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Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

Well, it’s been a month again…this little endeavor hasn’t gone so well the last year or two.  This month, it was a project at work that took nearly every waking minute (and several minutes that should have been non-waking).  Regardless, it seems that when I want to write, things conspire against me.  I think it’s “decision time”.  I need to figure out if I want to continue, or maybe go in another direction, or simply stop.  I’ll use the next month to work it out.  By the end of February, if I haven’t picked it up, I’ll call it a day.

But since I’m here this evening, let’s at least share something.

Stutthof concentration camp isn’t nearly as well-known as several of its more famous counterparts (say, Treblinka or Auschwitz), but as I soon as mention it in concert with those others, students of history will immediately see images come into their minds.  They include the rows of huts, the emaciated prisoners, gas chambers (yes, Stutthof had one), and crematoriums.  The images will also include those of incredible suffering and death.

This particular camp was located in a rather marshy forested area, roughly 20 miles from Gdansk, Poland and a 20-minute walk from the Baltic Sea.  It was the first camp built in Polish territory, and it grew large enough to house more than 50,000 prisoners.  Conditions there were probably typical of most camps, which is to say appalling.  And while it wasn’t strictly a “death camp” like the six biggies, there was suffering and pain and death aplenty there.

Like most of these camps, Stutthof’s existence lasted while the fortunes of war were in Germany’s favor.  When things turned sour and the Russians began pushing the Germans back, it was time to vacate.  Many of the camps were razed in an effort to hide the crime, while others were simply abandoned.  And by January of 1945, the retreat was running at full speed, thanks to the Russian offensive that began on the 12th.

Stutthof was abandoned on the 25th, with nearly 50,000 prisoners beginning a death march of nearly 90 miles…it’s cold in Poland in January.  As they marched, those that fell were executed.  Eventually, the Russians cut off the German escape, so the prisoners were forced to retrace their steps back to Stutthof.  Nearly half of the prisoners would die.

But for several thousand – the numbers, depending on the source, range from 3,000 to 5,000 – the end came more quickly, and just as brutally.  They were the survivors of more than 13,000 prisoners that had fled one of Stutthof’s sub-camps.  On the evening of January 31, 1945 (the night after the Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed), they were marched to the edge of the frigid Baltic Sea and forced into the water under rifle and machine-gun fire.  There were only a handful of survivors.

Recommended Reading:  The Holocaust Research Project – A lot of good information and a detailed write-up of Stutthof.

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Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff was a man with a mission.  But I suppose that, for a Colonel in the German Army, having “a mission” was pretty obvious, especially in the spring of 1943.  Hitler’s forces had just suffered devastating defeat along the Volga, and things were not going well in the African desert.  So there were plans to make, and troops to move, and battles to fight (and from this point on, mostly battles to lose).

But this specific mission was different.  For von Gersdorff, it was life-changing.  In fact, it was life-ending.

You see, von Gersdorff was a conspirator.  He was one of many involved in the numerous plots to assassinate Der Fuhrer.  Officially, he was an intelligence officer in the Abwehr and part of Army Group Center, having been transferred there for the start of Operation Barbarossa.  Army Group Center was commanded by another conspirator, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock.  One of von Bock’s officers was Lt. Fabian von Schlabrendorff, yet another conspirator who happened to be von Gersdorff’s cousin…you now see how Gersdorff ended up where he did.

These men, who correctly believed that Hitler was leading the nation to humiliation and defeat, had put together several plans to either arrest or kill Adolf Hitler.  To this point, none of them had succeeded.

On March 21, 1943 (which happened to be Germany’s Memorial Day to those killed in WWI), they tried again.  Each year, the German leader attended a memorial service.  But rather than arrest him or – what was tried on other occasions – place a bomb where Hitler would be, it was decided to carry the bombs right to the man.  Von Gersdorff volunteered to a suicide mission.  He placed bombs, each with a ten-minute fuse, in his pockets.  During Hitler’s stroll among the memorials, von Gersdorff would get close and detonate the bombs.

It was a good plan, until he arrived at the museum.  He got near Hitler, started the fuses, and waited for the bang.  Unfortunately, the German dictator was in a tremendous hurry and stayed at the museum for just eight minutes before being whisked off.  With the opportunity gone, and not wishing to blow himself to smithereens for nothing, Von Gersdorff quickly excused himself to the restroom, where he worked feverishly and successfully defused the bombs.

Freiherr von Gersdorff escaped detection and arrest.  But even more miraculous than that, he was not implicated in the famous July 20 assassination plot, which nearly succeeded.  His role in that attempt was to hide the explosives that Count von Stauffenberg eventually carried in his briefcase.

One other interesting note about Col. von Gersdorff.  Less than one month after he successfully defused the bombs in his pockets, he discovered the remnants of the Russian massacres in the Katyn Forest.

Recommended Reading: Valkyrie: An Insider’s Account of the Plot to Kill Hitler

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Happy New Year!!

I hope you all had a relaxing time between the holidays and will head back to work refreshed.  I ate way more than I should have, but fortunately for me, the weather remains relatively warm…30s and 40s.  That means I can ride my bike to work and burn off some of the extra calories I packed on.

If we had been around Nuremberg, Germany on January 2, 1945, New Year’s celebrations would not have been in order.  It was on this evening that more than 500 British Lancasters flew overhead and plastered the medieval city back to, well, the Middle Ages.

The attack itself wasn’t a huge surprise to the city’s population had experienced bombing before.  During the Second World War, Nuremberg was the headquarters of one of Germany’s military districts, which alone made it an allied target of some value.  Furthermore, there was some military production going on there, particularly aircraft and tank engines.

But Nuremberg was also something of a spiritual center of National Socialism.  The Nuremberg rallies of the 20s and 30s were a pretty big deal, and numerous other Nazi Party gatherings had been held there over the years.  Like Adolf Hitler’s desire to crush Leningrad (named after the first Bolshevist leader) and Stalingrad (named after the current leader), it’s at least plausible that Allied planners might consider making Nuremberg a target for more than just strictly military reasons.

Nuremberg, already damaged by previous attacks, was devastated.  The pathfinders were very accurate in marking their targets with the aid of a full moon, and the Lancasters (though not speedy, could carry a significant bombload) did their job with fiery efficiency.  Nuremberg’s center was almost completely destroyed.  Thousands of buildings were reduced to smoldering rubble, including age-old churches, homes, museums, and the like.  More than 100,000 townspeople were left homeless, and another 1,800 were left lifeless.

This was the age of area bombing, so discrimination between military and civilian targets was pretty badly blurred.  And for many other German cities, like Hamburg before and Dresden just a month later, this is how their wars would end.

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Joachim Peiper was getting a bit frustrated, because he was getting further and further behind schedule.  Operation Watch on the Rhine (which we know so well as the Battle of the Bulge) had gotten off to a good start for him and his German compatriots.  Having achieved complete surprise with a 30-division offensive in the dead of winter in the Ardennes Forest, the Allied forces (comprised mostly of American troops in this area) were forced to retreat in the face of the onslaught.

The German objectives were simple.  Reach Antwerp, create a divide in the British and American forces, and hope for a peace deal.  Once that was accomplished, the German High Command could move all its arms and men eastward and try to slow down the Russians.

But the American troops hung in desperately, in many places fighting with a tenacity that surpassed even that of the desperate Germans.  And Peiper was seeing the results of that first-hand.  The offensive was just two days old, and already he was running late.  His final objective, the Meuse River, was taking too long to reach.

Peiper had lost time as he neared the village of Malmedy.  The next town on the road, Stavelot, had seen resistance slow him even more.  On December 18, 1944, he arrived at the village of Trois Ponts, which presented him with a chance to make up some lost time.  If he could cross the Ambleve River using the town’s three bridges (hence the name…Trois Ponts), there was good road ahead, which would allow his tanks to rip through the Belgium countryside and reach the Meuse in a just a couple of hours.

The Americans, however, had other plans.

As Peiper’s lead tanks rolled toward the bridges, they were met by opposing tanks.  The two enemies had barely begun their engagement when, to Peiper’s dismay, the sound of a blast and the rumble of a bridge falling into the Ambleve was heard.  Shortly after, the second major bridge at Trois Ponts was detonated.

This was disastrous.  The German commander now had to move his charges north to the bridge at Cheneux (a tiny village near La Gleize), which meant yet another delay and more precious fuel wasted.

An exasperated Peiper finally reached Cheneux in the last light of day.  He rounded the bend and watched in horror as, just two hundred yards away, the bridge (this time crossing the Lienne River) disappeared in a flash and a crash.

Joachim Peiper’s advance to the Meuse had been stopped.

The Battle of the Bulge, from a German perspective, was all about advancing and covering tons of ground in a very short time.  The German war machine had precious little fuel to use, so rapid movement and the capture of enemy depots was vital before the weather cleared and the Allies’ unbelievable advantage in the air could be used to its fullest.

The dedication of American engineers and sappers, like the ones Peiper faced, played a key role in blunting the German advance and eventually turning the German advance into a retreat and rout.

Recommended Reading: The Longest Winter

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For Richard Howard and Jock Forbes, this night would be a lot like preceding nights, and that meant little sleep, a lot of stress, and constant vigilance.  Howard was the provost of St. Michael’s Cathedral and Jock was the caretaker.  It was November 14, 1940, it was Coventry, it was England, and it was the middle of the Blitz.  And their job, along with a couple of other younger fellows, was to protect the church, now 600 years old.

British intelligence had received word that an air attack was coming.  A German prisoner had let it be known that aircraft would be bombing either Coventry, Wolverhampton, or Birmingham.  But for the inhabitants of Coventry, bombers and bombs were nothing new.  Since the Blitz had begun some months before, Coventry (with its many factories and other industry) had been a regular stop for the Luftwaffe.

And as it turned out, tonight would be no different.  So Howard and Jock would, once again, stand watch with their water hoses, ready to jump on any fire that threatened the church.

The early evening darkness was shattered when, shortly after 7:00pm, the air raid sirens began wailing.  As women and children headed for cover, those protecting St. Michael’s looked skyward.  The “pathfinder” aircraft (there were only a dozen or so) dropped their flares and a few incendiaries in order to light the path for the bomber force.

A short time later, the Heinkels of Luftflotte 3 began arriving.  They dropped their bombs, returned to their bases in France to rearm and refuel, and made the trip again.  The raid lasted most of the night and into the early morning hours.

The devastation from the bombs of more that 500 enemy aircraft was complete.

Henry Brooks has written a book for young adults called True Stories of the Blitz, and his description of the aftermath is worth plagairizing.  “There was no all-clear signal given on the morning of November 15.  The sirens had either been blasted to pieces or had no power supply for their electric motors.  The gas, water and electricity services for the city were in disarray.  Around 06:30, wardens began hurrying through the shell-holed streets, calling to people in their shelters that the raid was finally over. … They came up to the surface to find their beautiful city a smoking ruin. … The fires had consumed 70% of the city’s factories.  People described bizarre sights and smells in the aftermath of the blaze.  A cloud of cigar smoke hung around a charred tobacco stand; sides of pork and beef were stacked in a butcher’s shop, perfectly roasted.”

The known deaths in the attack numbered 568 and nearly 1,000 more were injured.  More than 60,000 buildings were either damaged or destroyed, including, as Brooks mentioned, three quarters of the factories.

And St. Michael’s Cathedral?  She, too, was numbered with the victims.

The first fires that started in the church were quickly extinguished, but early in the attacks, the water supplies were disrupted and the hoses ran dry.  Richard Howard, Jock Forbes, and their helpers were quickly reduced to spectators as the fires returned, spread, and eventually consumed the aged church.  The morning light presented little more than a burned out shell (shown above) of the once-magnificent Gothic structure…a shell you can still visit today.

Recommended Reading:  True Stories of the Blitz – It’s one for the youngsters, but the stories are interesting enough for anyone to read.

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In the madness and chaos that is war, there have been many, many times when soldiers have shot at their own comrades, mistaking them for the enemy.  With his head down in a foxhole at night, it’s hard to know for sure if the guy approaching is on the same side.  Maybe a fellow Marine is out of position and his buddies open fire.  A fighter pilot may accidentally drop his bombs a little short of the target, spraying death among his own.  A tank may look, from a distance, like one belonging to the enemy.

We call these “friendly fire” incidents, and they drive commanders, politicians, and the general population crazy.

Back on September 6, 1939, the British called it The Battle of Barking Creek.

Having declared war on Germany for their invasion of Poland, the British war was now just three days old.  And since the war was being fought in Poland, British pilots hadn’t really seen the enemy, they hadn’t seen an enemy plane, they weren’t familiar with their own planes in combat, and they weren’t really used to air combat at all.

Not good.

So when the air raid sirens sounded, the Spitfires scrambled, looking for an enemy that, as it turns out, didn’t exist.  It was a false alarm.  But unbeknownst to the inexperienced pilots, some Pilot Officers flying Hawker Hurricanes were also sent up and followed from a distance.

And while you’d think the Spitfire guys would know what other planes in their own arsenal looked like, you’d be wrong in the thick of the first “air attack” of the war.  The guys flying the Hurricanes got mistaken for Germans flying Messerschmitts and were summarily attacked.  Both were shot down and one of the pilots was killed…the first British pilot to be killed in “combat” in World War II.

But as is the case with many of these tragic occurances, much was learned.  The British learned that some of their pilots were woefully inept at aircraft identification, and they learned that their radar systems weren’t nearly as good at identifying enemy aircraft formations as originally thought.  These lessons, brought about by unfortunate death, better prepared them for the time when enemy formations were really coming in anger…during the Battle of Britain.

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The German advance through France and the Low Countries in May of 1940 was, without question, one of the more remarkable operations of the Second World War.  Yeah, the wrong side (at least from my perspective) planned it, prepared it, and executed it.  And the right side (at least from my perspective) had no answer, relying on static fortifications and a real lack of will to fight.  But still, from a military standpoint, we have to be impressed by how well the Wehrmacht carried it off…it was brilliant.

Within weeks, German Panzers had pinned their French and English opponents against the English Channel, their choices reduced to either surrender or slaughter.  They were out-gunned, out-manned, and out-planned.  It was over.

Well, for the port city of Calais, it was over.  On May 26, 1940, Brigadier Claude Nicholson and his few remaining holdouts gave up the fight.  They had been been holed up in a 16th-century citadel for the better part of four days, subjected to relentless artillery fire and bombing.  When the Germans finally gained the bridges to the citadel, Nicholson knew the battle was lost and gave it up.

If there was any remaining delusion that the French and British Expeditionary Forces could stop the German advance, it vanished at this point.  The call went out from Dunkirk to Number 10 Downing Street that desperate help was needed.  And, of course, we know that it arrived just 15 or 20 miles to the north and west at another port city.

Dunkirk.

The bravery and tenacity of Nicholson and his men at the citadel in Calais should not be understated, but to credit their holdout with permitting the evacuation is to push reality.

They certainly did their part, but the evacuation should mostly be credited to Adolf Hitler, who, two days before, ordered his Panzers to halt.

Recommended Reading: Lightning War

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