September 17, 1940 Battle of Britain

Prime Minister Winston Churchill captured the spirit of the period, as only he could. “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”. – Winston Churchill

When the allies invaded Europe in 1944, they had to land on the beach in order to get a foothold. At that point, they controlled none of the European continent. The Nazi war machine had been so successful, that a map of Europe at that time could have been drawn in only two colors. One for the occasional neutral nation, the other for Nazi controlled or occupied territory.

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Allied evacuation of Dunkirk, May 1940

Your eyes would have to cross the English Channel on that map to find a third color, that of Great Britain, which in June of 1940 stood defiant and alone in the face of the Nazi war machine.

Rooftop Observer

In his “Finest Hour” speech of June 18, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said “What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin“.

In Germany, street decorations were being prepared for the victory parades which were sure to come, as Hitler considered plans for his surprise attack on his ally to the East, the Soviet Union. After Great Britain and her allies had been hurled from the beaches of Dunkirk, Hitler seemed to feel he had little to do but “mop up”.

Battle of britain, children evacuatedGermany needed air supremacy before “Operation Sea Lion”, the amphibious invasion of England, could begin. Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring said he would have it in four days.

Military planners of the 1930s believed that “The Bomber will always get through”, and Luftwaffe strategy was based on that assumption. Air Chief Marshal Sir H.C.T. “Stuffy” Dowding, leader of RAF Fighter Command, had other ideas. Dangerously low on aircraft and the pilots to fly them, the “Dowding System” employed a complex network of detection, command, and control to run the battle. The RAF hadn’t the faintest prayer of defending their entire coast, but Dowding’s system allowed them to dispatch individual squadrons to intercept each German air raid.

Battle of Britain, cleaning up
THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN 1940 (HU 104718) Workmen carry part of the bullet-riddled fuselage of a Dornier Do 17, alongside the wreckage of other crashed German aircraft at a scrapyard in Britain, August 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205227877

The “Channel battles” beginning on July 10 were followed by a month of Luftwaffe attacks on English air fields. Losses were catastrophic for the RAF, but worse for the Luftwaffe. On only one day during this period, September 1, did the Germans succeed in destroying more aircraft than they lost.

German tactics changed on September 7. For almost two months, Luftwaffe attacks concentrated on cities and towns.

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The Imperial War Museum online library (http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/search?query=battle+of+britain&items_per_page=10) overflows with images of every day English life, set against a backdrop of catastrophic destruction. Children climbing over piles of rubble on their way to school. A milk man on his rounds, picking his way through shattered streets.  Adults browsing through stacks of library books, the ceilings open to the sky, great beams and rubble littering the aisles between the stacks.

23,002 English civilians died in the raids.  Another 32,138 were injured.

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BATTLE OF BRITAIN (HU 810) A newspaper seller in the street watching a dog-fight during the Battle of Britain. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205226579

Interestingly, the most successful RAF squadrons to fight in the Battle of Britain weren’t British at all, but Polish.

battle of britain, kidsCzechoslovakia fell to the Nazis on the Ides of March, 1939, Czech armed forces having been ordered to offer no resistance. Some 4,000 Czech soldiers and airmen managed to get out, most escaping to neighboring Poland.

Tales of Polish courage in the face of the Nazi invasion of September 1 are magnificent bordering on reckless, replete with images of Polish horse cavalry riding out to meet German tanks. Little Poland never had a chance, particularly when the Soviet Union piled on two weeks later. Poland capitulated in a month, but the German victory was more costly than expected. Much more.  It’s estimated that the Wehrmacht expended twice as much ammunition defeating Poland as they did France the following Spring.  A country with a third larger population.

Battle of Britain, where from

The combined fighting forces of the two nations wound up in France in accordance with the Franco-Polish Military Alliance of 1921, thence to Great Britain following the French capitulation of June, 1940.

Battle of Britain, MilkmanBritish military authorities were slow to recognize the flying skills of the Polskie Siły Powietrzne (Polish Air Forces), the first fighter squadrons only seeing action in the third phase of the Battle of Britain. Despite the late start, Polish flying skills proved superior to those of less-experienced Commonwealth pilots. The 303rd Polish fighter squadron became the most successful RAF fighter unit of the period, its most prolific flying ace being Czech Sergeant Josef František.  He was killed in action in the last phase of the Battle of Britain, the day after his 26th birthday.

145 Polish aircrew served with the RAF during this period, making up the largest non-British contribution to the Battle of Britain.  The smallest is a two-way tie at one each, between Barbados and Jamaica.

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Polish Air Force memorial, St Clement Danes, London

In the end, Great Britain could not be defeated. German resources greatly outnumbered those of the English, but the ratio was reversed when it came to losses. The two nations were at a stalemate and none but a Pyrrhic victory was possible for either. Hitler indefinitely postponed Operation Sea Lion on September 17. By the end of October, the air raids had come to an end.

In the end, the Battle of Britain remains a story we remain free to tell, in English.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill captured the spirit of the period, as only he could.

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.

 

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June 4, 1939 Vacation Cruise to Freedom

So it was that a vacation cruise to freedom became the “voyage of the damned”. MS St. Louis returned to Europe

In 1933, the year that Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist party came to power, some 522,000 Jews lived in Germany. Fearing for their safety, some 304,000 of them emigrated in the first six years of the regime, including the physicist Albert Einstein. Jews were banned from holding professional jobs in 1936, effectively blocking them from German politics, education and industry, and relegating them to 2nd class citizenship. The SS-ordered “Kristallnacht” (Night of the Broken Glass), was carried out over the night of November 9-10, 1938. Jewish owned stores and offices were smashed and vandalized, and synagogues burned.

Many of Germany’s Jews had lived there since the time of Charlemagne. By the eve of WWII, only 214,000 remained.

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Postcard depicting MS St Louis

Part of this exodus, the Hamburg-America line cruise ship MS St. Louis departed Hamburg on May 13, 1939, headed for Cuba. On board were 937 refugees, seeking asylum from Nazi persecution.

St. Louis’ Atlantic crossing was described as a “joyous affair”.  A non-Jewish German and adamant anti-Nazi, Captain Gustav Schröder made sure that it was so.

A full-time nursemaid looked after small children while their parents sat to eat, uniformed stewards serving dishes which were rationed by this time in Germany. Swimming lessons were held for children on deck. They were even permitted to throw a tablecloth over the Adolf Hitler statue in the dining room. Lothar Molton, a boy traveling with his parents, described the experience as “a vacation cruise to freedom”.

The joyous affair came to an end on May 27, when St. Louis dropped anchor in Havana Harbor. Passengers had all purchased legal visas, but most had been retroactively canceled on May 5, due to a change in Cuban immigration policy. For six days they waited amidst bureaucratic wrangling. In the end, only 29 were permitted to get off in Cuba. Four were Spanish citizens and two Cuban nationals. Another 22 were Jews with valid US visas. One attempted suicide, and was brought to a Havana hospital.

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Small boats surrounded the MS St Louis in Havana Harbor to prevent refugee passengers from committing suicide when denied landing in Cuba.

St. Louis then crossed the Florida strait, arriving off the coast on June 4 and hoping for better results in the United States. It wasn’t meant to be. “Sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami”, passengers sent President Franklin Roosevelt an urgent telegram, pleading to be admitted into the country. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in creating the United Nations, urged Roosevelt to reject the refugees, sending Coast Guard cutters to be sure that nobody jumped overboard and swam ashore. stlouistelegram

Roosevelt had his own politics to deal with. The Great Depression had left millions unemployed at the time and Americans were fearful of additional competition for scarce jobs. In Congress, the Wagner-Rogers bill, which would have admitted an additional 20,000 German-Jewish refugees over existing quotas, was being allowed to die in committee. Roosevelt was preparing to run for an unprecedented third term, and calculations of self-interest won out. He ignored the plight of the St. Louis.

Finally, a group of Canadian clergy and academics attempted to persuade Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, to provide sanctuary in Canada. The ship was, after all, only two days from Halifax. Director of Canada’s immigration branch Frederick Blair opposed the move. Blair must have been some piece of work. He had written a year earlier, that “Pressure by Jewish people to get into Canada has never been greater than it is now, and I am glad to be able to add that, after 35 years of experience here, that it has never been so carefully controlled”. Blair urged King against the decision. On June 9, the Prime Minister officially declined to admit St. Louis’ refugees.

Jedes Bild ist mir begegnet © Herbert Dombrowski / Galerie Hilaneh von KoriesSo it was that a vacation cruise to freedom became the “Voyage of the Damned”. MS St. Louis returned to Europe. Captain Schröder negotiated and schemed to find safe haven for his 907 passengers.  Anything but return them to Nazi Germany.  At one point, Schröder contemplated intentionally running aground off the coast of England. In the end, they all found refuge in Europe. 288 passengers were admitted by Great Britain, and 224 by France. 214 were accepted into Belgium and another 181 by the Netherlands.

Many of the St. Louis refugees were later swept up in the Nazi invasion of Europe. Scott Miller and Sarah Ogilvie of the Holocaust Memorial Museum have exhaustively researched the fate of these individuals, finding that “Of the 620 St. Louis passengers who returned to continental Europe, we determined that eighty-seven were able to emigrate before Germany invaded western Europe on May 10, 1940. 254 passengers in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands after that date, died during the Holocaust. Most of these people were murdered in the killing centers of Auschwitz and Sobibór; the rest died in internment camps, in hiding or attempting to evade the Nazis. 365 of the 620 passengers who returned to continental Europe survived the war.”

May 26, 1940 Dunkirk

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the Sudetenland in 1938. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation. The island nation of Great Britain alone escaped occupation, but its armed forces were shattered and defenseless in the face of the German war machine.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation.

The island nation of Great Britain alone escaped occupation, but its armed forces were shattered and defenseless in the face of the German war machine.

Dunkirk4In May of 1940 the British Expeditionary Force and what remained of French forces occupied a sliver of land along the English Channel. Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt called a halt of the German armored advance on May 24, while Hermann Göring urged Hitler to stop the ground assault, let the Luftwaffe finish the destruction of Allied forces. On the other side of the channel, Admiralty officials combed every boatyard they could find for boats to ferry their people off of the beach.

Hitler ordered his Panzer groups to resume their advance on May 26, while a National Day of Prayer was declared at Westminster Abbey. That night Winston Churchill ordered “Operation Dynamo”. One of the most miraculous evacuations in military history had begun from the beaches of Dunkirk.

The battered remnants of the French 1st Army fought a desperate delaying action against the advancing Germans. They were 40,000 men against seven full divisions, 3 of them armored. They held out until May 31 when, having run out of food and ammunition, the last 35,000 finally surrendered. Meanwhile, a hastily assembled fleet of 933 vessels large and small began to withdraw the broken army from the beaches.Dunkirk6

Larger ships were boarded from piers, while thousands waded into the surf and waited in shoulder deep water for smaller vessels. They came from everywhere: merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats and tugs. The smallest among them was the 14’7″ fishing boat “Tamzine”, now in the Imperial War Museum.

A thousand copies of navigational charts helped organize shipping in and out of Dunkirk, as buoys were laid around Goodwin Sands to prevent strandings. Abandoned vehicles were driven into the water at low tide, weighted down with sand bags and connected by wooden planks, forming makeshift jetties.

7,669 were evacuated on May 27, the first full day of the evacuation. By day 9 a total of 338,226 soldiers had been rescued from the beach.  The “Miracle of Dunkirk” would remain the largest such waterborne evacuation in history, until September 11, 2001.

It all came to an end on June 4. Most of the light equipment and virtually all the heavy stuff had to be left behind, just to get what remained of the allied armies out alive. But now, with the United States still the better part of a year away from entering the war, the allies had a fighting force that would live to fight on. Winston Churchill delivered a speech that night to the House of Commons, calling the events in France “a colossal military disaster”. “[T]he whole root and core and brain of the British Army”, he said, had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured. In his “We shall fight on the beaches” speech of June 4, Churchill hailed the rescue as a “miracle of deliverance”.dunkirk2

On the home front, thousands of volunteers signed up for a “stay behind” mission in the weeks that followed. With German invasion all but imminent, their mission was to go underground and to disrupt and destabilize the invaders in any way they could. They were to be the British Resistance, a guerrilla force reportedly vetted by a senior Police Chief so secret, that he was to be assassinated in case of invasion to prevent membership in the units from being revealed.

Participants of these auxiliaries were not allowed to tell their families, what they were doing or where they were. Bob Millard, who passed in 2014 at the age of 91, said that they were given 3 weeks’ rations, and that many were issued suicide pills in case of capture. Even Josephine, his wife of 67 years, didn’t know a thing about it until the auxiliaries’ reunion in 1994. “You just didn’t talk about it, really”, he said. “As far as my family were aware I was still in the Home Guard. It was all very hush hush. After the war, it was water under the bridge”.dunkirk troops, 1940

The word “Cenotaph” literally translates as “Empty Tomb”, in Greek. Every year since 1919 and always taking place on the Sunday closest to the 11th day of the 11th month, the Cenotaph at Whitehall is the site of a remembrance service, commemorating British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in 20th century conflicts. Since WWII, the march on the Cenotaph includes members of the Home Guard and the “Bevin Boys”, the 18-25 year old males conscripted to serve in England’s coal mines. In 2013, the last surviving auxiliers joined their colleagues, proudly marching past the Cenotaph for the very first time.

Historians from the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team (CART) had been trying to do this for years.

CART founder Tom Sykes said: “After over 70 years of silence, the veterans of the Auxiliary Units and Special Duties Section, now more than ever, deserve to get the official recognition that has for so long been lacking. ‘They were, in this country’s hour of need, willing to give up everything, families, friends and ultimately their lives in order to give us a fighting chance of surviving”.

May 10, 1941 Prisoner #7

The last of the other inmates had left by 1966, leaving #7 the prison’s only occupant. Warden Bird wrote a book in 1974, titled “The Loneliest Man in the World”, about his relationship with Hess during his 30 years’ confinement.

At the end of WWI, Rudolf Walter Richard Hess enrolled in the University of Munich.  He’d been wounded several times in the Great War, serving in the 7th Bavarian Field Artillery Regiment. As a student, Hess studied geopolitics under Karl Haushofer, an early proponent of “Lebensraum” (“living space”), the philosophy which later became a central plank in the Nazi Party political platform.

rudolf-hess-nazi rallyHess was an early and ardent proponent of Nazi ideology.  A True Believer. He was at Hitler’s side during the failed revolution of 1923, the “Beer Hall Putsch”. He served time with Hitler in prison, and helped him write his political opus “Mein Kampf” (My Struggle). Hess was appointed to Hitler’s cabinet when the National Socialist German Workers’ Party seized power in 1933, becoming Deputy Führer, #3 after Hermann Göring and Hitler himself. Hess signed many statutes into law, including the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, depriving the Jews of Germany of their rights and property.

Obsessed as he was with race theory, Hitler believed that, as fellow Anglo Saxons, the British people were meant to be natural allies to Germany.  If only they could get rid of Churchill, he believed, the two nations might be able to work things out. Churchill and Hitler deeply hated one another, but there were many in Great Britain, including much of the landowning aristocracy, London financiers and media moguls, who regarded the Soviet Union as the greater threat.rudolf-hess-plane

Rudolf Hess flew into Scotland on May 10, 1941, parachuting to earth as his Messerschmidt two-seat aircraft ran out of gas. It’s unclear whether the scheme was Hess’ own idea or if it had official sanction. It was a cockamamie scheme, in which he intended to arrange peace talks with Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, 14th Duke of Hamilton, believing him to be a prominent opponent of the British government. The Deputy Führer was immediately arrested, remaining in British custody until the end of the war, when he was returned to Germany for the 1946 Nuremberg Trials.

Hess mental state seems to have declined while under British custody and questions were raised about his sanity and fitness to stand trial.  Judges decided that he understood the charges against him and was capable of defending himself.  Hess did himself no good at trial, declaring his late Führer to be “the greatest son my Volk has brought forth in its thousand-year history”. He testified that he wouldn’t change a thing about having worked for the man, saying “I regret nothing.”Hess at Nuremberg

Nine months later, the court acquitted Hess of war crimes and crimes against humanity, apparently deciding that his earlier persecution of Jews to be insufficiently connected to their later annihilation.  Hess was convicted of conspiracy to wage aggressive war and of crimes against peace and sentenced to life in prison, transferred to Spandau Prison in West Berlin, and placed under the authority of the four major allied powers. Spandau had once housed as many as 600 prisoners.   There he was stripped of his name and given a number, #7, one of 8 former Nazi officials imprisoned there.  After July 18, 1947, those eight became the only inmates to occupy the facility.

Hess’ fellow convicts were gradually released from the prison, as their terms expired or on compassionate grounds. His main companion at this time was his jailer, warden Eugene K. Bird, with whom Hess became close friends. The last of the other inmates had left by 1966, leaving #7 the prison’s only occupant. Warden Bird wrote a book in 1974, titled “The Loneliest Man in the World”, about his relationship with Hess during his 30 years’ confinement.

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Changing the Guard at Spandau

Attempts by family members and prominent politicians to get him released were blocked by Soviet authorities, who believed him to be a principle architect of Barbarossa, the Nazi sneak attack on the Soviet Union in 1941. On August 17, 1987, #7 tied a lamp cord to a window latch and hanged himself with it. He was 93.

Spandau prison was demolished following the death of its final remaining prisoner, the rubble dumped into the North Sea to prevent the place from becoming a Neo-Nazi shrine,

May 5, 1945 Fire Balloon

In a forest near Bly, Oregon, a monument bears these words, cast in bronze: The “only place on the American continent where death resulted from enemy action in World War II”

Following the 1883 eruption of the Krakatoa volcano, weather watchers described an eastbound, upper atmospheric air current described as the “equatorial smoke stream”.  In the 1920s, Japanese meteorologist Wasaburo Oishi tracked these upper level winds from a site near Mount Fuji, using pilot balloons. Oishi doomed his work to international obscurity when he published his findings in Esperanto. Inside Japan, there were those who took note, filing away this new-found knowledge of what we now call the “Jet Stream”.

Japanese balloon bomb diagramIn the latter half of WWII, Imperial Japanese military thinkers conceived the fūsen bakudan or “fire balloon”, a hydrogen filled balloon device designed to ride the jet stream, using sand ballast and a valve system to navigate the weapon system onto the North American continent.

With sandbags, explosives, and the device which made the thing work, the total payload was about a thousand pounds on liftoff.  The first such device was released on November 3, 1944, beginning the crossing to the west coast of North America.  9,300 such balloons were released with military payloads, between late 1944 and April, 1945.

Such a long-range attack would not be duplicated until the 1982 Falklands War, and was near unimaginable at the time.  In 1945, intercontinental weapons were more in the realm of science fiction.  As these devices began to appear, American authorities theorized that they originated with submarine-based beach assaults, German POW camps, even the internment camps into which the Roosevelt administration herded Japanese Americans.

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Fighters shot down fewer than 20

These “washi” paper balloons flew at high altitude and surprisingly quickly, completing the Pacific crossing in three days. Balloons landed from Alaska to Northern Mexico, and as far east as Detroit.

A P-38 Lightning fighter shot one down near Santa Rosa, California, while Yerington, Nevada cowboys cut one up to make hay tarps. Pieces of balloon were found in the streets of Los Angeles. A prospector near Elko Nevada delivered one to local authorities, on the back of a donkey.

Among US units assigned to fight fire balloons was the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, which suffered one fatality and 22 injuries fighting fires.

One of the last balloons came down on March 10 near Hanford Washington, shorting out power lines supplying electricity for Manhattan Project nuclear reactor cooling pumps. The war in the Pacific could have ended very differently, had not backup safety devices restored power, almost immediately.

Colonel Sigmund Poole, head of the U.S. Geological Survey military geology unit, asked, “Where’d the damned sand come from?”  Microscopic analysis of sand ballast identified diatoms and other microscopic sea life.  This and the mineral content of the sand itself proved to be definitive.  This stuff could only have come from the home islands of Japan, more specifically, one or two beaches on the island of Honshu.Japanese Balloon Bomb

American authorities were alarmed.  Anti-personnel and incendiary bombs were relatively low grade threats.  Not so the biological weapons Japanese military authorities were known to be developing at the infamous Unit 731, in northern China.

284 of these weapons are known to have completed the Pacific crossing to the United States, Mexico and Canada.  Experts estimate as many as 1,000 may have made it.  Sightings were reported in seventeen US states. Pilots were ordered to shoot them down on sight, but many devices escaped detection, altogether.

In an effort to deny valuable intelligence to their Japanese adversary, US military and government authorities did everything they could to keep these “Fire Bombs” out of the media.  Even though such secrecy put Americans at risk.

Japanese Authorities reported that the bombs were hitting key targets, thousands were dead or injured, and American morale was low.

On the morning of May 5, 1945, Pastor Archie Mitchell and his wife Elsie took their Sunday school class of five on a picnic to a forest area near Bly, Oregon.  Elsie and the kids came upon a large balloon with a strange looking device attached to it, as Pastor Mitchell parked the car. There was no way they could have known, what they had found was a Japanese weapon of war.  The device exploded, killing all six, instantly.

Several such devices exploded, igniting wildfires in the forests of California, Oregon and Washington, but the site near Bly is the only one known to have resulted in American casualties.Japanese balloon bomb shrapnel tree

Today there is a small picnic area located in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, in Lake County, Oregon.  It’s maintained by the US Forest Service, memorialized as the Mitchell Recreation Area and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  A small stone marker points the way to a shrapnel scarred tree.

A second monument bears these words, cast in bronze:  The “only place on the American continent where death resulted from enemy action during World War II”.  There are six names above those words, those of five children and their teacher, who was pregnant at the time.  Elsie Mitchell, age 26.  Edward Engen, age 13.  Jay Gifford, age 13.  Joan Patzke, age 13.  Dick Patzke, age 14.  Sherman Shoemaker, age 11.

Mitchell Monument

May 4, 1945 The Strangest Battle of WWII

72 years ago today, Wehrmacht infantry fought side by side with American soldiers and French civilians, against Nazi SS.

Itter CastleItter Castle appeared in the land records of the Austrian Tyrol as early as 1240.  When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Schloss Itter was first leased and later requisitioned outright by the German government, for unspecified “Official use”.

Fun Fact:  Most WWII-era Nazis didn’t merely abstain from tobacco use.  Nazis were rabid anti-smokers.  Adolf Hitler himself once smoked two packs a day.  By the start of WWII he had a standing offer of a gold watch to anyone among his inner circle who quit the habit.  In 1942, Castle Itter became home to the “German Association for Combating the Dangers of Tobacco”.

Nazi anti-smoking Propaganda
Nazi anti-tobacco propaganda

By April 1943, Itter had become a prison for individuals of value to the Reich.  Among them were tennis player Jean Borotra and former French Prime Ministers Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud.  Former commanders-in-chief Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin were interned there, as was Marie-Agnès Cailliau, the older sister of Charles de Gaulle.  A number of Eastern Europeans were also interned at Itter, mostly employed in maintenance and other menial work around the castle.

In the early weeks of 1945, the 23rd Tank Battalion of the American 12th Armored Division fought its way across France, through Germany and into the Austrian Tyrol.  27 year-old 1st Lt. John “Jack” Lee Jr. was leading the three tank “Company B’, spearheading the drive into Kufstein and on to Munich.  The unit had just fought a pitched battle at a German roadblock before clearing the town.  With lead elements of the 36th Infantry moving in to take possession on May 4, Lee’s unit could finally take a rest.

By this time, Wehrmacht Major Josef Gangel and a few of his soldiers had changed sides, joining the Austrian resistance in Wörgl against roving bands of SS then in possession of the town.

Back at Itter, the last commander of the Dachau concentration camp, Eduard Weiter, had fled his command and made his way to the safety of Itter Castle.  He was murdered by an unnamed SS officer on May 2, for insufficient devotion to the cause.  Fearing for his own life, Itter commanding officer Sebastian Wimmer fled the Castle on May 4, followed by his guards.  The now-former prisoners of Schloss Itter were alone for now, but the presence of SS units in the area made it imperative – they had to do something.  While breaking into the weapons room and arming themselves with pistols, rifles, and submachine guns, Zoonimir Cuckovic, AKA “André”, purloined a bicycle and went looking for help.

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Schloss Itter (Itter Castle) in July 1979. Photo by S.J. Morgan.

André’s mad bicycle ride resulted in the one of the strangest rescues in military history. Lt. Lee tapped eight volunteers and two tanks, his own “Besotten Jenny” and Lt. Wallace Holbrook’s “Boche Buster.”  Riding atop the two Shermans were six members of the all–black Company D, 17th Armored Infantry Battalion, a couple of crews from the 142nd Infantry Regiment, and the Wehrmacht’s own Josef Gangel with a Kübelwagen full of German soldiers bringing up the rear.

KübelwagenIt was late afternoon as the convoy left for Castle Itter.  Leaving Boche Buster and a few Infantry to guard the largest bridge into town.  What remained of the convoy fought its way through its last SS roadblock in the early evening, roaring across the last bridge and lurching to a stop in front of Itter’s gate as night began to fall.  Itter’s prisoners looked on in dismay.  They had expected a column of American tanks and a heavily armed infantry force.  What they had here, was a single tank with seven Americans, and a truckload of armed Germans.

The castle’s defenders came under attack almost at once, by harrying forces sent to assess their strength and to probe the fortress for weakness.  Lee ordered French prisoners to hide inside, but they refused, remaining outside and fighting alongside American and German soldiers.  Frantic calls for reinforcements resulted in two more German soldiers and a teenage Austrian resistance member arriving overnight, but that would be all.

The Totenkopf, or “Death’s head” units was the SS organization responsible for ittercdamageconcentration camp administration for the Third Reich and some of the most fanatical soldiers of WWII.  Even at this late date SS units were putting up fierce resistance across northern Austria.  100-150 of them attacked on the morning of May 5.   Fighting was furious around Castle Itter, the one Sherman providing machine-gun fire support until it was destroyed by a German 88mm gun.  By early afternoon Lee was able to get a desperate plea for reinforcements through to the 142nd Infantry, before being cut off.  Aware that he’d been unable to give complete information on the enemy’s troop strength and disposition, Lee accepted Jean Borotra’s gallant offer of assistance.

Jean_BorotraLiterally vaulting over the castle wall, the tennis star ran through a gauntlet of SS strongpoints and ambushes to deliver his message, before donning an American uniform to help fight through to the castle’s defenders.  The relief force arrived at around 4pm, as defenders were firing their last ammunition.

100 SS were captured.  Lee later received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions.  Josef Gangel was killed by a sniper while trying to move Prime Minister Reynaud out of harm’s way.  Today, there is a street in Wörgl which bears his name.  Germany signed the unconditional surrender two days later.  So ended the first and only battle in which Americans and Germans fought side by side.

Paul Reynaud didn’t like Jack Lee, remembering the American Lieutenant as “crude in both looks and manners”.  “If Lee is a reflection of America’s policies”, he sniffed, “Europe is in for a hard time”.  How very French of him.  All that, before he got to learn the lyrics of the Horst Wessel song.

April 18, 1943 Terrible Resolve

Painfully aware of the overwhelming productive capacity of the American economy, Yamamoto sought to neuter the US High Seas fleet in the Pacific, while simultaneously striking at the oil and rubber rich resources of Southeast Asia

Captian Isoroku YamamotoIsoroku Takano was born in Niigata, the son of a middle-ranked samurai of the Nagaoka Domain. His first name “Isoroku”, translating as “56”, refers to his father’s age at the birth of his son. At this time, it was common practice that samurai families without sons would “adopt” suitable young men, in order to carry on the family name, rank, and the income that came with it. The young man so adopted would carry the family name.  So it was that Isoroku Takano became Isoroku Yamamoto in 1916, at the age of 32.

After graduating from the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy, Yamamoto went on to serve in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, later returning to the Navy Staff College and emerging as Lieutenant Commander in 1916. He attended Harvard University from 1919-1921, learning fluent English. A later tour of duty in the US enabled him to travel extensively, and to study American customs and business practices.

Like most of the Japanese Navy establishment, Yamamoto promoted a strong Naval policy, at odds with the far more aggressive Army establishment. For those officers, particularly those of the Kwantung army, the Navy existed only to ferry invasion forces about the globe.

Yamamoto opposed the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the 1937 land war with

uss_panay
Panay

China. As Deputy Navy Minister, it was Yamamoto who apologized to Ambassador Joseph Grew, following the “accidental” bombing of the USS Panay in 1937. Even when he was the target of assassination threats by pro-war militarists, Yamamoto still opposed the attack on Pearl Harbor, which he believed would “awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve”.

Yamamoto received a steady stream of hate mail and death threats in 1938, as a growing number of army and navy officers spoke publicly against him. Irritated with Yamamoto’s immovable opposition to the tripartite pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, army hardliners dispatched military police to “guard” him. In one of the last acts of his short-lived administration, Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonai reassigned Yamamoto to sea as Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet, making it harder for assassins to get at him.

USS-Arizona-Sinking-Pearl-Harbor-Newspaper-December-7-1941-AP-Getty-640x480Many believed that Yamamoto’s career was finished when his old adversary Hideki Tōjō ascended to the Prime Ministership in 1941. Yet there was none better to run the combined fleet. When the pro-war faction took control of the Japanese government, he bowed to the will of his superiors. It was Isoroku Yamamoto who was tasked with planning the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Nothing worked against the Japanese war effort as much as time and resources. Painfully aware of the overwhelming productive capacity of the American economy, Yamamoto sought to emasculate the US High Seas fleet in the Pacific, while simultaneously striking at the oil and rubber rich resources of Southeast Asia. To accomplish this first objective, he planned to attack the anchorage at Pearl Harbor, followed by an offensive naval victory which would bring the Americans to the bargaining table. It’s not clear if he believed all that, or merely hoped that it might work out.

Yamamoto got his decisive naval engagement six months after Pearl Harbor, near Midway Island. Intended to be the second surprise that finished the carriers which had escaped destruction on December 7, American code breakers turned the tables. This time it was Japanese commanders who would be surprised.

Battle-Of-Midway-Turns-Tide-Of-Pacific-War-2American carrier based Torpedo bombers were slaughtered in their attack, with 36 out of 42 shot down.  Yet Japanese defenses had been caught off-guard, their carriers busy rearming and refueling planes when American dive-bombers arrived.

midway-copyMidway was a disaster for the Imperial Japanese navy. The carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu, the entire strength of the task force, went to the bottom. The Japanese also lost the heavy cruiser Mikuma, along with 344 aircraft and 5,000 sailors. Much has been made of the loss of Japanese aircrews at Midway, but two-thirds of them survived. The greater long term disaster, may have been the loss of all those trained aircraft mechanics and ground crew who went down with their carriers.

The Guadalcanal campaign, fought between August 1942 and February ’43, was the first major allied offensive of the Pacific war and, like Midway, a decisive victory for the allies.

Needing to boost morale after the string of defeats, Yamamoto planned an inspection 2013-Yamamoto-10.1tour throughout the South Pacific. US naval intelligence intercepted and decoded his schedule.  The order for “Operation Vengeance” went down the chain of command from President Roosevelt to Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King to Admiral Chester Nimitz at Pearl Harbor. Sixteen Lockheed P-38 Lightnings, the only fighters capable of the ranges involved, were dispatched from Guadalcanal on April 17 with the order: “Get Yamamoto”.

Yamamoto’s two Mitsubishi G4M bombers with six Mitsubishi A6M Zeroes in escort were Yamamoto Wreckintercepted over Rabaul on April 18, 1943. Knowing only that his target was “an important high value officer”, 1st Lieutenant Rex Barber opened up on the first Japanese transport until smoke billowed from its left engine. Yamamoto’s body was found in the wreckage the following day with a .50 caliber bullet wound in his shoulder, another in his head. He was dead before he hit the ground.

Isoroku Yamamoto had the unenviable task of planning the attack on Pearl Harbor, but he was an unwilling participant in his own history. “In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain”, he had said, “I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success”.Yamamoto