MASSACRE IN THE KHYBER PASS: ELPHINSTONE’S DISASTER!

 

Gandamak standIn 1876, George Armstrong Custer and some 268 some members of the US 7th cavalry were “massacred” in battle against native Lakota and Cheyenne warriors in the valley of the Little Bighorn River. This signal, but ultimately meaningless defeat of a “modern” military force by technologically inferior tribal forces is almost universally known in America; thanks to countless books and not a few films that deal with the subject.

What is almost universally forgotten is the far greater and more politically significant destruction of a much larger British army just 34 years earlier; by Afghan tribesman in the snowbound passes of Eastern Afghanistan.

The First Afghan War (1839-1842) is best understood in context of the so-called “Great Game”: the contest for influence in Central Asia between the Russian Empire and Great Britain….

(To continue, go here)

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SPARTANS: ELITE WARRIORS OF ANCIENT GREECE 6

1 Spartan Warriors - Mantinea

After the humiliation of surrender at Pylos, the Spartans redeem themselves on the battlefield of Mantinea!

Excerpt:  

….Agis, keeping his troops in hand, now wheeled his line hard to the left, cutting down fleeing Argives as they did. A lifetime of military drill and practice now showed its worth; as with machine-like precision the Spartan center and right turned 90 degrees to face the hitherto victorious Argive right wing.

There the Mantineans, Arcadians and the Argive elites were fighting over the Spartan baggage, where they killed many of the older men left as guards. No doubt celebrating what seemed a striking victory, they had no idea their doom was wheeling toward them.

(To read this piece, go here.)

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THE DEVIL’S GUARD: HITLER’S WAFFEN-SS (PART FOUR)

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Few military organizations or formations in history have evoked such fear, loathing, or grudging respect as the Waffen SS! Hitler’s elite private army, their role and history are highly controversial to this very day.

(To read Part Three, go here.)

Following the failure of Operation Zitadelle (The Battle of Kursk) (see Part Three) and the Allied landings in Sicily, the SS Panzer Korps was broken up and reorganized. 1st SS-Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) was sentto northern Italy; where it helped disarm Italian forces that had surrendered upon the fall of Mussolini’s Fascist government. While 3rd SS Totenkopf and the 2nd SS-Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich were sent south to aid 5th SS Panzergrenadier Division Wiking in repelling a Soviet offensive along the Mius River.

Viking had not been part of the SS-Panzer Korps during the Kursk offensive; but instead had waited at Izyum on the Donets River south of Kharkov. There, along with the 23.Panzer-Division, it was to form the reserve force for Manstein’s attacking forces. When several Soviet formations attacked towards Orel and Kharkov simultaneously, SS “Wiking” was committed against the Soviet forces near Kharkov, destroying around 100 Red Army tanks over several days. When Zitadelle was cancelled, the division was remained in the area,  halting Soviet attacks.

Further to the south, however, on the Mius-Front, a major Red Army offensive, Operation Rumyantsev, threatened to break the German lines. 5th SS Wiking was attached to the 2nd SS Panzer Korps, replacing LSSAH, and sent to the Mius-Bogodukhov sector to halt the Soviet attacks. In subsequent fighting, the SS divisions defeated two Soviet tank armies (totaling over 1,000 tanks), destroying over 800 of them. However, the SS formations suffered heavily in the fighting as well; as illustrated by Totenkopf’s  loss of 1,500 soldiers and its Panzer regiment reduced to a mere 20 tanks.

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SS-Unterstrumfuhrer Gerhard Mahn of SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment Germania (5th SS-Panzergrenadier Division Viking) signals to his armored units as they counter attack behind front line troops in south Russia (modern Ukraine)

Between 20 September and 20 of November 1943 the Das Reich and Totenkopf were pulled out of Russia; and conducted operations against Slovene and Croat partisans on the Istrian peninsula and north of Trieste. This operation was necessary to keep open communications with German forces operating in the south against Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia. After this, both were refitted and rested, promoted to the status of full panzer divisions.

In October, SS Viking was again pulled out of the line, and also restructured as a panzer division. To bolster the strength of the division, the Walloon volunteer unit 5th SS-Sturmbrigade “Wallonien” was attached to the division, under the command of Leon Degrelle. (The Walloons were the subject of ridicule by many “Wiking” veterans until they proved their worth in the fighting for a forest near Teklino; thereafter being considered a first-rate fighting formation.)

Following the cancellation by Hitler of the German offensive against the Kursk salient, the Soviets launched massive counterattacks all along the front of Army Group South in the Ukraine. Everywhere the Germans were forced to give ground. Manstein pulled back, and establish a strong, defensible line behind the Dnieper River (the southern part of Hitler’s Panther–Wotan Line) . However, by December 1, 1943 Manstein’s line was broken by continuing Soviet armored offensives; the opening of what became known as the Dnieper–Carpathian Offensive. Soon, Soviet Army had crossed the Dnieper in force.

Because of Hitler’s reluctance to allow a general pull-back from the west-bank of the Dnieper, a German force of 58,000 men, 59 tanks and 242 artillery pieces were trapped by the Soviets in a pocket centered on the town of Korsun. Among the trapped units was 5th SS Viking. In the following Battle of the Korsun–Cherkasy Pocket (24 January 1944 – 16 February 1944), Viking acted as a mobile “fire brigade”; stamping out any Soviet penetrations of the pocket. During this crises, the 1st SS Panzer Division LSSAH returned to Russia to join with 1st Panzer Division as part of the  XLVIII Panzer Corps (under the skilled command of General Hermann Balck) in spearheading the relief of the forces in the pocket; and opening a corridor. During the breakout, Viking sustained serious losses, acting as the German rearguard.

In March 1944 1st SS was moved to France, where it joined old comrades who had been detached from LSSAH to form the cadre of the newly constituted 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend (“Hitler Youth”).

These two “sister divsions, along with the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen, would now form new 1st SS Panzer Korps; under LSSAH’s founding commander, SS-Obergruppenführer Josef “Sepp” Dietrich. This formation would become the elite strike force of Hitler’s army in the last 12 months of the war in Europe.

The idea of forming a Waffen-SS divison comprised of Hitlerjugend members born in 1926 (17 year olds) was a project enthusiastically supported by Adolf Hitler; and the division was officially created on 13 February 1943. While the rank-and-file was drawn from these Nazi “Eagle Scouts”, the NCO and officer cadre was drawn from veterans of LSSAH. Its commander was  SS-Oberführer Fritz Witt; who had served with such distinction in all of LSSAH’s battles to date. He had commanding the 1st SS Panzergrenadier Regiment during the Third Battle of Kharkov (where Witt was awarded the Oakleaves to the Knight’s Cross he’d earned in France during the 1940 campaign); and during the fighting of the Kursk battle. His former commander, Paul Hausser, in his Knight’s Cross citation, described Witt as “the model of the young leader, never retreating in the face of anything”. He was an example of the caliber of officers who had survived the first bloody years of the war to come of age by 1943-44: bold and imaginative in a way few “conventional” officers ever are, but which is the hallmark of “special ops” soldiers the world over.

This leavening of young, near-fanatical Nazi youth with veteran LSSAH leaders created, in very short time, an elite division worthy of fighting beside its parent division.

They would soon be tested, and in the testing nearly perish, in the battle of Normandy in the summer of 1944…

(To continue reading, go here.)

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GREAT CAPTAINS: GEORGE S. PATTON, JR

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This is the second in a series of posts in which the “Great Captains” of military history will be examined. Unusually, this will be in video format; posting compelling biographical material.

The title of Great Captain is awarded to those military commanders who display not just excellence, but a true genius for war. Authors from time-to-time have produced their lists; most notably Theodore Ayrault Dodge, and Basil Liddell Hart. Here, in this series, I will highlight my own pics.

This installment is on one of America’s greatest generals: “Old Blood and Guts”, George Smith Patton, Jr. From the polished black helmet on his head, to the ivory-handled six-shooter on his hip, to the tall riding boots on his feet Patton was the iconic image of the American combat general….

(To continue reading, go here)

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GREAT WARSHIPS OF HISTORY: BYZANTINE FIRE DROMON

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For centuries Byzantium’s seaborne-flank was defended by a fleet of swift galleys; armed with one of history’s greatest secret weapons: Greek Fire!

In 672 three great Muslim fleets were dispatched by the Muslim Caliph, Mu’awiya; to clear the sea lanes and prepare for a Muslim army to besiege the storied capital of the Byzantine Empire: Constantinople. Methodically moving up the Anatolian coast and into the Aegean, they wintered at Smyrna in 673. Entering the Hellespont (Dardanelles) in 674, the Arab armada landed at Cyzicus on the southern shore. A base was established, and from here the Arab fleets attempted to blockade Constantinople and support Arab land arriving opposite the city, after crossing Anatolia…

(To continue reading, go here)

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THE AGE OF ARTHUR: PART ELEVEN

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This is the Eleventh-part of our discussion of Britain in the so-called Age of Arthur: the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. It was the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain; it was the Age of Arthur!

But who was Arthur?

Before we answer that question, it is necessary we understand the world in which he lived.

(Read Part Ten here. Or start from the beginning, with Part One!)

CERDIC THE SAXON

In the last decade of the 5th century, Romano-British civilization was locked in a death-struggle with the Germanic Anglo-Saxon invaders. From the mouth of the Humber to the Channel, all of Eastern Britain was lost to the newcomers. These lands came to be known in later Welsh chronicles and poems as the “Lost Lands of Lloegyr”.

All along an imaginary line that divided the island roughly east from west, Anglo-Saxon warbands probed and raided, and new settlements pushing ever westward. The “debatable lands” between Anglo-Saxon and Briton were in constant flux, but the archeology supports that before 500 AD the Britons were losing ground.

In 495, a momentous event occurred in the history of Britain: According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) entry for that year, “Cerdic landed in Hampshire with his son, Cynic, in three ships.” He arrives along the swampy coastal region near modern Portsmouth, establishing an enclave.

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This was a time when the Saxon’s Angle cousins were establishing enclaves in the northeast, from the Wash to the Highlands. Over the next century these incursions would solidify into the early Angle kingdoms of East Anglia, Deira and Bernicia. To the south, the Jutes under first Hengist and then his son, Oisc (or Æsc) had already created the Kingdom of Ceint (Kent); during their wars against the Britons under Vortigern and Ambrosius Aurelianus in the past generation (see earlier installments of this series). An even more recent and dynamic kingdom, Sussex (South-Saxe) had been created between 477 and 491; by the preeminent Anglo-Saxon warleader on the island, Ælle (see Part Seven).

In 495, there were far greater threats to the free British than these few hundred Saxons establishing an outpost in the swamps at the mouth of the Avon.

However, Cerdic is a significant player in the history of England. His outpost would grow into a bleeding sore in the side of the British kingdom of Dumnonia: the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex! In the next century, Wessex would steadily increase in size and power, devouring Dumnonia; and ultimately the earlier Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Sussex and Kent, as well. In the 9th century Wessex, under its heroic king, Alfred the Great, would become Anglo-Saxon England’s last bastion against Danish conquest of the island.

But that was in the distant future, beyond the vision of any in Arthur’s (or Cerdic’s) own day. Few at the time would have ventured a bet that this “swamp pirate” represented a mortal threat to what was (perhaps) Briton’s strongest kingdom. In the first 20 years of his time in Hampshire, Cerdic was but a nuisance; expanding in the forests and fens along the southern coast, battling occasionally with the local British authorities.

As with most of the key personalities that moved events in this period, little is known of the origins of Cerdic “the Saxon”….

(To continue, go here.)

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MAD KINGS AND MACCABEES: THE FIRST HANUKKAH

Image (5)Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights (also known as the Feast of Dedication) is celebrated with the lighting, over eight days, of the ceremonial menorah: a unique nine-branched candelabrum. The origins of this festival, and the first Hanukkah, are found in the 2nd century BC; when the Jewish people faced and overcame one of the many threats to their cultural and physical existence in their long and storied history.

In 331 BC Alexander the Great marched through Palestine on his way to Egypt; after defeating the Persians at Issus and capturing Phoenician Tyre in the two years previous. A meeting with the Jewish Temple authorities (and even a visit to Jerusalem, complete with sacrifice on the Temple Mount to God) is likely apocryphal. But Judea now became part of the Macedonian Empire. As with most peoples he conquered, Alexander granted the Jews local autonomy, and the right to practice their customs and (most importantly to the Jews) their religion without interference.

However,  following the Wars of the Diadochi that began after Alexander’s untimely death in 323 BC, Judea became a province (“Coele-Syria“) of first the Kingdom of the Ptolemies; and later, after their victory at the Battle of Paneion, the Empire of the Seleucids.

Throughout most of this period of Hellenistic control over Judea, the Jews were left alone to conduct their religious affairs as they wished. However, in 175 BC a new king came to the Seleucid throne; one that would change the relationship between the King and his Jewish subjects, and that between Jews and Hellenism forever. It would lead to a seminal moment in Jewish history, when as a people they stood tall and defended their ancient religion. It would also give the Jews one of their greatest champions: Judah Maccabee, “the Hammer”.

(To continue reading, go here.)

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