Fist Of History

October, 2014Archive for

Operational Ariel – the forgotten 1940 evacuation

Thursday, October 30th, 2014


The Dunkirk evacuation of 1940 is a famous example of pulling semi-success out of a disaster, with over three hundred thousand British and allied troops being pulled from the beaches of Dunkirk amidst air attacks by Germany and with the threat of a sudden tank assault shattering the beachhead entirely.  Less well known is the follow-up evacuation from western France code-named Operation Ariel, where roughly an additional two hundred thousand British and allied soldiers were removed back to England.  Unlike Dunkirk, with its flash and explosions, Operational Aerial was conducted without much German interference and the troops being evacuated were not front-line combat troops but instead were mostly made up of support troops and administrative staff, as well as some major combat units.  Although the operation was marred with some minor casualties overall the maneuver was successful, skillfully carried out, and the rescued troops and equipment made up a key core of the reconstituted British army that was able to resume the war later in 1940.  (It was from these and the men at Dunkirk that re-enforcements could be drawn to take part in the British North Africa campaigns.)


What makes Operation Ariel more interesting than just a second-round version of Dunkirk though is the somewhat daffy plan developed by Winston Churchill in 1940 to create a national redoubt in Brittany (pictured above) to provide a last bastion of defense against Germany and a point where continued resistance on the European continent could take place against the German army.  Churchill actually sent two fully equipped and fresh defenses into France after the Dunkirk evacuation to combine with the support troops trapped in western France to form what he grandly called “the Second British Expeditionary Force.”  The general in charge of this new venture, Sir Alan Brooke, arrived in France on 13 June 1940, a full nine days after Britain had abandoned its positions in Dunkirk.


Brooke (pictured above), upon reviewing the situation, decided that France had been crushed and any additional British troops staying in France would be wasted resources.  He spent his first day calling the British high command, which quickly agreed, and Churchill, who did not quickly agree, that the national redoubt idea was foolish.  It took much arguing but eventually Brooke carried his argument and saved an additional two hundred thousand troops from being turned into a bonus prize for the victorious German army to capture.  The Brittany national redoubt was one of many ideas Churchill desperately put forth in an effort to keep some sort of French commitment in the war – other ideas he advocated were that France continue the war from its colonies and a permanent French/British national union, which would have made the two nations into one single legal entity and transferred the remaining French military assets into British assets.  None of these plans came to fruition and France, as a nation, dropped out of the war shortly after Operation Ariel was concluded.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Operation Ariel and Sir Alan Brooke, entry in Ian Flemming’s Commandos by Nicholas Rankin, entry in Blood, Sweat and Arrogance by Gordon Corrigan.

Operation Unthinkable – moving World War II to World War III in one easy step

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014


With the collapse of Germany in April 1945 pending, and the Soviet Union’s forces having gained military dominance throughout Eastern Europe, Great Britain under Winston Churchill was concerned that Josef Stalin would not keep to his agreements regarding maintaining the balance of power in Eastern Europe.  At the Yalta Conference in February 1945 the Soviet Union, the United States, and Great Britain had agreed that Poland would be allowed a chance to “democratically modify” its currently imposed Communist government to create a new harmonious government between the Polish government in exile, located in Great Britain, and the Soviet Union’s backed government now in place.  Stalin agreed to this in principle but in reality had no intention of allowing anything to form in Poland that might represent a threat to the Soviet Union.  This policy extended to other areas of Eastern Europe under the Soviet Union’s control, including Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Albania.  Churchill though was aware of this risk and in early 1945 ordered the British high command to develop a special war plan to extend the current war into an attack against the forces of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe with the goal of pushing them back and removing Stalin’s influence in Eastern Europe.


The British high command, deciding that a snappy nickname would outline in a pithy manner their feelings on this plan, named the requested initiative “Operation Unthinkable.”  The plan called for using approximately forty-seven British and American divisions, roughly half the total forces of the Western Allies in Europe, combined with rearmed Polish troops and 100,000 rearmed former German soldiers fighting as a combined force in a surprise attack against Soviet forces located in Dresden.  For this plan to have even a remote chance of success surprise would have to be absolute and the Western Allies would have to also have a high degree of luck in their planned attempted assault.  Even with these factors the British high command considered the plan fanciful due to the cold realities of math, the Soviet Union, even against this massive force, outnumbered the Western Allies by three to one.  Furthermore if surprise was not total and the Soviet Union compelled to peace terms the Western Allies would find themselves in a second total war.

Once it became further clear that the United States was not going to condone such schemes, with the need to redirect forces from Europe for its planned invasion in late 1945/early 1945 of mainland Japan, Operation Unthinkable was transformed into a British defensive plan to hold Western Europe in the event of a Soviet invasion.  The assessment of the British high command though was that any attempt to prevent the Soviet Union from conquering Western Europe by British and European allied forces alone would be impossible and the best chance of defense was aerial and naval assault from a British redoubt.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Operation Unthinkable and the Yalta Conference, entry in Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances by Frank Costigliola

Old Cartoons and Old Ads Friday

Friday, October 24th, 2014


Source:  Life Magazine, 1890

Note – you have to read it carefully but one feature is it won’t pinch/mangle fingers


Source:  Life Magazine, 1893


Source:  Life Magazine, 1896

Note – Ladies, it avoids all injurious pressure!


Source:  Life Magazine, 1900


Source:  Life Magazine, 1896


Source:  Life Magazine, 1891

Note – this ad in particular I find really terrifying – what was this stuff?  Hoax?  Worse, did it work?

World War I Intrigue – Felix Sommerfeld in Mexico and the United States

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014


The key question in World War I after the initial conflict of 1914 was resolved was what role the United States would end up playing in the conflict, for Great Britain, France, and Russia the United States was a key supplier of credit, munitions, arms, and secondary equipment needed to sustain their herculean efforts in the conflict.  In turn, for Germany, working to prevent the United States from contributing to the conflict to any greater extent, and keeping the United States from entering the conflict, were key goals until 1917.  One example of this effort is the mysterious work of Felix Sommerfeld (pictured above on the far left), who from the period of 1908 through 1918 Sommerfeld worked as a German agent in Mexico and the southwestern United States.  Sommerfeld was trained as a mining engineer and had a very colorful background prior to entering German service, including spending time in the United States as a prospector, briefly as a U.S. soldier in the Spanish-American War (he deserted), and also fighting as a German soldier during the 1900-1901 German expedition to suppress the Chinese Boxer Rebellion.  How Sommerfeld ended up working as a German agent is a mystery but from 1908 through 1917 he was very busy in Mexican politics, specifically working as an illicit arms merchant funneling U.S. weapons into the Mexican Rebellion and sending regular reports on the situation in Mexico, and U.S. policy towards Mexico, back to Germany.

In the tumult of the Mexican Revolution Sommerfeld ended up initially working for the Mexican government under President Madero (1911 – 1913) where he served as the head of the Mexican Secret Service and used that position to build a massive spy network within the United States.  He also had connections with several famous mercenary soldiers and recruited them to help suppress an uprising against Madero in 1912.  With Madero’s fall in 1913 Sommerfeld left Mexico under the protection of the German ambassador and got involved in the new movement to overthrow Mexico’s new leader, Victoriano Huerta.


As part of that effort he drummed up financial and military support for Pancho Villa, the northern Mexican military leader and political focal point of one major effort to overthrow Huerta.  The question that comes up, and cannot be answered, is did Sommerfeld have any influence on Villa’s decision to launch a raid into New Mexico in 1916 in an attempt to bring the United States into the Mexican civil war?  Villa did the raid in the hopes of dragging U.S. forces southwards into Mexico deep enough to provoke a conflict between Huerta’s forces and the U.S. military, a conflict that might destabilize Mexico and bring Villa a new opportunity at winning a leadership position in Mexico.  For Sommerfeld, and Germany, a 1916 U.S./Mexican war would have probably kept the United States tied up during a critical point in World War I and cut the availability of United States support to France, Great Britain, and Russia.  Had the plan succeeded and the United States intervened with a massive military force, it might have changed the course of the war.  As it happened the U.S. sent in a token force and the situation was defused.

Sommerfeld was arrested eventually when the United States entered the war, he fades from history after the end of the war.

Sources:  Wikipedia article on Felix A. Sommerfeld, entry in Revolutionary Mexico:  The Coming and Process of the Mexican Revolution by John Mason Hart, review of the book Hiding in Plain Sight by the CIA, and entry in the Life and Times of Pancho Villa by Friedrich Katz.

World War I – 1914 – Now What?

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014


It is 2014 and this date marks the century mark of the Great War, or World War I for those who don’t mind spoilers.  Mid-October 1914 marked the end of what was later called the “Race to the Sea”, a series of flanking maneuvers and brutal contact battles between the German Army and mainly the French army, working with the remains of the British army, in a desperate bid to get to an open point where either side could resume the offensive.  Behind both armies was left a long thin line of trenches, marking the end of easy ground maneuvering between both armies and the closing of the earlier rapid advances at the start of the war in August 1914.  Traditionally at this point most articles on the subject focus on a long series of individual brutal battles and close with an observation that by late October 1914 the French and British began their next attempt, a series of short sharp mass battles to try and break the enemy trenches before the winter closed in and ended serious campaigning between the two sides.  (Another spoiler, the French and British did not manage to successfully breakthrough and end World War I in late 1914.)


What is key to remember is the context of the Race to the Sea period, Germany had just given the Russian army on its eastern front a series of backhanded smacks that had sent the Russians reeling in late August 1914 but that victory had been due to a combination of excellent German luck and terrible Russian planning and implementation.  The Russian army remained a threat, and in late October 1914 was still lurking as a real risk that Germany, wrapped up in its major efforts on its western front, might face a sudden Russian surge that, at worse, crushed Germany and at best tied down additional German resources.  So for the German military leadership this time in October 1914 they were facing a serious strategic nightmare, on the one hand they had not successfully crushed the French, but they had captured a huge amount of valuable territory and French industrial resources, withdrawing from it would seem to signal a failure of their war efforts which, by all logic, had been successful.  Granted they hadn’t knocked the French out of the war by capturing Paris but France was severely weakened, if Germany could just hold on long enough the thought was France would not be able to maintain the war.  As well Germany still hoped in 1915 that a method for a certain breakthrough in the west would occur.

Meanwhile they would continue to smack around the Russians as needed and work with their ally, Austria-Hungary, to keep the Eastern front contained.  It wasn’t until later Germany completely shifted gears and made the major focus of the war knocking Russia out of the conflict.

But what is fascinating is by October 1914 Germany, France, and Britain were locked in a savage problem, neither one could disengage from the war but none of the three had a sure-fire technique to regain the initiative and end the war.  Germany needed to resolve the war so it could turn on Russia, out of fear that Russia would field a massive doom army that would smash Germany.  France needed the war to continue to regain its lost territories, and Britain needed the war to continue to re-ensure Belgium and Holland were independent again ending the threat of German control of the key European ports for invading England.

Yet none of these three powers had any clear means to proceed – and the trenches which were a defensive holding stance till things were figured out became the dominant factor in the western European front.

Sources:  Mental Floss article on the Race to the Sea, Wikipedia entry on the Race to the Sea and Paul von Hindenburg

Anglo-German Naval Accord of 1935 – A Perspective

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014


The Anglo-German Naval Accord of 1935 is, in the overall history of pre-World War II events, from a traditional perspective is probably one of the less important bits of diplomatic maneuvering in 1930s Europe.  During the same period when it was signed, the mid to late 1930s, Germany began to aggressively and openly rearm, seized and re-militarized the Rhineland, aided the Spanish Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, and eventually annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia.  Germany also successfully concluded alliances with most of its neighbors but the two that really mattered were a treaty signed with Italy and, much later, with the Soviet Union.  (Germany also signed a treaty with Japan that was diplomatically vital but in affecting the balance of power it has less impact than the other two treaties, besides making the British Empire even more prone to panic and defensive alliances.)

At its heart the Anglo-German Naval Accord of 1935 was a basic naval arms limitation treaty signed directly between Great Britain and Germany in which Germany pledged to keep its total naval strength at no more than 35% of that of the British fleet, based on tonnage, and also agreed to pursue a balanced program of naval development rather than building a “specialized fleet” – such as one oriented towards commerce raiding.  The treaty allowed Germany to build submarines again for the first time since World War I, within more generous tonnage ratio limitations.  The treaty was considered a major diplomatic success for the British government, led by Stanley Baldwin (pictured above), and for Adolf Hitler kindled hopes that this initial diplomatic success would pave the way towards a broader defensive treaty with Great Britain or, dream of dreams, an alliance that would allow Germany a free hand in continental Europe.


The core impact of this treaty though was greater than it might first appear when considered in context and factoring in national pride and human emotion, because the Anglo-German Naval Accord of 1935 was negotiated without consulting the French or Italian governments, as Great Britain had promised to do in the mid-1920s.  From the mid-1920s through the early-1930s Great Britain, France, and Italy were part of what was known as the Stresa front, an earlier alliance aimed at containing any possible German aggression by all three signatory nations – Italy, France, and Great Britain.  As a further blow for France by allowing Germany to have a larger navy, and submarines at all, this treaty refuted the Versailles Treaty, upon whose enforcement French security hopes rested in the 1920s and early 1930s.  With Great Britain renouncing that and pursuing its own private peace France was forced to consider its reliance on Great Britain to be less of a factor and reacted with its own efforts to increase its military size and preparations for war.


I would argue though for France, in particular for its leadership (symbolized by the Prime Minister at the time, Pierre Laval pictured above), this treaty underscored a more critical humiliation, France was no longer in command of its own foreign policy.  The British government could sign this major treaty that redefined French and German naval balance, ignore the French government, and then inform them of its actions.  But as France needed British support to have any chance of successfully defending itself against German aggression this treaty probably helped re-enforce feelings in France’s public and leadership of inferiority and an inability to effectively resist.  I would contend that those feelings, that emotional burden, was part of what weighted down France’s military planning and civil leadership and remained a problem for its effective ability to defend itself up till the actual outbreak of the war.  Only the actual defeat of France, and seeing the impact it really had, versus it’s imagined impact, helped galvanize France to emerge from the war with fire in the mid to late 1940s.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the Anglo-German Naval Treaty of 1935, entry on the treaty in World War II at Sea: An Encyclopedia edited by Spencer Tucker

1950s United States Air Defense – put a nuke on it!

Monday, October 13th, 2014


So it’s the 1950s and you are a top military planner in the United States, and you are faced with the challenge of defending against the Soviet Menace, specifically the capacity of the Soviet Union to deploy bombers with sufficient operational range to reach the United States mainland.  (Bombers such as the powerful Tupolev Tu-95 featured above with its weapons bay open.)  The core plan is to rely on fighter interceptors, high speed jets that can reach the bombers and attempt to shoot them down before they reach their targets in the United States, but the problem is that there are simply not enough fighters to successfully prevent all Soviet bombers from reaching their targets.  Furthermore conventional anti-aircraft guns are simply not up to the challenge of shooting down these high-flying, high-speed Soviet bombers.  During World War II the army determined that a new weapons system was needed, specifically a guided missile system, and so one was developed.


The Nike Ajax missile system was a series of batteries deployed around major United States strategic sites, military bases, and major cities with the stated goal of tracking Soviet bombers entering United States airspace and shooting them down before they reached their targets.  The Nike defense system was seen as a weapon of last resort however it was also believed that used properly, in combination with interceptor fighters, it could greatly reduce the number of Soviet bombers that could reach their targets.  Although effective defense against an atomic war that prevented all nuclear damage was seen as unfeasible, this system was felt sufficient to potentially lower the damage to an acceptable level.  However as the number of potential Soviet bombers attacking the United States continued to rise and it was realized the Nike Ajax would not be able to successfully track individual Soviet bombers within large flying formations, it’s ability to destroy the bombers with its conventional warhead was uncertain.


Meet the Nike Hercules, a larger developed rocket deployed in the mid-1950s that was very similar to the Nike Ajax with one minor, key refinement, it carried a nuclear warhead aboard the rocket.  The new plan was to fire this missile into the middle of a Soviet bomber formation and detonate it, with the goal that the nuclear blast would destroy multiple Soviet bombers in one explosion.  As a bonus it also was cheaper to deploy potentially than the Nike Ajax because fewer missile silos could be used to gain the same level of anti-bomber protection.  Now the challenge in planning was the fact that a nuclear weapon with roughly double the destructive power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs would be detonated a mere seventy-five miles or so from the target it was protecting, but this was felt to be an acceptable risk in what was, again, a last line of defense weapon


Of course Soviet development, and increased reliance on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) made such a system outdated, as Nike Ajax and Nike Hercules missiles could not destroy a Soviet ICBM before it reached the United States.  Although never deployed in large numbers the United State army did rise to the challenge, with development work on the next generation of missile system, the Nike Zeus (pictured above), a massive extremely high-speed missile that could destroy an incoming Soviet ICBM.  The missile proved partially successful in the late 1950s but technical developments, and rising costs, led to the program ultimately being scrapped and the research used in new efforts in later decades.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Project Nike and a Straight Dope entry on the Nike project

Congress in Action – 1975 Church Committee

Thursday, October 9th, 2014


In today’s politically charged climate, especially with an election season underway, it is often very easy for American citizens to lose faith that their Congress is actually capable of having a meaningful impact on the direction of the United States both culturally and on a governmental level.  An excellent example of what can happen when Congress does get into action, even when fueled by political motivations and popular pressures, can be found in the 1975 Church Committee.  (The committee is formally titled “The United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities.”)  Chaired by Senator Frank Church (Idaho, Democrat) and with a key Vice-Chair, Senator John Tower (Texas, Republican) the Church Committee dug into a massive history of intelligence gathering operations by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  The committee discovered that since the 1950s both agencies had engaged in a series of covert operations that far exceeded their mandates but also that the overall methods of governmental oversight of these agencies were woefully inadequate.  Specifically United States Presidents, from Truman through Nixon, as well as key Congressional leaders, had simply turned a blind-eye to how these two agencies collected intelligence seen as vita to winning the Cold War and instead simply focused on the results of those operations.  This combined with a strong desire by the United States political leadership to achieve plausible deniability, the much-loved phrase of Hollywood spy-thrillers but that actually was a term coined by the CIA in the 1960s and refers to the idea that “if the senior government leadership doesn’t know what we do they can then honestly say they had no idea we set babies on fire to see if it upset parents.”

The Church Committee met for seventeen months, most of its hearings were behind closed doors – due to national security concerns – and resulted in some legal and administrative reforms to the operations of both the CIA and FBI.  Key changes included:

  • The formation of two permanent committees in Congress to oversee intelligence operations – one in the House and one in the Senate
  • The limitation by law of the tenure of the director of the FBI to a maximum of ten years duration to avoid another J. Edgar Hoover fifty-odd year dominance of the agency
  • A slew of executive orders that modified how intelligence operations were conducted – the impact of which has been steadily eroded since the 1980s

A 1975 quote from Senator Church at the conclusion of these findings seem appropriate for today’s even more interconnected world:

In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air. Now, that is necessary and important to the United States as we look abroad at enemies or potential enemies. We must know, at the same time, that capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left such is the capability to monitor everything—telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.

If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology.

I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.

Apparently he was speaking about the National Security Agency in this particular instance.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the Church Committee, entry in the book U.S. National Security, Intelligence, Democracy on the Church Committee, U.S. Senate historical website entry on the Church Committee


The 1975 Collapse of the South Vietnamese Army

Monday, October 6th, 2014


Current 2014 headlines are tracking a growing conflict with a new irregular warfare based force known as ISIS/ISIL, and many news outlets are expressing the surprise and shock of the American public and government at the swift collapse of the American-supported Iraqi Army.  This is an interesting example of how history does semi-repeat itself, and also how a nation can collectively forget painful memories.  At the end of the Vietnam War under United States President Nixon the major strategy for reducing the involvement of American forces in Vietnam was a policy known as “Vietnamization” which focused on providing increased American arms, training, and financial support to the South Vietnamese Army while at the same time reducing the number of American troops in Vietnam.  The ultimate goal of this policy, which was achieved by the early 1970s, was to have the Army of South Vietnam taking on all combat operations in Vietnam, with occasional support by the United States Air Force to help prevent any major battle reversals.  This massive influx of arms and material created a powerful South Vietnamese Army on paper, however with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 ending the United States interest in the region the South Vietnamese Army proved a hollow force unable to meet the demands of actual combat.


Many different factors are blamed for the 1974-1975 collapse of the South Vietnamese Army, first and foremost was a major reduction in United States financial aid to the country which made it far too expensive for South Vietnam to properly maintain the massive supplies of American military equipment left behind.  Another often cited factor was South Vietnamese government corruption and instability.  Even cultural issues are blamed, with reports of subordinate commanders filing false reports to generals to avoid embarrassment as their troops deserted and of those same generals providing their own false reports, again to avoid embarrassment.  Historians even cite a general lack of popular support or belief in the nation of South Vietnam by its people as a reason, leading to troops deserting when put under combat pressure due to the feeling they were defending something not worth dying over.  But even as the causes cited vary between historians, the reality of what happened is very clearly recorded historical fact, with few exceptions when put under combat pressure by North Vietnamese military forces the South Vietnamese army repeatedly broke and ran.  Combat equipment was abandoned, uniforms were stripped, and former South Vietnamese soldiers fled to whatever safe havens they could find that would then allow them to escape to either United States naval vessels or further south to avoid capture.


It all came to an end with the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, the final holdout city for the nation of South Vietnam.  The final battle did involve units of the South Vietnamese Army offering more effective resistance but even that only lasted for a short period of time.  The Vietnam War finally ended with the capture of the Presidential Palace in Saigon – the famous image above is of a North Vietnamese tank smashing its way through the gates.  What shocked the American public though in 1975 was how rapidly the South Vietnamese Army collapsed.  They had been told by the President that it was a modern force, well equipped, massive in size, and capable of defending South Vietnam indefinitely.  So when in reality it simply collapsed under pressure and did so in a matter of months, it was a major shock.  However in 1975 the American public was in no mood to recommit any resources to the Vietnam War so the defeat was allowed to happen without any United States intervention.

This event, overall, is an excellent example of how even a well positioned proxy army, that is well-equipped and well-trained, can prove utterly unable to achieve its strategic goals when put to the test.

Sources:  Wikipedia article on the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and Vietnamization, article on the Fall of Saigon, entry on the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in The Vietnam War, 1956-1975 by Andrew Weist

Old Ads and Cartoons Friday

Friday, October 3rd, 2014


Source:  Life Magazine, 1902


Source:  Life Magazine, 1902


Source:  Life Magazine, 1902

Note – one of my sample advertisements that reflect the casual racism of the times


Source:  Life Magazine, 1901

Note – another racist cartoon that is also damn weird


Source:  Life Magazine, 1892


Source:  Life Magazine 1892

Note – I welcome any thoughts on what “special South American plant” this is