Archive for the ‘Period between World Wars (1919-1939)’ Category

The Japanese capture of Shanghai in November of 1937 left the Chinese army retreating to the west.  Chiang Kai-shek’s forces had done what they could to protect the important Chinese port, but they were simply overmatched, if not in numbers, then in technology, organization, and firepower.

From the Japanese point of view, there were a couple of reasons to be angry, even in victory.  First, the enemy had successfully shot their timeline to pieces.  Three months had been spent in the effort to take Shanghai, which was the amount of time Japan’s military leaders believed it would take to capture all of China.  Second, as far as the Japanese soldier was concerned, the Chinese retreat was offensive to the Japanese code of bushido.  A fight to the death, even one’s own death, was the only honorable outcome in battle.  The Chinese departure from Shanghai robbed the Japanese victory (and by extension, the soldier) of honor.

After Shanghai, the Japanese forces split into three westward-moving branches, like tynes on a fork.  One went to the north, following the Yangtze River.  Another went south of Tai Hu Lake, heading toward Huchow.  And the third went straight down the middle, toward Suchow.  The ultimate goal was for all three tynes to meet in the vicinity of Nanking.  In her book The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang writes, “Little was spared on the path to Nanking.  Japanese veterans remember raiding tiny farm communities, where they clubbed or bayoneted everyone in site.  But small villages were not the only casualties;  entire cities were razed to the ground.”

On November 19, 1937, that center tyne of the fork arrived at the city of Suchow (modern-day Suzhou).  Made up of the 9th Division and led by General Nakajima Kesago (described even by his biographer as a beast of a man), they entered the city in a driving rain.

Before the 19th, Suchow was a grand city of some 350,000 residents.  As one of China’s oldest cities, it was famous for its textiles and ornate temples.  Its many bridges had earned it the nickname “The Venice of China”.  After the 19th, it became a place of death and destruction.  For days, Japanese soldiers ran wild, killing citizens by the thousands, burning indiscriminantly, and laying waste to the city.

When the Japanese left Suchow and continued west toward Nanking, they departed a ghost town.  One Chinese newspaper reported that the city’s population had been reduced to 500 people.  How many were killed versus how many fled the city is not clear, but it’s safe to say that both numbers are significant.

Recommended Reading: The Rape of Nanking

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In his book A Shattered Peace, David Andelman writes that President Woodrow Wilson went to Paris “with the intention of bringing a new era of moral responsibility to the management of international affairs and an end to global conflict…”  But unfortunately, many of the allied partners who met him there came with very different objectives, and it wasn’t long before the President “found himself mired in a swamp of intra-European intrigue and colonial profiteering.”  Wilson himself offered up his own frustrated summary of six months of Parisian negotiations: “The world will say that the Great Powers first parceled out the helpless parts of the world, and then formed the League of Nations.  The crude fact will be that each of these parts of the world had been assigned to one of the Great Powers.”

It’s no small thing to note that when Wilson arrived in Paris in January of 1919, he was in some sense entering enemy territory.  The President came with a very different agenda than the other victorious Allies.  What Wilson wanted was a lasting peace.  What the others wanted was retribution…retribution they believed they deserved.  France had been the main battle-front for much of the war.  Large sections were a moonscape of shattered trees, mud-filled slit trenches, one-walled homes, bomb craters, and shell casings.  An entire generation of Frenchmen, 1.5 million in total, had fallen on the dust of that landscape, never to rise again.  The French economy was in shambles.  The French wanted payback.

But in addition, the Great Powers came to the negotiating table with land holdings scattered all over the world – holdings they steadfastly refused to give up.  And what’s more, with Germany’s defeat, here was a chance to acquire more territory without the shedding of additional blood.

So the Treaty that was signed differed vastly from Wilson’s vision.  And then he had to return home to sell ratification and entrance into the League of Nations.  Again, he stepped onto hostile ground.  Opposition was led by Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.  An extremely intelligent man with a Harvard PhD on his wall, he viewed the President’s Fourteen Points as somewhat whimsical, mostly idealistic, and all-together out of touch with reality.  And the League of Nations was one of those entangling alliances that would simply eat away at American sovereignty.

In reality, Lodge may have been someone that could have really helped Wilson in Paris.  His strong personality, coupled with his keen knowledge, may have given Wilson more power at the table.  But the long-standing rivalry between the two men meant Lodge didn’t get an invitation.  And with elections but a year away and these two men in opposing parties, here was grist for the upcoming campaigns.

President Wilson did his best to push for ratification, embarking on a wide-ranging speaking tour.  But even that worked against him.  In late September, he collapsed while speaking in Colorado and a week later suffered a massive stroke which left him largely incapacitated and confined to bed.  So there was little he could do or say as the Senate, controlled by Lodge’s Republican party, rejected the Treaty of Versailles on November 19, 1919.

Henry Cabot Lodge may have saved the U.S. from ratifying a bad treaty (maybe the only peace treaty the U.S. has rejected).  He may have also kept the country he loved so dearly from joining a weak League (he would say, “I have loved but one flag and I can not share that devotion and give affection to the mongrel banner invented for a league.”).  But without the power of the United States behind it, the League of Nations was totally doomed to failure.

Recommended Reading: A Shattered Peace – Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today

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It’s a Saturday evening, and it’s probably not a good idea to be spending a bunch of time behind the keyboard, so I’ll keep this one brief.

Sometimes, when you want something to get done, you can’t wait for things to happen.  You have to take matters into your own hands and make them happen.  It holds true for cookng dinner, cleaning the house, getting the lawn mowed (which I really need to do), or invading a foreign country.

On several occasions, when German dictator Adolf Hitler needed a pretext to move into countries, those countries didn’t accomodate him very well.  So he simply made up a story giving him the right to move.  He did it with Austria during the 1938 Anschluss, and again with Poland 18 months later.  But the German-corporal-turned-world-despot certainly wasn’t the first leader to fabricate an incident in order to justify subsequent action.

On September 18, 1931, the Japanese military did the exact thing as a pretext for invading Manchuria, blowing up a section of their own railroad line.  Japanese leadership chose railway with absolutely no military significance to anyone, but it sat less than half a mile from a Chinese garrison.  The idea was to attract the Chinese to the explosion, then blame them for it and invade Manchuria as a response.

The Mukden Incident (as it came to be known) didn’t even damage any rail line, but it got the desired result.  The next morning, the Japanese began firing at the Chinese garrison with a couple of large artillery pieces they had secretly built, and before the day was out, the garrison had been subdued with only a couple of Japanese fatalities.

The Japanese occupation of Manchuria had begun.

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“‘Where are the carriers?’  This has been the likely first question asked by every President of the United States since World War II when faced with a developing international crisis that involves U.S. interests.”

So begins best-selling author Tom Clancy’s Carrier.  Clancy goes on to write that “Aircraft carriers stretch perceptions.  First of all, they’re big – bigger than most skyscrapers – skyscrapers that can move across the sea at a better than a fair clip.”  Modern carriers are well over 1,000′ feet long and weigh an astonishing 100,000 tons…or more.

They are also incredibly expensive, costing $4 billion or more to build, so they’re well-protected by supporting defense ships.  A carrier battle group may involve a $20 billion investment.  The modern carrier boasts a staggering array of electronics and sensors, sophisticated radar and down-to-the-meter GPS navigation.  These massive mini-cities carry thousands of men, each with a job that serves to keep the carrier, powered by a nuclear reactor, operating at top efficiency.  And we haven’t even begun talking about the aircraft.

But it’s the aircraft that gives the carrier its punch.  In fact, the aircraft are the offensive and defensive centerpiece of the modern fleet.  A modern airplane’s ability to attack targets from hundreds of miles away as well as defend the fleet from attack at distances of hundreds of miles are the reason that 100,000-ton carriers are feasible in the first place.

This is nothing new to us…we’re now 70+ years into the “carrier-era”, and we don’t need to be sold on the idea.  But of course, it wasn’t always like this.

In the 1920’s, there was an ideological battle being fought in the U.S. Navy, and in other navies as well.  For many, the battleship with its supporting cast was the ultimate form of naval warfare.  The navy with the most iron and the biggest guns was master of the sea.  But a new line of thinking was emerging…one that contended that the airplane (still in its infancy as a military weapon) could add a long-reaching punch to existing naval power.  If an airplane could be launched from a ship, fly out, and safely return, that would be a real surprise to an enemy.

By the early 1930’s the concept had already been proven feasible, with the collier-to-carrier USS Langley offering a primitive glance at the possibilities.  The Lexington and Saratoga, carriers of legend, were next.  These began life as battle-cruisers, but early on were converted and served with distinction when the U.S. entered the war in 1941.

But the USS Ranger, the fourth carrier built, was different.  It didn’t start life as a battle-cruiser, a battleship, or a battle-anything.  First launched on February 25, 1933 (and commissioned the following year), CV-4 (in Navy-speak) was built from the ground up as an aircraft carrier.

If the Navy was not fully sold on the potential of the carrier replacing the battleship as its “dreadnought”, it certainly recognized that the carrier offered long-range offensive capability and a much improved defense for its traditional big iron.

It would take 10 years for carrier and aircraft technology to mesh and, in the meantime, several more advanced classes of battleships would enter the water, but by the end of the Second World War, the carrier had ascended to preeminence.  It was no longer the concept of the “carriers protecting the battle-group”…rather it was “the battle-group that protected the carriers.”

But believe it or else, the USS Ranger lived long enough to see that day, surviving the War as the first purpose-built aircraft carrier.  Rapid advancements in carrier design, however, meant that she would be the only Ranger-class carrier built.

Recommended Reading: Carrier: A Guided Tour of an Aircraft Carrier

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This weekend, we watched A Guy Named Joe, an old war movie from the 40’s.  In it, a B-25 pilot (played by Spencer Tracy) is killed bombing a German aircraft carrier (?!?) and then his ghost comes back to help a budding pilot learn his way around a fighter.  And there’s a love story with the dead guy’s wife (girlfriend? fiancee?…I never did quite figure that out), who’s hanging on to memories of the dead pilot…you know the drill.  If you saw the movie Always about 20 years ago (with actor-turned-history-buff Richard Dreyfuss), you’ve pretty much seen A Guy Named Joe, just different actors and in full color.

In the movie, the young guy’s fighter plane looked quite a bit different than traditional fighters, and my wife asked me what it was.  My response was something like, “That’s the ‘fork-tailed devil.’  A Lockheed P-38 Lightning.”  I went on to tell her a few things about it, but my first nine words were probably sufficient.

When discussing the P-38 Lightning, it might actually be good to look forward about 20 years.  In the mid 1950’s, the U.S. Air Force was really sold on the concept of the interceptor rather than a pure fighter.  At that time, missile technology was just beginning to advance, and thinkers envisioned an air force capable of engaging an enemy at long range, before guns would really be needed…standoff missiles would do the work.  So planes were being constructed that had remarkable straight-line speeds, but sacrificed great agility.

The P-38 is, in several ways, one of the first in that line of interceptors.

It was fast.  The specification called for at least 360mph…the Lightning was the first fighter to eclipse 400mph.  It had “standoff” capability.  Now in the 1930’s, “standoff” has to be used in a relative way.  Don’t think missiles here…think guns.  Traditional fighters of that day mounted their cannon in the wings.  In order to get bullets to converge on a point in the distance, the barrels had to be angled slightly.  This made the guns somewhat less accurate than those of the Lightning, which mounted a 20mm cannon and four 50-caliber machine guns together in the nose of the plane, giving it a much greater effective firing range.  Finally, its unconventional configuration (a trademark of many Lockheed designs), a fuselage with engines on either side, served to give it great straight-line high speed, but kind of “fattened” the body, which hurt its roll rate and made it less proficient as a fighter.

Like most of its contemporaries, it had hardpoints and could carry a modest bomb load.  But it was predominantly used as interceptor / fighter and, in the proper hands, was a very formidable weapon.  Its capability, together with its powerful “massed” armament led German opponents to name it the “Fork-Tailed Devil”.  It served with distinction in all the theaters of World War II, and was the only fighter in production from the war’s beginning to its end.  More than 10,000 Lightnings were produced, and it produced dozens of aces (pilots with five or more kills).  It also was involved in one of the more famous missions of the Pacific War, intercepting and shooting down the plane carrying Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in 1943.

First flown on January 27, 1938, the Lightning would survive the war (though quickly removed from service) and numerous examples are still flying today.

And of course, the spirit of the P-38 lives on in the most advanced multi-role platform yet produced for the U.S. military…the Joint Strike Fighter.  Lockheed’s design carried the day and is named the F-35 Lightning II.  Which means the old adage of “lightning striking twice” has moved to the realm of provable fact.

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It’s one of the most recognizable quotes in history.  Neville Chamberlain’s statement, made outside Number 10 Downing Street, has gone down in history as one of the most unprophetic utterances ever made.  The British Prime Minister had just returned from Munich, Germany, where he believed he had finally put a halt to Germany’s aggressive expansion in Europe.

Adolf Hitler had taken the Saar via referendum in 1935.  He had taken the Rhineland in 1936, thanks to his surplus of courage and a dearth of it (and money) on the part of the French.  Austria was next in the spring of 1938, the result of subterfuge and intrigue.

And now it was Czechoslovakia’s turn.  Surrounded by German territory on three sides, the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia was home to a large German population, many of whom clamored for independence from their mother country or a return to German control.  The burgeoning Third Reich picked up the “battle cry” and demanded that the Sudetenland be given to them.

The Czech government, for its part, was having none of it, and prepared to mobilize its armies.  But capable as its military was, it was not prepared to deal with the much larger Wehrmacht…unless some other Western Power (read: Britain or France) should come to help them.

But in a bizarre twist, the French and British heads of state did meet…with Germany.  Rather than risk warfare, they were willing to allow Adolf Hitler to annex the Sudeten region, but only if he promised that his territorial acquisitions were finished.  Mollified by the German dictator’s smooth talking, Prime Minister Chamberlain signed away the Sudetenland by putting his signature to the Munich Agreement in the wee morning hours of September 30, 1938.

The French, still in a financial mess and completely unprepared militarily to defend their own country, much less another, could do little but follow suit, and Edouard Daladier signed as well.  There is little doubt that the French Prime Minister was skeptical that this really was Hitler’s final land-grab, but Chamberlain breathed a sigh of relief, confident that armed conflict had been avoided.  And he was partially right.

Peace had been achieved, but not in our time, rather for a time.  The Sudeten region was not only home to many Germans, but also home to much of Czechoslovakia’s industrial might and the bulk of her military defenses.  The Czechs had been effectively gutted by the stroke of a pen.  Furthermore, members of the German High Command had secretly pressed the British and French to attack Germany in Czechoslovakia’s defense, because they had planned to arrest Adolf Hitler and overthrow the government.  But the French and British ignored this option.

So when the German war machine rolled into the Sudeten region the next day, not only did part of a sovereign country disappear, a legitimate chance to deal with Hitler early on vanished as well…way before the war in Europe got serious.  And finally, when Hitler moved into the rest of the Czechoslovakia just 6 months later, the country was almost completely defenseless.  The Munich Agreement did bring peace to Europe for a few months.  But the war that it prevented may have been enough to prevent the bigger war that came.

History serves to guarantee that we’ll never know for sure…

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For anyone that watched TV in the early 80’s, that slogan is as recognizable as any.  Honda’s motorcycle division used it for years.  But our story today has nothing to do with Hondas…at least, not with cars, or minivans, or cycles, or generators, or any of the 3,000 other things Honda makes.

On September 8, 1923, Destroyer Squadron 11 (DESRON 11), a group of 14 nearly-new destroyers, was holding wartime manuevers off the coast of Califiornia.  The early-morning combat training outside of San Francisco Bay was followed by a run south for a night passage through the Santa Barbara Channel.  The Channel was notoriously tricky with rough waters, circling winds, and dangerous outcroppings nearby, including Honda Point, which protruded a quarter-mile from the coast.

DESRON 11 was navigating by dead reckoning, which means they were charting their position by their heading and speed, and not by sonar soundings.  They could have done that, but this was a war exercise and speed was part of the challenge.  Taking sonar readings forced the ships to slow down, thereby negating part of the exercise.  One of the ships, the USS Delphy, had a navigational radar receiver, but in the 1920’s, the technology was so new that captains suspected its accuracy.

At 9:00pm (when it was dark), they started to turn into the Channel.  But their dead reckoning was dead wrong.  They were actually several miles too far north and a little too far east (“east” meant closer to land)…and they had just entered a dense fog.  I’m a bunch of words into this and, by now, you probably know what’s going to happen.

The USS Delphy ran aground first, though she immediately sounded her sirens which helped some of the formation.  The S.P. Lee, right behind, turned left and also ran into California.  The Young plowed straight on and ran aground in shallow water.  Having not slowed a bit, her 20-knot speed ripped open the bottom of the ship and she capsized within minutes.  Nicholas followed Delphy and S.P. Lee into the coast.  Woodbury and Fuller turned right (to starboard) and both promptly ran into the rocky outcroppings just off Honda Point.  Chauncey may have escaped incident had her captain not come around from the south to render assistance to Young.  But the captain did, and promptly ran aground as well.

The other 7 destroyers escaped with little or no damage.  Three men from the S.P. Lee were killed, as were 20 from the Young. Seven destroyers, all less than 5 years old, were lost.  We’ve seen larger peace-time loss of life, but this was largest number of ships lost by the U.S. Navy when not at war…and it was a tremendous embarrassment.

Recommended Reading:  The Naval Historical Center – A more in-depth look at the incident, with some more detailed photos as well.

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The German invasion of Poland, which began on September’s first day in 1939, wasn’t originally scheduled for that date.  It had been set to start nearly a week earlier, on the 26th of August.  But it was delayed at the last minute when Adolf Hitler got wind of a new pact that Britain had signed with Poland, one which promised military assistance should Poland be attacked.  So the German Chancellor slammed the brakes hard on Fall Weiss (Case White) to evaluate this new development.  And almost everybody got the message.

Lt. Albrecht Herzner did not.

Lt. Herzner’s small band of 24 commandos, which was officially called “Construction Training Company 800 for Special Duties”, were charged with capturing a railroad station at Mosty, Poland.  Located on the border with Czechoslovakia (which had been taken over by Germany earlier in the year), this target was important not so much for the station itself, but for the railroad tunnel to which the tracks led.  He and his men didn’t hear anything about a delay.

At 4:00am on August 26, 1939, Herzner’s band of men arrived at the station.  Within minutes, they had captured the station and taken a few prisoners.  He convinced the Polish Lieutenant on duty that Germany was invading Poland and that bloodshed was unnecessary.  What Herzner didn’t know was that the station had a basement with a fully functioning military phone…and someone was frantically dialing for help.  The alarm had been sounded.

Polish soldiers arrived on scene to protect the tunnel and drive back the invaders.  Herzner wisely realized that his raid wasn’t going well (and reinforcements hadn’t arrived) and he and his men scattered to the surrounding forests, suffering two wounded, and requiring half a day to extricate themselves.

And then the Germans had a lot of explaining to do.  Herzner had given away not only his team’s objective for Fall Weiss, but he had told Polish officers that an invasion was at hand.  The Polish military may have been out-manned, out-gunned, out-tanked, and out-planed, but they certainly were not out-brained.  They knew something was up.  The Germans tried to cover over their huge communications gaffe by saying one of their low-level officers had gone insane, made up the invasion story, and launched an attack on his own.  They hoped the Poles bought it.

When the actual invasion was launched, that railroad tunnel near Mosty was one of the first things the Polish army blew up, so I’m guessing the story of an insane office didn’t pass muster.

Recommended Reading: Best Little War Stories From World War II

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While most people consider World War II to have begun with Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, there had been serious fighting between Japan and China for some time.  In fact, by 1937 (a full two years before Germany’s aggression), the two Asian nations had already been in open conflict (mostly in Manchuria) for six years.

In July 1937, the Japanese used a small skirmish at the Marco Polo Bridge as the impetus for an invasion into northern China and a move on the city of Shanghai.  The Japanese military, trained and conditioned to believe themselves superior, really didn’t expect much of a fight.  So when the battle for Shanghai began with relatively light small-arms fire on August 13, 1937, the Japanese really didn’t expect much of a fight.  In fact, they kind of figured a couple weeks should be enough to suppress resistance in the city.

On the Chinese side, General Chiang Kai-shek had decided that “Battle 813” (given for 08/13, the starting date) was where his forces would stand and fight.  His goals were two-fold:  push the Japanese out of the city, and bring the plight of the Chinese to the world stage.  He believed a protracted campaign here would at least give him success with the second, if not both.

The battle would last much longer than the Japanese expected, and much less than the Chinese hoped.

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I think it’s kind of embarrassing, because back when I was single, it embarrassed me.  I’d go into a restaurant where there was a wait, and I put my name on the list.  And of course, I’d sit and wait.  I would look at the menu or at the aquarium.  Maybe I’d count ceiling tiles.  Before too long, I’d hear it.  “Joel, party of one, your table is ready.”  And sometimes, it was like the “naaaah nah n nah nah” we used to say as kids on the playground.  I could almost hear a snicker or two as I would get up from among the others to follow the waitress.

Party of one?  How is one a party?  Was I going to give myself a present?  Snap a photo of myself to remember the occasion?  Couldn’t they just leave the “party of one” part out?  I wasn’t trying to broadcast my singleness, so why should anyone else?  I would have felt less conspicuous dressed like Ronald McDonald.

Well, I’m glad we had this little chat to get that off my chest.

Oh yeah…history…

On July 14, 1933, Adolf Hitler decided that the idea of “just one at the table” constituted a party, so he outlawed all political parties in Germany excepting, of course, the National Socialist (Nazi) Party.  And I’ll bet he wasn’t the slightest bit embarrassed by it.

Shortly after Hitler’s assumption of power in March, the Reichstag had passed the Enabling Act, which gave all legislative power to the Nazi Party.  And very quickly, the other parties realized their days were numbered.  The Communist Party had already been banned, and the Social Democratic party was outlawed shortly after that.  Many other minority parties probably realized that being an opposition party to the Nazis wasn’t the best way to guarantee collection of their Social Security benefits.  So they began dissolving on their own.

Officially outlawing all political parties was the Nazi regime’s way removing any remaining ambiguity concerning who was in charge.  So, in just four months, Hitler had taken complete power.  His political threats outside his party were now eliminated, and the Night of the Long Knives (occurring just a couple weeks prior) had quashed the greater internal threats.  For once, “party of one” probably sounded pretty good.

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In October of 1935, Italian forces had launched an attack against the African country of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia).  Intrepid readers will remember that Italy already controlled neighboring Eritrea and a piece of Abyssinia called Italian Somaliland.

And though the Italian military wasn’t nearly as modern as that of, say, Germany, it was still a quantum leap ahead of the army it faced in Africa in 1935.  The Abyssinian army of half-a-million men had no armored vehicles and no air force to speak of, just a handful of artillery pieces, a few guns and rifles, and spears.

But still, with their massive advantages in men (800,000) and weapons of war, Italian progress was slow, even lethargic.  General Emilio De Bono was encouraged to pick up the pace and even promoted to the rank of Marshal.  But still the “dawdling” continued, and by December, De Bono was out in favor of Marshal Pietro Badoglio.

And then an Abyssinian offensive in the north began pushing the Italians back.  It was then that the Italians turned to gas.  The day after Christmas, they loaded their artillery pieces with unconventional shells, firing shells with mustard gas and phosgene.  Their opposition had no answer, and no defense, for chemical agents that rained down on them, killing them by the thousands.

And from here on out, Italian gas attacks played a significant role in the campaign’s outcome.  It was fired from shells.  It was sprayed “insecticide-style” from airplanes onto military and civilian targets alike.  Even Red Cross tents, hospitals, and ambulances were no respite, as gas attacks were carried out on them as well.

Resistance crumbled throughout the spring of 1936.  On May 2nd, Abyssinian leader Haile Selassie fled the country, and three days later, Badoglio and his forces marched into the capital of Addis Ababa.  On May 9, 1936, the annexation was completed, and Abyssinia was merged with Eritrea and Italian Somaliland to form a single entity:  Italian East Africa.

This conflict, as much as anything, proved that the League of Nations was a complete farce.  Both Italy and Abyssinia were members, but somehow the League was powerless to prevent Italy’s aggression.  Nor could it protect Abyssinia from Italy and its clearly-illegal gas attacks.

Recommended Reading: The Italian Invasion of Abyssinia 1935-36, Vol. 309

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I had a couple different ideas for discussion, but the evening has conspired against me and now it’s too late to give them good attention.  So I’ll choose the shortest (and laziest) topic, and pick up the more involved ones as soon as it’s April 7th again.  Let’s head overseas to Albania.

Albania is a small country in southeastern Europe.  If you find Italy on the map, then trace a line straight east from the “heel” of Italy’s boot, your line will run into Albania.  It’s kind of shaped like New Jersey, though a little bit bigger, which gives you some sense of scale.

In 1939, Italian bossman Benito Mussolini was feeling a little behind-the-curve as far as the Axis powers were concerned.  Though “the Axis” didn’t yet officially exist (that would happen in 1940), there is no doubt that Germany, Italy, and Japan were all engaged in similar (and aggressive) expanionist activities.  Japan was running wild in China, Germany had retaken the Rhineland and followed up with Austria (1938) and Czechoslovakia (1939).  Italy had conquered Abyssinia in 1935…which was not unlike the old cliché of taking candy from a baby.

So, Mussolini reasserted his importance and, on April 7, 1939, (just a couple weeks after Hitler’s takeover of Czechoslovakia) launched an invasion of his own.  Against Albania.  And against the better judgement of Italian King Victor Emmanuel III.  But this action was even less significant than Italy’s victory in Abyssinia.  Albanian resistance was negligible, and King Zog (stop that chuckling in the back) was paying more attention to his infant son (born on April 5th) to do much more than hop a plane with his wife and son and head for the safer climes of London.

And what’s more, Italy (though gaining a New Jersey-sized piece of property) really got nothing out of the invasion.  The Albanian and Italian economies had been inexorably linked since the 1920’s.  Minerals mined in Albania were already shipped to Italy.  The Italian government was a strong financial guarantor of Albania.  Heck, the two countries already had a military alliance, also dating back to the 1920’s.

Albanian “resistance” would last for, well, practically not at all, and Italy would take over just 5 days later.  Aim high, Mr. Mussolini.  Aim high.

Recommended Activity:  Act out your own Albanian invasion.  You be Italy. – Equivalent activities could include (but are not limited to):

  • Stealing your child’s blanket when he/she is sleeping.
  • Finding an ant and stomping on it.
  • Giving the neighbor kid a cookie, then taking it back (just be sure the kids are small so they’re more like Albania).
  • Challenging your pet hamster to an arm-wrestling contest.

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The early months of 1933, while culminating in a long national nightmare for Germany, probably seemed like a fairy-tale ride to destiny for Adolf Hitler.  As January ended, a tired and ailing President Paul von Hindenburg had named Hitler Chancellor of Germany.

And then the wheels began to turn.  First, the new Chancellor dissolved the Reichstag (Germany’s governing body) and called for new elections (to be held the first week in March).  Then, in a complete and utter coincidence, the Reichstag building caught fire just a week after Hitler’s appointment.  Hitler conveniently blamed the fire on the Communists, suspended habeas corpus, and began arresting Communist Party officials, removing them from play in the upcoming elections.

When the March 5th election counts were tallied, Hitler was still unable to win a clear majority (though a coalition with the Nationalist Party gave him a slim “on-paper” majority).  But Hitler was smart enough to know that reliance on a second party for passing legislation gave that weaker party tremendous power…power he wanted.

So he had his cabinet draw up what became the Enabling Act, an incredibly powerful tool which allowed Hitler (and his cabinet) to create and pass legislation, including changing Germany’s constitution, without the Reichstag’s consent.  But how to get this little gem of a law past the Reichstag?  Out came those wheels again.

The Catholic-led Centre Party agreed to support the measure when Chancellor Hitler made promises to them…promises he, of course, never kept.  Which left two other groups.  Most Social Democrats (the SPD Party) and Communists were expected to vote against the deal.  As mentioned, many of the Communists were now out of the picture and the Social Democrats didn’t have the votes to carry the day.  But the SPD had another weapon.  If they refused to show up for the vote, the Reichstag wouldn’t have the quorum required to even vote in the first place.  So can we see those wheels a third time?

The Reichstag President, some guy named Hermann Goering, changed the rules, giving himself the power to declare any deputy “absent without excuse” as present.  You know, this is a lot like Calvinball…just make the rules up as you go.  Anyways, the SPD Party was now cornered, and with the SA (Hitler’s merry band of enforcers, commonly referred to as “thugs”) standing outside the chambers, and the outcome was inevitable.

On March 23, 1933, the votes were cast, and the Enabling Act squeaked through by a 441-to-94 margin.  The Reichstag had just voted itself out of relevance in Germany and, in 2 months, the German Republic had become a totalitarian state under the man destined to become one of history’s greatest tyrants.

Recommended Reading: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – A History of Nazi Germany

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Almost a year ago, we talked about how Adolf Hitler took one of his first baby-steps towards bringing back Germany’s military greatness.  In direct violation of the Versailles Treaty, he created an army, a navy, and an air force.  He then waited for a response from Britain and France…a response that never came.

With the ringing in of the New Year, Hitler set his sights on his next conquest…the Rhineland.  As you might guess, the Rhineland is that area on either side of the Rhine River, which flows through Germany.  After WWI, the Versailles Treaty stipulated that it be completely demilitarized, at least for the Germans.  The French and British were supposed to guard it until 1935, at which point they would also depart, leaving the area a permanent DMZ.  The French and British had actually left early (in 1930), and for five years all was quiet.

But Hitler had gotten away with building a military, and now it was time to test the next boundary.  Against the better judgment of his military leaders, he decided that next “step” would be to use his forces in some kind of aggressive behavior.

And so, as the sun rose on March 7, 1936, three battalions of soldiers from the army he wasn’t supposed to have (and some airplanes from the air force he wasn’t supposed to have, either) entered the Rhineland, drove to the Rhine River, and actually crossed it to the west side.

And then the French responded, massing troops on the border.  The German military held its collective breath, as did the Chancellor.  If the French moved in, there was no way three battalions would stand any chance at all.  Furthermore, a retreat would be humiliating for the German leadership.

But the French did not move further…because of money.  Military leaders presented their plan to remove the Germans, and its cost was more than France could afford with its very poor economy.  It’s quite possible that the French also lacked the stomach for a confrontation with Germany, but they definitely lacked the funds.

So the Germans stayed, and another bluff, the first of several, went unchallenged.  And Adolf Hitler looked like a genius yet again.

Recommended Reading: Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives

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Last week, I finished reading Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, and it was easily the most disturbing book I’ve read.  We’ve discussed “man’s inhumanity to man” on several occasions, and never was it more glaringly apparent than in the Chinese capital.

The Japanese military leaders were somewhat embarrassed by the 3 months it took to conquer Shanghai, because they believed so strongly in the gross inferiority of their Chinese opponents.  So as they moved inland toward the capital, their anger and bloodlust came in trail.  Retreating Chinese soldiers and refugees entering Nanking told stories of atrocities…entire villages being razed and their inhabitants scattered or slaughtered.  But nothing could have prepared them for what was to come.

When the Battle of Nanking began, I mentioned a change in Chinese leadership, as General Iwame Matsui returned home due to illness.  It was either his successor, Prince Asaka Yasuhiko, or Lt. Col. Isamu Cho (forging Yasuhiko’s name), that ordered all captives of Nanking were to be killed.  Part of their logic was (to them) practical…it would have taken a bundle of resources to feed and govern the people of Nanking.  But more than that, the Japan’s military schools taught soldiers that the Chinese were less than dogs…worthless animals with no stomach to fight and no reason to live.

So when Nanking (largely undefended except by untrained troops) fell on December 13, 1937, General Matsui (who was more moderate, ordering his soldiers not to defile themselves before the world) was not on scene.  And the lack of resistance was an abomination to Japan’s warrior culture of “bushido”, further fueling their hatred.

I don’t know all military history, but based on what I’ve read (and seen on video, because it’s available), the subsequent weeks in Nanking were some of the most excrutiatingly brutal…ever.  Citizens of Nanking were rounded up, the men were executed, the women raped then executed, and the children used as gruesome experimental subjects.  Chinese were buried alive, doused with kerosene and set aflame, buried to their heads and then run over with trucks, and used as live bayonet targets…and that isn’t the worst of it.

German businessman John Rabe, living in Nanking and no stranger to his own government’s repression elsewhere, was aghast at what he witnessed and sent word to Adolf Hitler that something needed to be done.  General Matsui returned and ordered the killing to stop, but he was essentially shoved aside…Yasuhiko was a Prince.

The Nanking Safety Zone became the lone haven in a city flowing with blood.  Originally set up by missionaries and concerned men like Rabe, it was a war-free area where foreigners could gather and be safe from Japanese attack.  But  it began to fill with Chinese citizens seeking refuge, and the  Safety Zone was soon crowded beyond capacity with several hundred thousand inhabitants.  And then the administrators of the Zone worked to protect the refugees, feed them, heal them, and comfort them…though they were never asked, nor expected, to do so.

The Safety Zone protected thousands and thousands of people during those horrific weeks, but many others could not be saved.  There is debate over how many were killed in the Rape of Nanking, and some still argue that it never really happened (but video doesn’t lie and all the witnesses can’t be lying either).  In her book, Chang brings together numerous tallies and calculates that more than 375,000 Chinese were killed in 6-8 weeks.

The Rape of Nanking was one of the most gruesome events in man’s often-bloody history.  And to think, World War II and all of its horrors was still two years from officially starting.

Recommended Reading:  The Rape of Nanking – Today, I use the word “recommended” loosely.  There is incredible courage and strength recounted in this book, but also unbelievable suffering and awful violence.

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In 1937, the people living in the Chinese capital of Nanking had been been nervously training their eyes eastward for a month.  The fall of the port city of Shanghai in November was a very bad omen, and the Chinese troops that had entered (and passed through) the city with news of the Japanese approach didn’t help matters.  Situated on a bend in the Yangtze River, Nanking was afforded a natural (and very imposing) barrier that prevented enemy encirclement.  But it was also a hindrance to escape, as the river was too cold (and too wide) to swim and there weren’t enough watercraft for everyone.

From a military standpoint, the situation was also less than favorable.  After Shanghai, the Japanese military had begun a three-pronged attack towards the capital, 175 miles to the northwest.  The Chinese troops, exhausted after Shanghai, offered little resistance, satisfied to merely stay ahead of the onslaught.

Tang Shengzhi, the General in charge of Nanking’s defense, had vowed to defend the city to the death, but the soldiers from Shanghai weren’t having it.  Desirous of escaping the enemy, they grabbed boats, sailed the Yangtze, and continued into the Chinese interior.  Chiang Kai-shek (the head of the National Military Council) realized that there weren’t enough quality troops to mount a realistic defense, so the elite forces were withdrawn to fight another day, and Shengzhi was left with about 100,000 mostly untrained soldiers.  The government left the city on December 1st, with the president following on the 7th.

The Japanese occupied all the area around Nanking and then ordered the city to surrender.  Those forces had been commanded by General Iwane Matsui, but an illness forced him to return home, a departure that would have dire consequences (which we’ll discuss later).  In his place, Asaka Yasuhiko (related by marriage to Emperor Hirohito) assumed command.  Also in the chain of command was the fanatical Lt. Colonel Isamu Cho (you might remember him from our discussions of Okinawa).

On December 9, 1937, after the Chinese refused to surrender, the Battle of Nanking began as the Japanese attacked the city.  But with only a scattering of forces, no tanks, very little artillery, and no air force, the Chinese military was pretty much doomed.  The duration of this battle would be measured only in days.

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The Locarno Pact was not just a single agreement between two countries, as “pacts” generally tend to be.  Involving Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, the Locarno Pact was a series of agreements between Germany and the countries that fought against her in World War I.

The primary agreement laid out border guarantees for France, Belgium, and Germany.  The Treaty of Versailles (signed in 1919) had established the borders, but the Locarno Pact was supposed to be the teeth behind it, setting those borders as inviolable.  Acting as 3rd-party “guarantors”, Great Britain and Italy would sit back and watch.  If any border was breached militarily, Great Britain and Italy (as well as the other non-invaded country) would come to the aid of the invaded country.  Got it?

There were also some lesser agreements signed between the countries involving arbitration, whereby disputes (territorial or otherwise) would first be taken to mediation before the guns got loaded and fired.  In return, the countries would move towards more normal relations with Germany, and she would be admitted to the League of Nations.

But not everyone was happy with the outcome.  While Germany’s border with France and Belgium had been guaranteed, Poland’s was not.  Poland considered it a slap in the face, essentially giving permission for Germany to attack Poland with no guarantee of assistance.  Despite assurances from France that she would come to Poland’s aid, the Polish government predicted (prophetically, as it turns out), that France wouldn’t life a finger to aid them.

But at the time, the “Spirit of Locarno” was bigger than Poland’s gripes and those issues were, for the moment, shoved to the side.  The representatives, who hammered out the details in mid-October in Locarno, Switzerland (hence the Pact’s name), formally signed the document in London on December 1, 1925.

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On November 9, 1937, Shanghai fell to Japanese military forces.  The conflict with Japan had begun simply enough, with several smaller skirmishes culminating at the Marco Polo Bridge back in July, which the Japanese won.  At that point, the Japanese kind of figured that China would simply capitulate and offer up some concessions.  But for Chinese military leader Chiang Kai-shek, the Marco Polo Bridge was his line in the sand.  He recognized this for what it was:  the next in a long line of little actions by the enemy to gain more territory and, ultimately, take over the region.  It was time to fight.

Battle began on August 13th and quickly intensified the next day, with the Chinese bombing Japanese positions and launching an offensive around the city of Shanghai.  Losing Shanghai would mean the loss of an important port city and much economic power.  Initial successes were soon checked as the immense superiority of Japanese equipment, leadership, and troop discipline came to the fore and overwhelmed the numerical advantage the Chinese had in troops.

Though the fighting would last nearly 3 months, and the Chinese soldiers fought with incredible tenacity and bravery, there was just no stopping the enemy.  Japan’s airpower was devastating in effect, destroying entire garrisons in a single strike.  The Chinese military had no answer to Japan’s tank battalions.  And Shanghai’s status as a port meant the powerful Imperial Japanese Navy could sit offshore and plaster targets with impunity.

The Chinese government did everything possible to bring its plight to the world stage, but this was the mid 30’s, and Western Europe was preoccupied with a German dictator and his Italian puppet.  And the U.S., while experiencing a growing hostility with Japan, was not the least bit interested in entering into any kind of conflict.  And so the Chinese fought a hopeless battle as long as they could, and were then ordered to withdraw from the city on November 8th.  The decimated defenders departed, and Japan took the port the following day.

For the Chinese, the loss of Shanghai was terrible, as it gave the Japanese the launching pad they wanted to move just up the road to the capital of Nanking.  For the Japanese, who boasted they could take all of China in just 3 months, the victory was only slightly less humiliating than outright defeat and it was said many troops lusted for vengeance.

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That’s what Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had promised the Italian people, and that’s part of the rationale he used to order the invasion of Abyssinia on October 3, 1935.  So, where is Abyssinia?  The country is probably more familiar to you by its modern name:  Ethiopia.  It’s located on that hook on the northeast side of Africa (the Horn of Africa), where the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden meet.  Ethiopia almost butts up against the coast, but not quite, because it’s blocked in the north by Eritrea, which became an Italian possession earlier in 1935.  It’s also land-locked in the south by Somalia, and Italy already owned the section that bordered Abyssinia (called Italian Somaliland).

If you look at those links and kind of build the map in your head, you can see why the Italian government was interested in Abyssinia.  It wasn’t just to create a vacation paradise in the desert, but also to join their other possessions in a continuous landmass.  Plus, conventional wisdom suggested that if one country was going to invade another, the invading country should try to go after countries militarily weaker than its own.  Abyssinia fit that bill nicely, too.

The Abyssinian army numbered nearly half a million men, but most of them had little or no military experience or training.  The vast majority fought with spears, bows and arrows, and a few swords.  Those that had rifles used models that were ridiculously old and decrepit.  The Abyssinian army did have a few artillery pieces and a handful of WWI-era tanks, while the Air Force fielded about 20 aircraft.

The Italian military which crossed into Abyssinia at 5:30am in the first act of an undeclared war had 800,000 men (none with spears and all with guns), more than 2,000 artillery pieces, 600 tanks, and nearly 400 aircraft.

This conflict had all the makings of a serious Abyssinian spanking.

Recommended Reading: The Italian Invasion of Abyssinia 1935-36, Vol. 309

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It’s good to be back!!

I often took my lunch with me in grade school and, as I recall things, I had a bicentennial lunchbox that depicted scenes from the American Revolution.  While all red, white, and blue like most things from 1976, this lunchbox was a “comic strip” version, with the scenes played out in panel form.  One 3-panel comic depicted Paul Revere’s ride.  The first 2 panels showed our hero on his charger shouting, “The British are coming, the British are coming!!!”, while the 3rd showed him stopped and surrounded by British soldiers with one of them saying, “Riiiight.”  Ok, it’s not THAT funny, but it was the 70’s and it was a lunchbox, so expectations should be somewhat tempered.

I mention that because World War II started in a somewhat similar (humorous) fashion, with the Germans making the laughable claim that the Poles were invading Germany.  I don’t want to knock the Polish too much here, as they possessed a reasonable military (though their air force was pretty awful).  But relative to the quality of the army on the other side of the German-Polish border, the “aggressor” wasn’t even capable of pointing west, much less attacking west.

Still, Adolf Hitler needed a catalyst.  And over the preceding years, he had learned that the best sparks are made-up ones, so that’s what he did this time, too.  On August 31, 1939, German operatives staged numerous small incidents along the border.

The most famous of these occurred at the radio station in Gleiwitz, located on the border in Upper Silesia, Germany.  Germans dressed in Polish uniforms “attacked” the station, shot it up, broadcast some anti-German statements over the air, and left the bodies of some Polish sympathizers and prisoners as evidence of the attack.

Then, of course, came the broadcasts by Nazi propaganda about how the Poles had violated German sovreignty and defensive action was needed.  The German dictator had all the reason necessary to attack Poland, and said the victor in a battle would never need to talk about what really happened anyway.  The War was about to be engaged…

Recommended Reading: Adolf Hitler – The Definitive Biography

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