Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Ghost Ships of Iwo Jima

Ghostly Reminders of World War II

Ghost Ships of Iwo Jima
Ghost ships of Iwo Jima.

Iwo Jima is remote, and it has no permanent inhabitants. Almost nobody is allowed to visit, and those that do get permission must travel on special tours that are conducted once a year. But some news just came out of Iwo Jima that bring alive the ghosts of the past.

Some eerie happenings on Iwo Jima in late 2021 are unearthing things long thought forgotten. I'll get to those below. But the past is haunting the present on one of the ultimate battlefields of World War II. If you've never seen any of the pictures on here before, there's a good reason for it.
Ghost Ships of Iwo Jima

The Battle for Iwo Jima (Operation Detachment) was one of the fiercest of the Pacific Campaign. Lasting from February 19 through March 26, 1945, the battle cost many thousands of lives on both sides (roughly 30,000 in total along with many U.S. casualties; only about 200 of 20,000 Japanese soldiers survived). While the United States secured the island after this vicious fight, nobody really won anything useful.

Ghost Ships of Iwo Jima

There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about Iwo Jima. Everyone knows it was a "great victory" for the United States Marines. The photos of the flag raisings are known by everyone and the most famous one was turned into a fabulous memorial in Washington, D.C.
Ghost Ships of Iwo Jima

Once you scratch below the surface, that is when the legend engine goes off the rails. Let me make plain this was not the fault of any man who fought there, not to demean them, not to diminish what they did. Every man who sacrificed himself on Iwo Jima died a hero. The truth, however, is better than a lie.
Ghost Ships of Iwo Jima

Many people think that Iwo Jima was vital to the bombing and projected invasion of Japan. In fact, Iwo Jima was not needed at all for either of those objectives. Iwo Jima would have played no role in the invasion had it occurred, and no bombers ever flew from Iwo Jima to drop atomic bombs on Japan or, well, any bombs at all.

That's right. No bombers flew from Iwo Jima to bomb Japan. None.

The reason that Iwo Jima was basically useless is simple. The island has no harbor and ships cannot dock and unload supplies there. This made the island incapable of supporting bombing operations against Japan despite its location being much more suited for that role than other nearby islands that did have harbors.
Ghost Ships of Iwo Jima

Bombs are heavy, 1945 atomic bombs were the heaviest of all, and it's just not logistically feasible to bring any bombs ashore on lighters or landing craft. If you're going to fly bombs in to load them on Iwo Jima, you might just as well just skip that step and fly them straight for air delivery to Tokyo itself.

Along with Guam, the site of a major U.S. airbase before World War II, The US Army Air Force used airfields on Saipan and Tinian in the Mariana Islands for Twentieth Air Force B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers. While these islands were several more hours flying time from Japan than Iwo Jima, they did have harbors.

In the Spring of 1945, after the battle to capture Iwo Jima, the U.S. Navy decided to try and make an artificial harbor there to justify the wild loss of life capturing it. That worked off the beaches of Normandy, though that was a drastically different situation. There, the military could tow across "Mulberry Harbors," temporary portable harbors developed by the United Kingdom.
Ghost Ships of Iwo Jima
The location of the wrecks on the western shore of Iwo Jima is marked on this Google Earth map. The beach is dark because it is black volcanic sand. This beach was where many U.S. Marines took their last breaths. 

Unfortunately, Mulberry Harbors are huge and it would have been extremely difficult and time-consuming to get them to Iwo Jima. Since bringing Mulberry Harbors halfway around the world was not feasible, the U.S. military improvised. Navy Seabees sank 24 captured Japanese transport ships off the western coast of Iwo Jima to establish a breakwater. 
Ghost Ships of Iwo Jima
Site of the sunken Japanese ships. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License (Photos: Kelly Warrick).

This project was a complete failure and the Seabees quickly abandoned it. The wrecks are still there.

The reason why I'm writing about this now in October 2021 is that Mount Suribachi, which dominates Iwo Jima, has been rumbling recently. Some fear that it could erupt. But what it's already done is expose these old shipwrecks that haven't been seen since 1945.
Ghost Ships of Iwo Jima

That's why you've never seen most of these shots before - because the ghost ships only recently appeared. This is big news in Japan, but you'd probably never hear about it anywhere else.


Saturday, October 9, 2021

What Was the "Stab in the Back" During WWI?

Hitler's Most Successful Message During His Rise

A representation of the "stab in the back"
A contemporary illustration of the "stab in the back" theory.

What was this "stab in the back" theory that is so often associated with Adolf Hitler and the Second World War? It was a simplistic, erroneous, and distorted explanation for Germany's defeat during World War I.  It is said that the seeds for World War II were planted during the conclusion of World War I. The "stab in the back" theory played a major role in Hitler's rise to power and the German desire to avenge past defeats.

The basic "stab in the back" theory stated that the German military was not responsible for the loss of World War I because uprisings and betrayals at the homefront caused the German government to surrender while the war was still winnable, or at least before the Army was defeated. These uprisings and betrayals supposedly included actions by sinister actors, including communists and Jews. These actions "stabbed the German Army in the back" at a pivotal moment and deprived it of victory.

It is critical to point out here that there is and never was direct evidence to prove the "stab in the back" theory. It is an early example of a conspiracy theory that is believed because it is more comfortable to do so than to accept the pitiless reality. Everything surrounding the "stab in the back" theory is circumstantial, highly debatable, belied by actual evidence, and based on stereotypes of standard "enemies" and "outsiders" in dominant German culture.

The Dolchstoß theory, or Dolchstoßlegende as the Germans call the "stab in the back" theory, became a central feature of Third Reich propaganda with increasing anti-Semitic overtones. It was promulgated by German generals who failed during World War I and were looking for easy excuses for their own failures. It also was a way to stiffen resentment of communism, blamed along with the Jews for the uprising.

Going over the immediate background is necessary to understand the "stab in the back" theory and why it was contrary to the facts.
A representation of the "stab in the back"

The 1918 Situation

By late 1918, World War I (then usually called the "Great War") had ground on for four long years. German fortunes had their ups and downs during that time, but by September 1918 it was in serious trouble.

German defeat was extremely likely by the fall of 1918. The Western Allies were advancing at what seemed like an impossible speed after years of trench warfare where the front hadn't change more than a hundred meters every year. The Australian, Canadian, British and French armies launched the successful Hundred Days Offensive in August 1918 with the Battle of Amiens and Battle of Montdidier. The initial offensive enjoyed immediate success and gained 12 miles (19 km). 
Canadian tank in 1918
German prisoners carry Canadian wounded past a Canadian tank during the Battle of Amiens, August 1918 (Canadian War Museum).

The German collapse was so swift and unexpected that  General der Infanterie Erich Ludendorff, effectively running the German war effort as First Quartermaster General of the Great General Staff, referred to 8 August as “Der Schwarztag des Deutschen Heeres” (the Black Day of the German Army). The Allied success led to further offensives in August, such as the Third Army at Albert (the Battle of Albert) and the Second Battle of Noyon. 

Things just went from bad to worse for the Germans. The arrival of the Americans was especially dispiriting. They were fresh troops, well-armed, and physically impressive (on average, the Americans were taller than other soldiers on either side). Crown Prince Ruprecht, during a 15 August 1918 conversation with Prince Max of Baden, lamented:
The Americans are multiplying in a way we never dreamt of... At the present time, there already are thirty-one American divisions in France.
In a war that everyone by now knew was fairly evenly balanced before the arrival of the U.S. Army, this sudden influx of powerful forces had extremely negative connotations.

Canadian tank in 1918
Canadian troops using tanks along the Arras-Cambrai Road before the Battle of Cambrai, September 1918 (Library and Archives Canada 3194821).

But at this point, it wasn't even clear if the Allies even needed American troops. The British broke the main German line of defense called the "Hindenburg Line" at the Second Battle of Cambra in early October and the Germans retreated rapidly, abandoning large supply stores and equipment along the way. These sudden Allied victories were rapidly eating up all of the German war gains in the West.

However, as dramatic as the Allies' 1918 breakthrough was, Germany was not yet militarily defeated even though that result seemed inevitable to many observers. The German Army was still fighting outside Germany’s border. Germany had defeated the Russian Empire and forced an advantageous peace, occupying vast stretches of territory in the East. This realized a long-held dream of many Germans for eastward expansion, taking land from people many considered backward and inferior. 

Just six months before the surrender, a German offensive in the West had some success and almost broke the French Army. This was known as "Operation Michael" and had brought the German Army to the Marne River for the first time since 1918. There, they were finally repulsed with the assistance of American troops under General John "Black Jack" Pershing entering combat for the first time.
Ludendorff, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Hindenburg
General Paul von Hindenburg, Kaiser Wilhelm, and General Erich Ludendorff. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (cph 3a42618)

Ludendorff's Personal Issues

So, the German war situation in 1918 was dire. Germany, blockaded by the Allies, no longer had the resources to continue the war. The "stab in the back" theory, though, had nothing to do with that. Its origins were far more ethereal.
Russian soldiers surrender at the Tannenberg 1914
Russian soldiers surrender at the Battle of Tannenberg, one of the great German victories of World War I.

Ludendorff, nominally under the command of Chief of the German Great General Staff Paul von Hindenburg, was the general actually running the German military. His strategies in 1914 prevented a potentially war-ending Russian breakthrough at the Battle of Tannenburg. Hindenburg involved himself with strategy now and then, but mostly he just acted as the "front man" for the Duo. He would entertain the Kaiser and diplomats over cognac and schnapps during the evening and receive briefings on the state of the war from Ludendorff.

The Allies' Hundred Days Offensive claimed its most prominent victim in the German High Command. Ludendorff had a classic nervous breakdown from all the stress. Among other things, his son had fallen in combat and this affected Ludendorff, who took to visiting his son's grave at Avesnes, greatly. Ludendorff's boss, Hindenburg, grew concerned about Ludendorff's condition and asked his own doctor to take a look. Hindenburg's physician observed Ludendorff getting increasingly agitated, with mood swings and more drinking, and referred Ludendorff to a psychiatrist, Dr. Hochheimer. The psychiatrist quickly divined that the problem was Ludendorff's micro-managing of the troops.
Ludendorff and Hindenburg
Paul von Hindenburg (left) and Erich Ludendorff (right) took over control of the German war effort as a team, replace Erich von Falkenhayn in August 1916. Informally, they were known as "The Duo."

Psychiatry was a new profession in 1918, but Hochheimer had some interesting ideas. He recommended that Ludendorff take deeper breaths, relax, maybe try some yodeling to let off steam, take some days off, and basically ordered him to take a vacation. However, Ludendorff could not break away and his condition grew worse throughout the fall of 1918.

Ludendorff's mental state is significant because his views on the military situation were colored by his personal problems. He had very good advice on the true state of affairs and even wrote an insightful paper that cast much of the blame for the Allies' sudden success on their use of mass tanks (the British used 500 tanks at the breakthrough Battle of Cambrai).

The Germans struggled to develop effective defenses against tanks and produced very few tanks of their own. The ones that Germany did build were ponderous and ineffective. While Germany did capture some useable Allied tanks and put them into service, there weren't nearly enough to hold back the Allies.

So, there were good reasons for the Allies' sudden success. Ludendorff knew all about them. In fact, he knew the reasons so well that he was educating his subordinate commanders about them. But, for convenience and due to his personal issues, Ludendorff suddenly developed a radical new theory to explain his own failures as a commander.
German World War I tank
A captured World War I German tank. They were large, ponderous, underpowered, and ineffective.

The Origination of the Stab in the Back Theory

To summarize this section: Ludendorff actually knew the war was lost and took decisive actions to make sure it ended. But, once he had done that, he quickly turned around and concocted a theory to absolve himself and the military of any blame for the defeat.

Ludendorff's mercurial temperament in the fall of 1918 created a lot of anxiety at the highest levels of the German government. He told Hindenburg on 28 September 1918 that the government needed to sue for peace immediately. Rattled by this demand, Hindenburg took Ludendorff to see the Kaiser the following day. Ludendorff said the same thing, only promising to be able to retreat to the German border to avoid a "shameful peace." This started the ball rolling for peace talks and the fall of the German government.

Once he had vented to the Kaiser about the true situation at the front and established a framework for peace negotiations, though, Ludendorff changed his tune. He took an entirely different view at a cabinet meeting on 9 October when he claimed the army could protect Germany's borders into 1919. Ludendorff opined that Germany still had time to negotiate from a position of strength even though, due to his own agitation, this was now impossible. He reiterated this at a 14 October cabinet meeting. By then, a new German government full of Socialists was considering President Wilson's peace proposals seriously.
Russian soldiers attack at the Battle of Tannenberg 1914
Russian soldiers charge at the Battle of Tannenberg.

A close look at Ludendorff's own history suggests that his mental issues during the final months of the war were not unusual for him. His sole claim to fame was the Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914, an undeniably great victory. However, Hindenburg revealed shortly before his death that Ludendorff had completely lost his nerve and become severely agitated at a critical point in the battle, right before a great encirclement won it. This is exactly the kind of behavior Ludendorff demonstrated in September 2018, completely losing his nerve under stress. This revelation put everything that happened at the end of World War I into proper perspective.

Another inconvenient fact about the Tannenberg victory was that Ludendorff's responsibility is a bit questionable. Two subordinate commanders, General Max Hoffmann and Lt. Gen. Hermann von François, played much larger roles in issuing the commands that led to victory. At key points in the battle, François, a field commander, acted on his own initiative without orders and achieved vital results. Without the dash and initiative of François, victory may have slipped away.

Hoffmann was Chief of Staff of the Eastern Front during the Battle of Tannenberg and its follow-up, the Battle of the Masurian Lakes. Anyone familiar with military commands knows that the chief of staff is usually the guy running around getting things done. After receiving no credit, Hoffmann remained bitter for the rest of his life.

However, it was in the interest of the German Empire to create heroes for morale purposes. Ludendorff and Hindenburg were technically in command and thus received all of the plaudits. Let's just say that Ludendorff may not have been quite the master battle strategist that he was made out to be by the propaganda bureaus. However, the public adored the Duo.

I'm sure you've heard of Ludendorff and Hindenburg. Everyone has. Have you ever heard of Hoffmann and François? Unless you are a student of war history, probably not. That is a vivid demonstration of the power of the press. However, Hoffmann is still used as a model for the ideal staff officer at the United States Army Command and General Staff College. He was the German unsung hero of World War I.
Hindenburg, Ludendorff, and Hoffman at the Tannenberg 1914
Hindenburg looks through field glasses at the Battle of Tannenberg while Ludendorff (second from right) and Hoffman - the forgotten man - look on.

Even Hindenburg was a bit resentful of the acclaim that Ludendorff received. Late in life, he pointedly remarked that he did have some impact on the victory, stating, "I was, after all, the instructor of tactics at the War Academy for six years."

It is important to emphasize here that the Battle of Tannenberg indeed was a great German victory that saved the Empire. The point is that the German government found it expedient to have the press tout Ludendorff as a master strategist when, in fact, the victory was attributable to the efforts of others as much as the role he played in it. This led to his elevation to a position where he was running the entire war effort. This fulfilled the cynical Peter principle, which states that people will be promoted to their maximum level of incompetence.

Ludendorff's erratic behavior finally brought about his downfall. On 24 October 1918, he sent an unauthorized telegram to the troops telling them that President Woodrow Wilson's terms for ending the war were "unacceptable" and that the troops must fight on. He did this without going through normal channels or consulting the civilian government.

Kaiser Wilhelm found Ludendorff's telegram insulting to his own power. He quickly called Ludendorff and Hindenburg in and abruptly fired Ludendorff for insubordination. Hindenburg offered to resign as well but was flatly refused.

1917 German World War I tank The Sturmpanzerwagen A7V
1917 German Sturmpanzerwagen A7V tank.

It is now that the Stab in the Back theory developed. Ludendorff fled to Sweden using a disguise and false papers to wait until revolutionary fervor in Berlin cooled down. Hindenburg retired (again) in June 1919 to Hannover. Both men wrote memoirs that created the "stab in the back' thesis, that the war was going fine until problems developed on the homefront.

However, Ludendorff wrote his memoirs in a mad rush, publishing "My War Memories" on 1 January 1919. In this, he was the first to write about the "stab in the back" by the homefront. Hindenburg's memoirs (written with the aid of a journalist who undoubtedly was familiar with Ludendorff's version) just repeats Ludendorff's stab-in-the-back theory but greatly amplified its exposure to the public.

The facts, though, run counter to Ludendorff's sudden self-serving explanation for Germany's defeat. He was the main advocate of seeking peace in August and September 1918 due to the Allies' sudden success at breaking the logjam on the Western Front. The homefront had nothing to do with Ludendorff's opinion then. It was only after a change in government to one with many Socialists in it (who could be blamed for the defeat) in October 1918 that he changed his tune and claimed the army could fight on, though to what purpose is unclear.

Even before that, Ludendorff had established a tendency to blame others for the growing crisis. On 6 September 1918, he told the assembled army chiefs of staff at a meeting held at his headquarters in Avesnes that the blame for recent defeats lay with failures by the troops and their officers. About Ludendorff's comments at this meeting, General Friedrich von Lossberg wrote in his 1939 memoirs that "the real fault lay in his own defective generalship."
Dr. Karl Liebknecht proclaims a German socialist republic November 1918
Dr. Karl Liebknecht proclaims a German socialist republic in November 1918. The real uprisings began after the war was over, such as the Spartacist uprising of January 1919.

It is important to note that while Ludendorff was panicking in August and September 1918, he never blamed the army's troubles on the homefront. That was never even a consideration. The Allies were beating the German Army on the field of battle, and that was decisive to the outcome of the war. The revolts and mutinies came later and were likely in part instigated by the military defeats. The famous Kiel Mutiny did not occur until 3 November 1918, long after the war was decided.

Germany's allies were dropping out during the fall of 2018 without regard to Germany's internal issues. Bulgaria capitulated on 29 September (right when Ludendorff was telling the Kaiser he should do the same), the Ottoman Empire surrendered on 30 October (just as Ludendorff was leaving his position), and on 3 November the Austro-Hungarian Empire gave up (and ceased to exist). If Germany wasn't winning the war with these powerful partners, it's hard to see how they could get along without them. There were no "stabs in the back" in these other countries. The clear implication is that the problem was the overall military balance of power.

The beauty of the "stab in the back" theory from Ludendorff's perspective was that it could not be disproven. It also absolved him from all responsibility for the defeat. Other top German generals, though, completely disagreed with this theory. On 27 May 1922, General Wilhelm Groener, for instance, wrote the following:
It would be the greatest injustice to defame the German people for their collapse at the end of the lost world war. They had sacrificed their youth on the battlefields. They had proven themselves by magnificent feats of arms in the field, in unrelenting work, in privation and sufferings in the homeland. They had been led to the mountain peak of an illusionary world in which they were held by hope after hope of certain victory... In the end, the blame for the continued self-deception and the mistaken employment of defensive tactics rests on the military. The victories... were not victories in the strategic and political sense.
Ludendorff went on to support revolutionary crackpots who embraced his stab-in-the-back theory for political purposes. These included Wolfgang Kapp and Adolf Hitler, both right-wing extremists who staged unsuccessful coup attempts in the early 1920s. 

The stab-in-the-back theory was extremely useful to Hitler, who used it to rouse his followers with the "injustices" of the Treaty of Versailles and the need to re-arm to reclaim Germany's place in the world. The millions of unemployed or underemployed former German soldiers who still felt loyalty to Ludendorff and Hindenburg eagerly embraced this myth, which absolved them and the army for all blame for the defeat.
Ludendorff and Hitler
Ludendorff and Adolf Hitler following the failed 1923 Putsch. 26 March 1924. The Third Reich used this picture for propaganda purposes during the 1930s (see Federal Archive Image 102-16742).


Germans in 1918 who wanted to be delusional about their war prospects could see certain silver linings despite all the military catastrophes during the Allies' Hundred Days Offensive. If distance makes the heart grow fonder, then time makes a losing military situation more salvageable (especially if it's long in the past and you don't have to go through the added deprivations now). It’s difficult now to understand the “fight to the bitter end” mindset, but it obviously affected a lot of Germans.

Was the “stab in the back” thesis accurate? No. But it had just enough of a kernel of truth to sway the masses for Adolf Hitler’s benefit.
Stab in the back


Thursday, October 7, 2021

Ruined German Cities 1945 in Color

Life Amidst the Rubble

Germany in 1945
Germany in 1945.

The war damage in Germany was insane. The devastation in Germany by the war's conclusion was immense. It was so immense that it's difficult to grasp. Fortunately, the U.S. Army made a point of documenting the destruction wrought by six years of war so that we don't have to just imagine it, but we can actually see it.

The RAF bombed Berlin several times early in the war with scattered success. Some bombs hit the opera house that Adolf Hitler treasured, angering him. He rebuilt it and vowed to defend the city better. As losses mounted, Bomber Command concentrated more on other targets that were nearer and not as well defended. This was a smart strategy, but it left Berlin largely intact until a change in tactics in November 1943 saw a full-scale assault on the city. After that, the city disintegrated rapidly.

Berghof postcard
This was a popular German postcard before World War II showing Hitler's Berghof in Berchtesgaden.

Using the best equipment available, director George Stevens led a team of the U.S. Army Signal Corps that filmed the German cities that had been torn apart by years of bombing raids and last-ditch fighting. Stevens was no slouch, having already directed some Ginger Rogers/ Fred Astaire films and directed dozens of from 1930 onward.

The Berghof in 1945 after the surrender
Hitler's Berghof shortly after the defeat.

Having broken into the film business as a cameraman, Stevens had a good eye for composition. This was perfect training for recording bombed-out buildings and people struggling to rebuild them. The experience had a big effect on Stevens' later work. His post-war films showed a noticeable shift, becoming more pointed and dramatic as opposed to his romantic comedies of the pre-war endeavors. He went on to new heights after the war, directing "A Place in the Sun" (1951) and "Giant" (1956) among other enduring works. Directing religious epic "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965) showed just how much Stevens' mindset had changed.

There also were other filmmakers involved in recording the aftereffects of the war. These included, for instance, Capt. Oren Haglund (USAAF) of the 1st. Motion Picture Unit, who captured the dramatic footage of the "lost German girl" I've written about before. But Stevens had the good fortune to be in the right places at the right time to capture the best images of the overall devastation.

Berlin 1945

German refugees 1945

Let's hope this never has to happen again!


Sunday, September 26, 2021

A Glimpse of Pre-War Berlin

Before the Hurricane

Berlin 1936

Here are a couple of color videos of Berlin from 1936 that have been enhanced using modern Artificial Intelligence software. If you ever wondered what Germany looked like before Adolf Hitler and the war destroyed it, this is a good place to start.

Of course, all of this beauty and grandeur masked truly nefarious forces working in the background. History's verdict is that Germany brought its troubles on itself and has only itself to blame. But it was truly criminal to risk all this for nebulous nothings and sinister intentions.
Berlin 1936

The film is a little unusual because the original was in color. That makes the colors more accurate and vibrant than in the typical case with these types of AI exercises.
Berlin 1936

There are troops and military vehicles, but they are not at war and are just going about their business, just as in other countries of the time. What surprises me a little is how militaristic the society had become, and not just during the 1930s. It had been like that for a long, long time, as indicated by some of the artwork that is shown.

Despite all the historic architecture, the scenes look surprisingly modern to me. People are just going about their business, parents with children, sightseers, and businessmen.

Berlin 1936
Not much traffic compared to now!

The city is all decked out for the 1936 Olympics. That's when the government pulled out all the stops for an impressive showing to the worldwide audience. It was like Berlin's coming-out party.

Berlin 1936
Those huge banners you see in the WWII movies were certainly real! 

The Germans already had cable television to show the Olympics to city dwellers. The cables ran from the stadium to theaters in the heart of Berlin, where people could sit and watch the events on the screen for free.

This cable TV later found war purposes, of course. Many of the technicians who worked on it later became hugely important to the development of broadcasting in the post-war era.

Berlin 1936
Back when cars were still allowed to have vibrant colors!

Watching films like this may give you an idea of how tragic World War II was, how much was lost due to warmongering and repression.

You can catch glimpses of the Brandenburger Gate, The Siege Saule, Unter den Linden, the Haus des Rundfunks (radio broadcast building), Berlin Zoo, the subway, and outdoor sculptures.

Anyway, I'm always interested in windows to the past. If only Germany had taken a different path. I hope you enjoy it!
Berlin 1936


Monday, August 23, 2021

Stuka Disaster at Neuhammer!

Stuka Catastrophe!


Some of the worst military disasters occur during training exercises. For instance, at least 749 American servicemen died during a practice landing at Slapton Sands, Devon, UK, on 27 April 1944 while preparing for the D-Day landings (Exercise Tiger). That they happen during exercises doesn't make deaths any less painful or heroic or important. Dead is dead.

This is about a great tragedy that befell the Luftwaffe on the eve of World War 2. There are lessons to be learned about the importance of placing safety first and not taking anything for granted, but mostly this is a story about needless deaths. 

The Stuka Always Has Been Controversial

The Junkers Ju 87 Sturzkampfflugzeug ("Stuka") dive bomber always has been a controversial plane, and I mean that literally. From the day they were first considered by the Luftwaffe, Stukas had many doubters. Its first flight was on 17 September 1935, and for that time it was reasonably capable but not considered a world-beater. Stukas were used in the Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War with success, but a lot of doubts remain about the utility of divebombing and the Stuka in particular. For one thing, air defenses in Spain weren't of the caliber the Luftwaffe could expect to see elsewhere.

Many experts considered the Stuka to be underpowered or, in other words, slow and vulnerable. Rear gunners couldn't adequately protect planes that waddled along in their missions and then presented fat targets after dropping their payloads. The whole ground-attack concept by a dive bomber, in fact, was hotly debated during the inter-war period. Some air force generals considered dive bombers to be almost suicidal due to the manner in which they attacked targets. The Royal Air Force, in particular, took a dim view of dive bombers. Only the United States embraced the dive bomber concept early on, and then only for its naval air units where accuracy was essential.

But, on the other hand, dive bombers did offer greater accuracy than level bombers. With the Wehrmacht interested in destroying heavy fortifications being built by its nearest neighbors, accuracy was very desirable.

 General der Flieger Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen. Cousin of the Red Baron and a World War I ace, Richtofen was a master strategist relied on time and time again by Adolf Hitler to save lost situations.

Luftwaffe General Wolfram von Richthofen was one of the chief Stuka doubters. The difference between Richtofen and many others was that he was in a position to do something about it. Richtofen was in charge of developing and testing new aircraft in the Technisches Amt, or Technical Service, under the overall direction of Hermann Goering's favorite Ernst Udet. While Udet was more of a barnstorming pilot (and quite possibly the best in the world at aerobatics) than an executive type, he had Goering's ear. This meant that Udet held all of the real power in the Luftwaffe's plane development that there was to hold.

On 9 June 1936, Richtofen took a bold step and canceled the Stuka development. He did this based on the advice of experts for the reasons mentioned above. 

There was only one problem with this decision. Richtofen didn't know that Udet, for whatever reason, had strong feelings about the Stuka. Apparently, Udet had studied two Curtiss Hawk IIs purchased from the United States and really liked the dive bomber concept. Udet even flew one of the US dive bombers during the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. What transpired is that Udet, and thus Goering, decided that a dive bomber offered cheap but effective tactical performance. Experts be damned!

Udet overruled Richtofen the very next day and the Stuka was built.

Ernst Udet
Ernst Udet was the "real deal." He was the top-scoring surviving pilot of World War I with 62 confirmed kills and a world-renowned aerobatic pilot. Even as head of the Luftwaffe's development office, Udet occasionally served as his own test pilot, as above.

That's how widely opinion varied about the Stuka from the very start. The controversy has continued ever since, as some believe the Stuka was a highly effective dive bomber while others just as correctly point to its extreme vulnerability to attack. For the Stukas to become truly effective, Wehrmacht generals had to be convinced to trust the Stukas to come to the aid of ground soldiers. That led to the demonstration discussed below.

Oh, by the way, you may be wondering who was right - Udet or Richtofen. Well, that's... controversial. But I'll note in passing that Udet put a gun to his head a few years later. And I'll also note that Stukas flew effectively to the very last day of the war.


The Disastrous Neuhammer Demonstration

With war fast approaching, the Luftwaffe decided to prove to the army generals how effective the Stukas could be. Accordingly, Army (Heer) and Luftwaffe generals (including Wolfram von Richthofen, now the Stuka’s boss, and Generals Hugo Sperrle and Bruno Loerzer) gathered at the airfield near Neuhammer-am-Queis, Silesia (present-day Świętoszów, Poland) on 15 August 1939. They were there to witness a demonstration of divebombing accuracy by the still fairly new Stukas. The demonstration exercise involved bombing a ground target, with the intent to inspire confidence in the army generals. The Luftwaffe wanted them to willing to call in air support for their troops at the front. They would require pinpoint accuracy so as to avoid having the Stukas drop their bombs mistakenly on nearby German soldiers.

Instead of a successful demonstration, they witnessed a catastrophe. Within the Luftwaffe, this event became known as the "Neuhammer Stuka Disaster" (Neuhammer Stuka-Unglück).

There were clouds over the target area. However, the meteorologists reported clear visibility underneath the cloud layer reported to be around 2500 feet. Ordinarily, training flights would be canceled in such circumstances. However, this was no ordinary training flight, but a demonstration prepared for the top names in the Wehrmacht. The Luftwaffe decided to go ahead with the exercise.

It is easy to understand the Luftwaffe generals' thinking. It would be an impressive sight for the army generals to see the Ju 87 B-1 Stukas descend out of the clouds, hit the target, and then fly back up into the clouds without incident. Any danger, the Luftwaffe flight controllers decided, was minimal because the pilots would be able to complete their dives easily within 2500 feet of visibility.

The demonstration began as planned. Hauptmann Walter Sigel led a three-plane Schwarm of Staffel 2 of STG76 (Sturzkampfgeschwader 76) down out of the clouds first, with one wingman on either side. Why Staffel 2 went first is a bit of a mystery, perhaps simply a function of random plane positioning in the sky. The three pilots dove down through the clouds, essentially blind, waiting patiently for the skies to clear so they could complete their bomb runs.

However, the meteorological reports turned out to be erroneous. Instead of clear visibility up to 2500 feet, it turned out the clouds came down to 300-600 feet. Whether this was because of poor weather staff work or perhaps because of a late change in conditions is unclear. The important thing is that the lower ceiling did not give the pilots enough time to recover.

At the last moment, while exiting the clouds in a power dive, Sigel, who was carefully scanning for the target, saw the darker ground appear much closer than he expected. He yanked back on the stick in a panic and yelled to the others to do the same. Sigel just barely escaped with his life, his Stuka practically grazing the ground as he pulled out of the dive. However, his two companion pilots could not recover quickly enough (likely because they were focusing on Sigel's plane for positioning purposes rather than the ground). Those two planes both crashed, killing the two men (pilot and rear gunner) in each plane. 

But that was just the beginning of the horror.

Neuhammer Stuka Disaster
Losses at the Neuhammer Stuka Diaster on 15 August 1939.

The demonstration continued despite the crashes due to inadequate communication and the close order of bombers. Once in their dives, the planes followed one after another like a waterfall coming down over a cliff. One side note is that Stukas were equipped with automatic pull-out systems. These provided that, once the bomb had been dropped, the airplane automatically began a 5–6 g recovery. This could save the airplane if the pilot became target-fixated, or blacked out. However, particularly early in Stuka history, pilots preferred to rely on their own senses and typically disconnected these systems. These systems probably wouldn't have saved the planes in this particular situation anyway.
Stukas crew

A total of 13 Stukas crashed an Neuhammer., carrying their 26 aircrews to their graves. All right in front of the top military brass in the Wehrmacht.

The devastation could have been even greater. However, Squadron Kommandeur Hauptmann Rudolf Braun, circling above in his own Stuka with the Stab (headquarters) pilots waiting to take their turn last (again, the Staffel ordering is unexplained), heard Sigel's frantic shouts of danger. This prevented him from leading his own pilots down to certain death. Others weren't so lucky. All nine following Stukas of Staffel 2 also crashed, along with two more of Staffel 3.

This was among the worst losses Stukas suffered in any one day during the entire war. It was exceeded only on 18 August 1940 during the Battle of Britain, when 17 Stukas were lost due to enemy action (with many others damaged). That day resulted in the effective withdrawal of Stukas from the Battle of Britain.

The Aftermath

Despite the Neuhammer tragedy, Stukas remained highly popular among the top leaders of the Luftwaffe. They remained in service until the very last day of World War II, achieving some great tactical successes even though they often were more dangerous to their own crewmen than to the enemy. And, you guessed it, the degree to which the Stukas actually succeeded was controversial then and now.

Scapegoats had to be found. Sigel was cleared in the resulting investigation and served throughout the war with distinction. He ultimately was promoted to commander of the Luftwaffe in Norway - these types of safe postings were usually given to top pilots the Luftwaffe didn't want to be exposed to danger any longer. Sigel was awarded the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves on 2 September 1942.

However, danger still haunted Sigel. During an inspection flight over the Tirpitz on 8 May 1944, Sigel crashed and died when his plane hit power lines in deep fog. Other notables involved in the Neuhammer incident were luckier. The commander of Staffel 1, Oberleutnant Dietrich Peltz, who later became the Luftwaffe's commander of its entire bomber force, was among the Stuka pilots in the units who were warned from diving at the last minute. He survived the war and died peacefully on 10 August 2001.


Saturday, April 24, 2021

London During World War II

Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times

London in wartime
Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) personnel at their anti-aircraft equipment in a London park. Doesn't appear to be a gun, perhaps a range-finder for batteries nearby. At least, I believe they are WAAFs.
Historical events often seem "different," as if people weren't people as they are today but instead weird caricatures. For many years, films of World War II showed people walking fast in dimly lit and jerky scenes. Oh, they were so odd back then, right? And so old and cranky if we met them later. Nothing like us. But let's take a look at the real wartime London, in vivid color.
At Waterloo Station, an express train pulls in from Bournemouth or one of the other cities along the coast. How do we know that? The passengers are overwhelmingly sailors on leave. 
Well, modern technology has come to the rescue. It turns out the skies actually were blue, people walked about normally just doing their business as they do now, and things looked pretty similar.
A barrage balloon raised in Westminster Gardens near the Houses of Parliament. Mainly women took care of tasks like these.
There has been an explosion of conversions of obscure old black-and-white newsreel footage due to improved artificial intelligence software. There are still limitations and they are bound to improve more with further enhancements, but these restored films are getting good enough to really open a window into the past.
London in wartime.
A naval officer likely on leave, perfect bearing and cadence, passes in front of a smoke shop. Off to the far left, a man who likely is a veteran of the Great War stands on his crutches. He had his days in the sun, too. It's like a before-and-after shot.
The film in question shows ordinary street scenes of London sometime during World War II. Nothing special, just ordinary people during extraordinary times. Yes, it obviously was produced as a film project of some sort, but the scenes show reality rather than Hollywood artifice. If you want to understand the war years - and I assume you do since you're here - this is a good place to start.
Soldiers in wartime London.
Soldiers reading the war news. It might be weeks or even months old and approved by Churchill's censors, but it was the only way to know what was going on.
There are many reasons why films like this are valuable. You get the small details of life that Hollywood films leave out such as people waiting on queues for the evening newspaper, injured victims of the war, the casual dress that people wore. Even amidst the privations, people still took pride in their appearance. It was a different time, but not so different underneath it all. 
Houses of Parliament
Looking over Westminster Bridge to the Houses of Parliament. Not much traffic on such a nice day, right? Getting petrol except for official government use wasn't easy. You wanted to ride, you climbed aboard one of those ubiquitous massive double-decker buses.
If you look closely at the vehicles, you'll notice that most have their headlamps covered. There was a blackout, you know. The few that don't stand out.
Buckingham Palace in wartime
A military parade outside the palace - the real palace. Perhaps for VE Day. Patriotism was quite in fashion during the war years. Buckingham Palace sustained some bomb damage during the Blitz, but it certainly stands like a rock amidst the chaos in this shot.
Among other things, you'll notice the huge proportion of military personnel in most of the shots. You may also pick out a US serviceman here and there. These scenes all appear to be mid to late-war scenes, as there weren't many Yanks on the scene until mid-1942.
Bomb damage in London
Some London Bobbies patrolling amidst the ruins. Undoubtedly a staged scene, but that is what it looked like.
Anyway, I hope my casual observations provide a little context to the film, which speaks for itself. If I have gotten anything wrong, kindly let me know in the comments. I hope you enjoy it!