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.

The Centennial of the Armistice

Lapel poppy as sold by the Royal Canadian Legion.

For the past four years we have been observing the centennials of the various events that comprised the Great War, including the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916) and the Battle of Vimy Ridge (April 9, 1917). Today we mark the end of it: on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, an armistice went into effect, ending hostilities on the Western Front, which had thus far killed over three million people and wounded over eight million, all started by some damned fool thing in the Balkans. And, as everyone knows, the settlement that ended the war simply set the stage for the next one: the Treaty of Versailles was not as fair as Wilson had promised in his Fourteen Points, nor as punitive as it needed to be to ensure that Germany did not rise again. So just as the Great Famine of 1315-22 weakened the immune systems of a whole generation of Europeans, and made the Black Death of 1346-51 more virulent than it otherwise would have been, so also did the First World War lead directly to the Second, which then overshadowed it in cultural memory.

Garden of Remembrance, St. Paul’s Cathedral churchyard, City of London, November 11, 2010.

This is especially true in the United States, which only joined the First World War in 1917, and only as a result of a potential threat as revealed by the Zimmerman Telegram. The United States also joined the Second World War “late,” i.e. over two years after Germany invaded Poland, but it did so as the result of a direct attack on its naval base at Pearl Harbor. The Americans played a significant role in defeating Nazi Germany; they played an even bigger role in the defeat of Imperial Japan, including through the use of the atomic bomb, which they had developed at great expense. So it’s only natural that, to an American, the Second World War means more than the First.

The Cenotaph, Whitehall, 2018.

It’s somewhat different in Britain and the Commonwealth. Once the United Kingdom declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, all the Empire, even the Dominions, immediately followed, and fought, and bled quite profusely, for the sake of Britain’s allies on the continent. For well-known reasons, the war bogged down into a bloody stalemate where the advantage was always to the defense, and it soon became obvious that this was going to be a war of attrition – the first side to run out of men and materiel was going to be the one to lose, and this is more or less what ended up happening. Four years of mass industrial slaughter on the Western Front was deeply traumatizing, and gave birth to rituals of remembrance that Americans generally don’t share: the sanctification of November 11 (at first designated Armistice Day, and now as Remembrance Day), the wearing of a lapel poppy* in the run-up to this, the ceremonial placement of wreaths of poppies at war memorials on the day itself, and the two-minute silence at 11:00 AM. (November 11 may be Veterans’ Day in the United States, but memorializing the war dead is the function of Memorial Day in May, which derives from the Civil War. The VFW occasionally sells poppies, but the practice is nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is in Canada or the United Kingdom.) Of course, as with the United States, the UK and its Commonwealth also remember the Second World War, and probably to a greater extent, given Churchill’s refusal to make a deal with Hitler, his inspirational speeches, the evacuation of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, D-Day, and an unconditional surrender forced on a monstrously evil regime.

Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey. Wikipedia.

All the same, the First World War does loom larger in the Commonwealth than in the United States. And it deserves to be remembered, in both places. As pointless as all the killing was, the Great War turned out to be the Great Divide, and represented the real end of the nineteenth century and the birth of the twentieth. When the dust settled, four empires – the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman – had fallen, and many smaller nations won their independence. Communists took over Russia, and the stage was set for what Henry Luce called the American Century. Women were granted the right to vote in both Britain and the United States. Perhaps most importantly, the Great War shattered European self-confidence, and caused the mainstreaming of skepticism, pessimism, and “uncertainty” (one of the reasons, unfortunately, why Britain and France did not stand up to Hitler until it was too late).

Diamond War Memorial, Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

So I was pleased to learn that a World War I memorial is being planned for Washington DC. From a BBC article about it published last year:

“The Great War” was overtaken in the national consciousness by the Great Depression and World War II, says Edwin Fountain, vice-chairman of the WWI Centennial Commission. The commission has been authorised by Congress to build the new memorial in Washington, DC, as well as increase awareness of the war.

“The Centennial is the last best opportunity to teach Americans that World War I was in fact the most consequential event of the 20th Century,” he says. “It had effects that we live and struggle with today, overseas and at home.”

“The debate about the role of America in the world, the balance between national security and civil liberties, the place of women, African Americans and immigrants in our society – all those issues were vigorously discussed during WWI.

“You cannot contribute to those discussions today without understanding our historical roots.”

Gable end mural, Northland St. (arbitrarily renamed “Thiepval St.”), Belfast, Northern Ireland.

At the same time, how the war was fought, and not just its aftermath, deserves closer attention too. If anyone knows anything about the Great War, it is an image largely created by Remarque’s great autobiographical novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Historian Dan Snow recently countered several myths about it, including that most soldiers died, that it was the bloodiest conflict in history to that point, that the upper classes got off lightly, and that soldiers lived in the trenches for years on end (in truth, they were cycled out regularly).

Mural, Glenwood St., Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Still, it was no picnic, as a recent article in the Economist reminds us:

The first world war was not just a grand tragedy. For the 67 million who fought, it was a sordid hellscape. Few of the ten million killed in combat died from a “bullet, straight to the heart”, as pro forma telegrams to relatives put it. Many more bled to death in no-man’s land, their wails lingering for days like “moist fingers being dragged down an enormous windowpane”, as a British lieutenant wrote of the Battle of the Somme. Traumatised survivors sometimes slept in open sewers, and begged for their mothers as superiors ordered them over the top.

They guarded what slivers of humanity and dignity they could. At Compiègne today visitors can view silver rings from the trenches bearing initials (LV, MJ, SH or G) or four-leaf clovers; pipes with marks worn where teeth once clenched; a tube of insect-bite cream; letter-openers fashioned from shell casings, the names of yearned-for correspondents etched into their blades (“Marguerite”, “Mlle Rose-Marie”). A certain stoic humour also played its part. “I was hit. I looked round and saw that my leg had shot out and hit the fellow behind me (who got rather annoyed about [it])” wrote Charlemagne’s great-grandfather in his diary in 1915, just outside Ypres.

The article goes on to note that (emphasis added):

The first world war happened because a generation of Victorian leaders took for granted the stable order that had prevailed in most of Europe for decades. They should have read their history books. Yet the war was also a tale of forces beyond the power of any leader, however well-read; of nations and continents not as trains on history’s railway lines, run by drivers and switchmen, but as rafts tossed about on history’s ocean, dipping at most an occasional oar into the waves. Fate was the real grand homme of the “Great War”. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 would not have happened had his driver not taken a wrong turning in Sarajevo. The German army’s initial advance was halted at Nieuwpoort by a Belgian lock-keeper who flooded the surrounding marshlands. Political twists in Berlin, not crushing defeat on the battlefield, pushed Germany to sue for peace in 1918.

I am chary of drawing “lessons” from history, but it seems in this case that history really does provide us with an instructive example.

Memorial to Lt. Col. John McCrae, Guelph, Ontario, 2015.

* The poppy as a symbol of remembrance derives from the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Col. John McCrae of Guelph, Ontario, who was serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and who died of pneumonia in January, 1918. He was by no means the only English-language war poet: the First World War produced a remarkable amount of poetry from the viewpoint of its participants, a product of the war taking place after the advent of mass literacy but before other forms of entertainment relegated poetry to a niche interest (see Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory for more on this). I was pleased to see the memorial to sixteen representative war poets in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey this summer, including the greats Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen.

Sadly, the poppy is “political” in some parts of the world, and not just because people believe that it justifies war. Among the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, the poppy represents “Britain’s War,” and thus represents British imperialism and British oppression. Nationalists, as noted, wear lilies in memory of the Easter Rising, and will generally refuse to wear poppies, even going so far as to taunt those who do.

George Orwell vs… Alex Comfort?!

From Reason (via Instapundit):

In 1972 Dr. Alex Comfort had a colossal hit with The Joy of Sex, making him suddenly rich and famous. Less famously, in World War II Britain, a much younger Alex Comfort had a heated dispute in print with George Orwell.

Orwell was an enthusiastic supporter of the war against Hitler, while Comfort was opposed to the war. Outside narrow literary and political circles, neither man was very well-known. Orwell had published several books and dozens of articles, but he had yet to write Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four. Comfort, 17 years Orwell’s junior, had produced a couple of novels, several poems, and some works of anarchist theory. His most enduring work came a few years later: Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State, which makes a good case that politics is an artificial game preserve for the kinds of anti-social predators whom it is a function of normal social life to curb and discourage….

The Orwell-Comfort debate occurred in 1942, most importantly in the pages of the Partisan Review, an American journal run at that time by former Trotskyists and open to various kinds of anti-Communist left-wing thinking. There was a brief continuation of the debate (in verse!) the following year, in a British socialist weekly, Tribune. The editors of Partisan Review were themselves split on whether to support America’s war against the Axis powers. The leading figure, Dwight Macdonald, was firmly antiwar and never regretted it.

A striking fact about debates over “pacifism,” especially when they occur during a war or during preparations for a war, is that discussion of the most fundamental, abstract principles tends to become disconnected from the practical choices facing decision makers. In the early 1940s there was only one major policy choice for Britain: Either pursue the war against Germany, or accept Hitler’s repeated offers of a peace deal. There were strong arguments on both sides. But in his new book, The Duty to Stand Aside, Eric Laursen gives the impression that there was some third alternative.

Read the whole thing.

Joachim Ronneberg, 1919-2018

From the New York Times:

Joachim Ronneberg, Leader of Raid That Thwarted a Nazi Atomic Bomb, Dies at 99

The Norwegian saboteurs skied across the Telemark pine forest in winter whites, phantom apparitions gliding over moonlit snow. They halted at a steep river gorge and gazed down at a humming hydroelectric power plant where Nazi scientists had developed a mysterious, top-secret project.

Lt. Joachim Ronneberg, the 23-year-old resistance fighter in command, and his eight comrades — all carrying cyanide capsules to swallow if captured — had been told by British intelligence only that the plant was distilling something called heavy water, and that it was vital to Hitler’s war effort.

Hours later, in one of the most celebrated commando raids of World War II, Lieutenant Ronneberg and his demolition team sneaked past guards and a barracks full of German troops, stole into the plant, set explosive charges and blew up Hitler’s hopes for a critical ingredient to create the first atomic bomb.

Mr. Ronneberg, the last surviving member of the 1943 raid and one of the most decorated war heroes of a nation renowned for valorous resistance to the 1940-45 German Occupation, died on Sunday in Alesund, Norway, his daughter, Birte Ronneberg, said. He was 99.

Read the whole thing.