The Liberation of Auschwitz

On 27 January 1945, the Soviet forces in the Vistula-Oder offensive liberated the Nazi camps in the vicinity of the towns of Auschwitz and Birkenau in German province of Silesia (Occupied Polish province of Upper Silesia). The “Auschwitz Death Camp” was originally a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners in 1940, but by 1945 it had grown into a series of 48 extermination, concentration, and labor camps around the towns of Auschwitz, Birkenau and Monowitz.

Unlike pure extermination camps like Sobibor, Treblinka, and Belsec, Auschwitz-Birkenau was hybrid camp system of three main camps and their satellite camps. KL Auschwitz I was the original concentration camp and railway terminal, with the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate (“Work makes you free”). Built in the spring of 1940, the first Polish prisoners arrived shortly thereafter. The first gassing and mass cremation took place in August 1941, when 300 Russian prisoners of war were used to test the effects of Zyklon-B. The first mass arrival of Jewish prisoners occured in February 1942, shortly after the Wannsee Conference in January. The Wannsee Conference was a meeting of high level Nazi officials to work out the logistical details needed to eradicate European Jews, with a planning factor of 10,000,000.

Auschwitz II Birkenau was a purpose built death complex, opened in late 1941, whose slave labor inmates worked the gas chambers and crematorium ovens. Most prisoners never made it to the main camp and went directly gas chambers after their baggage, clothes, and even hair were collected. 900,000 people were murdered at Auschwitz II Birkenau.

KL Auschwitz III at Monowitz was a slave labor camp complex for IG Farben that produced synthetic rubber for the German war effort. Many German corporations threw in their lot with the National Socialists, whom offered free land, labor, and tax credits in the conquered territories for ideologically pure companies. Each SS guard was paid for each inmate that worked a shift under their watch. 23,000 workers were executed, worked to death, or died of disease or malnutrition at KL Auschwitz III. This number doesn’t include the monthly 1/5 worker turnover of those sent to Auschwitz II Birkenau to be killed to make space for healthier workers.

1.1 million people, from all over Europe, were systematically worked to death, or looted, murdered and cremated in the camps. This also includes those that died during the routine sadistic torture, and/or the gruesome medical experiments on human subjects, few of whom survived. 90% of the victims were Jewish but they also included ethnic Poles, Roma, homosexuals, Polish and Russian soldiers, and German political opponents of National Socialism.

The camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau were murder on an industrial scale.

When the Soviets launched the Vistula-Oder Offensive in early January, 1945, the German administration of the camps attempted to hide the evidence of their crimes: They destroyed the gas chambers and crematoriums. They burned down the warehouses of stolen looted goods that had been an integral part of the German economy for the previous five years. They burned the meticulous camp records. They murdered as many inmates as they could, stopping only when they couldn’t dispose of the bodies. The remaining inmates were marched west to rail heads where they were sent to camps further inside Germany. Those that fell out were shot and left behind. Tens of thousands died on these death marches in the frigid January temperatures. However, the scale of their crimes against humanity couldn’t be covered up.

On morning of 27 January 1945, scouts from the 322nd and 100th Rifle Divisions of the 1st Ukrainian Front found first a sub camp of KL Auschwitz III, and then the main camps of Auschwitz II Birkenau and KL Auschwitz I later in the morning and afternoon, respectively.

The Russian troops found only 7000 scattered survivors; most were too sick to move or had hid during the prisoner round ups prior to the death marches.

Auschwitz-Birkenau camps weren’t the first extermination camps discovered by the Soviets, but they were the first to expose the scale of National Socialist crimes against humanity. The first extermination camp “liberated” from the Germans was Majdanek in July, 1944. The Majdanek Death Camp was overrun during Operation Bagration before it could be dismantled. Ironically, or maybe not so, the Soviets kept Majdanek open for Polish, Ukrainian, and Belorussian partisans allied with Western powers and supporters of the Polish Government in exile in London. At the very moment the Russians were realizing the scale of the German camps around Auschwitz, they were processing tens of thousands of political prisoners in former German camps for transport to the gulags in Siberia.

The conversion of Auschwitz-Birkenau into a Soviet reeducation camp wasn’t attempted due to the scale of the Nazi slaughter and its later documentation. Russian soldiers found 350,000 men’s suits, 860,000 women’s garments, and seven tons of human hair estimated to be from 150,000 people. Entire buildings were full of human feces, to the point where it was caked and solidified on the walls and ceilings. Soviet doctors and the Polish Red Cross managed to save 4500 of the 7000, though some were still in the camps months later because they were too weak to move. Soviet authorities estimated 4,000,000 people were killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps, and the Soviets maintained this number until 1989. The inflated number actually assisted the German cover up, as Western observers dismissed the number as propaganda, and by extension the camps themselves. The discovery of Auschwitz-Birkenau was only taken seriously by Western journalists and authorities after similar camps were liberated by the Allies in April.

In 2005, 27 January became known as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day to commemorate the six million Jews and 11 million others murdered by Nationals Socialists during the Second World War, 1.1 million of whom were killed in the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Studying the Middle Ages: Historical Food for Thought in the Present Day

Studying the Middle Ages: Historical Food for Thought in the Present Day

Abstract: Why study the Middle Ages? The answers this question yields concern more than simply medievalists: they generate reflections regarding the usefulness of science or intellectual engagement in any given society. Answering the question includes critical reflection on periodization in general and, in particular, on the public’s understanding of what is termed (for better or worse) ‘the Middle Ages’.

The relevance of studying the period has been justified in many ways. It allows, for example, a comparison of social dynamics and the gathering of insights into the role of religion. Equally, it enables investigation of modes of rule and the organization of communities. Ultimately, it enables us to better understand modernity itself. Yet while many arguments concern a better understanding of the contemporary world, they do not necessarily justify the necessity of incorporating medieval comparisons.

The current consensus (at least in French medieval studies) is to study the Middle Ages as a society in its own right. There is an additional understanding that the specific problems raised by this period should be placed in a broader chronological and spatial context. These critical reflections invite deeper considerations, which are, in turn, useful in developing our sense of democracy, our understanding of society, and in the development of a historical science that is conscious of the current tendencies to ‘re-politicize’ history. This chapter argues that this leads to invaluable insights into the workings of any discipline concerned with the perception of time and change.

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker Review

What a Glorious Mess.

There will be spoilers from this point on, of course. Don’t read any further if you don’t want spoilers. I mean it.
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If you are reading this sentence I am assuming you know that Leia is dead, Rey is a Skywalker, the Emperor is dead again, Rey is the Emperor’s granddaughter, Kylo Ren is redeemed, Lando is back, Wedge is back, Porkins Jr dies like his father, the Sith are destroyed, Chewie dies but didn’t, 3PO dies but didn’t, the First/Final Order is destroyed, and Porg sales, if there ever were any, have been replaced by kids demanding Styrofoam cups on oversized Lego wheels.

First, let’s address the Bantha in the room: The Rise of Skywalker needed to be two movies. The first one to unscrew everything The Last Jedi messed up and the next one to end the series. As The Rise of Skywalker stands right now, both of those movies are jammed into 141 minutes of classic Star Warsy goodness. But it’s a mess, a hot delicious gooey mess like eating half-baked but piping hot chocolate chip cookies that you can’t handle nor keep in your mouth lest you burn yourself.

My biggest complaint is that the movie is rushed. It had to be. There’s was too much space to cover, and it’s tough to process the moments. Moreover, there’s gotta be six inches deep of film lying on the cutting room floor. This movie needed to be, and probably was at one point over three hours. The Rise of Skywalker probably needs over four hours to tie up all the threads properly and to fully enjoy what Abrams was trying to say. Hopefully we’ll get that with an extended edition like we did with the Lord of the Rings’ movies or Kingdom of Heaven, none of which I’ll watch the standard edition again.

That’s my big complaint about this movie – There’s so much going on, not concurrently, but subsequently. The film hits you with important plot points, emotional moments, or Johnson fixes so fast, you don’t have time to process them before the next. A small example is Lando’s trade mark swashbuckling “Haha!” In the original trilogy, that moment was set up, then when you heard Lando there was a cut to someone agreeing, Nien Nub in the Falcon’s cockpit most famously, and then a quick shot of the reason for the “Haha!”, such as the Falcon diving for the Death Star. These quick cuts, no more than four or five seconds total, gave the audience time to process and revel in the badassery of the galaxy’s most famous buckler of swashes. Abrams however went for efficiency, and cut out the last two parts, immediately jumping into the next small set piece. We still got the “Haha!” but we had no time to appreciate it, as the scene was already moving on. It’s the same but on a larger scale with the deaths of Chewie and the memory wipe of C3PO. Their return happened so fast after their “deaths” that there has to be more to it on the editing room floor. The plot went from MacGuffin to MacGuffin, or main character to main character, especially at the end so fast it was tough to keep up.

As sad as this makes me, I have to admit the frantic pace of the story was most obvious during final space battle, or the lack there of. The Rise of Skywalker had the potential to have the most epic space battle in the franchise, but the focus on the final battle between Rey and Ren and the Emperor took precedence, so we only got snippets. We saw most of the space battle in the trailers.

There are three kinds of Star Wars fans: Light Saber fans, Blaster fans, and Turbo Laser fans. I am a turbo laser guy. I love Star Wars’ space battles. Star Wars Armada is by far my favorite franchise game. The supercut of the Return of the Jedi featuring only the space battle is my favorite part of the trilogy. The Rise of Skywalker’s final space battle was overshadowed by the lightsaber battle and given much less onscreen time. Even worse, there was no tension because we knew the reinforcements were going to arrive: their arrival with Lando in the van was the coolest part of the trailer. As desperate as Poe’s situation was, you knew it couldn’t last because the trailer said so. The lack of a coherent and tense space battle between the organized militaries of the good guys and bad, a staple of the Star Wars movies up to this point, was heartbreaking.

I want to hear crosstalk. I want to hear final radio checks. I loved it as a kid, and even more so as an adult. As a veteran that’s the stuff that speaks to me. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the final radio checks before crossing the line of departure were always my favorite moments in the 24 years I was in the Army. There’s nothing more beautiful than a Stand To, except maybe the final radio check prior to crossing the LD. It’s the perfect moment: The unit is about to move out. The training is done. The painful planning and preparation is over. And you can’t change anything, nor should you try because you’ll just second and third guess yourself. You and the boys and girls will never be more ready than you are in that very moment. It’s the time when you actually get to know people, how they react under pressure. The endless waiting is over and you’re actually doing something. It’s invigorating. I always loved the start of an approach march or the move from SP to LD. My favorite part of the army. Everything before it sucks, and everything after it sucks, but right then: golden.

“Red Leader: All wings report in.
Red Ten standing by.
Red Seven standing by.
Red Three standing by.
Red Six standing by.
Red Nine standing by.
Red Two standing by.
Red Eleven standing by.
Red Five standing by.
Red Leader: Lock S-foils in attack position.”

You know the exact moment associated with these quotes. These are the people fighting the empire and you know more about them now with those four words, their bodily reactions, and the tones and inflections of their voices than you could with any amount of exposition. On the set of the original trilogy and the prequels there were World War II and Vietnam veterans who knew what this stuff sounded like, and it gave the script an authenticity that fantastical space battles by star fighters and space wizards shouldn’t have, and don’t anymore. George Lucas and his era of directors, such as Steven Spielberg, grew up with actual film footage from bombers and fighters. That sort of authenticity isn’t in today’s films, Star Wars in particular. They had it in Rogue One, but only because they used recycled 35 year old footage from A New Hope. It might seem like wasted dialogue but it perfectly presages the imminent ramping up of action. That calm final radio check is like priming the adrenalin pump. In the immortal words of Martin, “Shit’s about to get real”. I guess there were no GWOT veterans on set, or even in Hollywood anymore, to say, “Hey, Poe and all the fighters aren’t doing anything together. There’s no coordination. There’s no crosstalk. Do they even know each other? Why are they acting so stupidly?” When I see stuff like this, I sometimes wonder if the civil-military divide in America is even larger than it appears.

Contrary to what Ken Burns, Oliver Stone, and certain political figures will tell you, the military requires a bit more brain power than the average bear. There’s a reason the three classic professions are lawyer, doctor, and soldier. They directly affect peoples’ lives and screwing up can quickly end a career, or even worse fail the mission, or get people killed. So when I see our heroes land on a star destroyer, shoot their way on and then are left to their own devices to explore said star destroyer, it kind of irks me. What was it, Epstein’s Hanger? Star destroyers have no space control tower? How do they not ram into each other? Why did no one hit the alarm klaxon? Whaa Whaa Whaa! Intruder alert Intruder alert! Why didn’t the whole ship’s company descend upon that landing bay weapons drawn? I get it that they’re the Empire, First Order whatever, but they’re not stupid. That we assume they’re stupid takes away from the heroes’ accomplishment. Yes, Luke and Han did it on the Death Star in the Star Wars, but they snuck on, with a plan specifically designed not to cause alarm. Honestly, the two stromtroopers not giving a shit gave that scene a believability that we simply can’t replicate anymore. Universal truth: Joe gonna be Joe, even in the Empire. There was none of that in The Rise of Skywalker even with the prevalence of military scenes. Merry in this movie took the role that John Ratzenburger (Cliff from Cheers) had in Empire Strikes Back, that of the competent lower to mid-level staff officer making observations and making things happen that were below the notice of the Heroes. Merry just didn’t pull it off like Cliff did, even with three times the dialogue. He was Ok, but he acted more like a drone in a cubicle than a battle captain in an operation center. I guess Dale Dye (the captain in Platoon who was Hollywood’s military technical advisor for damn near every movie from 1986-2010 that had military organization in it) had a monopoly of military film advising and no one stepped in the void once he retired. George Lucas spent more time on ground guides moving snow speeders and X-wings out of the hanger than JJ Abrams spent on major emotional moments. Which one will stand the test of time? For military organizations that have been fighting a war for years, the Rebelistance and the Empire/First Order sure don’t act like it. They both act more like gangs instead. Is that what Hollywood thinks of the military? I don’t think so, at least in the Rise of Skywalker. I think it has more to do with the movie’s time constraints due to having to fit two movies in one theatrical release.

This quest for extreme time efficiency affected several story arcs. In order to introduce new characters so they could sell more toys, several older characters had very little to do in the movie. Rose, one of my favorite characters from The Last Jedi even though she was wasted in an entire act of virtue signaling, did almost nothing in the Rise of Skywalker. She was an extra. Bencio Del Toro’s DJ didn’t even return, further evidence that The Last Jedi poisoned the Star Wars well. BB-8, the hero of The Last Jedi, did nothing this movie, nor did R2-D2. They were replaced with Dio \m/ 😛, a Styrofoam cup on a wheel. Meh.

Speaking of droids, Leia threw out a line “Always trust a droid.” I don’t know what kind of Skynet shit that is, but they must have reached the limit of Carrie Fisher’s prerecorded dialogue. There’s a reason they didn’t use it before, because it sucks and Carrie Fisher passing away doesn’t make it any better. Deep fake it if you have to. Hire a professional voice mimicker. Several pieces of dialogue were a bit cringe worthy because they were obviously writing around what Carrie Fisher recorded before she died. The conversation with Porkins Jr stands out, even though it did get some laughs in the theater.

All that being said, The Rise of Skywalker was still a great movie. Screw what all the correct thinking reviewers said and the zealous fan boys who want to bring down the franchise because “Disney is evil”.

Now for the good.

I’m pretty sure I liked this movie as much as I did because I watched the Last Jedi just before I went to the theater. Rise of Skywalker can’t be understood outside of the context of The Last Jedi. JJ Abrams ditched Rian Johnson’s virtue signaling and brought plot and character back while simultaneously making Johnson’s changes (semi-)coherent within the Star Wars’ cinematic universe. Abrams’ fixes, and subtle jabs, might not play well in the ivory towers of Manhattan and San Francisco, but they’ll work for us Neanderthals who grew up playing Star Wars in our back yards and want to see the franchises’ universal themes of friendship, standing up against tyranny, rising to the occasion, and consequential individual choices, passed on to a new generation. The problem is that The Last Jedi painted JJ Abrams into a corner regarding plot and character, and Rian Johnson’s decisions drive much of Rise of Skywalker’s screenplay. That JJ Abrams did so without violating the rules of fiction writing, i.e. Fiction Writing 101: Consistency within your universe’s self-imposed rules is key, is reason enough to appreciate JJ Abram’s accomplishment.

One can only wistfully sigh at the thought of what this trilogy could have been had JJ Abrams been able to do all three films. Oh well, spilt blue milk and all that.

But you know what he did do? With The Rise of Skywalker, he made The Last Jedi a better movie.

It’s clear now, if it wasn’t already, that there wasn’t an overarching trilogy outline written prior to The Force Awakens to guide script writers and present a coherent story over three movies. That might’ve worked when George Lucas helmed the franchise, he was the continuity, but it can’t be when you have radically differing visions of the Star Wars universe between Kathleen Kennedy and Rian Johnson, and JJ Abrams and the Star Wars fans. JJ Abrams learned his lesson when he nearly destroyed the Star Trek franchise with “Into Darkness”: you can’t f**k with the rules of the universe and get away with it.

JJ Abrams didn’t fix Admiral Toxic McYumminess’ universe breaking light speed kamikaze, but nothing can, so he just ignored it. Which is what I’m doing with the whole light speed skip chase, because it breaks the universe too. I guess the Force just changed the universe’s light speed rules and we are just going to have to accept it for the sake of the franchise. I guess that’s Abrams way of limiting the damage Johnson did to the franchise’s universal logic, like isolating a cancer so it doesn’t spread. I originally thought that JJ Abrams was setting up The Rise of Skywalker to completely retcon the Last Jedi so that you could watch The Force Awakens and skip directly to The Rise of Skywalker, but that is not the case. Unlike what Rian Johnson did to the Force Awakens, JJ Abrams built on the best parts of his predecessor’s script. He didn’t burn it all down in a petulant and condescending attempt to jab the eye of Star War’s fans like Johnson did with the revelations about Snoke and Rey’s parents. Abrams’ obviously more of an adult than Johnson, and built upon his predecessor’s successes, as feeble a foundation as that was. Did it deny us the ending and trilogy we’ve been hoping for since 1983? Yes. But did it give a satisfying and relatively coherent ending that won’t end the franchise in ignoble shame? Also yes.

(Franchises die after two consecutive stinkers no matter how much money they make, see Terminator, Ghostbusters, the Force Awakens, Die Hard, Transformers, Alien etc. The studio will always play it safe after a failed franchise movie. Disagree? Then please explain why haven’t we seen a new Star Trek movie despite the best cast since TNG?)

Anyway, Abrams fixed The Last Jedi. Like I said before, he couldn’t fix everything, but he made it so Johnson’s issues could be ignored enough to deliver a satisfying ending to the Skywalker Saga. He walked back Luke’s completely out of character behavior in The Last Jedi, which it turned out was a prerequisite by Mark Hamill to even appear in The Rise of Skywalker. One of my big issues with the Last Jedi was the new found Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Information, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, Logistics, and Force (“C4I2RLF” you heard it here first) architecture that made Jedi omnipotent and able to pass information and objects to each other through the Force. It’s a deus ex machina that Johnson relied on because he couldn’t figure out how to connect his characters in a logical way. Abrams limited Johnson’s world breaking laziness to a bond between Ren and Mary Sue, and turned that hitherto cringe-worthy farce into the driver of the whole third act of the Rise of Skywalker. Rey, for two movies the quintessential example of a Mary Sue trope, finally got some training from Leia and it was retconned into the lore, so her powers made sense in The Last Jedi. She also got a change of clothes, though not a change of style. I guess her Jaku outfit was Force Bleached. Let’s add another force power, what does it matter at this point.

Anyway, Rey’s bond with Ren was based on her being Emperor Palpatine’s granddaughter and Palpatine training Ren through Snoke who was just a clone used to control Ren by the Emperor. I’m sure the Emperor implied Rey was Sith and that was why she was a Mary Sue. Though convoluted and verging on a fan-fic conspiracy theory, it is probably the best way to explain away all of the plot holes left by The Last Jedi and still make a coherent end to the series. It’s not elegant but it works and sets up some of the best light saber scenes in the movie. Abrams could have just ignored the plot holes and explained them away with one liners. However, like a professional, he ran with what he had in the interest of continuity and consistency and elevated The Last Jedi in the process. The trilogy is better for it. I loved Kylo Ren’s redemption and transformation to Ben Solo/Skywalker.

I was on Team Poe in the “who’s going to end up with Rey” love quadrangle and I never thought Team Ren would win. Though I was on Team Poe, I really hoped Team Finn would win, because I thought it was the only way to redeem his character after the way Johnson treated him, one of the only main characters of color in the franchise, in The Last Jedi. Hate crime investigations have been launched for less. But Finn is back, baby, and force sensitive to boot. I loved the new characters, though I wish the film was longer so their screen time didn’t take away from the main characters. Zorii and Babu Frik stole every scene they were in and I love the seedy side of the Star Wars universe. The shady parts of Star Wars story always screamed, “It’s not who you are or were, but what you do that defines you.” It’s an amazing message that the Star Wars universe reinforces repeatedly. Also, it was nice seeing the band back together, Finn, Poe, Rey, Chewie and 3PO. I think they finally got the banter down, but not to Fast and Furious levels though. I’d love to see Solo/Fast and Furious-like heist movie with Poe, Zorri, Babu Frik, Lando, DJ, and BB-8.

One of the themes that emerged in the franchise, at least to me, was one of family, more specifically that blood doesn’t define family, and when it does, bad things happen. I’m glad the franchise finally got away from the Jedi eugenics epitomized by the “midichlorians” idiocy in the prequels. The Rise of Skywalker was at the end a repudiation of blood determination. One of the best moments of the franchise is at the very end of the Rise of Skywalker when the random old lady asked Rey what her family name was and she replied “Skywalker” and legacy of her friends, instead of the technically correct Palpatine. That Abrams planned it to be one of the best moments of the franchise I have no doubt, because the whole movie set it up. I even mouthed Skywalker just before she said it. I damn near cheered. Some of my fellow theater-goers actually did.

Ok, to wrap this up, I also appreciated a couple of world building moments. At the end when they showed the star destroyers falling out the sky from the various planets, I’m glad they implied the people rising up against the First Order without the help of the Jedi. In the same vein, I’m glad the thousands of Sith loyalists in the chamber went out the way they did. Though centralization has its merits, it also has its vulnerabilities. I’m glad Abrams retconned Hux’s death if only to show that First Order’s factionalism was instrumental in its downfall. I like how they explained the First Order had to capture and brainwash young people from a young age to fill its ranks. And that there’s hope they’ll eventually figure out the tyranny of the system they support, as exemplified by Finn and the new character Janna. I was going to write that I thought it was a bit creepy that Lando picked up Janna at the end of the movie, but I guess she’s supposed to be his daughter. I’m not sure where we find that out in the movie, so I guess it ended up on the cutting room floor.

I can go on, and I’m sure I’ll add to this before I put it on the blog for posterity, but this is obviously long enough. I want to keep this shorter than my history posts.

In the end, I really enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker, and I clapped along with everyone in the theater. But I’m really hoping for an extended version to fix the problems I had with it. All of the issues I had with this film involved its rapid pace and the lack of footage that I am positive ended up on the editing room floor. I wanted more – more space battle, more Knights of Ren, more Lando, Luke, Finn, Poe, Merry, BB-8, Zorii, Babu Frik, the A-Wing pilot… more, more, more. It wasn’t as good as it could have been, but there was nothing that broke franchise. After The Last Jedi, that’s what I was hoping for. JJ Abrams did the impossible, he took a turd and polished it. In the process he elevated the trilogy and provided a satisfying ending, if not what we were expecting.

The Battle of New Orleans

I was fascinated by this picture as a kid.

In the War of 1812, or America’s Second Revolutionary War, the British had burned Washington DC to the ground, but had been stymied in Maryland, New York, Michigan, and the Western frontier. The war was at an impasse. The British knew they needed to stop America’s westward momentum (or Manifest Destiny, they recognized it before we did). The key to doing that was New Orleans which controlled trade on the Mississippi river.

In early January 1815, Major General Sir Edward Pakenham’s eight thousand battle hardened British veterans, fresh from defeating Napoleon in Spain, approached New Orleans from the south. Between the British and New Orleans stood four thousand strongly entrenched American troops under Major General Andrew Jackson, or “Old Hickory” to his men. But Pakenham and the other British leaders were contemptuous of the ramshackle nature of America’s small army.

Jackson’s command was the first American melting pot. It consisted of Kentucky riflemen and Tennessee volunteers, Mississippi dragoons, a company of US Marines, the 1st and 7th US Infantry Regiments, French, Spanish, Creole and free African American militia from Louisiana, Choctaw Indians, a battalion of US Navy seamen, and even two hundred of Jean Lafitte’s Baratarian pirates. The British scorn for Jackson troops was misplaced. Before Packenham and his main force arrived, Jackson’s troops had already defeated the British vanguard twice: once on both Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day (because if you mess with us, we’ll kill you on our holidays. Just ask the Hessians). Additionally, most of the American army participated in the hard fought Red Stick War/Creek Civil War the previous summer. And finally, Jean Lafitte’s pirates were arguably the best cannoneers on the gulf coast, and they brought their cannon with them. Pakenham, like the British generals of the American Revolution, thought that the Americans would break under a disciplined bayonet charge. Most of the British wouldn’t get close enough.

The British attacked under cover of fog on the morning of 8 January 1815. But Pakenham’s plan was complicated and suffered from poor staff planning. The five uncoordinated British columns attacked piecemeal and suffered from numerous planning errors, including the lack of boats to cross the Mississippi River and the location of scaling ladders for the assault troops. The American penchant for shooting enemy officers first destroyed any cohesion left in the British attack. American sharpshooters and riflemen, especially the New Orleans businessmen who shot for sport, killed almost the entirety of the British leadership, including Pakenham. Still, sheer British determination and bravery allowed some to storm the earthworks on the right, a complement to the successful British attack across the river. But the assault eventually failed in the face of America’s own bayonets of the 7th Infantry Regiment. Any local successes were untenable. Less than two hours after the first shot was fired, Brigadier John Lambert, the senior surviving British commander, ordered a withdrawal…down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

It was a decidedly lopsided American victory: the United States had 13 killed and 40 wounded while the British had 330 killed, 1200 wounded and 400 captured. The news of the Treaty of Ghent, and the end of the War of 1812, arrived a few weeks later and the Battle of New Orleans forced the British to adhere to the terms of the peace treaty (which they had no intention of doing prior to the battle).

America had taken on the largest and most powerful empire in the history of the world and survived, again. And it would send a surge of pride in the young American nation. The Battle of New Orleans permanently forged an American national identity. After the battle citizens would stop saying. “I am a Louisianian”, “I am a Kentuckian”, “I am New Yorker” or “I am a Free Man of Color”, but would instead say, “I am an American”.

It was also the last time a foreign power would attack America on its native soil until Pancho Villa a hundred years later in 1916 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Stalin Delays… Again

In the late autumn and early winter of 1944, Hitler risked everything on one last throw of the dice: the Ardennes offensive. With it he hoped to force the Western Allies out of the war so he could concentrate on the war weary Soviet Union. He was a paranoid and delusional tyrant living in a tactical and operational Never-Never Land but his strategic acumen was still sharp, far sharper than most future historians gave him credit for.

All of the nations in the conflict were reaching the bottom of their respective manpower pools. America was critically short of infantry and increasingly bringing women and African American troops closer to the front lines to make up the difference as male Caucasian and Latino troops in the rear echelons were dragooned into combat jobs. Great Britain was reduced to combining understrength formations wholesale to keep up the pretense of units at full strength. Germany and Russia had long emptied out their prisons and hospitals for replacements, and were fielding ad hoc units of underage teenagers and old men. Hitler thought Germany’s ideological fervor could overcome these shortcomings and that it was possible to come to an accommodation with Soviet Russia if a separate peace could be made with Britain and America. The bulk of his western front forces could then be moved to face the Russians and it would also grant him time for his “wonder weapons” to come on-line. This was the overall objective of his great gamble in the Ardennes.

And Stalin privately agreed.

Despite Stalin’s rhetoric, the Soviet Union reached most of its wartime goals by December 1944 and more importantly, was at its human limit. The Soviet Union had lost 22 million dead in 3 ½ years of fighting – fifty times the wartime deaths suffered by America with only 30% greater population. And they had not reached the fighting in Germany proper yet, where the Wehrmacht was sure to zealously defend, especially as stories got out of Communist troops raping their way across former Axis territories. Furthermore, Stalin knew the Soviet Union was already in an excellent position for the inevitable post war conflict with his current capitalist Allies. The Soviet Union had (or would soon have) complete control of its traditional western buffer states: Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Finland. The Red Army specifically stopped short of capturing Warsaw to allow the Wehrmacht the time to crush the pro Polish Govt in Exile (In London) Home Army in the midst of the Warsaw Uprising. Furthermore, the Soviet Union would have access to warm water ports on the Mediterranean through Tito’s communist partisans whom controlled Yugoslavia and Albania. Finally, National Socialism and Soviet Communism were natural ideological allies, if intense and bitter rivals as only sibling twins could be. A post war National Socialist rump state in Germany and Austria would provide additional depth and a further ideological buffer against its capitalist adversaries, America and Britain, and its allies in France and Italy.

In late 1944, Stalin saw no reason to invade Germany from the east if the Western Allies did not do so from the west. It would be a waste of resources that were needed after the war. Russian troops had stopped in Poland in late August and for the last several months were consolidating their gains in the buffer states. On 20 December 1944, German intelligence analysts were surprised when the long awaited Soviet winter offensive did not begin.

Stalin personally delayed it. He was waiting to see if the Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive did indeed force the Allies to the negotiating table, however slim that possibility might be. Stalin did authorize offensives to clear the remaining Germans along the Baltic coast and the Balkans, but the main Russian armies of the Belorussian and Ukrainian Fronts were held back, awaiting news from the West.

On New Year’s Day 1945, the Luftwaffe launched a massive raid with every plane it had left against the Western Allies tactical air forces, and the initial reports indicated the British and American fighters and fighter bombers were wiped out. So on 2 January, Stalin delayed the offensive again. (The massive dawn raid, “Operation Baseplate”, did destroy 500 allied planes on the ground and shut down 12 airfields for a week. The airfields’ anti aircraft crews were sent to the front as infantry replacements, and combat air patrols over the fields were minimal if the existed at all. In any case, the Luftwaffe was annihilated in the process). Only in the second week of 1945, when it was obvious that Hitler had failed in the Ardennes, did Stalin unleash his armies. On 12 January, Marshals Zhukov and Konev were given authorization to launch the war winning Vistula/Oder Offensive that would carry the Russians to the gates of Berlin in April.

The American Crisis and First Christmas Present

In mid-December 1776, the young United States of America, who recently declared independence from Great Britain in July, was a hair’s breadth away from losing the war. Since August, Major General George Washington has lost every major battle he had fought and had been chased out both New York and New Jersey. The Continental Army’s strength was a mere fraction of what it was during the heady days after the capture of Boston, nine months before. 80% of the Continental Army was killed, wounded, captured, or had deserted since the loss at Long Island in August. Even worse, morale for the remainder was rock bottom, and their enlistments ended in 11 days. The Continental Army had just finished fleeing across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, abandoning the vital of state of New Jersey, with its prosperous farms and fertile recruiting grounds, destroying most of the boats on the river to delay the pursuing Hessians.

On 19 December 1776. Thomas Paine published the pamphlet, “The American Crisis” in response to the continued disasters. It begins,

“THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value…”

On Christmas Night, 1776, the Marblehead fishermen of Colonel John Glover’s 14th Continentals “The Amphibious Regiment” ferried the remnants of the Continental Army, whose enlistments would expire on New Year’s Day, across the Delaware River back into New Jersey. The process took all night and into Christmas morning. Washington wanted to attack the Hessian garrison at dawn, but there simply wasn’t enough boats and what few there were, were used inefficiently by the young Continental Army, inexperienced in the ways of logistics. Luckily, a blinding snowstorm covered the move from prying eyes. This was little comfort to the men in the columns who eventually had to make a nine mile forced march through it. Nonetheless , they surprised the Hessian regiment at Trenton who were hung over from Christmas celebrations the night before.

At a drunken card game during the Christmas celebration, Hessian Col Johann Raul was slipped a note by a loyalist informer of Washington’s maneuver, but he never read it. At 8 am Christmas morning, the Continental Army attacked, with Washington in the van. Edward Hand’s Pennsylvania Riflemen and John Sullivan’s Continentals prevented any Hessian escape blocking the road to Princeton and bridge over Assunpink Creek respectively. Though most of the Hessian command was still drunk or hungover from the celebrations the night before, the American attack was spotted in enough time for the Hessians to react. Their duty company fought a house to house battle, slowly falling back through the town, delaying the Continental Army long enough for Raul to form most of his men in a field outside of town. After Knox’s cannon came into action, Raul knew he had to break out. His mercenary professionals moved quickly into a flank attack on Washington’s disorganized main body in order to escape, but Washington deftly parried the thrust, but only because he was in position to do so. Though chaotic, the Battle of Trenton lasted only 19 minutes before the Hessians surrendered and promptly began losing their boots to the ragged but jubilant soldiers of the Continental army.

The entire Continental Army reenlisted the next day. George Washington gave America its first Christmas present.

The Battle for St. Vith

On Saturday 16 December 1944, the Germans Ardennes offensive broke through the Losheim Gap and encircled two regiments of the 106th Infantry Division, soon to be the second largest surrender of American soldiers after the fall of Bataan two and a half years before. The German’s next target was the critical Belgian crossroads town of St Vith.

In the restricted terrain of the Ardennes Forest, the Battle of the Bulge was a fight for roads and crossroads. Unlike the French in 1940, Eisenhower quickly recognized this and ordered his reserves to two critical road junctions: the towns of Bastogne and St Vith.

The common historical narrative is that Eisenhower’s only reserves were the much ballyhooed Airborne divisions – the 82nd and 101st. This is not entirely accurate, he also had Bradley’s reserves which were sitting idle because of the confusion in Bradley’s 12th Army Group headquarters. Bradley was having difficulty getting back to his headquarters from Versaille due to German commandos dressed in US Army uniforms causing confusion and doubt on the roads (At one checkpoint, he was asked the name of Betty Grable’s current husband to prove he wasn’t German). Without Bradley, the 12 Army Group headquarter’s operations essentially ground to halt trying to figure out what was going on. Eisenhower took control and ordered Bradley’s reserves forward while his own reserves, the “airborne” divisions, were still trying to find trucks. He could do so because the Automotive Revolution had happened 40 years before and Bradley’s reserves were armored divisions.

The Infantry’s motto is “Follow Me!”, and whenever they get into trouble that phrase is usually followed by “Where are the tanks?” This could not have more true at the Battle of the Bulge, despite what the Airborne Mafia parrots daily. Troy Middleton’s infantry, who bore the brunt of the German’s Ardennes Offensive for the last 48 hours, were not going to be able to hold much longer without Bradley’s three armored divisions. The Tenth Armored Division moved to Bastogne where its Combat Command B provided the 101st the much needed firepower to prevent the lightly armed paratroopers from being rolled over by the German panzers like pierogi dough in my grandma’s kitchen. And the 7th Armored Division moved to St Vith where in true cavalry fashion they arrived on the evening of 17 December 1944 just in the nick of time to prevent its capture.

St. Vith was the junction of all of the roads between the Ambleve and Our Rivers, and no movement north or northwest out of the Ardennes was possible without taking the town. St Vith was a Day Two objective for the 9 ½ divisions of Erich Von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army.

The commander of Combat Command B of the 7th, Brigadier General Bruce C Clarke, arrived in town just as German reconnaissance units appeared on the hills just east of St Vith, the 106th Infantry Division’s headquarters. The commander of the 106th Infantry Division, broken by the entrapment and imminent destruction of two entire regiments of his division, turned the battle over to Clarke. With his tanks strung out in columns behind the town, Clarke immediately unsnarled the traffic jams and formed his men into a horseshoe shaped defense around the town and deftly incorporated retreating elements into the defense. The first of which was the 424th Regimental Combat Team, what remained of the 106th Infantry Division, and CCB of the 9th Armored Division, the only reason the 424th still existed. From the south, the 112th RCT was detached from the 28th Inf Division after its other two regiments withdrew east and south toward Bastogne and deeper into Luxembourg. The importance of St Vith was not lost on Eisenhower and he sent Clarke his reserve engineer battalion to further bolster its defenses.

BG Clarke, the 7th Armored Division’s CCB commander, took command of all of the combat units in St Vith: CCB and CCA of the 7th, the 424th, the 112th, the remains of the 14th Cavalry Group, Eisenhower’s engineers, and CCB of the 9th Armored Division, whose commander, also a BG, came to an understanding with Clarke. Eisenhower later called Clarke’s defense of St. Vith the “turning point of the battle”.

(The 7th’s actual division commander, Major General Robert Hasbrouck, spent the battle unscrewing the mayhem behind St Vith and fed Clarke units as they became available. Though lost to history now, Hasbrouck’s contribution in getting tanks and halftracks full of heavy infantry to Clarke was one of the only reasons Clarke held. Hasbrouck could have sped to St Vith to take over Clarke’s division sized command and left the odious and inglorious task of traffic cop to a less experienced subordinate, but instead stayed exactly where he was needed: generating combat power. Hasbrouck prevented Manteuffel from smashing Clarke and seizing the town in those critical early days of the battle.)

Clarke’s eclectic command held St Vith against overwhelming German force on 18, 19, and 20 December 1944. Their stand severely disrupted the German timetable and caused snarling traffic jams in the German rear areas. These traffic jams were so bad even Field Marshal Model himself couldn’t untangle them.) Although St Vith was threatened with encirclement because of German penetrations to its north and south, the 7th didn’t retreat until they were struck by an SS battalion of brand new German “King Tiger” super heavy tanks. This heavy battalion had wandered lost through the Ardennes looking for roads and bridges that could support its tanks great weight. For five days, it simultaneously assaulted any American units it encountered and “cleared” any German traffic jams in its way, both with equal fervor. Inevitably, the roads drew them to St Vith where they finally found a proper target to crush (and could do it before all of the King Tigers broke down).

On 21 Dec, the 506th SS Heavy Panzer Battalion struck and systematically destroyed the 7th’s much lighter Sherman tanks, whom could not penetrate the King Tiger’s armor anywhere at any nearly any range beyond muzzle blast. The other German units rallied to the King Tigers. Soon the town became a liability and Clarke was threatened with encirclement. In the late afternoon Clarke said, “This ground isn’t worth an acre a nickel to me”, and ordered the defenders of St Vith to fall back to the northwest to where the 82nd Airborne had established a defensive line. It took three days for the 82nd to round up enough trucks and get to the front, and though ordered to St. Vith by Eisenhower, never actually made it there. So when the Airborne Mafia tries to tell you that the 82nd was critical to the defense of St. Vith, as their 101st brothers were to Bastogne, you tell that lyin’ Bragg Bastard that there wasn’t a single paratrooper at St Vith, and its defense was primarily due to the efforts BG Bruce C Clarke and the mighty 7th Armored Division, “The Lucky Seventh”.

St Vith was an unimaginably important Day Two objective for the Germans. Along with the defense of Elsenborne Ridge by the 9th Armored, 2nd, 1st and 99th Infantry Divisions, St Vith was critical in preventing the Germans from breaking out north toward their objective, Antwerp. The Germans were pushing west when they wanted to go northwest, and though their offensive made for great drama, they were still going in the wrong direction and desperately trying to go around the American defenses now known as the “northern shoulder of the Bulge”. Because of the 7th Armored Division’s stand at St Vith, the Germans were four more days behind schedule and the 5th Panzer Army’s drive was all but stopped. Consequently, Model shifted the focus of the entire offensive further south around another vital crossroads, Bastogne.

The Battle of the Bulge

On 16 December, 1944 Hitler launched a surprise attack into the lightly defended Ardennes Forest in order to split the American and British armies, capture their main port of supply, Antwerp, and force the Western Allies to a negotiated peace. With only two minor exceptions, no one expected the Germans to attack. German Gen Walter Model’s thirty divisions in three armies, the 6th SS Panzer, 5th Panzer, and the American’s old nemesis from Normandy – the 7th, crashed into LTG Troy Middleton’s VIII Corps of four divisions from the 1st US Army: two were brand new, the 106th and 99th, and two were bloodied and mauled in the Hurtgen Forest, the 4th and 28th.

The American commanders dismissed the initial reports as spoiling attacks intended to prevent the US V Corps from seizing the Roer river dams, or Patton from seizing the Saar River industrial region (north and south of the Hitler’s offensive respectfully). So sure that the Germans were defeated, all of the important Allied commanders were disconnected from the soldiers they commanded that day: Bradley went far behind the lines to Versailles, Eisenhower attended the wedding of his driver, and British Field Marshal Montgomery golfed.

The surprise was complete. Total chaos reigned along the American lines in the Ardennes on 16 December. Model had every reason to believe his troops would be on schedule and make the Meuse River in three days, just as they had done to the French four years before in 1940 (which forced the French to surrender). But the Germans only had enough fuel and supplies for three days full assault. They had to reach the Meuse River in that time. After that, the American’s considerable flexibility, not to mention air power, would be brought to bear. The first few days were decisive.

On 16 December 1944, the 99th was penetrated, and most of its troops broke, and the 106th was crushed and bypassed. The 28th’s initial defensive positions were overrun and the 4th fell back. By all contemporary metrics the American’s were defeated.

But although the majority of the American units in the Ardennes collapsed, some did not, despite the German’s best efforts. Those platoons and squads, led by sergeants and young lieutenants and captains, that didn’t break bought the time necessary for the Allies to seal off the “Bulge” created by the German offensive. By the end of the 16th, 80,000 Allied soldiers were enroute to the battle, 250,000 more would follow over the next week. By the end of the day the Germans strict timetable was already irreparably upset, although this was unknown to the Allies at the time. By the 18th the northern and southern shoulders of the bulge were solidly in the hands of the Allies, and Model’s main effort was switched to the center of his increasingly narrow penetration.

It is said that generals and politicians win wars, but sergeants, lieutenants and captains win battles. This was no truer than in the snowy hills of the Ardennes Forest on 16 December 1944.

Germans in the Ardennes

On the northern edge of the Ardennes Forest on 13 December 1944, the 2nd Infantry Division, supported by several battalions of the 99th Division, both of the US 1st Army, attacked into the Siegfried Line hoping to break through and seize the Roer River Dams. The dams were one of the objectives the Americans failed to seize during the Hurtgen Forest offensive the previous months.

As part of a British delegation to observe the attack, Hollywood actor-turned-British Army Lieutenant Colonel David Niven (He would be the last to lose to Sean Connery for the role of James Bond a decade later) visited an old friend in the Belgian resort town of Spa on 15 December 1944. Captain Bob Lowe was a former reporter for Time, and an intelligence officer and assistant G2 in the U.S. 1st Army’s Headquarters. After the normal chit chat, Niven asked his friend what was going on in the sector, Lowe pointed east out of the window and responded,

“See that hill with the trees on top? On the other side is a forest. In that forest is the entire Sixth SS Panzer Army. Any day now they’re going to roll right through this room, cross the Meuse, turn right and seize Antwerp.”

Niven laughed and asked if he told anyone. Lowe dejectedly replied, “Everyday. The generals know better though.”

Five miles away in that same forest, SS Panzer General Sepp Dietrich was dressed as a Wehrmacht infantry colonel debriefing returning patrols incognito. Dietrich was a former butcher, close friend of Hitler, and one of the original “Beer Hall Putsch” Nazis. But he was also the exception to the rule that politically appointed generals were incompetent. He was pleased to find out the “the Amis” still considered the Ardennes a rest area, and pulled their outposts in at night to keep warm. Dietrich and his Sixth Panzer Army, Erich Von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army, and Erich Brandenburger’s 7th Army would make them pay for those mistakes the next morning