Posts Tagged ‘1940’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Today was not a day of war for the Greek cruiser Elli.  August 15, 1940 was a day of celebration.  Anchored in Tinos Harbor in the Cyclades (a chain of islands southeast of mainland Greece), she was arrayed for a party rather than geared up for battle.  In his book on the sea battles around Crete, David Thomas describes the scene when he writes, “The 2,083 ton cruiser, barely larger than a destroyer flotilla leader, presented a gay scene, the bright summer sunshine adding to the colour of the bunting and flags which decorated her overall.  She – and the estimated 40,000 people ashore – were there to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, to the Greeks second only to Easter Sunday as a sacred day.”

Also in Tinos Harbor was the Delfino.  She was not there to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.  The Italian submarine was submerged and outfitted for war, and she had the Elli in her sights.  And at half past 8 in the morning, the Delfino made her move, launching 3 torpedoes at the her target…a sitting duck.

In recent months, the Mediterranean had seen an increase in conflicts between the Italians and the British.  The British were very interested in keeping the Italian Navy out of the eastern part of the region, particularly the Aegean and Ionian Seas.  For their part, the Italians were seeking an expanded empire (not unlike their Axis partners Germany and Japan).  Italian strong-man Benito Mussolini had set his sights on Romania, but Adolf Hitler got there first.  So Italy turned to Greece, which had pro-British leanings.  And nothing says “you’re in the crosshairs” like a submarine attack on an idle pip-squeak cruiser during peacetime in front of 40,000 people at a religious celebration.

Two of the torpedoes missed the Elli, but did damage some of the docks.  The third struck home, hitting the ship in the boiler room, dropping her to the harbor floor, and killing nine sailors.

Greece’s Prime Minister, Ioannis Metaxas, told the public that the attacker was unknown.  Problem was, his government was the only group of people that “didn’t know”.  The public knew it was the Italians, and the military knew it was the Italians.  Even when investigators recovered fragments of Italian torpedoes from the waterlogged Elli, the government (in its efforts to avoid a military confrontation with Italy) squelched the findings and maintained that the attackers were unknown.

And as we know, Greece’s attempts to prevent war with Italy were ultimately pointless, as Mussolini’s forces attacked Greece two months later.

Recommended Reading: Crete 1941

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If you remember way back to this site’s younger days, you might recall the discussion of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.  Signed in August of 1939, it allowed for the disappearance of Poland, half of which went to Germany, and the remainder going to Russia.

But included in the pact was permission for the Russians to do as they pleased with the Baltic States…Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.  Of course, that permission didn’t come from any of the named countries.  Funny how that works sometimes.

Well, on June 15, 1940, Russia began cashing in on their end of the deal.  It actually began a little before that with accusations by the Russians that the Baltic States were sympathetic to the Allies.  They were followed by more accursations, this time that the Baltics were actually collaberating with the Allies.  On the 12th, the Russian government simply issued an ultimatum, demanding that the country allow Red Army troops to cross the border.  And on the 15th, the Soviets simply moved in and occupied Lithuania.

The following day, Latvia and Estonia would follow suit, falling victim to the bloodless war.

A little more than a month later, all three states would be absorbed into the Soviet Union.  And they would remain so for less than a year.  Then the Germans would come calling…

Recommended Reading: Hitler and Stalin

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

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

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

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


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

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

Recommended Reading: Lightning War

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I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving holiday…I know we did.  There was too much food, all of it good.  There was no Black Friday shopping, which was awesome!!  Well actually, there was a bit of shopping on Friday and Saturday, but Friday’s was in the early afternoon, well after all the diehards were pretty much done and back home in bed.

So let’s see, what do we have for today?…Well, it’s my wife’s birthday, so “Happy Birthday!!” to her.  I’m not sure she knows it, but her presents are all ready to go, so we’ll keep that a secret.

Let me check the official Today’s History Lesson spreadsheet…

Here we go…

The Tripartite Pact was an economic, military, and political alliance that was originally set up between three countries (hence the “Tri” in Tripartite).  Germany, Italy, and Japan were the original signers in September of 1940, but the Pact wasn’t strictly limited to them.

As 1941 approached, the Russians were approached about joining the Pact.  It’s a bit unusual, given the natural opposition that Hitler’s National Socialism felt for Russia’s Communism.  But Adolf Hitler’s designs on Russia were not strictly military in scope.  Russia’s tremendous natural resources had as big a target on them as did her military forces.  And if they could be taken peaceably, so much the better.

So Vyacheslav Molotov was invited to Berlin in mid-November and given the Tripartite Pact sales pitch.  And there was some hope that Molotov would listen.  The Russians and Germans had already done business on the Polish issue a couple of years before.  And Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia were all within days of joining the Tripartite Pact.

But those hopes proved fleeting, as the meetings did more to highlight Russo-Germans disagreements than they did to create common ground.  Molotov left Berlin having refused Germany’s “peaceful” overtures, and from the German perspective, the die was cast.  Or maybe “the die was confirmed” is a better phrase, since regardless of the outcome, Hitler had decided years before that Russian soil would be invaded at some point.

On November 29, 1940, the German High Command offered up a proposal for the invasion of the Soviet Union.  The draft included three massive Army Groups, setting off along an 1,800-mile front.  Army Group North would make for Leningrad.  Army Group Centre would have the capital of Moscow as its goal.  And Army Group South was tasked with the capture of Kiev, to be followed with a push to Stalingrad via Kharkov.

Within three weeks, the draft would be polished, planned, and finalized as Directive No. 18…Operation Barbarossa.

If Hitler couldn’t get what he wanted the easy way, he would get what he wanted by any means possible…

Recommended Reading:  WorldWar-2.net – One of the best World War II timelines available anywhere.  A wee bit clunky to navigate, but loaded with information.

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I needed to give a quick shout-out of congratulations to Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson.  Called up from the Rays’ AAA affiliate to spot-start a couple of weeks ago, Jeremy did just more than just give the regular starters a night off…the 23-year-old’s first major-league start was a 7-inning thing of beauty, resulting in his first win.  Immediately optioned back to AAA, he was called up again eight days later, this time to shut down the Detroit Tigers for 7 innings.  And today?…6 innings, a 3rd quality start, and his 3rd win.  He’s now the first Rays pitcher to win his first 3 decisions as a pro.  And Jeremy is from the Des Moines area…it’s a feel-good, local-boy-makes-it story.  Way to go, Jeremy!!

August 15, 1940 later came to be known as “Black Thursday.”  But this important date in the Battle of Britain wasn’t named as such by the British, who had been defending their homeland against Luftwaffe bombers and fighters for weeks on end.

The term “Black Thursday” came from the German side, the side that since the fall of France in June had been preparing to invade England.  And it wasn’t named for the damage the Germans inflicted, but rather for that which they received.

The German plan was a coordinated attack aimed at airfields in the northern part of England and, on the surface, it made good sense.  Send fighters and dive-bombers across the Channel (from the east) to draw the Royal Air Force into the skies, where they would be shot down.  Then follow up with the heavier bombers (from Norway and Denmark to the north) to take out the airfields themselves.  It was nothing less than a full-out attempt to destroy Fighter Command.

German intelligence believed that recent attacks south of London would have drawn off significant forces, leaving the north less protected.  German intelligence was wrong.

But more than that, intelligence badly underestimated the number of airplanes left in the British inventory.  In his book With Wings Like Eagles, Michael Korda writes, “…despite Beppo Schmidt’s optimistic estimate that the British were down to about 200 fighters, Fighter Command in fact began August 15, at 0900 hours, with 672 serviceable fighters, of which 233 were Spitfires and 361 were Hurricanes.  These were not a lot with which to hold off more than 1,000 enemy aircraft, but a lot more than Goring supposed.”

The German planes came in bigger and bigger waves throughout the day.  RAF pilots in the north, jealous of their southern comrades who “got all the action”, were now suddenly presented with an unbelievable sight…the sky was filled with German bombers.  And even more tantalizing?…they were almost completely unescorted.

The RAF lads had a field day, slicing through bomber formations, blasting one heavy after another from the sky.  Most of the bombers simply dropped their bombs in the water and turned tail for home.  Hitting targets from 20,000 feet was their game.  Dodging fighters with no fighter protection at all was suicide.

The RAF flew 974 sorties that long day, losing 30 aircraft.  The Luftwaffe lost 75 aircraft.  Korda continues, “Even not counting the number of German aircraft that arrived home seriously damaged or obliged to crash-land on return, losses among the bombers and the twin-engine escorts were so high – approaching 10 percent, or twice what the RAF Bomber Command would consider an “acceptable” rate of loss – that Luftflotte 5 never again attempted a mass attack in daylight.”

These terrible results, combined with the poor results of Eagle Day (which we’ll cover someday) made it readily apparent that the German “softening up” for Operation Sealion wasn’t going nearly as well as hoped.

Recommended Reading:  With Wings Like Eagles

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I very nearly published this piece a week early…I had the wrong date attached to it in the master spreadsheet.  Good thing I double-checked first.  I occasionally get facts messed up, but completely missing the date would have been really embarrassing.  Anyways…

With the fall of France to German forces in June of 1940, it didn’t take a whole lot of brain matter to see that the British were in a bad way.  Their only remaining “ally” in Europe was Vichy France, but this was only in the loosest sense, as its government, run by Philippe Pétain, was nothing more than an Axis puppet.

Of greatest concern to the British was the powerful French Navy.  When Germany had invaded back in May, the French fleet had scattered, some to British ports, but most to the French Algerian port of Mers-el-Kebir.  When the armistice was signed, Vichy was allowed to keep its navy and the Germans promised to make no demands for it.  But of course, Adolf Hitler had made – and broken – numerous promises before, so this one gave little comfort to the British.

So rather than risk a German takeover of the French Navy, the British decided on a bold move to protect themselves.  Known as Operation Catapult, it called for the British Navy to settle the “French fleet question” once and for all.  On July 2, 1940, the British sent an ultimatum to French Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul.  In it were four options.  The French could join the British and fight againt Germany, they could hand over their ships to the British, they could disarm their ships, or they could scuttle them.

Admiral Gensoul chose to do none of them.

So new Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered his own fleet to attack the French.  It was not a decision made lightly, as the French and British had been “brothers in arms” just two weeks before.  But business was business, and war was war.  Churchill gave the orders and said that history would determine the rightness of his actions.

For French ships in British ports, the “attacks” amounted to boarding and seizing the ships.  But at Mers-el-Kebir, things would be different.  Planes from the HMS Ark Royal mined the entrance to the harbor in an effort to prevent ships from escaping.  Once negotiations failed, the legendary battlecruiser HMS Hood opened fire on July 3, 1940.  Her first salvo to hit plastered the battleship Bretagne, sending her down with 977 men.  The battleships HMS Valiant and Resolution added their gunfire to the fray, and it little more than 15 minutes, the damage was done.

In addition to Bretagne, the Dunkerque had been heavily damaged, a destroyer had been grounded and three others badly damaged.  The French battleship Strasborg was able to pick its way through the mines and falling shot and escape, but that was the only good news for the French.  Nearly 1,300 French sailors had been killed, while the British suffered the loss of a half-dozen aircraft and six men.

As intrepid readers of Today’s History Lesson know, this was not the last time the Allies would try to prevent the French fleet from falling into German hands.  Nor was it the last time the French would refuse to comply.  But this refusal and the subsequent British attacks cost the French most dearly in terms of lives lost.

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There are certain events that occur in our lives that we can remember in great detail.  We may recall where we were when the event happened, the people we were with, and maybe even the clothes we wore.  For my generation, it’s probably the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  For my parents, it was likely the assassination of President Kennedy.  But it may not necessarily be a cataclysmic world-changing incident.  Maybe it’s something personal, like a marriage proposal, or the sudden passing of a loved one, or the purchase of a first car.  Big or small, nearly everyone has one (or more) of those moments.

For a good number of the German officers still alive at the end of the Second World War ended, one event stood out with crystal clarity.  In a war that spanned six years, it was May 24, 1940 that was remembered in many minds.  It was then that the German Panzers were ordered to halt.  In just two weeks, they had rolled over Belgium (via the brilliant insanity that was the capture of Eben Emael) and the Netherlands and executed a brilliant right hook that trapped the British Expeditionary Force (and the French forces with them) against the English Channel.  Nearly 400,000  men and their equipment awaited capture…or worse, annihilation at the hands of a Wehrmacht that had made mincemeat of them all over the Low Countries.

But orders were orders, and they had come from the very highest of the German High Command.  General Kluge, the 4th Army Commander, had a highly developed sense of caution and believed his flanks were over-exposed to counterattack.  It mattered little that Army Group A (of which 4th Army was a part) was just 12 miles from Dunkirk and had little opposition in front of it.  Army Group B, while further away, faced only infantry.  There were no counterattacks to be made…on the Allied side, General Gort was facing a military disaster and was looking at the Channel, praying for a miracle.

As overall commander of Army Group A, General Gerd von Rundstedt took Kluge’s concerns to heart and ordered a temporary halt to allow his forces to consolidate their positions.  But it may have been a little more than that, too.  As head of the Luftwaffe (the German air force), Field Marshal Hermann Goering had been watching the ground forces garner victory after victory, gaining most of the glory.  Now with the Allied forces trapped and their capitulation imminent, he wanted his share of the spotlight.  In a meeting late on the 23rd, he was reported to have pounded his fists on the desk and yelled, “This is a special job for the Luftwaffe!  I must talk to the Fuhrer immediately.”  So it’s quite possible that more was going on than just a “catch our breath” pause.

Regardless, the reaction to the decision was immediate and clear.  General Guderian was furious, as was General Franz Halder.  Field Marshal von Brauchitsch argued with Hitler to no avail, and even tried to order a resumption of the offensive on his own.  Hitler put a stop to it.  “Dunkirk,” he said, “is to be left to the Luftwaffe.  Should the capture of Calais prove difficult, this port too is to be left to the Luftwaffe.”

Up and down the chain of command, frustrated officers tried to sway the decision, but a sudden bout of overconfidence took over at the very top.  General Jodl, when confronted by a subordinate, stated that the war was already won and using the air force to finish the deal meant fewer lives lost.

Of course, the confidence in the Luftwaffe’s chain of command was not nearly as great as Goering’s himself.  Albert Kesselring, then a General in charge Air Fleet 2, believed the task too great.  His pilots were exhausted and the whole of idea of Blitzkrieg was air and armor working in close coordination.  Take away the armor?…well, that didn’t bode as well.  Goering ignored him.

We covered Operation Dynamo last year and spoke to the successful evacuation of nearly 340,000 men from Dunkirk.  The halt on May 24th made the miracle of Dunkirk possible as it allowed the British to consolidate their defenses and begin bringing in rescue ships.  By the time the Panzers got ramped up again, it was too late.  The British and French were gone, and Germany’s best chance to knock England from the war had vanished.

The first seeds of Germany’s ultimate defeat in 1945 began back in May of 1940, when Germany squandered almost certain victory against the British on the European mainland.

Recommended Reading: Lightning War

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“Nothing about the town of Eben Emael suggests that it would be etched into the pages of history. …a forgotten village in its early days, the origin of its name not known although some say it is inherited from several prehistoric caves close by, now turned to growing mushrooms.”  This description might not be especially pleasing to the residents, but it’s the one given by James Mrazek in his book The Fall of Eben Emael.  In fact, Eben and Emael were actually two villages that had, over the years, merged into one.

Eben Emael rests in a vale a couple of miles a couple of miles west of the Meuse River, which served as Belgium’s border with the Netherlands.  And between the villages and the river, the Belgians built Fort Eben Emael, and that’s where the “etching into history” part begins.

When we think of forts here in the U.S., we think of box-shaped frontier outposts made of tree trunks sunk vertically into the ground with a main gate and lookout towers at each of four corners.  Eben Emael was not that kind of fort.  Mostly underground, it was a massive concrete fortress housing artillery pieces where more than a thousand men could fight.  It featured a 450-yard concrete-lined moat, steel-reinforced concrete casements, armor-reinforced cupolas, anti-aircraft guns, and interlocking fields of fire.

It was built in the early 1930’s overlooking the junction of the Meuse and the Albert Canal, and with good reason.  In 1914, German forces had invaded Belgium in this area and, had a fort of this size been there, things might have gone differently.  It was a very similar line of reasoning to that of the French when they constructed the Maginot Line…that “if they come back this way again, they’ll get plastered” kind of thinking.  And most armies would have simply stayed away.  Historian William Shirer wrote, “This modern, strategically located fortress was regarded by both the Allies and the Germans as the most impregnable fortification in Europe, stronger than anything the French had built in the Maginot Line or the Germans in the West Wall.”

Of course, none of this accounted for daring and ingenuity, both of which Adolf Hitler possessed in 1940.  In October of 1939, he called on General Kurt Student to devise a way to take the Fort as part of an upcoming invasion.  And after months of planning and practice, it went down.  In the early morning hours of May 10, 1940, as the German armies prepared to roll into France, 78 German paratroopers were packed into gliders and dragged into the night skies.  They were released and floated down silently to land the engine-less craft on top of Eben Emael.

They brought with them what were possibly the first shaped-charge devices ever used in combat.  These bombs didn’t just blow up, but rather focused their explosive potential on a central point, which gave them the power to blow holes in the super-thick concrete of the cupolas and casements, and rapidly disable the artillery pieces.  And while the Fort’s compliment of men was reduced (several hundred defenders were bivouacked a couple of miles away), the fighting was still fierce.

But Student’s men carried the day, and were soon reinforced by German forces crossing the Meuse…on the bridges that were not destroyed in time due to this attack.  Eben Emael would surrender the following day.

Both the Belgians and the French looked at a potential problem (Teutonic invasion) from a First World War perspecitive and attempted to answer it with a static solution.  The French had their Maginot Line.  The Belgians, Eben Emael.  In both cases, the answer was the wrong one.

Recommended Reading:  The Fall of Eben Emael

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Well, we’re putting the closing touches on yet another weekend.  I took a half day off on Friday, which lengthened things out a bit, but weekends always seem too short.  There is a ton of stuff to do, and such a short time to get it done.  Therefore, should I be elected President, I will mandate a two-day work week and a five-day weekend.

In the meantime, let’s head out for a little action on the high seas, shall we?

We talked last fall about the movie U-571 and how it more closely resembled the exploits of another submarine…U-559.  That sub was damaged by the British and, just before it was sunk, they were able to grab some really important encryption information.  You can read the piece if you want the detail.

But it wasn’t the only time this type of incident happened.  After all, the Germans (like the Japanese and the U.S. and most countries fighting in the Second World War) used numerous coding systems.  The army had one, the navy might have another, the maybe the air force a third.  The Germans used various Enigma machines for their different coding systems, so the object was to capture as many of these machines as possible in an attempt to break as many of the various codes.

So along with the actual “guns and ammo” fighting, there was this 2nd-tier war to capture the other guy’s codes.  On May 9, 1940 (as the German army was preparing to invade France and the Low Countries), the German submarine U-110 was (briefly) captured by the British.  She was attacking a convoy and was damaged by depth charges and forced to surface.  The destroyer HMS Bulldog, realizing she had a chance to capture the sub, pulled along side.  The sub’s captain, believing his boat was sinking, ordered everyone out and didn’t bother destroying the Enigma machine nor its codebooks.

Of course, the sub didn’t sink right away, and the British were able to grab the prizes and even succeeded in towing U-110 for a while before she finally sank.  And while this particular capture didn’t result in the major score such as SHARK or TRITON, it did provide valuable information to the codebreakers at Bletchley Park.

As I mentioned, this took place the day before the German assault on France.  Tomorrow, we’ll look at one particular event from that massive invasion.

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For a couple of months, the horribly outnumbered Finnish troops had held their Soviet counterparts at bay.  Their only real allies in this fight against a vastly superior force had been Red Army arrogance, solid tactics, a brutally cold winter, and sisu (a word coined at this time that, roughly translated, means “guts”).  But they used all of them to the fullest and gained the admiration of much of the world…though with that admiration came precious little help.

Then General Timoshenko arrived and got things on the Soviet side a bit more organized, and the Finnish situation went downhill pretty quickly.  A massive bombardment, begun on February 1, 1940 was followed by the final breakthrough.  Keep in mind that Finland only had 150,000 men in its entire army, and those still able to fight had been employed without respite since hostilities started in November…they were completely exhausted and running low on ammunition.

So it comes as little surprise that the Red Army, ten days later, achieved the breakthrough from which the Finns could not recover.  The Red Army was still suffering huge casualty counts, but outnumbering the Finns by better than 4-to-1 gaves the Soviets some “wiggle room”.

Throughout the Winter War, Finnish diplomats (even when they were sort of winning) tried to discuss peace initiatives with Moscow, but their calls were never answered.  Joseph Stalin wanted a victory, and to accept peace terms in an already terribly embarrassing endeavor was beyond contemplation.  But now, with victory seemingly on the horizon (and far more favorable terms able to be negotiated), a still-red-faced Soviet dictator was probably more willing to talk.

And so the peace delegation from Finland landed in Moscow and began negotiations on March 8, 1940.  They would be concluded four days later and the guns would fall silent one day after that.

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On February 1, 1940, a Finnish reconnaissance plane made its way through stiff enemy air cover to photograph Russian positions.  The war being fought between these two countries since late November had, for the last few weeks, been at something of a standstill.

But when the film was quickly developed and analyzed by the Finnish military, what was discovered was a massive buildup of cannon that had seemingly appeared overnight.  A collective gasp went up in the room with the sudden realization that the lull was just about over.  In fact, it ended that day, with a massive bombardment that was described as “the last thunderclap of Armageddon.”

The Red Army drive against tiny Finland was about to begin anew, with fresh forces, more tanks (now operating in harmony with the troops), more guns, and more planes.  On the other side, their opponents, now exhausted with many formations operating at half-strength (or worse), were overwhelmed.  But they fought on and, even in their weakened state, were still capable of killing lots and lots of Soviet invaders.  But it was never enough.

On February 11, 1940, the Finnish fear of a Red Army breakthrough became a reality as breaches were made in both flanks at Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland.

The “December part” of the Winter War had shown what superior tactics, superior leadership, and effective cover could achieve against a larger and more arrogant opponent.  The “February part” served as a sobering reminder that overwhelming force with even a modicum of coordination against an exhausted foe was still the preferable position in which to be.

The February 11th breatkthrough was the beginning of the end of Finnish resistance.  A month later, the guns would fall silent.

Recommended Reading: A Frozen Hell

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The war that was being fought between the Soviet and Finnish armies in the brutal Scandanavian cold had accomplished several things.  First, it had elevated the vastly outnumbered, out-gunned, and out-manned Finnish army to exalted status.  That had happened because of the second accomplishment…the total embarrassment of the Soviet army.

Beginning in early December of 1939, Finnish commanders had begun using the terrain and better tactics to hold down their much larger enemies.  They made small night-time attacks and, with platoon- and company-sized forces (along with a healthy dose of Red Army arrogance), were able to destroy regiment-sized encampments.  In this manner, entire Red Army divisions were wiped out almost to a man.

But even more than that, the Finns understood rest and relaxation as important components of war better than their invaders did.  As much as possible, soldiers given time to sit in hot springs and saunas, which served to warm their bodies.  Many of their meals were served hot.  A cold soldier was most often a dead one, and the Russians, without these benefits, verified that theory thousands and thousands of times.

As the 1930’s gave way to January of a new decade, the Winter War captured the imagination of the world.  Radio and newspapers broadcast accounts of how tiny Finland was putting a big-time hurt on the mighty Soviet Union.  It was at this time that fighting on the Finnish front entered something of a lull.  The Finns, largely exhausted and running low on pretty much everything needed to fight, simply slowed down.  This quiet time allowed Stalin to lop off a few more heads for incompetence and bring in General Semyon Timoshenko.

Timoshenko’s plan was to build up a massive force that would, once and for all, simply overpower the Finns.  They began a process of daytime bombardments with artillery and aircraft.  The Finns, low on ammunition and possessing no air force, simply hid in their bunkers during the day and came out to make repairs at night.  But as the weeks passed, the men grew more and more worn down as sleep became more fleeting.

And then on February 1, 1940, Red Army artillery turned up the dial, beginning a ferocious bombardment that would last 10 days.  It was one of the longest “softening-up” periods of the war.  But Timoshenko knew that if victory was not achieved, he only had a bullet to look forward to.  And after 10 days, the all-out assault would finally break the Finns. But that’s for 10 days from now…

Recommended Reading: A Frozen Hell

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The Battle of Taranto is one of the Second World War’s more obscure engagements.  Maybe that’s because it happened at night, or because it lasted only a few hours.  But as we’ll soon see, it was very important for a couple of reasons.

Taranto itself might be familiar to readers of Today’s History Lesson, who may recognize the harbor and city as one of the landing areas for Allied troops commencing the invasion of Italy in 1943.  But this was 1940, and Operation Husky was too far into the future to even be a gleam in the General’s eye.

In November of 1940, France had fallen and Britain stood alone in Western Europe as the only country unconquered and unoccupied by Nazi Germany.  But more than just standing on her own, Britain’s holdings in the Mediterranean were threatened as well.  Axis advances were threatening Crete, Malta was already under heavy attack, and Hitler had his eye on the key chokepoint at Gibraltar.

The Germans didn’t have a large naval presence in the Mediterranean, but the Italians did.  British operations in North Africa were supplied through Egypt, and a strong naval presence at Taranto meant Axis forces were in a good position to cut British supply lines.  A way was needed a way to level the playing field a bit.

The British had been considering action against Taranto for years, but planning stepped up after the fall of France.  A two-carrier operation was formulated using carrier aircraft from the HMS Eagle and HMS Illustrious.  An attack in the latter part of October was scratched when the Illustrious suffered a small but potent fire and the Eagle was diagnosed with serious fueling problem.  In the end, aircraft from the Eagle were shuttled to the Illustrious and Operation Judgement became a one-carrier mission.

At 10:00pm on the night of November 11, 1940, two dozen Swordfish aircraft left the decks, many armed with torpedoes and some with bombs.  The Swordfish itself was a World-War-I-style biplane (shown above) that couldn’t even reach 140mph, but on this night, it didn’t need to.  Just before 11:00pm, they made their first pass over Taranto for target acquisition.  Fifteen minutes later, the attack began.

And these outdated biplanes did far more damage than their diminutive sizes would have suggested.  The battleship Conte di Cavour was hit, as was the battleship Littorio (twice).  The next wave succeeded in hitting the Littorio again and putting a large torpedo-sized hole in the battleship Caio Duilio.  Italy’s power had been seriously damaged, and its battleship force had been cut in half.  The British lost a couple of Swordfish.

Naval convention said that torpedo launches had to be made in water that was at least 100 feet deep.  The waters around Taranto were only 40 feet deep and the British dropped their torpedoes at a very low altitude and pioneered a dramatic change in torpedo tactics.

The Swordfish would go on to achieve greater fame six months later, when they would again put holes in a battleship…this time the legendary Bismarck.

The Battle of Taranto would also go on to achieve greater fame, thirteen months later, when the Japanese studied the British attack and used many of the same tactics…this time at legendary Pearl Harbor.

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Italian dictator Benito Mussolini clearly had a flair for ineptitude.  He may have made the trains run on time in Rome and he may have made the grapes more delicious in Tuscany.  He might have even single-handedly kept Venice from sinking deeper into the Adriatic.

But on military matters…well…most people wanted him fighting for “the other guy”.

As a member of the Axis, Italy’s part (militarily speaking) was often to sit by and watch Germany and Japan pretty much do what they wanted.  And that didn’t sit well with Mussolini, who became jealous of their “easy” conquests.  Oh sure, there had been some gains in Africa (Abyssinia, British Somaliland, Eritrea).  And don’t forget the “conquering” of Albania.  But they paled when compared with Poland and China and Norway and France.

Mussolini needed a big feather in war-time cap.

Romania had, in the middle of October of 1940, accepted German protection for its massive oil fields at Ploesti, which bothered Benito badly.  He had long considered Romania to be in the Italian sphere of influence, and believed Germany was overstepping its bounds a little.  So he turned at Greece, sending an ultimatum demanding they allow Italy to occupy their territory.

Greece and Italy had a history of troubled relations.  Italy’s conquest (I use that term lightly) of Albania put them right on Greece’s border, and Prime Minister Metaxas was showing a preference for Britain.  For his part, Metaxas did what he could to maintain neutrality, going so far as to cover up the origins of the sinking of the Elli in Tinos Harbor in August…clearly an Italian operation and a topic worthy of discussion at some point.

But there was no way the Prime Minister of Greece was going to allow an Italian occupation.  He refused on October 28, 1940…and was attacked by Italy on October 28, 1940.  Italian Generals launched their attacks while simultaneously trying to recall the men they had sent home just weeks before to help with the harvests.

Within two weeks, Greece’s military had stopped the Italian advance.  A stalemate, which would last six months, began.  Hitler was, once again, angry with the Italian leader for going off and beginning an operation he couldn’t finish.  Evenutally (in the spring of 1941), Germany would have to delay Operation Barbarossa and commit his own forces to finally subdue Greece.

Recommended Reading: Crete 1941 – This is a somewhat dry book dealing mostly with British naval operations around Crete, but it provides good background information on Greece as well.  It should go quickly for you.

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I’ve been off for a couple days, fighting a case of the blah’s.  I would go to the office in the morning, then end up working from home in the afternoon.  And by the time 4:00pm got here, I was pretty wiped out.  This evening I’m better, though still not great.  But let’s talk about something…and try to keep it brief.

How about a little conspiracy?

For years, there has been speculation that President Franklin Roosevelt knew in advance about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  As Commander-in-Chief, any President has access to classified information that no one else can see.  FDR was certainly no exception, and in 1994 the McCollum Memo was declassified.  Conspiracy theorists jumped on this highly sensitive document like flies on stink as proof the President not only knew an attack was coming, but that he had purposely engineered the debacle, then expressed outrage when it occurred.

What is the McCollum Memo?  It’s a 6-page document penned by Arthur McCollum, a Lt. Col. in the Office of Naval Intelligence, and submitted to his superiors on October 7, 1940 (14 months before the Pearl Harbor attacks).  Germany, Italy, and Japan had, less that two weeks before, signed the Tripartite Pact, and McCollum’s paper begins with his strategic view of the world in light of their close association.  He then offered up an assessment of Japan’s strengths and weaknesses.

So far so good.

But then McCollum added 8 steps he believed would drive the Japanese to declare war on the United States.  They included things like keeping the U.S. Fleet parked in Hawaii (which we did), instigating a trade embargo with Japan (which we did), and aiding Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese military (which we also did).  He finished the document with the curious phrase, “If by these means Japan could be led to commit an overt act of war, so much the better.”

The “superiors” to whom he submitted his work weren’t just “the next guys in the chain”, they were Captains Walter Anderson and Dudley Knox, both very close to President Roosevelt.  And you’re all sleuthy enough to put the sequence of events together…Knox and Anderson receive the memo, which they read and pass to the President.  The President then reads the memo, has light-bulbs go off in his brain, and manipulates foreign policy to follow McCollum’s suggestions, and then allows Pearl Harbor to be attacked so we can enter the war with Britain.

But the 64-thousand-dollar question still lingers…while this sequence of events is possible, did it actually happen?

And, unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists, the best answer is likely “no”.  Anderson (the Director of Naval Intelligence) certainly read McCollum’s paper…he added his own comments at the end, which included the phrase, “…we should not precipitate anything in the Orient.”

The eight “steps to war” proposed by McCollum were largely followed by the Roosevelt Administration, but they were measures that were largely dictated by the current political/military situations of the moment rather than a pre-meditated drive to war.  There is zero factual evidence (and only the most obtuse of circumstantial evidence) that the McCollum Memo ever landed in front of the President’s eyes.  And finally, it was Japan who attacked first, regardless of real or implied provocation, and it was they who jumped through all kinds of hoops to make it not look like an undeclared act of war.

In the end, I think the McCollum Memo was far more a “what if” analysis by a mid-level officer than a serious policy document that the administration adapted for its own purposes.  There may be “smoking guns” in the the Roosevelt Administration (like there are in many), but those looking for a real story will probably have to look elsewhere.

Recommended Reading:  Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor – I recommend Stinnet’s book as an interesting read, not necessarily the Scouts-honor gospel of what happened leading up to Pearl Harbor.  The McCollum Memo looms fairly large in this book.  For another good take (and links to the entire document), check this site as well.

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The fall of France in June of 1940 gave the British a new next-door neighbor.  And without a doubt, the Germans that moved in to the French countryside were most unpleasant.  Within weeks, the Germans were knocking on British doors, but they weren’t asking for tea and crumpets or Yorkshire pudding or even those delicious doughnuts that I love.  Instead, they were trying to shoot RAF fighters from the skies while bombing Britain’s industrial centers and ports, areas like Liverpool and the Port of London.  I imagine even the kindly Mr. Rogers would have been at least slightly perturbed by these “un-neighborly” actions.

Many of the Luftwaffe’s missions were carried out at night, and in 1940, sophisticated systems like GPS and inertial navigation were still years even from the drawing board.  So it was probably inevitable that, at some point, aircraft were going to lose their way and bomb an unintended target.  On August 24th, a handful of German bombers dropped their bombs, not on the port of Thames Haven as was their target, but on London itself.

Would you like to take a flying leap as to who appeared over Berlin the next night?  Residents of Berlin (well, all the residents of Berlin minus the 10 or so killed) were stunned to hear the crump of the anti-aircraft fire and the explosion of RAF bombs.  It was truly a new experience for them.  Residents of the German Chancellery, particularly the Chancellor himself, were incensed.  He ordered the Luftwaffe to attack British air defenses and the population itself in “day and night” attacks.

Those attacks began in earnest on September 7, 1940.  More than 360 bombers and 500 fighter planes flying escort participated in the late-afternoon attack on the Port of London.  While not strictly a civilian target, the residential areas surrounding it were, and they suffered heavily that afternoon, with 400+ killed and more than 1,000 wounded.

The attacks, which came to be known as The Blitz of London, would continue for months, reducing much of London (and many other cities) to rubble.  But they also freed the RAF and its airfields from incessant attack, giving them a chance to regroup.  Hitler’s orders to bomb cities, while incredibly painful for the citizens, was the first of his strategic errors of the war.

Recommended Reading:  The Second World War

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In 1940, the Horn of Africa had taken on a distinctly Italian flair.  And that was to be expected, since much of it had been conquered by Italy.  Eritrea became an Italian possession in 1935, Abyssinia was invaded in late 1935 and overrun in May of the following year.  Italian Somaliland had been under Italian control for some time.

In the late 19th Century, Britain, France, and Italy had all gained footholds in the area around Africa’s Horn.  All had signed pacts with the local sultans to gain access to the African ports because of their close proximity to the Suez Canal.  So each European country had its “Somaliland” counterpart…Italian Somaliland, French Somaliland…you get the idea.

The Italians wanted all this territory.  The small territory of French Somaliland they sort of won by default when France capitulated in June of 1940.  But there was still British Somaliland hanging around, and the British, of course, did not capitulate.  So, on August 3, 1940, the Italian army tried to provide them some incentive to quit (at least in Africa) when they invaded British Somaliland.

Italians forces consisted of 25,000 troops, some light and medium tanks, air support, and artillery.  Under the direction of Lt. General Guglielmo Nasi, they attacked the eastern part of the territory.  Facing them were a smattering of a few thousand British forces.  It was a total mismatch, and the British knew it.  So General Archibald Wavell, in overall command of the Middle East theater, ordered his subordinates to fight essentially a rearguard action.  By mid-August, the British were being loaded onto Navy ships Dunkirk-style.

Two weeks after the invasion began, British Somaliland was no longer British.  Prime Minister Churchill strongly criticized the actions of the military, and Wavell’s decisions in particular, claiming there was little or no fighting or defense of the territory.  But there was little else to do against such overwhelming opposition and, like Dunkirk, the evacuated troops could fight much more effectively down the road than captured or dead ones.

The Italians had their “place in the sun”.

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