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9 November: A Banner Day for Germany

Although some years were much better than others, 9 November for Germans was momentous, especially in the 20th century.

In 1914, the Dresden-class light cruiser SMS Emden was operating in the Indian Ocean, where she sank Russian and French warships at Penang, captured two dozen cargo vessels and converted one into raider Kormoran.   On 9 November she was raiding a British radio station on Direction Island in the Cocos Islands when she was caught by an Australian light cruiser, HMAS Sidney. In a short and uneven fight where the Australian out-ranged the German by at least a thousand yards, Sidney managed to damage her opponent enough that Emden grounded on North Keeling Island to save what could be saved of the crew.  About a third of the Germans were killed, compared to less than ten percent of the Australians.  Part of the German’s landing party that had been left behind on Direction Island made it back as far as Turkey, where they joined the crew of battle cruiser Goeben.

Four years to the day later, Wilhelm II of Germany was abdicated from his thrones by his chancellor, Prince Max of Baden as Wilhelm fled into Holland ahead of a howling mob inspired by the Russian revolution.  He was the last king of Prussia (a dynasty that had been founded in 1701), and the third and last emperor of Germany, an empire his grandfather pronounced in 1871 and to which he ascended in 1881.  He was also the eldest grandson of Queen Victoria of Great Britain, and was thus related by marriage and blood to nearly every royal house in Europe.  On 25 November, Wilhelm submitted his formal abdications.  Max, in the cusp of a revolution boiling throughout Germany, had tried unsuccessfully to preserve a monarchy, but to avoid chaos agreed to the formation of a republic in Germany and renouncing any claims of the Crown Prince, also named Wilhelm.

In 1938, Germany was once again wracked by violence on what was known as the “night of broken glass,” or Kristallnacht.  Using the murder of a German diplomat in France as a pretext, German paramilitary organizations and disorganized mobs killed hundreds of Jews and destroyed thousands of businesses, schools, synagogues and homes of Jews throughout Germany.  Further, some thirty thousand Jews were arrested, eventually to be killed in the German camps.  It was the first time that the outside world saw what Germany had become, internally, as police and other authorities stood by and watched.

Finally, on 9 November 1989, after weeks of unrest in Eastern Bloc nations, it became obvious even to the East Germans that the hemorrhaging of Germans into Hungary and across the border into Austria (which had been opened on 11 September) was not going to be abated, and permission was given for East Germans to “visit” the West.  Not to be delayed by hundreds of miles of travel, soldiers and civilians alike in Berlin broke up and tore down the wall as the border guards looked on…or helped.  For days afterwards Berlin was a carnival atmosphere as old Stazi hands and other DDR functionaries were detained, hunted down or murdered in the “bloodless” revolution that followed.  As Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and finally Romania threw off their Moscow-controlled chains for the next few months, the West realized that Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union had been weaker than they had earlier thought.

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Verdun: Operation Judgement

Erich von Falkenhayn’s offensive of 1916 was aimed directly at the traditional invasion route between the Rhine and Paris.  The area had been used often enough that the area called the Heights of the Meuse were heavily fortified by the French over the years to have culminated in a series of forts that, if nothing else, put the entire Meuse-Rhine plain under observation for artillery.

The German plan was simple: take the forts, make the French commit their strategic reserves protecting the route to Paris, build up behind the bulge, press on to Paris in the summer months until France gave up and march home in triumph before fall.  The strategic motivations, however, were far more complex.  German agriculture was suffering under the loss of so much of its manpower, and was sorely affected by the British blockade–far more than Germany could withstand.  Though Germany had suffered less than had Britain and France in the battlefields, combined the Allies had far more manpower than did the Central Powers.  Germany, the most powerful of the Powers, was in the second year of a war she had anticipated would last two months.  Knocking France out of the war was the key to Germany’s survival.

On 21 February, the Germans unleashed their Fifth Army on the French Second Army manning the nineteen fortresses of the Verdun complex.  The first French fort to fall, three days later, was Douaumont, the largest and highest of the outer ring forts, by a small German raiding party.   Even though it had been unoccupied for months, the French were scandalized, and in Gallic rage they threw more and more men into the face of the German offensive.

While most scholars feel that this was the German intention all along, German military theory and doctrine never, ever had attritional battle in mind.  Prussia/Brandenburg, the font of Imperial German military tradition, never had the numbers nor the temperament for a drawn-out brawl, and always preferred maneuver–preferably to encirclement–to merely adding up casualties.  Tannenberg, the August 1914 double-envelopment of the Russian Second Army in East Prussia, was far more to Prussian/German liking than was the long slog of Verdun.  It is likely that post-Verdun German commentators merely claimed that attrition was the German plan all along, when in truth the French defense, orchestrated by Robert Nivelle, was more persistent and successful than they had imagined was possible.

Verdun would rage on unabated for ten months, consuming the lives of some three hundred thousand men out of the million committed, and occupying the full attention of over a hundred divisions. It would have been impossible for the rest of the world not to notice, and it would have been impossible for the Americans not to look on in horror, and in contemplation.  American military men may have been forbidden by President Woodrow Wilson to prepare contingency plans, but that did not prevent preparedness plans from being put into action with some urgency.  The Plattsburg Movement, a civilian-driven (if military favored) program of camps that trained young collegians in various places in the country, had finally come to fruition in the National Defense Act of 1916, that created the Army Reserves.  Approval of NDA 1916 and the increase in American preparedness had been spurred, in part, by the specter of the 2,300 French and Germans casualties About a regiment) every day on the Verdun front alone.

Two years after the worst of the fighting at Verdun had been concluded, the Americans were fighting to throw the Germans out of some of the 1916 gains at the Meuse-Argonne.  This battle was the largest American campaign between Appomattox in 1865 and the invasion of Sicily in 1943.  Wiley-Blackwell’s A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, edited by Ed Lengel, contains an essay by John D. Beatty entitled “We Can Kill Them But We Cannot Stop Them: An Evaluation of the Meuse-Argonne,” which looks at American performance there, and the influences of American preparedness before 1917.  Available in hardback and E-book from fine booksellers everywhere.

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Argument and the Death of the Luftwaffe Fighter Force

By late February 1944, the Bomber War over Europe had reached a crossroads.  Despite the large raids and the horrendous casualties (one in three Allied bomber crewmen became casualties in 1943), the Germans were still able to damage each attack.  Even though neither the Americans nor the British had been turned back an attack because of enemy action (weather often, but never because of German attacks) morale was less than good; for some units, the crews were merely going through the motions.

But the Luftwaffe, too, was suffering.  They had withdrawn their units from France almost entirely, and pulled back the fighters from Russia, Italy and other fronts to concentrate the interceptors in Germany.  Though the Allied bombers had not yet done a great deal of damage to industry, cities like Cologne and Hamburg had been devastated by heavy and methodical raids that were almost like laboratory experiments.

The Allied planners, starting with “Hap” Arnold and Jimmy Doolittle, had been storing up their strength since the disasters of Munster, Regensburg and Schweinfurt in the late summer and fall of 1943, they had been looking for a long period of clear weather over the North Sea and Germany to unleash the collective strength of four Air Forces (Eighth and Ninth US Air Forces and Bomber Command in England, Fifteenth US Air Force in Italy) against the German aircraft industry, using the bombers as bait for the German fighters.  Although the German fighters were not the menace to the bombers that antiaircraft artillery was, and the bombers were not as good at shooting down interceptors as prewar planners had hoped, the Allies had long range fighters like the P-47 Thunderbolt and the P-51 Mustang, and by January 1944 the had enough drop tanks for both so that deep penetration escorts were possible for sustained periods.  All the planners needed was good weather.

And so it was the weather forecasters that became the unsung heroes of the air war in Europe.  Using data from as far away as Archangel, the Black Sea, northern Canada and the Northern Cape of Norway, by mid January the weathermen (and a few women) were looking for a hole in the perpetual overcast.  By mid-February (sources vary, but operational orders went out to the ammunition dumps as early as 15 February), using some intercepted Russian and German data, they predicted clear weather over both the North Sea and Germany at the end of the month for as much as four days.  Operation Argument was on for 20 February.

The clear weather lasted five days.  The Americans and British launched over 3,000 sorties, lost over three hundred bombers and over thirty fighters.  The Germans over three hundred aircraft and about a hundred pilots.  But these are the raw numbers, and they don’t tell everything.

American losses represented about 7% for each mission, contrasted with 33% just five months earlier.   The Allies lost replaceable aircrews at infantry scales while training programs were pushing out pilots and crewmen with three hundred hours or more in the air as fast as the airplanes were rolling out of the factories.

The German losses were about 5% of the fighter force, but of those nearly half were Experten–aces.  Between them, these aces alone had destroyed over three thousand enemy aircraft between 1937 and 1944, from Ethiopia and Spain to Russia and Norway. But the Germans were losing their most experienced flyers, leaving behind frightened children of seventeen and eighteen who barely knew how to find their home fields, and tired old men in their mid-twenties who could fly and navigate, but were not as good at killing and at most had fifty hours of flying before they went out to meet the enemy.

The Luftwaffe was never the same after Argument, though by most measures the Allies barely won the campaign.  The Bomber War dragged on for another year and some, but German fighter strength never fully recovered.   Crop Duster: A Novel of WWII is the story of two pilots–one American and one German–who fought the Bomber War before the Big Week in February 1944.  Available in paperback, PDF and e-book at fine booksellers everywhere.

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Tragedy and Triumph

18 February marks two events in 1945 that would have profound consequences for the future of warfare.  First, after fifty days of siege that cost some 50,000 military and civilian lives, Budapest fell to Rodion Malinovski’s 2nd Ukrainian Front.  Some ten thousand or so Germans and a handful of Hungarians had broken out to the west on 11 February, only to be caught on the road to Vienna and wiped out.  The Soviets suffered some 100-150,000 casualties during the long siege.

Russia at War: From the Mongol Conquest to Afghanistan, Chechnya and Beyond (edited by Timothy Dowling) discusses Budapest and a thousand other battles.  John Beatty’s essays of Soviet casualties 1941-45, Soviet armor development in WWII, Joseph Stalin and the battle for Berlin in 1945 are also featured.  Russia at War is available in hardback from fine booksellers everywhere.

On the same day, the three-day tragedy of Dresden began.  Spared heavy bombing for most of the war, Dresden was attacked three nights and two days in a row, devastating most of the medieval city.  One young American POW caught in the bombing was Kurt Vonnegut, who described his ordeal in his novel Slaughterhouse Five, named after the shelter he was trapped in.  He was also quoted in Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and complained more than once that he could never get the smell of Dresden out of his nose.

The bombing has been heavily criticized ever since. Dresden has been the subject of more than one book, one of the worst being David Irving’s Apocalypse 1945, which severely inflates the already tragic casualty count.  Officially and finally refuted in a libel trial in London described in Richard Evans’ Lying About Hitler, Irving has even served a term in jail for denying the Holocaust.

On 13 February 1951, United Nations forces (mostly Americans of the 23rd Infantry, but also the French Battalion, and a Dutch company among the 4,500 or so men) met Chinese troops (about 25,000 from the 39th, 40th and 42nd Armies) at Chipyong-ni (Dipingli in Chinese) in Korea.  The two day battle would be called the “Gettysburg of the Korean War,” and because of its disconnected and decentralized nature, one of the biggest “soldier’s battles” in history, costing the Chinese about 3,000 casualties and the US forces about 300.  It was the “high water mark” of the Chinese incursion into southern Korea, and the beginning of the gradual retreat of the Chinese and North Koreans to around the 38th parallel.

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“…Und Vin ze Var!” and Other Myths of War

On 3 February 1917, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany in the wake of Germany’s announcement that she would commence unrestricted submarine warfare again.  The notion that Germany would be able to “win” the war against Britain by doing this was popular at the time, but unfounded.  It’s not clear exactly what the Germans expected, but “winning” the European war by then was simply a matter of outliving rivals.  France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Russia and the Balkan states were completely spent: Britain was conscripting men for the first time in her history; Germany was starving through her first “turnip winter.”  Of all the world powers, only the United States was relatively undamaged by the war, then entering its third year.

Germany certainly hoped for victory, but in this more innocent time “victory” didn’t mean conquering one’s enemies and destroying their capacity and their will for war as it would in 1945.  What it meant was another negotiated settlement between leaders in morning coats and top hats; a dignified congress of gentlemen discussing matters before retiring and dressing for dinner.  There were to be no unseemly marches of mere soldiers past hastily built reviewing stands as the Americans had in 1865, and no shocking assassinations of emperors as the Mexicans had in 1866 to their Hapsburg Emperor Maximilian I that France had so generously placed on the throne.

But on 3 February 1945, Operation Thunderclap would augur just such portents in Germany.  A thousand US bombers hit Berlin over the course of about three hours, plagued by German fighters and pummeled by flak.  While Germany was dying and everyone seemed to know it but Hitler, she was still vary dangerous.

Thunderclap wasn’t the first thousand plane raid.  That distinction belongs to Operation Millennium in 1942, when the RAF hit Cologne in the heart of the Ruhr with not quite a thousand bombers (though they did send over a thousand, not quite a thousand reached the target).  The point of these large raids, as the fictional Otto Thielmann would discover in Crop Duster: A Novel of WWII as he watched Cologne go up in flames, was that it took very large volumes of unguided iron bombs to do what the prewar bomber advocates had insisted would take very little.  Technology of the time didn’t allow the kind of theoretical precision that men like Harris and Eaker had promised.  But, Cologne also showed that large groups of aircraft could overwhelm Germany’s defenses.  Such strikes couldn’t win, but they could enable victory.

Finally, in the height of irony, on 3 February 1924 Woodrow Wilson finally succumbed to the series of strokes that had weakened him for somewhat over a decade.  The conflict for which he would be forever identified was long over, though the aftermath and rebound had only begun, but Wilson died after lingering for nearly a year as a complete invalid, and nearly five years as a somewhat feeble old man.  While his wartime decision-making will be forever tainted by politics, his record as a reformer and wartime president must also be weighed and colored by his chronic illnesses.