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Archive for the ‘World War II (1939-1945)’ Category

My grandmother celebrates her 98th birthday today.  So a bunch of us gathered yesterday at the assisted living care facility where she lives.  After taking her out to lunch, we had a little party with cake and ice cream.  I think she really enjoyed it, even though all the attention and all the movement probably wore her out.  She was also quick to remind us that Sunday (the 11th) was her birthday, not Saturday.

I’ve mentioned it before, but grandma has lived through a mammoth amount of change.  Yesterday she looked in wonder at a smartphone.  She probably began her life in a home without any phone at all, and lived most of it with a corded phone hooked to the wall.  And that’s just one thing…there are countless other examples.

Grandma is finally beginning to forget things.  I’m not complaining, because it’s taken her nearly a century of living to reach that point.  But I’m really grateful for our ability to write stuff down.  As we age, our brains lose their capacity to process and remember information.  So fifty years from now, if I’m still around and these pages still exist, I might not remember going to visit grandma on her 98th birthday, but at least I’ll be able to read about such an event…if I can still see.

Today we remember the one-year anniversary of the terrible earthquake-driven tsunami that ravaged parts of Japan.  In the days of instant video and those smartphones that grandma just discovered, the events of that day are compressed to a series of ones and zeroes and stored on a hard drive, just waiting for a mouse click or finger tap to be brought back to the surface of YouTube as a sobering reminder.

Had smartphones and YouTube been around in Japan on March 11, 1945, they would have recorded the earth shaking.  They would have brought images of fire and destruction to your video screen.  Terror and death might have been your vista.  But it wasn’t an earthquake and it wasn’t a tsunami.

Grandma’s 31st birthday was the day the U.S. Air Force paid a visit to Nagoya, Japan.  It was not the first time.  Indeed, bombs had fallen on the city several times, beginning in December of the following year.  There was a Mitsubishi factory located there that supplied the dwindling Japanese war effort, and it was the first target.  But this was the first time Nagoya had been hit using new tactics.

Taking a page from the European theater, General Curtis LeMay had recently decided to mass large groups of bombers as a single force when attacking Japan.  Previous attempts using small packages was proving ineffective.  The first real test, a couple of days before against Tokyo, had been (from the perspective of the U.S. military) a resounding success.

So while Tokyo was still smouldering, LeMay’s massed Superfortresses hit Nagoya.  And while the damage may not have been as bad as the Tokyo raid (sixteen square miles turned to dust and nearly 200,000 killed and wounded), it was extensive.

With this result, General LeMay and the U.S. Air Force believed they had found a weapon that would finally end the war against Japan.

Recommended Reading: Superfortress: The B-29 and American Air Power

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We need a Leap Year topic, so checking the calendar may take a bit more time.  Hmmm…well…got it.

Finland’s attempts to hold back the Red Army had, by February 29, 1940, had become all but hopeless.  What had started the previous November as an incredibly lopsided affair with the Finns terribly outnumbered and outgunned was ending.  The middle months had seen tenacious fighting with the Finns holding off vastly superior numbers, but the reality was that the Finns simply didn’t have enough men and guns and bullets.  And their air force was non-existent.  The Red Army, for all the terrible losses they suffered (and some more radical estimates put that number at 1,000,000 casualties), was able to replace its forces faster than its enemy could kill them.

The Soviets, now certain of victory, were ready to dictate terms.  They did so on February 28th, with a deadline of March 1.  Fortunately for the Finns, 1940 was a Leap Year, which gave them an extra day to make their decisions.  It was an easy choice, and the Finnish government “agreed in principle” to the Soviets terms the following day.

And in a rather bizarre twist, it was precisely at this moment that French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier (shown above) decided to enter the fray.  Hours after the Finnish committed to peace talks, Daladier (without bothering to consult the British, his main ally) offered 50,000 troops and 100 bombers, to be delivered before the end of March, if the Finns would continue their resistance.

It gets better.  The British, rather than knock Daladier upside the head for his foolishness, began considering their own amphibious expedition to the north.  These offers really had no basis in reality, and the Finns knew it.  First off, there was no realistic way for either the French or British to move this kind of manpower (and all of the required logistical support) in such a short amount of time.  Plus, these immovable forces would have had to travel through Norway and Sweden.  Both countries, while maintaining a modicum of neutrality, had some pro-German leanings.  Had the British violated their Scandanavian neutrality, they risked bringing both German and Russian aggression.

Helsinki took a quick look at the proposals, recognized their utter fantasy, and kept to their plan.  The guns would continue shooting (mostly on the side of the Red Army, as the defenders were rapidly running out of weaponry) and the men would continue dying, but the end of one of the more remarkable conflicts of the Second World War was just two weeks away.

And with that, Today’s History Lesson closes out its fourth year of existence.  It’s been a rather sparse twelve months.  I’m not sure I managed even 100 pieces this year, which is a lot less than any previous year.  But 2012 is young, and maybe I can get things going again.  The prospect of beginning year five tomorrow gives me some inspiration and the calendar is full of stuff (including lots of topics that got pushed forward last year), so let’s live in hope.

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By mid-February of 1940, the Winter War was going badly for the Finnish Army.  Winter War?…what is this Winter War about which I type?  Well, it’s been a while since I’ve had anything to say about it.  In fact, nearly two years has gone by since this rather unknown conflict colored this page.  So let’s have a quick refresher.

The Winter War was fought (as you would guess) in the winter of 1939 and 1940 between Russia and Finland.  It started out as basically a Russian trade offer:  Finland gives up its territory between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga (and some other pieces of land) and receives some Russian territory in return.  The Finns rejected the trade offer and Russian leader Joseph Stalin simply ordered his army to take it, along with the rest of Finland.

And despite being grossly outnumbered, the Finns held the Russians back for more than two months.  If you want the details, William Trotter’s book A Frozen Hell is an outstanding source.  If you want a pretty lame overview, you can search Today’s History Lesson and find maybe a dozen pieces I’ve written covering different aspects of the Winter War.

Back to our story…

By mid-February, the Red Army had gotten itself organized and was finally using its vastly superior forces to good effect.  A massive multi-day bombardment at the beginning of the month gave way to a massive coordinated assault, and the Finnish defenses cracked.

One area of especially tough Finnish resistance was the Mannerheim Line.  Stretching across the land between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, some positions along the Line had withstood repeated attacks.  In particular, the defenses around the village of Taipale had been really tough.  Located on the far left of the Finnish flanks (sitting right on Lake Ladoga), Taipale had been subjected to Russian attacks almost since the first week of December, and remnants of the Finnish Third Corps still held their ground.

In fact, it had become something of a thorn in the side of the Russians, who recognized this bubble as a point of attack.  Trotter writes in his book that, if the Finns had a spare division or two, this would have been the place to use them to best effect.  Unfortunately, they didn’t…but the Russians did.

On February 18, 1940, Trotter writes, “An entire Soviet division, supported by the usual stupendous artillery and aerial bombardment, smashed into a green replacement regiment and drove it from the field in panic.  A dangerous dent was hammered into the front lines, and several important strong points fell, but the support line, manned by the battered but battle-wise veterans of the sector, held out.”  It came to be known as “Black Day at Taipale”.  And while Taipale held, collapse was all around them.  Few Finnish soldiers doubted, as did the diplomats already in negotiation, that the end of the war was fast approaching.

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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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Ususally, when we’re faced with a crisis, our first reaction is some degree of shock.  In a figurative (or maybe even literal) sense, we stand there, staring blankly and not really focusing on anything, with our arms hanging at our sides, not really knowing what to do.  Eventually, our wits return, and we can begin assessing our situation and reacting to it.

That’s kind of how things work.

At the time of the Japanese attacks in December of 1941, many in the U.S. military did much the same.  There was the initial surprise.  It was followed by the “thousand-yard stare”, as the Japanese rolled over objective after objective all over the South Pacific.  And then came the chance to respond, which really didn’t get underway until Doolittle and Midway several months later.

But during that time, there were many instances where soldiers in harm’s way put forth a super-human effort.  Over the years, we’ve discussed Bataan and Corregidor as places where our military men, facing terrible odds and no real hope of rescue, gave an incredible accounting for themselves.

The garrison at Wake Island is another example.

For the men stationed there, it must have been a pretty lonely existence.  The island measured a couple of square miles, so there wasn’t much to see.  It was situated in the middle of nowhere, about 1,500 miles from anything, so there wasn’t anywhere to go.

And as for defenses, well, they were pretty pathetic as well.  Some 5-inch guns from a deceased battleship comprised the big iron.  There were a couple of ancient 3-inch guns that didn’t fully function, some heavy machine guns, a handful of anti-aircraft weapons, and whatever small arms the 450 men (a Marine Defense Battalion and a smattering of others) carried on their hips.  Oh, and there was a Marine fighter squadron with a dozen F4F Wildcats.

Just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wake was targeted by Japanese bombers.  They concentrated on the air defenses, destroying eight of the twelve aircraft (the other four were flying defense).  There were some subsequent attacks, but all of this was the prelude to the main action.

On December 11, 1941, a Japanese landing force arrived to take over.  It included three cruisers, a half-dozen destroyers, and a pair of troop transports carrying the invasion sortie of 450 soldiers.  The expectation was one of a fairly easy landing and occupation.

Wake’s defenders, however, had different ideas.  They met their unwelcome visitors with all the firepower they could muster.  The men manning the five-inchers succeeded in sinking a destroyer and heavily damaging a cruiser.  In the air, the remaining Wildcats dropped bombs and successfully blew the tail off another Japanese destroyer, sending her to the bottom with all hands.

All of a sudden, this little skirmish had turned into a crisis for the Japanese, and they were the ones staring in shock.  Hopelessly out-gunned, this little garrison was putting a pasting on a much larger invasion force.  And for the first time in the war, the Japanese withdrew from an objective to regroup.

For the men at Wake, it was an awesome sight to see a Japanese force falling below the horizon in retreat.  Commander Winfield Cunningham, when ordering a long list of supplies, humorously included more enemy soldiers to fight.  But as we know, the small atoll was under siege, and no supplies or reinforcements would arrive.  The Pacific belonged to the Japanese, so Wake was on its own.

But Wake would manage to hold out for another two weeks against overwhelming pressure…a pretty remarkable feat considering the circumstances.

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We ate dinner last night with our son Andrew and his three boys.  It was his birthday last week, but he was out of town, so we celebrated it late.  He picked Uncle Buck’s as his restaurant, where the food is always good.  As we sat at the table, 5-year-old Teagan informed us that another word for delicious is “scrumptious.”  So my Cajun Catfish sandwich, which I always get and comes with about a pound of fish, was scrumptious.

Let’s tackle some history.

Saburo Sakai (who is no stranger to us) was a nervous pilot.  It’s not that piloting an airplane made him nervous, but rather the circumstances surrounding this particular flight.  He was part of the attack force heading for Clark Air Base in the Philippines.  It was December 8, 1941, and his was just one of many forces heading for targets all over the vast Pacific.

His buddies had struck a few hours before (and on the other side of the International Date Line) against the U.S. Navy parked at Pearl Harbor.  The 5th and 18th army divisions were landing along the coasts of Thailand and Malaya.  Three regiments were causing havoc in Hong Kong.  Wake Island was being bombarded, and Burma was being invaded by the Japanese 15th army.

Attacks were happening everywhere, but the timing of this particular mission, against General Douglas MacArthur’s center of command, was what caused Sakai’s concerns.  His squadrons had been scheduled to attack Clark at roughly the same time as the attacks on Pearl.  But some incredibly dense fog that settled on their base in Formosa had caused their flights to be delayed by hours, ruining any chance of surprise.

However, as Sakai approached Clark with the other pilots, it was they who were surprised.  Below were dozens of bombers and fighters parked neatly in rows, just waiting to be blown up.  They couldn’t believe their fortune.  Their timing had actually been perfect.  When word reached Clark of the attacks at Pearl Harbor, many of the planes had been sent aloft.  When the attacks didn’t come, the planes were brought back and parked so they could be refueled and the crews could eat.

And it was then that the Japanese arrived, and proceeded to demolish the place.

Like Hawaii, war had come to the islands of the Philippines.

Recommended Reading:  Tears in the Darkness – A must read.

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