Joachim von Ribbentrop

You’ve probably heard the name before: he was Nazi Germany’s Foreign Affairs Minister and as such played a role in starting World War II (e.g. “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact”) and in facilitating the Holocaust. For these activities he was tried, convicted, and executed at Nuremberg in 1946. What I did not know is that he had a Canadian connection: starting in 1910 he worked in Montreal, variously at Molson’s Bank, for an engineering firm that reconstructed the Quebec Bridge, for the National Transcontinental Railway, and finally for his own company that imported German wines to Ottawa. In 1914, he skated for Ottawa’s famous Minto figure skating team, even, according to Wikipedia, participating in the Ellis Memorial Trophy tournament in Boston. Of course, when Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, Canada immediately followed suit, and von Ribbentrop had to escape to Germany via New Jersey. I don’t believe he ever visited Canada again. 

Hat tip to Ron Good. I don’t think they’ll be making a Canadian Heritage Minute out of this one. 

The Four Chaplains

On this day in 1943 was sunk the SS Dorchester by the German submarine U-223, an example of a fairly regular occurrence in the Atlantic during the Second World War. The Dorchester was a passenger steamship requisitioned for the American war effort and was transporting U.S. troops from New York to Greenland; the whole thing was over very quickly, with the unfortunate result that 674 of the 904 men on board perished. 

Wikipedia.

This episode is famous for the actions of the Four Chaplains, who voluntarily gave up their own life jackets when the supply ran out. They joined arms and said prayers as they went down with the ship. Since that time they have become a symbolic of heroism and self-sacrifice; that two were Protestant, one Catholic, and one Jewish, has become an edifying example of “interfaith in action,” as the postage stamp says. (One could say that this story comes across as propaganda, an attempt at salvaging some inspiration from the usual wartime disaster, but it really happened, and it really is inspiring.)

Farley Mowat and the V2

An interesting story on CBC.ca:

How author Farley Mowat smuggled a V2 rocket into Canada

A former Canadian intelligence officer believes author Farley Mowat carried out one of the most brazen acts by Canadian intelligence shortly following the Second World War.

Mowat, whose novels include Owls in the Family and Never Cry Wolf — was an officer with the Canadian military during WWII, then served with military intelligence after the war.

Major Harold Skaarup is a 40-year veteran of the Canadian Forces where he served as an intelligence officer. Since retiring in 2011, he has written numerous books on military history.

Skaarup tells The Current’s Matt Galloway of Mowat’s post-war escapades after being tasked with retrieving items of intelligence value from Europe.

Here is part of their conversation: 

Tell me about Captain Farley Mowat’s work with Canadian intelligence. When the Second World War ended… what was he doing?

He’d been serving with the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment as an infantry officer and was seconded to the Department of the Director of History and Heritage in Ottawa — technically, the intelligence people. He was given a very straightforward task with the war over in Germany: go over and find anything and everything of intelligence value that you think would be useful to the Canadian government and the forces and get it back to us. 

He set out… with a vengeance and he managed to get back seven hundred tons of captured material, tanks, guns, artillery, and most interestingly of all, the V2.

How did Farley Mowat find a V2 rocket?

It’s complicated, but to squeeze it down into bits and pieces — he’d been working with the Dutch resistance; they got word to him that there are a bunch of V2s located in central Germany. 

The British Army — 21st Army group in particular — came out and said no one else is to get these, a specific order. They did not want Canada to have this technology. [The order] hadn’t actually gone to print yet, and Farley’s CO got wind of this and he said, ‘See if you can get us one.’ 

He grabbed a young lieutenant, Mike Donovan, and Lieutenant Jim Hood, and he set out with a plan. They knew that there was a railway siding with about ten of these rockets on it, most of them being pretty shot up, but at least one was intact.

He knew that the British probably wouldn’t let him have it, but he came up with this plan. Mike Donovan, he takes a 30 litre demijohn of Coopers Gin, goes down with the Jeep and he intercepts the British soldiers guarding this trainload. And he manages to get them all singing and drinking, saying, “We know we’re not going to get a rocket from you, but let’s enjoy being comrades together.” 

While he’s doing that, Farley’s lieutenant, Jim Hood, sneaks around in the dark to the tail end of the railway tracks finds an intact V2. They’ve got a tractor trailer with them that was used for towing a submarine. They break the chains and they roll this V2 rocket off the doggone railway siding car onto the trailer and then barrel it on back to Holland.

Sounds like something out of a Steve McQueen film or something. 

Along the way, they’re calling all the guard postings saying, “We’ve got unexploded ordnance, we want to get this to the ocean, get out of the way.” And guards open the gates for them. 

So… now, there’s a problem. It doesn’t take long for the Brits to realize that of all these shot up V2s, the only one that’s intact is suddenly missing. So the hunt is on. 

Farley sees the thing being wheeled into a hangar where he’s based in Holland and he immediately gets down and he orders a bunch of crew to build a wooden conning tower and attach a gigantic propeller to this V2 rocket. And then they begin painting their brains out, slapping blue paint up and down and on the side of this thing there to make it look like a mini submarine.

 And then they drag it out in the woods and hide it while the Brits are looking for it. Eventually… they get it to Montreal and take a Valcartier, where they begin to take the thing apart. 

There’s a bit more at the link. I would be curious to learn the exact provenance of this story – Mowat did have a habit of making things up

The End of the War in the Pacific

August 15, 1945 was V-J Day, when Imperial Japan surrendered to the Allies; September 2 marked the formal end of the war, when the Japanese signed the instrument of surrender aboard the USS Missouri. Something I did not know: Canada was a signatory to this instrument – and its representative signed in the wrong place! Col. Lawrence Cosgrave, a half-blind veteran of the First World War, put his signature on the line meant for the representative of the Provisional Government of the French Republic. This entailed some improvised editing, which you can see on an illustration accompanying a recent CBC article by Murray Brewster. 

That Canadians generally don’t know about this story, as inconsequential or even embarrassing as it is, is understood by historian Tim Cook to be emblematic of Canada’s “blind spot” about its role in the Second World War. According to Cook:

Following the First World War, Canadians built monuments from coast to coast. Canadian soldiers who served in that war — Cosgrave among them — wrote sometimes eloquent and moving accounts of their experiences under fire.

That didn’t happen in Canada following the Japanese and German surrenders in 1945, said Cook.

“We didn’t write the same history books. We didn’t produce films or television series,” he said. “We allowed the Americans and the British and even the Germans to write about the war and to present it on film.”

Read the whole thing to find out why.

August Agboola Browne

From Notes from Poland (hat tip: Tom MacMaster):

Symbol of the past, model for the future: the African immigrant who became a Warsaw Uprising hero

By Nicholas Boston (with research assistance by Wojciech Załuski)

Tomorrow marks the 76th anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising. It was waged between 1 August and 2 October 1944, by the Home Army, the Polish resistance movement, to liberate Warsaw from Nazi German occupation. Up to 50,000 people took part in the Uprising (sometimes called Rising), approximately 18,000 of whom were killed and another 25,000 wounded. Upwards of 200,000 civilians were also killed. Between 600,000 and 650,000 Varsovians ended up expelled from the city, with a sizeable number sent to Nazi concentration and labour camps.

The veterans, living and deceased, of this 63-day-long operation are among Poland’s most heroised private citizens. As the nation, and Varsovians in particular, publicly commemorate this historic episode, the eyes of some will turn to a minimalist monolith of polished stone erected a year ago at this time in Warsaw’s Old Town.

It is a monument to a man named August Agboola Browne, who, as far as existing records can tell, was the only black insurgent in the Warsaw Uprising.

Arriving in Poland in 1922 from Nigeria, then a British colony, Browne became a celebrated jazz percussionist in 1930s Warsaw, known for his attractiveness and charisma. He joined the resistance movement from the time of the German invasion in 1939, and proceeded to fight in the Uprising under the code name “Ali”.

Until just a decade ago, Browne’s story was completely unknown. But from the moment of his introduction to the Polish public, he has been upheld in some quarters as not only a proud symbol of Poland’s past, but a promising model for its present and future.

Read the whole thing.

Moon Shot Museums

Enjoyed a trip to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, this week. Huntsville played a role in manufacturing munitions during the Second World War, a role that continued afterwards as a site of rocket and missile development for the U.S. Army. This meant that the city became the American home of a great many German scientists and engineers nabbed in Operation Paperclip, including the most important one of all: Wernher von Braun. With the Space Race, Huntsville and von Braun became even more important, and the success of the Apollo missions has ensured their fame forever, memorialized in this museum. 

The main hall, designated the Davidson Center for Space Exploration, contains one of the few Saturn V launch vehicles still in existence,* displayed horizontally, elevated, and separated into its component sections. Underneath it, all sorts of artifacts, information, and interactive exhibits about just what the NASA needed to do to make space flight and  lunar exploration possible. It was all very complex, but technology, organization, and wealth got the job done. 

Some of the items on display include:

A capsule from Project Mercury (see Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff). 

A capsule from Project Gemini.

The Command Module for Apollo 16. 

A Lunar Roving Vehicle, including instructions on how to unload it from the Lunar Exploration Module and unfold it for use, something I always wondered about.

Space Race memorabilia. 

Admit it, you were always curious.

Von Braun himself is presented as a great genius – not only for his skills in rocketry, but also in negotiating with politicians, publicizing space exploration, and managing his team. Apparently he was very inspirational to work for. 

The museum does not completely ignore his past. Pictured is a V-2 rocket, developed by von Braun and his team for Nazi Germany – some 3000 of which were built by slave labor and fired at targets in England and the Low Countries, killing some 9000 people. This was the so-called Miracle Weapon that was going to turn the tide of the war and save Germany from invasion. It didn’t, but building such devices was very interesting to the former allies of World War II, especially as there came to be the possibility of arming them with nuclear warheads for added destructiveness. So rather than facing any sort of postwar de-Nazification or possible trial, von Braun and most of his team were scooped up and brought to the United States before the Soviets could get them, where they were put to very good use. Recall the joke: “Why did we win the Space Race? Our Germans were better than their Germans.” It does not appear that von Braun retained any Nazi sympathies during his American career, in the mode of Dr. Strangelove (if he ever had them in the first place, although he did attain the rank of Sturmbannführer in the SS). And it seems that most Americans were willing to play along, in thanks for services rendered – with the notable exception of Tom Lehrer, who called him “a man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience” and imagined him saying:

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

So if you’re looking for a museum devoted to a less controversial figure, you should visit the Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio. We stopped in last summer on our way home from Canada, serendipitously on the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. Neil Armstrong, of course, was the first human to set foot on the Moon, and his hometown is very proud of him, although his museum doesn’t have nearly the collection that Huntsville does. He comes across as a clean-cut, straight-arrow midwesterner – exactly the sort of all-American hero to serve as great PR for the space program.  

Some items on display:

From Armstrong’s early days as a test pilot.

Armstrong’s space suit.

Saturn V model with tower.

Rocket engine. (It looks too small to be an F-1.)

From slightly later in NASA’s history: technology to allow astronauts to drink soda in a zero-gravity environment. (Apparently NASA was neutral during the Cola Wars.)

I kind of wish this plaque read “We got here first! Screw you, Commies!” which is what the whole thing was really about.

**********

* The Saturn V erected in the courtyard of the Huntsville museum is a full-scale model, constructed in 1999. It serves as a Huntsville landmark and provides the sort of publicity that von Braun would approve of, but it cost the Center $10 million of borrowed money and was instrumental in the firing of director Mike Wing after all of one year on the job. 

Patriotic Country Music

Courtesy Wayne Glowka, notice of an interesting WWII-era country music song, Elton Britt, “There’s A Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere.” I discover it’s popular enough to have its own Wikipedia entry. Lyrics, from Lyricsfreak:

There’s a star spangled banner waving somewhere
In a distant land so many miles away
Only Uncle Sam’s great heroes get to go there
Where I wish that I could live someday.

I see Lincoln, Custer, Washington, and Perry,
Nathan Hale and Collin Kelly too,
There’s a star spangled banner waving somewhere
Waving over the land of heroes brave and true.

In this war with its mad schemes and destructions,
Of our country fair and our sweet liberty
By the mad dictators, leaders of corruption,
Can’t the U.S. use a mountain boy like me?

God gave me the right to be a free American,
For that precious right I’d gladly die,
There’s a star spangled banner waving somewhere
Fhat is where I want to live when I die.

Though I realize I’m crippled, that is true sir,
Please don’t judge my courage by my twisted leg,
Let me show my Uncle Sam what I can do, sir,
Let me help to bring the Axis down a peg.

If I do some great deed, I will be a hero,
And a hero brave is what I want to be,
There’s a star spangled banner waving somewhere,
In that heaven there should be a place for me.

I love the references not only to Valhalla, but to the story of Ephialtes too. (Presumably the author would not betray America, though, even if he was still passed over for military service.)

The Longest Day

A post in commemoration of a significant event that took place 75 years ago today.

Wikipedia.

From Wikipedia: “A LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) from the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase disembarks troops of Company E, 16th Infantry1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One) wading onto the Fox Green section of Omaha Beach (Calvados, Basse-Normandie, France) on the morning of June 6, 1944. American soldiers encountered the newly formed German 352nd Division when landing. During the initial landing two-thirds of Company E became casualties.”

Virginia Hall

Earlier this year I read Max Hastings’s Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945 (2004), an account of the war in Europe between Operation Market Garden in the west and the Warsaw Uprising in the east, and V-E Day. An American’s natural inclination is to glorify World War II, given that we forced an unconditional surrender on an enemy that turned out to be monstrously evil, but on the ground it was a sordid mess, and the main thing that I took away from the book is that I’m glad I wasn’t there. Nonetheless, there are plenty of stories of individual heroism to be told about various actors in World War II, including one Virginia Hall, whose new biography A Woman of No Importance was recently reviewed in the Daily Mail:

Miss Hall, was fluent in French, Italian and German when she went to work for the US foreign service before World War II but was invalided out of the service after a hunting accident in Turkey.

Her shotgun slipped from her grasp and as she grabbed it, it fired, blasting away her foot.

By the time she got to a hospital, gangrene had set in. To save her life, the surgeon had to amputate her left leg below the knee.

Always able to see the funny side of things, Miss Hall immediately named her wooden leg Cuthbert.

She was in Paris when war broke out in 1939 and joined the ambulance service.

When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, she fled to London, and with her language skills, was soon recruited by the SOE.

After training in the clandestine arts of killing, communications and security, she went to Vichy France to set up resistance networks under the cover of being a reporter for the New York Post.

After the November, 1942, North Africa invasion, German troops flooded into her area and things became too hot even for her.

She hiked on her artificial leg across the Pyrenees in the dead of winter to Spain.

During the journey she radioed London saying she was okay but Cuthbert was giving her trouble.

Forgetting this was her artificial leg, and knowing her value to the Allied cause, her commanders radioed back: ‘If Cuthbert troublesome eliminate him.’

Although I wonder if her attempt at infecting German officers with venereal disease (from the prostitutes she organized) didn’t violate the Geneva Protocol against biological warfare…

Read the whole thing.

Dame Sybil of Sark

An interesting article on Mental Floss, courtesy Stephen Bartlett:

How the World’s Only Feudal Lord Outclassed the Nazis to Save Her People

When Germany invaded the Isle of Sark—the last foothold of feudalism in the western world—Dame Sibyl Hathaway protected her people with the unlikeliest of weapons: Feudal etiquette, old-world manners, and a dollop of classic snobbery.

Read the whole thing.