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.


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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Falcon: Forty

Outrageous inflation in military spending isn’t a modern phenomenon.  Since the end of the Cold War, though, we don’t hear as much about it.

But in the 1970s, it was getting headlines.  The costs involved in developing weapons were zooming.  And nowhere were these costs more publicized than with aircraft.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the development of several key Air Force and Navy aircraft blossomed into inflationary nightmares.  It started with the F-111, whose protracted development time and cost overruns became a national controversy in the ’60s and early ’70s.

An Australian F-111.

The Navy’s F-14 program (that’d be the plane Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer flew in Top Gun) wasn’t as troubled – but each copy of the plane ran to well over $20 million 1972 dollars, which equals $111,000,000 today, giving a generation of American budget-watchers sticker shock.

An F-14 Tomcat. Not “TomKat”. Sheesh.

The Air Force’s F-15 was another expensive one, marginally cheaper than the F-14 for about the same mission.

An F-15 Eagle

The ballooning cost caused some military theorists to speculate we’d be better off buying more, cheaper aircraft; that in a potential Hot War, the huge number of relatively cheaper Soviet airframes would take horrible casualties against the technologically formidable US planes, but that at the end of the battle there’d be so many Soviets that the Americans would end up getting shot down any way.  Better, the theorists said, to buy many, many of the relatively cheap ($3-4 million a pop in the mid-seventies) F-5, which was comparable with a Soviet Mig-21.

A Mig 21 of the Lithuanian Air Force. First fielded in the late 1950s, over 10,000 Mig 21s were built – the most of any jet fighter in history.

With this in mind, General Dynamics set about trying to split the difference; building as smaller, lighter, less-expensive fighter plane.   This became the F-16 – called the “Falcon” by the Air Force, the “Viper” by many of its own pilots (and the “Lawn Dart” by F-15 pilots, after a few unfortunate crashes early in its development).

An F-16

And the first F-16 flew forty years ago this month.

Weights and costs rose, inevitably, as well – but for the price the Air Force got a plane with a number of firsts:  it was the first “relaxed-stability” fighter plane controlled by “fly by wire” technology.  Stable planes – like an airliner – are designed to fly efficiently and comfortably in straight lines.  They’re stable.  Airline passengers like them that way.  But airliners don’t have to pull 6G (six times the force of gravity) turns to evade incoming missiles, either (ideally).  Fighter planes do, on occasion – and while stability makes flying in one direction easier, it makes it harder to crank the plane into a sudden turn.  Unstable planes are, well, unstable; they’re prone to tipping over and rolling about at random, unless the pilot is in complete control – more complete than a human can possibly manage.  The F-16 used a computer to automatically adjust the control surfaces, many times per second, to keep the plane artificially stable in forward flight, but use the plane’s inherent instability to help it maneuver very quickly.  This technology also involved replacing the traditional mechanical control cables and connections with an electronic data bus, delivering electronic signals from the computer and, less frequently, the pilot, to the plane’s control surfaces (which had the added effect of getting rid of parts that, traditionally, are among a combat aircraft’s most vulnerable to damage).  It made the F-16 the most nimble fighter jet of its era, and one of the most maneuverable of our era as well.

The view (backwards, obviously) from the bubble canopy of an F-16. At least one of this blog’s semi-regular commenters has spent a fair chunk of his career with this view from his office. I’m hoping he shows up for this thread…

There were other advances – a frameless bubble canopy giving an unimpeded view of the surroundings, a pilot seat that was reclined 30° to reduce the physical effects of the gravitational forces involved in violent maneuvering on the pilot, “Hands on Throttle and Stick” controls that put most of the plane’s key controls on the two controls that the pilot kept his hands on most of the time, as well as moving the “stick” (which controls roll and pitch) from between the pilot’s knees to the right side of the seat.

Cockpit of an F-16. I recognize the stick on the right, the ejector seat control in the bottom center, and the throttle on the left. Beyond that, I couldn’t close the canopy much less read anything.

Many of these features have been found on most fighter planes developed since then.  Some – “fly by wire” – have even popped up on commercial passenger aircraft.

The F-16 was adopted by two dozen other countries, and produced in five (US, Belgium, the Netherlands, Turkey and South Korea).  It flew in combat in both Gulf Wars and over Bosnia, and has also flown in combat for the Dutch, Belgian, Danish, Norwegian, Pakistani, Venezuelan and (in limited skirmishes against each other) Greek and Turkish air forces.

Norwegian F-16 dropping a stick of bombs

And above all, Israel has used the F-16, as its principle multi-role fighter plane.  Eight of them (escorted by a flight of F-15s) bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear plant in 1981, to stall Hussein’s nuclear program.  The raid highlighted both the flexibility of the F-16 (it was both an excellent fighter and a capable bomber) and the skill of Israel’s pilots (one pilot dropped his bomb through a hole in the reactor containment building that had been drilled by the previous plane’s bomb).

Israeli F-16

The F-16 has traditionally been scheduled to fly until 2025 – but delays in its putative replacement, the F-35, have likely stretched that a few years.

Happy Reagan’s Birthday!

Ronald Reagan – by far the greatest president of my lifetime – would be 103 today. 

I’ll be doing my usual Reagan’s Birthday celebration; special dinner, talking with the kids (and, soon, granddaughter Watermelon, who will be old enough to learn the basics before too terribly long), jelly beans at the office. 

Of course, Reagan’s Birthday is more than just a fun holiday, commemorating one of the great men of Western Civilization, a man whose brief ascendancy may have bought the United States a few more decades of prosperity – indeed, existence in its current form – than it had any right to expect 35 years ago. 

No – there are a lot of people out there trying to steal Reagan’s legacy, to pervert it into something it wasn’t, to lie and deceive for craven and low purposes. 

And I’m here to steal Reagan’s legacy back. The lies are all over the place; the answers, the scathing debunquements, are harder to find. 

But not on this blog. 

“Reagan spent a lot of money!”:  Read your Constitution.  Presidents don’t spend money.  The House of Representatives does.  Tip O’Neil spent money like a meth hooker with a stolen Gold Card.  Yes, Reagan’s primary priority – the downfall of Communism – cost money, and a lot of it.  That spending was supposed to be met with cuts to entitlements.  Congress – which, for the first 3/4 of Reagan’s time in DC was entirely controlled by spendthrift Democrats – insisted on keeping the entitlement gravy train flowing.  Presidents aren’t dictators (although Barack Obama seems to have expressed his intention to test that thesis in his last State of the Union); compromises were made. 

But economist James Lindeman of the Heritage Foundation estimated that Reagan’s defense spending paid for itself, with interest, in the nineties; freed of a Soviet Union, America’s economy de-militarized, freeing up immense capital and capacity for civilian production.  The technology that went into making the sonar on the Los Angeles class submarines a top-secret wonder of the world in 1982 was turned into making cell phones smaller, lighter, more capable and downright cheap by 1997.  Bill Clinton’s boom economy was entirely the result of Republican policy; Reagan made the “peace dividend” possible, and Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Congress prevented Bill Clinton from spending it all on Hillarycare. 

“Reagan was teh dum!”:  This notion has been shredded by waves of scholars. 

Of course, the source of that slander was something more toxic than the slander itself.  Reagan was a regular, middle-class American with a degree from a humble, obscure midwestern college, who’d worked his way up through several fields – radio, acting, public relations and then politics – without any of the academic fripperies that the elite has come to regard as the price of entry to respectable success – degrees, and more degrees, from institutions whose main claim to fame is their claim to fame. 

Reagan had none of that.  He had vision, talent, and hard work – the same things the vast majority of Americans bring to the table. 


And that – today, when our academy has turned into a self-sustaining parasite class (not to knock any particular members of the academy who may be friends and occasional radio co-hosts of mine), that’s an example all Americans need.

“Reagan raised taxes”:  Yes, he did.  Eventually.  But not until the real work was done, and much less than he cut them in the first place. 

We talked about this a couple years ago.  Reagan’s tax cuts came early in his Administration, when the economy was, by some measures, worse than it was in 2007.  He slashed taxes – and (unlike the 2007 recession) the economy came storming back. 

The “tax hikes” came in his second term; they were a result of Tip O’Neil and the Democrat Congress reneging on a deal with Reagan.  They were less than 1/4 of the size of the cuts and, most importantly, they happened when the economy was booming.  Could the economy have boomed more without the hikes?  Absolutely.  But raising taxes when the economy is booming isn’t quite as blazingly stupid as raising them when the economy is crippled. 

There truly is no compararison. 

“The Soviet Union would have collapsed on its own”:  That’s one of those things that everyone agreed about – in about 1993.  Of course, reading those same ‘experts’ in the seventies and eighties was quite another story; almost to a person (as showed by Dinesh D’Souza in his essential Reagan bio,Reagan:  How An Ordinary Man Became An Extraordinary President, they agreed in the seventies, the eighties, and even into the early nineties that the Soviet Union and the “Second World” it led were here to stay.  Many believed, on an intellectual level, that the USSR would one day collapse.  Not a one of them went on the record claiming it’d be in any of their lifetimes, to say nothing of “within a decade of Reagan’s inaugural”. 

But that’s history.  For me, it was very personal.  I grew up about 30 miles from the nearest first strike nuclear target, a Minuteman III silo, in the middle of a state with 329 more of them; missiles were almost as dense as oil wells, and covered much more of the state. 

And through most of my teens and twenties, I wondered – what would be the purpose of having children in a world that could get vaporized in half an hour? 

And having that threat ebb – having the bombers roll back from standby, having the Armageddon Clock back off a few minutes, moving the hammer back to half-cocked – answered that question for me; “don’t worry; life looks pretty likely to go on for the foreseeable future”. 

So my response to people knocking Reagan is the same as it ever was – polite contempt for their intellectual vapidity.  But for stealing Reagan’s legacy?  Perverting the facts?  Trying to forcibly bugger history? 

For that, there is no mercy. 

(Which is what you’ll find out if you waste space in my comment section disagreeing with any of the above.  While this blog tries to foster a lively discussion, on this issue there will be no dissent.  It’s my blog and I’ll censor if I want to).

The Sum Of All Putridity

Michael Barone writing in the WashEx notes that Henry Waxman and George Miller, the last two members of the Democrat “Class of 1974″ – the huge class of liberal Democrats that swept into office after Watergate – to have “served” continuously since ’74, are retiring.  (Two other members – Chuck Grassley, one of few Republicans, and Rick Nolan, who spent three terms, retired in 1980, and was re-elected in 2012, are the only two other members of the class).

And the class of 74 left a noxious legacy indeed.  For all the bemoaning of “extremism” and “polarization” that the likes of Lori Sturdevant do (usually blaming it on the Tea Party), it was in fact the “Class of ’74″ that got that ball rolling:

chairmen against whom a certain number of signatures were gathered.

San Francisco’s Phil Burton, who had shrewdly backed many ’74ers, gathered a sufficient number of signatures for every chairmen. Three were defeated by the newly enlarged caucus, including one, first elected in 1940, who addressed the freshmen as “boys and girls.”

Election of committee chairmen became routine, and it meant that anyone seeking a chair had better have a voting record in line with the Democrats’ liberal majority. For example, Jamie Whitten of Mississippi, first elected a month before Pearl Harbor, shifted suddenly from Right to Left.

And it was then that the Democrat Party began to truly shed its honorable, post-WW2-era legacy and become the extremist party it is today.  (It took twenty years for the Congressional GOP to adopt the similar rules).

And lest you think it was all inside-the-beltway wonkery?

The Class of 1974 also shifted the House and the congressional Democratic party from hawkish to dovish. One of its first acts in March 1975 was to block funding for South Vietnam when it was under attack by the North. Saigon fell in April.

They coarsened our political discourse, they worked tirelessly to blow up the national debt (with great success!), and they directly aided and abetted genocide, with the blood of millions on their hands.

Good riddance.

The Punch Line

At the end of World War 2, not a few Japanese soldiers never got the word that Japan had surrendered – or they just plain ignored the word they got.  Some had been marooned on isolated islands that, without a war going on, nobody cared about.  Others refused to believe the news, and faded into the woods to carry on the war and await rescue.

During the seventies – I remember a few of the stories as a kid – the last of these men were being coaxed out of the jungle (or, in some cases, carried out).

In the US, they were punch lines; I remember some of them from when I was a kid in the seventies.

In Japan, on the other hand…

The last, and most famous of these holdouts, Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda of the Imperial Army, died last week at 91.  He led a small detachment of holdouts in the Phillipine jungle for 29 years.

Lieutenant Onoda, an intelligence officer trained in guerrilla tactics, and three enlisted men with him found leaflets proclaiming the war’s end, but believed they were enemy propaganda. They built bamboo huts, pilfered rice and other food from a village and killed cows for meat; they were tormented by tropical heat, rats and mosquitoes, and they patched their uniforms and kept their rifles in working order.

Onoda emerges from the jungle 40 years ago.

They weren’t a punch line in the Philippines:

Considering themselves to be at war, they evaded American and Filipino search parties and attacked islanders they took to be enemy guerrillas; about 30 inhabitants were killed in skirmishes with the Japanese over the years. One of the enlisted men surrendered to Filipino forces in 1950, and two others were shot dead, one in 1954 and another in 1972, by island police officers searching for the renegades.

The last holdout, Lieutenant Onoda, officially declared dead in 1959, was found by Norio Suzuki, a student searching for him, in 1974. The lieutenant rejected Mr. Suzuki’s pleas to go home, insisting he was still awaiting orders. Mr. Suzuki returned with photographs, and the Japanese government sent a delegation, including the lieutenant’s brother and his former commander, to relieve him of duty formally.

He returned to a hero’s welcome, to a nation that – according to today’s media conventional wisdom – was hungry for some sort of meaning as Japan’s recovery from war-shattered nation to prosperity gathered steam.

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.


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.

The Speech

Today, on the official observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday, here’s a reminder of what the fuss is all about:

A few years ago, I heard a report on NPR that noted that among African-Americans, people are actually desensitized to the “I Have A Dream” speech.  It’s actually overplayed; people hear it so much, so often, and in so many contexts, that people are more or less numb to it.

And that’s a shame bordering on cultural crime; in an era when public oratory seems a dying art, when the likes of Barack Obama are considered “great public speakers”, listening to one of the greats – Reagan, Thatcher, JFK, Churchill and of course King – is both a thrill and, in a way, almost retro. The idea of being able to move people, not just with words but with rhythm alliteration, repetition for effect, assonance, structure and tone – seems almost a lost art.

It’s a crying shame.

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.


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.

A Memorial To Remember

This coming Saturday, Minnesota’s self-appointed gun-grabber elite are going to try to squeedge some more juice out of waving the bloody shirt of Newtown:  

To Remember: A commemoration of the Sandy Hook school victims, and all victims of gun violence — 9:30 a.m. at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1200 Marquette Ave., Minneapolis. To RSVP, click here. Space is limited. This event is co-sponsored by Moms Demand Action, Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Organizing for Action.

They’ll then attempt to hold a meeting to promote more laws that would have had no effect on Newtown, or any other real-world gun violence. 

But there’s another anniversary this coming week; tomorrow, in fact.  And it deserves a memorial – because unlike every single thing proposed by “Protect” MN, Moms Want Action and the Felon Mayors, it actually saved lives. 

At around 3:25PM on December 11, 2012, Jacob Tyler Roberts walked into the Clackamas Town Center Mall in Portland Oregon.  He was wearing a ski mask, and carrying a stolen AR-15-pattern rifle with five magazines, a total of 150 rounds.  He donned the ski mask and carried the rifle openly; witnesses apparently thought it was a paintball outfit, and that the rifle was a toy.  One woman reportedly told Roberts to take off the mask – it looked “Creepy”.  Roberts didn’t respond. 

He walked to atrium in the middle of the mall, and started shooting.  He fired off his first magazine, killing two – Cindy Yuille, a 54 year old hospice nurse, and Steven Forsythe, a youth sports coach – and hitting15 year old Kristina Shevchenko in the chest (Shevchenko managed to walk out of the mall, and survived the incident). 

Then, as Roberts turned a corner and reloaded, he ran into Nick Meli, a citizen with a .40 caliber Glock 22 and an Oregon carry permit.  Meli drew - but didn’t shoot.  According to some stories, Meli froze; in others, he saw that there were civilians in the background that would be in danger if he missed.  Either is a fairly normal response under such conditions. 

But Roberts ran away.  He ducked into a JC Penney and ran into a storage corridor, where he pointed his rifle at Penneys employee Rok Sang Kim – but turned, ran down a stairwell, and shot himself. 

Drawn by reports of a mass shooting, dozens of ambulances turned out – but only Shevchenko was treated for any injuries.

The Lesson:  After the Columbine shooting – where a SWAT team waited outside the school for four hours before moving to engage the shooters – law enforcement went on a crash course of learning how to deal with mass shooters.  The lesson learned?  Don’t wait.  Get in, get at the shooter. 

It wasn’t about testosterone; examination of mass shooters showed that most of them are deeply narcissistic and intensely delusional.  In almost every case, the shootings were planned to a fine sheen, like a military operation, if the military were run by delusional people.

And that while the plans were intricate, the shooters’ mental state meant that any serious hiccup to the plan would send them off the rails.  And by “serious hiccup”, they meant “someone putting up meaningful resistance”. 

And so cops changed their tactics; rather than wait for SWAT, cops are now trained to get in, find the shooter, and put some lead on the target.   Because nothing disrupts a lunatic’s plan like having lead sailing past your head (to say nothing of through one’s chest). 

But here’s the little secret; it doesn’t have to be a cop doing the resisting.  History is full of examples of individual citizens putting up armed resistance to mass shooters, and ending the shootings:

  • The Pearl, Mississippi school shooting, where a teacher grabbed a gun and stopped the two shooters.
  • The Appalachian Law School shooting, where a would-be mass-murderer was stopped by a couple of armed students.
  • A robbery that was devolving into a mass-shooting in Virginia was stopped by a CCW permittee.
  • This episode in Texas recently
  • An episode in Richmond, VA in the nineties where a shooter who intended to copycat the Luby’s Cafeteria massacre (in Killeen, TX) was stopped after killing one person, by another citizen with a legal handgun.
  • The New Life Church shooting spree in Colorado Springs in 2007, ended by Jeanne Assam.
  • This episode in Texas, where an armed man killed a mass shooter (and died, himself); it’s generally agreed he saved several lives in the process.
  • Columbine itself was part of the lesson; it’s generally agreed that an armed sheriff’s deputy derailed the greater part of Harris and Klebold’s plans, firing off a couple of shots and deflecting the two shooters back to the library, fouling up their plans to set off bombs throughout the building and perhaps kill many, many more people. 

And of course the the Clackamas Mall shooting. 

Second-Guesses: There are those in the gun-grab movement who try to minimize, discount and ridicule the effect that an armed citizen can have in a mass shooting.  Some scoff that Roberts, and the shooter in the Colorado Springs episode, had jammed guns – as if clearing a jam is anything unusual (especially in an AR15) much less time-consuming to fix. 

But in both shootings, the jam was accompanied by a citizen facing the shooter down (and in Colorado Springs, seriously wounding him). 

The underlying point – mass shooters tend to abandon their plans when they’re faced with active, armed, potentially lethal resistance – stands.  Passive resistance – “lockdowns”, kevlar whiteboards – are better than nothing, provided the mass shooter allows them to be better than nothing. 

Consequences, Intended And Otherwise:  The Gun Control “Gun Safety” movement yaps a lot about “preventing gun violence” – while pushing policies that have never prevented and shall never prevent a single crime. 

And yet a year ago tomorrow, Nick Meli likely saved more lived that all of Michael Bloomberg, the Joyce Foundation, and Rep. Heather Martens’ efforts likely ever will, ever, for all eternity. 

And so for that, we should pay homage at 3:25PM tomorrow.


There’s little I can say about the passing of Nelson Mandela that many others haven’t already said better.

I watched a little of CNN’s wall-to-wall coverage yesterday – and was struck not so much by the elegiac coverage of Mandela and his life (deservedly so) as by the ninety seconds’ revisionist hate hate that the likes of Christiane Amanpour were directing back at Ronald Reagan.

Of course, history records the fact that Reagan opposed legislation that would have confronted the Pretoria government over apartheid. It was the only veto of his that the Democrats ever overrode.

The left has tried to portray this as racism, then and now.

That, of course, relies on hindsight.

The ANC was far from above terrorist activity, before and during Mandela’s imprisonment; his wife Winnie was fingered in numerous murders, kidnappings, assaults and other human rights violations, and she vocally endorsed the practice of “necklacing” political opponents (jamming a car tire around them and lighting them on fire – a particularly hideous form of premeditated murder).

If a group using rhetoric like the ANC’s were operating in the US today, being on Janet Napolitano’s watch list would be the least of their legal worries.

And the track record of Mandela’s contemporaries was pretty ghastly. Robert Mugabe’s revolt against white rule was successful – at the price of pretty much destroying Zimbabwe, which remains a less onerous place then North Korea today only because of the incompetence of the state’s agents. Other similar nationalists in places like Mozambique, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Angola and the Congo/Zaire created vastly more trouble than they solved.

So Mandela’s greatest accomplishment was not that he toppled white rule – that was going to happen eventually one way or another, by war, ballot or negotiation. It was that he managed to do it without plunging South Africa into the nightmarish miasma of misery that’s attended the rule of virtually all of his contemporaries; that he and the transitional government he led accomplished the job of changing South Africa without descending into (much of) the orgy of retributive violence that greeted the assumption of black rule in Zimbabwe, or the wholesale destruction of economies, societies and uncounted masses of lives in Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, and a raft of other sub-Saharan nations.

Reagan, it is fair to say, got Mandela wrong. It is not, however, fair to say there wasn’t ample precedent for believing South Africa could have turned out much worse than it did.

And the post-apartheid story is not only still being written – it’s not that great for South Africa. The ANC’s post-Mandela leadership has proved corrupt and incompetent. As most of sub-Saharan Africa slowly claws it’s way to sustainability, South Africa is in economic decline. Hindsight in view of South Africa’s current reality makes Mandela look as much a hero of principled competence as the statuesque moral lesson that’s leading all the newscasts today.

Which is a great elegy for a historic hero; that his reality match his legend.

Continue reading

It’s Almost A Truism…

…these days, that whenever I wonder “whatever happened to…?” about some person from some scrap of history, the answer will pop up online before too long.

Monday, I wondered – for the first time in decades, probably – “whatever happened to Cecelia Cichan, the four year old girl who was the sole survivor of an airliner that crashed in, I think, Detroit?”

And sure enough, badda bing, there we go.


Christie’s Real Weight Problem – the punditry’s baggage of Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 bid

Does Chris Christie have a Rudy Giuliani-sized lump on his body politic?

While the fat jokes about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie started long before he was elected (recall Jon Corzine’s much-maligned ad from 2009), Christie’s political weight has been the only thing in the governor’s mansion packing on the pounds in recent months.  Thanks in multiple parts to a weak Democrat challenger, a compliant press corps, and a Democrat-leaning special election held weeks earlier, Chris Christie’s 22% margin of victory in ultramarine blue New Jersey has vaunted him to the top of the incredibly-too-early-to-reasonably-speculate GOP sweepstakes.

Christie’s critics suggest his numerous derivations from conservative orthodoxy and penchant for picking fights with his own party spell his early primary doom – presumably because they’ve never met Mitt Romney or John McCain.  But the early line of attack that does seem to be gaining some traction with the only segment of the electorate who cares this early – the punditry – is that Christie is too east coast, too combative.  Too Rudy Giulianiesque: Continue reading

Oh, Noes! Hypstr Doesn’t Know History, But Lekturez The Grownupz About It Anyway

It’s not really my intention to spend the week bagging on Sally Jo Sorenson – proprietor of Bluestem Prairie, and one of a tiny fringe of Minnesota “progressive” bloggers that don’t belong under police surveillance.

But I saw this post, and I just couldn’t resist.


Zeit Full Of Geiste: History is a two-edged sword.  On the one hand, we need to learn from it, or we’re screwed.  On the other hand, lazy, out-of-context historical parallels are a rhetorical crutch that can be an unsatisfactory substitute for actual thought.  On the other other hand, rejecting historical comparisons can also be a lazy unearned “gotcha”.

So it’s a three-edged sword, I guess…

The big historical kahuna this past hundred years, of course, is World War 2.  And World War 2 is an amazingly complex subject, open to endless debates on nearly-infinite tangents.   And one of the most potent subjects in the biggest war in human history was “how did the Nazi Party – a fringe fascist party that preached a pseudo-mystic, ethnic-mythology-based hypernationalism, ethnic purity, and conquest in pursuit of both – ever take power of what would today be called a “First World” power?”

History’s my bag.  So are languages.  (Music, too, but that doesn’t really apply).  I would have majored in History, but back in the eighties the job outlook just wasn’t there if you didn’t want to be a teacher, so I went with the much-more-marketable English degree.

But I minored in History, and German – mostly because of my interest in, well, Germany in history.  Indeed, you could very well say dürch meine Interesse in Deutche Geschichte waren Deutsch und Geschichte in College meine Nebenfäche.  


Point being, making Nazi analogies can be intellectually lazy; saying “Obama is taking us the way Germany went in the twenties” can be as lazy as chanting “Bush is taking us the way Germany went in the twenties”.

But then so can rejecting them out of hand.  Germany started the 20th century as a constitutional monarchy with one of the most literate populations, advanced economies, respected educational systems (we modeled ours after theirs), richest artistic canons and well-developed industrial bases in the world.  Forty years later, they were firebombing London and machine-gunning Polish villages.  Wondering “what’s the worst that can happen to a large, wealthy, advanced, progressive society” isn’t entirely idling.

But for heaven’s sake, both are dumb if one is utterly ignorant of the history involved.

Politically Uncorrect: Anyhoo, Sorenson unleashed the post in question swiping at a woman from Hutchinson, Kitty Werthmann, and someone who wrote to praise her in the Hutchinson paper.

Werthmann – a native of Austria who was a child during the Anschluß (Hitler’s relatively peaceful coup bringing Austria into the Reich) – has been preaching that America is on the same road to Tyranny that Europe was on.

Is she right?  On the one hand, I take most such claims with a block of salt.  On the other?  Our government is spying on us; Obama has used the IRS to stifle opposition speech, and Homeland Security to demonize and harass political opponents.  Petty abuses are the starter drug of the tyrant – and the road from freedom to tyranny is always  a slippery slope.  Always.  Nazi?  Probably not.  Authoritarian?  Doy.

But I come not to analyze Werthmann – I’ll leave that to the reader.

No, I come to assail Sally Jo Sorenson.

Shamelessgoy:  Mostly, her piece addresses Werthmann’s heritage – presumably with intent to discredit her perspective on Naziism.  I’m going to add some emphases for later reference:

An Austrian Catholic who immigrated to the United States in the early 1950s, Werthmann was 12 when Germany annexed her native country. By her own account, she witnessed Nazi oppression first hand, but was never sent to a concentration camp or jailed herself. Prominent horrors of Hitler’s regime for Werthmann, president of the South Dakota Eagle Forum, include equal rights for women (historians have discovered a rather different story about women in the Third Reich than what Werthmann recalls).

(It was a mixed bag; German women got some rights they’d not had before, but also were strongly urged to be good brood sows, creating new Volksdeutsch to carry on the Kampf.  The Nazis even gave out medals – the military kind – to women who had the most kids, provided they were Aryan.   But I digress).

The letter-writer noted some of the cultural mileposts that Werthmann cites as evidence.  Sorenson responds:

While no state-sponsored prayer in schools has been the law of the land since a Supreme Court ruling in the1960s, Piker and Werthmann seem confused about flags being “taken out of our schools.” As for banning wearing of crosses, that seems to be related to bone-headed, if well-intentioned, anti-gang efforts; such restrictions have been condemned by both the American Center for Law and Justice and the ACLU.

(And the Germans had all sorts of reasons for their laws as well – which were opposed by more-liberal Germans, including the GCLU.  OK, I made the “GCLU” up – but point being, there was a debate over the changes in German law.  Until debate became illegal – which was enacted by legal means years before it required deportations and concentration camps.  One of the first steps?  Declaring debate “seditious!”    Seriously - it’s not like a bunch of brownshirts charged into the Reichskanzlerei and forcibly converted Germans from playing Hayden and and Fußball and Dreigroschenopern to firebombing Rotterdam overnight; there were years of gradual change  But again, I digress)

Sorenson chronicles a fascinating back-and-forth in the Hutch paper’s letters section, before concluding:

Dare to challenge a sketchy analogy between Obama and Hitler made by a non-Jewish Austrian Catholic who survived the German annexation without being imprisoned?

Then you must have forgotten the Holocaust. Or just be too young to remember.

Or perhaps you’re just staggeringly ignorant about history.

Parade of Calumny:  Look at the parts I bolded in Sorenson’s screed;  Werthmann is “Catholic”; she’s “non-Jewish”; she was neither “imprisoned” nor “sent to a concentration camp”.

Then I guess Kitty Werthmann’s World War 2 was pretty posh, huh?

Well, not necessariliy.  The Nazis murdered Jews, of course – 70% of all Jews in Europe.  Over 90% of all Jews that had lived in Eastern Europe.

Of course, they had a jones for gays, Jehovah’s Witnesses and gypsies, as well.  And the mentally ill.   Few of any of those groups survived the war.

Communists in Germany and every place they conquered?  Yep.  Them too – indeed, like totalitarians everywhere, they murdered not only enemies – communists, but also Social Democrats, Monarchists and “liberals” of all stripes – but friends who might get in their way; other fascists, and even Nazis who lost out in intra-party squabbles.

Yes, they also murdered plenty of Catholics.  Protestants – even Lutherans in Germany, the home of Martin Luther, too, for that matter.  The Nazis – a fundamentally atheistic movement – wanted to co-opt the German churches, especially the state Catholic and Lutheran demominations; linking traditional German Volk culture to Naziism via the Church was a key part of re-engineering German society.  The Nazis didn’t waste a lot of time on clergy who didn’t play ball.  The early concentration camps were full of non-compliant priests and pastors, goyim all.

And of course you didn’t have to be murdered, imprisoned or deported to the camps to have suffered horribly.  Germany suffered between 5 and 7 million dead, including as many as 2.5 million civilians – as much as a tenth of the entire population.  Austria alone lost a quarter of a million soldiers and 120,000 civilians – in a nation of six million, not much bigger than Minnesota is today.   By the end of the war – when Werthmann was a teenager – Germans and Austrians, Nazis and just-plain-folks alike were living hand-to-mouth, scraping to get by in a way Americans never, ever have since maybe the Civil War.

And after the war?  The parts of the economy and infrastructure that hadn’t been bombed flat or firebombed to a crisp had been fought over by five different armies; the towns that the Russians didn’t destroy by carpet-rocketing or the US and Britain didn’t blow to smithereens with their artillery out of sheer tactical overkill were looted and burned by the French out of pure spite.  The people were treated (not without justification) as unindicted co-conspirators under strict military occupation.  Food was strictly rationed in the West for a decade, and in the East tacitly until 1991.  Germans (and Austrians, who were treated as the willing accomplices so many had in fact been) alive at the time talk of being constantly on the ragged edge of starvation – whether they were actual Nazis, sympathizers, goers-along, or utterly apathetic about German politics.

But Kitty Werthmann isn’t Jewish, so according to Sally Jo Sorenson, clearly World War 2 must have been a gas.

This is your Minnesota “progressive” blogosphere’s best in action.

Kennedy Non Grata

“Today’s GOP wouldn’t endorse Reagan!”

It’s an ofay little meme that’s been trotted out for the last couple of years by a bunch of liberals who might, on a good day, stick to trying to whiz on Reagan’s grave, with the aim of trying to undercut the “independent” vote going to conservatives as they did for Reagan. 

They note that Reagan passed legislation controlling guns, legalizing abortion and raising taxes.  The first was an error of judgment while governor of California for which he more than atoned later in his career; the latter two, errors involving trusting Democrats to hold up their ends of deals; in the case of the taxes, the “increases” were both results of Tip O’Neil’s perfidy and a small fraction of the cuts he’d implemented earlier in his administration; they happened at a time when the economy was humming along, rather than on life support; dumb, but not dumber. 

But the meme almost rises to the level of a Berg’s Seventh Law violation – because while Reagan would likely do just fine in today’s GOP (his strength was in building coalitions of diverse people toward common ends, something the GOP needs today even more than it did in 1980), the great Democrat hero, John F. Kennedy, would get run out of most Democrat meetings on a rail:

Today’s Democratic Party — the home of Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Al Gore — wouldn’t give the time of day to a candidate like JFK.

The 35th president was an ardent tax-cutter who championed across-the-board, top-to-bottom reductions in personal and corporate tax rates, slashed tariffs to promote free trade, and even spoke out against the “confiscatory” property taxes being levied in too many cities.

He was anything but a big-spending, welfare-state liberal. “I do not believe that Washington should do for the people what they can do for themselves through local and private effort,” Kennedy bluntly avowed during the 1960 campaign. One of his first acts as president was to institute a pay cut for top White House staffers, and that was only the start of his budgetary austerity. “To the surprise of many of his appointees,” longtime aide Ted Sorensen would later write, he “personally scrutinized every agency request with a cold eye and encouraged his budget director to say ‘no.’ ”


On the other hand, he was a Cold War anticommunist who aggressively increased military spending. He faulted his Republican predecessor for tailoring the nation’s military strategy to fit the budget, rather than the other way around. “We must refuse to accept a cheap, second-best defense,” JFK said during his run for the White House. He made good on that pledge, pushing defense spending to 50 percent of federal expenditures and 9 percent of GDP, both far higher than today’s levels. Speaking in Texas just hours before his death, he proudly took credit for building the US military into “a defense system second to none.”


Read the whole thing.  And send it to your Democrat friends.

JFK, whatever his foibles and peccadilloes, would puke his guts out at the legacy of John Kerry, much less Barack Obama.

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.

Filibuster Notes

As this is written, Ted Cruz is still filibustering. 

A couple of observations. 

On the one hand, a friend of mine – a disaffected Republican and Ron Paul supporter – snarked something like “Hey, Ted Cruz is filibustering Obamacare!  Western Civilization will be saved!  Oh, wait – no, we’re still screwed”. 

So let me get this straight; when some people launch quixotic grandstanding windmill-tilts against big government, taxation, spending and creeping statism, it’s a statement of rock-solid principle, but when others do it for the same reasons, it’s snark-fodder? 

I’ll have to chew on that one for a while.

Grandstanding:  As Michael Medved pointed out yesterday, the filibuster is, tactically, pointless.  The Senate – and its majority of Democrats – will support the President.  Period. 

Politically?  Medved among others also had a point:  Obama wants the government to shut down.  He benefits when he (and a compliant media) can pin pain on smaller government.  And while the sequester was a complete squib for him, a shutdown would provide an endless parade of calumny for the media, his Praetorian Guard, to force-feed the “for the children” voter segment. 

And that’s not the only reason a shutdown benefits Obama.

The Great Diversion:  Think about it.  Obama’s been in office almost five years.  What does he have to show for it?

  • An economy that is creating nothing but part-time jobs (unlike all previous recoveries – a sort of economic,ex post facto”Berg’s Seventh Law”).
  • Thousands of American guns sent across the border to the narcotraficantes, resulting in the deaths of American cops and Mexican children.
  • Four Americans dead in a terrorist attack, who had the misfortune to be attacked in a place that apprently was serving as a hand-off point for a black-bag weapons-smuggling operation sending arms to a movement that is rapidly being taken over by Al Quaeda – leading to a year worth of stonewalling that looks more and more like a coverup.
  • The Middle East is in worse shape than it’s been since the 80s, and our stature in the world has shrunk since Dubya left office.
  • And a bold trip to where even Nixon never went; the Obama Administration appears to have used the IRS to stifle conservative political dissent.

And even if you get all of those out of the way, what is Obama left with?  Obamacare – a law with some popular provisions that needed to happen via one mechanism or another (portability, dealing with pre-existing conditions) but is, as a package, about as popular as mandatory ice-water enemas. 

What would better serve Obama’s purposes than to divert attention away from everything he and his Administration have done?

A government shutdown, I suspect, strikes this blog’s audience (as it does me) at first blush as a great idea.  But it plays right into Obama’s hands.

So Cruz should stop filibustering and take a nap – right?

But Not So Fast:  As we  noted earlier this morning, Americans are fundamentally conservative.  They don’t identify with the GOP at the moment – at least in part because the mainstream GOP, the Beltway GOP of the consultants, doesn’t reflect the conservative principals that Americans support. 

And they didn’t last year – which was why conservatives stayed home on election day, handing another term to Obama.

The Tea Party wave of 2010 went back underground. 

But it’s still out there.  The Gallup and Rasmussen polls show it. 

And while Ted Cruz’ filibuster isn’t going to defund Obamacare, and it’d probably be a very bad idea to let it shut down the government, it could be – if the GOP is smart enough, and I have doubts about that – a key step toward doing something that all of the GOP consultants in the Beltway can’t do and don’t really want to; mobilize the vast unwashed base of Tea Party conservatives, people who don’t like to identify as Republicans  but see perfectly well that Obama and our idiot Congress have us on the road to Palookaville.

12 Years Of World War III

It’s been 12 years since 9/11.  What do we have to show for it?

The answer depends on who you ask.  And depending on how awash in partisan politics they are, that answer might change depending on what side of January 20, 2009 you ask them about.

I’m not going to try to sort that out now.

I’m just going to refer you back to a piece I wrote on 9/11 last year, that some of the people at whom it was aimed appreciated a lot.



(SCENE:  A lecture room at an esteemed university.  As 30-odd students take their seats and set up their laptops, Professor Evelyn MUNCHENBERG-SCROGGINS welcomes an older man, Avram COHEYN – a frail 80-something man with thin white hair covered by a Yarmulke.  COHEYN sits on a chair next to the professor’s podium.

MUNCHENBERG-SCROGGINS:  Class?  (Din gradually subsides).  I’d like to welcome Mr. Avram Coheyn to the class.  He’s a native of Poznan – do I have that right? (COHEYN smiles and nods), and he’ll be talking with us about his experiences in the Holocaust.  I’d like  you to give him your undivided attention, and come up with some good questions for him at the end of his talk.  Mr. Coheyn? 

(Class applauds politely as COHEYN rises)

COHEYN (speaks with faint Polish-Yiddish accent):  Thank you, Professor Munchenberg-Scroggins.  And to all of you, also, my thanks.  I am Avram Coheyn.  In Sosnowiec, Poland I was born, in 1929.  And from 1941 through 1945, in a variety of concentration camps I was kept.  By the Nazis…

(Corey KRETINOWSKI, a 21-year-old political science major, leaps to his feet).

KRETINOWSKI:  Godwin’s Law!  

COHEYN: (Stops, puzzled).

KRETINOWSKI:  Godwin’s Law!  He mentioned Nazis!  (MUNCHENBERG-SCROGGINS shifts uncomfortably in her seat)

COHEYN:  Er – what is this “Godwin’s Law” of which you speak?  Of this I have not heard…

(Jane PLATT-WANCKER, a severe-looking 22 year old anthropology major, rises): “It’s a law on the internet or something.  When you mention the Nazis  you get banned”

(Ian BIMMLER, a 21 year old Victimology Studies major in a “Che” T-Shirt):  It’s the law that says when an argument goes along, there’s going to be someone who wrecks it with a Nazi reference”

KRETINOWSKI:  So, dude, your argument is shut down because you mentioned the Nazis.

COHEYN:  Er…what?

(Stacy KREEFELD, a 21 year old Womyn’s Studies major with a “Question Authority” button on her Mao cap):  I think it means that your argument is done.

KRETINOWSKI:  Whenever you mention Nazis, everyone gets to tune you out because mentioning Nazis means you don’t have an argument!

(A few students clap, while a few others look on, confused, and others stare blankly at their desktops)

(Bree EPSTEIN, a 20 year old Sociology major, speaks up):  Mr. Coheyn, I don’t mean to lecture, but perhaps you should try to tell your story without any references to Nazis.  It might make your argument better.

COHEYN:  An argument?  What is this, argument?  I’m telling my story!  When I was 13 year old, my family and I were rousted from our home in Poznan, and force-marched through the cold to the railyard, and packed onto trains by the Nazis…

(KRETINOWSKI, KREEFELD and BIMMLER simultaneously yell): Godwin’s Law!  Godwin’s Law!


KREEFELD:  You keep mentioning Nazis!  Godwins Law says that means whatever you’re saying is invalid!

COHEYN:  What?  What is this madness?  Do you mean that saying the name of the…(catches himself)…National Socialist German Workers’ Party (a few students trade puzzled looks) means I get you crazy kids yelling “Godwin whatsis” at me?  This do I have right?

(A few students nod). 

COHEYN:  When I was 15, I escaped from a concentration camp.  A year in the woods I spent, fighting with the Partisans, fighting so that what we went through, my children and their children and my childrens children freynde would never forget – and now, to me you say I can’t say “Nazi”…

(Several students): “Godwin’s Law!”  (A few titters of juvenile mirth follow)

COHEYN: …without your verkachte yapping?  Distinguished professor Munchenberg-Scroggins, for this you have to say what?

MUNCHENBERG-SCROGGINS (Looks up from iPhone):  I can see both sides, here. 

BIMMLER (Shouts):  This is what democracy looks like!

(A few students clap and cheer). 

COHEYN:  What?  Millions died, my family along with – and because of some stupid internet rule, their names I can not mention? 

(Students fidget, looking amongst themselves)

COHEYN:  Because from what happened there are probably some things we can learn!  That there are things we, today, can learn about that ordeal, do you not see?  Huh?

(More fidgeting)

COHEYN:  With this I am finished! 

(COHEYN stomps from the room, as the shadows and sun form, completely at random, a series of shapes on the window that read “While invoking Nazis can be lazy rhetoric, lazy invocations of “Godwin’s Law” are, if anything, a bigger hurdle to effective communication, in that they give the invoker an unearned sense of intellectual accomplishment” before disappearing. )