Thursday, June 21, 2012


This month at GFT, an utterly insignificant and trivial piece of military history; the Cannonade of Clatsop Plains, 21 JUN 1942.

Devious Orientals, stalwart Yanks, gunfire in the night, and the Doolittle Raid results in the tragic death of a backstop.


  1. Thanks Chief. I thought this was a fascinating bit of trivia and an interesting event in the demise of US coastal artillery . . .

    There's something elegant about big guns . . .

  2. I agree; I've always regretted that I never got to serve on the old 240mm M1. Now THAT spoke with authority!

    And the Coast Artillery is a good reminder of how quickly our lives have changed over the past half-century. Fortifications and heavy cannon were a crucial part of every Western nation's arsenal for, what, about 400 years? And literally within a human lifetime they are as gone as Homo erectus.

    We do live in "troubled times"...

  3. Well, fortifications are still with us (as Fordo and CMU near Colorado Springs attest.)

  4. Well...sort of. But not really - not on the scale or with the effect they once were.

    Think about it - these brick-and-mortar (or steel-and-concrete) things were a huge part of human geopolitics, economics, and society for, what, something like 400-500 years? Pretty much from the invention of cannon to the middle of the last century. They squatted pretty much everywhere human beings traveled by land or sea, peering out or down at the passageway they blocked off with a frown, ready to hammer away at anyone or anything that tried to pass through against the wishes of the holder. They helped make and break nations and empires, rerouted trade, shaped people's lives and politics for generation after generation.

    And in a single human lifetime they were gone. Sure, there are minor tactical fortifications and bunkers here and there. But these huge coastal defense forts, their cannons, logistical support, infrastructure...gone as if they had never been.

    That's a hell of a huge change. And yet we don't really even think about it other than to sort of shrug...

  5. I agree that the large obvious fortifications have gone the way of the dodo bird. However, forts still play an active role (especially in their traditional role against stronger opponents.)

    Take for example southern Lebanon. Hezbollah fought the IDF to a standstill in 2006 by preparing (and holding) interlocking but largely hidden fortifications.

  6. 'd argue that these two classes of "fortifications" are different in both function and type.

    The old brick-and-mortar forts were designed to defend strategic passages. They channelized attackers (who had to avoid them), or delayed them (by forcing sieges) and provide economy-of-force.

    Their purposes were fundamentally strategic (though their effects were tactical). They enabled a defender to use a relatively small garrison to fix/repel an attacker, either absolutely in the case of harbor defenses or (in the case of fortifications in and around fortified cities) long enough for a field force to maneuver to catch the attacker between the defenses and the field army.

    The "fortifications" used by Hezbollah in 2006 were designed to stiffen a field defense and provide tactical depth through hardening infantry. They had a similar delaying effect but were specifically designed NOT to channelize - rather, they have to be integrated into a horizontal chain of interlocking fields of fire to work. They also - even though they defend on using key terrain - aren't designed to HOLD specific points of key terrain (cities and ports) but to hold larger areas of ground.

    They are really in both form and function no different in intent than the fighting positions I dug when I was a grunt medic or the MOUT sites we constructed defenses in. They CAN have a strategic effect (in 2006 they did, and they did in the Russian Chechnya offensive and have, all the way back to Stalingrad...) but they are designed as a way of upgrading a tactical defense. They're smaller, and they depend way more on concealment for survival rather than construction sturdiness.

    (Lebanon WAS different because of very peculiar geographical circumstances that I'll get to in a moment...)

    I think the big reason is airpower and armor.

    The old fortresses just couldn't and can't survive when an enemy has the ability to bomb them flat. And they're useless in a modern mechanized war when the attacker can drive around them in his mobile fortresses a.k.a. tanks. The cost of building them just doesn't pencil out. A smart defender is better off using the little tactical bunker-and-fighting-position scheme.

    Lebanon, though...

    Lebanon basically revisited the Lines of Torres Vedras. The IDF, like Massena, was confined to a narrow topographic corridor while the Hezzies, like Wellington, could use a combination of tactical depth and strategic planning to force the IDF into attacking into their kill sacks. I don't know the details of the campaign well enough to understand why the IAF couldn't "bomb through" the IDF ground forces, but I suspect that it had something to do with another peculiarity of the campaign, the IDF's well-known unwillingness to take casualties, in this case in forcing a dug-in defense.

    So...I guess I'm going the long way around to say that the Hezbollah defense of south Lebanon was, in effect, similar in nature to the intended function of the old fixed fortification lines like the Torres Vedras, Maginot, and the Siegfried lines. But I'd argue that that campaign was the exception that proofs the rule, rather than an indication that there's a genuine and common example of a modern functional equivalent of them...

  7. Chief: As usual, your excellent post got my taste buds warmed up. Good discussion about a year ago on Tom Ricks blog at "Foreign Policy" regarding an analogy of the roles of Coastal Artillery and Ballistic Missile Defense. It is an older post but well worth reading:

    Also, your excellent take on Fort Stevens made me yearn for more. So I reached for the Farragut biography by A. T. Mahan. Farragut’s West Gulf Squadron conquest of New Orleans was done by running past Forts Jackson and St Philip 70 miles below the city. Seems we had learned of the futility of coastal artillery in 1862. Or earlier maybe??? The original idea was not Farragut’s but belonged to Gustavus Fox, Assistant Secretary of the Union Navy. As a young naval officer 15 years earlier Gus had been with Perry at the battle of Tabasco where they ran past several coastal and river forts. He was also aware of ship/coastal fort battles in ’55 during the Crimean War where allied ships did extremely good work against Russian forts and shore batteries. Gus got some further evidence that this was possible by results of the Union Navy attack at Port Royal not too far from where Publius plays golf, and also the battle of Hatteras Inlet, both in '61.

    So much for the old rule of thumb that one gun on shore was worth four at sea. Here is a quote that should have come from a Paul Jones, or a Perry, or a Halsey or some either fire eating admiral, but actually came from our greatest soldier: ”I am so well satisfied by experience of the little effect of land batteries on vessels passing them with a leading breeze that, unless the two channels near Yorktown should be found impracticable by obstructions, I should have the greatest confidence in the success of this important service.” Yes, that was General Washington in a letter to French Admiral De Grasse in 1781. The shelling of Oregon by I-25 may have sealed the fate of the Coastal Artillery Corps, but the first nail had been driven a long time before.

    Once Farragut’s ships took New Orleans those forts and their coast artillery were useless, cut off, and surrendered and all the Confederacy was split in half. Hmmmm, how far up the Columbia is Portland from Forts Stevens, Canby, and Columbia - about the same or a little more I think??

  8. Just about, mike; Astoria is about 90 road miles from Portland and the highway parallels the river most of the way.

    And, yeah, the history of harbor defenses is a pretty spotty one. They seem to have been constructed purely by-guess-and-by-god. I don't get the sense that they really ran a bunch of exercises to see if the defenses would work on an attacker.

    Add in the problem you always get with any sort of fixed defense; the lack of flexibility. A fixed defense HAS to defend the same way every time. So a smart attacker can experiment with options to avoid, neutralize, or both, these defenses. And the defender pretty much has to sit there and hope that he's come up with an unbeatable defense - which is by definition almost impossible.

    I think my next post is going to be about what I suspect may be the latter-day "harbor defense forts" - the carrier task force.

  9. Well maybe so. At least those carrier task forces can shoot (launch), move, and communicate like the field artillery - and unlike airfields and casernes that are a bit more permanently anchored like Forts Stevens and Canby.