April 22, 1918 Our Gallant and Worthy Foe

The Red Baron was buried by his enemies, with honors, on April 22, 1918.  British Third Squadron officers served as pallbearers.  Other ranks from the squadron acted as a guard of honor. Allied squadrons stationed nearby presented memorial wreaths, one of which was inscribed with these words:
“To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe”.

Early in the “Great War”, Manfred Freiherr von Richtofen was a cavalry scout, serving with the 1st Regiment of Uhlans Kaiser Alexander III in the Verdun sector. Cavalry quickly became obsolete, as the war of movement ended and armies dug in to avoid what Private Ernst Jünger later called the “Storm of Steel”.

Leutnant Richtofen served as a messenger over the winter of 1914-15, but there was no glory in crawling through the mud of shell holes and trenches. He applied to the fledgling Air Corps, writing to his superiors that “I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose.”

Red Baron, mascotFollowing four months of training, Richtofen began his flying career as an observer, taking photographs of Russian troop positions on the eastern front.

After transferring to Belgium and becoming bombardier, Manfred’s first air-to-air kill occurred in late 1915, while acting as observer and rear gunner on a two-seat reconnaissance plane. The French pusher bi-plane went down over unfriendly territory and couldn’t be confirmed, so the victory was never counted. Neither was his second kill, when Richtofen shot down a French Nieuport fighter from an Albatross C.III bomber. This one too went down over enemy territory, and couldn’t be confirmed.

Richtofen achieved his first official victory on September 17, 1916, after being transferred to a fighter squadron. Manfred ordered a silver cup to mark the occasion, engraved with the date and make of the aircraft he had shot down, a British F.E. 2B. Many more silver cups would be added to the collection, before he was through.

Manfred got his 5th kill to become an ace on October 16, 1916, and the coveted “Blue Max” medal for his 16th, the following January. He shot down 22 enemy planes that April alone, four of those in a single day. Richtofen was Germany’s leading living ace, fast becoming the most famous pilot of his day.  German propagandists spread the rumor that the Allies were going to award the Victoria Cross to the man who shot him down.

Red BaronEver aware of his own celebrity, von Richtofen took to painting the wings of his aircraft a brilliant shade of red, after the colors of his old Uhlan regiment. It was only later that he had the whole thing painted. Friend and foe alike knew him as “the Red Knight”, “the Red Devil”, or “’Le Petit Rouge’” and finally, the name that stuck:  “the Red Baron”.

Like Ted Williams, who was said to be able to count the stitches on a fastball, Manfred von Richtofen was blessed with exceptional eyesight. Gifted with lightning reflexes, Richtofen became the top ace of WW1. In an age when  even a few air combat victories were exceptional, Richtofen accumulated sixty engraved silver cups before the metal became unavailable in war ravaged Germany. Even then he was far from done.

Despite the popular link between Richthofen and his Fokker Dr.I, he only scored his last 19 kills while flying his famous red triplane. Three-quarters of his victories were won in different makes of the Albatross (below, left), and the Halberstadt D.II (right).

By way of comparison, the highest scoring Allied ace of the Great War was Frenchman René Fonck, with 75 confirmed victories. The highest scoring fighter pilot from the British Empire was Canadian Billy Bishop, who was officially credited with 72. The Red Baron had 80.

Richthofen sustained a serious head wound on July 6 1917, causing severe disorientation and temporary partial blindness. He returned to duty after October 23, but many believed his injury caused lasting damage, and lead to his eventual death.

Red Baron, last flight

Richthofen chased the rookie Canadian pilot Wilfred “Wop” May behind the lines on April 21, 1918, when he found himself under attack. With a squadron of Sopwith Camels firing from above and anti-aircraft gunners on the ground, the Red Baron was shot once through the chest with a .303 round, managing to land in the beet field where he died, several minutes later. He was still wearing his pajamas, under his flight suit.

Red Baron Crash SiteThe RAF credited Canadian Pilot Captain Roy Brown with shooting Richthofen down, but the angle of the wound suggests that the bullet was fired from the ground. A 2003 PBS documentary demonstrated that Sergeant Cedric Popkin was the person most likely to have killed him, while a 2002 Discovery Channel documentary suggests that it was Gunner W. J. “Snowy” Evans, a Lewis machine gunner with the 53rd Battery, 14th Field Artillery Brigade, Royal Australian Artillery. Just who killed the Red Baron, may never be known with absolute certainty.

Manfred von Richtofen was buried by his enemies, with honors, on April 22, 1918.  British Third Squadron officers served as pallbearers, other ranks from the squadron acted as a guard of honor. Allied squadrons stationed nearby presented memorial wreaths, one of which was inscribed with these words: “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe”.

 

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March 20 1870 The Lion of Africa

With a force never exceeding 14,000 (3,000 Germans and 11,000 Askari warriors), “Der Löwe von Afrika” tied up as many as 300,000 British, Belgian and Portuguese troops, wearing them out in the pursuit.

When war broke out in 1914, a map of Africa looked nothing like it does today. From the Belgian Congo to Italian Somaliland, most of the continent was carved into colonies of the various European powers. France, Great Britain, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, Germany and Spain.  All administered parts of the African continent.

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck was born into minor Prussian Nobility on this day, in 1870. Joining the Corps of Cadets as a teenager, Lettow-Vorbeck worked his way up the German Imperial Army chain of command, becoming a general by the time of WWI.

paul-emil-von-lettow-vorbeck1_originalStationed in Deutsch-Ostafrika (German East Africa) and knowing that his sector would be little more than a side show to the greater war effort, Lettow-Vorbeck determined to tie up as many of his adversaries as possible.

With a force never exceeding 14,000 (3,000 Germans and 11,000 Askari warriors), “Der Löwe von Afrika” tied up as many as 300,000 British, Belgian and Portuguese troops, wearing them out in the pursuit.

Like the much better-known Lawrence of Arabia, Lettow-Vorbeck became a master of guerilla warfare. He never lost a single battle, though it was not unheard of for combatants to break and flee a charging elephant or rhinoceros.

lettow5To his adversaries, disease and parasites were often more dangerous than enemy action. In July 1916, Allied non-battle casualties ran 31 to 1, compared with battle casualties.

In 1956, Brazilian scientists attempted to cross African honey bees with indigenous varieties, to produce an insect better suited to the South American tropics.  Today, we call the results of these failed experiments “Africanized” or “Killer” bees.

askariAt one point in the Battle of Tanga (November 7-8, 1914), a British landing force and their Sepoy allies were routed and driven back to the sea by millions of African bees, disturbed by rifle and machine gun fire. There’s a story about a British radioman, I don’t know if it’s true,  who held to his station, directing the beach evacuation while being stung to death by thousands of angry bees. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for “gallantry under aerial attack”.

“Der Löwe von Afrika” – the Lion of Africa – returned to Germany a conquering hero.  Of all German commanders in WWI, Lettow-Vorbeck alone was undefeated in the field.  The only German commander to successfully invade imperial British soil, during the Great War.

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Lettow-Vorbeck developed a deep distrust of the upstart Adolf Hitler, and attempted to establish a conservative opposition to the Nazi party.  When then-Chancellor Hitler offered him an ambassadorship to the Court of St. James in 1935, Lettow-Vorbeck told Hitler to “go f**k” yourself. Describing the interview afterward, Vorbeck’s nephew explained “That’s right, except that I don’t think he put it that politely.”

images (34)Such a blunt refusal was guaranteed to bring unwanted attention from the Nazi regime. Vorbeck’s home and office were searched, his person subject to constant harassment and surveillance. By the end of WWII, the Lion of Africa was destitute.  Both of his sons were killed serving in the Wehrmacht, his home in Bremen destroyed by Allied bombs.

For a time, Vorbeck lived on food sent from British Intelligence Officer Richard Meinertzhagen and South African Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts, two of his former adversaries in the East Africa campaign.  It was a token of the respect these two had, for a man who had once been their enemy.

The old General never forgot his Ascaris, returning to East Africa in 1953, to the tears of his former warriors.  Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck died in 1964, at the age of 93.  A few months later, the Bundestag voted to give back pay to the African warriors who had fought with German forces in WWI. Some 350 elderly Ascaris showed up. A few could produce certificates given them back in 1918, some had scraps of old uniforms.  Precious few could prove their former service to the German Empire.

Lettow ww2

The German banker who brought the money had an idea. As each man stepped forward, he was handed a broom and ordered to perform the German manual of arms. Not one man failed the test.

Lettow-Vorbeck formed a lifelong friendship during his time in Africa, with the Danish author Karen Blixen, best known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa”.  Years later, Blixen recalled, “He belonged to the olden days, and I have never met another German who has given me so strong an impression of what Imperial Germany was and stood for”.

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February 28, 1944 Test Pilot

In her 1951 memoir “Fliegen – mein leben”, (Flying is my life), Hannah Reitsch offers no moral judgement one way or the other, on Hitler or the Third Reich.

Hannah Reitsch wanted to fly.  Born March 29, 1912 into an upper-middle-class family in Hirschberg, Silesia, it’s all she ever thought about. At the age of four, she tried to jump off the family balcony, to experience flight.  In her 1955 autobiography The Sky my Kingdom, Reitsch wrote:  ‘The longing grew in me, grew with every bird I saw go flying across the azure summer sky, with every cloud that sailed past me on the wind, till it turned to a deep, insistent homesickness, a yearning that went with me everywhere and could never be stilled.

94329f643cf875a2a36889aec9d1162c--hanna-reitsch-medical-schoolReitsch began flying gliders in 1932, as the treaty of Versailles prohibited anyone flying “war planes” in Germany. In 1934, she broke the world’s altitude record for women (9,184 feet).  In 1936, Reitsch was working on developing dive brakes for gliders, when she was awarded the honorary rank of Flugkapitän, the first woman ever so honored. In 1937 she became a Luftwaffe civilian test pilot.  She would hold the position until the end of WW2.

A German Nationalist who believed she owed her allegiance to the Fatherland more than to any party, Reitsch was patriotic and loyal, and more than a little politically naive.  Her work brought her into contact with the highest levels of Nazi party officialdom.  Like the victims of Soviet purges who went to their death believing that it would all stop “if only Stalin knew”, Reitsch refused to believe that Hitler had anything to do with events such as the Kristallnacht pogrom.  She dismissed any talk of concentration camps, as “mere propaganda”.

Hubschrauber Focke-Wulf FW 61 V1 in Berliner Deutschlandhalle 1938
In February 1938, Hannah Reitsch became the first person of either sex to fly a helicopter, the Focke-Achgelis Fa-61, inside a building, Berlin’s Deutschlandhalle. (ullstein bild via Getty Images)

As a test pilot, Reitsch won an Iron Cross, Second Class, for risking her life in an attempt to cut British barrage-balloon cables. On one test flight of the rocket powered Messerschmitt 163 Komet in 1942, she flew the thing at speeds of 500 mph, a speed nearly unheard of at the time. She spun out of control and crash-landed on her 5th flight, leaving her with severe injuries.  Her nose was all but torn off, her skull fractured in four places.  Two facial bones were broken, and her upper and lower jaws out of alignment.  Even then, she managed to write down what had happened, before she collapsed.

Hannah ReitschDoctors did not expect her to live, let alone fly again.  She spent five months in hospital, and suffered from debilitating dizzy spells.  She put herself on a program of climbing trees and rooftops, to regain her sense of balance.  Soon, she was test flying again.

On this day in 1944, Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring awarded her a special diamond-encrusted version of the Gold Medal for Military Flying. Adolf Hitler personally awarded her an Iron Cross, First Class, the first and only woman in German history, so honored.

It was while receiving this second Iron Cross in Berchtesgaden, that Reitsch suggested the creation of a Luftwaffe suicide squad, “Operation Self Sacrifice”.

Hanna-Reitsch-2Hitler was initially put off by the idea, though she finally persuaded him to look into modifying a Messerschmitt Me-328B fighter for the purpose. Reitsch put together a suicide group, becoming the first to take the pledge, though the idea would never take shape. The pledge read, in part: “I hereby voluntarily apply to be enrolled in the suicide group as a pilot of a human glider-bomb. I fully understand that employment in this capacity will entail my own death.”

The plan came to an abrupt halt when an Allied bombing raid wiped out the factory in which the prototype Me-328s were being built.

In the last days of the war, Hitler dismissed his designated successor Hermann Göring, over a telegram in which the Luftwaffe head requested permission to take control of the crumbling third Reich.  Hitler appointed Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim, ordering Hannah to take him out of Berlin and giving each a vial of cyanide, to be used in the event of capture.   The Arado Ar 96 left the improvised airstrip on the evening of April 28, under small arms fire from Soviet troops.  It was the last plane to leave Berlin.  Two days later, Adolf Hitler was dead.

Taken into American custody on May 9, Reitsch and von Greim repeated the same statement to American interrogators: “It was the blackest day when we could not die at our Führer’s side.” She spent 15 months in prison, giving detailed testimony as to the “complete disintegration’ of Hitler’s personality, during the last months of his life.  She was found not guilty of war crimes, and released in 1946. Von Greim committed suicide, in prison.

Hanna-Reitsch

In her 1951 memoir “Fliegen – mein leben”, (Flying is my life), Reitsch offers no moral judgement one way or the other, on Hitler or the Third Reich.

She resumed flying competitions in 1954, opening a gliding school in Ghana in 1962.  She later traveled to the United States, where she met Igor Sikorsky and Neil Armstrong, and even John F. Kennedy.

Hannah Reitsch remained a controversial figure, due to her ties with the Third Reich.  Shortly before her death in 1979, she responded to a description someone had written of her, as `Hitler’s girlfriend’.  “I had been picked for this mission” she wrote, “because I was a pilot…I can only assume that the inventor of these accounts did not realize what the consequences would be for my life.  Ever since then I have been accused of many things in connection with the Third Reich”.

592644327Toward the end of her life, she was interviewed by the Jewish-American photo-journalist, Ron Laytner. Even then she was defiant:  “And what have we now in Germany? A land of bankers and car-makers. Even our great army has gone soft. Soldiers wear beards and question orders. I am not ashamed to say I believed in National Socialism. I still wear the Iron Cross with diamonds Hitler gave me. But today in all Germany you can’t find a single person who voted Adolf Hitler into power … Many Germans feel guilty about the war. But they don’t explain the real guilt we share – that we lost“.

Hannah Reitsch died in Frankfurt on August 24, 1979, of an apparent heart attack.  Former British test pilot and Royal Navy officer Eric Brown received a letter from her earlier that month, in which she wrote, “It began in the bunker, there it shall end.”  There was no autopsy, or at least there’s no report of one.  Brown, for one, believes that after all those years, she may have finally taken that cyanide capsule.

January 28, 1521 A Scholarly Debate

A popular story has Martin Luther nailing his “95 theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it likely never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting Church authorities. This was intended to be an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly debate. 

Hans Luder sent his son Martin to a series of Latin schools beginning in 1497, where the boy learned the so-called “trivium” – grammar, rhetoric, and logic. He entered the University of Erfurt in 1501 at age 19, receiving his master’s degree in 1505. The elder Luder (“Luther”) intended that his son become a lawyer, but the boy wanted none of it.

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Hans & Margarethe Luder by Lucas Cranach, the Elder

Years later, the younger Luther described his Latin school education as time spent in purgatory, and his University as a “beerhouse” and a “whorehouse”.  Martin Luther was cut out for different things.

Luther entered Law School in 1505 and dropped out, almost immediately.  His father was furious over what he saw as a wasted education. Martin entered an Augustinian cloister that July, saying “This day you see me, and then, not ever again.”

16th century Church doctrine taught that the Saints built up a surplus of good deeds, over a lifetime.  Sort of a moral bank account.  Like “carbon credits” today, positive acts of faith and charity could expiate sin. Monetary contributions to the church could, it was believed, “buy” the benefits of the saint’s good works, for the sinner.

Luther came to believe that the church had lost sight of the central truths of Christianity. The Grace of God wasn’t a medium to be exchanged, he believed.  Rather, such grace was attained through faith in Jesus Christ, as the Messiah. “This one and firm rock”, he wrote, “which we call the doctrine of justification, is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness”.

Papal “Commissioner for Indulgences” Johann Tetzel came to Wittenberg in 1516, selling expiation to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica, in Rome. A saying attributed to the Dominican friar went “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

0531f24949Martin Luther wrote to Archbishop Albrecht on October 31, 1517, objecting to this sale of indulgences. He enclosed a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, a document which came to be known as his “95 Theses”.

A popular story has Martin Luther nailing the document to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it likely never happened. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church.  This was intended to be an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly debate.

Martin Luther’s ideas would rock the Christian world.

What seems to the modern mind as mere doctrinal differences, were life and death matters in the late middle and early modern ages. Archbishop Albrecht forwarded Luther’s note to Pope Leo X, who responded slowly and “with great care as is proper”.

Three theologians drafted heresy cases against Martin Luther.  In 1520, the Papal Bull (edict) “Exsurge Domine” commanded the Professor of Theology to recant under pain of excommunication.

Luther stood on dangerous ground. In 1415, the Czech priest Jan Hus had been burned at the stake for such heresy.  Pope Martinus I called for a crusade against his followers, the “Hussieten”, five years later.

ds4768_Hus_at_stakeCrop

King Henry VIII’s famous break with the church over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon was still years in the future in 1521, the year Pope Leo X named Henry “Fidei Defensor”.  “Defender of the Faith”. Nine years later, French theologian Jean Calvin was forced to flee for his life, from a deadly outbreak of violence against Protestant Christians.

Anabaptists Jan van Leiden, Bernhard Knipperdolling and Bernhard Krechting were tortured in the public square for their heresies, with white-hot pliers.  Their corpses were placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, in Münster. The bones were removed some fifty years later, but those three cages remain there, to this day.

lambert-cages

The Papal edict had the effect of hardening Luther’s positions, and he publicly burned the document. Twenty-four days later, Martin Luther was excommunicated.

On this day in 1521, Emperor Charles V convened the Diet, the deliberative assembly of the Holy Roman Empire, in the upper-Rhine city of Worms.  Luther was summoned to defend himself in April.

With copies of his writings laid before him on a table, Luther was asked if the books were his, and if he stood by their contents.  He affirmed that yes, they were his, but asked time to consider his second answer.

The following day, Luther gave his response.  “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the Pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen”.

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Martin Luther testifies before the Diet of Worms, 1521

The “Edict of Worms” of the following month declared Luther an outlaw, ordering that he “be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic”.  Anyone who wished to do so was now permitted to kill the monk, without legal consequence.

Five years earlier, Erasmus of Rotterdam had expressed the wish that the holy text should be available in every language, “so that even Scots and Irishmen might read it”.  Luther went into hiding at Wartburg Castle.  It was there that he translated the New Testament from Greek into German, laying the foundation for other vernacular translations and, for the first time, making the bible accessible to the common man.

Radical sects took Luther’s teachings far beyond his intentions, and Luther found himself in the odd position of defending the faith against more radical reformers. The Zwickau Prophets rejected holy scripture in favor of direct revelations from the Holy Spirit. The Anabaptists took the “equality of man” in radical egalitarian directions, sounding very much like the principles Karl Marx would write about, in 1848.

luther

The Protestant Reformation launched by Martin Luther plunged Europe into a series of wars. The Peasant’s War of 1524-’25 alone killed more Europeans than any conflict prior to the 1789 French Revolution. The established church would respond with counter-reformation, but the idea that Christian faith was more than the exclusive province of a special, segregated order of men, was here to stay.

On October 31, 1999, 482 years to the day from Martin Luther’s letter to Archbishop Albrecht, leaders of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches signed the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification”, ending the half-century old doctrinal dispute, once and for all.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it too. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 2, 1935 Nazis of the Amazon

In 1935, the third Reich reached out to the Amazon basin, in search of ‘lebensraum’.  Living space.  3 SS officers bankrolled by the Nazi government, came with dozens of helpers to explore the region bordering French Guyana, with an eye toward colonizing the area for the ‘thousand-year’ Reich.

In 1978, the British-American science fiction thriller “The Boys from Brazil”  told the story of a bizarre plot to clone Adolf  Hitler, hatched by the “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele in his Brazilian jungle hideout.

In the film, Mengele met his fate at the jaws of a pack of vengeful Dobermans, under orders from one of his 94 ‘baby dictators’.

A story as squirrelly is this one could only come from the minds of Hollywood, but parts of it were closer to reality, than anyone knew at the time.

In the years following WW2, thousands of Nazi officers, senior party members and Nazi collaborators escaped across the Atlantic to find refuge in South America, especially Argentina, Chile and Brazil.

Though widely believed to be dead, Mengele himself was very much alive at the time of the film, living under an assumed identity in Bertioga, São Paulo.  The Angel of Death would escape the noose he so richly deserved, succumbing to a stroke while swimming in 1979, and drowning.

Long before there were Nazis, before there was even a Germany, ethnically German people have been emigrating in search of a better life.  In the United States, some 57 million people identify as being of full or part German ancestry, forming the largest single ethnic group, in the country.  I am one of them.

Outside of Germany itself,  The second largest German population in the world, resides in Brazil.

Mention Oktoberfest, and you’re speaking of an annual celebration of Germanic traditions, in Munich.  The second-largest Oktoberfest is a two-way tie, between the one held in Waterloo, Canada, and the city of Blumenau, in Santa Catarina, Brazil.

Oktoberfest Blumenau
Outside of Munich, Oktoberfest Blumenau in Brazil is one of the two largest celebrations of the original festival, in the world.

Outside of Europe, descendants of German immigrant ancestors have largely assimilated into their host societies, adopting local languages and adapting Germanic-sounding surnames to spellings and sounds more familiar to their adopted cultures.

Brazilians of German ancestry are in every sense Brazilian, except to the racially obsessed mind, of a Nazi.

In 1935, the third Reich reached out to the Amazon basin, in search of ‘lebensraum’.  Living space.  3 SS officers bankrolled by the Nazi government, came with dozens of helpers to explore the region bordering French Guyana, with an eye toward colonizing the area for the ‘thousand-year’ Reich.

Talk about squirrelly ideas.  The hardships of life in the Amazon jungle made this a strange choice of destination, but the idea made sense to these people.  With over 1 million ethnic Germans already living in the country, the pieces were already in place.  Or so they believed.

SS officer Joseph Greiner died of a ‘fever’ while on the expedition, most likely yellow fever or malaria. Expedition leader Schulz Kampfhenkel returned to the Fatherland with glowing reports of “The Guyana Projekt”.  “The two largest scantly populated, but rich in resources, areas on earth” Kampfhenkel wrote to his boss, the failed chicken farmer turned Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, “are in Siberia and South America”.

article-1080071-0238C02C000005DC-732_468x623As befitting a man who completely buys into Nazi ideas of racial superiority, the SS officer wrote “For the more advanced white race it offers outstanding possibilities for exploitation”, adding that the people who lived there “cannot be measured in civilised terms as we know them in Germany”.

A propaganda film was made of Greiner’s work in the jungle, but Himmler showed ‘scant interest’ in such grandiose plans.  “Given time”, the bloodless bureaucrat wrote to his jungle emissary, “the plan may be submitted again”.

So it is, that there is a Nazi graveyard by a tributary of the River Jary,  in the Amazon jungle. There you will find a 9-ft. cross, bearing this inscription: “Joseph Greiner died here on 2.1.1936“.

December 25, 1914 Christmas Truce

Allied soldiers first thought it was a trick, but these Germans were unarmed, standing out in the open where they could be shot on a whim.

“Sitzkrieg”. “Phony War”. Those were the terms used to describe the September ‘39 to May 1940 period, when neither side of what was to become the second world war, was yet prepared to launch a major ground war against the other.

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“The Blow on the Yser”, depicting the ‘Race to the Sea’. 6th in a series of postcards on the German invasion of France.

25 years earlier things had been different, at the outbreak of “The Great War”.  Had you been alive in August of 1914, you’d have witnessed what might be described as the simultaneous detonation of a continent.

When governments make war on one another, it’s the Harry and the Fritz down the street, the every day Pierre and the Ivan, who must do the fighting.  And the bleeding.  And the dying.

France alone suffered 140,000 casualties over the four day “Battle of the Frontiers”, where the River Sambre meets the Meuse.  27,000 Frenchmen died in a single day, August 22, in the forests of the Ardennes and Charleroi.

The British Expeditionary Force escaped annihilation on August 22-23, only by the intervention of mythic angels, at a place called Mons.

In the East, a Russian army under General Alexander Samsonov was encircled and so thoroughly shattered at Tannenberg, that German machine gunners were driven to insanity at the damage inflicted by their own guns, on the milling and helpless masses of Russian soldiers.  Only 10,000 of the original 150,000 escaped death, destruction or capture.  Samsonov himself walked into the woods, and shot himself.

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Angels of Mons

The “Race to the Sea” of mid-September to late October was more a series of leapfrog movements and running combat, in which the adversaries tried to outflank one another.  It would be some of the last major movement of the Great War, ending in the apocalypse of Ypres, in which 75,000 from all sides lost their lives.  All along a 450-mile front, millions of soldiers dug into the ground to shelter themselves from what Private Ernst Jünger later called the “Storm of Steel”.

On the Western Front, it rained for much of November and December that first year.  The no man’s land between British and German trenches was a wasteland of mud and barbed wire. Christmas Eve, 1914 dawned cold and clear.  The frozen ground allowed men to move about for the first time in weeks.

That evening, English soldiers heard Germans singing a Christmas carol.  “Silent night.  The Tommies were the first to respond, singing ‘The First Noel”.  Then both sides joined together, in a rendition of ‘O Come, all ye Faithful’.

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The following day was Christmas, 1914. A few German soldiers emerged from their trenches at the first light of dawn, approaching the Allies across no man’s land, calling out “Merry Christmas” in the native tongue of their adversaries.

Allied soldiers first thought it was a trick, but these Germans were unarmed, standing out in the open where they could be shot on a whim. Tommies soon climbed out of their own trenches, shaking hands with the Germans and exchanging gifts of cigarettes, food and souvenirs. In at least one sector, enemy soldiers played a friendly game of soccer.

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Captain Bruce Bairnsfather later wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. … The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”

Captain Sir Edward Hulse Bart reported a sing-song which “ended up with ‘Auld lang syne’ which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!”

Nearly 100,000 Allied and German troops were involved in the unofficial ceasefire of December 24-25, 1914, which lasted in some sectors until New Year’s Day.

christmas-truce-1914-400x186A few tried to replicate the event the following year, but there were explicit orders preventing it. Captain Llewelyn Wyn Griffith recorded that after a night of exchanging carols, dawn on Christmas Day 1915 saw a “rush of men from both sides … [and] a feverish exchange of souvenirs” before the men were quickly called back by their officers.

One German unit tried to leave their trenches under a flag of truce on Easter Sunday 1915.  They were warned off by the British opposite them.

christmas-military1-e1482512805772German soldier Richard Schirrmann wrote in December 1915, “When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines …. something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over”.

Some will tell you, that the bitterness engendered by continuous fighting made such fraternization all but impossible.  Yet there are those who believe that soldiers never stopped fraternizing with their opponents, at least during the Christmas season.  Heavy artillery, machine gun, and sniper fire were all intensified in anticipation of Christmas truces, minimizing such events in a way that kept them out of the history books.

1914-christmas-eve-truceEven so, there is evidence of a small Christmas truce occurring in 1916, previously unknown to historians. 23-year-old Private Ronald MacKinnon of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, wrote home about German and Canadian soldiers reaching across battle lines near Arras, sharing Christmas greetings and trading gifts. “I had quite a good Christmas considering I was in the front line”, he wrote. “Christmas Eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … We had a truce on Christmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars”. The letter ends with Private MacKinnon noting that “Christmas was ‘tray bon’, which means very good.”

Private Ronald MacKinnon of Toronto Ontario, Regimental number 157629, was killed barely three months later on April 9, 1917, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The Man He Killed
BY THOMAS HARDY

“Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

“But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

“I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although

“He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.

“Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.”

November 27, 1942 Scuttled

While many considered the Vichy government to be a puppet state, the officers and men of the French fleet had no love for their German occupiers.  This was a French fleet and would remain so if they could help it, even if they had to sink it to the bottom of the ocean.

The Battle of France began on May 10, 1940, with the German invasion of France and the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. By the end of May, German Panzers had hurled the shattered remnants of the allied armies into the sea, at a place called Dunkirk.

The speed and ferocity of the German Blitzkrieg left the French people in shock in the wake of their June surrender.  All those years their government had told them, that the strength of the French army combined with the Maginot line, was more than enough to counter German aggression.

France had fallen in six weeks.

Vichy-FranceGermany installed a Nazi-approved French government in the south of France, headed by WW1 hero Henri Pétain.  Though mostly toothless, the self-described “French state” in Vichy was left relatively free to run its own affairs, compared with the Nazi occupied regions to the west and north.

That changed in November 1942, with the joint British/American invasion of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.  At the time, the north African provinces were nominally under the control of the Vichy regime.  Hitler gave orders for the immediate occupation of all of France.

Scuttled, 2With the armistice of June 1940, much of the French naval fleet was confined to the Mediterranean port of Toulon.  Confined but not disarmed, and the French fleet possessed some of the most advanced naval technologies of the age, enough to shift the balance of military power in the Mediterranean.

While many considered the Vichy government to be a puppet state, the officers and men of the French fleet had no love for their German occupiers.  This was a French fleet and would remain so if they could help it, even if they had to sink it to the bottom of the ocean.

Scuttled, 1In November 1942, the Nazi government came to take control of that fleet. The motorized 7th Panzer column of German tanks, armored cars and armored personnel carriers descended on Toulon with an SS motorcycle battalion, taking over port defenses to either side of the harbor. German officers entered fleet headquarters and arrested French officers, but not before word of what was happening was relayed to French Admiral Jean de Laborde, aboard the flagship Strasbourg.

The order went out across the base at Toulon.  Prepare to scuttle the fleet, and resist the advance of German troops, by any means necessary.

The German column approached the main gate to the harbor facility in the small hours of November 27, demanding access.  ‘Of course,’ smiled the French guard. ‘Do you have your access paperwork?’

Toulon, französisches KriegsschiffUnder orders to take the harbor without bloodshed, the Nazi commander was dismayed. Was he being denied access by this, his defeated adversary?  Minutes seemed like hours in the tense wrangling which followed.  Germans gesticulated and argued with French guards, who stalled and prevaricated at the closed gate.

The Germans produced documentation, only to be thanked, asked to wait, and left standing at the gate.

Meanwhile, thousands of French seamen worked in grim silence throughout the early morning hours, preparing to scuttle their own fleet.  Valves and watertight doors were opened, incendiary and demolition charges were prepared and placed.

27_toulonFinally, the Panzer column could be stalled no more.  German tanks rumbled through the main gate at 5:25am, even as the order to scuttle passed throughout the fleet.  Dull explosions sounded across the harbor, as fighting broke out between the German column, and French sailors pouring out of their ships in the early dawn light.  Lead German tanks broke for the Strasbourg, even now pouring greasy, black smoke from its superstructure, as she settled to the bottom.

The Germans could only look on, helpless, as a dying fleet escaped their grasp.  In the end, 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 15 destroyers, 13 torpedo boats, 6 sloops, 12 submarines, 9 patrol boats, 19 auxiliary ships, 28 tugs, 4 cranes and a school ship, were destroyed.  39 smaller vessels of negligible military value fell into German hands along with twelve fleet vessels, all of them damaged.

The fires would burn, for weeks.  The harbor at Toulon would remain fouled and polluted, for years.

The French Navy lost 12 men killed and 26 wounded on that day, 75 years ago, today.  The loss to the Nazi war effort, is incalculable.  How many lives could have been lost can never be known, had Nazi Germany come into possession of all that naval power.  But for the bravery of a vanquished, but still unbeaten, foe.

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