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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.

norman-rockwell-thanksgiving-painting-thanksgiving-indoor-skydiving-nj-groupon
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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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.

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America Ascendant and Germany Descendant

On 2 February 1848 the Mexican-American War came to an official end, though for all practical purposes it had ended weeks before.  Winfield Scott, the only American General-In Chief to take field command (a whole other story, that) was the most celebrated soldier since Andrew Jackson.  An entirely self-educated officer who was first commissioned at age 22 as a captain of artillery (1808), “Old Fuss and Feathers” had led the American invasion of the Mexican Plateau in the first such expedition since Cortes.  What was remarkable was that European observers were all convinced that the European-trained Mexicans would handily defeat the Americans, whose last outing against European-style armies was in 1815.

Scott’s army never lost a battle, nor left a battlefield in retreat.  Six different American forces invaded Mexican territory from 1846-48 ranging in size from company to Scott’s small army, and none were unsuccessful.  “A little more grape, Captain Bragg” became a buzz phrase for a generation before the Civil War.  Mexico, beset by internal division, class warfare, and political uncertainty since its independence in 1822, would gradually settle into a twilight state between revolution and civil war that would obtain until the European invasion in 1862, and return until the Cristero War ended in 1929.


And then there was Stalingrad.  Though German Sixth Army officially surrendered on 31 January 1942, it would be two days until the last pockets of resistance were destroyed.  Between the Axis Allies and the Soviets, somewhere near two million soldiers and at least as many civilians died in the carnage and bitter weather at the City of Stalin.  Films like Stalingrad (1943) and Enemy At the Gates (2001) depict desolation, privation, random death and injury only to well-fed Germans and Russians, but the truth was that both sides were nearly on starvation rations even before the November 1942 offensive cut off the Germans and their allies.

Stalingrad changed the entire face of WWII in Russia, and arguably lost the war for Germany.  Between the loss of Guadalcanal by Japan earlier in the week, the brawl that was the American’s return to combat in North Africa in the next month, the British offensive into Libya and then Tunisia, the cracks in the Axis empires were becoming bigger, if not deeper.  It was clear that, if the Allies would fight long enough, both the German and Japanese monsters could be tamed.