Saturday, February 11, 2017

Battle of Kursk: the biggest tank battle of World War Two

Following their disastrous defeat at Stalingrad during the winter of 1942-43, the German armed forces launched a climactic offensive in the East known as Operation Citadel on July 4,1943. The climax of Operation Citadel, the Battle of Kursk, involved as many as 6,000 tanks, 4,000 aircraft and 2 million fighting men and is remembered as the greatest tank battle in history. The high-water mark of the battle was the massive armor engagement at Prochorovka (also spelled Prokhorovka), which began on July 12. But while historians have categorized Prochorovka as a victory of improved Soviet tactics over German firepower and heavy tanks, new evidence casts the struggle at the ‘gully of death’ in a very different light.

The Germans’ goal during Citadel was to pinch off a large salient in the Eastern Front that extended 70 miles toward the west. Field Marshal Günther von Kluge’s Army Group Center would attack from the north flank of the bulge, with Colonel General Walther Model’s Ninth Army leading the effort, General Hans Zorn’s XLVI Panzer Corps on the right flank and Maj. Gen. Josef Harpe’s XLI Panzer Corps on the left. General Joachim Lemelsen’s XLVII Panzer Corps planned to drive toward Kursk and meet up with Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s Army Group South, Col. Gen. Hermann Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army and the Kempf Army, commanded by General Werner Kempf.

Opposing the German forces were the Soviet Central Front, led by General Konstantin K. Rokossovsky, and the Voronezh Front, led by General Nikolai F. Vatutin. The Central Front, with the right wing strengthened by Lt. Gen. Nikolai P. Pukhov’s Thirteenth Army and Lt. Gen. I.V. Galinin’s Seventeenth Army, was to defend the northern sector. To the south, the Voronezh Front faced the German Army Group South with three armies and two in reserve. The Sixth Guards Army, led by Lt. Gen. Mikhail N. Chistyakov, and the Seventh Guards Army, led by Lt. Gen. M. S. Shumilov, held the center and left wing. East of Kursk, Col. Gen. Ivan S. Konev’s Steppe Military District (renamed Steppe Front on July 10, 1943) was to hold German breakthroughs, then mount the counteroffensive.
If their plan succeeded, the Germans would encircle and destroy more than five Soviet armies. Such a victory would have forced the Soviets to delay their operations and might have allowed the Wehrmacht desperately needed breathing room on the Eastern Front. Model’s Ninth Army never came close to breaking the Soviet defenses in the north, however, and soon became deadlocked in a war of attrition that it could not win. On the southern flank, Kempf’s III Panzer Corps, commanded by General Hermann Breith, also encountered tough Soviet resistance. By July 11, however, Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army was in position to capture the town of Prochorovka, secure a bridgehead over the Psel River and advance on Oboyan. The Psel was the last natural barrier between Manstein’s panzers and Kursk. The Fourth Panzer Army’s attack on the town was led by SS General Paul Hausser’s II SS Panzer Corps, General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s XLVIII Panzer Corps and General Ott’s LII Army Corps. Hausser’s corps was made up of three panzer divisions–the 1st Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (Adolf Hitler’s bodyguard), 2nd SS Das Reich (The Empire) and 3rd SS Totenkopf(Death’s Head). Although all three were technically Panzergrenadier divisions, each had more than 100 tanks when Citadel began. Knobelsdorff’s corps was composed of the 167th and 332nd infantry divisions, the 3rd and 11th panzer divisions, PanzergrenadierDivision Grossdeutschland and Panther Brigade Decker, and Ott’s corps contained the 25th and 57th infantry divisions.
Opposing Hausser at Prochorovka was the newly arrived and reinforced Fifth Guards Tank Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Pavel A. Rotmistrov. The Fifth Guards was the Soviet strategic armored reserve in the south, the last significant uncommitted armored formation in the sector, with more than 650 tanks. The Soviet operational armored reserve, General Mikhail E. Katukov’s First Tank Army, was already in action against Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army south of the Psel. Katukov’s army had been unable to prevent the Germans from reaching the river, however. His VI Tank Corps, originally equipped with more than 200 tanks, had only 50 left by July 10 and 11, and the other two corps of Katukov’s army also had sustained serious losses. On July 10, the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf, commanded by SS Maj. Gen. Hermann Priess, had established a bridgehead over the Psel, west of Prochorovka. By July 11, the division’s panzer group had crossed the river on pontoon bridges and reached the bridgehead. What was left of Katukov’s armor regrouped to oppose the XLVIII Panzer Corps below Oboyan or counterattack the Psel bridgehead. Reinforced with the XXXIII Rifle Corps and X Tank Corps, Katukov launched continuous attacks on the Totenkopf units on the north bank of the river.
During the evening of July 11, Hausser readied his divisions for an assault on Prochorovka. Totenkopf anchored the left flank of the corps, while Leibstandarte, commanded by SS Maj. Gen. Theodore Wisch, was in the center, assembled west of the town between a rail line and the Psel. Das Reich, commanded by SS Lt. Gen. Walter Krüger, moved into its attack zone on the corps’ right flank, which was several kilometers south of Tetrevino and southwest of Prochorovka.
While Hausser’s SS divisions prepared for battle, there was feverish activity in the Soviet camp as well. On July 11, the Fifth Guards Tank Army arrived in the Prochorovka area, having begun its march on July 7 from assembly areas nearly 200 miles to the east. The army consisted of the XVIII and XXIX Tank Corps and the V Guards Mechanized Corps. Rotmistrov’s 650 tanks were reinforced by the II Tank Corps and II Guards Tank Corps, increasing its strength to about 850 tanks, 500 of which were T-34s. The Fifth Guards’ primary mission was to lead the main post-Kursk counteroffensive, known as Operation Rumyantsev, and its secondary mission was as defensive insurance in the south. The commitment of Rotmistrov’s army at such an early date is stark evidence of Soviet concern about the situation on the Psel. The Fifth Guards’ arrival at the Psel set the stage for the Battle of Prochorovka.
Prochorovka is one of the best-known of the many battles on the Eastern Front during World War II. It has been covered in articles, books and televised historical documentaries, but these accounts vary in accuracy; some are merely incomplete, while others border on fiction. In the generally accepted version of the battle, the three SS divisions attacked Prochorovka shoulder to shoulder, jammed into the terrain between the Psel and the railroad. A total of 500 to 700 German tanks, including dozens of Panzerkampfwagen Mark V Panther medium tanks with 75mm guns and Panzerkampfwagen Mark VI Tiger heavy tanks with deadly 88mm cannons, lumbered forward while hundreds of nimble Soviet T-34 medium tanks raced into the midst of the SS armor and threw the Germans into confusion. The Soviets closed with the panzers, negating the Tigers’ 88mm guns, outmaneuvered the German armor and knocked out hundreds of German tanks. The Soviet tank force’s audacious tactics resulted in a disastrous defeat for the Germans, and the disorganized SS divisions withdrew, leaving 400 destroyed tanks behind, including between 70 and 100 Tigers and many Panthers. Those losses smashed the SS divisions’ fighting power, and as a result Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army had no chance to achieve even a partial victory in the south.
While it makes a dramatic story, nearly all of this battle scenario is essentially myth. Careful study of the daily tank strength reports and combat records of II SS Panzer Corps–available on microfilm at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.–provides information that forces a historical reappraisal of the battle. These records show, first of all, that Hausser’s corps began with far fewer tanks than previously believed and, more important, that they suffered only moderate losses on July 12, 1943. As those reports were intended to allow the corps commander to assess the combat strength of his divisions, they can be considered reasonably accurate. Considering that information, it seems that the Germans may have been near a limited success on the southern flank of the salient.
The number of SS tanks actually involved in the battle has been variously reported as high as 700 by some authorities, while others have estimated between 300 to 600. Even before the Battle of Kursk began, however, the II SS Panzer Corps never had 500 tanks, much less 700. On July 4, the day before Operation Citadel was launched, Hausser’s three divisions possessed a total of 327 tanks between them, plus a number of command tanks. By July 11, the II SS Panzer Corps had a total of 211 operational tanks–Totenkopfhad 94 tanks, Leibstandarte had only 56 and Das Reich possessed just 61. Damaged tanks or tanks undergoing repairs are not listed. Only 15 Tiger tanks were still in action at Prochorovka, and there were no SS Panthers available. The battalions that were equipped with Panthers were still training in Germany in July 1943.

On July 13, the day after the Battle of Prochorovka, Fourth Panzer Army reports declared that the II SS Panzer Corps had 163 operational tanks, a net loss of only 48 tanks. Actual losses were somewhat heavier, the discrepancy due to the gain of repaired tanks returned to action. Closer study of the losses of each type of tank reveals that the corps lost about 70 tanks on July 12. In contrast, Soviet tank losses, long assumed to be moderate, were actually catastrophic. In 1984, a history of the Fifth Guards Tank Army written by Rotmistrov himself revealed that on July 13 the army lost 400 tanks to repairable damage. He gave no figure for tanks that were destroyed or not available for salvage. Evidence suggests that there were hundreds of additional Soviet tanks lost. Several German accounts mention that Hausser had to use chalk to mark and count the huge jumble of 93 knocked-out Soviet tanks in the Leibstandarte sector alone. Other Soviet sources say the tank strength of the army on July 13 was 150 to 200, a loss of about 650 tanks. Those losses brought a caustic rebuke from Josef Stalin. Subsequently, the depleted Fifth Guards Tank Army did not resume offensive action, and Rotmistrov ordered his remaining tanks to dig in among the infantry positions west of the town.
Another misconception about the battle is the image of all three SS divisions attacking shoulder to shoulder through the narrow lane between the Psel and the rail line west of Prochorovka. Only Leibstandarte was aligned directly west of the town, and it was the only division to attack the town itself. The II SS Panzer Corps zone of battle, contrary to the impression given in many accounts, was approximately nine miles wide, with Totenkopf on the left flank, Leibstandarte in the center and Das Reich on the right flank.Totenkopf‘s armor was committed primarily to the Psel bridgehead and in defensive action against Soviet attacks on the Psel bridges. In fact, only Leibstandarte actually advanced into the corridor west of Prochorovka, and then only after it had thrown back initial Soviet attacks.
Early on July 12, Leibstandarte units reported a great deal of loud motor noise, which indicated massing Soviet armor. Soon after 5 a.m., hundreds of Soviet tanks, carrying infantry, rolled out of Prochorovka and its environs in groups of 40 to 50. Waves of T-34 and T-70 tanks advanced at high speed in a charge straight at the startled Germans. When machine-gun fire, armor-piercing shells and artillery fire struck the T-34s, the Soviet infantry jumped off and sought cover. Leaving their infantry behind, the T-34s rolled on. Those Soviet tanks that survived the initial clash with SS armor continued a linear advance and were destroyed by the Germans.
When the initial Soviet attack paused, Leibstandarte pushed its armor toward the town and collided with elements of Rotmistrov’s reserve armor. A Soviet attack by the 181st Tank Regiment was defeated by several SS Tigers, one of which, the 13th (heavy) Company of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment, was commanded by 2nd Lt. Michael Wittmann, the most successful tank commander of the war. Wittmann’s group was advancing in flank support of the German main attack when it was engaged by the Soviet tank regiment at long range. The Soviet charge, straight at the Tigers over open ground, was suicidal. The frontal armor of the Tiger was impervious to the 76mm guns of the T-34s at any great distance. The field was soon littered with burning T-34s and T-70s. None of the Tigers were lost, but the 181st Tank Regiment was annihilated. Late in the day, Rotmistrov committed his last reserves, elements of the V Mechanized Corps, which finally halted Leibstandarte.
Das Reich began its attack from several kilometers southwest of Prochorovka and was quickly engaged by aggressive battle groups of the II Tank Corps and II Guards Tank Corps. Fierce, somewhat confused fighting broke out all along the German division’s axis of advance. Battle groups of 20 to 40 Soviet tanks, supported by infantry and ground-attack planes, collided with Das Reich regimental spearheads. Rotmistrov continued to throw armor against the division, and combat raged throughout the day, with heavy losses of Soviet armor. Das Reich continued to push slowly eastward, advancing into the night while suffering relatively light tank losses.
Meanwhile, on the left flank, Soviet First Tank Army elements unsuccessfully tried to crush Totenkopf‘s bridgehead. The SS division fought off the XXXI and X Tank Corps, supported by elements of the XXXIII Rifle Corps. In spite of the Soviet attacks, Totenkopf‘s panzer group drove toward a road that ran from the village of Kartaschevka, southeast across the river and into Prochorovka.
The fighting, characterized by massive losses of Soviet armor, continued throughout July 12 without a decisive success by either side–contrary to the accounts given in many well-known studies of the Eastern Front, which state that the fighting ended on July 12 with a decisive German defeat. These authors describe the battlefield as littered with hundreds of destroyed German tanks and report that the Soviets overran the SS tank repair units. In fact, the fighting continued around Prochorovka for several more days.Das Reich continued to push slowly eastward in the area south of the town until July 16. That advance enabled the III Panzer Corps to link up with the SS division on July 14 and encircle several Soviet rifle divisions south of Prochorovka. Totenkopf eventually reached the Kartaschevka­Prochorovka road, and the division took several tactically important hills on the north edge of its perimeter as well. Those successes were not exploited, however, due to decisions made by Adolf Hitler.
After receiving the news of the Allied invasion of Sicily, as well as reports of impending Soviet attacks on the Mius River and at Izyum, Hitler decided to cancel Operation Citadel. Manstein argued that he should be allowed to finish off the two Soviet tank armies. He had unused reserves, consisting of three experienced panzer divisions of XXIV Panzer Corps, in position for quick commitment. That corps could have been used to attack the Fifth Guards Tank Army in its flank, to break out from the Psel bridgehead or to cross the Psel east of Prochorovka. All of the available Soviet armor in the south was committed and could not be withdrawn without causing a collapse of the Soviet defenses. Manstein correctly realized that he had the opportunity to destroy the Soviet operational and strategic armor in the Prochorovka area.
Hitler could not be persuaded to continue the attack, however. Instead, he dispersed the divisions of the II SS Panzer Corps to deal with the anticipated Soviet diversionary attacks south of the Belgorod­Kharkov sector. On the night of July 17-18, the corps withdrew from its positions around Prochorovka. Thus, the battle for Prochorovka ended, not because of German tank losses (Hausser had over 200 operational tanks on July 17) but because Hitler lacked the will to continue the offensive. The SS panzer divisions were still full of fight; in fact, two of them continued to fight effectively in southern Russia for the rest of the summer.
Leibstandarte was ordered to Italy, but Das Reich and Totenkopf remained in the East. Those two divisions and the 3rd Panzer Division, which replaced Leibstandarte, were transferred to the Sixth Army area, where they conducted a counterattack from July 31 to August 2 that eliminated a strong Soviet bridgehead at the Mius River. Without pause, the three divisions were then transferred to the Bogodukhov sector in early August 1943. Under the command of the III Panzer Corps, they were joined by another unit, the Fifth SS Panzergrenadier Division Wiking. During three weeks of constant combat, the four divisions played a major role in stopping the main Soviet post-Kursk counteroffensive, Operation Rumyantsev. They fought Rotmistrov’s Fifth Guards Tank Army, rebuilt to 503 tanks strong, and major portions of the First Tank Army, now at 542 tanks.
By the end of the month, Rotmistrov had less than 100 tanks still running. Katukov had only 120 tanks still in action by the last week of August. While at no time did any of the German divisions have more than 55 tanks in operation, they repeatedly blunted the thrusts of the two Soviet tank armies, which were also reinforced by several rifle corps.
Totenkopf repeatedly cut off and defeated all of the First Tank Army’s thrusts toward the Kharkov­Poltava rail line. Das Reich threw back two Soviet tank corps south of Bogodukhov and blunted Rotmistrov’s last major attack west of Kharkov, and the III Panzer Corps halted Operation Rumyantsev.
After Kharkov itself fell, however, the German front gradually collapsed. The Soviets regrouped, committed additional strong reserves and renewed their attack toward the strategically important Dnepr River. Army Group South was subsequently forced to abandon much of southern Ukraine in a race for the safety of the Dnepr. Despite the remarkable efforts of the German army andWaffen SS panzer divisions during July and August, the Germans were too weak to hold the Kharkov­Belgorod­Poltava sector after their summer losses.
It is apparent from their operations during the late summer that the SS panzer divisions were not destroyed at Prochorovka. This reassessment of the battle provides food for thought regarding possible German successes if Manstein’s panzer reserves had been utilized as he had intended.

  To what extent the course of events in Russia would have been changed is, of course, unknown, but it is interesting to speculate. If Army Group South’s panzer reserve had been used to encircle and destroy the Fifth Guards Tank Army and the First Tank Army, the outcome of the war in Russia might have been significantly different. Although it was beyond the German army’s capabilities to force a military end to the war by the summer of 1943, a limited victory in the south could have resulted in a delay of Soviet strategic operations for months or perhaps longer. It is doubtful, however, that this pause would have lasted long enough for the Germans to transfer enough forces to the West to defeat the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion.
But one fact is beyond any question, regardless of the number of tanks possessed by the Germans or Soviets or what might have been possible. Due to Hausser’s panzer corps’ failure to take Prochorovka on July 12 and the subsequent misuse of German panzer reserves, the momentum of the Fourth Panzer Army was slowed dramatically. When Hitler abandoned Operation Citadel on July 13, the Germans’ last opportunity to influence events on a strategic level in the East was lost.
It is interesting that the information regarding German tank losses at Prochorovka has not been made available before now. Due to the lack of crucial primary-source information–especially the records of the II SS Panzer Corps on the Eastern Front–there had been no evidence to correct the erroneous accounts and impressions given in previous studies of the Eastern Front.
Waffen SS formations’ records of their Eastern Front operations were not declassified until 1978­1981. By that time, many of the major works about the Eastern Front had already been published. Later authors accepted the accounts of the battle as given in the earlier books and failed to conduct additional research. As a result, one of the best known of all Eastern Front battles has never been understood properly. Prochorovka was believed to have been a significant German defeat but was actually a stunning reversal for the Soviets because they suffered enormous tank losses.
As Manstein suggested, Prochorovka may truly have been a lost German victory, thanks to decisions made by Hitler. It was fortunate for the Allied cause that the German dictator, a foremost proponent of the value of will, lost his own will to fight in southern Ukraine in July 1943. Had he allowed Manstein to continue the attack on the two Soviet tank armies in the Prochorovka area, Manstein might have achieved a victory even more damaging to the Soviets than the counterattack that had recaptured Kharkov in March 1943.


Friday, February 10, 2017

'Beast of Belsen': Irma Grese and Female Concentration Camp Guards

Irma Grese

The female guards at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Ravensbrück are less well known than their male counterparts, but they were no less brutal.
'[They] hit the prisoners, who were almost as thin as skeletons with a thick stick … withholding of food and beatings, [they] also made the prisoners stand for hours'
Scenes like this were inflicted by thousands of SS guards who reigned terror upon millions of prisoners interned in the hundreds of concentration camps throughout the Nazi regime. Names such as Josef Kramer, Rudolf Hoess and Theodor Eicke have become synonymous with such atrocities. Yet, to the female prisoners held in camps such as Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Ravensbrück, the names Irma Grese, Maria Mandl and Dorothea Binz – amongst many others – instilled as much, if not more, panic and fear than those of the SS men. In fact, the scene described above was committed by the Aufseherin (female overseer) Lehmann at Ravensbrück concentration camp, and was far from unusual in the female sections of camps.
Of the 37,000 SS guards who actively participated in the daily suffering, torture and death of the internees, approximately 10 per cent were female overseers. Some of these overseers, including Irma Grese, were sentenced to death along with their male colleagues for ‘murder’ and ‘crimes and atrocities against the laws of humanity’. Others were sentenced to between one year to life imprisonment. Few were acquitted. Their role in the Third Reich was a far cry from the Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church) propaganda embedded in Nazi philosophy; they too were cogs in the killing machine of the Holocaust that led to the death of at least 1.5 million Jews.
Irma Grese, known as the 'beautiful beast' of Belsen, was, according to the charges brought against her at the Belsen Trial in 1945, one of the 'most sinister and hated figures' of the camps. Witnesses claimed that she used to beat women until they collapsed.
And she was not the only one. Renee Lacroux, a French prisoner held in Ravensbrück, told of how several female guards ‘killed the weaker ones and threw many of the girls onto the ground and trampled on them’. Just like their male counterparts, the female guards upon entering the camps were trained to become hardened and to punish prisoners severely when necessary. Many became accustomed to beating and kicking prisoners – sometimes to the point of death – with their jackboots, sticks, truncheons and, in the case of Irma Grese, with a whip made of cellophane. Some were involved in administering lethal sterilisation experiments and many were present in the selection of those prisoners to be sent to the gas chambers. Some also carried a gun.
Not all guards, however, became equally accustomed to brutality. There were reports by some former prisoners of ‘humane’ guards: one such guard called Krüger is alleged to have shared extra food with her workers in Ravensbrück. And this case cannot have been isolated; an order was sent by the SS Obergruppenführer (senior group leader) to remind female overseers that they were not to have personal dealings with inmates. There was no equivalent order sent to SS men. Equally, murder was not customary for the female guards. They rarely used their guns and none, without exception, administered the fatal Zyklon B gas that killed over 6 million Jews, gypsies and asocials – amongst others – in the gas chambers. Direct killing was viewed solely as a masculine endeavour. This is not to say, however, that female guards did not kill the prisoners indirectly through their ill-treatment and violence – and violence was the norm throughout the camp environment.
So, how did these guards, described as 'sadists' and 'beasts' by former prisoners, find themselves committing these crimes against humanity? Elisabeth Volkenrath, chief female overseer in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, sentenced to death in 1945, was an unskilled labourer prior to becoming a guard. Ruth Closius, also sentenced to death for her exceptional cruelty, had dreamed of becoming a nurse but, since she left school too early, became a saleswoman in a textiles warehouse. The notorious Irma Grese worked at a dairy farm after leaving home at 15 years of age. Before entering the camps these women were, to all intents and purposes, ordinary women leading ordinary lives.
Many were not even members of the Nazi party. Unlike the overwhelming majority of male SS guards who were ardent believers in Nazi ideological and racial beliefs, less than 5 per cent of female guards were formal members of the Nazi party. For some then, the lure of a stable, well-paid job complete with uniform and accommodation was enough. Female guards earned approximately 185 RM, considerably more than the average wage of women of the same age in an unskilled factory job, 76 RM. Becoming a guard represented upward mobility for many of these under-educated and lower-class women. Even so, the recruitment campaign from 1942 onwards failed to attract the large numbers the SS needed in order to manage the increasing number of female prisoners. Instead, they had to turn to conscription. Even Irma Grese claimed that the labour exchange ‘sent [her] to Ravensbrück’, where all female guards underwent training, and that ‘[she] had no option’.
Whatever the reasons for becoming guards – financial, a thirst for adventure or conscription – Nazi ideology was rife and the ill-treatment of ‘enemies of the state’ was commonplace. As predominantly young, Aryan women aged between 17-45 (as strict entry criteria), these women had grown up in the midst of Nazism; many had been members of the Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Girls) and had grown up with Nazi propaganda. Further ideological training, which included propaganda films such as Jüd Süss, was imposed upon new recruits during their orientation period at Ravensbrück and manifested itself as violence within a matter of days. One prisoner noted how it took one guard just four days.
Many of these women were never brought to trial and were able to return to their pre-war, ordinary lives. For those who were brought to trial, however, such as Irma Grese, their ordinary life became a distant prospect to which they were never again able to return. Seventy years after the liberation of the camps, it is important to remember that women were not only victims, mothers or wives; they too were active agents in sustaining the terrors experienced by millions during the Holocaust.

Lauren Willmott works at the National Archives, London.

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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Animation: Pompeii-final hours

Mount Vesuvius, on the west coast of Italy, is the only active volcano on mainland Europe. It is best known because of the eruption in A.D. 79 that destroyed the city of Pompeii. Mount Vesuvius is considered to be one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world due to the large population of the city of Naples and the surrounding towns on the slopes nearby.

The volcano is classed as a complex stratovolcano because its eruptions typically involve explosive eruptions as well as pyroclastic flows. Vesuvius and other Italian volcanoes, such as Campi Flegrei and Stromboli, are part of the Campanian volcanic arc. The Campanian arc sits on a tectonic boundary where the African plate is being subducted beneath the Eurasian plate.
Under Vesuvius, scientists have detected a tear in the African plate. This “slab window” allows heat from the Earth’s mantle layer to melt the rock of the African plate building up pressure that causes violent explosive eruptions. In the past, Mount Vesuvius has had a roughly 20-year eruption cycle, but the last serious eruption was in 1944.
Vesuvius and Pompeii
Mount Vesuvius destroyed the city of Pompeii in A.D. 79. Because the city was buried so quickly by volcanic ash, the site is a well-preserved snapshot of life in a Roman city. We even have a detailed account of the disaster recorded by Pliny the Younger, who interviewed survivors and recorded events in a letter to his friend Tacitus.
Pompeii was slowly recovering from a major earthquake that rocked the city in February of A.D. 62. The shallow quake, originating beneath Mount Vesuvius, had caused major damage to the springs and piping that provided the city’s water. Reconstruction was being carried out on several temples and public buildings. The historian, Seneca, recorded that the quakes lasted for several days and also heavily damaged the town of Herculaneum and did minor damage to the city of Naples before subsiding. The major quake was followed by several minor shakes throughout the following years.
Because seismic activity was so common in the area, citizens paid little attention in early August of 79 when several quakes shook the earth beneath Herculaneum and Pompeii. People were unprepared for the explosion that took place shortly after noon on the 24th of August. Pliny, watching from the town of Misenum, approximately 13 miles (21 kilometers) from Pompeii, described the massive debris cloud. “It resembled a (Mediterranean) pine more than any other tree. Like a very high tree the cloud went high and expanded in different branches…. sometimes white, sometimes dark and stained by the sustained sand and ashes.” In Pompeii, ash blocked the sun by 1 p.m. and the people tried to clear heavy ash from rooftops as it fell at a rate of about 6 inches (15 centimeters) an hour.
hortly after midnight, a wall of volcanic mud engulfed the town of Herculaneum, obliterating the town as its citizens fled toward Pompeii. About 6:30 a.m. on the following morning, a glowing cloud of volcanic gases and debris rolled down Vesuvius’ slopes and enveloped the city of Pompeii. Most victims died instantly as the superheated air burned their lungs and contracted their muscles, leaving the bodies in a semi-curled position to be quickly buried in ash and thus preserved in detail for hundreds of years.

Far away in Misenum, Pliny the Younger and his mother joined other refugees escaping the earthquakes rocking their city. They observed, “…the sea retreating as if pushed by the earthquakes.” This was probably caused by a tsunami at the climax of the eruption, which gives us the time frame for historical record. Pliny writes of “black and horrible clouds, broken by sinuous shapes of flaming wind.” He describes people wheezing and gasping because of that wind; the same wind that doomed the people of Pompeii.
WWII eruption
On March 18, 1944, a two-week-long eruption began with lava from the summit of Mount Vesuvius. Soldiers and airmen of the 340th Bomber Group were stationed at the Pompeii Airfield just a few miles from the base of the volcano. Diaries record the awesome sights and sounds they witnessed in this latest major eruption. Guards wore leather jackets and “steel pot” helmets to protect themselves from rains of hot ash and small rocks. Tents collapsed or caught fire when hot cinders were blown over them.
On March 22, they were forced to evacuate, leaving behind 88 Allied aircraft. After the volcano subsided, they returned on the 30th to find the planes were a total loss. Engines were clogged by ash, control panels were useless tangles of fused wire, canopies had holes from flying rock or were etched to opacity by wind driven ash.
One airman of the 489th Bomber Squadron complained in his diary when Axis Sally broadcast a radio show dedicated to the “survivors” of the Vesuvius eruption (actually the most severe human casualty was a wrist sprained during the evacuation). She told all of Europe that “Colonel Vesuvius” had destroyed all of them. The diarist was justifiably proud of the work he did with his fellows in recovery. By April 15, the planes had been replaced and the 340th Bomber Group was back to full strength and ready to fly missions from their new base. “We are still the best damned Group there is. Hitler, you self styled ‘Great Rebuilder’ take note!”

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Sunday, October 2, 2016

Witold Pilecki – The Polish Soldier who smuggled himself into Auschwitz

Witold Pilecki was a soldier of the Second Polish Republic and the founder of the Secret Polish Army resistance group. He was also the author of Witold’s Report, which was the first account of the Auschwitz concentration camp and the Holocaust.
Witold Pilecki.
Witold Pilecki.
Pilecki was born in Olonets, Karelia on May 13, 1901, where his family had been forcibly resettled by Imperial Russia after the suppression of Poland’s January Uprising of 1863-1864. His grandfather, Jozef Pilecki, had spent seven years in exile in Siberia for his part in the rising. Pilecki moved with his family to Wilno, Lithuania, and joined the secret ZHP Scouts organization. In 1916, he moved to Russia, where he founded a local ZHP group.
Auschwitz concentration camp photos of Pilecki. Photo Credit
Auschwitz concentration camp photos of Pilecki. Photo Credit
This man smuggled himself into Auschwitz under the false name Tomasz Serafinski in 1940. While in the camp Pilecki organized a resistance movement, and as early as 1941 informed the Western Allies of Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz atrocities. He began sending information to Britain and the United States about what was going on inside the camp and confirming that the Nazi were seeking the extermination of the Jews. After two years of imprisonment, Pilecki escaped from the camp.

Show trial of Witold Pilecki.
Show trial of Witold Pilecki.

Pilecki was loyal to the London-based Polish government-in-exile after the communist takeover of Poland and was arrested on May 8, 1947, by the Stalinist secret police. He was charged with working for “foreign imperialism,” thought to be a euphemism for MI6.

Photos of Pilecki from Warsaws Mokotow Prison in 1947.
Photos of Pilecki from Warsaws Mokotow Prison in 1947.

The show trial of Pilecki sentenced to death and executed March 1948.
The show trial of Pilecki sentenced to death and executed March 1948.

For six months he was brutally tortured by interrogators before signing a statement confessing to conspiring against the government. Accused of espionage, he was executed after a show trial in 1948. Until 1989, information about his exploits and fate was suppressed by the Polish communist regime.

Memorial plaque in Warsaw. Photo Credit
Memorial plaque in Warsaw. Photo Credit

In July 2006, Witold Pilecki posthumously was awarded (by the president of the Republic of Poland) with the Medal of the White Eagle in recognition of his valiant actions during the war.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Night of the Long Knives

 The architects of the purge: Hitler, Göring, Goebbels, and Hess. Only Himmler and Heydrich are missing.
The architects of the purge: Hitler, Göring, Goebbels, and Hess. Only Himmler and Heydrich are missing.
On January 30th, 1933, Franz von Papen and General von Blomberg had mollified President Hindenburg into accepting Adolf Hitler as Chancellor, with Papen as his deputy but with only two Nazi colleagues.

The Reichswehr leaders were divided among themselves, but they and Papen and his other friends of the Herrenklub believed that they would tame the Nazi leaders while cashing in on their popular support: some of them hoped soon to restore the Monarchy.
Hitler, however, intended not to be used by, but to use, them, as he used the Reichstag Fire a month later, and every other opportunity, to gain power for himself. He desired power in order to go back six hundred years, as he had said in Mein Kampf, in order to resume the German colonization of Eastern Europe.
He was concerned to prepare for such action and therefore for war. This, and to extirpate the Jews, were his chief interests. He had no sympathy for socialism except when capitalists were Jewish, although he had made deft use of popular socialist sentiment when he addressed mass audiences. After a year as Chancellor, he had made great strides towards absolute power.
He had suppressed all open criticism and all other parties and organizations but the Nazi ones; the whole machinery of the police was under his command, initially through Göring's appointment as Prussian Minister of the Interior, and then through the accumulation of police control over the other Länder in the hands of Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the S.S.
There were, however, certain flaws in the situation as Hitler saw it. The trial at Leipzig of Marinus van der Lubbe and the Bulgarians for setting the Reichstag on fire had shown that the judicial system was not yet completely Nazified; Göring had roared at the court in vain, for the Bulgarians had been acquitted. Further, neither Protestant nor Catholic church was wholly submissive.
Moreover, after the absorption of bodies like the Stahlhelm, there were by now over four million Storm troopers whose leaders were clamouring for the realization of the long-heralded social revolution and the S.A. Staat. This Hitler was determined to prevent. For the Storm troopers the social revolution must include the absorption of the Reichswehr by them and the domination of the state by this permanent levée en masse.
This would involve delays and risks that Hitler on no account intended to face; he wished to enrol the expertise of the Reichswehr to remilitarize Germany and make ready for war as quickly as possible; when that was done, it would be time to end his own invisible but ultimate dependence on the Reichswehr, and to humiliate and degrade its leaders as he did in 1938.
From the post-war Wehrverbände which he controlled, Ernst Rohm had originally provided Hitler with the S.A. on whose intimidation of the public mind Hitler had based his power. Now, if Rohm had his way, he, the Chief of Staff of the S.A., would dominate the new army and, through the army, the state.
Rohm hoped to succeed Blomberg as Reichswehrminister; but Hitler feared, rightly enough, that, if Rohm's plans were realized, the S.A. would overshadow the National Socialist Party and the S.A. Chief of Staff would eclipse the Führer of the Party. Rohm did not understand how perilous it was to be someone upon whom Hitler had once depended and might depend again if he, Rohm, succeeded.
This coarse, vicious creature was less servile towards Hitler than the other Nazi bosses; indeed, he honestly tried to convert Hitler to his own view, and, failing, did not abandon his programme but openly looked for new allies.
He disliked Hitler's urge towards total tyranny, condemning for instance the destruction of the trade unions; for the same reason, he felt sympathy with Gregor Strasser – in disgrace with Hitler because he had not rejected Schleicher's advances – and kept in touch with him.

Several times Rohm entertained the Italian Ambassador that winter, and saw the French one towards the end of February: he did not hesitate to explain to François-Poncet that the S.A. constituted no infringement of the Treaty of Versailles.
During that month, however, Hitler and Blomberg could plainly be seen – although like so many other things, it was far from plain to people at the time – to have struck a bargain. On February 2nd, the Reichswehr excluded Jews as officers by the same formula as that already adopted for the Civil Service, and the swastika became part of its insignia. On February 28th came Hitler's reply.
At a meeting at the War Office, in the Bendlerstrasse in Berlin, of Reichswehr and S.A. leaders, he declared that the new people's army was to be based on the Reichswehr, which was in future to supervise all the activities of the S.A.; the Reichswehr was indeed to enjoy the monopoly of bearing arms in Germany. Blomberg and Hitler's most ardent admirer among the generals, Reichenau, may well have agreed so early as this to Hitler's succession to Hinden-burg.
There is no really authentic evidence; but after February 28th Rohm was reported by several hostile witnesses to have used words to the effect that Hitler was an ass, and that the S.A. would ignore his decision. One of the hostile witnesses was Viktor Lutze, a leader of the S.A. who hated Rohm; Hitler, however, told Lutze that things must now ripen. So late as June 5th, Hitler had a very long talk with Rohm who left him 'satisfied' – Hitler saw to this.
Hitler's evident distaste for the S.A. programme of what was called by its opponents permanent revolution encouraged some of the more scrupulous conservatives to prepare a protest against the methods of the S.A. which Hitler had all along condoned.
Hindenburg was in his eighty-seventh year by now and early in May he fell ill, leaving for Neudeck on June 4th, in the event for the last time. At any moment his death must be expected, and this would provide the occasion for a monarchist restoration; one of the Kaiser's grandsons was envisaged as future King.
Together with the monarchy, the suppression of terrorism, an independent judiciary, and certainly such freedom of opinion as had existed before 1914 might be guaranteed.
Many younger men, as well as the older generation, had condemned the liberalism of the Weimar period, but with no intention of abandoning the Rechtsstaaf, and much educated opinion on the 'National' side of things was genuinely appalled by the terrorism of the S.A. – the S.S., having until then been subsidiary to the S.A., had not attracted much attention.
Several representatives of these decently-minded conservatives – some of those who survived in 1934 were executed after the attempt on Hitler's life in July 1944 – worked in Papen's Vice-Chancellery, notably a young Protestant writer called Edgar Jung and a Catholic, Herbert von Bose. Jung certainly had brains and eloquence. He drafted a speech, which Papen then delivered before the University of Marburg on Sunday, June 17th.
The speech was interlarded with the necessary praise of Hitler; but it frankly deplored the ventillose Zustand (stifled condition) of the German press, which, it maintained, should exist to inform and criticize.
'The statesman or politician,' Papen continued, 'can reform the state but not life itself... The state can favour an interpretation of history but cannot enforce it, since history depends on accurate research which cannot be neglected... We are threatened with permanent revolution...Hence it seems to me that the German state should soon be crowned with a head of state who is above the political battle... The dictatorship of a single party... appears to me a transitional condition only justifiable so long as the stability of the new regime requires it and until new appointments are in operation.'
Papen went on to deplore Germany's withdrawal from among the other Christian states of Europe.
'We must not lock ourselves up intellectually (geistig) within our frontiers and retire to our own ghetto... Inferior or primitive intelligence does not justify a battle against intellectualism.
And if we grumble over exaggerated National Socialists, we are thinking of those who, themselves without roots, wish to deprive scholars of world renown of the means of existence because these scholars are not party members. Let us beware of expelling the intellectuals from the nation... And let no one object that intellectuals lack vitality... To confuse vitality with brutality is to bow down to force in dangerous fashion...'
It is impossible to feel sure that Papen understood the speech that Jung had drafted for him; but he read it out. Those present could scarcely believe their ears. The first edition of the next Frankfurter Zeitung carried the text; but after that Goebbels managed to suppress it completely in Germany.
The press of the Catholic paper Germania printed off the text and distributed some copies; and the speech was spread by rumour with the help in the south of a good precis that appeared in the Neue Freie Presse of Vienna on June 19th. When, on June 24th, Papen appeared in Hamburg for a race meeting, people of all lands crowded round him and cheered Heil Marburg.
Jung and Bose must have hoped that this situation would encourage moderate opinion in the Reichswehr – still the most powerful body in Germany – to decide in favour of the restoration of a monarchy. A few resolute and ruthless men, however, were preparing a different dénouement; and the speech at Marburg and the news from Neudeck showed them that they had no more time to lose.
Their best ally at this juncture was Papen himself. Jung and Bose had induced him to deliver the speech at Marburg; but they could not persuade him to live up to it. When he went to Hitler to protest against its suppression and to resign the position of Vice-Chancellor, Hitler was able to make him change his mind. The Führer was in fact recently back from his first meeting with Mussolini at Venice on June 14th and 15th, a meeting that Papen had helped to bring about.
Hitler, who was to report to the President on his visit to Italy at Neudeck on June 21st, first suggested that Papen should come with him. In reading Papen's memoirs, one is again amazed at the way in which he allowed Hitler to throw dust in his eyes. For the Führer took care to visit Hindenburg alone, and Papen allowed himself to be kept away.
On June 21st, Hitler no doubt decided that Hindenburg was finished – he had boasted once before that, being over forty years his junior, he could afford to wait – and could be isolated from the other 'reactionaries'; from now on Papen was always told that Hindenburg was too ill to see him, though he was well enough to be made to approve whatever Hitler did.
Now, since it had been decreed by Hitler with Rohm's approval that the S.A. should be sent on a month's leave from Sunday July 1st, the last measures to organize and justify the destruction of their leaders must be taken.
It seems clear that virtually all direct evidence concerning the days leading up to June 30th was systematically destroyed; this in itself tends to throw suspicion upon those who came out on top. Otherwise there are only indications that point, however, in the same direction.
In April 1934 the chief, under Göring, of the Prussian Secret State Police or Gestapo, Diels, had been replaced by Himmler; thus the control of the latter over the whole machinery of the police was complete: his right hand was Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the S.D. (Sicherheitsdienst or Nazi Party's security service), who succeeded Göring as chief of the Gestapo in Berlin.
All reports going to Hitler and the Reichswehr were henceforth checked by Himmler and Heydrich, and all Rohm's activities were now portrayed as sinister. More surprising was the behaviour of General von Reichenau, chief of the Wehrmachtsamt and the driving force behind the Minister of War.
Why was it necessary for Reichenau to have a series of meetings with the new head of the Secret Police and at least one with Lutze? Where did the rumours come from that the S.A. were planning a putsch? Many Storm troopers may have said rash things, not least among them Ernst Rohm himself.
Yet no evidence of any serious preparations has ever been found, although it would have suited Hitler and Himmler to be able to provide some. On June 27th or 28th, Sepp Dietrich, the head of Hitler's S.S. bodyguard, asked the Reichswehr to help provide weapons for a secret and important undertaking of Hitler's, and produced at the same time a list allegedly compiled by the S.A. of persons the Storm troopers intended to shoot; at the head of this list were the names of Generals Fritsch and Beck, to whom Sepp Dietrich was reporting.
Just after this, the S.A. chief in Silesia, Heines, was able to convince the Reichswehr commander of the area, General von Kleist, that he, Heines, knew of no putsch plans whatever, but had information that the Reichswehr was planning action against the S.A. Kleist therefore flew to Berlin on June 29th to report to Fritsch and Beck, implying, when he did so, what was almost certainly true, that a third party – the S.S., in fact – was setting Reichswehr and S.A. at each other's throats. Reich-enau was called in.
Three days before he had been saying it was high time; but on June 29th he remarked that what Kleist had said was all very well, but now it was too late. That night Hitler, already en route, went into action. Characteristically, after what seemed to others like a period of uncertainty but was in reality one of gestation, he suddenly undertook the massacre of all those who seemed to him obstructive or annoying.
In order to deflect attention Hitler had paid some visits in the Rhineland on June 28th. The plan for Arbeitsbeschaffung (the Unemployment Cure) had not yet got into its stride and, when Hitler saw Krupp at Essen on that day, the latter emphasized the need for economic dictatorship in order to avoid chaos – this was no doubt welcome encouragement.
On that same evening, Hitler had in fact telephoned to Rohm; and they had agreed that a conference of S.A. leaders, to which Hitler would come, would be held at Wiessee near Munich, where Rohm had been on holiday since June 7th.
Rohm seemed pleased with this arrangement, which would concentrate his lieutenants at a fairly remote spot at Hitler's mercy. After weeks of Goebbels' railing at 'carpers and critics' and the fresh flow of rumours since Papen's speech at Marburg, and then in the last day or so about Reichswehr preparations, a few S.A. leaders organized some marching and speeches in Munich on their own, or quite probably in reply to orders faked by Heydrich.
Hitler arrived at Munich by air at about 4 am on June 30th; and, as he drove through the city, his wrath was nourished by the sight of some lingering S.A. groups in the streets, which were cited as proving the intention of a Storm Troopers' rebellion.
Cutting a couple of S.A. officers who had come to meet him, Hitler, with his habitual touch of cheap melodrama, remarked to two Reichswehr officers that this was the blackest day in his life, and that only the loyalty of their chief, General von Blomberg, sustained him in this crisis. He immediately arrested and degraded two prominent S.A. leaders, Schneid-huber and Schmid – this was at the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior.
Hitler then rapidly proceeded to Wiessee himself, where Sepp Dietrich and his men had arrived with the help of Reichswehr transport and were joined by S.S. people from the staff of the concentration camp at Dachau nearby. At about 6.45 a.m., Rohm and those with him were hauled out of their beds and consigned to the Stadelheim prison on the outskirts of Munich: here several S.A. leaders, arrested as they arrived at Munich station for the Wiessee conference, joined them.
Late in the morning, Hitler pronounced a furious speech at the Brown House against the dangerous vices of Rohm and his associates; there had never been any secret about Rohm's homosexuality, but suddenly it had become a crime. There were those who, in the next few weeks, reflected that, in the triumphant S.S., homosexuals were by no means unknown. After his diatribe, Hitler flew to Berlin.
Here at 10 am Goebbels is known to have given the 'signal' to Göring to go ahead. A hollow reconciliation between Goebbels and Papen had been staged for the benefit of foreign journalists on June 21st; but, on June 26th, Edgar Jung, as they were shortly to discover, had been arrested by the Secret State Police.
On the morning of June 30th, Papen was forbidden to leave his house, while his office was raided. There Bose and three others on his staff were arrested; and Bose and Jung were shot the same day. Among other murders in Berlin were those of Gregor Strasser, of Klausener, a leading figure of Catholic Action and a high official in the Ministry of Transport, who was killed in his office, and of General Kurt von Bredow, a friend of Schleicher's.
On several days in the preceding fortnight, as a witness afterwards recounted, an open reddish-brown car had driven six men, probably aged between twenty-five and thirty, to the Pension Lippmann, a house close to that of Schleicher in Neubabelsberg, near Potsdam.
At just about 12.30 p.m. on June 30th, the car arrived again; and two of its occupants – they have never been identified – pushed their way past the cook, who unwillingly opened the door, into the room where Schleicher was sitting in an arm-chair, reading: they shot him dead. His wife had been sitting by the wireless in an adjoining room, but evidently tried to reach him, and was shot down too. The reddish-brown car drove away quickly.
The Schleichers' housemaid, Ottilie, must then have rung up some cousins of his in Potsdam, who sent for the police. Frau von Schleicher was still alive when the police arrived, and was taken to hospital, where she died. A legal official, Dr. Grützner, arrived by 1.50 p.m. and examined some witnesses, including the Schleichers' cook. Indiscreetly, Grützner telephoned to a superior at about 3 p.m. that General von Schleicher had been murdered for political reasons.
After this, Himmler blocked any further legal steps, complaining to Hitler that a lawyer had again interfered with the S.S. At 11.30 that night, a menacing Gestapo party headed by Freissler and Dohnanyi visited Grützner and swore him to secrecy.
Six of the S.A. leaders in the Stadelheim prison were shot there on the evening of June 30th. A number of other people were murdered in Munich on that and the following day, mostly by a group of members of the Austrian Legion, led by a man of the Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service); they seem to have had precise instructions from the Gestapo in Berlin, that is to say from Heydrich.
Some of the victims were shot at Dachau, or on the way there; and some, for no obvious reason, were taken to Berlin and shot at the Cadet school in the suburb of Lichterfelde, where Göring's executioners were at work.
Gustav von Kahr, who in Hitler's view had betrayed him in November 1923, heard on the wireless of the shooting of the first six S.A. leaders and expressed satisfaction, as many did, that order was being restored. Almost immediately he was himself arrested and taken to Dachau where two notorious S.S. men reproached him with his 'treachery' of eleven years earlier and murdered him.
It was not until 6 p.m. on Sunday, July 1st, that Rohm, having refused to shoot himself, had the distinction of being shot in his cell by two of the chieftains of Dachau, Lippert and Eicke, Eicke remarking 'Prominente, die ihren Hals riskieren, müssen durch Prominente exekutiert werden' (Eminent chaps who risk their necks have to be executed by eminent chaps).
After some murders in Silesia, which had not been authorized by Hitler, the Führer declared the operation ended early on Monday, July 2nd, 1934. It has now been possible to track down the names of eighty-three people murdered during that weekend, a number curiously close to the seventy-four victims admitted by Hitler before the Reichstag on July 13th.
At the time, those who were not dazed noted with interest that Goebbels was still alive; he had, after all, been one of the loudest decriers of the Reichs-wehr reactionaries. Looking back, it is fairly easy to see that Goebbels had not been in danger. He had climbed to power over Gregor Strasser's back and was on bad terms with Rohm.
Further he had made himself indispensable to Hitler and, while not without spirit, was ready for every flattery of the Führer. Perhaps, too, he better than anyone understood the concentration of power that was taking place, and was glad to be identified with it.
On Tuesday, July 3rd, the North German edition of the Völkischer Beobachter published a statement, drawn up by Reichenau, according to which Rohm and Schleicher had conspired together and with a foreign state, and Schleicher had been killed because he had resisted arrest.
Of course, Hitler's undying hatred was directed against Schleicher, who had conceived the idea of cooperation between Reichswehr, trade unions and moderate Nazis led by Gregor Strasser, an idea that he, Schleicher, was incapable of carrying out. Since Hitler had succeeded him as Chancellor, Schleicher had been highly indiscreet, while his reputation for intrigue had, in any case, encouraged the Gestapo to keep an eye upon him.
But they had no evidence of any cooperation between Schleicher and Rohm; indeed, they were probably aware that Rohm condemned Schleicher's 'reactionary' activities. Although both men had seen the French Ambassador, there was nothing about their meetings with him that in any way qualified for the word 'conspiracy.' As for the murder of Schleicher, we have seen that it was deliberate.
Thus, by drafting the announcement in the Völkischer Beobachter, Reichenau had made himself and the Reichswehr responsible, not only for providing arms, barracks and transport as they had, for the murderers of June 30th, but also for faking the justification for their crimes. Reichenau had thought it worth while to do all this in order to have a military monopoly for the Reichswehr, as Hitler had undertaken on February 28th.
On that same Tuesday, July 3rd, some two hundred men who had carried out the murders were summoned to Himmler's presence in Berlin, thanked for their services, presented with daggers engraved with Himmler's name and sworn to secrecy (under penalty of death) even among themselves; those belonging to the S.D. were promoted. Himmler had every reason to celebrate the occasion.
'The Night of the Long Knives' had completed S. S. control of all police organs in Germany; the rivalry of the S.A. had been eliminated; for Lutze, who nominally succeeded Rohm, was ready to take a back seat and obey Himmler. The S.S. now established their own state within the state. Further, in spite of his promise to the Reichswehr, Hitler permitted the formation of a S.S. armed division obedient to Himmler, not to Blomberg: this was the beginning of the Waffen S. S.
Most significant of all, perhaps, was the decree published on this same day by Hitler and his Ministers, according to which 'the measures taken to suppress treasonable and seditious acts on June 30th and July 1st and 2nd, 1934, have become law for the defence of the State in an emergency.'
Hitherto, the Nazi attitude towards S.A. crimes had been to deny them, claiming that they had been invented by malicious Jews or foreigners. Now every crime that Hitler and his fellows chose to commit could be made ipso facto legal; and it became clear why Hitler had preferred to run no risks with inadequate evidence in an old-fashioned trial, when he could eliminate his enemies and the legal system at one and the same time.

On July 12th, 1934, Göring, accompanied by the chiefs of the S.S., received the legal officers of the German state and announced to them that the law was no longer to be something unchangeable; for thenceforward the law was nothing but the will of the Fuhrer. Finally, in his report on the affair to the Reichstag on July 13th, Hitler cried out that, when three traitors meet with a foreign statesman in Germany, 'I have them shot' – already the myth about Schleicher resisting arrest had ceased to count.
All the evidence suggests that the responsibility was Hitler's personally, although Himmler and Göring were his willing tools. Seldom in history can any man have struck so ruthlessly in all directions at the same time. The whole performance had a certain evil brilliance, when one considers that it was based on the presumption that he could dazzle the Reichswehr into condoning, instead of crushing, him. For it is clear that, had he encountered serious opposition, the forces he mobilized would have been inadequate.
When Hinden-burg died on August 2nd, the Fuhrer automatically became President of the Reich, as well as its Chancellor, and each member of the Reichswehr took that fateful personal oath to him. In addition to the murder of two generals, hitherto unthinkable in Germany, Hitler had already broken his word to the Army over their military monopoly.
The Storm troopers were the tools he had needed in order to edge himself into power. In 1934 he used the destruction of their power to fool and to harness the Reichswehr, while at the same time the S.S. took over all political control, providing the machinery of Hitler's total tyranny.
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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

How The Stringbag, an Outdated Biplane, Took Out the Bismarck

The German battleship, Bismarck, was the biggest vessel ever built in the first half of the 20th century. A marvel of advanced engineering and technology, it was the most powerful ship in the world – yet a single shot by an antiquated biplane took it down.
At 792’8” in length, and with a beam of 118’1”, it displaced 49,500 tons of water. It was also deadly with eight 15” SK C/34 guns in four twin turrets, twelve 5.9” L/55 guns, sixteen 4.1” L/65 guns, sixteen 1.5” L/83 guns, and twelve 0.79” anti-aircraft guns, as well as four Arado Ar 196 reconnaissance floatplanes.

The Bismarck in 1940
The Bismarck in 1940

Its function was to destroy Allied convoys in the Atlantic, the lifeblood of Britain. On the 18th of May 1941, it set off under Admiral Günther Lütjens and Commander Ernst Lindemann, accompanied by the light cruiser, Prinz Eugen. Three days later, they were spotted near Bergen, Norway.
The British sent out the HMS Hood. Launched in 1918, it measured 860’7” in length and 104’2” at the beam. It had been upgraded in 1939, but not enough. More had to be done, but the war’s outbreak forced the Hood to patrol Iceland and the Faroe Islands to keep the Germans at bay.

HMS Hood
HMS Hood

When first commissioned, it was the biggest and fastest warship in the world, securing Britain’s grip over her colonies. The Hood, therefore, represented the height of British technology, naval power, and imperial might – making it a beloved icon.
With it went the HMS Prince of Wales (PoW), which was more up-to-date. Unfortunately, the technology was so cutting-edge that much of it was untested. It had ten 14” guns, but eight were housed in malfunctioning turrets. The Royal Navy knew this, but the Bismarck’s sighting had forced their hand.
The Hood and the Bismarck were almost evenly matched. Both had eight 15” guns that could shoot 1,700-pound shells over 15 miles. But the Hood could only fire two shells a minute compared to the Bismarck’s three. The latter was also more heavily armored, while the Hood was less so because it was designed for speed.
The British tried to reach the Denmark Strait before the Germans so they could “cross the T” before them. This strategy requires positioning the length of one’s ship to the front of an enemy ship, since ships have more guns at their sides than they do at the front. The one who crosses the T can then fire more salvos than the one who gets crossed.

The failed British plan to "cross the T" before the Bismarck
The failed British plan to “cross the T” before the Bismarck

But the Hood and the PoW got there too late before dawn on May 24, so it was the Germans who crossed the British T off the western coast of Iceland. The Hood was sunk at a little past 6 AM and the PoW had to retreat after suffering extensive damage.
Before it did, however, it managed three solid hits  puncturing theBismarck’s fuel tanks and flooding its front lower decks with seawater. So theBismarck headed toward Nazi-occupied France for repairs and since thePrinz Eugen could do nothing more, it headed off toward the Atlantic. Despite the damage, the Bismarck was still heavily armed and the captain felt  confident about reaching France by dawn on May 27th.
Twenty-one British destroyers, thirteen cruisers, six battleships, and two aircraft carriers gave chase… but the German ship had vanished.
On May 26 at 10:30 AM, the Bismarck was found a mere 700 miles off the French coast. In another 500 miles, the sea and air would be filled with German ships and planes – so a British fleet closed in from the north, while another came in from the south.
At 7 PM, fifteen Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers took off from the HMS Ark Royal and split into three groups to attack. Lieutenant-Commander John “Jock” Moffat flew one of them. As he broke through the cloud cover, he was awed at the sight of the German behemoth.
The Swordfish plummeted at 115 miles per hour. The Bismarck desperately filled the air with flak, so the pilots dived even lower, hugging the water and hoping the ship’s guns couldn’t aim that low. In a worst case scenario, they might just survive a sea crash.

A Swordfish returns to Ark Royal after making the torpedo attack against Bismarck
A Swordfish returns to Ark Royal after making the torpedo attack against the Bismarck

At 2,000 yards, Moffat prepared to launch his only torpedo, when he heard a voice, “Not yet, Jock! Not yet!”
Moffat jerked and looked around. It was his Observer, Flight-Lieutenant JD “Dusty” Miller. The man was standing on the right wing with his butt in the air, head somewhere below the plane’s belly.
Moffat understood. The sea was rough. If his torpedo hit the crest of a wave, it could veer off course. Miller wanted to make sure it fell into a trough so their only weapon had a chance. But the longer they took, the greater their chances of getting hit.
“Let her go, Jock!”
Moffat released his torpedo.
“We’ve got a runner!” Miller screamed.
The Bismarck turned left sharply – a mistake. The torpedo hit the left rear, tearing a hole through the hull and causing rivets to pop off the bulkhead. The ship’s twin rudders, angled for the turn, jammed. Power died, forcing the engineers to restart everything. Mechanics tried to fix the rudders, but too much water was rushing in.
With rudders stuck at 12° to port, the Bismarck turned around and headed back toward the British fleet. Within minutes, it was turning around in circles. Lütjens informed Berlin and vowed to die fighting.

Intercepting the Bismarck
Intercepting the Bismarck

The British showed no mercy. They surrounded the Bismarck, forcing it to fire in all directions. Unable to maneuver, it became a sitting duck and ran out of ammunition at 9:31 AM the next day. Despite the lack of return fire, the Royal Navy kept up their barrage till it sank at 10:39 AM.

They did try to rescue survivors, but a U-boat scare forced them to retreat with only 115 Germans (out of 2,092). The rest were left to their fate. Germany only found out about the sinking from a News Network at around noon. By the time they reached the scene, only five more men were alive to be retrieved. But not Lütjens. He kept his word, as did Lindemann.
Thanks to an outdated biplane, the Bismarck’s only combat mission lasted a mere 215 hours. From that moment on, naval warfare changed forever. The plane was now as important as the ship in naval warfare.

The Bismarck's bow takes on water
The Bismarck’s bow slices through the water