A Curated Weekly Review of Interesting Historical Occurrences
The Lost Battalion Dispatch #17 for the Week of October 23, 2022
This Week in History
“Et tu Brute?”, an Audacious sinking, and a Soviet officer averts WWIII
Marcus Iunius Brutus coinage with Ides of March and daggers
Marcus Junius Brutus (of “Et tu Brute?” fame) was defeated at the Second Battle of Philippi on October 23, 42 BC.
After murdering Gaius Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 BC, Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, the lead conspirators in the plot, fled Italy and took control of the Eastern provinces. Once the Second Triumvirate secured control of Rome and the Western provinces, Marcus Antonius and Gaius Octavius (Caeser’s nephew, adopted son, and soon-to-be Emperor Caesar Augustus) led 28 legions eastward to avenge Caesar’s death. They met the conspirators in Macedonia near the town of Phillipi.
The First Battle of Phillipi was really two battles, one pitting the legions of Antonius against those of Cassius, and another where Octavian squared off against Brutus. Brutus was winning when Cassius, who was losing, heard a false rumor of his death and committed suicide. Brutus left the field to rally Cassius’ troops and the battle ended in a draw.
Meanwhile, a fleet loyal to Brutus and Cassius destroyed a supply convoy destined for Antonius and Octavian, leaving them in a difficult logistical situation. Brutus held a strong defensive position and could have held out until his enemies were forced to withdraw for want of supplies, but his officers and men demanded a victory in open battle. This went badly for them and, to make matters worse, Octavian’s troops were able to capture the gates of the enemy camp before Brutus could retreat. He straggled off into the nearby hill country with only four intact legions. Realizing the situation was hopeless, he committed suicide the next day.
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German Sturmtruppen at Caporetto with Maxim 08/15 Light Machine Guns
At 6:41 AM on the morning of October 24, 1917, 2200 heavy artillery guns began pounding the Italian trench lines along the Isonzo River near modern Kobarid, Slovenia, signaling the beginning of the Battle of Caporetto. Many of the Italian defenders had already fled because four hours earlier the area had been flooded with poisonous chlorine and phosgene gas and Italian gas masks could only protect their users for two hours. Over 600 died from the gas attack.
The assault on the Italian lines was led not by the Austro-Hungarian forces that had been opposing the Italians in the sector since the beginning of the war, but by German troops brought in after the collapse of Russian resistance in the East. Some of these were Sturmtruppen employing newly developed infiltration tactics. Rather than the mass human wave assaults attempted earlier in the war, these troops advanced in small groups taking advantage of any cover available and relying on the initiative of junior officers rather than a preconceived plan by higher headquarters. One of those junior officers was Lt. Erwin Rommel.
Sturmtruppen also utilized the concept of fire and maneuver by which one group would provide covering fire while another moved. New Maxim light machine guns facilitated these tactics. Bypassing enemy strongpoints, they penetrated the rear areas, targeting headquarters and communications to isolate front-line positions. The cut-off and confused troops defending the strongpoints would then be liquidated by subsequent conventional attacks.
Using these new tactics, German troops advanced 16 miles during the first day of the battle, throwing the entire Italian army into disarray. The Italians rallied behind the Tagliamento River, but this defensive line was also breached. Only a breakdown of the German and Austro-Hungarian supply system allowed the Italians to check the advance at a third line behind the Piave River. For generations after the battle, the term “Caporetto” was used by Italians to describe any terrible defeat.
At 2:30 AM on October 25, 1944, the submarine USS Tang, after an incredibly successful patrol in the Formosa Strait, fired the last of her 24 torpedoes at a Japanese transport. It would be the last torpedo she ever fired. The Mark 18 Electric Torpedo, like its even more unreliable predecessor the Mark 14, had no safeguards against making a “circular run” and striking the sub that fired it. Captain Richard O’Kane ordered emergency speed and fishtailed to try and avoid the torpedo, but it struck the near the aft torpedo room 20 seconds after being fired.
The ship went down quickly, Captain O’Kane and eight other men on the bridge were able to swim clear, one other man made it out through the conning tower, but the rest of the crew was trapped inside the sinking sub.
Tang came to rest in 180 feet of water. 13 of the trapped men made it to the forward torpedo room and used the Momsen Lung, a rebreather device, to get out through the escape trunk, a type of airlock.
Three men from the bridge, including the captain, the man who got out through the conning tower, and five who escaped the sunken sub were picked up by a Japanese frigate after treading water through the night. Survivors from some of the ships sunk by Tang were aboard the frigate. Needless to say, they were unhappy with the submariners. O’Kane, who survived the notorious Omori POW Camp, later said, “When we realized that our clubbing and kickings were being administered by the burned, mutilated survivors of our handiwork, we found we could take it with less prejudice.”
Despite his early exit from the war, O’Kane has the distinction of being the top American submarine ace of all time. During five patrols aboard Tang, he was responsible for sinking 31 enemy ships with a total displacement of 227,800 tons. 13 of these were sunk on her last patrol when 22 of the 24 torpedoes she fired found their mark. After being liberated from the POW camp, O’Kane was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Erie Canal Locks from the 1878 edition of Harper’s Student Geography
The Eire Canal opened on October 26, 1825, creating the first navigable waterway between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. Political opponents of New York Governor DeWitt Clinton had derided the canal as “Clinton’s Folly,” believing that even if could be finished it would never be profitable, but toll receipts covered the state’s construction cost within the first year of operation. In addition to the toll income, the canal gave New York a huge competitive advantage over other East Coast ports by allowing easy transshipment to and from the Midwest.
The canal was a marvel of early 19th-century engineering. Over its 363-mile length, it used 34 locks to transfer barge traffic down the 565-foot elevation change from Lake Erie to the Hudson River. Its peak usage came in 1855 when 33,000 shipments traversed it. After that, competition from railroads steadily decreased its utility. Long-haul trucking and the opening of the larger St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 finally put an end to its commercial viability. Today it is used primarily by recreational watercraft.
The crew of Audacious rowing toward Olympic
On October 27, 1914, the battleship HMS Audacious received the dubious distinction of being the largest ship ever sunk by a naval mine. She struck a mine laid by the German auxiliary minelayer SS Berlin while steaming with her squadron for gunnery practice near Tory Island, Ireland. Thinking his ship had been torpedoed, Captain Cecil Dampier hoisted the submarine warning signal which caused the other dreadnoughts in the squadron to immediately depart the area in accordance with Admiralty Instructions. Smaller ships, including the light cruiser Liverpool, remained to render assistance.
Since the ship could still make 9 knots, the captain believed he could cover the 25 miles necessary to reach a place where he could beach the ship. Unfortunately, flooding quickly spread through “water-tight” bulkheads because of faulty seals and hatches that did not close properly. Ten miles short of her goal, rising water forced the abandonment of the engine rooms and the ship drifted to a halt just two hours after striking the mine. Captain Dampier then ordered all non-essential personnel to abandon the ship. The liner RMS Olympic had by this time arrived on the scene after receiving Audacious’ distress call. She attempted to take the battleship in tow, but the line snapped.
As darkness approached and hope of saving the ship waned, the captain and the remaining crew were evacuated. Twelve hours after striking the mine, Audacious capsized and remained floating upside-down until an explosion rocked the ship 15 minutes later. A piece of armor plating flew 800 yards, killing a petty officer aboard Liverpool. He was the only casualty from the sinking.
Despite the fact that American tourists aboard the Olympic had witnessed the sinking and taken photographs, the Admiralty attempted to keep it secret, leaving Audacious on all public lists of ship movements and activities until November of 1918 when notice of the sinking was belatedly published in The Times. This was no secret to German intelligence agents who reported the sinking to their navy within a month of the event.
The Cuban Missile Crisis ended on October 28, 1962, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev stated, “the Soviet government, in addition to previously issued instructions on the cessation of further work at the building sites for the weapons, has issued a new order on the dismantling of the weapons which you describe as ‘offensive’ and their crating and return to the Soviet Union.” The weapons in question were SS-4 Sandal medium-range ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.
The beginning of the crisis can be traced back to March when President John F. Kennedy order the deployment of PGM-19 Jupiter missiles to Italy and Turkey. This act, combined with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and Cuban overtures to China seeking military assistance convinced Khrushchev to provide SA-2 antiaircraft missile, Il-28 light bombers and Russian troops operate that equipment to the communist island.
As the Crisis escalated, the Soviets perceived a “missile gap” because they had only 20 very unreliable ICBMs capable of reaching the United States from Russia. To narrow the gap, Khrushchev decided to deploy shorter-range nuclear missiles to Cuba, despite Fidel Castro’s initial objections. A total of 43,000 Soviet specialist troops in the guise of common laborers and technicians would eventually be deployed to Cuba to oversee the construction and to train local operators.
Anti-Castro Cubans quickly noticed the deployment of the missiles and notified relatives in Miami.
On October 14, a U-2 spy plane photographed SS-4 sites under construction. In response the United States declared a naval “quarantine” against military shipments to Cuba. The term quarantine was used to distinguish the action from a blockade which would have technically been an act of war. Since the quarantine was to take place in international waters, Kennedy appealed to the Organization of American States to back it under the auspices of the 1947 Rio Treaty which provided for mutual defense against actions that threatened the peace of the Western Hemisphere. Argentina sent two destroyers to participate.
On October 22nd Kennedy announced the quarantine in a national radio address and stated, “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” Meanwhile, Soviet freighters continued to steam toward Cuba. Finally, on the 25th reports indicated that the Soviet ships had turned back. Kennedy regarded this as a success of the hard line he had taken in declaring the quarantine.
Also, on the 25th, however, when US Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson confronted Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin regarding the evidence of the missile sites, Zorin refused to comment. The next day, the US raised its nuclear alert level to DECON 2. US nuclear-armed B-52 were began continuous airborne patrols and other nuclear armed fighters and bombers were dispersed and put on alert. Kennedy had privately determined that nothing short on an invasion would cause the missiles to be removed. The United States began early preparations for an invasion of Cuba and for a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union in the event the Soviets intervened.
On the 26th back-channel communications were established between ABC reporter John Scali and the KGB Washington station chief. He asked Scali to approach high-ranking State Department officials about the possibility of a diplomatic solution. The KGB agent indicated that the missile could be removed under UN supervision and that Castro would publicly acknowledge their presence in return for a US pledge not to invade. The US passed a message through the Brazilian government agreeing in principle. Very late that same day a telegram from Khrushchev to Kennedy repeated essentially the same offer.
Castro and Che Guevara, on the other hand, seemed eager for confrontation. They demanded assurances from Khrushchev that he would retaliate against a US invasion with nuclear missiles. Castrol issued new rules of engagement for his anti-aircraft batteries to fire on any US aircraft. On the 27th Radio Moscow issued a statement changing the terms of Khrushchev’s earlier message and offering a withdrawal of the Cuban missiles in exchange for the removal of the Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Unknown to the Soviets, the US military establishment considered the Jupiter missiles to be obsolete. Their usefulness had been surmounted by the deployment of submarine mounted Polaris missiles. They were only being retained because the Turks did not want them to be withdrawn.
The crisis reached a peak on the 27th as the Soviet freighter Grozy bore down on the blockade line and missiles were fired at several US aircraft, missing two low-flying RF-8A Crusaders, but hitting a U-2 which crashed, killing pilot Rudolf Anderson. Kennedy decided to regard the shoot-down as an accident. Later that day emissaries of Kennedy and Khrushchev meet in a Washington, D. C. Chinese restaurant to confirm that the offer made on Radio Moscow was genuine.
As the crisis was on the verge of being defused, Soviet submarine B-59 penetrated the blockade line and the Essex class carrier USS Randolph’s task force dropped signaling charges to warn the sub it had been detected. Officers aboard B-59 mistook these for a depth charge attack and prepared to launch the “special weapon,” a nuclear-tipped torpedo. Fortunately, B-59 was the command ship of a four-submarine detachment operating in the area. Normally only the consent of the captain and political officer would have been required to launch but because detachment commander Vasily Arkhipov was aboard all three had to concur. The others consented to the attack but were overruled by Arkhipov’s dissent. He convinced B-59’s captain to surface and await further instructions from Moscow. This one Soviet naval officer may have been the difference between a peaceful resolution to the crisis and World War III.
On October 28, having been informally assured of Kennedy’s willingness to remove the missiles from Turkey, Khrushchev issued the statement quoted in the opening paragraph
B-59 on the surfaces with an HSS1-Seabat hovering overhead
Constantine (the Great) entered Rome on October 29, 312 AD after defeating Maxentius, one of his chief rivals for the throne of the Roman Empire, at the Battle of Milvian bridge. He attributed his victory to a dream in which he was directed to have his soldiers fighting under the sign of Chi Rho (ΧΡ), the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek. The story of him “baptizing” his army by marching them through a river is, however, an apocryphal legend.
His arrival in Rome was celebrated as an adventus, essentially affirming his sole rulership of the empire and putting an end to the Tetrarchy of two senior and two junior rulers established by Diocletian in 293. His supremacy, however, would not be complete until he won a series of battles against his other rival Licinius in 324.
Constantine was responsible for important administrative and monetary reforms. He strengthened the military and secured the borders through several victorious campaigns against encroaching Franks, Goths, and Sarmatians. In 330 he renamed the Greek city of Byzantium, calling it Constantinopolis. This city would become his capital and remain the bulwark of Eastern Rome for over 1000 years.
Constantine ended the persecution of Christians and legalized the religion alongside other religions and cults by issuing the Edict of Milan in 313. He however retained the title of pontifex maximum, head of the ancient Roman religion, and only converted to Christianity on his deathbed.
In accord with his Christian sympathies, he gave his mother Helena unlimited access to the treasury for a pilgrimage in search of Christian relics in Judea. There she identified the location where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher would be constructed, discovered numerous relics, and determined the validity of the True Cross through a miraculous test. Constantine also sponsored the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Constantine’s Conversion to Christianity as imagined by Peter Paul Rubens
Free Historical Fiction from Ian S. McCaskie
God’s Horsemen, Episode One introduces the story of Alexandros, a Greek, and Roland, a Norman, quasi-immortal warriors, endowed with this gift so that they might confront and defeat the forces of evil. Roland and Alex met after the battle of Montepeloso in 1041 AD, where they were both “killed” fighting on opposite sides. This was Alexandros first “death”. Roland, having experienced his first demise nearly 300 years earlier while fighting against the Umayyad’s in Gaul, took young Alexandros under his wing and they become inseparable companions This first episode establishes the backstory of the characters and sets the stage for their involvement the history-changing Battle of Manzikert. Kindle Vella stories can be read for free on Kindle or on the web. Check it out here: God’s Horsemen Episode One.
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