War

Rossellini Reality

Yes… more neorealism.

Roberto Rossellini Paisà Movie Poster

But unlike Brief Encounter, Rossellini’s Paisan seems to benefit from his adoption of the neorealist aesthetic, to the point where I was about to write that, while the British film was fiction, Paisan is actually a documentary.  It’s not, of course.  It’s just as fictional as other films in the genre, it somehow feels real.

Perhaps this is just a reflection of the great Italian’s filmmaking genius, or maybe the subject matter–Italy during WWII–lends itself to neorealism unlike any other time and place in history.

That second argument certainly made itself very present in Rossellini’s earlier neorealist movie on the same subject, Rome, Open City.  But unlike Open City, Paisan does away with both politics and melodrama.  It is a film composed of a series of vignettes that are extremely sad, but never falls into the typical trap of trying to drive the point of the character’s suffering into the audience with a sledgehammer.  The situations are simply presented as they are, and the sadness often comes from the audience knowing more about the situation than the characters do.

The sparse approach to the material works perfectly, and though it doesn’t escape from the bane of realist art (namely, the sense that it just presents situations and answers no questions and offers no fulfillment), at least it isn’t maudlin realism, where you are invited to dwell upon the futility of existence and the fact that only suffering can break the monotony.

So, while this isn’t a film you’d watch to get your spirits up after a breakup, it’s still the apogee of neorealism and probably the only one you need to see to get a sense for the aesthetics and sensibilities of that particular postwar phenomenon.  It will not uplift you, but it will edify.

Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini

The nicely weird thing we can report is that Rossellini’s three realist films were the ones that inspired Ingrid Bergman to write to him offering he services.  While initially wanting to act for him, they eventually became the cover of the scandal sheets… in the fifties, two people who had a high-profile affair while married to others caused a lot of comment.

Of course, eventually, Rossellini left Ingrid for another married woman, and caused an even bigger scandal (and got himself thrown out of India)… but that’s a story for another day.

 

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Trying to Take Stock

There are many films about World War II.  Most of them are action flicks.  Some are anti-war.  Others deal with the horrors of war in general.  Some are Italian, and therefore morally ambiguous and political.  And only Quentin Tarantino knows what he was trying to do with his.

Best Years of Our Lives Movie Poster

But there is one film that stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to understanding the effect of the war on the lives of the men and women in the United States who survived it.  That movie is The Best Years of Our Lives, the 1946 ensemble masterpiece that became the highest-grossing film since Gone With the Wind.  And since anything to do with the old South is seriously out of favor nowadays, the war film should come even further into its own as the days go by.

The title, of course, refers to the fact that, despite its horrors, war gave the protagonists–three men recently demobilized who return to their hometown–a shared experience that all of them recognize as participation in the most important event that they will ever be a part of.  They return to a society that doesn’t understand what they’ve been through, and is often cruel and indifferent to their needs.  The question “was this terrifying experience the best thing that will ever happen to me?” casts its shadow over the entire movie.

It’s never answered, because all three of the men eventually find a path that, with luck might bring them something better.  But at the same time, the paths they find might also lead them to a life of grey mediocrity, a condition that they’re ideally suited to identify because of what they’ve lived through.

Interestingly, despite some of the themes, it doesn’t show much anti-war sentiment.  The war happened.  It was important and necessary.  And now they’re dealing with what comes next.  Simple, no need to overthink it.

That’s probably why it works so well today.  In our world, a film like this would have been an exercise in political reflection, guilt and recrimination.  Back then, when the US had an actually significant event to reflect upon, it was a measured, even-handed view.  It’s interesting to see that people back then (yes, even in Hollywood!) acted like adults while seventy years later, everyone is a whining, idealistic adolescent.  Sad, too.  But mainly interesting.

Harold Russell still

The standout for me was the character of Homer Parrish, a former Navy sailor and amputee played by Harold Russell.  Our politically incorrect viewing party immediately dubbed him “Sailor Hook”, but the truth is that he steals the show; his Oscar win for best supporting actor was well-deserved: apart from being an amputee, the guy could act. so we tried to find a little more about him.

There’s an army film about rehabilitating veterans in which he stars, entitled Diary of a Sergeant.  It’s available in its entirety on Youtube.  Inspiring and sobering in equal measures, kind of like the film about the Battle of San Pietro, also produced by the military and which was so significant that we spoke about it twice: here and here.

This film makes the reviewer’s job pretty simple: if you haven’t seen it, watch it.  If you haven’t seen it in a while, watch it again.  There’s something here for everyone except, maybe, for those people who need constant, non-stop action.  There’s a reason this one is considered one of the best of the best.

Not the Greatest French Film of All Time, Interesting Nonetheless

carne-les-enfants-du-paradis-poster

Les Enfants du Paradis Movie Poster

As we continue our slow journey through the 1001 Films one must supposedly watch before one dies (maybe if we never finish the list we’ll live forever?) we encounter a bunch of films which are reputed to be or voted as the greatest something or other.   The major conclusion one can immediately take from these is that an amazing number of important-sounding institutions exist which seem dedicated to choosing the greatest films of whatever country, and none of them can agree on which one it is.

Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) was voted the greatest film ever in one poll of French film industry people.  Yes, I know that it was obvious that the French would select a French film for the honor, but it’s pretty amazing that they happened to select this one.  It isn’t.

It’s also been called the French equivalent of Gone with the Wind.  It also isn’t.

What it is is an interesting flick with a fascinating production history.

The plot is noteworthy .  Everyone is in love with the girl, but no one gets her.  Additional interest is given to it by having her suitors span the social range from a mime and a criminal to a count.  Loads of fun and hijinks and melodrama ensue, and the film does entertain.  The ending is also worth waiting for, as it is neither a conventional happy ending or a typical tragic one.  The only person who dies richly deserves it.

The most noteworthy thing about it, however, is that it was produced in Vichy France under the strict and watchful eye of the German censors with a cast and crew that mixed resistance elements with collaborators in what must have been the ultimate example of workplace politics.

Imagine attempting to shoot a large-scale film in a country ravaged by war, with Nazis telling you what to cut out of it and a director, Marcel Carné, who tries to sneak a lot of the stuff that is supposedly forbidden back in, in a different guise.  The sets were a shambles, which was a drawback for a film with a lot of outdoors street scenes, and one can only imagine what kind of scarcity conditions they had to operate under as the allies advanced.

robert-le-vigan

Robert Le Vigan – French actor convicted of collaborating with the Nazis in Vichy France.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the film are the story of Robert Le Vigan who was removed from the production, accused of being a collaborator and disappeared.  He was later tried and sent to prison, but in the meantime they needed a replacement for him, and chose one of the Renoir brothers (yes, the son of the painter).

Collaborators, of course, weren’t tried under the Vichy régime, so you are correct in guessing that the movie wasn’t finished until the allies liberated France.  It is speculated that Carné himself created production delays that ensured the film would only be released in a free France.  Whether that is true or a product of Carné’s propaganda is open to debate, but it does cement the legend.

So, perhaps it’s not the film itself but the context and symbolism which engendered the French industry’s fascination with it.  It’s both understandable and forgivable, and the film isn’t bad either.

“Whenever I make a film that’s for war, you can take me out and shoot me.”

 

by Stacy Ketcham, Omaha Chronotype-Mercury War Correspondent in Italy*

 

Italian Colonial Exposition 1940

Buildings of the 1940 Italian Overseas Exposition before the war

December 26, 1943 With US Army 21st General Hospital, Mostra Fairgrounds, Bagnoli. Italy–Candidates for the Purple Heart in recognition of battlefield wounds in Italy will now pass in review under the eyes of no less famous a figure than Benito Mussolini. His face, substantially larger than life, is prominent in a mural at the Albanian pavilion of his 1940 Colonial Exposition, an extravaganza intended to modestly showcase his glorious achievements as Italy’s leader. The immodest number of bullet holes which mar his likeness manage to render the image pleasant enough for medical personnel to work in view of it in what is now the surgical area of an Army Hospital, and few of the soldiers they attend to take the time to look up at the man who still looks down on them.
Just three weeks ago, as the Third and Forty-fifth Infantry Divisions began crossing the Volturno River, the men and women of this hospital, more than four thousand of them, began crossing the Mediterranean, bringing with them more than three thousand crates of medical supplies and equipment, to set up shop in this new location, right outside of Naples, and only thirty miles from the front lines. This proximity relieves much of the pressure on field hospitals even closer to the front, and allows greater flexibility in determining the best treatment for urgent and critical cases.
This proximity also allows wounded men to be brought directly from the battlefield to what is literally the newest, most modern hospital in the world, And Il Duce allows these men to recover in good humor; the post-op room was originally a memorial to Italy’s brave soldiers, most of whom have now surrendered or simply discarded their uniforms and quietly gone home. No man, regardless of whether he is American, British, or any of the other nationalities now fighting with the allies in Italy, has failed to find this amusing.
Another thing every man has found amusing is discovering what knockouts some of these nurses can be. To free every available doctor for surgery, a number of nurses volunteered to learn how to administer anaesthesia. I found it reassuring to see a man wounded less than an hour earlier ask his anesthetist if she’d go out with him after he recovered. Her only reply was a smile; before she could have spoken a word, he was unconscious.

* * *

There were, of course, a number of things I couldn’t mention in this column without risk of undermining the war effort. I couldn’t say that this man, like many battlefield casualties, was in shock. Nor could I say that, like most battlefield casualties, he had not been told how badly he was wounded. If he’d been wounded before, he might have known how unusual it was for the anaesthesia to be injected into the neck, rather than an arm or a leg. But he no longer had arms and legs. That was something else I couldn’t mention.

And this is only one hospital, Erich Maria Remarque had written. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this… A hospital alone shows what war is.

I remembered that as I typed, but still sent my column.

* * *

Dusk was well upon us by the time I stepped outside. I was nominally billeted in a field hospital nurses tent a few miles away, and wondering if I should try to find a closer place to sleep for the night or hope for a ride when I noticed a jeepload of clean uniforms heading my way. Replacements going somewhere, I supposed, until they stopped in front of me. A Signal Corps Captain looked at my armband, then spoke up.

“We were in San Pietro before anybody,” he said, with the tone of a man in shell shock. “There’d been an attack and a counterattack in the night, and there were just hundreds and hundreds of dead.”

What had he expected to find after a battle, confetti? I didn’t ask, I just stood there listening to the motor of the jeep idling, and glanced at the newsreel cameras on the floor of the jeep.

“Battalion?” the driver asked, a trace of Yiddish to the question, somehow. I pointed and the jeep was moving again.

I don’t know when I finally realized I’d met John Huston that evening. Certainly not by May of 1945, when I saw the Army’s fiercely edited two-reel release of the battlefield documentary Frank Capra had sent him to film.

* * *

On the Road to San Pietro

US Tank destroyed attempting to enter San Pietro

How do you create the cinematic documentation of a battle when you weren’t there until the battle was over, and the first thing you find when you do arrive is hundreds and hundreds of dead? Of course, a critic, particularly if he’s never directed a movie or been anywhere near a battlefield littered with corpses, many of them fragmentary, will say you fabricate the whole thing. Yes, anyone can recognize that John Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro was a re-enactment, for the most part, with no particular effort made to capture realism in the scenes depicting the battles. Even the men shot in the five-reel original were staging their deaths. The only aspect of the film which was genuine and even in the least candid was the part Huston experienced personally on the first morning of filming. The corpses, even when repositioned for effect, or to keep the grotesquely distorted faces, if they were American, out of view, were absolutely real. They were not extras, they were the stars of the film, and Huston, editing either version, must have calculated how much carnage could be tolerated by the typical audience without blunting their sensitivity to what they were being shown, and how much of this brutal depiction of a brutal reality was necessary to validate his own statement, as the movie approaches its close, “These lives were valuable–valuable to their loved ones, to their country, and to the men themselves.”

* * *

The officers for whom Huston screened his original edit all walked out in quick succession, but George Marshall, who had to concern himself not only with morale, but also with the more difficult issues of desertion and combat fatigue, decided that a shorter edit of Huston’s stark depiction of battle would be an appropriate training film. Marshall was pleased by this version of the film, with a brief introduction by General Mark Clark, and Huston was promoted to Major.

* * *

The wind and snow on Christmas Eve were answers to prayer. Everyone’s prayer. The Germans–those still alive–were glad of something to cover their retreat. And those Americans still alive were glad of the excuse to let them slip away. The battle per se of San Pietro had been over for a week, and the 3rd Infantry was taking up forward positions in relief of what remained of the 36th. There had been a flood of T-patchers in the field hospital, and from those able and willing to talk, I’d pieced together a story that still needed a lot of window dressing and white washing before it could be typed up and cabled home.

Essentially, the Germans had built their own little Maginot Line from Lincoln Logs. A series of fortified foxholes with nearly perfect defilade and concealment, protected by alternating layers of barbed wire and land mines. Further, each of these could only be approached by a single man scraping his short hairs in the mud. Covering fire could be provided, but only carefully; more of his boots and buttocks were exposed to that fire than the whole of the German position. As I said, there were a vast series of these strung along the mountainside, interlocking in a pattern something like the teeth of a circular ripsaw. The flank had to be turned, and the 143rd Regiment had begun doing that in early December, scaling a mountainside in the face of mortar and machine gun fire which could excoriate the landscape without being aimed. The Germans knew the Americans were there. When that mountainside had been secured, and this in a relative sense, the assault itself began, one American at a time, approaching each in this series of small fortifications, until somebody was lucky enough to get a grenade in before another man had to pull him back, wounded or killed. You can imagine that casualties were high, but even I had not imagined how high.

* * *

I’d been to Mass that morning with the 100th Battalion; Japanese Americans from Hawaii, attached to the 36th. From the small number there, I’d assumed that only a few of them were Catholic.

Technically, the 36th was still at the front, but through the good offices of the 3rd Division and cooperation of the momentarily defeated Germans, the front was moving away, allowing the T-patchers to enjoy their Christmas dinner of C-rations on the hood of a jeep, or to gather around an impromptu Christmas tree chosen from among the myriad fragments of trees scattered by two weeks of uninterrupted combat. Their trees were decorated with strips of their C-ration’s foil packaging, usually discarded, but now kept and carefully torn to form tinsel garland.

In the early evening, as darkness became definite, I noticed four candles at the opening of several tents knotted together at the grommets, forming a shelter large enough for half a dozen men to gather. I went to it.

“Are you Jewish, Ma’am?” one of the Texans asked.

“My mother was.”

“Then I guess you are.” He tapped a wooden board, covered by a surprisingly clean white cloth. As I sat where he had indicated, each of the boys pushed a few of their piled M&Ms toward me. Then the one who had greeted me handed me the dreidel.

* * *

“Are you the reporter, Ma’am?” a voice behind me asked. The Jewish soldiers and I had been pushing M&Ms back forth for about an hour.

“Yes,” I said, turning around to see an NCO from Divisional HQ.

“You’ve had clerical experience?”

“Yes,” I said, now getting up. The two of us left, and he led me toward a jeep cleaner than most I’d seen that day. We sat in it.

“A battalion clerk has a problem,” he said. “You might be able to help, if you’re willing.”

“Yes, of course.”

We drove further from the front. Perhaps ten minutes, arriving at a farm building labeled as Bn HQ. He led me inside, where I saw a clerk, his head resting on a typewriter, weeping profusely. I wouldn’t have believed a clerk this far from the front could have combat fatigue, but that’s exactly what it looked like. There were packages piled up, filling nearly three-quarters of the office.

“You need help delivering these?” I asked.

“No Ma’am,” the driver said. “We need you to draw a line through the address of each one, and mark it KIA.”

I was on the floor, sitting, wondering if I’d fainted. Amid the fog, slowly dispersing it, I heard President Roosevelt, his voice crackling on the radio.

“We ask that God receive and cherish those who have given their lives, and that He keep them in honor and in the grateful memory of their countrymen forever. God bless all of you who fight our battles on this Christmas Eve.”

I reached up. The driver handed me a pen.

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

I nodded. He left as I grabbed the first package. The clerk was still weeping over his typewriter when I finished, just past dawn, my hand stiff and fingers numb.

* * *

When the 36th Infantry Division returned to the front line in January, 1944, 80% of its men had been in the Division less than two weeks.

 

 

 

*This is actually an excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens amazing WW2 magnum opus, very intimately linked to this post.

Rheinland – Part 2

Germany and the Rheinland

Today brings the second and final part of Stacy Danielle Stephens’ excerpt about the Rheinland incident in the years prior to World War II.  As always, a fascinating glimpse beyond the dates and facts and into the minds of the principal actors.

“I know what it is,” Foreign Minister Laval said to his staffers as he pushed aside the map they had asked him to look at. “A lot of sand. And a lot of rocks.”

He would be leaving on January 3rd, 1935, to meet with Mussolini. He intended to give up a lot of sand and rocks near the Libyan border with French Equatorial Africa in the hope that Mussolini would abandon long-standing Italian claims against Tunisia. Laval also hoped to sustain Mussolini’s disenchantment with Hitler, who had not made a good impression on Il Duce at their first meeting. The friction between them regarding Austria was the sort of thing Laval could exploit to France’s advantage.

“It’s nothing but desert,” Mussolini observed, when he saw the map of it himself on January 4th.

“There are probably a few villages in there,” Laval grinned. There was no pretense about him, Mussolini realized. He had brought sand and rocks, and wouldn’t pretend they were anything else.

“You, Duce,” Laval resumed speaking when he noticed the gleam of appreciation in Mussolini’s eyes, “rule Italy without restraint. I don’t rule France. My boss doesn’t even rule France. If you really want these negotiations between our two countries to succeed, I have to return home with something that will stand up to public opinion, something that will be endorsed by the press. You’re in a position to give me something like that; you have the prerogative to be generous.”

He was a hard-bitten, hard-boiled lout, but in contrast to British or German Ministers, he could be liked, although he was no less conniving than they. The point, really, and Mussolini understood this, was the appearance of concession, which would bring with it good press and a bit of prestige. It was enough to clinch the bargain which Laval and Mussolini had really been after: an agreement that if Hitler again attempted to seize Austria, the French army would support Italian action against him, and that if Hitler moved his army into the demilitarized Rheinland, the Italian Air Force would support French action against him.

Early in February, Laval went to London, where he reaffirmed his commitment to a Pact with the Soviet Union without clarifying whether or not Czechoslovakia would be a co-signatory. British statesmen, regardless of which party was in office at any moment, mistrusted any series of interlocking treaty obligations, always bearing in mind the stacked-rifle effect that had played out in the summer of 1914. A pistol-shot in Prague might all too easily replicate the avalanche of events spawned at Sarajevo[1].

When Laval had returned to France, Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg came to Paris to discuss the defense of Austria with him. Because the Socialist Parties of Austria and France had recently allied themselves with one another,  Léon Blum called for public demonstrations against the Austrian Fascist.

As a pragmatic negotiator bargaining for the survival of France, Laval did not concern himself with ideology, particularly if that ideology could only weaken and isolate France.

* * *

heinkel he-51

In March 1935, Hitler announced, in two separate statements, the existence of the Luftwaffe, and the reinstatement of Military Conscription in Germany. He intended to create thirty-six army divisions forming twelve corps. It was Hitler’s contention that this action would somehow make a European War less likely, and that it would make Germany better able to co-operate in the international peace process.

At about this same time, French Prime Minister Pierre-Étienne Flandin was attempting to increase France’s required length of military service to two years, which was necessary to make up for the smaller number of draft-age men available in France[2]. When this was brought to a vote in the French Parliament, it was seen as an escalating response to Hitler’s action, but it had been months in developing, as Flandin had had to overcome Socialist opposition to the change.

* * *

On May 15th, 1935, Paul Reynaud proposed the creation of an Armoured Corps along the lines presented the year before by Colonel De Gaulle in his book, Toward a Professional Army. Léon Blum was among those who argued against Reynaud’s proposal; it was defeated by a large majority[3].

* * *

Kriegsmarine Recruitment Poster

On June 18th, 1935, Britain and Germany signed a naval agreement limiting the displacement tonnage of the Kriegsmarine to thirty-five percent of the Royal Navy’s. Neither France nor Italy had been informed of the negotiations leading to this treaty, nor did either nation approve it.

This was not the first time Germany had violated the Versailles Treaty, but it was the first instance of collusion by a second nation in a German treaty violation. And while neither Laval nor Mussolini could, on principle, find fault with self-interested duplicity in an ally, both men felt that the Anglo-German Naval Agreement  had given the lie to the united front the three powers had presented at Stresa; this was, undoubtedly, Hitler’s purpose. Germany had no need for colonies, and little use for a surface navy, but everything to gain in alienating the British from their former allies.

* * *

Knowing that Mussolini had agreed to send the Italian Air Force in support of the French army if France opposed a German attempt to reoccupy the demilitarized Rheinland, Hitler had instructed the German Embassy in Rome to watch Mussolini’s mood closely, to determine if he would still abide by that agreement after the failure of the Hoare-Laval plan. On February 22nd, 1936, ambassador Ulrich von Hassell notified Berlin that Mussolini had at last changed his mind, not only about the Rheinland, but Austria as well.

In Berlin on Monday, March 2nd, Adolf Hitler met with the French ambassador, promising to have concrete proposals for an understanding between their countries the next time the two men met. On Friday, March 6th, Hermann Goering called a meeting of the Reichstag for noon the next day while Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels brought the foreign press to a hotel, where they “attended a news conference” until late the following morning.

At dawn on Saturday, March 7th, 1936, elements of the Wehrmacht entered the demilitarized zone of Western Germany known as the Rheinland. The 22,000 men taking part in this were in uniform and lightly armed, but were transported in non-military vehicles, and had been instructed to halt and withdraw if they encountered any opposition from the French army, although this possibility was considered to be highly unlikely.

When the meeting of the Reichstag had been called to order, Hitler began speaking, first giving more than half an hour to a summary of German History as understood by the Nazi Party. Then he took a moment to make a cryptic reference to the Polish Corridor before discussing “The German Question” at length.

The salient point in this portion of his speech was his statement that “the German Reich Government has today re-established the full and unlimited sovereignty of the Reich in the demilitarized zone of the Rheinland.” Among his conclusions was that returning the German army to the Rheinland was in the best interests of France in particular, and of Europe in general, since it was a necessary part of his opposition to Bolshevism, and to restoring the German nation. As a vouchsafe of his sincerity, he proposed the establishment of a new mutually demilitarized zone, which, quite by coincidence, would require French forces to withdraw from the Maginot Line.

Before Hitler had finished speaking to the Reichstag, the Polish government notified France that they were prepared to adhere to their alliance, and requested an immediate discussion to determine what actions should be taken.

On Sunday, March 8th, French Prime Minister Sarraut addressed the nation via radio, assuring them that the German threat would not be tolerated. However, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s only communication to Sarraut was to say that although Britain would support France in the event of an attack, he was concerned that action against the Germans might result in Germany “going Bolshevik”.

On Monday, March 9th, having not heard from their French allies, the Polish government was the first to endorse the German remilitarization of the Rheinland in an announcement stating that Hitler’s action was an appropriate response to the French alliance with the Soviet Union[4].

On Wednesday, March 11th, Sarraut announced that France would not take unilateral action against Germany, but would bring the matter to the League of Nations in conjunction with other signatories of the Locarno Pact. Neither the League nor the Pact acted against Hitler.

[1] That this attitude aided and abetted Hitler’s step-by-step plans for Europe was, from the British perspective, an unfortunate yet irrelevant coincidence.

[2] From 1915-1919, the birthrate was half what it had previously been, so that by the 1930s, France faced an increasing shortage of manpower.

[3] Although France had had more tanks than Germany all along, France had no Armored Divisions until January of 1940, several months after the validity of De Gaulle’s ideas had been demonstrated in Poland by the Wehmacht.

[4] It should be noted that Poland had a mutual assistance pact with Germany as well as with France. In the absence of communication from France, the Poles felt that standing back to back with Hitler was probably safer than facing him alone with their backs to the Soviet Union.

Rheinland – Part 1

Edouard Daladier

Lost among the striking images we have of World War II are the often even more important political maneuvers that took place among political leaders before and during the war.  This fascinating chess game is often overlooked, which is unfortunate.  Luckily, however, we have access to excerpts from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ monumental historical novel about the war – and she knows exactly how to highlight the important parts of that political history – whether it be in Europe, Asia, Africa or America.

Today, she takes us on a quick tour of the big picture as things began to heat up.

Édouard Daladier had become Prime Minister of France on January 31st, 1933. In March, Polish Dictator Marshal Piłsudski had suggested to him that Poland and France should together attack Germany and depose Hitler. Daladier, however, preferred the Four Powers Pact[1] Mussolini proposed on March 19th, 1933. When Deladier signed the Four Powers Pact, in June, 1933, Piłsudski decided it was time for Poland to come to terms with Hitler, and began negotiating a German-Polish non-aggression pact.

* * *

Adolf Hitler’s most unpopular act in his first year as Chancellor was a ten-year pact signed by Polish Ambassador Lipski in Berlin on January 26th, 1934, pledging mutual non-aggression between Germany and Poland[2], including a promise to defend each other against attack.

In France at this same time, a financial scandal brought down the government headed by Camille Chautemps. A new government formed by Édouard Deladier on February 6th was brought down by rioting that same evening[3].

On February 9th, Gaston Doumergue was named Prime Minister, and Pierre Laval was appointed Minister of Colonies.

On February 12th, Labour Unions in France had called for a national strike to protest the demonstrations of February 6th. Communists and Socialists also co-operated in the protest, working together for the first time in twelve years. It was a germinal moment for what would become the Popular Front.

* * *

“At a time when all of us have but the one earnest desire to heal the wounds of the past decades in peaceful cooperation with other nations,” Hitler was concluding his speech of March 7th, 1934, “we are happy to give to the world a visible demonstration of the background of the problems which concern us today and proof of the skill with which we master them. Thus I am happy and proud to declare the International Automobile Exhibition of 1934 in Berlin open to the public.”

In a later interview, Hitler told Louis Lochner that “the aim and the purpose of all progress must be to make a nation as a whole, and humanity as a whole, happier than before.”

Hitler wanted German automakers to mass-produce an automobile the average German could afford. Of course, the new factories necessary to build several million autos could be retooled to produce several thousand tanks or aircraft easily enough.

* * *

De Gaulle - Toward a Professional Army

In May of 1934, Colonel Charles De Gaulle’s book, Toward a Professional Army, was published in France. In it, he proposed the creation of an elite force capable of deadly strikes[4]. This force would total seven divisions composed of men serving six year enlistments, rather than the eighteen-month conscription which was the standard in France at the time. Six of these divisions would be armoured, with one regiment each of heavy and medium tanks, supported by a battalion of light tanks for reconnaissance, as well as engineers and artillery. The seventh division would be mechanized infantry.

De Gaulle’s book was not well received by the army overall, because it defied standard military procedures, and because his proposals were not compatible with France’s reserve system. It was even less well received by the general public, because a professional army was considered reminiscent of the military coup that had ended the Second Republic in 1851, and which re-established the French Empire[5].

* * *

On June 14th, 1934, Hitler flew to Venice to meet with Benito Mussolini. Although they made several public appearances over the course of three days, they spoke privately, without keeping any record of their discussions.

Time Magazine reported that the only official statement the two dictators made, issued after Hitler had returned to Germany, was that they had begun a “cordial spiritual collaboration,” but also reported that the two were rumoured to have come to an agreement concerning Austria.

* * *

Engelbert Dolfuss Assassination

On July 25th, 1934, Austrian Nazis assassinated Chancellor[6] Engelbert Dollfuss. Guessing that this was an attempt at Anschluss, Mussolini moved several army units to the Austrian border, indicating that German intervention in Austria would not be permitted. Obviously, the two dictators had failed to come to an agreement regarding Austria.

The assassins were apprehended in Vienna and executed. Kurt Schuschnigg became Chancellor of Austria.

[1] A plan under which Britain, France, Germany and Italy would arbitrate border adjustments between or among European nations. Mussolini’s intent was to obtain French and British assistance securing the borders of his Austrian and Hungarian allies against Hitler. The Poles and Czechoslovakians saw it as a weakening of collective security and an accommodation of Hitler at their expense. That France, with the construction of the Maginot Line, appeared to be planning for a defensive war against Germany, which would leave Hitler at liberty to attack France’s allies, greatly reinforced this perception. The French Parliament never ratified the Four Powers Pact.

[2] This meant that the western half of Prussia, as well as the small sections of Pomerania and Silesia which had been taken away under the Versailles Treaty could not be wrested from Polish administration by force until 1944. As it happened, the Polish Corridor would be the least of Germany’s concerns by 1944.

[3] Deladier, a Radical, had dismissed a conservative police official. Conservative protesters attempted to seize the Chamber of Deputies. It is not clear what their intentions were, but the establishment of a provisional fascist government was among the possibilities. One police officer and fourteen rioting civilians were killed in the mêlée, and more than a thousand injured.

[4] Foudre mortelle; literally, mortal lightning.

[5] Toward a Professional Army was highly regarded in Germany, where its principles were not only embraced, but enthusiastically applied when Hitler later created Panzer divisions capable of lightning war.

[6] He was in practice a dictator, modeling his “Austrofascism” after Mussolini’s example, having also aligned his government with Italy.

Ethiopia in WWII – Part 2

haile selassie

Today we bring you the second part of Stacy Danielle Stephens’ story of Ethiopia in WWII from her monumental historical novel.  We’re certain you’ll enjoy it as much as we did!

On November 14th, 1935, Stanley Baldwin’s Tories won what would be the last general election to be held in the UK for nearly ten years. Baldwin again sent his foreign minister, Sir Samuel Hoare, to Paris, where he met with Laval on December 7th. By the following day, the two of them had devised what would be known as the Hoare-Laval Plan[1]. It was a potential compromise affording both Mussolini and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Sellasie a way out of a war which was not especially promising for either of them. More importantly, it would have precluded Hitler’s wooing a disgraced Mussolini away from the allies who had allowed his misstep to become an embarrassment.

Put simply, the plan would have given Mussolini a portion of Ethiopia, with which he could declare victory and promote Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel to the rank of Emperor. In exchange for this territorial concession, the remainder of Ethiopia would be left intact and independent, and spared the further ravages of a continued war. Unfortunately, a French official gave copies of the plan to a pair of reporters. Details of it were published in the Daily Telegraph in London, and by two papers in Paris.

As a work of statesmanship, the plan was unparalleled, and, since everybody got something, it typified what Laval had always sought in every dispute he’d had to arbitrate. But in Britain and France, as well as in the US, the public perceived it as what it was: a compromise. In strictly moral terms, it was utterly wrong.

On December 17th, Laval’s government narrowly survived a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies. By December 27th, Paul Reynaud, leading the conservative Democratic Alliance, and Léon Blum, leading the Socialists, had joined the opposition against him, and the vote of confidence they called for was even closer than it had been ten days earlier.

On January 22nd, 1936, while Laval himself was in Geneva, the Radical-Socialist Party withdrew its support, and his government fell. On January 24th, Albert Sarraut was named Prime Minister of France.

* * *

In Geneva, Switzerland, on Tuesday, June 30th, 1936, Edvard Beneš, President of the Assembly, called the meeting to order, and then resigned. Belgian Prime Minister, Paul van Zeeland, came forward to take his place and continued with the next order of business, an appeal to the League from Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Although Italy had withdrawn its delegation from the League on May 12th, 1936, there were still journalists from Italy in the audience. They began jeering the moment Selassie was introduced. Nicolae Titulescu, the permanent representative of Romania to the League, immediately stood and shouted, “A la Porte, les Sauvages![2]” When the offending parties had been removed, Selassie began speaking[3].

“I, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, am here today to claim that justice which is due to my people, and the assistance promised to us,” he began. “There is no precedent for a Head of State himself speaking in this assembly. But there is also no precedent for a people being victim of such injustice and being at present threatened by abandonment to its aggressor.”

For the first several minutes, he summarized the atrocities which had occurred in the aggression against his nation, reminding the League that they themselves had defined Italy’s actions as aggression, and condemned them, but taken no real action to end them. And he assured the League that the atrocities which had been reported to them were factual; that he had witnessed them himself.

In the concluding minutes of his address, he explained that the League’s concern was really no longer the survival of Ethiopia, but of the League itself, and that international morality was at stake. “Placed by the aggressor face to face with the accomplished fact, are States going to set the terrible precedent of bowing before force?” he asked. “And the great Powers who have promised the guarantee of collective security to small States on whom weighs the threat that they may one day suffer the fate of Ethiopia, I ask what measures do you intend to take?

“I have come to Geneva to discharge in your midst the most painful of the duties of a head of State,” he concluded. “What reply shall I have to take back to my people?”

The League of Nation’s only response was a decision by the League Council, on July 4th, to suspend economic sanctions against Italy. Fighting in Ethiopia had ended sixty days earlier.

* * *

italian troops in ethipioa with mussolini flag

Ethiopia was the final African nation to be subdued by a European power. Italy had last attempted this subduction forty years earlier, but on March 1, 1896, the Ethiopians had defeated and humiliated the Italians at the battle of Adwa. At that time, there were public disturbances in every Italian city, and full-scale riots in both Naples and Rome. Police were unable to disperse the crowd that continuously threw rocks at Prime Minister Crispi’s office, and when the army was sent to quell the riot, civilians barricaded the rail lines, preventing the army from intervening. Crispi resigned on March 14th, 1896, and King Umberto declared a national day of mourning.

* * *

In 1936, Italy was again humiliated, even though Ethiopia had been defeated. Italy’s mismanagement of the war in the first several months allowed the Ethiopians to inflict heavy casualties and impede Italian advances, in spite of being poorly equipped and inadequately supplied. When Mussolini resorted to the widespread use of poison gas against civilians and non-military targets, the profound American goodwill Air Marshal Balbo had established at Chicago in 1933 was irretrievably lost, and throughout 1936, at every theater in the US, if Haile Selassie appeared in a newsreel, the audience applauded and cheered.

And while most Italians were pleased and proud to be citizens of what was now an empire, even such a limited war was beyond Italy’s capacities. Mussolini had blamed economic hardships on the League of Nations embargo, but it had been largely ineffective, and once it was lifted, it became increasingly clear that Italy would not soon recover from building its empire, and could never recover the costs incurred by Mussolini’s disastrous victory.

* * *

That Edvard Beneš resigned as President of the Assembly on June 30th, 1936, was not coincidence. He was also President of Czechoslovakia, a country whose independence and sovereignty were guaranteed, as Ethiopia’s had been, by Britain and France.

[1] Except for the specific portion of Ethiopia ceded to Italy, Breckinridge Long, US ambassador to Italy, had drawn up an identical plan immediately prior to the Italian invasion.

[2] Show those hooligans the door. Literally, To the door, these savages. King Carol of Romania removed Titulescu from all official assignments shortly afterward.

[3] He spoke in Amharic. The quotations are from a translated text.

Ethiopia in WW2 – Part 1

Italian Flying Boat Lands in Chicago

Today we continue our excerpts of Stacy Danielle Stephens excellent historical novel.  Apart from bringing the war to a human level, she has a knack for finding and writing vividly about things that are mostly ignored by the canned histories that came later.  One great example is the segment about the USS Greer that we ran previously – another is this post.

On July 15, 1933, two dozen Italian Savoia-Marchetti S.55 flying boats, under the command of Air Marshal Italo Balbo, landed on Lake Michigan. It was easily the most dramatic and popularly acclaimed arrival of a foreign military officer in American history. Meeting later with Charles Lindbergh and having lunch with President Roosevelt, Balbo captivated the imaginations and won the hearts of the majority of Americans.

* * *

On December 9th, 1934, at Wal Wal, in southern Abyssinia, Italian Dubats[1] encountered Camel-mounted Ethiopian soldiers. There was an exchange of fire, in which the number of Italian dead increased as the weeks went by. Flatly ruling out arbitration, Mussolini demanded that the Ethiopian government make immediate reparations.

On January 3, 1935, Ethiopia appealed to the League of Nations for arbitration. For the next several months, each commission, committee, or subcommittee to which the matter was referred recommended that Ethiopia submit to arbitration[2], then referred the matter to another commission, committee or subcommittee.

* * *

The conference at Stresa, Italy, which began on April 11th, 1935, was a response to Hitler’s cumulative treaty violations. Mussolini and Fulvio Suvich, Italian Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, met with French Prime Minister Pierre-Étienne Flandin and French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval, as well as Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and Foreign Minister Sir John Simon of Britain. After several days of discussion, the group agreed that “maintaining the independence and integrity of Austria would continue to inspire their common policy” and that they would “act in close and cordial collaboration” to oppose “by all practicable means, any unilateral repudiation of treaties which may endanger the peace of Europe.”

Pierre Laval

Apparently, the minutes of the meeting as recorded by British clerks indicate that the words “of Europe” had been agreed upon from the beginning. French and Italian sources recall that Mussolini later requested they be added. Much has been made over this point, but in either case, it is clear that France and Britain were standing behind–or, more accurately, hiding behind–the precedent established at the League of Nations. Since the peace of Europe depended upon Italy’s support for Austrian independence, Mussolini had every reason to believe that the agreement signed in Stresa was a quid pro quo, giving him carte blanche against Ethiopia.

* * *

League of Nations Meeting

In May, while he was still only Foreign Minister, Laval had persuaded the League of Nations to postpone for three months any decisions regarding Italy’s provocations of Ethiopia[3]. In August, as Prime Minister, Laval had to find a way to appease the League of Nations while keeping Mussolini as an ally poised against Hitler, but already, Léon Blum had coined the phrase, “With Mussolini, it is not a question of wrongs, but of crimes,” and the Socialists had taken it up as a slogan. The prevailing consensus in every corner of France, as well as Britain, was that Mussolini must be condemned and Ethiopia supported through, and in concert with, the League of Nations.

Knowing Laval’s reputation for negotiating the impossible into mere difficulties, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin sent his foreign minister, Sir Samuel Hoare, to Paris, with no further instructions than to push Laval to his limits and keep Britain out of war.

Hoare began the discussion with a suggestion that Britain and France attempt to get an agreement from the Germans limiting the size of the Luftwaffe[4]. He then mentioned, almost casually, that while keeping Mussolini[5] in opposition to Hitler was quite desirable, his government would have to stand behind the League.

Laval acknowledged that he was in the same bind, but wanted to know if Britain would stop at sanctions, or actually go to war with Italy if the league called for it. Hoare said that Britain had no intention of going to war. Laval expressed doubts about sanctions being anything more than an annoyance to Italy, since Germany, Japan, and the United States weren’t bound by the League’s decisions, and also expressed his gravest concern; that Mussolini might be “driven into the German camp.”

Nothing had been decided, and Laval was less certain of British support for France than he had been before the meeting. Hoare, meanwhile, addressed the League of Nations, calling for unity without mentioning any specific actions, or revealing what part Britain intended to play in that unity. It was nonetheless clear that Baldwin’s government hoped it could stand solidly behind Ethiopia and the League of Nations, but at a very comfortable distance.

* * *

On August 31st, 1935, President Roosevelt signed the Neutrality Act, which had passed both houses of Congress by majorities that approached unanimous. It established the licensing and registration of arms manufacturers in the US, and provided for an embargo of arms shipments to foreign governments at war. It also restricted travel by US citizens on vessels of other nations at war.

The President also announced that the US would not abide by any League of Nations sanctions against Italy. Since shipments of petroleum were not restricted by the Neutrality Act, and Ethiopia did not have money to purchase weapons even if they could have been exported from the US, the Neutrality Act of 1935 was essentially supporting Mussolini while purporting otherwise, and served as public notice that if the League of Nations were forming a posse, the US would not be riding in it.

* * *

On September 8th, 1935, Laval telegraphed London, asking how Britain would respond if Germany seized the moment and attacked Austria. On September 11th, he sent a telegram to Rome, reminding Mussolini that France was obligated to act in accordance with the League of Nations. Laval received no reply to either telegram.

On October 3rd, 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia.

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[1] Irregular auxiliaries in the Italian Colonial Army.

[2] It was Ethiopia which was seeking arbitration, and Italy which was refusing it.

[3] Mussolini appears to have interpreted this as an endorsement of his intentions toward Ethiopia. This may well have been Laval’s intent.

[4] What led Hoare to assume this would be an effective ice-breaker is anyone’s guess.

[5] Hoare was under the mistaken impression that Laval and Mussolini had a long-standing personal friendship,

The German V2 Rocket – Part 2

V2 Launch Site

Today we present the second half of Stacy Danielle Stephens’ V2 segment of her Historical novel about WWII.  If you like what you see here please remember that Stacy’s Bismarck series is also available here, as are many other parts of her hugely ambitious novel – just look for stories tagged WW2.

They came first to the labour camp at Trassenheide, where unskilled Soviet prisoners were housed, if one used the term as a euphemism. A number of the barracks had been damaged. A prisoner detail was flinging objects of various shapes and sizes onto the bed of a large truck. As he came closer to the work, Dietrich recognized that the objects were bodies and body parts. He marveled for a moment at the indifference with which the living dispatched the dead, then remembered that these were prisoners of war who had little hope and less expectation of leaving any differently than their comrades were leaving now.

“A thousand dead[1] there, you suppose?” Zanssen asked him.

“Five hundred, at least.”

Dietrich realized then that neither of them had broken step while observing this. They turned toward the left, knowing from memory the course of the road which was no longer there. As they approached Karlshagen, the residence area for German scientists and technicians, Dietrich saw that it was no longer there, either. Timbers, both limbs of trees and structural beams, were strewn like chopped vegetables in a stew. Not one building remained standing, nor had any piece large enough to recognize been left lying about. Fragments, at best, were surrounded by jots and tittles of what had been.

“God in heaven,” Zanssen said, stopping in his tracks. Dietrich stopped, too, thinking that no one could have survived that mélange. They stood there, perhaps a minute, perhaps two, before they saw a Hitler Youth detail[2] collecting bodies. These were not being flung onto trucks, but were placed neatly and covered with tarps until they could be identified.

* * *

Albert Speer and Adolf Hitler

At seven o’clock that morning, Luftwaffe Chief of Staff Jeschonnek was informed that all of Peenemunde was in flames. He had been severely reprimanded by Field Marshall Milch and Reichsmarschall Göring in rapid succession via telephone earlier that day, and scolded by Hitler, in person, the day before. Shortly after nine, Jeschonnek’s secretary found his body on the floor of his office, dead of a single shot from the revolver in his hand.

* * *

Several minutes had passed before Dietrich realized that Colonel Zanssen had continued ahead without him. Perhaps an hour later, Dietrich had drifted past what remained of the residences and saw the Colonel again, talking with Reichsminister Speer outside the ruins of the rocket factory.

“Only one hundred and twenty of our people were killed,” Zanssen was telling Speer, “but more than ninety per cent of our housing is gone. That’s the worst of it.”

It seemed to Dietrich that putting up new shelters should be considerably less trouble than replacing sophisticated machinery, but he kept silent until he saw Ludo. Even then, he only shrieked a shrill gasp of excitement before lighting out at a run toward Ludo, who heard his approaching footfalls soon enough to welcome him with open arms.

“You survived?” Dietrich asked even as they embraced.

“Yes, most of us did. We thought the attack had ended, and came out to see the damage. It was the final wave, which came when most of us were outdoors, that pulverized the houses and barracks.”

“That’s wonderful.”

“And when that attack had ended, the director himself began screaming that we must save the important documents. The offices were hardly more than smoke and flame, hotter than hell, but he led a group of us in, sending us out in relays with armfuls of papers as quickly as he could grab them. Everything important was saved that way.”

Dietrich was pleasantly surprised to find that soup and coffee were available in the mess hall, but not so surprised to learn that this had been one of the director’s first orders that morning.

* * *

On the 19th, Reichsminister Speer met with Adi at Wolfsschanze, primarily to “correct” some “misinformation” Adi had received from General Fromm. Speer felt that by limiting repairs to essentials, Peenemunde could be operational within four weeks. Further, leaving wreckage and structural damage in plain view of British reconnaissance flights would give the impression their attack had succeeded, and thus discourage any return engagements.

In the hope of assuring London would be destroyed, Adi approved the controversial “high-pressure pump” program[3]. He also issued orders giving it top priority.

A few days later, Reichsfuehrer Himmler met with Speer and Adi, offering to put his top man, Major-General Hans Kammler, at Speer’s disposal, to help in procuring the labour necessary to repair the rocket facility, and to produce the rockets themselves[4]. Adi decided then that rocket production at Peenemunde would cease once Kammler had completed the construction of an underground rocket assembly facility[5].

* * *

She dropped her tea. Her cup shattered on the floor.

“Do you feel it?” she asked, panicked.

“What?” I asked.

“Into the closet, Love,” she said, jumping up from the table. “Now.”

I wanted to finish our supper, and relax with my tea, but it was imperative that I get into the closet at once, so I did. She was right behind me, but before I could ask another question, it all suddenly ended. My clothes simply disappeared, although I could feel abrasions on my skin, where traces of them had given way, dissolving in a moment. Then I was wrapped in all of our coats, sweaters and mackintoshes as our ceiling, floor and walls all seemed to liquify, and everything around me was either flying upward or falling away beneath me. I was sliding downward among some of it while the rest of it rushed up and over me. In a moment, dust was everywhere. It was done, whatever it was that had happened.

The closet door was in front of me, although I was reclining at an angle under it. Perhaps foolishly, I tried to open it, after wrestling my way out of the wraps that must have cushioned my descent through the wreckage. Debris, apparently, held the door in place. It had probably thus saved my life. I had room to move, and somewhat above or in front of me, there was a vague area composed of less darkness. I crawled away in that direction, burrowing through dust-coated chunks of the shattered building to the top of a heap of rubble, where I emerged, perhaps a story high, in the brilliance of the evening’s declining sun. People were gathering in a crowd, all of them wondering, as I did, what had happened. From the nature of their exclamations and the tones with which they uttered them, I knew they were seeing gruesome casualties.

“Look at that, eh?” I heard an audibly relieved man say, loud and clear. Almost jovially, he added, “But don’t stare.”

“Hello, Miss?” someone else called up to me. “Stay put. Rescue will arrive presently.”

Except for the layer of dust covering me, I was naked. The oblique sunlight played on the bright white powder coating my skin, and I was shining like a celestial being. The last thing I wanted was to sit in the chill of this September evening perched atop a heap of rubble in full view of everyone, who couldn’t help but gaze, transfixed by the vision I presented, a feminine incarnation of Siva, nesting miraculously in the midst of Chiswick. But I understood. There might be people still alive below me. If I tried to traverse the unstable wreckage, it might fall and kill someone.

I waited, wondering if Ellie was in there and still alive, perhaps unconscious, or if her body was scattered among the arms, legs, and other parts bystanders were already locating.

* * *

The dust had been carefully wiped away from my face. I was wrapped in a blanket and sitting with a cup of tea. As the rescue team continued their work, I felt relief at the sight of each hand or foot that I did not recognize, and immeasurable guilt. Somebody else would know those hands and feet, and would have to accept what I was not yet accepting; that someone they loved, who had survived five years of carnage and destruction, had stopped short of surviving the war.

I reminded myself that this had not been my war, or my city, and that I only wished each of these people dead because that was the necessary corollary to Ellie being alive.

There was speculation that a gas main had blown up, but I knew better than to believe this. Among those survivors on the scene, the observation was utterly consistent. The building instantly came apart, and then there were two rapid explosions.

What my imagination kept coming back to was something like radio-controlled atomic energy. I pictured a beam of some sort that shattered the very molecules of objects it was aimed at, releasing immeasurable forces by the sublimation of matter. Something from Buck Rogers.

I knew how crazy that was, but hadn’t this whole war been insane? Before the war, no one could have imagined a world ruled by Russia and the United States operating in tandem, but by the autumn of 1944, nobody could imagine the war having any other result. It was clear by then that for the rest of the century, at least, and perhaps for the rest of human history, Roosevelt’s easy-going variety of capitalism and Stalin’s cynical variety of communism would contend for the hearts and minds of all the earth. Nothing else was now possible.

Possible? Once, a radio controlled airplane was just a joke, a gag in a Porky Pig cartoon. Now the Germans had been using them successfully for three months.

I remembered, then, that the RAF had gotten the doodlebug’s number. They had figured out what it was, how it worked, and how to stop it. Now they were shooting most of them down above the channel. Whatever this new thing was that Hitler had thrown at us over our supper, we would figure it out. We would stop it in its tracks, even if it had no tracks, and we would throw it right back at him.

I started crying, and didn’t stop until I fell asleep at the rest centre in Hammersmith.

* * *

Swastika - Ancient Oriental Good Luck Symbol

The following morning, Ellie and I were at a table, having tea and buns at the rest center in Hammersmith, which was cleaner and cheerier than many I had seen before, perhaps because at this stage of the war, the need was less than it had been, and it was easier to keep a place clean and make it cheery. Or maybe it was just that my point of view had changed. I wasn’t visiting this time, gathering news for another column. I was simply here, like everyone else.

“Something German, you reckon?” Ellie asked quietly. I nodded. “There’s been talk around the depot,” she resumed. “Nothing official, just girls talking, piecing together the scraps of information they pick up from place to place.”

“Talk?”

She nodded, glanced around, then leaned closer.

“Hitler has rockets.”

I was actually relieved, hearing that. The Chinese had had rockets for nine hundred years. Hitler’s rockets would be bigger and deadlier, of course, but they would be nothing really new. This was what the Nazis had always done, seizing upon an old, familiar thing and twisting it, like a swastika, into some horrible thing that could terrify ordinary people. Even the swastika was not their own invention. It had been an ancient and innocent symbol of good luck and well being, but for the rest of human history it will remain the one thing that has never been wrested from Hitler’s corrupting grasp.

[1] The actual number of prisoners killed in the raid was 612.

[2] As the war progressed, the boys assigned to this work necessarily became younger.

[3] The V3. In theory, this weapon system would put a stream of artillery shells into London at six-second intervals. The launching site was destroyed by the RAF on July 6th, 1944, and the approach of Allied ground units prevented it being repaired. Further, technical difficulties with the system itself had not been resolved.

[4] Himmler’s purpose in this was to bring the rocket program under his own control.

[5] Mittelwerk-Dora.

The German V2 Rocket – Part 1

V2 Rocket

Sometimes it seems like World War 2 is Classically Educated’s favorite era – not only are we going through the forties in our review of the 1001 movies – but we are also fascinated by the era.  Today we have another amazing excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ Historical novel about WWII.  If you like what you see here please remember that Stacy’s Bismarck series is also available here, as are many other parts of her novel – just look for stories tagged WW2.  This one is also a timely reminder, after the accidents in the private space sector this week, that rocketry has always been a difficult subject!

On March 18th, 1942, the first V2 exploded during tests of the combustion chamber. While it is the purpose of such tests to discover problems of this sort, the Luftwaffe used this apparent disappointment as a reason to request an investigation into the Army’s rocket program. Reichsminister Speer, with Hitler’s approval, denied the request. Yet Hitler himself was posing a greater threat to the program than either the Luftwaffe or any number of technical difficulties, however explosive they might be. He wanted the program, when operational, to put a rocket into England every fifteen minutes. Further, he wanted the initial sortie to comprise five thousand rockets fired in such rapid succession as to engulf London in a single uninterrupted blast of twenty-four hours duration. If this were not feasible, the rocket program would be set aside, and the money used elsewhere[1]. However, the Fuehrer soon had a change of heart.

On February 14th, 1942, The British Air Ministry had officially instructed Bomber Harris to do what he’d wanted to do all along: undermine German morale by focusing the RAF’s efforts against “population and in particular the industrial workers” of Germany. Three weeks later, the RAF made its first such highly concentrated effort against Essen, with unimpressive results.

In the autumn of 1940, Josef Goebbels had made an eponym of Coventry, creating both a verb–coventrieren–and an adjective–coventriert–for use in newsreels reporting the extreme damage the Luftwaffe inflicted on British cities. Now Harris decided that the RAF must conventrier a German city. Lübeck was sufficiently industrialized to justify a massive raid, and had enough ancient buildings, made principally of wood, which had been drying for centuries, to burn easily, provided they were first broken apart with high explosives, then doused with incendiaries[2]. More than a thousand Germans were killed or injured, and the homes of more than 15,000 destroyed.

It was six weeks before Goering’s Luftwaffe could strike back, making a raid against Exeter. This raid was nominally successful, but not adequate for propaganda purposes.

Hitler no longer concerned himself with the rocket program’s staggering costs, but only with its staggering effects.

* * *

Werner von Braun

In October, 1942, Dr Werner von Braun was asked by his superiors in the rocket program, who were understandably concerned about a loss of funding in favour of a more cost-effective weapon, what the comparative advantages of the Luftwaffe’s flying bomb were, and how they could be effectively argued against. Von Braun explained that the flying bomb would deliver a one-ton high-explosive charge at a very economical 470 miles per hour. A rocket would deliver that same ton of high explosive at four times the speed of sound. Except for the impact of fourteen tons of steel a fraction of a second before the actual explosion, there would be silence, and immediately following that explosion, there would be a sonic boom, nearly as loud and shattering as the explosion itself. He allowed his superiors to infer for themselves that the psychological impact of the rocket as a weapon more than justified the substantially higher cost.

* * *

By April of 1943, Churchill’s son-in-law, Duncan Sandys, had been named chairman of a War Cabinet Committee responsible for countermeasures against German Secret Weapons. A crucial first step consisted of verifying the existence of such weapons programs, and locating any weapons produced, as well as the facilities producing them.

Intelligence reports of a German rocket program had become both more frequent and more consistent, and yet neither the rockets nor the place of their manufacture had been identified. It occurred to Sandys that the problem could be turned around. Rather than looking everywhere in countless reconnaissance photos and finding nothing, he reasoned that large scale long-range rockets would have to be tested in a remote place. What place in Germany be suitable? Only a site on the Baltic Coast. Further, he knew it would be necessary to track these test flights. At the speeds they’d be traveling, this work would require the most competent radar operators available. When he asked Military Intelligence where the Germans’ best radar units were stationed, he was told that they were on the Baltic coast, near a place called Peenemunde. He requested that relatively frequent reconnaissance flights be made over the area, and by the middle of June, he had photos of German rockets right where he had guessed they would be.

* * *

On June 18, 1943, Reichsmarschall Goering was sufficiently pleased with the apparent success of the first several dozen tests of the V1 flying bomb to instruct senior staff that they should begin composing a telegram to Reichsminister Speer, outlining the requirements necessary for proper use and full-scale production of the weapon, which he wished to be set at a figure of 50,000 a month.

* * *

Upon meeting Himmler, Dietrich saw at once that the innocuous demeanor, which incorporated a patronizing tone with condescending facial expressions, and bordered on being absurdly surreal, was purely the device of a brutal policeman who lacked physical strength. Himmler’s conversation skills, such as they were, demonstrated that he was accustomed to interrogation, whether he was obtaining or providing the answers. He was a frightened little man who could never be big, never overcome his fears, but only inflict them on others.

“I hope you have something better to show me than what the Luftwaffe had for Goering[3],” Himmler observed as they made their way outside. A rocket had been prepared for launch.  Neither his remark, nor the timing of it, surprised Dietrich. It had been calculated to strike fear while the iron of anxiety was at its hottest. This was an interrogation technique.

For the first few seconds, the launch was proceeding flawlessly, but the rocket began to spin as it gained altitude and velocity, and then spiraled and yawed, somehow plummeting even as it continued to accelerate. Dietrich realized instantly that this was the worst possible embarrassment that could happen to the program, and yet he recognized the purest beauty of what had taken place, although he didn’t give a thought to either of these things until another minute or two had passed after the few seconds it took for the rocket to pitch and fall and dramatically place a crater of one hundred feet diameter in the earth simply by roaring out the loudest explosion Dietrich had ever heard. Standing in the utter silence that followed, he relived those few seconds, seeing it all as if he were reading a paper by Einstein, with illustrations, the rocket taking the place of the child’s rubber ball dropped inside a fast-moving passenger train. The wonder of it, and the fact that he had witnessed such a thing, moved him to tears.

The seeming eternity of silence was broken by Himmler.

“I can return to Berlin and order increased production of conventional weapons without losing a minute of sleep.”

It had every appearance of being a joke, but Himmler was not laughing. Perhaps he never laughed. Dietrich understood what Himmler meant, and wondered if any of the others did. It was fairly well known that both Speer and Hitler adored the rocket program. Bringing bad news to the Fuehrer was no way to win his favour. While everyone around him was disappointed by what had just happened, Himmler was frightened by it, and could do nothing about that fear except to fling it at others.

“We have at least demonstrated that it’s a genuine vengeance weapon,” Dietrich replied. “They blow a hole in our grounds, we blow a hole in theirs.” The Director had been right about having him on hand. He now glanced at the Director, made eye contact, then looked toward the test stand and quickly raised his eyes skyward.

“We have a second test launch scheduled to take place in an hour,” the Director mentioned rather matter-of-factly. Of course, nothing of the kind had been scheduled, but there was a finished rocket which could be made ready in an hour, and everyone understood the importance of doing so.

Crostwick V2 Crater

It was actually fifty-five minutes later when this second rocket disappeared perfectly into the clouds, traveling on a flash and a boom, and less then three minutes after that, it returned to earth nearly one-hundred-fifty miles away, coming down just as perfectly with a boom and a flash.

Himmler’s facial expression was relaxed, his relief so immense that he wasn’t thinking of the impression he was creating. For those few moments, he was so free of fear that he felt no need to inflict fear on anyone else. That rocket had saved his career, perhaps his life, but Dietrich knew that such a man could never feel gratitude, and would certainly never express it in any way more meaningful than the look and air of innocent serenity he now shared with them.

“I will put in a word with the Fuehrer when I find an appropriate moment,” Himmler promised.

Of course he would.

* * *

Although there were indications that the western allies intended to liberate Greece, perhaps endangering Rumanian oil fields and the southern flank of the Eastern front, the possibility of a Sicilian invasion could not be overlooked. Accordingly, Hitler had requested a report on Italian preparedness. This report, which he received in the early hours of June 30th, 1943, stated that neither the Italian military nor Italy itself could be depended upon. It must either be secured with German forces, or abandoned entirely.

* * *

Dietrich was just outside his hotel when the air raid sirens sounded. He should have gone inside, or found a public shelter, he knew, but seeing an actual air battle take place was too great a temptation. He hoped it wouldn’t be anything major, such as what Hamburg had been put through. Ten minutes later, the first of the British bombers were overhead. The glaring full moon seemed to fade as searchlights surrounded the British, and more than four hundred anti-aircraft guns[4] fired within a few seconds. The relentless concussion of the air, and the shimmying of the earth, physically thrilled him. More waves of aircraft filled the sky, single-tailed pursuit planes dogging and downing twin-tailed aircraft that themselves seemed to be searching for targets but not dropping bombs.

Ninety minutes later, when Luftwaffe Field Marshall Erhard Milch emerged from a shelter to evaluate the battle, he recognized that the anti-aircraft guns were firing at German planes[5]. He immediately telephoned Luftwaffe Chief of Staff Hans Jeschonnek and Reichsmarschall Göring, and attempted to reach Hitler himself at Wolfsschanze, but could not obtain an order for the gun crews to cease fire. Because of a telecommunications failure[6] in fighter command, the hundreds of German pilots circling Berlin were operating with little or no instruction, beyond a vague order to guard Berlin at all costs, and without any information from observation posts on the ground. Consequently, the “battle” raged until the aircraft involved began running out of fuel. More than a hundred of them crashed while landing at Brandenburg.

From their vantage point above the confusion, German fighter pilots saw British Pathfinder Squadrons dropping target markers more than one hundred miles to the north of Berlin, and realized that something untoward was afoot. Thirty of these pilots chose to disregard the order to protect Berlin, and flew off to have a look at this peculiar development. They discovered that the RAF was bombing a small area on the Baltic coast for some reason, and seized the moment. Among them, these thirty German pilots managed to shoot down forty of the almost six hundred British bombers that had struck Peenemunde.

* * *

Stage business is the essence of magic. To draw your attention away from what’s about to happen, the magician makes a point of showing you there is nothing up his sleeve.

Hitler had said that the strength of a totalitarian system lies it its capacity to force those who hate it to imitate it. He failed to understand that his presumption of imitation was also a weakness. The Luftwaffe hit London hardest whenever there was a full moon. After the RAF had coventried Hamburg, the Nazis could only believe that Berlin would be struck a death blow under the revealing light of a full moon, even though they were fully aware that the area bombing of a city did not require illumination. So eight Mosquitos with nothing up their sleeves was all it took to make the German rocket program disappear, if only for two months.

[1] England’s misfortune was the Red Army’s good luck. The resources allocated to the V2 program could have been used to produce more than 5,000 Tiger I tanks.

[2] Exactly three years later, Curtis LeMay would use exactly this same process against Tokyo, undermining the morale of at least 88,000 Japanese civilians by killing them with burns or asphyxiation, and demoralizing 1.5 million more by destroying their homes.

[3] Seven of the eight most recent tests of the V1 “cherry pit” flying bombs had crashed within moments of takeoff. One had slammed into the woods just beyond the Development Works of the Army’s adjoining compound. None the less, on June 28th, 1943, Hitler approved the construction of four V1 launch sites.

[4] The gun crews were Hitler Youth; most of them fourteen years old. By the end of the war, almost all German anti-aircraft guns were operated by teenaged girls, the boys having been sent to front-line combat units.

[5] There had been a total of only eight RAF Mosquito bombers over Berlin that night.

[6] While there is every reason to assume this failure resulted from an SOE operation, there is no evidence supporting such an assumption.

[1]

The launch actually took place on the 29th, but I’m compressing the scene.