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A Futile Sacrifice: The Sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Throughout history there have been times that commanders have sacrificed themselves and the forces under their command for no good reason. One of the most futile of these instances occurred on December 10th 1941 when Force Z, commanded by Admiral Tom Phillips went into action against Japanese Air Forces off the Malay coast.

HMS Repulse (above) and HMS Prince of Wales (below)

The task force, composed of the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales, and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse had only recently arrived in the Far East. They had been ordered there by Winston Churchill, against the advice of the Admiralty, and other leaders of the Commonwealth. They were to be accompanied by the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable. However, the new carrier had been damaged by grounding at Jamaica in November 1941. Even without the grounding incident it is unlikely that Indomitable could have reached Singapore in time to join the task force and provide it with the air cover necessary for its survival.

Admiral Tom Phillips (R) at Singapore

The Commander of Force Z, Admiral Phillips was considered by many in the Royal Navy to be a “desk Admiral.” He had held few sea commands and never commanded a surface force in combat. However, he had served as Naval Advisor to King George VI, and had gained the attention and favor of Winston Churchill while serving as Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff. Churchill had him appointed as Acting Vice Admiral and later Acting Admiral to command what would become known as Force Z.

His task force arrived at Singapore on December 2nd 1941. When the Japanese attacked on December 8th (to Americans December 7th due to the International Date Line) Phillips decided to sortie to intercept and sink Japanese transports and their escorts. In doing so Phillips fell into a Japanese trap and made it worse by valuing radio silence over air support. He refused to contact or coordinate his moments with the one fighter squadron assigned to support him, No. 453 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force.

No. 453 Squadron (RAAF) Brewster Buffaloes

Disregarding the experience of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, Phillips held air power in contempt, believing it not to be a threat to surface forces, and committed his task force to battle without air support. The result was predictable. Both Prince of Wales and Repulse were sent to the bottom of the ocean in under two hours. Hundreds of sailors lost their lives, including Admiral Phillips. They sank no enemy transports, no enemy warships, and downed no enemy aircraft. But even with the support of the 10 Brewster Buffaloes of 453 Squadron, it is highly unlikely that the ships could have survived the Japanese onslaught; Phillips’s decision to sail into harm’s way doomed the fleet, just as much as Churchill’s decision to send it to Singapore did.

It was a complete waste of lives and two fine fast Battleships which could have provided excellent service with Aircraft Carriers of the U. S. Pacific Fleet, had they been sent to Australia and then on to the South Pacific rather than Singapore. But Churchill could not see this, and Phillips was even more myopic. Phillips had never served in combat and his task for would have been better served by a commander like Admiral James Somerville who had commanded a force of carriers, fast Battleships, and cruisers in combat against an enemy who often had air supremacy.

HMS Prince of Wales being Abandoned

Phillips, to be sure was a gallant an honorable man, but he was not up to the task that he was appointed by Churchill to accomplish. As a result, the Royal Navy lost both the Prince of Wales and Repulse, as well as hundreds of gallant and experienced sailors.

As for me, a historian and Naval Officer, it is one of the few operations of the Second World War that brings my anger to a boiling point every time that I think about it. There was no strategic, operational, or tactical benefit to it. Churchill would have been better off to keep the ships in the Atlantic or the Western Indian Ocean. He might have received some political criticism, but what would have that been to the loss of these ships for no strategic, operational, or tactical gain?

So, with that in mind and with the possibility that the Chinese Navy could surprise the United States Navy in the South China Sea, I bid you an unsettled night.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Armistice Day Centenary: A Day of Conscience

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Forty years after the guns went silent in on November 11th 1918, General Omar Bradley, spoke these words on the eve of Armistice Day, 1948:

Tomorrow is our day of conscience. For although it is a monument to victory, it is also a symbol of failure. Just as it honors the dead, so must it humble the living. Armistice Day is a constant reminder that we won a war and lost a peace…”

It was supposed to be the “War to end all war,” or so thought President Woodrow Wilson and other American idealists. However, the war to end all war birthed a series of wars which far exceeded the losses of the First World War as ideological wars, exponentially more powerful weapons, and systematized mass murder and genocide birthed new horrors.

Winston Churchill wrote:

“The Great War differed from all ancient wars in the immense power of the combatants and their fearful agencies of destruction, and from all modern wars in the utter ruthlessness with which it was fought. … Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran. When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves: and they were of doubtful utility.”

In the First World War there were over 22 million military casualties including over 8 million dead of which over 126,000 were Americans. Close to 20 million civilians also were casualties of the war.

President Woodrow Wilson established what we know now as Veteran’s Day as Armistice Day in November 1919, a year after the guns went silent.

Wilson wrote:

To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…

That initial proclamation was followed 45 years later by one of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower signed into law what we now know as Veteran’s Day in 1954.

In a sense I wish we had two holidays, one for Veterans from all wars in general and this one which we should never forget. It seems that in combining them we have lost some of the sacredness of the original. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.” 

Because of that, I will remember all who served tomorrow as we observe Veterans Day, but I will not forget Armistice Day.

It is important not to forget the horrors and results of the First World War because both it and the Second World War, have faded from memory. Most people today cannot fathom killing on such a large scale, the overthrow of powerful nations and dynasties, the creation of new nations built from diverse, and often rival ethnic and religious groups such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, or the re-establishment of ancient nations such as Poland.

Yet to those of us who have gone to war and studied past wars the end result is not so distant. It is a part of our lives even today. Edmond Taylor accurately noted in his book, The Fall of the Dynasties: The Collapse of the Old Order, 1905-1922:

“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.”

The cost in human lives alone is incomprehensible. In the short time that United States forces went into action in late 1917 on the western front and the armistice, 126,000 Americans were killed, 234,000 wounded, and 4,500 missing; 8.2% of the force of 4,355,000 the nation mobilized for war. More Americans were killed in the First World War than Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined.

But American losses were small in comparison with the European nations who had for over four years bled themselves dry.  If one wonders why Europeans seem to have so little desire for involvement in war, one only needs to see how the concentrated killing of the First World War decimated the best and brightest of that generation. Out of the nearly 8.5 million Frenchmen mobilized lost 1,357,000 killed, 4,266,000 wounded and 537,000 missing, 6,160,000 casualties or 73.3% of its forces. The Russians also lost over 73% of 12 million, Romania 71% of 750,000, Germany 65% of 11 million, Serbia 47% of 707,000, tiny Montenegro 40% of 50,000, Italy 39.9% of 5.6 million, Great Britain 36% of almost 9 million, the Ottoman Empire 34% of 8.5 million. But the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary which began the war in response to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand lost 90% of the 7.8 million men that it sent to war.

The human costs were horrifying. In all over over 65 million men served under arms in the war. Over 8.5 million were killed, over 21 million wounded, 7.75 million missing or prisoners or almost 37.5 million military casualties alone. That total would be roughly equivalent to every citizen of the 30 largest American cities being killed, wounded or missing.

Much of Europe was devastated and in the following months and years, mass numbers of refugees the dissolution of previously stable empires were displaced. A Civil War in Russia killed many more people and led to the establishment of the Soviet Union. Germany too was torn apart by civil war that left it bitterly divided and planted the seeds of Hitler’s Nazi regime. Border conflicts between new states with deep seated ethnic hatreds broke out. A flu pandemic spread around the world killing millions more. Economic disasters culminating in the Great Depression and social instability led to the rise of totalitarian regimes which spawned another, even more costly World War and a 40 year Cold War. The bitter results of the First World War are still felt today as conflicts in the Middle East in part fueled by the decisions of Britain and France at the end of the war rage on.

T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, who gained fame during the Arab revolt looked at the results of the war with a great deal of melancholy. He wrote:

“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.”

The his epic war poem, In Flanders Fields, Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrea symbolized the cost of that war and the feelings of the warriors who endured its hell.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Yes there are always consequences to actions. This weekend as we remember what we Americans now call Veteran’s Day, and the British refer to as Remembrance Day let us blood shed by so on the battlefields of Verdun, Gallipoli, Caporetto, Passchendaele, the Marne, the Argonne, Tannenberg, the Somme, Galicia, the Balkans, Flanders Fields, at sea and in the air.

President John F. Kennedy said: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

Kennedy was right, that our appreciation is not just to utter words, but to live by them. Sadly, the current American President has no understanding of such nuances. He continued thump his chest and spit in the face of allies while, courting nations hostile to the very ideals of the United States. Likewise, the President, a man who never served in the military, and spent the Vietnam War avoiding service and dodging the draft while later comparing avoiding sexuality transmitted diseases to combat again dishonored the men who spilt their blood in the First World War. Donald Trump does not understand anything about history, war, courage, or honor. Sadly, he is all too representative of a generation that neither knows or cares about those things. He and others like him will be the ones that lead the world into another disaster.

“Strong prejudices in an ill-formed mind are hazardous to government, and when combined with a position of power even more so.”

I write in the hope of peace and an end to war.

Peace,

Padre Steve

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Filed under History, Military, national security, Political Commentary, 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

The High Cost of Two Battleships: Churchill, Turkey and a Decision that Still Effects us Today

churchill1914

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the more interesting and overlooked factors in the days leading up to the First World War, which had significant ramifications in the Middle East involved Winston Churchill. Churchill was serving as First Lord of the Admiralty and made a decision which ensured the Ottoman Empire would be pushed into an alliance with Germany.

For many years Britain had been the chief supplier of ships for the Ottoman Navy. In fact in the years leading up to World War One the Ottomans had purchased over 40 ships from Great Britain and on August 2nd 1914 was expecting to take delivery of two, extremely modern Dreadnoughts, the Sultan Osman I and the Reshadieh. The Sultan Osman was armed with fourteen 12” guns, the Reshadieh with ten 13” guns, making them the equal or superior to most battleships afloat. The Turkish Government had paid over 4 billion Pounds for the ships and made the final payment on August 2nd shortly before the Turkish Captain and 500 crew members were to come aboard for a ceremony formally handing over the ship to the Turkish Navy.

HMS_Agincourt_1915

HMS Agincourt 

Much of the money the Turks used to pay for the ships came from the donations of ordinary Turkish citizens. Money came from taverns, from cafes, schools, Mosques and markets. Those that donated were awarded a commemorative medal, the ships were the pride of Turkey and the empire. The nation awaited the delivery of the ships which would ensure the superiority of the Turkish Navy against its traditional foe, Russia.

HMS_Erin

HMS Erin

As War approached Churchill began to prepare, keeping many of his plans and actions even from the government. Less than an hour before the ceremony Churchill ordered the ships seized and and the Royal Navy kept the Turkish Captain and crew locked aboard a nearby transport. The Turkish Captain later wrote:

“… We paid the last installment (700.000 Turkish liras). The manufacturer and we agreed on that the ships would be hand over on 2 August 1914. Nevertheless, after we made our payment and half an hour before the ceremony, the British declared that they have requisitioned the ships… Although we have protested, nobody paid attention.”

Churchill had gained two modern Dreadnoughts for the Royal Navy, and the British shipyards kept the money, the Turks were never compensated for the loss. The ships were renamed HMS Agincourt and HMS Erin. Both served throughout the war and at the Battle of Jutland, and bother were scrapped in the early 1920s due to the restrictions of the Washington Naval Treaty.

SMS_Goeben-ptbow3

SMS Goeben

But in the process whereby the British gained the ships, ensured that Turkey would ally itself with Germany. The positive effects were mitigated by the Germans providing the very modern dreadnought type  Molkte ClassBattlecruiser Goeben and Light Cruiser Breslau to the Turks, giving them the edge over the Russians. Breslau was mined and sunk in 1918 but Goeben served in the Turkish Navy as the Yavuz Sultan Selim until she was decommissioned in 1954, and scrapped in 1973.

Likewise, Churchill’s decision meant that when Turkey entered the war that the strategically important Bosporus strait which was Russia’s only year round access to foreign shipping was closed, keeping Britain and France from being able to supply their Russian ally. The ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, launched by Churchill was the attempt to break the Turkish stranglehold, and the costly failure of that operation helped ensure the defeat of Russia and the overthrow of the Czar..

In the long term it had affects that we are still feeling the today. The entry or Turkey into the war and the subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire was the catalyst for the arbitrary borders drawn by the allies across the Middle East. We still suffer the result today.

Had Turkey remained neutral throughout the war, or even sided with the allies the course of history might be far different. We don’t know, but the Ottoman Empire might have endured or it might have peacefully morphed into something different.

Churchill’s decision turned out to be one of the more important, and less known events before the war broke out, and certainly we still feel the ramifications today. Actions have consequences, and sometimes what seems expedient to give a tactical edge, sometimes has far reaching strategic consequences. Consequences that sometimes linger for generations. In particular, the Trump administration needs to wake up to how their present policies will effect the world for the next century or more.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Night the Lamps Went Out in Europe: August 3rd 1914

Sir Edward Grey Addresses the House of Commons

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One hundred and four years ago the political and military leaders of Europe embarked on a catastrophic war, the results of which are still with us over a century later.

The mobilization of millions of soldiers across Europe was moving rapidly as the sun set on the night of August 2nd 1914 when the German Ambassador to Belgium Klaus Bulow-Selaske delivered an ultimatum to the Belgian government. The ultimatum gave the Belgians 12 hours to decide if they would allow the German armies free passage through the country. The Belgians, treasuring their independence and led by a truly heroic leader, the young and humble King Albert, refused the German ultimatum and vowed to fight.

The next morning the British House of Commons met and for the first time since 1893 every member was present, with many spectators also in attendance. It was a dramatic event, as for the first time in 100 years Britain’s participation in a war on the European Continent was being debated. Britain was divided between those who wanted to intervene and non-interventionists. In a high pressure situation where the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia, France, Germany, and little Belgium were mobilizing for war the was on His Majesty’s Government to make a decision.

The British Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey urged giving support to France. He told the assembled Members of Parliament about, British military understandings with France, and the German ultimatum to Belgium. Grey asked them whether Britain “would quietly stand by and witness the perpetration of the dirtiest crime that ever stained the pages of history, and thus become participators in the sin.” He added that “we are going to suffer, I am afraid in this war, whether we are in it or stand aside.” If Britain dis stand aside, forfeiting her “Belgian Treaty obligations” the she would “sacrifice our respect and good name and reputation before the world.” Grey had not convinced everyone, but he had carried the day. However, the Germans did not believe that Britain would go to war over Belgium.

At seven that evening the German Ambassador to France Baron Schoen delivered a declaration of war against France, his counterpart in Berlin, the French Ambassador was given his passports.

As Grey pondered the content of an ultimatum to be sent to Berlin he returned to his office in Whitehall. “Watching with his failing eyes, the lamps being lit in St. James Park, Grey was heard to remark that “the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them again in our lifetime.”

The next morning the German army began its assault on the Belgian fortress city of Liege. That afternoon Poincare and Foreign Minister Viviani addressed the combined houses of the French Parliament, asking for war credits, discussing German violations of French territory and “implored the deputies, and the French people “to help us in bearing the burden of our heavy responsibility, the comfort of a clear conscience and the conviction that we have done our duty.”

The members of all parties, from the nationalists, the Catholic right and the Socialists overwhelming committed themselves to a sacred union. Poincare recalled later “Never has there been a spectacle as magnificent as that which they have just participated….In the memory of man, there has never been anything more beautiful in France.”

Bethmann-Hollweg Addresses the Reichstag

In Berlin Prime Minister Bethmann-Hollweg accused the French of violating German borders and of the Russian mobilization. He asked the Reichstag deputies “Were we to wait in further patience until the nations on either side of us chose the moment for their attack?” He was interrupted with cries of “No! No!”

Bethmann went on and admitted that Germany had violated Belgian territory and that it was a “breach of international law” ironically what he had just accused the French of doing, but Bethmann promised that “this wrong- I speak openly-the wrong we thereby commit we will try to make good as soon as our military aims have been attained.” Grand Admiral Tirpitz considered the admission of wrongdoing “the greatest blunder ever spoken by a German statesman.”

Bethmann called the nation to stand behind the military and as in France “Reichstag party leaders rose as one to vote war credits.”

A similar ultimatum was delivered to Russia by the German Ambassador and a similar scene repeated as Russia declared war.

That evening the British Ambassador to Germany Sir Edward Goschen paid a visit to Foreign Minister Jagow with a British ultimatum for the Germans to withdraw from Belgium within twelve hours, or face war. Bethmann, who had helped lead his nation into war believing that the British would remain neutral was stunned. Likewise, none had counted on the Russians to fight. The Germans had given Austria-Hungary a “blank check” and that nation’s leaders cashed it with grave consequences for the world. Austria’s actions led to Czar Nicholas making the fateful decision to mobilize on July 29th, which set Europe on course for war.

There was no turning back, in four hours the two greatest military powers in the world, Great Britain and Germany would be at war.

All all of the leaders in their speeches had left out information that would be embarrassing to their claims in their addresses, duplicity was the order of the day. The lights were going out across Europe. And the leaders of all of the nations, with the exception of Belgium shared some degree of responsibility.

The questions for us today are similar: Will all of our leaders allow the lights to go out again, not just in Europe but the Middle East and Asia? and will world leaders allow some foolish action somewhere to bring about more war?

Admittedly the situation is not identical, but there are troubling similarities. It is something to think long and hard about.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“It Can’t Happen Here” but it is Happening Before Our Eyes

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In 1935 the American writer Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel called It Can’t Happen Here. It was a semi-satirical novel about a Fascist state coming to power in the United States. In it Lewis wrote these words:

“A country that tolerates evil means- evil manners, standards of ethics-for a generation, will be so poisoned that it never will have any good end.”

I believe that we are seeing that happen before our eyes. That being said I realized from the beginning of the Trump campaign that it would to this at home and abroad. I was looking back at my archives going even back to 2012 after President Obama’s re-election and found that I had written about Trump’s maniacal desire to upend defy political and social norms and demonstrate his contempt for the Constitution and our laws. When he announced his campaign he began by appealing to nationalism and racism and he never stopped.

On December 15th 2015 I wrote these words in an article entitled The Mob Determined the Theme. Some people thought that I was writing about the Mafia or gangs, but I was talking about mob rule. Those words are here:

“When Albert Speer discussed the ability of Adolf Hitler to captivate the German people he noted something important. He discussed how Hitler and his minions played to them set by the disgruntled and angry German population. Speer wrote, “The mob determined the theme. To compensate for misery, insecurity, unemployment, and hopelessness, this anonymous assemblage wallowed for hours at a time in obsessions, savagery and license. The personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims. By lashing out at their opponents and vilifying the Jews, they gave expression and direction to fierce primal passions.”

Hitler played to that misery, insecurity and the obsessions of the politically and economically disaffected “conservative base” that no longer trusted the party establishments of the old-line conservative parties. He also played to the deep-rooted racism and anti-Semitism of those people. Hitler was an outsider, he was not indebted to any traditional party hierarchy and as such was able to throw away convention and play to the fear and anger of many Germans.

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Donald Trump is doing today and he is running circles around the traditional politicians of the Republican Party. Every time trump says something that would have gotten himself blown out of the race twenty years ago had he said such things, today his poll numbers keep going up. He is now trending around 35% in most polls of GOP voters and my guess is that those numbers are low, as some supporters may not be willing to tell a pollster that they are for Trump, at least yet. My guess is that Trump’s support in the GOP is probably higher than 40% and won’t go down much. The party hierarchy and most of Trump’s primary rivals consistently criticize Trump, but most say that they will back him if he is the nominee. I cannot imagine that being the case twenty years ago when both the party establishment and the voters would have dumped him in a New York minute.

Aug. 21. 2015 Mobile, AL, Trump supporters at his campaign pep rally in Ladd Peebles Stadium. These women are all party of the Republican Party and plan to vote for Trump.  Over 20 thousand came to the Ladd-Peebles Stadium to attend Trumps campaign pep rally. 40,000 were expected to come.

Trump understands the mood of much of the traditionally conservative public better than his Republican establishment competitors. Trump is not stupid, unlike Hitler who actually believed in his message, Trump is not a radical, he cannot be, he has too much invested in the system. Instead, he is a street smart and pragmatic businessman who is exploiting the situation on the ground to his advantage. His opponents and the GOP establishment are frightened, but like the hidebound conservatives of the Weimar Republic who either dismissed or Hitler or thought that they could contain him are not willing to make a stand. As a result, Trump is able to play to the mood of the base and to coin a phrase, to “trump the establishment” by channeling the deepest anger, fear, hatred, xenophobia, and racism that the GOP establishment refuses to acknowledge. When there is a push back by the establishment it further angers the base, and Trump, quite adroitly threatens to leave the party; something which would doom the GOP in the 2016 general election, and possibly shatter the party.

Trump’s GOP opponents should not underestimate him and neither should establishment Democrats. Trump is using his celebrity bombast and the democratic process to take control of a major political party, and he is a lot smarter than most political analysts give him credit. As such, as a non-establishment outsider, Trump has a chance at taking over a major political party, something that has never before happened in the United States.

If he succeeds in his takeover bid, it will forever change American politics, especially if he is able to ride the fear, hatred, and fear to the White House. I don’t think the latter will happen, but I would not exclude it from the realm of the possible. To paraphrase Speer’s words about Hitler and Goebbels: By lashing out at their opponents and vilifying the Muslims and immigrants, Trump gave expression and direction to fierce primal passions of a disaffected GOP base.”

That was in 2015.

On July 22nd 2017 I wrote I Alone Can Fix It: Trump’s Dictatorial Message as I observed the new GOP nominee at the GOP National Convention. Five months later I wrote on December 27th 2016 I wrote Freedom is Never More than a Generation from Extinction. On March 22nd of this year I wrote Trump’s America: Saving the Form But not the Soul. I could go on and link many other articles but I will not, I have incriminated myself enough tonight.

Now that Donald Trump is in power he has used the Department of Homeland Security through a militarized ICE using mass incarcerations, expulsions, separating children from their families, and operating prison facilities from which people who are not with any crime charged are held indefinitely without legal representation. He has opening given support to White Supremacists including Neo-Nazis. He continues to threaten the Press, the political opposition, and long time allies using his Twitter account and his sycophants at Fox News and a multitude of Right Wing propaganda outlets to peddle lies as truth label those who tell the truth as liars and peddlers of Fake News.

He shows no interest in Civil Rights except support measures at the Federal, State, and local levels to roll back civil rights for ethnic, racial, and religious minorities, women, and LGBTQ people. His economic and social policies are designed to benefit his allies, especially the top 1% and politically reliable Evangelical Christians while impoverishing and disenfranchising all others. He labels all who oppose or criticize him and his policies as enemies of the state and traitors.

In terms of foreign policy he has during the course of his presidency personally undermined and now destroyed alliances and treaties that Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Barak Obama worked to sustain. Those Presidents who included Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan helped build those alliances and forge those treaties for our good and the good of our allies and those who we welcomed into the fold of democratic ideals. Instead he makes diplomatic war on our allies while openly praising dictators abroad and carrying out the dictates of Vladimir Putin.

This brings me back to his attacks on the American Justice system of which almost all are tied to his, his family’s, and his advisor’s connection with Russia attempts to undermine American elections and the military attack and occupation of parts of the Ukraine, which during his campaign he supported by saying that the conquered Ukrainian regions “probably preferred Russian rule.” Neither before or after his election did he, his aides ever condemn the shoot-down of a commercial airliner by Russian forces near the Russian-Ukrainian border. The actions in the Ukraine led the G-7 to expel Russia. This weekend the President proposed reinstating the Russians despite the fact that they are still actively working against the United States and our Allies.

He is launching a trade war with our allies and leading trading partners which will be disastrous to most Americans.

Later today he will attempt to “negotiate a deal” with the North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un while admitting that he has done no preparation for it. I would hope for a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula but I believe that the President will either come back with a deal that works to the advantage of the North Koreans or which will fail and bring about war in Northeast Asia. If he does come up with a deal it is very possible that he will use it as a means to go to war against Iran which will result in an apocalyptic conflagration in the Middle-East.

As he does all of this he surrounds himself with terrified yes men who are too afraid of him to tell the truth while increasing his attacks on the law, the Constitution, and people that he sees as his personal enemies at home and abroad. As I watch him and read what he writes I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s who wrote:

“You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police … yet in their hearts there is unspoken fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts: words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home — all the more powerful because forbidden — terrify them. A little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic.” 

The President’s aggressiveness is not brought about by confidence, it is brought about by his fear, he cannot abide criticism of any kind, thus he must crush it.

I fear for what is coming and I am not sure if our institutions, laws, or Constitution will survive in any recognizable form. I want them to, but right now I do not see light at the end of this tunnel, and I would much rather be wrong than right.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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A Cautionary Tale of Soldierly Obedience: The Fate of the Desert Fox

rommel

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Some seventy-three 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.”

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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.”

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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.”

His 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.

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.”

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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