19. The 320th Battalion’s Road to Normandy Went Through Jim Crow Dixie
In September, 1942, private Wilson Caldwell Monk of Atlantic City, New Jersey, stepped off a train in Paris, Tennessee, en route to nearby Camp Tyson. It was the furthest south he had ever been, and he and his fellow black northerners were jittery and fearful about the treatment to expect in the land of Jim Crow. They discovered it was just as bad as they had imagined, and often worse. The premonitions began when their locomotive crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, and all black soldiers were ordered to the “Negro car” – the filthiest and most decrepit one at the end of the train. Upon arrival, their orientation included helpful tips to get along with the locals – or at least avoid infuriating them into a potentially homicidal rage – such as never looking a white person in the eye, and stepping off the sidewalk if one was coming towards you.
The black soldiers were taught how to make flammable hydrogen gas, gauge wind speed, predict weather patterns, and the other skills necessary to keep their balloons in the air. They lived in segregated barracks and ate in segregated mess halls. Off base, things were often hazardous: they were routinely harassed by white civilian police, white MPs, and white soldiers – including one who shot a 320th trainee in the back, killed him, and escaped punishment. One black soldier recalled years later that he stopped going off base because “every time you go to town, somebody gets beat up“. On one of the few times he headed into nearby Paris, he was viciously beat up by two white civilian cops and a pair of MPs. What galled the men of the 320th the most, however, was seeing German and Italian POWs filing into restaurants where black American soldiers were not welcome.
Despite the daily indignities, the racist pejoratives routinely hurled their way, and the general mistreatment meted out to them on a regular basis, the black soldiers of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion were still ready to die for their country, and so that others, thousands of miles away, could live free. As one of the unit’s members, private Wilson Monk put it decades later: “There was never any doubt about the loyalty of black soldiers … Even considering the fact that we weren’t treated equally“. The 320th was shipped to Britain, where it underwent further training in amphibious operations, in preparation for D-Day.
In the days leading up to the invasion of France, hydrogen was pumped into thousands of big balloons, that were then tethered to ships for the journey to Normandy. On the morning of June 6th, 1944, the 691-man 320th battalion had its baptism of fire when it landed on Utah and Omaha beaches, its members plunging off of landing craft into waist-deep water and wading ashore, with bullets whizzing about them. Attached to the belts of many of them were car-sized or larger balloons, filled with highly flammable hydrogen.
Arriving on Utah and Omaha beaches alongside the infantry in 150 landing craft, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion became the only black combat unit to see action on D-Day. Braving enemy fire, they flew and maintained their flammable balloons at an altitude of roughly 200 feet, tethered to cables with the aim of creating a hazardous thicket to discourage the Luftwaffe from strafing the beaches. Their conduct that day earned them a commendation from Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who cited the 320th for conducting “its mission with courage and determination” and proving itself “an important element of the air defense team“.
In late July of 1944, a quarter of the battalion moved to the recently liberated port of Cherbourg in the Cotentin peninsula, while the rest of the unit stayed in Omaha and Utah beaches until that autumn. All in all, the black barrage balloon operators spent 140 days in France, before taking ship to England, and thence to the US and Camp Stewart, Georgia. There, the 320th trained for service in the Pacific Theater and the expected invasion of Japan. They made it as far as Hawaii, before the war suddenly ended in a pair of mushroom clouds.
One of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion’s medics, Waverly Woodson, Jr., performed prodigies of selfless courage on D-Day. Although seriously injured and burned when his landing craft was hit by an artillery shell, Waverly ignored his wounds to help others. Repeatedly and often recklessly exposing himself to enemy fire for over 30 hours, he saved the lives of dozens of GIs that day, and was nominated for the Medal of Honor. Waverly did not get it. For that matter, no African American soldier received the Medal of Honor during WWII. It would be another half century before an African American received a Medal of Honor for his service during WWII.
As to Waverly’s unit, the 320th was one of two black units present at D-Day that received a commendation from General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Although the 320th won accolades at the time, and returned home as minor celebrities, they and their story all but vanished from the record in subsequent years. Few books about D-Day mention the men of the 320th. No movie about that day – including iconic ones such as The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan – show black soldiers, although Saving Private Ryan at least showed the barrage balloons, even if it did not depict their operators.
15. Layforce: The British Commando Outfit in North Africa
In 1940, the Italians invaded Egypt from Libya, only to suffer a humiliating defeat that culminated in a British counterattack that overran half of Libya. To save the Italians from total collapse, Hitler sent a German expeditionary force under Erwin Rommel in early 1941. Between German intervention, which occurred just as the British were diverting resources from Egypt to Greece, the situation in the desert was reversed. Suddenly, it was the Axis who were on top and on the offensive, and the British who were on the back foot and hastily retreating. To take off some of the pressure, the British decided to mount a massive raid to disrupt the enemy’s lines of communications, and inflict as much damage as possible to Axis equipment and installations.
In January, 1941, a 2000 man task force of Commandos, designated Layforce after its commander, Colonel Robert Laycock, was sent to Egypt, where it began training for special operations. An amphibious landing and raid on Bardia, a small Libyan town near the Egyptian border, was to be their first mission on the night of April 9-20, 1941. Backed by some tanks and supported by a cruiser and three destroyers, their aim was to disrupt the enemy rear by destroying an Italian supply dump and an artillery installation, which they accomplished despite losing 71 men. However, as seen below, it did not go smoothly: poor intelligence, inadequate foresight by planners, and mistakes on the ground caused more losses than enemy action.
The Commandos’ raid on Bardia got off to an iffy start when the raiders were landed at night behind schedule, and on the wrong beach. However, they managed to sort things out and find their way to Bardia, which they were surprised to discover was lightly defended. They located and destroyed an Italian supply dump, as well as an artillery installation, all for the loss of a single officer, mistakenly killed in a friendly fire incident. The raiders then trudged back to the beach for re-embarkation – and that was when poor preparation bit the raiders: a contingent of 70 Commandos got lost in the dark, and after a cascade of mishaps, ended up going to the wrong beach, where they futilely waited for boats to pick them up. They were left behind, and all were captured by the enemy in the following days.
Despite the poor planning and the ensuing mishaps, the Bardia Raid was an overall success. It did succeed in disrupting the enemy rear, destroyed its assigned targets, and as an added bonus, the raid caused the Axis high command to pull a German armored brigade from the front lines and divert it to provide rear security. That had a significant impact on the battlefield, as the British at the time were being hard pressed by the recently arrived Afrika Korps, under the command of Erwin Rommel. The diversion of a German armored brigade from the front lines eased the pressure, and gave the British enough breathing space to stabilize the situation.
The Eiffel Tower was inaugurated in 1889 as the entrance to Paris’ World Fair that year, and ever since, it has been one of the most recognized structures in the world. It was initially planned as a temporary structure, that would be torn down and sold for scrap after 20 years. Early on, many criticized it as an eyesore, and could not wait until the 20 years were up. However, it grew on people, and 20 years came and went without it getting torn down. Eventually, the Eiffel Tower became Paris’ most popular attraction, and a beloved fixture of the Parisian skyline that only a philistine would dislike.
Half a century after the Eiffel Tower’s inauguration, the Germans overran Western Europe in 1940, in a devastating blitzkrieg campaign that crushed all opposition, and led to France’s collapse within 40 days. The French government fled its capital, and the French military evacuated Paris, declaring it an open city. On June 14th, 1940, the victorious Germans marched into and seized the City of Lights, and Hitler headed there to savor the triumph. However, the Fuhrer did not get to enjoy his visit as much as he had planned to, thanks to an act of petty sabotage by some French workmen.
12. How Hitler Was Kept From Savoring a Conquered Paris From Atop the Eiffel Tower
The German dictator had long fancied himself a man of art and architecture, and growing up, he had dreamt of becoming an artist or architect. His greatest hope had been to gain admission to the prestigious Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, and the rejection of his application – twice – was the most devastating setback of his youth. So when Paris fell, Hitler made a beeline for the captured French capital, not only to savor his victory, but also to savor the City of Light’s art and architecture.
He looked forward to gazing at a captive Paris from atop the Eiffel Tower. However, prescient members of the French Resistance figured that Hitler and the Nazis would derive great pleasure from surveying the French capital from that perch. So to deprive them of that satisfaction, they cut the lift cables for the tower’s elevator cars. Without an elevator, the only way to reach the top of the Eiffel Tower would be via a strenuous climb of 1500 steps. Hitler, in his 50s and not in the best of shape, decided to do without. Instead of treating himself to a view of Paris from atop the Eiffel Tower, the Fuhrer had to settle for posing for photos with Paris’ iconic symbol in the background.
The twin engine De Havilland Mosquito, nicknamed “The Wooden Wonder” because it was constructed almost entirely of wood, was one of the most versatile and successful airplanes of WWII. It almost never get off the drawing board. Its basic concept of a bomber without defensive weapons, relying instead on speed and agility to avoid and escape danger rather than fight it off, went against conventional wisdom at a time when bombers bristling with machine guns to fend off fighters was the norm. The Mosquito was the anti-Fortress, and it took significant cajoling to win the Air Ministry’s grudging approval. A chief argument was that wood was one of the few abundant resources in wartime Britain, so a mostly wooden plane would not significantly impact the production of other aircraft the Ministry deemed a higher priority, because it would not compete with them for precious stocks of metals and alloys.
The Mosquito was first test flown in November, 1940, and prototypes demonstrated that they could outrun Britain’s premier fighter airplane of the war, the Spitfire. It entered production the following year, and proved a smashing success. Mosquitoes began service as photo reconnaissance airplanes, in which task they were served well by a speed and agility that allowed them to evade or outrun German interceptors. Having demonstrated that they could survive over hostile skies, Mosquitoes were soon employed in direct combat in a variety of roles.
The De Havilland Mosquito’s bombload of 4000 lbs was only slightly less than the 4500 lbs typically carried by B-17s, but Mosquitoes could deliver their bombload with greater precision. They carried out pin-point attacks on targets throughout Nazi-occupied Europe; conducted night-time raids on Luftwaffe airfields; served as Pathfinders ahead of the nighttime bomber streams by marking out the target areas with colored incendiaries; carried out nighttime nuisance bombings; flew special operations raids such as precision attacks on Gestapo and German intelligence facilities; and smashed the walls of Nazi prisons to facilitate jailbreaks. Mosquitoes also served successfully as fighters, night bombers, in anti submarine and anti shipping roles, and as a fast transports for high value cargoes.
Perhaps the greatest compliment of all that was directed at the Mosquitoes came from Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering while addressing German manufacturers in 1943: “It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminium better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they give it a speed which they have now increased yet again. What do you make of that?”
9. The V2 Rocket Was a Technological Breakthrough That Ended Up Hurting Rather than Helping Germany
Germany’s V2 rocket, the world’s first ballistic missile, carried a ton of explosives to the edge of space, then descended at unstoppable supersonic speeds to detonate on its target. It was a revolutionary feat of technology – and one of history’s most wastefully expensive weapons, inflicting relatively small damage that did not justify the vast expenditure of resources that went into its production. From its first operational launch against enemy targets in September, 1944, to Germany’s surrender 9 months later, roughly 3000 V2s were fired. They did not all reach their targets, but even if they had, at 1 ton of explosives per V2 warhead, that would have been 3000 tons of explosives dropped on enemy cities over 9 months. By contrast, during the same period the RAF routinely dropped more than 3000 tons of explosives on a German city in a single nighttime bombing raid.
The US Air Force also frequently exceeded that 3000 ton total in single bombing raids during the daytime. Moreover, Allied bombers returned to base, reloaded, and returned the next day or night to again drop more than 3000 tons of explosives on German cities, and repeated the process dozens of times. Also, during its 9 months of firing, the 3000 tons of explosives dropped by the V2 killed 2754 people – most of them not soldiers, but civilians whose deaths, while tragic, did not impede the Allied war effort by much. By contrast, it is estimated that over 20,000 workers, mostly slave laborers, died while manufacturing the V2, giving the rocket the tragic distinction of being perhaps the only weapons system in history whose production cost more lives than did its actual use. Thus, when contrasting the cost with the results, the V2 literally produced little bang for the buck.
8. The Plan to Flood Germany’s Industrial Heartland
The Ruhr was and remains Germany’s industrial heartland, and during both world wars, it was the country’s major arms and armaments manufacturing center. For years, even before the start of WWII, the British had explored the feasibility of destroying the Ruhr’s dams to flood the region and disrupt its production. Numerous proposals were examined, but none produced a plan that had a decent chance of success. The problem was accuracy: theoretically, a big enough bomb, such as the 10 ton Earthquake Bomb that burrows deep underground before exploding, could destroy a dam by seismic waves if dropped from 40,000 feet. However, no bomber existed that could carry such a heavy bomb to the required height, then drop it close enough to the targeted dam.
On March 21st, 1943, 617 Squadron, a special Royal Air Force unit, was formed and tasked with destroying dams in the Ruhr Valley. Led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, bombers were to fly at night along a dangerous route that left them exposed to deadly antiaircraft fire in order to come within viable attack positions, then accurately deliver their ordnance to the targeted dams, notwithstanding protective torpedo nets shielding the concrete structures. The result was Operation Chastise, a daring raid against the Edersee, Sorpe, and Mohne dams conducted on the night of May 16-17, 1943.
7. Overcoming the Technical Problems of Breaching a Dam
Initial thinking when it came to blowing up a dam centered on the use of a really big bomb – the bigger, the better. A smaller bomb, provided it went off against a dam wall at a sufficient depth, would destroy the dam, but the dams were protected by underwater torpedo nets to prevent that. Eventually, British scientist Barnes Wallis finally figured out a solution: bounce a bomb over the water’s surface and over the torpedo nets like a skipping stone until it struck the dam’s wall, at which point it would sink down the wall, and once at the requisite depth, explode. The surrounding water would concentrate the resulting blast against the dam, resulting in a breach.
To get the explosive to skip on the water’s surface, then sink along the dam’s inner wall after striking it instead of bouncing back, Wallis devised a spinning drum filled with explosives. A bomber would approach the dam flying low above its reservoir, and at the proper height and distance from the target, release the explosive drum, which a motor had set to spinning counterclockwise. The bomber’s speed would propel the drum skipping over the water surface, bouncing over the underwater torpedo nets. Once it struck the dam, the drum’s counter-rotation would ensure that it hugged the dam’s wall while sinking. At the proper depth, hydraulic pistols would set it off, and basic physics would take care of the rest.
For breaching the Ruhr Dams, Barnes Wallis’ science was good and his theory was sound. To go from theory to action, however, the British needed pilots and aircrews with sufficient skill and courage to conduct the raid in accordance with Wallis’ requirements. 24 year old Wing Commander Guy Gibson was personally selected by RAF Bomber Command’s chief, Arthur Harris, to form and lead a special squadron for that and similar missions – essentially a unit of elite aerial commandos. Gibson’s aircrews trained in modified Lancaster heavy bombers, fitted with a motor in the bomb bay to spin the explosive drum.
The drum had to be released at a height of 60 feet to properly skip on water. To determine the correct height, an ingeniously simple technique was adopted: two spotlights were placed on the bomber’s front and rear, and angled so their lights would meet at the water’s surface when the bomber was 60 feet aboveground. Correct distance would be determined by lining up two sticks on the windshield with two towers to the sides of dam. As the bomber flew in, the sticks would visually be to the outside of the dam towers, sandwiching them. As the bomber drew nearer, the angle between bomber and towers would grow wider, and as seen from the windshield, the towers would “move” closer to the sticks until, at the correct distance, sticks and towers lined up.
On the night of May 16th, 1943, nineteen Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron, divided into three formations with separate assignments, flew out along routes chosen to avoid known flak concentrations. Losses began soon as the bombers reached the European coast: two bombers turned back after one flew too low and struck water, losing its explosives, while another had its radio damaged by antiaircraft fire. Then a third bomber was shot down, a fourth went down after striking electric pylons, and a fifth crashed after flying into power lines. At the Mohne dam, Guy Gibson made his attack run, then flew his Lancaster across the dam to draw antiaircraft fire while other bombers made their approaches. One Lancaster was lost and another damaged, but the dam was finally breached after the fifth bombing run. Gibson then led the planes that still had bombs to the Edersee dam, which was undefended.
Unfortunately, the angle of approach was difficult, and made even more hazardous by fog. After numerous aborted runs, the Edersee dam was finally breached. The attack on the Sorpe dam failed. The breached dams resulted in a flood that killed about 1700 civilians, of whom 1000 were forced laborers. The greatest impact was the loss of hydroelectric power to factories and residences in the Ruhr for two weeks, as two power stations were destroyed and seven more damaged. Coal production also dropped, declining 400,000 tons that month. The damage was not permanent, however, and two months later, the Ruhr was back to normal. The raid nonetheless gave a boost to British morale as an impressive feat of derring-do, Guy Gibson was awarded a Victoria Cross, and 617 Squadron, known thereafter as the “Dam Busters”, went on to fly further successful special raids.
The Imperial Japanese Navy’s main land based bomber of WWII, and Japan’s most produced bomber of the conflict for that matter, was the twin engine Mitsubishi G4M Betty. A medium bomber, the Betty was first test flown in 1939, and entered operation service in 1941. The plane’s main assets were speed and exceptional long range – it was designed to fly 2300 miles with a bomb load, and could do 3500 miles without. That made the Betty difficult to intercept when used as a medium or high altitude bomber.
However, as was the case with Japan’s Zero fighter, the Betty’s speed and range were bought by making the plane as light as possible, at the expense of basic protections such as armor plate and self-sealing fuel tanks. As a result, Bettys easily went up in flames when their fuel tanks were hit, earning them nicknames such as the “flying Zippo” or “type one lighter” by both friend and foe. But if it did not catch on fire – a major if – the Betty was otherwise quite resilient, capable of surviving significant damage.
The G4M Betty’s role was not limited to level bombing: it also made a pretty good torpedo bomber, and it was in that role that Bettys sank the British battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales in the war’s early days. However, the low, slow, and steady approach required for torpedo launch took away the Betty’s speed advantage and made it and its readily flammable fuel tanks vulnerable to defensive fire. The G4M bombers wreaked considerable havoc during the war’s first year, inaugurating the Japanese conquest of the Philippines by devastating Clark Field, America’s main airbase in the islands, on December 8th, 1941; sank the Prince of Wales and Repulse off the Malayan coast two days later; and ranged the breadth and width of the Pacific, utilizing their long range to bomb far flung targets from Australia to the Aleutians.
However, once American fighters and trained pilots began flooding into the Pacific, the Betty’s vulnerability when flying without fighter protection was exposed. While speed and range made interception difficult, when Bettys were intercepted they suffered heavily. Redesigns reduced the vulnerabilities by introducing plate armor and self sealing fuel tanks, at the cost of reduced speed and range. However, by then Japan was well on the way to losing the war, and the improved Bettys were flying with negligible fighter cover against swarms of US fighters. By war’s end, Bettys had been reduced to suicide bombers, or as launch platforms for missiles piloted by suicide flyers.
2. The Massive Allied Deception Campaign to Wrong-Foot the Germans
The amphibious invasion of France in WWII in the teeth of German resistance was going to be a risky affair – one that could easily end in disaster for the Allies. Landing troops in Normandy would just be the start of it. Ultimate success would depend on whether the Allies would be able to pour enough troops into their Normandy beachhead to make it invulnerable to counterattack, or whether the Germans would be able to nip the beachhead in the bud. The Germans had many troops in France, and powerful panzer divisions near Normandy that could be concentrated against the Allied beachhead before it was secure. It was going to be iffy, so before giving the go ahead for D-Day, the Allies’ supreme commander in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, prepared a statement accepting all responsibility in case of failure.
Time for an Allied buildup in Normandy was going to be a precious commodity. To buy that time, Allied intelligence came up with Operation Bodyguard, a multifaceted and complex plan to deceive Hitler about the time and location of the invasion of Europe in 1944. The plan had three goals. First, conceal the actual time and date of the invasion. Second, convince the Germans that the main invasion would land in the Pas de Calais. Third, convince the Germans after the Normandy landings to maintain a strong defense in the Pas de Calais for at least two weeks, rather than send its defenders to Normandy.
Operation Bodyguard had a sub-plan, Operation Fortitude, that created a fictitious “First US Army Group” (FUSAG) in southeast England under the command of General George S. Patton. Various means were used to sell Hitler and his generals on FUSAG’s existence. Fake radio traffic was used between fictitious FUSAG units. German reconnaissance planes were allowed to fly over and photograph concentrations of FUSAG tanks and transports that were actually just inflatable dummies. German intelligence was fed fake reports via double agents and turned spies about FUSAG’s intentions to invade the Pas de Calais, in order to tie down the German defenders there. A subsidiary, Fortitude North, created a fictitious British Fourth Army in Scotland, and convinced the Germans that it planned to invade Norway in order to tie down German defenders there.
After D-Day, Bodyguard succeeded in convincing the Germans that the Normandy landings were not the main event, but the first in a series of landings. Hitler was thus led to keep units guarding other potential landing sites. Especially in the Pas de Calais, which was threatened by the fictitious FUSAG under Patton. Bodyguard had hoped to convince the Germans to stay put in the Pas de Calais for two weeks after D-Day, instead of immediately sending the units there to reinforce Normandy. The plan worked so well that the Germans stayed put in the Pas de Calais for seven weeks instead of the hoped-for two. That allowed the Allies time to build a beachhead in Normandy, before breaking out to liberate France and Western Europe. As Winston Churchill put it in his memoirs: “In wartime truth is so precious, that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies“.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading