Category Archives: Germany

D-Day Surprise: No Horses!

From D DAY Through German Eyes – Wehrmacht Soldier Accounts of June 6th 1944, by Holger Eckhertz (DTZ History, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1399-1420:

In the afternoon, the English, I recall, insisted for some reason on sending a German-speaking English army priest in among us [German prisoners] to listen to any spiritual concerns we had; this was met with derision. I still recall the face of the army priest, who was very angry at his reception. We heard explosions and detonations from inland and from the beach throughout the day, and naval bombardments from offshore, the shells of which travelled over us with a sound like an express train going past, and always the sound of engines: planes, tanks and trucks, never stopping for a moment.

In the evening, we were taken out of the square and led to the beach. The guards made no attempt to blindfold us or to prevent us seeing the situation. The scale of the operation then became clear to us all, and most of us fell completely silent at what we witnessed.

The sea wall area was being worked on with armoured bulldozers, creating a huge ramp for vehicles to drive up. There were many destroyed vehicles and tanks, some still burning. I saw my bunker, which was collapsed in the frontal part, over the 88mm embrasures; there was smoke drifting from the rubble.

The beach was completely full of transports, including many vehicles we had not seen and we did not even know how to describe: amphibious trucks, tanks with flotation screens, enormous landing craft that were unloading whole columns of jeeps and tanks, directly onto the sand. The English had already cleared a wide lane through the beach obstacles – how they did that so quickly, I have never understood, perhaps with linked explosive charges – and this lane was an absolute highway on the wet sand and out into the sea itself. There were still many bodies, which were lined in large groups on the sand and partly covered with tarpaulins; despite our lack of religion, many of our men crossed themselves as we passed these.

One thing in particular struck many of us as amazing: all along the beach, there were no horses!

This was a surprise for you?

Yes, we found it astonishing. This huge army had brought with it not one single horse or pack-mule! All their transport was mechanised. It may sound bizarre today, but this impressed us greatly, showing that the Allies had no need of horses anymore, as they had such huge oil resources and production capacity. Because, of course, the German armies used horses for transport on quite a large scale right up until the end of the war, due to limited fuel and constraints on mechanised vehicle production. Every German unit had its stables and veterinarian officer, and here were these English without that need at all. For us, this symbolised the Allied capabilities.

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Defending “United Europe” on D-Day

From D DAY Through German Eyes – Wehrmacht Soldier Accounts of June 6th 1944, by Holger Eckhertz (DTZ History, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1032-49:

Did you have any personal animosity towards the Anglo-Americans?

My brother and cousin had both been killed in the East, at Kharkov, so my animosity lay more in that direction. Ironically, we had a large contingent of Russian troops with us on the Atlantic wall, who were defectors now serving in the German forces, but I had no real contact with them.

As for the English, my father had been in France in 1917 to 1918, and he confided to me that the English were surprisingly similar to us Germans in personal character, but that as a fighting force they were inconsistent, with many brave men but also a big element of shirkers and black market operators. Regarding the Americans, I think that most of us soldiers made a distinction in our minds between the American government, which we believed was a pawn of international finance, and the Americans as individuals. After all, we had all seen US films and magazines before the war, we had read about cowboys and heard jazz music, and all this was exciting and very attractive to us. But despite all this, we knew that the Americans too were intent on attacking France and destroying the unification of Europe under German protection that our leadership had achieved.

This is interesting. The phrase ‘Fortress Europe’ is still widely remembered today, I think, as part of Reich propaganda at the time, but you have reminded me that the phrase ‘United Europe’ was equally common.

Of course it was. Of course. ‘United Europe’ was a universal slogan. We should remember that both the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS had huge recruitment campaigns in all the countries under Reich control, with the emphasis that people from all the countries of Europe should unite under arms and defend European unification. If we look at the Waffen SS, we see these very effective non-German units from all over Europe: the French, the famous Belgian-Walloon people under Leon Degrelle, the Dutch, Norwegians, the Croat Muslims with their ‘SS’ emblems on their fez hats, and so on and so on. There was a definite sense that Europe was united under the Reich, and an attack on France would be an attack on the whole structure.

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Filed under Britain, Europe, Germany, nationalism, U.S., USSR, war

Born and Bred in the NK Gulag

From Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 119-134:

In stories of concentration camp survival, there is a conventional narrative arc. Security forces steal the protagonist away from a loving family and a comfortable home. To survive, he abandons moral principles, suppresses feelings for others, and ceases to be a civilized human being.

In perhaps the most celebrated of these stories, Night, by Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, the thirteen-year-old narrator explains his torment with an account of the normal life that existed before he and his family were packed aboard trains bound for Nazi death camps. Wiesel studied the Talmud daily. His father owned a store and watched over their village in Romania. His grandfather was always present to celebrate the Jewish holidays. But after the boy’s entire family perished in the camps, Wiesel was left “alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy.”

Shin’s story of survival is different.

His mother beat him, and he viewed her as a competitor for food. His father, who was allowed by guards to sleep with his mother just five nights a year, ignored him. His brother was a stranger. Children in the camp were untrustworthy and abusive. Before he learned anything else, Shin learned to survive by snitching on all of them.

Love and mercy and family were words without meaning. God did not disappear or die. Shin had never heard of him. In a preface to Night, Wiesel wrote that an adolescent’s knowledge of death and evil “should be limited to what one discovers in literature.”

In Camp 14, Shin did not know literature existed. He saw only one book in the camp, a Korean grammar, in the hands of a teacher who wore a guard’s uniform, carried a revolver on his hip, and beat one of his primary school classmates to death with a chalkboard pointer.

Unlike those who have survived a concentration camp, Shin had not been torn away from a civilized existence and forced to descend into hell. He was born and raised there. He accepted its values. He called it home.

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Hapsburg Transylvania’s Union of Three Nations, 1438

From A Concise History of Romania (Cambridge Concise Histories), by Keith Hitchins (Cambridge, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1018-1031:

The Habsburgs in Transylvania were confronted by institutions and mentalities that slowed the absorption of the principality into the general structures of the empire. To succeed, then, they would have to undermine those autonomies that had arisen since the era of settlement by the Hungarians, Saxons, and Szeklers and had taken form in the so-called Union of the Three Nations in 1438. The Union evolved into a monopoly of power and privilege imposed by the Hungarian nobility, the Saxon urban patriciate, and the upper classes among the Szeklers. They were the three nations. Social class, not ethnicity, determined membership, and, thus, the masses of Hungarian, Saxon, and Szekler peasants and others were excluded. The three nations in the fifteenth century were, naturally, Roman Catholic, but in the sixteenth century the Protestant Reformation made many converts among the Hungarians (Calvinist and Unitarian), Saxons (Lutheran), and Szeklers (Calvinist). The new Protestants and the remaining Roman Catholics eventually reached an understanding, and adherence to one of their churches became a condition of political privilege, that is, of membership in one of the nations. The three nations and four churches formed the backbone of Transylvania’s autonomy when the Habsburgs arrived. The Romanians, who composed perhaps half the population of Transylvania in the early eighteenth century, were not a part of this system. They were excluded because they were Orthodox and overwhelmingly peasant.

During these centuries the Romanian Orthodox Church had led a precarious existence as merely tolerated by the three nations, but had, nonetheless, been able to maintain an administrative organization and a hierarchy presided over by a Metropolitan in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the seventeenth century the church was subject to heavy pressure from the Calvinist princes who were determined to convert the Orthodox clergy and faithful to Calvinism.

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Filed under Austria, Germany, Hungary, language, nationalism, religion, Romania

Japanese Slaughter of PNG Civilians, 1943

From Target: Rabaul: The Allied Siege of Japan’s Most Infamous Stronghold, March 1943–August 1945, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2013) Kindle Loc. 925-960:

AMONG THE DOZENS of church-based missions in New Guinea, some of the oldest were German organizations established before World War I, when New Guinea was a territory of Imperial Germany. During World War II, Japanese forces in New Guinea did not regard German missionaries as allies, even though Nazi Germany and Japan shared a military allegiance. Instead, missionaries came under the jurisdiction of the minsei-bu as neutral civilians. Soon after the Japanese occupied Wewak, they rounded up the local missionaries and transported them to Saint John’s Catholic mission on Kairiru. At first the civilians were free to move about the island, but the situation soon changed.

Some missionaries and natives were willing to risk their lives for the Allied cause. At least two clergymen, Father Manion and Brother Victor Salois, members of the Society of the Divine Word, were American citizens. According to postwar testimonies, the Japanese discovered that several downed Allied airmen were not only hiding in the region, but had contacted the mission with the help of “local people who harbored anti-Japanese sentiment.” Mot’s visit to Kairiru fits this description precisely, and the timing of his trip is more than coincidental.

On the morning of March 17, a few days after the Japanese patrol failed to find the Americans on Wokeo, forty-two civilian men, women, and children were rounded up at Saint John’s and escorted to the destroyer Akikaze, anchored at Kairiru. Included among the mission staff were the two Americans; there were also Chinese nationals, at least one native girl, and two Chinese infants, thought to be orphans. All were treated as neutral civilians aboard Akikaze, which sailed from Kairiru at noon. Late that afternoon the warship stopped at Manus in the Admiralty Islands, where another twenty civilians boarded—again mostly European missionaries, including six women. The next day, Akikaze arrived in Kavieng Harbor, New Ireland, stopping only long enough to receive a message delivered by boat. Akikaze then steamed south, navigating a maze of small islands until it reached the Bismarck Sea. Once safely in open water, the warship headed toward its Eighth Fleet base at Rabaul.

Akikaze’s captain, Lt. Cmdr. Tsurukichi Sabe, evidently presumed he would deliver the civilians to New Britain. Several hundred missionaries and associates were already interned at Vunapope, the largest Catholic mission in the territory. But the message delivered at Kavieng rattled him. With a pale, somber expression, Sabe gathered his officers and informed them that Eighth Fleet Headquarters had issued orders “to dispose of all neutral civilians on board.”

No one would dare question the order. In the Japanese military, instructions from a superior were regarded as though issued by the Emperor himself.

Sabe directed his crew to carry out the orders. First, the civilians were moved to forward berthing spaces below the main deck. Then, within about an hour, a wooden rig was erected over the ship’s fantail. It consisted of a platform covered with mats and a simple hoisting structure. Canvas screens were spread amidships to keep the civilians from viewing the aft third of the ship.

When the preparations were complete, Akikaze throttled up to her maximum speed of twenty-four knots (approximately twenty-seven miles per hour). One at a time, beginning with the men, the civilians were escorted to the bridge. After an interpreter recorded each individual’s name and nationality, they were led aft. Suddenly, they were seized, blindfolded, and bound at the wrists. With no time to comprehend what was happening, they were led onto the platform, attached to the overhead rig, and then hoisted into the air.

At a signal from a junior officer on a nearby gun platform, each victim was shot by four crewmen: one armed with a light machine gun, the other three with rifles. The rig was designed so that the force of the wind from the destroyer’s high speed, together with the impact of the bullets, would swing the victims beyond the platform, where their bodies were released into the churning wake. In theory, at least, this would minimize the amount of gore that collected on the deck. It was also surmised that the sound of gunfire would not carry forward against the wind, thereby reducing psychological stress on the civilians.

The process dragged on for three hours as sixty individuals—priests, friars, nuns, staff, and family members—were systematically hauled into the air, riddled with gunfire, and dumped off the fantail. The two infants were simply thrown into the sea. Afterward, sailors unrigged the platform and hosed the bloodstains off Akikaze’s steel deck. Finally, the officers conducted a funeral ceremony for the souls of the dozens of Christians they had just murdered—almost certainly with a Shinto ritual. Perhaps that, too, was in response to orders.

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Filed under Australia, Germany, Japan, military, Papua New Guinea, religion, U.S., war

1918-11-11: End of the Shooting War

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 5198-5212:

Behind the lines, the news rarely provoked outright celebration. When the battery commander, Major F. J. Rice, got up that morning and was on his way to the regimental mess for breakfast, one of his men told him that ‘it was all over sir’. Orders had come in that hostilities would cease at 11 a.m. ‘All the officers took it very calmly,’ he recalled. After breakfast they managed to get their hands on a bottle of port and shared it with their NCOs. When they saw one of the sergeants walking across the gun park, they shouted out the news. The man merely halted, saluted, and said ‘very good, sir’, before continuing on, seemingly as unconcerned as ever.

The American First-Lieutenant Clair Groover of 313th Infantry Regiment – the junior officer who had survived the assault on Montfaucon – remembered how the quietness that followed the Armistice ‘got to you’. ‘It was so unreal, that it disturbed you emotionally,’ he admitted. ‘Some of the hardest officers wept. It was so unusual that you would walk around without being shot at.’ Within moments he noticed German soldiers getting up out of their positions and moving out into the open. One of them came over and told him, with tears in his eyes, that his brother had been killed the day before and that he would like permission to locate and bury the body. Groover agreed. That night ‘all the troops along the line were treated to the greatest display of fireworks ever set off. Both sides were setting off their entire pyrotechnic supply of rockets, Very candles, red, blue, green, were sparkling in the air. The first few scared you and you would flatten out on the ground, forgetting that it was all over. That night there were camp fires all along the lines.’ That was it; it was over. ‘It was the end of the shooting war.’

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Filed under Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, U.S., war

1918: Quick Collapse on All Fronts

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4440-4447, 4754-4770:

For so long the various theatres of war in Europe, Italy and the Middle East had seemed frozen and immobile; stalemated and deadlocked. And then in late autumn, with surprising suddenness, the thaw finally set in. By 30 September, Bulgaria had signed an armistice, which opened up the southern flank of the Central Powers. Austro-Hungary was already on the verge of capitulation, and it took only a limited offensive by the Italian Army in the final week of October – the Battle of Vittorio Veneto – to push it over the edge. In the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire was now entering its final death throes. What remained of the Turkish Army in Palestine had been routed at the Battle of Megiddo in late September, and over the following month General Sir Edmund Allenby’s troops pushed north, mercilessly harassing the retreating Turkish columns. Aleppo fell on 26 October and within days an armistice was signed on the island of Mudros – thus bringing the war in the Middle East to a victorious conclusion.

By the first week of November the German Army was in full retreat across the Western Front. From the air ‘we saw all the roads crowded with columns of men marching back,’ wrote one German pilot. Endless lines of weary troops splashed and shuffled their way eastwards, bowed down with their equipment, looking over their shoulders in fear, half expecting to see Allied aircraft or cavalry squadrons ready to scatter them again. It was an awful sight: the faces of young boys overshadowed by the steel helmets that were too big for them, or hobbling along in boots that had been worn away long ago; old veterans who had seen too many battles marching along with glassy eyes and a grim acceptance of death or wounding. It was by now a motley army; the exact opposite of the legions of proud feldgrau that had marched across Europe in the summer of 1914 on their way to enact Count von Schlieffen’s great war plan. The German Army had reached its end; worn down by four years of merciless slaughter and pounded into dust by the brutal Allied artillery bombardments. Some still believed in victory, in some divine intervention – a catastrophic outbreak of flu in Paris or London; a devastating fallout between the English and Americans perhaps – but most realized there was little they could do. How could they defeat the endless power of the Allied guns or their swarms of tanks? How many Americans would they have to kill before they too gave in? And in any case, was it really worth fighting and dying for any more? Did anyone really care whether Alsace-Lorraine was French or German?

Casualties were nothing short of catastrophic. Fritz von Lossberg estimated that by the time the German Army reached the Antwerp–Meuse Line it had lost over 400,000 men and 6,000 guns. Other authorities put it higher, and it is possible that between 18 July and 11 November the Army suffered 420,000 dead and wounded with another 385,000 men being taken prisoner. Such a magnitude of loss was simply unsustainable, and when this was combined with the thousands of casualties from Germany’s spring offensives earlier in the year – perhaps as high as a million – it meant that her army was bleeding to death.

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Filed under Austria, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Middle East, Turkey, U.S., war