Of D-Day & Virginia

On D-Day (6 June 1944) more than 160,000 Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy and attacked German troops and fortifications in Nazi-occupied France. The map below, attributed to the U.S. 12th Army Group of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), illustrates the immense invasion that turned the tide in World War II.

Secret map of D-Day invasion
Secret map of D-Day invasion

This military situation map uses three rectangular symbols to show the position of U.S. (solid outline), British and Canadian (dashed outline), and German (diagonal hatching) forces. A symbol with an “X” inside denotes infantry; above the symbol the “III” indicates a regiment, and the “xx” represents a division (usually 10,000-30,000 soldiers). To the right of the symbol, a number identifies the division or regiment.

Reading the symbols, the map reveals that the U.S. 4th Infantry Division led the assault at Utah Beach; nearby the 101st Airborne Division symbol (rectangle with “AB” inside) represents some 6,000 men dropped behind enemy lines. To the east, the 115th, 116th, and 16th regiments spearheaded the attack on Omaha Beach. Continuing east, units of the British 3rd, 6th, and 50th divisions and the Canadian 3rd Division (CDN inside symbol) captured Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches. The map serves as a cartographic snapshot for a pivotal day in the liberation of Europe.

Storming the beaches of Normandy June 6, 1944.
Storming the beaches of Normandy June 6, 1944.

Remembering D-Day in Bedford, Virginia

Most people have not heard of Bedford, Virginia, but it is where the The National D-Day Memorial helped my family visualize the feelings and sacrifices experienced 71 years ago. The statues and design of the Memorial (below), nestled in the Virginia mountains, stirs the emotions of young and old alike, as it gives a glimpse of that fateful day on the faraway beaches of Normandy

Water bursts simulate enemy fire, as soldier statues hit the beach.
Soldier statues on the cliffs of Normandy.
Soldier statues on the cliffs of Normandy.

May Anniversary: Geopolitics & the Falklands

Just came across some images of the 1982 Falklands War, which happened 33 years ago in the month of May. The greatest naval battle since World War II pitted the British navy against the Argentine air force. It was a war caused by the manipulation of geopolitics by Argentina, in an attempt to rally Argentines to a military dictatorship with a military conquest. A few lessons:

A definition of Malvinas
A definition of Malvinas
  • The war was a game of chances. The British seemed to take more chances, with more of them paying off.
Vulcan bombers flew from Ascension.
  • A gamble succeeded when the British flew an aging Vulcan bomber more than 8,000 miles from Ascension Island to bomb the Argentine-occupied Stanley Airfield. The Vulcan, eluding Argentine air defenses, bombed the runway on May 1, rendering it unusable for Argentine jets that would attack the approaching British fleet. Argentina redeployed its jets to the mainland, meaning they had to fly farther to attack British ships.
  • A gamble failed when British Special Forces in mid-May could not attack Argentina’s Rio Grande airbase, where the ship-killing Super Étendard jets and Exocet missiles were based. Bad weather (May is equivalent to November in the Southern Hemisphere) and intelligence forced the mission to be called off. On May 25 two Super Étendards attacked and destroyed the Atlantic Conveyor, a British ship carrying helicopters. Loss of the helicopters meant British troops had to march, or yomp, 56 miles to retake Stanley.
Failed mission and the loss of Atlantic Conveyor
Failed mission and the loss of Atlantic Conveyor
  • The results show a victory for democracy over dictatorship. Of course, the resilience of British air, naval, and ground forces in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds cannot be over appreciated.

Argentina still claims the Falklands, which it calls the Malvinas, and the current Argentine government discounts the wishes of some 2,560 residents of the Falklands, stating, “a population transplanted by the colonial Power, as is currently the case in the Malvinas Islands, is not a people with the right to free determination.” Of course, Argentines are themselves the descendants of a population transplanted by a colonial power, with remnants of the indigenous Amerindians all but gone.

May should be a month to remember the thousands of Argentines and British who were killed and wounded in this brief but bloody war.

British forces retake the Falklands.
British forces retake the Falklands.

A Gettysburg Battle Map: A 151-Year Legacy

The American Civil War raged between the northern states and southern states from 1861 to 1865. The southern states seceded from the United States in 1861, forming the Confederate States of America (CSA), also known as the Confederacy. Confederate forces won most of the early battles, but a fateful encounter near the small rural town of Gettysburg changed the course of the war. Theodore Ditterline’s oval-shaped map, “Field of Gettysburg,” is considered the first map published of the pivotal battle, where Union (U.S.) forces stopped an invading Confederate army.

Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, resulted in some 51,000 casualties (killed, missing, wounded).The Confederate “Army of Northern Virginia,” commanded by General Robert E. Lee, invaded the northern state of Pennsylvania with some 70,000 troops. Union troops encountered elements of the Confederate army near the town of Gettysburg, and Union forces ultimately swelled to some 90,000 soldiers as reinforcements rushed to the battlefield. The Union “Army of the Potomac” was led by Major General George Meade, who had just been given command of that army.

Ditterline's map of Gettysburg, published shortly after the battle
Ditterline’s map of Gettysburg, published shortly after the battle

The map by Ditterline shows topography, roads, railroads, troop and artillery locations, and troop movements from July 1 to July 3, 1863. Ditterline, a northern cartographer, compiled the map based on eyewitness accounts of the battle. George W. Childs, a Philadelphia newspaper publisher during the Civil War, endorsed the map and added that his opinion was “shared by several officers in the battle.”

On the first day (Wednesday, July 1), the more numerous Confederate forces (in red on the map) made the Union defenders (in blue) retreat from their positions north and west of Gettysburg. The Union army fell back through Gettysburg and took a defensive position south of town on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill.

By Thursday, July 2, the Union soldiers (called “Yankees” by the Confederates) were gaining in numbers and strengthening their positions on the series of hills south of Gettysburg. Union reinforcements were streaming in along the Baltimore turnpike. Confederate troops (called “Rebels” by Union soldiers), spearheaded by General Longstreet’s corps, attacked the Union left flank (southernmost position on Ditterline’s map). Lee’s plan was to have the rest of the Confederate line assault the Union’s center and right flanks, but these attacks were ineffective. While Longstreet’s attack almost broke the Union’s left flank, thousands of Confederate soldiers died in the attempt, but the Union positions held.

Pickett's Charge (red) against Union forces (blue)
Pickett’s Charge (red) against Union forces (blue)

The Union and Confederate lines remained about the same on Friday, July 3. Lee decided to hit the Union center, because he thought the flanks had been reinforced at the expense of the center. Lee ordered a massive artillery bombardment to precede a Confederate infantry charge of some 12,000 soldiers, which becomes known as “Pickett’s Charge,” after Major General George Pickett. Pickett’s Division is labeled on Ditterline’s map. However, Meade anticipated the assault against the Union center, and the Confederate attack failed with huge loss of life.

Painting of Pickett's Charge reaching the Union lines.
Painting of Pickett’s Charge reaching the Union lines.

After the battle, Lee pulled his army out of Pennsylvania, and the rebels retreated back to Virginia. Many believe that Gettysburg marked the beginning of the end of the Confederacy. Lee’s army never recovered from the loss of thousands of soldiers during the three days of battle. There were some 19,000 Virginian soldiers at Gettysburg, and 1 in 4 was a casualty of the battle—many lost their lives during Pickett’s Charge.

Theodore Ditterline captured a critical turning point in U.S. history, with an attractive map design that effectively tells the story of a complex battle. Collectors covet this rare map, which is 400 by 490 mm (15.7 by 19.3 inches), and a copy sold for $5,400 in 2013.

This and other famous maps are printed in the recently released The Times History of the World in Maps by HarperCollins. I was asked to be a contributing author for this publication, and my map descriptions of Dittlerline’s Gettysburg map and Abel Buell’s map of the new United States (published in 1783) are among several featured in the book.