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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Rommel's Little Feller's

During the 1941-1942 tug of war for North Africa, the British benefited from radio-intercept-derived Ultra information. Despite that Allied advantage, however, for six months and 11 days the Germans enjoyed an even speedier, more across-the-board intelligence source. It was what Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the legendary Desert Fox, called die gute Quelle (the good source). It also was known as ‘the little fellows’ or ‘the little fellers,’ a play on the name of its unwitting provider, Brevet Colonel Bonner Frank Fellers. Fellers, a 1918 West Point graduate who previously had served in America’s embassy in Madrid, Spain, was the U.S. military attaché in the Egyptian capital of Cairo.

North Africa Campaign

The battle for North Africa was a struggle for control of the Suez Canal and access to oil from the Middle East and raw materials from Asia. Oil in particular had become a critical strategic commodity due to the increased mechanization of modern armies. Britain, which was the first major nation to field a completely mechanized army, was particularly dependent on the Middle Eastern oil. The Suez Canal also provided Britain with a valuable link to her overseas dominions–part of a lifeline that ran through the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, the North African campaign and the naval campaign for the Mediterranean were extensions of each other in a very real sense.

Battling Rommel's Panzers in Normandy's Hedgerows

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was facing one of his greatest battlefield challenges during the first week of July 1944. In spite of a large concentration of German tanks opposite Caen, the Allies continued to expand their Normandy lodgment. Several armored counterattacks against the British Second Army had failed. Worse, the decision to conduct a protracted defense south of Cherbourg also led to defeat. When the full force of the American VII Corps struck the Cotentin Peninsula in mid-June, the Germans were compelled to rapidly retreat and give up the important port city, which surrendered on June 25.

Operation Bragation

Geographically, it dwarfed the campaign for Normandy. In four weeks, it inflicted greater losses on the German army than the Wehrmacht had suffered in five months at Stalingrad. With more than 2.3 million men, six times the artillery and twice the number of tanks that launched the Battle of the Bulge, it was the largest Allied operation of World War II. It demolished three Axis armies and tore open the Eastern Front. Operation Bagration, the Red Army’s spring 1944 blitzkrieg, was designed to support Allied operations in France, liberate Russian territory and break the back of the Wehrmacht once and for all.

Rommel's Defense of Normandy

When World War II ended in Europe in May 1945, most Western military leaders and analysts regarded Erwin Rommel as the war’s greatest German general. But that was not how most German military leaders felt. Instead, in their memoirs they argued that Rommel was at best an adequate tactician and not a bad leader of small units, that he had been an adequate division commander, but his command of corps, army and army groups was often flawed. Rommel, they asserted, had involved himself too much in the day-to-day details of the tactical fight and not enough in the operational and strategic issues that must concern those at the highest levels of command, and he paid too little attention to matters of intelligence and the enemy’s order of battle. Thus, his German critics allege, as the commander of the Afrika Korps, ‘the Desert Fox’ had won some spectacular victories but willfully ignored problems of logistics.

Battle to control Carentan

General Omar Bradley knew he had to have Carentan. The crossroads town of some 4,000 people sat astride the N-13 highway as well as the Cherbourg–Paris railroad, which meant that in June 1944 it was also positioned between the American landing beaches at Utah and Omaha. Taking it, though, would be no simple affair.

Battle of Saipan

In the early morning hours of July 7, 1944, Lieutenant Colonel William J. O’Brien, commander of the 1st Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division, was killed in action at Saipan during a massive Japanese suicide attack. His last words were: ‘Don’t give them a damned inch! It was a gyokusai attack–a suicidal assault ordered by Imperial General Headquarters in which each Japanese soldier on the island was meant to die for the emperor and, in dying, was supposed to kill seven Americans. The Japanese were ordered to take no prisoners.

The gyokusai attack on the Tanapag plain has been described by many historians of World War II as the most devastating attack by the Japanese during the war. For his heroic conduct during that battle, Colonel O’Brien was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. One of his soldiers, Sergeant Thomas A. Baker, who was also killed in the battle, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, as well.