Who stays when the army goes ?

Published November 13, 2015 in World Events - 0 Comments

Conservative estimates put the number of people employed by private military and security companies around the world at five million. That’s about the same as the world’s three largest armies – the US, Chinese and Russian – combined. For Peter W. Singer, a military specialist from the Brookings Institution in Washington, all of these numbers mark a new age of warfare: “We have an image of war in our heads, of a soldier in uniform fighting for his country, leader, beliefs or freedom. But, when you look at the world’s crisis zones today, it becomes clear: this image is no longer true.”

The highest bidder

In fact there are now millions of people who, like Marc Lindgreen, aren’t fighting for their country, freedom or comrades – but for the highest bidder instead. In other words, there are no good or evil clients for the PMCs, just ones that pay well. But this attitude can have a downside… For contractors Jerry Zovko, Scott Helvenston, Wesley Batalona and Mike Teague, their mission in the Iraqi city of Fallujah was simple: locate the enemy, shoot and under no circumstances stop – they had practised how to behave in an ambush hundreds of times. who stays when the army goes (1)

But in March 2004, it all went horribly wrong. Their off-road vehicle was hit by dozens of bullets in the middle of the city. The contractors couldn’t radio the US Army for support because they’d withdrawn from the city. Seconds later, grenades tore through the vehicle. What followed then was one of the darkest hours in the early history of private military companies. The insurgents shot the four injured Americans, hauled their lifeless bodies out of the vehicle, set them alight and then dragged the corpses in front of rolling cameras through the city. In the end, they hanged the dead from a bridge. It was only five days later, when US troops advanced into the city, that the bodies of the contractors could be transferred home.

The unfortunate souls were just four of more than 1,500 contractors killed in Iraq alone. The death rate is similar in Afghanistan. One reason for the high number of deaths is that PMCs are often left to their own devices. And, as a rule, regular US soldiers have little interest in risking their lives for a few daredevils, who earn more in a month than they do in a year.

Potential recruits

This makes it very important for the military companies to recruit well-trained men. Many companies, Asgaard Security among them, target battle- hardened special forces. Asgaard’s website lists a number of requirements for potential recruits. Applicants should be aged 25 to 45, physically and mentally strong, highly resilient and be able to cope well under pressure. They should be willing to work under stressful conditions for long periods. Those with a secret services background and experience of hand-to-hand combat are particularly encouraged to apply. Contractors are now some of the best-trained soldiers in the world. Many of them have more than 20 years’ experience in special forces. One company, Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI), is even said to employ more four-star generals than the United States Department of Defense.who stays when the army goes (2)

Inexperienced fighters are trained for war in company boot camps. The United States Training Center (USTC) in North Carolina is one of the largest weapons and military training facilities in the States. More than 100,000 contractors have already been prepared for battle there. The training and tasks they perform are virtually identical to those of a US soldier. No one knows how or where the many armed contractors are working. But it’s likely they will follow the money in crisis zones in Africa and Asia or, more recently, eastern Ukraine.

The general rule is: ‘the higher the risk, the higher the profit.’ Clients – which in most cases are national governments – generally profit from outsourced wars, too. They’re in a win-win situation: PMCs work under contract and will only be paid if they get the required results. Compared with private military companies, the armies of the major world powers like Russia, China or the USA are unwieldy, less flexible and require immense logistical investment.

Fill in the gaps

Even though the US military has been reduced in number by a million since the end of the Cold War, it has essentially stayed the same size because PMCs fill in the gaps. And they have the weapons and the technology to rival even those of the US Army. Many experts liken the contracted armies to a foreign policy with limited liability, and criticise the idea that civilian fighters are in a legal grey area. “They are not bound to any law, but to the rules of the market economy instead,” explains military expert Peter Singer.

In fact, most of the PMCs enjoy a similar level of immunity to the militaries of governments at war, even though they’re civilians. Another reason why more and more governments depend on PMCs, and why they make up an ever-increasing share of the defence budget, is anonymity. Contractors operate outside the public eye and therefore can be discreet. With private armies there won’t be any coffins wrapped in the Stars and Stripes appearing on the news.

There are no fallen heroes, veterans or negative headlines. Former US soldier Marc Lindgreen is well aware of this. If he should die in his role as a contractor on the battlefields of Afghanistan, he will not be buried with full military honours. But his family will be financially secure for many years to come.

Mercenary armies and their secret world wars (part 1)

Published November 12, 2015 in World Events - 0 Comments

Who are G4S ?

Their UK headquarters are unimpressive, a simple building near Gatwick Airport, but with an annual turnover of $15 billion, G4S is the largest private security company in the world. The corporation has its roots in a small Danish security company, Copenhagen-Frederiksberg Nattevagt, originally established in 1901.

Its activities include transporting money and valuables; security and guard duties in ports and airports; and protecting oil and gas fields for energy companies, but they also provide military services. In 2008, the company expanded its portfolio by buying ArmorGroup International, a struggling private military company (PMC), which had a presence in 26 countries. Its staff protected business ventures and individuals in ‘dangerous or chaotic regions’. It is precisely these crisis zones in Asia and Africa that make the most money for the security contractors. The more dangerous the risk, the bigger the profit.Mercenary armies and their secret world wars (part 1) (1)

Many major events worldwide have used G4S including the London Olympics, the World Cup in Brazil, and various G8 conferences. The majority of its employees are guards protecting objects and people. However, more and more private military contractors are being sent into crisis zones. G4S gives no statistics for how many armed operatives it controls, nor where exactly they are stationed. But the firm owns the three market leaders for private security services in around 100 countries (red), including Iraq and Afghanistan. It operates in dozens of other countries around the globe (blue)

The heirs of blackwater

Suddenly they’re there. A dozen masked soldiers appear in the midst of the pro-Russian demonstrators and rebels in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk. Despite their high-tech military equipment, machine guns and helmets, they’re not wearing Ukrainian Army insignia and don’t speak a word of Russian. They disappear as quickly as they arrived. A few weeks ago, a secret service document finally revealed that that the soldiers probably belonged to a 400-strong elite unit from a private military company called Academi. It’s unclear who gave them the order or how long they were in Sloviansk. But we know more about the company in its previous guise. A few years ago, Academi went by a different name: Blackwater. This security company, founded by ex-Navy SEAL Erik Prince, gained notoriety by detaining prisoners in Iraq on behalf of the US government.

They are actually mercenaries

Chaos has reigned in the streets of Kabul for ten minutes. Bullets whizz over Marc Lindgreen’s* head, screams echo through the alleys and you can hear muffled explosions in the distance. The Taliban have just started their summer offensive. The nearby US Army military base and several government buildings in the Afghan capital are under constant fire. Lindgreen and his team are holed up behind an off-road vehicle. Again and again the Americans fire their assault rifles in the direction of the attackers. Finally, after 20 minutes, the nightmare ends.

The Taliban fighters have fled – or lie dead in the street. Lindgreen and his three comrades escape unscathed. Regular US Army soldiers, who had been under fire in a backstreet to the east, also come through their skirmish with no casualties. Although they’re fighting against the same enemy, with the same equipment, after the fighting they go their separate ways. While the US Army troops return to base, Lindgreen and his team head to a nearby hotel. That’s not the only difference: the US soldiers are risking their lives for as little as $50 a day, while Lindgreen and his team can earn $600…Mercenary armies and their secret world wars (part 1) (2)

Former elite soldier Marc Lindgreen changed sides, or rather his employer, two years ago. The 42-year-old is now a security contractor. Instead of obeying the orders of US Army generals, he now fights for a private security company. However, his job essentially remains the same: escorting military convoys, protecting people and killing Taliban fighters. Lindgreen’s been signed on with the firm for two years. Two years at war – without insignia, military parades or medals. But, when his contract expires – and providing he stays alive – he will have earned more than in his 20 years as a regular soldier. Even if he is killed his family will at least be financially secure for many years after his death.

This is because Lindgreen, like many contractors, has a clause in his contract that means his family will receive $500,000 if he is killed on a work assignment. In comparison, the next of kin of a fallen US soldier receives just $100,000. It’s these disparities in working conditions and earnings that are driving more and more soldiers into the arms of private military companies. Lindgreen actually belongs to a shadow-army in Afghanistan, one that is three times larger than the 33,000 US troops currently stationed there.

It’s a heavily armed private army composed of former soldiers, ex-marines and adventurous daredevils. They call themselves security guards, strategy consultants, or bodyguards. But some would argue that they are actually mercenaries. And it’s not just in Afghanistan where they’ve taken control. The security industry has become one of the largest economic sectors in the world. It operates in rebel areas in Ukraine, warzones in Iraq, drug wars in Mexico, oil fields in Africa, airports in England, and nuclear facilities in the USA. The global turnover of private mercenary firms is today estimated at $200 billion per year.

Waterloo (part 1)

Published November 10, 2015 in History Stories - 0 Comments

Two centuries ago, on 18 June 1815, three armies met near Brussels in a battle that would decide the fate of Europe for generations. The Emperor Napoleon, defeated andexiled just a year earlier, had returned to France, conjured up a great army in a matter of weeks, and was ready to defy the rest of the world once more. Ranged against him was a coalition of Europe’s other great powers, but none were fully prepared for war.

THE EMPEROR’S FALL Napoleon – ambitious, ruthless and adored by his country – met his match at the Battle of Waterloo

THE EMPEROR’S FALL Napoleon – ambitious, ruthless and adored by his country – met his match at the Battle of Waterloo

All that stood in Napoleon’s path were hastily gathered armies under the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian Field Marshal Blücher. Throughout one long summer day, tens of thousands of men died or were maimed as Napoleon tried to keep his dream of glory and empire alive. But how did Europe end up so divided? And how did a boy from Corsica become one of the most powerful and feared men on the continent? Adrian Goldsworthy reveals all.


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France and britain were old rivals, but the revolution changed the rules of the game

In a cold, wet January morningin 1793, King Louis XVI was guillotined in Paris by the Revolutionary government. The move horrified all the other crowned heads of Europe. The great continental states of Austria, Prussia, Russia, France and Great Britain were old rivals, forever jockeying for power, but this changed the rules of the game. France was eager to spread the ideals of revolution, and there seemed no reason why the same chaos and bloodshed should not spring up in other countries. Europe turned on France to crush this threat, making the French more aggressive in turn as they felt that their backs were against the wall. The passion of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, gives us a sense of the times in its rousing call for citizens to rally in defence of the homeland.

Napoleon moves toward becoming Emperor, installing the Council of State in 1799

Napoleon moves toward becoming Emperor, installing the Council of State in 1799

Under the Revolution, all the old certainties had gone. In little more than a year, the young Napoleon Bonaparte rose through the ranks from captain to general. A man had to be a politician as much as a soldier in these years, as a long succession of different factions took over the government, killed their rivals, and were in turn overthrown. In 1795, Napoleon turned his cannon on a protesting mob in Paris and won the gratitude of the current regime, who sent him to command an army in Italy. In the following years, he won victory after victory, and made sure that he publicised every achievement. He led an expedition to Egypt, taking along scholars as well as soldiers.

Even when his fleet was shattered by Nelson, and Napoleon abandoned his army to return to France, it did little to dent his growing legend. Napoleon was one of the leaders of yet another coup, and became one of three supreme consuls appointed to share power. Soon he was First Consul and then, not long after, First Consul for Life. In 1804, he became Emperor – placing the crown on his own head in a grand coronation. His right to rule was based on the glory of his victories. To the rest of the Europe, he was a jumped-up upstart, and a threat.


    Born Napoleone Buonaparte in Corsica, 1769, for a while he followed the family tradition of supporting his island’s independence from France. However, the Buonapartes moved to France and he entered the French army as an o?cer in the artillery. Changing his name to the French-style ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’, he welcomed the Revolution, won fame commanding the guns at the Siege of Toulon, and rose speedily to high command.
    Having called upon mass conscription for the first time in Europe, France had huge armies, but lacked leaders, especially since nearly all the senior officers of the old Royal army had either been executed or exiled. Napoleon was a genius, rapid in his manoeuvres and ruthless in exploiting enemy weakness. He carefully cultivated the loyalty and enthusiasm of his soldiers. His victories, and the support of the army, allowed his political rise. It also meant his success depended on a continuous supply of fresh victories. Combined with the fear and hatred he inspired abroad, this meant that there was little chance of a lasting peace


    Peace is announced in London in 1802, though it will be a short-lived truce

    Peace is announced in London in 1802, though it will be a short-lived truce

    Britain and France were old enemies – just a generation before, it was a French fleet and a French army that had made possible George Washington’s victory at Yorktown and led to the independence of the American colonies. When the Revolution erupted in France, a few Britons welcomed it for its apparently liberal ideas, but as it became ever more bloody and unstable, attitudes changed. From the very start, the establishment hated and feared what the Revolution represented, and had nightmares of mobs marauding through London. War followed, Britain allying with – and paying – any country willing to fight against France.
    The Peace of Amiens in 1802-1803 was the only short interruption to this intense conflict. Napoleon’s ascent eventually brought internal stability to France and reined in the more violent excesses of the Revolution, but in many ways simply meant that the French war effort was better organised and its strategy more focused. His forces were strong on land, and the British dominated the seas. Napoleon saw Britain and its deep, war-funding pockets as the biggest hurdle to his domination of Europe. The British were keen to prevent any power, let alone the French, from controlling all of the continent.

Regime madness (part 2)

Published November 10, 2015 in Society Problems - 0 Comments


Perhaps the most challenging aspect of Hari’s book for many readers will be his handling of addiction. Essentially he claims that it is not exposure to powerful drugs that leads to addiction, rather that people who are damaged, isolated and vulnerable before they start drugs are the ones who become addicted. This will be challenged by some health professionals and probably by many who say their loved ones have had their lives ruined by drugs.regime madness (8)

Hari lays out the common belief. “If you and I and the next 20 people who walk past your office all use heroin together for 20 days, on day 21, because there are chemical hooks in the heroin, our bodies would physically need the heroin, we would be physically craving it and we’d all be addicts.” But, he asks, if opiates are so addictive, then why doesn’t your grandmother become a junkie when prescribed diamorphine for her hip operation? “There are people being given heroin at a hospital near you for quite a long period of time. What is striking is that if what we think about addiction is right, those people should leave hospital as addicts.regime madness (9)

That almost never happens. You will have noticed that your grandmother was not turned into a junkie by her hip operation.” Why do a relatively small number of people who use drugs get addicted to them? He cites one study claiming that 20% of US soldiers in Vietnam were using heroin but that 95% of them “simply stopped” within a year of returning home, many without assistance. No war, misery and loneliness –no need to take hard drugs, or so goes his argument.

Hari says that the messages lapped up in drug education mostly come from a single source, because 90% of the global research into illegal drugs is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, founded by Robert Dupont.


Near the end our discussion, Hari tells me he doesn’t want to consume the drugs he argues should be legal for adults. Nowadays he limits himself to the occasional glass of wine. He did come to his subject matter with personal experience though: a family history of drug addiction and his own period of abusing narcolepsy drugs to fuel marathon writing binges. Hari opens his book with one of his earliest memories, that of trying in vain to wake a relative from a drugged stupor. He writes that ever since, he’s been “oddly drawn to addicts and recovering addicts – they feel like my tribe”.regime madness (10)

One senses the book is also about rehabilitation of a different kind. Hari is trying to rescue his reputation as a writer. He has won a string of journalism prizes but was forced to hand back his Orwell Prize in 2011 after he was found to have committing plagiarism. “What I did was, I sometimes, where I interviewed people, used things that they had said in their books, or in a small number of cases said to other journalists, as if they had been said directly to me, which was obviously completely wrong and a terrible thing to do.

“When you f— up you should pay a big price, which I did, rightly, and you should very methodically show that you’ve not done the same thing again.” Hence this book is meticulously footnoted and the website, chasingthescream.com, contains full audio copies of the interviews that quotes are drawn from and has a section for corrections and clarifications.


It’s time to wind up our call but Hari has a final sales pitch, a parting shot: he wants people who despise drug use to join the fight. “Ending the drug war is not about liking or approving of drugs. You can be militantly anti-drugs and against this crazy policy that makes addiction worse, empowers criminal gangs and wastes billions upon billions of dollars that we can spend on better things.”

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But he is optimistic the drug war is coming to an end – in some cases where it started, with several American states legalising marijuana. He ends the book describing sitting in a late night meeting in Colorado listening to a soccer mum agonise about the appropriate labelling and licensing regime for hash cookies. Maybe the drug war will end with a whimper rather than a bang.

Regime madness (part 1)

Published November 9, 2015 in Society Problems - 0 Comments

regime madness (1)Johann Hari has declared war on the war on drugs. The British author and journalist says the current approach just increases the harm by treating the problem as a chemical one. It punishes users, which then boosts the chance they will become addicts – yet most people who use these chemicals don’t get addicted. “The one thing we can say from the century-long war on drugs is that we gave it a fair shot. The US government spent a trillion dollars. It turns out we can’t even keep drugs out of prisons, when you’ve got a walled perimeter and you pay people to walk around it the whole time, so good luck keeping them out of New Zealand or Britain or America.”

Hari is most effusive about the position adopted in Portugal, which decriminalised nearly all drugs at the turn of the century. According to some analysis, drug use in Portugal has halved under the rules, which allow adults to buy small amounts of drugs, including cocaine, heroin and hashish. In the week we speak, British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and business tycoon Richard Branson urge the UK to follow the Portuguese model. Hari wants drug use treated as a health issue rather than being judged as a moral issue in which addicts are corrupt individuals who get what is coming to them. “I thought about this when Amy Wine-house died,” he tells me on the phone from New York. “Quite a few kids I know, like teenagers, said things like, ‘Well, she put it on herself.’

These are nice kids and it really struck me that, wow, they have really picked this up from a culture that says when an addict dies you blame the addict. I can’t think of any other minority where those kids, if a member of them died, would say, ‘Well, they deserved it.’ You could be a very extreme homophobe and if Elton John died it would be quite shocking if they said, ‘Well, I’m glad he died, he brought it on himself.’”

1969 Life magazine cover

1969 Life magazine cover

Hari has outlined his arguments in his latest book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. Part of the controversy that will inevitably accom- pany this book is the breaking of taboos, which even in permissive society still exist around drugs. Drugs can be fun. Yes, lethal and tragic in some cases. But sometimes fun too. Why else would people take them? “The vast majority of people’s experience with drugs is positive,” Hari says, citing United Nations data he interprets as meaning 90% of drug use is “non-problematic”. But exactly what legal structure should be used to control the more dangerous drugs he’s not so sure. Crack and P worry him. “These drugs are harmful to lots of people. Nobody disputes that,” he writes. “Most of the banned drugs are closer to alcohol with its massive harms than they are to marijuana.”


If humans have been consuming substances to alter consciousness for thousands of years, then why in the 20th century did we vow to rid the world of drugs? And who started the war on drugs anyway? Hari reckons he has it nailed down to one man. Harry Jacob Anslinger was the head of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics for a staggering 33 years, beginning in 1930. Before that he was the assistant commissioner for prohibition. Hari lays out the story of a man who, seeing the battle for alcohol prohibition was lost, fights to keep his tenuous bureaucracy alive. He finds an ally in the press, eager for sensational stories that now seem comic. “Mexican Family Go Insane,” the New York Times headlines a story about a widow and her four children who ate a marijuana plant.

Harry Anslinger, who allegedly started the war on drugs; US drug-dealing gangster Arnold Rothstein

Harry Anslinger, who allegedly started the war on drugs; US drug-dealing gangster Arnold Rothstein

The story explains that there is no hope for the children and the mother “will be insane for the rest of her life”. After a search of Anslinger’s papers held at Penn State University, Hari paints him as a hardline conservative who warned that marijuana “turns man into a wild beast” and makes black men forget their place and lust after white women. For Anslinger, the epicentre of this depravity was the jazz clubs, which were “like the jungles in the dead of night”. He and his agents went after the jazz greats, including Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong. But most of all, they pursued Billie Holiday, a heroin addict who was effectively harassed to death, to the extent she was arrested in a raid on her room as she fought for her life in hospital.

Hari says that all through this time, Anslinger was waging a PR war as part of his war on drugs and that tapping into racial prejudice was a big part of that. “He’s very good at taking those kind of electrical sparks that are in the air and building a lightning conductor over his department and saying, ‘Look, the solution to these fears and anxieties is to ban these chemicals and these drugs.’” Hari also believes that Anslinger’s prescience about the growing power of the mafia in the US gave him a dangerous level of confidence. “It’s hard for us to get our heads around now, but in the early 20th century … the mafia was seen as a conspiracy theory the way we would see crazy bullshit like 9/11 Truthers or something. The tragedy of it is that he believes he is fighting the mafia but he is actually transferring a massive industry to them.”

singer Amy Winehouse, who died of alcohol poisoning; heroin addict

singer Amy Winehouse, who died of alcohol poisoning; heroin addict

Which leads to another great question: who was the first drug dealer? Hari reckons it was American gangster Arnold Rothstein. Anslinger unwittingly handed him a lucra- tive black market and he cashed in, buying off police and politicians along the way until he was shot and killed in 1928 by an unknown assassin. “This was the bullet at the birth of drug prohibition and nobody knows where it came from even now,” Hari writes. “It is like the bullet that claimed the Archduke Ferdinand at the start of the First World War: the first shot in a global massacre.”

So, yes, the book seems overwritten in places. Hari compares the war on drugs with World War I again in the book’s conclusion, saying both began in 1914. “The First World War lasted four years … miles of men killing and dying to seize a few more meters of mud. The drug war has lasted … for almost one hundred years. I am trying now to imagine its victims laid out like the dead of that more famous war, consecrated in one vast graveyard.”

Billie Holiday, who was effectively harassed to death

Billie Holiday, who was effectively harassed to death

But don’t let the passages of purple prose put you off, because Hari makes some compelling arguments in this book. Having introduced us to Anslinger and Rothstein, he says they are forever being replaced by harder versions of themselves. “The key players in the war continue to be either Anslingers or Rothsteins – the prohibitionist and the gangster locked together in a tango unto the far horizon.”


Hari is complimentary about New Zealand’s pioneering approach to legal highs but then deflated to learn that the Government backtracked after a media storm and the accompanying moral panic and has effectively banned synthetic drugs. Having raised the bar so high as to prevent the products coming onto a regulated open market, stories are already emerging about gangs selling synthetic cannabis on the black market. “I find that really dismaying,” says Hari, who argues that one of the benefits of a regulated market is that drugs are less likely to be sold to under-18s. “We don’t have a choice about whether people are going to use drugs. We have a choice about whether that market is controlled by armed criminal gangs, who cause horrific violence and mayhem and massively endanger the users, or whether it is controlled by doctors and pharmacists.” And indeed that is what used to happen.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria at the start of World War I.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria at the start of World War I.

Hari writes that until cocaine and heroin were banned in the US in 1914, they were sold as remedies or “little helpers’, including Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, which contained 65mg of pure morphine in every ounce. He says the drug war waged by Anslinger saw more than 20,000 doctors arrested in the US for prescribing opiates to patients, despite the 1914 law providing an exemption for doctors to do so. “The fact that they had to arrest 20,000 doctors because they insisted on carrying on prescribing to addicts astonished me and it’s amazing that this history was successfully erased from popular consciousness.”


Defender of the Delaware

Published November 5, 2015 in History Stories - 0 Comments

MOST A MERICANS NEVER knew it, but a savage battle blazed along their country’s East Coast after the December 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. No sooner had the United States declared war on its Japanese attackers than Germany declared war on the United States.

Operation Drumbeat

The Third Reich’s first move was Operation Drumbeat, an all-out submarine offensive to destroy US trans Atlantic shipping. American losses were staggering. Debris and corpses washed up on beaches all along the coast. German U-boats sank more than 600 ships, destroying more than 3 million tons of supplies and killing more than 5,000 people.

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The fort’s garrison laid mines in Delaware Bay and its river, including M3 mines like this one.

Today, most residents of the eastern seaboard are unaware of the desperate battle once fought just offshore and of America’s desperation to defend her coasts. But near Lewes, on Delaware’s Cape Henlopen, dedicated volunteers have converted mighty Fort Miles, built in those turbulent days, into a place of remembrance and education about WWII coastal defense. In World War II, as today, the Delaware River was strategically important, providing access to the Atlantic Ocean for three bustling industrial ports: Wilmington, Delaware; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Camden, New Jersey.

Two points of land about 15 miles apart—Cape May, New Jersey, and Cape Henlopen, Delaware— formed the ocean gateway to and from Delaware Bay and the river. Defending these capes was crucial. So in 1941 the US Army established Fort Miles on Cape Henlopen. The fort was named for Lieutenant General Nelson Appleton Miles, late US Army commander and 42-year veteran who served in the Civil War, the Indian Wars, and the Spanish-American War. Initially planned in 1934, Fort Miles was meant to be a formidable coastal defense capable of protecting vital Delaware Valley industries against an enemy surface fleet.

Such an attack never came, however. Instead, Germany used U-boats to sink American shipping in Atlantic shipping routes. That was an offensive Fort Miles was powerless to halt. The fort fired its guns just once during the war. Nowadays, Fort Miles’s mission is educational. The fort’s Artillery Battery 519—located under Henlopen’s Great Dune, the largest sand hill between Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Cape Hatteras, North Carolina—is now home to the Fort Miles Museum.

Fort Miles was built to keep German ships out of Delaware Bay. Had an attack come, the fort would have unleashed awesome firepower. This 79-ton 8-inch gun, manned by 25 soldiers, could hurl a 36-inch shell 20 miles.

Fort Miles was built to keep German ships out of Delaware Bay. Had an attack come, the fort would have unleashed awesome firepower. This 79-ton 8-inch gun, manned by 25 soldiers, could hurl a 36-inch shell 20 miles.

Battery 519 originally featured two 12-inch guns separated by a 400- some-foot corridor that housed powder and shell rooms and spaces for storage and utilities. These guns could fire 975-pound armor-piercing shells more than 16 miles, far enough to cover the entire width of Delaware Bay to Cape May.

One of these 12-inch guns, fully restored and located in the casement that housed the guns during the war, is the museum’s prize artifact. The 48-man crews of these massive weapons received only cotton to put in their ears for protection (as all US gun crews did). Other artillery batteries featuring a variety of guns deployed for the war are also on display at the fort. Placards interpret the guns, WWII buildings, and artifacts using photos, maps, drawings, and text. One special object here is a 16-inch gun from the USS Missouri (BB-63), on whose deck Japan’s surrender was signed in September 1945.

One of 11 fire-control towers at the Fort Miles Historical Area that watched for Nazi ships at the entrance to Delaware Bay.

One of 11 fire-control towers at the Fort
Miles Historical Area that watched for
Nazi ships at the entrance to Delaware Bay.

Currently outdoors near the restored WWII-era buildings, it represents the two 16-inch guns that were deployed at Fort Miles originally, but were removed and scrapped after the war. It’s an awesome weapon, even in its unrestored condition. With a barrel nearly 66 feet long and weighing 130 tons, it hurled 2,200-pound shells at 2,500 feet per second, covering 25 miles in just 50 seconds. A 17-inch-thick piece of steel here illustrates the gun’s deadly ability to pierce the armor of the mightiest enemy battleships.

A sample shell completes the display. Still standing at the Fort Miles site are 11 steel-reinforced-concrete fire-control towers that provided the eyes for gun crews in the underground artillery bunkers. Touring one of the 75-foot-tall towers, visitors climb a circular staircase, which replaces the ladder GIs climbed to access the observation deck. Because a ship was a moving target, if a tower observer spotted one, he reported its azimuth readings every 30 seconds. With the distances between the towers known, readings from multiple towers allowed a triangulation that helped the gun crew fire accurately on enemy ships. One room in the museum allows visitors to see the techniques Fort Miles’s defenders used to plot a ship’s location.

On display are a plotting table and a bank of phones used to communicate between the fire-control towers, the plotting room, and the gun crews. Additional personnel prepared the ammunition. Others transported it from the powder room to the casement, where the gun was loaded and fired. In all, more than 2,000 servicemen kept the fort operating. In addition to artillery batteries, fort personnel created and maintained the East Coast’s second largest underwater mine-field.

Last U-boat sunk in American waters

More than 400 mines, each filled with 3,000 pounds of TNT, were planted on the floor of Delaware Bay and the Delaware River. Museum displays show the two types of mines deployed. On May 14, 1945—just after V-E Day, when the Allies declared victory in Europe—the German sub U-858 surrendered at Fort Miles. The museum houses a 20mm anti-aircraft gun from U-858’s sister sub U-853, the last U-boat sunk in American waters. U-853 went down off Point Judith, Rhode Island, on May 5, 1945.

As a historic site, Fort Miles is a work in progress. The army declared the fort surplus after the war and then used only portions of it until all activity there ceased in 1991. In 2003, the Fort Miles Historical Association formed with the mission to “preserve, protect, and defend all aspects of Fort Miles.” The volunteer group’s stated goal is to create “the best World War II museum inside a World War II facility in the country.” So far, in addition to the guns, the fort displays period furniture and equipment, including desks, files, beds, and a telephone exchange. The collection keeps expanding.

 A massive 12-inch gun protrudes from a restored part of Battery 519.

A massive 12-inch gun protrudes from a restored part of Battery 519.

The historical association has long-range plans for an addition to the museum. When Cape Henlopen State Park is open, visitors can access Fire Control Tower Number 7 and the restored WWII buildings, including the site’s orientation building. Museum tours, however, require advance reservations. The encounter with history in an authentic WWII facility makes it well worth the trouble.