Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Panzergrenadiers: The Art of the Counterattack

Max Hastings in his seminal WWII history Armageddon highlighted a key truth about German army strategy that greatly enhanced its effectiveness in battle: the art of the counter attack. Wrote Hastings: “Every German soldier was taught the doctrine of so-called ‘active defence’. This required a focus not upon holding forward positions to the last man, but rather upon launching fierce counter-attacks while the attackers were still milling in disarray upon captured positions.” (p. 98) As part of this strategy German units would lightly man forward positions, keep strong reinforcements in reserve, out of artillery fire, and launch punishing and relentless counterattacks if these positions were overrun.

Nowhere was this strategy more common than in the mountain skirmishes between the US First Army Group, and the German defenders protecting the high peaks commanding the approach to the Liri Valley.

In the First Special Service Force’s first battle on Monte la Difensa, they were pitted against as many as 400 Panzergrenadiers, veterans of the Sicilian campaign, and specifically the defence of Monte Basilio (near the village of Troina) against the onslaught of the US 1st Infantry Division. The Panzergrenadiers on Difensa must have been considered one of the theatre’s top units. Difensa, the key peak in the Camino mountain complex and the foremost position on the Liri/Cassino approach, was vitally strategic ground.

True to the strategy of fierce and unforgiving counterattacks, the Panzergrenadiers on Difensa manned the peak with 250 soldiers from a battalion of the 104th Panzergrenadier Regiment. They were supported by half a battalion of the 129th Panzergrenadiers, but – in case of attack – the other half of the 129th Third Battalion stood in reserve on the ridgeline.

The FSSF’s attack on the Panzergrenadiers of Difensa was an utter surprise. The commandos of the FSSF scaled cliffs in the dead of night in early December 1943, and attacked from the rear. They quickly – within two hours – pushed the Panzergrenadiers off of Difensa’s peak and onto the ridgeline, and almost instantly the Germans began counterattacking, sniping, and raining mortar fire onto their positions. As Hastings wrote: “It was a precept of the entire war, that the German Army always detected and punished an enemy’s mistakes.” (p. 98)

In this case, the FSSF, which accomplished its primary mission, did not error. But planners who believed that British attacks could simultaneously seize the neighbouring peak, Monte Camino, did. The Brits inability to secure Camino, which looked down upon Difensa so seemingly close you could throw a football from one peak to the other, meant that the FSSF could not safely attack onto the ridgeline, and continue on their ultimate objective: Monte Remetanea. So the FSSF remained dug in, and endured days of punishment from the Panzergrenadiers until Camino was secured and the ridgeline could be cleared.

Read the prologue A Perfect Hell. And remember that the Difensa battle was not the only instance when the FSSF encountered an active German defence in the Apennine Mountain campaign. When the FSSF’s 3rd Regiment overran Monte Majo on January 7, 1944, the German defenders counterattacked 27 times.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

US Mountain infantry to replicate FSSF training

Many thanks to Chris McDonald, a former paratrooper and currently a member of the 3rd BN 172 IN (MTN), “the US Army’s only Mountain trained Infantry Battalion” with the motto “Ascend to Victory.” In a recent letter, Chris, who lives near Burlington, Vermont, wrote that he has had “a long fascination with the Force” and asked for information on the Force’s training at Burlington’s Fort Ethan Allen in 1943.

Chris said: “While the time here [in Burlington] was split between Leave, Operations in the Aleutians, and training and is not addressed in most histories of the force, I am interested professionally and historically in this period.

“Undoubtedly the Force spent time training in Jericho/Underhill at Camp EthanAllen Firing Range which was an artillery range and had a machine gun schoolduring WWII. It also has decent mountaineering areas as does MT Mansfieldnearby and the Bolton Mountain range which forms the backdrop for the range.

“… To my knowledge the records of FT Ethan Allen were taken away when the installation closed down in the 1950's. Portions of the fort and the whole firing range are currently part of the VT army national guards camp.

“…. I would like to gather information on where they trained and use it in our training.”
To answer Chris’s question: I first consulted the histories on the Force. As Chris pointed out, the FSSF trained at Fort Allen twice, both before Operation Cottage in the Aleutians and immediately afterwards, before embarking for Europe. In An Adjutant General Remembers, Maj. Gen. Ken Wickham wrote: we went to Fort Allen “to specialize in assault training on pill boxes and small fortifications.” (p. 34.)

Robert Todd Ross’s Supercommandos (p. 91) states that the Force embarked on “twenty to thirty mile” marches and performed “live-fire” training exercises. Army inspectors examined the Force at Ft. Allen, and deemed them fit for combat.

Adleman’s and Walton’s Devil’s Brigade pointed out that Fort Allen was where the FSSF’s 3rd Regiment commander and future Force leader Lt. Col. Edwin A. Walker joined the outfit. Walker’s arrival was one of many leadership changes Force commander Colonel Robert T. Frederick implemented. The Force had just returned from the Aleutian campaign, and Frederick, who found some of his officers lacking, cleaned house. (p. 103)

But for the definitive history, I phoned Bill Story, a FSSF veteran and current executive secretary of the FSSF Veterans Association.

Bill pointed out that many new and legendary Force men like Lt. Col. Walker, Major Ed Thomas, and K.R.S. ‘Mike’ Meiklejohn jumped and got their wings at Ft. Allen. Bill remembered the live-fire exercises well: “crawling under [barbed wire] while machine guns fired above our heads on set lines of fire.”

One training demonstration that impressed army inspectors was a fire and movement exercise brought to the Force from the Canadian contingent. Led by Stan Waters, commander of 2nd Company, 2nd Regiment, the exercise was a marching drill that simulated fire and flanking movements. “You’d march out onto the field, go 20 paces, and then turn right flank or left flank. This taught us how to lay down fire, and perform pincer movements. It was also the strategy involved in house-to-house fighting.”

Bill Story remembered the long marches, often, like much of the Force’s field training, at night. In one telling incident, Story accompanied Major (later Lt. Col.) Walter Gray on an exercise to meet up with 2nd Regiment and its commander Colonel Don Williamson. “We had gone out ahead of the regiment, and the rest of the regiment was supposed to meet us. But at the scheduled meeting time there was no 2nd Regiment. Gray was frantic. ‘Are we supposed to be here?’ I said, ‘Yes sir, we’re in the right place.’ It turned out that Williamson got lost. He couldn’t read a map. (Frederick would later relieve Williamson of his command after the Force’s battle on Monte la Difensa, Italy.)

Story confirms that the Force passed muster with army inspectors. As early as 1950, Story heard from Col. George Walton (who would later co-write The Devil’s Brigade) that the Inspector General was so impressed with us that “the grading went off of the sheets. … We came out first class, better than first class.”

Many Force men remember Fort Allen as their last moments with wives and family before shipping overseas. Sgt. Joe Glass of Helena, Montana remembers the large rolling skating rink at Burlington. The most poignant personal memory of that time comes from Wickham’s book. After leaving Fort Allen, the Force went off to war. Just before shipping out, “one of our good lieutenants came to me and said that as they were taking medical examinations a woman doctor asked him what he did at night. He said: “Nothing particular.” She asked: “Why don’t’ you come and live with me? There won’t be any commitments, and we can enjoy ourselves. You’re going to be shipped out in five days. It might be fun.” I presume he chose to stay with her. I hope he did, and they did enjoy themselves. He was a fine officer, and I regret to say he was killed in combat in our first few weeks in Italy.”
I’m passing on Bill Story’s email address to Chris McDonald, and I’d like to wish him and the 3rd BN 172 IN the best of luck in any training techniques culled from the memory of Bill and other Force veterans. Ascend to victory!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

A View from the Peak of Special Warfare

As part of this blog’s look at the attack on Monte la Difensa operation, which the First Special Service Force launched before dawn on December 3, 1943, I’m including these photos of the battlefield generously provided by John Dallimore of the North American FSSF Living History Group. John, Kyle McNally, and Paul Dray of the UK's FSSF Living History Group climbed to Difensa’s summit last year dressed in authentic FSSF gear and kit. The three placed a plaque on the mountain (see the photo of McNally, Dallimore and Dray) in honor of the 1,800 commandos of the FSSF (plus members of the Force’s service battalion) who conquered this mountain in late 1943, and helped change the course of the war in the Italian theatre. The plaque also recognizes the cost of this victory for the FSSF: 73 dead, 313 wounded, and 9 missing in action. The dead included Lt. Col. Tom MacWilliam, who commanded 1st Battalion, 2nd Regiment, which spearheaded the nighttime attack. Difensa remains one of the most extraordinary operations in the history of the FSSF and special warfare. In late 1943 the US 5th Army’s advance up Italy had ground to a stop along the Winter Line, roughly midway up the peninsula. Repeated infantry attacks by the US 3rd, the US 36th and the British 56th infantry divisions failed to uproot the battle-honed Panzergrenadiers who commanded the summit. The assignment was then given to the FSSF, which had just arrived in the theatre. On the night of December 1, 1943, the 600 men of the FSSF 2nd Regiment crept unnoticed by the Germans to the base of Difensa. They hid in a copse of trees and scrub brush during the day, and then at dusk on December 2 silently climbed the slope to cliffs behind the German positions on the summit. Fortunately, the Panzergrenadiers had not guarded the cliffs because they considered them impenetrable. The majority of the men of 1st Company 2nd Regiment (1-2) from 2nd Regiment were able to scale these cliffs undetected before the battle erupted on this tiny, mean plateau, which the Force men referred as the “saucer,” in the early hours of December 3. The battle was short. Within two hours the Force men had seized their objective. But because it took days for the nearby peak of Monte Camino by the to be secured, the commandos endured constant mortar and sniper fire. It took six days for the entire mountain complex made up of the Difensa, Caminio and Monte Maggiore to be secured. But securing it was the first crucial breach of the Winter Line.

Here are photos and descriptions of the Difensa and Camino battlefields provided by John Dallimore. (Check out John’s and Paul's reflections on Difensa in the Fri. Mar. 3 posting below.) Fascinating shots of a legendary battlefield: many thanks again to John, Kyle, and Paul.

In Difensa’s summit or ‘saucer,’ looking North. “Notice the rim that
surrounds the saucer that allowed the force to surprise the Germans.”

A view of nearby Monte la Remetenea from the saucer. (Remetanea was the Force’s secondary objective.)

Looking back at la Difensa from Monte Camino, which the British paid dearly in securing.

A view of Camino from Defensa’s saucer.

Monte la Difensa: The ridge running from Difensa to the right is the one the FSSF crossed at night to get to their point of ascent (see img 329)

In the saucer looking in the direction of Remetenea. “Notice how easily Kyle McNally vanishes on the mountain!”

The cliff where the 2nd regiment ascended LaDifensa. Periodic fires on the mountainside since WW2 have changed the appearance of the slope. Now trees cover the path.

Another view of Camino from the saucer. Notice the "warts," the Force men’s name for a series of outcrops on the ridgeline that provided the enemy excellent firing positions.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Was Pat Tillman's death covered up?

Sunday’s promise to the family of former-Army Ranger and sports hero Pat Tillman of an accurate account of the former NFL star’s death in Afghanistan comes amid increasing speculation that Tillman’s friendly fire death had been covered up, and may never be properly explained.

Tillman’s father Patrick Tillman, Sr. remains unconvinced he’ll learn what really happened along the Afghan-Pakistani border on April 22, 2004 when his son was killed. “…If you send investigators to reinvestigate an investigation that was falsified in the first place,” Tillman told the Chicago Tribune, “what do you think you're going to get?"

There is an indication that a cover up of some sort occurred after Tillman’s death, which was originally attributed to enemy fire from Taliban or Al-Qaeda combatants. Subsequent investigations, launched after it was determined that Tillman died from fire from other US forces in the area, revealed that (says the Tribune) “Officers destroyed evidence critical evidence and withheld the truth from Tillman’s brother, also an Army Ranger, who was nearby…”

The Army is now investigating whether criminal charges of negligent homicide should be brought against anyone involved in the affair.
That Tillman died from three bullets to the head after reportedly identifying himself to friendly forces in the area (“Cease fire, friendlies, I’m Pat fucking Tillman, damnit”) is already giving birth to conspiracy theories.

The implausibly echoes an altnerative news website that argues Tillman may have been killed under the order of “Neocons” who hated him for opposing the war in Iraq.

According to this report and others, Tillman turned his back on a US $3.6 m NFL contract to fight al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but did not support the Iraqi conflict.

Information on Tillman's politics came from an investigative piece in San Francisco Chronicle, who cites Tillman’s mother as a source.

Whether or not you believe that Tillman opposed the Iraqi war (Ann Coulter, for one, doesn’t), one thing is clear: Tillman was a far more complicated personality than his profile suggested. Like countless others, a sense of duty after 9/11 compelled him to volunteer and serve, but he remained, as this Nation article states, “a fiercely independent thinker” who intellectualised his service – his war – differently than many of his compatriots.

At this stage, there are more important questions than whether Tillman read Noam Chomsky and had reservations about Iraq. Did his commander in fact make the unorthodox decision to split his unit into two before his death, and if so why? Why was his death not immediately attributed to friendly fire? Why has Tillman’s family been unsatisfied with the official account of Tillman’s death thus far?

Tillman’s family and legacy deserves answers not because Pat Tillman was a celebrity, but because Tillman’s sense of duty is so similar to countless others. He is the public face of the uniformed members of his generation, and they’re the ones who are entitled to a true accounting of how and why he died.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Difensa: One of Special Warfare's First Battles

Welcome to a Blog devoted to the origins of the special forces, particularly the First Special Service Force (FSSF), a WWII Canadian-American commando unit that along with the OSS’s Jedburghs and Darby’s Rangers pioneered special warfare.

I asked Capt. Larry Basha of the US special forces what the greatest achievement of the FSSF in the history of special warfare. Basha cited the Force’s first and most celebrated operation, the attack on Monte la Difensa in central Italy in December 1943. This posting explores this battle and battlefield!

According to Basha, Difensa was historic because it was an operation that initiated the collapse of the German’s Winter Line (although the final collapse would come after months of hard fighting), and changed the course of the Italian war. Until the small hours of December 3 when the FSSF’s 2nd Regiment scaled cliffs behind and surprised the German Panzergrenadiers on the summit of Difensa, the foremost and most important peak overlooking the Mignano Gap and the entrance way into the Lira Valley, the Allied advance up the Italian peninsula had stalled completely. The Difensa operation the FSSF conducted that night kick-started this offensive, and because the Force was made up of 1,800 fighters and 2nd Regiment a mere 600 men (probably 200 of which fought in the initial battle) it is no wonder this operation is still studied today.

The FSSF did not attack Difensa in isolation. Their attack corresponded with a British effort to seize the neighboring peak of Monte Camino and the U.S. 142nd attack on Monte Maggiore. But Difensa was the lynchpin. The summit was seized in two hours of fighting, although it took days to clear the Panzergrenadiers from the entire mountain complex. Still Difensa arguably was where a chapter in special forces-history was born.

I visited Difensa for the second time last September, and for the first time explored the slope above the village of Caspoli, roughly where Camino and Difensa are joined. I found the climb exhausting and arduous, and my respect for the FSSF and their accomplishment was heightened.

But as I climbed three FSSF re-enactors wearing the uniforms and carrying the kit that the Force men went into battle with where returning down the mountain after scaling the slope the day before and spending a rainy night on the summit.

John Dallimore and Paul Dray told Special Forces Then and Now their impressions after inspecting firsthand this high-altitude battlefield.

Paul Dray said of the Difensa: “It was smaller than I thought, and I was kind of surprised to find the emplacements still intact. I have to admit, I had done some research, but now that I have been there, I read accounts and have a three dimensional picture in my head... the climb must have been horrendous, it was bad enough for us, but for them -- the wind, sleet, darkness, and the constant threat of death.”

John Dallimore had this to say:

Q: How did your understanding of the Difensa battle change after climbing the peak, and inspecting the plateau first hand?
DALLIMORE: The battle itself would have been very close combat. Footing was terrible and I cannot imagine making bold runs in the fog over the rocky terrain.
Q: What was the one thing about Difensa that was most different than you had imagined?
DALLIMORE: The biggest shock was how small the area at the top was. If all of 2nd Regiment was at the summit, it would have been crowded! The climb wasn't bad, but the footing was awful and you had to watch your step constantly. I cannot imagine running over this ground and avoiding enemy fire.
Q. Was it a tougher than you imagined?
DALLIMORE: I enjoyed the climb. I thought that it would be harder than it was. We climbed using the same uniforms and equipment the force used in 1943. Corcoran jump boots are not ideal climbing boots!
Q. You said to me in Italy that inspecting the battlefield also changed your views of the British action on Camino.
DALLIMORE: I gained a whole new respect for what the British had to face on Camino. Whereas the Force could use the element of surprise by coming up the most unexpected route, the British had no choice but to do a head on assault with poor cover. It was on a par with the assault up Mt. Cassino. Luckily they did take that mountain, because the FSSF would have been in trouble if the germans had not been pushed off that peak.
Thanks to John and Paul for their impressions on this historic battlefield.