What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III? - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?

The Fulda Gap is not well known outside military planners and wargamers. But if World War III happened, that would be where one of the first battles would be fought between the United States Army and the Soviet Red Army.


Who would come out on top?

Let’s go away from the big picture – and instead take a more tactical look at this scenario.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
A Russian-made BMP with the Polish army.

 

We’ll put a troop from the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (nine M1A2 SEP Abrams tanks, 13 M3A3 Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicles, two M1064 120mm mortars, and a M577 command track) against a battalion of Soviet mechanized infantry (42 BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles, plus 3 BRDM-2 reconnaissance vehicles and eight 120mm mortars).

The American cavalry troop’s nine M1A2 Abrams tanks feature the M256 120mm gun, and each tank carries 40 rounds for that weapon. While the M256 is able to fire a number of rounds, the primary two we will look at are the M830A1 High-Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) round and the M829A3 armor-piercing “sabot” round.

The HEAT round uses a shaped charge to create a jet of molten metal to penetrate armor. The latter is, essentially, a dart of depleted uranium weighing about 20 pounds.

But let’s not sell the weapons on the 13 M3A3 Bradleys short — the Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicle has the M242 Bushmaster, a 25mm chain gun with 1,500 rounds of ammunition and a two-round launcher for the BGM-71 Tube-Launched Optically Tracked Wire-guided missile, with a dozen rounds.

The M3A3 has a crew of three and can carry two cavalry scouts.

The primary opponent that the Americans will face is the BMP-2. BMP is short for Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty, or “infantry combat vehicle.”

The BMP-2 has a 30mm 2A42 autocannon with 500 rounds, and a launcher for the AT-5 “Spandrel” anti-tank missile with five rounds. It has a crew of three and carries a squad of seven infantrymen.

The BRDM-2 is a four-wheeled armored car that has a 14.5mm KPV machine gun and carries a crew of four.

You may ask, why mechanized infantry and not tanks?

Believe it or not, it’s due to Soviet doctrine. As Viktor Suvarov pointed out in “Inside the Soviet Army,” the doctrine of the Red Army was “the maximum concentration of forces in the decisive sector.” The Soviets would not be sending their tanks first, but instead, mechanized infantry to probe and find a weak spot. Once found, then more and more reserves would be sent to punch through the hole.

So, these 42 BMP-2s and the three BRDM-2s make their way through their sector of the Fulda Gap, probing to find a weak point in American lines, they happen on the American cavalry troop.

 

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
(DoD photo by Eddie McCrossan)

So, how does this fight go down? The real answer depends on who sees whom first. Here, the Americans will have an advantage due to their thermal sights and their advanced fire-control systems. Furthermore, the BRDM-2 is not exactly what one would call “well-protected,” having less than half an inch of armor.

The Americans, on the other hand, would likely be fighting from positions that are somewhat prepared – providing both cover and concealment.

The BRDMs may find the Americans, but the announcement will likely be marked by the BRDMs turning into bonfires. That will give the Red Army battalion commander an idea of where the Americans are – but he won’t have much more information. He may send one of his companies (consisting of 12 of his BMP-2s) forward, at which point, the best he can hope for is to get some fragmentary information as that company is wiped out.

Meanwhile, the American cavalry troop is re-positioning itself for the next round. When the remainder of the Soviet battalion attacks, there will be a longer firefight.

This is where the Russian battalion finds itself in a world of hurt. The 30mm autocannons won’t be able to beat the armor on an Abrams tank, but in order to use the one weapon they have that can defeat an Abrams tank (the AT-5 missiles), they have to hold still – making them sitting ducks. The Soviet battalion will likely be quickly wiped out, even as it uses its mortars to try to suppress the American units.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. David N. Beckstrom)

After that engagement, the American cavalry troop would probably pull back to another set of positions. It will have suffered some losses – probably among its Bradley Fighting Vehicles — but it will likely have most of its strength, ready for the next attack.

Even though they won the skirmish, it is very likely that they would have needed to pull back anyhow – the Soviets would have used their numerical superiority to find a gap, and NATO would have had to adjust their lines to avoid a decisive breakthrough. But the Americans could take some small comfort in knowing that they gave the Soviets a very bloody nose in the first round.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This former President’s son was killed in combat in World War I

The casualty list released by the American Expeditionary Force on July 21, 1918 listed 64 American soldiers and Marines killed in action and 28 missing.

But the name reporters noticed first was that of a 20 year-old college student from Oyster Bay, Long Island: Lt. Quentin Roosevelt.

Quentin Roosevelt had been a public figure since he was four years-old, when his father, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, became president.


Roosevelt had been missing since July 14, 1918, when he and four other pilots from the U.S. Army Air Service’s 95th Aero Squadron engaged at least seven German aircraft near the village of Chamery, France.

His father had been notified that he was missing and presumed dead on July 17 and took it hard.

Quentin Roosevelt was a flight leader in the 95th and despite his famous family, he was very much a regular guy.

“Everyone who met him for the first time expected him to have the airs and superciliousness of a spoiled boy,” wrote Capt. Eddy Rickenbacker, the top American Ace of World War I. “This notion was quickly lost after the first glimpse one had of Quentin.”

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?

Army Air Service Lt. Quentin Roosevelt

“Gay, hearty and absolutely square in everything he said or did, Quentin Roosevelt was one of the most popular fellows in the group. We loved him purely for his own natural self,” Rickenbacker remembered.

Quentin Roosevelt was the fifth child of Teddy and Edith Roosevelt. Quentin was his father’s favorite and his dad told stories to reporters about Quentin and the gang of boys — sons of White House employees — he played with.
When the United States entered World War I, Quentin Roosevelt was a Harvard student.

His father had argued for American entry into the war, so it was only natural for Quentin and the other three Roosevelt sons to join the military.

Quentin dropped out of Harvard and joined the 1st Aero Company of the New York National Guard. The unit trained at a local airfield on Long Island, which was later renamed Roosevelt Field in Quentin Roosevelt’s honor.

The 1st Aero Company was federalized in June 1917 as the 1st Reserve Aero Squadron and sent to France. Roosevelt went along and was assigned as a supply officer at a training base.

He learned to fly the Nieuport 28 fight that the French had provided to the Americans. The Nieuport 28 was a light biplane fighter armed with two Vickers machine gun.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?

Army Air Service Lt. Quentin Roosevelt

The French had decided to outfit their fighter squadrons with the better SPAD 13 fighter, so the Nieuports were available for the Americans. They equipped the 95th and three other American fighter squadrons.

In June 1918 Roosevelt joined the 95th. Roosevelt was a good pilot but gained a reputation for being a risk-taker. With four weeks of training, Quentin Roosevelt got into the fight in July 1918.

On July 5, 1918 he was in combat twice.

On his first mission, the engine of Roosevelt’s Nieuport malfunctioned. A German fighter shot at him but missed. Later that day he took up another plane and the machine guns jammed.

On July 9 he shot down a German plane and may have got another.

On July 14 — Bastille Day the other American pilots were ordered into the air as part of the American effort to stop the German advance in what became known as the Second Battle of the Marne. The German Army was attacking toward Paris. The American Army was in their way.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?

New York National Guard Chaplain (Cpt.) Father Francis P. Duffy, the chaplain of New York’s famed “Fighting 69th” reads a service as a cross is placed on the grave of Lt. Quentin Roosevelt in August 1918.

In World War I the main enemy air threat was observation planes that found targets for artillery. The job for Roosevelt and the other American pilots was to escort observation planes over German lines.

The Americans accomplished their mission and were heading home when they were jumped by at least seven German plans. The weather was cloudy, so Lt. Edward Buford, the flight leader, decided to break off and retreat.

But instead he saw one American plane engaging three German aircraft.

“I shook the two I was maneuvering with, and tried to get over to him but before I could reach him his machine turned over on its back and plunged down and out of control,” Buford said.

“At the time of the fight I did not know who the pilot was I’d seen go down. ” Buford remembered, “But as Quentin did not come back, it must have been him.”

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?

Quentin Roosevelt’s grave outside Chamrey, France after the French erected a more permanent grave marking.

“His loss was one of the severest blows we have ever had in the squadron. He certainly died fighting,” Buford wrote.

Three German pilots took credit for downing Roosevelt. Most historians give credit to Sgt. Carl-Emil Graper. Roosevelt, Graper wrote later, fought courageously.

The Germans were shocked to find out they had killed the son of an American president.

On July 15 they buried Quentin Roosevelt with military honors where his plane crashed outside the village of Chamery. A thousand German soldiers paid their respects, according to an American prisoner of war who watched.

On the cross they erected, the German soldiers wrote: “Lieutenant Roosevelt, buried by the Germans.”

When the German’s retreated, and the Allies retook Chamery, Quentin Roosevelt’s grave became a tourist attraction. Soldiers visited his grave, had their photograph taken there, and took pieces of his Nieuport as souvenirs.

The commander of New York’s 69th Infantry, Col. Frank McCoy, had served as President Roosevelt’s military aid and had known Quentin when he was a boy. At McCoy’s direction, the regiment’s chaplain Father (Capt.) Francis Duffy had a cross made and put it in place at the grave.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?

American Soldiers stand at the grave of Lt. Quentin Roosevelt in 1918.

“The plot had already been ornamented with a rustic fence by the soldiers of the 32nd Division. We erected our own little monument without molesting the one that had been left by the Germans,” he wrote in his memoirs.

“It is fitting that enemy and friend alike should pay tribute to his heroism,” Duffy added.

An Army Signal Corps photographer and movie cameraman recorded the event.

After the war, the temporary grave stone was replaced with a permanent one and Edith Roosevelt gave a fountain to the village of Chamery in memory of her son.

Quentin Roosevelt’s body remained where he fell until 1955. Then, at the request of the Roosevelt family, Quentin’s remains were exhumed.

He was laid to rest next to another son of Teddy Roosevelt; Theodore Roosevelt Jr. Ted, as he was called, was a brigadier general in the Army who led the men of the 4th Infantry Division ashore on Utah Beach on D-Day before dying of a heart attack on July 12, 1944.

Both men are buried in the Omaha Beach American Cemetery.

Quentin’s death shocked the apparently unstoppable Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. who grieved deeply, according to his biographers.

Teddy Roosevelt had fought childhood asthma, coped with the deaths of his first wife and mother on the same day, started down rustlers as a rancher in the Dakotas, faced enemy fire in the Spanish American War, survived a shooting attempt in 1912 and survived tropical illness and exhaustion during a 1914 expedition in the Amazon.

But six months after Quentin’s death, Theodore Roosevelt died of a heart attack in his sleep.

During the World War I centennial observance the Division of Military and Naval Affairs will be issue press releases noting key dates which impacted New Yorkers based on information provided by the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. More than 400,000 New Yorkers served in the military during World War I, more than any other state.

This article originally appeared on the United States Army. Follow @usarmy on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The last troop killed in WWII died after the war ended

On Dec. 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan launched a brutal attack on Pearl Harbor, killing over 2,300 American military personnel and catapulting the U.S. into World War II. After nearly four years of fierce fighting, Japan agreed to the terms of surrender as laid out in the Potsdam Declaration. On August 14th, 1945, this decision was broadcast across Japan.

A few weeks later, thousands of brave men gathered on the USS Missouri to witness a historic event as Gen. Douglas MacArthur, accompanied by Adms. Chester Nimitz and William Halsey, met with the Japanese delegation. Officials signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on September 2, 1945, finally putting a stop to the war and securing victory for the Allies.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
A still photo as the Japanese officially surrender.

Tragically, between the announcement of the surrender and the signing of the document, despite an active ceasefire, one last American life was lost.


During the war, Sgt. Anthony J. Marchione served as an aerial photographer with the 20th Combat Reconnaissance Squadron. On August 18, 1945, Marchione was on a mission to gather evidence that the Japanese were indeed complying with the ceasefire when the B-32 he was aboard took enemy fire.

Japanese machine guns ripped into the side of the B-32’s metal skin, creating a shower of shrapnel inside the cabin. Marchione noticed one of the crew members was gravely wounded and he rushed over. As the brave photographer helped his brother-in-arms, another barrage of enemy gunfire rained down on the American bomber.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
An American B-32.

The second round of incoming fire struck Marchione. He bled to death aboard his plane in the skies over Tokyo that Saturday afternoon. Sgt. Marchione’s tragic, untimely death has the dubious distinction of being the very last of World War II.

The aerial photographer was about a month away from celebrating his 20th birthday.

MIGHTY HISTORY

6 Air Force pararescuemen who risked it all ‘that others may live’

This article is sponsored by The Last Full Measure, now playing in theatres! Get your tickets here.

Troops headed into combat know that an entire medical chain exists to keep them alive and as healthy as possible for as long as possible if they’re hit. The goal is to get them out of harm’s way within the “Golden Hour,” the first hour after injury, to maximize their odds of survival and recovery. But while medics and corpsmen are the backbone of that chain, the Air Force has teams of specially trained personnel who exist solely to put their lives on the line to save others in the most dire of combat medical crises.


These Air Force pararescue personnel deploy forward with other elite forces and fly into combat to save troops already under fire. They live by the motto, “that others may live.”

Here are six of them that epitomized those words.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?

(U.S. Air Force)

1. Airman 1st Class William Pitsenbarger

William Pitsenbarger was the first enlisted airman to receive the Air Force Cross, later upgraded to the Medal of Honor, and his sacrifice is still the standard to which modern pararescuemen strive to honor with service. Now, his amazing story is finally reaching the masses when The Last Full Measure hits theatres on January 24, 2020.

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The Last Full Measure Official Trailer | Roadside Attractions

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William Pitsenbarger embodied service. He volunteered for service in Vietnam, he volunteered to be lowered into a minefield to save a Vietnamese soldier, and, in April 1966, he volunteered his way into a massive firefight that would claim his life.

When an Army company stumbled into an ambush, the mortar, machine gun, and rifle fire came so quick and thick that the soldiers were soon unable to defend themselves while evacuating their wounded. Pitsenbarger recognized what was happening and got special permission to join them on the ground and prepare the wounded for evacuation. Pitsenbarger got nine of the wounded out on three flights before it became too dangerous for the helicopters to operate.

Still, he stayed on the ground, running ammo to American positions under fire. Sadly, due to at least two gunshot wounds, he was killed. He was credited with directly saving nine lives and with medical aid and battlefield actions that may have helped save dozens more.

His award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor, making him the first airman to earn the award.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?

(U.S. Air Force)

2. Chief Master Sgt. Duane Hackney

Duane Hackney is arguably the most decorated airman in U.S. history. We can’t go into all of his heroics here, but he served from Vietnam to Desert Storm and amassed an Air Force Cross, a Silver Star, four Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Purple Hearts, and 18 Air Medals.

His first Purple Hearts came almost immediately after he arrived in Vietnam. A .30-caliber round struck him in the leg and he got a fellow pararescueman to treat it so he could stay in the fight. He was awarded the Air Force Cross for extracting a downed pilot from a fierce firefight, immediately getting shot out of his helicopter during extraction, and then doubling back to the crashed helicopter to check for survivors before finally evacuating again. He received that award in a ceremony where he also got the Silver Star for bravery during a completely unrelated rocket attack. In short, he’s built one hell of a resume.

Despite surviving a combat tour of Vietnam that started with a Purple Heart and ended with an Air Force Cross, Hackney volunteered to stay for another three years.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?

(From left to right) Tech. Sgt. Keary Miller, Senior Airman Jason Cunningham and Staff Sgt. Gabe Brown pose for a photo just weeks before March 4, 2002, where Miller and Cunningham would earn the Air Force Cross and Brown would earn a Silver Star.

(U.S. Air Force)

3. Tech. Sgt. Keary Miller

Pararescue specialist Tech. Sgt. Keary Miller was involved in the Battle of Takur Ghar in Paktia Province, Afghanistan. On March 4, 2002, he was inserting with an Air Force Combat Search and Rescue Team to rescue two service members that had become separated after their helicopter was shot up on the ridge. Miller’s team faced heavy fire while landing and was forced down, crashing onto the mountain.

Miller quickly led the establishment of a hasty defense and then began rendering aid to the wounded. Four of his team were killed almost instantly and five were wounded, but Miller re-distributed ammo to those able to fight and maintained the medical interventions on the wounded for the next 15 hours in bitter cold. He was credited with saving wounded men, allowing the soldiers and airman to keep fighting until rescued, and allowing for the successful recovery of seven sets of U.S. remains.

4. Senior Airman Jason Cunningham

Senior Airman Jason Cunningham was on the same MH-47E helicotper as Tech Sgt. Miller when it was shot down. Cunningham immediately began treating the wounded when they hit the ground and moved injured personnel from the burning helicopter. He was critically wounded while defending patients, but he kept doing everything he could to save others.

He directed the disposition of the wounded and handed their care over to a medic before succumbing to his injuries. He was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross on Sept. 13, 2002.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?

(Video Still by Air Force Senior Airman Stephen Ellis)

5. Master Sgt. Ivan Ruiz

On Dec. 10, 2013, pararescue craftsman Master Sgt. Ivan Ruiz was attached to an Army Special Forces and Afghan Commando team for a raid in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. The nighttime operation met enemy contact almost immediately, and Ruiz’s team took out four insurgents. Ruiz moved forward with two others into a courtyard where the others were hit.

Rather than withdraw to cover, Ruiz laid down heavy fire, killing one insurgent and suppressing the others long enough for him to reach the wounded men. Despite heavy machine gun fire, grenades, and accurate rifle fire, Ruiz stayed exposed until other teammates reached him, then he gave lifesaving care to his buddies under fire.

He’s credited with saving their lives and helping to pin down and kill 11 enemy insurgents.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?

(U.S. Air Force)

6. Staff Sgt. Thomas Culpepper

Pararescueman Staff Sgt. Thomas Culpepper was part of a call to rescue three members of an Army Pathfinder team trapped in an IED belt on May 26, 2011. One Pathfinder was severely injured and the other two were trying to keep him alive, but extracting them from what was essentially a minefield would be tricky.

As Culpepper was raising the second soldier to the helicopter, it suddenly lost power and entered free fall. Culpepper kept control of his casualty and the helicopter came to a stop just a few feet from the ground. They escaped the IED belt and made it home — the injured soldier, tragically, did not survive his wounds.

Culpepper later received the Distinguished Service Cross with Valor Device.

This article is sponsored by The Last Full Measure, now playing in theatres! Get your tickets here.

Articles

Congress passes Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act

Almost 42 years after the Vietnam War officially ended, veterans of that unpopular campaign in Southeast Asia will finally get some official recognition.


Thanks to the efforts of Republican Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey and his colleague, Indiana Democrat Sen. Joe Donnelly, Congress recently passed the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act, and it is expected to be signed into law by President Donald Trump soon.

On March 26, Toomey hosted a conference call with reporters to discuss his legislation.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
Retired Air Force Gen. Charles Horner was awarded a Silver Star for his service as a combat pilot flying F-105s in Vietnam. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

The Toomey-Donnelly bill also designates March 29 as “National Vietnam War Veterans Day.” March 29 marks the anniversary of the day that combat and combat support units withdrew from South Vietnam.

The Senate approved the bipartisan bill Feb. 8, and it was approved by the House on March 21. It’s now been on President Trump’s desk since March 23 awaiting his signature.

“In many cases, Vietnam veterans did not receive the warm welcome they deserved when they came home,” Toomey said. “It’s time we put a heartfelt thank you to Vietnam veterans into law.”

He added that all Americans should be grateful to those who served in Vietnam.

Related: How to honor Vietnam War Veterans

Toomey was joined on the call with Harold Redding, a Vietnam veteran from York who came up with the idea for the legislation, and John Biedrzycki, a Vietnam veteran of McKees Rocks and past national commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Redding said he worked on getting the legislation passed for 27 months. He thanked Toomey for his efforts in seeing it through.

“I can’t tell you what this means to me and all Vietnam veterans,” Redding said.

Biedrzycki said the legislation was long overdue.

“Every day is Veterans Day,” he noted.

Toomey said he would like to see more public recognition for Vietnam veterans, such as at civic events. Those veterans should be emphasized in our classroom as well, he believes.

“Teachers should teach about the Vietnam War,” the senator explained. “These were difficult times in our history.”

In a news release issued by Toomey’s office after the Senate approved the measure, Donnelly said, “This bipartisan bill would help our country honor this generation of veterans who taught us about love of country and service and who deserve to be honored for their selflessness and sacrifice.”

Here’s what other veterans groups had to say about the legislation:

— Steven Ryersbach, past state Commander/AMVETS Department of Pennsylvania: “It’s outstanding that Sen. Toomey is working to support and honor our Vietnam vets. Sen. Toomey’s overall work on behalf of veterans is commendable and we thank Sen. Toomey for all his efforts.”

— Tom Haberkorn, president of Pennsylvania State Council of Vietnam Veterans of America: ” The Pennsylvania State Council of Vietnam Veterans of America supports the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act, which recognizes the service and sacrifice of those who answered our country’s call and served, with honor, in Southeast Asia.”

— Thomas A. Brown., Pennsylvania VFW State Commander: “All Vietnam War veterans deserve high honor and respect that many of them did not get when they returned home from war. Designating March 29 of each year to say ‘welcome home’ and ‘thank you’ to our Vietnam War veterans is a strong signal that America appreciates the service of these special patriots of freedom.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

These were the Mercy Dogs of World War I

Man’s best friend has also been man’s battle buddy for as long as dogs have been domesticated. The mechanical, industrialized slaughter in the trenches of World War I didn’t change that one bit. All the belligerents let slip the dogs of war, some 30,000 in all. They were used to hunt rats, guard posts as sentries, scout ahead, and even comfort the dying.

The last were the mercy dogs of the Great War.


Our canine companions can do much more than just fight alongside us in times of war. Modern-day uses of dogs include bomb-sniffing and locating the bodies of the fallen. World War I saw some uses of dogs unique to that war, especially in terms of hunting the rats that spread disease and ate corpses in the trenches. Dogs were used in scouting parties; their unique senses, especially smell, allowed them to detect the presence of enemy troops long before their human counterparts. When on guard duty, sentry dogs alerted their handlers to even the most silent of a human presence. But the dogs of mercy were truly the most unique among them.

Mercy dogs, also called casualty dogs, were first trained by the Germanic armies of the 19th Century, but their popularity only grew. The sanitatshunde were trained to find the wounded and dying anywhere on the battlefield. Sometimes they carried medical supplies to help the wounded care for themselves until they could find care from a doctor or medic. If the soldier was too far gone for medical care, the dog would stay with him as he died, to ensure he wasn’t alone.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?

Mercy Dogs leave no man behind.

The most common kind of dog on the battlefields were German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers, both of German origin. This was mostly due to their intelligence, endurance, and ability to be trained for even the most dangerous tasks. For the mercy dog, the most popular and able breed was the Boxer. Boxers are not only able to do what other breeds could but they were also fiercely loyal and on top of comforting the wounded and dying, they would also guard and defend them until the end.

If a mercy dog on the battlefield found a wounded man, it would return to friendly lines with its own leash in its mouth, indicating that one of their own was out there and in need of help. Most importantly, the dogs were able to distinguish between a dead and unconscious man. If he was dead, the dog would move on. If he were dying, the dog would stay with him.

Thousands of wounded troops owed their lives to these dogs.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How the great impostor saved Korean War wounded while posing as a surgeon

Ferdinand “Fred” Waldo Demara Jr. wanted to be somebody — so he decided to be everybody. The man who could be called ‘The Great Impostor’ was at times an assistant warden at a prison in Texas, a dean of philosophy at a college in Pennsylvania, a zoology graduate, a lawyer, a cancer researcher, a teacher, and a doctor, among other professions during his 23-year career as a professional confidence man

The Massachusetts native who ran away from home at the age of 16 had initially joined a monastery to become a monk. “Now don’t worry,” Father Desmarais of the Trappist monks told his parents. “He has joined the most demanding religious order in the world and he’ll be home in several weeks.” When he returned home, he enlisted in the US Army on an impulse after enjoying food and drinks at the Union Oyster House in Boston. It wasn’t long before he went AWOL. His patterns were often spontaneous. He later enlisted in the US Navy and went AWOL again, even going as far as leaving behind a suicide note at the Navy docks in Norfolk, Virginia.

He had a world-class ability to assume fake identities and convince unsuspecting job interviewers that he was authentic. He bounced around the country and entered new career fields he certainly didn’t have the qualifications for. 

His most preposterous and famous impersonation came in March 1951 when he took a bus to St. John, New Brunswick, in Canada. The “greatest impostor” assumed the identity of Dr. Joseph Cyr, an acquaintance he’d met a year prior while he pretended to be an American lawyer named Dr. Cecil B. Hamann. He had convinced Cyr to provide him the documentation of his qualifications in order to help him get an American medical license. Naturally, he disappeared and took this precious information to steal his identity and commission as a surgeon-lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). 

Dr. Joe Cyr poses with the HMCS Cayuga
On the HMCS Cayuga, 1951-52, his fellow sailors viewed “Dr. Joe Cyr” as a hero. Photo courtesy of rcnhistory.org.

His first assignment was at an RCN hospital in the navy port of Halifax. He was to take sick calls despite having no knowledge of medicine. As any great con man would do, he presented his job as a problem to be addressed by one of his superiors. 

“I’ve been asked by some people to work up a rule of thumb guide for the people in lumber camps,” Demara told biographer Robert Crichton about the ruse he employed for The Great Impostor, a book about his life. “Most of them don’t have doctors handy and they’re pretty isolated. Could we get together a little guide that would pretty well cover most serious situations?”

“How does that look?” the superior who took on the challenge asked him. 

“Gosh, doctor,” Demara told him, “I think it’s great. You really know your medicine and how to get it across to the layman. This is great.”

His wit and intuitive ability to outsource opinions from other doctors to strengthen his cover didn’t always work. When he was reassigned to the HMCS Magnificent, an aircraft carrier in the Halifax Bay, the commanding medical officer saw right through his scheme. He wrote in a report that Cyr “lacked training in medicine and surgery, especially in diagnosis.”

His most serious undertaking was as the medical officer of the Canadian destroyer named Cayuga. He was responsible for the care of 211 enlisted sailors and eight officers. Whenever a medical problem arose, he would disappear and scour through page after page of medical books using his alleged photographic memory to learn the procedures. He performed a successful dental surgery on Commander Plomer, the Cayuga’s captain, extracting a number of sore teeth despite not having the slightest idea as to how much anesthetic to administer. The following morning, Plomer thanked Cyr for “the nicest job of tooth pulling I’d ever had.”

The great impostor movie poster
Tony Curtis played con man Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr. in the 1961 film adaptation of Demara’s biography, The Great Impostor.

While they patrolled the Korean coast near the 38th parallel, a small Korean junk filled with as many as 19 wounded troops made contact with the Cayuga

“Everything went fine to start with and then as these people [Republic of Korea soldiers] came off, they were not doing too well, some of them,” recalled Peter Godwin Chance, who served aboard the Cayuga. “They were wounded and a couple DOAs but our doctor, Joe Cyr, was the hero. And he was parading up and down the upper deck with his whites and his hat and doing this patchwork and so on and for which we were all highly impressed.”

The “doctor” also performed more critical duties including the removal of a bullet during chest surgery. Most didn’t think anything was awry. His colleagues even put Dr. Cyr in for a commendation. After a public relations specialist was contacted, all of the major outlets including The Canadian Press, The Associated Press, and Reuters learned about the citation proposal. When the real Dr. Cyr read about his medical achievements abroad, he contacted the authorities and they issued a report that there was an impostor.

“Well, we said, those crazy armchair buggers back in Ottawa, they haven’t got a bloody clue,” Chance said.

When the RCN learned Demara was a fraud and his true incompetence was revealed, he was kicked out of the Canadian military. The mystery man’s past aliases were also disclosed, and his exploits were later immortalized in the 1961 film The Great Impostor starring actor Tony Curtis. In 1979, at an RCN reunion held in Esquimalt on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, the famed “doctor” made an appearance and was welcomed with open arms. Perhaps the greatest impostor the world had ever seen died in 1982 at 60 years old.

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

MIGHTY HISTORY

3 Holocaust survivors who served with distinction in the US military

The United Nations General Assembly has designated Jan. 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This day honors the memories of the 6 million Jewish victims and millions of others whose lives were impacted during the Holocaust. International Holocaust Remembrance Day also provides educational programs to prevent future genocides.

Many who survived the atrocities of the Holocaust persevered despite the trauma they endured, and several even served with distinction in the US military. Here are three of their stories.

SIDNEY SHACHNOW, ARMY SPECIAL FORCES

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
Sidney Shachnow, front row center, was posthumously honored in 2019 with the Bull Simons Award — given to those who embody “the true spirit, values, and skills of a Special Operations warrior.” Photo courtesy of arsof-history.org.

Sidney Shachnow compartmentalized the horrors he experienced while imprisoned in a Jewish ghetto during World War II. He authored a book in 2004 called Hope and Honor: A Memoir of a Soldier’s Courage and Survival. It was within these pages he broke his code of silence. “I found it painful and I wasn’t sure anyone would believe me,” he wrote in the preface.

Born Schaja Shachnowski in 1934 in Kaunas, Lithuania, Shachnow’s entire family and 40,000 of the Jewish population of Kaunas lived in a fenced-off ghetto called Concentration Camp No. 4, Kovno.

“There was no infrastructure, no water pipes, no sewage system, and no access to running water,” Shachnow wrote. “Not only the brutality of the Gestapo, but the threat of disease was an ever-present terror to the population.” He and his family lived in constant fear for three years before the Soviets reoccupied Lithuania.

He survived the Holocaust and went on to have a historic career in the US Army. “I have been involved or played a part in some of the most significant times in history from the beginning of Special Forces, the Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive, to the fall of the Berlin Wall while living in the former home of the Treasurer of the Third Reich as Commander of US Forces,” he wrote. “The irony of circumstance has always been exceptional in my life, from being enemies with the Germans, friends with the Soviets as they rescued me and my family from Kovno, and later enemies of the Russians during the Cold War and protecting West Germany.”

When he became a US citizen in 1958, he changed his name to Sidney Shachnow. He went to Vietnam both as a Green Beret and as an infantry officer and was twice awarded the Silver Star for actions in combat, as well as two Purple Hearts. He later served as the commander of Detachment A, a covert Army Special Forces unit based in Berlin that conducted some of the most sensitive operations of the Cold War from 1956 to 1984. He retired from the US Army as a major general in 1994 with almost 40 years of active-duty military service. Shachnow died in 2018.

JACK TAYLOR, OSS MARITIME UNIT

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
Lt. Jack Taylor, right, earned the Navy Cross through his service with the OSS Maritime Unit during World War II. Photo courtesy of The OSS Society.

Lt. Jack Taylor was a US Navy sailor recruited into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in World War II. He served with the OSS Maritime Unit — one of the several predecessors of Navy SEALs — and had 18 months of operational experience in the Balkans. In October 1944 he became the first Allied officer to drop into Austria. After a mission to infiltrate Vienna and set up a resistance network code-named Operation Dupont went sideways, Taylor was captured by the Gestapo.

He was held in a Vienna prison for four months. When the Russians neared Vienna, he was transferred to Mauthausen concentration camp — a horrible place in Germany where people were sent to be exterminated. 

The US Army’s 11th Armored Division liberated the camp on May 3, 1945. Taylor later spoke about his experiences in front of a film crew from within the camp. One of the liberators asked how many ways people in the camp were executed, and Taylor answered honestly. “Five or six ways: by gas; by shooting; by beating, beating with clubs; by exposure, that is standing outside naked for 48 hours and having cold water thrown on them in the middle of winter; dogs; and pushing over a 100-foot cliff.”

Taylor’s path differed from the others on this list as he was already serving his country before he was imprisoned. He recovered 13 “death books” kept by prisoners who acted as camp secretaries at Mauthausen. These recorded the “official” deaths, but unbeknownst to their German captors, the records had a secret code to mark deaths by lethal injection and by the gas chamber. This evidence was later presented during the Nuremberg Trials and was called “some of the best war crimes evidence” produced.

In May 1946, Taylor was called as a star witness for the prosecution at the Mauthausen-Gusen Camp Trials held at the Dachau concentration camp. He was later awarded the Navy Cross for his service during World War II and suffered from severe post-traumatic stress in his life as a civilian.

TIBOR RUBIN, MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENT AND POW

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
Tibor Rubin survived the Holocaust only to face more bigotry in the US Army while serving in the Korean War. He was recommended for the Medal of Honor four times and helped save 35 to 40 lives as a prisoner of war. Composite by Kenna Milaski/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Tibor Rubin was only 13 years old when he was deported to the Mauthausen concentration camp. “When we get into the camp the German commander said right away, ‘You Jews, none of you are going to get out alive,’” Rubin remembered. “It was a terrible life. Their aim was to kill you. Nothing to look forward, just when am I going to be next.”

His turn never came. The US Army liberated the camp. He was separated from his family but alive. Rubin later discovered his parents and sister were murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. He vowed to one day become like one of the liberators who saved his life.

“I have a debt to pay,” he said. “So I made a promise. If Lord help me if I ever go to America, I’m gonna become a GI Joe.”

He became more than an average soldier. He joined the US Army and deployed to Korea in 1950. Alone on a hilltop at 4 a.m. Rubin single-handedly repelled a force of more than 100 enemy troops during a 24-hour gun battle. “I figured I was a goner,” Rubin later recalled. “But I ran from one foxhole to the next, throwing hand grenades so the North Koreans would think they were fighting more than one person. I couldn’t think straight — a situation, like that, you become hysterical trying to save your life.”

He was recommended for the Medal of Honor but was denied due to discrimination against his Jewish heritage by senior leadership. One of them, a sergeant, even sent Rubin on one-way suicide missions expecting him not to make it back alive — but he always did.

On the night before Halloween, Rubin’s position was overrun by Chinese forces and he became a prisoner of war. While in the camp he would sneak out at night and steal food from the guards. He made soup for the sick, acted as a doctor for his wounded friends, and was a therapist for those who had given up hope. 

From April 20 to May 3, 1953, the Chinese forces conducted a POW exchange of the sick and wounded. He was personally responsible for saving the lives of 35 to 40 soldiers who otherwise would have succumbed to their injuries. When Rubin returned to the US he devoted 20,000 hours to helping veterans in Long Beach, California. In 2005, President George W. Bush awarded Rubin the Medal of Honor, which he’d been recommended for on four separate occasions.

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

MIGHTY HISTORY

5 things you didn’t know about the Battle of Midway

Just six months after the tragic bombing of Pearl Harbor, U.S. and Japanese forces clashed once again in the Pacific. For three days, Navies battled near the Midway Atoll, located roughly half way between Hawaii and the Japanese mainland. From June 4th to the 7th, brilliant minds orchestrated incredible naval feats in hopes of destroying the other side.

Although an Allied victory here is seen as a key turning point of the war, there are so many important details that some are lost even on the most staunch historians. Here are five things you likely didn’t know about this momentus battle.


What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?

Adm. Yamamoto saluting his Japanese naval pilots.

Japan wanted to mirror the successes of Pearl Harbor

Japanese Adm. Yamamoto wanted to once again employ the element of surprise to defeat Allied forces stationed at Midway. To distract the U.S., Yamamoto sent many ships toward the coast of Alaska in hopes of baiting American reinforcements to defend against a non-existent attack.

Things did not go as they planned.

America’s code-breakers

Military intelligence had intercepted Japan’s plot, including the time and location of a planned attack. Adm. Nimitz decided to take on the challenge of defeating the Japanese by using his well-trained pilots, launched from perfectly placed ships behind the atoll.

Japan thought they’d catch the Americans off-guard and cornered, but Nimitz had other plans.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?

A PBY Catalina scout plane, similar to the one that first spotted the incoming Japanese.

The Japanese had strict radio silence

Japan decided to maintain radio silence as they sent their ships toward the coast of Alaska. During a recon flight, a Naval pilot spotted the incoming enemy while flying through the heavy Pacific fog. The pilot thought he had located the main body of attack — in reality, it was a secondary Japanese attack on Midway. In response, the U.S. sent out nine B-17 Bombers to take out the invading force.

Due to strict orders to maintain radio silence, the Japanese ships took on the American bombers alone, instead of letting superior command know.

The American fighters were outnumbered

The Japanese sought to destroy the installations built on the Atoll by Allied forces with bombers launched from carriers. Navy, Marine, and Army pilots took to the skies to fight off the bombers and their sizable fighter escort. The Americans were extremely outnumbered — still, they held fast.

After 27 minutes of bombing, the Japanese ended their first aerial attack. Then, an enemy pilot broke radio silence to alert command that they needed more fighters to sustain their offensive. Before the enemy could make a decision, knowing that they didn’t have guns in the air, American bombers followed the Japanese back to their carriers and began their air raid.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?

What shifted the battle in favor of Americans

American pilots went on an offensive, heading straight toward a reported location of Japanese forces. When they arrived, they found nothing but empty seas. Instead of returning to base, aviators made what Admiral Nimitz would later call “one of the most important decisions of the battle.”

The pilots then proceeded to an unlikely secondary location. There, they found the Japanese carriers — unprepared. Immediately, fighters destroyed one of the four Japanese vessels. Other Americans rushed onto the scene to continue the attack. This event shifted the tide of battle to favor the Americans, wresting victory from Japanese hands.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The American story about the creator of this beloved 50-cal will blow your mind

The Barrett M82, known by members of the U.S. military as the M107 .50-caliber semi-automatic rifle, is one of the military’s most beloved weapons in use today. Its service history is as storied – and as American – as the history of its inventor, Ronnie Barrett.


Before his name became synonymous with American military supremacy, Barrett was a professional photographer in his home state of Tennessee. He never studied science or engineering in college – in fact, he didn’t go to college at all. He went to Murfreesboro High School before going out and starting a photography studio.

That all changed during the course of his usual work.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?

And many, many U.S. and allied troops are better off for it.

In 1982, Barrett was snapping a photo of a river patrol gunboat during a military exercise on the Stones River near Nashville, Tenn. Mounted on that boat were two M2 Browning .50-caliber machine guns. The size of the ammunition cartridge got Ronnie Barrett thinking. He was “wowed” by the Ma Deuce, but he wanted to know if the .50-caliber cartridge could be fired from a shoulder-mounted sniper rifle.

He was out on the water that day to snap promotional photos for the Browning Firearms Company, but he ended up starting a rival firm, one that would become as closely-linked with the U.S. military as Browning.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?

The photo also won a first-place award from the Tennessee Professional Photographers Association. No joke.

(Photo by Ronnie Barrett)

Barrett went home and began work on a 3D sketch of what would soon become the Model 82A1 – M107. Within just seven years, Barrett was able to sell his powerful sniper rifle to the Swedish military and eventually the United States Marine Corps, then the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force.

Not bad at all for someone with no college education, but a whole lotta vision. Welcome to Ronnie Barrett’s America, folks.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This building in Stalingrad became the Russian version of The Alamo in World War II

In the Battle of Stalingrad a group of 25 men in a nearly abandoned apartment held off thousands of German soldiers during nearly two months of fighting. Time and time again, the assaulting German forces attacked the building occupied by Junior Sgt. Yakov Pavlov and his platoon.


In the fighting at Stalingrad, Russian and German soldiers clashed in bloody, close-quarters combat. Some buildings held Germans and Russians on different floors for days, fighting the other side through the stairwells.

One of these heavily contested buildings was a four-story apartment building that overlooked the Volga river and had a clear line of fire down two roads intersecting in front of it. Whoever controlled that building could stop nearly any traffic moving within a kilometer of it.

The Russian Army sent a 30-man platoon to take the building from German occupiers, but only four survivors were left victorious. Junior Sgt. Pavlov, now the acting platoon commander, and his three men began constructing defenses of barbed wire and mines while also requesting reinforcements. In the basement of the building, 10 Russian civilians huddled with slim hopes of surviving the battle.

When 21 Russian soldiers arrived, they helped prepare the building for an extended siege. A PTRS-41 anti-tank rifle was placed on the roof, machine guns were placed in every available window facing the main square, mortars were emplaced, and walls were knocked out to facilitate communications between the men.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?

Then the Germans came. Armored and infantry columns would move up the streets to try and take out the building. They were forced to cross “9th January Square,” a wide open space named for Russia’s Bloody Sunday. While the Germans were in the square, the Russians would strike.

The Russian soldiers would open fire with the anti-tank rifle on the roof, piercing the thin turret armor of the tanks. The men found that if they waited until the tanks were within 25 meters of the building, the enemy tanks could not elevate their own guns high enough to retaliate.

Meanwhile, machine gunners would begin firing from the windows, shattering the bodies of German infantrymen. When they had the rounds, the men would begin lobbing mortars out of the building and onto the attacking column.

From Sep. 23 to Nov. 25, 1942, this fighting continued unabated. The Germans would attack at regular intervals and would often keep a few machine guns firing during lulls to keep the Russians from sleeping.

The Germans were devastated in the fight for the building that they eventually marked on their maps as a fortress. Inside, the Russians were sticking to Order 227 which demanded that Soviet soldiers take, “Not one step back!”

They held out until Nov. 25 when a Russian counterattack allowed fresh soldiers to replace Pavlov and his men in the defense of Pavlov’s house. The civilians in the basement were also allowed to evacuate.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
The reconstructed apartment building in Stalingrad.

The building was reconstructed after the war. Bricks and materials from the bombed out structure that Pavlov and his men held was used to construct a monument on the corner of the new building.

MIGHTY HISTORY

These heroes used planes as missiles years before the Kamikazes

The Japanese Kamikaze pilots were known for their suicide attacks against American vessels. These pilots, hell-bent on getting revenge for their lost comrades while fighting a doomed battle against an angry and seemingly unstoppable Navy, would die crashing their planes into Allied ships.

But the Japanese actually weren’t alone in ordering pilots to use their planes as guided missiles. In fact, they weren’t even the first.


What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
A Polish P.11 is readied for takeoff. Lt. Col. Leopold Pamula was flying a P.11 when he conducted the first taran attack of World War II.

 

Soviet pilots conducted “taran” attacks, using their own planes as battering rams against German craft, on the first day of the German invasion. And Polish pilots used the tactic on the first day of World War II. Kamikaze attacks, meanwhile, began in 1944.

The first-known taran attack in World War II took place on Sept. 1, 1939. Polish pilots resisting the German invasion were shockingly effective despite flying outdated and outnumbered aircraft.

One pilot, Lt. Col. Leopold Pamula, had shot down two German bombers and fired on a third but found himself out of ammo. With the bombers headed towards an important city and the situation growing increasingly desperate, Pamula attempted an aerial ram in his P.11 and brought down the enemy bomber.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
German fighters like this one made life miserable for Allied pilots.
(Photo by Kogo)

 

But here’s where it breaks from the tradition of Japanese Kamikaze attacks — and it might be why Kamikaze attacks have persisted in the historical consciousness while taran and similar attacks have not. Pamula then bailed out of his plane as the enemy bomber dropped towards the earth.

See, taran attacks followed three broad patterns according to a 1986 analysis by the RAND Corp. First, the pilot could aim for their propeller to strike the enemy control surfaces. Second, the pilot could conduct a very controlled crash of some portion of their plane against the enemy’s control surfaces.

Either of these methods, if everything went well, would doom the enemy aircraft without killing the pilot conducting the attack.

Only the third method, in which the pilot points their nose directly into the body of the enemy aircraft, was certain doom for the attacking pilot performing. In the other two methods, there was a chance that the plane would remain stable enough for the pilot to bail out afterward.

When German forces invaded the Soviet Union, the Soviets quickly adopted the taran just like their old Polish adversaries.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
German bombers fly in formation.

 

At 4:25 in the morning on June 22, 1941, scant hours into the invasion, Soviet Senior Lt. L. I. Ivanov rammed a German bomber, the first of 270 aerial tarans, according to a 1984 Soviet report. A 1974 report had estimated the total number of Soviet tarans in World War II at 430.

So, why don’t we hear the tales of Soviet and Polish pilots slamming their planes into enemy aircraft? The fact that some pilots to survived, as mentioned above, surely contributed. But there’s one other factor that likely has us remembering the taran as a semi-legitimate tactic while the kamikaze is remembered as a horror weapon.

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
A German plane crashes into the carrier USS St. Lo

 

Kamikaze attacks, while not the best decision militarily, were terrifying largely because a successful one could doom a carrier, a battleship, or a cruiser in one go. A successful taran attack, on the other hand, caused six members of an air crew to attempt to bail. A successful kamikaze attack meant that thousands of sailors had to try to escape a sinking prison as oil ignited on the ocean’s surface around them.

One of those is frightening, perhaps disquieting. The other is the stuff of nightmares.

MIGHTY HISTORY

7 amazing missions by Britain’s Royal Marines

Britain is one of America’s closest allies and its service members are pretty impressive. One of its greatest forces is the Royal Marines, now known as commandos, who have fought on behalf of the British Crown since their original formation as the “Duke of York and Albany’s maritime regiment of Foot” in 1664.


Since then, they’ve proven themselves in hundreds of battles and dozens of conflicts everywhere from Massachusetts to Korea to the Falklands. Here are some defining moments from Royal Marine Commando history:

1. The Royal Marines carved out their names during the battle to take and hold the island fortress of Gibraltar.

 

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
(Painting: The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar by John Copley)

 

In 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession, a combined force of 1,900 English Royal Marines and 400 Dutch marines hit the island fortress of Gibraltar in what was the largest English amphibious assault at that point in history. A large and unexplained explosion set the attackers back but the fortress was taken with relative ease.

Unfortunately, that triggered a nine-month siege, during which the marines fought valiantly. During one close call, French attackers had breached two defensive lines and had 500 men attacking 17 Royal Marines in the Round Tower. The marines held out even after 11 of them fell, leaving only six defenders.

2. Royal Marines slay bodies at Bunker Hill

 

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
The American dying in the center of this painting is American Maj. Gen. Joseph Warren. The stabber with the bayonet was a Royal Marine. Awkward. (Painting: John Trumbull, Public Domain)

 

One of the Royal Marines’ prouder moments actually came in 1775 while fighting against the U.S. when British army regulars twice attacked during the Battle of Bunker Hill and failed to capture it. As the army melted back, the marine commander yelled, “Make way for the marines, break and let the marines through!”

The third assault, conducted by columns of marines instead of lines of British regulars, was successful and resulted in the British capturing the fortifications. But the losses for the regulars and the marines were high: 1,054 versus American losses of 400.

3. They give up half their strength to take Graspan in the Boer War

 

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
Illustration of the Battle of Graspan where royal Marines fought Boers. (Illustration: Public Domain)

 

Tensions between the English and the Boers in the late 1800s resulted in two Boer Wars. In 1899, Royal Marines and other troops were sent to attack Graspan in South Africa. Intelligence screw ups led the leadership to believe that the attack would be lightly opposed.

But it wasn’t. Boer riflemen and field artillery fiercely fought off the attackers. Despite heavy losses to include the commander and other officers, the marines and their compatriots rallied for a final attack and charged with their bayonets against the Boer positions, pushing the defenders off though failing to capture the enemy artillery.

4. Marines are instrumental in blocking Zeebrugge

 

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
Royal Marines charge off the HMS Vindictive against the Mole at Zeebrugge, Belgium. (Painting: Imperial War Museums Art)

 

During World War I, the Royal Marines provided the landing parties and some of the gunners for a daring raid against the German U-Boats in Bruges. The plan called for ships to be sunk in the long canal from Bruges to the English Channel, but someone had to fight pitched battles against the German defenders on the coast to make it possible.

Yup, Royal Marines volunteered. They landed on the port’s mole with a specially modified ship, the HMS Vindictive. The marines and sailors landed on April 23, 1918, and wrought absolute havoc with machine guns and rifles, naval artillery, and flamethrowers.

Eight Victoria crosses were awarded to sailors and marines for their actions that night.

5. The commandos capture an entire port as well as bridges and towns on D-Day

 

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
Royal Marine Commandos move inland from Sword Beach on the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944. (Photo: Capt. J.L. Evans, Imperial War Museums)

 

The Royal Marines, by this point known as (RM) Commandos, were obviously a big deal at one of history’s largest amphibious assaults. Five units landed on D-Day where their biggest job was capturing Port-en-Bessin between Gold and Sword beaches, an objective the 47 (RM) Commando completed on July 8.

The four other commando units hit targets at Gold, Sword, and Juno beaches. Two units were deployed against a gap between British and Canadian units, holding back German panzers that might have otherwise counterattacked and thrown off the invading forces.

6. Commandos capture an entire island to open a Belgian port

Walcharen was an island on the coast of Amsterdam in 1944, and Germans occupying it were making logistics challenging for Allies fighting their way to Berlin. So, the Royal Marines teamed up with Canada for Operation Infatuate, a week-long attack against the island.

The air forces breached the walls of Walcharen before the commandos landed, allowing sea water to rush in and flood most of the island. The English and Canadians fought viciously against the artillery and infantry that remained, inflicting heavy casualties while suffering their own losses until the German leadership surrendered on Nov. 8, 1944.

7. Commandos capture Port Said from Egypt

 

What if a Soviet mechanized infantry battalion had tried to start World War III?
British helicopters deliver Royal Commandos to Egypt on Nov. 6, 1956, in history’s first heliborne assault. (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

 

Operation Musketeer was an honest-to-God conspiracy between Israel, Britain, and France to ouster Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Britain’s main goal was to regain control of the Suez Canal, a strategic asset nationalized by Nasser. The plan was for Israel to initiate a conflict with Egypt. France and Britain would mediate unacceptable terms, and then they would invade.

The role of Royal Commandos was to seize Port Said through the first ship-to-shore heliborne assault in history. The two commando units involved were also backed up by a small number of tanks and armored vehicles. Their mission was successful and almost achieved its objective on the first day, but orders from Nasser kept, leading to the commandos capturing the local Egyptian commander and his staff.

Ultimately, the commandos did amazing work but political condemnation for the mission stripped France and England of most of their gains.

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