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Posts Tagged ‘Germany’

Happy New Year!!

I hope you all had a relaxing time between the holidays and will head back to work refreshed.  I ate way more than I should have, but fortunately for me, the weather remains relatively warm…30s and 40s.  That means I can ride my bike to work and burn off some of the extra calories I packed on.

If we had been around Nuremberg, Germany on January 2, 1945, New Year’s celebrations would not have been in order.  It was on this evening that more than 500 British Lancasters flew overhead and plastered the medieval city back to, well, the Middle Ages.

The attack itself wasn’t a huge surprise to the city’s population had experienced bombing before.  During the Second World War, Nuremberg was the headquarters of one of Germany’s military districts, which alone made it an allied target of some value.  Furthermore, there was some military production going on there, particularly aircraft and tank engines.

But Nuremberg was also something of a spiritual center of National Socialism.  The Nuremberg rallies of the 20s and 30s were a pretty big deal, and numerous other Nazi Party gatherings had been held there over the years.  Like Adolf Hitler’s desire to crush Leningrad (named after the first Bolshevist leader) and Stalingrad (named after the current leader), it’s at least plausible that Allied planners might consider making Nuremberg a target for more than just strictly military reasons.

Nuremberg, already damaged by previous attacks, was devastated.  The pathfinders were very accurate in marking their targets with the aid of a full moon, and the Lancasters (though not speedy, could carry a significant bombload) did their job with fiery efficiency.  Nuremberg’s center was almost completely destroyed.  Thousands of buildings were reduced to smoldering rubble, including age-old churches, homes, museums, and the like.  More than 100,000 townspeople were left homeless, and another 1,800 were left lifeless.

This was the age of area bombing, so discrimination between military and civilian targets was pretty badly blurred.  And for many other German cities, like Hamburg before and Dresden just a month later, this is how their wars would end.

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Well, it’s been a week…actually, longer than that.  But sometimes things just work out that way. We’ve covered half the month of February, and I’ve written just two times.  The “calendar of events” is, except for two days, completely full for the remainder of the month.  So I’ll see how many I can get churned out.

Max Hastings is a brilliant historian.  At least I think he is.  And by the number of books he’s sold, a great many people agree with me.  The last two books of his that I read (Armageddon and Retribution) are what I would call “personal” history…telling a larger story while focusing on individuals who were intimately involved with it, making it more tangible and real for the reader.  Maybe his long experience as a journalist honed his skills, or maybe he possessed the ability from the get-go.  Whichever, it works.

The city of Dresden, Germany was bombed by the Allies as the Second World War was winding down in Europe.  But “bombed” is the 20,000-foot view.  Hastings’ “man-on-the-street” for this event, which began on February 13, 1945, was Gotz Bergander.  For much of the last war’s last months, rumor had come to Bergander (and the other Dresdeners) that their city would be spared due to the tremendous cultural value it possessed.  There was even talk of it being used as the occupation capital.

Shortly after 9:00pm, all the talk and all the rumors were drowned out by the wailing of the air-raid sirens.  Young Bergander and his family descended to the reinforced shelter in the basement (his father’s office comprised the ground floor of the building where they lived) and waited, enduring 25 minutes worth of pounding.  They came out to find that no bombs had fallen in their neighborhood.  Gotz climbed to the roof of the home/factory and put out a couple small fires started by burning debris, and looked out to see everything on the horizon burning.

The residents of Dresden barely had time to collect their wits when the alarms sounded again.  The 244 Avro Lancasters from the first raid had been merely an appetizer to the main course…529 Lancasters.  And as you may remember from eons ago, Lancasters weren’t tremendously fast, but they carried a substantial payload.  Forty minutes later, Gotz Bergander emerged again from his shelter to find his home just about the only undamaged building he could see amidst a massive firestorm.

But it still wasn’t over.  The next day, as survivors were getting a view of the charred remains of their devastated city, destruction rained down again, this time courtesy of 311 B-17 Flying Fortresses of the USAAF.  And through it all, the Berganders survived a bombing and subsequent firestorm that killed 35,000 of their fellow residents.

As an old man, Bergander looked back on the events with sixty years of perspective, and Hasting records his words.  “The bombing of Dresden was an extravagance.  Even in war, the ends must relate to the means.  Here, the means seemed wildly out of proportion to the ends.  I will not say that Dresden should not have been bombed-it was a rail centre, and thus an important target.  I will not say Dresden was an exceptional case as compared to other German cities.  But I do not understand why it had to be done on such a huge scale.”  His words are especially weighty when compared with post-attack photos of the railways, which were mostly undamaged and running again within a couple days.

The debate over Dresden, and quite frankly, the bombing of many of the other German (and Japanese) cities in 1945, has consumed enormous amounts of ink.  Germany was clearly beaten.  Her offensive capabilities had been reduced to burning hulks and rotting corpses in the west and, in greater numbers, to the east.  Her defensive capabilities and wartime production had been pulverized from the air.  The fact that the Allies were attacking with massed formations in broad daylight is a testament not only to the power the Allies possessed, but also to the lack of resistance from their enemy.

In 2009, we talked about the idea of “sowing the wind, and reaping the whirlwind“.  I believe this is clearly a continuation in that theme.  London had been bombed heavily earlier in the war and, now that the Allies were firmly in control, their response would not only equal what had been done to them, but far outweigh it.  For Air Marshal Arthur Harris, Dresden was just another instance of payback, called by Hastings a target on “his notorious schedule of unfinished business in Germany.”

Recommended Reading: Armageddon: The Battle For Germany, 1944-1945

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The Nazi-Soviet Pact (signed in August of 1939) is easily the most recognizable agreement between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany.  I suppose that’s something of a surprise, since Adolf Hitler despised Russia’s Bolshevism and Joseph Stalin despised Germany’s National Socialism (and was paranoid of nearly everything and everyone else).  And it was that distrust that really made the Pact possible, as it was a way to create something of a buffer zone between the two (albeit at Poland’s expense).

But this certainly wasn’t the only agreement between the two countries.  Just days before the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed, Russia and Germany signed an economic agreement.  The Russians would send food, raw materials, and oil to Germany in exchange for money and equipment.  In February of 1940, the economic agreement was expanded and became more militaristic in nature, as Germany promised to send blueprints for some of its military assets to Russia, receiving more raw materials (particularly oil) in return.

There were also secret agreements.  There was the secret addendum to the Nazi-Soviet Pact, in which Germany gave Russia a free hand to do what it wanted with Finland, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.  And then there was the secret protocol of January 10, 1941.  Signed by Vyacheslav Molotov (the Russian Foreign Minister) and Count von der Schulenburg (the German ambassador), this had nothing to do with economics, but returned once again to territory.

The “Sulwalki Strip” was a 25-mile by 50-mile strip of Lithuanian territory that was controlled by Germany.   The German government agreed to relinquish control of the area.  In return, the Russians agreed to give Germany 31.5 million Reichsmarks…sort of.  One-eighth of the money (3,937,500 Reichsmarks) would be delivered as raw materials, to be paid within 3 months.  The remaining seven-eighths (~27,500,000 Reichsmarks) were actually reductions in the payments that Germany was making to Russia as part of the expanded 1940 Economic Agreement.

So Germany gave up a little piece of land and, in return, got  more raw materials from Russia.  It also kept a sizeable chunk of change in its own coffers, money which would come in handy when they invaded Russia just six months down the road.

Recommended Reading: The Eastern Front – Day By Day, 1941-45

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Though he was just 29 years old, Joachim Peiper had lived a lifetime.  A Colonel in the SS Sixth Panzer Army, he had served with distinction on the Russian Front, which meant he had witnessed (and been a part of) scenes of violence rarely surpassed in a war full of terrible deeds.  Max Hastings, who I consider to be one of the finest historical writers of our generation, gives us a brief introduction to the man in his masterful book Armageddon.

He writes, “Peiper, a Knight’s Cross holder, was the archetypal brave, gifted Waffen SS commander just twenty-nine years old, with a record of brutality on the Russian Front which commanded respect even in SS circles.  In one advance, Peiper’s battalion claimed 2,500 Russians killed and just three captured.”

But in December of 1944, Peiper was no longer on the Russian Front.  As the Red Army bore down from the east, Peiper had been moved west…to the front facing the Americans.  It was hoped that Operation Watch on the Rhine (which we have come to know as the Battle of the Bulge) would push the Allies far enough westward to maybe divide them and get a separate peace deal done.  Our Colonel, his men, and his tanks had been secretly moved into place and were prepared to jump off.

And as we remember from last year, it was Peiper’s men who massacred the American soldiers at Malmedy.  It’s easy for us to understand how such an event happened.  A group of German soldiers, well-versed in a take-no-prisoners style of warfare, led by a take-no-prisoners battalion commander, and placed in a desperate, last-gasp situation.  It’s pretty cut and dried.

But I think there’s even more to it.  On December 12, 1944 (just four days before the Battle of the Bulge began), Peiper and his men were in Dueren, Germany when it was bombed by light bombers from the U.S. Ninth Air force.  Of course, it wasn’t the first time Dueren had been targeted.  On November 16th, the city had been absolutely plastered by British and American bombers.  More than 1,700 had set their sights on the “city of antiquities” and, in the space of two hours, dropped more than 9,000 tons of bombs on the city’s center.  And like Tokyo (and other Japanese cities) would experience a few months down the road, the bombs created a maelstrom of fire and destruction that left the city a complete ruin.  In fact, there is no building in Dueren today that dates prior to 1945.

Peiper and his men were witness not only to the aftermath of the November 16 attack, but witnessed first-hand the attack on the 12th.  In his biography of Colonel Peiper, Patrick Agte wrote, The widespread destruction, which lay before them, was worse than at the front. What was even worse was the feeling of powerlessness and helplessness, which came over them in the face of this catastrophe… Encouragement and orders were unnecessary. Everyone was filled with the desire to help and also filled with horror, sympathy and rage!…This isn’t war; it’s mass murder!”

The unarmed Americans slaughtered at Malmedy were victims of an offensive powered by desperation and fought by men seeking revenge…a very bad combination.

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A couple of days ago, when writing about Adolf Hitler’s decision to stay in his bunker and commit suicide, I said that the German army had ceased to be capable of any serious offensive action.

Well…I lied.  Sort of.

In a general sense, I didn’t.  The German army really wasn’t able to mount a serious challenge on a large scale.  But given the right conditions, they could…in the same way that I could win a gold medal in an Olympic sport if I were the only one competing.

Of course, it couldn’t happen in Berlin, where Marshal Vasily Chuikov’s men were now approaching the heart of Nazi Germany.  But in Bautzen, which sat about 20 miles west of the Polish border, a German offensive was possible.  And it happened.  Beginning on April 21, 1945 (the same day that Army Detachment Steiner was supposed to begin its offensive, but didn’t), a German push to capture Bautzen got underway.

About 50,000 Germans, many with significant combat experience and supported by several hundred tanks, began pressing against the 2nd Polish Army which, while outnumbering the Germans, were mostly green troops.  They gave way under the strain, suffering heavy losses in both men and equipment.  Marshal Ivan Konev, the Russian in overall command, sent in some Red Army reinforcements, but they also took heavy casualties.

The Battle of Bautzen ended (for all intents and purposes) on April 26, 1945 with the Germans in control of Bautzen.  It was the German military’s last victory of the war.  In less than a week, with much of Europe in shambles, with Berlin a pile of rubble, and its leader an unrecognizable pile of ashes, the war in Europe would be over.

And the “miracle” victories that Hitler so badly wanted would amount to a meaningless battle won a hundred miles from Berlin.

Recommended Reading: Armageddon: The Battle For Germany, 1944-1945

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When 1945 arrived, most rational people knew that Germany’s war of aggression in Europe was lost.  Massive gambles in Russia and Africa had failed, and a subsequent Allied onslaught of production (from the west) and tremendous manpower (from the east) overwhelmed a tottering Reich.  A last gasp in the Ardennes verified that Germany could no longer sustain any offensive action.

When 1945 arrived, Adolf Hitler was clearly not rational.  He lived in a bunker below the Chancellery, only venturing out on the rarest of occasions, cut off from the outside world and, apparently, from most forms of reality.  In his concrete fortress of delusion, he looked at maps with his now-completely-skeptical staff and he moved little flags and figurines around.  He called for attacks that couldn’t be made with forces that didn’t exist to stop a foe that wouldn’t be stopped any longer, still believing that victory was within his grasp.

Until April 22, 1945.

The day before, while meeting with his generals, he came up with Army Detachment Steiner.  The “Steiner” part was real…played by SS General Felix Steiner.  The “Detachment” part was also real, in that Steiner was in command of army forces.  But the “Army” part?…well, that was pure fiction.  Steiner’s forces in no way represented an army.  Having been stripped of his finest divisions just days before, the General was left at a serious handicap, and he knew it.

But in the Chancellery, armies looked much different on a map…more powerful, more beastly.  The Fuhrer moved some pieces around (which created a powerful force in his mind), liked what he saw, and ordered Steiner to attack…something that Steiner could no more do than he could himself into a tank.  So there was no attack.

And, of course, during the “update with the Generals” on the 22nd, Hitler asked about how the attack was progressing.  After some awkward silence and those fleeting glances that said, “You tell him…no, you tell him…I told him last time, it’s your turn…”, Hitler was informed that no attack had been made.

Adolf Hitler’s reacton was predictable.  He began yelling about how his Generals were worthless and how they always plotted behind his back and how they were the ones that cost Germany the war.  At this point, a moment of clarity came to the mostly delusional dictator, and he realized the war was indeed lost.  And it was then that he decided that there would be no escape to Bavaria or South America for him.

The bunker had been his home…it would now be his grave.

Recommended Reading: Armageddon: The Battle For Germany, 1944-1945

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When I published yesterday’s piece on Tears in the Darkness, I forgot that I still had a history lesson for the day.  So now that it’s the 28th and I’ve checked my spreadsheet, we get to play a bit of “catch-up”.  My apologies for missing this.

Operation Gomorrah was a joint U.S. – British air operation conducted over the span of a little more than a week.  It’s target?…the heavily industrialized port city of Hamburg, Germany.  During the day, U.S. bombers would carry out smaller, precision attacks (as much as “precision bombing” could be defined in 1943) during the day, while the Brits filled the night sky with massive numbers of bombers for less precise (read: terror) bombing.

On four different evenings, between 700-800 bombers would lift off and head for Hamburg.  Though the British ostensibly were going after non-civilian targets, let’s be honest about it.  Bombing was pretty imprecise, and sending 700+ bombers to a set of targets and then asking the bombadiers to hit those targets at night was…well…it’s safe to say this wasn’t just about hitting specific targets.

But this is review, isn’t it?

Late at night on July 27, 1943 (shortly before it became the 28th), nearly 790 bombers arrived again over Hamburg.  In 30 minutes, they had blanketed an area just two miles square.  The fires, combined with warm, dry conditions, blended together to create an immense firestorm.  It generated hurricane-force winds that reached 150mph.  Temperatures reached 1,500°F, hot enough to cause asphalt to burn.

For more than 40,000 people, this was their last night alive.  Many of them had sought the protection of their underground air raid shelters, but fires need to breathe, and the firestorm’s insatiable appetite for oxygen sucked it from the shelters and the people, killing them where they sat and waited.

Morning’s light brought a smoldering ruin, shells of buildings, and death.  Air Marshal Harris had begun collecting the debt owed for the bombing of London.  Japan would experience similar attacks two years later, as the War was nearing its conclusion.

Recommended Reading:  Masters of the Air

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