Aside 2 Mar

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Why did Hitler choose to fight on to the bitter end? By January 1944, it was clear the Allies were on the cusp of victory. It was zugzwang, the proverbial move in chess where an opponent realizes they will inevitably be checkmated and can chose to either capitulate or fight on to their imminent destruction. So why did Hitler choose the latter? And why did the German people choose to fight with him? Even in April 1945, as the Allies grew closer and closer to Berlin, average Germans were still unquestioningly carrying out Hitler’s edicts. Was it a form of Stockholm Syndrome? Was it misplaced loyalty? Was it perpetuated by German commanders who did not wish to mirror the humiliation of the First World War? Was it fear of the alternatives to Nazism? Or was it perpetuated by Allied demands of unconditional surrender? Hitler had promised a thousand year Reich to his people, but as 1944 drew to a close that dream became ever fleeting. Why do you think the people of the Third Reich chose to aid their veritable captors in the defense of Hitler’s dying dream? 

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Aside 31 Dec

Happy New Year everyone! I hope 2013 was a great year for all of you out there! 2014 will be filled with a whole slew of upcoming articles, including articles about the Devil’s Brigade, code breaking, a completion of the series over the Eastern Front, and many more! To continuous readers, thank you and keep reading! And to new readers, welcome aboard! Have a great 2014 and keep learning!

Aside 19 Jul

I apologize for the wait, everyone. There is currently a book in the works, and it has taken up a vast majority of my time that would be spent here. I have just reached the German invasion of France in May 1940, but another post is on the way, the second piece to the three-part Russian article. Thank you for your patience, and I greatly appreciate it. 

Aside

Unnecessary Sacrifice: The Arctic Convoys

22 Oct

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In the early years of the Second World War, the Western Allies were facing a dire problem: they were low on munitions, and needed them desperately in order to wage a war that, at this stage, they seemed to be losing. As 1941 rolled around, Europe was at its darkest hour. With almost all of Western Europe kept trampled beneath the Nazi jackboot, safe for the United Kingdom, little stood in the way of the National Socialist onslaught. Puny England was all that remained, and it was hanging on by a thread. A thread, not of a figurative sense, but an actual thread: Lend-Lease. Signed into law on March 11th, 1941, and in direct, deliberate neglect of the Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, 1937, and 1939, the international law was designed to send aid, whether it be financial (heavily frowned upon following the Nye Committee’s findings in 1934, headed by Republican North Dakota Senator Gerald Nye) or direct military support, to America’s overseas allies, from China to Great Britain. In October of that same year, American representative W. Averell Harriman and British representative Max Aitken, First Baron Beaverbrook, met in Moscow with Soviet representatives to draw up plans for joint Anglo-American aid to the Soviet Union. By this time, joint American-Canadian missions had already begun to sail from the Labrador Coast and New England to the Irish Sea, transporting much needed supplies from food, water, medical supplies, and ammunition, to the most important: moral. With each passing day, as Britain’s grip on its guns began to slacken, the lifeline of transatlantic American aid kept the British afloat as they suffered a series of staggering blows during the aborted Operation Sea Lion, a plan for an amphibious invasion of the United Kingdom that had fully deteriorated into what became known as the infamous Battle of Britain.

The supplies necessary to transport to the Soviet Union presented a particularly precarious situation. In order to reach the USSR, with the nearest available Soviet port being located in Murmansk, in the Kola Inlet on the eastern, Russian-controlled end of the Scandinavian Peninsula, the journey would force British or American merchantmen and their escorts to round the North Cape, the most dangerous region in the world for Allied naval vessels, for not only was Alta Fjord the primary anchorage of the massive warship Tirpitz, but the whole nation of Norway was also the primary anchorage for the entire Kriegsmarine. Rounding the North Cape, especially attempting to do so in the summer, when the sun never sets in the Arctic, would be near-suicide. The journey would take His Majesty’s warships from Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands off the northern coast of Scotland, to Hvalfjord, in southwestern Iceland, and then from there south past Jan Mayen, south of the Svalbard Archipelago and Bear Island, and take them directly into Soviet territorial waters. The original plan was to maintain that Soviet ships would sail to English ports and relieve them of the supplies that would be stockpiled there, but once the realization was made that the Soviets not only lacked the manpower, but also the ships themselves, to commit to such an act, the British Royal Navy and United States Navy realized it would be up to them to assume responsibility. And so the Arctic Convoys began their infamous, turmoil-filled history. With winters brutally cold and plunged into twenty-four hours of night, and summers only bitterly cold and cast into perpetual twenty-four hour daylight, the severe weather conditions made combat in these extremes not only difficult, but virtually insane. Attempting to travel to and from Murmansk in weeks of incessant sunlight, or attempting to trek there while plowing through blizzards that forced visibility to plummet to a few feet and compelled captains to operate with solely with radar and blasting through thirty foot seas made the Arctic Convoys the duty from hell, the absolute bottom, the Royal Navy’s version of Germany’s Eastern Front. But once one has reached the bottom, they have only to pull themselves back up.

The situation on the Eastern Front had reached its nadir in December 1941, five months after the first of the convoys had set sail from Scapa Flow and assembled off Iceland. With the German Ostheer looming like an armored specter over Moscow, with only a handful of snow-coated miles separating the beleaguered city from the weight of the German armored spearhead poised to come crashing down upon it. The capital was shifted from Moscow to Stalingrad in a hasty and controversial move, leaving only a sprinkling of government officials left within the city limits, including the Commissar of the People’s Defense, Josef Stalin. In a stunning move that altered the balance of power in the East, if only for a moment, Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov launched a daring counteroffensive against the Germans Unternehmen Taifun, or Operation Typhoon, aimed at breaking the backs of the Soviet defenders and seizing Moscow in one fell swoop, destroying their morale simultaneously. In the meantime, American and British-made tanks and armored fighting vehicles, as well as food, water, ammunition, and medical supplies, were arriving in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk by the shipload to fuel the Red Army, although at this stage the Army was attempting to fight back while on its knees, much like a cornered fox whose assaults are fueled not by courage, but by fear.

As 1941 gave way to 1942, opposition to the Arctic Convoys seemed relatively light, as opposed to the original fear of wolf packs and surface raiders attacking the convoys en masse, yet as this fear subsided, so too did the caution and vigilance originally displayed, with the Admiralty sending only a handful of merchantmen guarded by a small detachment of destroyers or light cruisers. Now, the convoys became greater, stronger, and with them too came the strengthening of resistance. The convoys would still be forced to round the ominous North Cape, a one-thousand-seven foot promontory often referred to as the northernmost point in Europe, lying just one thousand miles short of the North Pole. With the Kriegsmarine established deeply inside Norway, utilizing the fjords to conceal their surface navy, albeit reduced in size, Norway presented the most treacherous leg of an already treacherous voyage. The Kriegsmarine had the Arctic Ocean and Norwegian Sea completely locked down, and the narrow channel that had to be used by the convoys made them easy prey, thinning out the possible routes that could place greater distance between the ice-encrusted merchant fleets and the submerged threat presented by Admiral Doenitz’s wolf packs. Other issues were now also besetting the convoys: Allied landings in Europe and Africa. As the Allies fought their way into late 1942, the plans had been finalized for Operation Torch, the joint American-British landings that would take place in Morocco and Algeria, that miraculously coincided with General Bernard Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein just days prior. This operation would take the necessary surface warships needed to offer any amount of scant protection away from the merchantmen, and if a convoy were attempted, it would be left at the mercy of the Kriegsmarine. And the Kriegsmarine was merciless.

As a general rule of thumb established by the Admiralty at the outset of the convoys, toward the final leg of their journey, when the ships lay with Bear Island ahead of them and Svalbard behind, they would be ordered to disperse, with the ships gradually moving away from one another. The mentality behind this was that it would make an attack incredibly difficult, because just locating a ship would be hard enough, let alone assaulting it once it was located. Yet the strategic attitude behind it offered very little, and in fact it presented more of a threat than the threat it was designed to reduce, as the dispersing of the ships would offer individual craft open to enemy assault without the mutual protection of another vessel. This came to befall the ill fated, and most notorious Arctic Convoy, PQ-17. Consolidating a joint Anglo-American fleet of thirty-five merchantmen, screened by a diminutive fleet of covering destroyers and other surface warships, the fleet set out from Reykjavik, Iceland, on June 27th, 1942. As the Admiralty attempted several operations to disguise the fleet’s movements, the Kriegsmarine was already upon them. The fleet had made its move in the summer: the season of continuous sunlight. This would leave the convoy dangerously exposed. As the ships made their way to the summer port of Arkhangelsk, which was utilized in the summer, but was further away than Murmansk, they continued to receive intelligence reports from the Admiralty warning of a potential breakout from the Norwegian fjords by the battleship Tirpitz, as well as the potential threats of the Scharnhorst and Gniesenau, which had made the infamous “Channel Dash” that February, placing them in an ideal position to fall upon the convoy. All the while the convoy was being decimated by German sea and air assaults. With the threat of a probable Kriegsmarine breakout now looming ominously just over the horizon, the Admiralty had no choice but to order the convoy’s dispersal on July 4th. As the convoy continued to move, intelligence reports reached the screening force that the warships had broken out, and were advancing onto the fleet’s location. The screening force was then ordered to detach and engage, leaving the merchantmen, now scattered, without the flimsy protection of the feeble destroyers. The intelligence reports had been the brainchildren of the Germans, and were designed to lure the screening force away. By the time the force was steaming back at as fast as their engines would push them, the merchantmen had already suffered their fate. Twenty-four merchantmen had been sunk, and numerous others severely damaged. It had been the worst, and most inglorious, Arctic convoy attempted throughout the entire war, and donated unto the convoy’s their ignominious name.

As the war ground on, and the Soviets began to break through, breaking the backs of the Germans at Stalingrad, Kursk, Kiev, Leningrad, Warsaw, Belgrade, Seelow Heights, and all throughout the Ukraine, Byelorussia, Poland, the Baltic States, and the Balkan Peninsula, the necessity of the Arctic convoys diminished severely. Soon it was realized that their necessity was almost none at all. In reality, the Soviets could have waged their war without the support of the United States’ Lend-Lease program, for by 1945, they had produced over fifty thousand T-34 main battle tanks, as compared the meager amount of Stuart or Sherman tanks given them by the United States. In the end, the Arctic Convoys were one of the many lesser-known theaters of the bloodiest conflict in history, yet their sacrifice was more than many committed in other, better-known areas. Fighting in one of the most extreme, most hostile regions of Planet Earth, these men were pushed to the breaking point, and often beyond it. They have never experienced the notoriety received by other areas, such as at Stalingrad or Guadalcanal or the Normandy beaches, and the only example that comes to mind is author Alistair MacLean’s, author of such legendary literary works as The Guns of Navarone and Ice Station Zebra, H.M.S Ulysses, which demonstrates full-well the hardships endured in one of the most brutal areas of an equally brutal war. Often times it was not the enemy that befall these beleaguered men, but the weather and its constant shifting and unpredictability. In the end, although they laid down their lives, their sacrifice could have been avoided. The Lend-Lease Act was more of a symbolic gesture than a tactical one, one of the many mistakes made during the Roosevelt Administration in regards to foreign policy during the Second World War, another shimmering and blatantly obvious example being Roosevelt’s kindly attitude toward Chiang Kai-shek, the corrupt and fraudulent leader of the Kuomintang Chinese forces. The Arctic Convoys were, in the end, more emblematic than actually practical, and they did not shift the war in either direction, yet their sacrifice should never be forgotten.          

Aside

The Vichy Situation

19 Sep

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In the summer and autumn of 1940, the French Third Republic was in a mild state of chaos, and facing strained and awkward relations with the Western Allies. On May 10th, 1940, the German Wehrmacht installed the next segment of the war in Europe, and the ending move of the so-called Phony War, known as Fall Gelb, or Case Yellow. Yellow was the planned invasion of France and its northern neighbors, the Low Countries. After the stunning success, and first use of Fallschirmjaeger, or paratroopers, during their invasion of Denmark and Norway during the April 9th, 1940 Unternehmen Weserzeit, or Operation Weser Time, the Germans utilized this airborne asset yet again during Yellow. Landing glider-borne infantry on the roof of the veritable, multifaceted fortress of Eben Emael on Belgium’s eastern frontier, the Germans overcame the defenses of what had been the thorn in their side during their implementation of the Schlieffen Plan during the First World War. In another replay of the War, the Heer assaulted south through what had been thought as the natural impregnable walls of the Ardennes Forest in southeastern Belgium. The French had thought that if the Germans should invade France again, it would come through eastern France, with a thrust directed at taking Paris. This had been the case during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, in which the killing blow had been delivered at Sedan, not at Paris. Conforming to this tactical mindset, the French Minister of War Andre Maginot funded and advocated the construction of a series of defensive works to protect France’s eastern border with Germany in case of war. Following the First World War, and Germany’s faltering en route to Paris, the French thought another assault through the Ardennes would flop just as it had twenty years before. Combined with the close quarters and the introduction of tanks in place of standard horse-mounted, dragoon-based cavalry, the Ardennes would be even more difficult to navigate. The French had only bothered to construct the eastern portion of the epynomously named Maginot Line, and had left out the northern segment which protected the Ardennes sector. This had been a horrific mistake.

The French Army broke quickly when the first German Panzers rolled out of the darkness of the treeline. In yet another replay of the First World War, the French appealed for support, and the British were quick to supply it. The British Expeditionary Force, now under the command of General Lord John Vereker, 6th Viscount of Gort, arrived in France prepared to assist in stopping the onslaught of the German Army. But there was nothing they could do. The German Army steamrolled over them, utilizing superior armor and experience gained during the Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939. The majority of the men committed were veterans of the Condor Legion. On June 25th, 1940, one month and fifteen days after the invasion, France surrendered. What was left of the French Army and the BEF were just tattered remnants of what had been, and were bottled up in the town of Dunkirk in northwestern France. With their backs to the English Channel, and landlocked by the German Army, the Royal Navy, along with civilian beneficiaries, evacuated the 300,000 marooned Allied troops from the city during Operation Dynamo, saving them from complete destruction. In the meantime, France’s surrender was anything but quick.

In Paris, the Third Republic, which had existed since 1870, was gone. It was replaced by a Nazi administration run through Paris, which was now known as the Paris Quarter. Yet before full-occupation had begun, a World War I veteran and war hero approached the Nazi occupiers with a proposition. Marshal Philippe Henri Petain, the architect behind the French victory at Verdun in 1916, had turned into a collaborator. He realized that the German Army had not pushed too far south of Paris, and negotiated a settlement for the people of southern France, where they could live without being under the restrictions of the Nazi government in France. The Germans accepted his proposal, and the government was founded in the city of Vichy, where the state takes its name. Petain was established as its governor and envoy to Germany, while Admiral Francois Darlan was established as commander of the navy and General Henri Giraud as commander of its armed forces. All of France’s previously controlled overseas colonies, such as Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, and Vietnam, fell under the control of the Vichy government, as well as what was left of France’s armed forces and police force, which was renamed the Milice. The navy was also placed under Vichy jurisdiction, which caused angst among the British High Command. They believed that if the Vichy government maintained control over the French fleet, the Germans could possibly gain leverage over the French and commandeer it, bolstering their wounded surface fleet, and with Bismarck and Graf Spee at the bottom of the Atlantic, and Tirpitz damaged, the Germans were reduced to utilizing the heavy cruisers ScharnhorstGneisenau, and Admiral Hipper to perform the bulk of their commerce raiding, in conjunction with the U-boat fleet. If the battleships such as Strasbourg and Provence  fell into German hands, their surface fleet could become a mighty, unstoppable force again. In a stunning move, in June 1940, the British launched Operation Catapult. The plan was aimed at utilizing aircraft carrier-based fighter-bombers to destroy targets moored at Mers-el-Kebir, the primary anchorage of the Vichy Navy in Morocco.

With the signing of the French treaty, the French fleet splintered and fragmented out into three waves. One group headed out for Great Britain, and, upon arriving, surrendered their ships and were promptly boarded by Royal Marines. Another group detached and disembarked for French Syria, which would be invaded in 1941 by the British, and another group made its way for Mers-el-Kebir. Once docked, the Royal Navy launched its strike, crippling the Vichy navy and sinking and/or damaging the majority of its prized capital ships, some of the most state-of-the-art warships of the time. And with that, the Vichy government broke off any ties it had left with the British.

In Great Britain, another faction of the dismembered Third Republic had taken up refuge, the Free French under General, and later president of France, Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle was sponsoring acts of sabotage and intelligence gathering undertaken by the Maquis and FFI, French resistance organizations operating a guerrilla war against the German occupation. The British attempted to get de Gaulle to negotiate some sort of settlement with the Vichy government, but to no avail. Petain and de Gaulle despised one another openly. That hatred had its seeds lain long before the war had begun. British and French negotiations were in tatters, until the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the United States’ entry into the war.

With America’s entry into the war, the Americans implemented the “Germany first, Japan last” plan. This meant that the Americans would focus the majority of their energy and resources on dismantling and destroying Germany before it focused its war effort on Japan. While it fought Germany, it would mainly concern itself with a defensive war against the Japanese in the South Pacific. The first Americans began arriving shortly after the declaration of war on December 8th, and soon plans were being made for American involvement in Europe. The first two plans, Roundup and Sledgehammer, were quickly shot down by the British. The two plans advocated an invasion of France the British knew the Allies were not prepared  for. When the Americans continued to demand an invasion rather than a lengthy and tedious war fought in Egypt’s Western Desert, advocated by the British, the British launched Operation Jubilee, landing 6,000 Canadian infantrymen and British Commandos at Dieppe, in France. After the majority of those men were killed on the beaches, and only a handful of Commandos under Lord Louis Mountbatten barely managed to escape, the Americans were convinced, and turned their attention to North Africa. With the October-November 1942 defeat of Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps at El Alamein by General Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army, the Americans launched a plan of their own. With the Germans retreating westward, and the British pursuing, the Americans would land in Algeria and Morocco, locking the Germans in from behind and forcing them into a narrow pocket in Tunisia that could only be serviceable for a short period of time before the Germans would be forced to withdraw altogether, like a fox to the hunters. Just before the African landings, due to Britain’s poor relations with the Vichy government, the Americans negotiated General Giraud, informing him of their intentions to invade Morocco and Algeria as part of the upcoming Operation Gymnast, later renamed Torch. Giraud was rather inconclusive on what he had to say to General Mark Clark, who would later go on to command the 5th Army in Italy. Giraud informed Clark that his troops would not fire on the Americans if the position of Supreme Allied Commander was given to him. Clark informed Giraud that the position was already Eisenhower’s, and it was not up for sale. Giraud was naturally displeased, and only divulged enigmatic answers which amounted to little more than “maybe we’ll shoot at you, maybe we won’t.” Clark returned to the Allied headquarters in Gibraltar with little confidence in France’s commitment to support the Torch landings, and expressed his reservations to Eisenhower. The American landings forces, under the command of General George S. Patton, would continue as scheduled, landing at Oran and Algiers in Algeria, and Casablanca and Fesbala in Morocco.

On the advent of the landings, the American troops were supplied with white armbands emblazoned with the American flag, at that time only forty-eight stars. They were ordered “don’t fire unless fired upon”, and were instilled with little confidence regarding the alliance of the French. The Americans still did not know whether or not they would open fire when the men hit the beach. A small contingent of British Royal Commandos also participated in the Torch landings, disguised as Americans to prevent their being shot at by the French. When the first wave hit the shore, the instant they landed on November 8th, 1942, the French opened fire. After shootouts and breakthroughs throughout the month of November, the French were soon pushed into eastern Algeria, scraping the Tunisian strand of the Atlas Mountains. There, they decided to negotiate a surrender. Originally advocated by Admiral Darlan, he was assassinated before it could be done. Giraud stepped up to plate, and after again being denied position of Allied Supreme Commander, he sued for peace and surrendered the Vichy French military to the Allies. Shortly there after, the Germans initiated Unternehmen Lila , or Operation Purple, their invasion of Vichy France.

The remainder of the French fleet that had survived the Mers-el-Kebir bombings had fled to Marseilles, the home anchorage of the French Combined Fleet. When the Germans invaded, rather than surrender the ships, the French adhered to Article 2 of their treaty, in which they guaranteed that their fleet would not fall into German hands, and, much to the Allies’ surprise and gratification, the French scuttled their Combined Fleet where it was moored. Shortly after the war ended, Marshal Petain was executed for war crimes, and the Vichy French government, although absorbed into the German government in France, would go on to be a major factor until the D-Day landings of June 6th, 1944, and the Operation Dragoon landings in southern France on August 15th, 1944.