They were veterans before they started

Friday, May 24th, 2019

No ordinary military organization, Dunlap says, whether regular unit or of conscript personnel, can stand against one of the special units of anywhere near equal strength:

Among the special forces themselves, I doubt if any is much better than any other. Germany had Storm Troops or shock troops, England had her Commandos and the U.S. had the Rangers, and Marine Raiders. All had paratroopers. The universal characteristics of these organizations are the physical and mental conditions of the men. Almost all members were young and very good physical specimens. Practically all were volunteer units, appealing to the athletic and adventurous personality. They received incredibly strenuous and dangerous training, learning far more about warfare and weapons than the average combat soldiers. Because they were picked men, knowing they were good, their spirits were always higher than those of comparable ordinary forces. Intensely practical specialized courses of combat training toughened them before they even went into action, so that for all purposes, they were veterans before they started. Had casualties, too — of 500 Commandos who went through a special training range at Benghazi, 17 were killed in that training.

Some of the records these selected-man outfits set in the war are almost unbelievable. A German unit, on foot, in the invasion of Poland in 1939 averaged 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) advance per day for 12 days, with full equipment. I cannot locate the number of the outfit, but remember they were know as the “Foot Panzers” afterward because of that march. In North Africa the U. S. 1st Rangers covered 16 miles in two hours and ten minutes, (including a ten-minute break) with full field equipment, on foot. Parachutists in training were never allowed to walk, even for a few steps between buildings in camps. Had to run.

One of the characteristics of these special units was their ability to fight an action and suffer far fewer casualties than an ordinary unit in similar circumstances. The men were just more alert and better trained, I guess, as well as being better physically. They were tough. The German paratroopers who defended Cassino made a stand that stopped the Allies cold. American bombs knocked the town down; the British could not take what was left, even with Ghurka and American help; The New Zealand Division could not take it; and finally, when it was completely surrounded and cut off, fanatical Poles overwhelmed the survivors. The fighting lasted months. Nobody can tell me that a German regular army unit would not have surrendered early, when the situation became hopeless, but Goering’s boys were ordered to hold up the advance and they held it up. The four U. S. Ranger Battalions were the equivalent of a regular division in infantry power.

Even the Italian selected units, such as the Folgore Parachutist Division, were good soldiers. The rank and file of the Italian army were poor fighters, but it is hard to actually say how poor, because the majority of the men thought they were on the wrong side and did not try very hard! Most of them favored England and America more than Germany, so they did not work hard at the war, even when their side was apparently winning. Some of the Fascist units, hopped up politically, did fair fighting, comparable with good average work anywhere. The closest thing Italy had to special units comparable with other nations’ were the San Marco Marines, a semi-naval force, somewhat like our own Marines.

My opinion of our U.S.M.C. is not very flattering. The prewar permanent Marine was a lot different from the war type, who was essentially only a better physical class of army man. He received somewhat better training as a fighting man, but the best thing about the Marine Corps is its spirit. The men have much higher morale and regard for their organization than either Army or Navy. Their fighting tactics stink. The usual Marine landing operation was a Purple Heart expedition from start to finish. They did not seem to use good sense. Naturally, I was not along on any of their beachheads, but I am satisfied that my information is straight. It comes from individual Marines, sailors and official pictures.

If a cavalryman had acted like they did on an invasion, his own pal would have shot him as being too damn dangerous to have around. Marines went in standing up; they bunched on beaches; charged machine guns; ran up on caves with flame-throwers; threw grenades like rocks; and in general acted like characters in a movie rather than trained soldiers who might do better if they lived longer. I saw countless true combat moving pictures where Marines got themselves knocked off needlessly (I can tell the difference between phony and real “action” pictures pretty well — I was a “German” in a phony war news-reel once in Africa). To anyone who was ever mixed up in the Pacific war, the Marine casualty lists are understandable. The guys were always getting medals for having both hands blown off while saving the general’s lunch or something else just as sensible.

Marines were mixed up in a lot of screwy operations, too. Betio, called “Tarawa” after the atoll it is a part of, was a fine example. To a lot of people besides myself that scrap looked as though the Nips built up a strong point and dared the Marine Corps to try and take it, and the Marines could not take the dare. Just what the hell the importance of taking Tarawa was, no one can really find out. It was not worth a hoot to either the Japs or ourselves for either defense or offense on anything except the smallest possible scale. In the whole Gilbert Islands the only one of importance to us was Makin, the northern key of the chain, which was taken without too much trouble. As an outer-perimeter Japanese seaplane base, Tarawa could have been easily neutralized from Makin by air. According to the Navy grapevine, General MacArthur was against the operation, but as it was a Navy show and they insisted, he could not stop it.


  1. Lu An Li says:

    “the Nips built up a strong point [Tarawa] and dared the Marine Corps to try and take it, and the Marines could not take the dare.”

    Marines could not RESIST to take the dare.

    But nobody could ever have foreseen it was going to be that bad.

  2. Lucklucky says:

    “The closest thing Italy had to special units comparable with other nations’ were the San Marco Marines, a semi-naval force, somewhat like our own Marines.”

    Seems Dunlap does not know much about the subject.
    Italian started the naval special operations in WW1 and followed in WW2 in what an American can call the first SEALs

  3. Graham says:

    Yes, some of the most impressive SOF feats of the war. Even without reading that I can recall reading many times of the sinking of HMS Valiant [battleship] at either Alexandria or Port Said, and possibly another ship, using human torpedoes.

    The Italians had men who knew how to fight and had serious skills.

  4. TRX says:

    “Seems Dunlap does not know much about the subject.”

    There were probably *dozens* of American soldiers who knew more. And maybe that many reports filed in obscure places in DC and various military academies.

    Even if a book like “Italian Special Forces of WWII” existed in 1948, for Dunlap to even know about it would have been more or less a fluke.

  5. Graham says:

    Yes, even for stuff that leaks out to soldiers in a theatre or even that eventually makes it to the press, it took years for these things to spread around and get collated even in memoirs and official histories and the first few pop histories after the war. Dunlap actually seems well informed about things beyond his trade and hos own service, doing a very good job particularly for a man who served in an enlisted role and putting it altogether so soon after the war. He did serve in a range of theatres that was impressive.

    I have been wondering how many, even in the far flung US forces (farther flung in greater numbers than the British) served so widely. I suppose more than I think.

  6. lucklucky says:

    “Even if a book like “Italian Special Forces of WWII” existed in 1948, for Dunlap to even know about it would have been more or less a fluke.”

    Strangely he did know about San Marco which were more obscure, the only operation of note even that with other axis forces was contributing to the failure of operation “Agreement”.

  7. Kirk says:

    My take on the Marines in WWII was that, outside the Marine Raiders and Evans Carlson, they mostly decided that they were a hammer, and went looking for nails to pound flat.

    It’s interesting to observe that Carlson’s experience with the Communists in China led almost directly to one of the most enduring and successful small unit structures in the US military, the Marine Rifle Squad. 13 men, three fire teams, one leader–And, all based of his experiences in China as an observer with the Communists.

    The Marine squad is a structure I have a lot of admiration for–You can run it one up, two back when you’re expecting trouble, and two up, one back when not, and then deal with things as they appear. The four-man fire team is more resilient, has more redundancy, and it gives an experienced senior squad leader a lot of manpower with which to do the job–And, on top of that, it’s much more loss-resistant than the idiotic seven- or nine-man squad of the army, with it’s two team structure.

    During one of the downturns that I dealt with, we had to mothball one of our squads in our platoon, due to a shortage of good NCOs. We wound up going to two squads with three fire teams each, and it was amazing to me how much more I could get done than with two, out in the field.

    The Army’s essential inability to grasp that manpower down at the lowest level is as critical as it is remains a subject of much befuddlement to me. It seems as though they never really thought a lot of these things through, or tested them. There was a thing called the Engineer Restructuring Initiative back in the 90s, which put an Engineer battalion out in every maneuver brigade–Which was fine, if you were worried about staffing for officers. Actual worker bees, out doing stuff? LOL… I counted noses, when I was an Observer/Controller at the NTC, once: The Second Lieutenant running an ERI platoon actually had fewer dismounts capable of doing work than I had as a Corporal running a squad during the mid-1980s, once you subtracted all the vehicle drivers and other impedimential manpower losses. That poor kid was lucky to have two-three dismounts per APC to do the work of emplacing or removing obstacles. Back in the day, when my truck pulled up to lay a minefield, there were 9 guys in the back of my truck to do things with, and that was if I had someone detached to be doing KP. Effectively, all that ERI really did was vastly increase the overhead, and slots for the commissioned folk. Which, come to think of it, may have been the point…

    Oh, and for a comparison…? Circa 1986, during an exercise up around Fulda, my squad got something like 600 mines laid in one night. Ideal conditions, mostly in one minefield, and using the simplified procedures for row mining. That’s emplaced, properly recorded, and turned over to the overwatching unit. One night.

    I never saw an entire platoon, inclusive of three squad leaders, a platoon sergeant, and a second lieutenant, manage more than maybe 200-300 over the course of an entire National Training Center rotation, which lasts three weeks. These were post-ERI units, which theoretically bumped up the Engineer support to the maneuver units from the old “one company per brigade” to the “one battalion to brigade”. While there were, on paper, bigger units, the actual number of men down at the coal face actually went down…

    Which may be an indicator for what went wrong with the Army during the Clinton years. The theory was, we were going to replace the manpower with all this high-tech (comparatively…) equipment, but that equipment never actually got procured, let alone issued to the units. But, the cuts to the manpower happened almost instantaneously.

    There are reasons I hold the contemptuous view that I do for most of the “geniuses” we had running things then, and now.

  8. Kirk says:

    Fat-fingered that NTC rotation number… Should be “two weeks”, not “three”. It’d only be three if you counted the prep week spent in the cantonment area drawing equipment and doing your arrival/organization deal. For an O/C, the rotation lasted 3 weeks, since you didn’t really give a damn about what the players were doing during their redeployment phase. Total rotation time for the players would thus be four weeks–one arrival/setup, one doing force-on-force with the OPFOR folks, one doing live fire battle with the Plywoodian enemy up north, and then a fourth week of “lets-get-the-hell-out-of-here”.

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