Category Archives: History

Of Demagogues and Tyrants: The Declaration, the Constitution, and the Current President


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the Declaration of Independence these words stand out. “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

I cannot think of an American President who these were more pertinent to, then  Donald Trump. He is the man who Alexander Hamilton warned us in his words and in the Federalist Papers.

“Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”

From the beginning of his campaign in 2015 the President has been nothing more than a demagogue, charlatan, and compulsive liar. Additionally, he has shown contempt for the Constitution, the laws, and the institutions of this country in such a myriad of ways it is hard to list them all here; but they include domestic, and foreign affairs which certainly Hamilton and the other Founders believed would eventually happen in our land.

This is all exploding on us now. Those who warned us were derided by Trump’s loyal Army conservative Evangelical Christian supporters, members of White Supremacist groups, and Neo-Nazis; as well as the unofficial, yet official State Propaganda television network, Fox News, and hundreds of right wing television and radio pastors, and other propaganda pundits, many with dubious records of personal and legal conduct.

We are living in a dangerous time. Based on his long history of unfaithfulness to wives, children, employees, investors, and contractors it would be foolish to believe that this President would be faithful to the oath that he took when he was inaugurated as President in 2017.

I am tired and will sign off for the night and continue my series on the Battle of Leyte Gulf tomorrow since I got ahead of myself last night.
So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Shō-Gō 1: Introduction to and the Beginning of the Battle of Leyte Gulf; the Greatest Naval Battle of All Time

leaving brunei

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Every year it seems that I return to the Battle of Leyte Gulf. This was the largest and most expansive naval battle in history. Thousands and ships and aircraft, including the largest battleships ever constructed. Tens of thousands of sailors and Marines on both sides died in the battle. The Japanese first employed the Kamikazes aviators determined to sacrifice their lives in suicide attacks to save their country, as great storms, typhoons did against the Mongols in 1274 and 1281. It is a battle that should not be forgotten, and one which the lessons of should be remembered, even 75 years later.

This is the first of a five article series on the Battle of Letye Gulf. I may add a sixth this year. The battle was the largest in history both in terms of the number of ships involved and the amount of area covered. The action was triggered by the American invasion of the Philippines causing the Japanese to initiate their Shō-Gō 1 (Victory Plan 1) to attempt to defeat the Americans. The plan relied heavily on land based air power which most of unfortunately for the Japanese was destroyed during the American carrier air strikes on Formosa earlier in the month.

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The battle was necessitated by the absolute need for the Japanese to hold the Philippines in order to maintain their supply lines with the oil resources in Southeast Asia, and in the process defeat the Americans at all costs. As Admiral Soemu Toyoda the Chief of the Combined Fleet explained under interrogation after the war

Should we lose in the Philippines operations, even though the fleet should be left, the shipping lane to the south would be completely cut off so that the fleet, if it should come back to Japanese waters, could not obtain its fuel supply. If it should remain in southern waters, it could not receive supplies of ammunition and arms. There would be no sense in saving the fleet at the expense of the loss of the Philippines.

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                                              Atago Class Cruiser 

The battle was comprised of 5 battles, the Battle of Palawan Passage, the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, the Battle of Surigao Strait, the Battle of Cape Engaño and the Battle off Samar. All told about 70 Japanese warships and 210 American and Australian ships were engaged. A further 300 Japanese aircraft, mostly land based and 1500 American carrier aircraft took part in the battle.

The Japanese order of battle included 1 Fleet and 3 Light Fleet Carriers with a minimal air group, 9 Battleships including the two largest ever built the Yamato and Musashi, 14 Heavy and 6 Light Cruisers and about 3 destroyers. They were divided into four task forces, the Northern Force under the command of Vice-Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa which had all of the Carriers including the last surviving carrier of the Pearl Harbor attack the Fleet Carrier Zuikaku plus the converted hybrid Battleships Ise and Hyuga; the Southern Force which was two distinct and independent task forces. One was under the command of Vice Admirals Shoji Nishimura and Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima and was built around the ancient battleships Fuso and Yamashiro and 3 Heavy Cruisers; and the Center Force under the command of Vice Admiral Takeo Kuritawhich had the Battleships Yamato, Musashi, Nagato, Kongo and Haruna, 10 Heavy and 2 Light Cruisers and 1 destroyers. The Center force was to pass through the San Bernardino Strait and converge on the American landing forces off Samar with the Southern Force which as to come through the Surigo Strait. The Japanese also planned for the first use of Kamikazes as part of the action.

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                                            Heavy Cruiser Atago

The American fleet was comprised of the 3rd Fleet under Admiral William Halsey which was built around the Fast Carrier Task Forces and Fast Battleships of Task Force 38 under the Command of Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher and the Battle Line Task Force 34 under the Command of Vice Admiral Willis Lee; and the 7th Fleet under Vice Admiral William Kinkaid which was the naval support for the landings.

The 7th Fleet had under its control the old Battleships West Virginia, California, Tennessee, Maryland, Colorado and Pennsylvania and 18 Escort Carriers which provided the close air support for the Invasion. All told the Americans had 8 Fleet and 8 Light Fleet Carriers, 18 Escort Carriers, 12 Battleships, 24 Cruisers and 141 Destroyers as well as submarines, PT Boats, Transports, Landing Ships and Auxiliaries. 7th Fleet was not the glamour Navy, its task was the protection and support of the amphibious landings by Douglas McArthur’s Army units.


                                                            Maya

This series will focus on a number of individual battles and decisions in the battle.

This section will focus on the action of the Submarines Darter and Dace against the Center force in the Palawan Passage. The next will be the sinking of the Musashi during the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, it will be followed by the revenge of the Old Battleships at Surigo Strait. The next will be the great decision of Admiral Halsey to pursue the Northern Force and leave the San Bernardino Strait unguarded, followed by the Battle off Samar and last the death of the Japanese Naval Aviation at Cape Engaño.

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                                                         Takao

                                  The Battle of Palawan Passage

Admiral Takeo Kurita and the powerful Center Force departed their anchorage at Brunei on 20 October 1944. The task force entered the Palawan Passage on the night of 22-23 October where they were sighted by the American Submarines Darter and Dace which had been posted at the strait for such a possibility. Darter made radar contact at 30,000 yards at 0018 hours on the 23rd and sent out contact reports. The two submarines shadowed the Center Force on the surface to gain an intercept position and submerged just before dawn.

Darter struck first at 0524 firing a spread of 6 torpedoes scoring 4 hits on Admiral Kurita’s flagship the Heavy Cruiser Atago. She reloaded and stuck the Heavy Cruiser Takao with 2 torpedoes at 0634. At 0554 Dace hit the Heavy Cruiser Maya with 4 torpedoes.

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                                                    USS Darter

The blow was severe. Atago was mortally wounded she capsized and sank at 0553 with the loss of 360 crew members. She sank so rapidly that Kurita had to swim and was rescued with his Chief of Staff by a destroyer, but many of his staff members were lost with the ship. Though Kurita transferred his flag to Yamato, he was now without the advice and counsel of experienced and trusted staff officers that might have prevented his later mistakes during the Battle off Samar.

 Takao suffered heavy damage and though she did not sink she had to proceed crippled to Singapore under the guard of two destroyers. Though she survived the war she never saw action again. Maya, struck at 0554 by 4 torpedoes suffered much damage and was wracked by powerful secondary explosions. By 0600 she was dead in the water and sank five minutes later with the loss of 337 crew members.

The attack of the two submarines was significant; the Japanese lost 3 powerful Heavy Cruisers and had to send two of their destroyers away to guard Takao as she limped away from the action. Likewise the loss of Kurita’s experienced staff hindered his conduct of the battle on the 24th. The cruisers were a big loss, at 13,000 tons and armed with ten 8”guns they could steam at 35 knots and would have been a significant help during the action off Samar.

                                            The Wreck of USS Darter
Darter
 and Dace conducted a pursuit of the crippled Takao which had to be broken off when Darter ran aground on Bombay Shoal. Despite the best efforts of her crew and that of the Dace to free her she was hopelessly stuck. Her crew was unable to scuttle her and the Japanese were able to board her after she was abandoned and for the first time get a look at the details of a Gato class submarine.

Kurita’s force would continue on into the Sibuyan Sea where they would be attacked again, this time by the aircraft of Admiral Bull Halsey’s carriers. But that is the subject of the next article.

To be continued…

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England Expects Every Man To Do His Duty: Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar

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                                            Admiral Horatio Nelson

“Duty is the great business of a sea officer; all private considerations must give way to it, however painful it may be.” Horatio Nelson

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have always been fascinated by the life of Admiral Horatio Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar. In fact I still have a biography of Nelson written for young people and published by American Heritage Publishers that I bought when I was in 5th Grade. Since then I have purchased and read numerous other biographies of England’s greatest Admiral.

Those who follow my writings know that I am fascinated by people who are often courageous, brilliant, and masters of their field of expertise, yet flawed. I think that is one reason that I like history, because if we really study it, we find that even the greatest men and women who have ever lived and inhabited the pages of books, are often little different than us. Horatio Nelson is one of those individuals.

Since I read little biography of Nelson a lot of water has passed under my keel. But even today, nearly 50 years later I still am fascinated about the very heroic and flawed man who commanded the British Fleet at Trafalgar and was mortally wounded at the moment of his greatest victory.

By the way, just because one is flawed, does not mean that they cannot be a hero and set a positive example for all leaders.

Peace

Padre Steve+

HMS_Victory

                                                          HMS Victory

In 1805 Britain was facing the threat of invasion by Napoleon’s French Empire which was allied with Spain. All Napoleon had to do was have he combined French and Spanish naval might to defeat the Royal Navy and a least for a time control the English channel to allow the French invasion force to land.

It was a daunting challenge to the British but the force the Royal Navy send to hunt down the combined fleet of France and Spain was commanded by the diminutive one eyed, one armed victor of the Battle of the Nile and Battle of Copenhagen Admiral Horatio Nelson.

When the French Fleet under the command of Charles Villeneuve escaped into the Atlantic aided by storms which forced Nelson’s Fleet off station in early 1805. Nelson assumed it was heading to Egypt and sailed into the Mediterranean in pursuit. He found out that he was wrong and that Villeneuve had sailed to the Caribbean he went after him. Barely missing contact with the combined French and Spanish Fleet Nelson followed it to Cadiz where the Combined Fleet took refuge.

Villeneuve’s task was difficult. Though he outnumbered the British force his crews were inexperienced and  because the ships had been blockaded for many years not trained to the standard of French forces in earlier times. Likewise many French naval leaders had not survived the bloodletting of the Revolution or been killed in action at the Battle of the Nile. In order to execute Napoleon’s strategy he would have to take his Combined Fleet out of Cadiz, rendezvous with another French Squadron from Brest, defeat the Royal Navy and gain control over the channel.

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However Napoleon changed the plan and on September 16th 1805 ordered the Fleet to break out of Cadiz and sail to Naples, however Villeneuve had misgivings and deliberating with his Captains and Spanish Allies remained in Cadiz. That changed on October 18th when Villeneuve gave the order to sail despite light winds. His decision was based less on strategy or tactics but the fact that he had discovered that he was to be relieved of command and that his relief was on the way to Cadiz.

Nelson was a controversial and often contradictory man. He was the son of an Anglican Priest, a man of faith who struggled in marriage and had an affair with Lady Emma Hamilton which bore him a daughter and eclipsed his marriage. He was a man of valor who lost an arm and eye in battle and led his sailors to victory time and time again. He was loved by the men who served under him but the target of the jealousy of officers who disapproved of him.

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When Villeneuve attempted to break out on October 18th Nelson was alerted by the screen of frigates conducting the close blockade of Cadiz. Nelson began to pursue and when Villeneuve discovered this he attempted to return to Cadiz. On the morning of the 21st the fleets drew closer, Nelson with 27 Ships of the line mounting 2148 guns against the Combined Fleet of 33 Ships of the Line mounting 2568 guns. It was a battle that many a British Tar believed held the fate of the nation.

Nelson was less than orthodox in is conduct of battle. Instead of laying alongside the French line he opted to split his force into two columns and break the French and Spanish line with the intent of the total destruction of the enemy force in close combat where the individual superiority of his ships and sailors . It was a risky strategy of the approach meant that the Combined Fleet would if properly handled could possibly use its superior firepower against a few British ships at a time.

As his Fleet approached the Combined Fleet Nelson penned a prayer:

“May the great God, whom I worship, grant to my country and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious victory: and may no misconduct, in any one, tarnish it: and may humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet.

For myself individually, I commit my life to Him who made me and may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my country faithfully.

To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend.

Amen. Amen. Amen.” 

At 1145 Nelson had his signalmen hoist the signal that would go down in history. ENGLAND EXPECTS THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY. The signal as composed by Nelson said that ENGLAND CONFIDES THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY. However that signal was more complicated and the Signal’s Officer LT Pasco informed Nelson that “Expects” was in the signals vocabulary where “confides” would have to be spelt requiring extra lifts. Nelson concurred.

In the slow run up to the Combined Fleet the British took a beating, but when the British broke the French line and opened fire the battle took a different turn. Following Nelson’s orders his captains and his second in command Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood took the fight to the enemy.

Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory delivered he opening broadsides into the stern of Villeneuve’s flagship the Bucentaure with devastating results. After passing Bucentaure the Victory was engaged in close combat by the 74-gun Redoutable and the ships became locked together. Redoutable was commanded by one of the finest Captain’s in French Fleet, Captain Lucas who had trained his crew well including in close combat. His marksmen took a deadly toll of Victory’s crew exposed on the upper decks and one of his marksmen mortally wounded Nelson as the British Admiral walked his flagship’s quarterdeck.

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                                         Nelson is Mortally Wounded

Nelson was carried to the sick bay of Victory where as he lay dying he continued to receive updates on the battle. Knowing a storm was coming he gave orders for his ships to anchor. Upon being informed of the number of French and Spanish ships taken he whispered “Thank God I have done my duty” and Nelson’s Chaplain noted Nelson’s last words as “God and my country.

By the end of the battle the British had captured or sunk 22 of the 33 French and Spanish Ships of the Line including Villeneuve’s flagship Bucentaure and the largest warship of time the 130 gun Spanish behemoth Santisima Trinidad. On the night of the battle and the days following the British Fleet and the survivors of the Combined Fleet were battered by a massive storm causing much more suffering, misery and loss of life as badly damaged ships succumbed and sank or ran aground on the shores of Cape Trafalgar.

The battle broke the naval strength of the French and Spanish and removed the threat of invasion from Britain. Napoleon hid the defeat from his people and calling it a victory, but throughout England it was celebrated even as Nelson was mourned.

The Battle of Trafalgar epitomized the courage of Nelson and the Royal Navy. As an officer of the United States Navy I tip my hat and drink a toast to Admiral Nelson.

Cheers!

Padre Steve+

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“I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight” John Paul Jones and the American Naval Tradition

 

                 Battle off Flamborough Head September 23rd 1779

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

On October 13th the United States Navy celebrated its 244th Birthday. At Naval commands, stations, and aboard ships the Navy Birthday is marked by the cutting of a cake. Traditionally, the oldest and youngest sailors present make the first two cuts to the cake. This year, at the age of 59 I was the once again oldest, the youngest was a lad who just turned 19. I thought I would be retired by now but knee injuries and failed treatments I am still around. I thought that I would be retired on September 1st, but because of the knees that was extended to what the Navy calculated was my mandatory retirement date, to 1 April of 2020. I called Tuesday to find out when I would get my orders so I can start my medical process with the VA, and found out that they miscalculated, my new date is 1 August 2020. Unless we get in a major war and a “stop loss” is declared I should be retired by this time next year, but I don’t discount anything anymore about my career.

That being said, I have spent the better amount of this week moving out of my work office to home while waiting to see where I will be going. It looks like I will get orders over to the historic Norfolk Naval Shipyard within the next few days. The Chaplain billet there has been gapped for well over a decade. I will not have a Religious Program Specialist, but I will be doing ministry where it is needed and where I am wanted, in a very historic place. It is the oldest active Naval Shipyard in the country and since I am both a historian and a dinosaur in terms of my age and years of service it seems to fit. But, until I get orders God only knows, but I digress…

The Navy Birthday is a time for Sailors to reflect on their heritage by remembering the lives and actions of those who came before them. One of those men, in fact the man who represents the heart and soul of that tradition was Captain John Paul Jones. As the commanding officer of the Sloop of War USS Ranger he received the first salute of the American flag by a foreign power, in this case our first ally, France. There had been an earlier salute to the USS Andrea Doria, a converted merchantman which was one of the first four ships of the new Navy by the Dutch governor of St. Eustasius in the West Indies. That occurred on November 16th, 1776. But the flag she flew was the red and white striped banner of the Continental Congress, not the Stars and Stripes.

That is a story told well by Barbara Tuchman in her book The First Salute: a View of the American Revolution. Tonight’s essay is about John Paul Jones.

Two hundred thirty nine years ago a small naval battle occurred off the coast of Yorkshire England. From a purely military perspective the battle was rather insignificant. A squadron of five American and French ships intercepted a convoy guarded by two British ships. However, the battle was one that had immense psychological significance for the Americans as a ramshackle converted French East India ship with an inferior main battery forced a materially superior British warship to strike her colors.

In fact the battle is so significant to the United States Navy that the body of the victor, Captain John Paul Jones was returned to the United States in 1905 from an abandoned site in northeastern Paris known as the former St. Louis Cemetery for Alien Protestants to be interred in Bancroft Hall at the United States Naval Academy.

Jones had an unusual career as a British merchant skipper accused of murdering a mutinous crewman at Tobago and escaped to Fredericksburg Virginia out of fear that he would be tried in a local versus and Admiralty Court.

Jones went to the United States and due to his friendship with Henry “Lighthorse” Lee and other friends in the Continental Congress including a man who became a lifelong friend, Benjamin Franklin obtained a commission in the Continental Navy as a First Lieutenant.  At that time the “First Lieutenant” was the senior officer among the Lieutenants on a ship and often served as the First Officer or Executive Officer.

His first assignment was on the fleet flagship Alfred where he hoisted the first US Ensign aboard an American Naval vessel.  He took part in the raid on Nassau and upon his return assumed command of the Sloop of War Providence where he captured 16 prizes of war and escaped capture by the a British Frigate. He then assumed command of Alfred for a brief time capturing a key supply vessel that had winter clothing for British troops commanded by General Burgoyne in New York.  Following this he took command of the 18 gun Sloop of War Ranger in France received the first ever salute to an American man-of-war by a foreign power 8 days after the French had recognized the American Colonies as an independent nation.

Ranger receives the first salute rendered to an American warship by a foreign power

The nine-gun salute fired from Admiral Piquet’s flagship recognized this and the new Franco-American alliance. Jones wrote of the event: “I accepted his offer all the more for after all it was a recognition of our independence and in the nation.” After this sailed directly in harm’s way making an epic raid on the port of Whithaven, and then defeating and capturing and the British 20 gun Brig HMS Drake in an hour long fight.

Jones’ raid on Whithaven struck fear into the British populace and forced the British to allocate more resources to the defense of British seaports than had previously been the case.  The capture of the Drake was of immense psychological importance and along with Jones’ other victories would ultimately lead to the formation of the United States Navy.

Bonhomme Richard

Jones’ exploits made him a celebrated figure. He gave up command of Ranger to take command of a powerful frigate under construction in Amsterdam, but the British pressured the Dutch into preventing the transfer of the ship. Instead, Jones took command of the Bonhomme Richard a converted 42 gun former French East India ship. He named her after Benjamin Franklin’s book “Poor Richard’s Almanac” and he became commodore of a mixed squadron of American and French ships including the 36 gun American Frigate Alliance, the 32 gun French Frigate Pallas and two 12 gun warships the Vengeance and Le Cerf. 

His orders were to provide a diversion for a combined French and Spanish fleet the squadron menaced Ireland and Scotland before moving into the North Sea. As they came into English waters the Americans intercepted a 50 ship convoy on September 22nd. The convoy was enroute to the Baltic was escorted by the 44 gun two-decker HMS Serapis. Serapis was brand new and more powerful than Bonhomme Richard. A second ship, the 20 gun privateer Countess of Scarborough accompanied Serapis.

Jones directing the battle from the Bonhomme Richard

The battle was joined about 1800 on the 23rd of September. Serapis which was more maneuverable than Jones’ flagship, pounded the Bonhomme Richard holing her below the waterline and seriously damaging her, suffering little damage to herself. Jones’ s problems were compounded when with the first broadside two of Bonhomme Richard’s elderly 18 pounders burst damaging the ship and killing most of the gun crews on the lower deck.

Jones attempted to close the range in order to grapple Serapis and make the battle a close aboard action. Eventually the bow of Bonhomme Richard ran into the stern of Serapis and Jones’s crew succeeded in grappling the British ship. With cannons blazing the two ships were locked in a struggle to the death. Firing at point blank range the ships tore great holes in one another, though the Serapis, built as a warship suffered less than Richard.

As the cannonade raged, the Marines of Bonhomme Richard swept the decks of Serapis killing and wounding many of her crew. A grenade thrown by one of her Marines sailed down an open hatch on the British ship and landed on a pile of powder charges. The explosion set off a chain reaction which disabled many of Serapis’s guns, killing and wounding many of the gunners.

In the confusion and carnage, thinking that Jones was dead, the Chief Gunner of the of Bonhomme Richard cried out for “quarter,” meaning surrender. Hearing this, Jones threw a pistol felling the man. Likewise, Richard’s colors were shot away giving the impression that she make have struck her colors.

The Captain of Serapis Captain Richard Pearson hailed Jones to ask if he had struck his colors (surrendered.) The First Lieutenant of Bonhomme Richard Richard Dale recorded Jones’ response for posterity “I have not yet begun to fight!” Another account recorded Jones as replying  “I have not yet thought of it, but I am determined to make you strike.” 

The battle continued and the Alliance under the command of a Frenchman with an American commission, Pierre Landais, having been absent for most of the action came up and delivered a devastating broadside much of which hit Bonhomme Richard, holing her again below the waterline and causing her to settle rapidly. At the same time she caused additional damage to Serapis. Jones loaded and fired one of the 9 pounders whose crew was killed or wounded, striking the mainmast of Serapis twice and causing it to fall over the side.

Alliance pens fire on Serapis and Bonhomme Richard

Bonhomme Richard had taken a severe beating with most of her guns knocked out, taking water and burning from fires ignited by the British onslaught and Alliance’s devastating broadside. With his ship badly damaged and Alliance threatening Pearson stuck his colors in person at 2230 hours.  Pallas forced the surrender of the Countess of Scarborough, but the convoy escaped.

Jones took possession of Serapis, but the badly damaged Bonhomme Richard sank the on September 25th despiteher crew’s best efforts to save her.  Jones made temporary repairs to Serapis and sought refuge in the Netherlands.

The battle was militarily insignificant but again a major psychological victory as Jones had for the second time defeated a British warship in British waters within sight of the local population.  Even though Jones had taken Serapis the British warships completed their mission of protecting the convoy.

Jones’s post war career left him embittered. His opportunity to command the first US Navy Ship of the Line, the 74 gun America disappeared when that ship was given to France after the war. He was made a Chevalier of France by Louis the XVI and awarded a gold medal by Congress, but the U.S. Navy was disbanded. Unable to serve his adopted country, Jones found employment in the Imperial Russian Navy of Catherine the Great. Though he was successful against the Turks, jealous Russian commanders conspired against him and had him removed from command of the Black Sea Fleet.  He retired to France where he lived on his Russian pension. He was appointed to serve as Counsel to the Dey of Algiers to negotiate the freedom of captive American merchant mariners in June 1792. Before he could take up that position he died in his Paris apartment of interstitial nephritis of on July 18th 1792.

Frenchman Pierrot Francois Simmoneau donated over 460 francs to mummify the body. It was preserved in alcohol and interred in a lead coffin “in the event that should the United States decide to claim his remains, they might more easily be identified.” He was buried in the St. Louis Cemetery for Alien Protestants which was owned by the French King. After the French Revolution the cemetery was abandoned and forgotten.

General Horace Porter, the United States Counsel to France spent six years and his own money to locate and identify Jones’s body in 1905. His coffin was transported aboard the USS Brooklyn in 1906 and his body was interred at the United States Naval Academy. President Theodore Roosevelt spoke at the internment. He noted something of profound importance for anyone sworn to defend this nation and its Constitution:

We have met to-day to do honor to the mighty dead. Remember that our words of admiration are but as sounding brass and tinkling cymbals if we do not by steady preparation and by the cultivation of soul and mind and body fit ourselves so that in time of need we shall be prepared to emulate their deeds. Let every midshipman who passes through this institution remember, as he looks upon the tomb of John Paul Jones, that while no courage can atone for the lack of that efficiency which comes only through careful preparation in advance, through careful training of the men, and careful fitting out of the engines of war, yet that none of these things can avail unless in the moment of crisis the heart rises level with the crisis. The navy whose captains will not surrender is sure in the long run to whip the navy whose captains will surrender, unless the inequality of skill or force is prodigious. The courage which never yields can not take the place of the possession of good ships and good weapons and the ability skillfully to use these ships and these weapons.

In the years since that victory the United States Navy went from a militarily insignificant force to the most powerful Navy in the world. Jones and the ships that he captained would not be forgotten. Two Aircraft Carriers were named after Jones’ Sloop of war Ranger, while several destroyers have born his name.

The odds against Jones in his battle with Serapis were heavily weighted against him. Jones’s victory over Serapis was another demonstration that the Americans should not be taken lightly by the great powers of Europe. It helped begin a tradition of valiant service for the Navy that has endured throughout the centuries.  The victory off Flamborough Head reaches into the present as American sailors and their ships ply the world’s oceans keeping the sea lanes open and protecting American interests abroad.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Conflicted War Criminals: They do not Deserve Monuments

 

Colonel General Erich Hoepner 
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Monuments to soldiers who served their country faithfully and honorably are not a bad thing. At the same time one has to look at the context of their service and if they serve in the high command or in other government postings their service needs to be carefully examined to see if the deserve to be memorialized.

In the United States we have frequently memorialized men whose actions as military and political leaders, while commendable in some aspects leaves much to be desired in terms of long standing memorials.

A couple of years ago I had a friend whose family survived the Holocaust ask me where removing memorials to men like Robert E. Lee ends. I replied that it was all about context and the totality of life. We mythologize Robert E. Lee in a manner that his crimes and his flaws are intentionally hidden, though they are many. Since then I have written about Lee, and his crimes against the slaves that his family owned, and his meaningless sacrifice of thousands of Confederate Solders and the destruction of much of the South because he did not have the personal courage to tell Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress that the war lost in late 1863 or early 1864. He was the most respected man in the Confederacy and his words word have created an uproar that the Confederacy could not have survived. Instead he is remembered for the myth of his nobility with statues throughout the South and even the former Union States.

I then talked about German General Erich Hoepner who though he had been a part of plots to overthrow Hitler before the war and took part in the plot to overthrow Hitler in 1944 and was executed after a sham trial. The pictures and films of Hoepner being shamed and degraded by the Nazi Chief inquisitor, Judge Roland Freisler, give an impression that General Hoepner was a victim of the Nazi regime.

To some extent Hoepner was a victim of the regime, but while in command of Panzer Group Four during the invasion of the Soviet Union his actions place him in the pantheon of Nazi War Criminals. He fully cooperated with some the most criminal aspects of the Nazi regimes actions. He was a willing accomplice to crimes that stagger the imagination.

In his initial message to his troops Hoepner stated:

The war against Russia is an important chapter in the German nation’s struggle for existence. It is the old battle of the Germanic against the Slavic people, of the defence of European culture against Muscovite-Asiatic inundation and of the repulse of Jewish Bolshevism. The objective of this battle must be the demolition of present-day Russia and must therefore be conducted with unprecedented severity. Every military action must be guided in planning and execution by an iron resolution to exterminate the enemy remorselessly and totally. In particular, no adherents of the contemporary Russian Bolshevik system are to be spared.

Hoepner issued a number of other orders directing how Jews should be treated and the commander of Einsatzgruppe A, SS Brigadier General Walter Stahlecker whose units killed nearly 250,000 Jews between July and December 1941 praised the cooperation of the Wehrmacht and in particular of Hoepner with his execution squads. Stahlecker described the cooperation of the Wehrmacht with his men as “generally very good”, and “in certain cases, as for example, with Panzer Group 4 under the command of General Hoepner, extremely close, one might say even warm.” The fact is that the Einsatzgruppen could not have ran up such massive numbers of deaths without the cooperation of the German Army leaders in Russia.

That leaves us with the question of how does one remember such a military leader? Hoepner demonstrated bravery as a young officer in the First World War, and was prepared to help overthrow Hitler before the war and lost his life in the attempt to kill Hitler on July 20th 1944. But he enabled and participated in war crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination.

In 1956 a Berlin school was named after Hoepner for his role in the anti-Hitler plot, but in 2008, after his actions in relationship to the Nazi war crimes became public, the school was renamed. Because he perished in the attempt on Hitler’s life, Hoepner was included in the myth of the noble Wehrmacht. But that was a myth, the Wehrmacht was so complicit in the Nazi crimes that it cannot be exculpated from them. It’s leaders for the most part agreed with Nazi racial policies and had no hesitation in cooperating with the SS. Yes, there were exceptions, but they were and forever will remain exceptions, the myth be damned.

So in relation to the American controversy regarding monuments to Confederate leaders, or for that matter to leaders who planned, conducted, or supported our own genocide of Native Americans, the unlawful subjection and conquest of Mexico, the exploitation of territories and peoples gained following the Spanish-American War, those who conducted medical experiments not much different than the Nazi doctors on minorities and the handicapped, and so many other examples which would take too long to list for the purpose of this article: what are we to do?

As I have written before, this is a matter of context and honesty. Honestly I think this is something that we need to address, just as the Germans have since the end of the Second World War. We have to be brutally honest in our assessment of the men and women who we chose to memorialize. If we aren’t we simply bless their crimes and allow their veneration to inspire new generations of racial motivated criminals.

That is where we have to go if we have the moral courage to do so. However, I don’t think that will happen in the next few years, or even in my lifetime, but I can hope and I can act in my own way to bring attention to to them, and hopefully do what I can to keep people of our present time from heading down the same evil path.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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John Brown: Fanatical Idealist and “Warrior for God”

John_brown.JPG

                                                        John Brown

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

October 16th is the anniversary of John Brown’s attempted seizure of the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry. He was executed after trial on December 2nd 1859. Brown was  a man who had a righteous cause, but surrendered the moral high ground because of his fanaticism. Justice Robert Jackson wrote:“[I]n our country are evangelists and zealots of many different political, economic and religious persuasions whose fanatical conviction is that all thought is divinely classified into two kinds — that which is their own and that which is false and dangerous.” John Brown was a fanatic who in his desire to achieve his goal was not above committing murder as he did in Kansas, and insurrection as he did at Harper’s Ferry. There are many people in this country who harbor similar beliefs. John Brown serves as a warning to all of us. Violent means in service of a honorable or righteous cause often make things far worse.

This article is part of my draft book Mine Eyes have Seen the Glory: Race, Religion, Ideology and Politics in the Civil War Era. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

In the North there too existed an element of religious fanaticism. While “the restraining hand of churches, political parties and familial concerns bounded other antislavery warriors,” [1] and while most abolitionists tried to remain in the mainstream and work through legislation and moral persuasion to halt the expansion of slavery with the ultimate goal of emancipation; there were fanatical abolitionists that were willing to attempt to ignite the spark which would cause the powder keg of raw hatred and emotion to explode.

Most prominent among these men was John Brown. Brown was a “Connecticut-born abolitionist…a man with the selfless benevolence of the evangelicals wrought into a fiery determination to crush slavery.” [2] His father was an early abolitionist who helped later found Oberlin College. In his early years Brown “formulated a certitude about divine intervention against sinners, starring himself as God’s warrior against slaveholders.” [3] As early as 1834 John Brown was “an ardent sympathizer the Negroes,” desiring to raise a black child in his own home and to “offering guidance to a colony of Negroes on the farm of the wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith at North Elba New York.” [4]Brown regarded moderate free Staters with distain and though he was a fanatical Christian he never joined any church, and “obeyed only his conception of God’s unbounded command.” [5]

Brown “ridiculed Republican’s mainstream tactics. He disparaged even Yankee extremists for deploying too non-violent a strategy.” [6] After a series of failed business ventures the militant Brown went to Kansas and set about to change the equation through the use of terror. After the sack of Lawrence, Brown and a company of his marauders set upon and slaughtered the family of a pro-slavery settler at Pottawatomie Creek. [7] Brown and his son’s entered the house of one family, “dragged three men outside, shot the father through the head, and hacked and mutilated his two sons with broadswords.”[8] Two years later Brown went to Missouri where he “murdered a slaveholder, seized eleven slaves, and led the new freedmen 1100 miles to Canadian sanctuary.” [9]

The example of John Brown provides us with a good example to understand religious extremism, especially when it becomes violent. The counterinsurgency field manual notes in words that are certainly as applicable to Brown as they are to current religiously motivated terrorists, that “Religious extremist insurgents….frequently hold an all-encompassing worldview; they are ideologically rigid and uncompromising….  believing themselves to be ideologically pure, violent religious extremists brand those they consider insufficiently orthodox as enemies.”[10] 

Brown was certainly “a religious zealot…but was nevertheless every much the product of his time and place….” [11] Brown was a veteran of the violent battles in Kansas where he had earned the reputation as “the apostle of the sword of Gideon” as he and his men battled pro-slavery settlers. Brown was possessed by a zealous belief that God had appointed him as God’s warrior against slaveholders. He despised the peaceful abolitionists and demanded action. “Brave, unshaken by doubt, willing to shed blood unflinchingly and to die for his cause if necessary, Brown was the perfect man to light the tinder of civil war in America, which was what he intended to do.” [12]

Brown attempted to gain financing from wealthy abolitionists for a new expedition to seize the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry Virginia, and most would have nothing to do with his scheme. When they “touted their pacific antislavery societies, Brown responded that “your methods are perfectly futile; you would not release five slaves in a century; peaceful emancipation is impossible.” [13] After hearing William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionist leaders plead for peaceful abolition he remarked: “We’ve reached a point,” I said, “where nothing but war can get rid of slavery in this guilty nation. It’s better that a whole generation of men, women, and children should pass away by a violent death than that slavery should continue to exist.” I meant that literally, every word of it.” [14]

Following that meeting, as well as a meeting with Frederick Douglass who rejected Brown’s planned violent action, Brown went about collecting recruits for his cause and set out to seize 10,000 muskets at the Federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in order to ignite a slave revolt. Brown and twenty-one followers, sixteen whites and five blacks moved on the arsenal. As they went, Brown:

“believed that we would probably fail at the Ferry, would probably die. But I believed that all we had to do was make the attempt, and Jehovah would do the rest: the Heavens would turn black, the thunder would rend the sky, and a mighty storm would uproot this guilty land, washing its sins away with blood. With God’s help, I, John Brown, would effect a mighty conquest even though it was like the last victory of Samson.” [15] 

After initial success in capturing the armory, Brown’s plan was frustrated and Brown captured by a force of U.S. Marines, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart. Brown was tried and hanged, but his raid “effectively severed the country into two opposing parts, making it clear to moderates there who were searching for compromise, that northerner’s tolerance for slavery was wearing thin.” [16]

It now did not matter that Brown was captured, tried, convicted and executed for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Brown to be sure was “a half-pathetic, half-mad failure, his raid a crazy, senseless exploit to which only his quiet eloquence during trial and execution lent dignity” [17] but his act was the watershed from which the two sides would not be able to recover; the population on both sides having gone too far down the road to disunion to turn back.

Brown had tremendous support among the New England elites, the “names of Howe, Parker, Emerson and Thoreau among his supporters.” [18] To abolitionists he had become a martyr “but to Frederick Douglass and the negroes of Chatham, Ontario, nearly every one of whom had learned something from personal experience on how to gain freedom, Brown was a man of words trying to be a man of deeds, and they would not follow him. They understood him, as Thoreau and Emerson and Parker never did.” [19]

But to Southerners Brown was the symbol of an existential threat to their way of life. In the North there was a nearly religious wave of sympathy for Brown, and the “spectacle of devout Yankee women actually praying for John Brown, not as a sinner but as saint, of respectable thinkers like Thoreau and Emerson and Longfellow glorifying his martyrdom in Biblical language” [20] horrified Southerners, and drove pro-Union Southern moderates into the secession camp. The Richmond Enquirer wrote in its editorial, “The Harper’s Ferry invasion has advanced the cause of Disunion, more than any other event that has happened since the foundation of the Government; it has rallied to that standard men who formerly looked on it with horror; it has revived, with ten fold strength the desire of a Southern Confederacy…” [21]

The day that Brown went to his hanging he wrote his final missive. This was written once more in apocalyptic language, but also in which he portrayed himself as a Christ figure going to his cross on the behalf of a guilty people, but a people whom his blood would not atone:

“It’s now December second – the day of my hanging, the day the gallows become my cross. I’m approaching those gallows while sitting on my coffin in the bed of a military wagon. O dear God, my eyes see the glory in every step of the divine journey that brought me here, to stand on that platform, in that field, before all those soldiers of Virginia. Thank you, Father, for allowing an old man like me such might and soul satisfying rewards. I am ready to join thee now in Paradise…

They can put the halter around my neck, pull the hood over my head. Hanging me won’t save them from God’s wrath! I warned the entire country: I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.” [22]

Brown’s composure and dignity during trial impressed Governor Henry Wise of Virginia who signed Brown’s death warrant as well as that of fire-eater Edmund Ruffin. In his diary Ruffin “praised Brown’s “animal courage” and “complete fearlessness & insensibility to danger and death.” [23]

UBrown’s death was marked with signs of mourning throughout the North, for Brown was now a martyr. Henry David Thoreau “pronounced Brown “a crucified hero,” [24] while through the North, Brown’s death was treated as a martyr’s death. Even abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison who had condemned violence in the quest of emancipation praised Brown’s actions, while throughout the North:

“Church bells tolled, black bunting was hung out, minute guns were fired, prayer meetings assembled, and memorial resolutions adopted. In the weeks following, the emotional outpouring continued: lithographs of Brown circulated in vast numbers, subscriptions were organized for the support of his family, immense memorial meetings took place in New York, Boston and Philadelphia…” [25]

Future Confederate General Lafayette McLaws spoke for many Southerners in the army when he wrote: His diary entry for February 27th 1860 noted:

“Debates in congress show no mitigation of sec. feeling…. I think it would be better not to be so fanatical on any subject, the extreme pro-slavery man is as bad as that type as that type of anti-slavery, John Brown. I do not consider slavery an evil by any means, but I certainly do not think it the greatest blessing.” [26]

But in the South there was a different understanding of Brown’s assault on Harper’s Ferry. Despite official denunciations of Brown by Abraham Lincoln and other Republican leaders, the message proclaimed by Southern newspapermen, ministers and politicians was that the North could not be trusted.  Brown’s raid, and the reaction of Northerners to it “was seized upon as argument-clinching proof that the North was only awaiting its opportunity to destroy the South by force….” [27]

Of course that was not the feeling in much of the North, but Brown’s actions and words were seized upon by the Southern versions of Brown to make Civil War inevitable once the political balance changed, and they neither controlled the Presidency, House, or Senate.

                                                          Notes 

[1] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[2] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.81

[3] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[4] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.211

[5] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[6] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.206

[7] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis pp.211-212

[8] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.118

[9] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.208

[10] Ibid. U.S. Army/ Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual p.27

[11] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.197

[12] Ibid. Korda, Clouds of Glory p.xviii

[13] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.208

[14] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.203

[15] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.284

[16] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory p.xxxix

[17] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.18

[18] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.381

[19] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.375

[20] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.187

[21] ___________ The Harper’s Ferry Invasion as Party Capital The Richmond Enquirer, 23 October 1859 in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William E. Gienapp, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 p.54

[22] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.290

[23] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.3

[24] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.210

[25] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.378

[26] Oefinger, John C. Editor A Soldier’s General: The Civil War Letters of Major General Lafayette McLaws University of North Carolina Press, Charlotte and London 2002 p.18

[27] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.119

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A Cautionary Tale for Military Leaders that Give Obedience to a Tyrant: the Story of Erwin Rommel, the Legendary Desert Fox

 

rommel

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just over 75 years ago in Ulm Germany a car pulled up to the residence of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. In the car was the driver and two Generals dispatched by Hitler.  Rommel was recuperating following being severely wounded in an air attack in Normandy on July 17th 1944.

Rommel had been awarded the Pour le Merite, sometimes known as the Blue Max, Imperial Germany’s highest award for valor in the First World War. He was never an official member of the Nazi Party, but like many Germans he believed Hitler’s promises and propaganda. As Hitler really ose to power he like many others was carried away by early Nazi successes, the bloodless conquests of the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and the spectacle of the Olympics.

He was also an opportunist. With the rise of the Nazis came the expansion of the German military. Rommel was already well known due to his exploits as a platoon and company commander during the First World War in France, Romania, and Italy. In Italy he captured an entire Italian infantry division during the Battle of Mount Cosna, which was part of the Caporetto in October 1917. His company of 150 troops, exploited terrain and weather to surprise and capture 9,000 soldiers and 81 artillery pieces at the cost of 6 men killed and 30 wounded. Rommel used infiltration tactics, flanking maneuvers, and even disobeyed the orders of his superiors during the battle. Less than two weeks later at Langarone using the same tactics, his company surprised the 1st Italian Infantry which thinking it surrounded by superior forces surrendered to Rommel. For these actions Rommel was awarded the coveted Blue Max. 

Rommel was retained in the 100,000 man Reichswehr, but he had refused to attend the course that would have made him part of the elite General Staff. As such he was not assigned to the critical billets that would normally lead to high command. Instead he served in company command and as an instructor at the Infantry School in Dresden. While assigned to the school he wrote a manual of infantry tactics and training based on his experience. The book, Infantrie Greift an, or Infantry Attacks is still considered a classic book on infantry tactics and leadership, and was highly influential in his rise to high command. He was promoted to Major after serving 14 years as a Captain in 1932. In October 1933 he was assigned to command the 3rd Jaeger Battalion of the 17th Infantry Regiment where he first met Hitler when the latter reviewed his troops on an inspection visit.

Rommel, like many officers was caught in the thrall of Hitler. His wife, Lucy was caught up in the moment and was an avid Hitler supporter. Rommel was never a Nazi party member, but that did not keep him from supporting the overtly nationalist and militarist actions of the Hitler regime. In 1935 he was assigned to the Military Academy at Potsdam where as a Lieutenant Colonel he published Infantrie Greift an. In 1937 Hitler appointed Rommel as the liaison officer from the War Ministry to the Hitler Youth. Rommel clashed with the head of the Hitler Jugend, Baldur von Schirach and twiced proposed removing the organization from the Party to the War Ministry.

The conflict resulted in Rommel being quietly reposted from that assignment, promoted to Colonel and assigned to command the former Austrian Theresian Military Academy  in Wiener Neustadt. He was then selected by Hitler to command the Führer-Begleit-Battalion (Escort battalion) which served as the force protection unit for Hitler’s headquarters during the Polish campaign.

Following that campaign, Rommel, now a Major General was appointed to command the newly formed 7th Panzer Division which he commanded with great distinction during the Battle of France, 1940. When the campaign ended the division was placed in reserve where it readied to become part of the planned invasion of Britain, Operation Sea Lion. When that operation was postponed due to the defeat of the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, and Mussolini’s Italian army in North Africa was routed by the small British Western Desert Force, Rommel was assigned to command the Deutsches Afrika Korps, composed of the 5th Light Division, which would soon be re-designated as the 21st Panzer Division and the 15th Panzer Division.

Over the next two years in North Africa built a reputation as an energetic and often risk taking commander who fought against long odds in a campaign which his own high command gave little support. The isolation of North Africa and its purely military significance in supporting a weak ally made it a different war from the concurrent, racially driven German invasion of the Soviet Union. Fighting the British and later the Americans, Rommel built a reputation of being a noble and chivalrous opponent. Unlike most of Europe and especially in Russian there was little to no influence of the SS in theater and the Jewish population of Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria suffered little under Nazi occupation, which many North African Jews attributed to Rommel.

During the North African campaign Rommel soared to the heights of international fame due to his exploits. The Nazi Propaganda Minister, Josef Goebbels sent one of his aides, Lieutenant Alfred Berndt to serve on Rommel’s Staff.  Berndt sent reports to the Propaganda Ministry which became the staple of Nazi propaganda to build Rommel into a German hero. Despite serving in a remote theater and commanding a relatively small number of troops, Rommel became the poster child for Goebbels’s propaganda machine. He was revered by the German people, and at the same time despised by many of his Army contemporaries and superiors.

His fame also earned the resentment of many fellow officers who because he was not an officer of the General Staff regarded him with jealous envy and distain. Even so, Rommel was a soldier’s soldier. He believed in sharing in the suffering of his troops. He once said: 

“Be an example to your men in your duty and in private life. Never spare yourself, and let the troops see that you don’t in your endurance of fatigue and privation. Always be tactful and well-mannered, and teach your subordinates to be the same. Avoid excessive sharpness or harshness of voice, which usually indicates the man who has shortcomings of his own to hide.”

Rommel basked in the praise of Hitler but as time wore on in Africa he became disillusioned by the course of the war, and while maintaining faith in Hitler, he openly despised many of the Nazi elite and his own High Command. While in Africa, Rommel was promoted to Field Marshal but denied the troops and supplies that he needed to successfully hold out in Africa. He opposed efforts to send more troops to Africa and recommended withdrawing his German and Italian soldiers before the Allies closed the door on withdraw across the Mediterranean.

As his troops were being chewed to pieces at El Alamein he requested permission to withdraw to the west. The request was refused and Hitler issued and order to stand in place and not withdraw. Rommel’s words are revealing for a man who had previously trusted Hitler and taken every opportunity from the dictator to advance his career.

“The order demanded the impossible. Even the most devoted soldier can be killed by a bomb. In spite of our unvarnished situation reports, it was apparently still not realized at the Fuehrer’s H.Q. how matters really stood in Africa.  Arms, petrol, and aircraft could have helped us, but not orders. We were completely stunned, and for the first time during the Africa campaign I did not know what to do. A kind of apathy took hold of us as we issued orders for the existing positions to be held on instructions from highest authority. I forced myself to this action, as I had always demanded unconditional obedience from others and, consequently, wished to apply the principle to myself. Had I known what was to come I should have acted differently, because from that time on, we had continually to circumvent orders from the Fuehrer or Duce in order to save the army from destruction. But this first instance of interference by higher authority in the tactical conduct of the African war came as a considerable shock.”

Like most other officers Rommel had served the Hitler regime as it spread its dark pall over Europe without protest. Yet, unlike so many other officers when he suffered a crisis in conscience about the Nazi leadership and their policies, he refused to obey orders that he knew were both illegal and immoral, and then risked his life by joining the conspiracy to kill Hitler.bundesarchiv_bild_146-1991-031-25a_nordafrika_vor_tobruk_rommel

It was at El Alamein that Rommel discovered the emptiness of Hitler’s promises as the troops of the Afrika Corps found themselves subjected to constant privation from lack of supply, air support and reinforcements. As commander of the Afrika Corps and later the Panzer Armee Afrika he and his troops achieved amazing success against an enemy that was always better supplied, equipped and which always had air and sea superiority. Battling the British as well as the political machinations of Mussolini and Germany’s Italian Allies as well as opponents in the German government such as Hermann Goering, Rommel saw his troops crushed under the press of the British as well as the Americans who landed in French North Africa. Eventually, sick and worn out, Rommel was sent back to Germany to recuperate.

rommel-with-soldier

Rommel had a sense of honor and humanity that many other German generals lacked. He refused to allow anti-Jewish measures in areas occupied by German troops in North Africa, ensuring that the approximately 425,000 Jews living in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco were spared the fate of the Holocaust. He refused to execute Jewish POWs, including members of the Jewish Battalion serving with the British 8th Army. Likewise, Rommel refused to follow the notorious “commando order.” In June of 1944 he protested the massacre of the people of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane by units of the 2nd SS Panzer Division directly to Hitler and asked for the authority to punish those responsible, but was refused.

After his return from Africa, Rommel’s honest and open assessments of the chances of the Germans winning the war made him persona non grata in Berlin and Berchtesgaden. He was posted to France in early 1944 according to some accounts he became a part of the plot to end the war and overthrow Hitler. Rommel’s Chief of Staff at OB West, General Hans Speidel, was a key man in the conspiracy and Rommel had contacts with a number of key conspirators. There are arguments about Rommel’s connections and activities in regard to the anti-Hitler plot among respected historians.

When the invasion came Rommel was away from Normandy visiting his wife. On learning of the invasion he sped back to Normandy. When he arrived he fought a desperate battle against the Allied forces. His outnumbered forces were under constant assault from the land, sea and air received paltry reinforcements compared to the Allies. Even so, German troops inflicted many local defeats and exacted a heavy price in allied blood in Normandy but were ground to dust. Even so, many American and British infantry regiments suffered 100% casualties but remained in action because of a continuous stream of replacements. Rommel urged Hitler and the High Command to withdraw German forces from Normandy before the allies broke through his front. By doing so he found that he was now considered a defeatist.

If Rommel had joined the plot to topple Hitler, he did not stop working to defend Germany against the coming Allied invasion. He believed that the war was lost if his forces failed to repel the Allies on the beaches of France, and he worked feverishly to bolster the beach fortifications. He recommended that the Panzer Divisions be deployed near the coast where they could immediately counterattack Allied invasion forces while they were still vulnerable. But his advice was not taken. He was given command of the Army Group but was not given control of most of the Panzer Divisions, which Hitler kept under his direct control. Neither did he approve of an assassination attempt but realizing that his front was about to collapse he was in favor of independent peace negotiations with the Allies on the Western Front.

Many commanders in the west, including Waffen SS commanders were in agreement Rommel was severely wounded in an air attack on his vehicle by a just days before the attempt on Hitler’s life. Hitler survived the attempted assassination and exacted a terrible revenge on anyone connected with the plot. Show trials and public hangings of officers who had served valiantly at the front were common. Thousands were killed and thousands more imprisoned. Many of those arrested, imprisoned, or killed, were those who knew Rommel’s views on ending the war.

Various conspirator’s testimony exposed Rommel as part of the plot. Leading Nazis, including Martin Bormann, and Heinrich Himmler urged Hitler to deal with Rommel. Likewise, some in the High Command, including Heinz Guderian turned upon Rommel. After a secret hearing it was recommended by the “Court of Military Honor” that Rommel be expelled from the military and tried by the “People’s Court” of Judge Roland Freisler. During the purge that followed the attempt on Hitler’s life, many noted German military commanders were hauled before this court and humiliated by Freisler before they were sent to their deaths. Freisler, a fanatic Nazi judge was a participant at the infamous Wannsee Conference which planned the details of the Final Solution was killed when his courtroom was bombed in February 1945.

On 27 September, Martin Bormann submitted to Hitler a memorandum which claimed that “the late General Stülpnagel, Colonel von Hofacker, Kluge’s nephew who has been executed, Lieutenant Colonel Rathgens, and several … living defendants have testified that Field Marshal Rommel was perfectly in the picture about the assassination plan and has promised to be at the disposal of the New Government.”

Rommel’s fate was sealed, but because of his fame and popularity in Germany Hitler decided to offer Rommel a choice of being tried by the People’s Court or committing suicide. Goebbels who had spent so much time building up the Rommel legend, turned against him. The latter with an offer to ensure his family’s safety, which he would not guarantee if Rommel choose to defend himself in open court. Hitler dispatched Generals Wilhelm Burgdorf and Ernst Maisel from Berlin to personally deliver the message. Burgdorf was the last Army Chief of Staff and killed himself following Hitler’s suicide.

492px-Erwin_rommel_death

Rommel suspected that he would be identified and killed and told that to his friends and family in the days leading up to the arrival of Generals Wilhelm Burgorf and Ernst Maisel from OKW with the ultimatum. They met with Rommel for a short time before giving him the opportunity to say goodbye to his family. Rommel told them of his choice and left his home for the last time. 15 minutes later the Generals called his wife to say that he had died of a heart attack. Rommel was given a state funeral and the German people were lied to about his cause of his death.

Winston Churchill wrote of Rommel:

“He also deserves our respect because, although a loyal German soldier he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant. For this, he paid the forfeit of his life. In the sombre wars of modern democracy, chivalry finds no place … Still, I do not regret or retract the tribute I paid to Rommel, unfashionable though it was judged.”

Rommel was just 52 years old when he died. I find in the story of Rommel some commonality in my own life. Before Rommel went to Africa he believed that Germany would win the war, during his command there he discovered that what he believed was lies and that Hitler had little regard for him or his troops.

Rommel is a complex character. His attitudes towards Hitler waxed and waned. He was no Nazi. He conducted his battles in an honorable manner and displayed much chivalry towards his opponents. His views on race were not at all Nazi like. In North Africa he faced down a White South African commander who did not want to be imprisoned with his Black troops. Rommel told the officer: “For me, soldiers are all equal. Those black people wore your same uniform, fought on your side, and so you will be in the same jail.”

But from the beginning he willingly served Hitler’s regime and basked in the fame that he enjoyed due to Goebbels’s propaganda machine. At the same time while he was according to the Chief of the German Navy in the West, Admiral Friedrich Ruge, as well as his Rommel’s letters to his wife, indicated that Rommel’s mood fluctuated wildly regarding Hitler: while he showed disgust towards the atrocities and disappointment towards the overall military and strategic situation, he was overjoyed to welcome a visit or praise from Hitler, only to return to depression the next day when faced with reality.

The example of Erwin Rommel is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a brilliant and honorable man comes under the spell of a demagogue. Rommel believed Hitler and blindly followed him until he ran into the hard face of reality in Africa at which point he had the moral courage to do the right thing, but many others didn’t.

Sadly there are otherwise honorable men and women in the current United States military that blindly support a delusional madman who happens to be the President: a man who promises to order soldiers to commit war crimes, who threatens to jail political opponents, who condemns whole races of people and religions, who incites violence against his opponents, a man who has no respect for the courts, the law, or the Constitution to which they are sworn to defend.

But I think that we also have to remember the men like Rommel who though not a true believer in the Nazi cause and polices, not only willingly served the Reich, but basked in the adulation lavished on him by friends and foes alike.

To me this is not about partisan politics but something that is bigger than politics, bigger than temporary political advantage, bigger than any single political issue, for which in our country, at least for the moment, that there are many ways to express dissent which were not available to most Germans of Rommel’s era. It is about the Constitution, the rule of law, and the foundational principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Personally, as a historian I cannot understand the blind obedience in the face of the evidence; but then I blindly followed President George Bush into the ill-advised and criminal invasion of Iraq. It was in the desert of Iraq’s Al Anbar Province that I had my own revelation that the man I supported had led the country into a war that could not be won. Like Rommel at El Alamein, it opened my eyes to things that I had never seen before.

Now, in light of President Trump’s immoral, unconstitutional, and foolhardy policies and decisions I wonder why so few high ranking military officers, active or retired have the courage to oppose them. Surely, some must, like Rommel, Ludwig Beck, Henning Von Tresckow, Erich von Witzleben, Hans Oster, Claus von Stauffenberg and others like them realize the abyss that the President is leading the nation to, and far to few are willing to tell the truth when most needed. It took far more courage for the German officers to oppose Hitler than it does American officers to tell the truth about Trump’s policies. Maybe we have become so insulated from political realities that we make excuses for ourselves, and our actions.

Maybe we as officers need to remember the works of General Ludwig Beck:

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, holocaust, leadership, middle east, Military, nazi germany, Political Commentary, war crimes, world war two in europe