Fist Of History

Burning New York – 1864 Style

September 17th, 2014


The United States Civil War was a contentious time and, much like other nations on the losing end of a war, by 1864 the government of the Confederate States of America (CSA) was very open to alternative means of winning the war, specifically using espionage and indirect methods of attack to disrupt Northern military operations against the Southern states.  Several such operations were funded but one of the more potentially spectacular operations was an effort to set the city of New York ablaze by Confederate agents armed with specially formulated chemical bombs.  On 25 November 1864 agents of the Confederate government had smuggled several pieces of luggage filled with a phosphorus chemical compound, their plan was to use the chemicals to start fires in hotels throughout New York as well as burning Broadway and the P.T. Barnum Museum.  Their overall goal was to cause enough fires to break out at the same time that the New York City Fire Department would prove unable to control the fire and, ideally, the city would either suffer major damage or be so damaged to set back the Northern military effort.

Fortunately for New York, and unfortunately for the conspirators, the plan backfired rather spectacularly.  The Southern agents were able to smuggle the chemicals into the city and were able to establish over nineteen fires in the city, however the chemical compound proved far less robust than the conspirators had hoped.  Rather than starting a series of uncontrollable blazes throughout the city in most cases the chemical fires instead smoldered slowly or burned very sluggishly, allowing ample time for the hotel owners to discover the fires and either control them directly or have the New York Fire Department control the blaze quickly.  The end result was the conspirators fled the city and only minor damage was done to several buildings, the 27 November 1864 New York Times article on the subject notes that most of the damage came from water sprayed to control the minor fires.


An interesting historical note is that on the night of 25 November 1864, when the fires were being set, the three Wilkes brothers were performing together in a special single engagement performance of Julius Caesar.  According to the New York Times article a “Mr. Booth” – which was probably the most famous of the three brothers, John Wilkes, spoke to the crowd at the theater when word of the fires spread urging them to remain calm and stay in their seats.  As Booth at the time was a Confederate agent and spy, one cannot help but wonder was he not aware of this plot or, as the conspirators had hoped to destroy Broadway, was Booth trying to keep the crowd in place in the hopes fire would destroy the theater and cause a more massive death count.

Sources:  Wikipedia article on the Confederate Army of Manhattan and on John Wilkes Booth, New York Times article on the fire, CIA entry on the fire, and entry in 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History by Charles Bracelen Flood.

Why clear communications matter – the Mers-el-Kébir attack

September 15th, 2014


With the June 1940 collapse of French military resistance, followed by France seeking an armistice with Germany to end its war, the British government faced a serious concern – the fate of the French navy.  France by 1940 had a powerful navy with a particular emphasis on significant naval elements with access to the Mediterranean, forces that represented a serious potential threat to the British position in the region.  Although the French naval leadership assured the British that the French fleet would never join with the German navy, for the British such promises were not sufficient to offset the nightmare scenario of a combined German/French/Italian fleet dominating the Mediterranean and devastating British oil shipments and strategic position in North African and the Middle East.  It was determined by the British government, specifically by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, that the French fleet had to be neutralized as a threat, with a specific emphasis on neutralizing the largest concentration of modern French naval forces, the fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in French Algeria.


The British admiral on site at Mers-el-Kebir delivered the British ultimatum to the French fleet, a four point proposal, the French could either:

  • Join Team British as full members in Operation “Future Spank Germany”
  • Sail with reduced crews to a British port and remain in harbor – the French crews would be returned to France A.S.A.P.
  • Sail with reduced crews to a remote West Indes French port or an area under United States control to disarm the ships as a threat
  • Take none of the above and the fleet would be sunk by the British

Now in a private communication the leader of the French Navy had informed the French Admiral in command of the Mers-el-Kebir fleet that if something like the third option was offered the French navy would accept it – a happy compromise was in place.  For reasons unknown to history the French Admiral, one Marcel-Bruno Gensoul, informed the French admiralty he was only offered two options – join with the British fleet as full combatants or be sunk.  The French naval command, shocked by this, ordered him to resist, which in turn lead to Admiral Gensoul informing the British he had no choice but to fight.  He also began to move his fleet into combat position sparking the British to move to attack quickly.

The British sunk many ships at Mers-el-Kebir and killed over 1,300 French sailors in the assault, poisoning relations between France and Great Britain for much of the rest of the war.  One of the key questions that was never answered was why Admiral Gensoul did not convey the proper information.  Vichy France conducted an investigation but came to no conclusions on Admirla Gensoul beyond that he had done no wrong.  As well Admiral Gensoul never explained his actions.  But it is a matter of record that had communications gone better, as they did in other British actions, this action might have been avoided.

Sources:  Wikipedia article on the Attack on Mers-el-Kebir and Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul, article in the Daily Mail on the attack, entry on the attack in The Second World War:  The Mediterranean 1940 – 1945 by Paul Collier and entry in Britain and the Defeated French:  From Occupation to Liberation, 1940 – 1944 by Peter Mangold.

Friday Old Cartoons and Old Ads

September 12th, 2014


Source:  Life Magazine, 1893

Note – I am really curious what the “special and unusual attractions for young people” were


Source:  Life Magazine, 1896


Source:  Life Magazine, 1900


Source:  Life Magazine, 1907


Source:  Life Magazine, 1890


Source:  Life Magazine, 1896


Source:  Life Magazine, 1891

Operation Willi – the Nazi Plan to Abduct the Duke of Windsor

September 10th, 2014


Nazi Germany in World War II had, initially, an unusual relationship with Great Britain, specifically between 1939 to 1941 Nazi Germany attempted to balance between two different positions, finding a peaceful accommodation with Great Britain to end their mutual war, with a preference towards doing so in a manner favorable to Nazi Germany, or alternatively conquering the British isle and subjugating Great Britain in a manner similar to that imposed on France.  This latter plan was the impetus for the Battle of Britain in 1940, as a necessary preliminary action prior to the invasion of Great Britain by Germany.  However one of the challenges Hitler attempted to plan for was imposing a new government upon Great Britain that would be able to run the nation effectively as a productive addition to the Nazi regime in Europe, he and his subordinates had picked a few potential heads of government but the issue of the British Monarchy was a more delicate issue.  Hitler pinned one possible set of hopes upon the former monarch of the British Empire, King Edward VIII (pictured above) who had served on the British throne for a little under one year in total.  Edward VIII was crowned in early 1936 and reigned until the end of that year, abdicating the British throne to follow a love-match with a divorced American socialite named Wallis Simpson.  Edward VIII after abdication was granted the title of Duke of Windsor by his brother and Miss Simpson became the Duchess of Windsor.

Prinz Harrys Urgroßonkel Herzog von Windsor traf Hitler

A semi-outcast from British society by these events the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1937 visited Germany and met with Adolf Hitler, among other key German officials, both the Duke and Duchess were known to be pro-German in their sympathies and the Duke had spoken out several times that he felt Nazism/Fascism was a viable political bulwark against what he saw as a greater threat to Europe, the spread of Communism.  With the outbreak of World War II in 1939 the Duke was given a token military position, to prevent him speaking publicly on political matters, and ended up living in southern France during the conflict.  With France’s defeat in 1940 the Duke and Duchess fled to Portugal where they ended up living in the private villa as guests of a Portuguese pro-Nazi banker.  It was rumored that the Duke was privately opposed to Winston Churchill and the war and was also bitter about his treatment by the British government, including being forced to live a lifestyle he considered below his station.  Hitler approved a plan to make an offer to the Duke of Windsor, if he and his wife were willing to work with the Nazi government and return to the British throne upon Great Britain’s conquest by Germany, Hitler would see to it that the Duke would get a one time payment of 50 million Swiss Francs (a considerable fortune) and would be a key part of any newly formed pro-Nazi British government.  As a fallback plan if the Duke did not agree to this German intrigue Hitler approved the possibility of kidnapping the Duke and Duchess and forcing them to serve Germany.

Ordensburg Krössinsee, Herzog von Windsor

The plan never came to fruition, the Duke and Duchess left Portugal successfully following the Duke being appointed Governor-General of the Bahamas by the British government, an appointment designed to modestly increase the Duke’s income and tuck him well away from any European intrigues or temptations.  During the war the Duke maintained an official silence on his former connections to the Nazi regime and publicly proclaimed his support for Great Britain, after the war both he and the British government regularly asserted that the Duke and Duchess had both remained super patriots for the British cause in the war.  It is speculation and, despite the Duke’s later penchant for controversial public statements about political topics, he and his wife probably would never have accepted the Nazi offering willingly.  Even at his most irritable with the British government the Duke would have known that having a foreign conquering power slam a crown onto his head was an excellent way to become a target for assassination and challenge by his own subjects.  Unlike France, with a developed far-Right political movement and long-term Right/Left divisions, the British had only a token pro-Fascist native movement in Great Britain itself and no real ability to maintain loyalty to such a government system without heavy coercion.

Now what might have proven more possible is the Duke of Windsor privately reaching out to his brother, King George VI, if Great Britain had lost the Battle of Britain and been invaded, about the need to soften the conquerors impact with a negotiated peace and an end to the occupation as swiftly as possible.  Although even that probably would proven unsuccessful, all indications are George VI would have ordered the war continued from Britain’s imperial possessions.

Source:  Wikipedia articles on Operation Willi and Edward VIII, entry in the book The Duke of Windsor’s Last Secrets by Clive Fletcher


Weimar Germany’s Army – the Reichswehr

September 8th, 2014

Parade der Reichswehr

At the end of World War I, with the signing of the Versailles Treaty, Germany was forced to reduce its military, by 1 January 1921 the limitations of the Versailles Treaty came into full force and Germany had to defend itself with a military force limited to 100,000 men.  That force could be organized into a total of ten divisions, of which seven could be infantry and three cavalry, and these divisions were sharply limited in the level of mechanized equipment they could have.  In essence, no heavy artillery, no armored vehicles, no airplanes, and sharp limitations on the German navy to boot.  The newly formed German military, the Reichswehr, was designed by the Versailles Treaty to be a minimal force, able to deal with minor territorial matters and internal armed rebellions, but unable to offer any challenge to France’s army.  The plan, per Great Britain, France, and the United States, was that the new micro Germany army, this Reichswehr, would offer no instrument with which Germany could threaten the peace of Europe in the future.  As a final note the Reichswehr was prohibited from forming a General Staff, on the theory that such an institution only existed for the purpose of planning future wars of aggression.

Thüringen, Reichswehrmanöver, Hans v. Seeckt

Yet by 1935 when Germany announced its intention to rearm, and began to rapidly expand its military, they had no shortage of trained officers and they were rapidly able to grow the German military from its initial starting size of 100,000 into a far more massive force.  Usually such efforts fall into major leadership issues but the Reichswehr was able to meet the challenge quite rapidly, including producing leaders fully trained and ready to lead a modern mechanized army based around armor and aircraft support.  The reason for this was the leader of the Reichswehr from 1919 – 1926, Hans von Seeckt (pictured above in the center with the binoculars and the wicked mustache), who from the founding of the Reichswehr decided that the limits of the Versailles Treaty were foolish and to be ignored by any means possible.

Seeckt worked hard in the early 1920s to build relationships to assist the Germany military in growing, with his main focus being on forging bonds between Germany and its supposedly sworn ideological enemy, the Soviet Union.  Seeckt was able to build a pragmatic alliance with the Soviet Union in which prototype military equipment was built in the Soviet Union and was flown and driven by German “volunteers” so that Germany would be better prepared for future conflicts.  Spain, Sweden, and Norway also were approached and agreed to help produce off-site German military prototypes for testing purposes.  The Reichswehr itself was treated by Seeckt as an elite military force, only the finest possible candidates were accepted into the German military of this period, it was considered a prestige service and drew in some of the physically fittest and intellectually most talented young men in Germany.  Seeckt also made sure that the German military maneuvers were conducted with an eye to the future, trucks for example were used to bounce around the countryside with signs on their sides proclaiming “I Am A Tank.”  German artillery units drilled with small field guns as if they were larger units.  Small bodies of men were treated as far larger formations.

The Reichswehr also recreated the General Staff, although they hid it thinly by renaming it the “Troop Office” – in theory a unit only concerned with administrative issues in running the Reichswehr but in reality a nucleus of future commanders for the expanded Germany military.  When Hitler took power in 1933 he discovered that the Reichswehr, rather than a tiny under-equipped defense force, was actually a nucleus for a larger army, a proto-officer corp ready to assist him and Germany in its rapid military expansion of the late 1930s.

Seeckt laid one of the key parts of the foundation upon which World War II rested.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Reichswehr, the Ministry of the Reichswehr, and Hans von Seeckt, and a relevant chapter in The Path to Blitzkrieg by Robert Citino

Girandoni Air Rifle – 18th century “space age” weapon system

September 4th, 2014


The Girandoni Air Rifle was a unique military weapon system developed in the Austria-Hungarian Empire in the 1780s and deployed for use in the Austrian-Hungarian Army between 1790 to 1815.  A highly specialized weapon the Girandoni Air Rifle, invented by Bartholomaus Giradoni, was an air-pressure based rifle with a lethal range at proper pressure of about 150 yards in combat.  Firing a 46 caliber ball this weapon system had some incredibly unique properties for its time period, including a twenty round magazine and the capacity for comparatively rapid fire to conventional gunpowder based weapons.  The gun centered around a cartridge of compressed air stored in the butt stock of the rifle, which would deliver enough air for thirty shots.  The weapon was built around a conventional cocking and firing trigger mechanism for the period, so the user of the gun would draw back the hammer to a fully-cocked position, pull the trigger, and a burst of compressed air would propel the bullet at high velocity at its target.  Although rumored to be a “silent” weapon historians have determined the Girandoni Air Rifle actually had a loud report, purportedly a loud “crack” when the gun discharged, however it was far less noisy than a period gunpowder weapon.  The Girandoni Air Rifle also allowed a soldier using the weapon to remain prone when firing instead of most gunpowder weapons of the period that required loading from the front and the use of a ramrod to get the bullet down the barrel, actions which meant the shooter had to remain standing when firing.


Although the Girandoni Air Rifle was an impressive weapon for the period it was prone to the same problems any highly advanced weapons platform can have, first the weapon required a difficult to manufacture compressed air container, that pushed the limits of metallurgy at the time to produce and maintain.  Second it took far too long to recharge the compressed air cylinder in combat, (most estimates put it at thirty minutes of hand-pumping by the soldier to return to minimum firing pressure), which required specialized support for the weapon in the form of regular runners to take spent air cylinders and replace them with charged ones.  The soldier using the weapon had to carry a special kit (recreated above) with spare ammunition tubes, spare compressed air cylinders, and specialized tools for maintaining the gun.  The biggest problem with the Girandoni Air Rifle though was it took specialized training to be used and maintained, the Emperor at the time started out enthusiastic for this new “space age” weapon but lost interest as its deployment to troops led to large numbers needing expensive repairs out of neglect and misuse.  The weapon was eventually regulated to use by specialized sharpshooter units in the Austrian-Hungarian Imperial Army.  It was completely phased out by 1815.

The Girandoni Air Rifle though is a fascinating weapon system because it shows that even in the 18th and 19th centuries various nations’ military establishments were fascinated with new weapons to give them an edge over their opponents and were willing to deploy fantastical weapons systems on the off chance it would give them an edge in battle.

Sources:  Wikipedia article on the Girandoni Air Rifle, video on the Girandoni Air Rifle, entry on the air rifle in Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms and Their Values, entry on the rifle in the The New Weapons of the World Encyclopedia, and personal research report on the rifle by Dr. Robert D. Beeman.

Valentinian I and the Late Western Roman Empire

September 3rd, 2014


Behold the solid gold coin bearing the head of what some historians consider to be the last great emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Valentinian I, who served as emperor from 364-375 AD.  Valentinian rose to power in the midst of the intrigues of the late fourth century in the Roman Empire and was elevated to his position by troops under his command, however unlike other such situations Valentinian I was selected through a committee choice by senior administrators and military commanders of the Roman Empire.  Valentinian I named a co-emperor, Valens (also his brother), to rule over the eastern Roman empire while Valentinian I took over control of the western Roman Empire.  His reign was marked by a series of military campaigns to defend the borders of the western Roman empire, reassert control over Britain after a major invasion (referred to at the time as the Great Conspiracy), and focused his energy upon stability and control over his territories.  He died and the two emperors who succeeded him proved too weak for the task of leadership and the western Roman empire entered a period of decline and eventual collapse in 476 AD.  Rome itself was sacked in 410 AD by invading barbarian tribes.


What is particularly fascinating about Valentinian I is, as he represents the last “great” western Roman emperor, the success of his reign and its methods are solid indicators of the condition of the western Roman empire, and from those actions one can argue it was in declining shape.  Valentinian I spent most of his reign either directly in the saddle smashing one invasion or raid after another on the borders of the empire or in Rome dealing with political intrigues and plotting by the elite families that made up the Senate and local ruling elites to increase their power.  Rome overall was an empire originally founded on a model of gaining territory for wealth and later administering that territory well to maintain its status, Valentinian I’s rule shows that most of Rome’s energy had to be spent on maintaining that position, at increasing cost and resting upon a declining tax base.  That tax base was declining due to the demands by local elites, the Senatorial class mainly, that their vast estates be granted tax relief or complete tax immunity by the empire, grants gained by bribes or promised support to imperial candidates at key moments in their campaign to become emperor.   This in turn shifted an increasing amount of the actual tax burden upon smaller landholders and small-scale merchants, forcing them out of productive operations within the empire.

Even more fascinating though is the role that Christianity, as an emerging religion, played in the story of the “collapse” of the western Roman empire, as Christianity spread as a key faith of the urban population that ruling elite turned from basing their power upon local power resting on Senatorial or administrative rank, and instead shifted towards control based around piety, becoming the new Bishops of the expanding Christian faith.  This move also kept their wealth out of larger circulation as these local elites focused their energy and investments on regional projects and efforts that promoted their influence and protected their individual economic and political bases.

When the western Roman empire “fell” due to conquest by new “barbarian” kings, these local elites simply ingratiated themselves with the new leadership, paid homage to them, and continued with business as they had before.  In some chunks of the former western Roman empire loyalty to “barbarian” kings wasn’t even necessary, if the region remained unconquered the local elites simply carried on as if the western Roman empire still functioned.  In fact the only real complaints by these local elites begin to appear in the sixth century, when Justinian I, the emperor of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire, reconquered western territories and imposed new and efficient tax collection.

Sources:  Wikipedia article on Valentinian I and The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown

The German Ural Bomber – how an airplane crash potentially changed history

September 2nd, 2014

Walter Wever

Appointed Chief of Staff of the newly recreated Luftwaffe in 1935, German Gernal Walther Wever was a major believer in the role of strategic bombing in the future of warfare, and it was his initiative that Germany undertake a project of research towards the creation of an arm of the Luftwaffe capable of long-range, heavy, strategic bombardment.  A key aspect of this drive is the words strategic, unlike light and medium bombers which are usually confined to tactical bombing roles, oriented towards support of advancing infantry and armor units by localized attacks on enemy battlefield command and control, supply depots, and key road junctures heavy bombers oriented towards strategic bombing aim for major locations of production, transport, and communication deep in the enemy’s rear areas.  In World War II the British and Americans utilized such aircraft in their raids both on Germany and (for the United States) raids upon Japan.  Wever in 1935 wanted Germany to have the same possible strategic strike capacity however in his vision these weapons would be used in a war against the Soviet Union, to strike deep into the territory of the Soviet Union and destroy factories Stalin had relocated in eastern Russia.


Two such prototype bombers were ordered under Wever’s direction in response to a Luftwaffe competition to develop such a flying weapon, the Dornier Do 19 and the Junkers Ju 89, prototypes of both that flew respectively in 1936 and 1937.  Both aircraft had teething problems, as all new developmental planes will, including power issues, flight characteristics, and design issues with hammering out the defensive weapons on both planes.  However both prototypes showed considerable promise, with German experts slightly favoring the Junkers Ju 89 as a better aircraft, and both might with time have been able to successfully fly and matched the United States and British heavy bombers in capabilities.  It is even possible that these aircraft might have been ready for use in limited capacity by 1940 had Wever been able to maintain pressure on the Nazi government, and the Luftwaffe, that these aircraft were a strategic necessity.  Wever however died on 3 June 1936, before both prototypes were ready, in an airplane crash on his way to Berlin.  His replacement, General Albert Kesselring (and possibly Goring himself, overall leader of the Luftwaffe), scrapped the heavy bomber project in favor of developing medium and short range bombers due to an anticipated focus by Hitler on short-range local wars.  As well the German bomb sight technologies in 1936 and 1937 were not up to the demands of high-altitude accurate bombing, although by 1940 that problem had been solved.


The Germans did develop one long-range strategic heavy bomber, the Heinkel He 177, however it was plagued with design problems and challenges that Wever might have been able to stem off.  The plane, as you will note in the picture above, had two propellers, to get the necessary power to successfully meet the performance requirements for the bomber it had to use four engines, two behind each propeller with the engines linked together.  This was due to a shortage of powerful enough engines and a effort to design a very efficient aerodynamic design for the plane.  However the plane was very heavy, due to its having to have major structural upgrades, so it could serve as a dive bomber.  Dive bombers are usually small or, at most, medium aircraft with the goal that the pilot flies high over the target, plunges the plane over into a high-speed dive, and drops their bomb at a lower altitude to use the plane to guide it as precisely as possible on the target.  The forces involved in the dive makes this sort of attack ideal for smaller aircraft, the Heinkel He 177 had to have major re-enforcing on its structures to take the strain of dive bombing.  Plagued by these requirements, which Wever probably would have opposed had he been alive, along with the regular teething problems of a new aircraft, the Heinkel He 177 never really worked well and only few from 1942 to 1944, when its impact on the wars progress was minimal.


Now from a speculative perspective, in my opinion the reason this could have had a major impact on the course of the war was the Battle of Britain from 10 July to 31 October 1940, an air war, centered around a bombing campaign, conducted by Germany upon Great Britain to break its fighter support so the Luftwaffe could then destroy the British fleet if attempted to halt an invasion.  Germany faced many challenges but one of the key issues was its bombers lacked the ability to carry sufficient bomb loads to do massive damage per plane, those planes were vulnerable to British fighters due to their need to operate at lower altitudes than a heavy bomber, and the fact that their range was shorter so they had less time over Britain.  (German fighter aircraft also had range limitations which might have curtailed the usefulness of a heavy German strategic bomber.)

The intriguing aspect of the German heavy bomber was had it existed in 1940, in sufficient quantities to actually conduct a strategic war, it might have been able to directly bomb the British fleet repeatedly at its safe harbor in Scotland, Scapa Flow.  The Germans did bomb Scapa Flow in 1940 using Junkers 88, a medium range bomber, but the planes could only carry a minimal bomb load to make the flight.  Both prototype German heavy bombers, and the production Heinkel He 177, had roughly double the range of the Junkers 88 and the capacity to carry a far larger bomb load at those ranges.  It is possible a proper strategic heavy German bomber force could have targeted, and badly damaged, the British fleet at Scapa Flow making the invasion of Britain by Germany in 1940 or 1941 more possible.

However the counter to that is the lack of range for German fighters, a problem the United States and Great Britain faced when bombing Germany from 1942 until 1944.  Fighter coverage had to leave the heavy bombers behind requiring them to fly long distances relying on their own machine gun defenses, a tactic that caused heavy losses to the bomber fleets.  This prompted the development of a long-range United States fighter to provide cover to the United States bombers for the entire duration of the flight.  (The British switched to night time bombing and abandoned strategic precision to cut bomber losses.)  German heavy bombers in 1940 might have been sliced apart by British fighters before significantly impacting the fleet.  At the very least a reliable heavy bomber program for German in the 1930s might have given them another tool to use in their air war against Great Britain, another tool that might have shifted the course of the war.

But due to the death of General Wever in 1936, Germany abandoned the plan and history took the course we know.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Ural Bomber, Walther Wever, Dornier Do 19, Junkers Ju 89, Heinkel He 177, Battle of Britain, Scapa Flow,  chapter in The Great Bombers on the Ural Bomber


Friday Cartoons and Old Ads

August 29th, 2014


Source:  Life Magazine, 1902


Source:  Life Magazine, 1902


Source:  Life Magazine, 1887

Note – gender specific gifts are older rooted than some think, but not that much older


Source:  Life Magazine, 1901


Source:  Life Magazine, 1902

Note – now this one has a bit going on and I thought a longer note was useful.  I believe the eagle in this shot is wearing a Liberty Cap, a symbol semi-stolen from the French Revolution and a mark of the difference between the United States and Imperial Germany.  This stems off a major German push beginning in 1898 in the increased construction of German naval power, with a stated goal of matching the British navy in strength by 1915.  (Germany fell short of the mark.)  At the time the United States was a lesser naval power and Congress responded to the increasing naval actions of Germany by ordering its own series of fleet strength increases – mainly thanks to Teddy Roosevelt and his deep love for naval power and interest in intervening in the Caribbean.

World War II and Hersheys Chocolate

August 27th, 2014


World War II was a time of considerable logistical challenges, the United States had to develop entirely new methods of meeting the fuel, ammunition, clothing, and food needs for a larger field army than it had ever previously assembled as well as finding enough additional capacity in the economy to provide military supplies for its own Navy, Air Force, and the military forces of most of the other nations engaged in hostilities.  One of the challenges that the U.S. military in particular wanted to address was how to turn chocolate bars, produced by the Hershey corporation, from simply a dessert item into a special emergency food ration that could meet a soldiers daily caloric needs.  The U.S. military in the late 1930s anticipated a major conflict was coming and many of its branches began some quiet planning in anticipation of the conflict.  This pre-planning led to a key meeting in 1937 between Captain Paul Logan (U.S. Army Quartermaster General’s office), William Murrie (President, Hershey Foods Corporation), and Sam Hinkle (Chief Chemist, Hershey Foods Corporation.)  A series of specifications were developed for this new food, specifically:

  • The chocolate bar emergency ration must weigh a maximum of four (4) ounces
  • The chocolate bar emergency ration must have a high caloric value
  • The chocolate bar emergency ration must be able to withstand high temperatures
  • The chocolate bar emergency ration must have no more flavor than “a boiled potato”

The last requirement was considered absolutely vital so that the soldiers did not actually eat the emergency ration as a treat but instead saved it until they were ordered to consume it.  Hershey’s was proud to assist the U.S. Army in its planning and successfully developed this product, from a combination of:  chocolate liquor, sugar, skim milk powder, cocoa butter, oat flour, vanillin (an extract of the vanilla plant.)  Testing showed the product in its initial configuration met the first three requirements but not the last, so Hinkle kept cutting the sugar and replacing it with oat powder until the right lack of flavor was achieved.


The creation was listed as the D Ration Bar.  Hershey produced a limited stockpile of them for the Army and with the outbreak of war in 1941 the U.S. Army ordered a vastly expanded amount of these ration bars along with issuing extremely detailed instructions on how to package the rations against possible gas attack.  (Very detailed, it involved special wrapping, sealing, and shipping rules.)  This wonder of food could be used in almost any climate in the world, provided 600 calories per 4 ounce bar, and soldiers could eat three of them a day to meet their minimum caloric intake needs.  They even had a special vitamin shot of B1 worked into the formula to hold off certain tropical diseases.  There was only a couple of minor problems that the Army considered irrelevant, trivial matters.  Mainly, the average U.S. Army solder hated Ration D bars with a passion one normally reserved for someone actively shooting at you.

First the D Ration bars did not have the flavor level of a “boiled potato” but instead had a more nuanced flavor that soldiers described as “bitter.”  No additional words, just “bitter”, apparently a point many of them brought up in their post-war memoirs.  Another problem was the bars were extremely hard, to the point that soldiers with any sort of tooth issues simply couldn’t eat them and even soldiers with excellent teeth resorted to the “shaving off small bits of the bar to eat” solution to the problem.  When issued the D Ration bars soldiers often tossed them away rather than carry them or traded them to individuals unaware of their lack of flavor for more palatable foodstuffs.  Following traditional economic models apparently as knowledge of the D Ration’s unique flavor and mouth-feel spread the trade market for them would crash.

Post World War II the D Ration was discontinued as the Army found it “obsolete” however I personally wonder if it was also just because too many serviceman complained about it.

In 1943 the Army also asked the Hershey corporation to develop a special “jungle chocolate bar” that could withstand higher temperatures but actually tasted like chocolate.  Hershey was successful however soldiers still found the hardness of the item a major challenge.  However the “Jungle Bar” has the distinction of getting to ride, in 1971, to the Moon with the Apollo landings.

Source:  Hershey Community Archives entry on World War II chocolate, Wikipedia entries on United States military chocolate and United States military rations