The Western Frontier

The ships had arrived silently in the night at the small Egyptian port city of El Salloum (or Sollum), their cargo carefully unloaded by the few Bedouin residents who had abandoned their nomadic ways and settled the city.  Overseeing the Bedouin workers were thousands of Senussi men, a Sufi-Muslim order of tribesmen from Libya.  A largely nomadic people, like the Bedouin, the Senussi hadn’t come to El Salloum to trade or rest.  The Senussi had come to meet their shipment of thousands of rounds of ammunition, machine guns and even light artillery from Germany and the Ottoman Empire.  The Senussi had come to wage a jihad against the West.

On November 23rd, 1915, in the deserts of Egypt, the Great War had become a Holy War.

The Senussi on the march. Thousands of Senussi, aided by Bedouin allies, tried to force the British out of Egypt

Through the lens of the early 21st Century, the Senussi appear nearly pacifistic.  An off-shoot of the more mystical Sufi-Islamic faith, the Senussi had been founded in the mid-1800s in Mecca as a relative liberal interpretation of Islam.  The movement’s leader, Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi (or Grand Senussi; a title that survived him), had rebelled against what he perceived as the more conservative orthodoxies of the Ottoman officials in Mecca.  Senussi preached that his followers live lives of voluntary poverty and resist fanaticism in the name of the faith.  Branded by a fatwa condemning his teachings, Senussi moved from Mecca, eventually finding acceptance in the Bedouin communities of the desert.   Continue reading

The Black Soldier’s Lament

Amid the scores of concerns that clouded France’s Chamber of Deputies in the fall of 1915, the status of some of the empire’s colonial citizens would not have seemed a priority.  Despite decades of colonial demands to codify the citizenship status of France’s African subjects, in some cases stretching as far back as to the revolutions of 1848, the issue had been deflected by French government after government.  For the African subjects of the Fourth Republic, broadly known then as the Senegalese originaires (even though few of them were actually in French Senegal), their rights and ability to elect representation floated in a Schrödinger’s cat state of unrest – they were both citizens and not-citizens, sometimes the beneficiaries of French law, and sometimes bereft of it.

But for a war bleeding France white, black soldiers became one potential solution to the manpower shortage.  A mass conscription of Senegalese oringinaires could provide thousands of men at arms.  But conscription also conferred citizenship.  France could have her thousands of black soldiers, if colonial Africa could have a seat at the table in French political affairs.  The demands of the trenches outweighed the colonial fears of the French ruling class.  Black Africans were no longer broadly defined as Senegalese subjects – they were now French citizens.  Over 200,000 would fight for France; 30,000 would never return home.

The debate over the status of colonial subjects was occurring in all the capitals of the Entente.  The Great War was only just over a year old, but was already remaking European society.

French Senegalese troops – the term “Senegalese” was given to pretty much all central African French subjects, and the “oringinaires” only referred to the coastal population of those colonies

The bugle called and forth we went
To serve the crown our backs far bent,
And build what ere that must be done;
But ne’re to fire an angry gun
No heroes we no nay not one.

With deep lament we did our job
Despite the shame our manhood robbed.
We built and fixed and fixed again,
To prove our worth as proud black men
And hasten sure the Kaiser’s end…

Stripped to the waist and sweated chest
Midday’s reprieve brings much-needed rest

From trenches deep toward the sky.
Non-fighting troops and yet we die.

The Black Soldier’s Lament, George A. Borden


To the extent the Entente gave their colonies any considerations at the start of the Great War, it was in pursuit of German colonial possessions.  The rapid expansion of Europe’s colonial empires in the 19th century had left Britain and France in control of vast sections of the globe, with only a thin paste of shifting political allegiances and minimalist military power holding it all together.  Concerns over how the empires could consolidate their gains were secondary to the opportunity to once again enlarge their territories at Germany’s expense.    Continue reading

Veterans Day

Our country has chosen this, the anniversary of the end of World War I, to commemorate our veterans.

I’m terrible at finding words to express that kind of thanks, naturally; I took my best stab at it a couple of years ago, and I’m kind of proud of it – but seriously, how do you thank someone for spending the best years of their life fighting for this country?

It feels somehow mawkish and inadequate to say “thank you for your service”; while it’s sincere enough, it almost feels programmed.

But what else to say?  So thanks, veterans, for all you did; for spending the best years of your lives doing jobs daunting in their danger…

…and grindingly mundane…

…and for doing the impossible…

…and for making it impossible for the bad guys to wreak any of their havoc…

…thanks to you all.

(By the way – I suppose one way to observe Veterans Day is to politicize it, as my “representative”, Betty McCollum, does on her Facebook page.  I’ll demur, thanks).

Not Invented Here

While the “World War 2 – Fact and Myth” series of pieces tied to anniversaries of under-covered events of the war officially ended on VJ Day, First Ringer and I both found that the crush of events around actual life led to us missing deadlines to a few stories we really, really wanted to write.

So we’ll be filling in a few in coming months, on the way to a completely different project.  More on that, later. 

World War 2 was not only the greatest conflagration in human history – it also led to the greatest advance in industry since the Industrial Revolution, and some of the greatest relative leaps of science, and especially technology, ever.

And leading the way, naturally, were the major powers; the elitist craftsmanship and ingenuity of the British, the innovatory engineering prowess of the Germans, and the relatively nimble manufacturing brawn of the United States.

But along the way, a few other nations contributed lesser-known, but vital, advances to techology, on both sides of the war.

There were plenty of them, of course.  For all their ingenuity at building planes and tanks and submarines, the Germans never did design a workable aerial torpedo; they had to buy theirs from the Italians, and eventually pillage them from the Norwegians, who built an excellent aerial torpedo before the war:

A torpedo – a direct copy of the Norwegian “Horten” air-dropped torpedo – being loaded onto a German HE115 torpedo bomber.

And of course, the biggest, baddest example; the lowly Poles, whose intelligence service was credited since the sixties with doing the groundwork that led to the breaking of the German “Enigma” code – and, as we discovered since the Cold War, did more than that.

Here’s one of those stories.

Hit ‘Em Where They Ain’t…Yet:  The fact that air power became a decisive arena of conflict surprised nobody at the beginning of the war; since the end of World War I, air power theorists like the American Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and the British Air Marshal “Boom” Trenchard, among many others, had grabbed their various nations’ high commands’ attention and held onto it during the years leading up to the war.  Even the most humble, minor nations invested heavily, albeit not always wisely, in air power.

And the world’s armies and navies in turn invested heavily in the means to attempt to defend against aircraft.

The anti-aircraft gun was invented during World War I.  Anti-Aircraft Artillery – henceforth “AAA” – followed two basic patterns:

  • “Heavy” AAA attempted to calculate where an enemy aircraft was going to be at the time it took to fire a cannon shell with a timer to somewhere close to that point, where it’d explode, hopefully riddling the target aircraft with enough holes to disable it or scare it off, if not destroy it outright.  Until the advent of radar, this involved complex listening and angle-measurement devices to calculate the target’s speed, altitude and heading, and a lot of complex math to try to make sure the planes, shells and explosions intersected.
  • “Light” AAA was basically skeet shooting with heavy – very, very heavy – machine guns.  The goal was to put up a lot of bullets or light cannon shells, and try to physically hit the target.  It sounds simpler – but it’s not; hitting a more or less fast-moving target whose distance, speed and course aren’t precisely known, and which is maneuvering in three dimensions, is a complex undertaking.

Now – both of those cases assume one constant; the location of the guns that are doing the shooting, as would be the case with anti-aircraft guns on land.  On land, AAA guns sit in one, known spot to do their shooting.  Which makes the complex math just a little simpler.

Now – put an AAA gun on a ship, with not only it’s own speed and bearing to track, but the roll and pitch and yaw of wave action and the other forces acting on the vessel to compensate for – and the job of making a bullet or shell intersect with a plane, with its own elevation, angle, range, speed, heading and altitude – and the job just got intellectually herculean.

Think about it:  try skeet-shooting at ac clay pigeon whose launcher you can’t see and whose path you don’t know in advance – from a moving vehicle.

The US created a system that addressed the first, “Heavy” shipboard AAA scenario most effectively; we deployed the “Mark 37 Fire Director”.

Mark 34 Fire Direction system concept drawing.

It linked optical sensers, and eventually radar, to an analog, electromechanical fire control computer that digested all the inputs – target elevation/bearing/altitude/heading/speed, ship speed/heading/roll/pitch/yaw, as well as temperature and humidity – and spit out the bearing and elevation for the guns, and settings for the guns’ fuses and precise firing cues for the guns, allowing the whole process to end in a plane-shattering kaboom somewhere close to the moving target.

It worked well; it’s was still in service, with updated radars and electronics, until very recently in the US Navy.

But for the problem of making light AAA – guns of 40mm or less, basically large machine guns – hit the target, the solution was more byzantine.

The first half came from Sweden.  Bofors Weapon Works invented a 40mm heavy machine gun that fired two two-pound shells a second to a range of about a mile.

A 40m Bofors gun – in this case, in Finland, although interchangeable with guns that served in the US, the UK, all of their allied powers, and even Germany.

It became the iconic anti-aircraft gun of the war; it’s still in service in some parts of the world; it’s immediate descendent is still one of the most popular guns of its type.   I its original, land-based form, it fired from a trailer that sat on jacks on the ground; its’ “fire control system” was a couple of optical sights and a pair of hand cranks to control vertical and horizontal training.

It’d take some work to make it a usable naval system.

It was a Dutch inventor, Walter Hazemeyer, who first developed a mounting that could fight effectively on shipboard.  He fitted a gyroscope and a set of servos to a twin-gun mounting, which effected “triaxial stabilization”; the gun would automatically be kept steady against side-to-side roll, lateral pitch, and horizontal yaw. And it was revolutionary; the Hazemeyer mountings serviced on Dutch naval vessels in the years before the war, and gave a fairly excellent account (which has been largely forgotten, given the speed with which the Dutch fleet collapsed).

A Hazemeyer mounting, with an early British radar, demonstrating stabilization with a pretty fair roll.

And the timing couldn’t have been better.  British ships – lacking the radar-guided heavy AAA of the American Mark 37 and a light AAA gun that had anything other than manual compensation to stabilize it – suffered terribly from close range air attack in the first year of the war.  The standard British light AAA gun, the “Pom-Pom”, had been invented nearly 40 years earlier, and was showing its age.  The alternative – the .50 caliber machine gun – was even worse; a lethal shredder in ground and air-to-air combat, it was useless as an anti-aircraft gun.

An octuple “pom-pom”, found on most British battleships and aircraft carriers, especially earlier in the war. The guns themselves dated from before 1910, and it was optically-trained, and threw itstwo-pound shell at relatively low velocity to a range of a little less than a mile. Still – this mounting would throw out sixteen shots a second, which was nothing to sneeze at in a torpedo bomber that was flying in a straight line at 150 knots…

In the immediate aftermath of the fall of Holland, a Dutch minesweeper, the Willem Van Der Zaan, limped into a British port with one of the few Hazemeyer mounts to survive in the European theater.  British (and, shortly, American) engineers swarmed over the mounting, reverse-engineering it and getting it into mass-production in record time.  The Brits teamed the gun with a “Type 282” radar – one of the first attempts at a fire control radar for light AAA.

The results were astounding.  Stabilized Hazemeyer mounts were 2-3 times as effective as the British “Pom Pom”, and similarly superior to the American gun of the day.  And as air threats ramped up later in the war, culminating in the Japanese Kamikaze offensive later in the war, there’s a fair case to be made that the Hazemeyer (and the improvements made on it in the US later in the war), installed in numbers that would have made pre-war naval architects blanche, along with the Mark 37 Heavy AAA controller, allowed the US and British fleets to survive.

An American quadruple 40mm mount. The product of both endless American tinkering with the original Hazemeyer concept, and of the desperate need to increase the amount of light AAA against the rapidly expanding air threat by 1944, this gun mount survived in US service well into the 1980s.

Including, I’ll add, my ex-father-in-law, who was the gun captain of what was essentially a second-generation Hazemeyer mounted-twin Bofors gun in the Pacific – a Swedish gun with Dutch fire control system and British-designed radar – and who bagged a couple of Japanese planes himself.


For over two months, the Isonzo river had been blissfully quiet along the border of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Little fighting echoed through the peaks of Mount San Michele or valleys of the Banjšice Plateau.  Following Italy’s exuberant entry into the Great War the previous spring, there had been little progress in the realization of Italia irredenta” as both sides had exhausted themselves by August of 1915.  Italy’s second major offensive of the war at Isonzo had halted just months earlier for literally running out of ammunition.

Supplies would not be the hurdle for Italy on October 18. 1915.  1,200 artillery pieces and 19 divisions worth of men would hurl themselves against the rugged cliffs and the Dual Monarchy’s trenches in the third of twelve eventual attempts to break the Austrian line.  For the Italian soldiers who were lead forward with cries of “Avanti!“, Isonzo would become less a war than a battle of endurance – against the elements, and Italian generalship.

Italian light infantry of the 1st Alpini Regiment on Monte Nero, during the Isonzo campaigns

There may not have been a more difficult place on the planet to conduct a major offensive than the Isonzo river valley.    Continue reading

Not For Failing To Celebrate

Today, as we look at the prospect of a President whose entire portfolio as a “feminist icon” was hitching her political wagon to a lothario, enabling him in a way that’d no woman on Mad Men would have done for fear of looking contrived, and “Serving” as a hack Senator and the worst Secretary of State since Madeline Albrecht, it’s useful to remember when a real feminist held sway.

Today would be Margaret Thatcher’s 90th birthday.

And none of today’s “gender identity”-obsessed self-styled campus radicals are fit to carry her gig bag, as a human or as a feminist.


By the tens of thousands, they marched through snow-capped mountains on the Serbian/Albanian border.  Most of them injured or riddled with disease, the survivors of Serbia’s resistance in the Great War, military or civilian, shuffled towards the faint hope of Entente salvation on October 7th, 1915.

The last chapter from the first act of World War I was in the process of being written.  That same day, the crushing weight of four armies – two Bulgarian, one German and one Austro-Hungarian – had broken the beleaguered lines of the Serbian defense.  The nation that had started the war had already seen tremendous hardship, enduring repeated assaults by the Dual Monarchy.  Now, the full weight of the Central Powers was being turned against them.  It would cost Serbia 27% of its entire population.

The evacuation of what remained of the Serbian nation would finally prompt the Entente to act, thus starting one of the longest, and strangest campaigns in the Great War – the Salonika Front.

A Front for the Whole Family – from left to right: a soldier from Indochina, a Frenchman, a Senegalese, an Englishman, a Russian, an Italian, a Serb, a Greek and an Indian.  717,000 troops from 6 of the Entente coalition nations fought in Salonika

Despite its primary role in the conflict, neither the Central Powers nor the Entente seemed to give Serbia much of a priority.    Continue reading

Combat Record

Yesterday, the guided missile frigate USS Simpson was decommissioned.

The Simpson is an Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigate, commissioned thirty years ago last week, at the height of the Cold War.

She was designed as a (relatively) low-cost, high-performance anti-submarine escort, intended to guard convoys against Soviet submarines and aircraft.

But as the Cold War wound down and the Middle East heated up, she found herself in the Persian Gulf on her first overseas deployment.  As the Iran-Iraq war slogged on, she was part of the multinational effort to escort oil tankers through the Persian Gulf, in response to another ship – Simpon’s sister ship, the Samuel Roberts – hitting an Iranian mine in international waters.

There,  on April 18 1988, Simpson and two other US ships attacked an Iranian intelligence station aboard an oil platform.  The Iranian missile boat Joshan – a French-built fast attack craft armed with US-built Harpoon missiles – launched a Harpoon at the US force.  The missile was shot down or decoyed away from the task force.

A “Combattante II” class missile boat – in this case, the Greek “Plotarchis Vlachavas”, a sister of “Joshan”.

Simpson then returned fire with four “Standard” antiaircraft missiles, hitting Joshan in the superstructure.  The task force finished the Iranian ship off with gunfire.   Simpson shared credit as one of the very few US vessels since World War 2 to actually sink an enemy ship in combat.

Simpson went on to a long career; it rescued the crew of a burning naptha tanker two years later; it served in Desert Storm, as well as several deployments on humanitarian and counter-piracy missions off the coast of Somalia.

But beyond that, it’s not an especially notable ship, and its decommissioning isn’t big news; it’s one of many, as the Obama Administration mothballs the Navy at an alarming rate.

But the notable thing about the decommissioning of Simpson is that with its departure from active service, the US Navy now has exactly one vessel in commission (that is to say, an active, commissioned vessel in the Navy, as opposed to a museum ship or a decommissioned vessel in the reserve “mothball fleet”) that has ever sunk an enemy ship in action.

This one:

The USS Constitution, commissioned in 1797, and which racked up quite a record in the undeclared war with France in 1806, the War of 1812, and the actions against the Barbary Pirates, and still a commissioned US Navy warship.

Mob Mentality

It was designed to change the Entente’s fortunes in the Great War.

Across open fields clouded by chlorine gas, 6 divisions-worth of newly trained British soldiers threw themselves at the lightly defended (but heavily fortified) German line.  For the first time in 1915, the British were taking on a significant role in operations on the Western Front.  The young men who were leading the charge had answered the call from Britain’s Secretary of State for War, Lord Horatio Kitchener, whose very image had surplanted the traditional “John Bull” (the British “Uncle Sam”) in rallying Britons to defend the Entente.  After a hard year of bloodletting from their French allies, “Kitchener’s Army”, or “Kitchener’s Mob” as his critics derided the volunteer recruitment effort, was to go into battle at the French town of Loos-en-Gohelle.

The Germans never saw the attack coming, and coupled with a surprise artillery burst and the first use of poison gas by the British, the Allied advance looked to be successful.

It ended in another wholesale slaughter.

The Battle of the Loos – the “mist” is 140 tons of chlorine gas

By the fall of 1915, Britain’s strategy to win the Great War had gone horribly adrift.   Continue reading

Die Hungerspiele

For hours, women had gathered in line at the farmer’s market in Cologne.  Before even daybreak, hundreds, and then thousands of German women had lined up to try and be among the first to buy badly needed supplies fresh from the nation’s farms.  The long lines, and limited food stuffs that awaited them, were nothing new.

But the prices were.  The cost of eggs, butter and fat had been raised yet again.  Indignant, the women began to argue with the market’s sellers.  The arguing quickly turned to shoving, as women pushed past farmers to grab what food they could.

Cologne’s police were quick to arrive, which only seemed to anger the women further.  “We want to eat,” the women chanted.  “Our men are fighting for the country, and we are starving!”  With the market’s supplies being overrun, the police drew their sabers and charged into the crowd.  Dozens were wounded as the women fled, trampling five of their fellow protesters to death.  For the next two days, thousands of Cologne’s women rioted in response, smashing the windows of shop keepers they accused of hiking prices, and attacking police units around the city.

In the fall of 1915, Germany and her allies might have been winning on the battlefield, but were losing the war at home.

A German Food Line – the initial effects of the blockade weren’t really felt until 1915 as the 1914 crops had already been harvested when the war began

While the Central Powers were experimenting with new technologies to try and win the war, unleashing poison gas and zeppelin raids, the Entente’s most powerful weapon had been among the simplest – starvation.    Continue reading

The Strain

By the beginning of September in 1915, Europe had been at war for over a year – a year of bloodshed and loss for the Entente.

The Western Powers of the Entente were locked in the static horror of the trenches.  The Russians were slowly losing their eastern European empire, en route to losing 2 million men in 1915 alone.  And the British were desperately throwing themselves against the Dardanelles while already contemplating a humiliating retreat.  Yet despite their victories, the Central Powers seemed no closer to ending the war than the Entente.  For both sides, their visions of victory – yet alone their rationales for fighting – were sinking into a murky morass of blood and mud.

But in the small village of Zimmerwald, Switzerland, a vision for the end of the war was beginning to form – a vision of revolution.

The Revolutionary in Obscurity – Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov in Switzerland in 1914

From September 5th to 8th, 1915 in Zimmerwald, Switzerland, the Great War was reduced to a war of words.  The combatants were not heads of state, military leaders, or even prominent civic leaders.  Rather, the attendees were there precisely because they lacked any real role among the warring governments.     Continue reading

I’m Not Saying

I’m one to try to ascribe divinity to random happenstance.  I’m really not.

Especially when actual people are dead.

So call me a sinner if you will – we all are – or just wildly inappropriate; I’ll cop to it.  But I will admit to seeing this happening at roughly the same time this happened, just in time for one of our most wrenching secular anniversaries,  and going “hmmm”.

The Flag

It was a hot, dry summer – like most summers in North Dakota, really – 39 years ago.

I was going into seventh grade in the fall.  But that was a few months away.  Like most sixth-graders in those days before video games, I spent my days biking, playing sandlot baseball and football (usually behind the Stutsman County Jail), and spending lots of time at the library – which was the only building to which I had regular free access that had air conditioning.

But boredom drew me to a lot of other things.

One of my favorite haunts was the Stutsman County Historical Society – an 1890’s vintage mansion on Third Avenue in Jamestown, built by, of all things, a North Dakota timber baron.

I kid you not.

The museum’s lovingly-preserved rooms were a time capsule of life in central North Dakota from about 1860 to probably the ’50s; rooms were dedicated to the kitchen, entertainment, children and schools, stores, doctor’s offices, the railroad…

…and, on the second floor, to Fort Seward.  An army outpost built in 1867 to protect the railroad’s construction crews, the Fort covered the crossing of the James River right around the confluence with Pipestem Creek.  It was there, where the rivers and train came together, that Jamestown formed.

The Seward room covered the city’s military history – the fort, and Jamestown’s contributions to the wars since then; the 1st North Dakota Volunteers who fought in Cuba during the Spanish American war, and Company H of the 164th Infantry, which fought in both World Wars 1 and 2 and Korea.

I knew all this.  My first “big kid” book, at age 5, was my dad’s old book of World War 2 aircraft, from when he’d been about my age.  I’d learned them all – and, as my parents walked among the people getting ready for the town’s Memorial Day parade in, probably, 1969 or so, I showed the book to one of the National Guard guys who was getting ready to march in the parade.

“Yeah”, he nodded.  “I was there”.  And he had been; into middle age now, he’d been a teenage infantryman at the end of the war.

So I took to this stuff early.  And as a 12 year old military history buff, I was able to rattle off the story behind each of the pieces of equipment in the room to the attendant – the .45-70 Trapdoor Springfields of the fort’s original infantrymen (three companies of the 20th US Infantry), the M1903 Springfields of the WW1 doughboys, the Garands that the town’s GIs carried on Guadalcanal and Bougainville and the Philippines and Korea, the various uniforms, and on and on.

The ladies who worked there were impressed enough to ask if I’d like to come in and be the “docent” for the room.  It was something to do – so I spent a few Sundays explaining, and knowing me, over-explaining the room, to passersby.

Not that it was that busy.

The “job” – I got paid in cookies and lemonade – left me lots of free time to explore.  One the things I explored was a large wooden trunk sitting below the Fort Seward room’s window.

One day, I opened it.

I found a large piece of red and white fabric, folded many times, neatly stored in the trunk.  On top of it was a small typewritten piece of paper.  It was actually a Japanese “Rising Sun” flag.

But not just any flag.  The flag that’d been given by the Japanese delegation at the surrender ceremony on the deck of the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, to General Douglas MacArthur, as a traditional part of the surrender ceremony.

The piece of paper noted that the flag had been given by MacArthur to a Colonel DuPuy, a US Marine who was a native of Jamestown.  This, he took home with him, and at some point in the fifties or early sixties, gave it to the Stutsman County Historical Society.

Which put it in the trunk and forgot about it.

Until that sweltering Sunday afternoon in August of 1976, when I found it.

I told the museum ladies – the museum owned a big piece of history.

“That’s nice, Mitch”, they nodded.  There was a reason I was handing the Fort Seward room; it really wasn’t their subject.

I told my parents.  “That’s interesting, Mitch”, they said, not very interested at all.

I told other people, over the years, but nothing much came of it.  It was only me, after all.

Sometime about 20 years ago, my dad called me; some history buffs had “found” the flag.  They’d carefully unfolded it – it was huge – and gotten a picture taken; it made the front page of the Jamestown Sun, along with the story behind how it got to Jamestown.

Twenty years after I found it and tried to tell people the story, naturally.

It was good preparation for being a conservative in Saint Paul, actually.

My good friend First Ringer and I just finished writing our six-year-long series on the seventieth anniversaries of events of World War 2 yesterday.

Continue reading

The Golden Age Of Fake Radio

One of the classic rhetorical small talk questions as “when would you like to have been born?”

On the one hand, at least from where we sit now, there’s never been a better time to be alive, at least from all of the basic utilitarian perspectives that most human beings would have wished for over the last few tens of thousands of years.

But purely from the perspective of my lifetime? There are times I think I should’ve been born 100 years ago, in 1915.

Had I gotten into radio at age 15, in 1930 rather than 1978, I would’ve been getting in on the glory years of the industry. A time when instantaneous mass communication was just starting to take off;  when the rulebook hadn’t been written yet, and the whole industry, craft, and art form was still virgin soil:; when Stanley Hubbard was pioneering spot news with a Duesenberg mounting a short wave transceiver, reporting from breaking news stories around the country in real time, AND inventing broadcast entertainment as we know it today, right here in the Twin Cities, running Jack Benny and his vaudeville show live from the Orpheum in Minneapolis.

And above and beyond all that, mostly, so I could have been there for what was likely radio’s greatest moment; World War II.

The list of iconic radio moments from the war is almost too long to do justice to: Churchill and Roosevelt’s speeches; Edward R. Murrow’s “this is London” and reporting  from Buchenwald; Walter Cronkite reporting from Air Force bombers and soldiers’  foxholes; those riveting moments when NBC told the nation Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and when the BBC told the world that Hitler was dead.

I won’t delude myself by believing I would’ve done anything other than wet myself and hide under a truck after two seconds of trying to follow Andy Rooney across Omaha Beach, or sitting in the waist gun compartment of the B-17 with Charles Collongwood as the Flak and Messerschmidts erupted all around.

But after my early years in talk radio, working with the likes of Don Vogel, I could completely see myself working for this guy, on his project.

Sefton Delmer was an Australian Jew born in Berlin in 1904.  After  A bit of elementary school in Germany, and a brief period of internment as a hostile national at the beginning of World War I, he was educated in a typical British public school, and found work as a journalist.

Sefton Delmer

He was in the right place at the right time for the dawn of radio, connecting with the early BBC in the 30s.  In 1931, he was the first western journalist to interview Adolf Hitler – at the time, leader of a Nazi party that was just starting to move to electoral  prominence, on its way to the majority in two years.  During those years, he had the distinction of being suspected by both the German Abwehr and the British MI6 as being a spy, respectively, for MI6 and the Abwehr.

Then, at the beginning of World War II, using contacts in MI6, he pieced together the assignment of a lifetime; produce fake German radio programs, for distribution to the conquered  continent.

His first broadcast, GS1, took place 75 years ago this month; “GS” had no actual meaning, and was an intentional ambiguity, left for the listener to fill in what it meant (“General Stab, or “General Staff?”  Could be!).  It was an ostensibly “underground” broadcast from inside Germany, featuring an announcer and a character called Der Chef (“the Chief”), played by Peter Seckelmann, a former Berlin radio announcer and refugee, playing the role of a Nazi party insider.  Most shows involved what we’d call “opposition research” today; blasting out stories (some real, some fictional) about corrupt and depraved Nazi party officials.

The 12 minute programs were recorded on glass discs in London, and transmitted starting at 12 minutes before the top of the hour, hourly, usually for a day, sometimes (if the bit was particularly juicy or of major intelligence value) two or three days.  While the Germans jammed GS1, the show developed what MI6’s “Political Warfare Executive” determined was a large audience.

The broadcast carried on for two and a half years, until Delmer ended the show in a simulated Gestapo raid, going out in a hail of (recorded) machine gun fire not unlike the final Don Vogel broadcast, in the fall of 1943.

He went on to other “black propaganda” operations; one that appealed to consciences of German Christians, with some success.  Another, the “Atlantic Shortwave Service”, broadcast “news” to U-boat crews in the Atlantic; a typical example involved a message being sent to an actual U-boat commander whose boat was at sea, congratulating him on the birth of twins.  The commander was known not to have been home in over a year, of course.   Many of the broadcasts featured a cast of German characters, including the dusky, sultry “Vicki”, a seductive newsreader played by Agnes Bernelle, a woman who went on to a long career in the US and UK as an actress and cabaret singer.

Best of all?  The BBC crabbled about Delmer’s broadcasts.  Some of it was journalists, appalled at the hijacking of their medium to deceive.  More of it was tactical; they were worried that if Delmer’s broadcasts were broadly attributed to the BBC, then people in occupied countries might not trust the information on the Beeb.

Were Delmer’s black propaganda broadcasts successful?  There have been apocryphal stories that a U-boat commander surrendered in part because of the stories; they’re probably apocryphal for a reason.  But MI6 did in fact note that Delmer’s “news” did in fact push some cracks into the morale of German troops whose morale was subject to cracking.

Either way – that must have been some fun radio to do.

The Beginning

It was a little before 9am in the morning as Mamoru Shigemitsu, Japan’s foreign minister, and the rest of the Japanese delegation, boarded the massive American battleship the USS Missouri on September 2nd, 1945.

The small Japanese contingent was dwarfed by the presence of the American military, and the number of representatives from other Allied forces.  89 warships, the majority American but a handful of them British, lay at anchor in Tokyo Bay, while hundreds of American planes flew in formation overhead.  The deck of the Missouri itself was overflowing with brass and press, the occasion dripping in symbolism of the American military might than had finally brought Japan to surrender.

At 9:04am, Shigemitsu signed the Instrument of Japanese Surrender on behalf of Emperor Hirohito.  In a small form of irony, Shigemitsu had been among the few prominent figures in the government to oppose a war with the United States (Japan’s militarists never trusted him) and yet stood signing for a surrender to a war he had never wanted.  Gen. Douglas MacArthur, milking the moment, signed as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces before turning the pen over to the representatives of the other Allied nations.  By 9:23am, the signatures had been completed and the brief ceremony finished.

World War II had ended.  The challenge of the post-war world had begun.

The formal Japanese surrender – the actual ceremony was very brief

Defeating the Axis powers had been a monumental task, won at the cost of perhaps 50 million dead or more (some estimates range as high as 80 million).  Rebuilding those same powers would prove to be a nearly equal task.    Continue reading

Tumultuous Stability

Of course, it could all change tomorrow.

But at the moment, we are in the most peaceful period in human history:

Knock wood, of course.

And yet people continue to feel as if we’re in one of the most tumultuous times in history.

Side question:  how much of this is the responsibility of “peace movements”, and how much of it the results of a concerted policy of peace through strength?

The End

On August 14th, 1945, the Second World War had but hours to go.

Since the atomic bombings and Soviet invasion of Manchuria just days earlier, Japan had begun secret communications through the neutral powers of Switzerland and Sweden to accept the Allies’ demands for unconditional surrender.  Unbeknownst to all but a few within the government and military, Emperor Hirohito had already recorded a radio address to accept the Potsdam Declaration.  The recording would be played on August 15th and subject Japan to an unknown fate in the hands of the Allied powers.

Major Kenji Hatanaka knew of the Emperor’s recording on the night of August 14th as he and a group of fellow officers entered the Imperial Palace.  Hatanaka burst into the office of Lt. General Takeshi Mori, the commanding general of the 1st Imperial Guards Division whose troops were responsible for defending the Palace and royal family.  Hatanaka made his intentions plainly known – he and his co-conspirators intended to stop the Emperor’s broadcast and continue the war.  Mori was horrified; Hatanaka and his men were violating an explicit order from their superiors.  Mori immediately demanded that Hatanaka return to his barracks.

But Kenji Hatanaka was not going to be following orders on this night – he was going to be giving them.  Hatanaka and his officers quickly shot Mori and Mori’s visiting brother-in-law.  Using Mori’s official stamp, Hatanaka forged Strategic Order No. 584 – an order to surround the Palace and prevent anyone from coming or going.  The 1st Imperial Guards Division was now at Hatanaka’s disposal and the Emperor was, in essence, his prisoner.

The end of World War II rested upon Japan’s ability to withstand a coup.

Major Kenji Hatanaka – the mastermind of the August 14th coup. He was only 33 years old and managed to convince older, higher-ranking officials to take his orders

Just days earlier, Tokyo had seen two different conferences attempt to address the end of war – each with very different conclusions.    Continue reading

Editor Strangelove

The Star Tribune observed the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima by playing a little morbid”what if” with a Hiroshima bomb in downtown Minneapolis:

The above map shows a range of effects that would result from the blast if a “Little Boy”-type bomb were dropped on the Star Tribune newsroom in downtown Minneapolis.

For starters, the DFL will have to hire a new PR firm.



Tsutomu Yamaguchi was eager to go home.

For three months, the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries draftsman had resided in the port city of Hiroshima, doing his job designing Japanese oil tankers.  His job had become increasingly difficult as supplies for ship building became fewer and fewer.  American submarines,  warships and planes were sinking the tankers faster than Yamaguchi and his co-workers could design and build them.  The work had forced Yamaguchi to be away from his family and he was thankful for the opportunity to see them again when he arrived at the Hiroshima train station on August 6th, 1945.

His joy turned to frustration – he had forgotten his hanko, or hand-stamp that allowed him to travel.  Rushing to his office, Yamaguchi noticed the American bomber in the sky above.  The bomber, any American bomber, was an unusual site over Hiroshima as the city had been spared the sort of conventional air campaign that had devastated the rest of the country.  The bomb dropped its cargo – one bomb in a parachute.

Above Yamaguchi, a great flash brightened the August morning sky, blinding him and knocking him to the ground.  Within that flash, 80,000 Japanese were instantly killed.

Tsutomu Yamaguchi – and the world – had witnessed the horrible birth of the atomic age.

Tokyo firebombed – the Allied conventional campaign could cause as much damage as the atom bombs did

With the narrative of how the first atomic bomb came to be dropped on Hiroshima, the inevitable question and debate rides alongside of it – should it have been?    Continue reading

Immemorial Day

One of the most engrossing bits of reading about this time 35 years ago was the speculative fictional history, The Third World War:  August, 1985 by General Sir John Hackett.

Hackett – a British Army hero from World War II who’d gone on to command all Brit forces in Europe in the seventies – wrote an engrossing story about a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, which followed on a growing series of wars around the world, in the Middle East and east Asia.  The book took the form of a series of third-party-omniscient diary entries, not much unlike my own book, Trulbert.  A series of flashpoints led to the Soviet forces which – most kids today couldn’t tell you – were stationed all over East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union to launch a full assault into Western Europe, the Baltic and Scandinavia.  It ended with nuclear strikes on Manchester and Minsk, which led in turn to a coup in Moscow, ending the war in a tense stalemate.

It was intended as a cautionary tale – about the potential results of Carter-era western weakness and fecklessness, and the potential value of the investments that “hawks” in the West (including, to his credit, Carter, who had hardened up after realizing kittens and unicorns weren’t working with either the Iranians or Soviets) were asking to make in their national defense budgets.

I re-read the book a few years ago.  It’s obviously dated  – the USSR is long gone, and nobody under age 40 can tell you what the Warsaw Pact was anymore.  But it’s still a fascinating bit of history, much the same as The Great Pacific War by Hector Bywater (a book featuring Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Phillippines and Singapore, and resolved with massive American industrial, naval and air power – written in 1925).

At any rate – today, August 4, was the date of the fictional assault across the Inter-German Border, thirty years ago.

If you’ve read this blog, you know that I believe – correctly, along with most historians worthy of the term – that it was Ronald Reagan’s hard line that brought down the USSR and ended not only the threat of such an invasion, but potentially much worse).

What’s worse? A “warmonger” who scares all opponents into avoiding war, or a “peacemaker” who gets walked over with deadly force? Fortunately, the world will never need to know. Well, we didn’t until 2009…

At any rate –  I  think it’s high time we built a serious Cold War memorial.  Perhaps we need to buy an old B-52 from the “boneyard”, and install it on the Capitol Mall in Saint Paul.  Ideally, we could surround it with a model of a torn-down “Berlin” wall, and include a plaque with the names of the 6-7 million Minnesotans who weren’t killed in the Cold War.

For the naysayers?  We could include a plaque showing the economic analysis that indicates Reagan’s deficit spending on defense more than paid for itself during the ’90s, when America cashed in its “peace dividend”, putting all that military production to work building consumer goodies.  That smart phone you’re holding?  It navigates because of technology that was designed to ensure aircraft and submarines knew where they were; the internet itself started as Cold-War effort to harden the information infrastructure against a catastrophic attack.  The benefits go on and on.

Anyway, it’s time to cut the crap.  The time is right.  The price is right (old B-52s stored at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tuscon are going for about a buck a pop, you haul.   I bet we can find some people to donate time and effort to haul it and build a pedestal for it.

What say?  Isn’t it time for a memorial to the war that freed more people than all other American wars put together, and did it without a shot being (directly) fired?



The Feeding Frenzy

It was barely 14 minutes past midnight when the twin explosions, coming almost one on top of the other, rocked the U.S.S. Indianapolis on July 30th, 1945.

Coming from Guam by way of Tinian, few of the crew of the Indianapolis – and none of the crew of the Japanese submarine that had just given her a mortal wound – knew of the cargo she had just recently delivered.  The first atomic bomb had laid in her depths just days earlier.  The ship, having seen near constant action since 1942, was en route to Leyete to join Task Force 95 in sweeping the South China Sea of Japanese shipping.  She would never see her destination, sinking within 12 minutes of being hit.

Of the Indianapolis‘ 1,200 man crew, only 300 had perished when the ship went down, despite the speed of her sinking.  Nearly 900 men had thrown themselves into the vast expanse of the Pacific to avoid becoming trapped in the vessel as she listed and then rolled.  They leaped in with few rafts or lifejackets.  There had been no distress call.  The speed of the sinking meant the U.S. Navy had no idea so many of their sailors were in the water.

But the sharks knew.  And for the next nearly four days, almost another 600 men would be lost.

The U.S.S. Indianapolis – with a long Naval career and good speed, the Indianapolis was a logical choice to escort the first atomic bomb in 1945

There’s a temptation to believe that had the Indianapolis not been linked with the atomic bomb – and the tragedy of her sinking – the ship might never have been notable at all.  Rather, the Indianapolis had 13 years of distinguished, and interesting, service before meeting her untimely end.     Continue reading

The Brave New World

“To the victor belong the spoils.”

– Sen. William L. Marcy (1828)

It had been perhaps the strangest coalition in human history – the foremost democratic, colonial, and communist powers in the world, rallying together to defeat a nation antithetical to all of them, despite their immense differences.

Fear of defeat had united them; the prospects of victory had already been slowing dividing them.  By the time the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union had gathered in mid-July of 1945 at Potsdam in Germany, their once-unified vision for the brave new world that would emerge from the carnage of war was breaking apart.  While there was still plenty of fighting to do to bring the last of the Axis powers down, the democratic and Wilsonian ideals pushed largely by the United States were quickly buckling under the weight of political reality.

The hopes of avoiding another Versailles-like post-war environment were fading.  The victors were eagerly eyeing their spoils.  And the red-hot war that had engulfed the globe was freezing over into a cold one.

The Victors: the dynamics of previous Allied conferences were no longer in play as Truman replaced FDR – determined to strike a harder, anti-Soviet tone

The world – and the participants – had looked much different just five months earlier at the Yalta Conference in February of 1945.    Continue reading


The shelters were scattered across the cool New Mexican desert, one in each direction, 5 miles away from the target – a simple wooden 100-foot tower, looking much like an oil derrick.  Yet for most of the observers, the VIP shelter 20 miles away seemed the safer bet.

The mood was tense.  The gathered collection of scientists and soldiers tried breaking the tension with betting pools on the power of the explosion they were about to witness.  J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the program, was on the low end of most of the predictions – only 30 tons of explosive power.  More confident scientists guessed the explosion would be 1,400 or 3,000 tons.  One pessimist wagered zero.

At 5:29am on the morning of July 16th, 1945, the “Gadget”, as it had come to be known, was triggered.  The surrounding mountains were said to have been lit up as though it was the middle of the day.  The shockwave could be felt 100 miles away.  A mushroom cloud 7.5 miles high was all that was left at the center of the detonation.  The explosion had the effect of 200 kilotons or 20,000 tons of TNT.

Operation Trinity – the testing of the first atomic bomb – had been a success.

The Los Alamos headquarters for the Manhattan Project.  An inauspicious backdrop to the most destructive weapon in human history

The path to Trinity had been an arduous one.  Six years, 130,000 workers, $2 billion worth of expenses (the equivalent of over $25 billion today), espionage and dissent all hallmarked the journey to the design, development and eventual use of the atom bomb.  It was a journey started in August of 1939 with nothing more than a letter.    Continue reading

Shell Shock

In September of 1914, at the very outset of the Great War, a dreadful rumor arose. It was said that at the Battle of the Marne, east of Paris, soldiers on the front line had been discovered standing at their posts in all the dutiful military postures – but not alive. “Every normal attitude of life was imitated by these dead men,” according to the patriotic serial The Times History of the War, published in 1916. “The illusion was so complete that often the living would speak to the dead before they realized the true state of affairs.”

It was blamed on asphyxia, the result of such powerful new high-explosive shells fired at massive intervals – 432,000 shells had been fired in 5 days at the Marne.  That such an outlandish story could gain credence was not surprising: notwithstanding the massive cannon fire of previous ages, and even automatic weaponry unveiled in the American Civil War, nothing like this thunderous new artillery firepower had been seen before.  The rumor emanating from the Marne reflected the instinctive dread aroused by such monstrous innovation.

Only the “frozen” men at the Marne were not actually dead.  Rather, what the survivors of the first days of the Great War were experiencing and witnessing was an issue that would dominate every major army for the next four years – shell shock.

Duck & Cover – the scale of warfare experienced by the men in the trenches was unlike anything any army had encountered before.  No army was prepared for how a largely conscripted, civilian-based military would react

“Shell shock,” the term that would come to define the phenomenon, first appeared in the British medical journal The Lancet in February 1915, only six months after the commencement of the war. In a landmark article, Capt. Charles Myers of the Royal Army Medical Corps noted “the remarkably close similarity” of symptoms in soldiers who had been exposed to exploding shells.  The first cases Myers described exhibited a range of perceptual abnormalities, such as loss of or impaired hearing, sight and sensation, along with other common physical symptoms, such as tremor, loss of balance, headache and fatigue.    Continue reading