155 - No Soviet Oil for Hitler - WW2 - August 14, 1942
So they reached the oil city, wow... but, what?... they got no oil... you didn't see that coming...dude, everyone else did, literally everyone else... okay, bye. August 14th , 1942 You need oil. You blast your way through your enemy’s land to where his oil resources lie. You force him from the town, and… well… what do you do when he’s destroyed all the installations and you can’t get the oil? No seriously, what do you do? There are some Germans who’d love to know the answer to that.
I’m Indy Neidell; this is World War Two. Last week, the Germans continued Operation Edelweiss, their advance into the Caucasus, with more success. After a week of immobility, German 6th Army renewed its drive toward Stalingrad, and the Allies began their invasion of the South Solomon Islands. Here’s what follows: The fighting for, Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo continues in the Allies favor and all three are taken quickly enough. Only 3 Japanese, though, surrender of the 350 defenders on Tulagi, and for the loss of the three islands, total Japanese casualties are roughly 850 men. 122 Americans die taking them.
But of course, Guadalcanal is the big prize, if they can take it, but the Japanese aren’t going to let that be easy. Already the 8th, they send 27 torpedo-carrying Bettys from Rabaul with 15 long range zeroes as escorts to try to sink the American carriers that are somewhere about. They cannot find them, so they attack Guadalcanal instead. This turns out to be a big mistake, because they make their runs against the troop transports from just 10 meters above the water. This was standard practice a couple years ago, but naval warfare has changed a lot, and quickly.
For example, British battleship Prince of Wales had seven 20mm AA machine guns when she went down last December. Each of the transports now has, like, 12 of them, firing from super close range. Only five Bettys make it back to Rabaul. Two zeroes are lost and no American planes, so between this raid and the one the 7th, the Japanese have lost 36 planes. They do damage a destroyer with a torpedo, and fatally damage a transport when a Betty flies into it. On the ground as the week begins, the 1st Marines take the Lunga Point airstrip, at 1600 the 8th.
“The runway was three quarters finished, the control tower was up, and the electric generator plant working…. (And) the biggest prize of all- a small mountain of food supplies. The many tons of rice and soybeans were of less immediate interest that hot day to thirsty Marines than hundreds of cases of Japanese beer and the refrigeration plant, which was labeled by its grateful discoverers: Tojo Ice Factory- under new management.” (Costello) They also take three AA batteries, and one of Japan’s first radar units, a shore based aerial search model. “As darkness enveloped the Marines for their second night on the island the situation appeared swell in hand. By dawn of August 9th, they learned that these moments were short lived on Guadalcanal.”
(Frank) In our ten part Pearl Harbor minute by minute mini series I talked a lot about both American and Japanese strategic and technological developments over the past few decades, but I have not talked much about Japanese naval expertise in night fighting, something the Americans lack. The Japanese successfully used torpedoes at night already in their war against China in the 1890s and against Russia in 1904, and in the interwar years they had many large scale nighttime naval combat exercises. They also have the long lance torpedo, the 93.61 cm oxygen fueled weapon that no one
can match. It’s got a 500 kilo warhead, and can go 20 km at 90 per hour, or 36 km at 67 per hour. That is one long range bad ass torpedo. The American Mark XV 53 cm model, by contrast, has a third the range at a slightly slower top speed, and less than half the range at cruising speed. We also saw in the Philippines campaign that the depth gauges are faulty on these and they travel too low under their targets and the magnetic influence detonators often fail to go off.
But you know, the US Navy believes in the big gun over the torpedo, and they think their effective gun range is outside that of Japanese torpedo range. The Japanese equip most of their cruisers and destroyers with the long lance, with spares, and prefer them to the big guns. I talked a few weeks ago about Admiral Gunichi Mikawa’s cruiser fleet.
He left Rabaul in his flagship Chokai back on the afternoon of the 7th and is now in the area. Now, as I said, Japanese recon planes do not find the American carriers the 8th, concealed by clouds SW of Guadalcanal, but they do spot the 27 transports which those Bettys attack, and they ALSO spot 3 heavy cruisers, 13 transports, and a few destroyers off Tulagi. A bit before 1700, Mikawa gives out his battle plan to hit them all. He’ll send his strike force through the passage south of Savo Island, torpedo the enemy ships off Guadalcanal, head around to Tulagi to attack there, and head back through the passage north of Savo. The attack is timed for 0130, so his units will ideally be out of range of any enemy carrier-based planes by dawn. Mikawa’s ships are spotted by a couple of Hudsons already in the morning, but their reports don’t get through till the evening, but there’s a new wrinkle for the Allies by then.
Admiral Fletcher has planned to withdraw the American carriers the 10th since he’s lost like a 5th of his fighters, but when he hears the 8th that the Japanese have sent twin engine torpedo bombing Bettys versus the transports, he’s worried about his carriers NOW, what with Lexington being lost at the Coral Sea and Yorktown at Midway, so he withdraws them. And on a moonless overcast night south of Savo, at 0138, Captain Hayakawa aboard Chokai gives the order “torpedoes fire to starboard”, and Mikawa’s strike force- 7 cruisers and one destroyer- opens fire. Australian heavy cruiser Canberra takes 24 hits from five ships in minutes, power is lost and she is ablaze, coasting to a stop, with both boiler rooms knocked out, and is torpedoed below the waterline.
In fact, the Southern Allied Group, three cruisers and two destroyers, is scattered and battered in around just seven minutes. The rest of the battle, the next 30 minutes, takes place north and east of Savo Island as the Northern Group is savaged. Heavy cruiser Quincy is hit and the boat deck catches fire, she is going down, Astoria is hit and loses power and steering control, and glides to a halt, with fires blazing amidships.
Both Quincy and Astoria do manage to score hits on Chokai, one destroying the chart room 20 feet from where Mikawa stands. Vincennes, the other heavy cruiser in the group, is also wrecked by torpedos, and the order to abandon ship comes at 0230, by 0300 both Quincy and Vincennes have sunk. The Japanese are gone by the time this happens, Mikawa ordering the withdrawal already at 0220, to make great headway before dawn and the threat from the American carriers. No air attack comes in the morning, of course, as the carriers have gone, and Mikawa splits his ships, some for Rabaul, and cruiser division 6 for Kavieng.
He has won a great, yet flawed victory. Great because it is by any measurement just that- and many call it the worst defeat in US naval history; but flawed because he does not destroy the transports and that is his mission. Combined Fleet Commander Isoroku Yamamoto gets pissed about this too, and in hindsight with some real justification.
Victor Crutchley arrives on the scene soon after the battle with cruiser Australia and helps with rescue, but if Mikawa had stayed, that cruiser and a few destroyers could do little to prevent Mikawa’s force from destroying all the transports. (Costello) “Had he seized the initiative, Operation Watchtower would have collapsed- and with it the American Solomon offensive. The Japanese admiral’s decision to withdraw after winning the Battle of Savo island saved Guadalcanal from being added to the long list of Allied disasters.” But Mikawa did not know that the carriers had withdrawn, so he did not remain to destroy the American beachhead. In the aftermath for the Allies, Canberra is unsalvageable and scuttled in the morning. Astoria goes down just after noon.
Four cruisers and over 1,000 sailors have gone down. Then on the afternoon of the 9th, Richmond Turner gets his naval task force together. He now has no carrier air cover and his naval screen has just been savaged, and they leave and head for Noumea with 1,000 reserve troops who hadn’t yet landed, most of the heavy guns, and half the food. (Costello) “…Vandegrift’s 6,000 men on Tulagi and 10,000 on Guadalcanal had been left with less than a month’s rations, no heavy weapons, not a single landmine, few entrenching tools, and a few coils of barbed wire…” Martine commander Alexander Vandegrift sees securing the airfield as his number one priority. There’s a gap in the middle of the airstrip of like 60 meters, but they get to work with the Japanese heavy equipment and by the 12th the runway is over 800 m long.
The whole field is just 50m wide. It gets the name Henderson field the 12th, after Lofton Henderson, who died at Midway leading the torpedo bombers. An Allied leadership choice made this week by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill is that Dwight Eisenhower shall lead Operation Torch. And what is that? That is the Allied attack this year against Vichy France’s North African possessions.
Thing is, this week, well the 12th-16th, Churchill is in the USSR to tell Josef Stalin they will not open a second European Front in 1942 but will attack in North Africa with Torch. (A World at Arms) “The Soviet leader was, or professed to be, extremely upset at first but had to accept the decisions; having helped the Germans drive the Allies off the European continent in the first place, he was not in a very good position to complain about their difficulty in returning to it.” Well, despite that being a fantastic source about the war, that’s way way oversimplified. Churchill lists all his arguments for no second front already the 12th, and Stalin is furious for days. Things don’t improve until the night of the 16th. Stalin asks for trucks and aluminum, and tells Churchill of his plans for an enormous counteroffensive.
He also insists on the expansion of the British bombing campaign against Germany. But it’s been bigger and bigger as the year has gone on- in fact, this month, 38% of Germany’s fighters are busy on the Western Front and 43% in the east, even as the Axis offensive in the east proceeds. And proceed it does. The advance on Maikop continues this week. Interestingly, there is already a group of 62 Russian speaking German troops infiltrating that city; they are disguised as NKVD troops. By the 8th, the Axis have crossed the Laba River in force, and the infiltrators are sabotaging communications in the city and issuing fake orders that the city is to be abandoned.
Still, when the main force arrives the 9th, oil storage tanks and other installations are on fire. There’s also this: the attackers, “…had been led to believe that their primary objective was located within Maikop, this proved to be a false assumption. In fact, of the approximately 150 oil rigs located in the region, only about a dozen were actually located within the city environs.” (The Caucasus 1942-43, Robert Forczyk) So after spending two weeks fighting across 300 km, they now have to go another 50 or so, which means crossing the Belaya River, which a first attempt at fails, but even so, “After arriving at Maikop, it quickly became obvious that restoring oil production in captured Caucasian oil fields was not going to be as simple as Könti Öl executives in Berlin had believed. The German oilmen had expected some sabotage, but were stunned by the level of Soviet ingenuity in vandalism.
Steel cores had been driven down each shaft and could not be removed… thus the capture of Maikop itself proved to be an empty triumph… the seizure of the oil resources in the Caucasus was not going to be that easy.” (Forczyk) To the east, the panzer spearheads occupy Pyatigorsk the 10th and Ewald von Kleist then orders a halt. They have outrun their supply chain. In the west, Krasnodar also falls beginning the 9th and the 10th.
It is the capital of the Kuban and is a refining center. Or it used to be, for when the 17th army occupies it, it too has been wrecked and is another empty triumph. For all the territory taken so far, Edelweiss has not achieved any strategic objectives, the mobile units are out of gas and the infantry is too slow to catch the Soviets, who are damn sure not going to let any oil fall into German hands. Meanwhile to the Northeast… On the 9th, Josef Stalin wires Andrey Yeremenko concerning the Stalingrad and Southeastern Fronts.
The upshot of it is that the Stalingrad Front is then subordinated to the Southeastern Front, so Vasily Gordov becomes Yeremenko’s Deputy. Stalin also orders Georgy Zhukov and Alexander Vasilevsky to fly in and report on the situation, since the Axis are advancing to the the city’s external defense line. This is Line O, behind it are Lines K and S, and then Line G is within the actual city. Vasilevsky and Yeremenko meet up the 12th. Yeremenko thinks that since the enemy is getting rid of the Soviet bridgeheads on the west bank of the Don and west of Kalach, and has closed the Kalach pocket, he will soon launch a major attack against the Soviet 4th Tank Army to try and force a crossing of the Don itself. That Kalach Pocket contained chunks of Anton Lopatin’s 62nd army, and German 6th Army Commander Friedrich Paulus claims over 35,000 prisoners and 270 tanks destroyed.
However, as many of half of Lopatin’s soldiers escaped East over the Don to fight another day. The victory is announced by German command- with much larger figures- as a spectacular one, like those last year, but it isn’t as decisive as it might look at first glance. Because much like Hermann Hoth’s 4th panzers, Paulus’ 6th army does not have the force to achieve its objectives without rests, without reinforcements, without delays after delays, and closing the pocket doesn’t mean they don’t still have a lot left to do; they still haven’t cleared the enemy from west of the Don. The attacks to try and do just that begin at the end of the week, and I will talk about them next time.
Hoth’s 4th panzer army was stopped at the end of last week; Vasily Chuikov’s operational group holding back his left wing. So Hoth splits his forces, the main bulk around Abganerovo fighting 64th army and a smaller one against Chuikov. All this week, the Romanian VI Corps and units of German 4th Army Corps assault Chuikov’s positions, not making much headway until the 13th, when 64th army orders them to slowly withdraw to avoid being surrounded.
(Glantz) “Chuikov closely observed German tactics… Because the German and non German Axis commanders were anxious to minimize casualties, they prepared each attack carefully, timed to coincide with the few opportunities for Luftwaffe air support. Seeing this, Chuikov attempted to disrupt the German preparations, launching surprise artillery raids just before the impending German attack or withdrawing his troops a short distance to avoid the artillery and air strikes aimed at his positions. The results were as frustrating for the Germans as they were encouraging for the disheartened Soviet soldiers.” As for Mikhail Shumilov’s 64th army, and its patchwork of forces, they launch a counterattack the 9th, featuring over 100 tanks backed by nearly 400 big guns and mortars against the spearheads of the 48th Panzer Corps, which is a decent advantage in big guns over those 3 German divisions, equal armor, and more manpower. For two days they fight along the Tikhoretsk-Stalingrad railway line. The Red Army General Staff daily report for the 11th says that 64th army has done its job, throwing the enemy back from its forward positions.
Well, they’ve kind of more than done their job, because guess what? By now, Hoth’s 4th panzers are beaten. For real, though you might not think it. Their objective is taking the outskirts of Stalingrad, and achieving that they have failed, much like 6th army’s task to surround and destroy the Soviets west of the Don. Failed.
The front here stabilizes and that means that Hoth cannot reach Stalingrad without reinforcements. Reinforcements are on their way somewhere else, though- Malta. This is Operation Pedestal, a convoy of 14 ships with a massive escort- two battleships, 4 carriers, 7 cruisers, 32 destroyers and smaller ships. On the 11th, though, the carrier Eagle is torpedoed and sunk. The next day, two merchant ships are sunk, one destroyer too, the carrier Indomitable is damaged.
Two cruisers, a transport, and the oiler Ohio are damaged. On the 13th, cruiser Manchester and five merchant ships are sunk in morning, two more later in day. Four reach Malta, and Ohio will be towed into Valetta the 15th with vital fuel for the island. “The 55,000 tons of food and fuel delivery by this convoy saved Malta from surrender, and allowed Malta based aircraft and submarines to resume their attacks against Rommel’s supply lines. Had the Pedestal convoy failed, Malta would have surrendered on September 7th.” (Gilbert) And that brings me to the end of this week of the war.
A week where the Axis forces in operations Edelweiss and Heron make gains, but where none of them achieve their objectives, and perhaps never will, where Malta is saved, and the Allied navies humiliated again by the Japanese. But now they have all those islands, and an air based, and all those transports were not destroyed. Mikawa did win a great victory, but by not completing it, he may very well have sown the seeds of a much larger defeat. There’s been an awful lot of heavy and game changing action this summer, and we have tried to follow it and even commemorate it with limited series of collectibles over at the TimeGhost army barracks. There’s a link below. And over on TimeGhost History we have a new series called TimeGhost shorts, which is what it says- shorter historical pieces that I bet you guys will really enjoy.
Click here to check that out. Our TG Army member of the week is Halajda. The army is what keeps these productions rolling along, so join the army at patreon.comn or timeghost.tv. Do not forget to subscribe and I’ll see you next time.