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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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Tarawa Begins, National Absurdity Day, and Thanksgiving in America

And this is 20 November, four days before our Thanksgiving break.  Many of you will be out deer hunting, or stocking up for the in-laws and outlaws who will descend upon you in just three days.  But some of us will be recalling that Edward I “Longshanks,” fabled of song and story as the Hammer of the Scots, was proclaimed king on this day in 1272.  Also, in 1820, whaler Essex was sunk by a whale off Peru on this day; the forerunning theological seminary to Howard University was founded in Washington DC on 20 November 1866; Tom Horn, the guide that stalked Geronimo, was hanged in Cheyenne, Wyoming on 20 November 1903; in 1920, Woodrow Wilson became the second president to win a Nobel Peace Prize; and in 1947, Princess Elizabeth Windsor (later Queen Elizabeth II) married Prince Philip Mountbatten (later Prince Consort and Duke of Windsor).  But today, we’re going to talk about undaunted courage, and absurdity.

After the fall of Guadalcanal in 1943, American planners had to consider which of many targets they were interested in securing. There were two strategic imperatives at that point:

  1. Returning to the Philippines because Douglas MacArthur said so;
  2. Establishing bases in the Marianas so that a blockade of the Japanese Home Islands could be implemented,

The two were geographically exclusive.  A third, tactical imperative to both, the isolation of Truk in the Carolines, could address both, and that meant the Gilbert islands.  Planners chose the small island of Betio in the Tarawa atoll as a target.

Using their mastery of camouflage and ingenuity at field fortification, the Japanese built a maze of bunkers with interlocking fields of fire using concrete, steel plate, green coconut logs and coral fill that were impervious to all but direct hits from naval gunfire.

Beito is literally a high spot in the ocean, two miles long, eight hundred yards wide, and less than fifteen feet above flood tide. Its principle redeeming feature in military terms is that it is the largest island in the Tarawa Atoll that forms a lagoon of a little less than 200 square miles–large enough for a small fleet to shelter.  The Japanese had been in the area since the spring of 1942, and had moved a Special Naval Landing Force unit (about a battalion in size) there, in addition to engineers and two thousand or so Japanese, Korean and Chinese laborers. A Special Base Defense Force unit of about 1,100 men rounded off the Japanese garrison.  There were also fourteen Japanese tanks and about fifty artillery pieces defending the island under Shibazaki Kenji, a Navy amphibious expert who boasted that “it would take a million men a hundred years” to conquer Tarawa.  While the total numbers of Japanese on Beito was modest (less than 10,000 total), their defences were not. Using their mastery of camouflage and ingenuity at field fortification, the Japanese built a maze of bunkers with interlocking fields of fire using concrete, steel plate, green coconut logs and coral fill that were impervious to all but direct hits from naval gunfire.  Short on fuel, the Japanese used their tanks as bunkers, burying several at the water’s edge.

V Amphibious Corps was slated for Operation GALVANIC, commencing landings on Betio on 20 November 1943, five days before Thanksgiving.

The 2nd Marine Division had been formed in February 1941, and two of its regiments had fought on Guadalcanal with the 1st Marine Division.  Elements of the Army’s 27th Infantry Division was assigned, with the 2nd Marine Division (commanded by Julian C. Smith) to form V Amphibious Corps under Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith.  V Amphibious Corps was slated for Operation GALVANIC, commencing landings on Betio on 20 November 1943, five days before Thanksgiving. Raymond Spruance commanded the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet at the time of the landings;  and Harry Hill commanded the amphibious task group.

One by one, Marines cobbled together ad hoc task groups to perform this mission or that one, clearing this much of one end of the island, knocking down a bunker complex, or just fighting for enough space to land supplies or evacuate wounded.

The Marine invasion was the first contested beach that both the Marine attackers and the Japanese defenders had faced, and as the Higgins boats grounded on the coral reef five hundred yards off the beach, the killing began.  Though the initial bombardment had destroyed some of the heavier guns, those that remained were enough to slaughter much of the first and second waves. One by one, Marines cobbled together ad hoc task groups to perform this mission or that one, clearing this much of one end of the island, knocking down a bunker complex, or just fighting for enough space to land supplies or evacuate wounded. Though the Japanese didn’t mount a major counterattack the first night, they managed to keep the Marines awake and bleeding strength.

23 November was a day of consolidation as the Marines developed a technique they would use time and again on Japanese bunker complexes called “corkscrew and blowtorch.”

More Marines managed to get ashore on 21 November, and yard by bloody yard they secured the western end of the island by nightfall.  23 November was a day of consolidation as the Marines developed a technique they would use time and again on Japanese bunker complexes called “corkscrew and blowtorch.”

  • An automatic weapons team, light howitzer or a tank would occupy the defenders, keeping their heads out of their vision slits.
  • A flamethrower team would get as close as they could to one bunker, dousing the defenders suddenly and completely.
  • Finally, engineers would rush the structure and plant explosives to blow in either an entrance or a vision slit, followed up by the flamethrower and more explosives.
  • If all of that didn’t work, bulldozers would bury the structure, defenders and all.

The Japanese managed to put together a final charge on the Marines on the night of the 23rd with perhaps 300 men; all are thought to have been killed. Fortunately for future American attackers, the Japanese had a tendency to die to the last man on their isolated island outposts, leaving no legacy of intelligence information for future samurai defenders.  By the time Beito was declared secure on 24 November, the day before Thanksgiving, there were fewer than 150 Japanese survivors, and more than a thousand Marines were dead.  The legacies of Tarawa are many: numerous legendary acts of courage and willing sacrifice; the discovery of a ‘minimum neap tide’ that oceanographers had never seen before that kept the tide over the reef low (that a New Zealander familiar with the area had warned the Marines of but was ignored); the realization that the Japanese were going to fight it out regardless of the odds–and so were the Marines.

OK, guys, let’s start our chat on National Absurdity Day with a definition or two:

Absurd, adjective 1. utterly or obviously senseless, illogical, or untrue; contrary to all reason or common sense; laughably foolish or false: an absurd explanation.

Absurd, noun 2. the quality or condition of existing in a meaningless and irrational world.

Now, for most of us, these definitions are fairly simple, reasonable, and concise.  Regrettably, here lately, “absurd” has come to mean “that which I disagree with,” as in “Hillary Clinton belongs in jail,” or “Donald Trump openly colluded with the Russians to steal the 2016 election,” or “we should spend an outrageous volume of our wealth to keep global temperature means from rising 0.6 degrees by 2100,” or “either play the entertaining filler between beer commercials that you are paid an obscene amount of money to play, or protest with the rest of the whiners outside: just leave the fans and their advertisers out of it.” National Absurdity Day, November 20th every year, will no doubt share many of these and like sentiments around the Thanksgiving TV on Thursday.  And let’s not forget the ultimate absurdity as represented in today’s featured image: A fairly typical 26-year old American infantryman in 1943 (probably somewhere in Italy by his outfit), and a supposedly typical 26-year old American student in 2013, talking about health care (an infantilized child-man with cocoa and onesies promoting…what, again?).

Absurd?
I’ve got another word for it…

Yup, that’s absurd all right.

But it’s Thanksgiving on Thursday, a day set aside to celebrate the bounty that the hard work and sacrifice of so many has provided for us. Let’s all take a moment and think about what an extra day or two off means to those of us who get that much, and what working that day in whatever capacity also means.  Working or not, be thankful you live in a society that allows professional athletes to protest, or not, and also hope that our first-responders not get called to some emergency, somewhere, for one day, at least.

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Thanksgiving and Unity

Since this blog is published on Monday (for the moment), Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday it talks a great deal about.  But this year, it happens that discussions of Thanksgiving Day (American, not Canadian, nor Australian, nor Liberian, nor Dutch) has links to 3 October, and to a most miraculous Thanksgiving event in Germany.

Proclamations of “thanksgiving” were common in Britain for survival from floods, wars, famines, larger fires, plagues or invasions. In the American colonies, there are well-known stories of a “first Thanksgiving” being celebrated by the Pilgrim Fathers and their Native American neighbors (surely at least some of my readers were turkeys or lobsters or something in at least one school pageant).  Records are scarce, but most historians agree that as early as 1621 there was a feast in October or November where much food was consumed in company with some of the locals.  No record, however, of football being played, or of Uncle Absalom imbibing in too much porter and trying to dunk Aunt Prudence in the river. As early as 1631 some fall day was declared a holiday somewhere in America, mostly in New England.  On 3 October 1789, George Washington (who had become president just that February) proclaimed that Thursday, 26 November should be “a day of public thanksgiving.”  There is some speculation about why a Thursday was chosen (to be exclusively a day of thanks separate from a day of worship) and why November (harvest in some parts of the new republic could last, in good years, at late as mid-November), but no one thought too much of it at the time.

No record, however, of football being played, or of Uncle Absalom imbibing in too much porter and trying to dunk Aunt Prudence in the river. 

By the American Civil War generations later, the Thanksgiving tradition had died out in parts of the country, or had been moved from November to as early as October (following several of the Canadian provinces, which had different dates). On 3 October 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that fixed Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November.  This was an attempt to unify the states in at least something, but the Confederates weren’t interested.  Most southern states paid no attention until after Reconstruction in the 1870s, but as early as the 1880s Thanksgiving had become the beginning of the Christmas shopping season (yes, Virginia, that insanity really did start that early in history).  The holiday remained there until 1941, when Franklin Roosevelt, after much lobbying by the larger commercial outlets and the labor unions, fixed the day as the fourth Thursday as a goad to the economy, and as a tool to manage factory scheduling,.  Factory tooling improvements are traditionally performed during a “holiday shutdown” between Christmas and New Year’s.  Moving the Thanksgiving holiday earlier for most years allows for vacations before the shutdown for maintenance crews, adds as much as another week of “shopping days” till Christmas, and even more time for the mass media to saturate their audiences with ads for the same thing.

… as early as the 1880s Thanksgiving had become the beginning of the Christmas shopping season (yes, Virginia, that insanity really did start that early in history)

In 1989, mass migrations across the Hungarian frontier into Austria were not opposed. When this part of the Iron Curtain was drawn back, East Germans trickled through Czechoslovakia and into Austria and on to West Germany. Germans, like Israelis, have the “right of return” from anywhere.  Soon, as the news spread, the trickle became a flood, and in October 1989 the Berlin Wall was torn open by mobs of civilians and border guards.  This triggered the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe by the end of the year, the eventual breaking of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the end of that entity in 1991, and the traditional end of the Cold War. On 3 October 1990, one of the largest symbols of the Cold War was eliminated when East and West Germany were officially rejoined after more than half a century of separation.  The date is celebrated as Day of German Unity (Tag der Deutschen Einheit) in Germany, a national holiday.  Though “Germany” has existed as a vague geographic idea, customs union, kingdom and empire off and on since anyone can remember, this was the first time it could have been called a “modern” state since 1945.

…as the news spread, the trickle became a flood, and in October 1989 the Berlin Wall was torn down.

Though Thanksgiving is a time for feasting and ODing on TV, for this family German Unity Day a month and a half earlier has a different meaning.  The wife was one of the Germans that the Americans and Soviets was willing to fight over, and many family members were still in Berlin when the Wall came down. The above image of the Brandenburg Gate is much different from this writer’s memory of Berlin when he was last there in 1976.  Besides, Uncle Absalom always made such a fool of himself on Thanksgiving it’s become a family embarrassment.  But that’s what family is for.