Whose Time Has Come

It was fifty years ago today that Ronald Reagan gave one of the most important speeches in American history, and perhaps the most important speech in the history of American conservatism:  A Time For Choosing.

And it’s more vital now than it was, even then.

You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well, I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down: man’s old, old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism

Here it is, in its entirety.

It’s impossible to overstate this speech’s importance.  It was the opening salvo in the rebirth of conservatism.  It took a decade for its aftereffects to be  known; George Will wrote in 1984 that it won the Presidency for Goldwater – it just took 16 years to count the votes.

And it’s a hot, blazing rebuke for the mental midgets to claim the GOP has “become more extreme” lately.  Listen to the whole thing.  There is nothing the Tea Party stands behind that wasn’t stated in this speech.

It also destroys the even dimmer claim that “Reagan was too moderate for today’s GOP”.  If only today’s GOP – outside the Tea Party, anyway – had the balls to live up to the standards in this speech.   

In retrospect, Reagan’s presidency – and it may be fairly said that this speech was the beginning of Reagan’s political career – bought this nation a few decades before the extended populist spending orgy that took off in the sixties finally brings this nation to its heels. 

Is there still time to change things?

Perhaps.  But this is the real time for choosing. 

HG

The Canadians

As the world slides into what looks to be a continuation of a decade-long war against terror, I saw this on Facebook yesterday.

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It’s a reference, of course, to Canada’s War Memorial, the location of this week’s shooting, a place most Americans don’t know much about; it’s their “Tomb of the Unknowns”, and has the same signficance to Canada’s history:

And I got to thinking.

Americans have long given Canada a hard time for its extra “u”s, its occasional passive-aggressiveness, its (to Americans) bizarre parliamentary system, and its tut-tutting about all the things about life in the Lower 48 they just don’t get. 

And some of that criticism, over the past 40 years – especially from American conservatives – related to perceptions of Canada’s foreign policy, especially as regards defense.  To be fair, Canada’s fractioius parliament has given it leaders who did, in fact, qualify as “pacifists”; anyone with the last name “Trudeau”, which is to Canada what “Kennedy” is in the US, in terms of political influence and political orientation, would make Paul Wellstone look like Sean Hannity.  Like one of its ancestral parents, France, Canada has a fairly strong sense of “national interest”, and they are pretty consistent in operating with it (or the ruling party’s interpretation of it). 

But since it achieved independence from the UK not all that much more than a century ago, Canada has not only been there with the US (and UK) when the chips were down, but in many cases punched well above its weight. 

In World War I, 620,000 Canadians served in the military – out of a population that was right around eight million in 1914. 

Soldiers of a Canadian “Scottish” regiment, clad in kilts and tams, in the trenches, July, 1916.

 In scale, that would be like the United States mobilizing over 24 million people to the colors, today.  And of them, 67,000 were killed and around 250,000 wounded; that’s a casualty rate of just shy of 40%.  The Canadian Corps at Ypres was the first target for chemical warfare, when the Germans launched chlorine gas at the Canadian lines; the Canadians, in turn, invented the world’s first gas masks, on the fly, by peeing on handkerchiefs and tying them over their faces (better ones followed soon). 

In World War II, 1.1 million Canadians out of a population of less than 12 million were in uniform at some point or another. 45,000 died, 54,000 were wounded, as Canadians fought on every front in the war, in Canadian units as well as in British and other Commonwealth units. 

Canadian paratroopers, World War 2

According to some military historians, Canada, torn between its British traditions and political ties, and the influence and industrial power of its American neighbors, adopted the best of both systems; the Canadian military picked and chose the best of British and American equipment, and organized its Army using a British-derived Regimental system, in which troops served in units with histories stretching back (via the UK) hundreds of years, a system unfamiliar in the US outside the Marine Corps.  Beyond that?  The Canadians imposed conscription – a draft – but stipulated that only volunteers would serve overseas.  As a result, Canadian Army units frequently exhibited a degree of cohesion, motivation and skill in battle well above that of their neighboring American and British units, full of draftees that in many cases very much wanted to be somewhere else (although they, too, won the war). 

And they needed it; Canadians were in the thick of the war. 

The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada – in which Corporal Cirillo was serving when he was shot on Wednesday – training for D-Day.

 The abortive raid on Dieppe in 1942 was largely a Canadian operation, and the casualties from the disaster were largely Canadian.  On D-Day, the fighting at Juno Beach – the Canadian landing zone – was only surpassed by the carnage at Omaha Beach for ferocity. 

Canadian troops debarking at Juno Beach on D-Day. The fighting among the houses in the town along the beach was hand-to-hand; after Omaha, Juno was the hardest-fought invasion beach.

 And the Canadian Army had one of the toughest, least-famous vital battles of the war, the bloody, ugly, largely clearing of Walcheren Island in the Netherlands, which opened up the supply routes that enabled the Allies to carry out the final offensive into Germany. 

Canadians fought in Korea, and manned the West German garrison during the Cold War, with equal distinction.

A Canadian “Leopard” tank, in Germany during the eighties. It’s parked next to an early American M-1 “Abrams”

And today?  Most of Europe’s militaries fell into drastic decline after the fall of the Berlin Wall; Germany’s once-well-regarded Bundeswehr,12 lean, mean combat divisions in 1987, now fields two divisions of troops largely boy scouts with guns with guns, famously overweight and undertrained; the Luftwaffe, once one of Europe’s premiere air forces, couldn’t even fly a transport plane full of Ebola supplies to Africa without a breakdown.  Most other contintental NATO nations, save the Poles, have followed suit; their militaries are shadows of their Cold War-era selves.

Not so Canada; it’s kept things up pretty well, not only in terms of numbers but training; it’s capable of going into action on just about the same footing as the US, UK, Australian and New Zealand militaries – the best in the western, free world. 

Canadian grunts in Afganistan

Anyway – say what you will, but when I bag on the Canadians, I stick with the extra “u” in color and rumor and honor, and maybe the whole hockey thing.

And my thoughts, like those of most Yanks, are with you all this week.

In Praise Of The French

Conservatives love ripping on the French. In the aftermath of 9/11, when W was building his coalition to go to Afghanistan and then Iraq, the French were famously reticent – which bade many conservatives to start referring to The French as “cheese eating surrender monkeys”, among other things.

(As we’ve noted in the space in the past, this is also a reference – largely mistaken – to World War II. As illiterate as Liberals are about history, let it not be said that some conservatives don’t have their blind spots as well).

Conservatives who criticize the French are blinded to the key fact that the French stance was not a bug – it was a feature.

In 1986, the great military historian Edwin Luttwak wrote the classic, seminal book “The Pentagon and the Art of War”. In the book, Luttwak affixed the blame for five straight American military debacles (Vietnam, the Mayagüez incident, Desert One, Reagan’s Lebanon operation and the successful but sloppy and costly invasion of Grenada) to the fact that America had no strategy – or, rather, an underlying strategy that was entirely based on refighting a worldwide conventional war, like World War II.

In short, America’s defensive posture did not have a clear goal that related to the world we were in in the 1980s,  and our military was not built, equipped or trained to accomplish the things it did face.

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On Remembering

Of course, today is 9/11. 

And over the years, I’ve engaged in some picking and choosing over what memories I’ll stress. 

Yes, I remember the attacks; the planes slicing into the  buildings, the people jumping, the confusion, the helplessness that so many felt in the face of what started out as anonymous burst of flaming hell from nowhere. 

And the 3,000 dead?  Yep.   I remember them – and, as always, pray for their families.  I can’t imagine the years have made anything better.  Just older. 

But no – if I’ve learned anything from a bunch of decades of life, it’s that some of the best advice you can get in life came, of all places, from Harry Dean Stanton in the original Red Dawn.  Let it turn to something else. 

So while I remember the other responses, and honor the memories of those murdered that morning, I choose to focus my reminiscence on the other half of 9/11; the response.

Not just the planes full of Green Berets that took off while the rubble was still ablaze, launching a plan that, by Christmas, would end with the toppling of the Taliban, the extinction of the training camps, the disruption of the organization that’d attacked the US so many times in the previous decade. 

And not just the people on Flight 93, who did the most American thing there is – fought back.  They died, but they fought back. 

But most of all, as we endure the detritus of a collectivist, socialist political culture that, like all such “progressive” ventures cheapens the individual for the engorgement of the collective (controlled, natch, by the political class), I remember the people of the Twin Towers. 

Because for years prior to 9/11, the assumption among the First Responder community was that civilians were mindless sheep, prone to panic or worse when the chips were down.  They assumed that buildings full of people would need to be calmed, pacified, and shepherded out of harm’s way by groups of uniformed specialists, or all hell would break loose.  Indeed, it was a cutesy, pro-law-enforcment meme that still pops up occasionally – the police are “sheepdogs”. 

The implication being that we, The People – save for the wolf-like criminals among us – are sheep.  I’ve seen well-meaning people throw that out there over the years, bit my tongue and restrained myself; it’s insulting. 

Because on that morning, virtually everyone that could get out of harm’s way – those below the impact sites in the Twin Towers – did.  They ignored the loudspeakers telling them to stay at their desks, “crowdsourced” a solution, and got themselves – wheelchair-bound and blind and handicapped co-workers and all – out of the buildings as the police and firemen were arriving.   Had everyone followed the “plan” – waited like docile sheep for people in uniform to arrive and tell them what to do – the death toll would have been double, triple what it was, maybe more. 

And yet they – regular American cubicle-drone schnooks – assessed the situation and took care of business. 

That takes nothing away from the hundreds of cops and firemen that died that day – there were many that couldn’t get out, especially those above the crash sites, and the first responders died trying anyway.  There are no words to express my admiration for this, that the Bible hasn’t already given us; truly, greater love hath no man than when he gives his life for another. 

But today?  Just as my antidote to the memory of Auschwitz is that of Israeli paratroopers at the Wailing Wall, or as I respond to the story of anyone being robbed with that of the person who shot the robber in justified self-defense, I think about the Americans that faced boundless horror and evil thirteen years ago today…

…and dealt with it. 

Just as we keep on dealing with it.

Of Warriors And Pals

Throughout history, the art and craft of war – of using violence in the interest of one’s family, village, clan, tribe, city-state, state, barony, duchy, kingdom or country, has taken one of three, sometimes-interleaving paths.

In some states – mostly smaller ones with little demographic freeboard for such things as specialized militaries, but also nations ranging from Athens, Switzerland, Israel and, in theory and through about 1900 practice in the United States – “defense” was considered part of the freight, along with taxation and jury duty, of belonging to society.  The theory was that the citizen militia, fighting to defend home and hearth, would prevail over any invaders – and shouldn’t be called upon to invade.

Yep, they’re Americans. A Philadelphia “Zouave” regiment, patterned after French North African troops that were all the rage in 1861, musters at the beginning of the Civil War, in the American style – muster locally, and then serve the federal government.

In still others – from many a feudal fiefdom through Napoleon’s legions through war machines as diverse as the USA and USSR in World War 2 – the common non-warrior, be he a knave, serf, peasant or citizen – could be expected to  be impressed into some form of service as some degree of cannon-fodder or another when the duke, king or Country needed cannon-fodder, on the theory that the citizen/fyrd/serf owes some form of service, up to and including their life, to the state, and the additional theory that having as many people under arms as possible was the best way to ensure victory.

A cartoon lampooning Napoleon’s conscript military. Bonaparte introduced mass conscription, teaching his peasant soldiers the bare rudiments in a tactical doctrine that emphasized speed and brute force, and so conquering most of Europe.

Finally – in some states that developed enough size and wealth to support the specialization, and the philosophy that war was best fought by the professionals, came the idea of the professional caste of warrior elites.   These elites stated in legendary antiquity – the Spartan soldier and the Roman Legionary were both long-service elites – and carries forth in the idea of the “volunteer military” that the US, UK and most NATO countries have adopted since the end of the Vietnam and Cold Wars.  In between the two extremes, the “armies” of most European monarchies were, to one degree or another, long-serving professional military elites (fear of the repressive power of which led the United States to adopt the “citizen militia” noted above, at least in its early years).

A French infantryman, 1914. By the end of the year, the red was gone – but the blue remained, on the theory that it was a difficult color to see in action. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t; the French army retained “horizon bleu” as its standard battledress color until 1940.

The three systems – especially the mass levy and professional military systems – have collided many times over the centuries.  But it was 100 years ago this past week that they collided in a way that is still shaking the respective societies involved to this day.

The Industrial Disease:  As Europe slid into world war 100 years ago this summer, the Continental powers – in whom the memory of Napoleon was still vivid and only 100 years in the past, and the two largest of which (France and Germany) had fought a mass, industrial war in the living memory of its political class (the Franco-Prussian war of 1871) – had all adopted large, mass armies; French, Austrian and German youth (outside the university class) were inducted for military training and decades of service in the reserves; each nation at the beginning of World War I could mobilize massive armies of reservists; 1.5 million Frenchmen were in uniform when the war kicked off; there were more Germans still.  The Russian military was larger still, formed from long-service conscripts (an institution dreaded by the peasantry of the day).

German cavalry on a training exercise, 1912.

The Warriors:  Against them, the British Army was a relatively tiny force of seven divisions each of about 15,000 men.  With cavalry and support troops, the British Expeditionary Force numbered less than 175,000 men.

BEF troops, lining up for inspection as they land in France, 100 years ago last July

The British Army of 1914 reflected centuries of British hesitancy over large militaries – Parliament still smelled the gunsmoke from the War of the Roses – and more centuries of colonial practice.  Britain’s empire was built as much through diplomatic craft, technology and exploitation of human nature as through raw force of arms.  It defeated Napoleon as much through its domination of the seas and the enlistment of continental allies as by British infantry’s guts and skill at Waterloo.  It conquered India and much of the rest of the world as much by playing coalitions of lesser tribes against larger tribes, neutralizing each other and providing loyal allies to assist the tiny numbers of British troops in maintaining control of places like India, South Africa and, for a time, the United States.  When open battle was joined, British technology – the breech-loading rifle and Gatling Gun against the Zulus, the steam frigate against the Algerian pirates – frequently multiplied the meager British forces.

The Few, The Proud:  Beyond that?  British units had something that’s foreign to most Americans, outside of those who follow the US Marines.

British infantry and cavalry, on enlisting in the military, would join a (usually) local “regiment” – which in the case of the infantry was less a fighting unit than a training depot and a repository of traditions and customs set off, usually, by some distinctive flashes in the unit uniform.  A  young man joining the infantry in the lowlands east of Glasgow, for example, would join the “Black Watch (42nd Infantry)”, a Scots regiment with several hundred years of history, dozens of battle honors, and a mythology every bit as long and exemplary as that of the US Marine Corps…

…and for exactly the same reason; to imbue in those soldiers an esprit de corps based on a standard of skill and behavior that would guide and inspire them in action.

The Royal Munster Fusiliers. The regiment was recruited in what is now the Irish Republic, and after WWI the unit became part of the Army of the Irish Republic – although the Irish disbanded the regiment by 1920. The Munster Fusiliers were heroes at the the Marne, and were reduced to a shadow of their former strength at Ypres and the Somme.

And just as it does with the USMC, it did (and to this day does) the same for the British soldier.

And at no time was that esprit de corps more firmly entrenched than with the British Army in 1914.

The Army was tiny by later standards – but every man among them was a volunteer, a long-service “regular” (backed by a “Territorial Army” of part-time soldiers that was a bit like our modern Army Reserve) who took immense pride in his skill at arms.

The Scots Guards leaving the Tower of London en route to France

 

And in none of those units did the Corps have more De Esprit than the Guards Regiments.  These men were screened not only for physical aptitude as infantrymen, but were all over six feet tall (so as to make the most imposing appearance on guard duty) and other martial virtues.  And in a day and age when ammunition was dirt cheap, they spent time on the rifle range that would dazzle even modern American soldiers, honing their marksmanship to a sheen not seen in any mass military before or since.

100 years ago last week, the cream of the Army – the BEF – had been held as a reserve as the French and German armies duked it out across Belgium and northern France, waiting for the situation to develop as the two belligerents met on August 22 in the Battle of the Frontier, the bloodiest single day of the war (yes, bloodier than any single day at the Somme, Verdun or Ypres).  The Frontiers battle ended in the French Army being stretched to breaking point (and the Belgians beyond theirs), with the Germans closing in in Paris.  And so the high command committed the BEF to the line at the First Battle of Mons.

BEF machine gunners at the Oise River, in the opening weeks of the war.

And at Mons the mass German force ran – over open terrain, toward shallow foxholes and ditches dug by the Brits – smack into all of that highly-trained rifle fire.  The British regulars scourged the German attacks, brutalizing them with rapid, accurate rifle fire so heavy that the German infantry thought they faced massed machine guns.  Far from it – the British issued two machine guns per battalion of 700 men, in the first year of the war.  It was British “tommies”, their skill with their bolt-action Lee Enfields such that they could work the bolts on their well-worn pieces with their thumbs without taking their fingers from their triggers, achieving rates of fire almost equal to the semi-automatic rifles the British infantryman wouldn’t get until the late 1950s, and accuracy that’d make a Navy SEAL cock an eyebrow from respect.

And the German Army – the mass of over a million draftees, recalled from the farms and factories and given rifles – battered itself half to death against the BEF’s line.  It was a scene of carnage that may have partially inspired Tolkein’s depiction of Elf fighting Orc at Helm’s Deep…

…including in its denouement.   Mons led to the First Battle of the Marne, the German high-water mark.  Then Le Cateau, and the Battle of the Aisne, where for the first time the side started digging trenches.  And then the First Battle of Ypres, in Belgium.  All between the third week of August and the beginning of October.

British and Belgian “walking wounded” at Mons.

And the constant attacks, and endless fighting, wore the BEF, perhaps the most elite mass army ever sent to war, down to a shadow of its former self.

The British Army had to resort to casting ever-wider nets for volunteers – eventually recruiting the “New Model Army” in time for the Somme in 1916, by which time the last of the veterans of the BEF were salted away as senior NCOs, a thin film of survivors leading a mass army of newbies and, after the bloodbath of the Somme and Second Ypres, the unthinkable; draftees.

It was the wearing down of the elite of the BEF that led, eventually, to the draft – an immense leap forward in government power over the individual that, in many ways, opened the way (in Britain as it would in the US) for further government intervention in the life of the individual even as the Great War was eating away at the barriers between the public and private sectors in the UK.

And 25 years later, when British troops went to war again, they jumped immediately to the draft, and to the mass levies that characterized, for the first time in human history, modern industrial warfare.

Just as would the US.

Future History, Part III

Joe Doakes from Como Park emails the third installment of his future history series, entitled “Future History”:

May 2015 President Sessions claims illegal aliens living off-book “in the shadows” create a habitat where domestic terrorists could hide and plot, declares national security requires all illegal aliens be held in detention centers until they are no longer a threat, cites President Obama’s refusal to close Gitmo as precedent. Thousands of La Raza supporters marching in demonstration arrested, transported to federal detention center in Arizona desert half a mile from Mexican border. Sheriff Joe Arpaio appointed Director. Baloney sales soar. Meat packing plants raise wages to attract Americans to do the jobs illegal aliens no longer do. Unemployment rate lowest in recorded history as illegals self-deport rather than face arrest and detention.

June 2015 Thousands of illegal aliens “escape” from Arizona detention center when gates inadvertently left open, flee to Mexico following well-marked trail thoughtfully stocked with Fanta soda. President Sessions closes detention center, thanks staff, “Heckuva job, Joey.”

July 2015 Minn. Stat. 290.06, Subd. 23, allows Minnesotans who contributed to a political campaign to seek reimbursement from the state by filing Form PCR with the Department of Revenue. The name and address of every person who sought a refund for contributing to Democrats appeared on the Department of Revenue website for a period of 24 hours, during which time several hundred copies of the list were downloaded, distributed and names of major donors pasted on bus shelters. Revenue Commissioner claimed department computers had been hacked. Democrat heavy donors reported dead fish wrapped in Star Tribune newspapers left on hoods of Volvos. Democrat party officials reported donations sharply reduced.

August 2015 European nations protest US border policies as hateful and racist. President Sessions orders all US troops in Europe to abandon equipment in place and return to the continental United States by sundown. Cites President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq as precedent. Copies all European heads of state on email sent to Russian President Putin saying “The keys are under the mat.”

continuing . . . .

Future History, Part II

Joe Doakes from Como Park emails the second installment of his future history series:

March 2014 President Sessions notifies United Nations of US withdrawal. Secretary of State warns diplomatic credentials will be canceled. New York City Police seek 11,000 arrest warrants for unpaid parking tickets. Airlines jammed with overseas bookings.
President Sessions orders Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell to issue permits for oil drilling on leased federal lands within a week. Week passes. President Sessions fires Secretary Jewell, nominates oilman David Koch, Republican Senate confirms on 51-member vote citing Harry Reid “nuclear option” precedent, permits issued, drilling rush and land boom ensues.

President Sessions announces US troops will no longer act as World Policeman for free. Proposes $1 billion daily “security fee” for Saudi Arabia saying “That’s a nice country you have there, Your Majesty, be a shame if anything happened to it.” Sliding fee scale suggested for other US protectorates.

April 2014 Customs agents seize all newsprint owned by New York Times and Washington Post claiming the wood pulp may contain rosewood protected under the laws of other nations, cite Gibson Guitar case as precedent.

Democrat members of Wisconsin legislature chain doors to prevent Republicans from entering. Republicans chain doors to prevent Democrats from leaving. Governor deploys state police “to keep the peace by maintaining status quo” won’t let anyone in or out, disconnects land lines, turns off electricity and water, cell phone signals blocked. 10 days later, stench from inside moves police line back 10 more yards.

Continuing . . .

Garbo

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

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

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

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

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Future History

Joe Doakes from Como Park has apparently caught the same “history, past and future” bug that has infected the rest of the shot in the dark staff:

In the spirit of 1984, I’m considering writing a novel about the horrible future that could come to pass if just a couple of things go wrong . . . .
November 2014 Republicans retake the Senate, Jeff Sessions (R-Ala) elected Speaker Pro Tem in recognition of anti-immigrant stance

December 2014 Barack Obama struck in head by stray golf ball at Martha’s Vineyard, dies instantly. Elderly White man on nearby fairway cut down by fusillade of Secret Service bullets. Simultaneously, Joe Biden on peacemaking trip to Middle East, plane explodes in mid-air, shot down by missile stolen by Al Qaeda from Benghazi Consulate. Jeff Sessions sworn in as President.

January 2015 President Sessions issues Executive Order closing the border and redeploys troops from Iraq to Texas for “national security.” Order includes provision confirming President Obama’s practice of unilaterally designating as “terrorist” anyone the President feels is, might be, or may be associated with, terrorists.

Jesse Ventura goes on Oprah to claim deaths were CIA assassination conspiracy in retaliation for abandoning foreign service officers to die at Benghazi. President Sessions orders drone strike on the studio, issues press release regretting loss of innocent civilian lives but noting those who shelter terrorists share the penalty.

February 2014 Federal judge issues restraining order to stop troops from shooting border crossers on sight. Judge indicted by US Attorney for conspiracy to commit theft of government property, arrested, held without bail in secret location. Prosecutor explains that ordering troops not to shoot border crossers allows illegal immigrants to enter the country and obtain government benefits in violation of law, which makes judge co-conspirators to commit theft. Cites Rick Perry prosecution as precedent.

To be continued . . .

Battle of the Silver Helmets

As a site, it was hard to miss the marching of the 4th German Cavalry Division on August 12, 1914.  Wearing the spiked Pickelhaube helmet, with steel lances and breastplates, and freshly-polished swords, the 4th Cavalry could have easily looked as if on parade.  Only instead of parade grounds, the men and horses of the unit marched through enemy Belgian territory.

Ordered to charge against the southern flank of the small town of Haelen, the 4th Cavalry squared off against a fellow cavalry unit, equally resplendent in their dress uniforms.  The 4th Cavalry led, quite literally, with the tips of lances.  The Belgians, dismounted from their horses, led with their guns.  The gentlemanly charm of the 19th Century military was about to collide with the vicious precision of the 20th.

—-

Speed had been the essence of German military planning for a war in Europe.

The somewhat romanticized view of the Battle of Haelen – dashing German cavalry units charging headlong into the Belgian line

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Scrambled

The British flag hung over the customs building in Lomé, Togoland, hoisted after 14 English troops, and a few conscripted police officers, had occupied the location.  A telegraph operator was sent for via bicycle to try and repair the recently cut line.  The small contingent waited for a larger British force, marching overland 50 miles in grueling August heat, to arrive and relief them.

Only days into their war with the German Empire, the British had their first new colonial possession – a small town in Western Africa that had been defended by 460 German colonists and Schutztruppe (Black African “protection forces”) the day before.  The “Scramble for Africa” among the European powers was over.  The scramble to claim as much German colonial territory as possible was on.

—-

White Man’s Burden; Colonial Empire’s Opportunity – the patronizing view of Africa from the early 20th Century European perspective. The Allies claimed they were liberating Africans from brutal German rule (which was true, in some cases). But the war in Europe was nothing more than a causa belli to acquire more territory

The war didn’t have to come to Africa.  In fact, many in Africa had assumed it would bypass them completely.

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Scraps of Paper

The telegram had been sent in haste, but time was of the essence at 4:23pm on August 1st, 1914.  From London, German ambassador Karl Max, the Prince of Lichnowsky, had sent to Berlin word that Britain would take steps to guarantee French neutrality in a conflict that had developed a momentum of it’s own.  The French, eager to diffuse the situation, had informed the Russians that they viewed their treaty as merely defensive, trying to halt the planned Russian mobilization that had spooked Germany into a mobilization of her own.  French Premier René Viviani went so far as to move French troops 60 miles away from the French/German border as a sign of goodwill.

Kaiser Wilhelm II gleefully accepted Britain’s terms.  Perhaps the war could be avoided – or at least the conflict would be a short one against Russia until either Austria was in Belgrade, the Serbs surrendered, or Russia realized the need to demobilize.  Wilhelm II quickly told his General Staff, led by Helmuth von Moltke to cancel the execution of the Schlieffen Plan and an attack on France.  Von Moltke was taken aback.  German troops had already started invading Luxembourg – the first steps towards invading Belgium and then France.  It was simply too late to stop.

The Great War had begun.

—-

Kaiser Roll (over): Wilhelm vacillated between supporting his Austrian ally and reining them in over Serbia. His mixed signals and general indecision gave his ally a “blank cheque” while suggesting Germany had no stomach for a fight to their opponents. It was a deadly combination

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Betrayal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The flag of the Armija Krajowa.

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

An AK unit along the Burza river, 1944

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An AK soldier with a captured German flamethrower.

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

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

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

And there, they halted. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Intentions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Peace to End All Peace

Muhamed Mehmedbašić might have hardly believed his luck.  Slowly motoring in front of him, armed with only the lightest of security (60 police officers total between the motorcade and destinations), sat the heir to the hated Austo-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  Mehmedbašić, armed with a bomb and accompanied by one of several accomplices, Vaso Čubrilović, had his chance to strike a blow for Bosnian nationalism, even if it was in service to Serbian nationalists.  This was the mission he and three others had been trained for.

Ferdinand’s motorcade sped closer to Mehmedbašić’s position at the garden of the Mostar Cafe.  And…he hesitated.  Mehmedbašić couldn’t do it.  His partner, Vaso Čubrilović, despite being armed with a pistol, couldn’t do it either.  However, the group’s third conspirator, Nedeljko Čabrinović, could.  Čabrinović threw his hand grenade at Ferdinand…and it promptly bounced off his car, rolling under the next vehicle and exploding.  16-20 people were wounded.  The Archduke was not among them.

By 10:30am on the morning of July 28th, 1914, it seemed that Europe had come perilously close to an act of war only to be pulled back again from the brink.

Eve of Regicide: (left-right standing) King Haakon VII (Norway), Tsar Ferdinand (Bulgaria), King Manuel II (Portugal), Kaiser Wilhelm II (Germany), King George I (Greece), King Albert I (Belgium); seated: King Alfonso XIII (Spain), King George V (Britain) and King Frederick VIII (Denmark)

Given the decades of carnage that followed, a certain mythology arose about the era before 1914.  An image of a world at peace, held together by seasoned diplomats and threatened by aristocratic dilettantes, grew as royalty was replaced by revolutionaries, eager to re-write the history of the preceding nearly 100 years. Europe, after the Napoleonic wars, was supposedly an Elysium peace undone between the monarchies and the anarchists that followed them.

But to believe such a narrative ignores decades of bloody history written between Napoleon’s final exile in Saint Helena and the declarations of war that started on August 1st, 1914.  The revolutions of 1848, wars of Italian and German unification in the 1860s and 1870s, the Crimean War, or even the Balkan Wars of 1912/13 showed Europe’s royalist peace was, at best, a facade.  Rather, Europe on the eve of June 28th, 1914 was a centuries-long Cold War that was looking for an excuse to steam to a boil.

A False Peace: Europe had seen years of war before 1914. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13, pictured here, set the stage of redrawing the map of Europe.

Continental European affairs had long been a struggle for a balance of power. France had been balanced against a collection of German states on the continent, and checked by Britain abroad.  The Italian states were a buffer against Austrian ambitions while Austria played the same role against Ottoman incursions into Europe.  Russia was simultaneously a European power and not – an ally for the burgeoning Balkan states, but also an enemy the rest of Europe looked at warily for it’s ambitions in Central Asia – against the Ottomans and also Britain.

This uneasy balance had been permanently altered by the Napoleonic age.  Not only had the concept of overthrowing monarchies become en vogue, but it saw that one powerful state could rule all of Europe – and thus potentially the world.  France in 1815 was little different than Germany in 1914 – a continental superpower who threatened political and economic stability by seeking dominance.  From the end of the Napoleonic wars to 1870, France was viewed as a state-level contagion; unable to be completely isolated and thus needing to be carefully watched and contained by her neighbors.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand being welcomed by Sarajevo’s Mayor. One attempt on the Archduke’s life had already been made that day

The unification of Germany flipped this script.  Britain, and the rest of Europe, suddenly realized a unified Germany represented a far greater threat to Europe’s balance of power than a clearly weakened France.  Germany, unable to comprehend that Britain’s prior alliances were born of political necessity, quickly grew to view their former ally as a future opponent and sought to challenge Britain in terms of naval force and colonial gains.  The speedy ascension of Germany’s battleships, including the mega battleship Dreadnought, and the Kaiser’s colonial possessions in Africa and Asia deeply worried European diplomats and monarchs.  Germany’s alliance with Austra-Hungary, the Duel Alliance, further inflamed fears that Germany was priming to dominate Europe.

In order to try and maintain the “cold war” atmosphere of dynastic détente, a series of new alliances arose.  Mortal enemies Britain and France now had a common fear – Imperial Germany.  While Britain still didn’t trust Tsar Nicholas II’s Russia, as the two nations competed in Central Asia in what would be known as “the Great Game”, France wanted to surround Germany, and thus an alliance was born.  Russia, fearful of having an allied Germany and Austria-Hungary on its borders, supported it’s fellow Slavic Serbs, who had just recently acquired independence.  The political calculations of the previous century, the roots of some of which stretched back further centuries, had shifted.  But the motivations that had compelled those prior alliances had not.

Fly the Bloody Flag: the blood-soaked remains of Ferdinand’s uniform

The balance of power brought about by these series of interlocking alliances worked as long as nothing tested them.  But the potential flashpoints were few and far between. Foreign political conflicts, like the Moroccan Crisis of 1906, saw war between the European powers threatened but come of nothing.  Only in the Balkans, where borders and boundaries were constantly shifting, and nationalists on all sides were attempting to seize control, did it seem likely that conflict among the major powers might occur.

Entering into this dangerous mixture was the former Ottoman Vilayet of Bosnia (Bosnia-Herzegovina today) and Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Austria-Hungay had been given control of the region from the Ottomans in 1878 in return for the recognition of Serbia as an independent state.  Relations between the two monarchies were healthy, despite Serbian nationalist influences.  But the bloody overthrow of the pro-Austrian Serbian monarchy in 1903 completely changed that dynamic.  A pro-Russian monarchy took its place, leading a nervous Austria-Hungary to annex Bosnia in 1909, over Serbian protests. Serbian nationals responded with a series of assassination attempts, some successful, against Austrian officials in Bosnia.  Thus, the visit from the heir to the Austrian throne seemed especially unwise.

Gavrilo Princip: the face that launched 16 million deaths. Princip was no Lee Harvey Oswald. He received aid from Serb’s Chief of Military Intelligence.

But if Slavic nationalism had any friends in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, it would have been Ferdinand.  The Archduke was a major proponent of creating yet a third crown for the Empire – a sort of Austro-Slavic-Hungarian Empire.  But instead of regarding Ferdinand’s desire for increased Slavic authority in the monarchy as a boon, Serbian nationals saw it as a threat and an attempt, which it was, to keep Serbian-Austrian nationals loyal to the crown.  Ferdinand’s ethnic diplomacy would be his undoing.

Serbian nationalist terrorists had unified, somewhat, under the organization known as The Black Hand.  At nearly 3,500 members in 1914, including major Serbian army officials, the Black Hand was the Serbian al-Qaeda or Taliban of its day – a terrorist organization, but one fully supported by a sovereign government.  The members of the Black Hand chosen to kill Ferdinand had received training and support from the highest officials in the Serbian military and intelligence community.  The Serbian Prime Minister was informed of their smuggling into Bosnia.  A half-hearted recall of these sleeper agents was attempted two weeks before the assassination as Serbian officials began to doubt how much Russia would come to their aid if it was discovered that the Serbian government had planned to kill another monarch.  The recall either never reached the Black Hand or was ignored.  There was no turning back.

One of the Serbian conspirators being dragged into jail as crowds attempt to grab him

Ferdinand and his wife Sophie arrived at Sarajevo’s Town Hall quite shaken.  The bomb had failed to harm them, but many of their entourage had been severely hurt.  ”Mr. Mayor, I came here on a visit and I get bombs thrown at me. It is outrageous,” Ferdinand supposedly complained to his mayoral host.  But calmed by his wife, Ferdinand delivered his short speech and left, choosing to visit his wounded compatriots at the hospital.  Now more security conscience than before, the driver choose to avoid the heavily-trafficked city center for a side street.  At 10:45am, they turned right onto Franz Josef Street, a mistaken turn.  Ferdinand ordered the car to back up.

Watching all this, perhaps with slight amazement, was Gavrilo Princip.  He had been a part of the Black Hand’s assassination planning, but he was not a Serbian nationalist. Calling himself a “Yugoslav nationalist,” Princip’s only political goal was to see Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs unified…just under any government but Austria’s.  Princip had been told the first attempt on Ferdinand’s life had failed, and while trying to get to the city center, where he assumed Ferdinand would go, luck had delivered the Archduke right in front of him.  Thus a Serb who wanted unity with other Slavs, on orders from a Serbian nationalist group whose ideology preached Serbian superiority, leveled his gun at a Royal who wanted to provide the same sort of unification to Slavs, only as equals.  With two gunshots, the dreams of Gavrilo Princip and Archduke Franz Ferdinand, so similar yet so far apart, died.

Ferdinand was hit in the jugular while his wife, Sophie, was shot in the stomach.  Sophie died first, despite Ferdinand’s impassioned pleas that she hold on, and the Archduke’s seemingly more serous wound.  Ten minutes after arriving at the Governor’s residence to be treated by trustworthy doctors, both the Archduke and his wife were dead.  Princip had been arrested on the spot.  His only stated regret was shooting the Archduke’s wife.  He claimed he had been aiming for the seated Bosnian Governor, accompanying the couple throughout the day.

The immediate impact showed that the Black Hand did not speak for Bosnia.  The next day, riots engulfed Austria and Bosnia – 1,000 Serbian homes and shops were burned and looted.  The local police forces did nothing to protect Serbian civilians, whose only crime had been their ethnicity.  It was a sign of things to come.

Descent into Madness: even newspaper opinion cartoons of the time understood what was about to happen. What would become the “July Crisis” would end in a global war.

A show trial of Gavrilo Princip would not start until October – by then the world was at war and few cared about the man who started it.  While many members of the conspiracy were hung, and Austria-Hungary had gone to war with Serbia over the assassination of it’s heir, Princip’s life was spared, sort of.  Too young by Austrian legal standards to face execution, Princip was given 20 years – that’s it.  He wouldn’t live to see the end of the war.  Imprisonment was brutal for Princip, who suffered from malnurishment and skeletal tuberculosis so bad that it ate away his bones until his right arm had to be amputated.  He died weighing merely 88-pounds.  Perhaps an execution would have been kinder.

If Princip suffered indignities in captivity, Franz Ferdinand suffered indignities in death – and his slights perhaps caused millions more to perish.

Ferdinand’s rival, Alfred, 2nd Prince of Montenuovo and head of the Royal Court, worked to turn Ferdinand’s funeral into a royal snub.  While foreign dignitaries were originally invited, in addition to the entire Austro-Hungarian monarchy, Alfred purposefully chose to keep the funeral to immediate family.  He ordered soldiers not to salute Ferdinand’s coffin as it was transported and even tried to make his children foot the bill for the funeral!  Alfred’s actions were deemed so cruel, the new Archduke led a minor internal revolt to force Alfred to allow Ferdinand the burial honors according to his rank.

But the real cost of snubbing Ferdinand was unknown to Alfred, or others in the Austrian monarchy.  Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, soon to become history’s villain for the forthcoming Great War, had communicated his willingness to use the funeral as a summit to prevent a conflict.  After all, most of the royal families that were about to declare war would be attending.  What better place to calm tempers, as he happened in previous dilemmas?

With Alfred’s snub, perhaps the last best chance to avoid war was missed.  There would be peace in the summer of 1914, for now.  But it was a peace to end all peace.

It Was 100 Years Ago Tomorrow

It was 100 years ago tomorrow that Gavril Princep, a Bosnian Serb nationalist, killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.   It’s an event that your junior high history teacher told you started World War I.  Your teacher was right, in the same sense that a buckling road “causes” a sinkhole.

And if you’ve been following my “World War II – Fact And Myth” series marking the seventieth anniversaries of key events in World War 2, you may not be shocked to know that First Ringer and I – frustrated historians, both of us us – are going to be rolling out a similar series, “World War I – Fact and Myth”, touching on the same sorts of events in the First World War at their 100th anniversaries.  The series will obviously overlap for the next 15 months or so – which makes perfect sense, since they really were two different phases of the same war.  Indeed, much of what is going on in the Middle East, Eastern and Southern Europe today is directly tied to what happened in World War I.

So that works.

Of course, it also means a fair amount of re-reading World War I history for both of us!

As a palate-cleanser before the series starts?  Austin Bay on the ways in which World War 1 is still going on.

Logistics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Arromanches Mulberry, in service.

 

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

Floating roadways in from a Mulberry dock to the beach.

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

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

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

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

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

A row of LSTs, disgorging cargo at Utah Beach.

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s go back in time a bit, first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Time

At long last (within the next decade, anyway) as a growing plurality of Russians long for the Stalinist good ol’ days and as Marxism essentially controls the American academy – the US will be building a museum dedicated to the victims of Communism.

The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation wants to break ground on a museum in Washington in October 2017, in time for the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution that created the Soviet Union.

“What we see in Ukraine and Russia grappling with and dealing with the toxic legacy of Soviet communism in that part of the world, I think there is a growing awareness that this is a very serious and real issue,” said Marion Smith, executive director of the foundation.

The museum would house documents, art and other historical artifacts, Mr. Smith said. While the foundation has some material, he said it is working with donors to gather other collections and would plan to work internationally with museums in former communist countries for rotating exhibits.

The perfect theme?

Long lines to get in, surly and disconnected service, and the “general admission” tickets are cheap but provide shoddy access, while the limited number of “Deluxe” tickets – let’s call ‘em “Dacha” tickets – get you caviar, top-shelf vodka, and a view of the actual exhibits.

 

Back To The Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A V1, captured at the end of the war.

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

V1 in flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Great And Noble Undertaking

I first wrote this piece five years ago.   I’ve updated it, bit by bit, on successive D-Day anniversaries.  I’m reprising it today:

———-

It was sixty-seven years ago today that the Allies started taking Western Europe back from the Nazis.

The first, inevitable step was to get past the Westwall - perhaps the most immense set of fortifications ever built, with the intention of making the beaches from Denmark to the Spanish border a bloodbath for any troops trying to cross the beaches.

In places, it worked:

In some places, the troops had to overcome the near-impossible:

And yet by the end of the day, nine allied divisions were ashore, a toehold for a bridgehead that would eventually expand, ten months later, across Western Europe.

There were troops from the US, of course, on the two western beaches…

…and farther east, beaches with Brits…

…and Scots…

And in the middle, linking the two and meeting the worst resistance other than Omaha, the Canadians:

Troops from the Canadian Third Division coming ashore at Juno Beach – where the ferocity and difficulty of the fighting was exceeded only by Omaha Beach.

…along with troops-in-exile from elsewhere in occupied Europe; French commandos – some of whom had spent four years in exile, and who spent the next year belying the notion that the French were cowards…:

…and Norwegians, who’d been without a homeland for four years…

HNoMS Svenner – sunk by German gunfire off Sword Beach.

…and Poles, who’d been in exile for five years and would, in some cases, remain there for forty-five more:

The world may see nothing like it again.

So – thank a D-Day veteran.

Here’s President Reagan’s address to the survivors of the US 2nd Ranger Battalion, thirty years ago today…:

…who at this time seventy years ago, French Time, were still a day away from being relieved by the troops coming in from Omaha Beach.

Coolness Under Fire

Joe Doakes from Como Park emails:

The Scots bagpiper who played as his mates came ashore on Sword Beach on D-Day.

And another account of him playing as his crew attacks Pegasus Bridge.

Lord Lovat’s bagpiper, Bill Millin.

Marching along playing bagpipes in the middle of a battlefield.  I can believe the Germans thought he was insane.

Joe Doakes

His name was Bill Millin. He was actually from Regina, Saskatchewan – but his family moved to Scotland when he was 3.  He became a bagpiper in the 51st “Highland” Division, and then became a Commando in Lord Lovat’s brigade.

Millin, more recently.

And so 70 years ago this morning, Millin went into action armed only with bagpipes and the traditional, ceremonial Sgian-Dubh knife stock in his right sock.

As to insanity?  The Scots have long known that the sound of a bagpipe stokes the savage beast.

Millin died in 2010.  His pipes are at the “Pegasus Bridge” museum, in Normandy.

Flags Of My Ex-Father-In-Law

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

He had a busy war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Side elevation of a Sumner class destroyer.

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

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

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

And then it was off to war.

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

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

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

A formation of “Betty” bombers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collett in 1969

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

The Piedra Buena

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

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

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

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

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

Apropos not much.  I just noticed the anniversary.

#FixEverythingBad!

Mark Steyn on hashtag diplomacy:

Plenty has been written about all the things that this photo…

…says about the United States today.  None of them good.

Steyn notes – as many have quoted – that it’s certainly not going to matter of inveighing Boko Haram (Nigerian for “So Long, Suckers!”) to “give the girls back”.  Someone’s going to have to either engage in some incredibly tough negotiation (the Bokos know they hold the cards), or take them back, if they can be found (and it’s likely they can’t).

But he brought up two other points – both of them tying the Boko Haram kidnappings to a story I wrote about last week, in which a California school issued an assignment asking students to present evidence that the Holocaust never happened.

Being unaware of the background details, I thought it might juuuuuust be possible it was a debate point, asking kids to step outside their comfort zone (waaaaay outside) to debate a point.

It wasn’t, of course (I’ll be adding the odd bit of emphasis) not, and my vestigial faith in the integrity of public school teachers is, as all-too-frequently, wasted:

That’s never a smart idea. The California schools superintendent who wanted his Eighth Graders to turn in essays arguing that the Holocaust didn’t happen is called Mohammad Z Islam. That’s why they got the assignment, not because they wanted to turn themselves into the Oxford Union. As Laura Rosen Cohen pointed out, there are all kinds of lively topics Mr Cooke might propose for our schools: Did Mohammed exist? What’s the deal with his nine-year-old bride? But in the real world even mild questioning of whether Islam is a “religion of peace” is beyond the pale, and across the Continent the Holocaust is disappearing from school curricula.

That’s the problem. There’s no point winning an Oxford debate if the other side win everything else.

And he notes that modern eighth-graders rarely know what the Holocaust is, much less how to have an Oxford Union-style debate on the subject.

And of course…:

In 1984, George Orwell wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

And it’s be hard to argue that the good guys are winning the present.

Boarders Away

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

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

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

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

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All In The Timing

SCENE:  Mitch BERG is rigging a small “Snark”-class sailboat out for a day of sailing on Lake Minnetonka.  Among the modifications: the stepping of fore and mizzen masts, and the conversion of all three to square rigging, and a black with white-stripe and black “gunports” paint job, to convert the 14 foot boat into a small model of the USS Constitution. 

BERG notices Avery LIBRELLE paddling past on a recumbent bicycle that’s had two outrigger floats attached to the frame, and paddles clipped to the drive wheel, making the recumbant into a crude pedal-powered catamaran. 

LIBRELLE notices BERG before he can duck below the gunwales of the small boat.

LIBRELLE:   Ahoy, Merg!

BERG:  Er, ahoy, matey.  Interesting ride.

LIBRELLE:  Yeah, I paid for it with a government “green energy” grant.

BERG:  Of course you did.  What’s up?

LIBRELLE:  I’m on my way to a float-in observing the 44th anniversary of the Kent State shootings.

BERG:  Huh.  44 years.  Wow.  I remember seeing that on the TV when I was a little kid.

LIBRELLE:  Further proof that we the Masses need to be on guard against totalitarian rule!

BERG:  Huh?

LIBRELLE: Nixon ordered those murders!

BERG: Er, it was more a matter of National Guardsmen panicking under pressure.  There was no conspiracy – at least, none that 44 years of constant scrutiny has found.

LIBRELLE:  Only if you believe the conservative mainstream media.

BERG:  Er, right.  So speaking of coverups, how about Benghazi?

LIBRELLE:  Oh, stop. That was two whole years ago!

LIBRELLE pedals briskly away – running up onto a sandbar.  

And SCENE.