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Posts Tagged ‘1939’

The Karelian Isthmus has long labored through uneasy times.  I suppose it’s a bad idea to apply human characteristics such as suffering and endurance to a chunk of land, because it’s very near to mixing metaphors…or something.  But it seems somehow appropriate.  We’ve talked about this piece of property on numerous occasions, and always under the strain of conflict or outright war.

Where is it?  The easiest way to find it is to locate St. Petersburg, Russia on your globe or wall map or maybe even on the Internet.  St. Petersburg sits right at the tip of the Karelian Isthmus, which separates the Gulf of Finland from Lake Ladoga (which has also received some play around these parts).

It’s not as though this is prime real estate.  In his wonderful book on the Russo-Finnish War called A Frozen Hell, William Trotter writes that while the area is beautiful, rich with trees and pocked with lakes, the beauty runs no deeper than that.  He pens, “The soil grows few crops, and those grudgingly, and the scant mineral resources are hardly worth the labor of extraction.”

This chunk of “scenic wasteland” has value because of its location and its function as a land bridge between Russia and Asia to the east and Scandanavia to the west.  And in the land couple of hundred years, much of the conflict has centered around St. Petersburg.

In the late 1930s, St. Petersburg was called Leningrad and the Karelian Isthmus, to within a very few miles of the city, was territory belonging to Finland.  And this worried the Stalin-led Soviets badly.  It’s not as though Finland was a threat, as their stance of strict neutrality was well-known.  But Germany was not neutral, and her ties in Scandanavia (particularly with Sweden) presented a tremendous threat to Stalin, especially since Finland didn’t appear to have much of a military presence.  A quick air attack, a few Wehrmacht divisions on the ground with a handful of Panzers, and the spear tip of National Socialism would be an artillery shell’s distance from Leningrad, the heart of Bolshevism.

So the Soviets began discussions with the Finns in early 1938, hinting that the Finns should take positive action to resist German aggression.  The Finns reminded their western neighbors that, as neutrals, they would take positive action against any aggressor.  The talks continued, with the Russians stating that Helsinki could really show their neutrality best by ceding to Russia parts of the Karelian Isthmus, especially those closest to Leningrad.  The Finnish response was predictable:  that’s preposterous and out of the question.

The back-and-forth banter continued through 1938 and into 1939.  When the Germans invaded Poland from the west, the Red Army followed suit from the east a couple of weeks later.  Stalin had his breathing space in Europe.  As part of his agreement with Germany, the Soviet dictator annexed Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.  Stalin had his breathing space in the Balkans.  But still there was Scandanavia.

The Finnish government was summoned in early October.  Trotter quotes Max Jakobsen, a Finnish historian.  “For eighteen months, Finland had conducted a muted dialogue with her great neighbor; the Russians had from time to time softly asked a favor or two, and the Finns had politely whispered their refusal.  Now the tone was changed:  this time, there had been steel in Molotov’s voice.”  The first high-level meeting between the two governments took place in Moscow on October 12, 1939, and there was no soft talk or beating around the bush on this occasion.

The Soviet Union demanded that the Finns give up most of the Karelian Isthmus and all fortifications there (including the famed Mannerheim Line) be destroyed.  Also demanded were several Finnish-owned islands in the Gulf of Finland and the Rybachi Peninsula in the Arctic.  In addition, the Soviets wanted Finland to lease them the Hanko peninsula and allow them to build a Red Army base there.  In return, the Russians would give Finland 5,500 square kilometers of territory on the other side of Lake Ladoga.

Effectively, the Russians were asking Finland to give up any ability to defend itself from the east while providing their neighbor protection from the west.  The Finns believed this was ludicrous.  They were right.  They also believed that Stalin’s threat to take the territory by force if they refused was a bluff.  They were wrong.

These talks would ultimately fail, leading to one of the most lopsided land battles in all of the Second World War.

Recommended Reading: A Frozen Hell

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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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I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas.  Last time I wrote…well…it was nearly last year.  I’ve been away too long, but that’s ok.  Most of us have had plenty of other good diversions to keep us busy.  It’s another quickie…

During the last half of the 1930s, Americans watched the increased aggression taking place abroad.  A great number of people wanted nothing to do with foreign intervention, or entanglements, or war.  But as Hitler expanded out from Germany and Mussolini did the same in Africa and southern Europe, it became pretty apparent that war would come.  And there was growing disquiet over Japan’s push in China and her desire to create a giant Japanese pond out of the Pacific Ocean.

Of course, the U.S. military noticed all this as well, and they began pushing for increased armaments production.  It was during this time that the potential for war actually gave America the head start she would need when war did arrive in 1941.

One of the better-known projects to come out of this period was the Consolidated B-24 Liberator.  The Consolidated Aircraft Company had been approached by the Army Air Corps to produce B-17 Flying Fortresses under license from Boeing.  The B-17 was a durable, rugged aircraft that was pretty well loved by those who flew it, and Boeing couldn’t keep up with the increased demand.

But Consolidated believed they could do better.  And just like North American Aviation (when asked to build P-40 Warhawks for Curtiss), Consolidated’s leadership believed they could build a better plane.  So they built a four-engine bomber that was a bit faster, climbed a little more quickly, and could perform a 2,000-mile mission carrying three tons of bombs.

The new mark first flew on December 29, 1939 and, while there was favorable response to the aircraft’s abilities, actually flying the plane turned out to be a more difficult affair.  It didn’t fly in formation nearly as well as the Flying Fortress.  It’s lightweight design (which gave it greater range) meant it couldn’t withstand the same level of damage as the 17s.  And they had a tendency to catch fire.

But they could carry a big bombload for quite a distance, and that made Liberators a very popular weapon of choice.  So popular, in fact, that the B-24 would become the most mass-produced aircraft in U.S. history, with on the order of 18,000 being produced.  And with so many in service, lots of guys flew them, including my next-door neighbor when I was growing up.  He flew in Germany and was actually shot down.

And while there were myriads produced, hardly any are still flying.  There are a handful of survivors on static display, but only two are still capable of taking to the skies.

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In July of 1944, Count Claus von Stauffenberg came within an eyelash of assassinating German dictator Adolf Hitler.  His briefcase bomb was planted under the table around which Hitler and some of his military leaders were gathered, and it detonated just as planned.  But Hitler’s position at the table meant he was shielded from much of the blast.  Hitler was given another 9 months of life.  Stauffenberg?…another 9 hours or so before a firing squad ended his.

But of course, the plotters behind Stauffenberg weren’t the only ones who wanted the hated head of state gone.  Since 1921 (when Hitler’s ascendancy had barely begun), there had been plots and plans against him.  Some had stayed just plans.  Others had progressed further.  A handful were actually attempted.  And as we know, the attempt on July 20, 1944 gets the most face time because, of all the attempts, it came the closest to actually succeeding.  It also had the biggest fallout.

But other attempts nearly succeeded as well.  On November 8, 1939, Johann Georg Elser’s shot at Hitler came within minutes of success.  This young man was dismayed by the increasing influence the Nazi Party was having in daily life.  The restrictions placed on workers and businesses, the aggressive discrimination against Jewish people and others, and just the overall brutishness of the Party’s minions convinced Elser that the Nazi party was peopled largely by thugs.  He also believed that if they were capable of this kind of violence, it would take little more to drive the nation into a war with catastrophic results.

He decided to take matters into his own hands.

Hitler returned to Munich each November to commemorate the Beer Hall Putsch.  And each November Hitler gave a speech in the basement of the beer hall (the Bürgerbräukeller).  Elser’s plan was to plant a bomb in a pillar behind the rostrum where Hitler would be speaking.  For a month leading up to the celebration, Elser managed to sneak into the building and remained hidden until it closed.  He would then come out and work on hollowing out the pillar.  As the time for Hitler’s big speech neared, Elser planted the bomb in the pillar and set its timer for 9:20pm, when the Fuhrer would normally be at full rant.

But weather conditions would lay waste to all of Elser’s daring.  Hitler wanted to head straight back to Berlin that evening.  Normally he flew, but heavy fog caused him to take the train, which is much slower than an airplane.  He wrapped up his speech early and left promptly at 9:07pm.  At 9:20pm, Elser’s bomb went off exactly as planned, making a wreck of the place and causing eight deaths and dozens of injuries.  But the primary target had left the building.

Elser was arrested later that evening as he tried to cross the border into Switzerland, and pictures of the Beer Hall were found on his person.  He immediately fell under suspicion and eventually confessed to the Gestapo.  Elser was sent to prison and very nearly survived the war.  But with the Allies bearing down on Germany in 1945, the Nazis began tying up loose ends.  One of those loose ends was Johann Georg Elser, who was shot in early April.

Recommended Reading: Valkyrie: An Insider’s Account of the Plot to Kill Hitler – Though this focuses mostly on the Stauffenberg plot, Elser’s story gets some discussion time as well.

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General Student left Hitler’s presence with his mind in a blur.  Hitler’s proposal, the capture of Fort Eben Emael, was a bombshell.  To say it was a fortress was to grossly understate just how well-defended it was.  Massively thick concrete, steel-reinforced doors, and large artillery pieces made it the most impenetrable bunker on the planet.  This would not be easy, and Hitler wanted an answer quickly.

He did some good hard thinking and picked up his conversation with Hitler the next morning.  The Fuhrer had said nothing about the corresponding invasion of the Low Countries, so Student still didn’t have a very good context from which to work.  But he was ready with his answer anyways…and that answer was “yes”…with conditions.

Kurt Student told Hitler that such a difficult mission could not be done at night.  Rather, it would have to be done in daylight or (at the least) in morning twilight.  Hitler agreed quickly.  What Student had not yet voiced was his other major concern – firepower.  Eben Emael was incredibly strong.  Breaking through its outer shell would not be the work of artillery pieces, but rather of massive siege cannon, firing huge shells and point-blank range.  Siege guns couldn’t be carried on gliders, and conventional trucks or trains would immediately tip off the Belgians, ruining the surprise.

But Student didn’t have to bring it up, because Hitler already had the answer.  German munitions experts had developed an amazing new technology – the Hohladung (hollow charge).  Unlike typical shells and bombs that exploded outward, hollow charges focused their explosive potential on a central point.  The Fuhrer explained that even the super-thick concrete of Eben Emael’s cupolas could not withstand the power of these new devices.  Best of all, each one weighed just 110 pounds.  It would require the efforts of 2 or 3 men to position it, but if that could be done, it would do the job.

Kurt Student was, once again, stunned.  Here was the answer to his most pressing armaments question.  Hitler needed surprise (provided by Student’s gliders) and Student needed firepower (provided by the work of Hitler’s specialists).  Student was ready and asked, “My Fuhrer, may I now have your order?”  To which Hitler replied, “Yes.  I order you to take Fort Eben Emael!”

And so, on October 28, 1939, the plan to capture the world’s toughest military installation began.  General Student’s men would spend months in rigorous training under a blanket of utmost secrecy.  And when the time came, Adolf Hitler’s mission would be carried out in spectacular fashion.

Recommended Reading: The Fall of Eben Emael

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Kurt Student turned toward the door as it opened and glowered at the aide who entered through it.  The General, now approaching 50 years old and having just been given command of the 7th Flieger (airborne) Division, had given strict orders that no one was to disturb this meeting.  But when he read the note the aide handed him, his demeanor changed.  The single sentence read, “Marschall Goering is on the telephone about a matter of utmost urgency.”

Field Marshal Hermann Goering and General Student knew each other quite well.  The Marshal was in charge of the Luftwaffe, and Student had enjoyed a long association with aircraft as well.  In his book The Fall of Eben Emael, James Mrazek notes especially Student’s “experiments with parachuting and the transportation of units and supplies by aircraft.”  This Student was also something of a pioneer.

Anyways, Goering told Student to fly to Berlin as quickly as possible, because Adolf Hitler had requested a meeting with him at the earliest possible moment.  No, he had no idea of the subject matter, just that Student needed to get to Berlin.

And that’s how General Kurt Student found himself, twenty minutes later, in the cockpit (he was an accomplished pilot) of a plane, bound for the German capital.  And while the plane he flew was no screamer, it didn’t hold back his brain, which was probably running at warp speed in an attempt to figure out what could be so pertinent to require this kind of rapid response.

It was October 27, 1939, and the war in Poland was already over.  Things had quieted down a bit.  Was there an upcoming operation?…a clandestine mission?  Just a high-level meeting?  He had no clue…but he didn’t have long to wait.

Arriving in Berlin shortly before 2pm, he was whisked into Hitler’s presence, who dispensed with any small talk and got straight to the point.  He noted that Student had some experience with gliders and that 7th Flieger had gliders.  Student nodded in confirmation.

Hitler continued (as recorded by Mrazek), “I have a job for you.  I want to know if you can do it.  The Belgians have a fort here.”  Hitler pointed at a map.  “Do you know it?”

Student’s response:  “Yes, my Fuhrer, I know it well.  It is a tremendous fortification.”

Hitler proceeded to describe some of the particulars of the fort, and then said, “I have an idea.  I think some of your attack gliders could land on top of Fort Eben Emael and your men could storm the works.  Is that possible?”

General Student was stunned, not only by the idea’s audacity, but also by it’s almost ridiculous simplicity.  He requested a bit of time to think it over, which the Fuhrer granted.  Student returned the next day and…

Well…let’s tackle that tomorrow…

Recommended Reading: The Fall of Eben Emael

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To say the Admiral Graf Spee was successful as a merchant raider is to understate the grief she caused France and Britain.  Having deployed in August of 1939 (to be in position when hostilities opened in September), the pocket battleship had roamed the Indian and South Atlantic Oceans, wreaking havoc on Allied merchant shipping.

As the end of 1939 neared, the British (with some French assistance) put together nine (yes, nine) hunting groups, eight in the Atlantic and one in the Indian Ocean.  Their job?  Find, and sink, the Admiral Graf Spee.

The German ship, captained by Captain Hans Langsdorff, had re-entered the South Atlantic after a sinking a merchantman near Mozambique.  On December 2nd, the Doric Star fell victim to the Graf Spee.  The next day, it was Tairoa’s turn.  On the 9th, the Streonshalh and its cargo of grain were sent to Davy Jones’ locker.

British Commodore Henry Harwood, head of Force G, was plotting these various sinkings and guessed that Langsdorff was making for the port of Montevideo on the coast of Uruguay.  So he took his force, the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter and light cruisers Ajax and Achilles, and headed in that direction.

On December 13, 1939, they found the Graf Spee, or rather, the Graf Spee found them.  At first glance, it seems like a lopsided affair…3 ships against one…and it was lopsided, but not the way you think.  In naval warfare, it’s all about the size of the guns in the fight, not how many you have.  Langsdorff’s pocket battleship featured 11″ main guns, while the Exeter (the largest of the cruisers) could only answer with 8″ rifles.  So the British, while having a lot more guns, were actually pretty badly out-gunned.  And it showed in the engagement.

The Admiral Graf Spee began firing while her opponents were still out of range.  If Langsdorff made one mistake during the battle, it was at this point.  He believed his opponents were escorting more merchant ships, so rather than simply stand off and pound Force G to a pulp, he closed the distance.  Turning first on the Exeter, he plastered her with medium and heavy shot, putting her out of action quickly.

The two smaller cruisers, maintaining separation to keep Graf Spee’s fire spread out, then entered the fray.  The captain of the Achilles was quite concerned, and was quoted as saying, “My own feelings were that the enemy could do anything he wanted to. He showed no sign of being damaged; his main armament was firing accurately…”

But Langsdorff, who had toured his ship, deteremined that it had sustained too much damage to remain effective, and was too far away from the friendly confines of the European coast to make a run for it.  The Graf Spee turned for the neutral port of Montevideo and the Plate River.

There’s still some mystery as to why, in light of his seeming command of the situation, Langsdorff made the decision he did.  Yes, the Graf Spee had been hit numerous times.  But the damage was considered by many of the crew to be light.  They had suffered 36 killed, but this was out of a full compliment of 1,100 men.  By all appearances, the battle was well in hand.

So after actually winning the engagement (or at least being on the way to victory), the Graf Spee played the role of “the defeated” and made for safer (neutral) ground.  The stage was now set for the intrigue to begin.

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