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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.

Dunkirk.

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

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

Recommended Reading: Lightning War

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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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