The Last Million Men

The debate in the House of Commons had raged for several weeks.  The failures of the coalition government of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith – Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, the failure of the British offensives of the fall of 1915, and a shortage of munitions in the spring of the same year – had been thrown at the PM’s feet.  The conservatives in Asquith’s coalition had begun calling for his head, as men he had dismissed from the War Cabinet, like Churchill and Lord Kitchener, attempted to speak directly to the public about what they deemed the PM’s lapses in judgement.

The measure before the House of Commons had been intended to blunt such criticisms.  It was a measure Asquith had fought against, both publicly and privately within the War Cabinet.  Asquith had tried for months to stall such a vote, commissioning studies in the vain hope of proving it unnecessary.  Instead, Asquith’s commissions had proven the opposite.  Placed between his principles and his ability to prosecute the war, Asquith chose the war.

The vote wasn’t even close.  By a margin of 383 to 36, the Military Service Act of 1916 passed on January 27th.  The proud tradition of the small, professional British Army had vanished.  Britain had joined the rest of Europe in embracing conscription.

The Promise of a “New Army.”  Millions of Britons flocked to the call in 1914 and 1915

Since the Battle of the Marne in the fall of 1914, most British authorities – both civilian and military – had understood that the British system of volunteerism had reached its logical limitations in a modern war.  The only question was the best way forward.    Continue reading

Hard To Believe

…that this was already thirty years ago:

I remember I had been working at KSTP for about a month; I’d finagled my way into a couple extra hours a day working in the control room during a couple of syndicated talk shows before the Vogel show.  I was on the board during the “Michael Jackson” show – the talk host, not the singer or the beer expert – when network news alarms started going off in the studio, and ABC Radio’s anchor broke in to announce the explosion.

And over the next minute or two, everyone in the building piled into the control room, and I – the lowliest person in the building – had to tell everyone to shut up and get out so I could concentrate on all hell breaking loose.  And, since the board operator is the bottom line in the control room, everyone – the general manager, the news director, everyone – promptly did.

I spent a chunk of the rest of the day trying to track down an astronaut to comment on the air with Don Vogel – and i found one (a guy from my hometown, an old student of my dad’s who eventually did one or two Shuttle missions).

And it was one of those days I figured that broadcast news was what I really liked doing.

Without all the national tragedies, of course.

I think we carried Reagan’s speech live.

Thirty years? Yow.

“I Have Been To The Mountaintop”

My dad was a speech teacher.  I think I may have grown up around a record collection with more speeches than music, until I started buying records.

So a great speech is a wonderful thing.

And I lament the fact that great oratory is such a dying art – although the likes of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz both practice it with great panache.

But Martin Luther King was one of the greats in the history of oratory, even if you don’t bother with his civil legacy.

And here – the day before his murder – was one of his great ones, submitted as I usually do on King’s birthday.

Erzurum Peace

Blanketed in snow, the fortress at Erzurum looked almost peaceful.  In reality, with 235 pieces of field artillery, and 11 different forts and gun batteries, after Constantinople, Erzurum was the most heavily defended city in the Ottoman Empire.  Indeed, it was one of the most heavily defended cities in all of the Great War.

Within the forts sat 40,000 Ottoman soldiers; a mix of veterans from the Caucasus campaigns of early 1915 and young recruits.  Behind them sat another nearly 90,000 Ottoman troops of the massive Third Army.  Nestled in the safety of one of the most complex defensive systems in the world, and surrounded by snow banks as high as four feet in some places, the last thing the Ottomans worried about on January 10th, 1916 was a Russian attack.

A month later, Erzurum would be in Russian hands and 15,000 Turks had been left behind.

Russian troops with captured Turkish guns at Erzurum

At the beginning of 1916, the confidence of the Ottoman army was high and growing higher.  After starting the Great War with a failed offensive against the Suez Canal, and a debacle against the Russians in the Caucasus, the fortunes of the 600-year old empire had markedly improved.  They had won tremendous victories against the British in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia, and were in the process of capturing an entire British/Indian army at Kut.    Continue reading

Simson’s Circus

Sunday morning services had already concluded by the time the small British torpedo boats the HMS Mimi and HMS Toutou had left their port on the massive freshwater Lake Tanganyika in the Belgian Congo.  Having changed out of his Naval dress uniform and back into his usual garb of short-sleeves and a skirt (which he wrongly thought was a kilt), British Captain Geoffrey Spicer-Simson began hunting his intended prey – the German gunboat Kigani.

But the Kigani had been on its way to intercept them, and was surprised to see the small British “fleet” racing out to meet them.  In 11 quick minutes, the Kigani had been critically damaged; a shell having ripped through her deck, killing the gunboat’s captain and petty officers.  The Kigani withdrew her colors – a sign she intended to surrender.  Not content with his prey’s brief battle, Simson ordered the small wooden Mimi to ram the metal gunboat.  The Mimi‘s bow was significantly dented; Simson’s ego definitely was not.

Returning to shore, Simson, wearing a German officer’s ring he stole from one of the dead, proclaimed himself the “Horatio Nelson of Africa.”  The day after Christmas in 1915, the battle for Lake Tanganyika – the second largest freshwater lake in the world by volume – was almost over.  The battle for historic acclaim from one of the most eccentric (and incompetent) British officers in the Great War had begun.

Graf von Gotzen’s crew loads her 4-inch deck gun.  The weapon dwarfed anything the British or Belgians could wield in East Africa

Despite some of the first shots in the Great War being fired in Africa, the Entente had made little progress in removing the German threat to their colonial possessions.  In German East Africa, Lt. Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, who would soon become famous for his prolonged defense, had gone on the offensive, attacking and defeating the Indian Expeditionary Force sent to subdue him with an army eight times Lettow-Vorbeck’s size.   Continue reading


Want to show a kid today what a real leader is?  Because God knows our current President isn’t teaching them anything.

Tell them what happened in Poland in 1981.  Read this bit from a few years back, about the defection of the Polish ambassador to the US in protest against the Communist repression in his country).

(See around 4:10 as Reagan begins to speak about Poland.  Between there and the “yellow ribbon” moment, around 11:00)

Reagan did more than just have people light candles – read Jay Nordlinger’s excellent “Yellow Ribbon Culture” for all the reasons the “symbolic message” has become meaningless today – he followed up the symbolic message with a mountain of work in public and behind the scenes to undermine the Polish and Soviet regimes, and build up Solidarity and other resistance in the Eastern Bloc, work which eventually brought Communism crashing down.

This, children, is how leadership was done.

Compare that with the wan empty suit that is frittering away his last year in the White House today, and lament.

Greater Love Hath No Man

I had not heard this story – of a group of 1,000-odd American POWs who, at the behest of a quick-thinking master sergeant, all called themselves Jewish to protect the Jewish GIs among them.

The master sergeant – Roddie Edmonds, of Knoxville, who passed away thirty years ago – is now the fifth American to be inducted into the “Righteous Among the Nations” at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial:

At the time of Edmonds’s capture, the most infamous Nazi death camps were no longer fully operational, so Jewish American POWs were instead sent to slave labor camps where their chances of survival were low. US soldiers had been warned that Jewish fighters among them would be in danger if captured and were told to destroy dog tags or any other evidence identifying them as Jewish.

So when the German camp commander, speaking in English, ordered the Jews to identify themselves, Edmonds knew what was at stake.

Turning to the rest of the POWs, he said: “We are not doing that, we are all falling out,” recalled [MSGT Edmonds’ son] Chris Edmonds, who is currently in Israel participating in a seminar for Christian leaders at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies.

With all the camp’s inmates defiantly standing in front of their barracks, the German commander turned to Edmonds and said: “They cannot all be Jews.” To which Edmonds replied: “We are all Jews here.”

Then the Nazi officer pressed his pistol to Edmonds head and offered him one last chance. Edmonds merely gave him his name, rank and serial number as required by the Geneva Conventions.

“And then my dad said: ‘If you are going to shoot, you are going to have to shoot all of us because we know who you are and you’ll be tried for war crimes when we win this war,’” recalled Chris Edmonds, who estimates his father’s actions saved the lives of more than 200 Jewish-American soldiers.

Edmonds survived – although by the end of the war, with the food shortages in Germany, life in POW camps was better than concentration camps only by dint of the assurance that the Germans weren’t supposed to kill the inmates.

The Barren Crescent

The inhabitants of the sleepy Mesopotamian village of Kut al Amara (or Kut for short), might have felt like strangers in their own homes on December 7th, 1915.  Situated on the banks of the Tigris river 100 miles south of Baghdad, the 6,500 residents of Kut were certainly used to people passing through, albeit usually via the river.  But the latest visitors to Kut had mostly arrived by land – well over 13,000 of them – and were starting to make themselves at home.  Trenches and bulwarks were being created overnight; tents flooded the village and surrounding river banks.

The newest guests to Kut were a collection of British and Indian troops who had last passed through the village attempting to claim Baghdad, and all of Mesopotamia, for the Crown.  Now in headlong retreat, the British and Indians had chosen to dig in and allow themselves to be surrounded by their Ottoman pursuers.  It had been the the brainchild of an arrogant British Indian Army General who preferred taking his orders from New Delhi than London, and was being executed by a British General whose claim to fame had been enduring a similar siege in Pakistan years earlier.

The strategy to conquer Mesopotamia had been ill-conceived and hastily implemented.  Now it was about to become, in the words of one British military historian, “the most abject capitulation in Britain’s military history.”

The Siege of Kut – many of the troops that held Kut for 147 days would never return home

Had the War Office in London gotten their way, Britain’s involvement in the so-called “Cradle of Civilization” would have ended in November of 1914.    Continue reading

The Western Frontier

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

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

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

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

The Black Soldier’s Lament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Black Soldier’s Lament, George A. Borden


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

Veterans Day

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

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

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

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

…and grindingly mundane…

…and for doing the impossible…

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

…thanks to you all.

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

Not Invented Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s one of those stories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 34 Fire Direction system concept drawing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Not For Failing To Celebrate

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

Today would be Margaret Thatcher’s 90th birthday.

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


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

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

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

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

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

Combat Record

Yesterday, the guided missile frigate USS Simpson was decommissioned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This one:

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

Mob Mentality

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

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

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

It ended in another wholesale slaughter.

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

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

Die Hungerspiele

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Strain

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Not Saying

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

Especially when actual people are dead.

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

The Flag

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

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

But boredom drew me to a lot of other things.

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

I kid you not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not that it was that busy.

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

One day, I opened it.

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

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

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

Which put it in the trunk and forgot about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

The Golden Age Of Fake Radio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sefton Delmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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