August 16, 1945  The Last Emperor

Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” of the late 1960s is estimated to have killed 40 to 70 million Chinese.  You’re really playing in the Big Leagues, when they can’t estimate your death toll to anything closer than the nearest 30 million.

At the age of 2 years and 10 months, Puyi was taken from his parents and installed on the Qing Dynasty throne, in the Chinese Imperial Palace in Beijing.  The year was 1908.

It must have been bewildering for this toddler who was terrified by the sound of the ceremonial drums. Grown men would kowtow and avert their eyes in his presence.  His wet nurse, Wen-Chao Wang, was the only familiar face in the Royal Court.  She was the only one who could console him.  She alone was allowed to accompany him to the Forbidden City.

Puyi’s abdication of the throne four years later marked the end of 1,000 years of dynastic rule in China, earning him the sobriquet “The Last Emperor” of China.

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Japanese experts gathered to inspect the scene of the ‘railway sabotage’ on the railway line.

Today, the Tsingtao beer available in Chinese restaurants the world over, is one of the last cultural vestiges of European colonization of China. In the latter half of the 19th century, China became increasingly subjugated through colonization by British, French and German powers.

American President Millard Filmore dispatched Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan in 1852, forcing an opening of that nation’s economy to trade with the West, and commencing a half-century’s period of rapid industrialization in resource-poor Japan. The smaller nation grew in both economic and military power, while China suffered the humiliations of the first and second opium wars, and forced colonization by European interests.

Japan piled on in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, culminating in the massacre of much of Lüshun City (formerly “Port Arthur”), cession of Chinese territories, and the recognition of an independent Korea.

China declared war on Imperial Germany in August 1917, intending to send combat units to the western front, but never getting around to doing so. The move entitled them to a seat at the Paris Peace Conference, but all that got them was a secret list of 21 demands issued by the Japanese Empire.  Japan emerged from this period with greater influence over the Chinese economy, and increased Japanese control over the resource-rich regions of Northern China and Manchuria.

On September 18, 1931, a small quantity of dynamite was detonated by Japanese Lt. Kawamoto Suemori, near a railroad owned by Japan’s South Manchuria Railway near Mukden, in modern Shenyang.  It was a ruse, a bald pretext for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in Northern China, and everyone knew it.Mukden_1931_japan_shenyang

The explosion was so weak that it failed to destroy the line and a train passed minutes later, but the script was already written.  The Imperial Japanese Army accused Chinese dissidents of the “Mukden Incident”, launching a full scale invasion.

Japan installed Puyi as Emporer Kangde of the puppet state of “Manchukuo”, all the while suppressing the native Han Chinese in one of the most brutal and genocidal occupations of the 20th century.

Puyi was kept on a short leash by his Japanese handlers, his life mainly consisting of signing laws prepared by Japan, reciting prayers, consulting oracles, and making formal visits throughout his state.

The Second world war was drawing to a close when the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, beginning its invasion of occupied China two days after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the day before Nagasaki.  Puyi was captured at an airfield on this day in 1945, and held in a Soviet gulag in Siberia until Mao Tse-Tung’s Communist party came to power in 1949.

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Japanese occupation of Beijing, 1937 – 1945

Puyi spent ten years in the Fushun War Criminals Management Centre in Liaoning province until he was declared “reformed”, moving to Peking in 1959 and taking up residence as an ordinary citizen.Puyi-Manchukuo

Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” of the late 1960s is estimated to have killed 40 to 70 million Chinese.  You’re really playing in the Big Leagues, when they can’t estimate your death toll any closer than the nearest 30 million.

The Last Emperor was an easy target of the “Red Guards”.  He probably wouldn’t have survived the tender ministrations of the communist government, but he died quietly due to complications of Kidney Cancer on October 17, 1967.

The ashes of the last Emperor, a man who had  found himself at the head of over a half-billion people at a time when the world population was only 2 billion, were placed at the Babaoshan Cemetery, the former burial ground of imperial concubines and court eunuchs.

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August 14, 1945 A Kiss in Times Square

The lit message running around the Times Building read, “VJ, VJ, VJ, VJ” as George Mendonsa grabbed a stranger and kissed her. Two seconds later the moment was gone, but Alfred Eisenstaedt and his camera had been in the right place at the right time.

The most destructive war in history ended this day in 1945, with the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan.

It was morning on the East Coast.  President Harry Truman had not yet received the formal surrender. The White House official announcement was still hours away, but rumors had been flying since the early morning hours.

Born and raised in Austria, Greta Zimmer was 16 in 1939. Seeing the war bearing down on them, Greta’s parents sent her and her two sisters to America, not knowing if they would ever see them again. Six years later she was a dental assistant, working at the Manhattan office of Dr. J. L. Berke.

Greta’s lunch break came just after 1:00 that day.  Patients had been coming into the office all morning with rumors that the war was over. She set out for Times Square, knowing that the lit and moving type on the Times news zipper would give her the latest news.

Mendonsa, Zimmer
George Mendonsa, Greta Zimmer-Friedman

Petty Officer 1st Class George Mendonsa was on his last day of shore leave, spending the day with his new girlfriend, Rita Petry. They had heard the rumors too, but right now they were enjoying their last day together. The war could wait until tomorrow.

The couple went to a movie at Radio City Music Hall, but the film was interrupted by a theater employee who turned on the lights, announcing that the war was over. Leaving the theater, the couple joined the tide of humanity moving toward Times Square. The pair stopped at the Childs Restaurant on 7th Ave & 49th, where bartenders were pouring anything they could get hands on into waiting glasses.  Revelers were scooping them up as fast as the glasses were filled.

Mendonsa’s alcohol-powered walk/run from the restaurant left Rita trailing behind, but neither one seemed to mind. Times Square was going wild.

The sailor from the USS Sullivans had seen bloodshed. He’d been there on May 11, as kamikaze planes smashed into the USS Bunker Hill.  Explosions and fires killed 346 sailors that day.  43 of their bodies would never be found. Mendonsa had helped to pull the survivors, some of them hideously burned, out of the water. He had watched while Navy nurses tended to the injured and the dying.

When the sailor spotted Greta Zimmer, the dental assistant was dressed the same way.  To him, she must have seemed like one of those white-clad angels of mercy from those earlier months.

kiss-in-times-square-leica-2Reporters from the AP, NY Times, NY Daily News and others descended on Times Square to record the spontaneous celebration.

As a German Jew in the 1930s, Alfred Eisenstaedt had photographed the coming storm. He had photographed Benito Mussolini’s first meeting with Adolf Hitler in Venice in 1934. Now he and his Leica Illa rangefinder camera worked for Life Magazine, heading to Times Square in search of “The Picture”.

The lit message running around the Times Building read, “VJ, VJ, VJ, VJ” as George Mendonsa grabbed a stranger and kissed her. Two seconds later the moment was gone, but Eisenstaedt and his camera had been in the right place at the right time.Times Square Kiss

The image of the sailor kissing the nurse would become as famous as Joe Rosenthal’s photo of the flag raising at Iwo Jima, but not until years later.

The German made camera which took the iconic image recently went to auction at the Westlicht auction house in Vienna, where it was expected to sell for $30,000. The winning bid was almost $150,000.

After the war, Greta Zimmer learned that both of her parents had died in the camps. She later married and made her home in Frederick, Maryland.  Greta Zimmer Friedman never returned to Austria, and passed away last September, at the age of 92.

George Mendonsa and Rita Petry later married. George never saw the famous photograph until 1980.  At first he wasn’t sure he recognized himself.  Today, framed copies of it hang on the wall of their Rhode Island home.

MendonsaThis year, the couple celebrates their 68th wedding anniversary.  Rita says she wasn’t angry that her husband kissed another woman on their first date.  She points out that she can been seen grinning in the background of the famous picture.  She will admit, however, ‘In all these years, George has never kissed me like that.’

August 12, 1944 Operation Aphrodite

Kennedy and Willy remained aboard as BQ-8 completed its first remote controlled turn at 2,000′, near the North Sea coast. They removed the safety pin arming the explosive, Kennedy sending the code “Spade Flush”, to signal the task was complete. They were his last words.

The Normandy landings were two months in the past in August 1944, with yet another 9 months of hard fighting to go before the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Allied strategic bombing was having little effect on German submarine pens and rocket launch sites. Operations “Aphrodite” and “Anvil” were supposed to help. The idea was to load old Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberator bombers with tons of explosives, fly it via radio control, and crash it directly onto a target.

The drone was to fly at 2,000′ with the controlling aircraft directing the flying bomb onto its target from 20,000′. The converted bombers required a minimum of two crew to take off and operate.  The plan was to have them bail out over the English Channel, a waiting boat picking up the two pilots while control of the drone passed to the operating aircraft.Kennedy, Aphrodite

On August 12, 1944, Lt. Joseph Patrick “Joe” Kennedy, Jr. and Lieutenant Wilford John Willy stepped into a converted B-24 Liberator, designated BQ-8. It was the seventh Aphrodite mission, and Willy had “pulled rank” on Kennedy’s usual co-pilot, Ensign James Simpson, in order to be on the mission.

Two Lockheed Ventura mother planes with radio control sets took off from RAF Fersfield at 6:00pm, followed by the BQ-8 aircraft, loaded with 21,170 lbs of Torpex, a British high explosive 50% more powerful than TNT.  Two P-38 Lightning fighters followed, as mission escort. A sixth aircraft followed the formation, a de Havilland Mosquito, come to film the operation. In an unlikely historical coincidence, the Mosquito was piloted by Colonel Elliott Roosevelt, USAAF, son of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The target was the Fortress of Mimoyecques and its V-3 cannons, in the north of France.

Operation-Aphrodite-Drones-versus-V2-Rockets-4Kennedy and Willy remained aboard as BQ-8 completed its first remote controlled turn at 2,000′, near the North Sea coast. They removed the safety pin arming the explosive, Kennedy sending the code “Spade Flush”, to signal the task was complete. They were his last words. The aircraft exploded two minutes later, a shower of wreckage coming to earth near the village of Blythburgh in Suffolk, England.  A series of small fires were started and 59 buildings were damaged, but there were no casualties on the ground. The bodies of Kennedy and Willy were never recovered.

There would be fourteen such missions in total.  Only one caused damage to the intended target, and that may have been accidental. In the end, the program killed more American airmen than it did Nazis.  More damage was done to the British countryside, than to German interests.

Operation-Aphrodite-Drones-versus-V2-Rockets-5When Joseph Kennedy Jr. was born, his grandfather John F. Fitzgerald, then Mayor of Boston, said, “This child is the future President of the nation”.  He had been a delegate to the Democrat’s National Convention in 1940, and planned to run for Massachusetts’ 11th congressional district in 1946.

Kennedy could have gone home, he had already completed the 25-mission requirement, to do so.  Clearly, Joseph Kennedy Jr. had the resume, and he had the pedigree.  He showed every indication of following the path which would later lead his brother to the Presidency.  Joe Senior had already begun to lay the campaign groundwork when his son was killed.

‘What if’ histories are always tricky, but in this particular alternate universe, it seems safe to say.  A future President of the United States was killed over the Blyth Estuary.  73 years ago, today.

August 9, 1945 Nagasaki

The 10,000lb, 10’8″ weapon was released at 28,900′. Seconds later, a perfect circle of 64 detonators exploded inside the heart of the bomb, compacting the plutonium core into a supercritical mass and  exploding with the force of 20,000 tons of high explosive.

Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds“.

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Trinity Test Fireball

The line comes from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu epic which Mohandas Gandhi described as his “spiritual dictionary”. On July 16, 1945, these words were spoken by J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, as he witnessed “Trinity”, the world’s first nuclear detonation.

The project had begun with a letter from prominent physicists Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt, warning that Nazi Germany may have been working to develop a secret “Super Weapon”.  The project ended with the explosion of the “Gadget” in the Jornada del Muerto desert, equaling the explosive force of 20 kilotons of TNT.Trinity_site_plaque

The Manhattan Project, the program to develop the Atomic Bomb, was so secret that even Vice President Harry Truman was unaware of its existence.

President Roosevelt passed away on April 14, and Harry Truman was immediately sworn in as President. He was fully briefed on the Manhattan project 10 days later, writing in his diary that night that the US was perfecting an explosive “great enough to destroy the whole world”.

Nazi Germany surrendered on May 7, but the war in the Pacific theater, ground on. By August, Truman faced the most difficult decision ever faced by an American President. Whether to drop an atomic bomb on Imperial Japan.

The morality of President Truman’s decision has been argued ever since. In the end, it was decided that to drop the bomb would end the war faster, with less loss of life on both sides, compared with the invasion of the Japanese home islands.

So it was that the second nuclear detonation in history took place on August 6 over the city of Hiroshima, Japan. “Little Boy”, as the bomb was called, was delivered by the B29 Superfortress “Enola Gay”, named after the mother of United States Army Air Forces pilot Lieutenant Colonel Paul Tibbets. 70,000 Japanese citizens were vaporized in an instant.  Another 100,000 later died from injuries and the delayed effects of radiation.

FatMan
Fat Man

Even then the Japanese Government refused to surrender. ‘Fat Man’, a plutonium bomb carried by the B29 “Bockscar”, was dropped on Nagasaki, on August 9.

The three cities originally considered for this second strike included Kokura, Kyoto and Niigata. Kyoto was withdrawn from consideration due to its religious significance. Niigata was taken out of consideration due to the distance involved.

Kokura was the primary target on this day, but local weather reduced visibility.  Bockscar criss-crossed the city for the next 50 minutes, but the bombardier was unable to see well enough to make the drop.  Japanese anti-aircraft fire became more intense with every run, and Second Lieutenant Jacob Beser reported activity on the Japanese fighter direction radio bands.

In the end, 393rd Bombardment Squadron Commander Major Charles Sweeney bypassed the city and chose the secondary target, the major shipbuilding center and military port city of Nagasaki.

The 10,000lb, 10’8″ weapon was released at 28,900′.  43 seconds later at an altitude of 1,650′, a perfect circle of 64 detonators exploded inside the heart of the bomb, compacting the plutonium core into a supercritical mass which exploded with the force of 20,000 tons of high explosive.

In the early 1960s, the Nagasaki Prefectural Office put the death count resulting from this day, at 87,000.  70% of the city’s industrial zone was destroyed.

Japan surrendered unconditionally on the 14th of August, ending the most destructive war in history.

Nazi Germany was, in fact, working on a nuclear weapon, and had begun before the allies. They chose to pursue nuclear fusion, colliding atomic particles together to form a new type of nuclear material, instead of fission, the splitting of the atom which resulted in the atomic bomb.

That one critical decision, probably taken in some laboratory or conference room, put Nazi Germany behind in the nuclear arms race. How different would the world be today, had Little Boy and Fat Man had swastikas painted on their sides.

July 30 1945 USS Indianapolis

“This is Captain McVay’s dog tag from when he was a cadet at the Naval Academy. As you can see, it has his thumbprint on the back. I carry this as a reminder of my mission in the memory of a man who ended his own life in 1968. I carry this dog tag to remind me that only in the United States can one person make a difference no matter what the age. I carry this dog tag to remind me of the privilege and responsibility that I have to carry forward the torch of honor passed to me by the men of the USS Indianapolis”.

The heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis set out on its secret mission on July 16, 1945, under the command of Captain Charles Butler McVay, III.  She was delivering “Little Boy” to the Pacific island of Tinian, the atomic bomb which would later be dropped on Hiroshima.

USS_Indianapolis_at_Mare_IslandIndianapolis made her delivery on July 26, arriving at Guam two days later and then heading for Leyte to take part in the planned invasion of Japan. She was expected to arrive on the 31st.

Japanese submarine I-58, Captain Mochitsura Hashimoto commanding, fired a spread of six torpedoes at the cruiser, two striking Indianapolis’ starboard bow at fourteen minutes past midnight on Monday, July 30. The damage was massive. Within 12 minutes she had rolled over, gone straight up by the stern, and sunk beneath the waves.

About 300 of Indianapolis’ 1,196-member crew were killed outright, leaving almost 900 treading water. Many had no life jackets and there were few life boats.  There had been too little time.Indianapolis Sub

For four days they treaded water, alone in open ocean, hoping for the rescue that did not come.   Shark attacks began on the first day, and didn’t let up for the entire time they were in the water. Kapok life vests became waterlogged and sank after 48 hours, becoming worse than useless.

Exhaustion, hypothermia, and severe sunburn took their toll as the days went by. Some went insane and began to attack shipmates.  Others found the thirst so unbearable that they drank seawater, setting off a biological chain reaction which killed them in a matter of hours.

Some simply swam away, following some hallucination that only they could see. Through it all, random individuals would suddenly rise up screaming from the ocean, and then disappear from sight, as the sharks claimed another victim.

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Caribbean Reef sharks circling the sailors in reenactment scene after USS Indianapolis had been sunk by Japanese submarine. As seen on OCEAN OF FEAR: WORST SHARK ATTACK EVER.

At Naval Command, there was confusion about where Indianapolis was to report when it arrived.  When the cruiser failed to arrive on the 31st, there was no report of the non-arrival.  Perhaps worst, a message which could have clarified Indianapolis’ expected arrival on Monday came through garbled, and there was no request to repeat it.

As it was, only the barest of chances led to Indianapolis’ survivors being located at all.   Lieutenant Wilbur Gwinn, pilot of a Ventura scout-bomber, had lost the weight from a navigational antenna wire.  Belly-crawling through the fuselage to fix the thrashing antenna, Gwinn noticed an oil slick.  Back in the cockpit, he dropped down to have a better look.  Only then did he spot men floating in open ocean.

Lieutenant R. Adrian Marks and his PBY Catalina amphibious patrol aircraft were the first on the scene.  Horrified to see sharks actually attacking the men below, Marks landed his flying boat at sea.   The last Indianapolis survivor was plucked from the ocean Friday afternoon, half dead after almost five days in the water.  Of the 900 or so who survived the sinking, only 317 remained alive at the end of the ordeal.

The Navy had committed multiple errors, from denying McVay’s requested escort to informing him that his route was safe, even when the surface operations officer knew at least two Japanese submarines operated within the area.  No Matter.  A capital ship had been lost and someone was going to pay.  A hastily convened court of inquiry was held in Guam on August 13, leading to Captain McVay’s court-martial.

No less a figure than Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz (CINCPAC) and Admiral Raymond Spruance, for whom the Indianapolis had served as 5th Fleet flagship, opposed the court-martial, believing McVay to be guilty of an error in judgement at worst, not gross negligence. Naval authorities in Washington saw things differently, particularly Navy Secretary James Forrestal and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King.

Captain McVay’s orders were to “zigzag” at discretion, a naval maneuver most effective at avoiding torpedoes already in the water.   No Navy directives in effect at that time or since have so much as recommended, let alone ordered, zigzagging at night or in poor visibility.

Prosecutors flew I-58 commander Hashimoto in to testify at the court-martial, but he swore that zigzagging would have made no difference.  The Japanese Commander even became part of a later effort to exonerate McVay, but to no avail. Charles Butler McVay III was convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag”, his career ruined.

Captain Charles Butler McVay, III
Captain Charles Butler McVay, III

McVay had wide support among Indianapolis’ survivors, but opinion was by no means unanimous. Many family members held him personally responsible for the death of loved ones.  Birthdays, anniversaries and holidays would come and go.  There was almost always hate mail from some family member. One Christmas missive read “Merry Christmas! Our family’s holiday would be a lot merrier if you hadn’t killed my son”.

As the years went by, McVay began to question himself.  In time, he came to feel the weight of the Indianapolis’ dead, a soul crushing burden from which there was no escape.  On November 6, 1968, Charles McVay took a seat on his front porch in Litchfield Connecticut, took out his Navy revolver, and killed himself.  He was cremated, his ashes scattered at sea.

The ULTRA code-breaking system which revealed I-58’s presence on Indianapolis’ course, would not be declassified until the early 90s.

Afterward:

Hunter Alan Scott was 11 and living in Pensacola when he saw the movie “Jaws”, in 1996. He was fascinated by the movie’s brief mention of Indianapolis’ shark attacks.  The next year, he created his 8th grade “National History Day” project on USS Indianapolis’ sinking.

The boy interviewed nearly 150 survivors and reviewed 800 documents.  The more he read, the more he became convinced that Captain McVay was innocent of the charges for which he’d been convicted.

Scott’s National History Day project went up to the state finals, only to be rejected because he used the wrong type of notebook to organize the material.

He couldn’t let it end there. Scott began to attend Indianapolis survivors’ reunions, at their invitation, and helped to gain a commitment in 1997 from then-Representative Joe Scarborough that he would introduce a bill in Congress to exonerate McVay the following year.

Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire joined Scarborough in a joint resolution of Congress.  Hunter Scott and several Indianapolis survivors were invited to testify before Senator John Warner and the Senate Armed Services committee on September 14, 1999.

Holding a dog tag in his hand, Scott testified “This is Captain McVay’s dog tag from when he was a cadet at the Naval Academy. As you can see, it has his thumbprint on the back. I carry this as a reminder of my mission in the memory of a man who ended his own life in 1968. I carry this dog tag to remind me that only in the United States can one person make a difference no matter what the age. I carry this dog tag to remind me of the privilege and responsibility that I have to carry forward the torch of honor passed to me by the men of the USS Indianapolis”.

The United States Congress passed a resolution in 2000, signed into law by President Bill Clinton on October 30, exonerating Charles Butler McVay, III of the charges which had led to his court martial, humiliation and suicide.

The record cannot not be expunged – Congress has rules against even considering bills which alter military records.  Yet Captain McVay had been exonerated, something that the Indianapolis survivors had tried for years to accomplish, without success.  Until the intervention of a 12-year-old boy.

The last word on the whole episode belongs to Captain Hashimoto, who wrote the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1999 on behalf of Captain McVay.  “Our peoples have forgiven each other for that terrible war and its consequences“, wrote the former submarine commander, now a Shinto Priest.  “Perhaps it is time your peoples forgave Captain McVay for the humiliation of his unjust conviction“.

July 25, 1944 V2

When Wernher von Braun showed Adolf Hitler the launch of the V2 on color film, Hitler jumped from his seat and shook Braun’s hand with excitement. “This is the decisive weapon of the war. Humanity will never be able to endure it,” Hitler exclaimed. “If I had this weapon in 1939 we would not be at war now.”

V-1_cutaway
V! “Doodlebug”

In the early years of WWII, Nazi Germany fired 10,000 V1″Doodlebug” rockets at England, killing over 6,000 Londoners by 1943. The subsonic V1 was an effective terror weapon, but the “low and slow” trajectory and short range of the weapon lacked the strategic power to end the war in the Nazi’s favor.

The V2 was different.  It was the dawn of the ballistic missile era, and Nazi Germany was first off the starting line.

The Peenemünde Aggregat A4 V2 was an early predecessor of the Cruise Missile, delivering a 2,148-pound payload over a 236 mile range at 5 times the speed of sound. You could hear the V1 “Buzz Bomb” coming and seek shelter.  Not so the V2.  Victims of the V2 didn’t know they were under attack until the weapon had exploded.

When Wernher von Braun showed Adolf Hitler color film of the launch of a V2, Hitler jumped from his seat and shook Braun’s hand with excitement. “This is the decisive weapon of the war. Humanity will never be able to endure it,” Der Fuhrer exclaimed. “If I had this weapon in 1939 we would not be at war now!”

V2 diagram
V2 Diagram

About that, Hitler may have been right.  The Allies were anxious to get their hands on one.  In early 1944, they had their chance. A V2 crashed onto a muddy bank of the River Bug, in Nazi occupied Poland. The Polish underground had been waiting for such a situation, and quickly descended on the rocket, covering it with brush. Desperate to retrieve the missile, the Germans conducted a week-long aerial and ground search, but failed find the weapon under its camouflage.

After the search came to an end, partisans returned to the site. This time they brought four Polish scientists who carefully disassembled the weapon, packing the pieces in barrels. The parts were then shipped to a barn in Holowczyce, just a few miles away.

The allied effort to retrieve the stolen missile, code named “Most III”, got underway on this day in 1944, when Royal New Zealand Air Force 1st Lieutenant Stanley George Culliford landed his Dakota C47 in the early morning darkness, at a secret air strip near Tarnow.

They loaded the rocket chassis and several technical experts on board, but it was too much weight.  The overloaded C47 couldn’t move on the wet, muddy field.  The port-side wheel was stuck fast in the mud.  Everything had to be offloaded, Polish partisans working desperately to free the aircraft as dawn approached. They stuffed the wheel track with straw, and then laid boards in the trench.  Nothing worked.V2 in flight

Co-pilot Kazimierz “Paddy” Szrajer thought the parking brake must be stuck, so they cut the hydraulic lines supplying the brake. That didn’t work, either. In the end, partisans were frantically digging trenches under the aircraft’s main wheel. There were two failed attempts to take off.  Culliford was considering blowing up the plane and burning all the evidence, but agreed to one last attempt. The aircraft lumbered off the ground on the third try. The headlights of Nazi vehicles could be seen in the darkness as the last of the Polish partisans scattered into the night.

There would be 5 hours of unarmed, unescorted flight over Nazi territory, and an emergency landing with no brakes, before the V2 rocket components finally made it to England.

Today, few remember their names.  We are left only to imagine a world in which Nazi Germany remained in sole possession, of the game changing weapons of World War Two.

July 13, 1943 Kursk

Fighting between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had long since taken on shades of a race war, Slav against Teuton, in a paroxysm of mutual extermination that is horrifying, even by the hellish standards of WWII.

WWII has been rightly described as the deadliest conflict in human history. Yet to the extent that WWII history is taught at all, it is largely based on the Western and Pacific theaters of the war. The “Ostfront” is less well understood, at least in the West:  the war as it was fought between the Soviet Union and Germany, on the Eastern theater of the war.

It may have been governments who started the war.  It was the every-day “Fritz” and the “Ivan” down the street, who did the fighting and the dying.totenkopf-SS-division-nazi-germany-elite-classic-fiercest-warriors-006

The greatest tank battle in history started this day on the Eastern Front. It began as a “Battle of a Bulge”, six months before the last German offensive began in the snow-covered forests of the Ardennes. The five-months long Battle for Stalingrad had ended with a decisive Soviet victory in February of that year, resulting in a “Bulge”, or salient in the Soviet lines, near the city of Kursk.

The Germans planned to shorten their battle lines by eliminating the Kursk salient, and commenced a series of strategic attacks in March, retaking Kharkov and Belgorod. Offensive operations ceased by the end of March due to the onset of the spring “rasputitsa” (mud season) and the exhaustion of both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army.

Field Marshal Erich von Manstein sent to Germany for massive reinforcements of Panther medium and Tiger heavy tanks, while Soviet forces prepared the “Defense in Depth” strategy which would prove decisive in July.

Kursk-1943-Plan-GE.svgThe Kursk salient was of little or no strategic value to the German war effort.  Both Manstein and General Walter Model argued for a tactical defense. Even Heinz Guderian, arguably the father of modern armored tactics, argued against the offensive, but Hitler would not hear of it. Der Fuhrer was going to have his offensive.

“Operation Citadel” started with a series of two offensives beginning on July 5. The Soviet’s defensive preparations began to take their toll almost immediately.

Minefields, fortifications, pre-sighted artillery fire zones and anti-tank strong points extended over 190 miles into the Soviet perimeter. By July 13, the Red Army had regained the offensive. Accounts of the battle vary wildly, with most estimates around 6,000 tanks, 2,000,000 troops, and 4,000 aircraft being involved in the fight.

Estimated losses are difficult to learn, due to the obsessive secrecy of both Nazis and Communists. Sources indicate over a quarter of a million German casualties and four times that number on the Soviet side.  1,083 tanks & assault guns were lost to the German side, over 8 times that number for the Russians.

The battle is considered to be a decisive victory for the Soviet union, representing the final German initiative of the Eastern Front. Though Soviet losses were far higher than those of Germany, the vast resources of the Soviet Union were far better positioned to replace those losses than that of the 3rd Reich.

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Fighting between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had long since taken on shades of a race war.  Slav against Teuton, in a paroxysm of mutual extermination that is horrifying, even by the hellish standards of WWII.  The war on the Ostfront, was yet to grind out another year.