North Dakota’s Greatest Sailor

Today’s story ties together a bunch of my favorite themes; Epic Historical Events that happen as a series of happenstances and blunders; second-chance redemption stories; untold stories of great significance.

But most of all, it’s the story a maritime people sweeping the seas of their foes.

The maritime people, in this case, is North Dakotans.

We Come From The Land Of The Ice And Snow:  Joseph Enright was born in 1910 in Minot, North Dakota.

Enright, near his retirement in 1963, as a Captain.

He graduated from Annapolis, spent three years on the battleship USS Maryland, and then transferred to submarines, qualifying as a sub officer in 1936.  As the Navy, and especially the submarine service, grew frenetically before World War II – part of FDR’s version of “shovel ready jobs”, as well as getting ready for the war everyone on both sides of the Pacific knew was inevitable – Enright moved up fast, serving on the crews of the World War I-vintage subs S-35 and S-22; not long after the war started in 1942, with a new promotion to Lieutenant Commander, Enright was given command of an even older boat, the USS O-10, a predecessor of the S-boats, used as a training ship.

USS O-10

The early years of the war were tumultuous ones in the submarine service; equipment problems dogged American submariners’ efforts for the first 18 months.  It didn’t take long for a combat command billet to open up for Lt. Commander Enright; he assumed command of the brand-new USS Dace.

USS Dace, which went on to a stellar war career.  In one notable episode in 1944, after participating in sinking two Japanese cruisers and damaging a third, it rescued the entire crew of the USS Darter, which had run aground in an area crawling with Japanese ships.  It ended up in the post-war Italian fleet from 1955 to 1975.

Take Me Out, Coach:  He took command of the boat in July of 1943.  By November, he had the boat worked up and ready for action.  The boat’s first war patrol took it into Japanese home waters.

Enright, aboard Dace.

On November 15, a few weeks into the patrol, directed by an intercept from the US Navy’s “Ultra” cryptography unit, Enright and Dace were directly in the path of the Japanese aircraft carrier IJN Shokaku, one of two surviving carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor.  Enright made contact with the carrier’s task group – a powerfully-escorted force, dangerous to attack – but couldn’t quite maneuver into position by daybreak; in his own report, he described having made a “timid approach, breaking off as daylight approached”.  Later in the patrol, an attempt on a Japanese tanker ended with a sound depth-charging at the hands of Japanese escort ships.

The seven week patrol ended with no sinkings.  Disappointed in his own performance, Enright asked to be relieved of command.  Admiral Lockwood, the crusty submariner who commanded all US subs in the Pacific, obliged, as he had not a few earlier officers who’d decided they didn’t pack the gear.  Enright was assigned to administrative duties at the Midway Island submarine station.

And with most officers relieved of a combat command, that’s where it would have ended.

Redemption:  After six months of administrative penance, Enright asked Lockwood for another shot.

Incredibly, Lockwood said yes, assigning him to command the USS Archerfish.

USS Archerfish

Archerfish had had almost as disappointing a war as Enright so far.  In four war patrols, they had attempted three attacks, for zero kills.  They hadn’t even seen a ship on two patrols, and had spent one patrol on “lifeguard” duty off Iwo Jima, rescuing one shot-down naval aviator from the water.

Crew of the Archerfish on Guam, Christmas 1945, on their way home from their fateful fifth war patrol.  I’m not positive, but I think that’s Enright, in the baseball cap, on the far left of Row 2.

And so in October, Enright took Archerfish out on its fifth war patrol.  From November 11 to November 28, the boat cruised off the Japanese coast not far from Tokyo, on “lifeguard” station again – cruising in a small, fixed area that damaged American B-29 bombers could get to if they were too badly damaged to make it back to their airbase on Saipan.

With the cancellation of the day’s strikes on November 28, Archerfish was cut free from lifeboat duty, and was free to patrol.

And there, toward dark, his lookouts spotted what they originally thought to be a Japanese tanker, with an unusually heavy escort of three first-line destroyers, leaving Tokyo Bay.

Enright and his officers soon figured out it was actually an aircraft carrier; the ship was moving at a good clip, zig-zagging toward the south.  The officers worked out the math, and moved Archerfish as fast as its 20-knot surface speed could manage, to get it into position for a shot at the one point in the zig-zag they could intercept.

After six hours of maneuvering – much on the surface, but the last stretch underwater to avoid detection – the ship zagged into Archerfish’s path.  Enright ordered all six of the boat’s forward torpedo tubes fired, and watched as the first torpedoes hit and the ship began to list, before ordering the boat deep to avoid a depth-charging.

Four of Enright’s torpedoes hit the ship.  Although Enright never did see the final outcome, his sonarmen could hear the sound of internal compartments rupturing, the unmistakeable sound of steel ripping and crumpling. They knew they’d drawn blood.

They returned to Pearl Harbor, claiming an aircraft carrier.  The Navy staff was certain it had to have been a cruiser; they were pretty sure there were no surviving Japanese aircraft carriers in the area.  They grudgingly credited Enright and Archerfish with a light carrier after Enright sketched what he’d seen through the periscope in great detail.

The Big Kahuna:  They were both wrong.

The ship was the IJN Shinano, at 70,000 tons the largest aircraft carrier ever built.

The only known photo ever taken of Shinano (other than one taken from an Air Force reconaissance plane), on its very brief sea trials in Tokyo Bay, days before its sinking, taken by a civilian photographer on a harbor tug, who had no idea that he was committing a capital offense (for which he was thankfully never discovered).

The ship had started life as a sister ship to the Japanese battleships Yamato and Musashi, the biggest battleships ever built to this very day.  As it became clear that the age of the superbattleship had ended and the aircraft carrier was here to stay, the Shinano was converted into a large aircraft carrier.  It retained much of its battleship structure, including armor.

It had been built under complete secrecy, so paranoid that most of the Japanese fleet knew nothing about it; built in a covered drydock, by workers sworn to secrecy on pain of death by beheading, with no mention of it ever made on the radio or any other medium that the Allies could monitor.  It was the only major warship of the 20th century never to have an official construction photograph.  Shinano was in fact a complete surprise to the Allies – so complete, in fact, that they didn’t believe what Enright had sunk until they looked at records after the war.

It was the largest aircraft carrier ever built (until the American supercarriers of the 1950s through today).  It was the largest ship ever sunk by a submarine – and one of the largest ever sunk in combat, period (only its half-sisters, Yamato and Musashi, were bigger).

The moral of the story?

Forget F. Scott Fitzgerald; America is all about second acts.  Enright came back from palookaville to score one of the biggest notches in the history of naval warfare.

And watch out for North Dakotans.  We’re a maritime people.

And we know how to break things.

Garbo

It was a solemn march to the Hôtel Meurice in Paris for German General Dietrich von Choltitz on August 25, 1944.  The German Army in Normandy had been smashed.  The encircled Falasie pocket, containing 50,000 German troops – the last of the men who had defended Normandy – had given up.  American General George S. Patton’s Third Army was running wild through the disoriented German lines.

As for Paris, the Meurice had become, just hours before, the advance headquarters of Free French General Philippe François Marie Leclerc de Hauteclocque, better known simply as Leclerc – de Gaulle’s de facto right-hand man.  Despite explicit orders from the Führer himself to destroy Paris, von Choltitz chose instead to surrender the city without a fight (whether this was out of a desire of self-preservation or the preservation of Paris became the subject of great debate after the war).

The City of Lights was back in the hands of Allied forces.  While history credited so many famous names with Paris’ eventual liberation, perhaps the greatest credit is due to a man few would ever know - Juan Pujol Garcia, better known as the double-agent “Garbo.”

Juan Pujol Garcia – his intelligence work as the double-agent “Garbo” convinced the Axis that the Normandy invasion would come at the Pas de Calais – so much so that the Germans never truly left their positions

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Betrayal

The Polish National Anthem is a song that conveys the central theme of Polish nationalism over the past 300 years; it’s always been undereground, or elsewhere. 

Polish English
 Jeszcze Polska nie zginela,
Kiedy my zyjemy.
Co nam obca przemoc wziela,
Szabla odbierzemy.
Our Poland has not yet perished.
As long as we remain,
What the foe by force has seized,
Sword in hand we’ll gain.

 The song goes on to list decades, centuries of betrayals, and false hopes (the Poles bet long on Napoleon in the Napoleonic Wars, and paid horribly for it). 

Seventy years ago today, one of the great examples of heroism, and the most ignoble examples of betrayal, launched.

 The Armed Citizenry:  The first European country to fall to the Nazis, the Poles were the first to organize their resistance.  Tens of thousands of Poles fled through Romania to North Africa, thence to France (we’ve written about some of them), and to Britain; others defected to the Soviets, and fought in the Red Army. 

Among Poles that remained, several resistance movements started.  Polish Communists formed a large underground force. It was (like most communists) internationalistic, and allied with Moscow, and one of the two Polish governments-in-exile.  

But the biggest group, the Armia Krajowa or “Home Army”, was Polish nationalists. 

The flag of the Armija Krajowa.

 They were intensely nationalistic; some were monarchists; most importantly, they owed their allegiance to the government in exile in London.   The Armia was , in every particular, a shadow government and military operating under the Nazis’ noses, complete with an underground media, rudimentary education and social services, and underground weapons plants producing explosives, grenades and bombs, and even small arms.  And, most of all, a military.  Estimates of strength vary between 250,000 and 600,000, with most estimates coagulating around 400,000. 

An AK unit along the Burza river, 1944

And at times the Communists and the Armia Krajowa fought each others more than the Nazis (and after World War 2, this would continue). 

“But how will you fight tanks with rifles?” An AK unit on a captured German “Panther” tank, 1944.

But both managed to spare plenty of aggression for the Nazis; both movements caused immense damage to the Nazi war machine.  The AK in particular focused on attacking the road and rail grid through Poland, which connected the German industrial heartland with the war front in Russia.  It’s estimated that an 1/8 of all German trains through Poland were either destroyed or severely delayed – and that transferred into shortages of ammunition, food, and troops at the front as the brutal meatgrinder of the Eastern Front dragged on toward its fourth unprecedently bloody year. 

Opportunity:  But seventy years ago, the tide of war had turned.  Stalingrad had fallen over a year earlier; the last major German attack at Kursk had failed, and the German front in Russia was collapsing ever more rapidly back on the Fatherland. 

And as the Red Army moved into Poland, the Armia Krajowa readied its greatest operation; a revolt to eject the Germans from Warsaw, and welcome the Soviets as liberators. 

Seventy years ago today, on August 1, 1944, the Armia Krajowa launched the Warsaw Uprising. 

The story is told in the great detail it deserves in many places; suffice to say that the AK took much of the city, but failed to overrun several key German strongpoints, including the bridges over the Wisla river, or Mokotow airport, into which it had been hoped supplies could be flown from the USSR or even Britain. 

AK troops herding captured German troops into captivity. While the AK tried to act like the Geneva-Convention signing force that Poland had been, the SS massacred thousands of AK prisoners and innocent civilians.

Still, the AK – very well-armed for an underground force, with improvisations including a homemade armored car – controlled much of the city, and engaged the Nazis in what Heinrich Himmler called the most brutal street street fighting since Stalingrad.  By the end of August, the Germans controlled the main strongpoints – and the Poles, most of the rest of the city. 

An AK soldier with a captured German flamethrower.

All that remained was for the Soviets to drive the Germans out of the eastern suburbs, and cross the bridges over the Wisla. 

AK troops, with captured German helmets as well as a German MG42 machine gun, during the Uprising.

Halt:  But although the Soviets fought their way to the east bank of the Wisla by mid-September, they pressed the attacks slowly, allowing the Germans to blow the bridges connecting Warsaw with Praga, the main east-bank suburb. 

And there, they halted. 

And slowly, through attrition and supply exhaustion (despite an effort to airdrop supplies by British, US and Polish exile air forces flying from the UK), the Armia Krajowa was ground down, with about half the original 50,000 combatants escaping into the woods, leaving behind over 200,000 dead civilians – killed in the battle or murdered by Germans in wholesale lots, until even the SS realized it was only making the Poles fight harder – and nearly 10,000 dead Germans, and a city that was destroyed nearly to the last building. 

SS troops advancing through “Old Town”, the first major AK stronghold to fall. The SS – which included Russian POWs as well as ethnic Aryan Germans, all of whom hated the Poles – was especially brutal during the uprising.

Belatedly, the Soviets, under General Rokossovskii, allowed a number of Polish exile units fighting under the Soviet flag – “Berling’s Army” – to attempt to cross the Wisla; 5,000 casualties and no significant benefit resulted. 

Of course, there had never been any intent to cross the Wisla and rescue the AK on Stalin’s part; the pause on the east bank was done entirely to allow the Germans to kill off as many conservatives, monarchists and western-aligned troops as possible, so that he’d not have to do it himself later.  And the costly frittering-away of Berling’s Army?  A bloody whittling-down of two forces the Russians needed cut down to size; uppity Poles in Soviet uniforms, and Germans. 

When the Soviets finally took Warsaw and the rest of Poland, they installed a puppet government that lasted 45 more years.  Many of the survivors of the Armia Krajowa fought on until the late forties, even the early fifties, killing communists long after all hope of relief from the West was gone. 

I always thought the Polish Anthem should add a verse dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising.

Good Intentions

Seventy years ago today, a 500-pound bomb from an American bomber that dropped its payload miles short of its intended target fell 20,000 feet, and landed squarely on top of Lieutenant General Lesley McNair.

General Lesley McNair, who died – spectacularly – 70 years ago today.

Literally. The bomb fell directly into McNair’s foxole, landing physically directly on top of the three star general. McNair was dead from being hit by 500 pounds of metal screaming earthward at 600 miles per hour, even before the bomb exploded.

But explode it did, further mangling the unlucky general’s body so badly that the only parts that were immediately recognizable were the three gold stars from his collar, found some distance away from the bomb crater that remodeled the general’s foxhole.

The graves registration detail found the parts the best they could – which is exactly as difficult a job as you might imagine for a body that had been almost literally wrapped around 400 pounds of explosives and 100 or so pounds of steel. His mortal coil thus uncoiled and then re-coiled, he was buried at the American Cemetary in Normandy – the senior American interred at this most holy of shrines to America’s sacrifice in Europe.

He was one of four American three-star generals killed in action during the war.

It wasn’t McNair’s first brush with death; he’d been wounded by German artillery in North Africa the previous year.

McNair (center) in Tunisia. The day after this photo was taken, McNair was wounded by fragments from a German artillery shell.

But neither his bad luck nor his bravery were the the most notable thing about General Lesley McNair. For while his death was one for the trivia contests, his life was of immense impact – much of it controversial to this day.

For while generals like Eisenhower, MacArthur, Marshall, Patton, Bradley, Clark, MacAuliffe and Gavin were household names in America, then and (mostly, and among historians) now, there were few men in history who had more to do with how America fought the war, and the lot of the American fighting man, than Lieutenant General Lesley McNair.

And most of the legacy was just as bad as McNair’s end was spectacular and bizarre.

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Logistics

“Mediocre minds discuss strategy; Good minds discuss tactics; Great minds discuss logistics”
- Unknown, possibly aprocryphal

Every “war” in the living memory of any American under the age of probably 60 has been the sort of thing a peasant in the 1700s might recognize; a country’s professional military duking it out with another country’s military, or with insurgents in some unruly province, while back things went on more or less as normal.

The idea of “total war” – the complete mobilization of every factor of a nation’s economy toward a war effort – sounds completely foreign to people today.  The idea that entire nations would devote their entire economies – down to the food on one’s table – to defeating an enemy who similiarly engaged?  That may as well be words from another language.

But seventy years ago today, there were not one but two separate stories that illustrated how deeply America’s raw industrial output affected the outcome of history’s greatest war.

Shorefront:  For centuries, the greatest problem with launching an amphibious invasion – landing troops from the sea to not merely harass the enemy and leave, but to stay and conquer their target – wasn’t landing the troops on the shore.  Any boat can land a group of soldiers on a beach; with enough courage and skill, they can overwhelm the defenses (if any) and prevail.

The hard part is keeping those troops supplied.  You can’t just land soldiers and expect them to keep moving; you need to supply them with ammunition, food and clothing.  Their artillery support needs to land.  And they all need ammunition.  Vehicles – jeeps, tanks, personnel carriers, to fight the battles, and trucks to carry supplies to the troops at the front – all have to be landed, as well as fuel, oil and spare parts for all the vehicles.  And the men; field hospitals, replacment soldiers, medicine, body bags.  And ever more of all the above.

The irreducible fact of fighting a war across any sizeable body of water is that the bridgehead, sooner or later, would need to capture an intact port, with dock facilities capable of unloading ships full of cargo to be tranported to the front.  Cranes, wharves, warehouses, roads and railroads, all the infrastructure needed to accept, unload, sort, transfer and dispatch cargo to the front to support millions of fighting and support soldiers – there was only one way to get those.

In the case of D-Day, it was complicated by the fact that the same geography that made the invasion beaches usable for the initial assault – a long, gently sloping shelf out from the beaches, with shallow water extending out hundreds of yards – made it exceptionally difficult to bring in cargo ship, which have deep “drafts” – they run aground in water less than 20-30 feet deep.

Or that was the conventional wisdom.  British and American engineers, in the runup to D-Day, hatched the idea of the “Mulberry” – an artificial harbor, capable of providing a shelter from the weather of the English Channel, and instant wharves and jetties and docks built straight out from the invasion beaches, capable of unloading bulk lots of cargo from ships designed to carry lots of it, in water deep enough for the ships to approach and navigate.  They consisted of…:

  • A “breakwater” constructed of long chains of sunken ships and large concrete boxes, to create an area of calm water
  • Instant docks made out of large, prefabricated cement and steel sections that would be towed to the beach and moored in place.
  • Long stretches of floating roadway to join the beach to the docks, so trucks could take unloaded cargo from the jetties directly to the beach, and thence to the road system.

    The Arromanches Mulberry, in service.

 

There were two Mullberries – an American one off Omaha Beach, and a British one off Sword Beach.  And in the two weeks since D-Day, the two harbors had been erected, and had started their job of moving cargo…

Floating roadways in from a Mulberry dock to the beach.

…when, seventy years ago tonight, a huge gale struck Normandy.  The American Mulberry, anchored in softer sand, was broken apart; floating roadways were washed away; docks were pulled out of place and damaged beyond repair.

The British Mulberry was badly damaged, and out of service for a few days – but it served on at reduced capacity until, later than fall, the Allies finally captured the port of Antwerp (after the Germans destroyed the ports facilities at Cherbourg, Le Havre and Dunkirk).

The remains of the British Mulberry can be seen from Google Maps today, off “Sword” beach, at the French city of Arromanches.

What that meant was the Allies – especially the Americans – had to do what had been considered impossible; bring in all the supplies needed for a huge army, “over the beach”.

And there was the other huge American success story; they pulled it off, using hundreds of “Landing Ship, Tank” vessels.

A row of LSTs, disgorging cargo at Utah Beach.

About 300 feet long, fairly flimsy by naval standards, but designed to run up in waters less than five feet deep to drop off tanks almost directly onto the beach, an “LST” could also carry trucks loaded with supplies that could drive onto the beach with needed cargoes.

And the US built well over 1,000 of them.

LST-1, the first of well over a thousand nearly identical ships. Some are still afloat today.

So when the pre-invasion calculus of moving supplies to the troops got blown away seventy years ago tonight, there was a “Plan B” – raw, brute carrying force.

Raw Numbers:  Meanwhile, halfway around the world, the Battle of the Philippine Sea – the run-up to the invasion of the Philippines – was underway.

Let’s go back in time a bit, first.

Two years ago, the US Pacific Fleet was far from recovered from Pearl Harbor.  For that matter, it was reeling from losses at Coral Sea, Midway, and the Solomon Islands.

At one point, the US was down to two carriers – the Saratoga and theEnterprise – afloat in the Pacific.  We had had to resort to the subterfuge of “borrowing” the British carrierVictoriousfor a few months, and masquerading it as an American ship, to deceive the Japanese.

But in the intervening two years, the US had commissioned nearly a dozen new “fleet” carriers (each carrying 90 aircraft), and nine “light” carriers (converted cruisers, designed mostly to carry fighter escorts for the main fleet, and carrying about 40 planes).  More importantly, its pilots had gone from a mass of untrained college graduates to a highly-trained force adept at handing down hard-won experience from combat veterans to newbie pilots.

Five “Essex” Class Carriers – all commissioned since 1942; more carriers than the US actually owned in 1941.  There were eventually nearly twenty Essexes.

In the meantime, the Japanese Naval Air Service – in 1942 perhaps the most elite body of pilots in the world – had been ground down by massive casualties at Midway, whittled away in other battles across the Pacific…

…and finally, launched into an epic attack on the American fleet.

Which led, seventy years ago tonight, to “the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”.

Nearly 600 Japanese planes were shot down; the US Navy lost about 120, two-thirds of them due to running out of fuel while attempting to attack the Japanese fleet (which escaped, although not without terrible cost) at extreme range.

Japanese fighter going down at the Battle of the Philippine Sea – one of nearly 600 lost in two days.

The battle left the Japanese navy’s air service with enough trained aircrew to fit out one light carrier; without air cover, there was no question of the Japanese Navy undertaking any non-suicidal offensive action for the rest of the war.

And the bulk of the backstory for this pivotal battle came down to industrial production; the United States had replaced its casualties from Pearl Harbor, Coral Sea, Midway and the Solomons at least twice over (and even more so in terms of smaller warships, supply vessels and especially aircraft and aircrew).

The battle spelled the end of any rational Japanese threat in the Pacific.

And between both episodes, on both sides of the world, it showed what a crushingly immense thing US productivity was.

Back To The Future

It’s been about a decade now since the “Drone” – the unmanned aircraft remotely-controlled by a human – promised to revolutionize warfare. 

It was a solid decade before that that the “precision-guided weapon” became the star of the first Gulf War.

And it was a decade and a half earlier that the “Cruise Missile” became first the great destabilizor of the endless series of nuclear arms talks, and then one of the hammers with which Ronald Reagan beat the Soviet Union on the anvil of unbending socialist economic stagnation.

But all three of these currents got their bloody start seventy years ago today, with the first “Buzz Bomb” attack on London.

Hitler and the German bureaucracy were famous for squandering immense effort on weapons, strategies and programs that served no useful purpose but to indulge the vendettas of one Nazi leader or another.  As the German army was running short of tanks on the Eastern Front, Hitler was devoting immense engineering effort to building a rocket to attack New York.  As the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front scraped to supply itself with food and ammunition, railroads were forced to reserve masses of rolling stock to transport people to and among concentration camps. 

And as the tide turned against the German military on land, sea and air – culminating in the D-Day invasions 70 years ago last Friday – Hitler squandered a king’s ransom on weapons designed to terrorize enemy civilians.

70 years ago today the first “V-1″ “Buzz Bomb” struck London.

A V1, captured at the end of the war.

The Vergeltungswaffe 1 – or “Reprisal Weapon 1″ – was the world’s first operational “Cruise Missile” – basically an unmanned aircraft whose sole mission was to fly a preset distance, crash into the ground, and detonate the 1,800 pounds explosives it carried.  It was nicknamed the “Buzz Bomb” by the Allies due to its pulse-jet engine, which burned fuel in a series of bursts rather than in a continuous stream like a modern jet engine, causing the weapon in flight to sound like a very long, immensely loud, dry fart in flight.   The crude jet drove the weapon at around 400 mph – faster than all but the very fastest Allied fighters, the Mustang, Spitfire, Tempest and Mosquito.

V1 in flight

It was a crude weapon.  It wasn’t “guided”, per se – it flew in the direction in which it was launched, from large launch ramps in Holland.  They were stabilized – they had a reasonable chance of flying in a more or less straight direction – and carried a crude timer powered by a propellor which, after a designated number of spins, would send the plane into a power-drive straight into the ground; on contact, the detonator would explode the bomb.  

A V1 on a launch ramp. This was the “guidance system”.

It was crude, not really capable of “hitting a target” so much as “blowing up somewhere in a large area”. 

And London (which was really the only target the bombs were aimed at until the Allied advances during autumn put the launch sites out of range, when they switched to the Allies’ main supply port at Antwerp, Belgium) was a very big target.

The reactions in London have been toned down by the historians – but the attacks caused the RAF and USAAF to redeploy a huge number of anti-aircraft guns and their fastest fighter planes – the P51 Mustangs, Supermarine Spitfire XVs, De Havilland Mosquitos and especially Hawker Tempests that were so direly needed to maintain air supremacy over the continent.   Countering V-1s was the first job of Britain’s first jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor.   This was among the most dangerous jobs in the RAF during this last year of the war; shooting a buzz bomb could set off an explosion that’d take out both planes.  Many pilots preferred to “tip” the V1s – using their wings to flip the buzz bombs’ wings, sending them either off-course or into the ground.  The campaign against the buzz bombs killed 300 Allied airmen.  

A Spitfire “tipping” a V1 in flight. Bear in mind, both planes are moving at 400-450 miles per hour.

The countermeasures – a huge ring of anti-aircraft guns, and squadrons of patroling fighters – killed nearly 75% of the incoming cruise missiles. 

Of 10,000 V1s fired at London, about 2,400 got through. 

Saint Paul’s Cathedral, with a V1 diving to impact in the background.

And while it was nowhere near as deadly as the Blitz of 1940 – the months of firebombing that killed 92,000 Britons (at a cost of 3,000 aircraft and over 7,000 German aircrew), the V-1 campaign destroyed almost the same number of structures, killed 22,000 (mostly in and around London), and incurred no direct German casualties. It was one of the most cost-effective terror campaigns in history.

While the weapons were crude, and the goal was futile, in another sense the first explosion of the first Buzz Bomb 70 years ago today was the first explosion of the 21st Century way of making war.

Flags Of My Ex-Father-In-Law

My ex father-in-law, Al, had been married about a week when Pearl Harbor was attacked.  The next morning, he and his umpteen brothers (I lost count and never really found it again) volunteered for one of the armed forces or another (except for one older brother who had already joined the Navy in the thirties).

He had a busy war.

As I recall the story; he started off working as a cook, then trained as a gunner’s mate.  He shipped aboard theUSS Iowa, and cruised to North Africa to take FDR to the Casablanca conference.

Then, when cleaning his gun (a 20mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft machine gun), a recoil spring popped loose, catapulting him over the edge and down a deck or two, cracking a vertebrae or two.  He was in the Naval Hospital for months recuperating from the injury, as Iowa sailed on.

Iowa, later in the war. Iowa has no further place in the story, but it’s cool picture. That’s USS Indiana steaming in the background, in the Pacific in 1944. Collett is actually most likely not too terribly far from these ships…

And so he was reassigned to “new construction” at Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine, upstream from the Atlantic along the border with New Hampshire – a shipyard that still builds all the US Navy’s destroyers.

He was assigned to the fitting-out and commissioning of a brand-new destroyer – DD-730, to be christened the USS Collett. The destroyer was named after Navy Lieutenant Commander John A. Collett, commander of a torpedo bomber squadron who’d been shot down and killed at the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands in 1942. In a highly unusual non-coincidence, the ship’s first commander was Collett’s brother, Commander James D. Collett.

Collett during its sea trials, off Boston, May 31 1944.

And seventy years ago today, Collett was commissioned into the US Navy.  Al was a “plankholder” – a member of the crew that put the vessel into service.

Side elevation of a Sumner class destroyer.

Collett was an “Allan Sumner” class destroyer – the first class of US Navy destroyers designed entirely after the war started.  With six five-inch guns in three turrets (instead of the four or five single turrets of earlier designs, all capable of shooting at either ships or aircraft), and twelve 40mm anti-aircraft machine guns, the Sumners reflected the lessons learned so far in the war; anti-aircraft firepower was a matter of life or death.  As indeed for the Collett it would be shortly.

After its shakedown – a fast, wartime working-up period - Collett set sail to join the Pacific Fleet, arriving in Pearl Harbor exactly five months from its commissioning date, and at the massive forward base at Ulithi Atoll three weeks later.

Ulithi Atoll during the war. A squat little coral atoll, it had an immense lagoon, providing a sheltered anchorage big enough for hundreds of Allied ships. Home to hundreds of supply ships, repair ships, barracks barges, ammunition ships, factory ships (including a floating foundry), water distillery barges, hospital ships, even a barge that produced ice cream by the barrel, Ulithi was perhaps the greatest naval base in history – and when the war ended and the fleet pulled anchor, it disappeared virtually without a trace.

And then it was off to war.

Two weeks later, she was off to start in the run-up to the invasion of the Philippines.  And there – on November 14 - Collett was part of an extraordinary encounter.  The destroyer was posted on radar “picket” duty – sailing well north of the main invasion fleet, to provide early radar warning of incoming air raids.  It was among the most dangerous jobs in the Navy; the Japanese knew what the long chains of lone destroyers were doing.  Of course, the carriers provided air cover – but it didn’t always work. 

Destroyers – even big ones like the Collett  – had their limitations.  The general assumption was that one destroyer could take on one attacking aircraft at a time.  That wasn’t chicken feed; an incoming combat aircraft flown by a competent pilot is a formidable target.  And while the fire control systems on American destroyers were wonders of analog technology – by far the most advanced of their day – the complexity of the problem generally boiled down to the simple fact that a destroyer could reasonably hope to deal with one attacking aircraft at a time.  (Larger ships – cruisers and battleships – could deal with more, and a formation of ships escorting an aircraft carrier could put up a storm of anti-aircraft fire that made attacking a US formation a very risky, costly thing by 1944.  Indeed, a kamikaze mission.  But we’ll get back to that).

On November 14, four Japanese G4M2 “Betty” torpedo bombers approached Collett.

A formation of “Betty” bombers.

Seventy years of being the victors in the war have given Americans a sense that Japanese military equipment was junk – but in fact the “Betty” was one of the better torpedo bombers of the war.  It was fast (for a twin-engined bomber), with an extremely long range, and armed with Japanese torpedoes (and unlike American torpedoes, Japanese torpedoes were excellent, accurate, and utterly reliable), the “Betty” was a formidable plane.  And there were four of them.

And they were clearly led by a competent tactician, because the four planes fanned out around Collett, turned, and came in from all four points of the compass – a tactic that virtually ensured that at the very least three planes and likely all four would get to drive their attack home, that three or four torpedoes would be launched, and at least one would almost certainly hit the target, definitely crippling it, probably sinking it.

But the American ship – Commander Collett and his anti-aircraft crews, including Al, who was the gun captain of a 40mm mount to starboard of the forward smokestack – pulled off an incredible performance, shooting down two of the incoming bombers.  In those days, it was an amazing display of gunnery.

A twin 40mm mount, similar to (indeed, interchangeable with) the one Al captained on the Collett. Each barrel fired two two-pound shells a second to a range of about a mile. The gun was a Swedish design, appropriated and used by nearly every country still extant by 1944; the US, Britain, and even Germany built them under license. Some are still in active service today.

The other two launched their torpedoes – and, in a feat of seamanship that sounds pretty trival in written English, but which in practice was a couple steps shy of parting the Red Sea, Commander Collett managed to “comb the wakes” of the two incoming “fish”, dodging them both.

The feat may have stopped short of “miracle” – but it was an exceptional display of gunnery, seamanship, and 1940s analog computing technology. 

The Collett - and Al – went on to much more; they battled Kamikazes off Okinawa.  Its’ squadron was among the first American ships to sortie into Tokyo Bay, torpedoing several Japanese merchant ships in the process.  She escorted the Missouri to the surrender ceremony.

And that wasn’t all.  She fought in Korea – Collett was the second ship into Inchon Harbor, battling it out with the Korean shore batteries, among a group of destroyers that were expected to be “sitting ducks“, drawing North Korean fire to mark the guns for obliteration from fleet gunfire and air attacks.  In fact, the destroyers silenced the Korean guns, and Collett suffered light casualties.

She was an active unit of the Pacific Fleet until 1960, when she collided with the USS Ammen, had her bow replaced with the bow from another WWII destroyer, and then served off Vietnam.

Collett in 1969

Then, in 1974, she was sold to Argentina.  The USS Collett became the Argentinian navy ship ARA Piedra Buena.

The Piedra Buena

During the Falklands Islands war of 1982, Piedra Buena was escorting the Argentinean cruiser General Belgrano (formerly the US light cruiser Phoenix) when the Belgrano was torpedoed by the British submarine HMS Conqueror.  Piedra Buena picked up survivors, then returned to Argentina.

The ship’s long career ended in 1988, when the Argies sank her as a missile target.

That, as it happens, was maybe a year before I met Al.

Like a lot of WWII vets, Al apparently didn’t talk a lot about the war (or so his various kids told me).  In 1990, out of ideas for Christmas presents, I built a small scale model of Collett, and mounted it on a plaque with a couple of wartime photos of the ship.

After that, he started talking a little more about the war; he dragged out his old blues, and some of his photos, and some of the stories.  He passed away about ten years back.  Unlike a lot of ex-in-laws, Al and I always got along famously. 

Apropos not much.  I just noticed the anniversary.

Boarders Away

There are (or were, at least – I can’t speak for how schools teach history today, and I’m not sure I want to know) a number of battles in World War 2 that are (or were) household knowledge, knowledge of which was part of the common cultural currency of being an American.

D-Day and Pearl Harbor are still fairly well-known.  Americans who’ve served, or know people who’ve served, or are casual history buffs, might know about Midway, the Bulge, Iwo Jima.

You usually have to get into more-serious history, or people who’ve followed their own family histories closely, to find people today who know anything about Guadalcanal, Okinawa, Anzio, Monte Cassino, Saint Lo.   People who watched Band of Brothers might know Market Garden.

But even the serious history buffs, when asked about the truly pivotal battles of World War 2, will frequently omit what may have been the most important battle of all – the Battle of the Atlantic.

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The Great Escape

One of the things that fascinated me as a kid – from about fifth grade through high school, at least – was escapes from places like POW camps, concentration camps, and the like.

I’m not sure what fascinated me so much about them; perhaps because they were the ultimate “do-it-yourself” job; putting together the means and resolve to break out of a closely-guarded prison deep in the middle of hostile territory, with little on ones’ side in the way of materials or supplies – nothing, indeed, but the scraps around you and whatever your ingenuity could make of them.

I read many of these stories when I was a kid; Escape from Colditz by P.R. Reid, about the men who resolved to break out of the “escape-proof” Colditz Castle.  More fascinating still, Paul Williams’ The Wooden Horseone of the most improbable sounding ones of all; British prisoners at a camp in German/Polish Silesia built a wooden vaulting horse, which dozens of POWs used for daily exercise.

Scene from the British film version of “The Wooden Horse”. Yes, this happened.

Inside the horse were two men.  The other POWs carried the horse to the exact same spot in the middle of the compound every day, above a concealed trap door under the sandy topsoil.  The men inside dug first down, and then under the wire, every day for eight solid weeks on end – and then were carried, complete with their load of excavated sand, back to the barracks at the end of the shift.  Finally, the three men involved - Williams, Michael Codner and Oliver Philpot – completed the tunnel, and made their break.

Another scene from “Wooden Horse”. Not a matter for claustrophobics.

Incredibly, all three made it back to safety; Williams and Codner via Denmark and Sweden, and Philpot to Switzerland.

Perhaps it’s my trait of rooting for underdogs – but I’ve always been fascinated by these stories.

One thing that amazes some people – who know that most of what Hollywood peddles as “history” is utter BS – is that the movie The Great Escape, the early-sixties classic starring Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen and “based on a true story”, actually is not all that loosely based on a real escape.

And it happened seventy years ago tonight.

And in some ways, the story was more incredible than the movie could have portrayed.

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The Setting Sun

For nearly two years, the Axis had been mostly in retreat – fleeing from distant battlefields as the reach of the Axis’ leaders exceeded their grasp.  But on the morning of March 6th, 1944, the largest Axis offensive since Kursk began, and with it, an attempt to settle one of the many fronts on which the war was being fought.  On what had long been the relatively quiet frontier between Burma and India, the Japanese Army launched what their commander believed would be the decisive battle not just for India, but the entire Pacific War.

It would end with the costliest defeat in Japanese history.

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At the nexus of colonial ambition and military weakness during World War II, sat India.  Guarded jealously, and nervously, by the British, and desired desperately by the Japanese, the fate of India seemed permanently in flux – forever just out of reach of either being conquered or protected by two colonial empires whose focus lay elsewhere.

The 7th Rajput Regiment: over 2.5 million Indians volunteered to serve in the Indian Army in World War II, making it the largest all-volunteer fighting force in history (to that point).

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The Stranded Whale

By the thousands they tumbled off their landing crafts.  Men, trucks, guns – 36,000 battle-hardened Allied troops supported by 3,200 vehicles and all delivered with nary a response from the Wehrmacht.  On the beaches of the fishing town of Anzio on January 22nd, it seemed that the Allied advance in Italy had finally achieved with Operation Shingle the breakthrough they had been searching for.

Instead, Anzio would become emblematic of the entire Italian campaign – poor planning, poor leadership, harsh terrain and heavy casualties over the course of a grueling near 6-month battle.

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By the beginning of 1944, Italy had been knocked out of the war - but the war hadn’t been knocked out of Italy.

S**t on a Shingle: despite what the pillowing smoke might suggest, the initial landings for Operation Shingle were essentially unopposed. 36,000 Allied soldiers landed at Anzio in one day, for the loss of only a little more than 100 men.  It would get much worse starting the next day.

Despite Italy’s formal switch to the Allied side in September of 1943, most the country’s territory remained in German hands.  Allied leadership, in particular U.S. 5th Army Gen. Mark Clark, had assumed that Germany would retreat to northern Italy, relinquishing most of the southern and central regions of the country.  Doing so would shorten German supply lines and allow for a greater concentration of forces.  But for Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, commander of German forces in Italy, doing so would also surrender mountainous, and easily defended, terrain.  A series of defensive fortifications, known collectively as the Gustav or Winter Line, stretching from Naples to Rome, were hastily erected.  The Allied occupation of Italy suddenly became a daunting affair.

Available Allied troops were few and far between.  As men and material were being sent to England in preparation for what would become the Normandy landings, U.S. and British commanders were being asked to attack rugged German positions with numerically equal (or sometimes inferior) forces.  Battles like Monte Cassino swallowed troops by the hundreds of thousands (250,000 on the Allied side alone from January to May of 1944) for little, if any, territorial gain.  The Allies had to find someway behind the German front.

American troops take cover against incoming German artillery. The Allied advance at Anzio, designed to be rapid, proved as slow and costly as the rest of the Italian campaign.

For Winston Churchill, the path behind Gustav and to Rome was via the town of Anzio.  It was not an entirely original concept.  The commander of the Allied armies in Italy, British General Harold Alexander, had proposed sending 5 divisions behind enemy lines, but he could not afford to take men away from Monte Cassino.  Nevertheless, Churchill badgered his generals, going so far as to accuse them of only “drawing pay and eating rations.”  Alexander’s concept was reintroduced and reduced to one division with the hopes that at least the move would draw away German resources.  The British believed success at Anzio could capture Rome and by-pass the entire Gustav Line.  The Americans believed it was a distraction at best; a suicide mission at worst.

If the Allies were confused as to the objective of Operation Shingle, their choice of landing ground didn’t make the mission any easier.  The Pontine Fields were flat, open ground flanked by mountains – easy pickings if the Germans held the high ground.  Worse, up until the 1930s, the Pontine Fields had been the Pontine Marshes.  Mussolini, desperate to show the achievements of fascism, had the marshes drained with a series of pumps in order to farm the land.  The Allies were landing in territory that could be flooded by water and enemy artillery with too few men for the job.  American Gen. John P. Lucas, the man assigned to Anzio, summed up his task grimly: ”They will end up putting me ashore with inadequate forces and get me in a serious jam… Then, who will get the blame?”

Gen. John P. Lucas: the general in charge of Operation Shingle. Lucas never believed in Shingle, knowing he was asked to do with half a force what a full force had not accomplished. Nevertheless, he took all the blame.

Despite the long odds against Shingle working, at first it seemed as though the Allied plan might succeed.

Lucas’ men made it 5 miles in-land on the first day, with little German opposition.   In fact, the timing seemingly couldn’t have been worse for the Germans.  Kesselring wasn’t surprised, he had assumed the Allies would attempt an amphibious invasion to get around his defenses, but he had already dispatched his reserves to the Gustav Line.  For a moment, just a moment, Kesselring prepared to abandon his positions and get north of Rome – a massive retreat.  He couldn’t afford the Allies getting behind his communications and supply lines.  The Allies had gambled and looked like they would win big.

Victory at Cisterna: one of the hardest battles of the Anzio campaign was initially a major defeat. The US 1st & 3rd Ranger Battalions squared off against the Hermann Göring division. Both Battalions were effectively destroyed.

Lucas knew none of this.  Fearful of being overrun, he bottled up his forces on the beachhead and awaited the German counterattack.  By January 29th, with the arrival of two more divisions (so much for the one division plan), Lucas now had 69,000 men ready to start an advance.  Churchill was despondent.  ”I had hoped we were hurling a wildcat into the shore,” he said, “but all we got was a stranded whale.”

The lost time had been fatal to the Allies’ efforts.  Now facing them were 71,500 German troops in defensive positions.  The U.S. 3rd Division’s advance out of Anzio at Cisterna was a debacle and showed what any further advance would cost in Allied lives.  The 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions found themselves cut off from the 3rd Division and against the vaulted Hermann Göring Division.  Not content to force the American Rangers to surrender, the German troops marched American POWs directly at the Allied line, shooting or bayoneting prisoners for every shot taken at their German captors.  This terror tactic was devastating effective.  Of the 767 men of the 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions, 6 survived being killed or captured.

Only 4,500 Axis soldiers, Germans & Italians, were captured during the Battle of Anzio. Most escaped to fight another day.

By start of February, German forces outnumbered Allied troops at Anzio.  While the Anzio front had expanded, Krupp K5 railway guns, known as “Anzio Annie,” lobbed 560 pound artillery shells at the beachhead and German torpedo boats harassed landing craft.  Inch by inch, mile by mile, the Germans were turning the Allies back.  Anzio was increasingly looking like it might become the Gallipoli of the Second World War – itself another Churchill-inspired invasion that failed in the Great War.  By the middle of February, the last Allied defensive line at Anzio was under attack and Gen John P. Lucas, as he had predicted, had been blamed and removed from command.

Like he had so many times before, Adolf Hitler appeared to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  Kesselring had been given a largely free hand to make tactical decisions about the Italian front and that trust had paid dividends at Anzio.  But his troops were exhausted.  An offensive on Feb 16th, designed to break the final Allied line, had failed by the thinnest of margins.  20,000 Germans had been killed or wounded thus far, and Kesslering wisely knew he had at least achieved his goal of bottling up the Allies.  Hitler ordered another attack, producing only more casualties for Kesslering’s weakening 14th Army and ruling out future offensive operations.  The result underscored what Anzio had become – a stalemate.

A Italian woman looking for food: the scale of civilian death at Anzio is unknown, but an estimated 153,000 Italian civilians died during the fighting on their soil.

What had started as a one division operation eventually mutated into a 10-division, 150,000 man operation by May of 1944.  Men needed for other fronts, including elsewhere in Italy, found themselves trapped on the tiny Anzio beachhead.  Only after bleeding the German Army on multiple fronts did the Allies finally achieve their breakthrough, capturing Rome on June 4th, 1944.  Even that accomplishment found a way to become tainted, as not only was it overshadowed by the events of June 6th, but the decision to hold, in essence, a victory parade in the Italian capitol instead of pursuing the German 10th Army, would have bloody consequences.  Of the over 300,000 Allied casualties in the Italian campaign, more than half would come after the fall of Rome.

Disaster By Design

As we’ve seen with the catastrophic rollout of Obamacare; when you’re working on a big project, design and architectural decisions made early in the process can have unintended, and maybe massive, impacts later in the process.

Seventy years ago tonight – the night after Christmas – at the Battle of the North Cape, one of those chains of design-cause to real-world effect came to a dismal conclusion in the frozen, stormy North Atlantic.

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When designing military vehicles – whether a Hummvee, an aircraft carrier, a tank or a fighter plane – designers have to balance four, largely mutually-exclusive factors.  The design of any military vehicle is a result of the inevitable compromise made between those factors, at any given level of technology.

Those factors are usually summed up as “Firepower, Armor, Speed and Payload”, but are better described as:

  • Firepower – how much hitting power the vehicle has.  This can refer to the size of a vehicle’s weapons – but also to the amount of ammunition, or the variety of threats it can attack, or the fire control system that helps it hit its target.
  • Survivability – which is beyond mere “armor”.  For example – US Navy aircraft carriers of World War 2 had little actual metal armor, but they invested immensely in damage control and catastrophe-proofing the ship designs – which led to some of them surviving damage that would have sunk any other nation’s designs.
  • Mobility – This can indeed be raw speed.  But it can also mean the ability to keep moving in conditions that would stymie other vehicles of its type.  That’s a major factor in today’s story, as it happens.
  • (A fourth – Payload – sometimes crops up, usually if you’re building a vehicle whose job it is to carry people, supplies or other vehicles – anything from an armored personnel carrier to an aircraft carrier)

Your job is to design a new tank.  You have a weight and size limit – your tank has to fit evenly onto a flatbed rail car, so it can be moved around the country.  In your design you’re going to cram a huge, powerful cannon into it, along with thick, heavy armor.  But that means you’re going to have to put a big engine into it, so that it can actually move.  Within the size restrictions you have, that means building a taller, more capacious vehicle to hold the engine – but tall tanks are easier to see at hit, which affects survivability.  Making it smaller requires either accepting  a slower tank (compromising Mobility), or a smaller gun, or less ammunition for a larger gun (less Firepower), or making it lighter (reducing armor, and thus reducing Survivability).

Naval ships have the same set of compromises.

Global:  In the early 20th century, it could be fairly said the sun never set on the British Empire.  The Empire and Commonwealth – the network for former colonies that had become independent, but remained part of a close-knit economic and defense alliance – stretched from (using current names except as noted for all the below) Canada, the Bahamas, the Falklands and Belize in the west, east to the Home islands, to colonies, to its Mediterranean holdings (Gibraltar, Malta, and of course the vital Suez Canal, in an Egypt that Britain ruled as a puppet proxy), to the protectorates and Commonwealth states that dominated Africa (Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and the commonwealth nations of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa) and the Middle East (Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, and Britain’s then and present ally and client Oman), its keystone possession India (which then also included what became Pakistan and Bangladesh) and Sri Lanka, and  to its’ far eastern colonies in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Fiji, and of course its Commonwealth allies Australia and New Zealand.

And from the 1600s on, the Royal Navy was designed to sail, and fight, anywhere in that massive slice of the world – from the stormy, sub-arctic expanses of the far North Sea and North Atlantic, to the temperate reaches of the Mediterranean, to the dolorous tropics of the Indian Ocean.

And over the years, the Royal Navy arrived at a design formula that institutionalized the order of importance of the four key design factors, based on the mission “fight anywhere in the Empire”.

Mobility came first – in terms of “Seaworthiness”, as opposed to “Speed”.  A British ship had to be able to weather sea conditions ranging from North Atlantic gales to Indian Ocean cyclones.  This meant building ships that were designed and engineered to remain not merely afloat, but controllable in terrible seas.  (Mobility expressed as “range” was less important – Britain’s empire had refueling bases about every 2,000 miles, from Halifax Nova Scotia to the UK to Gibraltar to Suez to Mumbai to Sri Lanka to Singapore to Hong Kong.  British designers assumed those bases would be available.  World War 2 showed it a bad assumption – but we’re jumping ahead, here).

Protection – armor, damage control and catastophe-proofing – as a general rule, came in second.  Firepower came in third; too many, too heavy guns and torpedoes made the ships top-heavy, which made them less stable and harder to handle (and more importantly, handle in a combat-effective way) in heavy seas.

Different nations made the compromise differently.  The Italian navy emphasized speed over range – they fought in the Mediterranean exclusively, and their main goal was to react quickly to contingencies in that ocean.  Its rather placid weather meant “seaworthiness” was less vital.  The US Navy, whose main theater of operations was the Pacific, emphasized long range over pure seaworthiness; their firepower was on paper more modest, although greatly augmented by superior technology like fire control radar.

And the German Navy?   It was designed to operate in the stormy but confined North and Baltic Seas.  Its mission was not to project power around the globe; it was to sink the British Fleet.  Range was more or less irrelevant – most missions were measured in days, not weeks (for surface ships – the submarines, or “U-Boats”, were another matter).   The crux of the design battle was between raw, pure firepower – cannon and torpedoes – and mobility expressed in terms of speed.

With that in mind, the Germans in 1939 commissioned their second most-famous warship (after the Bismarck, of “Sink the Bismarck” fame), the KMS Scharnhorst.

KMS Scharnhorst

Scharnhorst and her sister Gneisenau weren’t really “battleships”; they were “Battle Cruisers”; more speed and less armor (but not much less) than battleships, faster and more heavily armed than cruisers (but not quite as powerful as a battleship), the idea was to be able to kill anything that could catch it, and outrun anything that could kill it.  But it was built to the German design standard; Speed and Firepower trumped raw seaworthiness (although at 32,000 tons, it was still plenty seaworthy).

Floating Tin Cans:  In large ships, like battleships and aircraft carriers, of course, there’s plenty of room to make those compromises.

In smaller ships, it was a much tighter set of compromises.

Destroyers – at least up through the 1960s – were smaller warships designed to escort fleets of larger warships, and to attack much larger warships using (until the missile age) torpedoes.  They have to be fast, to not only keep up with the battleships and aircraft carriers they escorted, but to keep their station in formation with the larger ships as they zigged and zagged in evasive maneuvers.  So a Destroyer would generally be from 1,000 to 2,200 tons (battleships were 26,000 to 80,000 tons, and aircraft carriers were generally from 12,000 to 30,000 tons in World War 2)

To make things more complicated, the various arms control treaties of the 1920s and 1930s – especially the London Naval Treaty, which sought to curb the naval arms race of the era – placed a statutory limit on the size of warships, and the number of tons of warships that could be built in each class.  The limit for most destroyers was 1,500 tons.

So the design challenge for Destroyer builders in the 1930s was, within the treaty tonnage limits, to build an warship that was effective in furthering the nation’s strategic doctrine.

For the British, then, Destroyers were designed within a 1,500 ton limit to be:

  1. Extremely seaworthy, but with relatively short range and modest speed (35 knots, or about 40mph)
  2. Modest armament; 4-5 4.7 inch cannon and 6-8 torpedoes.  More, heavier guns and torpedoes added topweight, which affected stability which was a key factor in seaworthiness, which was the top priority.
  3. Extremely minimal protection; destroyers had no armor.  They had some damage-proofing in design and damage-control.

HMS Hunter. Built in 1936, it was fundamentally similar to nearly every British destroyer build from 1918 to 1943; four 4.7 inch guns, eight torpedoes, 35 knot speed, and very seaworthy. Hunter was sunk at Narvik in 1940.

The Germans, given their mission that was short on range but long on “sinking British ships”, had a different set of compromises.  They enabled these compromises, in part, by ignoring the London Treaty’s limits, and building destroyers that were nearly 1,000 tons heavier than the British ships.  Within that limit, the Germans focused on:

  1. Firepower – in terms of sheer, raw hitting power – was most important.  German destroyers carried mostly five 5-inch guns, and many carried five 6-inch guns, usually found on larger 10,000 light cruisers.  They fired 100 pound shells, to the 40 pound shells fired from the Brits’ 4.7s.
  2. Mobility – in terms of raw speed – was next.  German destroyers clocked from 36-38 knots.  Range was less important – German destroyers rarely expected to be at sea longer than a week, operating from bases like Kiel, Wilhelmshaven, and – after 1940 – occupied Norway, Denmark and France.  Seaworthiness came in well down the list; the heavy gun and torpedo batteries, and the design compromises to enable the high speed, made the ships much less stable than British ships; in bad weather, they’d float, all right – but they’d be rocking back and forth too hard to fire their guns effectively.
  3. Protection, as with all destroyers, was a matter of “not being hit”.  Especially for the Germans – structural strength came in lower on the list of priorities.

The German Z36, short for “Zerstörer 36″, or “Destroyer number 36″. German destroyers were numbered, not named.

Among the nation’s destroyers, a “Tortoise and Hare” comparison works; British destroyers were slower and more lightly armed, but seaworthy enough to not merely survive, but fight, in much worse weather.   The Germans had the edge on speed and firepower.

(The US Navy, by the way, split the difference, more or less.  Our destroyers, until the eve of war, were designed to operate in the vast ranges of the Pacific; an American destroyer could steam three times as far as its Brit counterpart.   They also had only four or five guns – five-inchers firing 60 pound shells.  But those five inch guns were able to shoot at both surface ships and aircraft; this made them a bit heavier than single-purpose anti-ship guns, a technology edge that gave US destroyers an immense advantage in anti-aircraft firepower over those of any other nation on earth at the time, a difference that was absolutely crucial as air power supplanted surface to surface action as the main form of war at sea.  And to pay for the weight that went into fuel and dual-purpose guns, the US destroyers sacrificed some seaworthiness (three sank in a typhoon in 1944) and a little speed and, on the eve of the war, the treaty limits themselves, dumping the 1,500 ton limit and building destroyers of 2,200 and later 3,000 tons).

USS Fletcher. Built after the US belatedly abrogated the London Treaty, the Fletchers were 2,200 tons, and armed almost identically to the earlier 1,500 ton ships. This made them rugged, seaworthy, powerful-enough, with plenty of fuel to tackle the vast Pacific – and able to be updated continuously. Fletcher-class destroyers served into the 1970s in the US Navy, and the last one, the Mexican Cuitlahuac ( formerly USS John Rodgers), remained on active service until 2001 – a phenomenal record for a ship class.

Duel In The Sleet:  In December of 1943, the German high command realized that the war was going badly.  Especially on the Eastern Front, where the debacle at Stalingrad had been followed by a series of gruesome setbacks.

Part of the problem for the Germans was that the Soviet military’s main weakness – its inability to support lengthy operations due to the difficulties in providing supplies to the front and communications among units – was being rapidly fixed by an onslaught of American equipment, especially trucks and radios – in addition to weapons to augment the Soviets’ own production, especially fighter aircraft.

A Bell P-39 Airacobra in Soviet service. A failure in US and RAF service, it was a hit with the Soviets; it was vastly more reliable than mid-war Soviet planes, and it amply suited the tactical situation on the Russian front. Counting raw numbers of kills in Soviet service, the P39 may have been the most successful US fighter design of World War 2.

And these supplies were delivered to the USSR via convoys of merchant ships that crossed the North Atlantic, skirted the north cape of occupied Norway, and docked at the Soviet ports of Archangelsk and Murmansk.   These convoy routes served as among the most dangerous and bloodiest – and most unsung – battlefields of the war; attacked by U-boats and aircraft from occupied Norway, and occasionally heavier German surface ships, they were an incredibly risky, but vitally important, sideshow.

And Germany needed the routes blocked.  With that in mind, in December of 1943, German admiral Karl Dönitz ordered Scharnnorst  and a flotilla of five destroyers to sortie from Altafjord to attack a convoy of twenty merchants plus escorts that were headed for the North Cape.

On the afternoon of December 22, German Rear Admiral Erich Bey sailed Scharnhorst and the destroyers to sea.  At the depths of the arctic winter, the “day” involved 45 minutes of daylight, six hours of twilight – and 17:15 of darkness.  This was an advantage to the British; over the course of the war, they and the US had developed radar fire control that allowed their ships to not only find the enemy, but to control their gunfire and shoot almost as effectively at surface ships (as opposed to aircraft) in the dark as in daylight.  The Germans were lagging badly at this in 1943 (and throughout the war).

Even worse – and unbeknownst to the Germans – the Allies were reading German radio communications in almost real time.  As noted earlier in this series, British, Polish and French researchers had thoroughly broken the German “Enigma” code.   The good news for the British?  They knew the exact route the Germans would take to intercept the convoy.  The bad news?  They didn’t have a lot of time.  The convoy – screened by three British cruisers under Admiral Robert Burnett, would have to fend for themselves for a few hours, while a powerful force under Admiral Bruce Fraser, with the battleship HMS Duke of York and the cruiser Jamaica, and four destroyers (one manned by a Norwegian crew) raced to the scene.

At about 8AM on Christmas Day – still in the dark, and in wretched weather – Scharnhorst was spotted by the British cruiser HMS Belfast, who along with Norfolk and Sheffield had interposed themselves between the convoy and the Germans.

HMS Belfast today. It’s a museum ship in the Thames, just upstream from London Bridge. The only surviving WW2 British cruiser, and the only vessel from the Battle of the North Cape never sunk or scrapped, it’s an amazing visit if you’re a ship geek like me. Yep, I’ve been there.

Aided by radar, Belfast fired first.  A lucky hit destroyed the Scharnhorst’s main radar antenna, leaving the ship partially blind (the backup radar didn’t cover the ship’s forward arc; imagine driving with a blocked windshield, and having to weave back and forth to see forward out your side windows).

Scharnhorst‘s mission was to sink merchantmen, not slug it out with cruisers.  Bey disengaged and spent the rest of the day looking for a way to outflank Burnett’s cruisers.

And it was here that the design decisions, made in the 1920s and 1930s and so laboriously explained above, come roaring into the picture.

The weather, bad to begin with, worsened.  A howling gale whipped up mountainous seas.  Snow obscured the already terrible vision.  Imagine some of the worst weather from Deadliest Catch.  Now, imagine trying to load a cannon, or stabilize a range-finder, or even see a target, in that kind of weather.

The German ships, designed for raw speed in calmer waters, were badly-fitted for seakeeping in terrible weather.  The five German destroyers especially suffered; the top-weight of the heavy guns made them roll terribly, to the point where even if they’d seen a target, they’d have had a hard time loading and firing their cannon at all, much less with accuracy.  And the ships’ structures – structurally lighter to save weight and increase speed – weren’t up to the pounding; the destroyers started taking structural damage from the pounding of the icy waves.  Scharnhorst , being much bigger, was structurally sound – but was also built for higher speed in calmer seas; it was forced to slow down, to slow the rolling and to allow the destroyers to keep up.   Finally, hearing reports of serious damage, Bey ordered the destroyers back to base, and sought to engage the convoy himself.

The British ships, on the other hand, were able to not only to continue to sail, and sail toward the enemy, but to fight when they got there. As they – Fraser’s Duke of York task force – closed in, Bey engaged Burnett again, hitting HMS Norfolk twice with his 11-inch guns, knocking out the British cruiser’s gunnery radar. But the three cruisers were a formidable opponent to the German; and Bey withdrew, still hoping to find the convoy.  Belfast kept Scharnhorst under radar surveillance.

And this allowed Fraser to engage Scharnhorst with gunfire from the Duke of York at 4:17 PM – again, in pitch dark.  Fraser’s guns – the 40,000 ton Duke‘s ten 14-inch guns to Bey’s nine 11-inchers – made it a lopsided battle; the superiority in radar made it even worse, allowing the Brits to lock in Bey’s position long before Scharnhorst’s gunners even got close.  And while the German ship had been designed to be able to outrun any ship that could kill it – Scharnhorst could do 32 knots, Duke of York 28 in ideal conditions – in the atrocious seas the British battleship was able to out-steam the German.  And without destroyer escort to hold off the larger British ship to allow Scharnhorst to escape, it was a massacre.

The British battleship pounded the German, knocking out six of the nine main guns and wrecking half of the boilers; two destroyers (HMS Scorpion and the Norwegian-manned HNoMS Stord), fully combat-effective in the weather due to their seaworthiness, hit the German ship with four torpedoes, stopping it.

His Norwegian Majesty’s Ship, the destroyer Stord. An “S-class” destroyer built as HMS Success in 1942, then handed over to the Norwegians and renamed.  It looks a little more rakish than Hunter (way above), but it’s built to almost the same basic design; four guns, eight torpedo tubes, as the ten-years-older Hunter, and it had similar capabilities (although much better equipped with radar and anti-aircraft guns).  It served the Norwegian navy until 1959.

After that, it was a formality; Belfast and sister cruiser HMS Jamaica closed in and finished Scharnhorst off.  The Brits rescued 36 out of a crew of over 1,900.

It was one of many examples in the war of systems that were on paper looked much better than the opposition came up short when exposed to real-world conditions that weren’t accounted for on paper.

Brazilian Thunderbolts

There was a time when I could say every kid knew who fought who in World War II; Germany, Japan and Italy on one side, the US, UK, USSR and France on the other.

I’m not sure a lot of people today could get the answer right.

But even people who know the larger story of World War 2 miss that it was called a “World” war for a reason, and not just because it was fought all over the world.   It involved a record total of nations; 11 fought with the Axis (from Germany and Japan down to Croatia); there were 46 nations on the Allied side.

And for most of the nations, the war never extended beyond their own borders.  They got into the war for a variety of reasons – political alliances (the entire British Commonwealth), being in the wrong place at the wrong time (Poland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the rest of Europe), or wanting to be recognized in the big leagues (most of South America).

It was probably the latter that brought Brazil into the war on the side of the Allies in 1942.  In exchange for providing air bases on the South Atlantic to patrol against U-boats, the US gave some key preferences to Brazilian iron exports.  This cooperation gradually moved from trade and bases to full military cooperation, and eventually joining in the war effort.  Brazil’s navy – heavily equipped and trained by the US – joined in the Battle of the Atlantic, escorting convoys about the Caribbean and South Atlantic.

And the Brazilian Army assembled an infantry division (copied from the US Army’s organization) and sent it to Italy, where it fought in that nearly-forgotten campaign.

And seventy years ago today, it  commissioned its first fighter squadron for overseas service.

The squadron – in Portuguese, the “First Fighter Group”, or 1º Grupo de Aviação de Caça – spent its first few months defending the Panama Canal Zone, before transitioning to the US to learn to fly the legendary P-47 Thunderbolt. 

An early-model P-47D, in Brazilian colors. The plane – called the “Jug” for its stubby, capacious fuselage design – was famous for its ruggedness and ability to take damage. It excelled as a ground-attack plane in Italy and, especially, in the Allied campaign in western Europe.

They were soon in action in Italy – not terribly far from the “Tuskeegee Airmen”, as luck would have it – and while neither they nor their counterparts in the Brazilian Army contingent were in the thick of the war in Italy, they rang up an impressive record.

A Brazilian “Jug” on the ground in Italy.

The Brazilians’ commanders at the Allied XXII Air Force – responsible for all ground-attack aviation in Italy – accounted for the Brazilians’ accomplishments in their six months in front-line service, and reckoned that the Brazilians, who were about 5% of the planes and flew 5% of the missions, destroyed…:

  • 85% of the ammunition blown up by the XXII’d ATAF
  • Torched 36% of the fuel destroyed
  • Toppled 28% of the bridges destroyed, and 19% of those damaged
  • knocked out 15% of the motor vehicles and 10% of horse-drawn vehicles destroyed in those six months. 

And Brazil wasn’t the only country to send troops to Europe. 

More on that next month.

From Hell

Every time I’ve faced what has passed for adversity in my life – and you’ll see why I say “passed for adversity” in a moment, here – I’ve kept the experiences of five people front and center in my mind.  And then I don’t feel so bad.

They are:

  • Ernest Shackelton - I’ve told his story in this space.  His lesson is perseverence in the face of insurmountable odds.  You owe it to your kids to make sure they read it, wherewhere or another.
  • Eddie Rickenbacker - I’ve written about him.  You think you’ve had to deal with some hurdles in life? 
  • Douglas Bader - No legs?  No problem
  • Marcus Luttrell - Soon to be a major motion picture.  Screw Marvel comics; this guy’s the real hero. 
  • Stanislaw Schmajzner -  To which even those who’ve heard of Shackelton and Rickenbacker say “um, who?”
I’ve got a story for you.

———-

World War 2 is full of incomprehensible numbers.  25 million Russian soldiers and at least 10 million civilians, along with millions more Germans, on the Eastern Front, is an incomprehensible number of human lives; you can not imagine what that many people, eight times the population of Minnesota, are.

And the numbers in the Holocaust are similarly mind-numbing.  Six million Jews.  Perhaps five million others; political prisoners, ethnic victims (the Roma, or “Gypsy”, population in particular), gays, and a wide variety of “Untermensch” (Subhumans) that just got in the way. 

Of course, humans have slaughtered each other ever since the species learned how to try to dominate each other – usually by means that are, at the end of the day, fairly mundane, if horrible on a human scale.  From massacre to induced famine to forced relocation to inhospitable places, humans have gotten rid of inconvenient minorities and troublesome subjects by the box lot, clan, fiefdom and nationality since long before Rome salted Carthage’s earth. 

The Holocaust started no different; Nazis started out killing Jews, gays, gypsies, political prisoners and whomever else got in the way with boots and knives and clubs, in ones and twos in alleys and back rooms, throughout the thirties.  With the onset of war, they graduated to killing them by the village with firearms, and relocating them to ghettoes and labor camps - “Concentration Camps” (Konzentrazionslagern, or KZ in German) to slowly murder them with famine, disease, overwork, cold, barbaric pseudojudicial punishment, and the odd but common sadistic bit of violence.   Places like Buchenwald, Dachau, Theresienstadt, Ohrdruf, Nordhausen, Bergen-Belsen, and hundreds of smaller camps were places that were not designed to be especially survivable. 

But the Nazis were unique in history in that they turned murder into an industry – with management, a supply chain, quotas, rewards…like Best Buy, only producing death.  Because all the normal means of murdering people by the group just weren’t fast or efficient enough. 

And so early in the war, the Nazis kicked off their Endlösung, or “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem”, like any other big industrial project; planning, prototyping possible solutions, turning around what they’d learned from the prototyping process, and settling on the production system – the Vernichtunslager, or “Extermination Camp” , abbreviated to VZ in German.  These weren’t just places where it was hard to live, or easy to end up dead.  Killing was the whole and sole goal.  . 

The VZs were built in godforsaken parts of occupied Poland, usually far from major populations centers, further still from any hint of western media, much less any borders to which an escapee might flee. 

The VZs were were literally factories whose product was dead Jews and other “Untermenschen”, and whose function was utterly similar to any factory you’d see building MP3 players or humidifiers today. 

Americans have heard of Auschwitz, arguably the biggest of the VZs (and really a complex of labor and concentration camps as well as the extermination camp).   Majdanek, near Lublin, captured nearly intact by the Soviets in the confusion surrounding their advance into central Poland, is the best-preserved VZ.  Treblinka saw a mass escape, of which a few inmates survived the war.  Chelmno and Belzec are barely known to exist at all; few if any inmates ever survived either camp. 

And of course Sobibor, plopped in a pestilential forest by a railroad siding in eastern Poland. 

The tale of the Vernichtungslagern is among the most depressing in human history.  The notion that humans could do…this to other humans, turn human life into a commodity to be scrubbed out with no more thought than pressing vinyl into an Otter Case, has driven more than a few of our less stable species-mates over the edge with grief. 

It’s given me my moments, too.  I read the stories of these camps at a far-too-impressionable age, from a far-too-frank source – the Black Book, published by the B’nai B’rith after the war as a complete, almost evidenciary catalog of Nazi war crimes against the Jews and others.   

And it’d be mawkishly pollyannaish to say that anything about the story could give one hope.

And yet seventy years ago today came a tiny bit of proof that humanity can still win out. 

———-

In May of 1942, VZ Sobibor became operational.  Trainloads of Jews and other Untermensch were delivered, gassed, and cremated.  The camp was run by German and Austrian SS soldiers, with most of the guard work done by Ukrainian SS. They were commanded by SS Oberstürmführer Fritz Stangl.

Neither the Germans nor the Ukrainians wanted to do the dirtiest work, however – untangling the corpses in the gas chamber, sorting through the belongings they’d left behind, cremating the masses of the dead.  These jobs were left to the Sonderkommando, “special commands” – Jews that were kept alive as long as they were useful to do the dirty work.  This work expanded over time to include maintenance work around the camp, serving both the German and Ukrainian guards, and other incidental jobs.  The Germans (or rather a Sonderkommando of Jews) built a pair of sub-camps to house roughly 600 Jews selected to do all of these jobs. 

It was generally only a short reprieve; the food was minimal and awful, the conditions rife with disease, and the punishment for even the most piddling infraction was death – sometimes instant, sometimes protracted and brutal, depending on the sadism at the moment of the guard involved.

Among the Jews selected to work for the Germans in the work camp was Leon Feldhendler, a 33-year old son of a rabbi from Zolkiewka, Poland, who worked in the kitchen, carpentry shop and, occasionally, the Bahnhofkomando, the Jews who herded the other Jews from the railroad platform into line to be selected for either work or, the vast majority of the time, the gas chambers. 

And it’s generally believed that Feldhendler was the first person to not merely conjure up the idea of a mass escape, but to actively start planning it.  He and a few other inmates formed a committee to study ideas to effect a mass escape – including one idea, to poison the guards, which fell apart early and led to the execution of five Jews and very nearly destroyed the entire escape committee.

Among others, Feldhendler was joined by 15 year old Stanislaus Schmajzner, a boy from Pulawy whose experience working with a jeweler’s apprentice got him assigned as a gold and silver worker, making bits of jewelry for the Nazis out of gold stolen from dead Jews; the SS were fond of having gold rings and other gimmick jewelry made for themselves and the various women in their lives.  Schmajzner was a natural scrounger with immense mechanical aptitude, who quickly got himself promoted to the group that did the mechanical maintenance around the camp.

Together, the Jews tried to come up with a plan that was more than marginally better than suicide. 

The problem:  the camp was surrounded by not one but two barbed-wire fences (and a single barbed strand ten feet inside the inner fence, a warning line beyond which anyone stepping would get shot).  Beyond that, there was a broad, 300-yard clearing that had been sown with land mines.

———-

In late September of 1943, there were two major changes at Sobibor.  A rumor began to circulated that the SS was going to shut the camp down (a rumor which was false, as it happens; Heinrich Himmler actually intended to expand the camp, although in point of fact it would have led to much the same result for the Jews at the camp). 

Around the same time, a group of Russian Army prisoners of war – who happened to be Jewish – were sent to Sobibor along with a trainful of Belarussian Jews.  The Russians, useful as a group for hard labor, were kept alive and sent to the Sonderkommando

…where their senior officer, 34-year-old Lieutenant Alexander “Sasha” Petjerski, quickly met Feldhendler. 

The two men struck up a business relationship; Petjerski saw in Feldhelder the knowledge of the camp and guards that his men would need to effect a successful escape.  Feldhendler saw military discipline and training in the Russians.  Together, they engineered an escape plan.

The Germans – and especially the Ukrainian guards – had become complacent, Feldhendler noted.  Bored, they kept to a pretty static routine.  They become casual about searching the various workships where the Sonderkommando worked, and the Ukrainians even became blase about storing their firearms, apparently believing the Jews too cowed to do anything with them.

Over the course of – this is incredible – three weeks, the Russians and the committee put together a plan.  It was based around the planned absence from the camp of several of its key Germans, including Stangl, the commander. 

In addition to fashioning clubs, axes and (for lack of a better term) shivs in the carpentry shop, they’d steal rifles from the Ukrainian barracks and smuggle them back to the camp, along with enough ammunition to start the rebellion going. 

Taking advantage of the guards’ routine, they’d ambush and murder the important German guards as they ran routine errands around the camp – picking up jewelry, or clothing and boots being mended by the various Jewish tradespeople, furniture from the woodshop and so on. 

At the appointed time – afternoon roll call – they’d inform the rest of the Jews (who’d be kept uninformed to avoid security breaches), and rush the gate as the Russians would use the stolen rifles to try to pick off guards in the towers.  The inmates would breach the gate and run for the woods, 300 yards away, through the minefield, and thence disperse and either go into hiding, strike out for Russia, or join partisan groups in the forests and carry on the fight. 

Even with the Russians, and with stolen guns, it was nearly suicide.  The inmates knew this – and figured at worst it’d be better to die on their feet. 

———-

4PM on October 14th came.  The plan went ahead; six or seven of the key Germans were murdered in workshops.  As the inmates gathered for roll call, the Russians opened fire on the guard towers; the inmates rushed the gate under machine gun fire (the Russians had been unable to kill all the guards), and ran across the clearing to the woods.  Of 600 Jews in the camp, maybe 300 made it to the woods; dozens were killed in the minefield, while others, paralyzed by events, stayed put in the camp and were murdered later. 

Of the 300 who made it to the woods, the SS hunted them mercilessly (along with some Polish civilians, many of whom were deeply anti-semitic).  Dozens were caught and killed.  Others died fighting in partisan groups.  All together, around 50 of the Sobibor inmates, including Petjerski, Feldhendler and Schmajzner, survived the war

And they provided the largest coherent group of Extermination Camp survivors of the war.  Many of them lived long, productive lives after the war. 

Not all, unfortunately – Feldhendler was murdered by an anti-semitic gang in Warsaw in 1946.  Most of the survivors went to the US, Canada, Australia and Israel. 

Schmajzner went to Brazil where, in the seventies, he helped in the capture the camp’s old second-in-command, Wagner, who’d also ended up in Sao Paolo.  Wagner’s extradition got tangled up in Brazilian red tape, and he lived two more years.  He committed suicide in 1980, under circumstances that are still controversial in Brazil, and about which Schmajzner never spoke until his death in 1984. 

———-

Most Americans have never heard of Sobibor – but many know of John Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian soldier who became an Ohio auto workers, and in the eighties was accused of being the sadistic “Ivan the Terrible” at the Treblinka camp.  Those allegations collapsed under a wave of contracictory witness testimony and prosecutorial  misconduct in the nineties.

But in 2001, new allegations surfaced that Demjanjuk had been one of the guards at Sobibor.  It took until 2009 to have him deported to Germany to stand trial on over 27,000 counts of accessory to murder – but when he arrived, four of the survivors were joint plaintiffs. 

He was convicted, but died last year in German custody, before the appeals process ran out.

———-

The story – like the stories of people who survive for week under rubble after earthquakes, when “the experts” say no life is possible after three days – is one I remember whenever I need perspective on “dire circumstances” and the need, occasionally, to do the impossible. 

It was told, improbably, in a TV movie about thirty years ago.  In an era of lousy TV movies, Escape from Sobibor, with Alan Arkin and Rutger Hauer as Feldhendler and Petjerski, is actually a good, accurate recounting of the story.  It’s on Youtube in its entirety, and worth the time to watch if you’re not familiar with the tale.

The Righteous Among Nations

It’s easy to be cynical about humanity. The capacity of humans for crass, base, depraved behavior is splashed before us daily; relating it to other people is one of our booming industries; from TMZ to Mixed Martial Arts to “Protect” Minnesota, it’s made a lot of entrepreneurs fabulously wealthy.

But every once in a while, if you look carefully, you find examples of humanity – of individuals, and small groups of people, and every once in a very rare while significant mass movements – putting our base, depraved nature aside and not just doing the right thing, but doing it in ways that stagger the imagination.

One of those episodes entered its final, fearsomely risky, climactic phase seventy years ago tonight.

———-

When it comes to warfare, Denmark got the short end of the stick. A nation with a small population on a low-lying peninsula that abuts a strategic maritime byway, the nation’s topography is virtually indefensible.

And they knew it. Denmark’s main defense in the years after it split from Norway and Sweden in the early 1900s was a strict, absolute neutrality. Like many European nations – Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands – the Danes figured that eschewing all sides in a conflict would buy them some safety. The theory’s record was spotty at best – especially during World War 2.

Controlled Collapse: Denmark fell to the Blitzkrieg in about two hours, the same day Hitler invaded Norway in 1940. Whatever resistance there was – some units along the German border, the royal guards – lasted about two hours, leaving sixteen Danes dead.

Danish soldiers, before World War II

The government gave in to reality; Denmark had virtually no military, and unlike mountainous Norway, the terrain was nearly worthless for defense.

The Danish government negotiated a controlled surrender, in the hopes of preserving as much of Danish society as possible.

A German light tank on the streets of Copenhagen, 1940.

They had a friendly negotating partner in Hitler. While Germany had only limited strategic interest in Denmark – the only thing of military value was the airbase at Aalborg, on the northern tip of the country, which covered the strategic Skagerrak straits, the western entrace to the Baltic Sea – the Germans had some less concrete interests in Denmark. Danes, according to Nazi racial orthodoxy, were considered every bit as Aryan as Germans. Hitler was interested in preserving Denmark as a showcase of Nazi occupation – what could happen if a country cooperated. King Christian X was allowed to remain on his throne; moreover, the Parliament remained not only in session, but kept most of its powers.

King Christian X, riding through the streets of Copenhagen, in the 1930s.

Denmark’s army was largely demobilized, and its tiny Navy kept in port (but in Danish hands) – but the Parliament refused to turn over its ships and troops to German operational control, refused a German demand to institute the death penalty, and declined to join in a trade and customs union – essentially a Nazified European Union – with the Germans. The Germans even allowed free parliamentary elections as late as 1943 – and the four traditional Danish parties spanked the tiny National Socialist Party of Denmark.

Among all the nations conquered by the Nazis, Denmark was the only one to get away with such impudence.

And one other thing.

North Star of David: Unlike many Central European nations – and Scandinavian ones, for that matter – Jews were highly integrated into Danish civil, commercial and social life.

Danish King Christian X had ascended to the throne in 1910. He’d presided over a turbulent period in Danish history already; the Depression, the aftermath of World War I, the rise of European Communism and the realignment of Denmark from a small global empire into an even smaller European state (including the loss of Norway and the 1916 sale of the “Danish West Indies” to the US, which became the “US Virgin Islands”) had all challenged the Danish monarchy’s stability and even existence. Christian wasn’t an especially popular king by the late 1930s – but the monarchy was slimmed down but secure.

But in 1933, Christian X had been the first European monarch to visit a synagogue. It seems downright mundane to 21st-century Americans – as indeed it should. But it was a major statement. It was made all the more trenchant by the fact that Christian made the visit over the objection of his advisers, and even of Copenhagen’s head rabbi; the Nazis had just come to power in neighboring Germany, and such a visit was thought to send a less-than-accommodating message to Denmark’s powerful neighbors. To which Christian (possibly apocryphally) responded to the rabbi “all the more reason to do it”.

At any rate – under occupation, surrounded by Germans, the Parliament refused to accede to German demands to register, ghettoize and deport Denmark’s Jewish population.

All of these measures were thumbs in Hitler’s eye – but the regime allowed them all. Denmark’s value as a propaganda piece was greater than the insult the tiny nation could offer Germany, who had bigger fish – including the UK and the USSR – to fry by this point.

The Schizophrenic State: So it could be fairly said that the Danish government as a whole “collaborated” with the Nazis. It’s true; in exchange for concessions, the Danish monarchy and parliament – including the major political parties (except the Communists) – played along.

And yet resistance started early.

The day after the surrender, some Danish Army units, who had not yet been contacted and inventoried by the occupiers, stashed extra firearms in secret cashes around the country, for later use by a resistance movement to be named later. And Danish intelligence officers made covert contact with the British embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, the beginnings of an intelligence pipeline that was the conduit for a wealth of information sent to the Allies during the war.

And so a resistance movement began.

The Savage Canary: The Danish resistance started with all sorts of strikes against it.

In most nations that had large, powerful resistance movements during the war, the guerillas had some natural or geological feature to conceal them; Poland’s forests and the urban warren of Warsaw, Byelorussia’s swamps, Norway and Yugoslavia’s mountains all hid and provided bases for huge guerilla movements.

Denmark, though, was tiny, and flat, and dotted with small towns and a few sizeable cities; nature would provide little cover for any resistance movement. Danish guerillas’ only concealment was social. Denmark’s small, highly homogenous society, imbued with the sort of stoic passive-aggression that marks all rural Scandinavians, presented the resistance with a form of social concealment that was riskier than hills or trees – there were plenty of Danes who sympathized with the Nazis – but eventually nurtured one of the craftiest, fiercest resistance movements in Europe.

The resistance was fairly passive, early in the war; strikes against German-controlled and German-leaning businesses, publishing anti-German newspapers and handbills, gathering of information to send to England via Sweden, and smuggling of contraband – escaped POWs, downed Allied airmen and the like – to Sweden. Many Danes were in fact tolerant of the occupiers – given the alternative presented them in every direction.

Some Danish resistance was more brazen. Danish machine shops covertly manufactured weapons and explosives. And Bang and Olufsen – known for much of the last 70 years as producers of ultra-high-end sound and recording systems – according to a source on the subject, spent the war years making clandestine radios for the resistance.

And so Denmark was caught in a dichotomy; a government that collaborated – albeit imperfectly, and with signifcant political resistance on the details – with the Germans, and a resistance movement that, as the war ground on, started making life more difficult for the Nazis.

Decay: In the war’s early years, the Nazis tolerated – more or less – the Danes’ most galling ideological transgression, their protection of the Jews. Denmark was the only German possession where Jews were never required to wear the Star of David.

The Germans were frustrated by the Danish foot-dragging on the Jews – and tried to goad the government into action. Danish Nazis published slanderous anti-Semitic tracts; there were other provocations. And in 1941, arsonists tried to set fire to Copenhagen’s main synagogue.

The arsonists were caught. And then they were prosecuted, and sentenced by the Copenhagen civil authorities – very much against the wishes of the occupiers.

As the war ground on into its fourth year, things finally started going badly for the Germans – and as things started to decay, the accommodation between the Danish government and the German regime began to sour. Several labor stoppages resolved into armed battles between Danes and German occupiers; sabotage of goods and equipment intended for Germany (especially ammunition, boats and ships, and electronics) became more and more common, as did eventually the murder of overt collaborators. This was starting by this point in 1943. We’ll come back to that.

The resistance was growing more effective – German economic output from their Danish conquest was dropping. And more and more overt collaborators were turning up dead – or not turning up at all.

The Nazis – angered by the resistance, stung by the sabotage, and looking ahead to an imminent invasion of Europe from the West – began to lower the boom. On August 28, the Nazis presented the Danish government an ultimatum; impose a curfew, institute a death penalty for sabotage, and be ready to give up the Jews. The following day, the Government resigned in protest. The Germans immediately imposed martial law.

The Good Nazi: George Ferdinand Duckwitz had spent a career as a German shipping executive, working for various cargo and passenger lines. He’d joined the Nazi Party in 1932. As the war approached, the Party brought him into the Foreign Service; in 1939, he was given the shipping attaché position in Copenhagen. He remained there after the 1940 occupation.

Among his social and professional circle in Denmark was Werner Best. Best, an early Nazi, had been one of Heinrich Himmler’s deputies in organizing the Gestapo. He’d lost a political scuffle earlier in the war, and became an occupation administrator, first in France, and then in Copenhagen, where he served as the Reich’s plenipotentiary – key representative – to the then-still-extant Danish court and government. With the resignation of the government and the imposition of martial law, Best became the top Nazi civilian official in Denmark.

On September 11, 1943, in a meeting on commercial issues, Best confided in Duckwitz that the Gestapo, finally free of Danish government interference, was putting the finishing touches on its plans to round up and deport Denmark’s 8,000 Jews.

Duckwitz, privately horrified, travelled to Berlin to try to forestall or cancel the roundup on economic grounds; Jews occupied many key positions in Danish society, and losing them would put a crimp in Denmark’s economy. He was rebuffed.

Two weeks later, on September 25, Duckwitz flew to Stockholm, ostensibly to discuss access to Swedish waters for German ships with Swedish Prime Minister Per Albin Hanssen. Sweden, nervous about being almost completely surrounded by Germany, its vassal states or allies, had been very tacitly taking in Jewish refugees from Norway, provided they could supply some Swedish connection, however laboriously constructed. But they were in no hurry to agitate their Nazi neighbors.

But in a few days of closed-door meetings, Duckwitz got Hanssen to commit to giving asylum to Jews who made it ashore in Sweden. Then, quietly, he returned to Copenhagen, where he quietly informed Danish Social Democrat party chief Hans Hedtoff of the upcoming roundups.

Hedtoff in turn informed the leaders of Denmark’s Jewish community, including acting Chief Rabbi Marcus Melchior.

And it was seventy years ago this morning – a Saturday – that Denmark’s rabbis, briefed by Melchior, warned their congregations at synagogue to go immediately into hiding and await further instructions.

What those instructions would be, Melchior knew only very abstractly. Everyone was winging it at this point.

Hearing the news, other sympathetic Danes pitched in, grabbing phone books and calling every Jewish-looking name to warn them to go underground.

And so almost overnight, by means that sound like they were borrowed from a Spanky and Our Gang movie the vast majority of Denmark’s 8,000 Jews disappeared into the woods, into hiding places in small coastal towns, and into the charity of thousands of Danes, resistance members and plain concerned citizens, who took the fugitives in and waited for what came next.

It was a half-measure. The Jewish community, and the Resistance, were banking on the fact that the Gestapo in Denmark was very short-handed – but with an entire population of Jews disappearing from view, it couldn’t last.

7,000 people hiding in attics and barns couldn’t stay invisible forever.

The Øresund Express: Several things happened in rapid succession next.

The Swedish Foreign Ministry instructed its offices in Copenhagen to start issuing Swedish passports to Danish Jews. The document would grant them safe passage – if they could get to Copenhagen without being caught.

The Resistance also undertook two massive operations; first, to locate boats to carry refugees (and, equally important, safe routes to coastal towns where the refugees would meet the boats), and a fund-raising operation to raise money to pay the boatmen for the trip. Wealthy Danes ponied up a fairly huge amount under the circumstances – as did many, many others. According to some reports, Christian X also contributed heavily to the effort through a variety of intermediaries, to conceal the money trail.

Finally, in early October, Sweden issued a statement through its foreign ministry, and finally on Swedish state radio, that they would accept Jewish refugees.

All they had to do was get to Sweden.

And so over the course of the next month or so, small parties of Jews, guided by locals and resistance members, made their way from hiding place to hiding place, to the coast, there to board boats to make the short voyage across the Øresund strait – about 2-3 hours’ voyage by fishing boat. Others went across in small sailboats, rowboats, even kayaks.

Still others – especially the old, and families with very young children – were smuggled into rail cars headed for the rail ferries that shuttled trains to Sweden. The Resistance broke into rail cars that’d been sealed after inspection, put the Jews aboard, and re-sealed the cars with forged inspection seals.

Not everyone made it. A few dozen were known to have died when less-seaworthy craft sank en route to Sweden. A few more were captured by German patrol boats – although it was noted that the Germans pressed the search for the Jews without much vigor. Partly it was because intercepting Jews was the least of the crews’ worries; raids by the British Royal Air Force Coastal Command’s maritime strike planes made life brisk and dangerous for German craft in the west Baltic. Beyond that, it’s considered likely that at least some German officers took a pass on getting overly involved with the search out of worries about Germany’s prospects in the war.

Other Jews were picked up as they waited to be evacuated – at least one group was betrayed by a Danish girl who wanted to curry favor for her German soldier boyfriend.

But they were, blessedly, the outliers. By the end of October, 86% of Denmark’s Jews – some 7,000 – had been evacuated to Sweden. Among them were physicist Niels Bohr, who was flown almost immediately via the UK to the US to start work on the Manhattan Project – but not before demanding that the Swedish government announce that Jews were welcome (a decision which had already been made, although Bohr frequently is credited with inspiring the action).

Aftermath: The few hundred Danish Jews that didn’t escape were largely rounded up – although a few did remain in hiding for the rest of the war. Most were shipped to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia.

There, the Danish government exerted themselves to try to look out for their welfare – incredibly, getting additional food supplies through to the Danes, via pressure on the Swiss Red Cross. Although many Danes died at Theresienstadt – especially the very old – incredibly, the majority were alive at the end of the war. Denmark’s Jewish community escaped the war with the lowest Jewish death rate in Europe; Yad Vashem records a little over 100 Danish Jews who died in the Holocaust.

(Norway, which started with much smaller population of around 2,000, saved about 3/4 of its Jews, mostly in ones and twos and families. Those who were caught and deported, though, went to Auschwitz, according to the B’nai B’rith’s Black Book. The Black Book reported that none of them were ever seen again).

After the war the Israeli government, in building their Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem solicited the former heads of the Danish resistance for information. The surviving leaders of the Danish Resistance insisted that no single member of the Resistance be credited; it was a team effort.

And so the Israeli government recognized Christian X and the entire Danish Resistance collectively among the Righteous Among The Nations.

And they were joined in 1971 by George Duckwitz, the German bureaucrat and Nazi Party member who quietly sounded the alarm.

I’m not aware if there are other Nazis recognized at Yad Vashem. I’d think it highly unlikely.

The Axis Breaks

By the standards of his twenty-one years of rule, Benito Mussolini’s meeting at the Italian Royal Palace of Caserta was an unusual one.  The head of the Italian government and self-styled Il Duce (The Leader) of Fascism, Mussolini was unaccustomed to being given orders.  But in addition to his other titles, Mussolini was also the Prime Minister and, in theory, although not in practice, subservient to the Italian Monarch Victor Emmanuel III.

With Sicily invaded on July 10th and Rome bombed for the first time on the 19th, Mussolini believed he was to modestly report to the diminutive (both in size and stature) Monarch.  Barely a few sentences into their meeting, Emmanuel III shocked his guest by declaring he was enacting his right to remove Il Duce from power.  A stunned Mussolini emerged from Caserta only to be arrested by the Carabinieri or military police.  The father of Fascism, the man whose ideology inspired countless imitators around the world and indirectly launched the most destructive war in human history was deposed.

Benito the Beneficent: Mussolini in 1923 at the height of his popularity among the democracies

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Not Our Problem

Seventy yeears ago this morning, Commander Lawrence Daspit and his submarine, the USS Tinosa, were stalking their prey.

Tinosa returns from a wartime patrol.

Their target, the 19,000 ton tanker Tonan Maru Number 3, was one of the largest tankers in the Japanese merchant fleet.  

And despite the fact that the war was a year and a half old by this point, Tonan Maru was not only proceeding at 13 knots (about 16 mph) without air or surface escorts, but wasn’t even zig-zagging. 

It was the naval equivalent of having a twelve point buck walk into your bar, order and chug down six Jägermeister shots, and insult your sister at the height of deer season. 

Daspit maneuvered his submarine directly perpendicular to the tanker’s course, so the torpedoes would impact the target squarely, just as the textbooks said.  He fired four Mark XIV torpedoes.  It was a textbook shot; short range, perfect visibility through the periscope, perfect angle on the target.

The torpedos all ran straight – but Daspit only saw two small gouts of water spout up alongside the ship.  Two torpedoes had apparently missed, and the other two misfired; the spouts may have been exploding compressed air flasks aboard the torpedoes.

Tonan Maru turned sharply away from the attack, and started accelerating – which was a slow process with a relatively big ship that wasn’t built for speed.  Daspit fired the remaining two torpedoes from his forward tubes – Tinosa had six facing forward and four more aft.  The angle was not ideal; Tonan Maru was making 13-14 knots, and Tinosa could only move at 8-9 knots underwater, so the torpedoes intersected the tanker’s course at a fairly sharp angle. 

But Daspit’s marksmanship was impeccable – and this was many years before guided torpedoes became common, and the Mark XIV was a straight-running torpedo.  Both torpedoes hit the Tonan Maru, exploding near the tanker’s stern.  Tonan Maru coasted to a stop. 

Daspit maneuvered Tinosa to a point 875 hards to the stopped tanker’s flank.  He lined up another shot.  The torpedo ran straight and true into the tanker’s side…

…and yielded another splash of water from the explosion of the compressed-air tanks.  For the fifth time in seven “fish”, the warhead had failed. 

Frustrated – and, so far, unmolested by Japanese anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces, Daspit ordered his torpedomen to painstakingly inspect each Mark XIV torpedo before loading and firing it.  The torpedomen inspected each “fish”, pronounced them in perfect condition (as well they should; maintaining the torpedoes was what they did, all patrol, every patrol, like a Formula One racing crew doting over their cars). The torpedo room then loaded them into the torpedo tubes, spun them up, and fired them, one at a time, directly into the flank of Tonan Maru.

Nine more times. 

None of them exploded.  Daspit’s log noted each firing with the precision of an engineering experiment log – and tartly chronicled the failure of each successive Mark XIV.  Daspit planned to save his final torpedo – a plan that was punctuated when he saw a Japanese destroyer approaching through is periscope.  Tinosa sailed back to Pearl Harbor. 

Daspit barged into the office of Admiral Charles Lockwood, commander of US submarines in the Pacific, with a string of obscenities.  Lockwood understood.

Part of it was that 19,000 ton tankers were a frustrating target to lose. 

More than that?  It wasn’t a new problem. 

———-

It’d been over a year and a half since Pearl Harbor.  With its battle fleet sunk, and four aircraft carriers lost in the previous 18 months (Lexington at Coral Sea; Yorktown at Midway; Wasp and Hornet in the furious fighting in the Solomon Islands), the battle was largely the Submarine Service’s to fight.

And fight they did.  In the first days of the war, US submarines started pressing home attacks against Japanese ships all over the Pacific.

And a curious pattern emerged:  skippers of the “S-Class” submarines – built during World War I, and recommissioned from the reserve as war approached – were getting kills. 

An S-Class Submarine

They were old, and much slower than the newer “Fleet boats” that were the vast bulk of the fleet, and they had a tougher time getting into a firing position.  And they were designed for war in the much-smaller Atlantic, so they only rarely had the range to engage Japanese ships…

…but when they got a shot, the torpedoes – World War I-vintage Mark X “fish” – exploded.  Ships were sunk.

In the meantime, although the newer submarines were pressing home attacks aggressively, there was a distinct lack of results. 

The Navy was non-plussed.  Explanations ranged from the inexperience of the torpedo room crews to poor marksmanship to, occasionally, cowardice; at least a few sub commanders were releived of duty.

But as the war patrols ground on, and the same patterns kept reiterating themselves, Commander of Submarines/Pacific (COMSUBPAC) Admiral Lockwood started thinking the problem was the torpedoes themselves.  The Mark XIV torpedo had been designed by the Naval Torpedo Station (NTS), in Newport, Rhode Island, by a group of engineers that were considered among the world’s experts in the craft of building torpedoes.  The Torpedo Station was subordinate to the Bureau of Ordinance (BU-ORD), the bureaucracy that was in charge of designing and/or approving all of the fleet’s onboard weaponry, from anti-aircraft machine guns to 16-inch battleship guns, as well as the torpedoes carried on submarines, PT boats, destroyers and a few cruisers. 

The Mark XIV was a marvel of technology at the time; its turbine engine made it a much faster “fish” than the earlier Mark X.  Most importantly, it had a magnetic detonator, enabling it to explode beneath the enemy ship.  The explosion would create a huge cavity of gas under the ship, into which the ship would sag, fracturing the keel.  In theory.  (And the theory was a good one; it’s the same way the modern Mark 48 found on today’s submarines attacks surface ships). 

Admiral Lockwood – who, unlike most submarine admirals, had spent his entire career as a submariner – was suspicious of the hardware.  But the NTS was certain the problem was with the crews.  Or the maintenance.  Or something.  Not the bureaucracy.

Lockwood ordered one of his submarines to test-fire a series of torpedoes at some borrowed fishing nets – and found for starters that they were running much, much deeper than set. 

A Mark XIV torpedo on display by the USS Bowfin, which is a World War 2-era museum ship at Pearl Harbor, near the USS Arizona memorial.

Torpedoes of the era could be set to run at different depths – to account for smaller or larger targets with shallower or deeper “drafts” (depth below the surface), or to strike below a battleship’s armor plating, or to take advantage of the magnetic detonators.  The depth sensor  – which operated by sensing the water pressure, and maneuvered the torpedo to the desired depth – had originally been located in the middle of the torpedo – but a technical chanage had pushed it aft, along the slope toward the propellor.  Where the onrushing water filling in behind the speeding torpedo had lower pressure, causing the torpedoes to swim deeper to find the pressure analogous to the depth setting. 

The NTS, afflicted with complacent hubris as much as Depression-era budget cuts, had relocated the sensor – and then skipped the testing process.  The change to the depth control went into combat without testing.

Lockwood’s staff advised the submarines to correct their depth settings.

It didn’t help.   Torpedoes still weren’t exploding.  And the NTS and BU-ORD still blamed the fleet. 

Lockwood’s suspicion turned next to the magnetic detonator itself.  Lockwood’s engineers discovered what German submariners had learned a year before; magnetic detonators operate by sensing the magnetic field around a large metal object like a ship – but that magnetic field changes in different parts of the world, just as does Earth’s magnetic field.  Without accounting for those changes, the detonator would be unreliable.

So Lockwhood ordered his skippers to disconnect the magnetic detonators, and rely on the good old-fashioned contact detonators – basically the same mechanism as the firing pin on a rifle. 

And so 70 years ago today the Tinosa fired 15 torpedoes, with two explosions – both of them from glancing blows at bad angles.  It was the only data point the engineers had; straight 90 degree hits – theoretically perfect hits – would go dud, while glancing blows at oblique angles would explode, sometimes. 

Orders when out to a fleet full of perplexed skippers; take shots at oblique angles.  Avoid straight-on hits.  Those were, of course, harder shots to hit – but the rate of explosions rose. 

Finally, Lockwood ordered a submarine to fire a load of torpedoes into a cliff on the Hawaiian coast.  As expected, only a few of the torpedoes exploded.  Divers recovered – veeery carefully – the dud fish, and the engineers at Pearl Harbor took them apart…

…and found out that the contact detonators – the “firing pin” assemblies for the torpedoes – were twisted out of shape by the impact with the target; the force of the impact with the cliffs, or ships, bent the system’s guide rails before the firing pin could strike the explosive primer.  It was mechanically nearly identical to the assembly on the older Mark X torpedoes…

…which were 15 mph slower than the Mark XIV.  The extra energy caused by all that extra speed released physical forces that were beyond the older assemblies’ design tolerances…

…except when the hit was an off-angle glancing blow.   Like the Tinosa’s two “hail Mary” shots. 

The NTS was non-plussed.  BU-ORD hushed the story up until long after the war.  They had never tested the firing mechanism under real-world conditions with the new, faster torpedoes.

Lockwood’s engineers built new guide rails – machined out of metal salvaged from the propellors of Japanese planes shot down at Pearl Harbor; lighter, stiffer, better able to stand up to the stresses involved in smacking into a steel wall at 45 knots (55 mph). 

And finally – over a year and a half into the war – the US Navy’s submarine service was truly ready for combat. 

The subs sank over half of the Japanese ships lost in the war; they actually accomplished with Japan what the Germans attempted to do with Britain – starved it out.  Japan was utterly dependent on overseas trade for most of its economy, especially oil – and without a merchant marine, there was no way for Japan to get oil, or most other raw materials.  There is a strong case to be made that the submarines did the lion’s share of the work defeating Japan.  And because of the difficulties with the Mark XIV torpedo, they really didn’t get a start on the job until late 1943. 

It came at a cost, of course; 22 US submarines were sunk in action, 20 are still missing in action – they still don’t know what happened to them, although it’s presumed they were lost in action – and 10 were lost in various training or testing accidents. Over 3,000 submariners died, making it the most dangerous job in the Navy.

Nobody knows how many of those subs were lost as they watched their torpedoes bounce ineffectually off the sides of their targets. 

And the Bureau of Ordinance and the Naval Torpedo Station, like most government bureucracies, never really did get called to account.   At least one senior submariner, after the war, moped that it was a shame they couldn’t have spared one atomic bomb for the Naval Torpedo Station.

Cracks in the Armor

Amid the carnage of the massive Kursk offensive, on the morning of July 10th, the 1st SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler set out to create a small bridgehead as part of a larger advance on the settlement of Prokhorovka.  The Leibstandarte, once Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguards, were an elite SS unit, often spearheading attacks in the East.  Despite two days of tough fighting, the Leibstandarte made no progress against the Soviet 52nd Guards Rifle Division.

With such elite units gaining no ground, both German and Soviet local commanders believed the solution to breaking the stalemate at Prokhorovka was more armor.  Little could they have known they were setting the stage for one of the largest (if not the largest) tank battle in history.

Armor All: 300/400 German tanks squared off against maybe as many as 870 Soviet tanks in the largest mobile armored battle in history

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Far Beyond Hope

I started reading about the Holocaust way too young. In ninth grade, I tackled the Black Book - the B’nai B’rith’s compendium of Nazi atrocities against the Jews of Europe.  In retrospect, it may have been one of the things that started me thinking that maybe liberalism wasn’t for me; it certainly started me on the road toward being a Second Amendment supporter.

But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves, here.

One of the themes of the book – and of the story of the Holocaust, in retrospect -was that it snuck up on people; that many, even as they saw their rights being gutted and their businesses confiscated and their lives upended, just couldn’t imagine that it’d get worse.   Even as they were being loaded up and sent to ghettoes in Poland, they just figured there’d have to be a rational conclusion to it all.

The history of human tragedy is that the people who see it coming get labeled as crazies, politely inoculated off from society.

The other theme?  The few who saw through the illusion of rationality were capable of nearly superhuman courage.  As the Holocaust spun up to full speed about this time seventy years ago, there were a painfully few people who managed to make it hurt the Nazis just a little.

It was seventy years ago today that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began.

The story is well-known to people who know their history – which means most Americans know nothing about it.

Before there were concentration and extermination camps, the Nazis used the traditional Jewish “Ghettos” of Eastern Europe as natural “camps” in which to confine the Jews, Gypsies and the rest of their targets. They systematically deported Jews from all over Poland, Ukraine and Russia – and then all over Europe – to these small enclaves in Polish, Baltic and Ukrainian cities, using them as holding tanks until the camps – the last link in the Final Solution - were ready.

And in early 1942, they were ready.  The Germans started shipping Jews off to Treblinka, the first of the Vernichtungslagern, or Extermination camps.

And in the overcrowded, starving, disease-ridden Warsaw Ghetto – the realization that the end was near provoked a response from some of the inmates; it’d be better to die fighting.

And so a resistance movement,armed with a few stolen handguns and rifles and grenades and some homemade bombs, had formed.  In the previous months, it had managed to disrupt some of the roundups to the camps, throwing the Germans’ plans – as precise as any industrial supply chain management system – into disarray. And on April 19, the Germans’ military response was met with armed resistance.

On the morning of April 19, the Nazis marched into the Ghetto to begin the final liquidation, a brutal process like the one Steven Spielberg captured in the horrific scenes in the “Krakow Ghetto” in Schindler’s List.

It was a scene that’d repeated itself all over Eastern Europe; the SS would forcibly haul the Jews out of the Ghetto and herd them onto boxcars for transportation to one death camp or another.

But this time was different.  As the Germans came through the gate, the were met with gunfire and explosives and molotov cocktails.  They retreated in disorder, with 12 dead.

For the first time, the Germans had come for the Jews, and the Jews beat them back.

It couldn’t last, of course; the Jews’ guns numbered in the dozens, the German troops in the thousands.  They came back again, this time fighting block to block with artillery and flamethrowers.

They killed everything in their path in a fit of retributive blood lust.

The Jews – hopelessly outnumbered and virtually unarmed by military standards – somehow dished out a military setback to the Germans, holding the Germans out of the Ghetto for nearly a month.

It couldn’t last, of course.  The Germans advanced building-to-building, killing nearly everyone as they went – an estimated 56,000 inmates died in the battle or the aftermath.

The Germans trashed the Ghetto as thoroughly as Ground Zero. They shipped the very few they didn’t kill or burn or bury out of hand off to Treblinka (itself to end in another doomed uprising in the near future).

They literally razed the entire Ghetto to the ground.

The Ghetto after the battle.

Serious resistance ended in about a week – which is itself amazing.  I urge you to remember; these were people armed with pistols who started the battle with an average of 6-7 rounds of ammunition; a few rifles with the 5 rounds in their magazines and not much more; accounts vary as to whether the Jews even started the fight with a machine gun (they may have picked a few off of dead Germans).  A few stolen grenades.  Molotov cocktails and a few homemade bombs.  Knives, spears, clubs.

Nothing more.

Pockets of resistance held out much longer, though; the Germans declared the battle over in Mid-may, with the symbolic dynamiting of the Great Synogogue of Warsaw on May 16.

The Great Synogogue of Warsaw in the 1910s.

And so the battle was over.

There were few survivors – but the few thto got away cut wide swathes. Marek Edelman,  last surviving leader, passed away a few months after i wrotw the first version of this piece, back in 2009, after a life spent as an activist for freedom, including a role in the rebirth of a free Poland in 1989.  Rhe handful of survivors and witnesses continue to tell their stories.  But like our own World War Two generation, the Holocaust’s few survivors – and the fewer still who survived the Ghetto - are dying off.

And as they do, we should worry – justifiably – that society is going to forget about what happened; that society might forget the consequences of racism (the real kind), hatred, dminishing the humanity of ones’ enemies (or scapegoats) to try to justify all manner of inhumanities and horrors upon them. And of course, worry that some will take away the wrong lesson, as another loathsome person did fourteen years ago today.

I read the story of the Ghetto and the Uprising when I was in junior high; it probably took many more years for me to really absorb it.  The lessons were these; never let this happen here.  Call out the prejudice that leads to this sort of eliminationist hatred when you see it, and do it without stint or mercy.  Never let society be left at the mercy of the thugs and the autocrats; it’s why we have a First and, if all else fails, a Second Amendment.

Above all, uphold humanity.

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The Hit

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was, by a long stretch, the greatest Japanese leader of World War 2.  A naval genius, the primary planner behind Pearl Harbor, he had an impact far beyond any other Japanese leader on the conduct of the war.

And while the general American public have lionized leaders in the past – Patton, MacArthur, Schwartzkopf, Petraeus – it’s hard for Americans to comprehend what a huge public figure a successful leader could become in a society as militaristic as pre-1945 Japan.  Rarely since the Vikings had there been a society that so revered accomplishment on the battlefield.

And rarely had any society a warrior leader as accomplished as Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.

Admiral Yamamoto’s PR head shot. It was his plan that conquered the entire Pacific Ocean, from the shores of China and New Guinea all the way to Hawaii’s doorstep at Midway Island.

And the Americans knew it. And seventy years ago today, they carried out an unprecedented action to change that – an action that showed the strengths, weaknesses, and ludicrous foibles of both sides of the war in the Pacific.

———-

The Japanese military was deeply divided before and during World War 2.  ”Interservice rivalry” is, of course, endemic in every nation.

Healthy expressions of esprit de corps are a good thing in the military, of course; what would the Marines be if they didn’t think they were better than the rest of the services?

But in Japan, the problem swerved almost beyond caricature.  The Japanese military was divided between the Army and the Navy, and the Generals and the Admirals operated their services like feudal fiefdoms, to the point where both services were nearly completely redundant to each other.  Not only did the Army and Navy each have their own air forces (with completely separate development, procurement and manufacturing efforts, with all the duplication of effort and waste that attended such redundancy), each duplicated each others branches; the Japanese Army built its own navy (including cargo-carrying submarines), and the Navy’s “Marines” served as a duplicate Army.

And each service had its own culture.

The Japanese Army was steeped in the samurai tradition and “State Shinto”, the militaristic Japanese state religion; it was insular, Japanese-culture-centric, and by western standards a little barbaric.   It became moreso over time; before World War 2, most of the Army served in Korea (a Japanese colony at the time), Manchuria (which Japan had annexed in 1931) and China (which Japan had invaded in 1937); its entire background was in Asian societies that had changed little in hundreds of years.

The Navy, on the other hand, had been heavily influenced by the British, adopting British design standards and working with many British advisors.  While it had its samurai traditions as well, it was much more cosmopolitan than the Army.

The IJN Kongo. The first world-class Japanese battleship, and the oldest Japanese battleship to serve in World War 2, it was actually built in 1912 in Britain (as Japanese engineers observed, building its three sisters in Japan). Leave aside the “pagoda” bridge; the rest of the ship looks exactly like a World War 1-era British battleship.

Young Japanese naval officers went on long training cruises before the 1930s, routinely docking in in Western ports, including San Francisco and Seattle.

Yamamoto knew America; he’d studied at Harvard (1919-21) and as Naval Attache (1925-28).

A young Yamamoto with US Navy Secretary Curtis Wilbur.

Yamamoto’s respect for America varied; he didn’t much care for the Navy’s officer corps, thinking them a bunch of careerist golf-course commandos.

But he had much respect for America’s industry, and its drive to innovate.  And as he rose through the ranks, he urged the Army to show a little restraint about engaging the US in a war he felt Japan could not win in the long run.

The road to Pearl Harbor led through an epic political battle between the Army – especially its radicals who believed that they could sweep aside the soft, effete British, French, Dutch  and American presences in the Pacific – and the Navy, which favored expansion (indeed, needed it to get the resources they’d need to continue expanding, to say nothing of the justification for more Navy).

In 1938, the Army won the political battle, empaneling Hideki Tojo – an Army man – as Prime Minister.  While some worried that that could have resulted in Yamamoto’s ouster or even murder, Tojo kept Yamamoto on as head of the Combined Fleet – the highest operational command in the Navy – and charged him with planning to sweep the enemy from the Pacific.

Gen. Hideki Tojo, prime minister during most of the war years.

Yamamoto realized that the only way to effect this against the US was to wipe out its Pacific Fleet, buying the Japanese fleet (carrying the army) time to consolidate the advances into a position that the US couldn’t recover.

The rest is history; they nearly did it.  But for the fact that the Navy’s aircraft carriers had left Pearl Harbor for a training exercise, Yamamoto might have won World War 2 in the Pacfic on December 7.   It nearly worked anyway.

And Yamamoto’s stock soared; in a nation that revered martial accomplishment, he became a superstar.

And the US needed to fix that.

———-

In recent years, as information has been released with the end of the Cold War, the story of US intelligence’s great coup in cracking Japanese codes has become less obscure.  Like the British efforts against the Germans, the US code-breaking effort led to our knowing most of what the Japanese were doing in nearly real time; the biggest Japanese successes, like Pearl Harbor, were the ones that relied on absolutely no radio traffic.

And in the spring of 1943, Navy code breakers found out that Admiral Yamamoto would be touring Navy installations in the southwest Pacific.  In particular, the tour – aboard a couple of Japanese bombers that were being used as passenger ferries – would spend a bit of time on the Japanese-held island of Bougainville, in the Solomon Islands chain.

Japanese G4M medium bomber. Codenamed “Betty” by the Allies, it was a fast, long-ranged bomber with a heavy bomb or torpedo load. It was a very successful plane during the first two years of the war. By 1943, the Japanese were starting to discover it was vulnerable, and didn’t absorb damage well – to Yamamoto’s chagrin.

Which was about 400 miles away from the nearest US base, on the island of Guadalcanal.

It was the Navy’s job – but 400 miles was beyond the range of any current Navy or Marine fighter planes.  So the Navy “borrowed” the US Army Air Force’s 339′s Fighter Squadron.  The 339th flew the Lockheed P-38 Lightning – the longest-ranged fighter in the US arsenal at the time.

The P38 Lighting. Tell me that’s not one cool airplane. I dare you. It had two engines, for added range and reliability – but unlike most two-engined fighter planes of the war years, it was agile enough to mix it up with enemy fighters on more than even terms. The highest-scoring US ace in history, Superior, Wiscinsin’s Richard Bong, flew a P38 for all of his 40 air-to-air kills.

To avoid detection by Japanese radar, the Navy and Army planners drew a route for the 339th that would take it far out to sea at wavetop level and approach the airfield indirectly, from over the mountains; four of the P38s would drive straight for Yamamoto’s plane, while the rest would fly top cover against any escorting fighters; then, with no further need for stealth, they’d fly the 400 miles directly back to Guadalcanal.

And seventy years ago this morning, the mission went ahead.

———-

The mission was a very difficult one in the context of the times; in the days long before GPS or any other electronic navigation aids, the pilots navigated by dead reckoning and timing. Flying very, very low was dangerous, with little visual cue as to actual height and no radio altimeters (which would have tipped the Japanese off anyway); one of the P38s actually brushed the water with its propellors, but averted disaster, recovered and kept flying.

The attack itself went off as planned; as the cover team rocketed up to altitude, the four planes of the killer team saw the two Japanese “Betty” bombers in the landing pattern, with six escorting “Zero” fighters orbiting above.

Two  P38s, flown by Captain Thomas Lanphier and 1st Lt. Rex Barber, engaged the first of the two bombers; Lanpher fired in a slashing attack from the front, while Barber lined up behind the “Betty”, which burst into flame and disappeared, crashing into the jungle.

Artists conception of Barber closing in for the kill

Barber and another pilot, 1st Lt. Besby Holmes, attacked a second bomber which was trying to sneak away at wavetop level; the bomber crashlanded in the ocean.

Capt. Lanphier, Lieutenants Holmes and Barber

The first bomber carried Yamamoto; all aboard, including the Admiral, were killed.  The second plane yielded three survivors, including Yamamoto’s chief of staff, Admiral Matome Ugaki.

The wreck of Yamamoto’s plane today. A Japanese search party retrieved the bodies from the plane shortly after the raid; Yamamoto’s ashes were returned to Japan on a battleship.

One P38 was apparently shot down by the escorting Zeros, although the plane, flown by 1st Lieutenant Ray Hine, was not seen to get hit or crash, and apparently fell into the sea.   Hine was the only US casualty; the remaining P38s made it back to Guadalcanal, so short of fuel that some of the  planes’ engines sputtered to a stop on rollout after landing.  As he came in on final approach, Lanphier radioed ” “That son of a bitch will not be dictating any peace terms in the White House” – a huge security breach that risked tipping the Americans’ intelligence hand to their enemies.

But the secret was safe.

The Japanese government, knowing the blow Yamamoto’s death would be, concealed the news from the public for six weeks.  The American press ran it immediately, of course – with the cover story that Yamamoto’s plane had been spotted taking off by Australian “Coastwatchers”, scouts who operated on the small islands in the middle of Japanese territory with radios and binoculars.  They were a key part of the Allied intelligence network (and played a key role in John F. Kennedy’s crew’s survival after the sinking of PT109), but had no involvement; the story was intended to prevent the Japanese from figuring out that their codes were nearly transparent to the Navy’s code breakers.

———-

But the story didn’t end there.  It went on for nearly fifty more years.

Lanphier immediately claimed credit – and popular accounts, starting with a Time Magazine story in 1943, and including the first story I myself read about the raid as an eight year old history geek, credited Lanphier – who was a one-man public relations machine.  Indeed, one of his squadron-mates noted that Lanphier started a manuscript in which he claimed to have gotten the kill himself.

Lanphier at the end of the war. Promoted to Colonel, he’s with his father – also an Army colonel – and mother.

That – and a meeting after the war with one of the Japanese fighter pilots that’d unsuccessfully escorted Yamamoto – irked Barber, who appealed to the Air Force, getting half credit for the kill.  The case between Barber, Lanphier and the Air Force wended its way through channels until 1991, when the US Ninth Circuit refused to hear it; good thing, as the Ninth Circuit would have awarded the kill to Michael Moore.

Major Richard Bong  in the cockpit of his P38. The Superioe native remains the too-scoring fighter pilot in US history.  He had nothing to do with the Yamamoto mission – dour changing photos from an iPhone is a pain.  .

Lanphier died in 1987 after a career in the Idaho Air National Guard; Barber passed away in 2001 after working as an insurance salesman and Little League baseball supporter.

And in 2003, after both men were long gone, an examination of the wreck showed that all of the damage to Yamamoto’s plan came from fire from the rear – Barber’s approach.  At long last, the Air Force gave full credit for the kill to Barber.

Ten Men And The End Of The Nazi Bomb

I first wrote about this episode three years ago; today is the seventieth anniversary of the Ryukan Raid,  in which ten Norwegian commandos with the British “Special Operations Executive” raided a hydroelectric dam that produced most of the world’s supply of “Heavy Water”, a key component of the process the Nazis were using to try to build an atomic bomb.

It was a good piece, so I’m going to re-run it, with a few suitable revisions.

———-

I’ll cop to it; after the 2009 “Nobel Peace Prize” award to a president who, as of the award deadline, had done nothing to warrant it, and has done even less since, my self-esteem-respect as an American of Norwegian anscestry has taken a bit of a beating.

But it’s on days like today – the 70th anniversary of the Norwegian raid on the Vemork heavy-water plant at Ryukan, Norway - that I get a bit of that old Norse møjø back.

You may not have heard the story – largely because most American history teachers are illiterate about history, and partly because the font of all historical knowledge for most of them, Hollywood, transformed the event into an Anglo-American triumph (the atrocious Heroes of Telemark).

Like much of what you learn about “history” from Hollywood, it’s BS.

A little scientific and historical background:  nuclear reactors need something to “moderate” their fission reactions – i.e. to keep them under control.  The United States program used a mixture of Cadmium and Graphite.  The Germans, for reasons best explained by a physicist, chose Deuterium Oxide – aka “Heavy Water” – a compound found in infinitesimally tiny quantities in all water.  All you need to do is refine it out of all the regular water.

And in all of Europe in the early 1940s, there was exactly one facility that could refine bulk lots of Deuterium Oxide in the quantities a nuclear weapons program would need; the Vemork plant near the village of Rjukan, Norway.

Vemork in 1940
Vemork

Vemork sat by a hydroelectric dam – so both  water and the electric power needed to find the Heavy Water were available in immense abundance.

The British had wanted to attack the plant ever since they learned of its significance.  The British “Special Operations Executive” – a wartime organization that sat at the intersection of intelligence and special operations, much like “Special Operations Command” in the US does today, and whose American analogue, the “OSS”, became the anscestor of the CIA and US Special Forces - established an agent inside the plant (Einar Skinnarland) who smuggled out blueprints and paved the way.

Einar Skinnarland
Einar Skinnarland

In October of 1942, an SOE reconnaisance team with four more Norwegian operators (Jens Anton Poulsson, Arne Kjelstrup, Knut Haukelid and Claus Helberg), men who’d fled to the UK after the German invasion and undergone commando and intelligence training, were infiltrated into Norway to reconnoiter the area for a followup British commando raid.  The four men were air-dropped into a remote area far from Ryukan, and skied for days through the gathering mountain winter before they could even begin their mission.

A plan came together…

…and then completely unraveled.  The followup British commando raid to attack the plant failed catastrophically, with gliders and tow planes crashing in the snow and all the commandos either dying in the crashes or being caught and executed by the Gestapo, after revealing under torture the target of their raid.  The Germans reinforced Vemork, in case the Brits tried again.

The four-man recon team had to not only survive a mountain winter, but do it with an alerted enemy actively searching for them, and stay on the grid and able to assist the followup mission that had to come.

Later that winter, it fell to them and six more Norwegian commandos to finish the job.

The six reinforcements – Joachim Holmboe Rønneberg, Knut Haukelid, Fredrik Kayser, Kasper Idland, Hans Storhaug and Birger Strømsheim – dropped into Norway, linked up with Poulsson, Kjelstrup, Haugland and Helberg, and carried out the plan.

Bypassing the heavily-guarded bridge that ran 600 feet above the Maan River, the team descended from the plateau above into the river gorge, snuck across the icy stream, up a cable tunnel, and through a window.

Up for a bit of a climb?
Up for a bit of a climb?

They encountered a caretaker – who turned out to be a Norwegian who was happy to help.

The team placed the bombs – which destroyed the entire 1000-pound heavy-water supply – and escaped unscathed.  The Germans dispatched 3,000 troops to try to catch the commandos – but all escaped, with six of them staying in Norway to carry on the battle, and the other five skiing to Sweden to return to the UK to carry on the war.

Most of the team, after the war. Front: Poulsson, commander Leif Tronstad, Rønneberg. (Back) Storhaug, Kayser, Idland, Helberg, Strømsheim.

Being lucky and skillful, they all survived the war.

Being Norwegian, most of them lived long, healthy lives afterwards; all but Idland lived into the 1990′s; Poullson and Knut Haugland in the past few years, Strømsheim just last December.  Haugland was probably best-known to Americans, having participated in Thor Heyerdahl’s famous Kon Tiki expedition in the late forties. Joachim Rønneberg is still alive.

There are those who say, with some factual backing, that the German nuke program could never have caught up with the US program, even without the Vemork raid.

Perhaps.

Thanks to eleven brave underdogs and their mission, patched together against impossible odds, we never needed to even try to imagine what London and Moscow would look like as craters.

PBS’ Nova did an excellent documentary on the Vemork raid and its larger context, the Nazi nuclear weapons program.  It includes  a useful bio page on the whole group of Vemork raiders.  This site also explains the raid, and the science, in excellent detail.

The BBC also did a documentary – some forty years ago, now – on the subject. Hopefully it’ll stay available for a while:

It’s funny; listening to the guys from the raid (when I heard them on a different documentary from about ten years ago, since removed from Youtube), you’d think you were looking at and listening to old Norwegian guys at a Lutheran church lutefisk dinner in Park Rapids – and then you remember these are guys who sailed across the North Sea, went through British commando school, airdropped into Norway, spent a winter in a forester’s cabin living on reindeer meat and moss, and then carried out the kind of raid that ends up in the history books.

Every American schoolchild should be forced to listen to Rønneberg’s send-off at the end of the third installment of the documentary (around the 7:50 mark):

You have to fight for your freedom. And for peace. It’s not something that you have every day; you have to fight for it every day, to keep it.  It’s like a glass boat; it’s easy to break.  It’s easy to lose.

Whenever the Nobel committee embarasses Norway, I remember them, and feel much better, mange takk.

———-

Nearly everything I needed to write about today’s anniversary, I wrote three years ago – with one exception.

For most of the past 40-50 years, the conventional wisdom was that the Vemork raid, and the equally-daring followup the next year (in which Norwegian resistance fighters and SOE agents sank a ferry boat carrying the little heavy water that’d been salvaged by the Nazis) merely “bounced the rubble” of the German nuke program; that the bravery, endurance and ingenuity of the ten Norwegians was a great human story, but had little to do with affecting the outcome of the war.  The Nazis were never close to having a bomb, says the revisionist history.

The revisionism needs to be revised, though.

Tim Gawne, who’s spent a considerable amount of time researching ORNL’s archives and the Weinberg papers, recently came across a declassified Nov. 8, 1945 memo from Weinberg and L.W. Nordheim, the first physics director at the Oak Ridge lab (then called Clinton Laboratories), to Compton. Weinberg, who later directed ORNL for 18 years, died in 2006.

“We are writing in order to correct what we believe to be a very prevalent misconception concerning the state of the art as known to the Germans in 1945,” Weinberg and Nordheim wrote in the three-page memo, noting they had read a few of the relevant German documents.

There has been a lot written, of course, regarding Germany’s work on the atomic bomb and various analyses. I’m no scholar on the topic, by any stretch, but the Weinberg/Nordheim memo seems to offer a more generous assessment of Germany’s progress than some other post-war reports and subsequent analyses.

They addressed multiple questions in the memo, including a concluding one, “What bearing does this have on the general question of our ‘secrets’?”

Here’s part of their answer:

“On this we can presume to speak only as individuals.

“The general impression from the German reports is that they were on the right track and that their thinking and developments paralleled ours to a surprising extent. The fact that they did not achieve their chain reaction is primarily due to their lack of sufficient amounts of heavy water.

“In one of the reports a vivid description is given of the German efforts in this respect. The heavy water factories in Norway were designed for a capacity of 3-4 tons a year and were successfully operating during part of 1942 and 1943. This capacity would have been sufficient for the construction of a pile (reactor). However, the production was interrupted by sabotage and finally the main factory was destroyed by a bombing attack. Toward the end of 1944 plans were made to initiate production of heavy water in Germany and to use enriched uranium in order to reduce the material requirements.

In other words, the Germans never came close to having the bomb – in large part because due to the Vemork Raid, they could never get a reactor built.

Pass as Prologue

By February of 1943, the American military was starting to get use to combat.  For a military force that rivaled Portugal in size in the early 1940s, the U.S. Army had to undergo a rapid education in modern military tactics against better trained, sometimes better equipped opponents.  There had been plenty of bloodied noses in this trial-by-fire – Pearl Harbor, Bataan, Guadalcanal, the U-boat attacks of ’41/’42 – but one opponent remained to be engaged: the Wehrmacht.

On February 19th, 1943, American troops received their first education of German military tactics by the regime’s most noted teacher, Gen. Erwin Rommel.  The school was a dusty spot in the Tunisian desert known as Kasserine Pass.

Kasserine Pass was not the first time American troops had come under German fire, but it would become the most notable of the early engagements following the Allied invasion of French North Africa.  Operation Torch in November of 1942 was the largest Allied invasion of the war thus far, placing 107,000 British and American troops in Morocco and Algeria.  Coinciding with the British offensive at El Alamein, the goal had been a grand-scale encirclement of German and Italian forces in Libya and western Egypt.  Instead, Hitler doubled-down on the North African front, committing 250,000 more troops and drawing the Allies into another protracted desert campaign.

American troops in Tunisia: the Allies lost more men in 11 days at Kasserine Pass than in 6 months at Guadalcanal

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Taking It On the Chindits

As conventional forces went, they were an unconventional bunch.

The unit was weighed down by equipment (70 pounds of gear per man), experience (most were second-line reservists) and age (older draftees).  Their leader was forged in the classic mold of the British eccentric, perfect for a forgotten front against a larger opponent filled with combat veterans.  But neither the obstacles or the odds daunted the men of the King’s Liverpool Regiment and 2nd Gurkha Rifles, together better known to history as the Chindits, as the crossed into Japanese-controlled Burma on February 8th, 1943.  Their mission would be part of the beginning of the modern-era of Special Forces.

The Burma that the Chindits marched into was far from friendly territory – even before the Japanese invasion.

Burma had been among the last of the British possessions captured in the colonial era.  The Anglo-Burmese wars of the mid-19th Century sapped the Burmese monarchy and military, leading to fall of the capital Rangoon after the Third Anglo-Burmese war and the absorption of Burma into a province of India in 1886.  The Burmese populace responded with a grueling four-year guerrilla war followed by decades of hostility.

The Rising Sun In Burma: the Japanese were welcomed as liberators but massacres of civilians like at Kalagong village quickly revealed the Japanese as far more brutal colonial masters

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No Respect

One of my favorite lines about resurrecting history is from a movie - Braveheart, I want to say – and goes something like “History is written by those who kill the heroes”.

Much of what we Americans today “know” as received conventional wisdom about World War 2 is the self-serving version that the victor gets to write.  The idea that the Poles were anachronistic bumblers who charged at tanks with cavalry lances was a German propaganda fiction, ladled on top of centuries of ethnic and tribal prejudice. The notion that the French were cowardly “cheese eating surrender monkeys” is more of the same, filtered through American Cold War-era impatience with the frustrating inscrutability of their post-Gaullist foreign policy – and the enduring references to “Maginot Mentality” is a begged historical question, using the conclusion that “France Fell” as evidence that the Maginot Line was in and of itself a dumb idea.

It’s tempting to say the Italians got the same short shrift; it’s almost equally tempting to say their reputation as bumbling Barney Fifes who couldn’t shoot straight and whose tanks had one speed forward and four in reverse would seem to have been amply supported by their record during World War II.  From their misguided adventures in Abyssinia (Ethiopia and Eritrea today) to their snake-bitten attempt to subdue Greece (drawing the Germans into war on a second front) to their inability to break into France even as the Germans were mauling the bulk of the French army, to the collapse of their North African army (drawing the Germans into war on a fourth front), the Italian war effort seemed often to provide comic relief to those who wrote the history books.

Of course, as Ringer and I have written this series, we’ve found bits and pieces of some inconvenient truths about the Italians; as inept as Mussolini had left the military’s higher leadership, and as poorly as the anemic socialized economy allowed Italy to equip her troops (especially the Army), there were some examples of redoubtable courage, esprit de corps and can-do-ism; the Italian Marines’ special forces attacks that crippled a significant chunk of the British fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the daring guerrilla war that the Italian remnants fought amidst the ruins of Mussolini’s East African “Empire”…

…and, seventy years ago today, in the midst of the disaster that would doom the German/Italian advance in Russia, one of the most titanic displays of sheer force of will in military history, around and about a forgotten little village in the middle of the endless steppe.

———-

Mussolini, seeking to increase his stock value after having been bailed out by the Germans in Greece and North Africa, committed a force of about 60,000 men in three divisions to support the initial invasion of the USSR in 1941; he shortly quadrupled down, increasing the force to almost 240,000 men in ten regular divisions, plus a German division and brigades of Croatians and Camicia Neri (“Blackshirts”) as a reserve and to fight Russian guerillas.

Priest ministering to Italian troops in Russia

The 8th Army deployed to the German’s southern offensive, holding the flanks of the German’s high-water strike deep into southern Russia.  By the winter of 1942, the Italians, along with Romanian and Hungarian troops, were holding the flanks of the German spearhead as it tried to fight its way out of being stopped cold at Stalingrad.

Mussolini inspects Italian troops from the initial “mobile” contingent. If the trucks don’t look very uniform – they’re not. They were impressed from commercial uses.

The Italians were never intentionally the focal point of the action – or at least the Germans didn’t intend for them to be.  The main goal of the Italians, and the Hungarians on their own flanks, was to make sure nothing snuck behind the Germans to cut them off at Stalingrad.

Although the original Italian deployment was intended to be a “Mobile” force, the 8th Army itself was not only mostly foot-borne and horse-drawn, but it had virtually no tank support. The Italians had to settle for a few captured Russian vehicles, like this T-34.

But on December 16, 1942, two Soviet Armies – the 1st and 3rd Guards Armies, a total of some 100,000 battle-hardened Soviet troops – crossed the Don River and attacked the 8th Army, in temperatures that dipped to -40F at night.  A follow-up attack in early January overwhelmed most of the 8th Army, destroying three divisions outright.  The Hungarians on the other flank also gave way, and the Soviet Guards encircled what was left of the 8th Army – which amounted to the “8th Alpini Corps”, composed of three Alpini (mountain) divisions (the Tridentina, Julia and Cuneense Alpine Divisions), among the elite of the Italian Army – before pressing on toward the town of Rostov, through which the German lines of communications to Stalingrad ran.  The Soviets, with an overwhelming force of tanks, proceeded to capture Rostov, putting 120 miles of Soviet-held territory between safe German lines and Stalingrad…

Troops of Tridentina in the Russian winter.

…and, cut off to the northwest of Stalingrad, the 8th Alpini.   The Italians had two options – surrender, or fight their way to friendly lines.
They opted to fight.  
The Alpini, along with stragglers from the other Italian units and a few German, Hungarian and Croatian troops, began fighting their way across the steppe, through the brutal Russian cold.  The Italians had never been well-equipped with vehicles; so badly-equipped was the Italian Army, most of the trucks from the two “motorized” divisions had been commandeered commercial vehicles with their company logos still on the doors and side panels – and those vehicles were long dead and gone.  A few German tanks led the column, which was led by the Tridentina division, the least-mauled by this point.  The vast mass of those 40,000 men walked.
120 miles.  In 15 days.  Through temperatures that never got above 0F, and frequently dipped down to -40F.
The Russians were at a disadvantage, too; the focus of their effort was on moving into German-held territory, to the West.  But they left behind troops in every village, and every one of these village defenses put up a fight, and the fight to pass through every village ate time, energy and manpower that the Italians didn’t have.   
And yet they carried on.  And as of 70 years ago today, the Alpini and the rest of the survivors were on the brink of safety…
…and the Soviets knew it.  They reinforced the force holding the village of Nikolaevka with a division with 6-10,000 infantry – outnumbered by the Italians, but with supplies of food and ammunition.  
The Tridentino was down to 4,000 effective soldiers.  Julia and Cuneense were in worse shape still, and the rest of the force was mostly stragglers in small groups, none of them an effective or sizeable fighting force.  
Tridentino attacked on the morning of the 26th – and bogged down fighting the superior Russian force; the Italians’ chief of staff died fighting for one Soviet strongpoint. 
The battle – and the fate of the entire Italian force – hung in the balance.  To break through the Soviets meant safety; to fail meant death, either on the battlefield or in captivity.  
As legend has it the commander of the Tridentino, General Luigi Reverberi, jumped on top of one of the last three functioning German tanks, and bellowed “Tridentini Aventi” – Forward Trident.  The exhausted, frozen Tridentini picked themself up and charged one last time.  The example caused the rest of the mass of stragglers to grab their rifles (or whatever weapon they had) and follow into the attack, which turned into a barely-organized melee, more a feeding frenzy, ending with the Soviet division being overwhelmed.  There were no more Soviets between the Alpini and safety.  
Of the 45,000 Alpini that had started the battle on January 13, there were fewer than 6,000 left.  And the remnant of 8th Army that they led was well under 40,000 out of about 150,000 that had been in the lines six weeks earlier.  

The Battle of Brisbane

The 738th American MP Battalion was surrounded.  Unaccustomed to being in the midst of fighting, the scattered remnants of the unit grabbed any weapon they could in a vain attempt to defend a Red Cross Service Station and PX against hundreds of enemy troops.  A handful of shotguns were distributed to go with the MP’s standard issue Smith & Wesson Victory Revolver.  They knew reinforcements weren’t coming – thousands of American & Allied troops were engaged in street-by-street fighting.  The 738th left their defensive positions in the Red Cross building and meant the enemy head on in hand-to-hand fighting on November 26th, 1942.

The battlefield wasn’t in the sands of North Africa, nor the jungles of New Guinea, but the streets of Brisbane, Australia.  And for two nights, the opponents weren’t the Axis powers.  For two nights in 1942, America and Australia went to war.

The Aussie & The Yank

The phrase ”they’re overpaid, oversexed, and over here” has usually been attributed to British attitudes about the influx of American servicemen in World War II.  Yet the same was said by many an Australian as the Yanks came marching in by the thousands.

Over one million American soldiers would pass through Australia from 1942 until the end of the Pacific War, increasing the overall population of the country by 10%.  Nearly overnight, Australian cities on the populous eastern coast found themselves overrun with American servicemen.  Brisbane was among the worst affected.  By the end of 1942, the city of 300,000 now had to provide food and utilities for a population of over 600,000 – the difference all made up in U.S. GI’s.  The sewers and electrical grid couldn’t possibly adapt quickly enough.  For many Aussies, the Yanks brought brownouts, garbage in the streets, and increased crime and prostitution – not protection from the Japanese.

The View From Down Under: Americans saw the Aussies as quaint and the Australian front as a relaxing sideshow

Much like in England, the GIs also brought a considerably higher paycheck than their Allied counterparts, a fact that chaffed relations largely because American servicemen could afford to woo the locals with chocolates and silk stockings – luxuries in wartime.  Over 12,000 Australians married American GIs during the course of the war, but it wasn’t a lifetime of companionship that Australian troops were searching for when they grumbled that the ladies of Brisbane preferred the handsome foreigners who could buy otherwise limited goods at American PXs.  Compounding the Aussie’s frustrations were that the Yanks hadn’t just taken all the girls, but all the booze.  Alcohol shortages were so common that hotels became limited to two one-hour long servings each day – leading to binge drinking among civilians and servicemen of both countries.

Actions on the frontlines hardened attitudes as well.  The brutal Buna-Gona campaign in New Guinea was being waged at the same time with Allied forces counter-attacking well-fortified Japanese defense in the thick New Guinea jungle.  The percentage of casualties at Buna exceeded the better known Battle of Guadalcanal 3-to-1 and the brunt of the fighting was being borne by Australian troops.  That fact mattered little to General Douglas MacArthur, who reported on “U.S. victories” at Buna-Gona while setbacks were attributed to the Australians.  Aussies who had fought and bled in hard-won victories returned to Brisbane unable to get a date or a drink while reading that nearly non-existent American forces had won the day.

The American Invasion: Members of the US Navy march in Brisbane

By the end of November, 20 brawls a night between Aussies and Yanks were being broken up, mostly by American MPs.  Not only would the MPs usually believe their fellow Americans, getting them out of trouble, but the MPs quickly developed a reputation as violent and arrogant.  More and more Australians took to mob justice when they felt wronged.  20 Australian civilians jumped a group of American submariners just nights before November 26th, beating them mercilessly.

With this backdrop, it was somewhat surprising that what touched off two nights of intense rioting started with Australian servicemen trying to defend an American from an American MP.

Private James Stein of the U.S. 404th Signal Company had been abusing the limited alcohol policies of Brisbane, and like many soldiers was trying to get to a new bar that would soon be open for one-hour only.  Clearly drunk, Stein found himself in front of an MP demanding to see a leave pass.  The MP’s verbal abuse caused several Australian soldiers that Stein had been talking with to engage the MP, trying to get him to lay off a drunk but not AWOL Stein.  The MP’s response was to lift his baton as if to strike one of the Aussies.  One of the Aussies struck first instead.  A melee ensued as more MPs, Australian and American soldiers ran to the fight outside the American PX.  News of the initial fight spread, starting new brawls.  By 8pm – just an hour after the first fists were thrown – over 5,000 people, civilian and military, were engaged in a series of battles across Brisbane.

Japanese Propaganda: Much like the Nazis in Europe, the Japanese played upon fears of lustful American troops

The fights quickly became more than drunken brawls.  Guns and grenades were passed about on both sides.  Shots were fired by MPs and Aussies.  One correspondent called Brisbane “the most furious battle I ever saw during the war.”  By night’s end, at least one Australian soldier was confirmed dead – shot by an American MP – and dozens more were seriously injured by gunshot, stabbing or clubbing.

The passage of a day did little to calm matters.  500-600 Australian troops surrounded the PX the next night, eager to get revenge.  The MPs were better prepared, armed with machine guns and rifles.  What started as a mob turned into a battle line as both sides took up defensive positions and prepared to assault the other.  Australian MPs sent to break up the crowd took off their armbands and joined instead.  With neither side willing to make a move, elements of the Australian mob moved elsewhere, assaulting Americans around the city.  Unconfirmed reports suggested that several Americans were killed that night, either shot or beaten to death by the Australian mob.

The fighting was almost entirely ignored by the wartime press.  Other than a brief bulletin mentioning an incident that left one dead and six wounded, media both in Australia and the U.S. were censored to prevent news of the incident from spreading.  If the censorship was designed to cool tensions, it backfired.  Brisbane sources spread rumors of absurd levels of violence, including a suggestion that 15 Australian servicemen had been shot by Americans with machine guns – their bodies stacked like cordwood outside a Post Office.  Although that report is almost certainly false, the true number of dead or wounded has never been released.

Few were punished for the fighting.  Units on both sides involved were transferred out of the city.  The MP responsible for killing an Australian was acquitted.  And despite five convictions on the Australian side, only one served any jail time – for a total of six months.  The incident was pushed down the memory hole and forgotten.

Other “battles” would occur in Australia and New Zealand.  A similar fight, named the Battle of Manners Street in Wellington, New Zealand had over 1,000 participants in 1943.  And much like the Battle of Brisbane, the fight was blacked out by the media.