Category Archives: military

Wordcatcher Tales: Tobruk, Feldwebel

I learned two new German military terms from my recent reading about how D-Day was experienced by the German military.

Tobruk – Several of the soldiers interviewed in D DAY Through German Eyes – Wehrmacht Soldier Accounts of June 6th 1944, by Holger Eckhertz (DTZ History, 2015) referred to their bunkers as Tobruks. I could guess its etymology—from Tobruk in Libya, the site of famous battles during World War II—but couldn’t visualize what kind of bunker it might be. Fortunately there are lots of images of tobruk bunkers in Wikimedia Commons, and a very informative site about the Regelbau architecture of German fortifications from the World War II era. Here’s how the latter source defines a Tobruk:

The Tobruk or “ringstellung” is basically a reinforced foxhole, some with a small, two-man habitat attached to it. The simplest version is named Bauform 201 or 58c, but a a variety of bunkers emerged from it. Tobruks are also an integral part of many larger bunkers, where they serve as observation posts and machinegun positions.

Feldwebel – None of the German military ranks are translated in The Germans in Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves (Pen and Sword, 2006). Perhaps the author simply wanted to avoid having to choose between, say, private first class and lance corporal to translate Gefreiter or Sturmmann (‘stormtrooper’, the SS paramilitary equivalent). There is lots of variation across anglophone militaries, and especially across various service branches. But perhaps the author also wanted an easy way to signal the distinction between Wehrmacht (regular army) ranks and their Waffen-SS equivalents. For instance, an SS-Hauptsturmführer is equivalent to a Wehrmacht Hauptmann (Army captain).

One of the Wehrmacht ranks I was surprised not to recognize was Feldwebel ‘sergeant’. (The same term has been borrowed by several other European armies, including those of Russia and Sweden.) It dates back to the early days of massed infantry tactics that required careful alignment of troops wielding pikes or firing muskets. The Feldwebel was the person who kept the troops in the field properly aligned.

German Wikipedia says Feldwebel derives from Old High German weibôn ‘sich hin und her bewegen’ (‘to go back and forth’) but doesn’t cite a source, and translates Webel as Gerichtsdiener (‘court usher’). The Swiss German rank is Feldweibel, related to Weibel (also Amtsweibel or Amtsdiener), the officer in charge of protocol in various official gatherings.

English Wikipedia cites the same Old High German etymology but translates Webel too simply as ‘usher’ (as in court usher, Gentleman Usher of the Royal Household and of various anglophone parliaments, or White House Chief Usher). If I had to put a contemporary label on all these formal order-keeping roles, I would lump them into the category of sergeant-at-arms, rather than usher. (It’s ironic that “sergeant-at-arms” now distinguishes various sorts of civilian order-keepers from military order-keeping sergeants.)

French Wikipedia gives Feldwebel a slightly different etymology (also without citing a source): “vieil allemand waibel, pièce de métier à tisser servant à ramener tous les fils sur la ligne (peigne)” (‘Old German waibel, the loom piece serving to keep all the threads aligned [comb]’).

The last etymology seems to me to get closer to the source of the term Webel, a Middle High German cognate of English weft, according to Guus Kroonen’s The Proto-Germanic n-stems.: A study in diachronic morphophonology (Rodopi, 2011). The weft threads are those that go back and forth (‘sich hin und her bewegen’) across the warp threads to weave fabrics on a loom.

This reminds me of the first line of the first dialog I had to memorize when I took the Romanian language course at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, in 1969: “Bună ziua, Domnule Locotenent!” (“Guten Tag, Herr Leutnant!”)

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German Military Changes after 20 July 1944

From The Germans in Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves (Pen and Sword, 2006), Kindle Loc. 3557-59, 3575-95:

The purge of the Wehrmacht began immediately [the attempt to assassinate Hitler on 20 July]. On 22 July, centuries of tradition were brushed aside. The military salute was abolished, replaced by the deutsche Gruss – the Hitler salute – ‘as an outward token of gratitude for his miraculous escape’….

And then came the final act of surrender. On 29 July, Heinz Guderian abandoned centuries of impartiality at a stroke. The German Army would no longer remain aloof from politics. In future, the German Army would be Hitler’s Army. That day he ordered:

Every General Staff officer must be a National Socialist Leadership Officer, namely he must demonstrate that he is one of the ‘best of the best’ not merely in the realms of strategy and tactics, but also in the political realm through his exemplary attitude and active guidance and instruction of younger comrades in the Führer’s ideas.

I expect every General Staff officer to accept and convert to my views immediately – and to do so publicly. Anyone who cannot do so should ask to leave the General Staff.

The humiliation continued. Staff officers attending situation conferences before Hitler were forcibly searched to see if they were carrying weapons or explosives. Political commissars – National Socialist Leadership Officers – began appearing at front-line units in increasing numbers to imbue the German Army with the spirit of National Socialism. ‘If a commander failed to follow orders to fight to the last man, his political officer would report this to the Nazi Party,’ infantry officer Siegfried Knappe wrote. The Party, in turn, ‘would take action to have the commander relieved of his command’. On 1 August, Himmler introduced the Sippenhaftung – the arrest not merely of all the suspected conspirators, but their entire families, their homes, all their worldly possessions. ‘This man is a traitor, the blood is bad,’ the Reichsführer SS declared, ‘there is bad blood in them, that will be eradicated.’ The Stauffenberg family would be eliminated ‘to the last member’. Three days later, a specially convened ‘Court of Honour’ was set up to expel members of the Wehrmacht from military service so they could be tried in civilian courts for their involvement in the putsch. It was a formality. Each man was dismissed in ‘only a few minutes’. Gerd von Rundstedt was wheeled out of retirement to preside over affairs. The elderly field marshal had his doubts, but passed judgment anyway. The leading conspirators, including Hoepner and Witzleben, were led before the People’s Court set up to try them on 7 August. The verdict was swiftly delivered: guilty; the penalty, death by hanging the following day at Plötzensee prison in Berlin’s north-western suburbs.

The Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine fared no better as a National Socialist broom swept through all three branches of the Wehrmacht in the aftermath of 20 July.

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Useless German Navy and Air Force on D-Day

From The Germans in Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves (Pen and Sword, 2006), Kindle Loc. 4146-67:

Frustration on land was mirrored by frustration at sea and in the skies. Across France in the first week of August there was a growing realization in the mind of the Landser [soldier], Matrose [sailor] and Flieger [airman] that the house of cards was about to collapse, that the efforts of the summer of 1944 had been in vain. The Kriegsmarine’s campaign against the invasion armada had been an unmitigated disaster, despite Karl Dönitz’s attempt to hide the fact with his continued exhortations:

Two years ago it was fair to say that Norway had to be defended in American waters where we could sink the most shipping. Such a concept is no longer applicable. Today it is more important to sink one landing ship in the invasion area than it is to sink one Liberty ship in the Atlantic, for example.

The problem was that Dönitz’s U-boats could get nowhere near the invasion fleet. The Allied defensive blockade was impenetrable. ‘The very strong defences encountered in the Seine Bay are striking,’ the admiral complained. ‘U309 had to return after only six days’ operations in the invasion area because of the utter exhaustion of her crew.’ Herbert Werner’s U415 too lasted just six days, another victim of enemy counter-measures – an aerial mine dropped outside the imposing U-boat pens at Brest. Werner had sunk no enemy vessels. In return, he lost his boat and two of his crew. Its loss, Werner bemoaned, ‘became just another statistic in the dismal obliteration of our U-boat force’. In the first fortnight of July, thirteen U-boats had been lost, leaving just six submarines to challenge the invasion fleet. ‘During these disastrous two weeks, no more than three or four U-boats at a time were attacking the convoys ferrying invasion supplies,’ Werner wrote. ‘New Allied divisions, fully equipped and with thousands of tanks and vehicles, poured ashore.’ As he buried his dead in the cemetery of a Brest suburb, Werner found himself pondering his fate. ‘What could I say to parents who, if their sons must die, wanted them to die as heroes in combat?’ he asked himself. ‘I was still struggling with my sentences long after midnight.’

Karl Dönitz had made no rash promises on behalf of his navy in the event of invasion. His men would do their duty, but he had never assured Hitler they could halt an enemy armada. Hermann Goering, on the other hand, had pledged his Luftwaffe would give its all, that it would fight itself to death in achieving victory in the west. And now, two months after the invasion, the Allies had a firm foothold on French soil while the German air force was heading for oblivion. It could not make good its leader’s promises.

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Eastern Troops Defending Normandy, 1944

From The Germans in Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves (Pen and Sword, 2006), Kindle Loc. 388-405:

Germany had suffered casualties nearing four million, three out of four of them on the Eastern Front. 1943 had been a punishing year in Russia. Since July alone, Germany had lost more than 1,200,000 men. The losses could not be made good. Even after stripping Italy and especially France, even after sending more than a quarter of a million men from the training schools, even after sending wounded men back to the front, the German Army in Russia still found itself more than 300,000 short.

Short of men in the east, short of men in the west, Germany turned to desperate measures to fill its thinning ranks. Hitler was convinced the rear areas, supply depots, offices and administrations would prove to be a rich source of untapped manhood. He ordered every division, every naval and Luftwaffe unit to comb out men who could be spared duties behind the lines so they could be sent to the front. But combing out the Wehrmacht could not solve all its ills. The losses had simply been too great. In 1943, the German military machine began calling up seventeen and eighteen year olds and relying more and more heavily on foreign ‘volunteers’: Volksdeutsche – ethnic Germans, born outside the Fatherland; Freiwillige – foreign volunteers sympathetic to the Nazi cause – and Hilfswillige or ‘Hiwis’ – auxiliaries, usually Russians or Poles pressed into military service from the occupied territories or recruited from the millions of prisoners of war wasting away in German camps. With the war turning against the Wehrmacht in the east, it was no longer safe to use anti-Bolshevik Russians on the Eastern Front. From the autumn of 1943 onwards, the High Command steadily began swapping German troops behind the Atlantic Wall for these so-called Osttruppen – eastern troops. By the spring of 1944, one in six infantry battalions along the Atlantic Coast was composed of Osttruppen and foreign volunteers – Russians, Poles, Italians, Hungarians, Romanians, Ukrainians among them. On the eastern coast of the Cotentin peninsula, 709th Infantry Division was typical of the second-rate divisions defending the west in 1944. One in five in its ranks was a volunteer from the east. Its commander, Karl Wilhelm von Schlieben, was sceptical. ‘We are asking rather a lot if we expect Russians to fight in France for Germany against Americans.’

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Evangelizing Japanese in Hawai‘i, 1915

From “Events in Hawaii,” by F. S. Scudder, in The Christian Movement in the Japanese Empire, including Korea and Formosa, a Year Book for 1915 (Conference of Federated Missions, Japan, 1915), pp. 333-336.

Interchanges – Our geographic situation has furnished us, as usual, special opportunities of brotherly service. In May, 1914, the visit of the training ships Asama and Azuma gave many Americans the privilege of becoming acquainted with Rear-Admiral Kuroi, whose noble character won the admiration of ail who met him. It was a happy coincidence that while a party of prominent citizens of Hawaii were touring Japan and daily receiving the highest courtesies in that Land of the Rising Sun, we of the setting sun should have the opportunity of offering the first welcome to these men of the Japanese navy on their visit to various American ports.

A band of thirty young men, wearing a “Y” on their sleeves, and representing the Japanese Y.M.C.A. tendered their services as guides throughout the city and vicinity of Honolulu. An international welcome service was held both in Honolulu and Hilo, in each of which no less than 1,000 people gathered. At the Honolulu service, the picture of Admiral Kuroi, seated between Governor Pink­ham and Admiral Moore, and in the midst of a group of fifteen other prominent citizens of Honolulu, was one that called out from many the remark, “How could those two Admirals ever be conceived as being ranged on different sides in a conflict.” Such services certainly tend to bind us together in sympathy, respect and mutual interest.

Peace Scholarship Students – Another incident evoking interesting comment was the coming of three more Peace Scholars from Japan to the Mid-Pacific Institute. That the sending these three boys should have been deemed of sufficient importance to draw together at the home of the Prime Minister of Japan a number of the leaders of great movements in that Empire, shows the remarkable way in which the master minds of Japan foster, from its tiniest beginnings, the ideal of world peace.

In the great pageant of Peace given at the Mid-pacific carnival in February of this year, no part called forth more unanimous admiration than that taken by the Japanese. Not alone the exquisite beauty of their costumes, but the dignity and unequalled decorum of the participants were conspicuous.

No account of the year’s activities would be complete, without mention of the definite efforts put forth to bring about mutual understanding between the people of America and Japan. Central Union Church gave its minister, Rev. Doremus Scudder, D.D., leave of absence for three months, to join with Rev. S. L. Gulick, D.D., in a campaign of good-will in the United States. The results of this campaign, though of far-reaching impor­tance, are not yet made public. This was followed by the visit of Doctors Mathews and Gulick on their way to and from Japan, and on his return trip, Dr. Gulick made a tour of these Islands, investigating the condition of the Japanese here and the estimate put upon them by the people of Hawaii. Dr. Gulick’s report of this investigation will prove of intense interest and value.

Rev. S. Kimura made a three months’ evangelistic campaign in the Islands, deeply stirring the Churches of all nationalities, and giving a strong forward impetus to the work among the Japanese.

The Hongwanji Buddhists are planning to erect a temple in Honolulu costing $100,000.

Young Japan in Hawaii – One of the big problems of missions in the ever-changing condition of Hawaii is that presented by the changing language of the people. Looking at this from the Japanese side alone, it is of serious proportions, as will be noticed from the following considerations, but what is here said in reference to the Japanese is likewise applicable to the youth of all other nationalities growing up in our midst.

An On-coming Problem
The Japanese population in the Hawaiian Islands is about 90,000
Of these the number born in the Islands is approximately 23,000
The yearly increase by children born in Hawaii is about 3,000

Here in a nutshell we have a problem which may be outlined as follows: Since the immigration of Japanese, excepting of brides, is practically discontinued, the increase of the Japanese population must henceforth be chiefly of those born in the Islands–who are educated in the public schools and whose knowledge of the Japanese tongue, after they are eight or ten years of age, becomes less and less, while English becomes their favourite language. By the time they are old enough to attend church services we are in danger of losing all influence over them, for on the one hand, their knowledge of Japanese is so limited that they can not understand the sermons preached by Japanese ministers, and on the other hand, even our best qualified Japanese ministers are not equal to preaching in English acceptably to those youths who have attended our public schools, and acquired English through play and study from their childhood days.

What can be done for these on-coming thousands of young men and women who are thus growing up among us? Shall they go to English speaking Churches? The question answers itself; for, outside of Honolulu, the Churches of all denominations in these Islands which have English services can be counted on the fingers of both hands [emphasis added]. That is sufficient evidence of the need for inaugurating English services throughout all the Islands.

Buildings Ready – Church buildings are already available, each nationality being fairly well provided with suitable buildings, but unless these Churches are quick to adapt themselves to the changing order, they will soon be ministering to a small body of old people, while the great body of our young people will be unshepherded.

Who, then, shall be secured to conduct these English services? To place in the field additional missionaries from the mainland [U.S.], even if it were possible, would be inadequate; for the present generation, at least, the ministers to the different nationalities should be related by blood to the people they are to serve.

Need of Dual Ministry – It is evident then, that while utilizing the present church buildings as permanent centres of rel1g1ous life we must have a bi-lingual ministry if we aim to reach both the old and the young, and as the difficulties in the way of securing one man who will speak the two languages are practically insuperable, we must begin as rapidly as possible to provide each of these Churches with an associate minister, of its own national type, who shall take charge of the English work.

This may seem like a staggering financial proposition, but it is not more staggering than the thought of a whole generation of the youth of all natioµalities growing up without religious guidance, and hence setting back the moral development of our people indefinitely. The unique situation calls for unusual outlay. The time has come when we must face the fact and plan to meet it with a definite programme.

Question of Expense – The sooner the problem is faced, however, the less the expense involved. By beginning at once to adapt ourselves to it, placing in the field one new man at a time and locating him at a strategic centre, the initial expense would be moderate, and the help thus given would so strengthen the Churches that they would move more rapidly towards self-support, thus keeping down the annual increase to a reasonable sum.

Our first aim, it would seem, should be to place one English speaking Japanese minister on each of the four Islands where we have Japanese work, who should institute a regular English service in each Church as often as the size of his circuit will permit, and then, from this beginning, to go on increasing the number of our English speaking preachers till every Church has its dual ministry.

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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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Okinawa Under U.S. Occupation, 1945–1972

From Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb, by George Feifer (Ticknor & Fields, 1992), pp. 554-556:

The [Okinawa] occupation of 1945–1972 was characteristically American: often generous in personal ways and in response to individual cases of hardship, usually ignorant of and insensitive to native ways and needs. When Commodore Perry forced Okinawans to satisfy his “reasonable” demands almost a century earlier, he was certain they would appreciate the “lenity and humanity” of American laws. Now Americans who paid wages to civilian employees and distributed free rations – the only antidote to mass starvation – were similarly convinced of their traditional magnanimity, especially when billions of dollars were poured into the economy in support of operations for the Korean War and other anti-Communist measures. Some of the medical assistance and scholarship grants to top students were indeed admirable. But the twenty-seven years until the occupation ended brought far more shame than honor to Washington and the men in the field who followed or ignored official intentions.

Japanese-speaking naval officers, some former professors trained in Asian studies and occupation affairs, did good work during the first year or so. But the quality of the occupation plunged when responsibility for it was transferred more fully to the Army, most of whose senior officers knew nothing about their jobs and hardly cared to learn: civil administration was considered a sidetrack from line duty and its promotion. Pentagon officials changed almost as rapidly as occupation personnel. Okinawan duty was considered undesirable enough to be threatened as punishment for “goof-ups” elsewhere in the Pacific. The island became notorious among Americans as a place of exile from the Japanese mainland – a veritable Siberia, as George Kerr called it, known as “the Rock” and “the end of the line” – incompetent colonels and civilian bureaucrats, rather as Tokyo had sent down second-rate administrators for decades before the war.

Soon only a few overseas eccentrics gave a damn about the remote possession. Resuming their civilian lives in the postwar boom, veterans in the States knew nothing about the abysmal conditions on the island. The vacuum of public interest and accountability allowed the generally negligent and incapable performance of the Army’s secondary occupational functions to go unnoticed. The occupation force was composed not of combat troops who had seen at least a portion of the 1945 calamity but of “callow youth,” as one of their officers called them, who were “demanding [their] creature comforts from the armed services.” Or from the Okinawans, just under a hundred of whom they robbed, raped, otherwise assaulted and murdered during the first six months of 1949 alone: predictable distractions of occupation troops banished to the impoverished island.

Those youths felt condescension or scorn for the primitives eking out an existence without commerce or currency. Especially during the first years after the war, when family land was the sole source of self-support and the Army paid no compensation for its appropriations for the military use, scavenging natives lived in miserable poverty, some in areas ravaged by malaria, all in deep shock and bewilderment. The island became a heap of war surplus and smelly junk. A witness described an Assistant Secretary of the Army as “flabbergasted with what he saw” during an unannounced inspection in 1949. Some of the worst outrages were remedied, but native hardship remained severe until the late 1950s.

Destitute Okinawans looked back at the war as confirmation that the island’s salvation lay in pacifism. Not all regretted having fought for Japan, especially some of the young and the elite. But a handful of exceptions proved the rule of enormous regret and corresponding mistrust of everything military. If most Japanese turned fervently antimilitarist after the war, most Okinawans, whose losses made the [Japanese] 32nd Army’s destruction seem almost slight by comparison, did so with stronger feeling.

The proportionally greater damage was followed by slower reconstruction. While Japan was gearing up for economic recovery in the 1950s, Okinawa remained in pathetic poverty, partly owing to the unconcerned, incompetent American generals who conducted a more rigid and repressive occupation than on the mainland, where neon was installed and diplomatic niceties with the Imperial Palace reintroduced. The real business of Okinawa’s governors was to run America’s defense installations, not to care for the natives. Thus traditionally peaceful Okinawa fare worse during the occupation than the historically militarist mainland, which American personnel had no notion of running as one big military base. Those least responsible for the war that hurt them most were also punished afterward.

In 1971, Berlin was the only other major area under occupation as a residue of World War II. When the Ryukyus reverted to Japan the following year, maintenance of America’s bases was central to the deal, which included additional secret arrangements for the two powers to trade Okinawan favors. (Japanese officials assured American generals they could have far greater freedom of action there than on the mainland.) To Americans, those bases have great emotional as well as military significance. Many veterans were understandably angered by the return of Okinawa’s dearly bought 875 square miles to the former enemy. After the loss of so much American blood, the Pentagon’s wish to remain is understandable.

But by this measure, the loss of incomparably more Okinawan blood there makes the Okinawans’ wish for the Pentagon to leave more reasonable. Native anti-Americanism is a political, not a personal, phenomenon: most Okinawans tend to like Yanks in general, and perhaps feel easier with them than with Japanese. But they abhor the beast in their midst, the largest concentration of American military force outside the continental United States.

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