The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

July and August 1939 were months of furious negotiation between Germany, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, Poland, and the United States in order to secure alliances which it was hoped would deter war. The first sign that all was not going to be well for the Poland and the Western Allies was when Stalin fired his Jewish foreign minister in April and replaced him with Vyacheslav Molotov. Russian archival documents confirm that this was day that Stalin decided to ally with his “brother Socialist” Adolf Hitler in order to defer the inevitable conflict with Germany to a later date.

On 23 August 1939, Stalin’s Communist Soviet Union and Hitler’s National Socialist Germany signed a non-aggression treaty, named after their respective foreign ministers: Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop. Ostensibly an economic and political treaty of non-aggression and prevention of either country allying with third parties e.g. Poland, Britain, France etc, the pact had secret provisions to divide up Eastern Europe between them. Germany would be free to seize most of Poland and have a secure eastern frontier for the inevitable fight with France and Great Britain. The Soviet Union was given assurances that they could conquer Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Eastern Poland, Finland, and Bessarabia (Eastern Romania, Romania was one of Germany’s allies) without German interference.

Germany invaded Poland a week later, and started the largest and bloodiest conflict in human history: The Second World War. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact turned the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and National Socialist Germany into de facto Allies when the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east two weeks later on 17 September 1939. The Soviet invasion rendered a rapidly stabilizing Polish defense against Germany untenable. At the end of the month, both countries affirmed their alliance in the German-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Demarcation.

The 23 August anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is remembered in Europe to “reconcile its totalitarian legacy” (EU’s words). In most of the EU 23 August is known as the “Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism” or in some countries, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, as “Day of Remembrance of Victims of All Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes”. In the United States, 23 August is known as “Black Ribbon Day” to

“recognize the victims of Soviet Communist and Nazi regimes and remember and never forget the terror millions of citizens in Central and Eastern Europe experienced for more than 40 years by ruthless military, economic, and political repression of the people through arbitrary executions, mass arrests, deportations, the suppression of free speech, confiscation of private property, and the destruction of cultural and moral identity and civil society, all of which deprived the vast majority of the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe of their basic human rights and dignity, separating them from the democratic world by means of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. The extreme forms of totalitarian rule practiced by the Soviet Communist and Nazi regimes led to premeditated and vast crimes committed against millions of human beings and their basic and inalienable rights on a scale unseen before in history.”

The Battle of Blenheim

In 1704, Louis XIV reigned over France’s Golden Age. France was at its most influential, and he was easily the most absolutely powerful man on the planet. With the death of Spain’s Carlos V, Louis was poised to place his grandson, Charles, on the vacant thrown. This paved the way for a Franco-Spanish Union which would marry French military strength with Spanish New World gold and create the world’s first hyperpower. The rest of Europe could not allow this, and they declared war in what was called The War of Spanish Succession, or Queen Anne’s War (after the British monarch) in North America.

In the Spring of 1704, Louis ordered an invasion of Austria, one of the key members of the opposing Grand Alliance. Prince Eugene of Savoy, knowing his army could not face the Franco-Bavarian horde alone, asked for aid from his life long friend: John Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough.

Through a simple deception operation, Marlborough disengaged from the French in the Low Countries and marched his Anglo-Dutch army 500 miles into Bavaria, picking up troops from allied German principalities of the Holy Roman Empire along the way. On 13 August 1704, Marlborough and Savoy’s Anglo-Austro-Dutch-German-Prussian-Imperial Army met Marshal Tallard’s Franco-Bavarian Army at the village of Blenheim on the Danube.

In the linear tactics of the day, the fight on the flanks was usually decisive, and Tallard reinforced his to the detriment of his center. Marlborough recognized the flaw and tied down most of the French with Savoy on the right and the rest pinned in the village on the left. By the afternoon, Tallard was sufficiently committed, and Marlborough struck at the center much as Napoleon would do 100 years later at Austerlitz. The French broke, Tallard was killed, and his army was destroyed.

The Battle of Blenheim was the turning point of the War of Austrian Succession. The war would be carried into France the next year. Louis would eventually fight the war to a draw and still place his grandson on the Spanish throne, but France’s power would be broken and Spain’s decline as a world power accelerated rapidly, giving rise to a global British empire. Finally, and most importantly, the Battle of Blenheim was the high watermark for Divine Absolutism as a viable form of government, at least until the rise of Socialist dictatorships in the 20th Century.

The Breakout From Normandy

In the last week of July 1944, the Allies were still stuck in Norman hedgerow country, and they needed to break out because they were far behind schedule. Also, the Soviets were nearing Warsaw, and Churchill feared the post war ramifications of the Soviets invading Germany while the Allies were still stuck in France. The Allies fell back on good old American firepower and devised Operation Cobra.

On 25 July, the entire Eighth Air Force and British Bomber Command carpet bombed a narrow 6km portion of the front near St. Lo. After which the US VII Corps, including the US 1st Infantry Division, charged through. Unfortunately, of the 2000 bombers, 80 dropped their bombs short and caused serious friendly casualties including a US 3 star general (McNair), and disrupted the follow on attack. The bombers pulverized German defenses but the attacking troops soon encountered a situation that would have been very familiar to their fathers in World War One: the devastation was so great that the attackers couldn’t move or bring up supplies over the terrain fast enough before German reserves were brought in to defend the shell holed moonscape left behind by the bombing. Fortunately, most German reserves were tied down by companion British offensives. By August, the Germans were pushed out of the hedgerow country and the Americans were poised to breakout of Normandy.

On 1 August, Operation Fortitude, the deception to convince the Germans the Allies would land at Pas de Calais concluded when LTG George Patton’s 3rd Army was activated on the continent (The Germans were convinced Patton would lead the landings at Pas de Calais). By 4 August Patton had broken out of Normandy and was tearing ass across France…in the wrong direction. Patton broke out, but he did so by going west into Brittany and toward the Atlantic coast, not east towards Paris and Germany. It took another week or so for Patton to turn around and attack in the right direction.

Hitler, ignorant of the true situation, saw an “opportunity” to destroy Patton and ordered an offensive of 13 panzer divisions to seize Avaranches and cut off the 3rd Army from Normandy. Only four were able to participate and they didn’t get very far. On 9 August Montgomery launched Operation Bluecoat and then Operation Tractable to cut off this German attack that threatened to cut off Patton’s attack. Eventually, Gen Von Kluge called off the western offensive when it was obvious (to everyone except Hitler) his troops were driving further into a trap as Polish and Canadian tankers closed in from the north and Patton closed in from the south.

On 13 August, Von Kluge ordered the retreat expressly against Hitler’s wishes in order to save as many panzer troops before they were encircled in what would later be known as the Falaise Pocket. The Allies had broken out of Normandy, permanently. The race was on.

Why Should Physicists Study History?

Why should physicists study history?

Just as physics is not a list of facts about the world, history is not a list of names and dates. It is a way of thinking that can be powerful and illuminating.

Some things about physics aren’t well covered in a physics education. Those are the messy, rough edges that make everything difficult: dealing with people, singly or in groups; misunderstandings; rivals and even allies who won’t fall in line. Physicists often do not see such issues as contributing to science itself. But social interactions really do influence what scientists produce. Often physicists learn that lesson the hard way. Instead, they could equip themselves for the actual collaborative world, not the idealized solitary one that has never existed.

History can help. An entire academic discipline—history of science—studies the rough edges. We historians of science see ourselves as illustrating the power of stories. How a community tells its history changes the way it thinks about itself. A historical perspective on science can help physicists understand what is going on when they practice their craft, and it provides numerous tools that are useful for physicists themselves.


Research is done by people. And people have likes and dislikes, egos and prejudices. Physicists, like everyone else, get attached to their favorite ideas and hang on to them perhaps long after they should let them go…

The Rental

The Rental is an older tale from the life of Ski. It is a tale of woe and deprivation, courage and cowardice, glorious ups and crushing downs, life’s bitter lessons learned, thoughtless preparation and ingenious improvisation, but ultimately, it is a tale of hijinks and tomfoolery.

The tale of The Rental was a series of events culminating on one weekend in the summer in the mid nineties. That year, I was a 19 year old soldier stationed in Germany, full of piss and vinegar and I was determined to make my presence felt in Europe. I was assigned to A Troop, 1st Squadron, 1st Regiment of Dragoons, otherwise known as the Alphaholics of 1-1 CAV. Only the leadership referred to us as Apache Troop, to the soldiers we were the Alphaholics and we were always “On the Warpath.”

You must understand that this was the early nineties and the days of the New Hollow Army of the early Clinton Years. Training, due to lack of funds, was an ad hoc affair of bullet counting, (we were only issued 87 5.56 rounds that year to qualify on our M16s) fuel limits (just enough to get to gunnery and back, so we could say we were “qualified”) and lots of studying (I can still recite the tasks, conditions and standards of every soldier skill level one task….backwards). The only issues we had to worry about army-wise were sexual harassment witch hunts (both kinds, remember these were the days of Tailhook and Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell), whether the section sergeant was going to give you some “wall to wall counseling”, (no such thing as “physically abusing” a private in those days) and making sure someone in your group brought some ketchup to the chow hall (They always ran out two days into the month. To this day, I occasionally enjoy a hot dog with Thousand Island dressing on it).

Our post back then, Armstrong Kaserne, consisted of just our unit and a chemical company and could easily fit inside the parking lot of a high school football stadium. But that just meant that the big brass was 50 kms away and they were generally too lazy to make the trip to bother us. I can only remember the general visiting twice in in three years. Armstrong Kaserne was located next to the sleepy little town of Buedingen Germany. “Swingen Boo-dingen” was a one horse burg with a neat castle, a couple of bars, and unfortunately, a train station where the trains didn’t stop on the weekend. If you wanted to go somewhere on a train you had to catch the last train out of town on Friday at 1700 (5 p.m.) and the first train back on Monday morning at 0500 (5 a.m.) It wasn’t very conducive to the wanderlust of a 19 year old.

Now I wasn’t much of a looker back then, but I was in shape and what I lacked in comeliness I more than made for with perseverance and determination, combined with the courage that can only be brought on by copious amounts of hefeweissen. Every blue moon I’d pull off what amounted to coup d’etat on some unsuspecting European girl. One such coup occurred during the Nimegan Marches.

The Nimegan Marches is a yearly event in which militaries all over the world send any soldiers stupid enough to want to participate in the pain. It was a race that consisted of four days of ruck marching 25 miles a day through the Dutch countryside. For the mathematically challenged, that’s 100 miles. And at the end of those four days you got a medal, bragging rights, and all the beer you could drink at a party that lasted a whole weekend. It takes place in Nimegan, Netherlands (hence the name) of A Bridge Too Far fame. (Sorry, I am a history major)

Anyway, at the Marches, I managed to connive my way into the good graces of Dutch girl named Wilhelmina, while dancing my booty off at a random techno club downtown. It was fun while it lasted but definitely more than I bargained for. Back then, THE DUTCH LOVED AMERICANS. Willy, as she was fondly known, and her hot friend Uterus, would have bore our children had we so wished. By the end of the weekend, I had met Willy’s entire extended family, her whole street, had the keys to her parent’s house and could use them anytime I or any of my friends wanted. We ate the fridge clean and drank her dad’s bar dry and he thanked us for it. Then he restocked them for when we returned.

Now I don’t want anyone to think I was taking advantage of young Willy or her countrymen’s generosity. The feeling was mutual: I LOVED THE DUTCH. And I knew I was going to come back and the next weekend I did. (The weekend of my 19th birthday, coincidentally) Now you must be asking, “How did you get there? You bored us before with train schedules…..Ah, the title, you rented a car…” Wrong! I say!

Making just $600 dollars a month, there was no way any of us could afford a rental on a regular basis, so we did what soldiers in Germany have been doing for forty years: we bought a beater. It wasn’t just any ordinary beater, it was our beater. I still to this day consider it my first car just because I pitched in 50 bucks with 4 other guys to help pay for it. It was a beaut too, a master work of German engineering. It was a 1981 smurf blue Opel Astra, with 150,000 miles, 40 previous owners and didn’t have a muffler or a starter. What we lacked in essential parts we made up for with manpower. Ergo, we had to push start the “Smurfmobile” everywhere we went. This pretty much mandated that at least three people were in the car when it went anywhere. One to steer, one to push, and one to make sure the beer bottles didn’t spill. And as everyone knows, three constitutes a party. The Smurfmobile was four wheels of traveling fun. (For the record we were crazy careful about drinking and driving, we just never did it, it was the quickest way of getting kicked out of the army next to offending someone and for all the training we didn’t do, the army was still the best deal most of us had.) In Germany back then, drinking and driving wasn’t illegal, drinking and steering was illegal – the passengers could do shooters in the back seat just the driver had to be sober.

So after the second weekend of Willy, her family and all of her friends’ generosity, the word began to get around the barracks that Ski had a pretty good racket going on in the Land of Tulips and Windmills. It also got out that Willy was planning a party for us this coming weekend. It was going to be a super special weekend in the ways only the Dutch could think up. So like the good soldiers we were, we spent the week planning our next excursion.

We quickly deduced we had a problem: there’s no way we were going to get ten of us in the Smurfmobile, 7 max. It was a long three hours to Tulipland and we needed room in the trunk for ‘provisions’, specifically beer and bologna sandwiches. In one of his rare moments of intelligence, Mad Dog Mike D, a fellow Pittsburgher by the way, originally came up with the idea of renting a car. Under normal circumstances this would be dismissed handily, it was too expensive. But we figured the money we were going to save by ravaging the Willy family household for foodstuffs and nourishment would easily outweigh the expense of the car. So we fired up the Smurfmobile and trekked to Hanau to reserve a car at the Budget joint next to the big PX. Most summer weekends they quickly ran out of cars but our decisiveness and forethought paid off. We managed to secure a burgundy Ford Escort. We were in business.

All week, you could feel the excitement. Ricky Bell, our perceptive and mildly sadistic section sergeant, knew we were planning something big because we were extra good all week so we wouldn’t pull IC detail that weekend. (“IC Detail” was punishment for minor stuff that required more than push-ups or an ass beating but less than an Article 15. IC Detail involved showing up on Saturday morning with the First Sergeant so he can walk around going “I see cigarette butts, pick them up.” “I see that the wall needs painted.” “I see the grass needs cut”….you get the point.) We were so good that week that he couldn’t find anything wrong or if he did, it was so minor he knew we’d call bullshit and mutiny. The best he could do was threatening us with piss tests when we got back. Which didn’t bother us, we had piss tests all the time and we weren’t stupid enough to do drugs anyway.

The final Friday formation came and it seemed as if The Space Cowboy’s (Our troop commander) safety brief lasted forever. Don’t do drugs, wrap that rascal, don’t beat your wife blah blah blah, we heard it a thousand times before. He must have known we’ve been spending a lot of time in the Netherlands lately (he did) because he said wrap it and don’t do drugs at least four times. By the time the 1SG finished saying ‘fall out’ we were halfway up to our rooms to grab our stuff.

Five in the Smurfmobile and five in the Escort, (We picked it up during lunch) we divided up and we rolled dice for the unenviable position of driver. “One Slice” Soma from Oklahoma, was the driver of the Escort and I was the navigator. (Not that we needed one, we made this drive three times already and we were cavalry scouts for Christ’s sake) The other Escort passengers were my roommate Kingsley (a cow farming, basketball playing, Golden Gophers fanatic), Maddog Mike D, (Fellow Steelers fan) and Nascar Owen (Red Man, Budweiser, Nascar and big frickin hats was a pretty good description of Owen.) I was the proverbial Ski, if you haven’t figured it out yet. Stertz, Rathbun aka “The Axe”, Pope, Madcap Johnny F and Sal Sally would follow in the Smurfmobile.

We took account of our supply situation: Toothbrush, towel (very useful), 20 pack, and extra t-shirt per man, a full five gallon water can, two loaves of bread, 2 packs of bologna and 3 cases of Bud Dry. (Remember that experiment? It was $3 a case at the PX, we had truckloads of it stacked in our rooms that year) Deeming ourselves sufficiently prepared we took off, burnin’ up Autobahn 3 toward Tulipland and what we were sure was an orgy involving Willy and the Nimegan women’s soccer team. (We could dream couldn’t we?) There would be no stopping for the obligatory beer and photos at the border. We were on a mission. We lost the Smurfmobile relatively quickly in our accelerator induced frenzy to the Netherlands. It didn’t matter though, we would meet them there.

Now we might have been a hollow army, but we were still damn proud to be soldiers and even more proud of being AMERICAN soldiers. We just won the Cold War, kicked the livin’ shit out of Iraq, Somalia hadn’t happened yet, and the liberal guilt complex of the nineties was still in the future. Combine this with being young and indestructible and that made us just a wee bit obnoxious. Obnoxious enough that flying a full sized American Flag on a broomstick out the back window of the car was standard practice on road trips. So as we were toolin’ down the road in the left lane at 100mph, a big ass American flag hanging out the side, Mike D, Kingsley and Owen (riding bitch) enjoying a warm one, listening to Metallica’s Black Album on our sexy car stereo cassette player, we knew this was going to be one for the books. (The Necronomicron perhaps)

About halfway there, a car load of Gunters pulled up to the right of us. They were flying a German Flag! How dare they infer Germany was greater than America!?!?!? We beat the piss outta them in, not one, but two wars! We wouldn’t stand for it. The speed duel began. It was Ford vs. BMW. The New World vs. The Old. Then the insults began, quickly followed by beer spray on each other’s car, which in turn lead to throwing garbage at each other, and eventually empty beer cans. All at 100mph, it was a great time.

Now there was no way we were going to let them beat us but we were coaxing about as much out of the Escort as that Detroit Piece of Shit could muster. Nascar Owen, being the consummate back seat driver, and since he was stuck in the bitch position couldn’t do anything anyway, kept telling Soma how to drive. “Drop it into 4th, get the rpm’s up, then jam it into 5th and we’ll smoke them bastards!” he cried. We knew the Germans were screwing with us; the Beamer could leave us in the dust anytime they wanted. But it was a matter of pride and we were out of empty beer cans and trash so we got desperate. Soma, to his everlasting shame, implemented Owen’s plan.

Whether or not it would have worked was a topic of great debate, because unfortunately we will never know. Soma, in the excitement of the moment didn’t drop it into 4th gear, he dropped it into 2nd. A hideous and horrible sound emanated from under the hood, a mechanical sound so revolting that all future hideous and horrible mechanical sounds would be judged by it. (Two years later it was still, “That sounded bad, very Escort-esque.”) Soma immediately announced that he could not accelerate anymore and eventually we coasted to the side of the autobahn choking on the dust and laughter generated from the Beamer.

We got out, opened the hood and stared at the engine. And that’s about the limit of what we could do. I could take a Bradley apart with a Leatherman, but I didn’t know dick about cars. Eventually even Owen had accepted that we needed professional assistance. Remember this was ’93, there were no cell phones for the common man. Before we could do anything though, we spied the distinctive coloration of the Smurfmobile chugging up the autobahn at 65mph. We welcomed the big mufflerless lawnmower sound of our beloved Opel and heartily believed that they would tow us the rest of the way. (Yea, right) Once they stopped laughing, the Smurfmobileers said they would call ADAC (German AAA) for us. (Yea right) Just before they rolled off, Pope stuck his head out the window and said “We’ll take care of Willy for ya and tell her you said Hi.”

The idea of trusting our fellow adventurers to actually call ADAC proved to be very naïve. After an hour we went looking for one of those orange roadside assistance phones you see on the autobahn. We found one, yelled “kaput!” into it and waited for the cavalry to arrive. Another hour later a yellow ADAC station wagon pulled up and an old Gunter mechanic got out who smelled like he used schnapps for deodorant. You gotta love that sickly sweet old world smell. He spent all of 30 seconds looking at the car, pointed at it, and said “Kaput!” He then made the motions that he was going to tow us somewhere.

We all piled back in the car, assuming that he was going to tow us to the ADAC car hospital and in twenty minutes we would be back on the road. Unfortunately this turned out not to be the case, maybe they don’t work on Fords? Anyway, he dragged us to the next ausfahrt (exit) and stopped in a castle parking lot on the outskirts of the town of Kervenheim. Everyone got out, assuming he needed to piss or something but all he did was stow his tow cable, point at the Escort and say, ”Kaputt!” then he waved and left.

Then, as if God was mocking us, it began to rain.

But we were used to adversity, we were Americans dogonit. We were gonna figure a way out of this and make our rendezvous with the women’s soccer team. So we put our brains together to come up with a plan: Unfortunately all we came up with was we’d call someone for help. But on the positive side if it worked we would be on our way and there by midnight, besides the real partying didn’t start until then anyway. There was still time. It wasn’t a great plan, but it was the best we had. But this plan had several prerequisites:

  1. We needed a phone. 2. We needed someone to call. 3. We needed change for the call. 4. We needed Soma to not start drinking.

We had none of these.

Once it started raining Soma started a Bud Dry I.V. He, being the Okkie that he was, already felt bad enough about messing up the trip but now he thought he was going to have to buy a new car for Budget. It was a situation that wasn’t conducive to sobriety. On top of that we only had guilders (Dutch money before the euro) and no marks (German money before the euro) for the phone. Speaking of phones, we couldn’t see any, anywhere near at least, especially through the rain and now fogged up windows. And finally, we had no one to call: ADAC already made their position very clear; Pope was probably shoulder deep in Willy by this time, and we damn sure weren’t going to call back to Buedingen for help. It’s bad enough the Smurfmobileers saw us. So we did what anyone would do in our situation:

We got drunk.

Once we had finished a few, the cramped conditions in the car became worse than the thunderstorm so we got out and had a regular par-te complete with wet T-shirt contest right there in the parking lot. The rain didn’t bother us much and eventually someone said lets go look for a bar. Hopefully, hope being a method in this case, the Burghermeister Meisterburgher bartender could tell us where an ATM was. Being optimists, we believed the good people of Kervenheim would take us in or at least their daughters would. But first we had to find a bar and it was getting dark fast.

It was immediately apparent that this wasn’t your Bavarian dorf which reeked of Teutonic beer laden merriment. Kervenheim was a dark and dismal place where the thunder felt at home and the lightning gave brief glimpses of the horrors not seen in the daylight. As we walked down the streets we could see and hear the Kervenheimers closing their shutters and locking their doors. “You can smell the fear, they must have werewolves here, or worse,” someone muttered. The aimless and ultimately fruitless wandering eventually brought us back to the castle:

Like it was calling to us.

The “Palace” at Kervenheim was a large late baroque mansion, but in the darkness, silhouetted by the lightning it could easily pass off in our blurred vision as Dracula’s Castle. Boredom, liquid courage, the natural aggressiveness of the U.S. Cavalryman, and not too mention a possible dry sleeping area, overcame any fears we had so we set off to explore the grounds of The Haunted Mansion of Kervenheim.

Dun Dun Daaaa!

Our exploration had an ominous beginning, almost immediately we met our first denizen of the mansion. A “man” walked down the steps towards us and as he passed, Mike D stopped dead in his tracks and whispered, “He had no face” then louder, “Holy Shit, he had no face!” I thought it was just a bald guy who was looking down at his keys on his way to his car, but the more I thought about it, Mike was right: He had no face. If he was messing with his keys, where was his car? There was nothing but emptiness between us and the houses beyond. We were the only car in the parking lot! The next strike of lightning sealed it. But we weren’t too freaked out yet, besides fear is natural and even welcome. If we saw another faceless demonic mansion dweller, we would confront it and send it back to Hell.

Our travels took us to a fork in the path; actually it was more like a chicken foot. Straight ahead went to the mansion grounds where we sure there were more faceless demonic mansion dwellers; left and right were winding forested paths that took us parallel to the moat-like stream that surrounded the mansion. We dared not go straight, hey diddle diddle right up the middle was for tankers and grunts, we were scouts. We needed to circuit our way around the evil place in order to get a good read on our opposition. Stealthy and Ninja like.

So we went left, (Cold War logic: right=east, the bad guys are always to the east and we were trying to avoid the bad guys, for now.) but now we were in the menacing shadow of The Haunted Mansion of Kervenheim: the source of the evilness. In addition, we were all soaked, it was pitch black, and we were sure we were being stalked by more faceless demonic mansion dwellers when alas, we came upon a small shrine. God had not forsaken us; it was like something out of Diablo. It was one of the small places of worship so common in the German countryside, just a statue or a cross with a trash can and bench. It was a place for lovers to snuggle, away from the crowds of the European streets. Except in the rain and shadow of the malevolent castle, this one didn’t look well kept. Was the cross upside down? It was tough to tell but evil reeked of the place, it was best to move on.

At this point Owen pulled out his buck knife, I grabbed a big stick and a couple small ones in case I needed to put it thru some hearts, Mike pulled out his Gerber, Soma his Leatherman, and Kingsley would only move forward in some weird Karate fighting stance.

That’s when we came to The Bridge. It wasn’t large, but it was wooden, it creaked, and crossed to the other side of the moat. The Other Side of the Moat was cloaked in darkness and it looked like it lead away from the castle. But it was either that way or back toward the evil place where they were sure to be cooking babies and sacrificing virgins. So we crossed.

Training took over, this was a danger area. In order to diversify our weaponry, Owen and I took far side security; the others took near side security and overwatch. A few tense moments later Owen and I were across. Under ideal conditions we would have been a bit more cautious but They were behind us, so speed, but not haste, was essential.

The others followed with Mike coming up last. Then it happened – The Splash Underneath the Bridge. Under normal circumstances, I would have dismissed it as a water rat (very common in Germany) diving into the stream to do whatever water rats do. But Mike, in a moment of terrifying clarity, yelled at the top of his lungs, “IT’S A FUCKING TROLL! A REAL UNDERNEATH THE FUCKING BRIDGE MOTHERFUCKING TROLL!” And we took off.

I’m not sure to this day how far we ran, but our “tactical displacement” took us to that most unfortunate of places for a scout to find himself: in the middle of a field. There was nowhere to hide, neither cover nor concealment. We were dead smack in the middle of The Fiery Plains of Gehenna. We heard something barking to our back left and surely it was pack of Hellhounds hot on our trail. As we moved through the blackness in what was hopefully the direction of the parking lot, we heard a mighty “Neeeeyyyy,” from what could only be Death’s Pale Steed.

Once back at the parking lot and the busted Escort, we prepared to defend ourselves….but ended up passing out.

The next morning, the sun peaked out over the horizon in one of the most beautiful sunrises we’d ever seen. We were happy to be alive and no one talked about the hellish events of the past evening….ever. However we had to keep our strength up for when the wolves came, so that we might die, not of hunger, but in combat. Bologna sandwiches all around. Soma, being a bit older and a bit more frugal, knew we had no clue how long we would be here. He knew we had to husband our resources. “Damn you all, just one slice. I don’t care what you assholes want, in Okmogee, you only get one slice of bologna per sandwich. One slice!” he said with a trembling index finger in the air. Soma was known as “One Slice” from then on.

Rested, pickled, and fed we set off to find money and a phone. Kervenheim was much easier to navigate in the daylight and we found a nice little guesthouse where we had a beer and relaxed a bit. Then in what drunks call “a moment of clarity”, we phoned Budget Rent a Car from the bar.

That afternoon they sent someone to look at the car. I’d come to the conclusion all German mechanics are old, stink, and don’t speak any English. When he finally asked through sign language and broken English “Why the auto was kaput?”, we did what any good private would do when in a situation where telling the truth could get you more work, more explaining, or more trouble.

We shrugged our shoulders.

Well, after his autopsy, he hauled the Escort away and left us standing there on the curb, like Alice with all our worldly possessions at our feet. We felt abandoned and even contemplated calling Buedingen. So we did what anyone would do in our situation: We got drunk.

Except One Slice, formerly known as Soma, he was so relieved he didn’t have to buy a new car, that his simplistic Midwest optimism took over and he and Kingsley went back to the guesthouse to get a good meal and call Budget to see what was up. We’d make the date with our soccer team yet. In the interim, we pondered our future over a nice warm Bud Dry.
About an hour later, One Slice and Kingsley came running back yelling, “They’re bringing a car! They’re bringing a car!” And not ten seconds later the most beautiful black BMW I’ve ever laid eyes on pulled into the parking lot. That car was gorgeous, a brand new black BMW 318i with all leather interior. It had to be the rental guy’s car. A green Opel pulled in with it and we assumed that was our new rental. But alas we were mistaken: The BMW was our new car and we could return it in Hanau. The Budget guy apologized for our inconvenience, that we were valued customers and “please accept this alternative in compensation for your trying ordeal”. Thirty seconds later we were on the autobahn doing 270 kms per hour. I never had gone that fast on a highway before or since.

We finally made it to Nimegan but the racket ended the night before when one of those jokers pulled an Ugly American and ruined it for everyone. The details aren’t important but needless to say we weren’t welcome in the Willy household anymore. Oh, they didn’t blame the Kirvenheimers, but something was just….different. It was all for the best though, we had a brand new Beamer and two days to show it off. (Three day weekend) And parking lot parties became our thing for a while.

Life went on.

Eventually Willy got married to some English guy and the entire group never got together again unless it was a special occasion. But we were much the wiser, and a bond was formed in a way only shared horrors can create. The lessons learned were enlightening, the experience unduplicated, the bond was for a lifetime, but it was the unspoken rule between those of us who survived Kervenheim that truly became the guiding light that represented everything that was good in our lives. It……………………well, it’s unspoken.


Why Should Anyone Study History?

Why Should Anyone Study History?

Although I’m not likely to make history a career, I strive to learn as much as I can from those remarkable people who came before us. To see lost worlds through their eyes. They have many stories to tell, and lessons to teach. But we first have to be listening! A firm grasp of historical events is an important skill that even non-historians should cultivate.

Age of Amnesia

Age of Amnesia

Like the Medieval scholars, today’s intellectuals are narrowing the field of inquiry. The “frantic energy to know more and more about less and less,” identified by Russian sociologist Pitirim Sorokin a half century ago, has made academic life increasingly irrelevant to most people.

The Battle of Stony Point

In the summer of 1779, both Henry Clinton and George Washington needed a battle.

With the entrance of France and most recently Spain into the war against Great Britain, regiments that Clinton needed to decisively crush the Continental Army were fighting in India, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean. Without those troops, Clinton, bottled up in New York, had to force Washington to make a mistake and expose the Continental Army. To that end, he planned devastating raids into the countryside. Washington didn’t take the bait.

Washington also needed a battle, but on his own terms. The fortress at West Point, which prevented the British from sailing up the Hudson River and isolating New England, and arguably the most important piece of ground in the Thirteen Colonies, was an ideal defensive position to which Washington could withdraw when Clinton attacked. But it was too strong of a position, so frustratingly, Clinton also wasn’t taking the bait.

Washington’s need for a victory was nearly as great as it was two and a half years ago at Trenton. The Continental Army seemed about to disintegrate. Morale was rock bottom. Its supply situation was abysmal. The raids and constant skirmishing with loyalists were eating up gunpowder at a prodigious rate. Even worse, food was scarce. The winter of 1778/79 was the worst in a hundred years, worse than even the previous one at Valley Forge. It was so bad that New York Harbor froze solid. Spring was late in coming and the results of the first harvests were meagre at best.

What food there was couldn’t be bought anyway. Runaway inflation made Continental script virtually worthless. No amount of financial wizardry by Robert Morris and organizational leadership by Nathaniel Greene was sufficient to overcome the difficulties suffered by the Army Commissariat. (The crisis came to a head in 1780 when the Congress abdicated its responsibility to supply the army completely and delegated it to the states.) Furthermore, Iroquois warriors, Canadian militia, and loyalist Rangers had set the Colonies’ frontier on fire killing and enslaving its inhabitants. The fertile western valleys of New England, Pennsylvania, and Virginia were barely able to provide for their own regiments much less the rest of the Continental Army. Von Steuben, DeKalb, Lafayette and others worked hard to professionalize the Continental Army, and that was being threatened by its logistical problems. Only a victory would take the soldiers minds off their empty stomachs.

The professionalization of the Continental Army continued after Valley Forge and its regular units were more than a match for the British regulars and their Hessian mercenaries. By the spring of 1779, the trainers whom Von Steuben drilled at Valley Forge had successfully imparted their knowledge. The best of these trainers established the regimental light infantry companies during 1778 reorganization. On 12 June 1779, Washington’s Corps of Light Infantry, based on the British model since 1777, was expanded. In addition to the regimental light infantry companies, the best of these light infantrymen were formed into the “Light Infantry Brigade” of four regiments. The Light Infantry Brigade was the Continental Army’s first elite unit. Its regiments had no state designator as the brigade was comprised of men from throughout the Thirteen Colonies. If you don’t count Washington’s Headquarter’s guard, the 1779 Light Infantry Brigade was America’s first “All American” unit, and established the nearly unique American concept of dual use light/heavy infantry, which we still use today. Unlike British elite units, such as the Grenadiers and Guards, the Light Infantry Brigade was tailored to the American way of war on the frontier and trained to screen, patrol, raid, skirmish, and conduct reconnaissance, not unlike the Robert Roger’s rangers. But like the British elite, they were trained as disciplined and resilient assault troops and drilled relentlessly in the use of the bayonet, so much so that Von Steuben specifically referred to the Brigade as “his lads”.

Von Steuben’s lads were given to the Washington’s most aggressive commander, “Mad” Anthony Wayne, the commander of the Pennsylvania Line. Wayne’s first task was capturing Stony Point, 14 miles south of West Point on the west bank of the Hudson. According to legend, Wayne said, “General, if you plan it, I’ll storm Hell.” Washington supposedly replied, “Perhaps we had better try Stoney Point first.”

Stony Point was the gateway to the Hudson Highlands and dominated the river crossing at Kings Ferry where Clinton hoped to lure Washington into an engagement. Stony Point was seized by the British in May and the rocky and marshy 150 ft high shallow peninsula was heavily fortified over the next two months. Earthworks were constructed, trenches dug, and the marsh trees felled so they formed a double row of abatis. Lt. Col. Henry Johnston, whose 17th Regiment of Foot reinforced with a company each of grenadiers and loyalist regulars formed the garrison, deemed Stony Point impregnable and Clinton referred to the position as “Lil Gibraltar”. Johnston knew that the difficult terrain limited the amount of troops that could be deployed against him at any one time, and even if Washington assaulted the position with the entire Continental Army, his 750 men and fifteen cannon could easily hold until reinforcements were ferried from across the river.

Unfortunately for Johnston, Washington’s spies noted that the defense of Stony Point had a fatal flaw. At high tide the abatis covered the entire length of the position correctly rendering the position seemingly impregnable. At low tide, however, disciplined troops could wade the four feet of water on the southern edge and move around the obstacles to a small uncovered beach farther out on the river. The beach could be observed by two Royal Navy ships off shore, but if the attackers were undiscovered they could get off the beach and into the earthworks before the ships could fire.

On the afternoon of 15 July 1779, the 1150 strong Light Infantry Brigade infiltrated the ten miles over Dunderburg Mountain through the loyalist riddled countryside to Stony Point. They arrived just out of sight of the British at 8 pm. The plan was for one regiment to demonstrate to the front of the British position, while another feint to the north fixed the British eyes in that direction. The main assault would come from the south led by Wayne himself. The demonstration to the front had the only American troops with loaded weapons. Both the northern and southern attacks were with bayonets fixed on unloaded muskets to prevent accidental discharges on the approach march, which would alert the garrison. Each assault column was led by a 20 man volunteer “forlorn hope” armed with axes and picks to clear the abatis. Each forlorn hope was supported by a picked 150 man assault element to exploit the breaches. The rest of the regiments would follow and assume the assault. Wayne relied on surprise and aggressiveness to make up for the limited amount of men available in the initial assaults. He promised $500 to the first man inside the British position, $400 to the second, etc, down to $100 for the fifth. After a final ration of rum at midnight, the columns stepped out of their assault positions into the darkness.

Wayne’s southern column took a bit longer to infiltrate through the marsh and chest deep river water, but they were unspotted in the cloud covered darkness until after Major Hardy Murfree’s diversion had the full attention of the British. Lt Col. Johnston personally led a bayonet charge to clear the rebel scum, which was promptly surrounded and captured due mostly to Murfree’s quick reactions to the counterattack. In the first minutes of the battle the British lost their commander and 1/3 of the garrison. Murfree’s men were the only Americans to fire their weapons that night.

As soon as they were close enough, the forlorn hopes launched themselves at the abatis with a fury, hacking away and digging up the trees, through withering fire, to clear large enough paths through the obstacles for the regiments to pass. Most of the American casualties were from the two forlorn hopes, and the southern one, reduced to three men at the end of the battle, distracted the British further from the soaked men charging up the uncovered beach. Lt Col Francois Teisseydre, the Marquis de Fleury, commander of the 1st Regiment was the first into the British entrenchments, and personally tore down the British colours.

Back in the water, Wayne was shot in the head leading the southern assault group, and admonished his men to carry him into the impregnable fortress, where he hoped “to die at the head of the column”. Both the northern and southern pincers penetrated into the fortification and the remaining British and loyalists were overwhelmed at bayonet point. 472 surrendered. Wayne’s three pronged assault on Stony Point was the last major action of the war against Clinton’s army in the north.

The Light Infantry Brigade suffered 15 killed and 83 wounded, including Wayne, for killing or capturing Johnston’s entire force. Wayne’s wound was bloody and painful, and left a scar that reminded him of the battle for his remaining years, but it was not fatal. He sent off a message to Washington which read in full,

“Dear Gen’l.

The fort and garrison, with Colonel Johnston, are ours. Our officers and men behaved like men who are determined to be free.”

Yours most sincerely,

Ant’y Wayne”

Washington was ecstatic at the news. He and Von Steuben rode down from West Point the next morning to the sound of Johnston’s guns manned by American crews firing on the British across the river. They both literally shook the hand of every survivor in the brigade. Furthermore, Washington forced Congress to honor Wayne’s pledges to the first men to enter the British fortifications. Fleury received $500 which he gave to his men. Lt George Knox, commander of the southern forlorn hope, received $400 followed by Sergeants Baker and Spencer of the Virginia Line, and Sgt Dunlop of the Pennsylvania Line. Their names were recorded in the minutes of the next session Continental Congress. The Battle of Stony Point was a massive morale boost for Americans who were frustrated with the hardships and static nature of the war in 1778 and 1779. Congress assessed that Wayne captured $150,000 worth of stores and cannon and awarded the Light Infantry Brigade prize money as if they were privateers.

In the entirety of the American Revolutionary War, Continental Congress only awarded eleven “congressional medals”. Of that small number, three were awarded to participants in the Battle of Stony Point: General Anthony Wayne commander, Lt Col John Stewart the commander of the northern feint which wasn’t supposed to break through the British defenses but did so anyway, and Lt Col Fleury, the first man through the breach.

The battle thoroughly depressed Clinton and the British and loyalists. Descriptions of the disciplined three pronged night bayonet assault surprised members of Parliament and belied the false descriptions they were told of the Continental Army. This was magnified by Wayne’s treatment of his prisoners, a clemency that was not extended to his troops massacred at Paoli the year prior. After Stony Point the Continental Army was a given a respect that had eluded it so far in the war. The British would no longer look at Washington’s army the same way again.

Panzers, Monty, Mother Nature, and the Vikings

The landings on 6 June at Normandy were a complete operational surprise, and the deception plan was so effective that the Germans continued to believe the main invasion would come at Pas De Calais, even well into July. But the ruse wouldn’t last much longer, and most of the German’s reserves were already committed to containing the Allied lodgement.

In the east, Montgomery failed to take Caen on the first day for a variety of reasons, most of which weren’t his fault. The British troops faced the only panzer counterattack on D-Day, and that by their desert nemesis, the 21st Panzer Division. The terrain around Caen is all open fields and river valleys, and this made the counterattack particularly difficult, and Montgomery stopped the 21st Panzer from reaching the beachheads. Unfortunately, the reverse was also true, and Montgomery would launch no less than 6 separate army level offensives to try and take Caen over the next 6 weeks. To counter this, Field Marshal Von Rundstedt committed the bulk of the panzer reserves in the West to face them, including three of the best panzer divisions in the German military: the Panzer-Lehr, the veteran 2nd Panzer Division, and the fanatical 12th SS “Hitlerjugend” Panzer Division made up of Hitler Youth. The British Sherman, Churchill, and Cromwell tanks did not fare well against the Tiger, Panther, and Pzkfw IVs of the panzer divisions. Only British stubbornness and overwhelming material and airpower superiority allowed Monty to capture Caen on 10 July 1944, over a month later than planned.

Monty’s material superiority came at a cost to the other areas of the front because Mother Nature had a say-so. Just after D-Day, the great storm that Group Captain Stagg feared had finally arrived. On 9 June, “The Great Gale of 1944” did damage to the invasion force that the Luftwaffe could only dream of. Several ships were sunk, dozens were beached, all were damaged, and one of the two vital “Mulberry” artificial harbors was destroyed. This created a massive supply shortage for weeks in Normandy, and what supplies were on hand went to either Monty trying to take Caen, or to the Americans trying to capture Cherbourg: a deep water port on the Cotentin peninsula which could do much to alleviate the Allies supply problems. The US VII Corps captured Cherbourg on 26 June, but the Germans did “masterful” work wrecking the harbor. They did such a good job emplacing mines and boobie traps, destroying facilities, sinking ships in the channel, and ruining the docks that it would take three weeks for small ships to get through and eight weeks before it was safe enough for larger ships to unload. There would be no influx of supplies from Cherbourg and what supplies that did come through the one working Mulberry would go to Monty. This was unfortunate because the Americans in the center of the landing zone were facing something unexpected and ancient, and used to deadly effect by the Germans: the bocage, or Norman hedgerows.

Bocage was the French term for the hedge/tree walls that surrounded Norman fields. In the 9th century, Danish and Norwegian Vikings raided the area, and with the collapse of Charlemagne’s Empire, settled it. The better off Vikings established themselves at the mouths of the rivers, such as the Orne and the Seine, primarily in the east. They intermarried with the local population and the Franks named the area “Normandy”, or “Land of the Northmen”. West Normandy was settled by Viking farmers. However, this did not stop future generations of Danish and Norwegian Vikings from continuing to raid just because their forebears settled the area. The Vikings could no longer sail up the rivers to raid the French because of the Norman fortress towns such as Caen, Carentan, and Harfleur. So they beached on the coast and traveled overland to get around the Normans at the mouths of the rivers, frequently by raiding isolated farmsteads in the west and stealing horses and food. The Norman farmers, former Vikings themselves, knew this and combatted it by planting trees around their fields with thick thorny bushes at their bases. This forced the raiding Vikings onto predictable paths where they could be watched and ambushed. Over the centuries, the Norman farmers continued the practice. By the twentieth century, erosion, sunken roads, and a dropping water table exposed the roots of these hedgerows. This formed a four or five foot high impenetrable wall of packed earth and gnarled roots, covered with thorny bushes and topped with a line of thick trees. They couldn’t be climbed over, much less pushed through or seen through.

The bocage itself wasn’t deadly but the Germans used the hedgerows to great effect. They would ambush the Americans on the roads, just as the Normans did to the Vikings, and force them to breach the hedgerows to get around. Once the Americans went through the lengthy and difficult process of breaching the hedgerow walls, they would be met by another German ambush on the other side, usually machine guns and anti tank guns dug into the hedgerow in an opposite corner of the field. They easily covered the beautiful fields of fire that were the enclosed Norman farms. It would take Gen Omar Bradley and US First Army until 25 July, seven weeks after D-Day, to break out of the Norman Hedgerow country.

Operation Bagration: The Death of Army Group Center

The Red Army on the Eastern Front was not obliging the Wehrmacht in 1944. The Red Army usually did limited operations during the winter snows and spring mud, and this gave the Germans time to dig in and reorganize. But the winter and spring of 1944 were different, very different, particularly for Army Groups North and South.

In the previous six months, Army Group North was forced to lift the two year long siege of Leningrad and was driven back to the Baltic States. And Von Manstein’s Army Group South was chased almost all the way out of the Ukraine in a series of surprisingly effective and overwhelming Soviet offensives. Only the intervention of panzer formations from Army Group Center stabilized the front. The Abwehr, or German Intelligence, thought that the Soviets would continue in the south, so the panzers stayed there. The Abwehr and German High Command were distracted by Soviet deception operations, and the Allied landings in France which were just 1000 miles from Berlin. The nearest Soviets were 1200 miles away and they were opposite Army Group Center, in the very defensible terrain of the trackless forests and swamps of Byelorussia.

But this was only defensible against the Red Army of 1941, 1942, or even 1943. The Red Army of 1944 was a new animal. It finally had the equipment, staff proficiency, specialized training, and mobile logistics to put their “Deep Operations” doctrine into practice. Of which, Von Manstein in the Ukraine was the full dress rehearsal.

Deep Operations was the standard Soviet Doctrine since the mid-30s, but Stalin’s purge of 90% of the officer corps in 1937, the calamitous losses in Finland in 1940 and the German invasion in 1941/42 meant that they had to resort to massed tank and human wave attacks to make up for the lack of leadership and trained manpower. It took three years for the talented survivors, such as Zhukov, Konev, Rokossovsky, Vasilevsky and others to rebuild. By 1944, that situation was rectified.

Deep Operations was the logical end state of JFC Fuller’s influential “Breakthrough” theory during the interwar period. DO relies on specialized troops, with massed rifle and artillery breaking through a defensive line, followed by local heavy tank formations to confirm the penetration. Then this penetration was exploited by huge tank, mechanized, cavalry, or elite Guards armies (mounted in American Lend Lease trucks) who attacked deep operational objectives to cut off and encircle German forces. German pockets of resistance were bypassed. Deep Operations has been likened to a Russian matryoshka doll where a small encirclement is then encircled by a larger one, and then a larger one, and so on, until the offensive culminated. (Glantz, “When Titans Clashed”) The Soviet summer offensive in Byelorussia was the ultimate expression of Deep Operations.

Marshall Zhukov launched Operation Bagration on 22 June 1944, and fell upon an unsuspecting Army Group Center. The penetrations were immediate. Although some panzer formations from the South attempted counterattacks that resulted in apocalyptic tank battles, the Germans never recovered. Hitler declared every city in the area a fortress to be defended to the last man, so the retreating German commanders just avoided them in their quest to escape the overlapping layers of encirclement.

It didn’t help. By August the Red Army was at the gates of Warsaw and German East Prussia, Army Group North was cut off in Courland, Army Group South was cut off in the Ukraine, and Army Group Center ceased to exist. The German army lost 500,000 men and 4000 tanks and assault guns that could not be replaced. 57,000 German prisoners were marched through Red Square, and then the Soviets made a point to wash the streets afterwards.

The Soviets were now much closer to Berlin than the Allies were.