American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Mountain Intelligence

  • Feature Article
  • Author: H. Adams Carter
  • Climb Year: N/A
  • Publication Year: 1946

THE very first ideas about mountain troops for the U. S. Army sprang from the stories about mountain fighting both in the first and second world wars. When the U. S. Army started its rapid expansion in the fall of 1940, the campaigns of the German Gerbirgsjägers in Norway were still fresh in the minds of the public. The mountaineering world realized that the only effective resistance to them had been made by the French Chasseurs Alpins aided by British and mountain trained Poles near Narvik. Troops specially trained for cold weather fighting had already proved their worth in Finland. Soon the Balkan campaign emphasized the importance of mountain troops. Some people remembered the bitter fighting in the First World War in the Carpathians, the Vosges and the Alps, and others recalled the decisive mountain victory of Caporetto, which nearly knocked Italy out of the war. Few realized, however, that the mountain company which spearheaded the initial attack there was led by an obscure but promising young lieutenant, Erwin Rommel. Few remembered that the Allies lost more men in the battles along the Isonzo than at Verdun or that the Italians, who had only a small number of units trained for mountain warfare, in their first two years of fighting lost over 200.000 men to mountaineering accidents alone. The few who did remember realized that mountain warfare could be extensive and that untrained men stood a poor chance against experts.

Because of the fund of knowledge built up by the armies of the various European countries bordering the Alps, it was obvious that the U. S. Army, completely inexperienced in modern mountain warfare, could best carry out its own training program by studying training methods, practice and equipment of French, German, Swiss and Italian mountain troops. In 1941 there was in the United States an enormous fund of untouched literature on mountain warfare. Unfortunately much of this was not in the hands of the War Department but in public and private libraries throughout the country, so that after the information was collected, it would have to be put into English, a far from simple task. The War Department's normal translators in 1941 knew nothing about mountaineering jargon, and the one or two articles which they had translated were nearly unintelligible. A piton was a “nail”; a downhill skier was an “off-walking snowshoer.” Entire concepts were misunderstood and translated into meaningless words.

In the spring of 1941 the G-3 (Operations and Training) Division of the General Staff of the War Department readily accepted the offer of the American Alpine Club to start me doing intelligence work on mountain warfare. Until February 1942 I spent full time finding and translating articles, and books from German, French, Swiss and Italian sources, interviewing former mountain troopers who were living in the U. S., such as Hannes Schneider and Michl Feuersinger, who gave valuable first-hand information, and making digests of some of the most important lessons. After February 1942 I stopped devoting full time to mountain warfare when I was put in charge of Technical Intelligence in the Office of the Quartermaster General.

This transition, however, did not end my work on mountain intelligence, for there were many Quartermaster problems where a knowledge of foreign mountain troops played an enormous part. For instance, an Italian by the name of Bramani had invented a rubber-cleated sole with traction equal to the conventional boot nails of the Alpini. These rubber soles had several advantages: they were lighter and wore longer than steel nails; they were warmer; in a surprise attack they were quieter, and at night did not give off sparks. After discovering their existence, I managed to find a sample pair and worked together with a rubber manufacturer on their development. By the time rubber production in the country was available, the soles were ready to be attached to the ski-mountain boot of the U. S. mountain trooper.

Training in the use of cold weather clothing and equipment was another Quartermaster problem. Here again the knowledge of what other armies did was invaluable. In organizing the initial stages of such training programs I was able to draw heavily not only on my own experience but also on the knowledge of how such matters were handled abroad. U. S. Army circulars, manuals and training films reflected this information.

Meanwhile I was able to assist other sections of the War Department in problems of mountain warfare, providing nearly all of the material on which tactical manuals on mountain warfare and on operations in snow and extreme cold were based. Important articles and manuals were also translated which could not be entrusted to regular War Department translators, and I wrote the English script for such training movies as the Swiss film on avalanches. Later I was loaned to the Military Intelligence Division of the War Department General Staff to translate and edit their publications of several of the German tactical manuals, such as “Mountain Warfare,” “Winter Warfare,” “Ski Training and Combat,” and also wrote sections and found numerous illustrations for a Military Intelligence book on German Mountain Troops.

My final research on mountain warfare took place immediately after the cessation of hostilities. In Germany in May and June, 1945, I carried out extensive interrogations of members of the German Army and the Waffen SS. much as Major Robert H. Bates had done in Italy. Officers from generals to lieutenants, as well as enlisted and non-commissioned personnel, were carefully questioned about many important points. They revealed, for instance, that the Germans had had enormous difficulties with trench- foot. Their solution to this problem, as with many others, was very similar to what the U. S. Army had worked out. The men had to be carefully trained in how to take care of themselves in temperatures near freezing. Their casualties in this type of weather were far more common than in extreme cold. Training courses were set up in the German Army and weekly refresher courses were given to each man. The Germans found waterproof footgear best for wet cold weather but could supply it only to a few elite units such as the Waffen SS. Even the Quartermaster General of the German Army knew that his troops were taking U. S. Army shoepacs from U. S. dead whenever possible. The Germans recognized that in the mountains trained mountain troops had an enormous advantage, but they also pointed out that in extreme cold and in snow where the terrain was not mountainous, even in trackless swamps, those troops were far superior to ordinary troops because of their great mobility. As a result they were often used on fronts with vastly differing terrain.

My interrogation of Japanese officers in September revealed much less of interest because of their lower degree of specialization. They had made one interesting study, however, because of their enormous shortage of textiles. Cold chamber tests were arranged to find out whether it would be possible to increase insulation on certain portions of the body in order to reduce the overall amount of material. They claimed that if additional layers were worn in a belt over the collar bones and shoulders and another across the abdomen and the small of the back it would be possible to eliminate some of the weight of the rest of the clothing. This interesting possibility is now being checked by the U. S. Quartermaster Corps.

In the future we can be sure of one thing: the U. S. Army is now interested in mountain problems, and never again will it be as uninformed about mountain fighting or as unprepared for action in all types of rugged and mountainous terrain as it was during World Wars I and II.

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