A harsh lesson learned – the raid on Dieppe

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Few of those with a basic knowledge of the Second World War would have heard of the Allied raid on the Northern French port town of Dieppe in August 1942. A likely reason is that it ended in complete failure for the Allies. And as the age old proverb goes, history is written by the victors, so why would a military disaster be given such attention? However if one is to fully understand how the Normandy landings on D-Day became a success, then it all starts with the fatal raid on Dieppe.

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Death and destruction at Dieppe

In 1942 the Allies were still reeling from Axis victories over the previous 3 years. Outside of Moscow, in the Winter of 1941, the Soviets had halted the German offensive, yet the Red Army was proved yet again no match for the Wehrmacht in the face of a renewed German offensive towards the Caucuses oil fields. In the deserts of North Africa, the British and its commonwealth were fighting Rommel’s Afrika Korps and it’s Italian allies in a seemingly never ending seesaw battle. The Americans had joined the war, but they faced immediate set backs in East Asia where the Japanese made quick work of ill prepared defences. Now facing the Germans and Italians in Europe, and the Japanese in Asia, the British and Americans made an agreement on a joint war strategy focusing on defeating Germany first. With British interests at threat, Churchill managed to garner support for a joint Anglo-American invasion of North Africa to defeat the Afrika Korps. The next step for the Western Allies would be the invasion of mainland Europe.

After a year of war with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union had suffered extortionately high casualties that outweighed any losses suffered from the Western Allies after 3 years of war. The casualties suffered during the Blitz, for example, would have been little more than a footnote in the list of atrocities suffered by the Soviets. After Hitler declared war on the Soviet Union, Stalin continuously called on the British, and later Americans, for an invasion of Western Europe – a 2nd front to relieve the pressure on the Red army. Even after briefly stopping the Germans outside Moscow, the renewed German offensive led Stalin to begin accusing Churchill and the British of Cowardice, yet the Soviets chose to overlook every logistical problem which the Allies faced – One Soviet General making a fool of himself by arguing to American generals that a cross channel invasion would take little more effort than a large river crossing. Churchill was forced, time and again, to remind Stalin that while the Soviet Union was a land animal, Britain was a sea animal and knew the true difficulties a seaborne invasion presented.

Back in the West, after the Luftwaffe were unable to defeat the RAF in the skies over Britain, its bombers had switched to night attacks. For the RAF pilots, who over a year ago were the knights of the sky that had saved the empire in its most dire moment, boredom set in as German planes were absent from the skies during daylight. The RAF demanded an opportunity to strike a killing blow against the Luftwaffe but for this they needed to draw them out into battle during the day. When British intelligence agencies broke the German codes, information showed that the Luftwaffe would be launched en-masse in defence of Hitler’s Fortress Europa should the allies choose to invade. But the British and it’s commonwealth could never hope to match the German army in France, and the Americans were not nearly well enough trained or experienced to support them. The RAF wanted an opportunity to draw out the Luftwaffe but they knew an invasion of Europe was not realistic whilst the battle in North Africa was not yet decided. As an alternative, a large scale raid on an Atlantic seaport followed by a short occupation was considered to placate the RAF and give them their opportunity.

Vice-Admiral Louis Mountbatten (a relative of the Royal family) was given the task of planning the raid. Bernard Montgomery, who would soon achieve fame for his exploits in North Africa, was actually involved in the initial stages of the planning but suggested the operation should be abandoned. Following pressure from the Canadian Government, who were eager to see that their troops saw combat, the Canadians were selected to be the main invasion force. Supporting them would be regular British troops, Commando’s and American Army Rangers. The planners decided on Dieppe, with a major seaport as well as a town available for occupation with only a short distance to the UK, it seemed an ideal testing ground for a seaborne assault.

In hindsight the plan was doomed for failure. But in 1942 modern seaborne invasions were an untested obstacle, the Allies were learning as they went. The plan that was decided upon called for an occupation of the town, so a bombardment of Dieppe and it’s defences, littering the streets with rubble, would only hamper the allies movements once they got off the beach and so the bombardment was cancelled. Another factor was the fear of harming French Civilians and further alienating the Vichy France Government. Newly developed ‘Churchill’ Tanks were planned to land along with the infantry on the beaches, the planners believing that seeing the invasion force would shock the defending troops enough to give up the fight, but that was not to be the case. Naval support of the invasion was limited to the transportation and only small support by destroyers. Attempts to get a battleship were denied by the Royal Navy for fear of risking capital ships where air supremacy was not achieved. The RAF on the other hand had offered massive fighter support.

On the 19th August at around 5am the first allied troops landed on the beaches under the morning sunrise. Royal Marines and Canadian infantry landed against fierce German resistance. On the main beach Allied destroyers lightly shelled the landing grounds with small arms whilst fighter bombers put up a smoke screen. The first wave of Canadian infantry were met with heavy machine gun fire which tore through their ranks. Tanks which had been intended to support the infantry became either bogged down in the shingled beach, or hit tank obstacles and were unable to exploit any areas for a breakout.

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Tanks demobilised on the shores of Dieppe

For the first wave of Canadian infantry the opening scenes of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is probably the closest depiction of what it would have been like. They faced the same, if not worse fire than the Americans later endured on Omaha beach on D-Day. This is clear when looking at the casualty list

for the Royal Canadian Infantry, who out of 556 men lost 227 killed, the rest later being captured by the Germans. It is a telling statistic of the deadly fire the Canadians were forced to withstand. The smokescreen, intended to protect the Allied troops, backfired and instead obscured the beach from view of the Canadian officers off shore. In desperation they sent in reserve units, but these troops soon realised the operation had failed as German defences continued to cut down Allied infantry all along the beaches.

At 9:40 the withdrawal began. Tanks that hadn’t yet been knocked out switched to defensive roles supporting the infantry as they fled back to the sea for evacuation. But for most units that were pinned down and stranded on the beaches, it was too late. By 14:00 the withdrawal had been completed. When the Allies counted their losses they must have been astonished. The majority of the troops used in the operation were the Canadians who numbered just under 5,000. Following the fiasco the Allies had suffered 3,367 casualties: 916 men were killed (907 Canadians) and the rest were either wounded or taken prisoner. The Canadians had suffered an appallingly high casualty rate of 68%.

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Canadian POW’s after the raid

For the RAF it was a narrow victory. They had been the driving force behind the raid, but rather than delivering a decisive blow to the Luftwaffe, they failed to recognise that the air war over Europe was one of attrition that could not be won by a single engagement. Losses were comparable between both sides, but with the industrial capacity of the USA, Canada and Great Britain, Germany was never able to match their output in numbers of aircraft and trained pilots. By 1944 the battle of attrition in the skies over Europe had steadily destroyed the fighting capabilities of the Luftwaffe. Although the skies over Dieppe saw some of the fiercest battles since the battle of Britain, the raid on Dieppe faded into just another battle in the skies over Europe.

For the Allies it was undoubtedly a massive set back in their war against Nazi Germany, but in many ways they were the beneficiaries. Following the raid the German propaganda machine made quick work in displaying the poor inept planning of the Allies and ridiculed the attempt. German generals were bemused at the plan and amazed that the Allies would have attempted to capture such an ambitious target with wholly inadequate support. The Allies on the other hand learned valuable lessons.

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A German soldier looks at the result of a poorly planned invasion

Knowing a cross Channel invasion was at some point necessary the Allies used Dieppe to learn what not to do for the Normandy invasion. Rather than attacking a well defended port it was decided that beaches which led into open country would be the main target, where troops could later move inland and capture a port. They also discovered the need for complete surprise, as well as an appropriate bombardment of the landing areas from the sea and air.

The failure of the tanks manoeuvring on the beaches of Dieppe was a major issue. The planners had not thought to test whether the tracks were suitable for the beaches and as a result many of the tracks became jammed due to the shingle. As a result the Allies realised they needed modified versions of current tank designs to carry out the tasks of a seaborne invasion. The result of this ingenuity came from the British general Percy Hobart, whose creations were nicknamed ‘Hobart’s funnies’. They included floating tanks which proved incredibly valuable during D-Day.

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One of ‘Hobart’s Funnies’ – a DD tank, which could float due to the inflatable skirt. The Allies used these to great effect on D-Day

Other realisations were the need for a sustained artillery and air bombardment prior to landing to ‘soften up’ the beaches. This was rejected in Dieppe for fear of damaging the town and therefore German gun emplacement and bunkers were all in place to meet the defenders. Another was the need for an airborne assault in order to block reinforcements from inland and to disrupt lines of communication for the front line defenders.

Although Dieppe provided these lessons, the Allies still took time to put these into practice. Later in 1942 the Americans landed in Vichy controlled north east Afirca. Then in July of 1943 the Allies invaded Sicily with a combined sea and airborne assault. Later that year in September they invaded the southern Italian mainland and carried out another invasion further up the coast in January of 1944.

When the Normandy invasion came around, the Allies were by no means experts, but it’s safe to say they had learned their lessons, and they made concerted efforts to utilise these on June 6th 1944. For anyone that has researched the planning of the Normandy invasion, it is clear that it was a logistical nightmare for the Allies to coordinate the combined arms of Army, Navy and Air forces from a number of nations, some of whom speaking multiple languages. But they managed to pull it off with careful planning and determination.

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Omaha beach, June 6th 1944 – A striking difference from the makeshift craft used for the Dieppe raid. For the Normandy invasion the Allies developed bespoke landing craft for tanks & infantry

When Canadian families learned that a family member had fallen during the raid on Dieppe it must have been devastating. I’m sure some felt their loved one had sacrificed their life for an insignificant target. But as horrible it is to say, the sacrifices were necessary for the future success of the Normandy invasion. The Allies unfortunately, as all people need to do, had to learn from mistakes and it was this flexibility and willingness to learn that eventually allowed them to overcome Nazi Germany in the European theatre.

Written by Jonny Morris

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This article is from NYT – go to source

Book Review – All Quiet on the Western Front

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anastasios pallisAdmittedly there is little worth in reviewing one of the most well known novels concerning the First World War. But due it’s timeless quality its worth every good review it gets.

‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ follows the story of Paul, a 19 year old caught up by one of the most pivotal events in world history – the First World War. A young German that tells the reader of life in the trenches – a subject with endless literature.

For one trying to understand the events and battles of the war, this book is not the place to find it. For all its greatness it does lack historical accuracy, but that is not the aim of the novel. But in saying that, if one wanted to strip away the historical overviews of text books and complete histories, and instead understand the human emotions as thoughts of the war, then this book is perfect.

The chapters are short, but so hard hitting. Each holding its own meaning that stays with the reader long after the page is turned. We see life in the trenches, the mud, the artillery, the agony, the hunger and daily pain. We hear of the soldiers jokes, their fears, wishes and hopes. Their understanding that they are but cogs in the machine of war. The narrator himself does not just tell of the soldiers around him, but he follows the reader through his own sensitive emotions. A child in war, brutalised by the conflict that surrounds him and powerless to do anything other than to kill the ‘enemy’ – an act which to him is so senseless, yet he does so out of fear of suffering the same fate with which he must deal to others.

The novel does not tell the story of heroics, for in real war these stories are rare. Instead this novel tells the reader of the ordinary soldiers war. most studies have shown that during the great wars the majority of soldiers did whatever they could to avoid killing another human being. For societies raised from a young age that ‘thou shall not kill’, whilst there are of course exceptions, the majority do so only out of indoctrination and fear. But even then it is still unnatural. The narrator explains these emotions in fantastic detail.

It is a refreshing change to the overwhelming view that Adolf Hitler’s post war belief’s personified that of the entire country following 1918. Rather than feel regret and disdain for having been sent to fight strangers, Hitler instead focussed his rage on the supposed injustices following the German defeat. It is of no surprise that Hitler and the Nazis hated the anti-war view of this novel, as for them the trenches were the birthplace of what it meant to be a ‘True German’. This was a novel, among others, that was burned by the Nazis as they feared the power it possessed. They even went so far as to revoke the German citizenship of the author Eric Maria Remarque during the 1930’s.

Remarque’s novel is without hatred for the enemy. They are merely depicted as other human beings caught up in this mindless slaughter. The overwhelming feeling portrayed is that the First World War was pointless, an argument depicted perfectly in the novel where the narrator tells of a discussion he and his comrades enter concerning the reasons for the war. The last word of the argument from the character Tjaden, a seemingly simple yet strong willed individual, sums up the novel’s argument simply yet eloquently – When one soldier asserts that at least the war is not in Germany, Tjaden responds in full agreement “That’s true. But it would be better if there no war at all.” – it is hard to argue with such logic.

Written by Jonny Morris.

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This article is from NYT – go to source

The Polish – Soviet War of 1920

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Poland has always been in an unfortunate geographic location; between two nations which throughout history have competed for dominance over Europe. To the west lies Germany, the powerhouse of Europe. And to the east is the vast melting pot of European and Asian cultures, the great expanse of Russia. Sadly for the Poles their homeland has been a convenient battle ground for the two and for large periods of its history Poland has been divided between these two great powers.

So it was in 1918 after the Great War – supposedly the War to end all wars – Poland was resurrected once again and declared an independent state, free from Russian or German influence. Having just lost the greatest conflict ever fought, Germany was suffering from civil strife as its politicians struggled to rebuild the nation. For a country with a strong sense of nationalism that could never believe they lost the war, most Germans began looking for scapegoats. Jews and the communists became the ones to blame. As the economy crumbled and poverty set in the Communists naturally gained more support. As they looked to the east where fellow workers had overthrown the old Russian Tsarist order they felt an opportunity was nearing.

In Russia, the Great War had ended a year earlier in 1917 when the people rose up in revolution. The Bolshevik’s seized their chance and rode the wave of revolution, fast becoming it’s leaders. A Civil war broke out as the communists wrestled for control of the country. Whilst in Poland peace resumed and under the inspiring nationalist Jozef Pilsudski the Poles took back control of their country and began to rebuild.

But Peace did not last long. By 1920 the Bolsheviks had pushed back the ‘White Armies’ in Russia inflicting a number of defeats on them. Now they turned to the west. Global revolution was the aim for the Bolsheviks and post war Europe seemed ripe for the taking. As in Germany, the many new nations born out of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires faced economic problems mixed with social unrest. They were perfect breeding grounds for young enthusiastic communists, all they needed was a spark to ignite the revolution, and a Red Army carrying the banner of Socialism would provide it. Poland was the first nation that stood in their way.

Skirmishes between the Russian and Poles over territory had been occurring since 1919. But in 1920 Pilsudski knew a conflict with the Russians over Polish Independence was inevitable, it was only a matter of time. The Polish army would be greatly outnumbered yet they had a potential ally. If the Poles could resurrect an independent Ukraine it would allow the Poles to stretch the Red Army to having to fight on a number of fronts. With this in mind in a pre-emptive strike in April 1920 the Poles attacked Kiev, currently occupied by the Bolsheviks, to install a Polish-friendly Ukrainian government. The offensive was a success and the Red Army pulled back in surprise at the strength of the Polish forces, but the offensive did not have the desired affect. Far too few Ukrainians than was hoped came forward to volunteer for the new Ukrainian army and the Poles could scarcely hold the newly won territory on their own. It was now up to the Russians to make the next move, and that came in the North.

Warsaw sits slightly to the north of the centre of Poland. Far off to the East lays the Pripyat Marches which expands like a long thin arrow pointing at Warsaw. The marshes make military manoeuvre near impossible and so nature dictated that the conflict between Poland and Russia would be down two corridors, one to the North and the other to the South with the Pripyat Marshes in the middle. The Russian advance from both the North and South would be directed towards Warsaw.

To the North the Russian armies advanced against the Polish front lines that occupied the old German trenches from the Great War. Whilst resistance was strong, the overwhelming might of the Red Army forced the Poles back, in some places the Russians outnumbering the Poles 4 to 1. It was not long before a full retreat began. The Polish generals were terrified that the orderly retreat may soon degenerate into a rout and constantly struggled to keep up morale. They faced another issue with the spiralling rate of desertion that plagued the Polish Army. It seemed every time the Poles stopped and attempted to set up an effective defence, their lines were overrun by the Russians and the retreat began again.

As the Polish armies of the North fell back the Russians in the south took their turn and counterattacked pushing the Poles back from Kiev. The conflict was reminiscent of Napoleonic battles where huge armies of Cavalry swept across the landscape hacking with sabres and lances at troops on the ground. The Polish forces managed to hit back at the Russian army and almost encircled a large Russian force, but as Polish cavalry threatened to complete the circle they were stopped at the last moment. The Russians on the northern front were approaching Warsaw and the armies of the south were being withdrawn for what seemed to be a decisive battle for the capital.

Whilst the East was once again engulfed in war the political landscape was a mess in post war Europe and to the outside world, opinion was divided about the Poles. The Entente (Britain and France) had sponsored the White Russians in the fight against the Communists, but the Poles had refused to invade Russia, the Poles fearing that a re-established Russian Empire would again impede the independence that Poland now enjoyed. Then with the Poles attacking Kiev to establish a Ukrainian state, it seemed to the world that Poland was the aggressive country meaning public and, potentially more importantly, working class sympathy lay with the Communists. For the Western Allies military intervention was out of the question and any attempt to send the poles military supplies was hindered by dock workers, sympathetic to the ideology of communism, who refused to unload arms and supplies from cargo ships. Poland was truly alone.

In August the Russian armies approached Warsaw from the North and East whilst the Polish commanders frantically attempted to organise a defence. Pilsudski faced criticism for his decision to attack Kiev first and now the military setbacks saw political rivalry and dissention within the Polish government increase. But Pilsudski was robust and was determined to defeat the Bolsheviks, and rivals at home. He kept his position as head of the army and devised a plan, a daring counterattack to defeat the Russian army approaching Warsaw.

To the South the Russian Armies stood poised to invade Hungary and the Balkans but had given up the advance into Poland. Under the notorious Commissar Josef Stalin, the Southern Front of the Red Army refused orders to advance against Warsaw. With Stalin being denied the chance to be in the lime light for capturing Warsaw he was looking to the future. Believing Poland would capitulate soon his eyes were looking towards the rest of Eastern Europe and even harboured hopes that his army would reach Vienna. It was a fatal decision not to attack Warsaw as the Polish counterattack began to unfold.

Pilsudski had managed to withdraw 5 Polish divisions south of Warsaw in relative safety. With the Russian armies in the south staying put The Polish divisions were free to prepare for the offensive. As the Russian armies continued to hammer the Polish defences from the East and North the Poles in the South began their attack. They positioned themselves 1 division next to the other stretching from West to East and advanced Northwards, the 14th Polish division being the most westward division was the first unit to attack the Russian forces. The Russians had not anticipated this move and had been throwing everything they had at Warsaw without making any provision to prepare for a possible counterattack from the South. After some frantic battles the Poles inflicted serious defeats on the Russians and soon their attack turned into retreat as Polish forces surged into the rear.

The Polish counterattack pushed northwards like a hand with its fingers outstretched. It tore straight into communication and resupply lines that the Russian front line units were depending on. As they began to retreat the Russian units found themselves having to battle through 5 Polish divisions one after the other. Disorder broke out in the Red Army as their frantically retreated. Against the Polish onslaught the majority of units fled north away from the Polish divisions into East Prussia and were interned where their arms were confiscated. on the 25th of August after the 10 day offensive the Poles counted the spoils of victory. They had captured 50,000 prisoners, the Russians had lost 25,000 killed and at least 30,000 – possibly as many as 80,000 – interned in East Prussia.

For the Poles it truly was a miracle on the Vistula. They had decimated the Russian armies attacking Warsaw and now the initiative swung in their favour once again. They advanced towards the North East taking back much of the land they had only recently retreated through as the Russians now fell back further and further, frantically attempting to prepare some kind of defence. By October the Red Army’s Western front was in pieces and the Poles frantically fought for as much territory as they could to better their position in any talks of a ceasefire. For the infant Bolshevik government more enemies were appearing on the horizon; Russian White armies, partly recovered from their earlier defeats, once again began advancing from the Crimea. Red army units had began deserting in tens of thousands and civil unrest was on the rise as few people could see any improvement to their living conditions. The only thing that could save the Soviet Union now was a ceasefire.

On 18th March 1921 peace was finally signed. In hopes of improving its image abroad Poland did not insist on restoration of her natural frontiers but agreed to a compromise that included much of Belorussia and Ukraine. Many in the region realised it was not a peace treaty, but rather a truce until the next conflict between these powers erupted. In 1939 the truce would come to an end with the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany invading Poland from both sides. For Josef Stalin, his refusal to advance with his army onto Warsaw had led to much criticism and he had to bear a large part of the blame for the military reversal. The destruction of Poland became personal for Stalin and his decisions throughout the Second World War only proved his hatred for the nation.

For Poland it was a tremendous victory, short lived as history would prove, but nonetheless a great moment of pride for the nation. Facing unbelievable odds against a far stronger enemy they came out the victors. But the true victory was not for Poland but for Europe.

What if Warsaw had fallen in 1920 and the Red army had pushed onwards? For the Red Army the invasion of Poland was merely a stepping stone before advancing onto Central and Eastern Europe. It’s highly unlikely Germany would have been able to defend itself against the Red Army with many of its citizens welcoming the Russians. In the Balkans the junior states would have also likely folded. With Britain and France weary of war and the USA falling back into isolationism, would the Entente once again commit to a war for Europe against the Red Army? Who knows. But we can say with come certainty that the Polish victory protected Europe from communism.

It is a cruel twist of fate that Poland would once again end up under Russian dominance until 1989 after defending itself so valiantly in 1920. But throughout history no one can doubt the stubborn determination of Polish citizens to fight for their country in the hopes of gaining independence. The Polish – Soviet war is a forgotten and overshadowed conflict. But the heroism the Poles displayed in defending their homeland, and Europe, from communism should always be remembered.

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This article is from NYT – go to source

Film Review – Hacksaw Ridge

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Hacksaw Ridge tells the incredible true story of Desmond Doss, an army medic who served in World War 2 that refused to carry weapons or do violence to another man. It is a fantastic tale of bravery, self-sacrifice and devotion to principles whilst showing a gritty and realistic insight into the effects of war.

We first see Doss as a boy and learn how early experiences gave shape to his views on violence, all the while being guided by religion. When Doss joins the army as a grown man, the film portrays the reality of the horrendous discrimination he received from fellow soldiers and his unbelievable efforts during the battle of Hacksaw Ridge.

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The blueprint itself, lay out by Doss during the Second World War, is reason enough to give this film a great review. Andrew Garfield is fantastic in his portrayal of the slim, awkward and misunderstood Desmond Doss. The film also shows the effects of war in Doss’s father, played by Hugo Weaving, who is psychologically scarred from his time in the trenches and clearly disillusioned with life. Even though his father is portrayed as an alcoholic and abusive man, we see that underneath these problems are actually a loving and caring father, but war leaves deep scars. The first half of the film establishes Doss and his place in the world, his views on violence, meeting his future wife and discovering how best he can serve his country by enlisting as an army medic.

As Doss steps foot in his new army barracks, so begins a classic American war film. To be honest my heart sank when the most common of all scenes from every American ‘War Film’ took place. Doss meets his new comrades – only a handful of whom are based on real people – but all the clichés of American recruits comes out in abundance – A cocky kid from New York, a Native American named Chief, a chiselled body builder and a nice friendly one who introduces Doss to the gang!

And then the Sergeant enters the barracks, played by Vince Vaughn. Now, personally I was incredibly doubtful whether Vince Vaughn could play the tough and dependable Sergeant, but in all honesty he brings in some much needed comedy to the film. I laughed on more than one occasion as he walks up and down berating the new recruits, a scene synonymous  of American War Films made famous by the film ‘Full Metal Jacket’, and he certainly won me over in his portrayal.

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In training the discrimination experienced by given its due weight of importance. Sadly following the war Doss did not want his story recorded by another for fear that they would take it down incorrectly so I am unable to confirm whether the beatings and harassment were as harsh as depicting in the film. But I have no reason to doubt it. The court martial is a true event as well, but the touching moment of Doss’s father intervening for his son wearing his Great War uniform is classic Hollywood (But good Hollywood). It nonetheless is a moving and redeeming moment for the hapless father who initially disapproves of his son joining the army, but later finds respects in it.

The battle of Hacksaw Ridge is again difficult to research and so the chronology of actual events is difficult to establish. The film brilliantly displays the true nature of warfare – chaos, confusion and barbarity. Mel Gibson, the director of the notoriously graphic ‘The Passion of the Christ’, comes into his element with the gruesome realities of battle with the Japanese, and in my opinion action scenes stand alongside ‘Saving Private Ryan’ in production effects and shows really how combat was during the Second World War.

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A few scenes do bring in some questions. Doss running around in the Japanese tunnels hiding from the searching enemy is questionable, so was a scene where he actually assists an injured Japanese soldier in the tunnels. I researched this further and it is true that Doss did actually aid wounded Japanese soldiers. More incredible than that was how Doss lowered man after man down the Cliffside calling to God to help him get one more every time. As an army medic it is absolutely right that we are confronted with the gory realities of what Doss and others like him would have faced. The horrendous wounds of broken flesh and bones are thankfully something that was not left out for fear of the age rating on the film. A film about war should depict war in my opinion, along with all its brutal realities.

By historical record Doss saved approximately 75 soldiers, this figure was picked because of a dispute between Doss who claimed he saved no more than 50 and his comrades who claimed 100, so they met in the middle. The final scenes of actual footage of Doss receiving his Medal of Honour, of his comrades and himself talking about his actions on Hacksaw Ridge are a perfect ending to a truly brilliant film. Doss thanked God for saving those men, but in my opinion Doss is wrong here, God didn’t save those soldiers, Desmond Doss saved them. A fantastic film depicting a man’s story that should always be remembered.

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Desmond Doss receiving his Medal of Honour from President Harry S. Truman

Written by Jonny Morris

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This article is from NYT – go to source

The Harlem Hellfighters – The soldiers that fought tyranny abroad and racism at home

A history of the United States of America is a particularly violent one. From European colonisation and the systematic slaughter of Native American tribes to the revolutionary and civil wars – the USA was born out of war. All throughout these conflicts slavery had been a constant. It gave America the best economy the world had ever seen, but it came at an enormous cost to the rights and freedoms of African Americans, a stark contrast to the principles envisaged in the constitution. The Civil war saw the end of slavery, but even following the war, generations of white Americans grew up with a fanatical racism that defied logic. Even the government actively publicised the naïve and uneducated view that the ‘Negro’ was meant to be feared by white men for their ‘barbaric ways’.

Life in the United States of America, the supposed land of freedom, equality and opportunity for all, was hard for many generations of African Americans. Laws of segregation were a constant reminder that coloured people were second rate citizens and punishment for challenging the system was brutal. Even though throughout all of America’s conflicts African American’s had fought side by side with whites it was not enough to expel this hatred, nor were they recognised for their contribution.

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Segregation of Water Fountains

In 1914 as German armies flooded across the Belgian frontier America watched from across the Atlantic in isolation and neutrality. It was not until 1917 that America declared war. Following an intercepted telegram that showed Germany urged Mexico to declare war on the USA and a series of submarine attacks on American merchant shipping, America decided they could no longer stay out of this conflict.

2.8 Million Men were drafted in the army in 1917 but it was still not enough. A nation wide draft was implemented and for the first time African Americans were allowed to join the armed forces, but just like in every aspect of life in the USA segregation applied to the Armed Forces. Young black men volunteered in the hope that their service to the nation would be rewarded with respect and believed it would destroy stereotypes allowing them to come home as heroes and treated as equals.

The 369th Infantry Regiment was formed in New York. Even though these soldiers were willing to risk their lives for their country they still suffered appalling discrimination in local shops and stores. In one occurrence they were refused service in a local store, but luckily some white soldiers from other units intervened on behalf of their comrades, but sadly intervention by white comrades was a rare occurrence for the 369th Regiment. After completion of training the unit arrived in France in early 1918 but was deemed unfit for combat and used instead for labour service.

As if segregation and discrimination was not enough the 369th Infantry Regiment was delivered another blow by the American army. Many white Americans refused to fight alongside coloured soldiers and so the American Army decided to give the Regiment to the French army for combat duty. They continued to wear American uniforms yet their equipment, weapons and helmets were all of French issue. Harassment and discrimination from white American soldiers continued and seemed to intensify in France. But the worst betrayal of all came from the American Expeditionary Force headquarters that had the audacity to issue pamphlets warning French civilians of the ‘rapist tendencies’ of African American soldiers. Yet the 369th Regiment did not lose faith in their efforts to turn opinion among American troops, and back home, in their favour.

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369th Regiment with French Rifles and Helmets

As part of the French army they were finally treated equally and respected as much as any fighting man, racism and discrimination was non existent. In May 1918 they went into the trenches. Individual troops displayed great courage in their actions, one soldier named Henry Johnson earned the nickname ‘Black death’ for his defence against a 24 man German patrol. Using grenades, the butt of his rifle a bolo knife and his bare fists he fought off the German patrol and saved another comrade from capture, suffering 21 wounds in the process – he was later awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s Highest military honour. In the spring the Germans launched their last major offensive in a last ditch effort to defeat the allies in the West. To the East, the Russians had signed an armistice and the transfer of troops from East to West allowed the Germans one last chance to seize victory. With the American entry into the war, it was obvious that eventually the tide would turn in favour of the allies.

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Henry Johnson with His Croix de Guerre

The German assault did little to achieve victory. With no clear objectives marked, all that resulted was the Germans claiming large territorial gains, but they paid for every inch of land with blood, losing thousands of their best trained troops. Even whilst in defeat the German Army was a dangerous enemy. The 369th Infantry Regiment saw combat here where the Germans launched their last offensive. But it was all in vain. The French armies, including the 369th Infantry Regiment, held on against the onslaught and the initiative passed to the Allies. Now it was time to counter attack.

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Harlem Hellfighters in the Trenches

In September 1918 the 369th participated in the Meuse – Argonne offensive where French and American armies pushed back the Germans. It was here that the regiment forged its legacy. It suffered heavy losses but captured important objectives and proved itself to be a ferocious fighting unit. They stood out amongst French troops, on one engagement they advanced ahead of French units on their left and right flank dangerously exposing themselves. After pulling back and reorganising they realised they had advised 8.7 miles through stubborn German resistance – a distance beyond belief when considering the lack of movement over the years of trench warfare. The Germans nicknamed them the Harlem Hellfighters for their ferocity in battle. They never lost one foot of land to the Germans and no individuals were taken captive, the Germans respected them for the deadly fighters they were.

The war ended in November 1918 with the signing of the Armistice. The Harlem Hellfighters returned to America and were given a victory parade through New York for their efforts where, for probably the first time, they were hailed as heroes who had fought for the principles which America stood for. The French awarded the regiment with the coveted Croix de Guerre – France’s highest military honour, and many other distinguished awards for individual acts of bravery.

But the respect they earned was to be short lived, not only for the Harlem Hellfighters but for all African American’s. Following the Russian revolution a fear that bolshevism would soon spread to the USA brought about a new wave of white supremacy. Race riots at the time were brutally supressed and in October 1919 hundreds of coloured sharecroppers (Farmers) were massacred by white men in Arkansas for attempting to organise themselves. Attempts by coloured men and women to gain equality were branded as communism and retaliation by whites was horrendous. In the Southern states in 1918 there were reported to have been 64 lynching’s of coloured men, in 1919 they reported 83 lynching’s – at least 11 of these were soldiers that had returned from the battlefields of France.

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Lynching and burning of Will Brown, 1919

The veterans of the Harlem Hellfighters hoped to be welcomed back home as heroes but instead returned in a new wave of racism. It’s impossible to tell the story of every soldier in the regiment, but we get an idea of the larger picture by looking at the post war life of the regiments most decorated soldier – Henry Johnson, or as the Germans called him ‘Black Death’. Upon recovering from his wounds Johnson was offered a paid lecture tour of the US to tell tales to the public of the racial harmony in the trenches, but rather then giving the pre arranged fallacy that the organisers wanted the public to hear, Johnson instead told the true stories of abuse and discrimination at the hands of white American soldiers. Soon the offers for lecture tours ended and an arrest warrant was issued for Johnson with a charge of wearing his uniform past the commissioned date. He died in 1929, in poverty, obscurity and with no living relatives. In 2015, the US President Barrack Obama finally awarded Johnson a posthumous Medal of Honour for his great bravery in the face of the enemy.

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Henry Johnson’s posthumous Medal Of Honour

The fact that it had taken almost 100 years for Johnson’s actions to be appropriately recognised should reveal how lacking in appreciation America was, and to some extent still is to the Harlem Hellfighters. They, along with all coloured men and women who served in the armed forces, were neglected and treated with appalling disdain by the same country they fought for. Many gave their lives for the United States of America, a country that did not want them, and frankly a country that did not deserve them.

Written by Jonny Morris

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This article is from NYT – go to source

News: The Battle for Mosul – Fighting ISIS and the future of Kurdistan in the Middle East

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On 10th June 2014 the unthinkable happened when the rebel militia group ISIL captured Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, and declared itself the newly formed Islamic State. Yet now, 2 years after the Islamic State forces captured the city, the Iraqi army, along with Kurdish militia groups and other Allied forces, have begun an offensive to retake the city.

The offensive brings with it a new opportunity as well. Kurdistan is coming significantly close to independence, with a referendum planned in the Kurdistan region within the Iraqi border once ISIS is defeated. The Kurds had been victims to brutal Iraqi aggression under Saddam Hussein, yet the new Iraqi prime minister has given hopes to the many Kurds who dream of independence, declaring in August of this year that he viewed self-determination as an “Undisputed right”.

The fight against ISIS gives the Middle East a chance of mending relationships between old enemies – Iraqi and Kurdistan troops fighting side by side for a common goal. If it ends with an independence referendum brought about by peaceful means rather than an armed revolution, then undoubtedly it will be a massive breakthrough for Middle Eastern politics, offering a real hope for secular democratic governments to reintroduce Islam to the rest of the world in a positive light. However there are always complications once a common enemy is defeated.

Kurdistan is a geopolitical nightmare for the Middle East and especially its allies in the West. With territories covering Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey, at times the idea of an independent Kurdistan was perhaps the only common enemy for these rival nations to rally against. And yet while ISIS has arisen as the main threat to the Middle East, the Kurds have built up a strong militia backed by financial aid and volunteers from all over the world. Now more than ever they pose a real threat to these nations wishing to supress any hints of independence, but unlike in previous attempts at independence the Kurds now have a strong, experienced and devoted military arm that has held its own against ISIS. It seems unlikely that the Kurds would back down now that they are so close to independence.

Let us not forget that in March this year a militant Kurdish group set off a car bomb in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, killing 37 people and injuring a further 125. The Turks and Kurds have been fighting each other throughout the conflict against ISIS. For NATO, this is a major concern. Where NATO would have normally welcomed an independent democratic and secular state in the Middle East, Turkey will surely call on its allies to stand against such a move. It poses an impossible question for the Americans, whether to support the Kurds for the loss of Turkey as an ally.

And whilst the common war against ISIS offers an opportunity to rebuild relations with Iran, any whiffs of independence within the Iranian border is sure to provoke the greatest of reactions.

The defeat of ISIS is hopefully a forgone conclusion, but just as the Second World War proved, post war politics is a tricky game. Let us hope that an independent and secular Kurdistan will be a leading beacon for Middle East states to modernise rather than a spark that ignites another war in an already troubled region.

But before post war politics can begin, the war against ISIS needs to be won and the Battle for Mosul is only the beginning.

Written by Jonny Morris

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The Unknown Genocide of World War 1

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The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the UN in 1948, states genocide  as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

When we think of genocide our minds are dragged to the Nazi extermination camps of the Second World War, Auschwitz, Treblinka, Birkenau…

But unknown to many of us today was another genocide, one equally as brutal and cruel as carried out by the Nazis in the 1940’s. This genocide, widely argued by scholars to be the first genocide of the twentieth century, was carried out by the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1917 against an ethnic minority which existed within its own borders, the Armenians.

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Beheaded Armenians

In 1914 when the Ottoman Empire joined the Axis powers in World War 1 it was a vast empire engulfing nearly all of the Middle East, including the majority of Armenia situated on the Eastern frontier with Russia. The nationalist Young Turk movement led to an increase in the policy of what was called ‘Turkification’ where Turkish culture was pushed to the fore front while the empire’s minorities faced the threat of extinction. When war was declared some Armenians sympathized with the Russians and deserted to them, but the majority were loyal to the Sultan. Tensions arose following the massacre of the entire Muslim population in the plain of Passinlar by Armenian volunteers. Fearing the declaration of an independent Armenian state backed by Russia, the Turks reacted brutally.

The claims that Armenian insurgents were attempting to form an independent state in a predominantly Turkish area is still the explanation given by Turkish officials to this day for the retribution, but in truth the Ottoman Empire had little to fear from the majority of Armenians. Nonetheless the genocide had begun.

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Armenians being deported

Adult males were disarmed and shot en masse by the army while civilian communities were forced onto the Syrian deserts where many died of exposure and starvation. Their properties and possessions were seized by the Turks and violence, including rape, became common. Those who weren’t massacred by the army were used as forced labour and deported in the hundreds of thousands where they gradually perished from death marches. Concentration camps were established throughout the Syrian and Iraqi provinces of the empire, 25 in all, which set about exterminating those who survived the marches across the desert. Women that survived were taken by Muslim men to be their wives whilst the men slowly died of starvation. Some Armenians, being a christian majority, were also treated with appalling religious cruelty by being Crucified alive by the Turks.

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Victims of the genocide

Some Armenians did fight back though. In the city of Van in Eastern Turkey, having witnessed the deportation and massacres carried out in the provinces surrounding the city by the district Governor, the inhabitants refused his demand for 4,000 soldiers under the pretext of conscription. In reality the Governor was attempting to crush the cities defence by destroying all able bodied men, and when they refused his demand he lay siege to the city. 1,500 defenders protected the city and its inhabitants of 30,000 (as well as another 15,000 refugees) against the Ottoman armies until the Russians came in May 1915, but it was not to be a happy ending for the city. The Russians fell back two months later and in August 1915 the Ottomans retook the city. The Russians were to capture it once again, but following the revolution in 1917 the Ottomans returned and massacred all the Armenians in the city, roughly 55,000.

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An Armenian child showing the holes in his hands where he was crucified

So what was the cost to the Armenians? Well there is no exact figure of how many people were massacred as the Ottomans very rarely made any recordings of the atrocities. However it can safely be assumed that somewhere in the region of 800,000 to 1.5 million Armenians were killed in the years during the First World War. Some could say that perhaps these were casualties of war? or casualties of an Armenian rebellion as in the city of Van? Yet this cannot be upheld considering the Ottoman policy of attempting to exterminate an entire nationality as a form of ethnic cleansing in order to promote the Turkish national identity. The Armenians were not the only ones targeted by the Ottomans. Christian and Greek communities similarly suffered, though not on as great a scale as suffered by the Armenians, but it is thought that nearly 300,000 Greeks were killed.

The man who would go on to coin the term ‘genocide’ (a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin) in 1944 to describe the Nazi atrocities explained that he came up with the word with the fate of the Armenians in mind. Whilst Turkey still maintains that it is incorrect to call the massacres against the Armenians as ‘genocide’, 28 countries including most scholars and intellectuals agree that it should be officially recognized as such.

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What if…? – A Scandinavian Second World War

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Finland, a small Nordic country in northern Europe, or Scandinavia as the area is more commonly known. It is bordered by fellow Scandinavian countries to the North and West, Norway and Sweden whilst to the East lies Russia..From the 12th Century until 1809 Finland had been part of the Kingdom of Sweden and served as an ideal battleground for Russian and Swedish Armies. After Russian power rose towards the 19th Century, Finland found itself under control of the Russians, becoming the duchy of Finland within the larger Russian Empire. Following the Russian Civil War and the establishment of the Soviet Union under the Bolsheviks, Finland finally gained its independence in 1917.

Enjoying peace throughout the inter war years, the Finns watched as Germany invaded Poland in 1939, feeling safe around its fellow Scandinavian neighbors who had both declared neutrality. The Soviet Union on the other hand took the opportunity to begin taking back what it had lost during the civil war, and assisted in the invasion of Poland. In the months following, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were absorbed into the Soviet Union. Finland was all that remained.

Facing the might of the Soviet Union the former Russian possessions did not dare take up arms to defend their independence and Stalin had every reason to believe that the Finns would do the same, yet all the Soviet commanders gravely underestimated the Finnish desire for independence and their ability to defend their own country against any invader. In the Winter of 1939 the Soviet Armies crossed the border with the specific intention of establishing a Soviet republic, essentially a puppet government loyal to Moscow. Many Soviet commanders joked that their armies could merely march in and take the country without a fight. Intelligence on Finnish positions were poor, plans were roughly drawn out and the tactics intended to be used by the Soviet troops were crude, simple and defied logic. Soviet soldiers were sent out onto the snow covered fields of Finland wearing dark green overalls, making easy targets of themselves to the Finnish snipers. Formations were not given the necessary equipment to survive out in the open during the harsh Finnish winter, but yet they pushed on past the border.

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Finnish soldiers manning the trenches of the Mannerheim Line

As the Russians advanced towards Finnish defensive lines, they soon found themselves woefully under prepared to face the bloody nose they were about to receive from the Finns. The Finns were determined to defend their homeland and fought back tenaciously with what little they had. Whilst the Soviet armies were lavishly supplied with artillery, tanks, planes and machine guns, the Finns had to make every bullet count, and they surely did . Finnish troops out in the forests staged ambushes against Russian supply lines, cutting off huge formations and inflicting heavy casualties leaving the Soviets to freeze to death out in the open. Close to the old Russian capital, St Petersburg, now named Leningrad, machine gun nests, pillboxes and anti tank positions had been constructed to face the heavy onslaught they expected to receive. This line of fortifications was nicknamed the Mannerheim line, named after the Finnish Field Marshall and commander of the Finnish Army Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim.

The Soviets sent wave after wave of soldiers against the defenders, only to be cut down by devastating fire from the Finns. as Days led to weeks the Finns faced tremendous pressure to hold on whilst the Soviets tried effortlessly to break the Finnish lines with infantry and tanks hurled against the Mannerheim line. World opinion flocked in aid of the Finns who valiantly held on against all the odds, yet help did not come as the Finns had hoped. Small amounts of arms came from the Allies, whilst Sweden, Italy and other nations sent volunteers to fight against the Soviets.

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Russian soldiers in their dark uniforms standing out against the snow in Finland

In the West the allies debated what assistance they could offer. With common sense the allies knew it was only a matter of time until the Finns would have to concede, unless of course they were reinforced with an allied army. But the allies already faced a war with Germany. The French administration, whose public had reluctantly agreed to go to war with Germany, saw an opportunity to garner public opinion in favor of the war in the form of helping Finland defend itself and setting upon an anti communist crusade against the Soviet Union. The French and British began to form a plan which, if used, would have surely changed the Second World War making it a Scandinavian war, rather than a continental European war.

The Allies had different aims in their thinking, yet they both came to the same conclusion. The French wanted to fight, but not on French soil. Following the destruction of Flanders during 1914-1918 the French wanted to fight the Germans as far away from France as possible and so Scandinavia started to become an attractive option. But why would the Germans get involved in Scandinavia when it was the Russians that the Finns were fighting? That’s where the British view came in. During the First World War the British had imposed an economic blockade on Germany which was largely successful and so it wanted to repeat this again in 1939, but Germany managed to get some supplies from the Soviet Union, whilst a large amount of its iron ore, essential for building machines of war such as guns, tanks and planes, came from Sweden, the country neighboring Finland. So the allies devised a plan where a joint Anglo-French army would land in Norway, march through Sweden, passing by the iron ore mines and coincidentally setting up defensive positions stopping the flow of iron ore, and then send troops into Finland. The allies knew they would be violating the neutrality of Sweden and Norway, but they wanted to defeat Germany as quickly as possible, and they hardly had any other ideas for defeating the Nazis, but if they crippled the war industry, Germany may be forced to the negotiating table.

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Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim – Commander of the Finnish army

The allies knew the Germans would respond in force in order to keep the supplies flowing and so they were willing to sacrifice Sweden and Norway in order to defeat the Germans. As Soviet forces began to break Finnish lines, they flirted with peace agreements with the Soviets whilst the British, and particularly the French, begged the Finns not to make peace, that an army would soon be reaching them to fight the Soviets. But the allies were playing Finland in order to give them more time to make a decision. Promises were made to Finland which were little more than lies. Even in the plans drawn up, only a small insignificant portion of troops would have been sent to Finland, the rest would have been kept in Norway and Sweden, Finland on the other hand would have been left to face the Soviets more or less alone.

Thankfully before this plan was ever carried out the Finns sued for peace with the Soviets, sacrificing portions of territory, but most importantly retaining its independence and right to choose its own government. Upon hearing the calls for peace from Finland, the French almost declared war outright on the Soviet Union, but calmer heads were able to keep the French prime minister from doing so.

So, imagine what if the French and British had invaded? well Scandinavia would have most definitely suffered similar destruction caused to Western Russia and Germany after the Second World War was over. The dictators, Stalin and Hitler, would surely have worked together, replicating the Polish model of invasion, to take the Scandinavian countries under their grasp while the allies would have suffered possibly yet another set back. It is very unlikely that the allies would have ever achieved success in the plan and may possibly have made things worse by declaring war on the Soviet Union as well, facing an almost impossible situation. Let us just be thankful that Finland was able to remain independent at the expense of some territory to heal the battled ego of the Soviets. It was a cruel twist of fate that Finland would later invade the Soviet Union in 1941 along with the Nazis in order to take back this land lost, yet even when the tide turned in the Soviets favor, they were still able to negotiate a peace and remain independent, remaining so to this day.

Written By Jonny Morris

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Germans in Norway, this could have been Sweden as well had the Allies intervened

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Film Review – Black Hawk Down

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anastasios pallisSuper 64 over Mogadishu, the first Black Hawk to be shot down


The movie Black Hawk Down portrays the incredible story of ‘The Battle of Mogadishu’ and the events that unfolded in the ill fated mission. Directed by the highly acclaimed Ridley Scott, it shows the events which took place in the Somalian capital throughout the 3rd and 4th of October, 1993. What began as nothing more than a raid by American soldiers quickly developed into a full blown battle in the streets of Mogadishu with American units fighting enemies in much greater numbers than their own. The Americans were part of the UN forces sent to monitor the developing civil war that had gripped the country 1991, destroying much of its agriculture and causing the deaths of over 300,000 people through starvation. Much of this starvation was caused by the militias who used it as a weapon, therefore any American involvement to provide food to the people of Somalia was seen as a threat to their cause, thus American soldiers became the enemy. Americans planned to capture high ranking militia officials in an attempt to hamper their activities, but it did not go according to plan.

anastasios pallisAmerican Rangers in the Somali desert

When the assault began initially things went well, however things quickly turned sour after a Black Hawk helicopter was shot down, subsequently crashing in the city. As a rescue mission began, a second helicopter was hit, crashing in another part of the city. The ensuing chaos led to American soldiers losing the initiative and instead fighting through the streets to try and save their comrades, practicing the Rangers code of never leaving a man behind, dead or alive. The film tells the story of these events and the soldiers who fought through the streets to rescue their comrades.

The film has to be held up as an excellent example of how to make a realistic war film. Although certain events and characters of the story have been altered in order to suit the needs to make the movie, the realism is astounding. The battle scenes are of such intensity that even veterans of the battle had to take a step back as they watched the filming, so shocked they were at how similar the making of the movie was to the actual battle. The involvement of the veterans in the film making, meeting with the actors, telling them their story and experiences, is surely the factor that gives this movie such quality. It’s a film of brutality, realism, brotherly bonds and heroism. But above all else, its the truth in this story that makes this film so outstanding, causing one to pause and wonder how any of these men made it out alive.

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American troops return to base after the mission

With a cast that, in terms of war films, can possibly only be rivaled by ‘A Bridge Too Far’, you know the film will be full of outstanding performances. The cast includes Josh Hartnett, Ewan Mcgregor,Tom Sizemore, Jason Isaacs, Tom Hardy, Orlando Bloom, Eric Bana, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, William Fichtner and Jeremy Piven, just to name a few. The story of the battle is epic in itself, but the ability of the film makers to capture this story on screen gives credit to the men who fought this battle and remembering their sacrifice.

Many look to the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ as the best war film ever made, but in my opinion, Black Hawk Down holds that position, and will do for some time.

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D-Day 70 Year Anniversary

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70 years ago on this very day thousands of allied soldiers, airmen and sailors embarked upon the invasion of mainland Europe to free it from Nazi tyranny. For 4 years, France and the rest of Western Europe had been under Nazi control and had seen their lands stripped of their goods and their people taken in slavery as the Nazis took whatever they needed to continue the war against the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

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The Big 3 at Tehran where the invasion of France was promised by Churchill and Roosevelt in 1943

After so many years of war, the Allies and the Soviets knew that an invasion of France was the best and fastest way to end the war with Germany, but to take on the German army on mainland Europe was no easy task. The most difficult task was to establish a strong enough beachhead so that when the troops landed, they would not be thrown back into the sea by a German counter-attack. They also faced the obstacle of landing the troops on the beach itself, ensuring tanks and amphibious vehicles could traverse the terrain on the beaches selected for the invasion. They also needed to find a way so that the forces used for the landing could actually overcome the beach defences and they needed to gather enough supplies to launch the invasion and then keep up the flow of supplies after that. In short, the task was enormous.

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Wreckage on the beach at Dieppe where many lessons were learned

In 1943 the Canadians had raided a coastal port town called Dieppe, in France. The Canadians had landed troops and tanks, but the operation had been a total failure. The tanks could not get off the beach due to the nature of the terrain whilst the defences had been far too strong. It gave the allies the valuable lessons that they needed to learn in order to attack a beach and be successful with seaborne troops.

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Eisenhower with Paratroopers before D-Day

Another aspect of the landings was airborne troops. In Italy the allies had used paratroopers to land behind the enemy lines in order to cause confusion and to seize bridges and other strategic points in order to stop the Germans from fortifying them. Whilst losses had been high, it was deemed a success and was seen as vital for any invasion of France. Another decision was of course where to land? The Germans had heavily fortified the coastal areas of northern and western Europe creating Hitler’s ‘Fortress Europe’, but the allies needed somewhere that was relatively close to Berlin, to save them slogging their way through France the whole war. To land in Germany or Denmark was ruled out, France was decided upon, but with two possibilities. Calais, the shortest crossing for ships and planes from England to France, or Normandy. As Calais seemed too obvious and was bound to be heavily guarded, Normandy became first choice, although the allies went to great lengths to make the Germans think that Calais was the real target, even creating a fake army with cardboard tanks and putting the famous General Patton in charge to fool the Germans.

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British General Bernard Montgomery commanded the ground forces on D-Day and the Normandy campaign

Normandy was to be the landing ground and it was decided that American Field Marshall Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man who had led the Americans in North Africa, would plan it. Five beaches were decided upon, two would be taken by the Americans, one by the Canadians and the other two by the British. From Left to right (or West to East) they were named Utah (American), Omaha (American), Gold (British), Juno (Canadian) and Sword (British). The British, landing closer to the main German forces in the East, were expected to bare the brunt of the German counter-attack if there was to be one, whilst it was believed that the Americans were given the easier of the beaches. The British General Montgomery who was in command of the land forces, believed the more experienced British troops should face the main German forces in the East facing the strategic Norman city of Caen, whilst the less experienced Americans were given the task of breaking through the weaker German forces in the west.

Everything was set, two American and one British airborne divisions lay ready to launch their attack the night before the main landing, they flew off into the night on June 5th, D-Day -1. Whilst the invasion fleet waited off shore in the horrendous weather of the English channel where sea sickness made most men eager to step foot onto dry land, even if it was to be greeted by bullets.

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British soldiers at Pegasus Bridge

The airborne troops began to drop in the night, the first troopers hitting the ground being a group of British glider troops who crash landed along side two bridges in order to capture them, one that would come to be named Pegasus Bridge. These Bridges were important because they were the only crossings over a river and a canal to the East of the landing beaches. If the Germans were to counter attack, the route the Panzers would take would be directly over those bridges.

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American Paratroopers show off a captured Nazi Flag

Here the British soldiers sprinted across the bridge attacking the German positions, firing their guns from their hips as they ran. It was here that the first allied soldier of the invasion lost his life, Den Brotheridge who was shot in the neck and fatally wounded, died as comrades took the bridge and completed their mission. Further west, the Americans landed into carnage as their planes, experiencing much heavier flak than first believed, attempted to evade the heavy flak put up by the Germans. The manoeuvres attempted by the allied pilots meant that American paratroopers were being dropped in the wrong places, although this served to help the allies as the German became confused when they began to find soldiers from different units all across the Cotentin Peninsula. Although just like their British counterparts in the East, the Americans captured their objectives and inflicted heavy losses on the Germans, although the paratroopers themselves lost many men in the first few hours of battle, some being shot as they hit the ground, others drowning in fields that had been flooded by the Germans. Many a paratrooper that had gotten tangled in a tree or on a house was bayoneted by German soldiers, but the paratroopers soon found vengeance, eventually earning the nickname ‘Devil’s with baggy trousers’, a reference to the large trousers with huge pockets that the paratroopers wore in order to carry more supplies.

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American Soldiers ready themselves for landing on Omaha Beach

As the sun rose on June 6th 1944, the Germans and other axis troops looked out at sea, and to their horror, saw the vast armada that would be the largest invasion ever in human history. With that came shelling from the allied battleships, smashing to pieces bunkers and gun emplacements. Next came a bombing run from bombers taking off from England, but with the bombers fearing they would hit the troops in the ships, they dropped them too far away from the beaches to cause any damage. Next it was the soldiers turn. The British had engineered swimming tanks so that when the troopers landed on the beaches they would have some cover and fire support. On most beaches this worked very effectively as the tanks took out many of the defences left standing. But at Omaha beach the tanks were sent out far too early and nearly all sunk, leaving the troops alone. When the Americans landed, they were faced with a more or less bare beach for 300 yards (275 metres), after that was a small sand embankment, and then dominating the beaches were huge bluffs with concrete bunkers built into them. As the men poured out of their landing crafts, German fire decimated the ranks of soldiers who had no cover and no option but to continue to run towards the bunkers. The Canadians also faced an incredibly tough time as they advanced, but with outstanding training and determination all allied troopers managed to overcome the Germans on every beach. They next began to move inland to link up with the paratroopers.

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German elite Panzers in Normandy

Many believe that success on D-Day was a forgone conclusion, but it really wasn’t. Any seaborne landing is a gamble, especially as the forces get bigger and bigger. Considering D-Day involved nearly 130,000 – 150,000 men, the stakes were enormous. The weather played a vital part, if the sea had been too rough then no tanks would have gotten ashore, let alone the troopers as they would have struggled out of their ships almost paralysed from sea sickness. Also planes with the paratroopers would not have been able to take off if cloud covered the drop zones making targeting for the pilots impossible. If the paratroopers had failed in their missions when dropped then the Germans could have strengthened their forces and rushed up their panzers, if they had gotten to the beaches, then the landing force would have been decimated. The fact that it succeeded gives credit to the training that all forces received, the intelligence that was gathered and the ingenuity employed by the Allies to overcome the obstacles of a sea-borne invasion.

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Troops move between massive hedgerows that dominated the Norman landscape

Although D-Day was a victory for the Allies, the campaign in Normandy was to be a brutal greeting back into France for the Allies as the Germans fought tenaciously to keep the Allies from breaking out. For nearly two months the Allies fought a horrendous war of attrition against some of the best German units available (The Soviets attempted to claim that they were still fighting the best German units in the East, but this was not true, Hitler firmly believed the war would be decided in the west and had sent the majority of the SS and top panzer divisions to Normandy). But the allies, with the assistance of their power in the air and the quality of the troops and equipment they had, were able to overcome the Germans and drive them out of Western Europe.

Written by Jonny Morris

anastasios pallis

This article is from NYT – go to source