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Posts Tagged ‘Baltic Sea’

Well, it’s been a month again…this little endeavor hasn’t gone so well the last year or two.  This month, it was a project at work that took nearly every waking minute (and several minutes that should have been non-waking).  Regardless, it seems that when I want to write, things conspire against me.  I think it’s “decision time”.  I need to figure out if I want to continue, or maybe go in another direction, or simply stop.  I’ll use the next month to work it out.  By the end of February, if I haven’t picked it up, I’ll call it a day.

But since I’m here this evening, let’s at least share something.

Stutthof concentration camp isn’t nearly as well-known as several of its more famous counterparts (say, Treblinka or Auschwitz), but as I soon as mention it in concert with those others, students of history will immediately see images come into their minds.  They include the rows of huts, the emaciated prisoners, gas chambers (yes, Stutthof had one), and crematoriums.  The images will also include those of incredible suffering and death.

This particular camp was located in a rather marshy forested area, roughly 20 miles from Gdansk, Poland and a 20-minute walk from the Baltic Sea.  It was the first camp built in Polish territory, and it grew large enough to house more than 50,000 prisoners.  Conditions there were probably typical of most camps, which is to say appalling.  And while it wasn’t strictly a “death camp” like the six biggies, there was suffering and pain and death aplenty there.

Like most of these camps, Stutthof’s existence lasted while the fortunes of war were in Germany’s favor.  When things turned sour and the Russians began pushing the Germans back, it was time to vacate.  Many of the camps were razed in an effort to hide the crime, while others were simply abandoned.  And by January of 1945, the retreat was running at full speed, thanks to the Russian offensive that began on the 12th.

Stutthof was abandoned on the 25th, with nearly 50,000 prisoners beginning a death march of nearly 90 miles…it’s cold in Poland in January.  As they marched, those that fell were executed.  Eventually, the Russians cut off the German escape, so the prisoners were forced to retrace their steps back to Stutthof.  Nearly half of the prisoners would die.

But for several thousand – the numbers, depending on the source, range from 3,000 to 5,000 – the end came more quickly, and just as brutally.  They were the survivors of more than 13,000 prisoners that had fled one of Stutthof’s sub-camps.  On the evening of January 31, 1945 (the night after the Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed), they were marched to the edge of the frigid Baltic Sea and forced into the water under rifle and machine-gun fire.  There were only a handful of survivors.

Recommended Reading:  The Holocaust Research Project – A lot of good information and a detailed write-up of Stutthof.

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Most people have never heard of Usedom Island.  Admittedly, it’s pretty unfamiliar to me, too.  But that’s why we have maps…to find places we don’t really know.  And the map shows me that Usedom is in that V-shaped area between German-Polish border on the Baltic Sea.  Right about here.

I read that Usedom is quite the tourist attraction, with hotels, bed and breakfast inns, and even a castle or two.  So you figure that “peace and quiet” are probably the order of the day.  Tranquility and serenity are all the rage here.

It wasn’t always that way.

If you move to the north and west along Usedom, you’ll find the thumb-shaped part of the island.  It was on this point that Peenemünde existed.  Back in Second World War, Peenemünde was German military’s primary missile testing area.  So it was pretty noisy, what with all the explosions and all that were going on.  Complaints from tourists were likely constant.

There were many different weapons developed and tested here, most famously the V1 and V2 bombs.  The V1 was a subsonic, jet-powered bomb that flew airplane-style at less than 400 mph.  As such, it could be shot down by any number of Allied aircraft roaming the European skies.

The V2 was a completely different proposition.  It was essentially a ballistic missile, designed to achieve low-earth orbit as part of its trajectory.  Spending most of its flight at supersonic speeds, it was impervious to attack from any weapon system owned by the Allies.

But the V2 wasn’t very accurate.  GPS guidance, inertial navigation, and laser range-finding were all a long ways off.  The V2 was, for all intents and purposes, a point-and-pray terror weapon.  It could however, scare a lot of people, which ultimately became the V2’s primary objective.

Its first successful launch occurred on October 3, 1942, and it’s hard to underestimate the significance of something so common it’s no longer news-worthy.  This was the first man-made object launched from the earth that actually reached space.

When launched in anger in 1944, the V2 scared people a lot of people, but didn’t actually kill all that many (when considered against all deaths in WWII).  It wasn’t terribly powerful, almost completely unguided, and was therefore of limited strategic value.

Today, we launch rockets into space all the time.  We hang satellites in an orbit perfectly balanced between “falling back to earth in a fiery conflagration” and “spinning off into the void of space”.  We have space stations and space shuttles that dock there.  We have the capability to launch rockets that can shoot down the satellites that rockets placed there.  It’s a pretty common technology.

But all ballistic missiles are descended directly from Germany’s V2 technology, fired from an island that’s now a German tourist trap.

Recommended Reading: Hitler’s Terror Weapons: From Doodlebug to Nuclear Warheads

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