Tagged: Interwar

Crisis in the Pacific

Japan’s war with China, in particular the “Three All’s Policy” (Kill All, Loot All, Burn All) officially known in Japan as the “Burn to Ash Strategy”, and Japan’s occupation of French Indochina led to America’s scrap metal and oil embargo of Japan in July of 1941. Japan relied on America for 90% of its tin, steel and oil. Emperor Hirohito directed negotiators to find a compromise with the US by 1 November or he would order the Japanese military to make preparations to seize the oil fields, rubber plantations, and tin mines of the Dutch East Indies. Before this could be done, Malaya, a British possession had to be cleared, as did the Philippines, a US Commonwealth. In order to protect these offensives from counterattack by the US Pacific Fleet, Adm Yamamoto envisioned a surprise attack on its anchorage at Pearl Harbor.

On 1 Nov, the Japanese Embassy in Washington DC reported no progress in the negotiations, and Hirohito gave his approval for preparations for war with the Netherlands, Great Britain and America, with the caveat that if a breakthrough at the table was made, the preparation would be called off. Aware that the Americans and British were tracking their carriers via radio transmissions, the Japanese immediately implemented a long prepared “deception and denial” plan that included a massive increase in fake radio transmissions. It threw the US Navy intelligence sections across the Pacific into chaos. That day, CMDR Joseph Rochefort, lead cryptanalyst of the US Navy’s Hawaii station, reported that the Japanese changed the call signs of every ship in their fleet, and his section was trying to sort everything out. That afternoon, the US Pacific Fleet went on the first of many alerts over the next month. The next day the Japanese increased the encryption of Rochefort’s “baby”, the Japanese “Flag Officer’s Code”, in addition to the Main Fleet Cipher JN-25. At the morning briefing the unorthodox but brilliant Rochefort had the unenvious job of telling Admiral Kimmel that he had “lost” four Japanese aircraft carriers. (He had actually lost six: he had mistakenly placed two in the Marshall Islands. All six were enroute to the Kurile Islands for a “fleet exercise”, actually to conduct rehearsals and prepare for the attack on Pearl Harbor, but they wouldn’t know that for another two weeks.)

In response, Kimmel ordered another alert. Additionally, he assumed the Philippines would most likely be a target of any initial Japanese attack (He was not wrong, just not right, ask an intelligence officer to explain the difference), so he also ordered the formation of the Pacific Escort Force to convoy merchantmen and freighters from Pearl Harbor to the Far East, as his brethren were doing in the Atlantic. That evening, the last non-convoyed ship reached its destination when Wake Island was reinforced by a detachment from the 1st Marine Defense Battalion led by Major James Devereux, bringing the garrison of the tiny atoll to just under 400 men.

The USS Reuben James

On October 31st, 1941, the USS Reuben James was escorting an eastbound convoy from Halifax, Nova Scotia and was sunk by a torpedo from a German Type IX U Boat U-552 off the coast of Iceland. Although the German declaration of war and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor were still more than a month away, she was the first American ship sunk by enemy fire during World War II. The Reuben James was part of the “Undeclared War” fought against the German Navy while protecting convoys supplying Lend Lease material to Great Britain in 1941.

The Kearny Incident

When Germany invaded Denmark in 1940, Britain occupied Iceland, a nominally independent state that Denmark was in union with. As part of FDR’s Lend-Lease Act in early 1941, US Marines occupied Reykjavik in order to free British troops for operations in North Africa.

In the latter half of 1941, the US Navy in the Atlantic was taking an increasingly active role in defending convoys against U-Boats despite no declaration of war between the US and Germany. After the “Greer Incident” in early September (the first time a U Boat fired on a US ship and vice versa) FDR issued a “shoot on sight” order for all German ships in the Atlantic. By October, it was common practice for the US Navy to escort convoys as far as Iceland before turning them over to the Royal Navy.

On 16 October 1941, a German wolfpack attacked a British convoy SC-42 (from Sydney, Canada to Liverpool, England) off of Iceland and overwhelmed the Canadian escorts. After losing nine merchantmen, the convoy commander requested the assistance of the USS Kearny and three other American destroyers docked at Reykjavik. All evening the four destroyers dropped depth charges on the German U-boats, possibly sinking one, and saved the remainder of the convoy.

But the Germans weren’t finished. Just after midnight on the 17th, U-568 fired a spread of torpedoes and one hit the Kearny killing ten sailors and wounding more than twenty. The Kearny managed to control the damage and make it back to Iceland and eventually Boston. The casualties in the Kearney Incident were the first American deaths in the undeclared war against Germany, more than six weeks before Pearl Harbor.

The USS Arizona

On 16 October 1916, BB-39, the USS Arizona, named for the newest state in the Union, was commissioned at Brooklyn Naval Yard in New York City. She was the second and last of the Pennsylvania class “super dreadnoughts”.

Battleship technology was rapidly improving in the decade of the First World War, but the US Navy wanted a “standard type battleship” with similar characteristics to simplify operations. The first class of these super dreadnoughts, the Nevada, set the template for battleships as we think of them today: four turrets split by a central superstructure, moderate speed, oil fueled, long cruising range, extreme gunnery ranges, and an “All or Nothing” armor concept. From 1912-1918, five classes of thirteen ships were constructed and they formed the backbone of the US Navy for twenty years. The Arizona was the second ship of the second class, number four of thirteen.

The biggest flaw of the old ironclads and eventually the Dreadnought class of battleships was the relatively uniform armor across the ship. As the ships got larger, the armor got thinner, but heavier. Something had to give. Battle experience had shown that ships could survive being hit in non-critical areas such as berths, administration, galleys etc, but a hit to the fire control, engine, ammunition, propellant etc greatly degraded if not destroyed the ship. The All or Nothing concept put these essential, and very vulnerable, areas in a central heavily armored “citadel” (the “All”) and minimal armor on everything else (the “nothing”). This saved weight and subsequently increased the armor of the citadel. The compact citadel and turrets had the vast majority of the armor which made the Standard type battleships very survivable. The enemy armor piercing shells that didn’t hit the citadel or turrets flew through the ship’s non battle essential areas usually without exploding. The Nevada class was the first class of battleship to incorporate the All or Nothing concept and the Pennsylvania class improved on it. The concept was confirmed at the recent Battle of Jutland. When the Arizona was launched, her citadel was impervious to the 14” shells of the largest guns in that engagement.

The Arizona and her sisters didn’t see action during the First World War due to an oil crisis, but because of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, they were essential to the US foreign policy in the inter war years. The Arizona was the flagship of Battleship Division One and represented American interests in the Mediterranean and Caribbean in the 1920s. In 1928, she was transferred to the Pacific Fleet and became the centerpiece of War Plan Orange, the on-the-shelf US Pacific campaign against a potentially belligerent Japan.

In mid-October 1941, almost exactly 25 years after her commission, the Arizona led the Pacific fleet to sea from its peacetime headquarters at San Diego. Due to a breakdown in the negotiations with an increasingly aggressive and militaristic Japan, the American Pacific Fleet sailed as a show of force to its new anchorage on the big island of Oahu, Hawaii, at Pearl Harbor.

August Landmesser

Be this guy.

August Landmesser, like many Germans, joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party because of Adolf Hitler’s promise to undo the wrongs perpetrated against the German people in the Treaty of Versailles. However, by 1936, he was concerned with the Nazis demonizing anyone who disagreed with Hitler – he was married to a Jewish girl. However, the population of the country at this point was disarmed, and criticizing the Nazis meant a one way trip to the Dachau concentration camp. Many of his friends agreed with him privately, but were cowed into blindly following Hitler.

On 13 June 1936, August Landmesser attended the launching of the new Kriegsmarine training ship, the Horst Wessel. Surprisingly, Adolf Hitler himself dedicated the ship. When Hitler stepped up to smash the champagne bottle on the bow, the crowd cheered wildly and saluted.

Landmesser couldn’t bring himself to salute a man who demonized his wife and daughter.

August Landmesser was caught in 1937 trying flee to Denmark with his family. They were imprisoned for “dishonoring their race”, and were never seen again.

The War of the Stray Dog

Since the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th Century, Bulgaria and Greece feuded over Thrace and Macedonia. Both countries considered them national territory. On 19 October 1925, near the border town of Petrich in the Demir Kapou Pass, a Greek captain chased his stray dog into Bulgaria and Bulgarian border guards shot him. The Bulgarian government attempted to apologize and asked for a joint Greek-Bulgarian commission to investigate the incident. However, the Greek dictator General Theodoros Pangalos saw an opportunity to forcefully chastise his adversary with a show of strength.

Pangalos ordered the Greek army to invade Bulgaria in order to extract compensation for the dead captain’s family. The invasion was also a cover to to strike at pockets of Macedonian dissidents who sought refuge in Bulgaria. The Greek Army seized Petrich, looted the town, and in the process killed 40 civilians. After it was found out that Greece sought assistance from Serbia, and was rebuffed, Bulgaria sought assistance from the League of Nations.

The “war” ended ten days later when the League of Nations imposed a $100,000 fine on Greece, and the Greek troops withdrew under the threat of military action by the League. The censure by the League and the quick withdrawal from Bulgaria destroyed Pangalos’ reputation in the eyes of his supporters. The same cabal that had installed him to power removed him from power the next summer.

The Big Kahuna: Duke Kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku was born on 24 August 1890 in Honolulu in the Kingdom of Hawaii. Duke Kahanamoku was an Olympic swimming champion, Hollywood actor, lifelong friend and confidant of John Wayne (the “Other Duke”), and the Father of Surfing. Duke Kahanamoku won the gold 1912 Olympics for the 100m freestyle and a silver in the relay, two gold medals in the 1920 Olympics, and a silver in the 1924 Olympics at the age of 31. “The Big Kahuna” is best known for popularizing the Hawaiian traditional wooden “long board” or heavy board, and his amazing rescue of the crew and passengers of a sinking yacht off of Corona Del Mar in 1925.

“Lightning in the Night”

At the height of the Battle of Britain and 16 months before America’s entry into the war, Liberty Magazine, a pop culture general interest weekly out of New York published the prologue of Fred Allhof’s alt-history pulp fiction “Lightning of the Night”. Like other alt-history greats, such as the “The Third World War”, “Red Storm Rising” and “Ghost Fleet”, “Lightning in the Night” was written with the advice and input of leading military and civilian experts of the time, including Lieutenant General Robert Lee Bullard, the first commander of the 1st Infantry Division, who led the Big Red One at the Battle of Cantigny.

Set after the Nazi victory over Europe, “Lightning in the Night” was the story of the German invasion of North America. The prologue began with a surprise air attack on Pearl Harbor…

The Battle of Zadwórze: “The Polish Thermopylae”

During the Polish-Soviet War immediately following the First World War, Marshal Pilsudski stripped the Southern Front in the Ukraine of many Polish units to prepare for the upcoming Battle of Warsaw. In mid-August, 1920, the Communists of Semyon Budyonny’s 1st Cavalry Army broke through the front and threatened the Polish city of Lwów (now part of the Ukraine). The remaining Polish forces of the Southern Front streamed back to Lwów to hold the city.

On 18 August, 1920, 500 mounted Polish volunteers from Lwow under Captain Bolesław Zajączkowski were sent to reinforce the Polish soldiers that were withdrawing in the face of Budyonny’s 1st Cavalry Army, known simply as the “Konarmiya” or “Horse Army”. As they approached the village of Zadwórze, they received fire; the unit they were looking for was destroyed there the day before. The victorious Communists were the lead elements of the Red 6th Cavalry Division and were happy to see more Poles to kill before they resumed their advance.

Before the Communists could form, Zajączkowski ordered his men on line, and charged the village. They took the train station, but could not seize the entirety of the village. The village of Zadwórze became a vortex for the Red Cavalry, as the Communists committed more and more of the division to break the Polish resistance at the train station. Zajączkowski’s men fought off six successive cavalry charges from their stronghold in the station over the next six hours, while continuing to fight for the rest of the village. With dusk fast approaching and ammunition dangerously low, Zajączkowski ordered what remained his command to fall back to Lwów.

On the way out of the village, Zajączkowski’s men were strafed and bombed by three Communist airplanes, which broke up his formation. Zajączkowski gathered what men he could, and made a last stand in a lineman’s hut just on the outskirts of the village. In the dark, the Poles and Communists battled with bayonets, rifle butts, sabers, and fists. Just after midnight on 18 August, 1920, the hut was overrun, and the last of Polish defenders were dead, or had escaped. The seriously wounded Zajączkowski killed himself rather than be captured and endure the inevitable torture and execution at the hands of the Communists. Of the Zajączkowski’s original 500 men who attacked Zadwórze that morning, only 12 reached Lwów.

The 11 hour battle for Zadwórze consumed the entire 6th Cavalry Division, and held up the advance of the Konarmiya toward Lwów for more than a day. Zajączkowski’s stand gave time for the Polish defense of the city. Not only was Lwów saved, the Budyonny became fixed in front of the city, and could not extricate the Konarmiya quickly enough to ride northwest to affect the decisive Battle of Warsaw.

The Battle of Zadwórze was nicknamed “The Polish Thermopylae” after the Greek stand against the Persians 2400 years before.

(The Poles seem to have an obsession for the Greek Battle of Thermopylae. Zadwórze is one of at least six battles throughout Polish history known as “The Polish Thermopylae”)

The Miracle on the Vistula

At the end of the First World War, three great empires collapsed in Eastern Europe: Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Imperial Russia. Out of that chaos, two states, of many, arose: the Republic of Poland and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was born in the “Red” October Revolution of 1917 sparked by the initially successful then disastrous Brusilov campaign of 1916. By 1918, Russia was out of the war, and locked in its own brutal civil war between the Anti Bolshevik or “White” armies, and the Bolshevik Socialist i.e. Communist, “Red” armies. In 1919, Vladimir Lenin’s victorious Red Army invaded the newly independent Republic of Poland, formed from the pieces of the Central Powers at the end of World War One. Lenin’s intent was to spread the Communist International (COMINTERN) to a defeated Germany, which was ripe for Communist revolution.

The Polish-Soviet War was the last of an era, with the first glimpses of the next. Trenches, inexperienced peasant militias, armored trains, massed artillery barrages and vast sweeping maneuvers by hordes of lance and saber wielding cavalry coexisted with airplanes, tanks, armored cars, motorized infantry, and highly experienced professional soldiers. By mid-1920, the Red Army, under the brilliant 27 year old Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, was poised for a final offensive to capture Warsaw. Warsaw’s fall would end the war and allow Tuchachevsky a clear path to Berlin. Standing in his way was the massively outnumbered remainder of the Polish Army under Marshal Josef Pilsudski.

The advancing Red Army had five million men, Pilsudski had but one million under arms.

Pilsudski knew that his forces could not win in a protracted attritional fight: the Soviets were too many. Only a bold counterattack could disrupt the Bolshevik offensive. Pilsudski planned to make a stand along the Vistula River with Josef Haller’s “Blue Army” reinforced by almost the entire population of Warsaw. The “Blue Army” was named so because they were Poles whom fought for France in the First World War and wore old blue French uniforms. Among the Blue Army was a division of Polish-American volunteers recruited from recent immigrants to the United States. Pilsudski’s plan was for Haller to fix Tuchachevsky in front of Warsaw, as the Red cavalry to the north of the city inevitably took the path of least resistance and raced west on the North German Plain. General Wladyslaw Sikorski’s Fifth Army held the shoulder. Below the city to the south, Pilsudski secretly organized a 20,000 strong “Strike Force” under Gen Edward Smygly-Rydz, for the counterattack.

On 12 August 1920, Tuchachevsky arrogantly launched his armies directly at Warsaw. Despite bitter hand to hand fighting in the trenches against overwhelming odds, and much to the surprise of the French and British observers, Haller held the Wkra/Vistula River lines. The Soviet Cossacks and cavalry raced west as expected, which caused great panic, but they completely overextended themselves. Even worse for the Soviets, the Red cavalry victoriously galloped further away from the important battle in front of Warsaw.

On 14 August, Sikorski counterattacked north of city (in probably the first use of “blitzkrieg” style combined arms breakthrough tactics), cutting off the cavalry to the west and occupying Tuchachevsky’s reserves. Two days later, Pilsudski launched his coup d’eclat – Smigly-Rydz’s cavalry, tanks, and armored cars tore into the Soviet flank, as they were occupied fighting for the city and containing Sikorski. The Polish counterattack threw the Red Army into chaos. Unleashing his division commanders to operate independently in the breakout, the Poles tore deep into the Soviet rear areas. They captured the vital fortress city Brest-Litovsk, 70 miles behind the lines. In order to prevent the complete encirclement and destruction of the Red Army, Tuchachevsky ordered a general retreat. As the Communists withdrew, Pilsudski ordered a general offensive, but it was superfluous: Haller, Sikorski, and the population of Warsaw had already surged forward. The Communist retreat turned into a rout on 18 August.

The COMINTERN was stopped at the Polish border and the Red Army, with its commissars and secret police, wouldn’t advance that far west for another 25 years. The Miracle on the Vistula spared vulnerable western and central Europe, severely weakened by four years of the First World War, from Communism, an ideology so heinous that it is responsible for 150,000,000 deaths and untold suffering by billions.

Had the Poles failed at the gates of Warsaw in August of 1920, we would be living in a different, and darker, world today.

“For our freedom and yours” – The motto of Polish revolutionaries and unofficial motto of Poland