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D-Day and After: Beaches, Bocage, and Breakout

The author with Marines at Point du Hoc, Normandy in 2004

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Every year about this time I try to write about D-Day.  This year I spent more time on the Battle of Midway writing or rewriting a total of five articles.

Since we are now about to begin a time of major repairs to our home due to flooding from an plugged air conditioning condensation drains I have decided to do is to re-post a short research paper that I did for one of my Master’s degree courses tonight, actually posting it on Sunday night for publication today, and hope to follow it up with some more articles over the week on specific aspects and personalities of the campaign.  What I hope is that people that are not familiar with the campaign as well as those that are can use this as a portal to other resources on the web and in print.

I have visited Normandy once in 2004 on a trip with the Marines of the Marine Security Force Company Europe that took me to Belleau Wood as well as Normandy.  In both places I had the good fortune to be able to explain aspects of both battles, at Normandy discussing the invasion from the German side of the fence.  The Normandy battlefields are well worth visiting.  Hopefully in the next few years I will get a chance to go back and do some serious exploring.

Introduction

General Dwight D Eisenhower Commander in Chief Allied Forces Europe

The American landings on Omaha Beach were critical to the success of the Allied invasion northwestern Europe in the overall Overlord plan.  Without success at Omaha there would have been a strong chance that the German 7th Army and Panzer Group West could have isolated the remaining beachheads, and even if unsuccessful at throwing the Allies into the sea could have produced a stalemate that would have bled the Allies white.  This quite possibly could have led to a political and military debacle for the western allies which would have certainly changed the course of World War II and maybe the course of history.[i] This is not to say the Germans would have won the war, but merely to state that a defeat on Omaha could have changed the outcomes of the war significantly.   Subsequent to the successful landing there were opportunities both for the Allies and the Germans to change the way that the campaign unfolded, thus the battles leading up to the breakout at Avranches are critical to its development and the subsequent campaign in France.

OVERLORD: The Preparations

Eisenhower’s Key Lieutenants: Patton, Bradley and Montgomery

The planning for the Normandy invasion began in earnest after the QUADRANT conference in Quebec in August 1943.  The timetable for the operation was established at the Tehran conference where Stalin sided with the Americans on the need for an invasion of France in the spring of 1944.[ii] Prior to this there had been some planning by both the British and Americans for the eventual invasion initially named ROUNDUP.  These preparations and plans included a large scale raid at Dieppe in 1942 which ended in disaster but which provided needed experience in what not to do in an amphibious assault on a heavily defended beach.

The failure at Dieppe also darkened the mood of the Allies, the British in particular to the success of such operations, bringing to mind the failed Gallipoli campaign of 1915 as well as the opposed landings at Salerno and the USMC experience at Tarawa.[iii] Despite this the Americans led by General Marshall pushed for an early invasion of northwest Europe. Churchill and the British due to their weakness in land power pushed for land operations in the Mediterranean, and even in Norway as an option to the assault in France. The conflicted mindset of the Allies left them in the position of planning almost exclusively for the success of the initial landings and build up to the near exclusion of planning for the subsequent campaign once they landed. This especially included what one writer described as “the maze of troubles awaiting behind the French shore.”[iv]

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B

Despite conflicts between the Americans and British political and military leadership the planning for the Normandy landings detailed in NEPTUNE and OVERLORD moved ahead.  General Dwight Eisenhower was appointed as the commander of SHAEF with his major subordinates for Land, Air and Sea which caused consternation on both sides of the Atlantic.[v] [vi] The planned operation was expanded from the initial 3 division assault on a narrow front to a minimum 5 division assault on a broad front across Normandy[vii]supplemented by a strong airborne force.[viii] Overall the plan as it developed reflected a distinctly “American willingness to confront the enemy head-on in a collision which Britain’s leaders had sought for so long to defer.”[ix] It is ironic in a sense that the British avoidance of the head on attack was based on their known lack of manpower.  Britain had few infantry reserves to sustain the war effort and the Americans only late recognized their own deficiency in both quantity and quality of infantry forces on which their strategy depended.  That the western allies, so rich in material and natural resources would be so deficient in infantry manpower was a key constraint on the subsequent campaign in France and Germany.  The shortage of infantry forces would cause great consternation among the Allies as the campaign in France wore on.

German Beach Obstacles

The Germans too faced manpower shortages due to the immense losses sustained on the Eastern front, those lost in Africa and those tied down in Italy, the Balkans and Norway as well as the drain caused by Luftwaffe Field Divisions and troops diverted into the Waffen-SS.   The German Army resorted to smaller divisions and the created many “static” divisions manned by elderly or invalid Germans to plug the gaps along the Atlantic wall. The Germans were also forced to recruit “Volksdeutsch” and foreign “volunteers” to fill out both Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS formations.

German fortifications at the Pas de Calais

Prior to the final decision to mount an invasion the Allied planners had contended with the location of the assault in northwestern France.  The Pas de Calais provided a direct route was rejected because it was where the Germans would expect the strike to occur and because it was where the German defenses were strongest.  The fiasco at Dieppe had provided ample proof of what could happen when making an assault into a heavily fortified port.  Likewise the mouth of the Seine near Le Harve was rejected because of the few beaches suitable for landing and because the forces would be split on both sides of the river.  Brittany was excluded due to its distance from the campaigns objectives in Germany.[x]This left Normandy which offered access to a sufficient number of ports and offered some protection from the weather. Normandy offered options to advance the campaign toward the “Breton ports or Le Harve as might be convenient.”[xi] Omaha beach, situated on the center right of the strike would be crucial to the success of the assault situated to the left of UTAH and the right of the British beaches.

Rommel inspecting beach obstacles

Once Normandy was selected as the location for the strike by the Allies, the planning sessions remained contentious.  This was especially true when the Allies debated the amount and type of amphibious lift that could be provided for the landings, particularly the larger types of landing ships and craft to support the Normandy invasion and the planned invasion of southern France, Operation ANVIL.  The increase in OVERLORD requirements for landing craft had an impact in the Mediterranean and resulted in ANVIL being postponed until later in the summer.

“Dummy” Sherman Tank: The Allies created a fictional Army Group to deceive German planners

As part of their preparations the Allies launched a massive deception campaign, Operation FORTITUDE.  This operation utilized the fictitious First Army Group under the “command” of General George Patton. Patton was still smarting from his relief of command of 7th Army following slapping commanded an “Army Group” which incorporated the use of dummy camp sites, dummy tanks, aircraft and vehicles, falsified orders of battle and communications to deceive German intelligence.[xii] The success of this effort was heightened by the fact that all German intelligence agents in the U.K. had been neutralized or turned by the British secret service.  Additionally the Luftwaffe’s limited air reconnaissance could only confirm the pre-invasion build ups throughout England without determining the target of the invasion.[xiii] The German intelligence chief in the west, Colonel Baron von Roenne “was deceived by FORTITUDE’s fantasy invasion force for the Pas de Calais.”[xiv] Despite this Commander of the 7thArmy recognized by 1943 that Normandy was a likely Allied target and efforts were made to shift 7th Army’s center of gravity from Brittany to Normandy.  The one potential German success in getting wind of when the Allied landings would occur was lost when German intelligence discovered two lines of Verlaine’s “Chason d’ Automme” in June 1944 which were to alert the French Resistance of the invasion.  The security section of 15th Army heard them transmitted on the afternoon of 5 June and notified General Jodl at OKW, but no action was taken to alert forces on the coast.[xv] Allied intelligence was aided by ULTRA intercepts of coded German wireless transmissions. However this was less of a factor than during the African and Italian campaigns as more German communications were sent via secure telephone and telegraph lines vice wireless.[xvi] Allied deception efforts were for the most part successful in identifying German forces deployed in Normandy. However they were uncertain about the location of the 352nd Infantry Division which had been deployed along OMAHA and taken units of the 709th Infantry Division under its command when it moved to the coast.[xvii]

USAAF B-17 Bombers and others helped isolate German forces in Normandy by bombing railroads, bridges, and supply lines

The Allied air campaign leading up to the invasion was based on attempting to isolate the invasion site from German reinforcements. Leigh-Mallory the Air Chief developed the “TRANSPORTATION PLAN” which focused efforts on destroying the French railroad infrastructure.[xviii] A more effective effort was led by General Brereton and his Ninth Air Force which was composed of medium bombers and fighters.  Brereton’s aircraft attacked bridges and rapidly achieved success in crippling German efforts to reinforce Normandy.[xix] Max Hastings gives more credit to the American bombing campaign in Germany to crippling the German defense in the west. General Spaatz and the 8th Air Force destroyed German production capacity in oil and petroleum as well as the degraded the German fighter force.  The American daylight raids so seriously degraded the German fighter force that it could not mount effective resistance to the invasion.[xx] Russell Weigley also notes that Albert Speer the Reich Armaments Minister said that “it was the oil raids of 1944 that decided the war.”[xxi]

US Navy LST’s being loaded for the invasion

Planning and preparations for OMAHA were based around getting the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions ashore and them securing a beachhead “twenty-five kilometers wide and eight or nine kilometers deep.”[xxii] American preparations were thorough and ambitious, but the American assault would go through the most heavily defended sector of German defenses in Normandy.  The landing beaches were wide and bordered by dunes which were nearly impassable to vehicles and “scrub covered bluffs thirty to fifty meters high…rough and impassable to vehicles even to tracked vehicles except at a few places.  The exits were unimproved roads running through four or five draws that cut the bluffs.”[xxiii] Dug in along those bluffs was the better part of the 352nd Division. The Americans compounded their selection of a difficult and heavily defended landing zone the Americans failed to take advantage of many of the “gadgets” that were offered by the British which in hindsight could have aided the Americans greatly.  The Americans made use of two battalions of DD (Dual Drive) tanks but turned down the offer of flail tanks, flamethrower tanks, and engineer tanks, the “funnies” developed by General Hobart and the British 79th Armored Division.[xxiv]

Dual Drive amphibious tanks were included as part of the US invasion package

Weigley believes that the American view of “tanks as instruments of mobility rather than of breakthrough power.” Likewise the Americans victories in the First World War were won by infantry with little tank support.[xxv] In this aspect the Americans were less receptive to utilizing all available technology to support their landings, something that when considering the fact that Americans were great lovers of gadgets and technology. The British use of the Armor, including the “Funnies” on the beaches to provide direct fire into German strong points lessened their infantry casualties on D-Day. Due to this lack of armor support on the beach American forces on OMAHA had little opportunity to exercise true combined arms operations during the initial landings.[xxvi]

Rommel with Artillerymen of the 21st Panzer Division in Normandy

German preparations for an Allied landing in Normandy were less advanced than the Pas de Calais.  However they had made great strides since late 1943. Field Marshal Rommel greatly increased defensive preparations along the front, including the Normandy beaches.  One of Rommel’s initiatives was to deploy Panzer Divisions near the coast where they could rapidly respond to an invasion.  However Rommel did not get everything that he wanted.  The OKW only allotted him two Panzer Divisions to be deployed near the Normandy beaches.  Only one of these the 21st Panzer Division was deployed near Caen in the British sector.  One wonders the result had the 12th SS Panzer Division been deployed behind OMAHA. [xxvii]

OMAHA: The Landings

The venerable USS Nevada, resurrected from the mud of Pearl Harbor bombarding German positions at Utah Beach, (above) and USS Arkansas (below) off Omaha Beach 


USS Texas firing on Omaha Beach (above) Guns of USS Nevada firing at Utah Beach (below) 


Like the rest of the Allied invasion forces the 1st and 29th U.S. Infantry Divisions set sail from their embarkation ports with the intent of landing on June 5th.  General Bradley, commanding the First Army until the American XII Army Group would be activated accompanied the invasion force.  The OMAHA landing was under the command of General Gerow and his V Corps while VII Corps led by the 4th Infantry Division landed at Utah supported by airdrops of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions inland.  American command and control during the invasion was exercised from sea as in the Pacific, although General Officers were to go ashore with each of the American divisions.  A severe channel storm disrupted the plan to land on the 5th and Eisenhower delayed the invasion one day catching a break in the weather and electing to go on the 6th.[xxviii] This delay while uncomfortable for the embarked troops caused the Germans to believe that no invasion would take place until the next favorable tide and moon cycle later in the month.[xxix] The assumption that no invasion was possible ensured that a number of key senior German leaders, including Rommel were absent from the invasion front when the Allies landed.[xxx]

US Troops ride a LCVP toward Omaha 

The landing beaches at OMAHA stretched about 6500 meters from Colleville-Sur-Mer to Vierville-Sur-Mere in the west.  The beaches are wide with bluffs overlooking them and a seawall between the beaches and the bluffs.  Additionally several small towns dot the beach. To the west of the town of Vierville, a prominent height overlooked the entire beachhead.  Named Pont du Hoc, it was believed to house a 150mm battery sighted where it could enfilade the OMAHA landing zones.  The Americans assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion to make a seaborne assault to land, scale the cliffs and take the battery.  Companies from this battalion made a heroic landing and scaled the cliffs to capture the strongpoint only to discover that the guns had not been emplaced.  The Rangers took heavy casualties and held their isolated beachhead against German counterattacks until relieved by the 29th Division on the morning of June 8th.[xxxi]

Landing craft passing the USS Augusta in heavy seas heading toward Omaha Beach

H-Hour for OMAHA was 0630.  Unfortunately the assault troops were transferred to their LCVP landing craft 16-20 kilometers from the beach.  The result was a long and dangerous ride in the small craft for the infantry.  Most of the infantry were completely soaked in sea spay and seasick before going ashore and they carried loads far above what they normally would carry into battle.[xxxii] The Armor support was one battalion of DD tanks, the 741stArmored Battalion, supporting the 16th Infantry Regiment of 1st Infantry Division. These were also launched too far out and nearly all of the tanks were swamped and lost before firing a shot in anger.[xxxiii] Other American support units needed to provide firepower on the beach were equally unfortunate. Weigley notes that at OMAHA “at least 10 of the LCVPs sank” as did “the craft carrying almost all of the 105mm howitzers that were to be the first artillery ashore after the tanks.”[xxxiv] The losses would cripple the assault on OMAHA and nearly cause its abandonment.

Bloody Omaha

As the soldiers of the American divisions on OMAHA came ashore they faced German defenders of the 352nd, 716th and a regiment of the 709th Infantry Division, the latter under the tactical command of the 352nd.   Without the bulk of their tanks artillery and lacking close air support the Americans struggled across the beaches and were cut down in large numbers before being pinned down behind the sea wall.[xxxv] With the Americans pinned down on the beach unable to advance, the time tables for the reinforcing waves became snarled amid the German beach obstacles which had not been cleared.  This was in large part due to 40% casualties among the Combat Engineers and the loss of all but five bulldozers.[xxxvi] Naval officers were frustrated in their attempts to provide naval gunfire support by the lack of identifiable targets on the beaches.  Yet German strongpoint’s were “knocked out by either by superbly directed vigorous gunfire from destroyers steaming as close as 800 yards offshore, or by determined action from Rangers or infantry.[xxxvii]

US Infantry struggles ashore at Omaha (above) General Omar Bradley with his Staff aboard USS Augusta

Soldiers ashore discovered that they were not facing the static 716th Division but the veteran 352nd Division as well.[xxxviii] Only the leadership and actions of Brigadier General Norman Cota the 29th Division’s Deputy Commander and Colonel Charles Canham of the 116th Infantry kept the situation from complete collapse.  They were able to rally their troops. Under their leadership small units from the 116th which had its linage back to the “Stonewall Brigade” as well as elements of the 16th and 18th Infantry Regiments began to move forward.  Surviving junior leaders began to lead survivors through the dunes and up the bluffs to attack German defenders of the roads leading up from the beach from the flank and rear.  A mid-day break in the weather allowed some close tactical air support giving the troops badly needed support.

US 1st Infantry Division Troops at the Omaha sea wall

With the situation desperate General Bradley considered the evacuation of OMAHA.  At sea events were as confused as Bradley and his staff attempted to make sense of what was going on.  Even later in the evening there was discussion of diverting all further reinforcements from OMAHA to the British beaches.[xxxix]At 1330 hours “Gerow signaled Bradley: “Troops formerly pinned down on beaches…advancing up heights behind beaches.”[xl] By the end of the day Bradley’s aid Major Hansen noted Bradley’s comments to Collins: “They are digging in on Omaha beach with their fingernails. I hope they can push in and get some stuff ashore.”  And Montgomery: “Someday I’ll tell Gen[eral] Eisenhower just how close it was for a few hours.”[xli]

German Fallschirmjaeger Trüppen in Normandy, the German Parachute forces fighting in an infantry role were very effective in the Normandy campaign

The landings at OMAHA succeeded at a cost of over 2000 casualties.  Critical to the success of the landings were the German inability to reinforce their defending troops on the beach.  Likewise the weakness of the units available to mount the standard counterattack that was critical to German defensive plans on D-Day itself kept the Germans from driving the Americans back into the Channel. The 352nd Division fought superbly under the full weight of V Corps and the British XXX Corps on its right suffering heavy casualties as they contested every inch of ground.  The 716th Division composed of second rate troops melted under the onslaught.  Allied air supremacy played a key role as sorties by the 8th and 9th Air Forces helped keep German reinforcements from arriving and interdicted counter attacks inland.  Weigley credits the Allied air superiority with the success of the landings and with limiting casualties.[xlii]Von Rundstedt and other German commanders in France were limited by the delay and refusal of Hitler and OKW to release Panzer reserves when needed most early on June 6th.

HMS Warspite (above) fired the first shots on D-Day, HMS Ramillies (below) fired over 1000 rounds of 15” shells on June 6th

By the close of D-Day allied forces had secured the five invasion beaches but not achieved their objectives of taking Caen and Bayuex.  Since the forces on the various beachheads had not linked up the beaches would have been extremely vulnerable had the Germans been able to mount a rapid counterattack by Panzers and strong infantry formations as they had at Salerno.

Major Battles to the Breakout at Avranches

Securing the Beachheads

P-47 Thunderbolt firing 5” Rockets at ground targets (above) and British Troops landing on Gold Beach, Sword Beach, and Canadian troops with German P.O.W.s on Juno Beach.


It took the V and VII Corps nearly a week to secure the beachheads. German forces including the stalwart 352nd Division resisted stubbornly and mounted sharp local counterattacks which kept the Americans off balance.  Elements of the 29th Division and the 90th Division began to push inland and to expand the beachhead toward UTAH. Opposed by the 352nd Division and elements of the 91st Airlanding Division and other non-divisional units the fighting revealed the inexperience of the American infantry formations and the uneven quality of their leadership.  As the Americans tackled the Germans in the labyrinth of the Bocage country the defensive skill of the Germans cost many American lives and delayed the joining of the beachheads. On the 13th the link up was solid enough to enabling the Americans to conduct the follow up operations needed to expand the beachhead, secure Cherbourg and clear the Cotentin.

A Panther tank of the Panzer Lehr Division in Normandy

In some American divisions the hard fighting triggered a leadership crisis.  The lack of success of the 90th Division led General “Lightening Joe” Collins of VII Corps relieve the division commander and two regimental commanders of command, a portent of things to come with other American units.[xliii] As the V and VII corps pushed into the “Bocage” they were followed by a massive build up of troops and equipment delivered to the beaches and to the artificial “Mulberry” harbors.  Despite their numeric superiority, air supremacy and massive Naval gunfire support and facing the weakened 352nd, 91st and the 6thParachute Regiment and other less than quality formations, survivors of the static divisions, the Americans made painfully slow progress as they moved off the beachhead and into the Bocage.[xliv]

The Capture of Cherbourg

US Soldiers of the 29th Division surrender to German Fallschirmjaeger in Normandy

Once the beachheads had been consolidated the Americans turned their attention toward Cherbourg. Cherbourg was the major naval port at the far northwest tip of the Cotentin.  D-Day planners counted on its swift capture and rehabilitation to serve as a supply port for the Allied forces. The 9th Division drove south to the coast near Barneville on the 18th of June cutting off the German forces covering the approaches to Cherbourg.[xlv] This put the Germans in a bind as the 7th Army “had to split its forces in the peninsula in order to hold the fortress a little longer and thus to gain time for the establishment of the southern front on the Cotentin peninsula.[xlvi] The German forces arrayed before Cherbourg waged a desperate defense centered around the 243rd Infantry Division and other assorted battle groups of LXXXIV Corps, whose commander General Marcks one of the best German Generals was killed in action on 12 June.[xlvii] The U.S. VII Corps under Collins with the 9th, 4th and 79th Divisions pushed up the peninsula capturing Cherbourg on June 29th.  Bradley pushed hard for the capture of the port as the Mulberries had been ravaged by a severe Channel storm the week prior. The port of Cherbourg was thoroughly demolished by German engineers and would not be fully operational for months. The loss of the Mulberries and delay in Cherbourg’s availability meant that few supplies were landed on the beaches would “hinder the escape from the constricting land of the hedgerows into which the Americans had come in search of a port.[xlviii]

The Battle of Caumont Gap

Panzer IV Tank in Normandy

V Corps under Gerow made a cautious advance by phase lines toward Caumont, St Lo and Carentan.  The deliberate advance by the Corps toward a line weakly held by the Reconnaissance battalion of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division was directed by Bradley who did not want to divert attention from the effort against Cherbourg.   After capturing Caumont V Corps halted and continued aggressive patrolling to deceive the Germans while digging in.[xlix] The possibility existed that a strong push against the weak German line could have led to an opportunity to envelope the German line west of Caen. This was a missed opportunity that in part led to the bloody and controversial campaign to capture Caen.[l]

British efforts around Caen

German Panzer Ace Waffen SS Captain Michale Wittman single handedly destroyed a British Battalion at Villers Bocage in his Tiger Tank

Montgomery had ambitious plans to break out of Normandy by capturing Caen on D-Day and driving toward Falaise and Argentan.  The British plans for this were frustrated by the rapid reinforcement of the sector by the Germans and the activities of 21st Panzer, Panzer Lehr, and the 12th SS Panzer Divisions.  A flanking maneuver at Villers-Bocage was frustrated by a few Tiger tanks led by the legendary Waffen SS Panzer commander Captain Michael Wittman whose tanks devastated a British Armored battalion.[li]

Wreckage of a British Battalion at Villers Bocage

A series of disastrous attacks toward Caen (EPSOM, CHARNWOOD and GOODWOOD) strongly supported by air strikes and Naval gunfire finally succeeded in taking that unfortunate city on July 18th but failed to take the heights beyond the town.[lii]

British operations like Operation Epsom met setback after setback against dug in German forces outside of Caen


British Troops in the Ruins of Caen (above) and destroyed Cromwell tank at Villers-Bocage (below)

Against crack well dug in German forces the British took heavy casualties in tanks and infantry seriously straining their ability to conduct high intensity combat operations in the future.[liii] The one benefit, which Montgomery would claim after the war as his original plan was that German forces were fixed before Caen and ground down so they could not be used against Bradley’s breakout in the west at St Lo.[liv]

Clearing the Bocage: The Battle of the Cotentin Plain

US M-5 Light Tank in Normandy

Other German forces arrived, and reinforced the Caumont gap which no longer “yawned invitingly in front of V Corps.” [lv] Bradley wished to push forward rapidly to achieve a breakthrough in the American sector.[lvi] Facing the most difficult terrain in France amid the Bocage and swamps that limited avenues of approach to the American divisions committed to the offensive.  The Americans now faced their old foe the 352nd division as well various elements of II Parachute Corps, the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier and Panzer Lehr Divisions.  American tanks and infantry made slow progress and incurred high losses as they dueled the Germans at close range.  In the VIII Corps sector alone the attack “consumed twelve days and 10,000 casualties to cross eleven kilometers of the Bocage…the achievements of the VII and XIX Corps were no better than comparable.[lvii]

St. Lo

US Tanks advancing with German prisoners moving back to US lines at St Lo

St. Lo was a key to Bradley’s breakout efforts.  His Army had to capture it and the roads leading out of it to launch Operation COBRA along the coast.  The task of capturing St. Lo was assigned to GEROW’S V Corps and Corlett’s XIX Corps.  They faced opposition from the tough paratroops of the German 3rd Parachute Division of II Parachute Corps.  The 2nd, 29th, 30th and 83rd Divisions fought a tough battle advancing eleven kilometers again with high numbers of casualties especially among the infantry to secure St. Lo on 18 July.[lviii] They finally had cleared the hedgerows.  St Lo epitomized the struggle that the American Army had to overcome in the Bocage.  Hard fighting but outnumbered German troops in excellent defensive country exacted a terrible price in American blood despite the Allied control of the skies.[lix]

Operation COBRA

US 155mm Howitzers in Normandy, the Germans had profound respect for American Artillery, a respect that they did not share for American Infantry or Armor forces

With the Bocage behind him Bradley desired to push the Germans hard.  COBRA was his plan to break out of Normandy.  Bradley ably assisted by Collins they realized that the better terrain, road networks favored a breakout.  American preparations included a technical advance that allowed tanks to plow through hedgerows. This was the “Rhino” device fashioned by American troops which was installed on 3 of every 5 First Army Tanks for the operation.[lx] VII Corps was to lead the attack which was to begin on July 24th. American planning was more advanced than in past operations.  Collins and Bradley planned for exploitation operations once the breakthrough had been made. A massive air bombardment would precede the attack along with an artillery barrage by Collins corps artillery which was reinforced by additional battalions.   A mistake by the heavy bombers in the 24th resulted in the American troops being hit with heavy casualties and a postponement of the attack until the 25th.[lxi] The following day the attack commenced.  Another mistake by the bombers led to more American casualties[lxii] but VII Corps units pressed forward against the determined resistance of the survivors of Panzer Lehr and the remnants of units that had fought the Americans since the invasion began.  Although it was a “slow go” on the 25th Bradley and his commanders were already planning for and beginning to execute the breakout before the Germans could move up reinforcements.  The 26th of June brought renewed attacks accompanied by massive air strikes.

The Devastated town of St Lo 

While not much progress was made on the 26th, the Americans discovered on the 27th that the German forces were retreating.  The capture of Marigny allowed VIII Corps to begin exploitation down the coastal highway to Coutances.  On the 27th General Patton was authorized to take immediate command of VIII Corps a precursor to the activation of his 3rdArmy.  COBRA ripped a hole in the German line and inflicted such heavy casualties on the German 7th Army that it could do little to stop the American push.[lxiii] As the American forces pushed forward they reinforced their left flank absorbing the local German counterattacks which were hampered by the Allied close air support.

Avranches and Beyond

US Forces advance through the ruins of St Lo

As the breakthrough was exploited the command of the forces leading it shifted to Patton and the newly activated 3rd Army. By the 28th VIII Corps led by the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions had reached Avranches and established bridgeheads over the See River with additional bridges being captured intact on the 30th.[lxiv] The capture of Avranches allowed the Americans to begin exploitation operations into Brittany and east toward the Seine. Weigley notes that for the first time in the campaign that in Patton the Americans finally had a commander who understood strategic maneuver and would use it to great effect.[lxv]

Conclusion

The American campaign in Normandy cost the U.S. Army a great deal. It revealed weaknesses in the infantry, the inferiority of the M4 Sherman tank to most German types, problems in tank-infantry cooperation and also deficiencies in leadership at senior, mid-grade and junior levels. Heavy casualties among infantry formations would lead to problems later in the campaign. Numerous officers were relieved including Division and Regimental commanders.  Nonetheless during the campaign the Americans grew in their ability to coordinate air and ground forces and adapt to the conditions imposed on them by their placement in the Cotentin.  The deficiencies would show up in later battles but the American Army learned its trade even impressing some German commanders on the ground in Normandy.[lxvi] 

Notes

[i] See the alternative history of by Peter Tsouras Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944, Greenhill Books, London 1994. Tsouras describes the defeat of the Omaha landings and the effect on the course of the campaign leading to the overthrow of Hitler and a negotiated armistice in the west.  While this outcome could be rigorously debated other outcomes could have led to the fall of the Roosevelt and Churchill governments and their replacement by those not committed to unconditional surrender or a continuation of the war that brought about more German missile attacks on the U.K. and the introduction of other advanced German weapons that could have forced such a settlement. Another option could have led to the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on a German city vice Hiroshima.

[ii] Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981 p.33

[iii] Ibid pp. 34-35

[iv] Ibid p.35

[v] General Montgomery 21st Army group and Land Forces, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey as Allied Naval Expeditionary Force and Air Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory as Commander in Chief Allied Expeditionary Air Force. Weigley p.43

[vi] Max Hastings in Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984, comments that many in Britain wondered if Eisenhower with the lack of actual battle experience could be a effective commander and that Eisenhower was disappointed in the appointment of Leigh-Mallory and Ramsey, and had preferred Alexander over Montgomery, pp. 28-29.

[vii] Ibid. Weigley p.40.  Montgomery was the first to object to the 3 division narrow front invasion rightly recognizing that seizing Caen with its road junctions could provide a springboard for the campaign into open country.

[viii] Ibid. p.37

[ix] Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984 p.29  Hastings finds the irony in the selection of the British officers to execute the plan that reflected the American way of thinking.

[x] The Germans agreed with this in their planning leaving Brittany very lightly defended.  See  Isby, David C. Ed. “The German Army at D-Day: Fighting the Invasion.” p.27 The report of General Blumentritt, Chief of Staff OB West noted that only 3 divisions were assigned to Brittany.

[xi] Ibid. Weigley, pp. 39-40

[xii] Ibid. p.73

[xiii] See Isby p. 69.  General Max Pemsel of 7th Army noted that “During  the spring of 1944, Seventh Army received only tow good photographs of British southern ports, which showed large concentrations of landing craft.”

[xiv] Ibid. Hastings p.63.  Hastings comments also about the success of using the turned Abwehr agents.

[xv] Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd. Pp.422-423

[xvi] Ibid. Weigley pp. 53-54

[xvii] Ibid. p. 67

[xviii] Ibid. pp.57-64  Weigley spends a great deal of time on the wrangling between Eisenhower, Leigh Mallory and Spaatz on the nature of the plan, the allocation of forces both strategic and tactical assigned to carry it out and its success, or in the light of postwar analysis the lack of effect that it had on German operations.

[xix] Ibid. p.67-68.

[xx] Ibid. Hastings pp. 43-44 In large part due to the long range P-51 Mustang which accompanied the American bombing raids beginning in 1943.  Another comment is that the campaign drew the German fighters home to defend Germany proper and prevented their use in any appreciable numbers over the invasion beaches.

[xxi] Ibid. Weigley p.69

[xxii] Ibid. p.89

[xxiii] Ibid. pp. 88-89

[xxiv] Ibid. p.87

[xxv] Ibid. Weigley also talks about the rejection of General Corlett’s ideas to use Amtracks used by the Marines in the Pacific to land on less desirable, but less defended beaches to lessen casualties on the beaches and the need for additional support equipment even on smooth beaches.  One of Corlett’s criticisms was that too little ammunition was allotted to supporting the landings and not enough supporting equipment was provided. pp. 46-47

[xxvi] Hastings notes that with the strength and firepower of the German forces on OMAHA that many of these vehicles had they been employed would like have ended up destroyed further cluttering the beachhead. “Overlord” p.102

[xxvii] The battle over the deployment of the Panzer Divisions is covered by numerous historians.  The source of the conflict was between Rommel who desired to place the Panzer Divisions on the Coast under his command due to the fear that Allied air superiority would prevent the traditional Panzer counterthrust, General Gyer von Schweppenburg commander of Panzer Group West (Later the 5th Panzer Army) and Field Marshal Von Rundstedt who desired to deploy the divisions order the command of Rundstedt for a counter attack once the invasion had been launched, a strategy which was standard on the Eastern Front, and Hitler who held most of the Panzer reserve including the SS Panzer Divisions under his control at OKW.  Hitler would negotiate a compromise that gave Rommel the satisfaction of having three Panzer Divisions deployed behind coast areas in the Army Group B area of responsibility.  21stPanzer had those duties in Normandy.

[xxviii] Ibid. p.74-75

[xxix] Von Luck, Hans.  “Panzer Commander“ Dell Publishing, New York, 1989 pp. 169-170.  Von Luck a regiment commander in 21st Panzer noted that General Marcks of 84th Corps had predicted a 5 June invasion at a conference May 30th.

[xxx] Almost every D-Day historian talks about the weather factor and its effect on the German high command’s reaction to the invasion.  Rommel was visiting his wife for her birthday and planned to make a call on Hitler. Others including commanders of key divisions such as the 91st Airlanding Division were off to a war game in Rennes and the 21st Panzer Division to Paris.

[xxxi] Ibid. Weigley p. 96

[xxxii] See Cornelius Ryan, “The Longest Day” Popular Library Edition, New York 1959. pp. 189-193 for a vivid description of the challenges faced by soldiers going from ship to landing craft and their ride in to the beaches.

[xxxiii] Ibid. Weigley. p.78 Weigley talks about the order for the tanks to be carried ashore on their LCTs that did not get transmitted to the 741st.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Ibid. Weigley  p. 87 The weather prevented the aerial bombardment from being effective. Because the bombers could not see their targets they dropped their bomb loads further inland, depriving the infantry of support that they were expecting.  Naval gunfire support had some effect but had to be lifted as the troops hit the beach leaving much of that support to come from Destroyers and specially equipped landing craft which mounted rockets and guns.

[xxxvi] Ibid. Hastings. pp. 90-91.

[xxxvii] Ibid. p.99

[xxxviii] Ibid. Weigley p.80

[xxxix] Ibid. p.101  Also see Weigley p.80

[xl] Ibid. p.99

[xli] Ibid. Weigleyp.95

[xlii] Ibid. p.94

[xliii] Ibid. p.99 Both Weigley and Hastings make note of the failure of both the Americans and British to train their troops to fight in the bocage once they had left the beaches.

[xliv] Ibid. Hastings. pp.152-153

[xlv] Ibid. Weigley p.101

[xlvi] Isby, David C., Ed. “Fighting in Normandy: The German Army from D-Day to Villers-Bocage.” Greenhill Books, London,  2001.  p.143

[xlvii] Ibid. Hastings p.173 Allied fighter bombers exacted a fearful toll among German commanders. The Commanders of the 243rd and 77th Divisions fighting in the Cotentin were also killed by air attacks on the 17th and 18th.   Further east facing the British the commander of the 12th SS Panzer Division, Fritz Witt on the 17th.

[xlviii] Ibid. Weigley. p.108

[xlix] Ibid. p.111-112.

[l] Ibid.

[li] The efforts of the 51st Highland Division and 7th Armored Division were turned aside by the Germans in the area and were dramatized by the destruction of  a British armored battalion by SS Captain Michael Wittman and his platoon of Tiger tanks.  See Hastings pp.131-135.

[lii] The British 8th Corps under General O’Connor lost 270 tanks and 1,500 men on 18 July attempting to crack the German gun line on the ridge beyond Caen. Weigley, pp.145-146.

[liii] Hastings comments about the critical British manpower shortage and the pressures on Montgomery to not take heavy casualties that could not be replaced. Overlord. pp.241-242.

[liv] Ibid. Weigley pp.116-120

[lv] Ibid. p.122

[lvi] Ibid. p121 Bradley told Eisenhower “when we hit the enemy this time we will hit him with such power that we can keep going and cause a major disaster.”

[lvii] Ibid. 134

[lviii] Ibid. Weigley. pp. 138-143.  Weigley notes of 40,000 U.S. casualties in Normandy up to the capture of St. Lo that 90% were concentrated among the infantry.

[lix] Weigley quotes the 329th Regiment, 83rd Division historian “We won the battle of Normandy, [but] considering the high price in American lives we lost. P.143. This is actually a provocative statement that reflects America’s aversion to massive casualties in any war.

[lx] Ibid. p.149

[lxi] Ibid. p. 152

[lxii] Ibid. pp. 152-153.  Among the casualties were the command group of the 9th Division’s 3rd Battalion 47th Infantry and General Leslie McNair who had come to observe the assault.

[lxiii] Ibid. pp.161-169. Weigley notes the advances in U.S. tactical air support, the employment of massive numbers of U.S. divisions against the depleted German LXXXIV Corps, and the advantage that the “Rhino” device gave to American tanks by giving them the ability to maneuver off the roads for the first time.

[lxiv] Ibid. pp.172-173.

[lxv] Ibid. p.172

[lxvi] Ibid. Isby, David C. “Fighting in Normandy,” p.184, an officer of the 352nd Division referred to the American soldier “was to prove himself a in this terrain an agile and superior fighter.”

Bibliography

Carell, Paul. “Invasion: They’re Coming!” Translated from the German by E. Osers, Bantam, New York 1964.

Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984

Isby, David C. Ed. “The German Army at D-Day: Fighting the Invasion.” Greenhill Books, London 2004

Isby, David C., Ed. “Fighting in Normandy: The German Army from D-Day to Villers-Bocage.” Greenhill Books, London, 2001.

Ryan, Cornelius, “The Longest Day” Popular Library Edition, New York 1959

Tsouras, Peter. “Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944,”Greenhill Books, London 1994.

Von Luck, Hans.  “Panzer Commander“ Dell Publishing, New York, 1989

Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd. Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd.

Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981

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Filed under aircraft, armored fighting vehicles, artillery, History, leadership, Military, Navy Ships, nazi germany, us army, US Army Air Corps, US Navy, world war two in europe

Operation Rheinübung and the Sinking of the Mighty Hood

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Artist rendition of the Loss of the HMS Hood

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am still working on my article on the Bismarck Class battleships which is the first of a series on the late Treaty and Post Treaty battleship. However, the research has been time consuming and Massive amounts of technical data on Bismarck and her contemporaries is making this a much more technologically wonk type of article than I expected. I am continuing to work on it, even though I had hoped to publish it before I went on to the history of Operation Rheinübung, the deployment of Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen against British convoys in the hopes that they would sink and destroy a lot of ships and return to home safely as the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had during Operation Berlin which sank 22 ships between February and March 1941, an operation commanded by Admiral Günther Lütjens who commander the Bismarck task force.

The Bismarck and Prinz Eugen set sail for Operation Rheinübung on 18 May 1941 over the protests of Lütjens’s protest to delay the operation until Scharnhorst could be repaired d Tirpitz was fully operational. However, this was not possible until early July, and Grand Admiral Erich Raeder had his own agenda. Of the participants in the operation, only he knew that Hitler had planned to attack the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. That invasion, Operation Barbarossa gave the Kriegsmarine just a small supporting role compared to the Heer, Luftwaffe, and even the SS. So Raeder ordered Lütjens into action in order to score a success that would enable him to continue to argue the need for more battleships and surface forces. Reader instructed Lütjens to not reveal the planned operation to anyone, including Hitler, which Lütjens obeyed when Hitler visited Bismarck on 5 May without Raeder being present. Concerning the operation itself Raeder’s orders to Lütjens stressed that “The primary target in this operation is the enemy’s merchant shipping; enemy warships will be engaged only when that objective makes it necessary and it can be done without excessive risk.”

On 20 May the German ships were sighted numerous Swedish and Norwegian fishing boats, and by a scout plane from the Swedish Cruiser Gotland which reported their position to the Swedish Admiralty. This information was leaked to the British Naval Attaché and relayed to the British Admiralty: “Kattegat, today 20 May. At 1500, two large warships, escorted by three destroyers, five ships and ten or twelve planes, passed Marstrand to the northeast. 2058/20.”

They were also sighted by a Norwegian agent who sent a report of their presence. On 21 May the two ships arrived in Grimstadfjiord near Bergen in order to allow Prinz Eugen to refuel, however Lütjens elected not to top off Bismarck’s fuel tanks, which would prove to be a fatal mistake.

May 21st was a day where the skies were perfectly clear, and alerted to their presence of the German Force, the Royal Air Force sent reconnaissance aircraft to confirm that they were really on the move. At 1315 hours a Spitfire equipped with onboard high altitude cameras spotted the German Force and returned to Scotland where their photos were sent to the Admiralty. As a result the Royal Navy ultimately mobilized six battleships, three battlecruisers, two aircraft carriers, sixteen cruisers, thirty-three destroyers and eight submarines to find and kill the German ships and to protect the 11 convoys currently at sea or preparing to sail. It was the largest deployment of the Royal Navy for a single operation to that point in the war.

Since the daylight prevented an unobserved departure, Admiral Lütjens decided to depart under cover of darkness for his breakout into the North Atlantic. Likewise, Admiral John Tovey, commander of the Home Fleet began his deployment to find and sink the Bismarck. Not knowing which route the Bismarck would use to break out, Tovey sent the pride of the Royal Navy, the “Mighty” HMS Hood and the brand new King George V Class battleship HMS Prince of Wales and four destroyers to join the heavy cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk under the command of Rear Admiral Frederick Wake Walker to Guard the Denmark Strait, which  Lütjens had used earlier in the year with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and sent the modern and powerful light cruisers Manchester and Birmingham to patrol the area southeast of Iceland. In addition he kept several light cruisers on station between the Faroe and Orkney Island Gap in case the Germans attempted a straight run through the British blockade.

Early on 22 May Tovey departed Scapa Flow with King George V, the new carrier HMS Victorious, and their escorts, which would soon be joined by the battlecruiser HMS Repulse. which was already at sea. The older battleships HMS Rodney, HMS Ramillies, and HMS Revenge were also at sea escorting convoys, from which they would be detached to seek out the Bismarck. Finally, Force H comprised of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, battlecruiser HMS Renown, the light cruiser HMS Sheffield and their escorting destroyers, under the command of Rear Admiral James Somerville, based at Gibraltar, were alerted for possible deployment to the North Atlantic, even though their primary mission was to counter the Italians in the Mediterranean.

The 22nd of May was uneventful as each side sailed into the reaches of the North Atlantic, as was most of the 23rd as Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were able to use foul weather conditions to avoid British patrol aircraft, but but about 2000 hours they were detected by the radar of HMS Suffolk. Bismarck sighted and engaged Suffolk and Norfolk which returned fire and ducked into a fog bank as Suffolk continued to shadow Bismarck using her radar and continuing to send reports to Admiral Holland on Hood. However during the exchange Bismarck’s forward radar was damaged by the concussion of her main battery and Lütjens had Prinz Eugen take the lead. For the remainder of the night the ships continued to move through the Denmark Strait. Knowing his Force had been detected and surprise had been lost Lütjens could have reversed course and returned to Norway to await the availability of Scharnhorst and Tirpitz and a more favorable time to break out, but he continued on to a destiny that would result in the loss of the world’s two largest battleships in one of the most dramatic naval campaigns in history.

The first of the great ships lost would be the “Mighty Hood”, which was sunk by the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen during a very short and shocking engagement on the morning of 24 May. The news was broken to most of the world by American journalist Edward R. Murrow who in his radio broadcast reported:

“This is London, Ed Murrow reporting. This island, which is no stranger to bad tiding, received news today that HMS Hood largest warship in the British fleet and pride of the British navy, has been sunk by the German battleship Bismarck. From the Hood’s compliment of 1500 men, there were three survivors.”

The news of the sinking of the great ship stunned the world, and it is a tragic anniversary is something that I always mark. I first read about this battle in C.S Forrester’s little book Hunting the Bismarck when I was in 4th grade. That book was used as the screenplay for the 1960 film Sink the Bismarck.

This essay is in honor of the gallant HMS Hood and her crew.  It is fitting for Memorial Day weekend although the HMS Hood and her killer, the German battleship Bismarck were not American. Both were great ships manned by gallant crews and the loss of both ships was tragic, especially from the aspect of the great loss of human life. I do hope and pray that we never forget the sacrifice of these men and all others who have gone down to the sea in great ships.

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HMS Hood at Malta

There are some warships and naval engagements which assume legendary proportions.  The Battle of the Denmark Strait on 24 May 1941 between the two largest battleships in commission at the time, the pride of the British Royal Navy the HMS Hood and the German behemoth Bismarck is legendary as are those two mighty ships.  The battle came at a critical time as the Britain stood alone against the seemingly invincible German Blitzkrieg.

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Hood in San Francisco on 1920s goodwill tour

Britain had been driven from Western Europe and Britain was being bombed regularly by Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe. In the Balkans a British expeditionary force that had been sent to Greece had been defeated and it’s survivors withdrawn as Germans assaulted and conquered Crete with airborne forces, albeit with such heavy losses that Hitler forbade any more large airborne operations. In the Western Desert of North Africa, the Afrika Korps under Field Marshall Erwin Rommel had driven off a British counter-offensive on the Libyan-Egyptian frontier and were laying siege to Tobruk.  In the Atlantic German U-Boats sank 66 Allied Merchant Ships of over 375,000 tons and the Royal Navy would lose 25 warships not including the Hood to surface action or U-Boats in the Atlantic alone. But before Hood the British had lost the aircraft carriers Glorious and Courageous and the battleship Royal Oak. 

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The Hood was the pride of the Royal Navy and was world famous due to her inter-war international presence and goodwill visits. She displaced 47,430 tons full load and she was armed with eight 15” guns in four twin turrets.  Designed as a battle cruiser she was less heavily armored than contemporary battleships and had weak vertical protection from plunging shellfire. Her armored upper deck and armored deck had a combined 83mm of armor. This was a fault which was known but never rectified between the wars and when the war came the Royal Navy could ill-afford to take her out of service for the necessary improvements to her protection system.  She was fast with a designed speed of 31 knots which been reduced to 28 knots by 1939 as a result of modifications which increased her displacement.   This was further reduced by the wear and tear on her propulsion plant to 26.5 knots by 1940.

Hood was designed before the battle of Jutland (May 1916) where the weaknesses in the armor protection of British Battlecruisers was exposed as three, the HMS Invincible, HMS Queen Mary and HMS Indefatigable were destroyed by plunging fire which exploded their magazines.  Though her design was modified during construction she still was vulnerable to plunging fire. She was scheduled for a major refit which would have included significant improvement in armor protection in 1941, but the war prevented Hood from receiving anything more than improvements to her anti-aircraft batteries.

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Hood (nearly hidden by falling shells) in action at Mers-El-Kebir

During the war Hood was engaged in patrol and search operations against German raiders in the North Atlantic and in June 1940 joined Force “H” in the Mediterranean.  As Flagship of Force “H” she took part in the sinking of French Fleet Units including the Battleship Bretagne at Mers-El-Kebir on 3 July 1940 following the French surrender to the Germans and remained in operation searching for the German Pocket Battleship Admiral Scheer and the Heavy Cruiser Admiral Hipper until she was withdrawn for a brief refit in January 1941.

Following another brief refit in mid-March, Hood was underway from mid-March searching for the German raiders Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and also false report of Bismarck breaking out into the Atlantic in April 1941. She returned to Scapa Flow on 6 May 1941.

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Bismarck

When the British discovered that Bismarck had entered the Atlantic, Hood the flagship of Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland, was dispatched to find and sink her with the newly commissioned battleship HMS Prince of Wales.  The battleships were to join the Heavy Cruisers HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk at the entrance to the Denmark Strait.  When the cruisers discovered Bismarck along with her consort the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen the two British battleships steamed into naval history.

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Bismarck was slightly larger than Hood and mounted the same main armament but that was about all the two ships had in common. If the battle was a battle between heavyweight prize fighters Hood was the valiant but crippled champion and Bismarck the young and overpowering challenger.  Bismarck was slightly faster than the limping Hood and was one of the most well protected ships ever built.  Her gunnery officers and the men that manned her deadly 15” guns were like previous generations of German sailors, gunnery experts, working with some of the finest naval guns ever made.

Schlachtschiff Bismarck, Seegefecht

Bismarck firing on Hood

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The German ships were shadowed at a distance by the Norfolk and Suffolk. The German task force under the command of Admiral Gunther Lütjens emerged from the strait and were sighted by the British at 0537.  Knowing his ships weakness in regard to plunging fire Admiral Holland desired to steer a direct course at the German ships in order to close the range quickly in order to narrow the range and prevent being hit by the same kind of plunging fire that doomed the British battle cruisers at Jutland.

However, events dictated otherwise and the British were forced to close the range much more slowly than Admiral Holland desired, and exposed both Hood and Prince of Wales to German plunging fire for a longer period of time.  As such Holland then turned and tried to close the German ships faster. The result was that his gunnery was degraded by wind and spray coming over the bows of his ships compounded by his inability to bring his after turrets to bear on the German ships.

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Hood, photographed from Prince of Wales moments before being hit and sunk by Bismarck

At 0553 Holland ordered his ships to open fire. Unfortunately, he dis so without the benefit of Suffolk and Norfolk being in position to engage the Prinz Eugen.  Due to the similar appearance of the German ships Hood initially concentrated her fire on Prinz Eugen assuming her to be the Bismarck while Prince of Wales engaged Bismarck.

During the initial exchange of fire Prince of Wales drew first blood by hitting Bismarck three times with her 14″ guns. One hit damaged Bismarck’s seaplane catapult. A second did minor damage to machinery spaces, and a third which passed throughBismarck’s bow near the waterline and severed the fuel lines from her forward fuel tanks to her engines. The third hit would prove the might German Leviathan’s undoing.

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Prinz Eugen

Both German ships opened fire at 0555 and concentred their fires on the Hood.  Prinz Eugen immediately hit Hood with at least one 8” shell which set a large fire among the ready to use 4”ammunition stored in lockers near the mainmast. The hit started a large fire which Hood’s damage control teams raced to contain.  At 0600, Admiral Holland ordered his ships to turn to port in order to bring the rear turrets of his battleships into the fight.

As the squadron executed the turn Hood was straddled by a salvo from Bismarck and observers on Prince of Wales observed an explosion between “X” turret and the mainmast of Hood. The hit set off the 4″ magazine and the resultant explosion consumed the Hood causing her bow to jut sharply out of the water before sinking beneath the waves in under 3 minutes time. Witnesses on both sides of the engagement were stunned by the sudden and violent end of the Hood.

With Hood now destroyed the Germans rapidly shifted their fire to the Prince of Wales, crippling the battleship and knocking her out of the action.  Bismarck was now in a perfect position to finish off Prince of Wales but she did not do so. Against the advice of Bismarck’s Captain Ernst Lindemann, Admiral Lütjens refused to follow up his advantage to sink the crippled British battleship and instead broke off the action.

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Hood blows up. Drawing by the Captain of HMS Prince of Wales J.C. Leach

Only three crewmen for Hood, Petty Officer Ted Briggs, Seaman Bob Tilburn and Midshipman Bill Dundas survived the cataclysm out of a total of 1415 souls embarked. They were rescued 4 hours later nearly dead of hypothermia. They stayed awake by singing  “Roll out the Barrel” until they were rescued by the destroyer HMS Electra.

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Briggs who died in 2008 recounted the sinking:

“Then she started listing to starboard. She righted herself, and started going over to port. When she had gone over by about 40 degrees we realised she was not coming back…” Briggs was sucked under the water “I had heard it was nice to drown. I stopped trying to swim upwards. The water was a peaceful cradle – I was ready to meet my God. My blissful acceptance of death ended in a sudden surge beneath me, which shot me to the surface like a decanted cork in a champagne bottle. I turned, and 50 yards away I could see the bows of the Hood vertical in the sea. It was the most frightening aspect of my ordeal, and a vision which was to recur terrifyingly in nightmares for the next 40 years.” (The Daily Telegraph 5 October 2008)

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Ted Briggs

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Bob Tilburn

The Admiralty reported the loss of the Hood later in the day saying Hood received an unlucky hit in a magazine and blew up.”  The official report of the sinking released later in the year said:

That the sinking of Hood was due to a hit from Bismarck’s 15-inch shell in or adjacent to Hood’s 4-inch or 15-inch magazines, causing them all to explode and wreck the after part of the ship. The probability is that the 4-inch magazines exploded first.”

The commission’s findings have been challenged by a number of naval historians and there are several theories of how the magazines might have exploded. However, all theories point to a massive magazine explosion which may not have be caused by a plunging round but from a hit which detonated the unprotected 4” magazines or a hit from Bismarck that struck below Hood’s waterline and exploded in a magazine.

For forty years the Hood’s wreckage lay undiscovered. Her wreck was located in 2001 lying across two debris fields. The post mortem examination revealed that Hood’s after magazines had exploded.  Hood’s resting place is designated as a War Grave by Britain and protected site under the Protection of Military Remains Act of 1986.

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Bismarck sinking

Bismarck and her crew did not long survive her victory.  When close to refuge in the French port of Brest on May 26th the great ship was crippled by a lucky aerial torpedo hit from a Fairley Swordfish bomber flying from the HMS Ark Royal. 

The hit damaged Bismarck’s rudders and forced her to steer a course towards the approaching British fleet. Throughout the night Bismarck fought off attacks by British and Polish destroyers on the morning of May 27th 1941, after absorbing massive damage from the HMS King George V, HMS Rodney and several cruisers including HMS Dorsetshire, he plucky and persistent Norfolk and several destroyers, Bismarck was scuttled by her crew. When she went down she took with her all but 115 souls of her crew of over 2200 which included the Fleet Staff of Admiral Lütjens.

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HMS Prince of Wales

A few months later, Prince of Wales would take Winston Churchill to Argentia Bay Newfoundland to meet with Franklin Roosevelt. At the conference that took place in August 1941, the Atlantic Charter was drafted. With the increased threat of Japanese expansion Prince of Wales reported to the Far East where she was sunk along with the Battlecruiser HMS Repulse on 9 December 1941 by a force of land based Japanese aircraft.  The Prinz Eugen was the only heavy ship of the German Navy to survive the war and was taken as a prize by the US Navy when the war ended. She was used as a target during the Able and Baker nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll, but did not sink. She was too radioactive to be repaired and her hulk was towed to Kwajalein Atoll where she capsized and sank on 22 December 1946. Her wreck is still visible.

The loss of the Hood traumatized the people of Britain and the Royal Navy; she had been the symbol of British Naval power for over 20 years and people around the world were likewise stunned at her demise. The sinking of the Hood and the loss of her crew was a tragedy which all sailors assigned to large and prestigious ships and the nations that they sail for need to keep in mind.

No matter how mighty any ship may be, every ship has an Achilles heel and no ship is unsinkable, and human beings bear the brunt of such tragedies.  Of the over 3600 officers and crew of the Hood and the Bismarck only 118 survived.

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I will continue to remember the gallant Hood, her brave crew, especially my very distant relative Midshipman Bill Dundas who I never met.  He left the Royal Navy with the rank of Lieutenant Commander in about 1960, and was killed in a car wreck in 1965. According to the Hood Association website he was troubled by the sinking for the rest of his life.  I think that I could understand as I am still troubled by my far less traumatic experience of war in Iraq.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, World War II at Sea, world war one, world war two in the pacific

“We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!” A Lesson from the Past for the Present

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This evening the House of Representatives voted impeachment articles against President Trump, only the third time that any President has been stained with articles of impeachment. No other President charged with impeachable offenses has not been stained for life with those charges, in which both of the previous Presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were acquitted in the Senate, and Richard Nixon, without a band of followers best described as a cult, resigned when members of his Party’s Senate told him to resign or be impeached and convicted. Sadly, the leaders of the Republican Senate, like Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell, have, despite the oath that they will have to swear during an impeachment trial that they are not impartial jurors, which demonstrates their contempt for the Constitution.

I cannot have ever imagined such a situation. Yesterday, the President sent a six page letter that can only generously describe as the thoughts of someone suffering from some kind of dementia. Less than generously the letter can be described as the screed of a madman, but regardless the Republican Party is now Trump’s Party, even more than the Nazi Party was that of Hitler; but then not long after taking power Hitler murdered his party rivals on the Night of the Long Knives. I actually believe that most GOP are willing to support him because they are afraid that his more violent cult members will kill them. Since his nomination they have shown no moral or political courage. The last GOP Senator to do so was the late John McCain. I do not know if the House will send the articles to the Senate unless the Senate agrees to a fair trial. Some Democrats are urging that the articles are not sent until there is the promise of a fair trial, while conducting more investigation and simply hold the charges over Trump’s head like the Sword of Damocles. I think that there is wisdom in that course of action. But I digress, that is just my comment on the big news of the day, and my intent when I started was to proceed with the fourth letter of the anti-Nazi White Rose Resistance.

That letter was written in a time that the lies of the Hitler regime were being exposed, millions of Jews being exterminated, and Nazi Armies being halted in the Soviet Union and North Africa, and the Nazi homeland was beginning to be hit with large aerial attacks by British and American strategic bombers. The war was coming home to roost as well over a million German soldiers had already been sacrificed on the altar of a madman.

Unlike Trump, Hitler’s madness would not be exposed until 1944, and would get worse and worse until with the Red Army on the doorsteps of the Reich Chancellory in Berlin he killed himself. Sophie Scholl and the members of the White Rose movement. This letter was published as the German advance in North Africa was stopped and Army Group South in the Soviet Union was failing in its mission to capture Stalingrad and seize the oil fields of the Caucasus. Had German leaders paid attention to the truths of this letter instead of remaining as members of the Hitler Cult, the war might have ended differently, and permanently changing the the future.

So in light of that I give you the English translation of the fourth letter of the White Rose as done by the Holocaust Education Archival Research Team. So until tomorrow I wish you all the best.

The Fourth Leaflet

There is an ancient maxim that we repeat to our children: “He who won’t listen will have to feel.” But a wise child will not burn his fingers the second time on a hot stove. In the past weeks Hitler has choked up successes in Africa and in Russia. In consequence, optimism on the one hand and distress and pessimism on the other have grown within the German people with a rapidity quite inconsistent with traditional German apathy. On all sides one hears among Hitler’s opponents – the better segments of the population – exclamations of despair, words of disappointment and discouragement, often ending with the question: “Will Hitler now, after all…?”

Meanwhile, the German offensive against Egypt has ground to a halt. Rommel has to bide his time in a dangerously exposed position. But the push into the East proceeds. This apparent success has been purchased at the most horrible expense of human life, and so it can no longer be counted an advantage. Therefore we must warn against all optimism.

Neither Hitler nor Goebbels can have counted the dead. In Russia thousands are lost daily. It is the time of the harvest, and the reaper cuts into the ripe grain with wide strokes. Mourning takes up her abode in the country cottages, and there is no one to dry the tears of the mothers. Yet Hitler feeds with lies those people whose most precious belongings he has stolen and whom he has driven to a meaningless death.
Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed. True, we must conduct a struggle against the National Socialist terrorist state with rational means; but whoever today still doublts the reality, the existence of demonic powers, has failed by a wide margin to understand the metaphysical background of this war. Behind the concrete, the visible events, behind all objective, logical considerations, we find the irrational element: The struggle against the demon, against the servants of the Antichrist.

Everywhere and at all times demons have been lurking in the dark, waiting for the moment when man is weak; when of his own volition he leaves his place in the order of Creation as founded for him by God in freedom; when he yields to the force of evil, separates himself from the powers of a higher order; and after voluntarily taking the first step, he is driven on to the next and the next at a furiously accelerating rate.

Everywhere and at all times of greatest trial men have appeared, prophets and saints who cherished their freedom,who preached the One God and who His help brought the people to a reversal of their downward course. Man is free, to be sure, but without the true God he is defenseless against the principle of evil. He is a like rudderless ship, at the mercy of the storm, an infant without his mother, a cloud dissolving into thin air.

I ask you, you as a Christian wrestling for the preservation of your greatest treasure, whether you hesitate, whether you incline toward intrigue, calculation, or procrastination in the hope that someone else will raise his arm in your defence? Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler.

So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter. Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead than the living which are yet alive. Ecclesiastes 4

True anarchy is the generative element of religion. Out of the annihilation of every positive element she lifts her gloriously radiant countenance as the founder of a new world… If Europe were about to awaken again, if a state of states, a teaching of political science were at hand! Should hierarchy then… be the principle of the union of states? Blood will stream over Europe until the nations become aware of the frightful madness which drives them in circles. And then, struck by celestial music and made gentle, the approach their former altars all together, hear about the works of peace, and hold a great celebration of peace with fervent tears before the smoking altars. Only religion can reawaken Europe, establish the rights of the peoples, and install Christianity in new splendour visibly on earth in its office as guarantor of peace. Novalis.

We wish expressly to point out that the White Rose is not in the pay of any foreign power. Though we know that National Socialist power must be broken by military means, we are trying to achieve a renewal from within of the severely wounded German spirit. This rebirth must be preceded, however, by the clear recognition of all the guilt with which the German people have burdened themselves, and by an uncompromising battle against Hitler and his all too many minions, party members, Quislings, and the like. With total brutality the chasm that separates the better portion of the nation from everything that is opened wide. For Hitler and his followers there is no punishment on this Earth commensurate with their crimes.

But out of love for coming generations we must make an example after the conclusion of the war, so that no one will ever again have the slightest urge to try a similar action. And do not forget the petty scoundrels in this regime; note their names, so that none will go free! They should not find it possible, having had their part in these abominable crimes, at the last minute to rally to another flag and then act as if nothing had happened! To set you at rest, we add that the addresses of the readers of the White Rose are not recorded in writing. They were picked at random from directories.

We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!

 

 

 

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Filed under christian life, civil rights, ethics, History, holocaust, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary, war crimes, world war two in europe

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

“He Deserves Our Respect…” Remembering the Resistance, Honor, Integrity, and Murder Of Erwin Rommel

rommel

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Some seventy-five years ago in Ulm Germany that a car pulled up to the residence of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. In the car was the driver and two Generals dispatched by Hitler who had orders to give the hero of Germany a choice, death by suicide or a trial before the kangaroo “People’s Court” of judge Roland Freisler.  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, 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 rose 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.

Like most other officers he would serve the regime as it spread its dark pall over Europe, and unlike so many others when he suffered a crisis in conscience about the Nazi leadership and their policies he refused to obey orders that he knew were illegal and immoral and then risked his life by joining the conspiracy to kill Hitler.

After years of stalled promotion, Hitler’s expansion of the military allowed Rommel to be promoted, and when Germany went to war he was commander of the unit which guarded Hitler’s headquarters train when he went into Poland. Rommel received command of the 7th  Panzer Division after Poland and as a division commander in France he led his troops on some of the most epic advances of the French campaign.

He was then given command of the troops sent to bail out Mussolini’s failed African adventure. His small force and always ill-supplied force, which became known as the Afrika Korps scored impressive victories against British forces. In Africa, Rommel gained fame and earned rapid promotion. Though Africa was a sideshow in the Nazi war effort, Rommel became a poster-child for Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine. 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.”

bundesarchiv_bild_146-1991-031-25a_nordafrika_vor_tobruk_rommel

In Arica Rommel showed himself to be a remarkable tactician and field commander. Likewise, unlike many other German (and sadly Allied) commanders had the ability to recognize the valor and soldierly virtues of his opponents, even those who were not white. A captured South African officer pleaded with Rommel to spare him being imprisoned with Black troops under his command. Rommel told him:

“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.”

That was not until Rommel discovered the reality of Hitler’s promises as the troops of the Afrika Corps were hollow that he began to understand the man he had sworn his allegiance. He and his gallant German and Italian soldiers 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 Arfika he and his troops achieved amazing success against an enemy that was always better supplied and equipped and which 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.

While visiting Hitler’s headquarters during that leave Rommel was struck by the atmosphere and made this observation:

“During the conference I realised that the atmosphere in the Fuehrer’s H.Q,. was extremely optimistic. Goering in particular was inclined to minimise our difficulties. When I said that British fighter-bombers had shot up my tanks with 4O-mm. shells, the Reichsmarschall, who felt himself touched by this, said: ” That’s completely impossible. The Americans only know how to make razor blades.” I replied: “We could do with some of those razor blades, Herr Reichsmarschall.”

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, and refused to follow the notorious “commando order.” In June of 1994 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 his protest was refused.

In late 1943 and early 1944 Rommel began to learn of the mass killings being orchestrated by Himmler’s SS. His son Manfred asked his father’s permission to join the Waffen SS, which Rommel insisted that he not do, the younger Rommel recounted:

“While, he said, he perfectly well recognised the quality of the S.S. troops, under no circumstances did he want me to be under the command of a man who, according to his information, was carrying out mass killings. ” Do you mean Himmler? ” I asked. ” Yes,” he answered, and instructed me to maintain absolute silence about the whole affair. The war was not going at all well and he had heard that people like Himmler were trying, by actions of this kind, to burn the bridges of the German people behind them. I think he was not at all certain at that time whether Hitler knew anything about what was going on, for no mention of the mass executions had ever been made at the Fuehrer’s H.Q. And perhaps he would never have brought himself to the decision to end the war -by a revolt if necessary -if he had not received further information in the early months of 1944 which confirmed these crimes and gave some idea of their extent. From that moment on, all my father’s inner allegiance to Adolf Hitler, whom he had once admired, was destroyed, and he brought himself, from his knowledge of the Fuehrer’s crimes, to act against him.” 

Rommel’s honest assessments of the chances of the Germans winning the war which he spoke candidly to Hitler and the High Command made him persona non grata in Berlin and Berchtesgaden. In the time before he was posted to France in late 1943 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. He believed that the war was lost unless his forces could repel the coming Allied invasion on the beaches and 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.

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.

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.

Eventually, other conspirator’s testimony exposed that Rommel was part of the plot. He was recommended by the “Court of Military Honor” to 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 has been part of the infamous Wansee Conference which planned the details of the Final Solution was killed when his courtroom was bombed in February 1945.

Because of his fame and popularity in Germany Hitler was decided to offer Rommel a choice of being tried by the People’s Court or committing suicide and ensuring his family’s safety. Hitler dispatched two generals from Berlin to personally deliver the message.

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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. Before I went to Iraq in 2007 I believed much of the political propaganda promoted by the Bush administration and right wing news media and pundits about that war.

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 didn’t.

The fact is that it is hard for most Americans to imagine what it would be to,serve in the military, law enforcement, intelligence, or justice departments of a totalitarian regime, but we are fast approaching that point.

Sadly there are otherwise honorable men and women in the current United States military who are blindly supporting a delusional and quite probably criminal 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, a man who has no respect for the courts, the law, or the Constitution.  Personally as a historian I cannot understand that kind of blind loyalty especially when the the leader in question has no loyalty to anyone other than himself. Not long before he was killed Rommel told his son:

“one thing is quite clear, it’s intolerable that the fate and welfare of a whole nation should depend on the whim of a small group. There must be some limit, otherwise, the most fantastic things can happen without anyone noticing.”

Rommel refused to obey the criminal orders that so many other German Generals and Officers obeyed. He lost his life because of his honor and personal integrity, and willingness to oppose a criminal regime. The question is, if President Trump and his administration cross that line, will American military leaders emulate Rommel or the officers who obeyed their orders, aided and abetted War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, and in many cases lied about the activities after the war in order to secure lucrative employment advising the Western Allies on the tactics and operational methods of the Soviets while writing their memoirs, which coincidentally omitted or denied their cooperation with Hitler’s most criminal orders.

Others, who were captured by the Soviets and worked for the Army or Security and Intelligence Services Of East Germany never admitted their roles in Hitler’s crimes. It was like they all sought to erase history, but the archives don’t lie, whether they worked for NATO or the Soviets.

The frightening thing is that almost all had served many of their formative years in the service of the Kaiser, or the Weimar Republic. They were not products of the Hitler Youth or Nazi education. They knew better. We should too, but that is no guarantee that we will not devolve as they did.

I hope that own better angels prevail.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, holocaust, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, nazi germany, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

The Responsibility Of Command: Eisenhower’s Letter in Case the D-Day Invasion Failed

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great Prussian military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz noted: “It is now quite clear how greatly the objective of war makes it a matter of assessing probabilities. Only one more element is needed to make war a gamble – chance: the very last thing that war lacks. No other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with chance. And through through the element of guesswork and luck come to play a great part in war…. If we now consider briefly the subjective nature of war – the means by which war has to be fought – it will look more like a gamble. The highest of all moral qualities in time of danger is certainly courage.”

For a year General Dwight D. Eisenhower had worked to marshal the largest force possible to launch the long awaited invasion of Nazi Occupied France. Eisenhower surrounded himself with an exceptional staff, but had to fight for what he would need for the coming invasion. He had to struggle with Admiral Ernest King for the landing ships and crafts he needed, against the competing needs of Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur’s Forces in the Pacific Theatre of operations. He had to battle Allied bomber commands, British Bomber Command, and 8th Air Force for bombers to support the invasion, taking them away from the strategic bombing command against the heart of German industry; and finally he had to battle Winston Churchill to be in overall command of the multi-national force being assembled to attack.

The invasion was in fact his baby. He had the ultimate responsibility for its success or failure. He knew the dangers. In 1942 the British launched a raid using Canadian troops on the English Channel port of Dieppe. It was a disaster. With all the work he had done to get his forces ready for the invasion, Eisenhower knew that he owned the result.

Eisenhower understood that everything in war is a gamble and that success is not guaranteed. The weather conditions of the English Channel are unpredictable and only offer a few month window of opportunity to successfully mount a cross channel invasion. The Germans found that out in 1940 when after their failure to clear the skies of the Royal Air Force that the a favorable opportunity for Operation Sea Lion had passed.

The Allied invasion required a full moon for a nighttime paratroop drop, and favorable weather for the landing craft to get ashore. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating. High winds, seas, and rain forced a cancellation of the planned June 5th invasion, the open question was whether conditions would be on the 6th would be favorable. If not the next opportunity would not be for at least two more weeks.

The German weather forecasters, having lost the ability to observe weather in the western and mid-Atlantic anticipated that the weather would continue to be unfavorable for an invasion. With this in mind, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B which had operational control over the potential landing beaches, decided to make a visit to his wife for her birthday and a trip to Berlin to plead for more resources. Other Senior German Commanders departed to inland areas to conduct war games and were not with their units.

Meanwhile, forecasters at Eisenhower’s headquarters who had access to weather data from the mid-Atlantic, predicted a brief lull, not perfect weather, but acceptable. Eisenhower met with his staff and made the decision to go ahead with the invasion in the night of June 5th and June 6th.

But the weather was but one factor, the Allies did not know the latest German deployments, including the movement of the crack 352nd Infantry Division to Omaha Beach. Likewise, a prompt German response with heavy Panzer units could throw the invaders back into the sea if they moved fast enough. However, neither Eisenhower or his staff knew of the conflict in the German High Command and Hitler regarding the deployment of the Panzer Divisions. Rommel argued that the Panzer Divisions should be deployed near the potential invasion beaches, but traditionalists in the German command and Hitler decided that most of the Panzer Divisions should be held back awaiting the point that they could make a decisive counterattack. Rommel, a veteran of Africa and the West knew the power of allied tactical air assets, and the havoc they could inflict on the Panzers. Rommel believed that the invasion had to be defeated on the beachheads and not given the chance to advance inland.

Eisenhower also knew that the success of the invasion depended on the success of the landings. A disaster at any of the landing beaches could doom the invasion. In light of this and so many other ways that could fail, Eisenhower, wrote a letter to his troops and the world when the invasion commenced. It read:

“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force:

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.

The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.

In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped, and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944. Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations1 have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned. The free men of the world are marching together to victory.

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory.

Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

However, prepared for any eventuality he also also wrote a letter in case the invasion failed, as it nearly did on Omaha Beach. That letter noted:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

It was dated July 5th, not June 5th, the mistake obviously due to the pressure of what he was feeling for his soldiers, the mission, and if the mission failed, his adversaries in the United States military and in Britain would have seen to his relief. It also could have aided those in the United States and Britain willing to make peace with Germany, which could have destroyed the allied alliance that ended up defeating Germany and rebuilding a democratic Europe, establishing NATO, the United Nations, and many other international organizations that have done much good for America and the world, but which are now under threat from leaders in the United States and Europe who would rather go back to the days of Hitler than advance into a better future.

Eisenhower did not make excuses if the invasion failed. He was ready to take full responsibility if Overlord failed, regardless of how it happened.

Likewise, he knew that the failure of the invasion would have made it possible for the Nazis to divert needed forces to the Eastern Front, where they might have been able to turn back the Soviet Operation Bagration which destroyed the German Army Group Center and opened the way for the Soviets to drive the Nazis from Soviet territory, advance to Warsaw, and knock key German allies out of the war. Before long, Hungary, Romania, and Finland were abandoning the Germans.

The fact that the invasion succeeded was as much as luck as it was the careful planning, and the exceptional courage, and dogged determination of the Allied troops.

Eisenhower’s willingness to take responsibility for defeat as well as give his troops credit for the eventual victory over the Nazis sets him apart from so many others then, and now who would deflect blame for a failed operation to their subordinates and lie about the results achieved.

In the age of Trump it is something to remember.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, leadership, Military, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary, us army, world war two in europe

The Tragedy Of the “Mighty Hood” at 78 Years

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Artist rendition of the Loss of the HMS Hood

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Seventy-eight years ago today the HMS Hood, the  “Mighty Hood” was sunk by the German Battleship Bismarck. It was an event that began a tragic and legendary week in Naval history. The news was broken to most of the world by American journalist Edward R. Murrow who in his radio broadcast reported:

“This is London, Ed Murrow reporting. This island, which is no stranger to bad tiding, received news today that HMS Hood largest warship in the British fleet and pride of the British navy, has been sunk by the German battleship Bismarck. From the Hood’s compliment of 1500 men, there were three survivors.”

The news of the sinking of the great ship stunned the world, and it is a tragic anniversary that I always mark. I first read about this battle in C.S Forrester’s little book Hunting the Bismarck when I was in 4th grade. That book was used as the screenplay for the 1960 film Sink the Bismarck.

This essay is in honor of the gallant HMS Hood and her crew.  It is fitting although the HMS Hood and her killer, the German battleship Bismarck were not American. Both were great ships manned by gallant crews and the loss of both ships was tragic, especially from the aspect of the great loss of human life. I do hope and pray that we never forget the sacrifice of these men and all others who have gone down to the sea in great ships.

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HMS Hood entering Valetta Harbor, Malta

There are some warships and naval engagements which assume legendary proportions.  The Battle of the Denmark Strait on 24 May 1941 between the two largest battleships in commission at the time, the pride of the British Royal Navy the HMS Hood and the German behemoth Bismarck is legendary as are those two mighty ships.  The battle came at a critical time as the Britain stood alone against the seemingly invincible German Blitzkrieg.

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Hood in San Francisco on 1920s goodwill tour

Britain had been driven from Western Europe and was being bombed regularly by Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe while a British expeditionary force that had been sent to Greece had been defeated and the Germans were assaulting Crete with airborne forces.  In the Western Desert the Afrika Korps under Field Marshall Erwin Rommel had driven off a British counter-offensive on the Libyan-Egyptian frontier and were laying siege to Tobruk and in the Atlantic German U-Boats sank 66 Allied Merchant Ships of over 375,000 tons and the Royal Navy would lose 25 warships not including the Hood.

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The Hood was the pride of the Royal Navy and was world famous due to her inter-war international presence and goodwill visits.  Displacing 47,430 tons full load she was armed with eight 15” guns in four twin turrets.  Designed as a battle cruiser she was less heavily armored than contemporary battleships and had very weak vertical protection from plunging shellfire.  This was a fault which was known but never rectified between the wars, and when the war came the Royal Navy could ill-afford to take her out of service for the necessary improvements to her protection system.  She was fast with a designed speed of 31 knots which been reduced to 28 knots by 1939 as a result of modifications which increased her displacement.   This was further reduced by the wear and tear on her propulsion plant to 26.5 knots by 1940.

Hood was designed before the battle of Jutland (May 1916) where the weaknesses in the armor protection of British Battlecruisers was exposed as three, the HMS Invincible, HMS Queen Mary and HMS Indefatigable were destroyed by plunging fire which exploded their magazines.  Though her design was modified during construction she still was vulnerable to plunging fire. She was scheduled for a major refit which would have included significant improvement in armor protection in 1941, but the war prevented Hood from receiving anything more than improvements to her anti-aircraft batteries.

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Hood (nearly hidden by falling shells) in action at Mers-El-Kebir

During the war Hood was engaged in patrol and search operations against German raiders in the North Atlantic and in June 1940 joined Force “H” in the Mediterranean.  As Flagship of Force “H” she took part in the sinking of French Fleet Units including the Battleship Bregtange  at Mers-El-Kebir on 3 July 1940 following the French surrender to the Germans and remained in operation searching for the German Pocket Battleship Admiral Scheer and the Heavy Cruiser Admiral Hipper until she was withdrawn for a brief refit in January 1941.

Following another brief refit in mid-March, Hood was underway from mid-March searching for the German raiders Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and also false report of Bismarck breaking out into the Atlantic in April 1941. She returned to Scapa Flow on 6 May 1941.

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The German Leviathan, Bismarck

When the British discovered that Bismarck had entered the Atlantic, Hood the flagship of Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland, was dispatched to find and sink her with the newly commissioned battleship HMS Prince of Wales.  The battleships were to join the Heavy Cruisers HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk at the entrance to the Denmark Strait.  When the cruisers discovered Bismarck along with her consort the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen the two British battleships steamed into naval history.

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Bismarck was slightly larger than Hood and mounted the same main armament but that was about all the two ships had in common. If the battle was a battle between heavyweight prize fighters Hood was the valiant but crippled champion and Bismarck the young and overpowering challenger.  Bismarck was slightly faster than the limping Hood and was one of the most well protected ships ever built.  Her gunnery officers and the men that manned her deadly 15” guns, like previous generations of German sailors, were gunnery experts, working with some of the finest naval guns ever made.

<img src="https://padresteve.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/bundesarchiv_bild_146-1984-055-13_schlachtschiff_bismarck_seegefecht1.jpg?w=500&h=324&quot; class="aligncenter size-full wp-image-14605" data-attachment-id="14605" data-permalink="https://padresteve.com/2014/05/24/remembering-the-mighty-hood-and-the-battle-of-the-denmark-strait/schlachtschiff-bismarck-seegefecht-3/&quot; data-orig-file="https://padresteve.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/bundesarchiv_bild_146-1984-055-13_schlachtschiff_bismarck_seegefecht1.jpg&quot; data-orig-size="500,324" data-comments-opened="1" data-image-meta="{"aperture":"0","credit":"Bundesarchiv","camera":"","caption":"Seegefecht des Schlachtschiffes \"Bismarck\" unter Island.\nNunmehr richtet Schlachtschiff Bismarck seine ganze Feuerkraft auf das sich zur\u00fcckziehende Schlachtschiff \"Prince of Wales\".\nProp.Kp.:MPA Nord Film-Nr. 100\/27\nBildberichter: Lagemann\nWilhelmshaven; Herausgabedatum: Juni 1941","created_timestamp":"0","copyright":"","focal_length":"0","iso":"0","shutter_speed":"0","title":"Schlachtschiff Bismarck, Seegefecht"}" data-image-title="Schlachtschiff Bismarck, Seegefecht" data-image-description="

Seegefecht des Schlachtschiffes “Bismarck” unter Island.
Nunmehr richtet Schlachtschiff Bismarck seine ganze Feuerkraft auf das sich zurückziehende Schlachtschiff “Prince of Wales”.
Prop.Kp.:MPA Nord Film-Nr. 100/27
Bildberichter: Lagemann
Wilhelmshaven; Herausgabedatum: Juni 1941

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Bismarck firing on Hood, Picture taken from Prinz Eugen

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The German ships were shadowed at a distance by the County Class heavy cruisers  Norfolk and Suffolk. The German task force under the command of Admiral Gunther Lütjens emerged from the strait and were sighted by the British at 0537.  Knowing his ships weakness in regard to plunging fire Admiral Holland desired to steer a direct course at the German ships in order to close the range quickly in order to narrow the range and prevent being hit by the same kind of plunging fire that doomed the British battle cruisers at Jutland.

However, events dictated otherwise and the British were forced to close the range much more slowly than Admiral Holland desired, this exposed both Hood and Prince of Wales to German plunging fire for a longer period of time.  Because of this Holland then turned and tried to close the German ships faster. The result was that his gunnery was degraded by wind and spray coming over the bows of his ships compounded by his inability to bring his after turrets to bear on the German ships.

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Hood, photographed from Prince of Wales just before being sunk by Bismarck

At 0553 Holland ordered his ships to open fire. Unfortunately, he dis so without the benefit of Suffolk and Norfolk being in position to engage the Prinz Eugen.  Due to the similar appearance of the German ships Hood initially concentrated her fire on Prinz Eugen assuming her to be the Bismarck while Prince of Wales engaged Bismarck.

During the initial exchange of fire Prince of Wales drew first blood by hitting Bismarck three times with her 14″ guns. One hit damaged Bismarck’s seaplane catapult. A second did minor damage to machinery spaces, and a third which passed throughBismarck’s bow near the waterline and severed the fuel lines from her forward fuel tanks to her engines. The third hit would prove the mighty German Leviathan’s undoing.

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Prinz Eugen

Both German ships opened fire at 0555 and concentred their fires on the Hood.  Prinz Eugen immediately hit Hood with at least one 8” shell which set a large fire among the ready to use 4”ammunition stored in lockers near the mainmast. The hit started a large fire which Hood’s damage control teams raced to contain.  At 0600, Admiral Holland ordered his ships to turn to port in order to bring the rear turrets of his battleships into the fight.

As the squadron executed the turn Hood was straddled by a salvo from Bismarck and observers on Prince of Wales observed an explosion between “X” turret and the mainmast of Hood. The hit set off the 4″ magazine and the resultant explosion consumed the Hood causing her bow to jut sharply out of the water before sinking beneath the waves in under 3 minutes time. Witnesses on both sides of the engagement were stunned by the sudden and violent end of the Hood. 

With Hood now destroyed the Germans rapidly shifted their fire to the Prince of Wales, crippling the battleship and knocking her out of the action.  Bismarck was now in a perfect position to finish off Prince of Wales but she did not do so. Against the advice of Bismarck’s Captain Ernst Lindemann, Admiral Lütjens refused to follow up his advantage to sink the crippled British battleship and instead broke off the action.

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Hood blows up. Drawing by the Captain of HMS Prince of Wales J.C. Leach

Only three crewmen for Hood, Petty Officer Ted Briggs, Seaman Bob Tilburn and Midshipman Bill Dundas survived the cataclysm out of a total of 1415 souls embarked. They were rescued 4 hours later nearly dead of hypothermia. They stayed awake by singing  “Roll out the Barrel” until they were rescued by the destroyer HMS Electra.

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Briggs who died in 2008 recounted the sinking:

“Then she started listing to starboard. She righted herself, and started going over to port. When she had gone over by about 40 degrees we realised she was not coming back…” Briggs was sucked under the water “I had heard it was nice to drown. I stopped trying to swim upwards. The water was a peaceful cradle – I was ready to meet my God. My blissful acceptance of death ended in a sudden surge beneath me, which shot me to the surface like a decanted cork in a champagne bottle. I turned, and 50 yards away I could see the bows of the Hood vertical in the sea. It was the most frightening aspect of my ordeal, and a vision which was to recur terrifyingly in nightmares for the next 40 years.” (The Daily Telegraph 5 October 2008)

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Ted Briggs

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Bob Tilburn

The Admiralty reported the loss of the Hood later in the day saying Hood received an unlucky hit in a magazine and blew up.”  The official report of the sinking released later in the year said:

That the sinking of Hood was due to a hit from Bismarck’s 15-inch shell in or adjacent to Hood’s 4-inch or 15-inch magazines, causing them all to explode and wreck the after part of the ship. The probability is that the 4-inch magazines exploded first.”

The commission’s findings have been challenged by a number of naval historians and there are several theories of how the magazines might have exploded. However, all theories point to a massive magazine explosion which may not have be caused by a plunging round but from a hit which detonated the unprotected 4” magazines or a hit from Bismarck that struck below Hood’s waterline and exploded in a magazine.

For forty years the Hood’s wreckage lay undiscovered. Her wreck was located in 2001 lying across two debris fields. The post mortem examination revealed that Hood’s after magazines had exploded.  Hood’s resting place is designated as a War Grave by Britain and protected site under the Protection of Military Remains Act of 1986.

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Bismarck sinking

Bismarck and her crew did not long survive her victory.  When close to refuge in the French port of Brest on May 26th the great ship was crippled by a lucky aerial torpedo hit from a Fairley Swordfish bomber flying from the HMS Ark Royal. 

The hit damaged Bismarck’s rudders and forced her to steer a course towards the approaching British fleet. Throughout the night Bismarck fought off attacks by British and Polish destroyers on the morning of May 27th 1941, after absorbing massive damage from the HMS King George V, HMS Rodney and several cruisers including HMS Dorsetshire, he plucky and persistent Norfolk and several destroyers, Bismarck was scuttled by her crew. When she went down she took with her all but 115 souls of her crew of over 2200 which included the Fleet Staff of Admiral Lütjens.

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HMS Prince of Wales

A few months later, Prince of Wales would take Winston Churchill to Argentia Bay Newfoundland to meet with Franklin Roosevelt. At the conference that took place in August 1941, the Atlantic Charter was drafted. With the increased threat of Japanese expansion Prince of Wales reported to the Far East where she was sunk along with the Battlecruiser HMS Repulse on 9 December 1941 by a force of land based Japanese aircraft.  The Prinz Eugen was the only heavy ship of the German Navy to survive the war and was taken as a prize by the US Navy when the war ended. She was used as a target during the Able and Baker nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll, but did not sink. She was too radioactive to be repaired and her hulk was towed to Kwajalein Atoll where she capsized and sank on 22 December 1946. Her wreck is still visible.

The loss of the Hood traumatized the people of Britain and the Royal Navy; she had been the symbol of British Naval power for over 20 years and people around the world were likewise stunned at her demise. The sinking of the Hood and the loss of her crew was a tragedy which all sailors assigned to large and prestigious ships and the nations that they sail for need to keep in mind.

No matter how mighty any ship may be, every ship has an Achilles heel and no ship is unsinkable, and human beings bear the brunt of such tragedies.  Of the over 3600 officers and crew of the Hood and the Bismarck only 118 survived.

dundasw1

I will continue to remember the gallant Hood, her brave crew, especially my very distant relative Midshipman Bill Dundas who I never met.  He left the Royal Navy with the rank of Lieutenant Commander in about 1960, and was killed in a car wreck in 1965. According to the Hood Association website he was troubled by the sinking for the rest of his life.  I think that I could understand as I am still troubled by my far less traumatic experience of war in Iraq.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, nazi germany, World War II at Sea, world war two in europe

The War that did not End All War: Recommended Reading in Light of the Centennial of the End of the Great War

Fort Vaux, Verdun France, 1984

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Many Americans are infatuated with the Second World War. I think this is because it is closer to us and how it has been recorded in history and film. I think much of this is due to the resurgence of popular works such as Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers and the associated classic mini-series, and Steven Spielberg’s cinema classic Saving Private Ryan. Of course there were many other books and films one World War Two that came out even during the war that made it an iconic event in the lives of Americans born in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. In fact I have many of the books and videos in my library.

But as pervasive as is the literary and filmography of the Second War War remains, the fact is that the First World War is much more important in a continuing historical sense than the Second World War. Edmond Taylor, the author of the classic account The Fall of the Dynasties: 1905-1922 wrote:

“The First World War killed fewer victims than the Second World War, destroyed fewer buildings, and uprooted millions instead of tens of millions – but in many ways it left even deeper scars both on the mind and on the map of Europe. The old world never recovered from the shock.”

First World War is far too often overlooked in our time, yet it was the most important war in the effects that still resonate today. One cannot look at the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans, or Eastern Europe without recognizing that fact. A similar case can be made in Asia where Japan became a regional power capable of challenging the great powers in the Pacific by its participation on the side of the Allies in that war. The same is true of the United States, although in the aftermath of the war it retreated into a narcissistic isolationism that took Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor to break.

But I digress. The purpose I have tonight it to recommend some books and films that I think are helpful in understanding just how important the First World War remains to us today.

I made my first visit to a World War One battlefield when I went to Verdun in 1984. I was a young Army Second Lieutenant, preparing myself for time time that the Red Army would attack across the Fulda Gap. The walk around the battlefield was one of the most sobering events of my life. It was hard to imagine that a minimum of 700,000 German and French soldiers were killed or wounded on this relatively small parcel of ground over a period of nine months in 1916. The fact that many parts of the battlefield are off limits to visitors due to the vast amount of unexploded ordnance and persistent chemical agents, in this gas Mustard Gas also made an impression on me. But what affected me most was unearthing a bone fragment as I shuffled my feet near Fort Vaux and turning it over to a docent. I am sure that it was added to the Ossuary which contains the skeletal remains of over 130,000 French and German soldiers. It is hard to forget.

Barbara Tuchman wrote:

“Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.”

The literature that came out of the First World War by participants or observers, either as memoirs, works of fiction, or poems is impressive. Likewise the volumes chronicled by soldiers which influenced later military strategic, operational, and tactical developments between the World Wars remains with us today. In fact the military works still remain the basis for much of the current understanding of combined arms, counterinsurgency, and mission command doctrine.

More importantly, and perhaps less appreciated by policy makers and strategists are the personal works of soldiers that fought the in the great battles along the western front during the war. For the most part, the soldiers who served on the Western Front, the Balkans, Italy, and the Eastern Front are part of an amorphous and anonymous mass of people who simply became numbers during the Great War, thus the individual works of men like John McRea, Sigfried Sassoon, Erich Maria Remarque, Winfried Owen, Ernst Junger, Erwin Rommel, and even Adolf Hitler, are incredibly important in understanding the war, the ideology, and the disappointment of the men who served in the trenches. This applies regardless of the particular writer’s experience or political ideology.

The fact is that very few men who served on the ground in Europe reached the distinction of individual recognition is remarkable. More often those who achieved fame as relatively low ranking individuals were the Knights of the Air, the aviators who in individual combat above the trenches were immortalized by friend and foe alike. These men were represented as an almost mythological portrait of chivalry in a war where millions of men died anonymously, riddled by machine gun fire, artillery, and poison gas in mud saturated ground, trenches, and no man’s land. There are war cemeteries in France and Belgium where the majority of those interred are unknowns. On the Eastern Front, even those cemeteries and memorials are sparse, swallowed by war, shifting borders, and massive forced population migrations between 1918 and 1948.

For different reasons the books and poems written by the otherwise anonymous soldiers in Europe are important if we are to understand the world that we have inherited and must live in today. The same is true of men like T. E. Lawrence who served in the Middle East, or his East African counterpart, the German Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. Both of them made their names by conducting inventive campaigns using indigenous irregular soldiers to tie down and defeat far stronger opponents.

Histories and biographies written about the period by later historians using the documents and words of the adversaries, as well as solid hermeneutics and historiography are also quite important. So are the analysis of economists, sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, and even theologians as to the effects of the war on us today, but I digress.

Tonight I will list a number of books, poems, and films that I think are important in interpreting the Great War, especially, in trying to understand just how the men who directed and fought that war set the stage for today.

Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” as well as many of his post-war letters, articles, and opinion pieces help us understand the current Middle East through the lens of a brilliant but deeply troubled man. Remarque, Sassoon, McRea, Junger, Owen, and Hitler help us to understand the ideology, motivations, fears, and hopes of men on different sides and even very different ideological and political points of view. Now I would not recommend Hitler’s poorly written, turgid, almost unreadable, and hate filled book to anyone but a scholar of the period or biographer the the Nazi dictator.

Later historians Barbara Tuchman, Holger Herweg, Edmond Taylor, Richard Watt, and Robert Massie help us understand that bigger picture of international politics, intrigue, and strategy. Lest to be trusted, are the memoirs of high ranking men of any side who helped to write, and re-write the history of the war and its aftermath in order to bolster their own historical credibility. The same is true of the men who urged on war in 1914 and retreated from that in 1918 as if they had never heard of the war.

As for the books that came out of the war I would have to recommend Lawrence’s classic Seven Pillars of Wisdom, as well as articles, and letters, written by him available online at T. E. Lawrence Studies . Likewise, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is a classic account of a combat soldier with a distinct anti-war message. Junger’s Storm of Steel is also an account of a combat soldier who came out of the war but with a message completely different than Remarque’s. The poetry of the British Soldiers McRea, Sasson, and Owen is moving and goes to the heart of the war experience in a way that prose, no matter how well written cannot do.

Of the later histories I think that Taylor’s The Fall of the Dynasties, The Collapse of the Old Order, 1905-1922, Tuchman’s The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 and The Guns of August, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War In 1914, and Margaret McMillen’s The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, are essential to understanding the events and conditions leading up to the war.

Herweg’s World War One and Massie’s Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea are both good accounts of the war. Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings, and Home Before the Leaves Fall: A New History of the German Invasion of 1914, by Ian Senior, and Tannenberg: Clash of Empires by Dennis Showalter are excellent recent histories of the opening months of the war which are a good compliment to Tuchman’s The Guns of August.

Books about battles and campaign outside of the opening months and general histories of the war I have to admit that I have not read many. Most of the ones I have read deal with the ordeal and crisis of the French Army in 1916 and 1917. Alistair Horne’s The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, Richard Watt’s Dare Call it Treason, and David Murphy’s The Breaking Point of the French Army: The Neville Offensive of 1917 document the valor, sacrifice, and near collapse of the French Army.

A book that is focuses on the American military in the war and how it helped change American society is Jennifer Keene’s Doughboys: The Great War and the Making of American Society.

A book that I found interesting was Correlli Barnett’s The Sword-bearers: Supreme Command in the First World War. The book provides short biographies of the lives and influences of German Field Marshal Von Moltke, British Admiral Jellicoe, French General Petain, and German General Ludendorff. It is a good study in command. Another biography that I recommend is

As for the war at sea, I recommend Edwin Hoyt’s The Last Cruise of the Emden, R. K. Lochner’s The Last Gentleman of War: The Raider Exploits of the Cruiser Emden, Geoffrey Bennett’s Coronel and the Falklands, Holger Herweg’s Luxury Fleet: The Imperial German Navy, 1888 – 1918 in addition to Massie’s Castle’s of Steel, of which the latter is probably the best resource for the naval aspects of the war.

A couple of books that deal with the often overlooked campaign in East Africa are Lettow Von Vorbeck’s My Reminiscences of East Africa, and Königsberg: A German East Africa Raider by Kevin Patience shed light on this obscure but important campaign.

Erwin Rommel’s Infanterie Greift An (Infantry Attacks) is quite possibly the best book on tactics and operational methods published by a participant. Likewise, the the British historians and theoreticians B. H. Liddell-Hart and J. F. C. Fuller, and German Panzer theorist and Commander Heinz Guderian, who also served on the front produced a number of volumes which influenced later strategic and operational advancements which are still in evidence today.

Watt’s The Kings Depart: The Tragedy of Germany: Versailles and the German Revolution is a necessity if one is to understand the rise of the Nazi State. Likewise, a good resource of the deliberations leading to the Treat of Versailles is Margaret McMillen’s 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. Related to this is the very interesting account of the scuttling of the interred German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow in the aftermath of Versailles, The Grand Scuttle: The Sinking of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow In 1919 by Dan Van der Vat.

One work of fiction that I can recommend is The General by C. S. Forester.

I am sure that there are many other volumes that others could recommend, but these are mine.

In an age where there are many parallels to the years leading up to the Great War, it is important not to forget just how catastrophic such a war can be.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under books, books and literature, History, leadership, middle east, Military, News and current events, world war one

The Tale of the Desert Fox: Erwin Rommel, a Cautionary Tale for Men Who Serve Tyrants

rommel

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just over 74 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 rose 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 a 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 1994 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 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.

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.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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

Repeating Historical Myths: The Trump Administration and the “Stab in the Back”

stab-in-the-back

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In light of the many flagrant lies, historical myths and conspiracy theories being floated by President Trump and his supporters  is always appropriate to look at examples of the power of those myths in the lives of nations and their influence on citizens.

It is true that some myths can be positive and inspiring so long as they remain recognized as myth. But myths which are believed as truth lead to conspiracy theories, false accusations and the demonization of others. The vast majority of the time this is done for the purpose of inciting hatred against political, social or religious opponents, or to justify indefensible polices at home or abroad.

Myths also can be used to perpetuate false beliefs about other countries that influence policy decisions, including the decision to go to war that ultimately doom those that believe them. There are many times in history where leaders of nations and peoples embrace myths about their history even when historical, biographical and archeological evidence points to an entirely different record.  Myths are powerful in the way that they inspire and motivate people. They can provide a cultural continuity as a people celebrates the key events and people that shaped their past, even if they are not entirely true.  At the same time myths can be dangerous when they cause leaders and people to make bad choices and actually become destructive.

A good example of this is the Stab in the Back myth that began after the armistice that ended the First World War, as well as the false beliefs held by Hitler and other Nazi leaders about the United States.

Just two days ago President Trump’s Chief Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow accused Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of “stabbing President Trump in the back” following the G7 meeting in Quebec. The choice of words was not only unfortunate but buttresses every action that the President has taken to delegitimatize faithful allies and partners since long before his inauguration.  In doing so he embraced an infamous term used so often by the Nazis and others on the German right following the defeat of Germany in the First World War.

After the war the belief that the German Army was not defeated but was betrayed by the German people, especially those of the political left.  Like all myths there was an element of truth in the “stab in the back” myth, there were revolts against the Monarchy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and even mutiny on elements of the German High Seas Fleet and Army units stationed in Germany. However the crisis had been brought about by General Ludendorff who until the last month of the war refused to tell the truth about the gravity of Germany’s position to those in the German government.

So when everything came crashing down in late October and early November 1918 the debacle came as a surprise to most Germans.  The myth arose because the truth had not been told by Ludendorff who was arguably the most powerful figure in Germany from 1916-1918.  In the looming crisis which included Ludendorff’s collapse and relief, General Wilhelm Groener presented the facts to the Kaiser and insisted on his abdication.  The Republic that was proclaimed on the 9th of November was saddled with the defeat and endured revolution, civil war and threats from the extreme left and right.  When it signed the Treaty of Versailles it accepted the sole responsibility of Germany for the war and its damages. Ordered to dismantle its military, cede territory that had not been lost in battle and pay massive reparations the legend of the “stab in the back” gained widespread acceptance in Germany.

Hitler always believed that the defeat of Germany in the First World War was due to the efforts of internal enemies of the German Reich on the home front and not due to the fact that the German army was collapsing, the U-Boat campaign had failed, and the Navy’s High Seas Fleet was hopelessly outnumbered and incapable of defeating the Royal Navy and breaking the blockade that was strangling Germany.

The Stab in the Back was a fundamental belief of Hitler and was expressed in his writings, speeches and actions.  The internal enemies of Germany for Hitler included the Jews, as well as the Socialists and Communists who he believed were at the heart of the collapse on the home front.  Gerhard Weinberg believes that the effect of this misguided belief on Hitler’s actions has “generally been ignored” by historians. (Germany, Hitler and World War II p. 196)

Hitler believed that those people and groups that perpetrated the “stab in the back” were “beguiled by the by the promises of President Wilson” (World in the Balance p.92) in his 14 Points.  Thus for him Americans were in part responsible for undermining the German home front, something that he would not allow to happen again.  In fact Hitler characterization of Wilson’s effect on the German people in speaking about South Tyrol.  It is representative of his belief about not only the loss of that region but the war: “South Tyrol was lost by those who, from within Germany, caused attrition at the front, and by the contamination of German thinking with the sham declarations of Woodrow Wilson.” (Hitler’s Second Book p.221)

While others will note Hitler’s lack of respect for the potential power of the United States, no other author that I am familiar with links Hitler’s actions and the reaction of the German political, military and diplomatic elites to the entry of the United States into the war to the underlying belief in the “stab in the back.”   Likewise Hitler had little regard for the military abilities or potential of the United States. Albert Speer notes that Hitler believed “the Americans had not played a very prominent role in the war of 1914-1918,” and that “they would certainly not withstand a great trial by fire, for their fighting qualities were low.” (Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs by Albert Speer p.121)

Hitler not only dismissed the capabilities of the Americans but also emphasized the distance that they were from Germany and saw no reason to fear the United States when “he anticipated major victories on the Eastern Front.” (Germany Hitler and World War II p.92)   Hitler’s attitude was reflected by the majority of the military high command and high Nazi officials. Ribbentrop believed that the Americans would be unable to wage war if it broke out “as they would never get their armies across the Atlantic.” (History of the German General Staff, Walter Goerlitz, p.408).  General Walter Warlimont notes the “ecstasy of rejoicing” found at Hitler’s headquarters after Pearl Harbor and the fact that the he and Jodl at OKW caught by surprise by Hitler’s declaration of war. (Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-1945 pp.207-209) Kenneth Macksey notes Warlimont’s comments about Hitler’s beliefs; that Hitler “tended to dismiss American fighting qualities and industrial capability,” and that Hitler “regarded anyone who tried to show him such information [about growing American strength] as defeatist.”(Why the Germans Lose at War, Kenneth Macksey, p.153.)

Others like Field Marshal Erwin Rommel record the disregard of senior Nazis toward American capabilities in weaponry.  Quoting Goering who when Rommel discussed 40mm anti-aircraft guns on aircraft that were devastating his armored forces Goering replied “That’s impossible. The Americans only know how to make razor blades.” (The Rommel Papers edited by B.H. Liddell-Hart p.295) Rommel was one of the few German commanders who recognized the folly of Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States noting that “By declaring war on America, we had brought the entire American industrial potential into the service of Allied war production. We in Africa knew all about the quality of its achievements.” (The Rommel Papers p.296)

When one also takes into account the general disrespect of the German military for the fighting qualities of American soldiers though often with good reason (see Russell Weigley’s books Eisenhower’s Lieutenants and The American Way of War) one sees how the myth impacted German thought.  This is evidenced by the disparaging comments of the pre-war German military attaché to the United States; General Boeticher, on the American military, national character and capability. (See World in the Balance pp. 61-62)

The overall negative view held by many Germans in regard to the military and industrial power and potential of the United States reinforced other parts of the myth. Such false beliefs served to bolster belief in the stab-in-the back theory as certainly the Americans could not have played any important role in the German defeat save Wilson’s alleged demoralization of the German population.  This was true not only of Hitler, but by most of his retinue and the military, diplomatic and industrial leadership of the Reich. Hitler’s ultimate belief shaped by the stab-in-the back and reinforced by his racial views which held the United States to be an inferior mongrel people. This led him to disregard the impact that the United States could have in the war and ultimately influenced his decision to declare war on the United States, a decision that would be a key factor in the ultimate defeat of Germany.

Myth can have positive value, but myth which becomes toxic can and often does lead to tragic consequences. All societies have some degree of myth in relationship to their history including the United States.  The myths are not all the same, various subgroups within the society create their own myth surrounding historic events. The danger is that those myths can supplant reason in the minds of political, military, media and religious figures and lead those people into taking actions that work to their own detriment or even destruction.

Today the President leads the way in promoting lies patently false myths in the name of his personal greatness which he shrouds himself while conflating that with making America great again all the while endangering the country. He has been promoting conspiracy theories for nearly a decade and has never stopped doing so or offered an apology for those words.

It is the duty of historians, philosophers and others in the society to ensure that myth does not override reality to the point that it moves policy both domestic and foreign in a manner that is ultimately detrimental to the nation.  The lesson of history demonstrated by myths surrounding the German defeat and role of the United States in that defeat shows just how myth can drive a nation to irrational, evil and ultimately tragic actions not only for that nation and its people, but for the world.

Sadly, it appears that the United States led by President Trump is following the path of Hitler’s Germany in terms of how it views the world and treats other nations and history will not be kind to us.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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