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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We’ve gotten mostly dug out from the biggest blizzard to hit the area in more than 30 years.  It began in earnest Tuesday and, by noon yesterday, had dumped 15″ of snow.  Of course, the snow didn’t fall in a vacuum…it was carried about by 40+ mph winds.  We don’t have a snowblower, just shovels, so it was more than 3 hours of shovelling to open our 50-foot driveway.

The roads need to be finished, which means the plows will dump a bunch more snow in the driveway between now and tomorrow night…and there’s still the walkway to the front door to clear.  But that will mean digging through 4-foot drifts.  So for now, we’re entering the house through the garage and waiting for spring.

With snow absolutely everywhere, let’s spend one more evening discussing a rather unusual engagement that took place in the Winter War.

Colonel Aaro Pajari’s successful raid on the 7th had a couple of side-effects.  First, it gave a boost of confidence to the Finnish troops involved as well as those in the area.  Other units picked up on Pajari’s tactics, using them to great effect against the superior numbers of Red Army soldiers.  Second, it caused the Russians to become far more wary than was really necessary.  Sniper fire and well-entrenched Finnish platoons could tie up battalion- and regimental-sized forces.  The raids had replaced the Russian arrogance with gross hesitation.

Finnish Colonel Paavo Talvela had experienced this first-hand.  His troops, having retreated for the first week of the War, had begun a series of jabs against the Russian 155th Division.  With the enemy now off-balance and nervous, Talvela planned an all-out offensive for December 11th.  The Red Army, however, had other ideas.

As the clock struck 11:00pm on December 10, 1939, an entire Soviet battalion marched, undetected, through dense forests and attacked Talvela’s left flank not far from Tolvajarvi (and not far from the scene of Pajari’s raid).  There were almost no troops there, just field kitchens, cooks, a few personnel, and some medical units, which were quickly driven off.

But the cooks left behind huge vats of sausage soup simmering over the fires, which the attackers smelled.  They stopped, looked around for a moment, then grabbed spoons and bowls and helped themselves.  The momentum of the attack was broken.

Colonel Pajari, still in the Tolvajarvi area, quickly assembled the scattered cooks, medics, and quartermasters into a 100-man force and commenced a counterattack.  The subsequent fight, named the “Sausage War”, was brutally vicious, with hand-to-hand combat and knife fights waged around steaming pots of delicious dinner.

When the attacks subsided in 11th’s morning hours, the kitchen’s soup kettles were mostly empty, having been riddled with gunfire.  The ground was strewn with soldiers, temporarily warmed by a purloined dinner, now frozen in death.  Many still had mouths full of sausage.  Only a few dozen Red Army soldiers from the battalion returned to their lines.

Recommended Reading: A Frozen Hell

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It was a dark, cold, and moonless night as Lt. Col Pajari moved his men into position.  Of course, in Finland, December was mostly dark and always cold.  But while the winter of 1939 was as dark as any given winter, the weather was unusually cold, with temperatures that would hit -30°F regularly.  There was plenty of snow on the ground, but there hadn’t been much in recent days, which is what the Finns had really wanted.

It would have served to slow down the Soviet Red Army, which had come storming across the border the week before.  Almost everywhere the Finnish Army had fallen back and, while the Soviets had already taken heavy losses, they had also taken the port of Petsamo in the frigid north, and were attacking at numerous points between the port and the Mannerheim Line on the Karelian Isthmus down south.

Carl Gustav Mannerheim, who had resigned his post days before the outbreak of war, was immediately called back to action.  He was surprised by how heavy the attacks had been in the heavily-forested regions north of Lake Ladoga.  The Russians were pushing toward Oulu, and if they reached it, Finland would be cut in half.

Mannerheim’s troops needed a victory…any victory, to get a boost of confidence.  Pajari’s men provided it in the early morning hours of December 7, 1939.

Crossing frozen Lake Tolvajarvi in the dead of night, his Fourth Company (made up of little more 150 men) attacked an entire regiment of Russian soldiers.  Bivouacked near a road and in a depression, they presented a fantastic target to Pajari’s men, with their dark uniforms contrasted with the white snow and highlighted by the massive fires.  Fourth Company quietly lined up on the ridge and opened fire at 2:00am.  Within minutes, it was over.  Not a single Russian soldier remained alive, and not a single Finnish soldier had so much as been wounded.

As Fourth Company was lost to the frigid morning darkness, two other Red Army regiments, panicked at the sound of gunfire and camped nearby, had mistakenly engaged one one another and were attempting to wipe each other out.

Mannerheim’s men had nowhere near the firepower to compete against the forces assaulting his country.  So it would be these small “slash-and-dash” operations, and the tremendous success they acheived in the conflict’s first two months, that would come to characterize the Winter War.

Recommended Reading: A Frozen Hell

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In the days following the end of negotiations between Finnish diplomats and Joseph Stalin, the citizens of Finland began to relax just a bit.  It was no secret that their army stood little chance…correct that…no chance against the military tsunami that the Soviets could unleash, and the Finns had initially prepared for the inevitable attack.  But to this point, none had come, and that was good enough for them.

They knew their sovereignty was recognized by the world, and Stalin must have realized that, too…hence his inaction.  And what’s more, the Finns were convinced that, should the Soviet hordes set foot upon the sacred Finnish soil, Western countries would flock to Finland’s defense.

Carl Gustav Mannerheim believed otherwise.  As Finland’s leading military man, he begged the Finnish government to reopen negotiations with the Soviets, claiming they would simply take what they wanted in the end.  His reports of Soviet forces drifting westward were, in his mind, a most ominous portent.  He even moved his own forces on the Karelian Isthmus (the main area of contention) back as a show of non-aggression.  On the 26th of November, however, several artillery shots were reported landing about half a mile inside the Russian borders near the village of Mainila.  History would show that they were fired by the Red Army, but as you would expect, the Soviets blamed the Finns.  Mannerheim wasn’t stupid (he knew how this would play out), and his anger at the “Finnish stubborness” boiled over.  The day after the “Mainila Shots”, Gustav Mannerheim resigned from the army.

In the Kremlin, Stalin had spent the last few weeks assessing his military options.  When questioned, his generals assured him that Finland would be a pushover.  Nikita Khrushchev, then a Politburo member, described the general consensus when he said, “All we had to do was raise our voices a little bit and the Finns would obey.  If that didn’t work, we could fire one shot and the Finns would put up their hands and surrender.”

The Soviet dictator also wanted to know if the Communist contingent among Finnish workers would rise up when the fighting started.  He was assured by his sources that they would.  But one must now consider the backdrop of the time when looking at this “information”.  Clearly, people with any loyalties to Trotsky, the old Czarist regimes, or any other view differing from Stalin were receiving fatal gunshot wounds.  By the ten of thousands they were dying…Khrushchev himself narrowly escaped the executioner’s pistol.  So when Stalin wanted “the scoop”, those around him told him what he wanted to hear, regardless of whether there was any truth or research behind it.  “Will the Finnish Communists join the Red Army?”“Why, of course they will.”  Stalin’s reign of terror was one of his own worst weapons.

So it comes as little surprise that the first bombing run carried out against Finland came at 9:20am on November 30, 1939.  The single plane dropped thousands of leaflets over Helsinki which urged the workers to rise up against their leaders and overthrow the government.  That plane then dropped a couple bombs to get everyone’s attention, have them run out of the factories, and read the notes.

Seventy minutes later, a group of bombers arrived over Helsinki, this time with real bombs.  Simultaneously, the Red Army invaded Finland all along the border, from Petsamo in the far frozen north to the southern edge of the Karelian Isthmus in the still-very-cold south.  In all, more than 25 divisions set off into Finnish territory that was protected by a total of 8 divisions and a collection of reserve and Civic Guard troops.

It did not shape up to be much of a contest, but wars are not fought on paper.

Recommended Reading: A Frozen Hell

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For nearly a month, direct negotiations had persisted.  Back-and-forth communications?…more than 18 months.  The Soviet Union had, since April of 1938, been interested in territory that belonged to Finland, its neighbor to the west.  And Finland had (more or less) politely refused.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact came and went.  The combined German-Soviet removal of Poland from the map came and went.  And still the Soviets negotiated with Finland.  Not as far as he could kick him did Soviet dictator Jospeh Stalin trust his counterpart in Berlin.  Yes, half of Poland gave Stalin a sizeable space-cushion between himself and the National Socialism he despised.  But he was still afraid that Adolf Hitler would use his military might, vastly superior to any of the Scandanavian countries, to take over Finland, whose borders were just a stone’s throw from the Communist “Mecca” of Leningrad.

So, Stalin’s representatives asked that Finland give up 20 miles of territory on the Karelian Isthmus (the strip of land between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga).  They also desired that Finland cede several islands in the Gulf of Finland and the northernmost tip of Finland (the Rybachi Peninsula).  Finally, they asked that Finland allow them to lease the port of Hanko (on the the southernmost tip of Finland) and build a base there.  Essentially Stalin was creating additional buffer space on all approaches to Leningrad.

For its part, Finland reiterated that it was a decidedly neutral nation, and any incursion (including one from Germany) would be viewed as hostile.  So there was no need to give the Soviets a buffer zone…Finland would provide it for free.  What’s more, giving up territory in the Karelian Isthmus meant destroying much of the Mannerheim Line, a fairly stout series of fortifications, tank traps, and pillboxes.  Finland would essentially be defenseless, which wasn’t necessarily terrible…if that’s all that Stalin wanted.  If.  IF.

But Joseph Stalin was a man who had spent most of the last several years slaughtering thousands and thousands of officers, including a goodly number of Finnish-born officers.  If his own men could not trust him, how much less a target country with almost no military power?  If Finland ceded the territory, there was no way it could defend itself against subsequent aggression.

Carl Gustav Mannerheim, Finland’s leading military man, did not hold to the Finnish convention.  He strongly believed Finland should give the Soviets what they wanted.  He said that if the Soviets wanted the territory badly enough, they would simply take it by force, and Finland could do nothing anyway.  So while Foreign Minister Eljas Erkko was convinced Stalin was bluffing, Mannerheim was not.

And so the Soviet-Finnish meetings continued.  Having begun in earnest on October 12, 1939, they had lasted throughout the month.  The Finnish delegation (shown above) gave some ground, offering to give up a bit of Karelian territory and some of islands, but the Mannerheim Line and the port of Hanko were simply non-negotiable.

It was on this day, November 9, 1939, that the negotiators met for the last time, where the Finnish delegation reminded Stalin of their compromises…and their unwillingness to go any further.  Stalin was somewhat surprised by the intransigence he witnessed.  After an hour, the meeting concluded (despite the heavy discussions) on an upbeat note. Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister smiled and waved.  Stalin wish the Finns the best and then departed…

…to meet with his generals and begin making plans to subdue a stubborn little pip-squeak country on its western border.

Recommended Reading:  A Frozen Hell – A friend (and fellow reader of Today’s History Lesson) recommended this book to me.  I’m reading it now, and it’s really good.

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As October 13, 1939 ended, the HMS Royal Oak was sitting in the relative quiet of Scapa Flow.  Located within the Orkney Islands off the northern tip of Scotland, Scapa Flow was a natural harbor surrounded by islands (right about here).  Its beauty as a harbor had been recognized as far back as ships had been in the area…at least to the time of the Vikings.

The British had fortified it, adding some “water hazards” in the form of ships, sunk at strategic locations, scattered around the entrances.  Floating booms operated by tugboats were installed and underwater cables were also run.  Scapa Flow was deemed secure from sea (particularly submarine) attack.

With the “formal” outbreak of hostilities between Germany and Britain in September of 1939, Scapa Flow became important again…to both sides of the conflict.  The Germans saw it as a big threat to their North Atlantic raiding missions and the British saw it as, well, a big threat to the German North Atlantic raiding missions.  Early on, Karl Donitz (at that time the main submarine guy) wanted to get into Scapa Flow and put the hurt on the large British fleet there.

His man for the job was Gunther Prien, a daring and skilled sub commander.  And so, as October 13, 1939 ended, Prien’s submarine (the U-47) was also in the relative quiet of Scapa Flow.  Having carefully threaded the harbor’s defenses, he was looking for targets…but the fleet was gone.  I mentioned earlier that the British believed Scapa Flow to be safe from sea attack.  But recent overflights by German reconaissance aircraft had the British a little bit nervous about air attacks.  And so most of the fleet had been dispersed.

The HMS Royal Oak had not.

This WWI-era battleship was no longer a front-line ship.  Her recent foray into the North Atlantic in pursuit of the Gneisenau (a German battleship) had solidified the fact that the Mighty Oak (as she was called) could no longer keep up with the more modern ships and no longer had the matching firepower or armor.  And what’s more, the worsening weather had left the old battlewagon bruised, battered, and in need of repair.  So she remained in Scapa Flow as a floating anti-aircraft platform…

…and a target for U-47.  As October 14, 1939 began, Captain Prien had spotted Royal Oak and fire a spread of torpedoes.  Only one hit the ship’s bow, causing the seaman onboard to believe something had exploded in the front of the ship, but no serious alarm was raised.  U-47 turned around and fired another spread, and all three hit with devastating effect.  The Royal Oak quickly listed, then rolled, then sank 13 minutes later.  Despite being just half a mile from the shore, 833 men died in the attack.

And U-47 disappeared into the morning darkness and returned to a hero’s welcome in Germany.  Donitz, his boss, was promoted to Admiral, and every member of the crew received a medal.  War had come to the British Navy.

Recommended Reading:  The Royal Oak website – A bunch of great information.

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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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As a long-time Braves fan, it wouldn’t be right to let today go by without saying something about Skip Caray.  Born on August 12, 1939, Skip joined TBS (Turner Broadcasting System) in 1976 and, for more than 30 years, entertained fans who either watched the games on TV or listened on the radio.

When I became a Braves fan in 1982, Caray was as much a part of the everyday lineup as Dale Murphy, Phil Niekro, and Claudell Washington.  He probably didn’t have the same notoriety as his famous Budweiser-drinking, sitting-in-the-stands father Harry.  And his voice, while distinctive, probably wasn’t as instantly recognizable as his dad’s, especially later in the games when Harry tended to be somewhat “chemically altered.”

But Skip Caray knew how to entertain the listening fan.  He did a great job calling the games.  Sure, he was a Braves fan, but he made no secret of that, and his salary was paid by the man (Ted Turner) that, at the time, owned the Braves as well as the TV/Radio network.  So being a “homer” was allowed.

But even more than that, the man was funny.  Over the years, many of his broadcasts with Pete van Wieren, Ernie Johnson, and Joe Simpson were sprinkled with humorous stories, laughter, and just goofy stuff that other baseball announcers never did.  Part of that may have been to obscure the obvious:  the Braves of the 1980’s were pitifully bad.  Other than 1982 & 1983, they were pretty much the National League doormats.

I recall one game (against St. Louis maybe?) when the Braves came out to start the game, and Skip quipped, “And like lambs being led to slaughter, the Braves take the field.”  Hilarious!!  He had this thing for telling jokes on the air, but he’d never actually tell the joke itself (maybe because the nature of the joke wouldn’t allow it)…he’d just give the punchline.  Then he’d start laughing and, as a viewer, I couldn’t help but laugh at the sheer goofiness of it.

The “Happy Birthday Greeting” sections were usually laced with humor as well.  Sometimes a foul ball would be “caught by a fan visiting from Des Plaines, Illinois”, or some other made-up location.

Skip was never bashful about his feelings, either.  During the futile 80’s, you could almost see Skip throwing his hands up in frustration at the woeful performances he had to “color” for us on TV.  How many nights did I hear the phrase, “…and now the wheels have completely come off…” come from Skip’s lips?  If an umpire made a bad call, Skip was quick to let us know how terrible it was.

Maybe that’s what I loved about Skip…he was just a real guy that happened to call Braves games.  His emotions were always visible, his frustration was never hidden, and when things went well, his joy was effusive.  When the Braves of the 80’s became the consistent winners of the 90’s, no one was as happy as Skip.

I’ll never forget the 1992 Championship Series against the Pirates, when the Braves were down 2-1 in the bottom of the 9th.  I was at my boss’ house putting on my coat and standing, just waiting for the final out.  Then Francisco Cabrera’s miracle hit put the Braves into the Series, and there was Skip, yelling “Braves win, Braves win, Braves win…!!!”

It’s been just over a year since Skip Caray passed away, and I miss his voice.  I miss his laughter, his humor, and his love for the game of baseball.  I’m not alone.

In conclusion, I’ll tell you my favorite “Skip Caray” moment.  In 2003, Ray King was a relief pitcher for the Braves.  He was a hard-throwing, sort of portly, left-hander.  One evening he came on in relief and someone yelled from the stands, “C’mon Burger King!!”.  Skip, who was calling the game, suddenly stopped talking and there was silence for about 10 seconds.  When he finally gathered himself, you could tell he was laughing hysterically while trying to suppress it.  I must have laughed for 10 minutes at that.

Happy Birthday, Skip Caray!!  You’re deeply missed.

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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 life (and death) of the Admiral Graf Spee is probably unknown to many.  But since her last day afloat was December 17, 1939, it seems like a pretty good subject for Today’s History Lesson.  So let’s head to beautiful South America…specifically, Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay.

The Admiral Graf Spee was a pocket battleship, essentially a cruiser-sized ship (about 10,000 tons) with battleship-sized guns (11″ main rifles), which was made possible by saving weight elsewhere.  And on December 17th, she was nestled in Montevideo’s harbor undergoing repairs.

When she had left Germany back in August, her mission was that of a merchant raider, and the South Atlantic Ocean was her hunting ground.  Targeting Allied (read: British) shipping, she quickly gained a reputation as a formidable opponent and a real threat.  Numerous ships were attacked and sunk over the next 3+ months.  But Captain Hans Langsdorff was actually a pretty decent guy, taking proper care of prisoners and following all the rules of merchant warfare.  In fact, in all his attacks, not a single life was lost.

Maybe the British felt pretty good about Langsdorff’s war conduct, but he was still sinking ships at an alarming rate.  So, like the Bismarck 18 months later, the British began a massive hunt for the Graf Spee and finally located her off the South American coast.  Having just refueled and unloaded more than 300 prisoners, the German raider was in fighting trim.  But she was damaged in battle on the 13th, and made for the neutral port of Montevideo, arriving there the next day.

And then the antics began.  The rules of warfare stated that a ship could only stay in a neutral harbor for 24 hours, but it also said that a warship had to give any merchant ship leaving that same harbor a 24-hour headstart.  So, the British (who really wanted this ship) ordered their merchant ships out of the harbor at 24-hour intervals…to keep the Graf Spee trapped there while additional forces could be gathered just beyond the “international waters” boundary.  Furthermore, the British sent false communications (of course, intercepted by the Germans) stating that an overwhelming force was being assembled.

And that brings us to the present (well, the “present” of our story).  Captain Langsdorff had been ordered by the Uruguayan government to leave, but he could see that his ship had no real hope of escape (probably true), and knew that a huge British force was waiting (definitely false).  So rather than face the loss of his crew and endanger the harbor with a battle he couldn’t win, Langsdorff sailed the Graf Spee just outside the harbor…and scuttled her.

The crew were taken prisoner and Captain Langsdorff committed suicide 3 days later.

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For two and a half weeks, the German army had been swarming over Poland.  Since the start of the invasion on September 1, 1939, Poland had only offered the weakest resistance to their enemy’s armies and air force.  And just when the Poles thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did.

On September 17, 1939, the Soviets attacked from the east.  With well over half a million troops, the Red Army surged into Poland, in keeping with their secret agreement made with Germany back on the 23rd of August.  Russian dictator Joseph Stalin called the action a “liberation”, but for thousands and thousands of Poles, it was anything but that.

Stalin had determined in his mind that all traces of Poland would cease to exist.  And because he no longer viewed Poland as an entity, niceties such as the Geneva Convention and concern for the citizens had no meaning.  So as the army moved westward, behind them came the NKVD with their lists of names.  Polish law enforcement officers, public and government officials, professors and scientists, and military personnel were all rounded up (like those shown above).  Nearly all of them would be executed.

And as with the German invasion, the Soviet invasion of Poland would be met with stern condemnation from Great Britain and France (both of whom had made military guarantees to Poland), but nothing else.

In all pratical ways, Poland was gone.

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The German invasion of Poland was, for Great Britain and France, the final straw.  Having experienced three years of Hitler’s “spiel-and-steal” tactics, the Western Allies had drawn a line in the sand and told the German dictator that his next military move would bring action.  So on September 1, 1939, when the Luftwaffe starting bombing the socks off Poland and the Wehrmacht’s tanks chased the horses of the Polish military all over the countryside, action was taken.

Sort of.

France and Great Britain declared war on Germany…on September 3rd.  And their actions consisted of that declaration…and that’s about it.  But to their defense, there was little they could do.  The inequality in forces meant that Germany was overrunning Poland so quickly that there was no time for Allied troops to assemble, disembark, land in Poland, and make any kind of difference whatsoever.  Furthermore, that little treaty with the Soviet Union, signed only a couple weeks prior, meant that moves against Germany could also involve the Soviets…a precarious situation.

So Great Britain and France stayed on the sidelines.  On September 10, 1939, Canada joined the fray and declared war on Germany.  As the nation with the longest tenure of calling the Crown its sovereign, Canada had some sense of duty to support Great Britain, even though, like the U.S., The Great Depression had badly hurt the country’s economy.  As it would turn out, Canada’s industry and production would receive a huge boon from the War, but that was hard to predict at the time.

Clever Canada waited until the 10th to declare war, in part because as a neutral, they were able to complete the purchase of millions of dollars in war material from the also-neutral United States.  So when they sailed for “over there”, they arrived equipped and ready for battle.

Initial Canadian forces were limited to just a single division.  But over time, participation would grow substantially.  Over the course of the War, more than 1 million Canadians would serve.  Nearly 100,000 would be killed or wounded in action in such places as Hong Kong, Dieppe, Normandy, Sicily, and Italy.  In other words, they served and died in nearly every theater and major Allied operation of the War.

NOTE: Well, we’re off again for a few days.  Since I wrote about Lawn Lake back in July, I’ve been angling to get to Rocky Mountain National Park.  It’s a happy occasion that we’re heading out there early tomorrow morning.  I’ll be back Monday afternoon, and I’ll have try to have something ready to go.

Recommended Reading: Maple Leaf against the AXIS: Canada’s Second World War

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If you had asked the German officials, they would have said something like, “Polish militants attacked us without provocation and we were forced to respond.”  If you would have asked the leadership in Warsaw, they probably would have responded with something like, “Yeah, right.  The Nazi-Soviet Pact trapped us between two colossal enemies, so our answer was to attack the strongest of the two.  Yeah, right!!”

If you would have flown over the German-Polish border the night before the Germans launched their attack, what you saw may well have blown your mind.  Fully 85% of Germany’s military was prepared for attack.  The numbers are staggering:  1.6 million men, more than 65,000 artillery pieces and 4,000 tanks, and 2,000 aircraft.  The Poles were hopelessly outnumbered:  2-to-1 in men, 2-to-1 in artillery, more than 4-to-1 in tanks, and nearly 5-to-1 in airplanes.  Germany was poised to make a military statement, and Poland was the tablet on which it would be written.

And that’s precisely what happened on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and commenced the Second World War in Europe (keep in mind that Japan and China had already been fighting on the Chinese mainland for years).  France and Great Britain would declare war on Germany two days later (which also “formally” began the Second World War), but by then it was already too late to send any forces that could stem the German onslaught.

The War was on…

Recommended Reading: Panzer Leader

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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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