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Want to Know What War Is?

It isn’t the headline image. It’s the woman saying farewell.

A woman bids farewell at Paddington Station in 1942 as a train pulls away. This is one of the haunting images taken by Bert Hardy for Picture Post magazine in Great Britain.

How easily we talk of war and bombing people and being the greatest country in the world because we can beat the hell out of our enemies. We do live in a dangerous world and pacifism is not a rational alternative. But wars and armed conflict kill and maim and create emotional scars which never heal.

Look at this photograph. This woman knows she may never see her loved one again. He is off to war. Few photographs have this one’s emotional power to communicate the terrifying abyss into which war can lead us.

This is one of many striking imagines taken by photographer British photographer Bert Hardy for Picture Post magazine, a British version of America’s Life Magazine.

 

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2300657/Bert-Hardy-From-womans-tears-Paddington-gravestone-jumping-street-urchins-Glasgows-slums.html#ixzz4jM76D4oB
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The featured image is Private Alfred Campin of the 6th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry during training in Britain, March 1944. (Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum).

http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/second-world-war/15-rare-colour-photographs-from-the-second-world-war

 

 

Underground Stations When Bombs Dropping

Taking shelter in the Underground stations wasn’t a great experience. Early in the Blitz there were few sanitary facilities and people who lived through the era often write about the stench of underground stations.

SHELTER PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN IN LONDON BY BILL BRANDT, NOVEMBER 1940 (D 1568) Elephant and Castle London Underground Station Shelter: People sleeping on the crowded platform of Elephant and Castle tube station while taking shelter from German air raids during the London Blitz. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194638

 

While no more than 3% of Londoners used the tube stations as bomb shelters, photographs such as these became iconic images showing the determination of Londoners not to let the Nazis break their will.

SHELTER PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN IN LONDON BY BILL BRANDT, NOVEMBER 1940 (D 1571) Elephant and Castle Underground Station Shelter: The station performs a dual wartime role: travellers enter a train while, in the foreground, other Londoners attempt to sleep. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194641

(The sign in the window to the right of the tube car door informs passengers that this is a non-smoking car. In 1940)

THE LONDON UNDERGROUND AS AIR RAID SHELTER, LONDON, ENGLAND, 1940 (D 1677) One of London’s most popular shelters is that which is to be found in a section of the London underground system which has been converted by tearing up the tracks. The advertisements remain pasted on the wall. Hats and coats are hung on nails which have been driven in between the bricks on the wall. People sleep on the platform and on the space which was formerly the track, this part stretching fo… Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205221918

This is probably a section of the Picadilly Line which was no longer in use when the war began.

THE LONDON UNDERGROUND AS AIR RAID SHELTER, LONDON, ENGLAND, 1940 (D 1678) Shelterers sleep along the walls of the passageway leading from the lifts to the platform at a London Underground station, probably Aldwych, in November 1940. The shelterers lie on thin mattresses and suitcases have been used to partition off areas along the tunnel to provide some privacy for shelterers. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205197856

“It’s the Invasion!….Ten Thousand Ships Headed Right at Me!”

the Germans on D-Day
D-DAY – ALLIED FORCES DURING THE INVASION OF NORMANDY 6 JUNE 1944 (A 23844) Landing ships and other invasion craft seen from HMS BEAGLE, 6 June 1944. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205155881

“Which way are the ships headed?” 

 “Right for me!”

Major Werner Pluskat, First German to Sight Allied Invasion Fleet, informs his higher echelon headquarters of the German 352nd Infantry Division.

At dawn on 6 June 1944, from this German bunker on a rise above Omaha Beach, Major Werner Pluskat was the first German officer to see the Allied invasion fleet which he described as headed  “straight at me.”  During the Normandy invasion, he served as the commander of the artillery battalion of the German 352nd Infantry Division, a scratch division built around a handful of surviving veterans from the 321 Infantry Division which had been torn to shreds during the Battle of Kursk in July and August of 1943 and the subsequent Soviet offensives.  *

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German actor Hans Christian Blech playing Major Werner Pluskat in the 1962 movie, the Longest Day, based on the book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan.

(Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

“The Longest Day,” an account of D-Day written by American journalist and narrative historian Cornelius Ryan, Pluskat told him the following in a personal interview.

Dawn of 6 June 1944

 

From his bunker overlooking Omaha Beach, Major Pluskat rang through to the headquarters of the 352nd Infantry Division to which his artillery battalion was assigned:

“It’s the invasion! There must be ten thousand ships out here!”

Division HQ: “Which way are the ships headed?”

Pluskat: “Right for me!”

Division to Pluskat several minutes later: “What’s the situation?”

“We’re being shelled!”

“Exact location of shelling?”

“For God’s sake, they’re falling all over. What do you want me to do? Go out and measure the holes with a ruler?”

 Pluskat obviously survived the war, surrendering to the Allies on 23 April 1945.

Hans Christian Blech in The Longest Day

German actor Hans Christian Blech playing Major Werner Pluskat in the 1962 movie, the Longest Day.

In this movie still from 20th Century Fox, Major Pluskat is talking to his division command after intense shelling. Most German bunkers were well constructed and survived Allied naval gunfire. 

D-DAY – ALLIED FORCES DURING THE INVASION OF NORMANDY 6 JUNE 1944 (A 23934) The Normandy coast around Bernieres-sur-Mer, Juno assault area, with smoke rising from burning buildings during the Allied naval bombardment which preceded the landings, 6 June 1944. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205155953

 

Unfortunately, the naval guns of the era had a relatively flat trajectory. While battleships could, and did, hit German units 30 miles inland, targets as close as Pluskat’s bunker were harder to destroy because naval guns could not generate plunging fire like an army howitzer. So complete was Allied control of the sea, that many battleships assigned to the bombardment force were able to anchor in a long row in the English channel.

On Omaha, for instance, where very few tanks made it ashore, smaller ships such as destroyers and destroyer escorts closed the beach and directly engaged the German artillery firing from bunkers. There were occasions when the Germans were firing over the heads of the GIs on the beach at Allied destroyers who were firing back.

Naval captains took their ships in as close as they could, scraping bottom occasionally. But the invasion had to succeed. There wasn’t a “Plan B.”

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Like most accounts of historical events, there is controversy over Pluskat’s whereabouts at dawn on 6 June.  Speculation on a number of World War Two discussion boards suggests Pluskat wasn’t at his post at dawn on 6 June and fabricated his entire story which became part of the historical record and has been repeated a thousand times in various books until taken for truth.

Yet Pluskat did command the artillery battalion of the 352nd German Infantry Division. This division was dug in behind Pluskat’s artillery. The task of 352nd was to defend the stretch of beach known as “Omaha” to the Allies.

And Pluskat’s command bunker was on the heights above Omaha and remains there to this day as shown in the first photo of this post. His battalion did not retreat until they had fired all of their ammunition. So we know that he basics are true.

In an article about D-Day  in the German weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel, on 3 June 1964, their reporter writes:

“Major Werner Pluskat, commander of four coastal batteries the 352nd Division in the landing section “Omaha” was one of the first who saw the Armada. From his forward command post, he peered through the telescope, when morning dawned and the mist of the night lifted above the sea: The horizon was dotted with ships – ten thousand estimated the Major. The inferno broke out.”

 

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR: OPERATION OVERLORD (THE NORMANDY LANDINGS), JUNE 1944 (A 23977) HMS RODNEY bombarding gun positions in the Caen area as seen from the cruiser HMS FROBISHER. In support of the Normandy landings British Naval guns have been constantly bombarding enemy positions, often many miles inland. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205187109

 

Cornelius Ryan, who wrote the book, The Longest Day, was a well-known journalist of the era and a careful researcher. Born in Ireland (he became an American citizen in 1957) he worked as a war correspondent for The Daily Telegraph of London.

Incredibly, he flew 14 bombing missions over Germany as part of his work as a journalist although not required to do so. He also witnessed the D-Day landings as a journalist. It would have been difficult to fool him.

Since Ryan interviewed so many participants in the battle, Allied and German, I find it hard to believe that Pluskat made up the story about himself he told Ryan. Further Pluskat only died in 2002 at age 90 so other German veterans of D-Day from the 352nd Infantry Division had decades to accuse Pluskat of lying. To my knowledge, such accusations were never made.

Ryan’s book is a well-written narrative history of the D-Day. It contains a number of small inaccuracies. However, these are mainly due to his lack of access to records about D-Day which were still classified at the time he wrote the book in 1957 and 1958. But his interview with Pluskat is accurate.

“The Longest Day” was published in 1959.

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Sadly, Cornelius Ryan died tragically early in his life at age 54 in 1974 of prostate cancer.

*a fascinating “look behind enemy lines” can be found in the correctly translate reported written for the Allies after the battle by one of the captured regimental commanders of the 352nd German Infantry Division. Historian Stewart Bryant tracked down the original document in German written by the officer. About twenty years ago, historians discovered that hundreds of these documents had been incorrectly translated.

Bryant has translated this German report into English himself and has added valuable commentary and explanations.

You can read his excellent work here:

http://www.omaha-beach.org/US-Version/352/352US.html

P51 Mustang Saves Bomber Offensive

P51 to the Rescue

Lieutenant Vernon R Richards of the 361st Fighter Group flying his P-51D Mustang nicknamed ‘Tika IV’, during a bomber escort mission in 1944. (photograph and caption courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

D-Day was not the Second Front.
The Anglo-American Strategic Bombing Offensive against Germany was the second front
d-day was the Third Front.
The First Front was the massive battle on the Eastern front between the Germans and the Soviets. 

 

Graves of German soldiers somewhere in Russia. (Bundesarchiv)

Because the Soviets killed over 80% of German soldiers killed in World War Two, something Stalin frequently pointed out to Churchill and FDR, the most important strategic goal of the Allies (the US and the British Empire) was to keep the Soviets in the war. The P-51 ended up playing an important role in this.

We absolutely had to think of a way to relive the intense German military power being unleashed on the Soviets by the Germans (who had a kill rate of one German soldier to 27 Soviet soldiers). The British had begun a small bombing campaign against Nazi Germany and its allies before America was in the war because there was no other way for the Brits to attack Germany.

Pilots of No. 310 (Czechoslovak) Squadron RAF in front of Hawker Hurricane Mk I at Duxford, Cambridgeshire, 7 September 1940. (Photo and caption courtesy of the Imperial War Museum).

Germans Bomb London and Other Cities Throughout the UK

From the late summer of 1940 to the early summer of 1941, the German Luftwaffe bombed London and other major British cities and ports in a savage campaign which killed more than 40,000 people in the UK, half of them in London. More than one million homes were destroyed. So, the British felt little remorse at bombing the Germans.

RAF Bomber Command took unacceptable casualties in daylight bombing and began bombing only at night. The US Army Air Force and the Bomber Barons were convinced that daylight bombing was the best way in spite of the British experience.

Boeing B-17F 42-29513. 346th Bombardment Squadron, 99th Bombardment Group

In our arrogance, the US believed that properly staged formations of B-17 Flying Fortress’s would be self-defending and wouldn’t need fighter cover. This assumption was proven to be completely wrong by the horrifying losses suffered during 1943 and early 1944 by the USAAF 8th Air Force flying from Great Britain.

Unfortunately, no fighter had the range to accompany American bombers all the way to Berlin and points east and then fly all the way back to Great Britain. Someone thought of drop tanks which were easy to make. However, there needed to be a rugged and fast heavy fighter to take on the German fighters over Germany.

What About the P51?

P-51D Mustang at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

American bombers finally accompanied by fighters for the entire flight

The P-51 had been a disappointment. It wasn’t fast enough. Someone thought of putting a Rolls Royce Merlin engine from a Spitfire on the airframe of a P-51. The rest is history. Fitted with drop tanks and the Merlin engine, the P-51 was able to provide fighter cover to American bombers all the way to Berlin and back. This allowed the bombing of Germany to continue and allowed American fighter to destroy the fighter arm of the German Air Force.

Every week, long before D-Day, General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, sent Stalin a book of photographs of German cities Americans had bombed. Churchill did likewise. As the Anglo-American bombing offensive took hold, the Russians felt the effects. German aircraft were withdrawn from Russia and most importantly, the famed German 88 artillery piece, anti-tank gun, and anti-aircraft gun were withdrawn in large numbers from the Eastern front to defend German cities.

P-51D cockpit in the WWII Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Fire! Royal Navy Battleships at War

The awesome power of a battleship

Firing all main battery guns at once was a broadside. Usually, battleships fired salvos. This consisted of firing every other barrel of the main batteries and was the usual practice.

BRITISH BATTLESHIP BOMBARDS CATANIA. 17 JULY 1943, ON BOARD HMS WARSPITE. WHEN HMS WARSPITE, ANSWERING A CALL FROM THE ARMY, HURLED TONS OF SHELLS, FROM A RANGE VARYING BETWEEN 15,000 AND 11,000 YARDS, AT ENEMY TROOPS STILL HOLDING OUT AT CATANIA, SICILY. (A 18486) The big guns of HMS WARSPITE firing on Catania from about 5 miles. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205151234

 

BRITISH BATTLESHIP BOMBARDS CATANIA. 17 JULY 1943, ON BOARD HMS WARSPITE. WHEN HMS WARSPITE, ANSWERING A CALL FROM THE ARMY, HURLED TONS OF SHELLS, FROM A RANGE VARYING BETWEEN 15,000 AND 11,000 YARDS, AT ENEMY TROOPS STILL HOLDING OUT AT CATANIA, SICILY. (A 18494) The big guns of the WARSPITE hurling shells at the Catania enemy. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205151240

 

HMS RENOWN FIRING. 1 DECEMBER 1942. (A 13013) HMS RENOWN firing a 15-inch salvo. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205146371

 

ON BOARD THE BATTLESHIP HMS RODNEY AT SEA. 1940. (A 2069) HMS RODNEY firing her 6’s. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205136482

comments Charles McCain: HMS Rodney was one of two Nelson class battleships constructed in the late 1920s. (Commissioned in 1927). These two battleships were unique in the Royal Navy. They were the only battleships armed with 16 inch main batteries, the heaviest guns in the fleet, all three main battery turrets were forward of the bridge.

They were the only two RN battleships which had armament equal to the Bismarck’s.

 

 

NAVAL FORCES THAT TOOK PART IN THE BOMBARDMENT OF GENOA, 9 FEBRUARY 1941. ON BOARD THE BATTLESHIP HMS MALAYA. (A 4046) HMS RENOWN firing at Genoa. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205138380

Comments Charles McCain: battlecruiser HMS Renown firing. During this carefully planned attack on the dockyards at Genoa by the famed Force H from Gibralter (the ‘H’ did not stand for anything), HMS Renown served as the flagship of Admiral James Somerville.

Known to the men as “our Jimmy,” or “Slim” Somerville was a respected, popular and effective fighting admiral. He was never pretentious and radiated calm and good humour. He was knowledgeable about new technology and how to best use such new inventions as radar.

Curiously, he had been retired before the war due to what we call today as a “false positive” on an x-ray for tuberculosis although it became clear as time went on that he did not have that disease. Somerville was recalled to the colours when the war began and served throughout the conflict on the retired list.

Tuberculosis was a serious problem in the Royal Navy and medical officers were deeply concerned about the disease. Given how contagious this disease was, it could spread rapidly through the damp and often poorly ventilated mess decks of a warship.

After testing positive for TB,100 men immediately taken off HMS Renown

In late December 1944, HMS Renown arrived in Durban for a refit prior to returning to Europe. While the ship was being refitted and critical maintenance on engines and other machinery performed, every member of the ship’s company was given a chest x-ray. More than 100 were found to have tuberculosis and were immediately removed from the ship.

(Source: The Battlecruiser HMS Renown by Peter C. Smith)

BISMARCK ACTION. 27 MAY, ON BOARD ONE OF THE ATTACKING WARSHIPS CHASING AND SINKING THE GERMAN BATTLESHIP BISMARCK. (A 4387) BISMARCK on fire, at the closing stages of the battle. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205138675

 

NORTHERN CONVOY, FEBRUARY 1943. (A 15432) HMS HOWE firing a broadside in Northern waters, seen from HMS KING GEORGE V. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205148496

 

Death of a Battleship

Lest We Forget

25 November 1941

HMS Barham, torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 55 officers and 806 ratings.

This vid clip is one minute and eleven seconds long. In these 71 seconds, the Royal Navy battleship, HMS Barham, rolled over on her beam ends, explodes, and then sinks. At the end of the vid clip, the ship is gone, disappeared beneath the sea.

In the time it takes to watch it, fifty-five officers and eight hundred six ratings died–men who were fighting against “a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime,” as the Nazis were so aptly described in their evil by Prime Minister Winston Churchill on 13 May 1940 in his first speech to Parliament as Prime Minister.

Incredibly, the sinking and explosion was caught on film by a news reel cameraman from Gaumont News. The cameraman who caught the sinking and explosion, John Turner, was standing on the deck of the nearby Royal Navy battleship, HMS Valiant, which was on station close to Barham.

You can read accounts by the crew members who survived here:

http://www.hmsbarham.com/ship/accounts.php

HMS Barham in the Royal Navy fleet anchorage of Scapa Flow circa 1917. (US Navy photograph)

Churchill Right on Dardanelles

Minister of Munitions Winston Churchill meets women war workers at Georgetown’s filling works near Glasgow during a visit on 9 October 1918. Churchill came into Lloyd George’s cabinet, known as the Second Coalition, as Minister of Munitions. 

Churchill was forced out of the cabinet by H.H. Asquith since the Conservatives would not come into a coalition with the his Liberal Party if Churchill remained in the Cabinet. This was painful, to say the least, for both men. Asquith is actually responsible for the launch of Churchill’s career. He appointed him to a series of powerful cabinet posts from Home Secretary to President of the Board of Trade to First Lord of the Admiralty.

Although the decision to force the Dardanelles was made by the entire cabinet under the leadership of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, Winston Churchill is somehow given the entire blame for what became a disaster. In spite of their later denials, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Jackie Fisher, and the Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Kitchener, were in favour of this plan. After the war, a Royal Commission cleared Churchill of blame for the Dardanelles/Gallipoli campaign.

As you can see from the map above, Churchill’s plan was for the Royal Navy to use old battleships to force their was from the Aegean through the Dardanelles into the Sea of Marmara. From there they would have easily taken Istanbul and opened up the Black Sea to maritime traffic. The Turkish Navy was too small to have stopped them although at that point all Turkish warships were being commanded by German naval officers. (Clash of Fleets: Naval Battles of the Great War, by Vincent O’Hara).

The best and shortest explanation of why this was a sound idea and what it was could have achieved is given by Violet Bonham Carter, Baroness Asquith. Violet Asquith was the daughter of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith and in spite of her youth, he often discussed complex matters of state with her because of her brilliance and keen understanding of British politics. She was one of the most extraordinary women of her time.

Portrait of the brilliant and perceptive British politician and author Violet Bonham-Carter, neé Asquith, 1915.   In December 1964, she was elevated to the peerage in her own right as Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury (15 April 1887 – 19 February 1969).

She met Winston Churchill when she was 18 and they remained friends for rest of their lives. In the last several years of his life, she was one of the few people who would be invited to sit with him and  her presence cheered him. She herself was an extraordinary woman and the only female friend he had. The last telegram Churchill sent in his life was one congratulating Violet on her elevation to the peerage. She was brilliant, thought by many to be almost as good a speaker as Churchill and had a personality of steel. All of this appealed to Churchill.

“Winston Churchill As I Knew Him” is her memoir about the early years of friendship between them from 1906 until 1915.  She describes the rationale behind the campaign. “Once the fleet had broken through the Straits (the Dardanelles) into the Sea of Marmora the Greeks and the Bulgarians, hungry for spoils, might join us in attacking Turkey (at that time allied with Imperial Germany); Italy might be weaned from her neutrality; Rumania would not stand alone. The Balkan States might form a united front to sweep the Turks from Europe. But what mattered most was to help Russia in her desperate need. When Constantinople (now Istanbul) fell we could release her shipping bottled up in the Black Sea. She could export her grain to us ad we could send her arms and ammunition.”

It was a bold plan. But for the lack of will of the British Admiral commanding the task force of old battleships assembled to run the Dardanelles, it probably would have worked and would have changed history. Certainly Baroness Asquith believed this to her dying day. She thought this was the worst mistake made in the 20th century.

No question that Admiral David Beatty would have successfully forced the Dardanelles. At this point there were no Turkish soldiers on the small spit of land known as Gallipoli. Unfortunately, it didn’t work because the Royal Navy’s fighting instinct had atrophied over a century of ruling the waves without challenge.

I am convinced that Admiral, the Earl Beatty of the North Sea, would have forced the Dardanelles had he been in command. In spite of his errors in command in his many engagements with the Germans, he certainly never lost his nerve. In fact, if anything, he went at the Germans too quickly without waiting for his other ships to come up in support.

 

 

 

 

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