Category Archives: Military

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+

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                                                          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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Expedited Office Moves


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

My office at work was like a combined library and museum, probably at least a thousand books, lots of civil war art, and tons of memorabilia from 38 plus years of service. After painting what will be my study at home today was a day of moving close to have of my books, building five “Billy” bookcases from Ikea and getting a lot of the books shelved. shelved.

I’ll continue that tomorrow after my weigh in and body composition assessment early, coming home to unload the books from our Ford Escape that I finally quit unloading at 9:30 this evening, and then going back to get the rest of the books and as much else as I can so my Saturday isn’t completely wrecked, since I have to be out of it by Monday. Then I can maybe rest a bit Sunday before fine tuning the organization of the library and maybe hanging some of my nicer pictures up while storing most of the memorabilia. We’ll probably have to get a bigger storage space to make sure that the house does not look cluttered when we get ready to sell.

I haven’t had time to keep up with much today in the news which is just as well. I’m tired. Going to finish my glass of Pinot Gregio and then do some reading.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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The Navy: It’s Not Just a Job, It’s an Adventure, even When Trying to Retire

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Way Beck before I ever entered the military, the Navy had a recruiting commercial called “The Navy, it’s Not Just an Adventure.” I can state with all honesty that after over 38 years of combined Army and Navy Service that yes, even when trying to retire, the adventure continues.

Most of my followers know that last year I chose to retire before my mandatory date. I should have retired September 1st. However, Navy Medicine did me no favors with my injured knees and I had to withdraw my voluntary retirement request to retire at what the Navy said was my mandatory retirement date. That was supposedly April 1st of 2020. The personnel system planned on it as did I.

Since I hadn’t seen a copy of my orders I sent a message to Officer Retirements Branch asking when to expect them. Today, my relief showed up, and I got a call from the Chief of the Officer Retirements Branch that my current retirement orders were cancelled because they miscalculated my actual mandatory retirement date, which is now August 1st, 2020. Mandatory retirement works differently than voluntary retirement. The former is mandatory. The latter you have to apply for and the process can take several months for approval.

Since there is only a four month lag time between my now ex-mandatory retirement date and the new one I have no need of throwing another date out there. So I recommended that my detailer find another local place to stash me until I can once again start the retirement process with the VA, which can only begin 6 months prior to the approved retirement date. I recommend the Joint Forces Staff College where I served as Chaplain, taught ethics, and led the Gettysburg Staff Ride because even though they have a newly assigned Chaplain, they are critically short on military faculty.

Anyway, the adventure continues. Pray for me a sinner.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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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.

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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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I’ve Got those Yellowstain Blues: Watching as the President Snatches Defeat from Victory and Sends the Middle East into a Major Conflict


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The stain on whatever honor the United States has left continued to grow this weekend as President Yellow Stain abandons another ally, throws the NATO alliance into peril, and lights wick on the powder keg that is the Middle East.

Every time he speaks regarding foreign policy I am reminded of the song from the novel and film The Caine Mutiny, “The Yellowstain Blues.”  The President is man who dodged the draft in Vietnam; a man who bragged on The Howard Stearin Show about avoiding sexually transmitted diseases as his Vietnam, and who has constantly maligned combat veterans and respected military and diplomatic leaders. He routinely supports despotic leaders who oppose every ideal espoused in the Declaration of Independence, scoffs at the Constitution of the United States, and attacks the laws, foundations, and institutions of our Republic.

The words of the song Yellowstain Blues from The Caine Mutiny seem apt to describe President Trump.

I’ve got those yellow stain blues,
From my head down to my shoes,
When someone fires a shot,
It’s always there I am not.
Those yellow stain blues
Those yellow stain blues

I’ve got those yellow stain blues,
Those old yellow stain blues,
Well you sh
ould see strong men quail,
If he should spy a shirt tail
Those yellow stain blues

Those old yellow stain blues

Sadly, the words from the movie which were directed at Captain Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart in the film were directed at a man who was cracking up under the strain of war, not a President who has spent his life avoiding military service and deriding far better men than himself.

The Syrian regime of Bashir Assad is sending troops to defend the Kurds as President Trump hastily withdraws our military personnel from the danger zone. Once the Syrians commit their troops the Iranians will not be far behind since they have tens of thousands of their Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria. Likewise their allies in Hezbollah will move against the Turks, even as thousands of Islamic State captives escape to re-enter combat against the United States, and anyone else that opposes them. Because of the chicken-hearted actions of the President one has to hope that the actions of the Syrians, Iranians, and Hezbollah will both protect the Kurds and counter the victory that President Trump has given the Islamic State.

However, this won’t be the end. Soon the Saudis, the Israelis, the Gulf States, and the ever fragile government of Iraq will be involved. This war will will spiral out of control because of President Yellowstain, and the victims will include many U.S. Military personnel and God knows how many others.

Sadly, this can only get worse, and it will be the fault of the U.S. President and his cult-like supporters. He could have made a principled decision based on facts , but instead he has emboldened the Turkish dictator, who is both an Islamist and a Nationalist. Soon, Erdogan will take Turkey out of NATO, unleash 3.5 million Syrian refugees on the European Union, and openly ally himself with Russia, the traditional enemy of the Turks.

A wider and far more costly war will follow, and we will only have President Yellowstain to blame.

God help us all,

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

 

 

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