A Short History of the Royal Marines

US:UK EnsignWhat is a Marine?  The short answer would be a specialized member of the armed forces who participates in efforts to project naval power ashore. What makes a Marine stand out from a regular soldier and sets him apart from any other fighting organization isn’t just a matter of how they’re trained, the equipment they use, or their tactical skills.  It is the fighting spirit that lives within each Marine —and this is what drives a Marine to accept nothing less than victory in all lethal situations.  It is the determination to win, the eagerness to fight, and the high standard of excellence they demand of themselves and each other that makes a Marine unique.  Their battle record speaks for itself.

Marines are, by definition, an expeditionary force in readiness who are deployed at a moment’s notice to quickly and aggressively win their nation’s battles.  Marines have a long history of developing expeditionary doctrine and amphibious innovation that sets the standard for all other branches of military service.  In projecting naval power into a hostile environment, Marines rely on their superior training, their self-confidence, their discipline, and each other to win the day.  Toward this end, Marines are trained to improvise, adapt, and overcome every obstacle in whatever situation they encounter.  They are not only willing to engage any enemy force; they are also determined to defeat them until national victory has been achieved.  Marines have but one mission: fight, and win.

Of all Marine organizations that exist in the world today, only two stand out: United States Marines, and their British counterparts—the Royal Marines.

RM 001 BadgeThe story of the Royal Marines began on 28 October 1664 when Great Britain formed the Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot.  It soon became known as the Admiral’s Regiment. The Holland Regiment (later called The Buffs) was also raised to serve at sea on 11 July 1665.  Both regiments were paid for by the Admiralty.  John Churchill, later 1st Duke of Marlborough, was a famous member of The Buffs.  Additionally, a company of foot guards served as Marines to augment the Admiral’s Regiment during the sea battle at Sole Bay in 1672.  The Holland Regiment was disbanded in 1689 after James II was deposed during the so-called Glorious Revolution.

Two maritime regiments of the British Army were raised in 1690 —the Earl of Pembroke’s and Torrington’s Regiments, later designated Lord Berkeley’s Regiment.  These Marines participated in an opposed landing during the Williamite War in Ireland at Cork on 21 September 1690, John Churchill commanding.  The Marine Establishment was reformed in 1698.  Two existing regiments became a single regiment under Thomas Brudenell, and the foot regiments under William Seymour, Edward Dutton Colt, and Harry Mordaunt were converted to Marine regiments —all of which were disbanded in 1699.

In 1702, six regiments of Marines and six Sea Service Regiments of foot were formed to participate in the War of Spanish Succession.  While on land, the Marines served under Brigadier General William Seymour; while at sea, they fell under the authority of the senior naval commander and the captain of the ship to which assigned.  The Admiral’s Regiment first distinguished itself in 1704 when the Marines captured the mole [1] during the assault on Gibraltar.  British and Dutch Marines later defended the fortress from counterattack.  After the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, three Marine regiments were transferred to the army, where they were designated as the 30th, 31st, and 32nd Regiments of Foot.

RM 001A Uniform
Painting of an early maritime officer.

The Admiral’s Regiment was redesignated as His Majesty’s Marine Forces on 5 April 1755; fifty companies were organized into three divisions, placed under the command of the Admiralty, and stationed at Portsmouth, Chatham, and Plymouth.  Note: shown left, a painting of an early Maritime officer.

British Marines were not the first naval infantry to emerge in Europe.  They were preceded by the Spanish Infanteria de Marina (1537), Venice’s Fanti da Mar (1550), the Portuguese Marine Corps (1610), and the French Troupes de Marine (1622).  The British, in turn, established a regiment of (3,000) American Colonial Marines during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, around 1739.

In the early days, all field-grade officers of the Marines were serving officers in the Royal Navy.  Because the Admiralty believed that the top field officer ranks were largely honorary posts (which was also true in the Army), the farthest a field officer could advance was to lieutenant colonel.  It was not until 1771 that the first Marine officer was promoted to colonel, but this situation persisted well into the 1800s.  In any case, British Marines performed numerous amphibious landings throughout most of the 18th Century.  Among the more famous was the landing at Belle Isle [2] in 1761.  British Marines also served during the American War of Independence.  A company of Marines under Major John Pitcairn broke rebel resistance at Bunker Hill and took possession of the American’s redoubt.  When Royal Navy ships were becalmed, Marines often took to ship’s boats to repel attackers during blockade operations.  On the day that Captain James Cook was killed in Hawaii (14 February 1779), he had with him four British Marines: Corporal James Thomas, Private Theophilus Hinks, Private Thomas Fatchett, and Private John Allen.

In May 1787, four companies of Marines under Major Robert Ross accompanied the First Fleet [3] to protect a new colony at Botany Bay (New South Wales).  Due to a gross oversight, the First Fleet departed Portsmouth without its main supply of ammunition, cartridge paper, and flintlock tools.  The oversight was noted early in the voyage and a dispatch sent back to England that the missing supplies be urgently forwarded to the fleet.  Captain William Bligh was assigned this mission while in command of HMS Bounty.  Ten thousand rounds of ammunition were obtained from Rio de Janeiro, but these stores were still inadequate and in time, the Marines would find themselves in difficult circumstances.  A full measure of stores was never sent to the First Fleet.

In total, the Marine contingent of four companies included 212 Marines; of these, 160 privates.  Marine strength was based on the advice of Mr. Joseph Banks, who counselled the British government that local Aborigines were few and retiring by disposition.  Upon their arrival at New South Wales, Captain Arthur Phillip, Royal Navy, found that the natives were populous and aggressive.  Within a year, Aboriginals had killed 6 of the First Fleet and wounded scores of others. Marines were ordered to expand the initial settlement area at Sydney Cove and organize farming operations at Parramatta.  When Aboriginals contracted smallpox, some journalists claimed that the British Marines deliberately spread the disease.  Most modern scholars regard this as uncorroborated bunk, however.

At the instigation of Admiral John Jervis, 1st Earl of St. Vincent in 1802, His Majesty’s Marine Forces were titled Royal Marines by King George III.

Up until 1804, the Royal Artillery Regiment had provided artillery support to the British Marines.  A lawsuit by a Royal Artillery Officer led a civil court to declare that Army officers were not subject to Navy regulations or the orders of Naval officers.  Accordingly, Royal Marine Artillery was added to the Royal Marines in that very same year.  They were referred to as “Blue Marines” because these forces retained the blue coats of the Royal Artillery Regiment.  In contrast, the Royal Marines dressed in scarlet coats (as did the British Army).  They were called “Red Marines” or, more derisively, Lobster backs by the unenlightened naval ranks.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Royal Marines took part in every notable naval battle on board Royal Navy ships, executed amphibious raids, provided security aboard ship, maintained discipline among the crew, engaged enemy crews with long rifles, and led boarding parties.

The number of Marines assigned to Royal Navy ships depended on the size of the ship, but Marine strength was usually maintained at a ratio of one Marine per ship’s gun, plus officers commanding.  A “first rate ship of the line” would have a compliment of 104 Marines; a 28-gun frigate would have 29 Marines.  Between 1807 and 1814, a total of 31,400 men served in the Royal Marines but given the size of the Royal Navy during this period, and the missions assigned to the Royal Navy, British Army detachments frequently served aboard Navy ships to augment the Royal Marines.  Seaborne operations frequently included blockading French ports and conducting amphibious raids against French signal communications stations and other operations designed to harass the enemy.

In the Caribbean, freed French slave volunteers formed the 1st Corps of Colonial Marines to help bolster the ranks of Royal Marines.  This practice was repeated during the War of 1812, when escaped American slaves were formed into the 2nd Corps of Colonial Marines.  These men were commanded by Royal Marine officers and fought alongside their regular Marine counterparts at the Battle of Bladensburg (August 1814).  During this battle, a detachment of Royal Marine Artillery under Lieutenant John Lawrence deployed Congreve rockets [4] with telling effect against American militia.  A battalion of Royal Marines augmented the 21st Regiment of Foot during the burning of Washington.  They did not torch the U. S. Marine Corps Barracks at 8th & I Streets, however.

During the War of 1812, Royal Marines frequently operated in the Chesapeake Bay, including operations up the Penobscot River.  This was a composite battalion, formed from several ship’s detachments, serving under Captain John Robyns [5].  A smaller organization of Royal Marines, numbering around 100 troops, served under captains John T. Wilson and John Alexander Phillips that augmented the British Army force of 700 men under Major Thomas Adair, who successfully led an attack against the west bank of the Mississippi River.  This was Britain’s only success at New Orleans.  These same Marines later helped to capture Fort Bowyer in Mobile Bay —the last action of the War of 1812.

In 1855, the Royal Marines were renamed the Royal Marines Light Infantry (RMLI).  A slight modification to this designation was affected in 1862: Royal Marine Light Infantry.  After 1850, the Royal Navy saw limited service at sea until 1914.  During this time, Naval planners became more interested in the concept of Naval Brigades, which is to say Royal Marines, augmented by artillery, who would make amphibious landings ahead of naval infantry and conduct skirmishes —a traditional function of light infantry.  For most of their history, the Royal Marines have functioned as fusiliers (riflemen).  In this capacity, they served with distinction during the First and Second Opium Wars (1839-1860) in China.  Every engagement in China was successful save one: when British Admiral Sir James Hope ordered the Marines to make a landing across a wide expanse of mud flats.  I will forego any comment about Admiral Hope’s leadership ability.

RM 002 Boxer Rebellion
Royal Marines during the Boxer Rebellion

Royal Marines, along with their American counterparts, played a prominent role during the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900.  See also: Send in the Marines!

Pursuing a career in the Royal Marines was considered “social suicide” through much of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Royal Marines had a lower standing than their counterparts in the Royal Navy [6].  In 1907, the British government reduced professional differences between the Royal Navy and Royal Marines.  In time, the Royal Marines were elevated to a position of respect within the British forces, although sharing a pint of ale with British Army veterans, one might come away with an entirely different point of view.  What British soldiers have never understood, however, is that ARMY stands for “Aren’t Ready to be Marines Yet.”

During the first part of the 20th century, the role of the Royal Marines remained traditional, that is, providing shipboard infantry for security, boarding parties, and amphibious raids.  The Marines’ other traditional role while aboard Royal Navy ships was manning gun turrets on battleships or cruisers.

During World War I, Royal Marines landed with the Royal Navy Division in Belgium in 1914 to defend Antwerp.  They later participated in the amphibious landings at Gallipoli in 1915 and conducted the Zeebrugge Raid in 1918.  After this “war to end all wars,” Royal Marines took part in the allied intervention in post-Revolutionary Russia.  In 1919, the 6th Battalion mutinied and was disbanded in disgrace.

RM 002In 1922, during post-war demobilization, the Royal Marines were reduced from a strength of 55,000 to around 15,000.  To further reduce the costs of maintaining this force in readiness, Royal Marine Artillery (RMA) and Light Infantry units were consolidated in June 1923.  Even so, tremendous political pressure was applied to disbanding the Royal Marines altogether.  As a compromise, opposing politicians agreed to a Royal Marine organization of 9,500 troops.  To accomplish this, the RMA was deactivated; henceforth, the title Royal Marine would apply to the entire Corps.  Artillery organizations would be part of the force structure, but on a much smaller scale.  After consolidation, the Royal Marine full-dress uniform became dark blue and red; Royal Marine officers and SNCOs continue to wear scarlet uniforms as part of their mess dress kit.  The rank structure was also modified.  The private of infantry and gunner of artillery were replaced by the rank of Marine.

In World War II, Royal Marine shipboard detachments continued to make amphibious raids with limited objectives, such as accepting the surrender of French Axis forces.  Initially, Royal Marine infantry units were organized as Mobile Naval Base Defense Organizations (which were similar to U. S. Marine Corps’ Advanced Base Defense Battalion).  The MNBDO’s took part in the defense of Crete, Malaya, and Singapore.

RM 004 WW IIIn 1942, Royal Marine infantry battalions were reorganized as commando units.  The Division command structure became a Special Service Brigade command.  In total, four Special Service (Commando) Brigades were raised during World War II.  Nine RMC battalions were created, numbered from 40 Commando to 48 Commando.  Brigades were task organized, which means that Royal Marine commando organizational structure depended on their assigned mission.  In the early years, British Army units served alongside the Marines within Commando Brigades.  Support troops served as landing craft crew and saw extensive action on D-Day in June 1944.  In January 1945, an additional two RM brigades were formed, both organized as conventional infantry.  Of these, only one saw any action during World War II.

Several Royal Marine officers served as pilots during the World War II, one of these leading the air attack that sank the German warship Konigsberg.  Eighteen RMOs commanded fleet air squadrons, and after the formation of the British Pacific Fleet, Royal Marine aviation assets were well-represented in final operations against Japan.  Squadron commanders were usually captains and majors.  Lieutenant Colonel R. C. Hay commanded an air group on board HMS Indefatigable.  Meanwhile, Royal Marine detachments continued to serve aboard Royal Navy cruisers and battleships.

During World War II, the Victoria Cross [7] was awarded to only one Marine: Acting Corporal Thomas P. Hunter, aged 21 years, of 43 Commando, during combat operations at Lake Comacchio, Italy.  On 2 April 1945, Hunter commanded a Bren gun (light machine gun) section.

RM 004 T P Hunter
Corporal Thomas Peck Hunter, RM

According to the citation for this award, 43 Commando was advancing to its final objective and was within 400 yards of an east-west canal.  Corporal Hunter observed that the enemy was entrenched around a group of houses south of the canal and realized that his troops, who were following in trace of his advance, would soon be exposed to enemy fire in an area devoid of cover or concealment.  Seizing his light machine gun, Hunter charged alone across two hundred yards of open ground.  The Germans engaged Hunter with no fewer than nine automatic weapons.  Attracting enemy fire away from his men, and demonstrating a complete disregard for his own safety, Corporal Hunter assaulted the German position while firing from the hip, changing magazines as he ran, killing several of the enemy and clearing houses of all enemy troops.  Six German soldiers surrendered to him, while the remaining enemy fled across a footbridge to the north bank of the canal.  Taking a position atop of pile of rubble, Corporal Hunter engaged the enemy’s new positions with deadly accurate fire while encouraging his men to take up secure positions within the cluster of houses.  It was then that Corporal Hunter received the bulk of enemy’s fire and he was killed.  Corporal Hunter is remembered at ten separate locations throughout the United Kingdom.

In 1946, British Army Commandos were disbanded, leaving the Royal Marines to continue the commando role (with supporting army elements).

Drysdale 002
LtCol Douglas B. Drysdale, RM

At the outset of the Korean War, 41 Commando was reformed for service with the United States Navy.  After the landing of the X Corps at Wonsan, 41 Commando joined the 1st U. S. Marine Division.  41 Commando formed the nucleus of Task Force Drysdale under Lieutenant Colonel Douglas B. Drysdale, Royal Marines, with one US Marine Corps rifle company and one US Army rifle company, and attachments of rolling stock and fought their way from Koto-ri to Hagaru-ri after the Chinese erected blockades along the north road.  It then took part in the epic Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.  41 Commando subsequently implemented several raids against Communist Chinese forces.  The Royal Marines were withdrawn from the Korean conflict in 1951.  For its service in the Korean War, 41 Commando was awarded the United States Presidential Unit Citation and Colonel Drysdale received the Silver Star Medal for valor.

Between 1948 and 1960, elements of the Royal Marines participated at various times and places in the Malayan Emergency [8].  In 1955, 45 Commando was dispatched to Cyprus to undertake anti-terrorist operations against Greek Cypriot insurgents.  In 1956, 3 Commando Brigade with 40, 42, and 45 Royal Commando took part in the Suez Crisis. This event marked the first time the Royal Marines employed helicopters in vertical assault operations.  British and French forces ultimately defeated the Egyptians, but US diplomatic activities helped to defuse the crisis.  40 and 41 Commando were sent to Borneo at various times to help defuse tensions between Indonesian-Malayan belligerents.  In January 1964, elements of the Tanzanian Army mutinied.  The United Kingdom responded by dispatching 41 Commando from Devon and landing Royal Marine elements from HMS Bulwark.  The Tanzanian revolt was put down rather quickly, but it took another six months to disarm rebel elements of the Tanzanian military.

Royal Marine units regularly deployed to Northern Ireland to help contain that conflict.  Referred to as “the Troubles,” the Northern Ireland conflict lasted from 1969 through 1998.  In total, 24 Royal Marines died as a result of protestant snipers and bombers.

Between 1974 and 1984, the Royal Marines undertook three United Nations peacekeeping tours of duty in Cyprus.  The first was operation took place after the Turkish invasion in November 1974.  41 Commando took over responsibility for the Limassol District from the 2nd Battalion Guard’s Brigade.  41 Commando was the first Royal Marine unit to wear the light blue beret of the United Nations Command.

RM 003 Falklands
The Battle for Stanley

When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982, the United Kingdom dispatched a task force to recapture them, which given the necessity for an amphibious assault, included the Royal Marine Commando.  British troops landed at San Carlos Water on East Falkland and moved across the entire island to the capital city of Stanley.  In Royal Marine parlance, the troops “yomped” across the Falklands, which means a long-distance force march in full kit.  Stanley fell to the Brits on 14 June 1982.  Major General Jeremy Moore, Royal Marines, commanded the land forces in the Falklands Conflict.

During the 1991 Gulf War, 24 Marines from Kilo Company, 41 Commando served as six-man raiding teams aboard Royal Navy destroyers and frigates.  They were mainly used as ship boarding parties.  Elements of 3 Commando Brigade were deployed to provide aid and protection to Iraqi Kurds in Northern Iraq as part of Operation Safe Haven.

RM 007
Royal Marine Commando, Helmand Province

After the turn of the century, Royal Marines began converting from their light-infantry role towards an expanded force-protection role.  The British refer to this reorganization as Commando-21: the establishment of two battalion-sized commando units (which included 40 Commando and 45 Commando.  Each organization consists of six company sized units, and these organized into “troops,” (platoons).  The change has given the Royal Marines more firepower, greater mobility, better access to intelligence, and more operational flexibility.  The size of each commando is roughly 692 of all ranks.  41 Commando has taken on a specialized maritime mission since 2017 under the auspices of 3 Commando Brigade.

Now approaching the end of the second decade of the 21st Century, Royal Marines and their American counterparts have never been closer.  They share a tradition, a similar mission, and the title Marine goes a very long way in defining who they are.  To cement this tie, British flight officers have begun training alongside Marine Corps aviators; US Marine officers serve in exchange billets in the United Kingdom, and lately, junior Royal Marine officers (three so far) have begun serving 18-month tours within US Marine Corps ground units.  US Marine Corps lieutenants have not yet started serving in similar capacities in the United Kingdom, but it is likely that this will happen in the future.

Sources:

  1. Ballantyne, I. Strike from the Sea.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2004
  2. Chappell, M. Wellington’s Peninsula Regiments.  Oxford: The Oxford Press, 2004
  3. Moore, J. The First Fleet Marines.  Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1989
  4. Mountbatten, L. Combined Operations: The Official Story of the Commando.  New York: Macmillan Company, 1943
  5. Poyntz, W. H. Per Mare, Per Terram: Reminiscences of Thirty-two Years’ Military, Naval, and Constabulary Service.  London: Print & Publishing Company, 1892
  6. Thompson, J. The Royal Marines, from Sea Soldiers to a Special Force.  London: Pan Books, 2001

Endnotes:

[1] A mole is a massive stone structure constructed to serve as a pier, a breakwater, or causeway between bodies of water.

[2] The operation at Belle Isle was an amphibious expedition intended to capture the French island off the Brittany coast during the Seven Years’ War.  The initial attack was repulsed, but a second landing forced a beach head.  After a siege of six weeks, the French surrendered (as they almost always do) and this gave the British total control of the island.  Belle Isle was returned to French authority after the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

[3] The First Fleet consisted of eleven ships that departed from Portsmouth, England on 13 May to establish a penal colony that became the first European settlement in Australia.  The fleet involved two Royal Navy vessels, three store ships, and six convict transports carrying between 1,000 to 1,500 convicts, Marines, seamen, civil officers, and free people.  From England, the fleet sailed to Rio de Janeiro, east to Cape Town and then to Botany Bay … arriving between 18 to 20 January 1788.

[4] The Congreve rocket was designed and developed by Sir William Congreve in 1804; it was an adaptation of the Mysorean rockets used against the British in India.  By 1813, there were three classes of Congreve rockets: heavy, medium, and light.  Heavy rockets consisted of between 100 and 300 pounds but were generally regarded as too cumbersome to use in the field.  Medium rockets were between 24 and 42 pounds, and from two to four feet in length.  Light rockets were between 6 and 18 pounds and from 16 to 25 inches in length.  Medium and light rockets could be case shot, shell, or explosive.

[5] Major General John Robyns, Royal Marines, (1780-1857) served with distinction during the Napoleonic Wars, including Martinique, and the War of 1812.  In America, Robyn faced off against the U. S. Marines at Bladensburg, Washington, Baltimore, and New Orleans.

[6] This was true in the United States, as well.  My grandmother was devastated when I joined the U. S. Marine Corps in 1962.  Every member of my family up until then had served in the Army.  It wasn’t until 1965 when my uncle (my grandmother’s son, a career army NCO) was able to convince her that the Marines was the right choice for me.  I was, at the time, a very proud and somewhat cocky corporal of Marines.  By the time I received my commission in 1975, Grandmother had fully embraced my service and bragged to her few remaining friends that her grandson was a United States Marine.

[7] The Victoria Cross is the United Kingdom’s highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.

[8] Following World War II, British authorities attempted to form the Malayan Union.  Their goal was to create a state wherein all citizens (Malay, Chinese, and Indian) would have equal stature, but many ethnic Malayans, along with regional rulers, rejected this scheme.  Armed insurgency first occurred on 16 June 1948 when three of four targeted plantation managers were assassinated.  The ensuring guerrilla war involved pro-communist, anti-British forces who engaged in terror tactics like those employed by the Viet Cong during the Viet Nam War.  Nearly 12,000 people lost their lives in this 12-year conflict.

Vietnam Counterinsurgency

Phoenix 001Designed by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Phoenix program evolved into a cooperative effort between US, South Vietnam, and the Australian military.  It was designed to identify and destroy Communist Viet Cong infrastructure through infiltration, capture, interrogation, and assassination.  This all may sound hideous now, but in the late 1950s and the next ten years, some of the worst abominations were committed against innocent peasants by the Viet Cong.  To stabilize the South Vietnamese government, it was necessary to find out who these people were, and deal with them.

This is precisely what the Phoenix program did.  By 1972, Phoenix operatives had neutralized a bit under 82,000 suspected Viet Cong operatives, informants, and shadow-government cadres.  Sounds bad, I suppose.  Yet, at the same time, Viet Cong murdered 34,000 South Vietnamese village officials, innocent by-standers, and district or provincial civil servants.  As soon as the NVA and VC units had seized Hue City in 1968, they immediately began rounding up and killing civil servants, priests, teachers, any foreigner they could find, and anyone found at the US Special Forces compound.

History doesn’t change, only man’s perceptions of it.  Those who have never placed themselves in harm’s way are quick to criticize the program’s methods and results, never thinking what a blight upon humanity the Viet Cong were.  And by the way, I was in Vietnam in 2012; the deportment of Vietnamese uniformed personnel toward any and all foreigners hasn’t changed from the days when NVA and VC contemptuously beheaded fallen soldiers and marines.  The communists were then, and remain now, pure evil.

The main players in the Phoenix program were the CIA (in a supervisory role), USMACV (both military and civilian agencies), the government of South Vietnam, and the Australian special forces.  Speaking of this today, there appears three points of view: (1) Phoenix was a low-cost, well-coordinated, targeted effort to eliminate a ruthlessly vile enemy; (2) It was a counterinsurgency program run amok, and (3) A balanced analysis of historical fact.

Let’s take a look at it—because there are consequences to every human decision.  In history, we sometimes refer to these decisions and their resulting actions as “causes and effects.”  There may be one or more causes of an event, and these may produce any number of effects. Whenever we make important decisions, we hope (and sometimes pray) that there are no unintended consequences.  It does happen—and while there is not a lot we can do once Pandora’s box is opened, we should at least learn important lessons from our foopahs.

Background

A sense of nationalism (national and cultural unity) began in Vietnam around 3,000 years ago—at a time when the Vietnamese lived in two independent kingdoms.  Since then, the Vietnamese have constantly rejected (often through war) foreign meddling by the Chinese, Champs, Khmers, Siamese, French (twice), Japanese, internal civil strife, and then finally, the Americans.

Before World War II, Vietnam was colonized and brutalized by France.  By the time the Japanese enveloped Indochina, France was an ally of Japan and Germany.  Throughout Japanese occupation, an official French presence remained in Hanoi (even if it was ignored by the Japanese).  In September 1945, the Japanese Empire was defeated.  France quickly moved to recover its former colony. Vietnamese Nationalists had a different preference.

One of these nationalists was a communist named Ho Chi Minh (not his real name).  He wasted no time announcing the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.  It was a short-lived republic, however.  Nationalist Chinese and British occupation forces sided with the anti-communist Vietnamese who, having had enough slavery under French colonialism, rejected slavery under a communist regime.  Anti-communist Vietnamese were well-aware of what Stalin did to the Russian people between 1924 and 1945.

Vietnam held its first national assembly election in 1946.  Central and northern Vietnamese favored the communist ticket [1], those living in the south —not so much.  Then, France attempted to reclaim its previous authority by force —an unpopular move among many (but not all) Vietnamese.  It was the beginning of the First Indochina War and it lasted until 1953.

After the French defeat in 1953, the United States stepped in to help broker an agreement that would bring peace to the region.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions.  The 1954 Geneva Conference left Vietnam a divided nation.  Ho Chi Minh ruled the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north from Hanoi, and Ngo Dinh Diem ruled the Republic of Vietnam in the south from Saigon.

Between 1953 and 1956, North Vietnam instituted oppressive reforms.  Witness testimony from those living in the north suggested a government run assassination campaign that produced a murder ratio of one for every 160 residents.  If true, then the North Vietnamese regime murdered upwards of 100,000 people.  Today we think this number is a bit high, but it is true that an awful lot of people were brutalized and murdered.

As Ho Chi Minh crushed his people in the north, Ngo Dinh Diem crushed his people living in the south, carrying out murderous campaigns against political and religious opponents.

Today we can conclude that America’s involvement in South Vietnamese affairs was a massive mistake, but we should remember that there were other things going on in the world. President Truman had a lot of irons in the fire after 1946, and he wasn’t all that bright to begin with. The United States became involved with Vietnam as a consequence of its trying to convince France to relinquish its former colonies and to join an emerging NATO alliance.  Ultimately, tens of millions of American tax dollars went to French Indochina and then later, to the newly created Republic of Vietnam.  It was a commitment inherited by President Eisenhower who, to his credit, refused to engage the United States militarily beyond providing arms, equipment, and a small cadre of military and civil advisors.

The Second Indochina War broke out in 1954.  It was more on the order of a civil war between the communist north and the non-communist south.  Ho Chi Minh sought to unify Vietnam under his rule.  Ngo Dinh Diem sought to unite Vietnam under his rule [2].  Vietnam entered into a period of bloody civil war and the United States became South Vietnam’s proxy much in the same way that China became North Vietnam’s source of support.  Of course, there was one difference between the two Vietnam’s: Diem focused on consolidating his power in the south; Ho Chi Minh’s ruthlessness between 1946 and 1957 solved his problem.  Not having a lot of people nipping at his heals allowed Uncle Ho to initiate a communist insurgency in the south.  There are several names for these insurgents.  We mostly remember them as Viet Cong.

The Viet Cong Insurgency

Recall that most Vietnamese from the central highlands who participated in the first national assembly (1946) threw their support behind the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (the communist regime). According to the 1954 Geneva accord, the people of Vietnam could relocate to one country or the other, of their choosing, through 1956.  In the mean, the shift in populations north or south was probably even.  Around 90,000 pro-communist Vietnamese relocated to the north; 10,000 of like persuasion remained behind.  Of those migrating south, some percentage were no doubt sent into the south to agitate.

From these pro-communist factions came the Viet Cong, or more formerly, the National Liberation Front and the People’s Liberation Army.  Their task of creating an insurgency was made easier by the fact that Diem was a tyrant [3].  It wasn’t long before the communists began a campaign of assassination and intimidation. They called it “exterminating traitors.” Another euphemism was “armed propaganda.”

The North Vietnamese Communist Party approved a people’s war on the South in January 1959.  Arms began flowing into the south along the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos.  A communist command center was created, called the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN).  Afterwards, with increasing frequency, communist insurgents began targeting US military and civilian advisors.  Bombings in Saigon were becoming more frequent.

The People’s War was waged primarily in the rural areas, home to a vast majority of South Vietnam’s (then) 16 million inhabitants.  Central to the task of fomenting rebellion and revolution in the countryside was what the Americans called the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) —a shadow government called the People’s Revolutionary Party and the National Liberation Front. NLF subcommittees existed in secret alongside South Vietnam’s political entities at the village, district, provincial and national levels.  A key mission of VCI was providing support to local communist military units: recruitment, intelligence-gathering, logistics support, and obtaining needed funds.  To achieve this last task, the VCI imposed taxes on peasant farmers and business owners.  People who refused to pay (or were unable to pay) simply disappeared. It was quite an operation: the Republic of South Vietnam governed during the day, the VCI governed at night.

VCI success depended in large measure on its ability to break the Vietnamese peasant’s strong kinship, adherence to tradition, including literally thousands of demonstrations where the village head man was humiliated in front of his villagers to emphasize the fact that the National Liberation Front would no longer tolerate adherence to the old ways.  Officials disappeared with amazing regularity.

In 1967, VCI teams numbered as many as 100,000 willing insurgents.  Most of South Vietnam’s efforts and resources, and those of the US military, went toward combating guerrillas and main-force units.  Citizen Nguyen was caught in the middle. Something had to be done.

Counter-insurgency

US and allied efforts haven’t all been 007ish.  Beginning in the early 1960s, and with the assistance of the USA, RVN launched a series of programs to identify, disrupt, and dismantle the VC’s shadow-government. Now anyone who suggests that this was a wrong move, or inappropriate, needs a few reality checks.  I wonder what the United States would do today if suddenly an insurgency developed from within our largest (and most dangerous) cities. Slap on the wrist, perhaps?  And, as they tried to destroy the VC shadow government, they stepped up military operations against VC and NVA units. Again, how would the US react to Mexico smuggling dangerous weapons across our border and putting them into the hands of MS-13 thugs?

Here are a few of the programs implemented under the Phoenix umbrella:

(1) The Open Arms program, beginning in 1963.  It offered amnesty and resettlement to encourage defections from the VC.  Through this one program, close to 200,000 people came in and spilled their guts about the VC: who, what, where, and how.  We already knew the why.

(2) Census Grievance Program sought to interview family members to see how the government could be more responsive to the needs of average families. Actually, the questions were asked in such a way as to elicit information about VC activities in that locality.  This ploy generated more information than RVN officials could manage.  It was the time before computers.

(3) Counter-Terror Teams attempted to mirror the VC counterparts.  These individuals were organized, trained, and equipped by the CIA to perform small-unit operations within VC dominated areas.  The teams were to capture or kill members of the VCI.  Success was personality driven.  Some teams were effective, others not so much.  If one looks hard enough, it was possible to find corruption at every level of Vietnamese government and society.  It was true in 1960, its’ true today.  A lot of people died under the auspices of this program.  If someone made a mistake, well … you can’t bring them back.

As previously mentioned, the program was the brainchild the CIA, but Army Special Forces and other snake eaters loved it.  It was great fun.  Thousands of people running around killing other thousands.  But while it did reduce the number of VC (and some of the RVNs as well), it really didn’t do much for the rice farmer who just wanted everyone to leave him alone.  More to the point, Phoenix didn’t save South Vietnam, either.

The Marine Corps had a better idea —one that General Westmoreland, the MACV commander absolutely detested and fought against.  The Combined Action Program (CAP) began in 1965 as an operational initiative/counterinsurgency program whereby a Marine rifle squad of thirteen Marines and one attached U. S. Navy Corpsman was placed within or adjacent to a rural Vietnamese village or hamlet to provide security to the villagers.  The Marine squad was augmented by a Vietnamese Popular Forces (PF) squad consisting mostly of individuals too young or too old for active service with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

CAP was not a perfect counterinsurgency tool, however; there were problems:

  • Training for Marines/Navy personnel assigned to CAP was inadequate. The in-country school consisted of two weeks of orientation to Vietnamese history and culture.  Under the best of circumstances, Marine volunteers spoke only rudimentary Vietnamese, so at the very outset, there was a language deficiency.
  • Marines assigned to the CAP first served half of their 13-month in-country tour of duty with a regular rifle company. Unless these Marines “extended” their tours of duty in Vietnam, they would rotate back to the United States within six or so months.  Frequent turnovers of key personnel resulted in a lack of continuity.
  • The program was personality dependent. Squad leaders who were fully engaged and proactive in this mission helped to produce quality results within the village.  Not every NCO was detail oriented, and these kinds of situations produced villagers who would not cooperate with the Marines and, in fact, may have created the greatest danger to CAP personnel.
  • Not every village could produce a sufficient number of Vietnamese to serve in a PF contingent. Whenever villages communicated apathy to the Marines, too often the Marines developed a “to hell with it” mindset.  It was for this reason that program managers wanted only the best sergeants to serve as NCOIC of the CAP.  This didn’t always happen, however.

The genesis of the Combined Action Program/Platoon was the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual (1940), which was developed over many years from Marine Corps experience in the Caribbean/Central America during the so-called Banana Wars.  Between 1915-1933, Marines learned how to defeat a counterinsurgency —they passed these lesson on to future generations.  Was the CAP successful?  The answer is “mostly,” but the only people who can authoritatively answer this question are those who served in Combined Action Platoons.  I’ve provided a few posts about the CAP in the past:

Go ahead and check them out. I’ll be here if you have any questions.

Sources:

  1. Combined Action Platoons: A Possible Role in the Low-Intensity Conflict Environment, Major Charles W. Driest, USMC, School of Advanced Military Studies, U. S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1990
  2. The Phoenix Program and Contemporary Counterinsurgency, William Rosenau and Austin Long, National Defense Research Institute, The RAND Corporation, 2009

Endnotes:

[1] Communist agents employed a wide range of strategies to secure a pro-communist referendum, including the murder of non-communist politicians and intimidation at polling stations.

[2] Lyndon Johnson told the American people that it was necessary to commit US forces in defense of South Vietnam.  It was only partially true.  The series of South Vietnamese presidents following (but also including) Diem had every intention to unify the country under his own flag.  American troops were fighting and dying in Vietnam in furtherance of this goal.

[3] Ngo Dinh Diem had unique problems in the south.  Culturally, they were fiercely independent and wanted to stay that way.  In the vacuum of repatriated Japanese, war lords began taking control of large areas of South Vietnam.  Diem acted harshly to squash these gangsters.  Ho Chi Minh never had these kinds of problems.  The people of North Vietnam were used to doing what they were told.

The Samoan Crisis of 1899

Samoa consists of two main islands and four smaller islands.  Human beings have inhabited these islands for around 3,500 years. The Samoan people have their own unique language and their own cultural identity.  Owing to the seafaring skills of the Samoan people, early European explorers began to refer to these islands as the “Navigator Islands.”

Contact with Europeans began in the early 18thCentury.  Dutch captain Jacob Roggeveen first sighted the islands in 1722.  He was followed by the French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville in 1768.  European contact was limited before 1830, but in that year British missionaries and traders began to arrive, led by John Williams (London Missionary Society) who traveled there from the Cook Islands.  Robert Louis Stevenson lived in Samoa from 1889 to 1894.

Of all the European explorers, Germany alone demonstrated a keen interest in the commercial development of the Samoan Islands, particularly in the processing of copra and cocoa beans on the island of Upolu.  The United States also had an interest in Samoa, particularly in the establishment of a coaling station at Pago Pago Bay.  To this end, the Americans forced alliances on the islands of Tutuila and Manu’a, which later became American Samoa.  Not to be undone, the British sent troops to protect their business interests, harbor rights, and consulate offices.  During an eight-year civil war, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States provided arms, training, and in some instances, combat troops to the warring Samoan natives.  The Samoan Crisis came to a head in 1889 when all three colonial competitors sent warships into Apia harbor; a larger war seemed imminent until a massive typhoon destroyed the warships in the harbor.

A second civil war came in March 1898 when Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States were locked in dispute over which of these should control the Samoan Islands.  The first battle involved British and American forces seeking to prevent a rebel takeover of the city of Apia.  When rebel forces (urged-on by the Germans) launched their attack, Anglo-American forces responded by directing naval gunfire against rebel positions surrounding Apia, which ultimately forced the rebels to retreat to the stronghold of the Vailele plantation.

American and British naval forces included cruisers USS Philadelphia, HMS Tauranga, HMS Porpoise and the corvette HMS Royalist.  On 1 April, Philadelphia, Tauranga, Porpoise and Royalist landed an expedition totaling 26 Royal and American Marines, 88 Royal and US sailors, and 136 Samoans for an attack on the landward side of Vailele.  Royalist was sent ahead to bombard the two fortifications guarding the Vailele plantation.  As the landing force moved inland, it no longer enjoyed the protection of naval gunfire. Upon their approach to Vailele, British and American troops were overwhelmed by rebel forces.  It was a defeat for the British and Americans, but three of America’s combatants are of particular interest.

Monaghan J 001U. S. Navy Ensign John R. Monaghan was born in Chewelah, Washington on 26 March 1873.  He was in the first graduating class of Gonzaga University and later graduated from the United States Naval Academy in June 1895. After graduation, he served as a midshipman aboard USS Olympia (flagship of the US Asiatic Station) where he was commissioned an ensign in 1897.  Monaghan was later transferred for duty aboard the monitor Monadnock and the gunboat USS Alert.  During the Spanish-American War, Ensign Monaghan was transferred to USS Philadelphia, flagship of the Pacific Station [1].

Lansdale PVH 001Lieutenant Philip Van Horne Lansdale was born in Washington, D. C., on 15 February 1858. He was commissioned an ensign on 1 June 1881 and subsequently served on Asiatic, North Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Pacific Stations.  Promoted to lieutenant in 1893, he became the executive officer (second in command) of Philadelphia on 9 July 1898.  After participating in the ceremonies which transferred sovereignty of the Hawaiian Islands to the United States, Philadelphia was dispatched to Samoa, arriving off Apia on 6 March 1899.  Lansdale was the officer commanding the landing force on 1 April 1899.

Hulbert JL 001Private Henry Lewis Hulbert was born in Kingston Upon Hull, East Yorkshire, England on 12 January 1867.  He was raised in a cultured home environment, he was well-educated, and he was adventurous. He entered the British Colonial Civil Service and was posted to Malaya.  While there, he married Anne Rose Hewitt, but it was a nasty marriage and one that ended in a publicly visible, very embarrassing scandal.  Hulbert left Malaya and traveled directly to the United States.  At the age of 31-years, Hulbert joined the U. S. Marine Corps on 28 March 1898.  After completing his initial training at Mare Island, California, he was assigned to the Marine contingent aboard Philadelphia.  Private Hulbert was one of the 200-man landing force on 1 April 1899.

Philadelphia arrived at Apia, which was the main port on the island of Upolu (largest of a group of six islands) on 8 March 1899, and the center of the Samoan disturbance.  A conference was held at once between British and American naval commanders, their respective consuls, and local government officials.  They were looking for ways to preserve the peace.  German interests were not represented at this meeting owing to the fact that the Germans were behind the rebellion.  On 11 March, Rear Admiral Kautz, having assumed responsibility for joint operations, issued a proclamation addressed to the Samoan high chiefs and residents of the island, both native and foreign.  In general, he called for all concerned to return to their homes and obey the laws of Samoa.  Every effort was made to influential citizens to prevail upon warring factions to obey the proclamation and to recognize the authority of the Chief Justice of Samoa.

It was on 13 March 1899 at about ten o’clock p.m. that the rebel leader answered the proclamation by attacking Apia and concentrating their fire upon British and American consulates and at Mulinu’u Point, where women and children had taken refuge.  Within moments, US Marines and blue jackets went over the side and headed for Mulinu’u Point to protect the defenseless women. A series of well-aimed volleys dispersed the rebels at that location, but the Americans received sniper fire throughout the night.

Over the next several days, US and British forces constructed trenches and breastworks extending along the outskirts of Apia; nights were occupied fighting off rebel forays attempting to discover weak areas along the defensive perimeter.

On 31 March, Lieutenant C. M. Perkins, Commanding Officer of the Marine Detachment, USS Philadelphia, led a reconnaissance force consisting of sixteen riflemen and a machinegun crew into the jungle outside Apia.  Perkins encountered a vastly superior force of rebels, forcing him to withdraw back to the edge of town, to the American Consulate.

Rear Admiral Kautz ordered that a larger landing force be organized for the next day.  Commanding the landing force was Lieutenant Freeman, Royal Navy. The Americans would serve under Lieutenant Philip Lansdale, who was assisted by Lieutenant C. M. Perkins and Ensign John Monaghan.  Accompanying the combined force were an additional 136 natives, indifferently armed, poorly disciplined, with some of these men suspected rebel sympathizers.  British and American forces did not trust them and established a “color line” across which no Samoan could be allowed to cross.

On 1 April, the expedition had only just crossed the point at which the previous day’s battle had taken place when they were engaged by an estimated 1,200 rebels who had concealed themselves in the thick forest.  Lieutenant Freeman was almost immediately killed; shortly afterwards, Lieutenant Lansdale was shot in the leg, rendering him unable to walk.  In spite of his painful wound, Lansdale continued to fire at the rebels who were rapidly approaching him with rifles and beheading knives.

Realizing Lansdale’s dangerous predicament, Ensign Monaghan organized a number of blue jackets to form a defensive perimeter around their fallen leader.  Monaghan struggled to remove his superior from the battle area; the sailors fought off the savages for as long as they could, but they were being overwhelmed. Finally realizing the hopelessness of his situation, Lansdale ordered a general retreat.

As the force began its extraction, Private Hulbert stepped up calmly delivering deadly fire upon the approaching Samoan forces.  The Lansdale party slowly worked their way to the rear in withdrawal, but Lieutenant Lansdale received a gunshot wound to the chest.  It was a mortal wound from which would not recover.  Seaman N. E. Edsall joined Hulbert in laying down accurate fire as Monaghan continued in his attempt to remove Lieutenant Lansdale’s body from the field. Moments later, both Monaghan and Edsall were killed.  Private Hulbert executed a fighting withdrawal.

Private Hulbert survived the battle and received a commendation from the Secretary of the Navy on 22 May 1899, which stated in part, “The gallantry of Private Henry L. Hulbert, who remained behind at the fence till the last and who was with Lansdale and Monaghan when they were killed, I desire especially to mention.”

Private Hulbert was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor for this engagement; he was later killed at the Battle of Blanc Mont Ridge in France on 4 October 1918.  He was, at the time of his death, a 51-year old First Lieutenant, already slated for promotion to Captain.  His personal decorations include the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart, and French Croix de Guerre.

Notes:

[1] Rear Admiral Albert Kautz, U. S. Navy, Commander, Pacific Station.

Gooch’s Colonial Marines

First, some background …

As everyone knows, the British and Spanish have been at one another’s throats since Moby Dick was a minnow, so we’ll just fast-forward to the conclusion of the War of Spanish Succession in 1713.  The Treaty of Utrecht gave the British a 30-year right of access to supply slaves to Spanish colonies and up to five hundred tons of goods per year.  The effect of this arrangement was that it gave British merchants (and smugglers) inroads to previously closed markets in Spanish America.  In spite of the treaty, however, Great Britain and Spain continued to be at odds during this period, including such conflicts as the War of the Quadruple Alliance, the Blockade of Porto Bello, and the Anglo-Spanish War, which ended in 1729.

Following the Anglo-Spanish War, Britain accorded Spanish warships so-called visitation rights —which is to say the right of Spanish vessels to inspect British trading vessels, operating along the Spanish Main, for smuggled cargoes.  Over time, Spain began to suspect that British traders were abusing certain tenets of this treaty (with some justification).  Stepping up their inspections, Spanish coast guard authorities began confiscating British cargoes.

In 1731, Spanish officials boarded the British Brig Rebecca off the coast of Florida looking for contraband.  At some point in this confrontation, a Spanish customs officer sliced off the ear of the ship’s captain, a man named Robert Jenkins.  While the incident proved somewhat traumatic to Captain Jenkins, no one back home in England really cared about Captain Jenkins’ ear. In fact, Sir Robert Walpole [1] gave his support to Spain during the War of Polish Succession (1733-1735).

In seeking greater access to Spanish markets, however, political and trading interests began to exert pressure on Walpole to take a more aggressive stance with Spain.  Walpole initially remained reticent, but as opposition to Walpole increased, so too did anti-Spanish sentiments among the British public —and the British South Sea Company [2].  Quite suddenly, Captain Jenkins’ ear became the focus of anti-Walpole political factions. Eventually, owing to these public sentiments, Walpole succumbed to public pressure and approved sending troops to the West Indies and a navy squadron to Gibraltar.  The Spanish monarchy responded by seizing all British ships in Spanish harbors.  The War of Jenkins’ Ear [3] thus began in 1739 —but it was little more than a continuation of the grab for America’s resources by the British, French, Dutch, and Spanish.

Vernon 001One of the first major actions of the war was the British capture of a silver-exporting town on the coast of Panama on 22 November 1739.  The purpose of this operation was to damage Spain’s economy and weaken its maritime capacity.  The poorly defended port was attacked by six ships of the line under the command of Vice Admiral Edward Vernon.  The port was quickly captured and within three weeks, British forces successfully destroyed its fortifications, port facilities, and warehouses.  At the completion of these depredations, the British withdrew leaving Portobelo’s economy was so damaged that it did not fully recover until construction of the Panama Canal two hundred years later.

The Vernon action caused Spain to change their trade practices.  Rather than conducting commerce at centralized ports with few large treasure fleets, they employed a larger number of convoys and increased the number of port facilities.  The Spanish also devised new trading routes, including navigation around Cape Horn to establish trading facilities along South and Central America’s western coast.

Meanwhile, back in Great Britain, Admiral Vernon became the man of the hour and his victory was widely celebrated by folks who weren’t even sure where Panama was located.  In 1740, at a dinner in Vernon’s honor the song “Rule Britannia” was performed for the first time.  Patriotism was widespread in London; Robert Walpole was pressed to launch an even larger naval expedition to the Gulf of Mexico.

Nevertheless, Admiral Vernon and the governor of Jamaica, Edward Trelawny, believed that rather than focusing their attention in the Gulf of Mexico (Cuba, for example) they should give their attention to Spain’s gold coast and this became Vernon’s primary objective.  Admiral Vernon planned a major assault on the city of Cartagena de Indias (in present day Columbia) because it was the location of the Spanish Viceroyalty and the main port of the West Indian fleet sailing for the Iberian Peninsula.

Admiral Vernon launched three assaults against Cartagena between 13 March 1740 and 20 May 1741.  Requiring information about Cartagena, Vernon’s first assault was limited to a reconnaissance in force.  He needed coastal surveys, and he needed to understand Spanish naval routines near Playa Grande.

The purpose of his second assault on 18 March 1740 was to provoke a Spanish response.  By bombarding the city, Vernon hoped to be able to evaluate Spain’s defensive capabilities.  In Cartagena, Admiral Blas de Lezo [4] anticipated Vernon’s intentions.  Rather than responding to the naval bombardment, Lezo ordered the removal of cannon from ships and placed them as coastal defense batteries at likely avenues of a British approach.  When Vernon initiated his anticipated amphibious assault, Lezo was waiting for him and the landing force was defeated.  Vernon then commenced a naval bombardment that lasted twenty-one days, after which he withdrew the bulk of his forces.

Vernon returned to Cartagena with thirteen ships of war intending to re-initiate a bombardment of the city.  This time Admiral Lezo reacted; he deployed six ships of the line so that the British fleet was kept beyond the firing range of the port city. Vernon, now frustrated, again withdrew leaving Admiral Lezo with confidence in his defensive capabilities.

So, what happened …

It was at this point that Admiral Vernon began to formulate plans for a third assault of Cartagena.  To achieve this goal in terms of manpower, however, Great Britain was forced to urge its North American colonies to raise 3,000 soldiers to participate in the expedition [5].  There was no shortage of volunteers as thousands of men stepped forward to serve King and Country [6].  In total, the British raised 40 companies forming four battalions within an American regiment—paid for by the British taxpayer.  Of significance, the regiment’s officers were granted the right to half-pay [7].

Sir William Gooch
Sir William Gooch

Appointed to command the Colonial regiment was Alexander Spotswood, a lieutenant colonel of the British Army and a former lieutenant governor of Virginia [8].  Spotswood, a noted explorer, also established the first colonial iron work in North America. He gained political standing for his skill in negotiating acceptable treaties with the Iroquois Nations.  After Spotswood’s death in 1740, Sir William Gooch was appointed to replace him.  At the time of his appointment, Sir William was the serving lieutenant governor of Virginia.

Lawrence Washington 001
Lawrence Washington

All of Gooch’s field officers were detailed to the American regiment from the British Army; his company grade officers (excepting one lieutenant and one sergeant from the British Army in each company), were all appointed from among the colonial elite.  Of these, the best known was a Lawrence Washington [9] (pictured left), who was George Washington’s older half-brother.  When formed, the colonial regiment contained one colonel, four lieutenant colonels, four majors, thirty-six captains, seventy-two lieutenants, four adjutants, four quartermasters, one surgeon, four surgeon’s mates, 144 sergeants, 144 corporals, 72 drummers, and 3,240 privates (then called sentinels).  Colonel Gooch’s immediate superior was Admiral Edward Vernon, Royal Navy —and for the purposes of this account, Gooch’s superior is relevant because Admiral Vernon intended Gooch’s regiment to perform as Marines, rather than as land infantry.

Lord Charles Cathcart
Charles Cathcart, 7th Lord Cathcart

The British home contingent, under the command of Lord Cathcart, was delayed by four months —finally sailing from England in November 1740.  After joining the fleet in Jamaica in January 1741, Admiral Vernon commanded one of the largest fleets ever assembled.  He commanded 186 ships, 3,000 pieces of artillery, and 27,000 men: 12,000 sailors, 10,000 soldiers, 1,000 Jamaican slaves, and the 4,000 troops of the American regiment.  On paper, the numbers seem impressive, but the reality was another matter. Sickness and scurvy [10] were epidemic among the troops; Lord Charles Cathcart, the British army commander died from this disease.

Goochs Marines 001
Uniform of the American Regiment, War of Jenkins’ Ear

The American regiment went ashore in Jamaica, but it was far from ready for combat service.  Lacking sound officer and NCO leadership, the troops were ill-disciplined and inefficient in the art of war.  Making things worse, the British government made no effort to pay or feed the colonials, which brought the colonial troops near to mutiny.  Sickness was even more rampant within the American ranks than it was in the British. Yet, in spite of this, by 11 March Vernon positioned his fleet off the coast of the Spanish Main [11].

In order to reach Cartagena, Vernon had to force entry through a small passage at Boca Chica, which was defended by three forts; he had to defeat each of these fortifications.  Accordingly, Vernon landed his troops —exempting the American Regiment [12]— and opened the critical passage.

In late April, Lieutenant General Thomas Wentworth, having replaced Lord Cathcart, led an attacking force to the outskirts of Cartagena.  During this assault and owing to their lack of esprit de corps and overall tactical incompetence, Wentworth relegated the Americans to the menial task of carrying scaling ladders and woolpacks.  During the assault Americans threw down their ladders and fled the battle.  British forces were now left without the means to carry the walls of the city.

When a Spanish counter-attack threatened to isolate British forces from their ships, Wentworth was forced to withdraw.  To make matters worse, yellow fever was now epidemic among the troops —American and British alike. Half of the landing force was incapacitated, which forced Admiral Vernon to withdraw his fleet to the coast. There, soldiers lay dying without medical attention by the hundreds.  In early May, Vernon embarked the survivors of his land forces and returned to Jamaica. The sickness could not be contained, however, and the British force was soon reduced to around 2,700 men (roughly 1,300 English, 1,400 American).

In August, having decided to invade Cuba, Vernon’s fleet entered the Gulf of Mexico.  On 29 August 1741 the British fleet anchored at Cumberland Bay, 90 miles from Santiago de Cuba.  Troops and supplies were landed, but the sickness continued unabated.  Vernon kept his soldiers in camp until November when they returned to their ships and the fleet sailed back to Jamaica. Three-thousand reinforcements arrived from England in February 1742, but they too fell ill.  In October 1742, Gooch’s regiment was disbanded, and the officers and men were discharged.  Of the 4,163 officers and men in the American regiment, only 10% survived.  The regiment’s surviving officers did receive half-pay for the rest of their lives, but not before they appeared before a board of general officers in London to plead their case.

By succumbing to their natural fears and running away in the face of battle, Gooch’s regiment disgraced itself —but having said that, we cannot say that their training was adequate to the purpose of producing effective soldiers.  Moreover, British treatment of these troops was equally outrageous.  While it is true that Wentworth’s army distrusted these colonial marines, there were plenty of reasons for the Americans to distrust and feel betrayed by their British officers —even discounting the onset of disease.  The Americans were inadequately clothed, fed, and cared for and they served without pay. At Cartagena, the Americans were relegated to work alongside Jamaican slaves.  They were placed on ships and forced to work as seamen —a breach of the terms of their enlistments.  Aboard ship, the colonials were refused berthing spaces or hammocks, assigned to do the work that ship’s crew didn’t want to do, and they were often moved from ship to ship without their own officer’s knowledge.

The men who formed the colonial regiment may have been detailed to serve Admiral Vernon’s fleet as marines, but there is no way to equate them with modern day American and British Royal Marines [13].

Notes:

[1] Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Oxford (1676-1745) was Great Britain’s first prime minister.

[2] The South Sea Company was a joint-stock company formed in 1711, created to consolidate and reduce the cost of national debt.  The company was granted a monopoly to trade with South America and nearby islands—the genesis of its name.

[3] Robert Jenkins was called to testify before the Parliament in 1738, and according to some accounts, he produced his severed ear as part of his presentation.  This account has never been verified.  The Jenkins incident was considered along with various other examples of Spanish depredations upon British subjects and the incident, some eight years later, was popularly perceived as an insult to British honor.

[4] Admiral Blas de Lezo y Olaverrieta (1689-1741) was a Basque officer in service to the King of Spain.

[5] Until 1740, North America’s military contribution to Great Britain had mostly come from privateers[5], who were sanctioned by the British government during time of war.  At other times, the British referred to such endeavors as piracy.  Traditionally, colonial militia in North America were recruited and paid for by local governments to protect local jurisdictions; the British Army and Navy handled international conflicts.  Thus, British expeditionary operations during the War of Jenkins’ Ear opened a new chapter in an old story —but with a significant shift: the employment of colonial ground forces.  The use of American colonists as British ground forces had not been previously attempted —and, as it turns out, was never attempted again.

[6] Virginia was the only colony having to rely on impressment to meet expected quotas.

[7] Half-pay was a term used in the British Army and Royal Navy referring to the pay and allowances an officer received when in retirement, or not in active duty service.

[8] Spotswood was appointed lieutenant governor under the nominal governorship of George Hamilton, 1st Earl of Orkney in 1710.  As Hamilton never ventured to the American colonies, the lieutenant governor, upon appointment, became the de factoCrown authority within the colony.  Owing to his adversarial relationship with the Virginia Council, and with James Blair in particular —a very powerful adversary, Spotswood was recalled in 1722.

[9] Lawrence Washington (1718–1752) was an American soldier, planter, politician, and prominent landowner in colonial Virginia. As a founding member of the Ohio Company of Virginia, and a member of the colonial legislature representing Fairfax County, he also founded the town of Alexandria, Virginia on the banks of the Potomac River in 1749.  Lawrence was the first of the family to live at the Mount Vernon estate, which he named after his Commanding Officer in the War of Jenkins’ Ear, Admiral Edward Vernon. When Lawrence Washington became ill with tuberculosis, he and his brother George travelled to Barbados, expecting that the warm climate would alleviate his ill health.  Lawrence died at Mount Vernon the following year.

[10] Scurvy is a disease resulting from a lack of vitamin C.  Early symptoms include weakness, tiredness, and soreness in the arms and legs. Without treatment, affected individuals experience decreased red blood cells, gum disease, loss of hair, and bleeding from the skin.  If conditions worsen, poor healing of wounds occurs, personality disorders appear, and finally death from bleeding and infection.

[11] Spain’s mainland coastal possessions.

[12] In the entire regiment, Gooch trusted only 300 troops to perform their duties ashore.

[13] The Royal Marines were formed in 1755 as the Royal Navy Infantry.  However, these Marines can trace their origins to the formation of the British Army’s Duke of York and Albany’s maritime regiment of foot on 28 October 1664. The Royal Marines have close ties with allied marine forces, particularly the United States Marine Corps and the Netherland’s Marine Corps (Korps Mariniers).  Today, although have undergone many substantial changes over time, the Royal Marines remain an elite fighting force within the British armed forces.

 

Marines —Always Defiant

In 1839, 140 British soldiers bravely resisted the martial will of more than 5,000 Zulu warriors. 150-years later, twenty British Marines resisted an Argentine invasion and, in the process, gave the invading army a bloody nose.  It seems to me, looking back in time, that the Argentine military might have learned a valuable lesson from history … but, no.

The Falkland Islands (and its territorial dependencies the South Georgia and Sandwich Islands) had been a British territory for 141-years; this was challenged by Argentina in 1982 when that country reasserted its claims that the islands are Argentine territory. In the minds of the Argentines, their invasion was no more than a reclamation of its own territory.  From the British perspective, the Falklands had been a Crown colony since 1841 and the islanders who lived there were descended from the original British settlers.

There are excellent books about the Falklands War, but not many chronicle the events on the Falklands in the early days of the Argentine invasion.   Section leader George Thomsen, Royal Marines related his story of these events to author Malcolm Angel.  The book is titled Too Few, Too Far (Amberly, 2008) [1], which tells us the ordeal for 22 Royal Marines began when Argentine scrap dealers landed illegally at South Georgia and then had the audacity to raise the Argentine flag.  Thus it was that in mid-March 1982, Lieutenant Keith Mills, Royal Marines was ordered to take a detachment of Marines to sort the whole thing out.  George Thomsen was only days from returning home on normal rotation when his section of eight Marines was detailed to Mills’ detachment. Of course, neither Lieutenant Mills nor any of his Marines had any way of knowing that the sorting would lead to a full-blown war with Argentina.

RM South GeorgiaOnly moments after this photograph was taken on 3 April 1982, the first Argentine helicopter arrived. The Marines scurried for cover and then opened fire with rifles and automatic weapons, shooting down the Puma gunship as it attempted to land enemy troops.  “It was like a gift,” said George Thomsen.  “That’s what kicked off the battle and we were 16-nil from the start.”

With the peace now shattered, the Marines put another Argentine helicopter out of action.  Still, they realized that they could not hold back the tide of invading Argentine soldiers.  Thomsen said, “It was like Rorke’s Drift, only this time the enemy was well-armed.  The enemy began landing troops from several ships and we were out-numbered 50 or 100 to one.”

Recognizing that there was no hope of reinforcements, the Marines set about doing everything possible to prepare for a bloody confrontation.  They booby-trapped the shoreline and fashioned explosives packed with nuts, bolts, and harpoon heads and set them beneath the jetty.

In the heroic defense that followed, the Marines fought audaciously for hours to inflict heavy casualties; when the corvette ARA Guerrico steamed into the bay.  Thomsen recounted, “It was raking us with its 40mm anti-aircraft gun until we wiped out the gun crew.  We then used a bazooka, but three out of five rockets didn’t go off. If they had, we’d have sunk it. We whacked out its Exocet launchers, disabled the 4-inch gun on the bow, and we were putting sniper fire through the bridge so that they didn’t know where they were going.  But we did put it out of action; it was listing at 30 degrees.

Nevertheless, as with their comrades defending the Falklands 800 miles away, the Marines at South Georgia were eventually forced to surrender —but not before offering the Argentinians a lesson they wouldn’t soon forget.  In the final moments, Lieutenant Mills walked brazenly up to the lead elements of the Argentine force and warned them that his men would keep fighting unless the Argentines agreed to his terms, which included safe passage for his Marines off the island.  They agreed to these terms, but then were astonished to learn that the Marines they had been fighting only numbered twenty-two.

The Marines were returned to Great Britain where they joined the task force that liberated the Falklands. South Georgia was recaptured by task force Marines and SAS on 25 April 1982.

Notes:

[1]Available through Amazon dot com.

Teaming up: American and British Marines

Turner-Joy 001In August 1950, Vice Admiral C. Turner Joy, USN (pictured right), the commander of the United Nations’ naval forces, suggested that a small-scale raiding force should be formed to operate against the Communist lines of communication. The original intention was that this group be composed of volunteers from the British Far Eastern Fleet, but it was subsequently decided to enlarge on the original conception and to send out a small Royal Marines’ Commando unit. The force would be placed under U. S. Navy command and would be equipped and maintained from United States sources. On 16 August, the commanding officer-designate reported to the Admiralty, and the formation of the unit began. Two weeks later, the first party embarked aboard aircraft and left for Japan (See footnote 1).

The unit originally was about 200 strong (subsequently increased to 300), with personnel drawn from two sources. Fifty percent came from the various Royal Marine establishments in the United Kingdom and were assembled at the Commando School at Bickleigh. The remainder came from a draft which was at that time on its way to the 3d Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines in Malaya. This party was diverted at Singapore and flown to Japan (See footnote 1).

The commanding officer 41 Commando was given three weeks in which to train his men and be ready for operations. However, 48 hours later the first party left! This was a small subunit composed almost entirely of volunteers from the fleet. It operated as part of a United States Army raiding company and carried out raids on the west coast of Korea. Subsequently, it landed at Inchon and fought with the Army for three weeks before rejoining the main unit in early October.  These raids were not a great success[1].

Following the successful amphibious assault of the US X Corps at Inchon, South Korea in September 1950, President Harry S. Truman directed General Douglas A. MacArthur, Commanding UN forces, to pursue the remnants of the largely-defeated communist Korean People’s Army into North Korea, whence they came.  The Chinese warned MacArthur not to approach China’s border with North Korea, which was the Yalu River.

Discounting the Chinese warning as bluster, General MacArthur ordered the US Eighth Army across the 38th parallel to advance northward on the western side of the peninsula toward Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

Unknown to MacArthur, the Chinese had feared a UN invasion of North Korea since the Inch’on landing in September 1950.   It was then that the Chinese began preparations to enter the war by sending supplies and support troops into North Korea.  Ultimately, China would stage 21 combat divisions in Manchuria (later increased to 33 divisions) to move against UN forces.

Chinese leader Mao Zedong ordered his armies into North Korea on 19 October 1950, under the command of General Peng Dehuai.  Peng promptly moved against the Eighth Army, whose lead elements had advanced beyond Pyongyang and were advancing along two separate routes toward the Yalu River.

The Chinese First Offensive (October 25—November 6) stunned the Eighth Army; one American infantry division and four South Korean infantry divisions were mauled in the battle of Onjŏng-Unsan.

Meanwhile, to the east, two divisions of X Corps landed along the North Korean coast on 26 October.  The South Korean I Corps was moving northward up the coast road toward the Sino-Soviet border.  Widely separated, these units made them a tempting target for overwhelming Chinese forces.  US Marines and South Korean forces fought their first engagement against the Chinese at Sudong, inland from the port city of Hungnam.  At Sudong, a Marine regiment defeated an attacking Chinese division, killing more than 600 communist soldiers … an engagement that provided clear evidence the Chinese were in North Korea, and in large numbers.

The X Corps[2]first objective, the village of Hagaru-ri, rested near the southern tip of the Chosin reservoir, a narrow mountain lake that provided hydroelectric power tothe mining industries of northern Korea.  The area of the reservoir was a cold barren battleground where deep foxholes could be dug into the frozen earth only with the help of explosives and bulldozers.

With its supplies moving by truck, the 1stMarine Division established battalion-sized bases at Chinhŭng-ni and Kot’o-ri, villages along the Main Supply Route (MSR).  The division began its final march to the reservoir on November 13, with the 5thMarine Regiment and 7thMarine Regiment in column and moving cautiously.  Each regiment was reinforced by an artillery battalion, a tank company, combat engineers, and headquarters and service units.  On 15 November, lead elements of the 7thMarines reached Hagaru-ri.  From there the regiment prepared for its next advance, west of the reservoir to Yudam-ni, 14 miles away; the 5thMarines cautiously advanced up the reservoir’s right bank.

Commanding the 1stMarine Division, Major General Oliver. P. Smith was unhappy with this risky deployment[3]and was able to persuade Major General Almond to allow the Marines to concentrate at Hagaru-ri and replace the eastern force with a unit from the 7th Infantry Division.

Almond then ordered Major General David G. Barr, U. S. Army, commanding the 7thInfantry Division, to form a regimental combat team of two infantry battalions, an artillery battalion and other troops. This team was formed out of the 31stInfantry Regiment, officially designated RCT-31.  It was commanded by Colonel Allan D. MacLean and is often referred to by historians as Task Force MacLean.  The task force numbered 3,200 US Army and South Korean troops. RCT-31 replaced the Marines east of the reservoir on November 25.

General Smith used this operational pause to strengthen the defenses of Hagaru-ri and build a rough airfield for emergency resupply and medical evacuations.  A battalion of Marines manned the most vulnerable part of the perimeter, but much of the position had to be manned by non-infantry units and personnel[4]. The Marine Corps’ investment in making “every Marine a rifleman” would soon pay dividends.

Meanwhile, as the Marines advanced, General Peng ordered the uncommitted Ninth Army Group to leave Manchuria and destroy the 1stMarine Division.  Commanded by General Song Shilun, the Ninth Army consisted of twelve infantry divisions in three armies.  In total, the Ninth Army consisted of 150,000 infantry troops.  While armed with machineguns and mortars, the Chinese did not have much artillery.  Still, the Chinese believed that their superiority in numbers, their stealth, night time attacks, ambushes, and surprise would enable them to defeat UN Forces near Chosin Reservoir.

The Ninth Army Group moved into positions on either side of the reservoir with five divisions; it moved three more divisions to cut the road south of Hagaru-ri and attack Kot’o-ri.  General Smith, benefiting from aggressive intelligence operations, knew the Chinese had massed around his division; General Almond did not share Smith’s concerns.

In the last week of November 1950, the Ninth Army Group launched simultaneous division-level attacks on the 1stMarine Division at Yudam-ni, Hagaru-ri, and Kot’o-ri … and on Task Force MacLean, east of the reservoir.  The 5thMarines and 7thMarines, having met major Chinese forces in a daylight attack on 27 November, quickly prepared a perimeter defense for night action.  The divisional enclaves at Hagaru-ri and Kot’o-ri were better prepared, but there was far more terrain to defend than there were Marines available to defend it.  Halfway between Yudam-ni and Hagaru-ri, one Marine rifle company defended Tŏktong Pass, where the Chinese 59th Division had positioned a major roadblock. RCT-31, meanwhile, was strung out along the east shoreline road in seven different locations.

In three days of intense night battles and daylight probes starting on the night of November 27–28, all of the major Marine positions held; RCT-31 did not[5].  By the time the surviving soldiers managed to struggle on foot and in small, disorganized groups around the frozen reservoir or directly across the ice to Hagaru-ri, they numbered only 670; half of them were fit for duty.  Colonel MacLean was not one of the survivors.

The Marine regiments, on the other hand, though suffering losses of one-third to one-half in their rifle company strength, managed to halt or curb Chinese attacks, which were aimed at penetrating the perimeters and overrunning artillery positions, the airfield, and command posts.  Around the clock artillery fire and air strikes by Navy and Marine Corps close air support aircraft during the day severely punished the Chinese.

There was one serious misstep, however: General Smith and the 1stMarine Regiment commander (Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller) decided to send a convoy of tanks and resupply trucks from Koto-ri to Hagaru-ri on 29 November without realizing that the entire area was then swarming with General Peng’s Ninth Army Group.

What happened was this: during the night of 27 November 1950, the entire UN line, extending some 35-miles west and south of the Chosin Reservoir, came under attack.  By morning, the 1stMarine Division and RCT-31 were under siege in six separate enclaves.  Two regiments of Marines (and artillery) (or what was left of them) held Yudam-ni. Fourteen miles south at Hagaru-ri, the 1stMarine Division command post, two artillery batteries, the equivalent of a battalion of infantry and headquarters troops were holding out against superior numbers of Chinese.  At Koto-ri, 11-miles further south along the X Corps MSR, a Marine headquarters, rifle battalion, and artillery battery continued to resist.

Both X Corps and 1stMarine Division operational planners could see that securing the one-lane MSR connection to all embattled forces would be the key in preventing a collapse (and the destruction) of UN forces.  The pressure being applied to forward units was unremitting.  Accordingly, all available combat units operating south of Chinhung-ni were ordered to Koto-ri.

By that same afternoon, Koto-ri had become a vast vehicle park of cargo vehicles moving up from the rear —but they were accompanied by a mixed bag of units. Among them, Company G, 1stMarine Regiment, Company B, RCT-31, and 41 Commando, Royal Marines. Involved in the mix were scores of trucks brimming with Army headquarters and service troops, their equipment and baggage —and no one was quite sure how many men there were within the Koto-ri perimeter.  Colonel Puller ordered his headquarters to organize these transients into a convoy that would be able to break through to Hagaru-ri on the following morning.

Drysdale DB 003The task force was placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Douglas B. Drysdale, Commanding Officer, 41 Independent Commando, Royal Marines (pictured right). Colonel Drysdale was informed of this appointment, but not many of his newly assigned subordinates knew about it.  In fact, Captain Charles Peckham, commanding Company G, RCT-31 later stated that Colonel Puller had personally ordered him to lead the convoy all the way to Hagaru-ri[6].

Included in what became known as Task Force Drysdale were 250 Marines of 41 Independent Commando, USMC Headquarters and Service troops, a Marine Corps infantry company, a US Army infantry company, a company of tanks, and numerous medium-to-light cargo vehicles loaded with supplies.  The task force was ambushed by regimental sized Chinese communists enroute to their objective.  One-third of the force (tanks and infantry) fought through to Hagaru-ri; another third fought its way back to Kot’o-ri. The remainder (162 officers and men) died or became captives.

Nevertheless, on the morning of 29 November, units attached to Task Force Drysdale followed up UN artillery and airstrikes by attacking two Chinese-held areas on the MSR —which opened the way for the attached convoy of vehicles. Captain Bruce Clark, commanding Company D, 1stTank Battalion, later discovered the convoy stalled along the MSR.  After refueling his tanks, Clark ordered First Lieutenant Paul Sanders’ five-tank platoon to support 41 Commando and Company G assaults on the ridgeline overlooking the MSR.  Sanders conferred with Drysdale, who assigned him a common radio frequency.

With airstrikes and tanks in direct support, 41 Commando and Company G delivered up a spirited attack and several Chinese blocking points were destroyed … but this is the point where the action began to fall apart.  Lieutenant Sanders lost radio contact with Drysdale and had to suspend his firing.  Exiting his tank, Sanders saw that the convoy had fallen far behind his position, nor could he spot Peckham’s Company B, which had advanced out of visual range. Sanders, still in contact with Captain Clark, requested instructions.  Clark advised him to proceed slowly along the MSR; another tank platoon would follow in his wake.

41 Commando KoreaAs soon as the Chinese blockade on the ridge overlooking the MSR just north of Koto-ri had been cleared, 41 Commando deployed between the roadway and the ridgeline to protect the long column of vehicles.  It was a cold, miserable day, with snow flurries whipping into the faces of soldiers and Marines.  Marine Corsairs were on station overhead, but the shifting mist and jumbled terrain forced these aircraft to pull up before they could get close enough to their targets.  Progress along the MSR was agonizingly slow.  (Shown left, elements of 41 Independent Commando, 1950).

In the vanguard, Captain Peckham maneuvered his company with great care.  Behind Peckham, Captain Carl Sitter’s Company G maneuvered against numerous Chinese infantrymen who had been driven briefly to ground by Peckham’s infantry.  As Peckham’s vanguard inched forward in the column lead, and given his present circumstances, Drysdale’s natural aggressiveness may have overtaken his judgment.  In Drysdale’s opinion, Peckham was moving too slowly, too methodically along the MSR.

It was well past noon, and as Peckham was focused on re-loading the lead platoon’s trucks, a tank surged past him.  The next vehicle in line was a jeep bearing Drysdale, who yelled above the din, ‘Let’s move forward!’  Peckham demurred; he had wounded men on his hands and refused to advance until they had been sent safely away.  Drysdale responded with a smiling ‘Tally Ho!’ and took off, drawing along with him 41 Commando, all the tanks, and Captain Sitter’s Company of Marines in his wake.

It wasn’t long, however, before the extensive column was slowed by a massive traffic jam where the soft-top vehicles became targets of opportunity for Chinese mortars on the heights.  As a result of this, the convoy was soon fragmented by stalled vehicles and the smoking remains of burning trucks and jeeps.  In the Chinese assault, large numbers of men were killed or wounded.

Peckham’s company, unable to move back into the column, became fragmented —stopped in trace by a burning ammunition truck that blocked the roadway.  American and British marines under Major John McLaughlin, the Marine X Corps liaison officer, were helping to clear the roadway of wounded men and stalled vehicles.  Unable to proceed, Peckham deployed his troops in roadside ditches to return the Chinese fire from the heights.

The eventual destruction of every radio in the column assured the loss of command and control, and this resulted in crumbling discipline. Unable to advance, numerous drivers simply turned their vehicles around in the vain hope of returning to Koto-ri. For a time, ambulances filled to capacity with wounded soldiers and Marines were getting through, but eventually, they were halted in their progress as the roadway was blocked with inoperable vehicles.

Colonel Drysdale’s combat elements, which included most of 41 Commando, Company D tanks, and Marine infantry from Company G, were briefly blocked at Pusong-ni, on a narrow defile about five miles north of Koto-ri.  The choke point was eventually forced open, but the column’s progress was immediately halted again by a demolished bridge.

Lieutenant Sanders, whose tank platoon was Drysdale’s vanguard, was then ordered to move aside and allow the rear tank platoon to bypass the blown bridge.  While the maneuver was accomplished (with difficulty), truck drivers became convinced that although tanks might get through, soft vehicles stood little chance.  Drysdale sent his adjutant forward to evaluate the situation confronting forward elements; that officer was wounded.  At the same time, massive gunfire from the surrounding heights incapacitated the Company G machine gun officer and wounded Colonel Drysdale.  Command of the vanguard group passed to Captain Sitter, who ordered everyone to deploy and return fire.

British and American Marines jumped to the road to join the fight.  Someone shouted “grenade,” which sent many troops ducking for cover.  Private First Class William Baugh threw himself on top of the grenade, smothering it with his body, thereby saving the lives of the men around him[7].

As darkness descended over the MSR, Company D Tanks was feeling its way along the fire-swept roadway toward the Marine roadblocks guarding besieged Hagaru-ri.  One of the tanks was knocked out by an anti-tank grenade and had to be shoved into a ditch to clear the roadway.  Lieutenant Sanders passed the friendly roadblock almost before he realized he was safe.  He had just passed the roadblock when his tank’s engine died —he had run out of fuel.

Company G passed through the roadblock at about 2015 —after more than ten hours on the move through “Indian country.”  Company G was immediately placed along the Hagaru-ri defensive perimeter.  Unhappily, the surge of Company G and Company D tank’s left the bulk of 41 Commando far behind.  Without missing a beat, Chinese communists quickly surrounded the 200-plus Royal Marines and proceeded to reduce their numbers with lethal fire.

Rewinding for just a moment, the last cohesive unit to enter Koto-ri from the south was Company B, 1st Tank Battalion, which arrived at 1500. The bulk of the company, including soft vehicles, then advanced three miles up the MSR through moderate fire to find the tail of the convoy.

As Company B tanks drew close to the main convoy, far after the hour of darkness, they found the MSR blocked by destroyed vehicles.  There was no way for the tanks to bypass the carnage; at that moment, heavy mortar fire began falling perilously close to the tank company’s fuel and ammunition trucks.

Further advance would only accomplish the destruction of these tanks; the company was forced to defend itself through the night against massed Chinese infantry assaults.  Several tankers were killed or injured, and several soft vehicles were lost, but the company was destined to survive.

Of about 1,200 U.S. Army soldiers, Marines, and Royal Marines —plus a few South Koreans, who had started out from Koto-ri on the morning of November 29, only about 250 had arrived at Hagaru-ri by midnight. The rest were scattered along several miles of the road in at least six separate groups, isolated by Chinese strongpoints and impassible snarls of wrecked and burning vehicles of every description.

The northernmost MSR enclave was manned by about 200 Royal Marines under Drysdale, who in spite of his painful wounds, directed a spirited defense, which denied the Chinese their intention to further fragment his bloodied unit.  Royal Marine Casualties were heavy, particularly among the officers, but they nevertheless inched steadily along toward Hagaru-ri.  The bulk of these Marines, including many wounded, passed through the outer U.S. Marine roadblock after midnight.  After taking muster, the Royal Marines found that fully one-half of their original complement of 250 had been killed, wounded, or were missing.

Remaining on the MSR were some 500 Americans, British and South Koreans who were trapped within the five major enclaves extending several hundred yards through the defile south of Pusong-ni—or, about halfway between Koto-ri and Hagaru-ri.  The northernmost group was under the command of the 1st Marine Division’s logistics officer, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Chidester.  When he was shot through both legs, he passed command to Major John McLaughlin.  McLaughlin found that he had about 135 men under his command, including Captain Peckham and what remained of Company B, RCT-31.  McLaughlin also counted a U.S. Marine military police section under Warrant Officer Lloyd Dirst, a score of Royal Marines, assorted headquarters personnel, and an ever-growing contingent of wounded.

Two-hundred yards south of McLaughlin’s position were two understrength platoons of Company B, RCT-31 and several Marine stragglers, who had taken cover in a roadside ditch.  Thirty yards further south were about 95 Marine staff officers, clerks and technicians under Captain Michael Capraro, a Marine public information officer.

A short distance south of Capraro’s force was another group of 45 Marines under the 1st Marine Division motor transport officer, Major Henry ‘Pop’ Seeley.  A fifth group of men served under the 1stMarine Division Personnel officer, Colonel Harvey Walseth.  Walseth had turned his group around after dark and slowly fought his way toward Koto-ri.  When Walseth found that his vehicles were completely blocked by Company B Tanks, he and his troops dismounted and walked the rest of the way to Koto-ri.

Captain Peckham commanded the only viable infantry increment in the northernmost enclave, but he was not particularly enthused by the quality of the troops: many of these men were panic-stricken South Korean conscripts who used up the bulk of their ammunition firing at phantoms.

Warrant Officer Dirst, the MP section leader, sought to steady his men by striding up and down the road, pipe in hand, barking out curt commands.  He managed to leave steady, organized soldiers and Marines in his wake.  When he heard troops firing too much precious ammunition, he gently admonished the offenders, telling them that they had only to fight through to daybreak to draw the awesome support of Marine war planes and hopefully, ground reinforcements.  In the end, however, Dirst was mortally wounded.  Another steady hand was Major McLaughlin, who left no doubt about who was in command and how the defense was to be conducted.  As ammunition supplies dwindled, McLaughlin personally collected rounds from the dead and wounded and distributed them to the men who seemed most composed.  Sometime after midnight, the remnants of the two platoons from Company B, RCT-31 managed to work their way into McLaughlin’s perimeter.  It was a welcome reinforcement.

Voices speaking from the dark in broken English called upon Captain Capraro to surrender his men in return for good treatment[8].  After trading insults, the Chinese informed Capraro that his small, beleaguered force were facing three regiments of Chinese infantry.  Continued resistance was pointless, they told him.  Capraro refused and prepared his men to meet renewed assaults.

Captain Peckham, in Major McLaughlin’s enclave, was reduced to handing out rifle ammunition in increments of two or three at a time.  The South Koreans, meanwhile, drifted away into the hills.  Peckham soon counted less than a dozen effective men in his command.

Having persuaded captive Sergeant Guillermo Tovar to act as an intermediary to carry a surrender offer to the Americans, Chinese fire abated as a delegation approached Major McLaughlin’s position.  Once again, if the major surrendered his forces, American wounded would be well-treated.  McLaughlin asked for time to discuss the proposal with his officers; the Chinese agreed. McLaughlin instructed Tovar to seek out Major Seeley and tell him to delay any surrender for as long as possible. It would soon be light; the beleaguered Americans could get help from close air support aircraft.

While Major McLaughlin was meeting with the Chinese delegation along the railway embankment, another Chinese officer approached Captain Peckham.  Peckham was promised good treatment if he surrendered his forces.  Captain Peckham gave the man a package of cigarettes and asked that he take them to his superior.  If the Chinese agreed to give up, Peckham told him, he would see that the Chinese were fed and well-treated.

Major McLaughlin discovered Colonel Chidester, wounded, and lying in a ditch.  McLaughlin told him about the Chinese proposal; Chidester reluctantly urged McLaughlin to accept the terms.  A Chinese officer, meanwhile, returned to Peckham and told him that unless the Americans relinquish their weapons within fifteen minutes, a full regiment would launch their assault.  Peckham asked for additional time to get the word out to his troops.  He then set about destroying their weapons.  McLaughlin approached the Chinese officer and informed him, “If we surrender, it won’t be because you beat us; we will only surrender to get our wounded cared for.  If we cannot get our wounded evacuated, then we will fight on.”

Major Seeley, in the meantime, had assumed from the start that a relief expedition would be mounted from Hagaru-ri or Koto-ri at first light.  For now, he thought the Chinese were being held back; the greatest threat seemed to come from the dank, subzero chill.  Troop leaders constantly checked their subordinates and one another for signs of frostbite and reminded all hands to keep their limbs in constant motion.  Ammunition supply was another constant worry; Seeley commanded mostly headquarters personnel who were issued limited amounts of ammunition.

When Seeley heard Tovar yelling his name in the dark, he ordered his troops to cease firing.  Tovar approached and asked Seeley to accompany him into a field on the east side of the road.  There he told the major what was going on and about McLaughlin’s desire to stall for as long as possible.

Farther on, the two Americans were met by two Chinese who spoke no English but nevertheless made it clear that Major Seeley was to have his troops put down their weapons and advance with their hands up.  As the exchange was winding down, Major Eagen, who the Chinese had carried down from the heights, spoke out of the darkness and asked Seeley to come talk.  Eagen, severely wounded in both legs, told Seeley everything he knew about McLaughlin’s situation and the Chinese offer; he had seen the Chinese setting up heavy mortars on the roadway, so he urged Seeley to surrender.  This was Seeley’s first inkling as to the size of the Chinese force, but he still wanted to wait until dawn, which might bring relief.

Eagen was in the middle of pleading his case for the many wounded when a Chinese officer interrupted the exchange.  It was clear from their hand signs that they wanted a decision.  Seeley asked Eagen to stall them, then walked back to his enclave by the river.  He told Sergeant Tovar to ask McLaughlin to stall while he and his troops dug in more securely.  Major Seeley had made his decision: he was not going to give in.  By then, however, the Chinese had begun disarming McLaughlin’s people —only a few of whom were capable of putting up further resistance.

Major Seeley was next approached by Warrant Officer Dee Yancey, who reported that he had reconnoitered the adjacent Changjin River and found that it was solid ice.  There seemed to be no Chinese fire coming from the far shore, so Yancey suggested that the group break out.  Major Seeley readily agreed.  The entire group, including the wounded, started west across the river toward a ridge that might provide good cover.  Capraro’s force joined Seeley’s west of the river where two seriously wounded Marines were discovered, who had been lost on patrol three days earlier. Seeley’s group struggled up to the ridge, clambered over the top and turned south toward Koto-ri at an agonizingly slow pace.

Major Seeley’s enclave was out of sight of the Chinese on the MSR before sunrise but did hear the voices of Chinese that seemed to be approaching from the rear.  Warrant Officer Yancey, who had suffered painful shrapnel wounds in both legs and back, dropped behind as the first Chinese came over the ridge. A former Marine Corps rifle team shooter, Yancey quickly dropped two Chinese point men while the remainder of the American group scrambled down the slope. The Chinese patrol went to ground, and Yancey followed his countrymen, all of whom reached Koto-ri.

41 Commando Korea 002Of the approximately twelve-hundred men assigned to Task Force Drysdale, 162 remain listed as killed or missing in action.  Another 159 men were wounded and repatriated.  More than 300 American and British troops were marched off to prison camps.  Of those, 18 Marines escaped the following spring.  About two dozen Britons and several dozen American soldiers and Marines went to ground in the hills, cut off from friendly forces.  Most of these survived.  Seventy-five percent of all vehicles allocated to Task Force Drysdale were destroyed.

Sergeant Tovar managed to escape captivity while helping to prepare the wounded for return to Koto-ri.  The wounded Colonel Drysdale was among the survivors who made it to Hagaru-ri, but 41 Commando had suffered 61 casualties, which would increase to 93 before X Corps completed the breakout to Hungnam on 10 December 1950.

 Colonel Chidester and Major Eagen were never seen again.

After being evacuated to South Korea, 41 Commando was withdrawn to Japan to be reconstituted in January 1951.  Before departing Korea, Colonel Drysdale’s stated, “This was the first time that the Marines of the two nations had fought side by side since the defense of the Peking Legations in 1900.  Let it be said that the admiration of all ranks of 41 Commando for their brothers in arms was and is unbounded. They fought like tigers and their morale and esprit de corps is second to none.”

How did the American Marines feel about their British comrades?  According to author/historian Eric Hammel, one US Marine spoke for most when he said, “I walked into Hagaru-ri from Yudam-ni where I learned that the British had supplied us with a fighting force.  Before that we laughed at the words `U.N. Forces’ because we had not seen the troops of any other nation except the Chinese.  I was delighted to meet the British. When they came around you could stop looking for a fight, because they would be right in the middle of it.”

Post Script:

Douglas Burns Drysdale was born in Hampstead, England, United Kingdom on 2 October 1916.  He spent the majority of his youth in Argentina where he developed a life-long passion for horsemanship and hunting.

Commissioned in the Royal Marines in 1935, he initially commanded the Marine Detachment aboard HMS Renownthrough the first three years of World War II and then joined 2ndBattalion, Royal Marines in Iceland.  He was promoted to captain in June 1942 and assigned to the staff of the British Admiralty in Washington DC.  It was during this tour that he had his first contact with the U. S. Marine Corps as a liaison officer until in 1943, he was assigned to serve as brigade major (chief of staff) of 3 Special Services Brigade and Commanding Officer, 44 Commando in Burma.

Following World War II, Drysdale served on the staff of the British Army Staff College, and on the staff of the officer’s school where he was promoted to acting lieutenant colonel.  He was subsequently assigned to command 41 Independent Commando, Royal Marines.

DSO-UKHis command of 41 Independent Commando in Korea was to become the highlight of his military career.  For his actions at the Chosin Reservoir and his leadership of 41 Independent Commando, Colonel Drysdale was awarded two Silver Star medals (US) and the Distinguished Service Order (UK).  Additionally, 41 Independent Commando was awarded the United States’ Presidential Unit Citation in recognition of its stellar performance during the Battle for Chosin Reservoir.

In late 1951, Drysdale relinquished command of 41 Independent Commando to Lieutenant Colonel Ferris N. Grant, RM.  He subsequently served as the Royal Marine Representative at the Marine Corps Schools, Quantico, Virginia until 1954.  Between 1955 and 1962, Colonel Drysdale served as Commandant, Royal Marine Noncommissioned Officer’s School, staff officer in the office of the Commandant General, Royal Marines, and after his promotion to Colonel he commanded 3 Commando Brigade.  Colonel Drysdale retired from active military service in 1962. He passed away on 22 June 1990 at the age of 73-years.

Notes:

[1]Source: Lieutenant Colonel Douglas B. Drysdale, Royal Marines (1953)

[2]X Corps was commanded by Major General Ned Almond, U. S. Army.  Almond served concurrently as General MacArthur’s chief of staff at his Tokyo headquarters and because of this, rather than being subordinate to the Eighth Army, operated independently from it.  Almond took his marching orders directly from MacArthur, and no other.  Almond had no amphibious operations experience, which given the mission assigned to X Corps, made him unqualified to command that organization. Beyond this, as a field general, Almond was operationally incompetent.  See also

[3]What made this a risky deployment, in General Smith’s opinion, was the plethora of intelligence gathered indicating a large presence of Chinese communist forces.  This information, passed back to the headquarters of X Corps, was discounted and ignored.  Not even after RCT-31 was decimated by overwhelming Chinese Communist forces on 27 November 1950 would Almond acknowledge the presence of this threat.

[4]In the Marine Corps, every Marine is a rifleman.

[5]One-third of the soldiers assigned to RCT-31 were killed or captured by the Chinese Army.

[6]This conversation was likely to have occurred before Puller realized that Colonel Drysdale was the senior combat officer present. Given the situation at the time, realizing that Puller’s plate was full-to-overflowing, he may not have thought to countermand his orders to Peckham.

[7]For this selfless act, PFC Baugh was awarded the Medal of Honor.

[8]This was a strategy the Chinese repeated several times along the MSR.

British Marines

The Falklands War (also known by several other titles) was a ten-week conflict between Argentina and the United Kingdom.  It was fought over two British dependent territories in the South Atlantic: The Falklands Islands, the South Georgia, and South Sandwich Islands.  The conflict began on 2 April 1982 when Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands; the following day, Argentina invaded South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.  This was Argentina’s attempt to establish sovereignty over these territories. On 5 April 1982, the British government dispatched a naval task force to engage Argentine naval and air forces before making an amphibious assault on the islands.  The conflict lasted 74 days and ended with the Argentine surrender on 14 June 1982 —thereby returning the islands to British control.  In total, 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel, and three civilian islanders died during the conflict.

royal-marines-badge-01Aboard one British troop transport ship (SS Canberra), senior officers worked hard keeping members of the British Army away from the British Royal Marines (and vice-versa) since British soldiers and Marines have always been, shall we say, competitive.  In this instance, we are talking about the soldiers of 3 Para and the Marines of 42 Commando (said as Four-Two Commando).  And then there was the question of what to do with the civilian journalists attached to the task force.

All in all, senior officers had their jobs cut out for them.

Two recently embarked press men were attempting to familiarize themselves with the layout of ship spaces when they came upon a sergeant and asked him where they might find the bar[1].

The sergeant, placing his hands upon his hips bellowed, “Bar? This is a ship, not a doss house! Now, would you happen to be looking for the mess, perhaps?”

“Sorry, I meant mess,” replied one of the journalists.

The sergeant challenged, “Which one?  Who are you?”

“We’re press,” said one of the men.

“Oh Christ,” said the sergeant, rolling his eyes.  “That’ll be the officer’s mess.  Alright then, up the ladder through there,” he said pointing, “and you’ll see it.”

But to get to the officer’s mess, the civilians had to transverse the minefield known as the sergeant’s mess.  One thing that is never done, whether aboard ship or on land, is for any private, officer, and certainly no civilian, to ever enter the sergeant’s mess without an invitation.  As the journalists stumbled into the sergeant’s mess, one very large sergeant hollered out, “Piss off.”

“Sorry?” said one of the press men.

“Piss off, Chalkie,” the sergeant repeated.  “Sergeant’s Mess, mate.  Can’t come ‘ere without permission.”

One might forgive the unknowing civilian journalist for his transgression; a battalion chaplain should know better.  One night, the sergeants conducted a bar-top court-martial as the battalion chaplain stood accused of violating the rules of the mess. A duly appointed sergeant called the mess to attention and read from a properly filled-out charge sheet.  “You, Padre, sir, stand accused of entering the mess and loitering, and with bringing no booze, which is vagrancy.  Have you got a brief?”

“This officer here will defend me,” said the chaplain, cocking a thumb at a young sub-lieutenant standing beside him.  The chaplain attempted to stifle a chuckle.

“Stop laughing, Padre,” warned the presiding sergeant, “otherwise, it’ll go badly for you.”

The sub-lieutenant was then examined: “Sir, can you explain the Padre’s behavior?”

The officer began his defense.  “He made a mistake, sergeant.  Never did he intend to break the rules of the mess.  He is very sorry.”

“Guilty!” screamed the assembled sergeants, making crosses with their fingers and hissing at the padre.

“You have been found guilty by the mess, Padre.  We fine you one bottle of sherry,” said the president of the mess, and then pointing to the sub-lieutenant, added, “And him too, sir because he did such a bloody awful job defending you.”

The padre later returned with a bottle of sherry, but the poor man didn’t stand a chance.  The sergeant examined the sherry and bellowed, “Only half a bottle!  You won’t make it to heaven, Padre.  Now, piss off.”

The foregoing tale comes from a fascinating, often humorous while sobering tale titled, “Don’t Cry for Me, Sergeant Major” by British journalists Robert McGowan and Jeremy Hands. The book might be a bit difficult to get a hold of, but you might find it at Amazon.  It is definitely worth the effort.

Notes:

[1] At this time, limited rations of alcohol were still served aboard British Naval vessels, including contracted troop transports.  My guess is that this was the only way the Ministry of Defence could get the British press to cover the war.