Friday, February 14, 2020

Why Did Singapore Fall So Quickly?

The Guns Failed, But So Did Everything Else

British surrender Singapore 15 February 1942
Japanese soldiers taking British as prisoners in Singapore, 15 February 1942.
Why did Singapore fall so quickly? The Japanese invaded the island on 8 February 1942 and completed its capture only a week later, on 15 February 1942. That Singapore was fortified to repel an assault from the sea rather than from the land (Johore) is true. However, there are a lot of misconceptions about what happened and why Singapore fell. Let’s go through a few top points about the battle for Singapore without getting bogged down in a long essay about it. Anyway, I’ve already written a long essay about the Battle for Singapore here so feel free to go there for a deeper analysis.

Coastal gun firing at Singapore ca. 1941
"One of Singapore's 15-inch coastal defense guns elevated for firing." © IWM (K 757).
First, most of the Singapore batteries were indeed sited to point toward the sea. The British established their base there in the 19th Century when it was felt that the locals on the Malay Peninsula could be “handled.” The British had a lot of experience “handling” the natives in India, China, and elsewhere. This was done by buying off the local rulers and many other tricks. It was a strategy that worked as long as no major powers were nearby - and there weren’t any until Japan became aggressive in the 1930s. The British failed to adapt to this changed circumstance.

Map of invasion of Singapore on 8 February 1942 and subsequent operations
This map of the IJA 25th Army shows the invasion of Singapore on 8 February 1942. The British expected an attack along the causeway, top center. However, the Japanese only made a feint in that area and made the real invasion further west (the lines to the left). Those troops quickly swept across the island to the city, bottom right. The causeway was captured and restored (the British had destroyed it) late in the battle.
Second, there was one battery of large guns (15-inch naval guns) that could fire northeast across the Singapore Strait. These guns were indeed used during the battle - and accomplished nothing. These batteries had been neglected for a long time and given cast-offs from other locations. One gunner remembered that the ammunition was marked “1898,” as in it was over forty years old.

Palace of the Sultan of Johore ca. 1941 across from Singapore
The Palace of the Sultan of Johore ca. 1941. Japanese Lt. General Tomoyuki Yamashita used the palace as his headquarters because it was the tallest building in Johor Bahru and had a commanding view over the Singapore island. The British refused to shell it for fear of angering the local residents.
Third, there were major problems using these naval guns against the Japanese in Johore aside from their siting. The first is the fact that the British had stockpiled armor-piercing ammunition in anticipation of repelling an attack from the sea from a “civilized” opponent. This type of ammunition was ineffective against forces taking cover in the jungle. The shells exploded harmlessly in the trees and on the ground.

practice firing of coastal gun at Singapore ca 1941
Gun practice in Singapore ca. 1941.
The second major problem with the big guns was that the British imposed strict limitations on using them. They had longstanding ties with the locals in Singapore dating back to their acquisition of the island in 1824. They refused to shell the large former Imperial Palace of the Sultan of Johore on the northern side of the causeway in order not to offend the locals. Japanese commander General Tomoyuki Yamashita ostentatiously moved into the Palace and did not try to hide at all, running the battle from there. The British still refrained from shelling it.

Japanese Type 97 'Chi-Ha' medium tank during advance on Singapore 10 February 1942
Japanese troops during the Battle of Bukit Timah, Singapore Island, 10 February 1942. That is a Type 97 'Chi-Ha' medium tank. Even as these tanks were crossing the island and approaching the gates of Singapore City itself, the British failed to recognize the threat and felt that the fact that they simply outnumbered the invaders would make them prevail.
Returning to the main list, fourth, the Japanese unexpectedly invaded the northwestern portion of Singapore. None of the guns covered this area, which was marshy and considered unsuitable for landings. Even as the Japanese were overrunning the island, the British persisted in believing that the main attack would come from the northeast, the location of the causeway. Basically, they were only prepared for an attack from the northeast, so that is what they assumed - this was a habit the Germans fell into late in the war when they had inferior forces, too. So, even the naval guns that could be turned around toward land were completely useless against the actual invasion.

Coastal pillbox on Singapore ca 1941
The few completely inadequate coastal fortifications built by the British before the invasion, such as the pillbox shown here ca. 1941, were not in the northwest area where the Japanese landed.
Fifth, because the British never expected an invasion from the north, they built virtually no defensive fortifications there. As noted, there were no major powers to the north, so it was felt that no fortifications were necessary on the north side of the island. Also, the Malay Peninsula had such a dense jungle that nobody thought a modern army could advance through it. The error of this assumption did not dawn upon the British until the Japanese actually began advancing down the peninsula. Only when the Japanese began breaking through the British lines on the Malay Peninsula were frantic orders issued from London to fortify Singapore’s north coast. The local commanders, as usual, simply asked the locals to help out and build some defenses. The locals promptly went on strike for higher wages. Nothing useful was built.

HMS Prince of Wales in Singapore, 2 December 1941
"HMS 'Prince of Wales', the flagship of Force Z, approaching her berth at the Singapore naval base, 2 December 1941." The Prince of Wales was the victor in the North Atlantic against the Bismarck, and the Admiralty has sent it to Singapore along with cruiser Repulse in a show of force. This is Task Force Z under the command of Vice-Admiral Tom Phillips. © IWM (FE 485).
Sixth, as to who was responsible for the problem, that blame lay in quite a few areas. The British lavished vast sums of money on building up Singapore but still treated it as a backwater. The whole concept of defending Singapore relied upon having large naval forces there. The Royal Navy had nothing useful in Singapore until only a few days before the Pearl Harbor attack and the invasion of the Malay Peninsula when it rather begrudgingly sent a battleship and a cruiser ("Force Z").

Force Z attacked by Japanese planes near Singapore 10 December 1941
The loss of Force Z under Admiral Tom Phillips on 10 December 1941, shown here under attack, was a death blow for the British defense of Singapore even though it happened over two months earlier (Japanese Navy photo).
These invaluable ships were used quite unwisely in a futile sortie up the Malay coast without air cover (an aircraft carrier was supposed to accompany them to Singapore but pulled out at the last minute). When Admiral Tom Phillips - a back-office guy with little command experience - was lost with his fleet in Japanese air attacks, Singapore was left basically defenseless. Weirdly, the Royal Navy did not even consider sending replacements.

British Lieutenant-General Ernest Percival
British Lieutenant-General Ernest Percival, General Officer Commanding Malaya Command.
There is a strong tendency to blame British Lieutenant-General Ernest Percival, General Officer Commanding Malaya Command, for the loss of Singapore. The British basically ostracized him after the war, and he was not granted a knighthood like many other generals It must be noted that the British had a curious penchant for discriminating between their generals regarding the amount of post-war praise they should receive - Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, accused of unnecessary mass bombing raids, also received some snubs such as the decision not to commemorate him with a statue until long after his death. Percival unquestionably made a series of bad (over-confident) decisions and served as a convenient scapegoat, but he was simply doing his duty as he saw it.

Japanese paratroopers 13 February 1942
Japanese aerial dominance in the region allowed their planes to operate with virtual impunity. Here, Japanese paratroopers drop over Sumatra, Dutch East Indies, 13 February 1942, two days before the fall of Singapore (Japanese Navy photo).
Percival followed standard procedure. He sent the inadequate troops that he had to defend against the Japanese on the Malay Peninsula according to the pre-war Matador Plan. Any commanding officer would have done that. They simply got defeated for a variety of reasons outside of Percival’s control. For instance, the Allies never had adequate air cover and the Japanese rained bombs down upon the troops and Singapore. Once the Japanese were on the shoreline looking across at Singapore, the battle was already lost because, as mentioned, Singapore had no defensive fortifications. So Percival bears his share of the blame, but he was simply dealt a losing hand by poor strategic planning over many years by his bosses in London.

British surrender Singapore 15 February 1942
General Percival (far right) surrenders Singapore on 15 February 1942.


Thursday, February 13, 2020

How Few Torpedoes Could Sink a Battleship?

Monsters of the Sea!

Battleship Yamato under attack
Japanese 45,000-ton battleship Yamato on fire right before she sank on 7 April 1945. Her nine 46 cm ( 18.1-inch) 45 Caliber Type 94 main guns are turned in a futile attempt to shoot down the planes attacking her. (AP Photo).
How many torpedoes are required to sink a battleship? Obviously, if you pound torpedo after torpedo into any steel ship, it eventually will sink. But what is the least number of torpedoes that it took to sink a battleship during World War II? We have an answer to that, and it may surprise you.

Battleship Musashi under attack
Musashi under attack on 24 October 1944.
Sometimes half a dozen torpedo strikes might not be enough to sink a battleship. There is some issue whether the German battleship Bismarck would have sunk despite being hit repeatedly by all sorts of torpedoes and gunfire. Ultimately, the crew opened the seacocks to avoid the humiliation of the Allies capturing the Fuhrer's grandest battleship. The gigantic Japanese battleship Musashi reportedly took 19 torpedo hits, 10 port and 9 on the starboard) from the US Navy before sinking.

Battleship HMS Barham blowing up
HMS Barham sinking after taking three torpedo hits.
A more typical number of torpedo strikes necessary to sink a battleship was three. This was how many, for instance, it took for U-331 to sink HMS Barham  25 November 1941. Of course, when you hit a battleship with more than one torpedo, it's not proven that it required all three to sink. Maybe only one or two ould have done the job. The third strike may have just been icing on the cake.

Anyway, I am going to give you that answer for the least number of torpedoes to sink a battleship, and here it is.

The answer is one torpedo can and did sink a battleship. And, here we get to the interesting case of the USS Nevada (BB-36).

The real rolling thunder!

USS Nevada

The USS Nevada was a fairly old battleship, completed in 1916, but it was by no means obsolete during World War II. There is a very bad tendency among some to dismiss any large Allied warship that was sunk during World II as being outdated or worn out or this or that. There was nothing second-rate about USS Nevada. It was fully crewed and ready for action on the morning of 7 December 1941. The Japanese attacked without warning on a Sunday morning and caught the Americans completely unprepared.

Japanese attacking battleship at Pearl Harbor
Japanese planes attacking Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941.
As the lone battleship on Battleship Row to be moored alone and not next to another ship, USS Nevada was able to make steam and get underway as the attack began. Almost immediately, it was struck by one 18 in (460 mm) Type 91 Mod 2 torpedo.

Damage to battleship USS Nevada
Torpedo damage to USS Nevada. This photograph was taken on 19 February 1942 (US Navy).
The torpedo hit about 14 feet (4.3 meters) above the keel. This caused structural damage to the torpedo bulkhead directly behind it. The ship began developing a slight list to port. Counterflooding restored the ship’s orientation, but it was in trouble.

Due to the commanding officer being ashore, the officer in charge was an ensign. This may be the only time in history that an ensign commanded a battleship in battle, but Ensign Joe Taussig, Jr., did an incredible job and displayed outstanding initiative. He got Nevada underway and headed for open water. The commanding officer, Francis W. Scanland, eventually got a launch to take him out to the battleship after the ship had run aground, but Taussig probably saved the ship.

Battleship USS Nevada (BB-36)
U.S.S. Nevada (BB-36).
The Japanese hit Nevada with about half a dozen bombs as it tried to steam out of the harbor. However, the Val dive bombers only had 250 kg bombs and these weren’t going to do enough damage to sink a battleship unless they got incredibly lucky (setting fire to a magazine, for instance). In this case, the bombs don’t seem to have caused any flooding. So, the danger to the ship was from the one torpedo that struck it and caused flooding.

Battleship USS Nevada beached in Pearl Harbor after its torpedo strike
USS Nevada beached at Hospital Point. (Library of Congress).
Lt. Cmdr. Francis Thomas, the command duty officer with Scanland still ashore, eventually gave up trying to scoot to safety and (under orders) wisely grounded Nevada off Hospital Point. Through a combination of factors, including the lack of adequate watertight compartments, flooding got out of control. But for grounding it, Thomas would have lost the ship. If taken out to deep water, it would have been lost. As it was, it took months to refloat Nevada for temporary repairs (everyone worked around the clock because of fears of more Japanese attacks, so that was an eternity and indicated a lot of damage had been caused).

So, if anyone tells you that a battleship can only be sunk by multiple torpedoes, be skeptical: it took only one to take down the USS Nevada.

Battleship USS Nevada leaves Pearl Harbor after temporary repairs
USS Nevada heads out to sea for trials after completion of temporary repairs before heading for Puget Sound for final repairs, 19 April 1942 (US Navy Naval History and Heritage Command 80-G-64768).


Tuesday, February 11, 2020

How Was Hitler's Invasion of Poland Different Than That of Austria and Czechoslavakia?

One Domino After the Other - Until You Run Out of Dominos

Hitler in Prague
Hitler looks out over his new conquest of Prague in 1939.
How was the invasion of Poland differently from the almost peaceful occupations of Austria and Czechoslovakia of just months earlier? Why did the German plan to invade Poland result in a world war when the previous two invasins did not? We'll come to a definite answer to that question here.

As everyone familiar with the war knows, Adolf Hitler ran out of luck in Poland. Before that, he skillfully played a game of bluff and intimidation that resulted in virtually costless conquests for his armies. However, Poland turned out to be quite a different matter. Let's compare the German annexations of Austria and Czechoslovakia with his attempt to do the same with Poland.

Hitler in Vienna with Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Heinrich Himmler, and Reinhard Heydrich.
Adolf Hitler in Vienna with (left to right) Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Heinrich Himmler, and Reinhard Heydrich.


Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg was no match for Hitler. He met with Hitler in hopes of accommodating the Fuhrer. Instead, Hitler threatened to invade and coerced Schuschnigg into naming supporters of the Third Reich to his cabinet. Austria did not have nearly enough armed forces to resist militarily. The appointees included hard-core Hitler supporter Arthur Seyss-Inquart as Minister of the Interior. This was the beginning of the end of an independent Austria.

Schushnigg pleaded with Great Britain and France for help. Since Austria did not have any defense treaties with other major powers, there was nobody to come to its aid.

Hitler and Austrian leader Schushnigg
The negotiations between Hitler and Schuschnigg were big news.
Finally, Schushnigg realized his support within the country was slipping, so he called a binding plebiscite regarding annexation for 9 March 1938. Hitler was furious at this attempt to deny him victory. He put all sorts of pressure on him and moved troops to the border. Schuschnigg resigned two days later, on 11 March 1938, and gave a vapid resignation speech in which he advised the country not to resist a German invasion.

That was all that Hitler needed. He accompanied his troops into Austria the very next day, and the Anschluss was officially declared on 13 March 1938. Austria was alone and defenseless and the Allies really didn’t care what happened to it.

Women cheering Hitler in Czechoslovakia
Czech women and girls cheer the arrival of German troops.


Czechoslovakia was a slightly different matter than Austria, but not by much. Hitler planned an invasion of Czechoslovakia, which he discussed with his generals on 20 May 1938 (Case Green). He also ramped up military production of things like U-boats and battleships to show that he “meant business.” Case Green was planned for 1 October 1938. Perhaps hearing about Hitler’s plans, the Czechs ordered a partial mobilization on 21 May 1938.

The Allies were divided about supporting Czechoslovakia. The Polish ambassador to France, fearing an invasion of his own country, told the French they would not help. Not only that, they might block any attempt by Soviet forces to cross their territory to help the Czechs (unlikely as that was). The French didn’t trust the Poles and thought they might switch sides to join with Germany. There were massive confusion and distrust on the Allied side.

Sudetendeutsches Freikorps paramilitary organization troops
Ethnic Germans of the Sudetendeutsches Freikorps paramilitary organization in Czechoslovakia that was affiliated with the SS-Totenkopfverbände.
The British acted as a sort of indifferent middleman. They told Czech president Edvard Beneš to work things out with Hitler. Beneš, however, had his own problems. The key defense area facing Germany, the Sudetenland, was populated with a high proportion of ethnic Germans. During World War II, “ethnic Germans” in other nations were often quite loyal to Germany and Hitler. Hitler inflamed their passions with highly questionable tales of supposed “atrocities” against them. These ethnic Germans, no doubt buttressed with actual Germans who simply drove across the border, began organizing demonstrations in support of Hitler and could cause Beneš and his military a lot of problems. A Czech "Freikorps" paramilitary organization, Sudetendeutsches Freikorps, was organized by ethnic Germans to cause trouble. It was similar to ones organized immediately after World War I that Hitler and his cronies remembered vividly.

Hitler meets Chamberlain in Berchtesgaden
German leader Adolf Hitler greets British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (with Foreign Minister Joachim Ribbentrop on the right) on the steps of "The Berghof," near Berchtesgaden, on September 15, 1938 (Federal Archive Figure 183-H12478).
Hitler continued applying pressure on Beneš. He sent a massive force of troops to the border on “maneuvers” and ramped up the propaganda war. By September, things were beginning to get dicey, so British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain visited Hitler at Berchtesgaden. Hitler made a big speech about the “right of self-determination” of the ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland. Chamberlain was non-committal and flew back to England without any agreements.

Hitler in Prague with SdP founder Konrad Henlein
SdP founder Konrad Henlein with Adolf Hitler.
Beneš could see what was happening and tried to fight back. He issued an arrest warrant for the Sudetenland leader of the ethnic Germans, Konrad Henlein, who had founded the Sudeten German Party (SdP). However, Henlein was in Germany at the time, so that was an exercise in futility.

Finally, the British and French reached a decision. They told Beneš to just give Hitler the Sudetenland in exchange for military guarantees. Beneš resisted, but Hitler now had what he wanted. He ramped up the agitations of the SdP, which began outright terrorist activities on 17 September 1938. This brought matters to a head, and once again Chamberlain flew to Germany. He told Hitler that he could have the Sudetenland. Poland later chipped in that, since Czechoslovakia was giving away free land, it also wanted the disputed Těšín district.

Hitler shakes Neville Chamberlain's hand in Munich
A grateful Adolf Hitler shakes the hand of Neville Chamberlain upon the signing of the Munich Pact.
That led directly to the infamous Munich Pact. Realizing that he had been sold out, Beneš agreed on 25 September 1938 to what Chamberlain and Hitler, later joined by France, had decided. Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, French Premier Edouard Daladier, and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met on 30 September 1938 and signed the Munich Agreement. Beneš, disgusted, resigned on 5 October 1938.

Czech fortifications in the Sudetenland
The Sudetenland contained massive Czech fortifications that were designed to stop an invasion from Germany. Without those defenses, Czechoslovakia was virtually defenseless.
The Munich Pact gave Czechoslovakia’s entire defense region, with its massive forts and defensive structures, to Hitler. Czechoslovakia then began to break up, with Slovakia breaking off on 14 March 1939 and pledging allegiance to the Third Reich.

Hitler with Emil Hácha
Hitler talks with Emil Hácha, Edvard Beneš's successor.
Hitler quickly sent troops into the defenseless rump state of Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939, defying the Allies military guarantees to it, which, as Hitler expected, were not honored.

Pre-war Polish PZL-P-37 planes
Unlike Austria and Czechoslovakia, Poland was ready, willing, and able to defend itself - or so it thought. Here, pre-war Polish PZL-P-37 planes are lined up.


The German plans for Poland were not that much different than for Austria and Czechoslovakia. Hitler always had his eyes on the lands of the East for “Lebensraum,” or the natural area of expansion of the Germanic peoples. He thought he might be able to pick Poland off as he did his earlier conquests. However, the Poles, having seen what had happened to Austria and Czechoslovakia, took precautions. On 31 March 1939, it established tight military alliances with France and the United Kingdom.

However, the alliances were only as strong as the will to honor them, and that was quite uncertain. Chamberlain in particular thought he could still make acceptable deals with Hitler. However, Hitler’s appetite had grown and he wanted to fulfill Germany’s manifest destiny as he had outlined it in the 1920s in “Mein Kampf.”

Polish 7TP light tanks in 1939
Polish 7TP light tanks in 1939.
As in previous instances, Hitler began planning an invasion. However, he held out hopes until the very end that he could work another deal like the Munich Pact over Poland. On 14 August 1939, he set a date for the invasion of late August (later pushed back to 1 September 1939). He basically disregarded the Allied guarantees to Poland. However, he was very worried about the Soviet reaction. So, he had his Foreign Minister, Joachim Ribbentrop, reach a quick deal with the Soviets where they would also invade Poland after the German invasion and then split it and the Baltic states among them.

Birger Dahlerus
Birger Dahlerus was an amateur diplomat who practiced shuttle diplomacy between the Reich and Great Britain in the months leading up to World War II.
Hitler negotiated with the British and French right up until the day of the actual invasion and beyond. In fact, as Chamberlain went on the radio on 3 September 1939 and affirmed that Britain would honor its guarantees to Poland and declare war, the Germans’ unofficial emissary, Swedish businessman Birger Dahlerus, was waiting on the phone on hold for him from Germany.

German and Soviet troops at the 22 September 1939 military parade
German and Soviet troops combined to invade Poland. Here, members of the Wehrmacht converse with Red Army soldiers at the 22 September 1939 joint military parade in Brest-Litovsk, Poland.


I went through all of that to show that the invasion of Poland was different simply because of the attitude of the Allies. That was basically all that changed. The positions of France and Great Britain, and in a sense that of the Soviet Union, was the only difference. They decided to stand up for Poland when they had not lifted a finger to defend either Austria or Czechoslovakia. Sometimes, your fate is not in your own hands, and that was the case for Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland in the late 1930s. That is why World War II began with the invasion of Poland and not with the invasions of Austria and Czechoslovakia.

I also pointed out that Poland’s own position about Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia was quite deferential. In fact, Poland not only accepted it, but Poland even chose to profit from it as well. Not exactly a profile in courage. The Soviet Union later did exactly the same thing regarding Poland. Things are much different when it is not one’s own head on the block, though, that's when you go screaming for help. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Auschwitz concentration camp
By not standing up to Hitler earlier, and even trying to profit from his political adventurism, Poland wound up with institutions like this - Auschwitz concentration camp.


Monday, February 10, 2020

German Success Relied on Trains and Horses During World War II

The Wehrmacht Advanced with Panzers and Armored Cars? No, Horses and Trains

German train
A German train of the World War II era.
The German Army (Heer) acquired a fearsome reputation during the early years of World War II. It conquered numerous countries in lightning campaigns (Blitzkrieg) and then valiantly defended the Reich as the world turned on it.

This reputation, however, was based on a secret that all the flashy tanks and artillery pieces camouflaged. The secret was that the Heer was, at its core, a 19th-Century army whose mobility was based upon trains and horses. It was lacking in virtually every material necessary to equip a modern army. It made do with what it had to the best of its ability while the Allies had enough oil and steel to make trucks in abundance. So, German troops relied on railroads and horses.

German horses hauled supplies, artillery, and other equipment

Germany's Strengths and Weaknesses

Germany had very few sources of oil, steel, rubber, and numerous other commodities that a military that is based around the internal combustion engine requires. Rubber was scarce because trade to its sources was cut off by the Royal Navy. There were simply inadequate sources of the other commodities (and the Reich had to import a lot of steel from “neutral” countries like Switzerland and Sweden). The Wehrmacht had to work within these limitations, and it did so by prioritizing systems that used materials that it had in abundance while limiting its scarce commodities to systems that absolutely required them.

German relied on their horses and wagons
A common scene in the Wehrmacht: men tending to their horses and wagons.
What did Germany have in abundance? Besides millions of men willing to fight and die for the Fatherland, it had some excellent infrastructure, efficient farming communities with lots of horses, and an abundance of coal. Each of these was used to its maximum degree in the service of the Wehrmacht transport network.

Understanding the Reich’s infrastructure is absolutely critical to understanding the strengths and limitations of the Wehrmacht. Everyone knows about Hitler’s autobahns, and they were certainly extremely useful to his armies as they marched outward (and later to the Allies as they marched inward). However, what many people miss is the importance of the highly developed rail network of the Reichsbahn.

German train

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the railways for the Wehrmacht. Coal was plentiful, one of the few things in relative abundance, and that was ideal for the use of trains. They carried virtually everything of importance: freight, soldiers, products and supplies. If you look carefully at maps of the Wehrmacht’s front lines in the Soviet Union, you may notice a curious aspect: the front often bulged outward along rail lines. This especially was the case during the retreat in 1943–45 as oil supplies ran tight. This is not a coincidence.

German armored train
A German armored train. All those vital railway lines had to be protected.

German Strategy Revolved Around Rail Lines and Horses

German armies were absolutely dependent upon supplies and reinforcements brought to them by rail. Troops transferring from Germany to the front usually were brought to a railhead as close to the front as the lines ran and then got out and walked. Sure, the Germans had motor transport, but it was usually reserved for headquarters troops and the like.

German horses could haul in the depths of winter when motor vehicles without antifreeze had issues
If there were no trains available, horses and wagons were the only options even in the dead of winter.
Once in place, the troops still had to be supplied. This was done using a tried and true method. Weapons, ammunition, and other supplies would be brought to the railhead and then they would be loaded into horse-drawn wagons., The number of horses was larger than the number of vehicles. They did not require scarce commodities like oil and rubber. The Wehrmacht began Operation Barbarossa with 600,000 motor vehicles and 625,000 horses. That gives you an idea of the importance of horses.

German railroad track destroyer Schienenwolf
Realizing the critical importance of railroads to their own war effort, the Germans developed ways of denying those benefits to their enemies. Here, troops use the specially designed railroad track destroyer ("Schienenwolf") to rip up tracks in Italy during their retreat (Fraß, Federal Archive Bild 101I-308-0799R-11). 
It is easy to point to this military weakness or that of the Western European countries that the Wehrmacht subdued in its Blitzkrieg assaults as the cause of their defeats. However, their main vulnerability lay in their well-developed rail lines that interconnected with the German lines. This made them relatively easy places for the Wehrmacht to supply its troops with whatever they needed. The rail lines led directly into Belgium and the Netherlands and then south into France, past the Maginot Line. Given proper supply networks, the Wehrmacht supply network could operate efficiently and supply the rapidly advancing panzers and infantry with everything that they needed. However, the situation was much different in the Soviet Union, where often a single rail line serviced a huge swathe of territory.

Without available rail lines and horses, the Wehrmacht was immobile. That had a very big impact on the course of World War II.

Site of the bridge at Kalach then and now
The site of the bridge at Kalach then (below) and now.

The Bridge at Kalach

Let me give you an example of how important the railroad-and-horse system was. When Stalingrad was surrounded, the Soviet objective in Operation Uranus was not Stalingrad itself. That could wait for later. The objective was the bridge at Kalach. Why was this bridge so important? Because it was over that one bridge that all the supplies for the Sixth Army and 3rd Romanian Army passed over.

However, if you know a great deal about the Stalingrad battle, you know that wasn’t a railroad bridge. So, what gives? Well, the rail line from the West stopped at the Don River. Then, all supplies for the German Sixth Army and Romanian 3rd Army had to be loaded to vehicles, which then crossed the bridge at Kalach. The supplies were then re-loaded onto captured Russian trains on the other side of the river. Those trains then carried everything - men, food, ammunition, cigars, Schnapps - the remaining 64 km (40 miles) to Stalingrad.

Germans using camels as pack animals at Stalingrad
The Germans even resorted to using local camels as pack animals at Stalingrad as shown here. Yes, there were camels on the steppe.
The reason why the nondescript bridge at Kalach was so important was that the rail line that had been converted to the German railway line gauge from the West that ran Gorlovka-Likhovskoy-Morozovsk-Tchir-Gumrak stopped at the Don. This was the only rail line in operation that could supply Stalingrad. At the Don, the supplies had to be loaded onto horse-drawn carts, taken across the bridge at Kalach. Then, they had to be reloaded onto Russian trains that could run on the slightly wider Russian railway line gauge for the final run into Stalingrad. Without the supplies crossing that bridge, those armies were helpless. The bridge was taken in a lightning assault on 23 November. Regardless of what happened elsewhere on the perimeter, once the bridge at Kalach fell, time was beginning to run out for the 300,000 men trapped in Stalingrad.

Soviet tanks and horses advancing during Operation Uranus
Camouflaged Soviet tanks, accompanied by pack horses, advancing during Operation Uranus.
The Red Army Army did not direct Operation Uranus at Stalingrad itself because every German in Stalingrad was completely dependent on the bridge at Kalach. This was the weak link in the German position there. The standard tactic by both sides during World War II was the pincer movement where you bypass the enemy's strongholds and simply cut their lines of communication. This sometimes worked and sometimes it did not, but that was the objective behind Operation Uranus.

Germans marching toward Stalingrad with their horses and wagons
Germans marching toward Stalingrad with their horses carrying their supplies. When the soldiers later had to eat the horses after the Soviets took the bridge at Kalach, they lost their mobility and were doomed.
If that sounds like a crazy supply system, well, then you and I are seeing the same thing. The weak link was the bridge. What carried all of the supplies across that one bridge? Well, you probably guessed it: horse-drawn carts, for the most part. It was hard enough getting oil for the troops that far east, let alone even more oil for trucks to cross a bridge. To keep tanks and other motor vehicles from freezing up in sub-zero weather, they had to be run throughout the day and night at intervals of at most a few hours. This burned up even more of the scarce gasoline and oil. Trucks and tanks also were difficult to use in the Russian winter due to the lack of antifreeze. Imagine trying to start your car in the dead of winter if it did not have anti-freeze and only used water in its radiator and you begin to understand the depth of the German supply problems. Using trains and horses was the only solution to this problem.

German train

German operations usually depended on two critical factors: the availability of rail lines and of horses. The OKH worried a great deal about the lack of horses by 1942 and they had to be prioritized to Army Group South to support Case Blue, the advance toward Stalingrad. This helps to explain why the line in the Army Group North and Army Group Center sectors of the front barely moved that year.

I talk more about the use of horses during World War II here and the Battle of Stalingrad here.

German train with antiaircraft guns


Sunday, February 9, 2020

Did the Atom Bombs Cause Japan to Surrender?

The Japanese Were in No Mood to Surrender

Japanese surrender delegation at Ie Shima
The Japanese peace delegation arrives on Ie Shima on 19 August 1945.
The question of whether Japan was ready to surrender before the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima has been around ever since the end of World War II. This didn't even seem debatable at first. It was so obvious at the time that the Japanese were losing and were about to get devastated. This was the accepted viewpoint for many years. However, detailed information that came out long after the war revealed that the Japanese did not see it that way. Not at all.

Not only was Japan not about to surrender when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, but the bomb appears not to have been the cause of the Japanese surrender afterward, either. To believe that the Japanese surrendered because of the devastation in Hiroshima reflects a U.S.-centric viewpoint. We dropped the bomb, and then another on Nagasaki, and so that overwhelming demonstration of United States power forced the Japanese surrender. Right?

Well, not so fast. Let’s look at what really happened in the sequence that actually took place. In other words, let's start at the beginning and see how each event changed things.

The atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima
The Hiroshima blast, taken a few minutes after the explosion.
United States Army Air Force B-29 “Enola Gay” dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. This only *began* the Japanese surrender process, it did not *end* it.

The Japanese at the time weren’t sure about the new bombs or what they really meant. There was just a report of a massive bombing raid, but there had been a lot of those. It took some time to figure out that this one was completely different than previous ones.
There was nobody left on the ground to give a reasoned analysis of what had happened and all communications were out, so somebody had to go and learn the facts. The Japanese had no idea about the effects of radiation (neither, really, did anyone else), so they assembled a team to investigate. This team led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, the hero of Pearl Harbor (he led the first wave), flew to Hiroshima to report from the scene. He and the others retrieved a metal cylinder full of scientific instruments that the Americans had dropped along with the bomb and observed the devastation from the nearby mountains.

Devastation in Hiroshima following the atomic bomb blast on 6 August 1945
Commander Fuchida flew to Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped and found a wasteland of ruins and charred trees.
This was an incredibly hazardous Japanese mission because Hiroshima and the surrounding area was still full of deadly radiation from the atomic bomb. Almost all of this team (aside from Fuchida himself, who somehow showed no ill effects) perished from radiation sickness, some within weeks. Even Fuchida’s report, however, did not decide matters because everything was uncertain. Japan had survived mass bombing raids for many months and this looked like just another one. They did not even know it had only been one bomb.

What the Japanese *did* know for a fact, however, was that the Soviet Union invaded Japanese-occupied territory in Manchuria during the early morning hours of 9 August 1945 (the same day as the Nagasaki atomic bomb, which happened many hours later). This invasion was something that could not be brushed off as “just another bombing.” It appeared unstoppable.

Soviet ground troops in Harbin, China
Soviet troops in Harbin, China, during the 9 August 1945 invasion.
Even after all this, many in the Japanese high command did not want to surrender. After news came of the second nuclear attack on Nagasaki and the Soviet invasion, the Japanese high command - the people that actually decided what to do regardless of “public opinion” or anything like that - took a vote. The vote was evenly split at 3–3, meaning no surrender. Think about that - even after two nuclear attacks and an invasion they could not possibly resist, the Japanese still were not willing to surrender. These were some true bitter-enders. It was not until the next day, 10 August 1945, that Emperor Hirohito did the unthinkable. He stepped in and, in a dramatically unique Imperial intervention into public policy, broke the tie. He commanded his government to accept the Allied surrender proclamation. This had never happened before.

Japanese surrender delegation at Ie Shima
The end of the war is in sight as the Japanese peace delegation is about to touch down on Ie Shima on 19 August 1945.
The military was unhappy with this and struggled to resist even the Emperor’s command. Negotiations within the government dragged on for days. There was even an abortive coup attempt on 14 August 1945. Meanwhile, the Japanese received the one assurance from the Allies that they needed - that the Emperor would remain in place under the Occupation, even if he was powerless. It was not until noon on 15 August 1945 that Emperor Hirohito put the matter to rest with an extraordinary radio address to the nation. This settled matters once and for all. On 19 August 1945, a Japanese peace delegation finally flew to Allied-controlled Ie Shima in a specially painted Mitsubishi G4M-1 “Betty” bomber.

Japanese surrender delegation on board USS Missouri
The Japanese sign the surrender declaration aboard the USS Missouri on 2 September 1945.
So, the bottom line is that, no, the Japanese were not ready to surrender before the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. In fact, they were not ready to surrender after the *second *nuclear attack on Nagasaki three days later. It took both of those attacks and the Soviet invasion of Japanese territory to compel the Japanese surrender, which formally occurred aboard the USS Missouri on 2 September 1945.