Turtle, Little Willie, the Foxbat and the Marne

6 September has three warfighting technologies in common: the first submersible vessel to attack an enemy ship; the first purpose-built armored fighting vehicle; and the surprise discovery that an advanced-technology fighter wasn’t so advanced after all.  All of these are joined by one of the best-remembered counterattacks of WWI.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.  Diving bells (tethered air chambers) were described by Aristotle in the 4th century BCE.  Alexander the Great is said to have used one, but the earliest reliable accounts date from the 16th century.  Self-propelled diving submersibles were described as early as 1562, but it wasn’t until the invention of the ballast tank for submersibles in 1747 that they became self-sustaining.  David Bushnell, an American college student at Yale University, built a vessel he called Turtle in Old Saybrook, CT, in 1775.  On 6 September, 1776, with a volunteer operator named Ezra Lee at the controls, Turtle sailed into New York Harbor and tried to attach an explosive charge to HMS Eagle, a 64-gun third-rate ship and Richard Howe’s flagship.  That effort, and several others in successive days failed, and there is some speculation that the whole story was fabricated.  The original Turtle was sunk that October, and though Bushnell claimed to have recovered her, her whereabouts afterwards are unknown.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.

On much more solid ground historically, and somewhat less momentous, was the production of the first prototype armored vehicle that could be called a precursor to the modern tank.  Like the submarine, self-propelled armored vehicle designs had abounded since time immemorial, but few had ever been even attempted as practical designs because powerplants were always the biggest problem.  But by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment. Variously called a Tritton Tractor (for the designer, William A. Tritton) and Number 1 Lincoln Machine, the vehicle that would later only be known as Little Willie officially rolled out of the William Foster agricultural machinery factory on 6 September, 1915, and began trials on 9 September.  Militarily, Wille was unimpressive: main gun was a 2-pdr pom-pom; weight 16.5 tons, crew six (operationally, but this design never saw a shot fired in anger).  Many larger vehicles followed, and eventually Willie made its way to the tank museum at Bovington.

…by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment

Unlike Turtle and Little WIllie, the Foxbat’s (NATO code name for the Soviet-built MiG-25) entry into our story was accidental, or at least was once said to have been. Since its first flight in 1964  and entry into Soviet service in 1970, the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces, who all insisted that Mikhail Gurevich’s last design was superior to all other Western aircraft: it spurred the development of the F-14 and the F-16.  On 6 September, 1976, Soviet Air Defence Forces Lt. Viktor Belenko landed his MiG-25P (the earliest production version) at Hakodate Airport in  Japan.  Early unofficial reports had Belenko confused as to where he was (the weather over the Sea of Okhotsk is hard to predict, so he may have gotten lost in a sudden overcast or storm), but later it was said that he had wanted to defect.  However it happened, the Japanese invited American and other Western intelligence officials to examine the much-fabled Foxbat, over strenuous Soviet protests.  Close inspection and complete dismantlement followed. It was discovered, among other things, that the airframe was nickel steel, and not titanium as once thought; the aircraft was welded by hand, and rather quickly at that; the acceleration load was rather low (2.2 Gs) with a relatively short operational range; the avionics were based on vacuum tube technology, not solid-state like most of the West.  The Foxbat was nowhere near as formidable as once thought.  The last Foxbat was built in 1984 after several design changes, and it remains in limited service with former Soviet clients.  It remains the second fastest military production aircraft in history, even if the speeds achieved usually destroyed the engines.

…the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces…

The submarine, the main elements for the tank (the internal combustion engine and the crawler) and the airplane, the major mechanical elements for mechanized industrial warfare were in place when World War I, where all these came together for the first time, had just begun its first major bloodletting in the first full day of the first battle of the Marne on 6 September 1914. Though the war in Europe had been going on for a month and the casualties were already catastrophic by European standards, the French-British counteroffensive shattered all expectations of warfare. A million Germans and a million Englishmen and Frenchmen fought for a week in open country, resulting in a German retreat back towards the Aisne River and a quarter million casualties on each side.  This setback completely upset the German offensive timetable, and there was no real replacement for it, so they hunkered down to hold onto what they had grabbed.  Within a year, all of Europe would be in a state of siege called the Western Front, where fortified lines stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier and future advances were measured in yards per thousand casualties.  The Marne and the ensuing horror was why Little Willie and all that followed him were built, why the Germans in desperation resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare that would lead to the Americans entering the war, and why the war in the air was pushed to the limits of human and machine endurance and imagination that would culminate in the Foxbat and the ultimate-performance aircraft that followed it.

An auspicious day, 6 September.

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Empire at Twilight: The Struggle for Rhodesia, 1962-1980

While I struggle through my latest healh crisis, indulge me…

If ever there were an example of failure snatched out of the jaws of success,the struggle over the future of Rhodesia would be the model to emulate. The British government managed, by simply refusing to look for corruption and intimidation, to destroy the sacrifice of a generation of white Africans in favor of the appeasement of the oil sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf.

Rhodesia was always an odd duck.  Though self-governing as a state after 1965 she was not sovereign, and those of European extraction who lived there were not considered “African” by the natives: even Daniel Marston in Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare refers to non-black Rhodesians as some undefinable “others,” while the insurgents were deemed “Africans” because of their skin color.  This is akin to claiming that the whites of 1888 living in the Australian colonies were not really Australians, but Europeans who just were born and spent their entire lives on the other side of the world.

The Chimurenga in Rhodesia–depending on dialect translates into either “insurrection,” “armed struggle” or “revolution”–began when the black nationalists refused to participate in a gradual transfer of power from the predominantly white government in 1962.  Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU was the first of several organizations that began a long campaign of violence, intimidation and propaganda.  Backed by the Soviets, the campaign was fought not just against the white-dominated government, but also against other, rival black nationalist organizations.

The Rhodesian government declared independence from Britain in 1965, but this was recognized by few.  Britain had its hands full elsewhere a the time, and had let Rhodesia govern itself for some time, and for this reason the declaration had little real function.  The Rhodesian army was small, the air force not much larger, but the police and auxiliaries were sizable.  Led by an effective cooperation that bordered on the breathtaking, the Rhodesian government successfully campaigned for nearly two decades, adapting their technological and organizational prowess to hold back the growing number of sophisticated organizations set on dislodging the government.

But the Rhodesian whites always knew that this was a war they were not going to win.  There were too few active supporters of the white government and too many passive supporters of the rebels.  Sophistication vs. numbers was ultimately a losing game.  Through the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s while the Americans were preoccupied by Vietnam and its aftermath and Britain was absorbed with Malaya, Aden and economic challenges at home, the Soviets and Chinese made inroads into the African National Congress (ANC) and all its offshoots.  South Africa and Mozambique were allies with the Rhodesian government but had their own problems with violent groups vying for power.

Ultimately Rhodesia was the victim of simple mathematics.  By 1979 blacks held a legal franchise, and in 1979 duly elected a black African to power, but it was the wrong black African.  Britain, under pressure by the Arab states that controlled the supply of petroleum, denounced the election results and demanded another.  The next election was only locally monitored, and the “right” candidate won.  The insurgents took charge and promptly destroyed the country by essentially disenfranchising white landowners, who fled in droves or waited to be murdered.

The Agony of Hills

On 23 March 1953, a series of battles began on a hill complex in the north of Yeoncheon county northeast of Seoul, Korea that would be immortalized in books and films as Pork Chop Hill.  In themselves these barren knobs of 300 meters or less in height had limited strategic value, but collectively they have had a meaning attached to them that has come to symbolize the seeming futility of the  “police action” in Korea, and are an excellent example of the differences between Soviet/Chinese-style warfare and American.  The UN forces in Korea, led by the Americans, fought relying on firepower–enormous firepower–that industrial armies had come to rely on since the middle of the 19th century.

The North Koreans in June of 1950 drove easily into the South Korean army, which possessed few tanks, and those were no match for the T-34s. As the Americans and other UN troops arrived, they were pushed them into a corner of the peninsula called variously the Pusan Perimeter or the Naktong River Line.  The Americans, building an army as they went along, defended along a series of hills in battles that would last for up to 60 hours straight.  Not accustomed to this marathon fighting, the Americans edged on exhaustion.

While the North Korean advantage was in its T-34 tanks in the battles of 1950, it lacked the capacity to repair or replace those tanks.  The Immun Gun, the proper name for the North Korean People’s Army, was a force built on a Soviet model, but with some differences.  Few North Koreans had much experience fighting industrialized armies; Japan was something of a Potemkin army with the appearance of industrial capacity but lacking in details.

By the time the Americans landed at Incheon in August 1950 North Korea had only a bare handful of tanks left operational.  Faced with overwhelming force, however, the North Koreans refused to just give up, and instead stood and fought, in some cases until their units were annihilated.  In the early stages of the war both sides strove for the high ground, and to secure supply routes as armies had since Napoleon’s time.  But in October 1950, that changed.

In three months, half the UN territorial gains in Korea were wiped out by a non-mechanized force that smothered the mechanized American, Commonwealth and South Korean forces in flesh–Chinese flesh.  Still clinging to hills, the UN forces were cut off again and again by the foot-borne Chinese who first avoided, then surrounded the major UN positions, cutting them off from retreat, but more important, from their desperately needed supply.  The Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA), who were at least as “voluntary” as any conscripted force, carried most of its logistic needs on its own back, lacked armored forces and heavy artillery, and could fight night and day for as much as 80 hours.  Like the Romans and the Soviets before them, their endurance was much greater than their enemies.

Following the pattern of industrial states with popular participatory governments, most of the UN forces relied on a core of professional soldiers, a framework of shorter-term technicians, and a mass of volunteers, draftees and earlier service members called back to the colors, for the most part WWII.  In this kind of war, as many have said before, the only thing that saved the UN was the strategic mobility and the tremendous firepower that armies like theirs had to rely on, and that the multitudes of Chinese (some of whom were veterans of the wars against Japan and of their civil war, and of service in the Soviet army against Germany) and the decimated North Koreans simply could not obtain.  When the Chinese closed to grenade range their numbers and fatalistic courage mattered, but before they got that close the UN could lay waste to them by the thousands.

By the spring of 1951 the mobile war had given way to an odd looking conflict that was a mix of WWI and WWII.  There were few frontal attacks but there were trenches.  There were mechanized assaults but few were decisive.  Casualties mounted, troops were rotated, whole national contingents came and went as peace talks stumbled and fluttered.  The one thing that was constant was that both sides were willing to prove their point using military force as needed.  Neither the Chinese nor the UN could “win” anything in the troglodytic twilight war of hills and bunkers, trenches and patrols.  Much of the mid-level Chinese field leadership–the company and battalion commanders on whom most of the tactical decisions fell– was dead by the end of 1950. UN morale dripped practically by the month; the “retreads” of WWII veterans called back to service were frustrated by this impossible no-decision way of war and just wanted to go home.

Ironically, it is becoming clear half a century later, both sides reached this conclusion at about the same time, but neither was willing to concede too much of anything.  One reason for this was neither Chinese nor American, but Soviet: Joseph Stalin.  The Chinese were convinced–wrongly–that without their war in Korea Stalin’s support in the Politburo the Soviet assistance for building their new country would dry up.   The UN, primarily led by the Americans, were facing increased tensions in the Mediterranean basin and in Europe from expansionist Soviet aims.  “The wrong war, in the wrong place, against the wrong enemy,” however glib and seemingly sage, was Omar Bradley’s short-sighted attempt to redirect attention from the global nature of the Stalinist/Soviet threat.

Peace talks began in the spring of 1951, going exactly nowhere but a few prisoner exchanges while the war of hills and outposts raged on and on.  In the late winter of 1953, nearly three years after it started and nearly two after the talks began, came the agony of Pork Chop.  Readers are likely familiar with the broad details of the American involvement due to the 1957 film starring Gregory Peck.  But it started nearly a week before when the Chinese pushed a Colombian battalion off Pork Chop and Old Baldy south of it in a marathon fight.   A week after the Colombians were displaced, K Company of the 31st Infantry, under the command of Joe Clemons (Gregory Peck’s character), was joined by L Company of the same regiment under Forrest Crittenden in a predawn assault on Pork Chop.  By dark less than a third of K Company was still on its feet; only about 10% of L Company answered the role.  The next day, they were reinforced by another battalion: seven of them walked off the hill.  Like a hundred hills before, the four-month’s fight over Pork Chop and Old Baldy would become a test of wills.

What was it all for?  Either not a lot of anything or a whole lot of everything.  This was the essence of Cold War brinkmanship, when neither would give up until the other slackened even for a moment.  It was played out in Korea as it had been in Greece, and in the Philippines,  and would be again in the Caribbean over some missiles in Cuba, and in Vietnam over a corrupt regime that played out bunch of hills around Khe Sanh, on another worthless rock called Hamburger, and another worthless pbend in a river called Hue.  “Worthless” only in the sense that something as intangible as “freedom” has a price that only a free person would be willing to pay for with his life, and that the free who are not brave will never quite appreciate.

Not All Military Action End With Parades

January marks the anniversary of the largest US ground operation in Vietnam, called Cedar Falls, in 1967.  The Viet Cong evaded the American forces, large as they were, and though they were ejected from the Iron Triangle briefly, many historians point to Cedar Falls as a symbol of American misunderstanding of the Southeast Asia conflict.

It can also be used to point to scholarly “misunderstanding” of the American presence in Vietnam, and to the critics who loudly say that United States “lost” the conflict there.  Interestingly enough, most critics cannot point to what direct failure of American forces led to this purported “defeat.”  While the oft-stated but never documented purpose of the American military there was to prop up the Saigon regime (which was too corrupt for its own good), the fact is that this was never an officially stated mission: indeed, no Letter of Instruction was ever written for MACV.  Thus, there was no “war” there to “win.”  Nor, since the last American combat units left the region in 1972 and Saigon fell in 1975, can any battlefield loss be attributed to US arms.

The Southeast Asia war also points up some uncomfortable truths about military action, as has been shown through history but became plain in the 1970s.  Not all conflict ends in “victory,” but most end in a simple winding down of combat operations.  Not all of a nation’s enemies are “officially defeated” and forced to sign treaties in rail cars or on battleship decks.  And, most important, comparatively few even begin with a declaration of war.

While many who read this will become let’s say incensed at the idea because conventional wisdom says that the US “lost” Vietnam, it must be asked: by what measure?  Might we also consider that, in Tet 1968, while the body count was rising and attention was fixed at both Vietnam and North Korea’s seizure of USS Pueblo on 23 January of the same year, the Soviet Union was unable to take advantage of the paper army that USAEUR had become and launch an offensive to reunite Germany.  One could argue that January-February 1968 would have been the best, last chance the Soviets would have had to do this.  Yet they failed.  They didn’t even try.

So, what does this say?  Perhaps it says that ultimately Southeast Asia was a sacrificed pawn in the global power game between the US and the Soviet Union, that American military action was, deliberately or not, intended to bait the Soviets into doing something…anything…stupid.  They didn’t, yet in 1992, after seeing yet another pawn–Iraq–sacrificed in its gambit over Kuwait, the Soviet experiment came to an end.

Not all military action leads to victory, or even success.  And often, we cannot know for generations what it was all for.  We can only guess.

Staring Down Tyrrany

Whatever we may think of him, Winston Churchill, who passed fifty years ago this week, never flinched in the face of two of the most notorious tyrants in the 20th century,  He was obstinate to the point of being a tyrant himself with Great Britain, defying those who would have made peace with Hitler in the aftermath of the German conquest of Europe.  Even as the RAF struggled over Britain, even as the U-boats sank ship after ship, and even as invasion loomed just over the horizon, his defiance was not only insistent and courageous, but heroic.

But with his allies, he could also be insistent, courageous and even heroic.  Pressed over and again for a “second front” by Stalin (whose armies were after all killing three of every four Germans who died in the war), he insisted that he and his American partners weren’t ready…especially when they weren’t.  And again, after the war when Greece threatened to fall into the Soviet orbit, he insisted from the back benches that Britain’s tattered empire support the Greeks.

In the defense of his empire, his sovereign and his publishing rights, Churchill was a tireless fighter, even pugnacious.  Shameless self-promoter, perhaps; stretcher of the truth, occasionally.  But during his bouts of genteel poverty, his lonely exiles from the halls of power, even in in his occasional lapses of timelines, he was always the same: a Tory monarchist Amerifile English gentleman.  Many of us could learn from his fearless example.