February 27, 2014
February 25, 2014
A post at the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies website introduces a digitized collection of maps, unit diaries, and other Canadian military history artifacts:
The Laurier Military History Archive – www.lmharchive.ca – is a project that was initiated in the Summer of 2013 by the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies (LCMSDS), at Wilfrid Laurier University (Waterloo, Ontario). It offers the public previously unavailable access to a variety of digitized materials from LCMSDS’ archival holdings, and will increasingly offer digitized materials in partnership with other archival institutions and private donors. At time of our official launch of the website we would like to draw your attention to three collections in particular which our dedicated volunteers have worked hard to make available to you.
The three featured collections are the Second World War Canadian Army Air Photos Collection, The George Lindsey Fonds, and The Canadian War Diaries of the Normandy Campaign Collection.
February 4, 2014
Nigel Davies has written a long post about the British and American standard of generalship in the two world wars, which won’t win him very many American (or Canadian) fans. That being said, he’s certainly right about the Canadian generals of WW2:
Contention: American senior generals in World War II were as bad, and for the same reason, as British senior generals in World War I.
[...] the politicians (and I will include Kitchener here, as he was by this time a politician with a military background rather than a real general), had based their recruiting campaign on a trendy ‘new model’ citizens army, rather than use the well developed existing territorial reserve system that would have done a far better job. They new enthusiastic troops were considered incapable of the traditional fire and movement approach of professional troops (the type that the Germans reintroduced in 1918 with their ‘commando units’, and the British army was able to copy soon after with properly trained and combat experienced personnel). Instead the enthusiastic amateurs were considered too badly trained to do more than advance in long straight lines… straight into the meat grinder.
Having said that the generals blame for the results should be at the very least shared with their political masters, I am still willing to express dissatisfaction with the approach of Haig and many of his senior commanders. They were Chateau Generals in approach and in attitude. They drew lines on maps without adequately considering the terrain, issued impossible instructions without looking at the state of the ground, and ran completely inadequate communications that were far from capable of keeping track of, or controlling, a modern battlefield.
It was noticeable later in the war that the more successful armies were commanded by competent and imaginative officers who insisted on detailed planning; intensive and specific tactical planning and operational training (down to practicing assaults on purpose built life size models); and very close control of operations to ensure success. They had usually learned the hard way, and had matured as experienced and pro-active leaders.
Of course some of this improvement was simply advances in technology. Tanks to breakthrough; better artillery fire plans to support and reduce casualties; air observation to enhance control and assess responses; better communications (including radio’s) to facilitate flexibility on the ground; and a generally better trained and more experienced soldier; with much more skilled officers. It all helped. But a lot came down to the attitude of the generals who believed that you got up front, found out the truth, stayed in close contact, and reacted to changed circumstances as immediately as possible.
However, as the American army was late to the battlefront, Davies contends that the leaders merely recapitulated the first stages of the bloody learning experience as their British counterparts, but didn’t produce the innovative leadership to match the Germans:
The Americans arrived on the Western Front when the war was already won. Only a few thousand were there for the last big German push, and by the time the Allies were moving to their final offensives with real American numbers involved, the German army was a broken reed. Which means that most American officers had only a few weeks of combat experience, and almost all of it against a failing army which had little resilience left to offer the type of resistance that might have caused the inexperienced American officers to have to reconsider their theories from their quicky officer training courses. Even the professional military officers received, at best, only a couple of hints that their ideas might not be inevitably effective against a stronger opponent. Certainly not enough time to learn how to analyse and adapt to circumstances in serious combat.
Which is why the majority of highly recognised American higher commanders in World War II appear to be chateau generals.
Eisenhower’s mistakes in theatre commands in Italy and France were possibly no worse in results than Wilson’s ongoing problems with Greece (he led the ‘forlorn hopes’ of both 1941 and 1944 there), but Eisenhower failed far more spectacularly with the Italian surrender, the Broad Front strategy, and the Bulge, than Wilson ever did with far inferior resources. MacArthur’s failures are more readily compared with Percival than the successes of a man like Leese, and Nimitz is often referred to as one of the great captains of history, for defeating a navy that repeatedly sabotaged its own efforts in the Pacific theatre. (Often by people who haven’t seemed to have ever heard of Max Horton’s much harder victory against the ruthlessly efficient U-boat campaign in the Atlantic theatre).
Similarly it is fair to say that the American front line commanders most people have never heard of were hardly inferior to their famous British contemporaries. Eichelberger was as good a commander, and as good a co-operator in Allied operations, as Alexander ever was. Truscott was probably at least the equal of Montgomery, given the opportunity. (I suspect possibly even better actually, but who can say?) Simpson, in his brief few months at the front, impressed many British officers who had served for years under men as good as Slim. And Ridgway showed in his few months of active operations a level of skill and competence (not necessarily the same thing) that far more experienced men like O’Connor did not surpass.
Why do we hear about the American chateau generals in preference to their front line leaders? And why do we hear about the British front line leaders in preference to their back office superiors. I would say it is because the British had been through a learning process in WWI that the Americans had not.
And the Canadian angle? As I’ve noted before, the First Canadian Army (scroll down to the item on John A. English’s book) was not as combat-effective in WW2 as the Canadian Corps had been in the First World War. One of the most obvious failings was in the advance to Antwerp:
Note that the equivalent British debacle during that campaign was when the Canadian Army took Antwerp undamaged, but then stopped for a rest before cutting off the retreating Germans. The Germans quickly fortified the riverbanks leading to the port, keeping it out of use for months. This was a clear example of the Canadian generals inexperience, and Montgomery is at fault here for being too involved in the last attempt to break the Germans before Christmas — Market Garden — and not paying close enough attention to one of his Army commanders, who was not supervising his Corps commander, who was not chasing his divisional commander adequately. (No one is imune from such glitches in a fast moving campaign. Inexperience any where down the chain can cause big problems. But it is noticeable that Crerar’s failure did not get him the public acclaim Patton has enjoyed?) Crerar was a ‘political appointment’ by the Canadians (an ‘able administrator’, but militarily ‘mediocre’ according to most) who Montgomery considered to be as inferior in experience and attitude as many of the American ‘chateau leaders’ he would have put in the same basket. By contrast Monty was delighted when the more competent front line leaders – the Canadian Simonds and the American Simpson – were assigned to him instead. As in the cases of the Australian General Morshead or the Polish General Anders, Montgomery only cared about ability, not nationality. But as was the case with the Americans, all too many generals in most armies, including the British and German armies, lacked experience or ability.
Update, 13 February: Mark Collins linked to an earlier post that helpfully describes some of the problems with Canadian generalship in Europe:
The Canadian command style in WW II was even more stuck in the mud than the American. With a few exceptions (McNaughton, Burns, Crerar) most Canadian generals had little or no General Staff experience, and those that did were practitioners of a successful, for the earlier WW I time and place, doctrine based on set piece battles founded on the systematic and intensive use of artillery.
One virtue of the German system is that it allowed officers to make mistakes: it did not allow them to sit on their butts waiting for orders; it encouraged risk taking which often worked but sometimes ended in bloody disaster (indeed it’s amazing it didn’t in France in 1940).
Indeed comparing the Canadian Army in WWII with the German is very difficult. Both had to expand from a tiny base to their war-time peak, but the Germans began in 1933 (actually even before then); we didn’t really begin until 1940. The Germans lost the Great War and the Reichswehr gave serious thought to how to do better next time.
One thing underlying the British set piece battle approach and limited freedom for commanders – the one the Canadian Army followed – seems to have been their realization in the late 1930s that the British Army was simply not as good as its 1914 ancestor. That was partly because of the losses of promising junior officers who never made general [though that affected the Germans too], partly because of indifference to defence at the governmental level, and partly because the military lapsed all too happily back into “real soldiering” in the 20’s.
January 23, 2014
In the Independent, David Keys talks about the Grand Slam, the largest conventional bomb of WW2:
The final secrets of Britain’s largest-ever conventional weapon of war are being ‘unearthed’ by archaeologists.
Geophysics experts are using ground-penetrating radar and other high tech methods to ‘x-ray’ the ground, in a remote area of the New Forest in Hampshire, to shed new light on the most powerful top secret World War Two weapon test ever carried out in the UK.
The weapon – a bomb designed by the British aircraft and munitions inventor, Barnes Wallis, and codenamed ‘Grand Slam’ – was almost 26 foot long and weighed 22,000 pounds, substantially bigger than any other wartime explosive device ever developed by Britain.
The New Forest test is historically important because it heralded an expansion in the crucial strategic air offensive against key infrastructure targets in Nazi Germany. The first RAF bomber command Grand Slam sortie got underway within hours of the successful test of the bomb.
Four geophysical techniques – ground penetrating radar, magnetometry, electrical resistivity and electrical resistivity tomography – are being used by the archaeologists to assess the damage done to the large concrete target building which has lain buried under a vast mound of earth for the past 66 years.
January 10, 2014
Tony Zbaraschuk posted an interesting link to the Lois McMaster Bujold Mailing list (http://lists.herald.co.uk/cgi-bin/mailman/listinfo/lois-bujold):
Design Studies of German Submarines by the US Navy
The Design Study of Type IXC U-boats was made available by Scott Sorenson. The Design Study of Type XXI U-boats was made available by the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Public Affairs Office and the Navy Yard Museum — in particular Debora White, Gary Hildreth, Jim Dolf and Bill Tebo (a member of the US Navy crew of U-2513).
Photographs and documents of surrendered German submarines and their crews were made available by John Cunningham (a member of the US Navy crew of U-2513).
December 28, 2013
Ann Althouse talks about the dust-up at National Review Online, where an editor objected to something that Mark Steyn wrote and posted what I’m sure he thought was a gentle rebuff. Steyn reacted exactly the way you’d expect him to, and in the end the editor got a chance to polish up his resumé for his next position. As an addendum to the original post, she quotes from William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich as a rather jarring example of how much society’s attitudes to homosexuality have changed (for the better) since the early 1960s:
The point of the Rat Pack joke — “How do you make a fruit cordial?”/ “Be nice to him.” — wasn’t that it’s funny. It’s that not too long ago junk like that was the norm. It was probably considered sweet, gentle and even gay-friendly. Steyn is paying attention to how cultural norms change. This is something I’ve been talking about too, and I am confounded by what a hard time people have understanding this subject.
ADDED: Here’s something a little different that corresponds to that Rat Pack joke, not in the realm of comedy, but in a best selling history book that was published in 1961 and got high praise in places like The New York Times Book Review and won the National Book Award. It’s William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Listening to the audiobook, I was struck by the references to homosexuality, made in an offhandedly negative way that you’d never encounter in a book published today by a respectable publisher and an author who meant to be taken seriously. Examples:
A tough, ruthless, driving man — albeit, like so many of the early Nazis, a homosexual — [Ernst Roehm] helped to organize the first Nazi strong-arm squads which grew into the S.A., the army of storm troopers which he commanded until his execution by Hitler in 1934….
Such was the weird assortment of misfits who founded National Socialism…. The confused locksmith Drexler provided the kernel, the drunken poet Eckart some of the “spiritual” foundation, the economic crank Feder what passed as an ideology, the homosexual Roehm the support of the Army and the war veterans, but it was now the former tramp, Adolf Hitler… who took the lead….
“I know Esser is a scoundrel,” Hitler retorted in public, “but I shall hold on to him as long as he can be of use to me.” This was to be his attitude toward almost all of his close collaborators, no matter how murky their past — or indeed their present. Murderers, pimps, homosexual perverts, drug addicts or just plain rowdies were all the same to him if they served his purposes….
But the brown-shirted S.A. never became much more than a motley mob of brawlers. Many of its top leaders, beginning with its chief, Roehm, were notorious homosexual perverts. Lieutenant Edmund Heines, who led the Munich S.A., was not only a homosexual but a convicted murderer. These two and dozens of others quarreled and feuded as only men of unnatural sexual inclinations, with their peculiar jealousies, can….
No other party in Germany came near to attracting so many shady characters. As we have seen, a conglomeration of pimps, murderers, homosexuals, alcoholics and blackmailers flocked to the party as if to a natural haven. Hitler did not care, as long as they were useful to him…..
December 9, 2013
November 11, 2013
A simple recognition of some of our family members who served in the First and Second World Wars:
The Great War
- Private William Penman, Scots Guards, died 1915 at Le Touret, age 25
(Elizabeth’s great uncle)
- Private David Buller, Highland Light Infantry, died 1915 at Loos, age 35
(Elizabeth’s great grandfather)
- Private Walter Porteous, Northumberland Fusiliers, died 1917 at Passchendaele, age 18
(my great uncle)
- Corporal John Mulholland, Royal Tank Corps, died 1918 at Harbonnieres, age 24
(Elizabeth’s great uncle)
The Second World War
- Flying Officer Richard Porteous, RAF, survived the defeat in Malaya and lived through the war
- Able Seaman John Penman, RN, served in the Defensively Equipped Merchant fleet on the Murmansk Run (and other convoy routes), lived through the war
- Private Archie Black (commissioned after the war and retired as a Major), Gordon Highlanders, captured at Singapore (aged 15) and survived a Japanese POW camp
- Elizabeth Buller, “Lumberjill” in the Women’s Land Army in Scotland through the war.
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.
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD Canadian Army Medical Corps (1872-1918)
A Remembrance Day slideshow using Mark Knopfler’s wonderful “Remembrance Day” song from the album Get Lucky (2009). The early part of the song conveys many British images, but I have added some very Canadian images also which fit with many of the lyrics. The theme and message is universal… ‘we will remember them’.
November 5, 2013
I’d never heard of the US Navy’s carrier training ships that operated on Lake Michigan from 1942-45, so this link to a thread at Warbird Information Exchange from Roger Henry was of great interest:
This thread may give you a nice idea of what that exercise was all about. Many interesting images to study here and quite possibly of interest to those who are involved with the restoration of aircraft that have been recovered from the Lakes. I have also included a page from my dad’s logbook showing his 1st thru 8th carrier landings on the USS Wolverine in July 1944. Sources are the NMNA archives, Library of Congress photo archives, LIFE image archives.
This will be a large photo thread in a few parts so we’ll start with the two principal ships.
WIKI: USS Sable (IX-81) was a training ship of the United States Navy during World War II. Originally built as the Greater Buffalo, a sidewheel excursion steamer, she was converted in 1942 to a freshwater aircraft carrier to be used on the Great Lakes. She was used for advanced training for naval aviators in carrier takeoffs and landings. One aviator that trained upon the Sable was future president George H. W. Bush. Following World War II, Sable was decommissioned on 7 November 1945. She was sold for scrapping on 7 July 1948 to the H.H. Buncher Company.
I was initially surprised that both training carriers were converted side-paddle steamers … I’d have thought the extra costs in converting to propeller drive would make them less-than ideal conversion subjects — you can clearly see in the second image that they left the side-paddles in place, so the main cost of conversion was the construction of the flight deck and repositioning the smokestacks to the starboard side (no hangar deck, elevators, or catapults in evidence):
WIKI: USS Wolverine (IX-64) a side-wheel excursion steamer built in 1913—was originally named Seeandbee, a name based upon her owners’ company name, the Cleveland and Buffalo Transit Co. She was constructed by the American Ship Building Company of Wyandotte, Michigan. The Navy acquired the sidewheeler on 12 March 1942 and designated her an unclassified miscellaneous auxiliary, IX-64. She was purchased by the Navy in March 1942 and conversion to a training aircraft carrier began on 6 May 1942. The name Wolverine was approved on 2 August 1942 with the ship being commissioned on 12 August 1942. Intended to operate on Lake Michigan, IX-64 received its name because the state of Michigan is known as the Wolverine State.
And given that almost all the pilots were still learning their trade — these were training ships, after all — there were more than a few mishaps:
October 23, 2013
Uploaded on 16 Aug 2010
A documentary about the SS Richard Montgomery. The remains of this second world war Liberty ship lie semi-submerged in the Thames estuary. There are currently over 1500 tons of explosives left on board. This documentary looks into the danger the wreck still presents.
I’m mildly amused that they frequently mis-name the vessel as the “USS” Richard Montgomery (she was never a commissioned ship of the US Navy, so it should be just “SS” not “USS”). If you watch to the end of the documentary, they’ve included a “blooper reel” of voice-overs for the last minute or so…
October 18, 2013
In the Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard reviews the last few times we thought we’d reached “peak America” moments:
Those old enough to remember the 1929 crash on Wall Street and the US exit from the Gold Standard under Franklin Roosevelt — thin in numbers these days — will recall the pervading sense that America had already peaked, its capitalist model overtaken by history.
The Russian trade agency Amtorg in New York famously advertised for 6,000 skilled plumbers, chemists, electricians, and dentists, and suchlike, to work in the Soviet Union, then deemed the El Dorado of mankind, or the “moral top of the world where the light never really goes out”, in the words of Edmund Wilson. It is said that 100,000 showed up.
The commentariat went into overdrive, more or less writing off the United States. The Yale Review, Harpers, and The Atlantic all ran pieces debating the risk of imminent revolution.
Just 12 years later the US accounted for half of all global economic output and was military master of the West, literally running Japan and Germany as administrative regions.
Those a little younger — like me — who remember the impeachment of President Richard Nixon and the last American citizens being lifted by helicopter from the roof of the US embassy in Saigon in 1975, will recall the ubiquitous claims that the US could never fully recover from what looked like a crushing defeat.
The Carter Malaise, the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Iran hostage humiliation all followed in quick succession, and seemed to seal the argument.
Oh, but this time it’s different because reasons. The sky really is falling! It’s the end! THE END!
October 13, 2013
When the time came for us to leave Persia and make the long trek back to Iraq, we stopped again for a few days with Robertson in Kermanshah. Then I said good-bye to my host, my Persian friends, and to his house with keen regret — with, as a matter of fact, a secret personal regret.
As a junior officer in the first World War, I had been presumptuous enough sometimes to hope that if I survived and were not found out, I might with tremendous luck, by the time the next great war arrived, be a general. Then, I fondly imagined my headquarters would move from château to château, from which I would occasionally emerge, fortified by good wine and French cooking, to wish the troops the best of luck in their next attack. Alas, when the time did come and, by good fortune in the game of military snakes and ladders, I found myself a general, I was so inept in my choice of theatres that no châteaux were available. More often than not, I had to make do with a plot of desert sand, a tree in the African bush, or a patch of jungle, while my cuisine was based on bully beef and the vintages of my imagination were replaced by over-chlorinated water. Once or twice, however, I did get, if not my château with its chef and its cellar, at least an excellent substitute — an oil company bungalow. Once having sampled its comfort I would not have swapped Robertson’s house for all the châteaux of the Loire. Dug in there, a delectable future had spread before me in which I achieved my youthful ambition and conducted the war from linen-sheeted bed and luxurious long bath. But, like other youthful hopes, the vision faded. I was once more, had I known it, destined to châteaux-less wilderness.
Field Marshal William Slim, “Persian Pattern”, Unofficial History, 1959.
October 3, 2013
In the last couple of years, I’ve read several books about the aftermath of World War Two, including Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Ronald Spector’s In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia, and David Stafford’s Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II. When you concentrate on the combat side of war, you can easily miss the destructive side-effects of that combat and it’s hard to imagine how long it can take for a city or a region to recover from being a battlefield. What is even more interesting is the complex interplay of humanitarian, political and social pressures on the winning side, too often leading to actions that we would have called war crimes if they’d happened just days or weeks earlier. In the New York Times, Adam Hochschild looks at an interesting new book covering the immediate postwar period:
Ian Buruma’s lively new history, Year Zero, is about the various ways in which the aftermath of the Good War turned out badly for many people, and splendidly for some who didn’t deserve it. It is enriched by his knowledge of six languages, a sense of personal connection to the era (his Dutch father was a forced laborer in Berlin) and his understanding of this period from a book he wrote two decades ago that is still worth reading, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan. His survey rambles over a wide expanse of ground, from sexual behavior (imagine millions of Allied occupation troops in a Germany where women outnumbered men by eight to five), to British and American soldiers unintentionally killing thousands of liberated concentration camp inmates by feeding them more than their shriveled intestinal tracts could handle, to the Allies’ blindness to how much of their cornucopia of food and supplies found its way into the hands of Italian, French and Japanese gangsters, restoring some of their prewar power.
Despite the lofty democratic aura of World War II, Buruma points out that the Allies spent much of the latter half of 1945 reviving colonialism. After Algerian Arabs began an uprising on V-E Day, demanding equal rights, some of the troops the French governor general called in to suppress them included an elite infantry regiment that had just taken part in the final assault on Germany. Rebellious towns and villages were bombed, or shelled by naval vessels; in two months of fighting as many as 30,000 Algerians may have been killed. Thousands were made to kneel before the French flag and beg forgiveness.
On the other side of the world, inhabitants of the Dutch East Indies demanded freedom just after the Japanese surrender. But the Dutch government answered with troops, aided by soldiers from Britain’s large Indian Army, British battleships and abundant American military supplies. Fighting continued for four years. And in Vietnam, where a crowd of more than 300,000 gathered to hear Ho Chi Minh declare independence from France, the story would of course eventually become even bloodier. In 1945 British troops were crucial to restoring the colonial order in Vietnam, with help from French Foreign Legion detachments. These included many German volunteers, recruited from P.O.W. camps, who had recently been fighting the Allies in Europe or North Africa.
Meanwhile, the victorious Allies were uprooting some 10 million ethnic Germans from parts of Eastern Europe, where they had lived for generations, and forcing them to move to a shrunken Germany, with perhaps a half-million or more dying in the process from hunger, exposure or attacks by vengeful neighbors. Buruma, like others before him, notes the paradox of the Allied armies carrying out something that echoed “Hitler’s project . . . of ethnic purity.”
September 30, 2013
BBC News Magazine on the reputation of British PM Neville Chamberlain:
…this derogatory reference reflects the continuing potency of a well-established conventional wisdom assiduously propagated by Chamberlain’s detractors after his fall from the premiership in May 1940. As Churchill is once supposed to have quipped, “Poor Neville will come badly out of history. I know, I will write that history”.
In his influential account The Gathering Storm, published in 1948, Churchill characterised Chamberlain as “an upright, competent, well meaning man” fatally handicapped by a deluded self-confidence which compounded an already debilitating lack of both vision and diplomatic experience. For many years, this seductive version of events remained unchallenged and unchallengeable.
The Munich agreement, which later came to symbolise the evils of appeasement, was signed 75 years ago, in the early hours of 30 September. At Munich, Britain and France acquiesced in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and the transfer of its Sudeten region to Germany in face of Hitler’s increasingly bellicose threats of military action. Chamberlain’s hopes that this humiliating sacrifice would satisfy Hitler’s last major territorial demand and thus avert another catastrophic war were dashed within four months.
After this monumental failure of policy Chamberlain’s name became an abusive synonym for vacillation, weakness, immoral great-power diplomacy and, above all, the craven appeasement of bullies — whatever the price in national honour. Despite his many achievements in domestic policy, therefore, ultimately Chamberlain’s reputation remains indelibly stained by Munich and the failure of his very personal brand of diplomacy.
As he confessed in the Commons at the outbreak of war, “Everything I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins.”