Fist Of History

July, 2012Archive for

World War II Weirdness – Panzer Zug!

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Meet the Panzer Zug, also written Panzerzug, otherwise known as the “German Armored Train.”  This fascinating rolling battle unit was used by the Wehrmacht as part of its military campaigns in the East to deal with roaming partisan forces and also to provide mobile support for troops in the field.  What makes this particular military innovation interesting, beyond the oddness of its existence, is how the Wehrmacht came to re-embrace the use of the armored train.

Prior to the outbreak of World War II the armored train had been abandoned as a military concept, they were seen as powerful mobile weapons platforms however they were considered too vulnerable to disruption by enemy action.  (The whole “destroy the tracks and the train just sits there” problem.)  The German military high command had completed dismissed the armored train as a tactical until until Germany invaded Poland in 1939.  What caught the German high command’s interest was the fact that in direct battle German forces were unable to defeat the Polish armored trains being used in Poland’s defense.  Granted the German military was able to halt the trains effectiveness by destroying track but in direct combat the Polish armored trains beat back German attacks and provided a really surprisingly effective burst of heavy fire support at the least expected points in a battle.

There are numerous early conflicts between the German military and Polish military in which the battle would be progressing as expected, German units advancing as Polish units fell back, and then from out of the woods would come this massive armored train, firing shells everywhere, machine guns blasting at German units, and anti-aircraft guns smacking attacking fighters out of the way.  The train rapidly rolled up, fired a bunch of rounds, and then raced away.  When Germany later invaded the Soviet Union they found armored trains to be surprisingly useful on the Eastern front, mobile battle platforms that could rapidly move up to deal with partisans and other lightly armed forces in the German rear.

Many German armored trains were captured Russian or Polish armored trains that were repaired and pressed back into service with the Wehrmacht.  In each case they were heavily armored and equipped with heavy weapons, the Germans attempted to make each train as self contained as possible so that it could roll along and deal with firefights swiftly on its own.  Sadly the trains fell out of use as the Russian army advanced in 1944 onwards, but they still played a minor role in the conflict.  I intend to research them in greater detail but for now, enjoy the oddness!

I love this image in particular, taken on a German armored train and those silhouettes are individual tanks smacked by the train.

Also if you are really interested check out this old German warm film of an armored train in action – enjoy the adorable scout car sent out in front of it to make sure everything was clear.

Sources: Wikipedia entry on armored trains, Wikipedia entry on armored trains in Poland, Website on Panzerzug 10b, and Operatives, Spies, and Saboteurs, The Unknown Story of the Men and Women of WWII’s OSS by Patrick O’Donnell

State Weirdness! New York’s “notch” of Massachusetts

Saturday, July 28th, 2012

This is a map of Columbia county, New York, and if you look closely you’ll notice in the southeast corner a cute little “triangle” of land, a little bump in an otherwise straight border.  This little bump in the border didn’t exist until 1853, from the forming of the country in 1776 through 1853 that little notch belonged to Massachusetts.  It wasn’t considered an important chunk of territory until a small settlement within it, Boston Corner, began to take advantage of a slight geographic oddity.  There is a fine road that runs through that territory that links New York to Connecticut, a road that happened to just run through part of Massachusetts.  Boston Corner was squarely on this road, and separated geographically from Boston itself, separated by a nasty set of mountains.  Due to this fact Boston Corner enjoyed the ability to provide services to travelers between New York and Connecticut but also was beyond the easy reach of Massachusetts law enforcement and their courts.  Due to the mountains the government of Massachusetts simply ignored Boston Corner.

Boston Corner enjoyed its semi-ignored status deeply – providing gambling, illegal prize fighting, and a haven for violent criminals.  Efforts by New York or Connecticut to impede the lawlessness in Boston Corner were blocked by the fact that warrants issued by either state couldn’t be enforced in Boston Corner, because said warrants had to come from the courts of Massachusetts.  This lawless state continued until 1853, Boston Corner even obtained its own railroad stop by that point and had really taken off as a tiny haven of illegal fun and festivities.

The prize fight mentioned above took place between two famous champions battling for a $2000, Morrissey was the favorite of the heavily betting, and tipsy, crowd of three thousand spectators.  The battle did last for thirty seven rounds, at the end of which the fight was broken up by the referee and the two fighters trainers jumping into the ring.  Sullivan had been doing well till then, but due to a technical glitch, the referee declared Morrissey the winner.  The crowd did not take kindly to this and rioted, smashing up Boston Corner and overwhelming what local resistance was in place.  The townspeople couldn’t call for any additional aid, New York was in this case quite respectful of the fact that Boston Corner was under the control of Massachusetts.

After this riot the state of Massachusetts, the state of New York, and the people of Boston Corners decided this was stupid, the townsfolk appealed to be placed under New York’s control and both states agreed.  Which resulted in that weird little triangle.

Oh and a final point – the sign you see above is wrong on one key point – the fight took place in 1853, not 1883.

Sources: How The States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein, Boston Corner on Wikipedia, and The Battle of Boston Corners.

Nixon Fashion Flops – the White House Guard

Friday, July 13th, 2012

This could be part of an on-going series simply titled “Nixon Was Weird” – in the 1970s President Richard Nixon decided that the Secret Service guards providing visible security for the White House lacked the necessary “pop” for protecting such a dignified building and had designed the uniforms you see above.  After a state visit to Europe, specifically to visit Queen Elizabeth II in London, Nixon rolled out this new uniform to harken in the 1970s.  The picture above doesn’t do it full justice, oddly the White House has made it difficult to find better pictures of the uniforms although they do have them on display within the White House itself.

Apparently they initially went with the peaked black cap but when the American people pretty uniformly replied to this with a collective “What the deuce?” the Nixon White House decided they need to tone it down a bit, and went with the second soft white cap instead.  Obviously the reaction of the American people was not due to the odd white coat, gold trim, shiny buttons, or the fact it looked like Nixon was borrowing from several Central American nations “I am El Presidente” outfit guides, no it had to be due to the hat.

Nixon was a stubborn fellow and despite heavy mockery from comedians and pundits the White House kept the uniforms in use for a few years, they were dropped though before Nixon himself left office.  Besides these two pictures I’ve only seen one in a book of kitsch but in the future I’ll be coming old magazines from 1970 to see if I can find some more glorious color shots of these bad boys.  Gratitude in advance for anyone who might be willing to relate having actually seen these in use with their own eyes, be it on the news or, even better, in person on a visit to Washington D.C.

Sources: Mental Floss, 11 January 2007 and a blog post from Mr. Leroy’s Fashion News (my thanks for the excellent photo)