Fist Of History

Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

MS St. Louis and Syrian Refugees

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

SS_St_Louis_Meme_Yeah!So this is doing the rounds on Facebook these days and within the online community, for me this is a perfect example of why context is so critical to properly understanding history.  Let’s start with the immediate, the facts as listed on the meme are correct, the MS St. Louis did indeed sail to Florida as part of its trip, it was technically turned away from Florida, and up to half those on board might have died in the Holocaust.  However between these facts are some key tidbits that need to be considered.

First the ship was originally traveling to Cuba, with its load of Jewish refugees, who were planning to enter Cuba under legally acquired tourist visas.  These visas had been provided by Cuban diplomatic officials in Germany, however the Cuban government changed its mind and rejected the visas during the ships trip over the ocean.  There are several reasons for the Cuban change of heart, mainly though it was most likely due to concerns about the impact waves of European Jewish immigrants would have on Cuba’s economy.  Most of the immigrants had no intentions of staying in Cuba but saw it as a step on a longer path to gaining entry to the United States.

SS_ST_LOUIS_CartoonUpon departing Cuba the MS St. Louis departed Cuba and sailed nearly to Florida, reportedly within sight of the lights of Miami.  The MS St. Louis was escorted by two United States Coast Guard vessels, and their purpose there is ambiguous.  Some historians contend they were there to prevent the ship attempting to land or beaching so that the Jewish refugees could then climb onto U.S. soil.  The U.S. Coast Guard contends that the ships were there to ensure safety for those on board.  The truth probably contains both.  The MS St. Louis then attempted to land in Canada, but was turned back.

Returning to Europe its captain, Gustav Schroder, along with others was able to negotiate non-German points of departure for his passengers into four European nations, Great Britain, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands.

GSchroederAntwerpThis is where the first point of context becomes important – these events took place between May to June 1939.  World War II had not yet broken out, with Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939.  In fact the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 wouldn’t be signed until August 1939, so France and Great Britain in June 1939 anticipated that in the event of a war the Soviet Union could be swayed to their side, which would make a German triggered war unlikely.  (A view backed up by Hitler’s reluctance to invade Poland until the Soviet Union was brought to their side.)

So in June 1939 the events of the MS St. Louis looked like a win for the Jewish refugees aboard.  They hadn’t had to go back to Germany, they all had safe homes, and the crisis had been averted.  It wasn’t until 1940 that three of the four nations taking them in were conquered by Germany and not until 1942 that most of the refugees on the MS St. Louis died.

CalvinCoolidgeimmigration3Furthermore the restrictions against Jewish immigration into the United States were based on a 1924 Immigration Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by Calvin Coolidge with the racial theory goal of keeping the United States a mono-racial nation.  (Specifically on the idea that Nordic Europeans were key.)  The law was based around quotas of immigration assigned based on the U.S. population in 1890.  It was a solidly racist law but it also set up the barriers that impacted the refugees in 1939.

Key issue though, Germans were actually on the preferred list of immigrants.  In 1939 the problem was that the United States has a list with a multi-year waiting period for immigration visas from Germany, the list had both German Jews and non-German desperate to enter the United States.  Allowing in the refugees on the MS St. Louis would have bumped others further up in the list back.  The U.S. administration under Roosevelt was also opposed to allowing Jewish refugees into the country and put up unofficial barriers, for racist/ethnic reasons.

fdr_cigaretteEven United States President Franklin Roosevelt was unwilling to waive the rules and allow the passengers of the MS St. Louis to land, he was considering his pending run for a third term in 1940 as President and the strong domestic concerns about immigration.  The U.S. was still in the Great Depression in 1939 and although the economy was recovering the citizens of the U.S. were not ready to welcome masses of immigrants who they feared would compete for scare jobs.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-1987-0928-501,_England,_Jüdische_Flüchtlingskinder_cropWhich was an issue, as appeared in the Evian Conference of 1938 at which no real resolution appeared to the growing potential Jewish refugee crisis due to Nazi policies in Germany.  The Dominican Republic at that conference had agreed to take on 100,000 Jewish refugees but the MS St. Louis for unknown reasons made no attempt to avail itself of that offer in 1939.  More critically, Hitler when speaking on the conference stated:

“I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”

In other words had the United States taken in the refugees it would have invited a potential flood of Jewish refugees from Germany, shipped over by the Nazi government, on the assumption that if the U.S. would bow to taking in one shipment, they would take in more.

Now the Syrian Refugee Crisis is its own unique situation – it is due to a multi-part war, persecution, and desperation.  Using an analogy to the Jewish refugee crisis of 1939 makes for a fine emotional “sound bite” but it doesn’t really link, and more critically, the meme at the top does not really teach a valid lesson on a very complex issue.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on the MS St. Louis, the Evian Conference, and US Immigration Act of 1924, a BBC article on the voyage of the MS St. Louis, entries in the United States Holocaust Museum on the MS St. Louis and the US Policy towards Jewish Refugees

 

The United States, Iceland, and World War II

Friday, March 27th, 2015

IBC_US_Army_Troops_Arriving_In_Reykjavik_January_1942

For the United States the year 1941 was an odd year diplomatically and politically, many within the nation felt that war was coming yet a large minority wished to remain neutral in any upcoming conflict.  As the Soviet Union, Germany, and Great Britain were embroiled in the war there was an odd twilight period when the United States remained effectively out of the conflict but indirectly assisted the Allied powers cause.  Franklin Roosevelt kept edging the United States closer to open conflict with Germany, as well as assisting in the resistance to Japanese expansion, through a series of clandestine activities.  These included an undeclared war with German submarines in the Atlantic and his support for the American Volunteer Group in China (otherwise known as the Flying Tigers.)  One particular activity though that stands out is the United States military occupation of Iceland in July 1941.

Iceland

On 10 May 1940, in an effort to ensure that Iceland did not end up falling to possible German invasion, Great Britain sent 746 Royal Marines to the island to secure it against potential German shenanigans.  The government of Iceland protested this and declared itself neutral in the war but tolerated the British presence and cooperated with it.  This was mainly due to the fact Iceland didn’t have the capacity to actually resist.  Great Britain increased its troop presence on the island, but by July 1941 Great Britain need its troops in Iceland for use in the war but still needed the island nation secured against the Germans.  So on 7 July 1941 the government of Iceland officially “agreed” that its defense should be transferred from Great Britain to the United States.

fdr_cigarette

Although the United States was neutral officially Marines were sent to Iceland to take up its defense.  Furthermore the United States maintained a garrison on the island throughout the war, only departing at the end of the war.  The occupation actually caused hardship for Iceland which had not been in the German war plans until the British intervened, after which point Icelandic ships became a regular target of German submarine attacks.

This intervention is an excellent example of the skill Franklin Roosevelt used in working to contain German aggression without pushing the United States actually into war.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Invasion of Iceland in World War II and the history of Iceland in World War II

Operation Frosty Errors – the Battle of Kiska Island

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

aleutians_bunker_kiska_700

World War II is filled with many epic campaigns and nail-bitingly close battles where United States military forces grappled with tenacious enemy forces.  In particular in the Pacific theater often the United States engaged with Japanese military forces determined to resist no matter the eventual cost.  This battle though, the Battle of Kiska Island in 1943, is not one of those moments.  Kiska Island is located in the Aleutian Islands and was captured by the Japanese in 1942 during the Battle of Midway – it was a side project for Japan.  Both the island of Attu and Kiska were captured by the Japanese despite a non-existence United States defensive presence, due to the need for the United States military to guard Alaska proper.

Alaska_Death_Trap

Despite providing a source of lovely and racist motivational posters the Alaska campaign was of low priority for the United States and Japan, but this did not prevent a brutal battle on the island of Attu in 1943, during which the United States military experienced one of the most brutal banzai charges in the entire war, Japanese soldiers penetrated United States lines to the point that final line rear echelon American troops had to engage the Japanese in hand-to-hand combat.  Due to this the United States military was understandably nervous when it prepared to invade the last Japanese Aleutian holdout island, Kiska, a few months later.

250px-AttuSnow

The invasion began with a three week aerial bombardment of Kiska Island, followed by a landing of 7th United States Infantry Division, the 6th Canadian Infantry Division, and a combined task force of Canadian and American troops, the 1st Special Service force.  The 7th U.S. landed on one end of the island and the 6th Canadian on the other end, on a particularly foggy morning.  As you can probably guess, the two forces bumped into each other and thought the other end of the bump was the mysteriously missing Japanese garrison.  The ensuing firefight ended up killing 28 Americans and 4 Canadians.  Overall taking the island cost both sides combined 313 soldiers due to the above friendly fire incident, booby traps, and frostbite.

However the Japanese were long gone, having quietly fled the island weeks before on rafts they made from trees on the island.  Furthermore during this battle the United States Navy fought the Battle of the Pips, an encounter when a United States Naval task force, which included two battleships, opened fire on unknown contacts near the island detected by radar.  After the war it was discovered that there had been no Japanese ships nearby and instead the United States Navy probably bombarded a resting group of birds on the oceans surface.

Bird casualties, regrettably, remain unknown.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Aleutian Islands campaign, the Battle of Kiska Island, and the Battle of the Pips

World War II, the GI Bill, Homeownership, and Racism

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

a-levittown-street

One of the more interesting comments I read online these days is the argument that, although racist policies in the past boosted whites in the United States into a position of economic dominance, those events happened “long ago” and it is too late to really rectify them.  Most people who make those arguments look to the early to mid-19th century, and argue that modern African-Americans have benefited from the infrastructure improvements and land development that characterized the changes to the United States economically during that period.  Arguments about modern advantages are normally dismissed as “soft advantages” – unfortunate policies that since the 1960s have been changed and, therefore, African-Americans should be able to pull themselves up to economic parity with white Americans now that the “barriers are gone” and they can “unleash their potential.”

This, in my opinion, is hogwash and the post-World War II GI Bill (formally the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944) was designed and implemented in a way to give a massive federal economic boost to white Americans and deny African-Americans the same benefits.

Levittown-Sprawl

If you served in the United States military in World War II, and you were white, post-war the federal government opened the world of home ownership to you on a subsidized platter of low-interest loans.  White military veteran borrowers found themselves suddenly able, for the first time ever, to actually get affordable, longer-term, home mortgages that required minimal to no down payment.  Rapid development of new suburban neighborhoods allowed white veteran families to move out of crowded urban centers and gain new homes, homes that could become investments and gain value against inflation in the impending decades.  Combined with the more commonly known huge boosts in funding for white veteran educational benefits, including support for advanced technical certificate training and college bachelors degrees, and you had the combined elements to rapidly expand the middle class in the United States and raise millions of white families to the ranks of lower middle class.

AA_WW2

But the GI Bill in 1944 had been carefully written to respect the principles of federalism, and each state was able to administer the program as it saw fit.  This meant that states, in particular southern and midwestern states, had the freedom to implement a series of charming little “quirks” to their Veterans Benefits programs to keep African-American veterans from claiming their benefits.  Distant and hard-to-reach offices from black communities, employing only white office workers and enforcing policies that African-American benefit claim paperwork be “lost in processing”, lying to African-American veterans about their benefits, and ensuring that other systems implemented to keep African-Americans away from educational and housing opportunities were maintained.

The United States military helped these goals as well, often “losing” vital discharge paperwork for African-American veterans and rigging the discharge system to give African-American soldiers more dishonorable or non-military discharges than they were supposed to receive to reduce the number of eligible claimants.  These policies were seen as critical, because without them southern Representatives and Senators had threatened in 1944 to scuttle the entire bill and the “compromise” was seen as necessary.

1950s_family

This federal gift kept on giving post-World War II, with any drafted serviceman gaining access to these benefits and white America getting another major micro-boost of support for Korean War veterans.

I bring this up not to demand solutions – the problems of racial equality in the United States are too thorny and entrenched for a 500 word essay to properly attack – but I do bring this up in contrast to the arguments by many whites I’ve heard myself that any advantages whites gained were “too long ago” to be corrected today.  This benefit directly helped the grandparents of many readers of this blog, and their own access to middle class status rests upon the foundation laid for them in the late 1940s and early 1950s by the federal government.

A foundation African-American families were directly denied in the same period.

Sources:  VA History of the GI Bill, master’s thesis by Cyd McKenna on the GI Bill and the Homeownership Gap

Plan 1919 and the Pedersen Device

Monday, March 9th, 2015

Pedersen_deviceThere is nothing quite like a good “wonder weapon” story and the Pedersen Device of 1917 fits that criteria.  Developed by John Pedersen his device was designed to modify the standard M1903 Springfield Rifle to shift it from a standard bolt-action weapon into a modified semi-automatic weapon instead.  The core issue was the slow firing rate of the M1903, which required an infantry men after each shot to retract the bolt, expel the fired cartridge, and return the bolt into firing position which chambered a new round.  Pedersen understood, as did the military, that in the combat environment of the trenches of World War I this slower firing speed was a problem for infantry men rushing across contested territory between entrenched positions.  Furthermore the M1903 Springfield did not allow soldiers to fire “from the hip” as they moved and required a soldier to halt while advancing to shoulder the weapon and properly fire it.

Pedersen made his device with the goal of taking an existing weapon platform, which the military was struggling to produce in sufficient quantities, and modify it, rather than requiring the deployment of an entirely new weapons system.  This modification also allowed the original M1903 bolt assembly to be inserted into the rifle, allowing the weapon to be switched between “semi-automatic smaller cartridge mode” which had shorter range but higher shot rates, and a “single-shot larger cartridge mode” for sniping and fixed position defense.  The United States Army was quite excited by the prospect and bought the rights to the modification, which was carefully concealed to allow it to be a surprise for the enemy.

Pershing

General John Pershing, Commander of all the Armies United States, was favorable to the new device and included it as part of the planning for the proposed 1919 Offensive.  He requested large stocks of the modified ammunition and hundreds of thousands of the devices, as the new weapon was a key part in a broader plan to redefine the warfare of World War I.  Plan 1919, developed by J.F.C. Fuller, a British staff officer, was an ambitious plan to shatter the German western defenses through a radically new method of fighting.  An armored column of tanks, supported closely by aircraft and fast mobility infantry, would punch a hole through the German trench lines and race to capture and destroy German military headquarters for that section of the front, disrupting command and control.

In turn a follow-up general offensive, with tanks leading the way, close air support, and infantry following in trucks with fast firing weapons, would push through a narrow front in the German lines, pushing them apart and racing to capture key strategic targets within the combat area.  Slower military forces would then follow-up on the offensive, capturing and isolating key German military units bypassed in the initial thrust and therefore forcing the German military to either rapidly fall back or be annihilated.

blitzkrieg

If that sounds familiar to you it should – it is the basic outline for the German method of war, war of mobility (also misnamed as blitzkrieg) – which the German General Staff developed in the later 1920s to a fuller potential.  Their work though was inspired by the 1919 Plan, which post-war they learned about and studied in detail.

The Pedersen device did not survive the rigors of war however, tested in 1920 in Panama it was found to have flaws and the military had moved beyond converting M1903 Springfields into a new goal, developing an entirely new rifle with inherent semi-automatic qualities.  (Eventually taking the shape of the M1 Garand rifle by 1932.)  With the development of the Garand however the Pedersen device was obsolete, but considered too dangerous to be simply sold to the general public, who could modify surplus Springfield rifles and vastly increase their firepower.  So the Pedersen devices in storage, thousands of them, were simply burned in a huge surplus reducing bonfire.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Pedersen Device and Plan 1919

 

Socialism with American Characteristics – World War II and Rationing

Friday, February 13th, 2015

ww2ration

For those unfamiliar the formal position of the Chinese Communist Party is that China is currently under a system of economic and political control formally known as “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” and is the inspiration for today’s historical opinion piece.  This piece was inspired by two recent articles run on Communism versus Capitalism with a focus on its potential impact in the United States (here) and some proposed economic reforms the millennial generation should support, which also smacks of Socialism (here).  Although this is an opinion piece I think I can prove solid ground that during World War II, specifically between 1942 to 1945, the United States undertook a series of economic reforms that can be categorized as how the United States might look under its own form of Communist economic management.

bf_gas_ration_envelope_reverse

My first point of proof was the 1942 creation by executive order of the Office of Price Administration (OPA), an organization of the federal government charged with imposing fixed price ceilings on nearly every good on the consumer market, with the exception of raw agricultural produce.  (So finished food products sold in stores were subject to price control, just not the raw ingredients that flowed into them.)  The OPA also imposed a strict rationing system to ensure that all consumers in a time of scarcity were ensured of a certain minimum standard of food no matter demand and, in turn, limiting consumer choice and the ability to freely exercise their own will in relation to the market.

Now some consumer choice remained, how you spent some classes of ration tickets were up to you, you could buy more lard or less butter with the same coupons, but overall that was picking how you spent a fixed allocation of resources.  What you could not do under this system was decide “this week I want to spend all my money on butter and become the BUTTER LORD!”  No matter how much cash you had in hand, that simply was not an option open to you because of the strict ration limitations.

allison_division_of_general_motors_1945-610x782

The War Production Board (WPB) covered the other end of the economy, taking control of raw materials distribution to United States industry, coordinating raw materials and production capacity, and imposing strict limitations on consumer good production.  The two entities combined forces on some consumer goods, including a system of rationing on items like typewriters that required those who wished to purchase one to file for a special permit to allow its acquisition.  The WPB wielded considerable authority over the United States economy, complete with the ability to grant exceptions to allocation allotments (Hershey’s) and starve other industries considered non-essential to the war.

Combine these two factors with high-employment on federally provided war contracts, a combination of restrictions on labor agitation and alliances with unions to prevent work stoppages, and sharp income taxes that compressed income inequality, and I would argue you have the combination of forces that worked together to create a distinctively North American form of Communism.

It even captured the odd balance in the United States between federal, state, and local authority – rationing limitations were handled by local ration boards – filled with state appointed local leaders who could adjust rations limits within broader guidelines and issue exceptions.  Even excess economic capacity in the form of high wages was slurped up by aggressive patriotic bond drives that pulled spare unused economic buying power out of the economy and into low interest paying federal debt.

pledge

So the question that then comes up is – did this experiment in Socialism with American Characteristics work economically?  Well that really depends on how you define “work” – it did succeed in the overall goal of producing a vast array of military hardware that effectively armed many other nations and allowed the United States to successfully conduct a two front war for three years.  But it was undermined by economic waste, specifically caused by black markets and efforts to duck production limitations, price schedules, and supply restrictions.

black_market_image

Even gas rationing was a general failure in the sense of limiting gas allocation to conserve rubber, history shows people defying gas rations on both a local and regional level throughout the war.  As well enforcement of these restrictions was often quasi-legal, heavy-handed, and handled mainly on a local level, leaving the federal government’s metaphorical hands clean.  It was a voluntary effort, for example, not to drive on the weekend for pleasure – failure to comply would often lead to the driver risking being stopped and harassed or beaten by local police for their lack of patriotic fervor.

I would also argue it failed because, although austerity was something the United States public embraced for the war effort, as quickly as possible post-war this was rejected for a consumer binge that rocketed the United States economy upwards, as well as the demand for raw materials, with the 1950s post-war consumer boom.

Could Socialism with American Characteristics work again, as the two articles at the start of this piece seem to think?  I believe it could, history shows it can, but I would argue not in the long term.  Both systems rely to heavily upon humans putting material demands aside for either nobler purpose or more leisure time, forces that history shows do not hold well over a long enough period of time.

Sources:  Article on Rationing in World War II, Wikipedia entries on the Office of Price Administration and the War Production Board

Reichskolonialbund – Nazi Colonies in Africa

Monday, February 9th, 2015

German_colonial

With the conclusion of World War I in 1919 Germany, upon signing the Versailles Treaty, forfeited all of its overseas colonies in Africa and Asia to the victorious Triple Entente (Allies) powers as spoils of war.  This loss of pride and symbolic power for Germany was one more complaint that the German nationalist right-wing aimed to correct once Germany regained its former position in world affairs.  Overall for Germany it was felt by many on the right that this loss of colonies denied Germany its rightful position in the world as a “Great Power.”   From 1923 onwards militant right-wing groups, nationalist groups, and pro-monarchist groups in Germany all agitated for the re-establishment of a German colonial empire in Africa.  These came together into several pro-German colonial organizations that were smashed together by the Nazi party in 1933 to create a new organization, the Reichskolonialbund, a.k.a. the Reich Colonial League.

Reichskolonialbund.svg

Operating from 1933 through 1943 this organization was aimed primarily at the goal of reforming Germany’s African colonies and was tasked with producing large amounts of propaganda in both the German press, and international medial outlets, about the value of the former German colonial empire, the need for additional living space for Germany, and the unfairness that Germany was contained by hostile powers with no additional room to grow.  That last component was the key reason why the Nazi party supported the Reich Colonial League and used it as a propaganda tool, one of the major foreign policy goals of Hitler during this period was to build up the military strength of Germany for the conquest of additional land to its east, the “living space” Hitler sought to grab from Poland and the Soviet Union through a broad, but ideally swift, series of wars.

Cameroon Chief Wears German Armor

Despite producing images like this and generally pushing for expanded German African colonies, in reality there is no evidence Hitler or the top Nazi leadership had any real designs, or goals, to gain land in Africa for Germany.  Some historians think that Hitler kept this organization afloat to provide a bargaining point with the British, potentially beneficial if Hitler dramatically renounced German colonial ambitions in exchange for British concessions.  Another possibility is this organization existed as a minor appeasement to German industrialists, who had originally looked to Africa in the late 19th century as a source for new markets and cheap raw materials.

DAK.svg

Germany did have one armed conflict in Africa though, North Africa specifically, with the intervention of German troops between 1941 to 1943 to attempt to assist the Italian military in its collapsing anti-British campaigns in Egypt.  One of the core goals of the German intervention in Africa was the conquest of Egypt, closing the Suez Canal to the British, and then had that been successful plans became more open-ended.  Hitler envisioned a grand sweep of the Germany’s African military forces, along with the Italians, potentially sweeping into the Middle East through Palestine, Iraq, and Iran to end up pushing against the southern Soviet Union and linking up with forces in Stalingrad.

However had events played out differently it is possible Germany could have sent its forces southwards from Egypt, deeper into Africa with the propaganda purpose of re-establishing the lost German empire.  The events of 1943 however proved the end of the Reich Colonial League, between the German defeat at Stalingrad and the loss of the German army in Africa such ambitions were seen as frivolous in a time of war emergency.

Source:  Wikipedia entry on the Reichskolonialbund

 

Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of France – two cases of the same mistake

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Battle_of_France_collage

If you study military history in the 20th century at all, one of the thorny issues you will inevitably bump into is the conduct of France in 1940 and its loss to an invasion by Germany.  In particular the highly successful thrust into central France of Germany’s Army Group A through the Ardennes forest.  The usual presentation in many western histories of the conflict holds a viewpoint that the French military commander was foolish (at worst) and antiquated (more common) in its belief that the rough terrain of the Ardennes forest would prove too much of an obstacle to German tank units, thereby allowing the central region to be held by a thinner French military force.

FB_WWII_NewsFeed

As evidenced by the above humorous description from College Humor that captures that very outlook on the battle.  So I find it somewhat amusing that this week is commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, as mentioned on the History Channel website, a tactical and strategic battle that the United States normally writes up as an epic conflict that is a credit to the United States Army and Air Force – where a major force of German army and armor units were driven back after launching a surprise winter assault upon the American lines.

117th_Infantry_North_Carolina_NG_at_St._Vith_1945

What is often not mentioned in describing the Battle of the Bulge is that the territory being fought over was the same location where in 1940 the German army had surprised the French, and furthermore, that American military forces in the region were weak and unprepared for the attack for many of the same reasons that the French were unprepared for the attack.  Furthermore it can be argued that the Allied high command, and American military commanders in particular, allowed their perceptions of how they thought the war was proceeding to overly color their strategic assessment of the situation.  In fact the initial reaction of the American military in response to the attack reflected a similar level of shock and initial inflexibility comparable to that which paralyzed the French military in 1940.  Yet these failings are usually glossed over lightly in histories of the war and the emphasis shifted to the counter-attack and eventual American success in the field.

Dwight_Eisenhower

Why the emphasis shifts is an interesting question – personally I would consider it heavily influenced by the strong feelings of “hero worship” attached to many key American commanders by historians, especially American historians, when writing about World War II.  The core names in the battle, Eisenhower in overall command, Patton as the “saving angel of a general” who swept into the fight, Bradley as a key area commander, and the storied 101st Airborne Infantry fighting in Bastogne and holding out against German encirclement put a high gloss of success on the battle.  The reality though was that the American forces in the region were caught unprepared and were badly mauled, although the attack was a high-risk gamble by the German military it wasn’t because of the American military units opposing them, it was instead a combination of the weather, a tight timetable, and fuel shortages plaguing the German military.  Had Hitler gone with a less ambitious plan, like one of several advocated by his generals, the Battle of the Bulge would have probably been a successful backhanded slap to the Allies that would have helped stall the overall Allied advance temporarily.

What is particularly surprising is the broad dismissal historians make of what can only be described as a colossal error by Eisenhower in putting the weakest American military units on the line in the same spot, with the same overall defensive importance, as the French did in 1940 and trusting in the same terrain to prove too impassable to tank assault.  The only real mitigating factor is the season, winter versus fall, but one might ask why didn’t Eisenhower put a few stiffer units in the line, or at least some limited armor, having had only four years earlier seen the fact that German armor could smash through that region with great success as a surprise?

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Battle of France and the Battle of the Bulge

 

Nazi Secret Map and the United States in 1941

Monday, December 8th, 2014

 

Secret_Map_1941

What you see above is a broad map that depicted Germany’s long term ambitions in South America – discovered in 1941 as part of a British espionage effort to capture files from the German ambassador in Brazil the map was shared with the United States in October 1941.  Roosevelt reacted with anger and announced the secret map in a speech to the American people in which he denounced the ambitions of Nazi Germany in the “American Hemisphere” – of particular concern to the United States Congress, the President, and the American public was how the handwritten notes on the map discussed air fuel supplies and locations for airbases potentially within range of the United States mainland.

The reaction by the United States Congress and the American people was powerful – both houses of Congress within a week repealed the Neutrality Act and shifted from an isolationist view to one more open to intervention in Europe.  Although the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would settle the issue of involvement by the United States in December 1941, this map paved the way towards American intervention in Europe.

winston_churchill

What is of particular interest is the map was a fake, created by the British government to push the United States towards entry into the European war.  It was created under Churchill’s direction by Station M, a forgery producing espionage unit located in Toronto, Canada.  Although the question that historians have yet to answer is was the map entirely fiction or was it based off a real Nazi map used to outline German ambitions and attract the diplomatic interest of South American nations.

Either way the map itself was a highly skilled bit of espionage that helped push the United States down a path towards full intervention in World War II.  In particular the work of this map helped the British cause even after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American public were in December 1941 of a mixed outlook on joining the war in Europe, but generally leaned towards the need to intervene in Europe.  This map, and the argument it established that Nazi Germany was already working to intervene in the “American” sphere of influence, probably helped ensure that the wrath of the United States and its people would be shared in both major theaters of the war.

Sources:  Wikipedia article on the New Order (Nazism) and its interests in South America, article in the Daily Mail on the secret map, entry in Napoleon’s Hemorrhoids and Other Small Events that Changed History by Phil Mason, pp. 91

Heinkel He 162 – Germany’s Super-Cheap Jet Fighter

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

Heinkel_He_162_Freeman_Field_IN_1945

By 1944 Nazi Germany was facing a rather serious problem, the combined British and United States heavy bomber attacks on occupied Europe and Germany were proving disruptive to Germany’s ability to wage war, more critically though the widespread deployment of the United States P-51 Mustang had led to the German air force suffering massive casualties in both pilots and equipment.  The need appeared for an aircraft that met three seemingly conflicting design goals:

  • A high-speed fighter capable of evading the P-51 Mustang and being able to attack massed bomber formations successfully
  • A high-performance fighter capable of succeeding in a dogfight with a P-51 Mustang
  • The new plane had to be made of non-strategic materials as much as possible, with a preference for the use of wood as much as possible
  • The plane had to be cheap enough that it was cost-effective to simply ditch damaged planes and replace them with an entirely new fighter
  • The plane had to be simple enough to fly that it take minimal training to fly it successfully

Despite the challenging requirements every German aircraft manufacturer submitted a design, due to the expected high volume of fighters produced, the winner of the contest though was the entry by the Heinkel corporation, specifically the eventually designated He 162 (pictured above.)  A light-weight fighter the Heinkel He 162 is the epitomizes the idea that “four out of five ain’t bad.”

The aircraft had an impressive top speed and test pilots who took the Heinkel He 162 into the air described it as a pleasure to fly, nimble and reactive.  It also featured an advanced retractable landing gear system that didn’t require hard to maintain parts, had a decent armament, and was constructed of a blend of wood and metal that was cost effective.  In fact the only goal it utterly failed on was being simple to fly – due to a combination of its design and sensitive controls it required a highly experienced pilot to operate the aircraft successfully.  It also had one other minor problem…

Bei Mödlingen, unterirdische Flugzeugproduktion

The Heinkel He 162 was a hybrid plane of metal and wood, wooden wings and secondary structures attached to a metal aircraft body, and to achieve this production quickly and successfully the German manufacturers used glue.  Unfortunately the glue they had to use was not particularly good and the wings had a penchant for falling off – when the plane was taking off, flying, landing, sitting still on a calm day, the wings would just drop off the plane.  The production timeline for the fighter though was so tight and the need so great the German air force did not pull the fighter from production or deployment due to this (and other design problems) – units simply had to “make do” as best they could under the circumstances.

Although only moderately deployed before the end of the war had Germany had more time, and more trained pilots, the Heinkel He 162 might have been a useful addition to its air defense that was viable, rather than insane like some other ideas that appeared in the increasingly desperate years of 1944 and 1945.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the Heinkel He 162 and an entry in German Aircraft of the Second World War, including Helicopters and Missiles