Operation Uranus and Thanksgiving 2018

Once you get over the irony of my talking first about Stalingrad and then about American Thanksgiving, you’ll hopefully keep reading. But, just for a moment, remember that on that very American holiday in 1942, a quarter million Germans started starving to death along the Volga, trapped by America’s erstwhile allies, the Soviets.

Beginning in late summer, 1942, Germany and the Soviet Union were locked in a hand-to-hand battle along the Volga over the City of Stalin: Stalingrad. Today, the word means as much to us as Verdun: unceasing fighting in attritional firefights. But Stalingrad wasn’t just forts and trenches, it was where infantry platoons fought for days over single stairwells; companies launched assaults on the floor of the building above them; battalions attacked enemy lines to fight over a field bakery. From September to November 1942, the German Sixth Army under Friedrich von Paulus, the Romanian Third Army under Petre Dumitrescu, and the Romanian Fourth Army under Constantin Constantinescu-Claps fought the Soviet Stalingrad Front under Andrey Yeryomenko and Konstantin Rokossovsky’s Don Front, and the Southwestern Front under Nikolai Vatutin in an ever-noisy world of dust and smoke, dying and fear.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Stalingrad#/media/File:Map_Battle_of_Stalingrad-en.svg

Operation Uranus, Wiki Commons

To break the deadlock and take advantage of weaker German flank elements, Georgy Zhukov, then Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army, planned a counterstroke to encircle the Germans in Stalingrad. Another quarter million Soviet troops were poured into the region, while the embattled fighters in the city were merely told to hold on.

The plan unfolded on 19 November 1942, and except for some uniform confusion close to the city itself, successfully trapped Sixth Army, both Romanian armies, parts of the Italian force and part of Germany’s Fourth Panzer Army in its clutches. A subsequent Soviet operation, Mars, beat back other elements of Germany’s Army Group B, closing the trap on over 200,000 Axis soldiers in the Stalingrad area by 23 November–three days before Thanksgiving in the US.

Both German and Soviet survivors of the Stalingrad fighting declared that they could imagine nothing worse. Because both sides were surrounded and under constant observation, there was no respite from the threat of a sudden sniper shot or artillery barrage. With every significant landmark, building, hillock, clearing and street intersection zeroed in by artillery batteries of all sizes and both sides, any and all attacks were costly in human terms. Gradually, the fighting over buildings was so sustained that some collapsed merely from the concussion of days or weeks of nearby bombardments.

Stalingrad ended for everyone on 2 February 1943. It is unclear exactly how many Axis soldiers went into captivity (probably somewhere about 91,000), but fewer than 10,000 survived to be repatriated as late as 1965.

In the late 1990s a Soviet general, on his deathbed, said that his greatest regret in life was that, as the medical officer in charge of the prisoner transports, he didn’t spend any time arguing that an accurate count of the number of Axis prisoners taken at Stalingrad was needed, so that no one knew how many to expect.  “Not enough of us cared,” he was reported to have said as he expired. True or not, it feels true.


This Thursday is Thanksgiving Day in the US, a holiday known better for football and overeating than for prayerful offerings, as was originally intended. But you have to ask “who intended” before you go too far down that path. The first official Thanksgiving was from Washington’s proclamation of 1787, but days of fasting and feasting had been observed in French and Spanish New World colonies in the 16th century, and in Virginia as early as 1607. The Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving that most Americans identify as the first Thanksgiving was, therefore, a latecomer in 1621. Lincoln fixed the day as the fourth Thursday in November in 1863, and Congress set it on the fourth Thursday in 1941.

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Somewhere in Europe, 1943-45.

Now, watch football if you’re so inclined, or play football if that thrills ya. But, the imagery above and to the right here should tell you what the holiday is for. Yes, they are Norman Rockwell paintings, and they were all done during WWII, but you don’t see them very much. The reason for that is both clear and obscure: not very cheery. While superficially true…the girls are alive, folks, in one piece but living in ruins that were not of their making. The GIs had enough to share and gave out of their bounty because they could, and they wanted to.

Pay attention, people.

The message of this sequence is that some people have more to be obviously thankful for than others. The GI to the right is clean, probably healthy and reasonably well-fed–possibly a rear-area guy. He looks older–maybe in his late 20s or 30s–than we’re used to seeing NCOs in uniform. But, too, he might be old enough to be a father who missed feeding his own little girl, who is safe at home on the other side of the world. And the top kick who gave the young woman above his jacket can always get another.

Think about it.

No, I’m not going to preach anymore. Have a happy and safe holiday.

 

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Jervis Bay, National Doughnut Day, and Scheduled Release Day

First I have to make sure that you all have your fireworks ready for Guy Fawkes Day, which is of course today. Got ’em? Good.  On to more fireworks.

HMS Jervis Bay started life in 1922 as a Commonwealth Line passenger liner and ended her life as a 14,000-ton barely-armed target for Germany’s large cruiser/”pocket battleship” Admiral Scheer on 5 November 1940 while trying to protect eastbound convoy HX-84.

These are the stark and straightforward facts. But there’s a lot more to this story.

First is the concept of the AMC, or Armed Merchant Cruiser. These were a sensible development of the Royal Navy in the late 19th century when the speed and size of passenger vessels grew exponentially faster than the RN could keep up with. The first AMCs were developed to prove the concept, then quietly retired. When WWI began, the first batch of fast passenger and cargo vessels were modified and used mostly in enforcing the North Sea blockade, where they suffered from submarine attacks but were otherwise successful, if unable to confront German auxiliary cruisers, also called raiders. Notable exceptions included HMS Alcantara‘s success against Germany’s Grief in 1916.

But as a concept, the AMCs were obsolete before that. The Dreadnaught revolution in warship design had invited the development of smaller, heavier armed torpedo boat destroyers, that became simply “destroyers” that were better at surviving, cheaper to build, and faster than most raiders. Aside from that, commerce raiding had mostly passed to submarines, against which the AMCs had very little chance.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Jervis_Bay#/media/File:JervisBayatDakar1940.jpg

HMS Jervis Bay at Dakar, early 1940; Wiki Commons

But in 1939 Britain had very few options, and not enough warships to protect all the convoys that she needed from the four corners of the Earth just to survive, let alone fight a war. Thus, Jervis Bay and another 40+ merchant ships were given navy crews, old guns, and missions more suited not only to real warships but to several of them. The convoy that Jervis Bay was to protect was 37 ships…and she was the only escort.

On that fatal day, Admiral Scheer found the convoy just before 4 in the afternoon, and Jervis Bay dutifully took her place to intercept, even though the issue was never in doubt. The uneven duel lasted 24 minutes, as the doughy AMC fired her old 6-inch guns at the pocket battleship and the pocket battleship fired her new 11-inch guns back. Ablaze and wrecked with most of the officers dead, Jervis Bay stopped shooting and quickly went down, her captain dead on the bridge. Sixty-five survivors of a crew of 254 were picked up by a Swedish freighter.

Lest the reader think it was all in vain, it wasn’t. Knowing that his ship wouldn’t survive, Captain Fogarty Fegen of Jervis Bay ordered the convoy to scatter in the gathering dusk, and only five of the merchantmen were sunk by Admiral Sheer that afternoon and evening. For his heroism, Fegen was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Putting Jervis Bay out there alone was a calculated gamble at that stage of the war, for most convoys were managing the crossing unmolested. The German surface fleet–built and equipped primarily for raiding–was small, and the transit for German submarines was still long before the bases in France were operational late in 1940. Of the 42 AMCs converted in 1939 and 1940, only one was still in service by 1944. The Armed Merchant Cruisers were always a stopgap, and though successful at times, were always meant to be secondary vessels.


And then there’s National Donut Day, of which there are two: the first Friday in June, and 5 November, though precisely why there are two of them is another mystery of the ages. The earliest with known origins is the one in June, dating from 1938 when the Salvation Army in Chicago chose to celebrate the 200-odd “doughnut lassies” that they sent to the battlefields of WWI. Dunkin Donuts, which is in the process of dropping the “Donuts” out of its name (go figure) observes this June date.

The November observation date may have been around as early as the 1930s’ as well, though exactly where and why is still unknown. Entenmann’s and Krispy Kreme observe the November date. This means, of course, a donut war brews for the stomachs of America.

https://www.couponcabin.com/blog/where-to-get-free-donuts-on-national-donut-day/

Celebrate!

No, not really. Donut consumption in the US has been declining for more than twenty years, so no, not really. Dunkin and Krispy Kreme have been expanding their menus in non-fat-pill directions for at least that long, driven by the explosion of Starbucks, primarily, and the general change in American consumer tastes.

And the spelling is supposed to be “doughnut,” but the more common “donut” has been around since, well, Dunkin put up his first sign. Either now is acceptable in most circles, but if the Spelling Police come after you…don’t say I didn’t warn you.

But National Donut Day is upon us, and if these photos don’t entice you to go out and at least think about a cruller…I can’t help you.


I CAN, of course, help you choose your next WWII-era book: Why the Samurai Lost Japan is now scheduled for release on 15 December. You should be able to go to your fave bookseller, including the online stores and our Bookpatch store, around then. Electronic versions (PDF, Kobo, e-book) should be available in January.

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Cover for “Why the Samurai Lost Japan”

For those of you who are new here, for nearly two years I’ve been announcing the reworking of What Were They Thinking? A Fresh Look at Japan at War 1941-45.  My co-author and I have gotten our book back under our control,  reworked and expanded and renamed it into the magnum opus that you will see in December.

Why the Samurai Lost Japan is, as the subtitle says, a study in miscalculation and folly. More than that, it is an object lesson in modernization, industrialization, and what the Star Trek universe warned against with the First Prime Directive: overreaching contamination of a society not ready for tremendous changes in social fabric wrought by advanced machine-age technology. Japan went from a late feudal social organization to an early industrial one in a single generation, and a large and important part of Japanese society–the samurai–failed to understand all the ramifications of those changes. One unfortunate result of that misunderstanding was called the Pacific War of 1941-45. Look for it starting 15 December.

Danzig and the Polish Corridor and Just-Because Day

Last week in August. School starts in this part of the world, and folks are looking towards either ending their summers in a flurry of activity or starting their fall cleanup because…soon the snow will fall. True fact: the only month on record where snow has not fallen in Wisconsin is August. A little weird, but that’s the Great Lakes for ya.

On 27 August 479 BC, the Greeks turned back yet another Persian invasion at sea near Mount Mycale on the Ionian coast and on land at Platea in Boeotia, two of the most decisive battles in the ancient world. Though not as well known as Thermopylae, Marathon or Salamis fought before, these two battles turned back the Persians for another generation and shifted the balance of power in the Aegean to the Greeks. On this day in 1809, Hannibal Hamlin was born in Paris in what is now Maine (then Massachusetts). Hamlin is best known for being Abraham Lincoln’s first vice-president (replaced by Andrew Johnson in the 1864 election), and if he had been in office today just imagine what the late-night comics would make of his name. And on 27 August 1929, the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which was officially called the General Treaty for Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy, was signed in Paris. In a decade all the signatories (that included Germany, Japan, and Italy) would be regarding this piece of paper as being the most worthless document ever promulgated, and in twenty years all of them would be recovering from a global war. Today is also National Pots de Creme Day that only exists because of habit. But today we’re talking about bullies, and about doing what you want when you want to because you want to.

The Polish Corridor was the brainchild of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, and its creation was the direct result of not occupying Germany but trying to isolate what Europe saw as the cause of Germany’s militaristic problem.

The Polish Corridor existed, in part, because Britain and France didn’t want to be following an American victory parade in 1919 or 1920. There, I said it. Sue me. The Polish Corridor was the brainchild of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, and its creation was the direct result of not occupying Germany but trying to isolate what Europe saw as the cause of Germany’s militaristic problem.

Merely disarming the Germans as the Versailles treaty did wasn’t going to change the Prussian attitudes towards their neighbors and their pathological need for a strong military to make up for their lack of geographic boundaries.

The fact is that Germany wasn’t really and genuinely defeated as a nation in 1918, but settled for a “European peace” that stopped the fighting, moved a few borders, paid out a few coins, but otherwise maintained the status quo ante of 1914. The German monarchy had collapsed, Austria-Hungary folded, the Ottomans were displaced, but the root of the issue in central Europe–German revanchist militarism–was still more or less in place. Merely disarming the Germans as the Versailles treaty did wasn’t going to change the Prussian attitudes towards their neighbors and their pathological need for a robust military to make up for their lack of geographic boundaries.

http://www.yourdictionary.com/polish-corridor

Seventy-five miles wide, the cause of the Second World War.

So the Polish Corridor carved a seventy-five-mile wide chunk out of Pomerania on the Baltic Sea and created a geographic freak called East Prussia that, administratively, was still a part of Germany. (Yes, this part of the world had been Poland once, but it had also been Sweden and Lithuania from time to time.) While it gave the new Polish republic access to the Baltic, it also created a “free city” called Danzig, and a raison d’être for any resurgent Germans to hate a perpetually weak Poland, and the powers that created such an “insult” to German pride. All that was needed was a German strong enough and with a large enough following to rearm the country and demand the geographic reunification of East Prussia with Germany, even if it meant the destruction–again–of Poland.

Its head was an Austrian-born former Bavarian Army corporal named Adolf Hitler whose messianic image presented Germany with a firm direction and some scapegoats for Germany’s troubles: Poland was one of those scapegoats.

Enter the National Socialists. Starting before all the smoke had cleared from the War to End All Wars in 1918, strong-willed and influential Germans began making speeches, promises, and threats. After a decade of economic chaos, political mayhem and a dozen different governments, the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, NSDAP in German or merely the Nazis came out on top in Germany. Its head was an Austrian-born former Bavarian Army corporal named Adolf Hitler whose messianic image presented Germany with a firm direction and some scapegoats for Germany’s troubles: Poland was one of those scapegoats.

While the Poles had not been very nice to the Germans living in the Corridor, “oppressed” was not a good term to use to describe their plight, but it worked for propaganda purposes to whip up public sentiment in Germany.

By 1938, after the annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia, Germany started to negotiate more direct access to East Prussia. Lacking a land route was a distinct technical problem for customs and tariffs, so there was some validity to German desires to address the issue. But the Germans overreached, demanding both a superhighway and a double-track railway across the Polish Corridor, effectively nullifying Polish sovereignty there. The Poles said no, so the Nazis manufactured a crisis and a whole new class of “oppressed” Germans: the Danzigers. While the Poles had not been very kind to the Germans living in the Corridor, “oppressed” was not a proper term to use to describe their plight, but it worked for propaganda purposes to whip up public sentiment in Germany.

By 1939, Germany had lost patience with Poland. Many Germans didn’t even like the idea of Poland, let alone the reality. On 27 August 1939, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop handed British ambassador to Germany Neville Henderson a note demanding:

  • The return of the city of Danzig to German control;
  • A plebiscite in the Corridor on whether it should remain a part of Poland or revert to Germany–remarkable because former German residents were to be given a vote and Poles who had lived there all their lives were not.

Henderson and the Chamberlain government were under no illusions as to what was behind this demand, one that neither Poland nor Great Britain nor France would agree to. Since, unknown to all but the Germans, this ultimatum came a week and a half after Hitler had issued the invasion orders, this was cynical at best and a diplomatic fig leaf at worst. But Hitler expected his gambler’s luck to hold a little while longer–that miscalculation led to WWII.


https://www.pinterest.com/LakeAffect/dock-jumps/?lp=true

Just Because!

National Just Because Day was started in the 1950s by  Joseph J. Goodwin of Los Gatos, CA, as a family holiday, but it just spread, like so many good ideas. Feel free to celebrate this day in any way you choose.  Just because!

Every day most of us do things we are expected or required to do. On National Just Because Day, this common sense doesn’t have to apply. Today give you license to do things without rhyme or reason.

  • Buy that outfit at the mall that you’ve been drooling over…just because!
  • Use a vacation day to go fishing…just because!
  • Pick up the tab for the table next to you …just because!
  • Sing really loud in your car with your windows rolled down…just because!
  • Surprise someone you care about with flowers like the gent on top…just because!
  • Jump in the water with your friends like the three above…just because!
  • Kiss a friend like the two below…just because!
https://meseriadeparinte.ro/nu-va-mai-pupati-copiii-pe-gura/

Just Because!

Just do it today…just because you can and it feels good and it makes you and someone else happy.

But, moderation, please. Don’t set yourself on fire just because you have a can of gas and a match.

VE Day and National Packaging Design Day

And today, 7 May. Very little snow should be in the Great Lakes forecast, but that is not to say no snow. I remember well one May evening in 1988 we were told to expect partly cloudy skies and awoke to 8.5 inches of white and heavy “partly-cloudy” on my driveway and sidewalk.

Nonetheless, 7 May 1429 was when the French, inspired by Joan of Arc, lifted the siege of Orleans. Also on this day in 1660, a fella named Issac Fubine may have started the macaroni wars by patenting his macaroni in Amsterdam; funny it sounds and dubious it may be, but folks these days are deadly serious about macaroni design. And on 7 May 1765, HMS Victory, the 100-gun First-Rate line-of-battle ship that was the flagship for Lord Nelson at Trafalgar, was launched out of Chatham Dockyard; now a museum ship, Victory is the oldest commissioned warship in the world.  Also on 7 May in 1826, Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, was born in Natchez, Mississippi; Varina was the only First Lady of the Confederacy and would survive her husband by nearly 20 years.  On this day in 1815, RMS Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk off Kinsale Head, Ireland; while celebrated as a cause celebre against Germany in the US, she was admittedly carrying ammunition and ordnance equipment. And on 7 May 1942, the naval battle known as the Coral Sea ended, the first naval battle where the belligerent surface ships never saw each other; while neither side “won” the Japanese lost most of two carrier air groups that would be sorely missed a month later at Midway. Today is also National Paste-Up Day for reasons known only to eternity, and National Leg of Lamb Day, ditto. But today, we talk about the end of the slaughter in Germany, and about packaging design.

Germany was losing control of territory at a rate about the size of Connecticut every day from March 1945 onward.

By the spring of 1945, Europe had been at war for almost six years. The British economy was still going only on American capital; the other economies of Europe were on life support. There had been nearly two million casualties a year since 1939, and the last eight months of the war had seen nearly a million killed, wounded and prisoners a month–except around Berlin, where the rate was doubled. The two largest land armies in Europe–Soviet and American–were hewing the remnant of the Germans into smaller and smaller enclaves by the hour. Germany was losing control of territory at a rate about the size of Connecticut every day from March 1945 onward.

By April 1945, not only were communications with Berlin unreliable, they were no longer thought of as necessary.

On 28 April 1945, Benito Mussolini and his mistress Claretta Petacchi were executed by Italian partisans in Giulino in northern Italy. Their bodies were displayed at a nearby gas works. The next day, Axis forces in Italy surrendered to the Allies without reference to Berlin. By April 1945, not only were communications with Berlin unreliable, they were no longer thought of as necessary.

The Soviets, whose total casualties for WWII are still incalculable, didn’t care who they killed as long as they took Berlin.

On 30 April 1945, Hitler and Eva Braun took their own lives in the Reichs Chancellory bunker in Berlin. By then Soviet troops were within 700 yards of the structure, advancing at a rate of about 400 yards a day. They were fighting not just regular German soldiers and Volkssturm militiamen but non-uniformed civilians who took up weapons with the soldiers and started fighting–unorganized, untrained, undisciplined, but fight they did. The Soviets, whose total casualties for WWII are still incalculable, didn’t care who they killed as long as they took Berlin.

…the US Army would report some 1,300 deaths a week due to non-combat causes (including disease, booby-traps, and ruined infrastructure) worldwide in the spring of 1945.

On the other side of ever-shrinking Germany the British and Americans, French and Poles, Canadians and Dutch, Belgians and Czechs were as likely to simply round up stragglers as they were to have to fight organized German units. While the prisoner and refugee camps grew in size so did the casualty lists, and not just to combat or direct enemy action. Their own equipment was wearing out at an alarming rate: the US Army would report some 1,300 deaths a week due to non-combat causes (including disease, booby-traps, and ruined infrastructure) worldwide in the spring of 1945.

When Breslau fell on 6 May, there were simply no large German maneuver forces left.

When the end came in Germany it came swiftly.  The shooting ended in Berlin on 2 May, and the German commander Helmuth Weidling surrendered his remnants to the nearest Soviet commander Vasily Chuikov. Army Group Vistula, consisting of about 45,000 Germans, surrendered to American forces the same day. On 2 May, Bernard Montgomery accepted the surrender of about a million Germans in Northern Germany and Scandinavia. When Breslau fell on 6 May, there were simply no large German maneuver forces left.

Though VE Day is usually recognized as 8 May when the news was released in the West, it was another day in Eastern Europe, 9 May, that is usually celebrated at Victory Day.

On 7 May 1945, Alfred Jodl signed the unconditional surrender document near Dwight Eisenhower’s SHAEF headquarters at Rheims, the same day the surrender was announced to German forces in Norway. Though all Germans were ordered to stop fighting, there were hold-outs fighting in Yugoslavia until 25 May. Though VE Day is usually recognized as 8 May when the news was released in the West, it was another day in Eastern Europe, 9 May, that is usually celebrated at Victory Day.

The Americans, still grimly planning their invasion of Japan, were trying to keep the VE Day celebrations to a minimum, not certain how the other half of their World War Two was going to be resolved.

While the celebrations were as wild in Europe as they would be three months later in the US, Europeans generally had a good deal less energy than the Americans. Worse, they had millions of displaced persons, prisoners of war, and war refugees who, though relieved by the conclusion of the fighting, still had to struggle to survive. The Americans, still grimly planning their invasion of Japan, were trying to keep the VE Day celebrations to a minimum, not certain how the other half of their World War Two was going to be resolved.


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As opposed to duct tape…?

7 May is National Packaging Design Day, which was founded by Design Packaging. a high-end retail packaging design outfit that would not design anything like the young lady’s dress above, and was proclaimed by the Registrar of National Day Calendar on April 22, 2015. Why it is today is one of the mysteries of the ages.

My brother-in-law Steve was a packaging engineer early in his post-college life. When he graduated in ’70 it was from the only 4-year program in the country at Michigan State University in Lansing (which was where he met my sister Lois and became my brother-in-law). Until then, like most everyone else, packaging was not high on my list of things to think about, but since then I attended the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) and came to know some of the Packaging Technology (another unique program) students there, and gave some more thought to packaging.

Well, at least a few minutes of thought, likely more than any of you have. Packaging in the 1970s was a great deal different than it is today. So much of it these days is tamper-proof (a nice way of saying “customer-proof”) and bio-degradable or recyclable. Then, not so much. But, too, stuff like bubble wrap (which has its own day) only came along in the last couple of decades or so, and the biodegradable stuff only in the last decade. For all the packaging we discard, we keep about 10%, only to discard most of it later. Biodegradable makes sense, but as of yet it is expensive and has limited applications for consumer products. But soon, it will follow the demand for green products.

In the meantime, remember: it took longer to design and manufacture your fast food box than it will take for you to consume the contents.

Berlin and National Wear Your Pajamas to Work Day

Well, three weeks into Spring in the Great Lakes already. Wow, where did that time go? Probably in the mud of my backyard. If you like lawns, don’t have dogs in the winter.

The one signal event on 16 April in the year 1457 BC was Meggido, a battle on the plains of Armageddon in the modern Jezreel Valley that is the first documented battle–and the earliest objectively identified event–in human history; though we know that the Egyptians and the Canaanites that resulted in Egyptian success, we know little else for certain. We are much more certain, however, that the battle of Culloden, fought east of Inverness in Scotland on 16 April 1745, was the end of the Jacobite (Stuart) uprising and marked the beginning of the end of the religious wars that wracked Europe for two centuries. Also in Britain, on 16 April 1797, the Spithead Mutiny began near Portsmouth; the labor unrest (for that’s what it amounted to) was less a mutiny than it was a work stoppage or slowdown for men who were essentially treated like beasts and hadn’t had a pay raise since 1658. The idea spread throughout the fleet, eventually reaching the Caribbean, South Africa, and Australia before the last incident was settled in 1812.  Also on this day in 1867, aviation pioneer Wilbur Wright was born in Millville, Indiana; his younger brother Orville was born in 1871, and sister Katherine in 1874. Also on this day, befitting our lead article, Lucius Clay, one-time military governor of Berlin, died in Chatham, Massachusetts. It’s also National Bean Counter Day, National Orchid Day, and in the US, Income Tax Fatality Day. But today we’re talking about the horror of the battle of Berlin, and about PJs.

By the spring of 1945, Germany was thoroughly beaten but was hardly defenseless. The Soviets had hammered the Germans back to the Oder and Neisse rivers, within long-range artillery range of Berlin by mid-February, but the Soviets were so worn down that they needed time to regroup. As Budapest fell 13 February and securing East Prussia and the northern Baltic coast by mid-March, the Soviets rebuilt and regrouped their two and a half million men in three Fronts (army groups) under Gregori Zhukov, Konstantin Rokkosovsky, and Ivan Konev. The Germans, too, under Gotthard Heinrici and Ferdinand Schoener, marshaled what resources they could, some three-fourths of a million men bolstered by an unknown corps of schoolchildren, grandfathers, housewives and factory girls formed into ad-hoc units or were simply handed a mine and a Panzerfaust to await the Soviet onslaught that they knew would come sooner than later.

Wiki Commons

Phase One, Seelowe Heights to Encirclement

On 16 April it began at the Seelowe Heights, where Zukov’s 1st Belorussian Front drove the Germans back for four days in the last truly pitched open battle of the war in Europe. Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front pushed across the Oder, cutting Berlin off from the north. Konev’s 1st Ukranian pushed over the Niesse in the south, isolating Berlin from Schoener’s Southern Army Group. After four days, Berlin was cut off on three sides.

Wiki Commons

German Counterattacks around Berlin, April to May 1945

It took no time at all for the Germans to start counterattacks, but the efforts were worse than tilting at windmills. By this time the Germans had Panzer divisions with no tanks, infantry divisions the size of 1939 battalions, and horse cavalry units hunting the roads and fields for the thousands of deserters. When Army Group Steiner, an ad-hoc formation with barely 30,000 men in a single corps, attacked the northern flank of the encirclement, they were beaten down in less than twenty hours, and out of fuel in thirty.

Water was miraculous if it still came out of a tap; electricity a memory; silence an illusion.

The encirclement of Berlin was a foregone conclusion, but the Nazi propaganda machine kept up the pace with claims of Soviet-American battles that would allow Germany to divide and conquer. The few people who actually heard these pronouncements and had time to think about them knew better. Inside Berlin, Soviet troops cleared the city block by block, in some cases room by room. The cacophony of noise, dust, and waves of concussion from the continual roaring of artillery and explosives made the fighters numb to any sensation other than fighting. Housewives found themselves trapped in cellars with antitank guns, passing ammunition to the long-since deaf gunners engaging Soviet tanks down rubble-blocked streets. Squads of children made games of running up to tanks with magnetic mines, of picking off Russian drivers in trucks. Water was miraculous if it still came out of a tap; electricity a memory; silence an illusion.

Altogether the Soviets would expend about a thousand men and women an hour for three months in the last battles in Germany.

By 30 April, the inner core of Fortress Berlin was a few blocks around the Reichstag, and those defenders had barely an evening’s ammunition left. After Hitler and Braun were dead and disposed of, the survivors of the inner circle killed themselves or dispersed as best they could, but most were captured or killed. Two days later, on 2 May 1945, the Berlin survivors stopped shooting. In two weeks the Soviets suffered some 81,000 killed and quarter million wounded fighting over Berlin; the Germans probably about 44,000 dead military and civilian casualties in the Berlin Defense Area itself, but from Seelowe Heights to the encirclement at least another 50,000. Altogether the Soviets would expend about a thousand men and women an hour for three months in the last battles in Germany.

For a more detailed description of the Battle for Berlin, you can see my essays in Russia At War, edited by Timothy Dowling (2015, ABC-CLIO) available at your library.

On a personal note, my mother-in-law was ten and living in Berlin when the Russians came in ’45. I have yet to get her to talk about it much. I might not want to talk about such a nightmare, either. I get it, Lucie.


For reasons unknown to humans, today is National Wear Your Pajamas to Work Day. The thing was started, speculation holds, because traditionally it’s the day after income tax returns are due to be in the mail in the US, though this year they’re due today. While this fits the procrastinator’s explanation, those of us who try to not wait in line at the much-publicized mail cues at midnight don’t have the excuse. I rather doubt that the woman above waited in a line at the post office all night. Unless you’re working from home or in professions where more exposed skin means more money, I wouldn’t advise that anyone wear pajamas like this to the office:

Flikr

Beautiful, yes, but…appropriate for the office? Maybe not.

In all things, moderation, please. I would never recommend wearing pajamas, mostly because I don’t wear them at all. And what I wear to bed is none of your beeswax, buckaroo.

Verdun Ends and National Roast Suckling Pig Day

18 December…chestnuts roasting on an open fire…and all that.  On this day in 1261 the Yuan Dynasty began in China. And in 1603 the first Dutch East India fleet left the Scheldt. New Jersey ratified the Constitution on this day in 1787; and Amendment XIII banning slavery went into effect in 1865. And in 1800 Charles Goodyear, future tire king, was born in Hartford, Connecticut. Joseph Stalin, future bloodthirsty cannibal, was born in TIflis in what is now Georgia on this day in 1879, the same day that John Kehoe, quasi-anarchist leader of the Molly Maguires, was hanged in Pennsylvania. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., son of the first African-American general officer and the future first African-American lieutenant general, was born on this day in 1912 in Washington DC. And Woodrow Wilson married Edith Galt at the White House on this day in 1915.  But today, we’re talking about French charnel houses, and roast pork.

…committing to attrition as an offensive strategy was alien to German arms

Before 1916, no German planner ever thought attrition was a good idea for German arms: they simply weren’t set up for it. German war-making had always emphasized the quick encirclement and decisive warfare: Germany was never prepared logistically to pound an enemy to death. Germany had built splendid entrenchments starting in 1915 that could withstand attrition, but committing to attrition as an offensive strategy was alien to German arms.

In February 1916, Germany began an offensive at the traditional German invasion route of France: at the forts guarding the city of Verdun on Meuse river, the clearest route to Paris. 

But Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of Staff to the German Army, believed that France was teetering on the edge of military and political disaster. He believed that French casualties were such that the manpower pool was dry, so his plan for Verdun was two-fold: attack France at its most vulnerable point–Paris, and draw as many French reinforcements as possible into the killing ground. In February 1916, Germany began an offensive at the traditional German invasion route of France: at the forts guarding the city of Verdun on Meuse river, the clearest route to Paris.

Battle_of_Verdun_map

From WIkipedia, the cleanest available

…the metal expended by the guns of Verdun from February 1916 to December could have built the French Navy twice over.

On 21 February 1916, the German offensive kicked off with a horrific bombardment, but it was also clear that the French still had plenty of fight left in them. While the major success at Fort Douaumont took just three days, it was one of the few tactical successes the Germans saw.  The offensive continued week after week, month after month. Few of Falkenhan’s calculations proved correct.  No matter what he did he could not suppress the French artillery enough to reduce his casualties. First Phillipe Petain then Robert Nivelle, commanding the French forces in the area, managed to keep the trenches filled with men, often with fresh troops every fifth day.  Nearly every French soldier in uniform at the beginning of 1916 spent at least some time in the Verdun killing zone; four out of five French infantrymen were in the Verdun area for more than a month. Half of French and 2/3rds of German heavy (155 mm and larger) and super-heavy (208 mm and larger) artillery was in range of the Verdun battlefield at one time in 1916. Though the infantry often had a respite from attacking trenches, hills, craters and ruins for a few yards of gain, the artillery never fell completely silent for nearly a year.  One scholar estimated that the metal expended by the guns of Verdun from February 1916 to December could have built the French Navy twice over.

It saw the destruction of the old British professional army in favor of a drafted force…

But 1916 was about a great deal more than Verdun. As a break in the deadlock on land, Reinhard Scheer took his High Seas Fleet out of port at the end of May to parry with John Jellicoe’s Home Fleet, and the resulting battle in the Skagerrak (also called Jutland) cost only about ten thousand lives and a few ships and the reputation of the naval leadership and the builders of ships. But the German fleet never ventured out again. In June, the Russians under Alexei Brusilov launched an offensive in Galicia that cost as much as 2.5 million casualties for very little territorial gain. To take some pressure off of Verdun, Britain launched their infamous Somme offensive to the north of the Verdun abattoir in on 1 July, and that slaughter-fest cost another million casualties until the offensive officially ended in November. It saw the destruction of the old British professional army in favor of a drafted force, and the deadlock in the trenches went on.

No country that fought in the European theater in 1916 came out untouched by the costs of Verdun.

After ten months, the French were strong enough to counterattack and start pushing the Germans back.  Falkenhayn was compelled to resign, and the German offensive at Verdun was called off on 18 December 1916.  There were nearly a million casualties at Verdun…a million that anyone officially counted.  But there were deep political and psychological wounds for both the French and the Germans, for the British and the Russians and the Austro-Hungarians.  France had survived, but Germany was entering a period of famine called the “turnip winter” caused by a combination of the British blockade, wet autumn weather, lack of agricultural manpower and collapsing transportation networks. Of all these causes, the blockade and the lack of manpower are the most cited as being responsible. It is not difficult to trace the failure of German plans at Verdun to their resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare that led to the entry of the United States in the war. Germany survived, but the government of the French Third Republic itself came under siege. French soldiers, though relieved to have survived, felt at if their politicians didn’t care about them. Russia survived, but Austria-Hungary, always a weak link in the German armor, teetered on the precipice of economic and social collapse.  Britain survived, but Russia was cut off completely from the outside world because she could not get her agricultural product out or military goods in, despite Britain’s dominance of the seas. Worse, Russia’s armies were burning with a deep resentment that, in just a few months, would spark a revolution. Russia survived for the moment, but Britain was confronted not just with bankruptcy of funds but bankruptcy of men. No country that fought in the European theater in 1916 came out untouched by costs of Verdun.


18 December is National Roast Suckling Pig Day for some reason (apparently no one really knows why).  The featured image above is a vegetarian creation. A suckling pig is generally less than six weeks old when slaughtered, usually between 8 and 30 pounds.  Cooking it can be tricky because the cross-section is so thin, but those whose cooking skills extend beyond mine (that would be…pretty much anyone who can actually roast anything without the smoke alarm going off) assure me that it’s like roasting a turkey.  Somehow, not reassuring.

As for Why the Samurai Lost, it’s proceeding apace. Remember to check in with us at JDBCOM.COM for more.

Declarations of War and National Noodle Ring Day

11 December…there will be snow here in the Great Lakes soon, if it hasn’t come to your neighborhood already (or mine: this is drafted in September). But on this day, a whole lot happened that, quite frankly, we just need to mention right now. Llewellyn the Last, the last native Prince of Wales, was killed on this day at Cilmeri in 1282. James II, the last Stuart king of England and the last Roman Catholic monarch in England, was captured in Kent on this day in 1688. Louis XVI went on trial in Paris on this day in 1792, but there was very little doubt asw to what the verdict would be.  In Hartford, Connecticut on this day in 1844, nitrous oxide was used for the first time as a dental anesthetic. In 1916, while the British Army struggled to pull themselves together after the Somme offensive, David Lloyd George formed another government in London. At Windsor, Edward VIII abdicated the throne of Great Britain in favor of his brother in 1936. And, in 1946, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) was founded to provide relief for the millions of children caught up in WWII.  But today, we talk about the legal niceties of declaring war, and about noodle rings, in that order.

On 11 December 1941:

  • Germany declared war on the United States
  • The United States declared war on Germany and Italy
  • The Dutch Government in exile in London declared war on Italy

Now, these events were, by their nature, belligerent. The Kellogg-Briand pact of of 1928 pledged the signatories (all of these states) to denounce war as an instrument of national policy.  With me so far? Good.

Now, here’s the rub: all of these states were more or less at war with the declared enemies for at least a year before war was officially declared…or, at least, were in a war-like status.  See, just issuing a declaration of war does two things:

  1. Announces that a state of war exists between sovereign states;
  2. Provides a bully pulpit for the various blowhards to harangue their respective populations.

Simply declaring war doesn’t really do anything other than let everyone know what’s going on. 

Note that declaring war has no real effect on the conflict itself, other than to galvanize a population.  But it does have an effect on neutrals (which by 1941 mostly meant Latin America).  They become constrained in supporting one belligerent or another; witness the naval action outside Montevideo in 1939 that led to the scuttling of Graf Spee. Simply declaring war doesn’t really do anything other than let everyone know what’s going on.

Arguably the US and Germany were already at war.

In the case of Germany declaring war on the United States, there has been some confusion about it, and many scholars have questioned whether it was either required by the Tripartite agreement (it really wasn’t) or if it was a good idea. Even if it wasn’t required, the US Navy had been escorting British convoys as far as mid-ocean since early 1941–how would that not be a war-like act?  The Americans and British had met to confer on war planning and measures for nearly two years–again, America already looked like a belligerent anyway. Finally, the Lend-Lease Agreement traded use of British bases in the Caribbean for warships–thin even to American observers. Arguably the US and Germany were already at war. The mutual declarations were merely icing on the cake, as it were.

Unlike in Germany where one person could do it, it was the US Congress who made these declarations in America…

The Americans declaring war on Germany and Italy didn’t provide for 2. above because Roosevelt had already made his war speech three days earlier, calling on Congress to declare a that a state of war existed between the US and Japan on 8 December. Unlike in Germany where one person could do it, it was the US Congress who made these declarations in America, and when Congress voted on 11 December 1941, it was by direct vote in response to the German declaration just hours before, without a presidential call being necessary. Now, the Dutch declaring war on the Italians may not have done much on the outside of it, but it allowed the United States to harbor refugee Dutch warships (both of them) in the West Indies and use them and their bases against the much-feared Italian submarines roaming the Atlantic.  Okay, there were only two of them, but it was two more that had to be dealt with, and they had the range to reach Brazil.

The last declaration of war was in 2005 in Chad’s civil war.

All of that aside, there have been far more “undeclared” wars between states than there have been “declared” conflicts.  Declaring war was something that certain treaties and agreements of the 19th century required to clarify the status of neutrals, belligerents, noncombatants and other legal niceties that were important when there were neutrals and noncombatants.  The last declaration of war was in 2005 in Chad’s civil war. It is important to note, however, that Rome and Carthage were technically at war from 264 BC to 1985, called an “administrative error” in WIkipedia.  By such errors whole empires can be lost.


Now, this is serious…just look at my face.  Today, 11 December, is National Noodle Ring Day.  But I know what you’re thinking: who would want to observe a day for Spaghettios…

Uh-Oh, Spaghettios

Remember these? Sure you do. But Ring Noodles in Tomato Soup are not Noodle Rings.

No, Noodle Rings are something completely different.  Noodle Rings are pasta dishes baked in a ring mold or bundt pan. The ingredients include noodles, flour, breadcrumbs, cheese, eggs and a host of other add-ins, from tuna and broccoli to ham, beef, sausage and even spam. They were more popular in the 1950s than they are today, apparently, but some recipes may go back as far as 4th millennium BC China.

If I didn’t like doing this blog I wouldn’t do it, but the research on this one was interesting.  I’m no epicure, but one of the scores of recipes I ran into digging into this  may just get made in my kitchen.