Tag Archives: treaty of versailles

The Battle of North Cape: The Death of the Scharnhorst

Schlachtschiff "Scharnhorst"

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Over the past few days I have posted a number of articles dealing with the tragedy of war during the Christmas season and I am continuing that on this day which is often called the Second Day of Christmas or the Feast of St. Stephen.

Christmastide is a joyous time for many, but in the course of history there have been times that military men have fought and died in hopeless battles far from their families. Thus it is often a time of sorry, especially for those that die alone. Among those who died alone in the Arctic darkness of December 26th 1943 were the officers and crew of the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst.

Schlachtschiff "Scharnhorst"

Scharnhorst in port

The Scharnhorst along with her sister ship Gneisenau were the product of the naval architects of Germany who in the early 1930s designed some of the most beautiful as well as deadly warships of the Second World War.  Following Germany’s rejection of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles the Kreigsmarine enacted a building program to enlarge and modernize the German Navy which then was composed of obsolete pre-Dreadnaught battleships and a few modern light cruisers and destroyers.   The first major units constructed were actually begun by the predecessor to the Kreigsmarine, the Reichsmarineof the Weimar Republic.  These were the Deutschland class Armored Ships, sometimes called “Pocket Battleships” and later reclassified as Heavy Cruisers. These ships were designed to replace the old pre-Dreadnaught battleships and incorporated electric welds to reduce displacement, diesel engines for extended cruise range to enable them to serve as commerce raiders and a battery of six 11” guns.  While an advance over anything in the German inventory they were outclassed by the British battle cruisers Hood, Renown and Repulse.

However, the first truly capital ships built by the Kriegsmarine were the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau Rated as battleships, in reality they were battle cruisers because of their light main battery of 11” guns as opposed to the 14”, 15” or 16” batteries of other nations battleships.  Despite this in displacement and armor protection of the ships was comparable to other battleships of the era and their designed speed of 31.5 knots was superior to almost all other battleships of the era including the British King George V Class and the US Navy’s  North Carolina class.  Only the massive battlecruiser HMS Hood was their superior in speed and firepower.

As built Scharnhorst and Gneisenau displaced 31,000 toms, however at full combat load they both weighed in at nearly 38,000 tons and were 772 feet long.  They had an armor belt that was nearly 14 inches thick.  Armed with a main battery of nine 11” guns and a secondary armament of twelve 5.9 inch guns they also mounted a powerful for the time anti- aircraft battery of fourteen 4.1 inch guns, 16 37mm and 16 20mm anti-aircraft cannons.  Additionally they mounted six 21” torpedo tubes and carried three Arado 196 A3 scout planes.  The main battery was eventually to be replaced by six 15” guns but this never occurred although Gneisenau was taken in hand to mount the new weapons but the conversion was never completed.

scharnhorst2

Scharnhorst firing at HMS Glorious 

Laid down on 15 June 1935 and launched 3 October 1936 Scharnhorst was commissioned 7 January 1939.  Her sister Gneisenau was laid down 6 May 1935, launched 8 December 1936 and commissioned 21 May 1938.  Upon the commencement of the Second World War the two sisters began a reign of destruction on British shipping. In November they sank the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Rawalpindi During Operation Weserübung the pair surprised sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and her two escorting destroyers, the only time a Fleet carrier was caught and sunk by battleships during the war.   From January to March 1941 they conducted Operation Berlin against British merchant shipping in the North Atlantic sinking 22 ships before returning to base.

eeb893a0b92de4ae595de56fe0fd90ca

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during Operation Cerebus

While in the port of Brest Gneisenau was bombed and torpedoed requiring extensive repairs.  Due to the exposed location of the port the German high command decided to return the ships to Germany along with the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen.  The operation was called Operation Cerberus and it took place from 11-13 February 1942. The ships made a dash up the English Channel which was unsuccessfully contested by the British Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. However, both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were damaged by mines and needed subsequent repairs.  While undergoing repairs in Kiel Gneisenauwas further damaged by the Royal Air Force requiring repairs in or to steam to the port of Gotenhafen for repair and conversion.  Although some work was completed she was decommissioned and sunk as a blockship on 23 March 1945.  Following the war she was raised by the Poles and scrapped.

Scharnhorst was repaired following Operation Cerberes and in March 1943 was transferred to Norway where along with Tirpitz, Admiral Scheer, Lutzow (the former Deutschland), Admiral Hipper and Prinz Eugen she became part of a “fleet in being” poised to strike the Allied convoys bound for Russia.

Admiral_Bruce_Fraser_1943_IWM_A_16489

Admiral Bruce Fraser

The German surface ships were a potent force that if the circumstances allowed could devastate the Russia bound convoys and the Commander of the British Home Fleet, Admiral Bruce Fraser was determined to entrap and destroy any of these ships that threatened any convoy. As such in December 1943 Fraser formed a task group built around the HMS Duke of York to be ready to pounce on any German raider that threatened the convoys. His intent was to catch any of these ships, especially Scharnhorst and trap them between the convoys and their base, in conduction with a second task group centered around the cruisers HMS Belfast, HMS Norfolk, and HMS Sheffield, Known as Force One, and destroy the German battleship.

The key to British the British operation was Enigma the German code machine and cipher system which they had acquired from captured U-Boats, and which British code-breakers had mastered. The Germans decided to send Scharnhorst and five destroyers to locate and destroy convoy JW-55B which had been spotted by Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft. Because of EnigmaFraser knew that Scharnhorst would attempt to intercept the convoy and put his plan in motion.

Battle_of_North_Cape_26_December_1943_map

 

Scharnhorst and her escorts set sail on Christmas Day 1943 under the command of Rear Admiral Erich Bey to conduct Operation Ostfront. Since Fraser knew that the Germans were coming he had the convoy to temporarily reverse course which caused the Germans to miss the convoy. When he did not find the convoy in the expected location Bey detached his destroyers to expand the search area, leaving Scharnhorst alone to face the enemy.

scharnhort_operation_ostfront_5

Rear Admiral Erich Bey

At about 0900 on December 26th 1943 the cruisers of Force One discovered Scharnhorst and the  Battle of North Cape was on. Though little damage was suffered in the first engagement, the radar of Scharnhorst was knocked out, leaving her not only without air support or escort, but blind.

6050465664_e1f42ac7f8_o

HMS Duke of York firing at Scharnhorst

Scharnhorst attempted to flee but Fraser’s Duke of York  and her four escorting destroyers destroyers intercepted her. Without radar in the blinding snow squalls Scharnhorst was surprised. Duke of York’s first radar direct salvos knocked out her forward main battery but the German ship appeared to be making a getaway when a shell from Duke of York hit her number one boiler room and reduced her speed to barely ten knots. Although the German engineers and damage control teams made some repairs and were able to bring her speed back up to 22 knots, the British ships rapidly made up the distance enabling the British destroyers to launch torpedo attacks.

Knowing the ship was doomed Admiral Bey dispatched a message to the high command of the Kriegsmarine: “We will fight on until the last shell is fired.”

While she still attempted to fight off her attackers and escape she was struck by torpedoes from several destroyers as well as was pummeled by the at at distance of under 10,000 yards by Duke of York’s 14″ shells, as well as the 6″ shells of HMS Belfast and HMS Jamaica. Savaged by hits and incapable of further resistance the German ship capsized and sank at 1945 hours with the loss of all but 36 of her 1968 man crew.  Her wreck was discovered 3 October 2000 some 70 miles north of North Cape Norway.

Scharnhorst_survivors_A_021202

Survivors of Scharnhorst 

Admiral Fraser praised the gallantry of the German ship to his officers later that night saying: “Gentlemen, the battle against Scharnhorst has ended in victory for us. I hope that if any of you are ever called upon to lead a ship into action against an opponent many times superior, you will command your ship as gallantly as Scharnhorst was commanded today”

After the battle Grand Admiral Erich Raeder who had authorized the sortie was relieved as commander in chief of the navy and was replaced by Grand Admiral Karl Donitz who commanded the U-Boat forces. Hitler was furious and ended most surface naval operations.

800px-Scharnhorst-WHV-April-2011

Memorial to Scharnhorst and her crew at Kiel

I have written many times about the tragedy of war, on land and at sea. Having served in combat zones on land and having been shot at by the enemy, as well as having served at sea on a cruiser I have a sense of what these men must have gone through on that final day of their lives. Though I am a realist and know that such tragedies will likely occur again, I do pray for the day that war will be no more and that those who serve in harm’s way will never have to again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, World War II at Sea

Veteran’s Day 2016: They Thanked us Kindly and Made Their Peace…

Remembrance_Day___Poppy_Day_by_daliscar

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Ninety-eight years ago the war that was supposed to end all wars came to an end. Barely two years later, T.E. Lawrence wrote of its end:

We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”

That seems to be the way that it always is.

In November 1914 millions of soldiers were fighting in horrible conditions throughout Europe. From the English Channel to Serbia, Poland and Galicia; French, British, German, Austro-Hungarian, Serbian and Russian troops engaged each other in bloody and often pointless battles. Often commanded by old men who did not understand how the character of war had changed, millions were killed, wounded, maimed or died of disease.

481801_10151367001287059_1003164983_n-1.jpg

Grave of a British Airman in Habbinyah Iraq

After four years, with the Empires that were at the heart of the war’s outbreak collapsing one after the other there was an armistice. On the eleventh  hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month the shooting stopped and the front lines quieted. By then over 20 million people, soldiers and civilians alike had died. Millions more had been wounded, captured, seen their homes and lands devastated or been driven from there ancestral homelands, never to return.

The human cost of that war was horrific. Over 65 million soldiers were called up on all sides of the conflict, of which nearly 37.5 million became casualties, some 57.5% of all soldiers involved. Some countries saw the flower of their manhood, a generation decimated. Russia sustained over 9 million casualties of the 12 million men they committed to the war, a casualty rate of over 76%. The other Allied powers suffered as well.  France lost 6.4 million of 8.5 million, or 73%, Great Britain 3.1 million of nearly 9 million, 35%; Italy 2.2 million of 5.6 million, 39%. Their opponents, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire suffered greatly. Germany sustained 7.1 million casualties of 11 million men called up, or nearly 65%, Austria 7 million of 7.8 million, 90% and the Ottoman Empire 975,000 of 2.8 million or 34% of the soldiers that they sent to war.

lawrence-of-arabia

T.E. Lawrence

It was supposed to be the War to end all War…but it wasn’t, it was the mother of countless wars, wars which continue to this day in the vast expanses of desert where Lawrence served.

It has been a century since that bleak November of 1914, and ninety-six years since the time where for a brief moment, people around the world, but especially in Europe dared to hope for a lasting and just peace. But that would not be the case…

The victors imposed humiliating peace terms on the vanquished, be it the Germans on the Russians, or the Allies on Germany and her partners. The victors divided up nations, drew up borders without regard to historic, ethnic, tribal or religious sensibilities. But then, it was about the victors imposing themselves and their quest for domination, expanding colonial empires and controlling natural resources rather than seeking a just and lasting peace. The current war against the Islamic State is one of the wars spawned by the Sykes-Picot agreement which divided the Middle East between the French and the British at the end of the war. It was a war that keeps on giving.

Of course we have known the disastrous results of their hubris, a hubris still carried on by those who love and profit by war…war without end which continues seemingly with no end in sight.

img_0220

I am a veteran of Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom, as well as the Bosnia mission and the Cold War. My dad was a Vietnam veteran who enlisted during the Korean War. I serve because it is the right thing to do, not because I find war romantic or desirable. It is as General William Tecumseh Sherman said “Hell.” If called to go back to Iraq, where I left so much of my soul, I would in a heartbeat.

Today we pay our day of homage to our honor veterans, especially in the United States, Great Britain, Canada and France. But sometimes it seems so hollow, for in all of our countries those that serve are a tiny minority of those eligible to serve, who are much of the time ignored or even scorned by those that feel that providing for them after they have served is too much of a burden on the wealthy who make their profits on the backs of these soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen.

memorial-day1-300x225

I have walked about since returning from Iraq often in a fog, trying to comprehend how a country can be at war for so long, and there is such a gap between the few who serve and the vast majority for whom war is an abstract concept happening to someone else, in places far away, and whose experience of war is its glorification in video games. Personally I find that obscene, and feel that I live in a foreign world. Erich Maria Remarque wrote in All Quiet on the Western Front: 

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

Similarly Guy Sager wrote in his classic The Forgotten Soldier: 

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.”

Major General Gouverneur Warren wrote to his wife two years after the American Civil War:

“I wish I did not dream that much. They make me sometimes dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish to never experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

Sometimes I find it obscene that retailers and other corporations have turned this solemnity into another opportunity to profit. But then why should I expect different? Such profiteers have been around from the beginning of time, but then maybe I still am foolish enough to hope for something different. Please don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate the fact that some businesses attempt in at least some small way to thank veterans. I also know there are many businesses and business owners who do more than offer up tokens once a year, by putting their money where their mouth is to support returning veterans with decent jobs and career opportunities; but for too many others the day is just another day to increase profits while appearing to “support the troops.”

As Marine Corps legend and two time Medal of Honor winner Major General Smedley Butler Wrote:

“What is the cost of war? what is the bill? “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

But the marketers of war do not mind, almost Orwellian language is used to lessen its barbarity. Dave Grossman wrote in his book On Killing:

“Even the language of men at war is the full denial of the enormity of what they have done. Most solders do not “kill,” instead the enemy was knocked over, wasted, greased, taken out, and mopped up. The enemy is hosed, zapped, probed, and fired on. The enemy’s humanity is denied, and he becomes a strange beast called a Jap, Reb, Yank, dink, slant, or slope. Even the weapons of war receive benign names- Puff the Magic Dragon, Walleye, TOW, Fat Boy, Thin Man- and the killing weapon of the individual soldier becomes a piece or a hog, and a bullet becomes a round.”

There is even a cottage industry of war buffs, some of who are veterans seeking some kind of camaraderie after their service, but most of whom have little or know skin in the real game, and at no inconvenience to themselves. As far as the veterans I understand, but as for the others I can fully understand the words of Guy Sager, who wrote:

“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual…One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”

It was to be the War to end all war” but I would venture that it was the war that birthed countless wars, worse tyrannies and genocides; That war, which we mark the end of today, is in a very real and tragic sense, the mother of the wars that have followed. War without end…Amen.

As so to my friends, my comrades and all that served I honor you, especially those that I served alongside. We are a band of brothers, no matter what the war profiteers do, no matter how minuscule our number as compared to those who do not know what we do, and those who never will.  We share a timeless bond and no-one can take that away.

I close with the words of a German General from the television mini-series Band of Brothers which kind of sums up how I feel today. The American troops who have fought so long and hard are watching the general address his troops after their surrender. An American soldier of German-Jewish descent translates for his comrades the words spoken by the German commander, and it as if the German is speaking for each of them as well.

Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.

In hopes of peace,

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under History, Military

Death in the Arctic: Scharnhorst at North Cape

Schlachtschiff "Scharnhorst"

Christmastide is a joyous time for many, but in the course of history there have been times that military men have fought and died in hopeless battles far from their families. Thus it is often a time of sorry, especially for those that die alone. Among those who died alone in the Arctic darkness of December 26th 1943 were the officers and crew of the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst.

Schlachtschiff "Scharnhorst"

Scharnhorst in port

The Scharnhorst along with her sister ship Gneisenau were the product of the naval architects of Germany who in the early 1930s designed some of the most beautiful as well as deadly warships of the Second World War.  Following Germany’s rejection of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles the Kreigsmarine enacted a building program to enlarge and modernize the German Navy which then was composed of obsolete pre-Dreadnaught battleships and a few modern light cruisers and destroyers.   The first major units constructed were actually begun by the predecessor to the Kreigsmarine, the Reichsmarine of the Weimar Republic.  These were the Deutschland class Armored Ships, sometimes called “Pocket Battleships” and later reclassified as Heavy Cruisers. These ships were designed to replace the old pre-Dreadnaught battleships and incorporated electric welds to reduce displacement, diesel engines for extended cruise range to enable them to serve as commerce raiders and a battery of six 11” guns.  While an advance over anything in the German inventory they were outclassed by the British battle cruisers Hood, Renown and Repulse.

However, the first truly capital ships built by the Kriegsmarine were the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau Rated as battleships, in reality they were battle cruisers because of their light main battery of 11” guns as opposed to the 14”, 15” or 16” batteries of other nations battleships.  Despite this in displacement and armor protection of the ships was comparable to other battleships of the era and their designed speed of 31.5 knots was superior to almost all other battleships of the era including the British King George V Class and the US Navy’s  North Carolina class.  Only the massive battlecruiser HMS Hood was their superior in speed and firepower.

As built Scharnhorst and Gneisenau displaced 31,000 toms, however at full combat load they both weighed in at nearly 38,000 tons and were 772 feet long.  They had an armor belt that was nearly 14 inches thick.  Armed with a main battery of nine 11” guns and a secondary armament of twelve 5.9 inch guns they also mounted a powerful for the time anti- aircraft battery of fourteen 4.1 inch guns, 16 37mm and 16 20mm anti-aircraft cannons.  Additionally they mounted six 21” torpedo tubes and carried three Arado 196 A3 scout planes.  The main battery was eventually to be replaced by six 15” guns but this never occurred although Gneisenau was taken in hand to mount the new weapons but the conversion was never completed.

scharnhorst2

Scharnhorst firing at HMS Glorious 

Laid down on 15 June 1935 and launched 3 October 1936 Scharnhorst was commissioned 7 January 1939.  Her sister Gneisenau was laid down 6 May 1935, launched 8 December 1936 and commissioned 21 May 1938.  Upon the commencement of the Second World War the two sisters began a reign of destruction on British shipping. In November they sank the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Rawalpindi During Operation Weserübung the pair surprised sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and her two escorting destroyers, the only time a Fleet carrier was caught and sunk by battleships during the war.   From January to March 1941 they conducted Operation Berlin against British merchant shipping in the North Atlantic sinking 22 ships before returning to base.

eeb893a0b92de4ae595de56fe0fd90ca

Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during Operation Cerebus

While in the port of Brest Gneisenau was bombed and torpedoed requiring extensive repairs.  Due to the exposed location of the port the German high command decided to return the ships to Germany along with the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen.  The operation was called Operation Cerberus and it took place from 11-13 February 1942. The ships made a dash up the English Channel which was unsuccessfully contested by the British Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. However, both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were damaged by mines and needed subsequent repairs.  While undergoing repairs in Kiel Gneisenau was further damaged by the Royal Air Force requiring repairs in or to steam to the port of Gotenhafen for repair and conversion.  Although some work was completed she was decommissioned and sunk as a blockship on 23 March 1945.  Following the war she was raised by the Poles and scrapped.

Scharnhorst was repaired following Operation Cerberes and in March 1943 was transferred to Norway where along with Tirpitz, Admiral Scheer, Lutzow (the former Deutschland), Admiral Hipper and Prinz Eugen she became part of a “fleet in being” poised to strike the Allied convoys bound for Russia.

Admiral_Bruce_Fraser_1943_IWM_A_16489

Admiral Bruce Fraser

The German surface ships were a potent force that if the circumstances allowed could devastate the Russia bound convoys and the Commander of the British Home Fleet, Admiral Bruce Fraser was determined to entrap and destroy any of these ships that threatened any convoy. As such in December 1943 Fraser formed a task group built around the HMS Duke of York to be ready to pounce on any German raider that threatened the convoys. His intent was to catch any of these ships, especially Scharnhorst and trap them between the convoys and their base, in conduction with a second task group centered around the cruisers HMS Belfast, HMS Norfolk, and HMS Sheffield, Known as Force One, and destroy the German battleship.

The key to British the British operation was Enigma the German code machine and cipher system which they had acquired from captured U-Boats, and which British code-breakers had mastered. The Germans decided to send Scharnhorst and five destroyers to locate and destroy convoy JW-55B which had been spotted by Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft. Because of Enigma Fraser knew that Scharnhorst would attempt to intercept the convoy and put his plan in motion.

Battle_of_North_Cape_26_December_1943_map

 

Scharnhorst and her escorts set sail on Christmas Day 1943 under the command of Rear Admiral Erich Bey to conduct Operation Ostfront. Since Fraser knew that the Germans were coming he had the convoy to temporarily reverse course which caused the Germans to miss the convoy. When he did not find the convoy in the expected location Bey detached his destroyers to expand the search area, leaving Scharnhorst alone to face the enemy.

scharnhort_operation_ostfront_5

Rear Admiral Erich Bey

At about 0900 on December 26th 1943 the cruisers of Force One discovered Scharnhorst and the  Battle of North Cape was on. Though little damage was suffered in the first engagement, the radar of Scharnhorst was knocked out, leaving her not only without air support or escort, but blind.

6050465664_e1f42ac7f8_o

HMS Duke of York firing at Scharnhorst

Scharnhorst attempted to flee but Fraser’s Duke of York  and her four escorting destroyers destroyers intercepted her. Without radar in the blinding snow squalls Scharnhorst was surprised. Duke of York’s first radar direct salvos knocked out her forward main battery but the German ship appeared to be making a getaway when a shell from Duke of York hit her number one boiler room and reduced her speed to barely ten knots. Although the German engineers and damage control teams made some repairs and were able to bring her speed back up to 22 knots, the British ships rapidly made up the distance enabling the British destroyers to launch torpedo attacks.

Knowing the ship was doomed Admiral Bey dispatched a message to the high command of the Kriegsmarine: “We will fight on until the last shell is fired.”

While she still attempted to fight off her attackers and escape she was struck by torpedoes from several destroyers as well as was pummeled by the at at distance of under 10,000 yards by Duke of York’s 14″ shells, as well as the 6″ shells of HMS Belfast and HMS Jamaica. Savaged by hits and incapable of further resistance the German ship capsized and sank at 1945 hours with the loss of all but 36 of her 1968 man crew.  Her wreck was discovered 3 October 2000 some 70 miles north of North Cape Norway.

Scharnhorst_survivors_A_021202

Survivors of Scharnhorst 

Admiral Fraser praised the gallantry of the German ship to his officers later that night saying: “Gentlemen, the battle against Scharnhorst has ended in victory for us. I hope that if any of you are ever called upon to lead a ship into action against an opponent many times superior, you will command your ship as gallantly as Scharnhorst was commanded today”

After the battle Grand Admiral Erich Raeder who had authorized the sortie was relieved as commander in chief of the navy and was replaced by Grand Admiral Karl Donitz who commanded the U-Boat forces. Hitler was furious and ended most surface naval operations.

800px-Scharnhorst-WHV-April-2011

Memorial to Scharnhorst and her crew at Kiel

I have written many times about the tragedy of war, on land and at sea. Having served in combat zones on land and having been shot at by the enemy, as well as having served at sea on a cruiser I have a sense of what these men must have gone through on that final day of their lives. Though I am a realist and know that such tragedies will likely occur again, I do pray for the day that war will be no more and that those who serve in harm’s way will never have to again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, nazi germany, world war two in europe

1914: The Beginning of a Century of War

worldwar1-battlefield

This year marks the centennial of the onset of the First World War, a war which ushered in the world that we live today.  It was a war which changed warfare, a war which destroyed a long standing social and political order, a war that radically re-drew national boundaries and a war which planted the seeds of both freedom and tyranny, peace and more war. It was a war like no other before it. 

images-75

 

It lasted four years and was fought in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia as well as at sea in every corner of the globe. It was a war which introduced humanity to the full effect of industrialized warfare, carnage on a vaster scale than had ever been seen, and the introduction of aircraft, submarines, tanks and poisoned gas as instruments of war. It was the birth of a new era of war. 

canadian-soldiers-going-over-trench

In terms of the human cost it changed war, amplifying the carnage of the U.S. Civil war by an unimaginable magnitude.  Firepower and weaponry had advanced exponentially in the intervening years, but offensive tactics had remained as they were before.  Military experts remained in denial about the changes, even when the evidence was before their eyes. Regiments charged into battle shoulder to shoulder, relaying on élan to overcome firepower, the French Army outfitted in bright blue uniforms with red trousers and kepi forage hats valiantly attacking German’s outfitted in field gray.  Cavalry retained its place on the battlefield for a brief moment, Uhlans, Lancers, Cuirassiers and Dragoons charged about but found that the modern battlefield was not their place. 

images-74

Old Generals looked to the past for answers, and found none while remaining in denial about the power of the weapons and technology their troops faced. Field Marshal Douglas Haig said in 1915, after nearly 2 million men had fallen on the Western Front The machine gun is a much over rated weapon...”

images-73

But as the war progressed the instruments of war, particularly the artillery became the weapon of choice for commanders. The symbolism of the massive French Memorial at Verdun, it’s spire shaped like an artillery round is an apt reminder of the power of artillery during the war and the reliance of the combatants on it.

cimetiere_-_douaumont

The human cost was horrific. Over 65 million soldiers were called up on all sides of the conflict, of which nearly 37.5 million became casualties, some 57.5% of all soldiers involved. Some countries saw the flower of their manhood, a generation decimated. Russia sustained over 9 million casualties of the 12 million men they committed to the war, a casualty rate of over 76%. The other Allied powers suffered as well.  France lost 6.4 million of 8.5 million, or 73%, Great Britain 3.1 million of nearly 9 million, 35%; Italy 2.2 million of 5.6 million, 39%. Their opponents, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire suffered greatly. Germany sustained 7.1 million casualties of 11 million men called up, or nearly 65%, Austria 7 million of 7.8 million, 90% and the Ottoman Empire 975,000 of 2.8 million or 34% of the soldiers that they sent to war.

flat,550x550,075,f

The United States, though a late entry into the war suffered 323,000 casualties of over 4.3 million men called to arms in barely a year of combat, most occurring in the summer and fall of 1918.

Erich Maria Remarque wrote of the carnage and casualties in All Quiet on the Western Front:

“A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, a single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.”

The war brought about the overthrow of Imperial Germany, Imperial Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. The resultant break up of those empires brought freedom for some in Europe, a change in colonial masters for others in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, as well as civil war, failed attempts at democracy and the establishment of Communist or Fascist dictatorships in Germany, Italy and Russia. 

the-russian-revolution-1917-1923-also-known-as-the-october-revolution-led-by-vladimir-lenin

 

The promise of a just peace died at the hands of the victors, and the conditions of peace as well as the unrest in Europe eventually brought about another even more horrific Second World War. It was a war to end all war, but the peace became a peace to end all peace.

Lawrence_1519699c-2

 

The young men who fought the war had hoped for better, but it was not to be. T. E. Lawrence, or as he is often known “Lawrence of Arabia” wrote after the war:

“We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”

I will be writing a lot about this war in 2014. It is something that we cannot forget. The world today is much like it was in 1914. There have been many small wars in far off places fought by a few professionals of the great powers. Tensions rise as established nations and empires shrink and new powers rise to challenge them. The terrible peace and the borders established by Sykes-Picot continue to bring war and misery to the world today.

What I write will include stories of soldiers, battles, weapons and diplomacy and the cost of war.  I will do so because it is still pertinent, it still matters. The terrible costs need to be recounted, because our world could easily fall into a similar tragedy.  

princip460x276

British historian Max Hastings wrote about the changes in Europe leading up to the World War, noting that they occurred in approximately the same span of time as have transpired since the attacks of September 11th 2001. Hasting records in his book Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War that “Austrian writer Carl von Lang wrote early in 1914: “There is a feeling that events re in the air; all that is unpredictable is their timing. Perhaps we will see several more years of peace, but it is equally possible that overnight some tremendous upheaval will happen.”  

Otto von Bismarck prophetically wrote: “If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.” In July 1914, in the provincial town of  Sarajevo, the assassination of an unappreciated and unloved Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, who was likely the one man in that country who would have tried to avoid war, proved to be the match that lit the kindling which set off the conflagration of the First World War. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under History, Military, News and current events

Arab Spring Fever: The Revolution Begins Anew in Egypt as Syria Begins to Melt Down

bouazizi

Tunisian Demonstrators

It began in such an innocuous manner. A Tunisian street vendor named Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself due to what he viewed as harassment and humiliation by a local government official who confiscated his goods when he could not afford to pay bribes to the police. He died a few weeks later. That act set in motion widespread protests that led to the overthrow of long time Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ten days later.

The events in Tunisia sparked revolts throughout the Arab World, including the largest and most influential of the Arab States, Egypt and Syria. The situation in Egypt ended in the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and free elections where Islamists gained a majority in Parliament and the election of Moslem Brotherhood leader Mohamed Mursi as President. The situation in Syria led to minor reforms before the government of Bashir Al Asad began a series of repressive and violent crackdowns against protestors. This led to a armed revolt that has only continued to gain ground and achieve a modicum of international recognition.

2012-12-07T183045Z_340924292_GM1E8C71U0S01_RTRMADP_3_EGYPT-POLITICS

Egyptian Demonstrators calling for the Ouster of President Mursi

It appears that Egyptian President Mursi and the Islamic Brotherhood may have bit off a bit more than they could chew when they hurriedly wrote a new draft constitution that maximized their power and limited freedoms of non-Islamists including Coptic Christians, Democrats and secularists. Mursi compounded his mistake by issuing an edict that gave him practically unlimited power. The backlash from the Egyptian judiciary, journalists and opposition parties has been dramatic. Protests on the order of the original demonstrations against the Mubarak regime have engulfed Egypt, Mursi has  annulled his decree that granted him those powers and the opposition is calling for his overthrow. The Egyptian military has again become a player in the unfolding drama.

Free Syrian Army soldiers in Idlib

Free Syrian Army Soldiers in Action

In Syria the opposition is nearing complete control of many areas of the country and Bashir Al Asad’s regime is believed by many to be on its last legs, only the endgame remains to be played out. Some believe that Syria’s regime may be willing to use chemical weapons, particularly Sarin nerve gas agents against the opposition. The leaders of Western nations, especially the United States have announced that the use of such weapons would be unacceptable.

There are continued demonstrations, protests and political actions ongoing in several countries including US Allies Jordan, Kuwait and Bahrain.

Throughout the Arab World the Arab Spring has had marked repercussions. The long term dictators of Yemen and Libya were both overthrow, with Yemen’s case Ali Abdullah Saleh was able to negotiate his exit from power, while in Libya the regime of Muammar Ghadaffi was overthrown in a bloody manner following a protracted civil war. Ghadaffi himself was brutally murdered following his capture.

The Arab has also has had effects on the foreign policy of nations, particularly the United States, Russia and the European Union and others around the world who have stood to gain by maintaining the status quo in the region, playing off the interests of their Arab “friends” for their own benefit. The fact is that most countries or alliances with military, economic and political, diplomatic and intelligence interests are still trying to make sense of the new Middle East and how it will impact their interests.

The problem is that most people outside the region have little understanding of it or how different the culture, history and social considerations of each part of the Arab world is different than others. We like to take about the “Arab Street” or the “Moslem world” but the fact is that neither the Arab Street or the Moslem world is monolithic and what is the case in one country is not necessarily true in other countries.

054

T.E. Lawrence with members of Arab delegation at Versailles

What we know as countries in many cases are nothing more than disparate Arab peoples of different, Tribal affiliations, cultural traditions, history as well as Islamic and Christian factions. There is no generic Arab country or people and in many Arab countries there is internal conflict based on tribal, ethnic or religious lines. This was something that T.E. Lawrence noted in his works and something that we in our desire to shape events to our liking, need to remember.

britishbaghdad1917www

British Troops Enter Baghdad in 1920

During and after the First World War, European powers, particularly the English and French, but also the Italians used their military, economic and diplomatic power to divide the Arab World, recently free of Ottoman-Turk domination through the Sykes-Picot agreement, agreements made at Versailles and San Remo. In doing so they prevented a natural development of Arab freedom and helped poison relations between the Arabs and the West for generations and in the case of Saudi Arabia led to the domination of the Wahhabi house of Saud.

The Arab world is a mosaic of different peoples, cultures, traditions and histories. As the Arab Spring continues to unfold it is very important that we, who are not Arabs understand the various tensions at play and make vague assumptions about them or what the Arab Spring portends in Egypt or elsewhere.

Yes, we have important interests in the region. However as chaotic as it may seem the Arab Spring is a natural outgrowth of a region and its peoples finding themselves after centuries of foreign domination, be it that of the Roman, the Byzantine, the Turk, the Persian, or various countries of Europe and even the United States. It is important that it play out with as little foreign interference as possible. The lesson from history is that the last century of Western domination, imperialism and interference in Arab affairs have not helped and that these events will have to play themselves out, and that may take at least a generation.

arabspring-640x480

Whether we like it or not, what is happening now, despite the violence, strife and chaos is a necessary part of their story. How can we not understand? How many centuries of ethnic, cultural, religious and political war and strife have the nations of Europe and America endured to come to some semblance of working peacefully together?

The Arab Spring will be with us for a while because Arabs, regardless of their nationality, tribe or religious sect must determine their fate.

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under Foreign Policy, History, middle east, News and current events

The 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month: The Continuing Legacy of the Armistice of World War One

“Armistice Day is a constant reminder that we won a war and lost a peace.” General Omar Bradley

Germany was in pre-revolutionary turmoil. The High Command of the Army had told Kaiser Wilhelm II that military resistance was no longer possible and that the Army would not follow him back to Germany to put down the revolutionaries.

After four long years of war in which around 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians were killed and another 20 million wounded the guns fell silent. In the end it was also the end of an era. It was then end of empires. The Russian Empire had collapsed in 1917 and been initially been replaced by a republic and then by a Soviet State and Czar Nicholas II and his family became victims of the revolutionary violence. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed and in its place a hodge-podge of new states as well as liberated areas came into existence. The Ottoman Empire was carved up with its various parts being granted “independence” by the allies under the leadership of tribal leaders supported by the French or British.

Britain survived the war but not without crisis due to the massive losses in manpower and economic losses sustained during the war. France nearly fell in 1917 when the Army, demoralized by the unrelenting losses of years of brutal warfare mutinied. Belgium was devastated as was much of northern and eastern France.

Most surprisingly Imperial Germany collapsed. After knocking Russia out of the war in 1917 the Germans attempted a knockout punch against France. The offensive, code named Michael was successful at first and nearly succeeded, but in the end ran up against obstacles that could not be overcome, including the arrival of a massive and still fresh American Expeditionary Force. By the summer the tide had changed and the allies were on the offensive and threatening to break through the now vulnerable German lines. At home revolution was in the air, fed by the starvation of the German people and rising unrest units of the High Seas Fleet mutinied, as did units of the Army stationed in Germany proper. Workers and Soldiers Soviets took control of local and state governments.  Finally with everything on the line the Kaiser left Berlin to meet with his High Command at their headquarters in Spa, Belgium.

It was in Spa that the Kaiser found out that his reign was over. On November 9th General Wilhelm Groener, the Quartermaster General and the de-facto second in command of the Army told the Kaiser that the Army no longer supported him. It was a seminal moment. The Kaiser abdicated his throne and to prevent a communist takeover the leadership of the Social Democratic party proclaimed a republic that day. Hurried negotiations between the Socialists and the Army produced an alliance which averted the threatened Soviet takeover, but also doomed the new Weimar Republic. A hated state, it was blamed by monarchists and other conservatives for the German defeat and the humiliation of Versailles and hated by the communists, who viewed it as illegitimate.

The Germans send a peace delegation to France which agreed to the armistice at about  5 AM on November 11th which stipulated that hostilities were to cease at 1100. The firing stopped and German troops withdrew to a nation totally unprepared for defeat. The allies maintained their naval blockade of German ports until the Treaty of Versailles was signed the following year, wracked by starvation, the great Influenza epidemic, economic collapse and civil war Germany never came to terms with its defeat. Eventually, a crippled Weimar Republic would fall in 1933. Adolf Hitler , a decorated veteran of the war in the trenches became Chancellor and and with an year the undisputed dictator of Germany in 1934.

During the interregnum between the wars the victors cobbled together states from the the former empires. Borders were drawn without respect to racial, tribal or religious divisions. The victors, particularly the British, French and Italians expanded their overseas empires at the expense of the former empires and the newly acquired lands.

The war that was to end all wars only brought about another even more bloody war that would end with the dropping of Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan in August 1945. Hitler, who led Germany to ruin died by his own hand in his bunker. The remnants of empires that had not collapsed in the immediate aftermath of the First World War did not survive the second. By the 1970s most of the former colonies of the great empires were independent, but not necessarily free. Tribal and religious conflicts as well as genocide followed in Africa and Asia. A “Cold War” between the former allies of the Second World War followed, only ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th 1989, which was exactly 71 years to the day that Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated his throne.

Today, though it is nearly a century later the ramifications of that war, a war that was “to end all wars” are still with us. War and more revolution threatens in the Middle East even as former colonies wracked by tribal, religious or ethnic divisions within their artificially drawn boundaries continue to implode. Europe, buoyed by the hope of economic integration following the end of the Cold War is again being torn apart by ethnic and nationalist divisions as the Euro crisis deepened.

On November 11th 1918 few thought that the end of that war would still be felt today. After all, it was the “war to end all wars.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

1 Comment

Filed under History, Military, national security

The Deal is Done and are We? There are Always Results

Spartacist revolutionaries and Freikorps in action. Is this our fate? 

“but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. it is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. a geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.” Thomas Jefferson on the Missouri Compromise

I believe that Thomas Jefferson in describing the results of the Missouri Compromise aptly describes the mood of our times and the consequences of politicians that lead us to the dark abyss of hatred and civil war.   There are times that I wish that I was not a historian or theologian for then I could simply be ignorant of the place that our elected leaders are leading us.

Yesterday and today I sat convalescing at home trying to stay off of my injured leg as the final actions were taken in the House and the Senate on the Debt Ceiling Compromise. I felt as if I was watching a national tragedy being marketed as by some as a triumph of cooperation.  I was amazed that talk which was paired with the opponents of the measure in both parties.  I felt that those praising their actions to pass the increase and related budgetary cuts were saying it all for show even as they sharpened their swords for the next battle even as the vast majority of Americans expressed anger and frustration with the behavior of their elected officials.  A Pew Research poll indicated “72 percent of American characterized the recent budget negotiations as “ridiculous, disgusting, stupid, and frustrating.”

But we have no one to blame but ourselves. We voted them all into office and we have encouraged their repugnant behavior with our votes which more often than not were purchased by the fear mongering engaged by each side and our desire to have our special interests and or ideology come out on top. We have been engaged in what conservative columnist Pat Buchanan declared a “culture war” for the past two decades and wars be they cultural, ideological, and economic or military have consequences.  The longer they go on the worse and more violent they become until one side finally loses and the landscape is destroyed. A conservative German newspaper noted “It is this war-like rhetoric that has so poisoned American politics.” The Germans should know something of this.  The “Kulturkrieg” and the violent hatred of their countrymen in the wake of the defeat of the First World War and humiliation of Versailles brought about civil war.  The pursuit of radical ideologies in the following years is what doomed the ill-fatedWeimarRepublicwhen the economic calamity of the Great Depression struck and led to the tragedy of the Nazi takeover and ultimately led to World War Two.

I believe that the actions of all parties in this forced crisis were a disservice to the citizens of this country, the memory of all who have gone before us and done more to damage our standing in the world than I could ever imagine.  It is as if the leaders of the country have forgotten why they are even in Washington.  There is no unity of purpose, only the language of war being used against fellow Americans.  A German newspaper wrote “No one can forget the Civil War atmosphere in which this debt fight has taken place. It weighs on America’s international reputation. From the point of view of financial markets, the dysfunctional nature of Washington is a risk factor that must be calculated for in the future.”

The sad thing is that there is so much work that has to be done and it is more than reducing Federal Government spending. Our industries have been shipped wholesale overseas using the treaties that business has foisted upon their willing accomplices in both parties in the name of “free trade.”  Our unemployment continues to rise and many economic experts believe that we are entering a “double dip” recession which some believe could easily become a depression. The infrastructure of the nation crumbling with the businesses that benefit from them refusing to contribute to their maintenance unless they receive government contracts and money in return.  We are committed to long term ground wars that have sapped the economy and worn out the military which now seem to serve little strategic purpose.   In fact the position of the Army in Afghanistan could be disastrous if Pakistan decides to stop cooperating and not allow us to supply the Army through it.

It is apparent to me that those that can afford it the least and the military will bear the brunt of the cuts that will come and that it will be a long time before this crisis passes.  No one seems to be addressing the major issue of unemployment or economic growth without which there is no recovery.  I heard the President and Senate Majority Leader McConnell repeat what they have said for years but no plans and no action.  As for the military we are worn to a nub, our equipment needs to be replaced and modernized and our troops still deserve the best that we can give them, but even this is on the chopping block, military retirement is called “an expensive entitlement program” by those advocating that the military adopt a private sector pay and benefit plan of little value especially to those that have spent 10 years at war paying with their minds, bodies and spirit fighting wars that the Wall Street bunch has benefited from, the same Wall Street leaders that now call for reductions in military pay and benefits.  It is obscene.

I would like to believe that this is a rough patch that we will get through, but right now with the terrible acrimony present in Washington and all the State Capitols I have a hard time believing that we will.  The President has failed to enunciate any kind of plan or vision and the Tea Party leadership is acting like the Jacobins in Revolutionary France.

I have no idea who will “win” this “culture war” and does it really matter? The result will be a Pyrrhic victory with the winners celebrating on the ruins of the country.  I only know that we all lose.

God help us,

Peace

Padre Steve+

4 Comments

Filed under History, leadership, Military, Political Commentary