot.
When shooting failed, the Confederates learned how to cloak their positions with camouflage and blackouts, making Lowe’s job more difficult. If Confederates made fewer fires, then Lowe’s estimates of their forces would be low, and the Union troops would underestimate the South’s strength. They would also paint fake cannons black and set them up around camp, so that if a balloon happened to fly over while it was still light, the North would think that they had too many resources to chance a fight. These fake cannons were called “Quaker guns” because they were, like the pacifist Quakers, completely harmless in war.
Two of the hydrogen gas generators assigned to each balloon for inflating on the battlefield.
The South did set out to copy the balloons’ success at one point, but they lacked the technology and resources required to make their balloons practical. The first Confederate balloon was difficult to control, as it was made out of varnished cotton and kept aloft with hot air. The balloonist did manage to draw a map of Union positions around Yorktown despite the difficulties, however. A second attempt was less successful. A balloon made of silk (said to have been sewn from the gowns of Southern Belles) was tied to a tugboat and dragged along the James River before the tugboat crashed and Union troops took control of the balloon.
The Union Balloon Corps met its demise before the end of the Civil War. With a switch of command in 1863, funding was cut to the program which meant that the balloonist could no longer continue staying aloft. On top of that, Lowe himself was accused of “financial impropriety” and forced to resign. Lowe had become the driving force behind the entire campaign, and without him to advocate for the corps, it disbanded.
In addition to the technology of balloons, the Civil War saw a significant use of telegraph machines on both sides. The Union sometimes handled upwards of 4500 telegrams a day reporting on Confederate movements. Both sides encrypted their messages with ciphers, and both sides learned how to tap telegraph machines. Sometimes, messages would become unreadable due to mistakes made on behalf of the people sending them. Robert E. Lee hated telegraphs and even ordered his officers not to send anything, lest the Union find out what the messages contained.
Before he was appointed Chief Aeronaut, Lowe was simply an aeronautic scientist. A week after the fall of Fort Sumter, which kicked off the Civil War, Lowe could be found on a nine hour balloon trip from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Union, South Carolina. When he landed, Confederate troops accused him of spying for the Union. They were eventually convinced of his innocence—something they regretted later—and Lowe returned to the North, where he learned that Mr. Henry wanted to talk to him.
Lowe continued to be passionate about flying. He also made the “railway into the clouds” in California, which took passengers to the summit of Echo Mountain. But one of his biggest legacies is that of his granddaughter, the remarkable Pancho Barnes, who also caught the flying bug.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
On the morning of September 8, 1944, a massive explosion rocked the southeastern outskirts of recently liberated Paris. The blast killed six people and wounded 36 more. Nearly eight hours later, two more explosions occurred in London, killing three people and wounding 17.
One of the explosions in London left a crater 30 feet wide and 8 feet deep. The site was closed to the public, and censors barred journalists from reporting on it. The blast was blamed on a faulty gas main and quickly hushed up.
Hundreds of explosions in the following weeks forced the British to admit the truth. The Germans had launched a horrifying new type of weapon at France and England: the V-2, the first guided ballistic missile in history.
For almost a year, more than 3,000 V-2s would be launched at civilian and military targets in Belgium, Britain, France, and the Netherlands.
A vengeance weapon
Development of the V-2 started in 1934. The German Wehrmacht had a keen interest in rockets, and some of Germany’s best engineers were tasked by the military to create this new “Wunderwaffe” or “wonder weapon.”
The missile had its first successful test flight in October 1942. Traveling over 118 miles and reaching an altitude of 277,200 feet, or 52.5 miles, it was the first rocket to reach the edge of space.
The project was repeatedly downgraded and upgraded during the war, but in 1943 it became one of the largest weapons projects of the Third Reich.
Hitler, angry at the destruction Allied bombing was causing in Germany, wanted to strike Allied cities in revenge. The missile became the second in Hitler’s series of “Vergeltungswaffen,” or “vengeance weapons,” and was designated V-2.
About 6,000 V-2 rockets were built. They were intended to be launched from hardened complexes similar to modern missile silos, but Allied bombing and advances on the ground forced the Germans to rely on mobile launch platforms.
V-2s were much more complex and larger than their predecessor, the V-1. They were about 46 feet tall and were equipped with a 2,000-pound amatol warhead at the tip. They also had a range of 200 miles.
After launch, the missile rose over 50 miles into the air and reached a speed of over 3,000 mph, enabling most to reach their targets in just five minutes. V-2s were so fast that they could hit their targets at up to 1,790 mph.
A program of death and destruction
Their speed and operational ceiling made them impossible to intercept, and Allied attempts to jam the V-2’s guidance system were useless, as the missile did not use radio guidance. (Its guidance system was an innovation in its own right; gyroscopes and an analog computer in it constantly tracked and adjusted its course to a preprogrammed destination.)
Up to 100 V-2s were launched each day, and they wreaked havoc on Allied cities. Over 2,700 people were killed by the missiles in Britain alone.
One V-2 struck a packed cinema in the Belgian port city of Antwerp, killing 567 people, including 296 Allied soldiers — the deadliest strike from a single piece of aerial ordnance in the European theater.
There is no complete official toll, but it is estimated that V-2 attacks killed anywhere from 5,000 to 9,000 people. Together, V-1 and V-2 attacks caused over 30,000 civilian casualties and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
That number does not include the deaths of 10,000 to 20,000 people who were used as slave labor in V-2 construction at the underground Mittelwerk factory and various concentration camps.
Desperate to stop the strikes, the Allies launched Operation Crossbow — a series of operations and bombing campaigns aimed at destroying the V-weapon program. The Allies were aware of the V-2 as early as 1943 and even managed to obtain V-2 parts with the assistance of the Polish Home Army.
A lasting legacy
In the end, the V-2, like many of Nazi Germany’s so-called wonder weapons, was too little, too late. Though the civilian body count was high, it was smaller than that caused by other weapons.
Moreover, V-2s did almost no significant damage to military targets, and by 1944 the Allied war machine was just too large for Germany to fight off.
The Wehrmacht spent so much money and resources on the V-2 for such minimal military gain that Freeman Dyson, a Royal Air Force analyst during the war, later likened it to “a policy of unilateral disarmament.”
But the V-2 left a lasting legacy. Combined with the advent of nuclear weapons, it proved that the most important weapons of the future would be ballistic missiles.
The Soviets and the Western Allies scrambled to collect as much of the V-2 program as possible when the war ended, and some of the earliest ballistic missiles on both sides of the Cold War were essentially copies of the V-2.
Many scientists from the V-2 program, including its leader, Wernher von Braun, were also directly involved in the US space program, ultimately helping NASA land on the moon in 1969.
They’re the oldest and the most recognized armored division in the Army. The first division to see combat in Germany during WWII and the first mash-up of reconnaissance and cavalry units in all of Army history. Here’s everything you thought you knew but didn’t about America’s Tank Division.
Kentucky Wonders, Fire and Brimstone or Old Ironsides?
After the division was organized in 1940, commanding general Maj. Gen. Bruce Magruder was the division’s first commander. His friend, Gen. George Patton, had just named the 2nd Armored Division “Hell on Wheels,” and Magruder didn’t want to be left behind. So, he held a contest to find an appropriate nickname for the new division.
Over two hundred names were submitted, including “Kentucky Wonders” and “Fire and Brimstone.” Gen. Magruder hated all the names submitted and decided to take the weekend to find the best one. It just so happened he’d recently purchased a painting of the USS Constitution, whose nickname was, wait for it, Old Ironsides. It’s said that Magruder was impressed by the correlation between the Navy’s unwavering spirit during the war and his new division’s. It was then that he landed on the nickname Old Ironsides, and the name’s been the same ever since.
The first enemy contact was in North Africa, and it was rough.
Contrary to what many think, the Old Ironsides didn’t engage with the Germans as their first combat experience. Instead, they traveled to North Africa and participated in Operation Torch, part of the Allied Invasion.
Operation Torch was intended to draw Axis forces away from the Eastern Front and relieve pressure on the Soviet Union. It was a compromise between the US and British planners. The mission was planned as a pincer movement with the Old Ironsides landing on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. The primary objective for the Old Ironsides was to work toward securing bridgeheads for opening a second front to the rear of German and Italian forces. Allied soldiers experienced unexpected resistance from Vichy-French units, but the Old Ironsides helped suppress all resistance and were heading toward Tunisia within three days.
The invasion of Africa helped win the war
The invasion of North Africa accomplished a great deal for the Allies since American and British forces finally had the offensive against the Germans and Italians. For the first time, US and UK directives were able to dictate the tempo of events. Forced to fight on both the western and eastern fronts, the German-Italian forces had the additional burden of having to plan and prepare for attacks in North Africa.
However, the harsh conditions of North Africa were quick teachers for the new Old Ironsides soldiers. In February 1943, the Old Ironsides met a better trained German armored force at Kasserine Pass, and the division sustained heavy losses in both service members and equipment.
The division was forced to withdraw, but the Old Ironsides used their retreat time to review the battle and prepare for the next one. After three more months of hard fighting, the Allies claimed victory in North Africa.
The Old Ironsides were recognized publicly for their efforts and then moved to Naples to support Allied forces there.
The Infamous Winter Line Attack
As part of the 5th Army, the 1st Armored Division took part in the attack on the Winter Line in November 1943. Old Ironsides flanked Axis forces in the landings at Anzio and then participated in the liberation of Rome in June. The unit continued to serve in the Italian Campaign until German forces surrendered in May 1945. One month later, Old Ironsides was moved to Germany as part of the US occupation forces stationed there.
WWII to present
In the drawdown after WWII, the 1st Armored Division was deactivated in 1946 but was then reactivated in 1951 at Fort Hood, where it was the first Army unit to field the new M48 Patton tank. Currently, the unit home is Fort Bliss, Texas, but it previously was housed at Baumholder, Germany. With the relocation, the unit went from roughly 9,000 soldiers to more than 34,000.
In 2019, the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team turned its smaller vehicles in for Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
When Christianity was getting its start, the religion didn’t exactly spread like wildfire. In its early days, the world was a tough place to be spreading new ideas. To create converts, Christians had to appeal to many, many different kinds of people for centuries. Selling the “Prince of Peace” to the Germanic-Saxon tribes of Northern Europe was particularly hard, so Christians framed Jesus in a way the locals could better understand.
Saxons were pretty much forced to take on Christianity in the 8th and 9th Centuries after a guy named Charlemagne rolled across Northern Europe with a giant sword he named “Joyous” and forced everyone there to take Communion or take three feet of steel.
But that didn’t mean they were thrilled about it.
So, to make the idea of accepting the Christian god more amenable to the erstwhile pagan northerners, Jesus was recreated in a Saxon poem called Heliand, an epic poem that incorporated the Christian ideals with the Germanic warrior ethos – and that’s what caught on like wildfire. Not only did the Saxon warriors begin to accept the tenets of the new religion, the mix of cultures became the foundation of Medieval Europe and the culture of knighthood.
From there, the budding religion blossomed in the north and became widespread among the Saxons and beyond.
But it wasn’t just that the idea of God’s son being a warrior chieftain that appealed to the northerners. It was actually just a really rockin’ good poem for the time. It was so popular, in fact, that multiple copies of Heliand still survive. If we’re being honest with ourselves, no matter what we think of the Christian religion, the stories are pretty good. Of particular interest in the Heliand are the stories of Genesis, the Revolt of the Angels, the story of Cain and Abel, and the Destruction of Sodom.
Imagining the same characters from these Biblical stories in a different setting would changes the way we see Christianity, even today.
Another reason it caught on so fast was that it was written in a way familiar to the Saxons. It’s the largest known work ever written in the Old Saxon language and it was written in the epic poem style that was already popular with those people at the time. Jesus became a chieftain, prayers became runes, and the last supper became “the last mead hall feast with the warrior-companions.”
• The Chieftain of mankind is born in David’s hill-fort. • The three foreign warriors present their gifts to the Ruler’s Child. • John announces Christ’s coming to Middlegard. • Christ the Chieftain is immersed in the Jordan by His loyal thane John. • The Champion of mankind fights off the loathsome enemy. • Christ, the might Chieftain, chooses His first warrior-companions. • The mighty Rescuer calls twelve to be His men.
Now admit that Christmas and Easter just got a whole lot cooler.
Arab armies have never had good luck fighting Israel. Israeli independence should have been a long shot in the first place, but they were just too good for the neighboring Arab countries. In 1967, when Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran, a move Israel flat-out told Egypt would cause a war, Egypt was ready for Israel – on paper, anyway. That war lasted six days. Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq together could not bring the IDF down.
But in 1973, they were going to try again and this time, it was going to be a surprise.
Even though the Egyptians experienced initial successes, the real surprise would be getting their asses handed to them.
Israel was largely unprepared for two-pronged invasion through the Sinai from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria for many reasons. Israeli intelligence knew about troop build-ups but wrote them off as training maneuvers. It was the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, after all. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir ignored a warning from King Hussein of Jordan, the IDF ignored the fact that Soviet advisors left Egypt and Syria with their families, so when Yom Kippur, the holiest day for the Jewish religion, came around, the Israelis let their guard down.
That’s when the Arabs attacked.
Some 100,000 Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal with 1,300 tanks and 2,000 artillery guns, all protected by an umbrella of surface-to-air missile batteries to keep the Israeli Air Force – the reason the Arabs lost the Six-Day War – at bay. Facing the Egyptians were only 290 Israeli tanks housed in a scattering of fortresses along the canal, inadequate defenses to hold the Peninsula. Luckily for Israel, the Egyptians seemed to slow down when they approached the end of the SAM batteries’ range. This lull would prove critical to the Arab defeat.
The Israelis at first concentrated on the Syrian invasion, considering it posed a much more vital threat to Israeli heartland, while the fighting with Egypt remained largely in the Sinai Peninsula. Once the Syrians were forced back and were on the defensive, the IDF was able to turn its attention to the Egyptian invaders. The Egyptians had just attempted to advance beyond their SAM shield by throwing a thousand tanks at reinforced Israeli defenses. Its losses were mounting and the time was right for a counterattack. It turns out the surprise that had allowed for Egypt’s initial successes was also the reason for its eventual defeat.
With so many Israelis at home for the holiday, the roads were remarkably clear, making it so much easier for Israeli reserves to activate and get to where they needed to be. After detecting a gap in the Egyptian lines, the Israelis planned their counterattack. Once the Israeli reserve forces were in place, they waited for a way to reduce Egypt’s armor strength before pouring through the gap and invading Egypt across the Suez. When Egypt threw its armor at Israeli defenses, that gave the IDF the chance it needed.
Israeli tanks crossing the Suez in a surprise move of their own.
Commandos and tanks started striking surface radar and SAM sites, allowing the Israeli Air Force to operate with greater impunity. Instead of standing their ground, the Egyptians withdrew their SAM batteries, leaving their forces defenseless from the air. Israeli troops began to flow across the Suez Canal, hitting artillery positions, defensive fortifications, and even driving on major cities. The IDF advanced within 100 kilometers of Cairo before a UN-imposed cease-fire took effect, occupying 1,600 square kilometers of Egypt’s territory, and no defenses standing between the IDF and the Egyptian capital.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s Third Army was completely cut off from resupply and surrounded, surely to be annihilated if the fighting continued. The Arab armies were humiliated by Israel once again, in just two short weeks. This time, however, would be the last time. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter successfully negotiated an end to hostilities between Egypt and Israel, an accord that has never been broken and may not ever have happened without the surprise defeat of Egypt in 1973.
By December 1944, Allied armies had reached the western border of Germany itself. The US Army’s 99th Infantry Division, recently arrived in Europe and untested in combat, was assigned to the northern “shoulder” of the Allied front line in the Ardennes Forest.
The three regiments of the 99th ID—the 393rd, 394th, & 395th Infantry Regiments—were thinly spread across this frigid but quiet portion of the front. A few miles to the east lay the Siegfried Line, the enemy’s final defensive line guarding the German heartland.
99th Infantry Division soldiers putting up a winterized squad hut.
(Source: U.S. Army)
The 3rd Battalion of the 395th Infantry Regiment (3/395), commanded by Lieutenant Colonel McClernand Butler, occupied the town of Höfen on the German border. Höfen, along with the nearby town of Monschau, was strategically vital because it sat on elevated terrain overlooking an important road junction.
Although 3/395 had only 600 men to defend a large area, they had been told that the German army, or Wehrmacht, was no longer capable of major offensive operations and that their winter in the Ardennes would be a quiet one.
99th Infantry Division vehicles en route to the battle zone.
(Source: U.S Army)
Unknown to the Allies, the Germans were preparing a surprise counter-offensive through the Ardennes with the goal of splitting the Allied armies and recapturing the Belgian port city of Antwerp. The Germans planned to use massed infantry assaults to punch holes in the American lines, after which the feared German tanks, or panzers, would race through these gaps while the winter weather kept Allied planes grounded. Höfen-Monschau was vital to the operation’s success because the nearby road junctions would enable rapid movement of tanks.
This northern shoulder of the American line where the 99th ID was entrenched would be the hinge on which the German assault would pivot northwest toward Antwerp. The Germans were counting on something else, too—they knew that this sector was thinly manned by untested troops.
German Panzer tanks en route to the Ardennes.
(Source: US Army)
In the pre-dawn hours of December 16th, Hitler’s final major offensive began. The ferocious assault caught the Allies off-guard and the rapid German advance famously caused a “bulge” on Allied maps.
The Germans were operating under a tight timetable, however, and the assault’s center of gravity—the 6th Panzer Army—had only one day to breach the 99th ID’s line. Any delay would jeopardize the plan to cross the Meuse River and advance on Antwerp before the skies cleared and the Allies regained their balance.
German troops pass burning American equipment during the Ardennes offensive.
(Source: US Army)
The German pre-dawn artillery bombardment on December 16th destroyed 3/395’s communication wires at Höfen, but the stunned soldiers soon witnessed an even more ominous sight: enemy searchlights, reflecting off the dense clouds, illuminated the snowy open ground east of Höfen. Through this eerie artificial moonlight, the 326th Volksgrenadier Division advanced on 3/395’s position.
This, however, was the moment that Hitler’s master plan collided headfirst with American fortitude. 3/395 greeted the Volksgrenadiers with a punishing hail of bullets, mortars, and artillery. The Germans, moving across illuminated open ground without cover, fell by the hundreds against the murderous American fire. Some toppled directly into US foxholes as American troops engaged them at point-blank range. Those Germans who made it into the town itself were quickly mopped up. Höfen remained in American hands—for now.
American troops from the 290th Regiment near Amonines, Belgium.
(Source: US Army)
Despite mauling the Germans on their first attempt to take Höfen, 3/395’s situation was grim. The battalion was badly outnumbered and nearly surrounded.
To make circumstances worse, just beyond the bloodied-but-not-beaten Volksgrenadiers waited the tanks of the 6th Panzer Army. It was not just the lives of 3/395 at stake; a German breakthrough here would have enabled the Sixth Panzer Army to outflank the 2nd ID and 99th ID and achieve a direct route to the Meuse River.
Location of the 99th ID sector (red box) on a map of the “Bulge”.
(Source: US Army)
The Germans were not finished with Butler’s men, either. After failing to capture Monschau on the battle’s second day, the 326th Volksgrenadier Division turned its attention back to Höfen on December 18th. The Germans threw wave after wave of infantry, and a unit of panzers, at the town. The situation became so dire that Butler deliberately called in artillery on his unit’s own position to prevent them from being overrun—one of six times this would occur at Höfen.
When the Germans finally broke through 3/395’s lines and established a foothold in the town, the Americans recaptured the buildings by firing anti-tank guns through the walls. Later that night, another enemy assault was similarly unsuccessful. One Wehrmacht officer captured at Höfen asked his interrogators which unit had defended the town. When told it was 3/395, the prisoner replied, “It must be one of your best formations.”
Lieutenant Colonel McClernand Butler, commander of 3/395.
(Source: US Army)
The Germans would never take Höfen, nor most of their other ambitious objectives in the Ardennes, due in large part to the soldiers of 3/395 and the 99th ID as a whole. The failure to breach the 99th ID’s sector stalled the entire German advance and a decisive breakthrough was never achieved. 3/395, soon to be nicknamed “Butler’s Blue Battlin’ Bastards”, was one of the only US Army units that did not retreat in the opening days of the battle.
For their actions the battalion was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation which read, in part: “outnumbered 5 to 1, [3/395] inflicted casualties in the ratio of 18 to 1. Despite fatigue, constant enemy shelling, and ever-increasing enemy pressure, [they] guarded a 6,000-yard front and destroyed 75 percent of three German infantry regiments.”
Captain Ned Nelson, veteran of 3/395 and the battle at Höfen.
There is supposedly a famous quote from Dwight Eisenhower about his “Four Tools for Victory” in World War II, but that quote has been hard to pin down exactly. Several variations exist that include six of the seven tools listed below. The M1 Garand also made the list because, as Gen. George Patton said, “the M1 rifle is the greatest battle implement ever devised.”
1. The Jeep
While the origins of the name “Jeep” may be up for debate, the rugged-dependable-go-anywhere nature of the Jeep is not.
The Jeep – quite literally – became the workhorse of the American military as it replaced horses in everything from cavalry units to supply trains. Field-expedient improvements made the Jeep capable of just about any mission the GI’s could dream up for it.
Jeeps were so ubiquitous in the European theatre that the Germans thought each American was issued their own. Famed sports car designer Enzo Ferrari described the Jeep as “America’s only real sports car.”
Without the Jeep’s rugged dependability and offensive capabilities, winning the war would have been much more difficult for the Allies.
2. The C-47
While American bombers surely wrought havoc on the Axis powers, it is the C-47, the beloved “Gooney Bird,” that is always cited as a Tool for Victory.
This probably has to do with the fact that the C-47’s flew everywhere and did everything.
C-47’s kept the Allies supplied by flying “the Hump” over the Himalayas, they evacuated wounded soldiers from near the front lines, and they flew over occupied territory to drop Allied paratroopers behind enemy lines.
3. The Bazooka
The Bazooka, or official Rocket Launcher, M1, was a man-portable, recoilless, anti-tank weapon.
Not only did the Bazooka pack more punch than any other man-portable weapon, it was also versatile. With the development of different warheads, the Bazooka could be an anti-tank weapon, a bunker buster, or an anti-personnel weapon. One inspired pilot even attached them to his scout plane to fight German tanks.
The Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP), or simply the Higgins Boat, is easily one of the most important tools on this list.
“Higgins is the man who won the war for us,” Eisenhower said. If it hadn’t been for his boats, “the whole strategy of the war would have been different.” The boat’s shallow draft and full-size ramp allowed it to carry 36 fully loaded infantrymen, a Jeep, and a squad, or up to 8,000 pounds of cargo directly onto the beaches under assault.
It could then quickly turn around and repeat the procedure as necessary. The LCVP was at every single American amphibious assault throughout the war.
5. The Sherman Tank
The M4 Sherman tank was far from the best tank fielded in World War II. In fact, it was often outmatched by the much stronger German tanks. But the Sherman had a few things that made it such a formidable weapon.
The simplicity of production of the Sherman, and the lack of destruction of American factories, combined with a strong repair and refit program, meant there were always plenty of Shermans. This translated on the battlefield into numerical superiority, which allowed the Allies to simply overwhelm German armored units that had little means of replenishment.
Continuous improvements throughout its service life also continued to make the Sherman a formidable foe for enemy tanks.
6. The M1 Garand
It is well known how Patton felt about the M1 Garand, but what else was it about the rifle that made it a Tool for Victory?
For one, while most of the world’s armies were still using bolt-action rifles, the M1 could deliver eight rounds of .30-06 as fast as a man could pull the trigger. This gave the American rifleman a serious advantage over his foes.
The weapon was also extremely accurate, rugged, and dependable. The M1 was so effective, in fact, that it significantly changed infantry tactics. The M1 rifle saw heavy combat on all fronts and was a vital tool for the American infantry in winning the war.
7. The Atomic Bomb
The incredible destructive power of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was undeniable.
With just two missions over Japan, the Allies were able to secure the unconditional surrender of the Japanese. This ended World War II.
But there was more to it than just victory. The atomic bombs ending the war meant countless American lives saved from not having to invade Japan. The United States anticipated some 500,000 casualties from the invasion that never came and created Purple Heart medals accordingly.
Thanks to the atomic bombs, those medals have supplied U.S. forces ever since.
During the Cold War, an Army Special Forces unit was tasked with sabotaging Soviet infrastructure and crippling an invasion force to buy NATO time should war break out. The mission was so secret that the entire thing was almost forgotten — until a few veterans of the unit stepped forward.
We spoke to two of these veterans to find out what it was like serving as clandestine soldiers in an occupied city on what was likely a suicide mission if the seemingly-imminent war ever started
U.S. and Soviet forces standoff across Checkpoint Charlie in 1961, one of the many Cold War flare-ups that occurred in occupied Berlin after World War II.
Master Sgt. Robert Charest is a veteran of Detachment A who has started the push for recording the unit’s history. Chief Warrant Officer 4 James Stejskal is the man who literally wrote the book on Detachment A.
The specific mission of Detachment A changed over the years, but the overarching goal was always preparing to counter and stall a Soviet invasion.
“If the Soviets decided to come across Checkpoint Charlie, we would just try to slow them down so that the rest of the folks, they’d get out of Berlin and all that stuff,” said Charest while describing the mission.
This meant that Charest, Stejskal, and others assigned to the unit — which had about 90 people in it for most of its existence — had to know what infrastructure to hit and how best to reach it. They also had to maintain all of the materials and weapons needed to complete their mission.
Berlin was criss-crossed by a network of trains, like this train for travelers on the U-Bahn. Another railway ran around the outside of the city carrying heavy freight, and Detachment A members were prepared to blow up train engines on the railway in case of war.
Some of the targets were obvious, like the railroad that ran around divided Berlin.
“Around Berlin, there was a railway network, basically called the Berliner Ring,” said Stejskal. “It was that railway network that would carry the majority of the Russian forces from east to west. So, you got the guys that are on the ground already and then you got all these troops that are going to be coming from Poland and the Czech Republic and then you’re heading for the Fulda Gap.”
Shutting down the railroad would slow the Soviet advance, but the teams that made up Detachment A needed a way to do it without getting caught. The more stuff they could break before getting captured and killed, the better chance NATO forces would have in building a defensive line and eventually launching a counter attack.
So, they rigged up pieces of coal, filled with explosives. Were these ever loaded into a train, the engineer would eventually blow up his own engine, blocking the rail line with a shattered train until authorities could clean up the mess, drastically slowing reinforcements.
Other targets included factories and other centers of manufacturing, transportation, and command and control.
To supply these missions, Detachment A relied on a series of spy-like gadgets and hidden caches of conventional weapons buried deep all over West Berlin. But the targets were in East Berlin, and Detachment A had to plan on how to strike across the city and, later in the war, across the Berlin Wall, to hit targets.
Special Forces sergeant Robert Charest while assigned to operation in Berlin, clearly rocking a different grooming standard than most soldiers in the Cold War.
(Photo courtesy of Bob Charest)
This required missions deep into Soviet-held Berlin. While Detachment A members usually enjoyed relaxed grooming standards and wore civilian clothes, spying across the wall was done in uniform surprisingly often.
“You put on a uniform, shaved your hair, got in the military vehicles, went through Checkpoint Charlie, and you had access to East Berlin,” Charest said, “Alexanderplatz and stuff like this. You drove around and that was your cover story. The Russians would do the same thing in West Berlin. They had their little system. That was how we conducted surveillance of our targets.”
The men had a huge advantage when spying on the East, though. Thanks to the 1950 Lodge Act, foreign nationals could obtain U.S. citizenship after a five-year stint in the military. This allowed Detachment A to recruit people from the neighborhoods and areas where their targets were without rousing suspicions. These recruits and leaders proved invaluable.
Soviet workers build the Berlin Wall, breaking up the city and reducing Detachment A’s ability to surveil its targets.
(U.S. National Archives)
“Our commander was great,” said Stejskal. “Our commander was Czech Officer who had served in the Resistance during World War II. Our Sergeant Major was a German who had served in the German Army, sort of, at the end of World War II. Just, nothing like you could imagine.”
“… several of the guys that reconned these targets were the actual Lodge Act people that lived in Berlin and had come from Berlin,” said Charest. “They knew where these targets were and the intel, G2 and above, knew what targets would be best to slow the Soviets down if they decided to come across.”
Detachment A practiced crossing the wall, swimming through deep canals with SCUBA gear, or making their way through sewer and water pipes under the city. One recon of the sewer pipes even got a senior officer in trouble.
Allied troops in West Berlin were deep behind Soviet lines. When the Soviets attempted to cut off re-supply to those troops, America launched the massive “Berlin Airlift” to keep them alive. The airlift was a success, but it drove home for many just how vulnerable West Berlin was.
(U.S. Air Force)
“He, along with somebody else, went into the sewer system to check the situation out for crossing points, okay,” Charest said. “Well, little did he know that the CIA had these things monitored with all kinds of stuff. They triggered the alarms.”
While the plans were well laid, they still relied on brave men willing to take on huge risks to make the mission a success. After all, West Berlin was still deep inside East Germany.
“It’s a strange feeling,” said Stejskal. “We were 110 miles behind the East German border, about 12,000 allied troops inside West Berlin surrounded by close to a million Russian and Warsaw Pact soldiers. Oddly enough, I think most of us were very energized to be where we were.”
And the men had a good idea of how dangerous that situation was.
Soviet forces prepare to leave Hungary. If the Cold War had gone hot, Detachment A members, like the rest of the allied troops in Berlin, would have been outnumbered and outgunned over 100 miles from friendly forces.
(RIA Novosti Archive, CC-BY-SA 3.0)
“Well, it was basically a suicide mission,” Charest said. “If we got in and hit anything and then we had to face escape and evasion, all right? You were on your own. There was nothing set up, formally, for escape and evasion, yet. You were on your own. That’s why you spoke the language, that’s why you were familiar with the countryside. You knew, essentially, you had to get to the coast or wherever NATO withdrew to and stuff like this. But, you had nothing formal, you were on your own.”
“I think we would’ve been hard-pressed to survive more than 72 hours, but you never can tell,” Stejskal said. “How did the OSS agents feel when they parachuted France or into Yugoslavia during World War II? Same kind of feeling. You’re anticipating that you’re going in to a very bad situation, but you got the best tools, the best cover, and everything else.”
Luckily, Detachment A never had to slow a Soviet invasion, despite flare-ups, like the tank standoff at Checkpoint Charlie. Instead, they spent their time training and conducting surveillance, preparing to save American forces in a war that never came and quietly saving American lives while building the framework and doctrine for units that followed them, like SEAL Team 6 and Delta Force.
Prior to World War II, the rising chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, announced plans to make Germany into a motorized nation. This led to the adoption of the Volkswagen Beetle. But Hitler also ordered military versions of the vehicle developed, and these vehicles would go on to fill the same niche for the Reich that the Jeep served in America.
American Jeep Vs German Kubelwagen: Truck Face-Off | Combat Dealers
The road to the Kubelwagen began in the 1933 Berlin Auto Show. That was when Hitler called for a motorized Germany and then heard the plans for Ferdinand Porsche’s 25-horsepower vehicle with an air-cooled engine. Hitler demanded that it seat four and get good gas mileage, and they were off to the races.
It took a few years for Porsche to finalize the design and begin mass production under the newly formed Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Volkswagens company, soon shortened to Volkswagen.
But Hitler quickly rose from chancellor to Fuhrer, and his SS officers asked this new Volkswagen company if it could make a militarized version of its KdF Volkswagen in January 1938. The company fast-tracked the project, and the first prototypes came off the line in November.
A Type 82 Volkswagen Kubelwagen
The initial prototypes had some shortcomings in testing. They could not run at walking speed due to their gearing, and they had insufficient ground clearance as well as a less-than-robust suspension. All of these problems were quickly ironed out, though. By the time the Type 82 version, the vehicle’s second iteration, went into production in 1940, it was a capable machine well-liked by the troops.
It was fuel efficient for the time, reliable, and could carry four soldiers and the lion’s share of their gear. It was not, by default, armored or armed, though. So it rarely acted as a front line troop carrier. Instead, it served in a logistics and support role, ferrying spare parts or other key supplies to where they were needed or getting key leaders into position to observe the enemy or their own troops.
So, you know, similar to the Jeep. But there were a number of traits that separated the two vehicles.
A Volkswagen Kubelwagen
(Staffan Vilcans, CC BY-SA 2.0)
For instance, the Kubelwagen had a 22.5 hp engine, much weaker than the Jeep’s 60 hp or even the civilian Volkswagen’s 25-hp engine. But the engine was air-cooled, which did make it a little less prone to breakdowns. And it had a wider and longer wheelbase than the Jeep as well as more storage space.
But the Kubelwagen wasn’t the only military version of the Volkswagen. A command vehicle, the Type 87 Kommandeurwagen, had 4-wheel drive and looked more like a Beetle. And the Type 166 Schwimmwagen was the most-produced amphibious car in history.
When Allied troops got their hands on any of these variants, the vehicles were generally met with grudging respect. So much so that Americans put together an English-language version of the manual to help other troops maintain their captured vehicles.
Aside from stories about U-Boats and how German Admiral Karl Donitz took over for Hitler when the dictator killed himself, you don’t really hear much about the German Navy in World War II. There are a lot of reasons for this, and like most problems with the Nazis, much of it is due to incompetence of leadership.
One of the Kriegsmarine’s earliest adventures in the war was Operation Wikinger. The operation was a response to sightings of British submarines in the North Sea. If the British were out there, they reasoned, the best response would be to go after them and clear the seas.
This turned out to be a terrible idea.
The German Navy’s issues were manyfold, and much of it happened right from the start of the Nazi regime.
Hitler had high hopes of building a Navy that could go toe-to-toe with the British but didn’t really guide his military leadership from there. Karl Donitz said he would need 1,000 submarines to take on the Royal Navy. He got 57.
To top it all off, the rest of the world powers had realized that the age of big battleships was over and that naval air power would be the deciding factor at sea. Meanwhile, Germany was finishing the world’s largest battleship, the Bismarck.
Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering is equally to blame for Germany’s ptificul naval forces during the war. Unwilling to cede any command of the air from the Luftwaffe, he wouldn’t divert resources to create a naval air force. It was also Goering’ Luftwaffe that put the nail in the coffin of Operation Wikinger.
When Wikinger was finally launched in February of 1940, the task force consisted of six destroyers with two land-based Luftwaffe bomber squadrons in support. This should have been fine for such a small and nearby area of operations like the North Sea, but exchanging information between two services meant information had to go all the way down the chain of one command, all the way up another, and back again.
So when a lone German bomber flew over the six destroyers without indicating whether it was friend or foe, the ships opened fire on it. The bomber returned fire, but the Luftwaffe had more experience. It scored a direct hit on one of the destroyers, cutting it in two. The rest of the ships returned to help the crew as the bomber flew home.
That’s how another destroyer suddenly hit an undersea mine. At this point, no one in the task force knew what was happening, who was attacking them, or how they were being attacked. One of the ships, believing it was being attacked by a submarine, dropped its depth charges, damaging its own rudder in the process.
By the time the ships were finally ready to go home, the German Navy had lost two destroyers and 578 sailors. Poor communication was to blame. The Kriegsmarine knew the bombers would be in the area, but they failed to inform the ships. The Luftwaffe bomber didn’t even know there were German ships in the North Sea.
The whole debacle took 30 minutes. To this day, no one knows if the mine that struck one of the destroyers was German or British. Not a single officer was disciplined for the losses.