Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Posts Tagged ‘World War Two

German Boy Scouts Save Hitler’s Germany from Advancing Allied Armies!

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That was the plan at least. I was going to write this as an alternate history post, but remembered I’d written one like it before. So no messing around, just the facts ma’am. The beauty pictured above was one of Hitler’s secret weapons. That’s a Heinkel 162 Salamander. So what’s its story? I’ll start at the beginning …

In 1944 Germany was in big trouble.The Russians were advancing from the east. They were pissed. The Allies had landed in France, and also were heading for Berlin with malign intent. And over Germany itself, the Allies had seized control of the very skies. The Luftwaffe had plenty of planes, but very few experienced pilots anymore. Many had been lost trying to defend the skies of Germany, and Hitler hadn’t given pilot training any priority until 1944. Allied planes were pounding Germany’s factories, roads, and armies into ruin. Something had to be done. And thus a number of secret weapon’s projects were frantically launched in an effort to find some super-weapon that could allow Germany to drive the American Army Air Corps from Germany’s skies. I’ve written about at least one of these before. And while they failed in their goal, they did some amazing things.

One of them was the Heinkel 162 Volksjäge. That’s People’s Fighter. This little plane was supposed to be the Volkswagen of jet fighter aircraft. Cheap and easy to build, mostly made of wood, and could be assembled quickly and in large numbers by unskilled labour. Lastly, it had to be easy to fly, since Germany had no pilots. The plan was that scores of teenagers in the Hitler Youth program would fly the planes! It was hoped their bravery and youthful reaction times in combination with a jet aircraft would tip the balance in the skies over Germany. It was a great idea! Pause for thought. No, it was a crazy idea, and hopefully the discerning reader can come up with all sorts of reasons why planning to save the day with Boy Scouts flying disposable jet fighters wasn’t likely to end like a Hollywood movie. Boy though, what a fun movie that would make. Reader’s having trouble discerning the flaws in this plan should take a moment know to review the Evil Overlord List. You’ll thank me later.

Oddly enough, the German engineers working on this project gave it their best. The He-162 went from design to operational prototype in less than 90 days! That’s remarkable and likely almost unequalled in the creation of a new aircraft. There were some problems in development and several crashes, no surprise in a rush job, but in December 1944 production of the He-162 began in earnest. It was indeed an wonderful plane, in fact it was the fastest of the world’s first generation jet fighters, cruising around 800 km/h (500 mph) and capable of flying at nearly 900 km/h (560 mph) for short bursts. For comparison the US P-51 Mustang maxed out at about 700 km/h (425 mph.) It was nimble and climbed quickly, and mounted a pair of 20 or 30 mm auto cannons. The He-162 was also the world’s first aircraft to have an ejection seat. Pilots loved flying it, and it did very well in what little combat it saw, some few squadrons were equipped with it before the war ended.

So why didn’t fleets of wooden jet fighters manned by Boy Scouts save the day? Alas, the He-162 was not easy to fly. It was extremely tricky to fly, and required a skilled pilot to even take off and land, let alone fly in combat. I think we can all agree that this is a good thing. Only just over 300 were built. A few of them survived the war and were flown by other nations, a few still exist in museums. The Canadian Aviation Museum is looking into the feasibility of making one of their two He-162s airworthy again. There’s some truly boring footage of the He-162 flying in this Russian film, I was so numbed I had to stop before two minutes were up. Russians are a funny people. Here is footage of other captured German jet and rocket fighters being flown, much more interesting. There’s even a few views of the controls. They were … scary, and the He-162s would have been similar.

Lastly, I wonder about the mind set of the people working on these projects. Most of them must have known that their projects were not going to stave off the inevitable. Yet they laboured on, brilliantly even, and produced some amazing killing devices. That seems to be what humans do when they are under a lot of pressure. It’s a gift I guess. What, you were expecting another kitten post?

(The above image is almost certainly public domain, and I’m claiming it as such until informed otherwise. Not making any money off of it, etc. Tomorrow, a guest post.)


Written by unitedcats

April 8, 2013 at 10:46 am

What the Hell is That?

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OK, it has wings, it must fly. There’s no propeller or air intakes, so it glides or has a rocket engine. Judging from the small wings it must have a rocket engine. It has a cockpit so it has a pilot. It does not appear to have landing gear, nor does it have any obvious weapons. One of the men has a gun, the men appear in uniform, and the vehicle has what looks like military markings on it. It’s a likely a military flying device of some sort, but what sort exactly? Stop reading here if the gentle reader wants to guess.

Yeah, I can never be bothered to guess on stuff like this either. If the gentle reader noticed it looks kind of like a cruise missile, they were onto something. That’s exactly what it is, a cruise missile. Typically launched from a Betty bomber, though submarine and cave launched versions were also planned. It only had enough fuel to fly for 20 miles or so, so it had to be launched pretty close to its target. And yes, it had a pilot. This was World War Two,  electronically guided missiles were still a dream, if a cruise missile was going to hit any thing smaller than a city, it had to be piloted. Yes, this bad boy was the Yokosuka MXY-7 Ohka (Cherry Blossom) purpose-built suicide plane. It had a 2,000 lb high explosive warhead, and could fly at over 400 mph (650 kph) in level flight or over 650 mph (1,000 kph) in a dive. This was considerably faster than the fighters of the day, and made them almost unstoppable if they got into a final approach. And yes, this was built by Japan in the last years of World War Two. It’s a kamikaze plane.

So, how did they do? Over 800 of them were built, and most of them saw action. Unfortunately, at least from the Japanese point of view, most of the action they saw was being shot down while attached to the Betty bomber long before they got close enough to be launched at a target ship. Still, a number of them did get close enough to US fleets to be launched. Very few though, most of the time the planes carrying them were intercepted long before they launched their Chery Blossoms. And what few Cherry Blossoms actually attacked only managed to sink or damage seven small allied ships, destroyers mostly. No American capital ships (carriers, cruisers, battleships) were hit by Cherry Blossoms. That’s around 1600 planes and their flight crews (very few of the launching bombers got back to Japan safely) for seven minor ships and a few hundred killed and injured Americans. Not a good trade at all. The Cherry Blossom was a military failure.

In point of fact, Japanese kamikaze attacks in general were a failure. Over 4,000 were used, they sank about 50 Allied ships and damaged about 300 others. 3 escort carriers were the largest ships sunk, the rest were small support ships like destroyers or troop transports. The losses the Allies suffered from kamikaze attacks at this late date in the war were insignificant. The Japanese had hoped the tactic would be so successful that it would blunt the US advance towards Japan, and make a negotiated settlement to the war possible. It was a clever idea, though only made possible by Japan’s traditional society and Bushido code, at least on such a large scale. Germany and Italy also had some efforts at suicide aircraft and such, but nothing like the scale of the Japanese kamikaze program.

Suicide attackers have been known since at least the 11th century. Occasionally soldiers of all stripes would themselves commit the ultimate sacrifice. A German officer tried to hug Hitler while he had two bombs set to go off in his pockets, the attack failed. When suicide attackers were organized, which was rare, it was usually in defense of the homeland in the face of an invader or occupier. Almost all modern suicide bomber fall in the later category. While popular belief in the west ascribes suicide attack to religious fanaticism, this is largely propaganda. Suicide attackers are certainly motivated by their faith, but almost all soldiers are motivated by their faith. Properly deployed, modern suicide attackers have achieved some stunning results, the attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 being possibly their biggest success.  Suicide attacks are a tactic, not an ideology, and as such fall into the broad spectrum of horrific behaviors that warfare encourages.

Of course most people think that their side’s forces are fighting the good fight for God and country, while their enemies are Godless barbarians with no respect for human life. In most cases both sides are both wrong and right … neither of them is fighting for anything worthwhile. Wars are almost always senseless. But they’re so interesting! More weird weapons of war will be covered as the spirit takes me. Have a great weekend everyone!

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. I got it from Wikipedia so it’s more than likely public domain of one sort or another. Here’s a youtube video montage of Japanese kamikaze attacks during World War Two. It’s pretty horrible actually, lots of people are dying in these images.)

Written by unitedcats

January 18, 2013 at 7:34 am

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

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McDonnell XF-85

Well, that’s an interesting looking plane, nu? Anyone know what it is? Guesses? Note the small size and compactness of the aircraft. Note the complete lack of landing gear. Is it a plane at all, maybe it’s a carnival ride? Wait, look at the tail, it’s the batplane! No, actually, it’s a McDonnell XF-85 Goblin. OK, that’s not terribly helpful, what is a McDonnell XF-85 Goblin? Give up? The McDonnell XF-85 Goblin is what is called a parasite fighter. This is a fighter aircraft that is attached to a larger aircraft, or in this case, carried completely inside the bomb bay of a larger aircraft. In this case three or four of them would be carried inside a B-36 bomber, making the bomber a flying aircraft carrier. For that was the idea, the Goblins would ride in some of the bombers in a bomber formation, be dropped when needed to defend them, and then re-board the bombers when the fighting was done. This was because the fighters of the day didn’t have the range to escort long range bombers, especially jet fighters. It was an interesting idea, though the requirement that it fit inside a bomber severely limited its size and thus fuel load, a Goblin was only good for about 30 minutes of flight time.

So did it work? Well, sort of. In 1948 one was launched on a number of test flights and successfully deployed and flew around. However, re-attaching to the hook that would haul it back inside the bomber proved very tricky in action.  Buffeting from the airflow around the bomber made it a very tricky procedure, and it was only successfully accomplished on three occasions. Many attempts to reconnect were failures, often damaging the plane or the hook in the process. On one try the Goblin hit the hook so hard that not only was the canopy knocked off, the pilot of the Goblin’s helmet was knocked off! He managed to safely belly land it on a dry lake bed anyhow. In fact he (only one test pilot ever flew the Goblin) had to belly land it a number of times because he was unable to reattach to the mother bomber. More disappointing, its flight characteristics weren’t as good as had been planned, and other jet fighters entering service at the time were clearly superior to it. Lastly, progress with figuring out how to refuel jet fighters in the air was rapidly increasing the range of conventional fighters. Poor performance, high skill requirements to fly, and better conventional fighters spelled doom for the Goblin, and the project was cancelled after only a handful of test flights.

The whole thing was a pretty wild idea though. Fleets of giant six engined intercontinental bombers, the likes of which Hitler dreamed of, would fly around the world. Three quarters of them would be carrying nuclear weapons, the others would carry three or four Goblins each. They would have been impervious to the anti-aircraft guns of their day, with a  fighter escort as needed, and the nuclear firepower to exceed the destruction of all of World War Two in just a few dozen planes. A killing machine the likes of which the world had never seen, ready to rain down nuclear death anywhere on the planet. And the name of this giant bomber? The Convair B-36 “Peacemaker.” Yes, that’s right gentle reader, a bomber that could destroy entire cities was called the peacemaker. Wtf?

Yeah, the Cold War was nuts. World War Two was nuts, and it was catching, since the USA carried on as if the war never ended. From the Cold War till the War on Terror. The USA was always ahead of Russia in the so called arms race, and it got further ahead every year. Yet a huge percentage of Americans became persuaded that a communist conspiracy was going to take over the world if we didn’t continue to fund ever more destructive military toys. It made little more sense than Hitler’s theory about Jews being in a secret global plot to run the world. Now of course millions of Americans believe that Muslims or terrorists will take over the world if we don’t wage endless war. Right. Hitler is laughing in his grave, his armies lost the war but his ideas rule the west still. That’s what’s wrong with this picture.

I’m sure many will dissent. Moving right along, I’m going to be writing more posts about some of the weird and wacky and just plain fascinating war aircraft that were built and conceived during and since World War Two. Because, well, it’s fun. Suggestions welcome. Um, let me clarify,  suggestions about what aircraft or secret weapons to write about. I will try to keep the political commentary to a minimum. Have a great weekend everyone!

(The above image came from Wikipedia so it must be OK to use. Likely it was taken by a US government employee in the course of their duties and is thus Public Domain under US copyright law. And boy, they missed a great propaganda opportunity with this plane. With the right paint job, they could have made a flying football! Here is you tube footage of the Goblin in action: Goblin away!)

Written by unitedcats

January 11, 2013 at 9:20 am

How Did Two of History’s Most Crushing Military Victories Go So Wrong?

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FT 17

Military force is often touted as a solution to problems, especially in militarized countries such as the USA and Israel. And given great credence in the past for what military force has accomplished. Generally this sort of military can-do analysis is of the comic book variety, but sadly  it tends to be pervasive. Today I will examine two of histories most resounding military victories, and discuss why they not only both should have been done differently, and why each of them contained the seeds of ultimate defeat. These two victories are the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the 1940 German attack on France. They were two of the most stunning and unexpected military victories in history, what went wrong?

Pearl Harbor. The classic and in some ways the ultimate surprise attack, nowadays known as a preemptive strike. The entire American Pacific battleship fleet was caught by surprise and sunk. Basically America’s plan to defend its Pacific holdings when war broke out with Japan was sent to the bottom of Pearl Harbor in a  few short hours. Japan basically crippled the US Navy with a single air raid, how could that not be anything but a stunning victory? Unfortunately it was an illusory victory. For one thing the nature of naval warfare was changing, and battleships were no longer the ultimate weapon they had been for decades. Secondly, every single battleship that was sunk with the exception of the Arizona, was re-floated and back in action within a year. Lastly, the attack was a huge propaganda boost for the USA, in one fell swoop Japan had sunk eight obsolete battleships … and utterly destroyed America’s isolationist and peace factions.

The way to best see how this was a mistake is to look at alternatives. There are two possibilities. For one, Japan could simply have attacked Britain and Holland and seized the oil fields in Dutch Indonesia. While the USA might have voted to declare war on Japan, they might not have. At the very least the war would not have been as popular in the USA, and a negotiated settlement might have been possible. More importantly though, the Japanese had wildly underestimated their tactical superiority at the beginning of World War Two. If the USA had declared war on Japan, or Japan had simply attacked the USA without attacking Pearl Harbor, the USA would more than likely have followed its plan for war with Japan. And that plan was to send the battleship fleet to the Philippines. And that battleship fleet would almost certainly have suffered the same fate as the Repulse and the Prince of Wales, sunk by Japanese aircraft. And in this case the battleships would have gone down in deep water, far fewer of their trained crew members would have survived, and by no means would they have been re-floated and been back in action within a year. Basically a case can be made that in retrospect, however brilliant it may have been, the attack on Pearl Harbor was the worst option the Japanese had.

Then there’s the Battle of France in 1940. In World War One, Germany attacked France with pretty much everything they had. It resulted in four years of trench warfare and millions of deaths, and Germany ultimately lost. In World War Two, Germany defeated France in ten days! The fighting lasted for six weeks in total, but on the tenth day German tanks reached the coast and cut off the bulk of the French army from supply. The president of France called Winston Churchill and told him it was over, and that he should start trying to get the British troops back to England. Which they did at the historic retreat from Dunkirk. And that was that, Germany’s historic enemy crushed and humiliated at a cost of about 40,000 dead. Hitler even had the railroad car that Germany surrendered in in World War One dragged out of a museum and forced the French to sign their surrender in it. The defeat was so profound and unexpected that the French people basically went into shock, and there was no resistance to the German occupiers for at least two years. How could it have gotten any better than this?

Well, it could have. The big problem with the Fall of France is that the British got away! If the British forces in France in 1940 had been destroyed or captured, there would have been no British troops to send to North Africa to defend against Italy. In fact there wouldn’t even have been enough troops to defend England against a  German invasion. To say that the course of the war would have been different is an understatement. How could this have come about? Well, the original German plan had been a repeat of World War One, a massive invasion through Belgium. If the Germans had gone with the original plan, they would have suffered higher losses, but they still would have won. The German blitzkrieg tactics made their forces vastly superior to the French and British forces in the field who were still fighting World War One style. More importantly, the BEF, the British Expeditionary Force, would have been right in front of the main German advance, and almost certainly would have suffered devastating losses. There would have been no Dunkirk evacuation, because most of the British troops would have been killed or captured by the German steam roller through Belgium.

And in both my examples, there’s another layer of failure. In both cases the victor learned the wrong lesson from their victory. At Pearl Harbor, the Japanese got an exaggerated idea of the power of carrier strike forces. When they tried one again at Midway less than a year later, they suffered a truly crushing defeat, one that sealed the fate of the war for Japan. And in France, the German’s spectacular success convinced Hitler that he was a military genius on par with Alexander or Napoleon. He wasn’t, and he proceeded to make one disastrous military decision after another. If Hitler had gone with his generals’ plans in France, his victory wouldn’t have been as spectacular, but it would have been more thorough. And Hitler might have been more prone to heed his generals’ advice as the war went on.

Is there any lesson in all this? Just the point I make all the time. The results of war are wildly unpredictable, and even spectacularly successful military ventures can has disastrous unintended consequences. 9/11 had its roots in the stunningly “successful” desert storm war with Iraq. This leads to the second point, which I usually leave unstated; people who make confident predictions about the results of any proposed war are idiots.

Have a great weekend everyone.

(The above image is probably Public Domain under US copyright law. It was likely taken by the German military during World War Two. It’s a destroyed French FT 17 tank. That’s a dead French soldier beside it. The FT 17 is a World War One tank. Hundreds of them were taken out of storage and used to equip hastily raised units at the start of the World War Two, which led to the myth that France lost the war because the Germans had better tanks.)

Written by unitedcats

November 30, 2012 at 7:20 am

Japan, a safe haven for Jews in World War Two?

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Oddly enough, yes, Japan was a safe haven for Jews in World War Two. How the hell was this possible, wasn’t Japan an ally of Nazi Germany? Yes, yes they were. Didn’t Hitler want the Japanese to round up their Jewish population? Yes, yes he did. Why did the Japanese refuse? And how come there were Jews living in Japan in the first place? It’s an interesting story, and that’s bread and butter for Doug’s Darkworld, so here it is …

As one might expect, Jews are a recent arrival in Japan. Very recent, mid nineteenth century recent. There may have been the occasional traveler, but no Jews settled in Japan before then. In fact Japan lived in splendid isolation until 1848, when the USA forced them to open their country up to foreign trade. Shortly thereafter, small numbers of Jews settled in Japan. I don’t know why, but suspect it was the usual reason, they visited the place and liked what they saw. Also there was no antisemitism in Japan, and they were generally welcomed as knowledgeable westerners who would help bring Japan up to speed with the west. And no doubt the occasional Jew settled because some cute Japanese girl (or vice versa) caught their eye.  People are people.

All was well for the tiny handful of Jews living in Japan up until the early 20th century. Then the wave of antisemitism sweeping Europe from such things as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” arrived in Japan, and some Japanese bought into the conspiracy theories surrounding the Jews. Most didn’t though, and while there was some antisemitism in Japan, it never reached anywhere near the levels it reached in European countries. If anything the Japanese are a pragmatic people, and their government’s reactions to rising Nazism and other antisemitic tropes was pragmatic indeed. The early 20th century Japanese government instructed their intelligence agencies to look into the whole “The Jews are secretly plotting to rule the world” theories. Japanese intelligence agencies investigated carefully, and determined it was all garbage, there was no secret Jewish conspiracy, and Japan’s Jews were not a threat to Japan in any way.

And that was that. The background at least. And then came the war. A lot of people know about the Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who gave travel documents in World War Two as German armies approached, Chiune Sugihara, saving thousands of Polish and Lithuanian Jews. He was just the best known Japanese citizen who helped saved Jews, partly because he saved so many and partly because he was a diplomat. He wasn’t the only one, numerous other Japanese citizens, mostly ones working abroad for the Japan Tourist Bureau, also did what they could. And all for the right reasons as far as I can tell, IE, pure humanitarianism.

How many Jews escaped to Japan and Japanese occupied territory before and during the war? I couldn’t find consistent figures, but upwards of 20,000 is reasonable. It’s a complicated story. There is even the idea that Japan planned to start a “Jewish Homeland” in Japanese occupied China, the so called Fugu Plan. While most sources still treat this as fact, apparently it’s based on some very limited scholarship by one author, and other historians are not convinced anything of the kind was ever planned. That’s one of the problems with history, it’s not nearly as cut and dried as many people would think.

Sadly the Japanese who helped Jews escape weren’t exactly popular with their countrymen. I’m not exactly sure why, though some, at least in Chiune Sugihara’s case, suffered career-wise because they had acted against the wishes of their superiors. Still, their contribution to humanitarian values is has recently become more acceptable in some circles, and efforts are being made to identify and thank them. One such person was Tatsuo Osako, a young employee of the Tourist Bureau at the time. He died in 2003, and seven photos of Jewish escapees were found in his diary. One of the photos is reproduced above. The identity of the people in the photos is not known, but efforts are being made to find out and track down relatives. Holocaust survivors and escapees got out with very few personal effects, so these photos are a precious and rare reminder of a sad and terrible chapter in human history, and the undeniable fact that there are always a few people who do the right thing no matter what the risk to themselves.

It frankly is the only thing that gives me hope for the race, and it’s a slender hope at best. Next up, another story from World War Two Japan … Japanese war resistors, were there any?

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. God only knows who holds the copyright, since it’s not being used for profit and indeed is posted in the hopes someone may recognize the young man, I think I’m good. Do any of my illustrious readers recognize him? He doesn’t look like anyone in my family, plus they were all farmers back then.)

Written by unitedcats

November 28, 2012 at 8:06 am

The greatest empire in history, and the USA hasn’t won a war since 1945?

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Being all too focused on America’s endless wars, I sometimes lose track of the big picture. This little factoid was brought to my attention recently, and as all bloggers do, I thought, “This will be a cool blog topic!” Even better, I remembered it. Yes, despite the fact that we have more firepower than God, a network of global bases and fleets, and staggering spending on our military by any standard … the past few decades of military history has been pretty dismal. At least in terms of wars where the USA was fighting a substantial adversary, “wars” like Grenada and Panama don’t count. Let’s review, from most recent wars back to World War Two …

Afghanistan. Um, longest war in America’s history. Our enemy is as strong as ever. I guess it could still turn into a win, but right now it’s a very very expensive draw at best. Libya. Well, we’re claiming it as some sort of win, but the jury’s still out. And, well, our ambassador being killed like a dog is not exactly normally associated with victorious wars. Iraq. Right. Only people with surgically induced tunnel vision claim that as a win. No WMDs, Iraq now aligned with Iran, Iraq now a world class terrorist haven, Russia and China got their oil. We didn’t even get T-shirts. Then there’s the Serbian war, where we “freed” Kosovo. Except ten years later it’s still a criminal haven that hasn’t even been able to qualify for independence, with ethnic violence all too common.

Back to the eighties, there’s Iraq war I and Kuwait, where we saved a feudal Monarchy from a tin pot dictator in a “war” that we engineered. Kuwait had a farce democracy for a few years after the war, but that was it. Saddam was still around, Al-Qaeda was created, and the stage was set for the disastrous second Iraq war and occupation. Some might claim the Cold War as a victory, but it’s pretty hard to make the case. The USSR collapsed because large scale centrally run economies don’t work, and they thought they could invade and occupy Afghanistan. In any event the Cold War hardly fits any reasonable definition of war.

Then we get to Vietnam. I think I can safely say this was a draw at best. Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City. The Korean War? Well, technically it’s not over yet. And the North Koreans, whatever else they may be, are armed to the teeth including nuclear weapons. Hardly a win. No, one has to go back to 1945, and Japan and Germany’s unconditional surrender to the USA to find a clear cut American victory. And even that is not without its critics, Eastern Europe was thrown to the wolves after the war for starters. Still, that’s 1945, it’s been some 67 years ago and 12 administrations without a Vday moment. Now I begin to see why Obama claimed that the assassination of Osama Bin Laden was one of the greatest military operations in US history, by recent standards, maybe it was.

Does this mean anything? I think it does. It hardly goes with American’s seemingly unshakeable conviction in their military might. Granted American’s being out of touch with reality is nothing new, but it would be nice if more of them recognized the limits of military power. That’s the main lesson in this, since World War Two there have been limits to what can be accomplished with military might. Yet Americans and the American government persist in thinking and acting upon the idea that military power can accomplish anything. Even worse, as a government and a nation we appear to be oblivious to the fact that not only are there limits to military power, waging war almost always has unintended negative consequences.

And as these consequences manifest, our response is often more war! This is a huge part of the reason why the Middle East and North Africa are spiralling out of control, for decades the USA and Israel have been waging war in the region in a quixotic attempt to reshape the region into a compliant western oil field. Every war creates new enemies and often strengthens old ones. I fear now that World War Three has already begun and not only are we blind to it, we have trapped ourselves in a spiral where our leaders are just going expand the war. We need new leadership with a  new vision for America’s role in the world, because our cowboy foreign policy isn’t working. Ain’t gonna happen this election though.

“He who defends everything, defends nothing.”    — Frederick III

(The above image is Public Domain under US copyright law  as it was produced by a Federal Employee in the course of their duties. It’s the Japanese delegation arriving on the US Missouri to sign the unconditional surrender of Japan, ending World War Two. The guy on the front left actually argued vociferously against the war, and was demoted to postmaster somewhere in China two days before the war. They brought him back into the government in time to sign the surrender papers, but Stalin had him jailed as a war criminal anywise.)

Written by unitedcats

October 6, 2012 at 11:36 am

Onward Through the Fog, Exercise Tiger

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In my last post about the battle of Kiska, I discussed a battle that was fought even though the enemy side didn’t show up. Nonetheless hundreds of casualties were incurred by friendly fire before the “fighting” was over. I should also have added that in modern warfare, IE since gunpowder, about ten percent of wartime casualties are caused by friendly fire. While some incidents are harder to understand than others, it’s easy enough to understand that when one has millions of people firing deadly long range weapons at each other, mistakes will be made. General Grant’s right hand man, Stonewall Jackson, was killed by friendly fire. And equipment malfunctions. The Tang, America’s number one submarine ace of World War Two … was sunk by their own torpedo that swerved back and hit them. In fact if Kiska had been defended by the Japanese, there likely would have been more deaths by friendly fire, since there would have been a lot more fire, period.

In any event, while there are other battles in history that have been fought even though one side didn’t show up, I thought it would be interesting to write about a battle that was fought when the enemy made an unscheduled appearance. I am talking about Exercise Tiger, another American embarrassment in World War Two. Well, maybe not embarrassment, more like “let’s not mention this happened, OK?” This occurred while the allies, especially the Americans, were preparing for the D-Day landings. Eisenhower decided the American troops needed to practice the invasion under realistic conditions, and Exercise Tiger was born. Basically, an area of coastline with a good beach was evacuated (about 3,000 locals were moved,) and American troops would practice landing on it under realistic conditions. There would be a bombardment of the coast beforehand, and the bombardment would continue inland from the beach even after the troops hand landed. This way the troops would have some exposure to real gunfire in their proximity. More than 30,000 troops were involved, this was a big deal.

The exercise started on the morning of 27 April 1944. The shelling of the beach was to end half an hour before the troops waded ashore, giving officers on the shore half an hour to make sure no live rounds were laying around the beach. The shelling was delayed by an hour though. Some of the landing craft didn’t get the message … so numerous landing craft put ashore half an hour before the bombardment was finished. Oops. It was ugly, to say the least. Several hundred troops were killed, and many more wounded. Not an auspicious start to what was simply supposed to be a training exercise.

The next day, things got worse. A convoy of American LSTs (a large ship for landing troops and tanks on a  beach) sailed out to practise landing the follow-up force to the landings of the day before. They had two British warships escorting them, however one of the warships developed mechanical problems and had to return to base. Unfortunately the Americans and British were using different radio frequencies, so the Americans weren’t informed about this. And  since no one expected to be attacked, the ships were travelling in a big line. Think ducks in a row.  Then the British escort ship received a message stating that German ships had been sighted in the area the previous night. The British assumed the Americans had also been informed of this.   They hadn’t. So when nine warships appeared on the horizon, the Americans thought they were part of the exercise. And in a  way, they were, just not a scheduled part of it. The nine warships were in fact German E-boats, or torpedo boats as they are called in America. They had no trouble telling friend from foe, and swooped in to attack the more or less defenceless American LSTs.

This is where it got really ugly. Two LSTs sank, one was severely damaged. A fourth was damaged by friendly fire. The remaining American ships and the British escort returned fire and the Germans fled, but the damage had been done. More than 600 Americans drowned. Later it turned out that many had drowned because in their haste they had donned their life vests wrong, so when they jumped in the water their vests flipped them upside down … head underwater. The survivors were sworn to secrecy, partly because the news would hurt morale and partly because they didn’t want to give the Germans intelligence and propaganda fodder. It’s been claimed by some that they were sworn to secrecy for life, but that isn’t the case. They were sworn to secrecy until the end of the war. And in fact the Allies announced the catastrophe quietly, both during and after the war, but it was overshadowed by greater events and more or less forgotten for decades.

Fortunately this story has a silver lining. Yes, the troops got some training under extremely realistic conditions. More importantly, major deficiencies in training and planning for D-Day were revealed. Three major changes were made. The British and Americans started using the same radio frequencies. A force of small rescue boats was added to D-Day invasion plans for rescuing troops in the water if their ships were sunk. And of course troops all got much better training on how to don and use their life vests. So no doubt these deaths saved many lives on D-Day, they didn’t die in vain.

God rest their souls.

(The above image is LST-289, hit and set afire by E-boats, it still made it back to port. Since the eighties efforts to memorialize these forgotten casualties have been underway, here’s a few links: The Slapton Sands Memorial Tank website. Yes, a Sherman Tank that sank in the disaster has been hauled out onto the beach and used a a memorial. The Slapton village memorial site. And of course the official US memorial site.)

Written by unitedcats

September 10, 2012 at 7:44 am

Onward Through the Fog, The Battle of Kiska

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Kiska is one of the Aleutian Islands, a chain of islands stretching west from Alaska. Isolated volcanic islands with harsh weather and harsher terrain, they are virtually uninhabited. In World War Two Alaska wasn’t a state yet, but it was US territory. When war with Japan broke out in 1941, the islands were undefended. On 6 and 7 June 1942 the Japanese seized the islands of Attu and Kiska. A small weather station manned by the Navy was the only defence, its sailors were sent to Japan as prisoners of war. Until recently it was thought these invasions were a diversion to draw America’s attention away from Japanese plans to attack Midway Island in the mid Pacific, modern historians have argued that the invasions were simply part of a broader plan of defending the approaches to Japan from the North Pacific.

The news of Japanese troops on Alaskan soil did not sit well in America, this was the one and only time in World War Two where Axis forces captured land in North America. American forces were sent to the region, and a number of air and sea battles were fought over the better part of a year. The Japanese at first attempting to push further east, then the Americans pushing back in preparation for retaking Attu and Kiska. None of the battles were decisive though, partly because of the relatively small forces involved on either side, mostly because the weather was so terrible that opposing forces often couldn’t locate each other, and when even they did, aircraft frequently got lost en route to their targets. In one memorable occasion, the Battle of the Pips, two American battleships fired over 500 large calibre shells at radar targets without scoring a single hit. It later transpired that there were no Japanese ships within two hundred miles and they likely had been firing at rafts of seagoing birds.

In May of 1943 the Aleutian campaign was coming to a climax. The war was now going badly for the Japanese, with the Americans beginning their advance towards Japan on many fronts. 15,000 American troops landed on Attu Island. The landings were unopposed, but it went badly after that. Poor planning, inadequate equipment, and the terrible weather took their toll. And the Japanese had not opposed the landings because they had fortified themselves in the rocky volcanic interior of the island, they resisted fiercely when the Americans pushed inland. The Japanese were outnumbered 5 to 1, so the outcome was never really in doubt. On 29 May the Japanese commander led his remaining troops on one of the largest banzai charges of the war, or as we call them now, human wave attacks. The Americans were caught by surprise, and Japanese troops made it through the American lines and attacked headquarters and supply units in the rear. Brutal hand to hand fighting raged for hours, when it was over all but 29 Japanese solders were dead. In the course of the entire battle for Attu more than 500 Americans were killed and over 1,000 were wounded, a high toll for the capture of a island small garrison.

Kiska was going to be different though. Knowing how fanatically the Japanese had defended Attu, a much larger landing was arranged for Kiska. On 15 August 1943, after much bombing and shelling, more than 35,000 American (and Canadian) troops landed on Kiska in two locations. Advancing though the fog, American forces frequently mistook their own troops for Japanese troops and opened fire. Mines and booby traps took their toll. An American destroyer hit  a mine, more than 70 were killed. Fighting raged for days, but in the end Kiska was in American hands. More than 300 Americans had been killed or were MIA, over 1,000 were wounded. Victory had been achieved, victory of sorts …

Japanese losses in the battle? Zero. The Japanese had secretly evacuated their garrison weeks before, deeming the island indefensible. Losing hundreds of men capturing an undefended island was a little embarrassing to say the least, the Battle of Kiska is not one of the American military’s prouder moments. As military blunders go though, it’s rather minor. It’s not the only time in history where a battle has been fought even though one side failed to show up. I posted it because it’s an interesting story, and to illustrate that war is much messier and more error prone than Hollywood would have us believe.

Have a great weekend everyone.

(The above image is public domain under US copyright law, being a product of the US government. It’s a World War Two American propaganda poster. Attitudes towards the Japanese were shockingly racist before the war, nicely illustrated in the poster. And a cartoonish take on the war is also evident from the poster, Hollywood wasn’t the only one promoting a simplistic view of war.)


Written by unitedcats

September 7, 2012 at 6:49 am

Men Behaving Nobly

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A few years back I wrote a series on “Men Behaving Badly.” So it occurs to me I should write a companion series about men behaving nobly. It does happen, not as often as I would like, but it’s a good start. Honestly I think most people’s behaviour is pretty much dependent on their peers and social pressure, so under bad circumstances … normal people do bad things. Some don’t though, and this series is dedicated to people who did the right thing at the wrong time.

And my first example is Friedrich Lengfeld, pictured above. He was a lieutenant in the German army during 1944. This was World War Two, so yes, he was fighting for Hitler and Germany. November 12 of 1944 to be exact. In the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. The Battle of Hurtgen Forest was one of America’s bloodiest and least remembered battles in World War Two. This is because for months the Americans tried to capture this dense forest on the borders of Germany and Belgium. Unit after unit was set in, bloodied, and pulled out, more than 30,000 Americans were killed and wounded. Why is it little remembered? Because it was one of the stupidest battles in history, there was absolutely no reason to take this heavily defended forest from the Germans. I’m not making this up, it was the longest ground battle fought in Germany in World War Two, and the longest battle the US Army has ever fought.

Moving right along, it’s morning in the forest. Lt Lengfeld was a rifle company commander, that’s a hundred guys or more under his command. An American had been injured in a minefield near their position and was calling for help.  Lt Lengfeld ordered his men not to shoot when Americans came to help him, but none did, his unit had pulled back and didn’t hear him. The cries for help went on for hours. Finally Lt Lengfeld could listen no longer. He led a party of volunteers out to save the American soldier. He was that kind of leader, he wouldn’t ask his men to do anything he wouldn’t do. He didn’t make it. Before he even got to the American he stepped on a land mine, and eight hours later had died of his wounds. History does not record the fate of the wounded American.

In fact history almost didn’t record the fate of Lt Lengfeld, but one of his men told the story for posterity some years later. So Lt Lengfeld is mildly famous in Germany, at least they have a wikipedia entry about him. And there’s a minor postscript to this story. In 1994 some American veterans of the battle heard Lt Lengfeld’s story, and arranged to set up a memorial to him in the German military cemetery where he is buried. It is the only war memorial for a German soldier set up by Americans in Germany.

And that’s that. Ha. That’s never that. I can certainly admire Lt Lengfeld for his sacrifice, it was a noble thing to do. It’s too bad it was a part of something so ignoble that it defies imagination. (Trust me, aliens find human wars incomprehensible.) One could be unfair and wonder if he would have done the same for a French … or Russian … soldier. That was a much more bitter war, there actually wasn’t much hatred between Americans and Germans during World War Two. Except for the aforementioned caveat about wars in general. Maybe I’ll see if I can find a similar act of compassion on the Russian front. I’m not optimistic, but people can be surprising. Oh, wait, reviewing my memory … I thought of one. Tomorrow, a German soldier tries to stop the slaughter of Russian Jews! Good enough! Peace out!

(I don’t know the copyright status of images taken by Hitler’s regime, but I am going to assume since I’m not using it for profit, and I’m saying good things about Lt Lengfeld and Germans, I’m good. It’s the only picture of him I can find. He kind of looks like my uncle Leonard, but likely just the German look, it runs in the family.)

Written by unitedcats

April 10, 2012 at 6:07 am

Did Adolf Hitler Really Die in 1945?

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A friend asked me this recently, did Hitler really die in 1945? It was a staple mystery of my youth, the circumstances of his death were muddy, so there was lots of idle speculation after the war. I even remember it coming up in a third grade classroom, and the teacher saying that even if he was alive, he’d be a very old frail man by then (1967 or so.) There were a couple of pictures of his supposed corpse floating around, none of them very convincing. To the best of my knowledge now, these photos have all been long debunked, one was even a snapshot of Hitler taking a nap. Granted most people accepted that he died in the bunker as history says, but what’s the real story?

The real story gets muddy very early on. For whatever reason, Stalin decided to confuse and obscure Hitler’s fate after the war, ordering his minions into secrecy, and giving conflicting stories to his American and British allies. The Allies themselves were in fact confused in the immediate aftermath of the war. I mean, yes, the Nazis had indeed announced Hitler’s death in the final days of the regime, so most believed he was indeed dead, but no one knew for sure. However, within a year or two of the end of the war, both historians and Allied intelligence agencies had extensively interviewed the survivors of the last days of the war in Hitler’s bunker, and satisfied themselves that the essential details of Hitler and Eva Braun’s death were accurate.

And that’s where the story stood for decades. Historians satisfied, popular belief tinged by understandable rumours and speculations. And then the Soviet Union collapsed, and the details of the Soviet investigation and corpse recovery became available to the west. And the story was that the Soviets had recovered Hitler’s charred  bones, confirmed they were his through his dentist, hidden the bones for decades, then dug them up and destroyed them. And that was that, mystery solved.

Well, not really. I think it’s safe to say that the preponderance of the evidence, and the lack of any evidence of any escape, indicates that the historical account of his death is accurate. And until recently, I would have argued that it was a slam dunk. Today, not so sure. What triggered my re-evaluation was the discovery of the story of the submarine pictured below. This is U-530, a German U-boat active from 1943 until the end of the war, sinking three allied ships and surviving the war. So how does U-530 figure into the mystery of Hitler’s death?

Maybe it doesn’t, but there is a mystery. When the war ended U-530 was at sea. And instead of surrendering to the Allies, she sailed to Argentina and surrendered in July 1945, two months after the war ended. The Allies had some questions for the captain of U-530. Why had it taken him two months to sail to Argentina? He couldn’t say. Why had he jettisoned his ship’s deck gun? Shrug. Why did none of his crew have any identification? Silence. And where was the ship’s log? Oberleutnant Otto Wermuth didnt know. Mysterious, eh? Especially since U-53o had a prior history of top secret missions, rendezvousing with a Japanese submarine in mid 1944.

Conspiracy theorists maintain that it dropped Hitler and supplies off at a secret base in Antarctica, where the Nazi’s plot to rule the world to this day as they develop flying saucer technology. Yeah, right. Good comic book idea there. However, it is within the realm of possibility that U-530 stopped somewhere off the coast of Argentina and put someone ashore. Many Nazis fled to Argentina and Paraguay after World War Two, there was a sizable German immigrant population, and its a good bet the Nazis had intelligence assets there that survived the war. (Safe houses, money, agents, connections.) If there was anywhere on Earth where Hitler might be able to go to ground, Argentina was it.

Anything else trigger my re-evaluation? Consideration of the extreme muddiness of the evidence. Reading that a skull fragment the Soviets had purported to be Hitler’s was revealed that of a young woman by DNA testing. Realizing that if Hitler had gotten away, both the allies and the Russians had good motivation to hide the fact. Realizing that if anyone had the resources and fanatical followers to pull off such a deception, it would be Hitler. So while I think there is every possibility that Hitler died in the bunker, and an excellent case can be made that he did so, it’s not incontrovertible. Granted, at this point he would be over 120 years old, so it’s a safe bet that he’s dead now.

Right? Still, the Nazis did all sorts of medical experiments that others would never conduct due to ethical concerns, could Hitler still be enjoying a tall glass of apple juice (his favourite dink) at some obscure Argentine cafe? Until further evidence emerges, who can say?

(The above images are claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. The first two are absolutely public domain. The third one is all over the web and I can’t find its origin, if anyone knows I will properly attribute it. The top image is the last known photograph of Hitler, taken just outside the bunker two days before his death. The middle image is the U-530 interred in Argentina. The bottom image requires no explanation.)

Written by unitedcats

February 13, 2012 at 6:05 am