“There have been handful of occasions during the Second World War and in the decades that followed in which leaders in various situations would call out the words: ‘Fix bayonets!'”
IT WAS D-DAY plus five (June 11, 1944) when Robert Cole, a 29-year-old lieutenant-colonel with the 101st Airborne Division, found himself leading a column of 250 paratroops under heavy fire across Normandy’s bocage country. His objective: The Nazi-occupied town of Carentan.
The Allies had been trying (without success) for two days to secure the village. And now, with German mortar and artillery rounds falling as thick as rain, something needed to be done – and fast – to break the impasse before Cole’s detachment was completely wiped out. That’s when the Texas-born career soldier hatched what some might consider a foolhardy plan.
The young commander called in a smoke barrage in front of the German positions and then, to everyone’s astonishment, ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge. Nearly half of his unit was mowed down by machine gun fire as they darted across a patch of open ground on the edge of the town, but more than 100 of Cole’s men did manage to reach the German lines unscathed. With the “Screaming Eagles” suddenly in their midst, the Axis defenders panicked and fled for their lives. Reinforcements rushed in to hold the ground and by the next day, the town of Carentan was safely in Allied hands. The brazen attack would go down in history as “Cole’s Charge.” For leading the assault, the young commander would win the Medal of Honor. Sadly, he’d be killed in combat before the citation could be presented. To this day, the action is remembered as one of the few bayonet attacks of World War Two.
For centuries, cold-steel assaults were part of nearly every infantry engagement, both large and small. But with the advent of semi-automatic rifles and rapid-fire machine guns, full on bayonet attacks were suddenly risky, even suicidal. Yet amazingly, there were a handful of occasions during the Second World War and in the decades that followed in which leaders in various situations would call out the words: “Fix bayonets!” Consider these:
The Big Banzai
Days after Cole’s famous attack, another army on the opposite side of the planet mounted what’s remembered as the single largest bayonet charge of World War Two. It happened during the American conquest of Saipan. After three weeks of giving ground to the U.S. Marines, the last of the island’s Japanese defenders were marshalled together for one final push. On July 7, 1944, more than 3,000 of Hirohito’s soldiers cried “Banzai!” and charged straight at dumbfounded elements of the 1st and 2nd Marine Battalion and the U.S. Army’s 105th Infantry Division. The initial wave was followed by an attack made up of the walking wounded and even some civilians aarmed with sharpened poles. The Americans were devastated by the assault, losing more than 600, but they quickly recovered. The cost to the Japanese was staggering — nearly 4,500 soldiers and civilians were wiped out. Two days later, Saipan fell to the Allies.
America’s Last Hurrah
A U.S. Army infantry captain named Lewis Millet led the last bayonet charge in American history — right up the frigid slopes of Hill 180 near Pyeongtaek, South Korea. On Feb. 7, 1951, the 31-year-old Word War Two vet darted out into enemy machine gun fire before two platoons of gobsmacked GIs. Millet’s men immediately ran to catch up to their commander and together the group cleared the hilltop trenches and foxholes of communist troops. More than 50 enemy combatants were killed – nearly half were skewered by the Americans. Millet was awarded the Medal of Honor for the action. He would later serve in South East Asia.
It wasn’t the frosty hills of Korea, but the steamy jungles of South East Asia that served as the backdrop for Australia’s last bayonet charge. On Feb. 18, 1967, 300 soldiers from the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) mounted a two-day attack on a fortified Viet Cong stronghold in Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam. Unable to blast their way through the VC perimeter with a mortar barrage, an RAR sergeant named Butch Brady called on his men to give Charlie the cold steel. Repulsed by intense machine gun fire, the Australians rallied and tried another frontal assault. It too failed to make a dent. The Aussies were eventually evacuated by chopper and the enemy position was finally worn down by a series of air strikes.
Charging Up Tumbledown
British troops pulled off a number of bayonet charges in the brief campaign to boot Argentine forces from the Falkland Islands in 1982. Grunts from the Scots Guards and the Gurkhas chased 500 enemy troops off the summit of Mount Tumbledown in the pre-dawn darkness of June 14. The British suffered 63 casualties in the battle; 160 Argentine soldiers were either killed, wounded or captured. Two weeks earlier a 2 Para private by the name of Graham Carter led his comrades in a bayonet charge against a force of enemy troops across Goose Green.
21st Century Bayonet Charges
In the last ten years, British troops have resorted to the bayonet to break impasses in combat both in Iraq and Afghanistan. In May, 2004, a detachment from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders surprised a force of 100 insurgents near Al Amara, Iraq with a bayonet charge. British casualties were light, but nearly 28 guerrillas were killed. And as recently as October of 2011, a British Army lance corporal named Sean Jones led a squad of soldiers from the Prince of Wales Royal Regiment in a bayonet charge against Taliban fighters in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. After being ambushed and pinned down by militants, the 25-year-old ordered his squad to advance into a hail of machine gun fire. “We had to react quickly,” Jones remarked. “I shouted ‘follow me’ and we went for it.” He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions. Even in an age of GPS-guided bombs, unmanned drones and network-centric warfare, 300-year-old technology — like the simple bayonet — can still carry the day.