Archive for January, 2009

Let’s head back to the Russian Front for just a couple minutes.  The German army, having been halted (and even pushed back a little) in the winter of 1941, came storming back the following spring.  Adolf Hitler’s generals recommended a renewed assault on Moscow, where victory had been just a few miles away the previous December.  Hitler instead focused on the oil fields in the Caucasus Mountains and Stalingrad, an important industrial city and Communist cultural center.

Operation Blue, begun in late June of 1942, was the result of the Fuhrer’s orders and met with tremendous initial success.  By late July, the German Sixth Army measured its distance to Stalingrad in the 10’s of miles.  On the other side, the Soviets were requiring soldiers to hold their positions in an attempt to slow down the enemy advance, while simultaneously moving as much food and machinery (and as many people as possible) out of Stalingrad and eastward across the Volga River.  But as we have seen before, the German machine would slow down some, just because of the vast distances required to keep troops supplied.

Still, the Germans managed to reach Stalingrad in force and, for the next five months, the city would be subjected to some of the most intense and most brutal fighting of the war.  Having nearly overrun the city, Stalingrad would become a giant German trap when, on October 19th, the Soviets would launch Operation Uranus, one of the most masterful encircling counterattacks ever.

The tide of the fight turned almost overnight, with the Germans now facing the nightmare of being surrounded.  Away from the front, military leaders begged Hitler to allow General Friedrich Paulus (shown above) to break out to the west and regroup with Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s Army Group A.  Hitler steadfastly refused to give up an inch of Stalingrad, dooming an entire army to complete destruction.

On January’s penultimate day, with the situation in the city completely hopeless, Paulus was promoted to Field Marshal by Hitler.  And since no German Field Marshal had ever been captured alive, it was assumed that Paulus would fight to the death or simply shoot himself.

Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus did neither.  On January 31, 1943, he surrendered rather than see the annihilation of his forces.  Though the Battle of Stalingrad wouldn’t officially end for another two days, and sporadic fighting would continue for another month, more than 90,000 German soldiers would be taken into captivity, as would a Field Marshal.  Adolf Hitler’s forces had suffered the defeat from which they would not recover.

Recommended Reading: Absolute War

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As we saw the other day, the beginning of 1945 was also the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany.  At just about the same time the Russians were freeing the few remaining prisoners still alive in Auschwitz, they were also bearing down on Prussia.  Rumors of Soviet brutality went ahead of the actual armies, convincing soldier and civilian alike that westward movement was in their best interests.

Operation Hannibal was the German operation to evacuate troops, officers, and citizens from the path of approaching enemy.  One of the ships used in the evacuation was passenger liner Wilhelm Gustloff.  Built to carry 1,450 passengers, the ship was packed to the gills with more than 10,000 German officers, wounded soldiers, men, women, and children.  The ship left the Polish port of Gdynia (just north of Gdansk) shortly after noon on January 30, 1945, headed for Germany and relative safety.  With temperatures at 0°F and a mixture of sleet and hail being thrown about by high winds, the passengers mostly huddled below decks and just waited for the trip through the Baltic Sea to be over.

As evening fell, the ocean liner, almost completely unguarded except by an old torpedo boat whose sonar was frozen, was sighted by Soviet submarine S-13Captain Alexander Marinesko and his crew had found few targets of opportunity in the three weeks since they’d set sail from Finland.  And here was an unprotected ship of enormous size.

At just after 9:00pm, with the echoes of Adolf Hitler’s speech commemorating the 12th anniversary of his rise to power still echoing over the decks, three torpedoes slammed into the Wilhelm Gustloff.  Named “For the Motherland“, “For the Soviet People“, and “For Leningrad“, they hit the bow, just behind the bow, and the engine room.  A fourth torpedo, “For Stalin“, failed to launch.

An hour later, the liner slipped below the frigid waters of the Baltic.  Of the 10,500 passegers and crew, only 1,230 survived.  With more than 9,000 dead, the sinking of the Wihlem Gustloff was (and still is) the largest disaster in maritime history.

Recommended Reading: WilhelmGustloff.com – All the details you’d want, all the photos they can legally show you.

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Well, sometimes history lessons involve events that are extremely well-known to us.  Today’s History Lesson is one of those topics.  I get a lot of my ideas from the books I’ve read, but this one I can pretty much do from memory.

I clearly remember the excitement we had as kids when NASA launched its first Space Shuttle mission.  At school, we sat in our desks and Mrs. Crooks, my 5th-grade teacher, rolled in one of the 3-shelved carts with the TV on it, and we watched in rapt attention as the Columbia, the coolest vehicle ever, was hurtled into space.  As a car nut, I observed that the Shuttle Orbiter was slower than a Porsche 911 from 0-to-60mph (the Shuttle took more than 6 seconds), but it really smoked at full chat, reaching more than 17,000mph…way faster than even Bugatti’s awesome Veyron.

We also watched it land a couple days later and it was a really big deal.  Flying into space and coming back in a reusable vehicle was revolutionary.  Over the years, Shuttle launches became more regular, to the point where the news just mentioned them and maybe showed the liftoff, and we didn’t watch launches or landings in school anymore.

But I suppose, like life in general, the “mundane” Space Shuttle missions didn’t stay that way for long.  On Janauary 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger’s solid rocket booster exploded just 73 seconds into the flight.  The cataclysmic blast blew the Challenger apart, killing all 7 occupants.  What’s worse, because school-teacher Christa McAuliffe was one of the passengers, this mission received the same kind of attention and press coverage that those first missions did.

So lots of people saw the start, and the horrible end, of this mission.  I was a junior in high school at the time and we didn’t watch it, but I still recall vividly when heard about it.  I was sitting in the school’s 3rd-floor computer room at 11:35am (CST…roughly one hour after the explosion) when someone came in told us.  I don’t remember what I thought…just looking at the clock that seeing 11:35am.

It turns out that a cold-weather launch was the primary cause of the disaster.  Some O-ring seals didn’t function properly in cold weather, and they failed during the high stress of launch.  That led to a fuel leak in the booster and, with all that pressure and all that fuel so close to all that flame, potential catastrophe became reality.

The warm words of tribute given by President Ronald Reagan that night stood in stark contrast to the events of that cold January morning, when ever-present human error, once again, tragically mixed with the fragility of human life.

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Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, so let’s talk, for just a few minutes, about something related to it.

Oswiecim is a town in southwestern Poland.  My talent with foreign languages is limited to a bit of Spanish, but I believe it’s pronounced “oss-vee-hay-chim“, with an emphasis on the “hay” and a mostly silent “h”.  Anyone who knows better than I should chime in and correct me.  Anyways…

This town lived in almost complete obscurity until January 27, 1945.  Since then, it’s never been far from the lips of those discussing the Holocaust.  But even today, Oswiecim itself is relatively unknown, unless you use the German translation of the town.  Then, it’s instantly recognizable.


It is, without question, the most infamous of the six death camps that existed during World War II, and only one of two death camps to be captured intact (the other being Madjanek in mid-1944).  Rudolf Hoess, the camp’s commandant, estimated that 3 million people (mostly Jews) had been killed there, but more accurate (and reliable) figures put the number at a still-staggering 1+ million.

The camp was first opened in early 1940 (shortly after Germany had overrun Poland), but the first mass killings didn’t take place until September of 1941, when several hundred Soviet POW’s were executed.  It wasn’t until 1942 that arriving Jews (and other “undesirables) were killed in large numbers, and late 1942 and 1943 marked the time of the camp’s largest expansion.

But by the end of 1943, most Germans troops in eastern Europe were moving westward, retreating in the face of the Soviet juggernaut and the failure of Adolf Hitler’s titanic gamble in the east.  In late 1944, an uprising in Auschwitz led to the destruction of one of the camp’s five crematoriums, but already the Germans were giving thought to dismantling the rest and removing all traces of the camp.

Events, however, would see otherwise.  The Soviet armies advanced so quickly that discipline among the Germans at the camp began to break down.  Orders to destroy the camp were either ignored or took second place to a more basic need…escape.  The Germans fled in January 1945, taking most of the prisoners on forced marches west toward other camps or packing them in westbound trains.

The arrival of the Soviet army on January 27, 1945 found Auschwitz mostly standing and 7,000+ remaining prisoners with a horrific tale to tell.  While Auschwitz is the most well-known death camp, it’s pretty safe to say that Treblinka was the most powerful killing machine.  That camp, in all likelihood, killed more people than died at Auschwitz, and accomplished it in little more than a year.

But because it still stands as a testament to the depravity that man can unleash, one camp is remembered above all.  A massive camp outside the small city of Oswiecim.  Auschwitz.

Recommended Reading:  Eyewitness Auschwitz – A look inside the camp from one who survived nearly 3 years there.  A great book.

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Whenever I see the phrase “Based on a true story” at the beginning of a movie, I chuckle to myself.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that the producers and directors want to give us a peek, if only through a camera lens, into some event, or life, or situation they want us to see.

But there’s always that first word…”based”.  The word that gives them license to take their story from the pages of history and massage it to be whatever they want.  The changes from what really happened might be barely noticeable, or what really happened might be barely noticeable.  It just depends on what the word “based” means to those making the movie.

Which brings us to the von Trapp family or, more specifically, Maria von Trapp.  Nearly all of us know that before she was Mrs. von Trapp, she was a beautiful singer, she loved to spin about in the mountains with arms extended, was a constant cause of consternation in the convent where she lived, and looked an awful lot like Julie Andrews.

She left the convent to take care of Georg von Trapp’s children and taught them all kinds of whimsical musical songs about “mi, a name I call myself.”  She chopped up the drapes to make play clothes for the 7 children, one of whom (Liesl?) was “16, going on 17“, and took them all around the city of Salzburg.

Then she fell in love with Georg, married him and went on a honeymoon.  They returned, only to be forced to flee Austria after the Anschluss by climbing over the Alps and going to Switzerland.

At least that’s the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical we all know and (mostly) love.  It’s “based” on the true story.

Maria Augusta Kutschera was born in Vienna on January 26, 1905.  She was in a convent.  She was sent to Georg von Trapp’s home.  The children did sing, but mostly because the global depression of the late 1920’s and 30’s wiped out the von Trapp fortune.  Maria did fall in love, though with his 7 children and not (at least initally) Georg himself.  She did marry Georg, but in 1927 and not at the time of the Anschluss (1938).  They did leave Austria, not by walking to Switzerland, but rather by train to Italy.  And Maria and Georg had three children of their own.

And coincidentally, the real Maria made a brief appearance in The Sound of Music, the super-engaging musical movie “based” on her life that managed to get so many of the details wrong.

Happy Birthday, Maria von Trapp!!

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Several months ago, we learned about a “near-miss” atomic war with the Soviet Union when we discussed Stansilov Petrov’s actions (or rather, his inactions) back in 1983.  Not to self-promote too much, but I go back and read that piece occasionally, and I still get goosebumps when I realize, that as a 15-year old kid, I came really close to experiencing a full-blown nuclear exchange.

But for Americans, it’s not the only time the threat of nuclear detonation has been right at the door.  During the era of the Cold War (basically the 1950s-1980s), there were thousands of opportunities for disaster, not only from other “nuclear-powered” nations, but from our own country as well.  Military preparedness required that nuclear missiles and bombs be tested and carried on aircraft should cataclysm be unleashed.  And even testing carried hazards with it.

So it’s bombs and airplanes that make up Today’s History Lesson.  A Strategic Air Command Boeing B-52 Stratofortress suffered a structural failure and crashed as it was trying to return to Seymour Johnson AFB in Goldsboro, NC.  The incident, which took place just after midnight on January 24, 1961, took the lives of 3 crew members.

But the bomber was carrying a pair of Mk39 Hydrogen bombs that separated from the plane.  The parachute of one device deployed and it floated to earth.  The second did a free-fall, plowing into a swampy farm field and mostly disintegrating.

When the intact bomb was recovered, it was discovered that all but one of the half-dozen safety switches had failed, only the pilot’s arming switch had not triggered.  Each device had a full yield of around 2-3 megatons, far smaller than Tsar Bomba, but still greater than all the bombs released in WWII.  An explosion would have been horrific, and some suggested that just such a disaster was a single switch away.  But military experts contended that the switches were only part of the safety features built into the bomb, and that it was never in any danger of detonating.  Who’s right?  Well, the bomb didn’t explode, so…

In spite of the military’s best efforts, the thermonuclear stage of the bomb that broke up was never found.  In October of that same year, the United States purchased the land and, to this day, tests it for radiation.  None has been detected, but one is left to wonder how close North Carolina came to feeling its full fury…

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I’ve really enjoyed writing about the Battle of Guadalcanal.  As the first real offensive action of the Pacific War (and of the war in general) for American forces, I think it’s pretty significant.  Since our first discussions of the Solomon Islands campaign back in August, we’ve looked at a number of events, small and large, that helped shape not only the outcome of the conflict, but the Marines (and eventually the Army soldiers) that fought there.

But by mid-January of 1943, the outcome was no longer in doubt.  In fact, as we saw just a few days ago, the Japanese had already begun laying the groundwork to extract their soldiers.  But there was still fighting going on.  Back in December, U.S. Army soldiers had discovered the Gifu, the last major stronghold on Guadalcanal.  In close proximity was the Sea-Horse and the Galloping Horse, two smaller strongholds named for the shapes of the hill structures around them.  And over the next month, much of the struggle would be focused here.

The Galloping Horse was the first to fall, on January 13th.  The Sea-Horse, in between the Gifu and the Galloping Horse, was taken on January 15th, with the few survivors from each of these redoubts heading west and north toward friendly forces.

Though the Gifu was manned by only 500 or so Japanese soldiers, they were extremely well-entrenched in a network of several dozen pillboxes that were heavily camoflauged.  And cracking the Gifu turned out to be an exercise in patience.

It wasn’t until artillery pieces were brought in, along with a light tank that was able to traverse the supply trail on the 22nd, that things could really get moving.  With the artillery firing at point-blank range, progress became measurable.  And then the tank rolled through, blasting away at the pillboxes and blowing them to pieces.

In the very early morning hours of January 23, 1943, the remaining 100 Japanese soldiers in the Gifu attacked in a massed suicide charge, and were wiped out.  As the sun rose over the hills of Guadalcanal, the Gifu was in American hands.

The fall of the Gifu, for all intents and purposes, ended organized fighting on Guadalcanal.  The remaining Japanese troops were either preparing for evacuation, or retreating toward the evac areas.  There would still be some fighting by naval forces around the island (which we may cover at some point), but the first major American victory in World War II was on Guadalcanal’s horizon.

Recommended Reading: Starvation Island – I read this in college, and just found a hardback edition in excellent condition for $8…$8!!!

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