Category Archives: European Theater

Weekend Watching: The Little Ships of England

This fun contemporary documentary details the effort put into the construction of a fleet of wooden vessels – from small civilian boats to minesweepers – for the defense of Britain in World War II.

Among other things, it’s a fascinating look at the total war in which Britain was engaged that was unknown in the US. All of the nations resources were put into the effort, from forests to high schoolers. The young teenager showing up to serve as a learner (he couldn’t have been more than 15) was sobering, as was a look at how the ships were built of timber, oakum, and tar. That the Royal Navy was sending men to sea in wooden ships in an age of steel is a tribute both to the skill of her shipwrights and the courage of her men.

The film is also an oblique reminder that we have, for whatever reason, given up on wood for fiberglass in our small ships, and that it may be time for a reconsideration of the value of wooden vessels in modern war.

Finally, it is a reminder that great is ever the enemy of good enough. Britain needed hulls, and it understood that getting ships to sea trumped any compunctions about looking like a second-rate force.

The film is about 15 minutes long. Enjoy.

Nazis and Christians

In a discussion about Nazi Germany recently with a few fellow amateur historians, the question of the role of religion in Naziism came up. The consensus of the group (which was made up primarily of atheists) was that Naziism was at its core a Christian movement, and they point to the use of the phrase “Gott Mit Uns” (“God is with us”) on Nazi heraldry at the time as prima facie evidence of their point.

It is worth pointing out, however that the use of “Gott Mit Uns” harkens back to the Teutonic Order of knights from the 12th Century, and used in Prussian heraldry from the time of Friedrich I in the 18th century. Indeed, if you pursue the history, it appears likely that the Nazis were simply trying to establish popular legitimacy by harkening back to both the Teutons and the rise of Prussia. This was likely less about any form of faith than an attempt to anchor National Socialism more deeply into the heart of German identity, and thus legitimize it.

What is more, historians like William Shirer suggest that the Nazis were trying to eliminate Christianity altogether, and that by instituting Kirchenkampf and making public examples of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Salvation Army, the Christian Saints and the Seventh Day Adventists, the Nazis were able to cow the other churches into toeing the line.

Churches, like any other institution, are often led by humans who (sometimes for what appear to be good reasons) place the continuance of the institution above the mission it was created to conduct. This is why so many of the major denominations rolled over. This is why the resistance from Christians primarily came from individuals (like Dietrich Bonhoeffer), rather than religious institutions. Indeed, Eric Metaxas’s superb biography of Bonhoeffer offers substantial support to the idea that National Socialism was a rejection of Christianity, and that any association between the church and the Nazi regime was tenuous and best characterized by the image of a stormtrooper’s boot on the neck of a clergyman.

In their defense, I think the the religious leaders of the Third Reich knew that Nazism was anti-Christian, and they were trying to appease Hitler and his sociopathic coterie in a desperate effort to save themselves, their flocks, and their faiths from being tossed into the camps. If there is approbation or praise to be laid, it is upon individuals rather than the ethos they tried (with varying degrees of care and success) to uphold.

Nationalism had been, before the war, a claim pressed by minorities against large multiethnic empires, but after Versailles it became a claim that minority groups asserted against one another.

Yehuda Mirsky

OSS Report Leads to Nazi Weapons Facility

Austrian filmmaker uncovers apparent secret Nazi nuclear complex
Benjamin Weinthal
Jerusalem Post.
29 December 2014

Fascinating article about how an Austrian documentarian has discovered a US intelligence report from 1944 identifying St. Georgen an der Gusen as a major Nazi weapons research facility. More is still being unearthed about the underground facility, but it appears that research in either metallurgy or chemistry was being conducted there.

In the spate of small-r revisionism taking place, we are arguably overdue for someone to start scouring archives, digging into recently unclassified files and piecing together the disparate parts of the Nazi weapons research programs. We all need to understand what the Nazis accomplished, what they almost achieved, and who was involved.

And it is time to come to grips with how many ardent Nazis both we and the Soviets protected throughout the Cold War in order to gain access to the secrets of places like Peenemünde, Bergkristall, and St. Georgen an der Gusen.

Patton’s Air Force

Cover of "Air Power for Patton's Army: Th...

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One of the most consistently underrated factors in the Allied victory in Europe during World War II is the quality of tactical air support to the troops on the ground. Each for its own reasons, the Army and the Air Force tend to underplay the importance of tactical air support to their operations: the Army because it is afraid of admitting that it cannot do without air support; and the Air Force because the service has been built over the past 66 years as a temple to strategic bombing and air-to-air combat.

Air Power for Patton’s Army: The 19th Tactical Air Command in the Second World War offers food for thought to both services. By delving into how General George S Patton worked with his counterpart at the XIX Tactical Air Command, General Otto P. Weylandthis book reminds the Army of how strong air-ground coordination actually changes the traditional rules of battle, and that air support was arguably much of the “secret sauce” behind Patton’s successes in his advance across France, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. When the planes flew, Georgie’s tanks advanced. When the weather grounded the planes, Third Army found the Wehrmacht a brutally challenging foe.

For the Air Force, the book is a reminder that the most important roles it played in World War II are not what service histories say they are. For all of the noise around strategic bombing, the parts of the USAAF that made the most difference were engaged in battlefield interdiction, close air support, and airlift both strategic and tactical.

Market-Garden: The Air Force’s Side of the Story

English: US Army paratroopers are dropped near...

US Army paratroopers are dropped near Grave, Netherlands while livestock graze near gliders that landed earlier. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This book gives us the perspective of the US Air Force on the story made familiar in Cornelius Ryan‘s epic A Bridge Too Far. As you read through this account, even if you’re familiar with the events of Operation Market-Garden, you’ll realize that the Air Force’s side of the story has not been well told.

What is most fascinating about this account, however, is the Air Force’s own admission that while it did everything that it could to help beat back stiff German resistance, airpower was unable to secure the victory. This must come as a sobering realization to airmen dedicated to the proposition that air power is decisive in battle. Clearly at a tactical level in World War II, this was not the case, despite the presence of some of the best close air support tacticians, practitioners, and equipment ever produced.

If you have read other accounts of this campaign, you’ll find this work to be of great interest.

Prelude in Catalonia

Cover of "The Battle for Spain: The Spani...

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There are probably any number of reasons someone of my vintage might not know much about the Spanish Civil War.

Perhaps it is because I grew up in America, and there were probably far less than 10,000 Americans involved in the conflict, making it defensible to gloss over in courses on modern European history. Perhaps it is because the intervening years have seen Spain relegated to the back bench of European powers, thus making the civil war easy to ignore. Or perhaps it is because the conflict, waged between Franco’s facists on one side and the anarcho-socialist-communist Republic on the other, gave us anti-Facist and (after 1945) anti-Communist Americans no easy heroes?

In his masterful The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939Anthony Beevor, who has written some of the best popular histories of World War II campaigns like Stalingrad, Crete, and the fall of Berlin, has taken on a far more complex conflict than the others. His task is thus ambitious: given a nation with whom few of us are familiar and a vast cast of characters who are all but alien and irrelevant to your average English speaker, allow us to follow the course of the conflict sufficiently to reach our own conclusions about it.

While there were moments about halfway through the book that I despaired of ever getting it all straight, not long afterward it was all coming together, even without the benefit of a good map or a scorecard of the major and minor characters. Along the way, Beevor makes it painfully clear that the war was inevitable. Spain needed to be yanked out of its somnambulant neo-feudalism, but a democratic republic could not accomplish the necessary changes against the opposition of the church and the landowners, and the radicals that captured and led the republic provoked an inevitable reactionary response.

There are few heroes, but Beevor hesitates just short of making either Franco or his radical opponents into villains. The Caudillo was as vain and power-hungry as the worst Latin despots and a mediocre commander, but one is left believing that if it had not been Franco, it would have been someone else, perhaps Jose Sanjurjo de Sacanell or Gonzalo Quiepo de Llano, Franco’s fellow generals and co-conspirators in the plot to overthrow the republic. The leaders of the republic, portrayed as fractious, squabbling, and mutually-distrustful, are tragic figures.

Ruins of Guernica (1937). The Spanish civil wa...

Ruins of Guernica (1937). The Spanish civil war claimed the lives of over half-a-million people. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If there were evildoers in this saga, Beevor subtly points beyond Spain: at the Germans and Italians, who honed their arsenals and armies for World War II in supporting Franco; at the Russians, who supported the Republic but exacerbated its centrifugal politics; at the British and French, who feared giving Hitler an excuse to go to war more than they feared facism in Spain; and to the Vatican of Pope Pius XII, who framed the war as a Catholic jihad and mobilized the faithful around the world against helping the Republic.

Beevor’s other conclusions are even more provocative, but I will leave you to read the book and decide for yourself.

One last thought.

The framers of the Declaration of Independence understood that, at some point, even the most downtrodden of peoples must rise up and replace the government that has kept them there. The history of the past three centuries is replete with examples of successful revolutions, and these have framed our political thinking. But if we learn more from our failures than our successes, it behoves those of us who believe in the value of a modern, participatory state to spend more time studying the failed revolutions than the successful ones.

The Spanish Civil War was a failed revolution. With peoples from Malaysia to Tunisia rising up against their leaders, we must remember Catalonia, the Republic, the Spain that might have been, and we must understand why it was not. Only then can we comprehend the dangers of spontaneous risings as well as we do the opportunities.