ww2

“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.

When Bad Propaganda is Good

John Huston

John Huston is best known for directing Hollywood classics ranging from The Maltese Falcon to Annie, but perhaps his most interesting films are three that were shot at the behest of the US army during the Second World War.  The Army Signal Corps requested a series of propaganda films, which Huston duly filmed…  and which were then released only in a limited way, never really used during the war effort.

Perhaps the least controversial of the three was Report from the Aleutians, which was reasonably aligned with what the government wanted, but was delayed by Huston’s portrayal of Army life as monotonous – not a particularly welcome message for a wartime propaganda film, obviously.  It can be viewed in its entirety, here.

The most surprising thing about Let There Be Light is that it was allowed to be filmed in the first place.  1946 was hardly a time to focus on the “nervous condition” and treatment of veterans.  It brought to light a whole raft of issues that are only really being taken seriously today, and which were extremely unwelcome in the dawning light of the cold war.  The one unsurprising chapter in its history is that it was banned by the Army until 1981.  It can be viewed here.

The final film is, by far, the most interesting of the three.  It is called The Battle of San Pietro, and was filmed during and immediately following the battle of the same name, during the Italian campaign.

As a film that documents a victory for the Allies, this one could have been (it is arguable that it should have been, as that was what he was being paid for, after all) a paean to the justice of the Allied cause and an ode to the heroism of its troops and to the inevitability of victory when one took into account the combined virtues of justice and heroism.

The Battle of San Pietro Still

But Huston, unlike his Nazi counterpart, documentary genius Leni Reifenstahl, decided not to obey his masters’ commands to the letter.  He let an evident love for truth in documentary filmmaking overrun his assignment, and showed just how hard-fought the victory had been.  Dead GIs are not something one normally expects from a film meant to raise US morale, nor is the effect of the war on civilian populations… but they are present.  The film was released, in 1945 (though some troops saw it in 1944), and eventually even allowed to be called a classic in its own right (and by far the most famous of Huston’s wartime work), but it was a close-run thing.  Curious people can watch it here.

Perhaps the fact that Huston could do this kind of thing and still get promoted means that the correct side won the war.  The fact that he wasn’t sent to Siberia or executed without trial for disobeying the spirit, if not the letter, of his contract makes these films even more valuable today.

The fact that both of the above were a close-run thing…  bears thinking about.

From Chancellor to Führer – Part 2

Nuremburg Rally

Today brings the conclusion of our excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ historical novel charting the rise of Adolf Hitler from Chancellor to Führer.  Those who missed Part 1 can read it here.

Near the end of May, 1934, German President Hindenburg returned to his estate at Neudeck, leaving Berlin for what no one doubted would be the last time. Before he left, he remarked to Vice Chancellor von Papen that things were going badly, and asked him to see what he could do about the Nazis.

* * *

Hitler and von Papen

“Only weaklings tolerate no criticism,” Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen said in a speech he gave at the Landgrafenhaus of the University of Marburg on June 17, 1934. Not by coincidence, his speech was highly critical of the Storm Detachment, of the Nazi Party, and of Hitler’s repressive policies. His audience was very much surprised, because it was von Papen who had persuaded President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler Chancellor of the coalition government. His audience was also delighted[1]. If von Papen were no longer supporting Hitler, a new, less repressive, government might be formed. That his speech that day was the last public criticism in Germany of Hitler’s government by anyone in a position of authority for more than ten years indicates how very much mistaken they were.

* * *

On June 21st, 1934, Hitler and General Blomberg, the Defense Minister, met with President Hindenburg, at the president’s request, to discuss the growing friction between the Nazi Storm Detachment and the Reichswehr.

“Your man Roehm,” the President said to Hitler, “says he’s responsible for the defense of the country. Says the Reichswehr is just a training camp.”

“He spoke out of turn, Sir,” Hitler replied. “I’ve set him straight on that.”

“If you had,” the President said, “we wouldn’t be here now. You’ll have to do more than lecture him. Or I’ll have to call for Martial Law.”

“The Reichswehr stands ready to do as you wish, Sir,” General Blomberg replied. How he intended to subdue two million Brownshirts with a force of one hundred thousand men, he did not explain.

“I will do what must be done,” Hitler said, “for the sake of Germany.”

Of course, Hindenburg and Blomberg both knew that Hitler would be unstinting in his efforts to further his own interests; as it happened, civil war would be as hard on him as it would on Germany. He could therefore be depended upon to resolve this crisis decisively and in short order.

Careful inquiries made over the next several days established the understanding that Hitler’s loyalty to the Reischwehr in this crisis would be rewarded with an army oath of loyalty to him; further, the SS, under Heinrich Himmler’s control, would stand with Hitler and the Reichswehr against Ernst Roehm and the Storm Detachment.

On June 25th, the Reichswehr was put on alert.

* * *

In Essen on June 28th, 1934, Ilse Stahl, who had previously been Josef Goebbels’ secretary and mistress, married Gauleiter Josef Terboven. Goebbels, Goering, and Hitler flew in from Berlin to attend the wedding. Goering flew back to Berlin immediately afterwards; Hitler stayed in Essen. On the 29th, he inspected a Reich Labour Camp, then spent the night in Bonn.

Völkischer Beobachter

Also on the 29th, the Völkischer Beobachter[2] published an article by General Blomberg, expressing the Reichswehr’s support for Hitler and the Party. This was a good indicator of which way the wind blew and how soon the ax would fall.

* * *

Early in the morning of June 30th, 1934, Hitler flew to Munich, and shortly after 6 AM, personally placed Ernst, who had just been woken up, under arrest, informing him that he was considered a traitor and instructing him to get dressed at once. Hitler left, and when Ernst had his clothes on, a pair of ordinary police detectives took him to Stadelheim prison.

That afternoon, finally willing to accept the evidence Heinrich had collected and which Hermann had acquainted him with, Hitler uttered the code word, “hummingbird,” to Josef, allowing the purge of Brown Shirt leaders to begin. It would include from one hundred to two hundred men, most of them homosexual.

* * *

By July 2nd, it was complete. That same day, Hitler received a telegram from the German President, which read: From the reports which had been brought to me, I see that by your decisive initiative and by your brave personal activity you have nipped all the treasonable activities in the bud. You have saved the German people from a grave danger. For this I express to you my heart-felt gratitude and my sincere respect. With best greetings, von Hindenburg.

On July 3rd, Chancellor Hitler’s Cabinet met, officially asking the Reichstag to issue retroactive carte blanche; on the 13th, by a unanimous vote, the Reichstag sanctioned these murders (referenced as “events of June 30th, and July 1st and 2nd”), writing them off legally as emergency defense measures undertaken in the best interests of the nation. Officially, seventy-four conspirators had, by an imperative necessity, been summarily brought to justice, but just as officially, it was made known that there would be no accounting, no review, and no further explanation either requested or offered for what had happened in the course of those three hot summer days.

An irrevocable precedent was established on July 13th, 1934. From that date onward, it was clear to everyone that Adolf Hitler now uniquely and absolutely embodied the legitimate and freely elected government of Germany, and that if he felt a certain number of murders were in the best interests of Germany, there would be no questions. Not from the Reichstag. Not from the courts. Not from the public. There would be no questions from any industrialists or bankers, nor from the church in Germany, whether Lutheran or Catholic. Not even if the number of murders were in excess of ten million.

In 1933, no one had asked why a new special detention facility, a Konzentrationslager, or Ka-tset, was needed at Dachau. In 1934, no one asked why three more Ka-tsets, at Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Mauthausen, were also necessary. By the summer of 1934, it was universally understood in Germany that because difficult questions would no longer be asked, they would simply be set aside in these Ka-tsets. What was not understood at that time was that in every Ka-tset, terrible answers would eventually be found.

* * *

On August 2nd, 1934, German President Paul von Hindenburg died. Hitler had been waiting for this patiently, but not idly. He’d already made arrangements to combine the offices of Chancellor and President into a single office he would hold, with the title Führer.

[1] Hitler’s popularity was always equivocal. While very few Germans were dissatisfied with HItler’s accomplishments, even fewer were at peace with themselves about the price at which these things were achieved.

[2] People’s Observer; the Munich-based newspaper of the Nazi Party.

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.

The Greek Campaign

Italian Fiat Tank Captured By Greek Forces

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!

To a great extent, Poland is a vast flat expanse, an immense village square set between the Carpathian Mountains to the south and the Baltic Sea to the north. Something like an enormous marketplace separating Germany from the Ukraine and Western Russia. In the event of a German attack, which had been unimaginable in the summer of 1929, and seemed unavoidable by the summer of 1939, the only terrain features that might have leant any assistance to the Polish Army were two rivers, the Bug, flowing westward south of East Prussia, and the Vistula, flowing east from southern Poland, then north through central Poland to Danzig and the Baltic Sea. It has been argued that had the Polish Army made a stand behind these two rivers, the German Blitzkrieg may well have failed.

That the war began promptly on September First was not serendipity. The autumn rains begin in mid-October, and as the end of summer approaches, rivers throughout Europe are low in their beds and running slow. It is not until the end of August that a large mechanized army can be sure of crossing Polish rivers rapidly enough to strike quickly, and by the third week of October, Germany’s armoured and motorized infantry units would be immobilized by the mud, and helpless against Poland’s elite cavalry units.[1] There was, therefore, a six week time frame within which an invasion of Poland had its greatest chance of success.

* * *

Invariably, Benito Mussolini and his career are summed up in two pairs of words. Castor oil and train schedules. He established his reputation as a forceful leader by compelling incompetent government bureaucrats (as well as his political opponents) to drink castor oil. And he secured his popularity in Italy when he got railroad passenger service throughout the country consistently running on time. This he accomplished with nothing more than pencils and notebooks. Officials rode the trains, noting how long it took to go from one city to another, how long it took the passengers to get on and off the train, how long it took to load and unload their baggage, how much time was necessary for proper maintenance. New schedules were written by simple clerks armed with nothing more than this pertinent information, and then the trains ran on time. There was no overhaul of the existing rail network, and no new trains were designed or built. There was almost no money spent, and not one engineer, conductor or ticket agent drank castor oil.

Sadly, Mussolini himself learned nothing from this, his most successful undertaking during more than twenty years as Prime Minister, and which was also almost certainly his only effort grounded in reality.

The Italian invasion of Greece began on October 28th, when the mountains and valleys were awash with the autumn rains, and the rivers brimming with rapid flows. Because of the weather, Italy’s air force could not fly tactical combat support, and neither artillery nor trucks could move. At five-thirty in the morning[2], eight divisions of the Italian army went forward in three columns, with Metsovon, Ioannina and Arta as their operational objectives. This would place Epirus (the westernmost province of the Greek mainland) under Italian control.

The war plans, as drawn up by the Italian General Staff, called for reinforcements arriving from Italy, once Epirus was secure, to subsequently drive east to the Aegean Coast, splitting Greece and thus allowing it to be conquered gradually. However, General Prasca, assuming that a spectacular show of force, in conjunction with the virtually unopposed arial bombardment of Greek cities, would demoralize the population and prompt their government to surrender, had no specific plans to carry out the later phases of the invasion.[3]

No other army in Europe had greater bravery or cheaper rifles than the Italians, and no other army in history ever fought so well so often while being led so badly and equipped so poorly.

* * *

Italians fighting in Greece received their first Operational Directive two weeks after the invasion began. It had been written by General Soddu, who had been put in charge of the Greek campaign when General Prasca was relieved of command.

Greek Soldier WW2

The Greek plan of defense was as pragmatic as it was brilliant, and as effective as it was simple. They launched a large number of small counterattacks as the Italians advanced through narrow valleys between steep mountains. A handful of Greeks, with a few well-concealed artillery pieces and a limited number of shells, would inflict heavy casualties on the lumbering mass of surprised Italians. Greek infantry would descend upon them, inflicting more casualties and inciting panic. The Greeks then commandeered such materiel as they could carry and destroyed much of what they could not carry. Those Italians who counter-attacked in the treacherous fog and hazardous terrain took heavy losses.[4] In terms of equipment and resources, in numbers devoid of emotion, the Greek tactics were effective enough, but the impact on Italian morale dwarfed the more concrete effects.

Centauro Division Insignia

On the morning of November 5th, the Italian Centauro Armoured Division spearheaded what would prove to be Italy’s final attack to take place on Greek soil[5]. The tanks leading the operation fell victim to concealed tank traps. Tanks attempting to maneuver around these obstacles discovered minefields, where many of them were destroyed. Artillery fire forced the remaining tanks to attempt a withdrawal through marshes, where most of them sank. The majority of armour crewman who had survived to that point were killed by machine gun and rifle fire. Cavalry units attempting to cover the retreat suffered equally horrendous losses, and that night, Greek infantry taking up the positions abandoned by the shattered Italians were unnerved by the sight of men, interspersed among dead horses and abandoned equipment along the roadsides, who appeared to be sleeping. Anticipating minimal resistance from the Greeks, Italian High Command had not made any arrangements for evacuation of the wounded. However severe their injuries, these soldiers had resigned themselves to their duty, composed themselves, then accepted death, alone and far from home, for the glory of Rome.[6]

On November 22nd, in what could be considered the first victorious Allied attack to take place on the European mainland during the Second World War, the Greeks captured Koritsa, which is now generally known as Korce.[7]

By December Fourth, the Greeks had captured Pogradec, in Albania, and the obvious finally became apparent even to General Soddu, who issued a directive instructing his men to withdraw meter by meter, even though the only Italian units that had not already withdrawn from Greece were those finally arriving from Italy, or those that had been routed too suddenly to retreat.

Not having expected so great a degree of success, the Greeks were not prepared to press it further. They were also reaching the limits of their own supply lines, which had been tenuous from the start. Without trucks or paved roads to drive them on, and hampered by a shortage of mules, whenever the Greeks were unable to capture what they needed from the Italians, they often depended upon a network of women and children.

* * *

One weeps when one imagines an army supplied by children, and one’s sobs become wrenching when one considers to what end these Greek children were supporting their brothers, uncles and fathers. It is always appropriate to give the fullest measure of devotion to protect one’s home, family, and community. However horrible the circumstances, it is always pleasant and proper to die in defense of one’s country, even if it is a de jure crime to speak another language in that country, or a de facto crime to practice another religion. It is holy to stand in the gap and fight for the freedom of another country, another nation, another people. But had the Greeks driven the Italians from Albania, it is inconceivable that Ioannis Metaxas would have done anything more than replace the Italian street signs with Greek ones.

[1] Although Poland’s cavalry did not perform as well against the Germans as it had against the Soviets twenty years earlier, Polish cavalry consistently avoided the encirclement which was an essential facet of the German scheme of warfare.

[2] Emanuele Grazzi, Italy’s ambassador to Greece, had been instructed to inform Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas at 3:00 AM that unless his government immediately acceded to Italy’s demands–which, in effect, amounted to an annexation of Greece–a state of war would exist between the two nations as of 6:00 AM. Metaxas personally received this message from Grazzi at 4:00 AM.

[3] Reynolds Packard, UPI bureau chief in Rome at the time, later contended that the Italian Foriegn Mininster, Count Ciano, had paid bribes to a number of Greek officials in a failed attempt to secure the prompt surrender of Greece. While Packard’s contention is plausible in itself and fully consistent with events, there is neither concrete nor definitive evidence which validates it.

[4] Four years later, many of these same Italians, fighting as partisans against the German forces occupying Italy, would use the same technique.

[5] Italy’s advances into western Greece in 1941 were merely seizures of positions abandoned by the Greeks in response to German successes in Northern and Central Greece.

[6] After the war, General Charalambos Katsimitros, commander of the Greek Eighth Infantry Division, which was responsible for the majority of Italian casualties during the first few weeks of fighting, insisted that cowardice was virtually non-existent among the enlisted men of the Italian Army.

[7] In spite of the city’s population being more than ninety percent ethnic Albanian, the Greeks believed that they were liberating a Greek city. Most historians, wishing to avoid an obvious tinderbox, downplay the significance of this particular battle.