Category Archives: USSR

Echoes of the Russo-Japanese War

From Rising Sun And Tumbling Bear, by R. M. Connaughton (Orion, 2020), Kindle pp. 389-390:

Britain and the United States grew apprehensive as to Japanese aspirations. Their mutual suspicions were confirmed when, in 1915, Japan issued China with her notorious 21 Demands, a plan for the annexation of China. Japan was blocked for the time being, but there was reflection as to how long she could be kept down….

It had been in 1918 that a combined force which had included British, American and Japanese troops had gone to the assistance of the White Russians but, seeing the permanence of the revolution, Britain and America withdrew from the half-hearted intervention. Japan remained in Siberia until 1922 and did not return northern Sakhalin to Russia until 1925. (Russia acquired all of Sakhalin in 1945 as part of the agreement with the allies for her last-minute entry into the war against Japan.)

The interested powers had no intention of giving Japan a free hand in developing her power, and arranged at the Washington Conference in 1921 to impose conditions. Under this treaty the ratio of capital ship tonnages between Britain, the United States and Japan was set at 5:5:3. In 1923 the Anglo-Japanese alliance was abrogated and the London Naval Treaty of 1930 imposed further limitations upon the Imperial Japanese Navy. Anti-British feeling grew in Japan as pro-German sentiments increased. The technical exchange between Britain and Japan had ceased with the abrogation of the alliance. Since there was no prospect of support from the United States, with whom a fatal rivalry was now developing, Japan sought a new partner to supply essential technical expertise.

Britain’s building of the Singapore naval base caused a furore in Japan where it was seen as an Anglo-American provocative measure to attempt to limit Japan’s interests in the Pacific. In 1937, when the Sino-Japanese War began, relationships deteriorated further. Japan took full advantage of her time in China to develop and refine tactics and machinery. While the Stukas were being tested in Spain, a similar experience was being enjoyed by the Zeros in China. After the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, Japan moved closer to Germany, culminating in September 1940 with the signing of the tripartite pact. Japanese confidence had developed into Japanese over-confidence.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a repeat performance of the attack on Port Arthur. As if to acknowledge that point, the lead carrier Akagi flew the same battle flag as Admiral Togo had flown on the Mikasa during Japan’s pre-emptive strike on Port Arthur. What was surprising was that on 19 February 1942 a smaller Akagi carrier group would make a similar, successful, surprise attack on the airfield and ships at Darwin in what was to be described in Australia as ‘a day of national shame’.

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Gorbachev’s Visit and Krenz’s Coup

From Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Iain MacGregor (Scribner, 2019), Kindle (pp. 235-237:

When First Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev arrived on October 7 [1989] to participate in the East German regime’s fortieth anniversary celebrations, Susie Corbett was in East Berlin on a regular shopping trip. “As far as I could see from touring the center of town in my car,” she recalled, “it seemed the whole place was enjoying a fête, with red Soviet flags dressing up the main thoroughfares and government buildings and the population seemingly keen to celebrate, too. Nothing seemed any different to my previous visits.” After a massive military parade, the Soviet leader’s pronouncements to the media in a public walkabout (unheard of by any Eastern Bloc leader until then) shocked Honecker and those closest to him in the SED hierarchy—Gorbachev announcing to the cameras, “A party that lags behind the times will harvest bitter fruit.” This was a clear and honest appraisal of the pressure the country was under from internal protests and his knowledge of the perilous financial state of the GDR. The planned torch-lit parade that evening, which would praise the creation of the GDR, the rule of the SED, and of course the leadership of Erich Honecker, turned into a farcical spectacle. Gorbachev looked on incredulously, standing alongside the grimacing East German leader, as they watched supposed loyal party activists shout to the Soviet general secretary, “Gorbi, Gorbi—help us!”

For the ailing Honecker, this was a disaster, which had quickly followed a fiery meeting, with the German and Russian men clashing verbally in private and in a meeting of the East German politburo, Honecker deriding Gorbachev’s reformist policies compared to what he believed were the GDR’s economic success. The Soviet leader had audibly hissed his derision at the old East German, with Honecker’s excuses met by deafening silence around the politburo table.

Robert Corbett received a request from Britain’s ambassador to West Germany, Sir Christopher Mallaby, to discuss the situation. Televised coverage of an October 16 march in Leipzig had been aired on West German TV following secret video recordings that were smuggled out of the GDR. Now the world could see hundreds of thousands of East Germans demonstrating, instead of just the hundreds who were trickling into the West German embassy compound in Prague seeking asylum. It was a far bigger story.

A general atmosphere of unease gripped Berlin, reinforced when the sudden news came through that Erich Honecker had been forced to step down. The younger generation within the East German politburo, led by his deputy Egon Krenz, had taken Gorbachev’s visit and his official rebuke on the need for the regime to change as a signal to make a grab for power. Krenz had long been seen as the heir apparent and had risen through the SED ranks to become secretary of the central committee. Crucially, he oversaw security for the country and was able to persuade the head of the Ministry of State Security, Erich Mielke, to support his bid to oust the ailing leader. The week after this bloodless coup, more than 350,000 people took to the streets of Leipzig for a second mass rally. Secret dossiers had been prepared for the new leader that outlined what kind of state he was now inheriting from the man he had unceremoniously ousted. The GDR was in effect bankrupt and surviving on enormous loans from the Federal Republic just to keep going in the short term. Debt was piling on top of debt to the international markets. Was the game up? Ambassador Mallaby and his fellow ambassadors of the USA and France were deeply concerned and this was reflected in the by now constant updating of plans by the three Western Allied Commandants and their staffs.

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Checkpoint Charlie’s Other Names

From Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Iain MacGregor (Scribner, 2019), Kindle pp. 64-65:

Checkpoint Charlie would be formally distinguished by the Four Powers as the single crossing point (either by foot or by motor vehicle) for foreigners and members of the Allied forces. Members of the Allied forces were subsequently not allowed to use the other sector crossing point designated for use by foreigners at the Friedrichstraße railway station. The name “Charlie,” though it would become quite catchy to fans of spy novels and films over the years, had a more prosaic backstory. The Allied checkpoints covering entry into East Germany, and then into Berlin, derived their names, simply, from the letters in the NATO phonetic alphabet. The Allied checkpoints on the Autobahn linking the city to the West were Checkpoint Alpha at Helmstedt/Marienborn and Checkpoint Bravo, its counterpart at Dreilinden/Drewitz in the southwest corner of Berlin. Soldiers of the US Army’s 287th Military Police Company would man this new crossing in shifts around the clock beginning on August 23. This small unit was then formally expanded, and a desk was placed in a nearby building on Freidrichstraße to serve as the official checkpoint, complete with a radio system. Now that it had a radio, it needed a call sign, and thus “Charlie” was attached to it. Within a few weeks, the US Army moved a trailer to the center of the road to act as the new control point on the Allied side. Checkpoint Charlie was now designated the major crossing point for Allied personnel, foreigners, and diplomats in the heart of Berlin. The Russians simply called it the “Friedrichstraße Crossing Point,” and their East German cousins the Grenzübergangsstelle (“Border Crossing Point”) Friedrich/Zimmerstraße—which was geographically where the checkpoint was located.

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Inner German Border Before the Wall

From Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Iain MacGregor (Scribner, 2019), Kindle p. 16:

This Inner German border, … stretching almost fourteen hundred kilometers (close to nine hundred miles) from the Baltic Sea to the border with Czechoslovakia, was still not the impregnable barrier Stalin envisaged, a fact reflected in the name the locals living along its length gave to it, die Grenze (“the Border”).

Hans-Ulrich Jörges’s father decided to flee to the West in 1956, sending word to his family to follow him a year later. “We could leave,” Uli recalled later, “because they were not interested in a single woman with two children. I do remember a house search by Stasi officers, who wore long Gestapo-like leather coats, when I was three or four years old. Of course, that was a terrifying experience. In West Germany we settled in a village close to the border in Hessen, not far away from Bad Salzungen. Every Sunday for many years, in a sort of Homeric ritual, we traveled to the border and looked across the fence into our homeland of Thüringen. My parents would stand there fighting back the tears, gripping our hands tightly, and talking to one another to offer some comfort.”

For Uli’s family, the frontier was perhaps in the mind. “Our border was marked with a simple fence that you could walk across fields to and stand right up against, without any concern as to the border guards on the other side harming you. It was almost like a fence for retaining cattle in their field. There was no ‘Death Strip’ at that time, and when the border guards in the East passed by, one could even casually talk to them. I recall a small man standing beside us who shouted out to them as they marched past us silently that they come over to eat some white bread [difficult to obtain in East Germany]—and they did.”

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British Ties with Oman

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 11-12:

The British connection with Muscat dates from the early days of the East India Company in the seventeenth century, though the first treaty between Britain and the Sultan was not signed until 1798. An agreement followed two years later for agents of the East India Company to reside at Muscat, but the appalling climate killed off so many of them that it lapsed. Throughout the nineteenth century the British and the Sultan, who was then the most important ruler in the Gulf, collaborated closely in suppressing piracy, and the slave trade ceased in the Sultanate under a treaty of 1822. By a treaty of 1852 Britain (and France) recognized the independence of the Sultan, who still conducts his own foreign policy and maintains his own armed forces. Under subsequent agreements he may call on British help in time of trouble.

The trouble came soon after the old Imam’s death; the principal causes were Saudi ambition and, of course, oil. Ever since 1937 the Saudis had been trying to expand their territory beyond the edge of the Rub al Khali [the Empty Quarter], claiming frontiers with their neighbours — the States of the Aden Protectorate, the Sultanate, and the Trucial Sheikhdoms — which those neighbours refused to accept. After the Second World War the two superpowers, Russia and America, became increasingly involved in Arabia and the Gulf, the former pursuing an old imperial design, the latter attracted by fresh discoveries of oil: both with a common interest in reducing the influence of Britain. Encouraged by the new situation, the Saudis in 1952 suddenly occupied the strategic oasis of Buraimi, owned partly by the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi, a Trucial State, and partly by the Sultan of Muscat.

The Sultan gathered a force of between six and eight thousand tribesmen and, but for the ill-advised intervention of the British Government, would have expelled the intruders immediately, thus dealing a sharp blow to Saudi prestige and cementing the loyalty of the Omani tribes. When he failed to move, Saudi intrigue began to prosper.

The dispute went to international arbitration at Geneva, where the Saudi method, perfectly respectable in Arabia, of reinforcing their arguments with offers of large sums in gold to the members of the Tribunal caused such scandal that the President and the British delegate resigned in protest. At the end of 1955 the seemingly inexhaustible patience of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government ran out; in a sudden, bloodless coup the Trucial Oman Scouts descended on Buraimi, expelled the Saudi garrison, and established a garrison of their own and another of the Sultan’s in the Oasis. But the three year delay had been disastrous for the Sultan. The Saudis had made good use of the time to spread their influence in Oman, suborning the tribesmen with lavish gifts of money and arms. Moreover, a new Imam had arisen on the death of the Sultan’s old friend: one Ghalib bin Ali. A weak and colourless personality appointed by a cabal of three sheikhs but never formally elected, he was virtually a Saudi puppet; he possessed, however, a valuable ally in his brother, Talib, the Wali [Governor] of Rostaq, a brave, energetic and extremely ambitious leader with considerable military ability, who soon emerged as the driving force of the movement. Immediately after his election Ghalib, with his brother, toured his domain, setting up his own garrisons in his holy capital of Nizwa and in other strategically important towns and villages in the interior.

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Two Congo Rebellions End, 1962

From Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World, by Christopher Othen (History Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. ~3909:

On 1 March 1961, Albert Kalonji declared himself chief of chiefs for all Baluba in Kasaï. As the new Mulopwe, Kalonji was supposed to sacrifice a family member to ensure invulnerability, take his pick of local virgins and allow villagers to eat dirt from beneath his feet. He disappointed local witchdoctors by agreeing only to the dirt eating.

Kalonji told his friends that traditionalist-minded tribal chiefs had pushed the position of Mulopwe on him. His critics, including South Kasaï prime minister Joseph Ngalula, thought Kalonji had suggested the whole thing as part of a plan to become dictator. Ngalula complained so loudly that he was exiled to Léopoldville, the Mulopwe having bought the co-operation of Kasa-Vubu and Mobutu with profits from his diamond mines. The UN had banned the export of conflict diamonds but Kalonji smuggled the stones across the River Congo to Brazzaville, where Youlou pretended he had dug them up himself.

Rich and worshipped, the Mulopwe underestimated how much Léopoldville hated his secession. By the end of the year, Ngalula had persuaded the Congolese government to revoke the parliamentary immunity that had kept Kalonji safe during earlier visits to the capital. Mobutu’s men arrested the Mulopwe in Léopoldville on 30 December.

The cell doors slammed on Antoine Gizenga a few weeks later. Parliament had stripped the deputy prime minister of his position after Stanleyville ANC troops invaded north Katanga at the end of 1961. On 8 January, Kasa-Vubu ordered him to return to the capital. Gizenga refused. A more charismatic man could have caused trouble but Gizenga spent his time in clammy introversion by the river. Not even his troop of female bodyguards, pearl-handled revolvers on each hip, made him look like a leader. Stanleyville fell apart while he brooded, and his supporters turned on him.

‘We have had enough of the anarchy and terror that reign in our province,’ said one of Gizenga’s soldiers.

International support had also faded away. American money persuaded previously loyal African leaders to abandon Gizenga. The USSR preferred to focus on Germany, where the construction of the Berlin Wall had increased tensions between east and west. Moscow’s interest in exporting the Cold War to Africa faded further when Afro-Asian nations refused to back Khruschev’s post-Ndola plan to replace the post of UN Secretary General with a three-pronged system that would have boosted Soviet influence. The suitcases of cash stopped arriving in Stanleyville.

‘[Gizenga’s] group has become disillusioned with Russian promises which never materialized,’ cabled US ambassador Clare Timberlake to Washington.

In his damp villa, Gizenga issued daily orders that no one followed. The few cars limping along the roads outside were wrecks and the roads themselves not much better. General Victor Lundula declared his allegiance to Kasa-Vubu, carrying most of the Stanleyville ANC with him. Gizenga ordered the general’s arrest but none of the 300 gendarmes still loyal would obey. Lundula moved on the evening of 12 January. A gun battle left eight Gizenga loyalists dead in the streets at the cost of six attackers. Gizenga’s all-female bodyguards never fired a shot. UN troops moved in and disarmed the remaining gendarmes.

Gizenga sent a cable to Adoula: ‘PUT MY OFFICE AND RESIDENCE IN ORDER. INFORM THE COUNCIL, THE PARLIAMENT AND ALL THE PEOPLE.’

When he arrived in Léopoldville, the police arrested him. The only international protests were a few sparsely attended marches in the Soviet bloc. No one seemed to care when Gizenga was imprisoned on Bula Bemba Island off the coast. The South Kasaï and Stanleyville rebellions were over. Tshombe was the last man standing.

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Congo Stanleyville in 1960

From Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World, by Christopher Othen (History Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. ~1797:

Stanleyville was a town of pastel inter-war buildings more suited to the French Riviera than Africa. It was there, after Lumumba’s arrest, that Antoine Gizenga declared himself Prime Minister of the Congo, dismissing Kasa-Vubu and Mobutu as traitors. The Congo now had two rival governments to go with its two secessionist states. Gizenga, a depressed-looking 35-year-old with a mouth like a trout, appealed to the Soviet Union for help.

‘If the imperialists think that we will surrender’, he said, ‘or if they think they will kill off the Congolese people’s liberation movement, they are wrong’.

Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev authorised a $500,000 payment to Pierre Mulele, the Stanleyville representative in Cairo. Spies suggested that Mulele skimmed some cash for himself. The Soviets looked the other way. Gizenga needed money to keep his 6,000-strong version of the ANC loyal.

‘It is clear that if the army does not receive wages it will refuse to fight,’ reported Czech newsman Dushan Provarnik from Stanleyville:

The Gizenga government has to pay its soldiers at least the same money that Mobutu gives his own soldiers, i.e. 2,000–6,000 Congolese francs depending on grade. Under the existing circumstances, when the government has no revenues, as taxes have not been raised, these expenses are a heavy financial burden.

Attempts to supply Gizenga with arms and advisors were less successful. A Czech air bridge from Prague through Egypt failed when Nasser refused access to his airspace. Lumumba’s former confidant Kwame Nkrumah seemed happy to help but somehow Soviet weapons sent via Ghana never reached the Congo. The Ghanaian leader did not reveal he was talking trade treaties with the Americans.

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The UN Enters the Congo, 1960

From Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World, by Christopher Othen (History Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. ~1026:

Ralph Bunce had passed on Lumumba’s request for help to the United Nations Secretary General, a Swedish civil servant with blonde hair and grey-blue eyes calm as a frozen lake. Dag Hammarskjöld turned it down. The UN’s job was peace.

The United Nations had been around since the end of the Second World War. Its optimistic goal of world harmony was often compromised by the competing desires of America and the Soviet Union, its strongest members. American pressure sent UN troops to the Korean War in 1950 and Soviet demands made them sit and watch as the Red Army crushed anti-communist rebels in Hungary six years later. Most of Hammarskjöld’s energy went into persuading the superpowers occasionally to vote the same way.

The Swede did not want the UN to be used as a private army to take back Katanga. The Congo’s biggest problem, in his view, was the threat of a clash between Belgian soldiers and the ANC. He twisted some superpower arms and secured a mandate from the Security Council in New York to replace the 7,400 Belgians in the Congo with UN soldiers. The first peacekeepers, a Tunisian contingent, arrived in Léopoldville on 14 July, followed by units from Ghana, Mali and Morocco. Belgian soldiers reluctantly gave up their positions to blue-helmeted UN men and flew home. The process was surprisingly smooth, even surviving a kick in the teeth from Lumumba, when he declared it too slow and asked the Soviet Union to intervene independently. Moscow officially declined but saw a chance to sink its claws into Africa. Soviet aeroplanes and lorries and Czechoslovak technicians began to arrive secretly in Stanleyville. Cold warriors in Brussels were horrified.

‘The Congo will become communist within two months,’ said Harold d’Aspremont-Lynden, a close colleague of the Belgian prime minister.

Soon after, Harold d’Aspremont-Lynden was on his way to Katanga as head of the Mission Technique Belge (Belgian Technical Mission – Mistebel), a high-powered group of experts full of ideas on how to run the new country. Minister of Foreign Affairs Pierre Wigny was not happy. He had been arguing against taking sides in Katanga ever since Tshombe declared independence, but lost any support in the Cabinet after Léopoldville accused Brussels of organising the secession and broke diplomatic relations.

 

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Soviet Intellectual Ostarbeiters, 1944

From The Long Vacation, by Alex Panasenko (Iris, 2020), Kindle pp. 63-64:

Almost everyone in the camp smoked heavily. Since there was no cigarette ration, the main preoccupation of these people was to find something to smoke. Thus cigarette butts were worth considerably more than their weight in gold. I saw starving men barter away their bread rations for something to smoke. I saw them break down and cry when someone stole their hoarded tobacco. Probably the only reason I did not see them kill for it was that most of these people were intellectuals and thus had the fighting potential of a herd of guinea pigs.

These people had all survived Stalin’s purges. The purges had carried off everyone who had any character whatsoever and thus was able to take any kind of stand. These pathetic people were unable to take themselves seriously, and they disdained everyone else. They had been conditioned into informing on one another by the Soviet system, so now they sought to gain favor with the Germans through informing. But there was nothing concrete for them to report, and the Germans did not give a rat’s ass for ideological differences in their slaves.

Incapable of fighting or any meaningful resistance, the intellectuals turned to acts of petty bitchiness and viciousness. They were made even more pitiful by their moral ugliness. This weakness bred other vices. Aside from being informers, they also stole, lied, gossiped, and hated everything and everyone with a powerless, burning intensity. Their only claims to humanity and self-respect were their contributions to their professional lives, which were useless and pointless in the present situation. Thus we had a skinny, redheaded doctor of something-or-other who had done some work on Tamerlane’s tomb. He kept talking about it. I asked him who Tamerlane was and learned he had been a great leader.

“As great as Hitler or Stalin?” I asked.

Although I did not realize it at the time, my question had put the doctor in a quandary. We were within hearing range of several of his peers, and to have given me a truthful answer would have resulted in his being informed on. He muttered something and moved away.

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Ukrainian Boy Ostarbeiter, 1944

From The Long Vacation, by Alex Panasenko (Iris, 2020), Kindle pp. 61-62:

As I attempt to detail the events of long ago, some of them stand out in sharp contrast to the overall dreariness and depression that characterized those years. My arrival at the labor camp in early Fall, 1944, was one such event. I had just turned eleven and felt very grown up.

The camp lay a few kilometers away from the castle at the end of a wide, graveled drive lined with chestnut trees. It consisted of two brick buildings and three barracks. The camp was fenced in, but there were neither guard towers nor a permanent guard at the gate.

I was let in by a shifty-eyed and tough-looking little Russian who evidently was in some position of authority. I was issued an enameled gray bowl, a spoon, and a brown blanket. I was shown my barracks and admonished to get up in time for roll call, not steal, not talk back to any Germans, and to work hard. Then everyone ignored me.

I spent that first day wandering around, exploring the camp, and feeling sorry for myself. I felt, however, a strong sense of elation at being away from my father. I think I am one of the very few people who were actually liberated by the Nazis. Whatever it was that the Germans did to me, it was done by strangers who were enemies, supposedly for lofty patriotic and philosophical reasons. Consequently, it was much easier to accept than the pointless cruelty that had been so freely dispensed at home. Furthermore, whenever I was struck by a German (with the exception of kids), they always had a clear reason for it. I was treated by them much as I used to treat my dogs, except I wasn’t fed as well or shown any kindness or given any medical attention.

They did, however, teach me punctuality, diligence, and a sense of responsibility.

Towards noon of that first day, I was told to bring my bowl to one of the brick buildings, which turned out to be the kitchen. There I received a ladleful of potato soup and a slice of black bread. The soup was made from bits and peels of potato that had been boiled for many hours. It was a potato starch sludge with lots of salt added. The bread was very dark, sour, and wet. I can’t recall ever having tasted anything so delicious, but probably that was a result of my constant, gnawing hunger.

Every morning we received half a loaf of that bread. In addition, for lunch and dinner, there was a bowlful of some sort of sludge, usually potato soup. On Sundays, we had vegetable soup with actual potatoes and carrots in it and an occasional piece of some sort of animal sinew or gristle. If I spend too much time describing this cuisine, it is because during my stay at that camp, food was my main preoccupation, as it was for everyone else in that place.

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