“The Greatest American Battle of the War”

The cold had taken its toil – on American and German alike.

The remnants of the U.S. Third Army, the majority of which had, under the leadership of Gen. George S. Patton, moved to relieve the surrounded men of the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne, Belgium, were now exhausted.  Furious German counterattacks from Unternehmen Nordwind (Operation North Wind) had bloodied both sides.  On January 25th, 1945, more than a month after launching the largest offensive of the Western Front through the Ardennes, the Wehrmacht had not only stopped punching, but were back on the front they started from.

The “Battle of the Bulge” – the largest single battle of the war in the West was over – at the staggering cost of perhaps as many as 108,000 American casualties.

The German Advance: few expected the Germans to attack, and even fewer thought it would come from the Ardennes

By the winter of 1944, distance, not determination, was the only factor keeping the Allies from delivering the final blow to the Nazi regime. Continue reading

Western Civilization’s Finest Hour

It was fifty years ago today that Winston Churchill died.

There’s a strong case to be made that Churchill was the greatest person of the past 100 years; that without him, Western Civilization might be a very different thing today.

He was a great political thinker, a great statesman, and – especially in the darkest hours of World War 2 in Europe – one of the most epochal leaders of all time.

And one of the great orators; I’m as unemotional a person as you’ll ever meet, but it’s hard not to feel something stirring at Churchill’s greatest speech, his “Dunkirk” speech:

He rallied a people whose backs were worse than “up against the wall” – and a civilization that’d just taken a massive beating after one of the bleakest quarter-centuries in history.

(Bombed) Houses of the Holy

 

“In all previous forms of war, both by land and sea, the losing side was speedily unable to raid its antagonist’s territory and the communications. One fought on a “front,” and behind that front the winner’s supplies and resources, his towns and factories and capital, the peace of his country, were secure… In aerial war the stronger side, even supposing it destroyed the main battle fleet of the weaker, had then either to patrol and watch or destroy every possible point at which he might produce another and perhaps a novel and more deadly form of flyer. It meant darkening his air with airships. It meant building them by the thousand and making aeronauts by the hundred thousand…

And in the air are no streets, no channels, no point where one can say of an antagonist, “If he wants to reach my capital he must come by here.” In the air all directions lead everywhere.”

–HG Wells ’The War in the Air’, 1907

On the night of January 19th, 1915 Great Yarmouth, England seemed a world way from the bloody carnage of the trenches in Flanders where hundreds of thousands of young Englishmen were fighting and dying.  The fishing village 20 miles to the east of Norwich was hardly a military target, housing neither significant industries nor a population worth striking.  And really, how could the town be struck, anyhow?  The German Navy remained bottled up in port.  The U-boat campaign, which would soon dominate British concerns, had barely begun.

The soft droning noise in the night air told a different story.  Emerging from the darkness, two massive German Zeppelins dropped their payloads on Great Yarmouth, and several nearby towns.  The cost in lives was minimal – 4 dead and 16 wounded.  But the cost to public morale was astronomical.  Wells’ fictional aerial apocalypse was now all too real – the Great War had come to the skies.

A British Army recruiting poster from 1915. Not exactly a winning argument – die in the trenches to avoid dying at home. Around 1,400 people were killed in almost 90 air raids in Britain during World War I

The process had been replayed many times already – initial hopes that the War would not escalate; would not consume some new front or turn some new technology into a means to kill or destroy, were constantly dashed, only to see the War expand further still.  Why should the air be any different?

The attack on Great Yarmouth was hardly the first aerial assault in the Great War.  From the war’s very beginning, Germany had assembled the “Ostend Carrier Pigeon Detachment” – a code-named unit for conducting Zeppelin raids on Entente targets.  A few bombings had occurred at the start of the Belgian campaign.   Liège and Antwerp were both hit in August and early September, causing very little damage and few civilian casualties.  A more consistent bombing campaign by German byplanes had hit Paris in the opening weeks of the war, but the destruction was minimal and the German demands (dropped in leaflet form by the planes) of immediate surrender struck Parisians as more comical than threatening.  An accidental bombing near the Notre Dame Cathedral, and the start of trench warfare, combined to seemingly end the German fascination with aerial bombardment before it even really began.

The remains of a British home in Suffolk of April 1915

If air bombardment was seeking an advocate in the German leadership, it wasn’t Kaiser Wilhelm II.  While German Naval Commander Alfred von Tirpitz lobbied vigorously for attacking Britain through the air (perhaps in part because his fleet was being kept out of combat and any air campaign would be under the Naval office), Wilhelm was concerned that attacking Britain would mean attacking his English relatives – most of the houses of Europe were literally related.  But as the hopes of a quick resolution to the war were dashed and 1914 became 1915, Wilhelm relented to his Admiral’s advice: ”The measure of the success will lie not only in the injury which will be caused to the enemy, but also in the significant effect it will have in diminishing the enemy’s determination to prosecute the war,” Tirpitz claimed.

Britain would now experience it’s first “blitz.”  “Nowadays there is no such animal as a non-combatant,” justified German Zeppelin corps commander Peter Strasser, “modern warfare is total warfare.”

Peter Strasser – head of Germany’s Zeppelin Corps. Strasser advocated the Zeppelin as a tool of “total war” against civilian populations

While today, the Zeppelin looks as an ungangily and vulnerable weapon of war, Zeppelins could travel up to 85 miles an hour and drop two tons of explosives on their targets below.  With such destructive capabilities, Germany hoped that by bombing Britain, it would spark such fear that it would force the country out of the war.  The military ramped up Zeppelin production to the point that Germany ceased production of sausage because the intestinal linings of cows that were used as sausage skins were required to fashion the skins of the Zeppelins’ leak-proof hydrogen chambers (A quarter-million cows were needed to build one Zeppelin).
A combination of government fear and technological limitations gave Britons few protections from the early Zeppelin raids.  The persistent bombing campaigns against British targets may have led to the creation of the RAF (then, the Royal Flying Corps or RFC), but few planes could fly high enough to challenge them.  Nor did the planes’ machine-gun fire have much effect, between the armored-plating of the Zeppelin and the difficultly of directing fire.  Given such limited options for defense, London thought it best not to warn their citizens until the Zeppelins were directly above.  Such moves minimized panic but probably maximized casualties as few civilians had time to seek cover once alerted to the Zeppelin threat.

Know Thy Enemy – and thy Friend, apparently.

This wasn’t to suggest Germany’s Zeppelin crews were either effective or having an easy time striking Britain.  Zeppelins were frequently lost to bad weather, and few Zeppelins ever reached their intended targets.  Indiscriminate bombing of civilians targets may have caused initial fear in the civilian populace, but fear quickly turned to rage.  The Zeppelins were deemed “baby-killers,” and a tactic only worthy of the barbaric “Hun.”  Instead of driving British public opinion to pull out of the War, the Zeppelin only deepened the English commitment to the fight.
The German response was to double-down on the bombing campaign and start targeting London; Wilhelm had long since gotten over his fear that an errant bomb might kill a distant relative.  On September 8, 1915, the shadow of a Zeppelin passed over the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral and unloaded a three-ton bomb, the largest ever dropped at the time, on the city’s financial hub. The attack caused massive damage and killed 22 civilians, including six children. The Zeppelin raid would be the worst of the war on London.  Britain immediately instituted blackouts and installed searchlights.  Anti-aircraft defenses were diverted from the front lines in France and positioned around the capital.  Authorities drained the lake in St. James’s Park to prevent its nighttime glitter from directing Zeppelins to nearby Buckingham Palace.  And to build morale, Charlie Chaplin filmed a propaganda short in which he brought down a Zeppelin.  Like Churchill would say a generation later, the British “could take it.”

A Zeppelin bomb crater in Paris

Technology was catching up to the Zeppelin crews.  By 1916, the British had developed higher flying planes shooting explosive bullets designed to light the Zeppelin’s hydrogen interior on fire.  Anti-aircraft gun targeting had improved and Zeppelin losses were increasing.  77 of the 115 Zeppelins used by the Germans were destroyed in action by the end of the war.  Strasser ordered his fleet to fly at higher altitudes, but crews began to suffer from the frigid temperatures and became incapacitated from oxygen deprivation.  Zeppelin effectiveness was further reduced.
By 1917, the Zeppelin had been made obsolete.  But Germany’s belief that a sustained bombing campaign could force Britain to its knees hadn’t wavered.  Operation Türkenkreuz saw the renewal of the German aerial assault, only this time with fixed-wing Gotha G.IV planes.  With a crew of three, room for up to 4 machine-guns and capable of carrying a payload of a half-ton in explosives, the Gotha was the first German heavy bomber, and more than able to defend itself against Entente fighters.

The German Gotha G.IV. – the first “heavy bomber” of the Great War. Only around 230 were built (as were several hundred of similar Gotha models). Initially, the Gothas were the Great War’s equivalent of a B-29 Superfortress – capable of carrying both a massive payload and multiple machine guns

The Gothas attacked during the day, a far cry from the usual nighttime Zeppelin raids.  A June 13, 1917 daytime raid on London killed 162 and wounded another 432 without the loss of a single Gotha.  As frightening as the initial Zeppelin raids had been, they were nothing compared to the German Gothas.  The Royal Flying Corps commander Lionel Charlton understood the long-term consequences of the raid, calling it “the beginning of a new epoch in the history of warfare.”
The British defense against the Gothas was even worse than their efforts against the Zeppelins.  A July 1917 Gotha raid against London killed another 57 civilians and wounded 193.  Over 100 sorties were launched against the Gotha formation, succeeding in shooting down one to the loss of two RFC planes.  It wasn’t until August of 1917 that British air defenses could coordinate their counterattacks.  The loss of three Gothas during an August raid convinced the Germans they had to switch to nighttime attacks as only 30 Gothas had originally been produced.

The Royal Flying Corps – the RFC would eventually become the RAF in 1918, but not before surviving horrendous casualty rates, including over 700 killed in 1917 alone (a large percentage of the RFC’s active pilots). Most of these pilots served in France, not in Britain

Worse for the Germans, the Royal Flying Corps finally decided to be proactive and target the Gothas on the ground.  Sorties at St. Denis-Westrem and Gontrode in Belgium, the home of the Gotha airfields, forced the Germans to further push back their bases of operation.  With even greater distances to travel, many Gotha formations missed their targets, dropping bombs on rural locations or even in the ocean.
By 1918, the Germans were desperate enough to press the Zeppelin and Gotha attacks regardless of the losses.  Gothas were dropping like flies – a May 1918 squadron of over 40 planes lost 7 in an attack against London.  The high rate of losses prompted Peter Strasser to personally direct an assault against London aboard one of his beloved Zeppelins.  Leading a raiding party of four Zeppelins in early August 1918, British air defenses managed to shoot down Strasser’s Zeppelin, killing him and his entire crew.  The remaining Zeppelins, leaderless, crashed either in England or at sea.  It was the last Zeppelin raid of the Great War.

The remains of a Zeppelin. By the end of the war, the Zeppelin were little more than ineffective death traps for their German crews

By any definition, the German aerial campaign against Britain was a failure.  Despite killing nearly 1,400 civilians and wounding another 3,300, the material damage to the British cause was only around 3 million pounds (47 million in 2014 pounds).  The prime objective – knocking Britain out of the war – never came close to materializing.  Throughout the Great War, Germany would adopt tactics that successfully struck at Britain’s ability to continue the fight.  The unrestricted submarine warfare nearly starved Britain and the “Spring Offensive” of 1918, targeting the British Fifth Army, were both terrible blows to British morale.  But Germany rarely committed to these campaigns except in fits and starts, and Germany never attempted to try them all at once.  One can only imagine a Britain pressed by U-boats, bombed heavily by Zeppelins or byplanes and suffering major losses in France all at the same time.  The German strategy of separating Britain from its French ally might have succeeded.
Nevertheless, the campaign had forever changed the nature of war.  As Wells had predicted, the concept of a “front” at which all the fighting was done was now a 19th Century concept.  Civilians were as much a target as soldiers in the field, if not more so as those civilians provided the material and political support necessary to maintain the war effort.  Strasser was sadly correct – modern warfare was now total warfare.  Strasser prided himself on his air ships being called “baby-killers.”  In his mind, it only proved how effective his tactics had become.

British propaganda on the Zeppelin raids – dubbed “baby-killers,” the raids only deepened the British commitment to fight

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George promised to repay Germany for its air raids “with compound interest,” leading to the development of the four-engined Handley Page V/1500 bomber, designed to drop 7,500 lbs on Berlin.  The Handley never saw action, and relatively few British bombs hit German territory.  The few that did prompted German retribution – against French cities.  Thus the French demanded that their British allies stop.
Berlin saw only one air raid during the War.  In 1916 a French plane flew over Berlin and dropped not bombs but leaflets.  For in the words of the translated leaflet, “Paris did not make war on women and children.”

The Sick Man Strikes

In tattered clothes, on frostbit feet, what remained of the Ottoman 3rd Army lumbered down from the mountains around Sarikamish in the Russian Caucuses.  150,000 men had launched the Ottoman Empire’s first offensive of the Great War.  An estimated 42,000 had returned, defeated by a combination of Russians, Armenains, frigid temperatures, disease, and overwhelming hubris by their commander.  The final death throes of the 3rd Amry on January 17, 1915 would linger for months – even the commanding General of the Ottoman forces in the Caucuses would die, having contracted typhus while touring the battle’s front line.

The “sick man of Europe,” as Tsar Nicholas I had referred to the Ottoman Empire 62 years earlier, had coughed.

The Central Powers – Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany; Kaiser and King Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary; Sultan Mehmed V of the Ottoman Empire; Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria.

Sultan Mehmed V hadn’t wanted to join the Central Powers.  In fact, he didn’t want to the join Europe’s war at all.

But the supposed supreme leader of the Ottoman Empire had little say in the matter.  The Sultan’s role had significantly shrunk as near centuries of malaise prompted the “Young Turk” revolution of 1908, restoring the Turkish Constitution and Parliament.  And the Empire’s repeated defeats in the Balkan Wars just years prior to the Great War, which cost the Ottomans most of their remaining European territory, had prompted yet another coup in 1913 which brought to power a triumvirate of civilian leaders known as “the three Pashas.”  Mehmed V was now an afterthought, and after 30 years of semi-solitary confinement in Topkapı Palace, Mehmed hadn’t exactly been groomed to be a political leader.  He preferred writing poetry to drafting legislation.

An Ottoman machine-gun unit in the Allahüekber Mountains

Enver Pasha was more than happy to fill the void.  One-third of the “three Pashas,” Enver saw the burgeoning conflict in Europe as a chance to regain lost territories and glories for the Ottoman Empire.  Like Germany’s Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Enver hid behind the thin pretext of only being the Empire’s Minister of War while orchestrating an Ottoman entry on the side of the Central Powers.  Diplomats elsewhere knew better, half-jokingly referring to the Empire as “Enverland.”

There had been little doubt which side the Ottomans would chose if a war broke out.  An Ottoman alliance with the Entente was all but impossible.  Russia had been the Ottoman’s implacable enemy for over 340 years – the two empires had already fought 11 wars, one as recently as 1878.  Britain had eyed the Ottoman possessions in the Middle East greedily, hoping to expand upon their Egyptian protectorate or at least counter Russian ambitions in Persia.  Meanwhile Germany had provided economic and military support to the Ottomans and assisted with the expansion of the famed Orient Express, which connected southern Germany to markets in the Middle East and India.

A victorious Entente would, by Ottoman calculations, eventually divide up the Empire whether Turkey fought with or against them.  A victorious Germany, however, might help preserve the Empire from foreign pressures long often for needed reforms to be enacted.  The Ottomans signed a secret treaty with Germany (without the Sultan’s signature, prompting some speculation that the treaty was invalid) to declare war on Russia in early August.  By October of 1914, the Ottoman navy was shelling Russian ports.

Enver Pasha – the Minister of War, and de facto Commander-in-Chief of the Empire.  Enver was part of a triumvirate that came to be called “the three Pashas”

The problem for the Sarikamish Offensive was not the target itself. The province, centered on the chief city and capital of the same name, had been part of the Ottoman Empire for 344 years before Russia annexed it in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877.  The problems were more fundamental – starting with Enver’s expectations for what an offensive would unlease.  Enver envisioned leading a rebellion of Turkic peoples against the Russians.  It wasn’t the first time Enver thought in such grandiose terms; he had the Sultan issue a jihad against the Entente at the start of the war, which was largely ignored.

But the Turks faced even more formidable obstacles, beginning with the terrain itself.  The Ottoman 3rd Army would have to attack the Russian Caucasus Army across the Allahüekber Mountains, towering over 9,000 feet, which meant traversing high-altitude valleys cut by steep gorges over primitive roads in winter conditions. To make matters worse, Enver was planning a complex battle of encirclement, with three Turkish army corps approaching the Russians simultaneously from different directions, calling for carefully coordinated movements despite almost nonexistent communications.

Enver claimed his plan was drawn from the best inspirations of Napoleonic and German military thinking.  That Germany’s chief military adviser Otto Liman von Sanders insisted the operation was fruitless didn’t matter.  Even the Ottoman commander in charge of the Caucuses, Hasan İzzet, opposed the plan, knowing the difficultly of getting through mountainous passes in winter with troops ill-equipped for such conditions.  For his frankness, Izzet was removed just a week before the offensive would commence.  Enver would be leading the operation at Sarikamish.

Russian troops in their trenches at Sarikamish

Despite the hurdles, the Ottoman attack made good initial progress. On December 22, 1914 the Ottoman 3rd Army’s 150,000 men hit the Russian Caucasian Army’s 65,000 troops, still bloodied from their November fiasco.  The Ottoman XI Corps pinned down the Russian front line as the IX Corps and the X Corps made their way around the Russian Army’s flanks.  Within the first three days of the Sarikamish Offensive, the Turks had progressed 50 miles into Russian territory – remarkable considering how few Ottoman troops were dressed for the conditions – and were now turning the Russian flanks.  The Russian Caucasian Army looked to soon be surrounded.

Enver’s wildly ambitious plan had met early success – a tremendous credit to his troops.  But the cost of marching in the frigid mountains sapped his men’s strength quickly.  Recognizing the limits of the XI Corps’ endurance, Ottoman commanders halted the offensive to give their men time to rest.  No longer pressed on the front lines, the Russians immediately retreated to Sarikamish itself, joined by reinforcements who had just arrived by rail.  The encirclement had failed and now the Russians were at near parity with the Ottomans in terms of the number of troops engaged.

Kurdish Cavalry recruited by the Ottomans

By the start of 1915, the Russians struck at the individual Ottoman wings as the XI Corps, at the center of the front line, struggled to keep up, leaving the IX and X Corps exposed.  Harassed by local Armenian guerrillas recruited by the Russians, Ottoman troops found themselves unable to get reinforcements or even communicate between the three Corps of the 3rd Army.  Col. Hafiz Hakki, Enver’s brother-in-law and one of the Corps commanders, knew by January 2nd that the offensive had failed and that the entire 3rd Army was now in danger.  But Enver refused to acknowledge his error, wiring Hakki that ”the offensive is to go on at full strength.”

By January 6th, the 3rd Army’s headquarters was under attack.  Three entire Ottoman divisions had surrendered.  The reinforcements that the 3rd Army had been counting on did arrive from Constantinople on the Black Sea, but the troop transports were promptly sunk by Russian warships.  Hakki, finding himself one of the few high level officers still alive or not captured, ordered a general retreat.  In reality, the retreat had already occurred, with the surviving troops crossing the border to find Enver and his German advisers awaiting them.  If Enver was upset by these losses, he concealed it well; Lewis Einstein, an American diplomat in Constantinople, later recalled, “Even when he returned from the Caucasus, where an entire army had been lost by his fault, he seemed perfectly happy, and went the same evening to a concert.”

Russian Armenian volunteers

The scale of the defeat horrified the rest of the Central Powers.  Ottoman casualties were difficult to pin down, with estimates as high as 90,000 killed and 50,000 taken prisoner – many of the survivors were 3rd Army reinforcements and not part of the original invasion force.  Col. Hafiz Hakki was promoted to General and given the command of the entire Ottoman Caucuses – and died just weeks later from typhus, which had already claimed the lives of thousands of Ottoman soldiers.

The Russians, reeling just weeks earlier, lost perhaps as few as 16,000 men (one estimate had the number as high as 30,000).  Nevertheless, as one German officer attached to the army wrote later, the Ottoman 3rd Army had “suffered a disaster which for rapidity and completeness is without parallel in military history.”

Still, if defeat concerned the Central Powers, victory hadn’t allayed the fears of the Entente.  The Allies had assumed the Ottomans weren’t capable of offensive action.  Coupled with a failed Ottoman attack against the Suez Canal just weeks after Sarikamish, the Entente now believed the Ottomans needed to be driven out of the war.  Defeating the Turks would lessen the pressure on the Russians, open up the Straits and allow the Tsar’s troops to be easily supplied, plus possibly bring in Bulgaria and Greece on the side of the Entente (both were former Ottoman territories) and open up a southern front against Germany and Austria.  The ashes of Sarikamish proved fertile soil for the seeds of Gallipoli.

The forgotten genocide: the exact scale of the Armenian genocide is unknown, with estimates from 1-1.5 million. Pasha blamed Russian success in recruiting Armenians to fight for the Tsar for the defeat at Sarikamish, resulting in part of the Ottoman policy that led to so many deaths

Sarikamish would have another lasting impact on the Great War.  Enver blamed the defeat on the Armenian volunteer troops that fought for the Russians; increasing Ottoman fears that the Empire’s own Armenian population might rise up in revolt.  The Armenians had been simmering for decades following several massacres during the 1890s, and a proposed peace summit in July of 1914 had only served to push the Armenians towards a policy of alliance with Russia in hopes of annexation.  Defeat at Sarikamish provoked an immediate Ottoman crackdown.

Within months, the Armenian genocide would begin.

The Bloody Return

For weeks, minesweepers had combed the vast expanse of the ocean to the south of Luzon, the major island in the Philippine archipelago.  Filipino guerrillas had begun operating in the open in the south of the massive island, and the Japanese had even heard reports of paratroopers and gliders operating in the nearby countryside.  U.S. warplanes constantly bombed Japanese positions in southern Luzon.  The location of the Allied invasion of Luzon seemed obvious.

It was all an elaborate ruse.  The “paratroopers” were dummies.  The guerrillas, minesweepers and bombers – diversions.  The real target for the start of the liberation of the Philippines was further north, at Lingayen, far to the north of Manila.  And unfortunately for American landing troops on January 9th, 1945, the Japanese had not been fooled in the slightest.

He Returned: MacArthur wades ashore Leyte in Oct of 1944. Luzon, the main Philippine island, was viewed publicly as the “real” start of the liberation of the country – a liberation most of the U.S. command fought against conducting

Continue reading

No Man’s Holiday

The legendary “Christmas Truce” was 100 years ago, obviously, this morning.

The event was commemorated by an ad by a British supermarket chain last month:

It was an ad that received some criticism – and some articulate defense

It was also not nearly as rare as one might have thought.

As the war ground from its grisly summer – the Battle of the Frontier, Mons, the Marne and First Ypres – and the front lines stabilized, the war shifted from a war of mobility slowly ground down into the positional, stalemated war of attrition that we associate with the war today.   Troops started by digging foxholes for cover, when the war of movement stalled out.  Then troops connected their foxholes with their neighbors.  These trenches quickly connected squads, then platoons, companies, battalions, regiments, brigades, divisions, corps, field armies, and finally the entire front, from the Belgian town of Niewport on the North Sea all the way to the Swiss border. 

And they were famously miserable places, especially in rain-sodden Flanders.  Stories emerged of trenches becoming completely flooded near Ypres in 1914, and the rival British and German troops reaching a tacit agreement not to shoot at each other as they climbed out of their holes and dried off and waited for the water to recede.

And as the war dried out but froze over in the winter of 1914, soldiers of both sides – homesick, exhausted, and tired of the war – started staging little mini-truces.

The first one was on December 11, 1914; two companies of the 2nd Battalion of the Essex Regiment made tentative contact with German soldiers of the 181st Regiment of the 19th Saxon Corps.

A letter to the editor described the December 11 incident:

Amusing trench incident. “Tommy” [slang for any British soldier, much like the much-later "GI", only much more prevalent as slang] and “Fritz” exchange presents. One of the oddities of the war in the Western battlefields at all events (says the Daily Chronicle) is the close proximity of the opposing forces in the trenches, thus giving opportunities for conversation. But the record must surely be made by an incident described in a letter from Private H Scrutton, Essex Regiment, to relatives at Wood Green, Norwich. He writes:- As I told you before our trenches are only 30 or 40 yards away from the Germans. This led to an exciting incident the other day. Our fellows have been in the habit of shouting across to the enemy and we used to get answers from them. We were told to get into conversation with them and this is what happened:- From out trenches: “Good morning Fritz.” (No answer). “Good morning Fritz.” (Still no answer). “GOOD MORNING FRITZ.” From German trenches: “Good morning.” From our trench: “How are you?” “All right.” “Come over here, Fritz.” “No. If I come I get shot.” “No you won’t. Come on.” “No fear.” “Come and get some fags, Fritz.” “No. You come half way and I meet you.” “All right.” One of our fellows thereupon stuffed his pocket with fags and got over the trench. The German got over his trench, and right enough they met half way and shook hands, Fitz taking the fags and giving cheese in exchange. It was good to see the Germans standing on top of their trenches and the English also, with caps waving in the air, all cheering. About 18 of our men went half way and met about the same number of Germans. This lasted about half an hour when each side returned to their trenches to shoot at each other again. What I have written is the truth but don’t think we got chums as two of our fellows were killed the same night, and I don’t know how many (sic) of them.

As many as 100,000 troops may have participated in spontaneous truces between various opposing units on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  Historians disagree on the details – some claim that while soccer games broke out, they were mostly among troops on the same side.  Others point to 3-4 Brit-vs.-German matches along the trench line, altogether. 

Fraternization was, of course, not part of the plan for those whose job it was to try to bring the war to an end by conquering the enemy.  Measures were taken to prevent further such truces; higher command rotated troops among different trench areas, to prevent units becoming too  familiar with one another.  They scheduled artillery bombardments for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, to make fraternizing dangerous.  And over the course of the war, the go-along-to-get-along attitude of the first winter was replaced by a lot of survivors’ emnnity. 

Ian Tuttle, writing in National Review, responded to criticism of the video above – and touches on a much deeper point:

“If only it were all so simple!” wrote the great Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

[Guardian columnist and ad critic Iain] Fogg wishes “to retain those [soldiers’] deaths with respect and a degree of reverence.” But to try to do that by denying to the Great War all beauty — especially the beauty of gratuitous, unjustifiable human compassion — would strip those honored dead of the very reason they deserve respect and reverence: because they were human, because the line dividing good and evil cut through their hearts, too. And while it occasioned much carnage and misery, it also spurred acts of compassion, generosity, and more, which generated beauty even in the midst of desolation. Why would one seek to bury that fact?

America today is divided by trenches much less violent than the ones that divided Europe 100 years ago.

And so whatever side you’re on, Merry Christmas.  Or Fröhliche Weinachten.

When Leaders Were Leaders

33 years ago today, Eastern Europe seemed to be spiraling from crisis into deep crisis.

Poland’s communist government cracked down on the “Solidarity” movement.    In response, many Poles fled across the friendliest borders they could find.

And Poland’s ambassador to the US, Romuald Spasowski defected to the US – a capital offense in that Soviet puppet state.   We told that story a few years ago.

And it was in that moment, 33 years ago tonight, that Ronald Reagan showed what real leadership was. (The beef of the speech starts around 4:00 in)

When Reagan was in office, bad behavior had consquences; the Polish (and by extension Soviet) governments suffered.

Compare this with the vapid empty suit that’s currently in office, and the response the suit has had to provocations similar to the Solidarity Christmas.  Far from Reagan’s sharp, clear, principled response, Obama has propped up dictators like Assad, Castro and Chavez while undercutting the Poles, the Kurds, the Baltic States, the Ukrainians, and other freedom-seeking people around the world.

Compare, contrast, and think for a moment for how far this nation has fallen in 33 years.

North Dakota’s Greatest Sailor

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

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

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

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

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

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

USS O-10

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

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

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

Enright, aboard Dace.

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

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

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

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

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

USS Archerfish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Kahuna:  They were both wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

The moral of the story?

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

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

And we know how to break things.

The Real History Of Black Friday

Back in the 10th and 11th centuries, Viking raiders would set forth from Norway in mid-October, after the harvest was laid in.  They’d go to sea and loiter off the coast of the various nations, waiting.

Waiting.

And on the morning after Thanksgiving, the Vikings would strike.  They counted on catching the locals – the indolent French, the filthy Irish, the martinetical Germans, the hapless English – in the throes of hangovers and awash in tryptophan.  The locals, disabled by wine and whisky and turkey and thinking only of the ceremonial winter market, were at a low ebb of alertness and competence, leaving them easy pickings.

The Vikings would storm ashore, hauling away longships full of swag; French wine and cheeses, German oxcarts, Irish filth and emigrants, and any foodstuffs the English hadn’t yet cooked.

And that is the true legacy of Black Friday.

Well, it’s as true as Toni Braxton’s version of it seems to be.

The Muted Celebration

It was 25 years ago yesterday that the Berlin Wall fell.

I was in a not-so-great place in November of 1989.  But I watched the news – as I’d been watching the gathering disintegration of the Warsaw Pact, and of the “Second World”.

And seeing the stories of the swirling vortex of history into which Communism was falling…:

…even I, a simple nightclub DJ from northeast Minneapolis, knew something big was going on.

Even today, watching the footage, and watching Germans celebrating, I feel moved.  It was one of the most amazing events of my lifetime.

Of course, I had a dog in the fight:

That dog was, of course, freedom.  I was on the side that supported it.

For years, though, the mainstream media always seemed torn about the fall of the wall, the fall of communism.  I remember in 1992, Tom Brokaw reporting on economic problems in Poland – after three whole years of freedom, after 45 in slavery – and solemnly declaring that Eastern Europe’s experiment with economic freedom was a failure.

I wondered if it was merely myopia.  But no – it seems the American media had trouble processing the fall of the Wall because they largely supported the wrong side.

 

Election Night, 1984

It was a chilly evening – as I recall, snow was falling in Jamestown.   Or threatening to, anyway.

I walked from my “home” at the time – Watson Hall at Jamestown College – to the polling station.  I turned the decision over and over and over again in my head.

On the one hand, I didn’t see myself as one of “those” people; “fatcats”, “fundamentalists”, “warmongers”, any of the labels I’d been painstakingly trained to believe applied to conservatives.   Truth be told, I still saw Republicans – or at least a lot of other Republicans – that way.   And I believed that government – a rational, “good” government, the kind that a lot of Good People, like me, would elect, if we got the chance – did have a place in making peoples’ lives better.   Four years ago the previous summer, at North Dakota Boys State – a mock state government put on by the American Legion – I’d become the state Federalist Party chairman.  I wrote a party platform, all full of “redistribute” this and “regulate” that, the kind of thing that Paul Wellstone would have just loved.  And we won.

And the press – which was even then liberal, especially the parts of it I paid attention to, “Rolling Stone” magazine and the like, had left me terrified four years earlier at the thought that Ronald Reagan was going to re-institute the draft and send us all overseas to fight for Exxon.

On the other hand, some of my adolescent certainty in my adolescent beliefs was decaying.  I’d felt the first twinges years earlier, reading “The Black Book” – the B’nai B’rith accounting of Nazi war atrocities – and realizing that a disarmed society was ripe for the picking.  And I remembered listening to Jimmy Carter’s “Malaise” speech, and thinking “What – you got yours, and now you’re telling me I have to settle for less?”.

And I saw what had happened in Vietnam, where a liberal majority in Congress had rendered the sacrifice of 56,000 American soldiers utterly vain, and the national humiliation of the Iran Hostage Crisis.  And I read Alas Babylon by Pat Frank, and wondered if, indeed, national weakness and self-abnegation would indeed keep all those missiles that the goverment had planted around me in North Dakota from firing after all.

My high school pal and unwitting political mentor, Dwight Rexin – a real-life Alex P. Keaton in his own way, a fire-breathing radical libertarian-conservative – grabbed me (rhetorically) by the scruff of my neck through 11th and 12th grades and explained to me – very, very patiently – how the stagflation that still wracked North Dakota was a product of wanton government intervention in the economy – the kind of thing I’d been brought up to think was a good thing that benefited real people.

And a year before, a family of Polish refugees, the Krzameks, had moved to town.  And hearing their side of the Cold War – the oppressed “citizens” of the Second World – gave me a perspective on the time that I’d never had.

And at college, at the behest of my English major advisor, Dr. James Blake – who, after a few months of talking with me about politics, current events, faith, life and the world around us, told me in his New York accent ”You’re no liberal, Mitch.  Seriously”.  He had me read “The Gulag”, and “1984″ to learn current events, and “Crime and Punishment” and “War and Peace” and “The Possessed” to learn the philosophical cases for and against the big, “progressive” state, and about Jack Kemp’s free-market reform proposals, and P.J. O’Rourke’s “Republican Party Reptile” to see just how conservatism could resonate with a guitar-playing, grunge-before-it-was-cool fish out of North Dakota water.

And all of this tumbled around in my head as I signed in, and got my ballot.

On the one hand?  I was angry.  I knew what I really was!  A thoughtful, “Moderate”, “good government”…something.

And on the other hand?  None of that seemed to add up anymore.  “Good Government”, the world around us seemed to show, really was the one that governed least, and left the most to the people themselves.

The lady at the desk gave me my ballot – a “butterfly” ballot – and pointed me to a voting “booth”, a little plastic carel.

And I opened the ballot up to “President of the United States”.  Because of North Dakota’s ballot-access laws, there were something like two dozen candidates on the ballot.  And because of a court case that had been filed and won by a Jamestown man, Harley McClain, after the 1980 election, (he’d protested the fact that the GOP and Democrat candidates were at the top of the ballot, and the SCOTUS agreed, and so ballots were thereever-after either alphabetical or random), I had to dig down through the choices.

I got to “M”.  “Harley McClain – Chemical Farming Banned Party” was right above Walter Mondale.

I thought about Mondale – spawn of Carter.  The needle hovered over the chad…

…and I stopped to think.  I came close to punching McClain’s chad as a protest against the conundrum I was in.

And then, in a mental flash of “do it before I regret it”, I punched Ronald Reagan.

I dashed through the rest of the choices.  I think I split my ticket, likely voting for Byron Dorgan for US House as a sort of emotional contrition for voting Reagan.  I turned in my ballot.

I walked up First Street South, then down Main Street to “Fred’s Den”, a bar which had open stage night on Tuesdays.  There was a set of drums and some amps and guitars on stage, but the evening hadn’t started yet.  I ordered a Stroh’s at the bar and had a seat.  The TV in the corner was tuned in to the local cable access station, and they were showing election results from around the US and around town.

As I sat, in came a small group of men, including none other than Presidential candidate Harley McClain himself; a hippie and musician, he was a regular at open stage night.  At Open Stage the previous week, I’d promised him I’d vote for him.

Not only had I not voted for him, I’d pretty much voted diametrically against him; one of the songs he sang constantly at open-stage night, a 12-bar blues song he sang while accompanying himself on the guitar, made his politics pretty clear:

Gonna sing a song about Ronald Reagan

That man is a pagan.

Gonna sing a song about Ronald Reagan,

yeah, that man is a pagan…

“Hey, Mitch!”, he yelled, “Didja vote?”

“Yep! Voted for ya!”, I lied.

As open stage started up, the result started coming in.   I’d voted in my parents ward, Ward 2, where my driver’s license was still addressed.

Cable Access ran the vote totals by the precinct.  Harley Clain got 0 votes in Ward 2.

In fact, he got exactly three votes in all of Jamestown.

“Hey!”, McClain yelled at the screen.  “Don’t you vote in Ward 2?  There’s voter suppression going on here!”

I looked in panic at the screen.  There as a “McClain” vote in the ward containing the College.

“I voted at school”, I answered.  Mollified, McClain relented, and we watched as he racked up exactly 4 votes in Jamestown.

Reagan carried Jamestown decisively, except for the precincts by the College, where he carried Jamestown merely convincingly.   He won North Dakota with just shy of 100% of the vote, as I recall, and won all but two of the states – the greatest landslide in history.

I was happy about my vote.

Not happy enough to tell my parents, of course.

Oh, yeah – open stage night.  Tim Cross, Scott Massine and me (drums, bass and guitar) did a couple of songs.  “Summertime Blues”, “I Will Follow” and something else, I think.  And we each got a free beer.

That was fun, too.

So that’s what I was doing thirty years ago tonight.

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.

20141023-124748-46068909.jpg

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.

Continue reading

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

Continue reading

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

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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

Continue reading

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.