Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Germany's Fiercest Soldier: Erwin Rommel

Desert Fox

Erwin Rommel
Erwin Rommel.
Who was the fiercest soldier in the German military? Let me put forward a name. It’s a name that everyone knows, and many “experts” think is hyped beyond any sense of reality. However, I’ll try to back up my choice anyway. The name is Johannes Erwin Eugen Rommel.

I know there are people shaking their heads over this name. Wasn't someone like Joachim Peiper or some other war criminal the fiercest soldier?

Erwin Rommel
Joachim Peiper? I don't think so.
Let me explain one of the parameters of how I am answering this by reference to Joachim Peiper. Peiper was a ruthless SS officer, close friends with Heinrich Himmler, who was a "take no prisoners" type. And, I mean that literally. He had his men liquidate prisoners rather than send them to prison camps. Peiper's most notorious such stunt was when he perpetuated the Malmedy Massacre of American POWs.

We can dispense with Peiper because he was not a legitimate soldier - he was a thug and a convicted war criminal. By disregarding the rules of war, Peiper was no better than a murderer.

So, we are looking for a legitimate soldier who followed the rules of war and did not disgrace his country.

Erwin Rommel

The reason I chose Rommel is that he became a national hero in not one, but two world wars. Rommel achieved his greatest fame and notoriety due to his exploits during World War II, but within Germany, he was a famous military figure long before that. Sure, there was an element of self-promotion involved regarding Rommel’s World War I successes, and he was chosen to be a propaganda hero during World War II. However, it is undeniable that Rommel became a household name in one war and a legend in the next. That’s not something that happens every day.

Erwin Rommel

Rommel fought on three fronts during World War I. He was in the trenches in France, in Romania, and most famously in Italy. In each of these campaigns, he did something worthy or even spectacular. In France, he served near Verdun, where he and three mates caught a French garrison by surprise. In Romania, he participated in the difficult capture of a heavily fortified hilltop (Mount Cosna). These led to rapid promotions to be the company commander. But it was in Italy that Rommel made his name.

Erwin Rommel

On the Isonzo Front, Rommel’s unit participated in the Battle of Caporetto. Rommel’s company swept across the Italian positions like a plague. He used the rough terrain to his advantage and caught several Italian garrisons by surprise. He and his men perfected the art of silent infiltration and captured 9,000 men. He capped this by later convincing an entire Italian division to surrender to him and his small force. The 1st Italian Infantry Division of 10,000 men was humiliated to find that they had meekly surrendered to Rommel and his company of men pretending to be a much larger force.

Erwin Rommel
Rommel during the 1930s.
Between the wars in 1937, Rommel wrote Infantry Attacks (Infanterie greift an). This used his World War I experiences to draw larger lessons about fluid warfare. Adolf Hitler either read this book or was told what was in it because he quickly became a fan. This led to a series of promotions. Unlike some of Hitler’s other favorites who were mediocre at best, Rommel actually lived up to this trust.

Erwin Rommel
Rommel during the invasion of France in 1940.
In 1940, Rommel led his 7th “Ghost” Panzer Division in a brilliant race to the French coast at Dieppe, then on to Cherbourg. This audacious breakthrough without flank protection astonished everybody. It also gave Rommel the reputation for acting on his own initiative without concerning himself too much with orders. It was during this success that he also established a reputation for leading from the front. In my opinion, this was Rommel’s greatest achievement in World War II.

Erwin Rommel

Rommel extended this reputation in North Africa. Nominally under the command of the Italians, he disregarded them and just did what he wanted. He did not know it, but this was the key to his success in North Africa. The Germans had no idea that the British were reading their wireless transmissions, but since Rommel basically disregarded those communications anyway, it left the British expecting one thing when Rommel would wind up doing quite another. Rommel even somehow figured out how to get some use out of the Italian elements of his command - nobody else ever did.

Erwin Rommel

As everyone knows, Rommel was turned back by the British at El Alamein. However, despite facing an utter calamity, Rommel held his forces together and completed one of the most skilfull retrograde movements in history. He gave his forces another chance in Tunisia when they easily all could have been captured in Egypt.

The issue with choosing Rommel as the “fiercest soldier” is that some people have turned his oversized reputation against him. Figuring that nobody could be “all that,” they developed the “Rommel Myth” theory. This theory says that Rommel wasn’t anything special, he couldn’t follow orders, and he frittered away invaluable opportunities through reckless advances.

Erwin Rommel

I do not think that Erwin Rommel was the greatest German general of World War II. His successes led the Germans into traps that ruined their prospects, and he became so profoundly pessimistic as the war ground on that he began making poor choices. I write about my choice for the best German general here.

Erwin Rommel

However, Rommel’s issues do not detract from his fierceness, sheer audacity, and ingenuity. In my view, when you combine what he did in both wars, not just parts of the second one, it’s hard to find any man who excelled in so many areas of the military art better than Erwin Rommel. There are reasons the main German Army barracks is named after him today, and not just mythical ones.

I talk more about Erwin Rommel here.

Erwin Rommel


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

What Was Italy's Biggest Error of World War II?

Italy Made Some Colossal Errors During World War II

Benito Mussolini
Mussolini announces that Italy is at war from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia on 10 June 1940.
Italy’s biggest error in World War II obviously was declaring war against Great Britain on 10 June 1940. Without an advanced industrial base (most Italian vehicles and aircraft were hand-made, a very slow and inefficient process) and with a poorly trained-and-paid army, Italy had no business being in a general war. Churchill, known for his wisecracks at the expense of Italian military ability, quickly joked:
People who go to Italy to look at ruins won’t have to go as far as Naples and Pompeii again.
Churchill really didn't lose much sleep about the Italian declaration of war.

WInston Churchill during World War II

Italian leader (Duce) Benito Mussolini, of course, did not see it that way. He felt that Italy could regain the glory of the ancient Roman Empire. However, he hedged his bets slightly by waiting until 10 June 1940 before declaring war. Germany defeated France so soon after that (under two weeks) that Italy did not have time to prove whether its troops were capable or not. However, any unbiased observer of the state of the Italian military in 1940 would have to have concluded that Italy should not have declared war on any major powers. Later events would have justified this view.

Since that is such an obvious answer, I’m going to continue on and look at some strategic and tactical mistakes that Italy made during the war. Well, there are plenty of mistakes to choose from.

I’m going to cheat and pick the errors made during a single day instead of a single bad strategy or something like that because two of Italy’s biggest blunders began on 10 September 1940.

An Italian fighter during the Battle of Britain
Italian fighters were no match for Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes.
First, that was the day that the Italians began forming the Corpo Aereo Italiano (literally, "Italian Air Corps") to operate against the RAF on the Channel Front. This force in Belgium under the command of Generale sa (Air Marshal) Rino Corso-Fougier proved to be an unmitigated disaster. It accomplished nothing and diverted Italian resources from the Mediterranean where they could have been somewhat handy.

Greek soldiers in November 1940 defending against the Italian invasion
The Italians apparently forgot that Greek soldiers such as those shown above in November 1940 could shoot back.
Second, 10 September 1940 was the day the Italian Commando Supremo begins transferring its Greek Expeditionary Corps (40,310 men, with 7728 horses, 701 vehicles, and 33,535 tons of material) from Brindisi to Albania in preparation for an upcoming invasion of Greece. This was a completely boneheaded plan that caused Italy nothing but trouble. It was this invasion that proved to Hitler - too late - that Italy was not going to be of much help at all during the war. It vastly diminished Mussolini’s stature. His failures in Albania gave the Allies tremendous propaganda victories, representing their first victory on land against the fascists.

An Italian bomber during the Battle of Britain
An Italian bomber of the Italian Air Corps during the Battle of Britain.
As usual, the Italian mistakes did not have much impact on the course of World War II because they were really only gestures of futility by an inconsequential military. The Battle of Britain ground on to its inevitable conclusion regardless of Italian efforts, and the Italian presence changed nothing. The Albanian farce actually proved of some use to the Germans because Mussolini’s men had attracted the majority of the Greek Army to the west. When Hitler invaded in the east, his panzers rolled in quickly. Of course, this Italian distraction was not the plan and was hardly worth the cost, but the Germans had a knack for taking advantage of the errors of others (though, of course, they made plenty of their own, too).

The Italian Julia Alpini Division
The Italian Julia Alpini Division marches into the mountains. 28 October 1940.
Of the two errors listed above, the Italian invasion of Greece of 28 October 1940 looms larger in history. Everything about it was just completely wrongheaded. Invading into heavily defended mountains at the onset of winter is just mystifying in its sheer audacity. Invading on a narrow front that naturally favored the defense defied all military orthodoxy. Opening another campaign when the first in North Africa and a second in East Africa were both facing dubious prospects was just inviting ultimate defeat. The only conclusion possible is that Mussolini just had no clue as to the true state of his military and how fiercely his enemies would fight him.

Benito, you had one job...

German motorcycle troops entering Greece on 6 April 1941 Operation Marita motorcycle troops
Wehrmacht motorcycle troops enter Greece, 6 April 1941.
Hitler’s 6 April 1941 invasion of Greece was motivated in large part to bail out Mussolini troops, who had actually lost ground in their “offensive.”. There is a theory, which I think is largely false but is still touted, that this invasion (Operation Marita) diverted essential troops from Operation Barbarossa and prevented the Wehrmacht from taking Moscow in 1941. I personally don’t agree with that theory, but the Italian invasion of Greece did create a giant distraction that the Germans didn’t really need right before their do-or-die invasion of Russia. If Italy had any influence on the outcome of World War II at all, it was due to its completely unnecessary, hopelessly inept, and unexpected (including by Hitler) invasion of Greece.

So, the bottom line is that if you discount the declaration of war in the first place, then Italy’s biggest error was invading Greece.

An Italian CANT Z 1007 bomber during the Battle of Britain
An Italian CANT Z 1007 bomber with the Corpo Aereo Italiano in Belgium.


Did the Allies Face Resistance Groups During World War II?

Resistance Groups Against the Allies Don't Get Talked About Very Often

Cossack volunteer in the Wehrmacht
Cossack volunteers in the Wehrmacht.
Did the Allies face resistance from locals within their span of control? Yes. There were a few resistance movements against the Allies in Europe. These generally revolved around nationalistic impulses that still echo today.

One area of resistance to the Allies grew out of Ukraine (which is part of Europe, of course). The Russians were not beloved in Ukraine, and that is putting it mildly. Many Ukrainians greeted the Germans as liberators. I have a page devoted to Ukrainian collaborators with the Germans here. This hatred led, among other things, to the defection to the Germans of Soviet Lt. General Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov, a Ukrainian patriot who was captured near Leningrad after the defeat of his Second Shock Army. Vlasov formed an “Army of National Liberation” in support of the Germans They fought under the St. George Cross. In Russia, Vlasov to this day is considered somewhat worse than Benedict Arnold is in the United States.

Cossack volunteer in the Wehrmacht
A local tribesman from the Caucasus in the service of the Wehrmacht during World War II (colorized).
Some people in the Baltic States and in Georgia and the Caucasus, such as the Cossacks, also supported the Germans both militarily and otherwise. The southern area of the USSR was full of different tribes that just wanted the Soviets to go away forever. These proved useful to the Germans by showing their mountain trails and passes. Not much was heard of them after the Russians took control again. However, Ukraine and these other areas still had their issues with Russia, as you might have read recently. Lavrentiy Beria’s execution squads took care of some of those situations, so they have received no publicity.

Athens women protesting against the British during World War II
Women of Athens protest against the shooting by British troops and their local auxiliaries of local protesters on 3 December 1944 in Athens. Photograph: Dmitri Kessel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty.
Another area of resistance happened in late 1944 when the British occupied Greece. This is an extremely murky situation that has received almost no post-war attention. On 3 December 1944, the British army, still at war with Germany, opened fire upon – and gave locals who had collaborated with the Germans the guns to fire upon – a civilian crowd demonstrating in support of the partisans with whom Britain had been allied for three years. Winston Churchill felt that demonstrations were being orchestrated by communists and he was not tolerating them. These demonstrations came to be called the Dekemvriana. This term refers to a series of clashes fought during World War II in Athens between the Allies and local residents from 3 December 1944 to 11 January 1945. Now, exactly how much this constituted actual resistance worth killing people over or just a case of British overreaction is a matter of debate.

English socialite Unity Mitford was personal friends with Hitler during World War II
It was quite fashionable to support fascism during the 1930s. Unity Mitford, an English socialite, was personal friends with Hitler. She was so distraught when war broke out between Great Britain and the Reich that she tried to commit suicide. The British Union of Fascists remained in existence during World War II until PM Winston Churchill finally shut it down in May 1940.
The third area of resistance was in Great Britain. This also has not received a great deal of publicity because of how embarrassing it was to everybody. The British Union of Fascists openly admired Hitler. Led by Sir Oswald Mosley and Mrs. I.M. Swire, among others, the Union remained in operation into 1940. The British finally arrested Mosley, a former MP and Great War veteran, and incarcerated him (with wife Diana) at Holloway Prison on 23 May 1940 under Defence Regulation 18B. Of course, there were plenty of active collaborators within Occupied Europe and I have a page about them here. However, the collaborators quickly melted away as the Allied advanced.

Assassin Ilse Hirsch on the cover of Military History magazine
BDM leader Ilse Hirsch was part of the death squad that assassinated the collaborator mayor (Burgomeister) of Aachen during the last days of World War II. 
As the war ground to a close, there was still a lot of sentiment against the Allies in areas that they had occupied within the Reich itself. This also is an area that hasn’t received a lot of attention. In one of the most chilling operations of World War II, the Germans sent a task force to Aachen to liquidate a suspected collaborator who the Allied had appointed the new mayor (Burgomeister). These assassins received help from local residents. This was Operation Carnival, and I talk about it here.

Former Soviet Lt. General Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov greets some admirers
Former Soviet Lt. General Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov, a Ukrainian patriot, became the ultimate nightmare of the Allies when he formed an army of like-minded men to fight them.
By and large, the Allies did not face a lot of resistance movements in Europe because when they occupied ground (as opposed to losing it), it was pretty clear that the tide of the war had changed. Partisan movements flourish when people in occupied areas gain a sense that the other side is winning. The partisan movement inside of occupied Russia, for instance, did not take off until after the German loss at Stalingrad. People naturally bet on the winning side, and thus the Allies did not face many partisan movements during World War II.

Ukrainian women show their support of the Wehrmacht
 Ukrainian collaborator girls show their allegiance to the Germans during a parade in Stanislav that honored a visit by Hans Frank, Gauleiter of Poland.


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.