Half of a Great Book

Danzig, Birthplace of Gûnter Grass

He was born in a fairy tale Polish city in 1927 of German and Kashubian parents. As the Second World War got under way in September 1939, Gûnter Grass found himelf in the Waffen SS and fighting on the Russian front just as the Wehrmacht was beginning its final descent into the maelstrom. In 2006, Grass, famous for his novel The Tin Drum, wrote an autobiography covering the 1940s and 1950s called Peeling the Onion: A Memoir.

The first half of the book is brilliant. As a young German soldier trying to keep the Red Hordes out of Berlin, Grass was essentially told where to be and what to do. German soldiers who wandered the battlefield without written orders found themselves hanged in droves from tree branches, many of which the young Grass passed as he wandered separated from his unit. People around him kept dying, but he somehow got back to Germany with minor wounds and spent time in military hospitals before being released into the chaos the followed the war.

His mother and younger sister had been raped by Russian troops, but refused to ever talk about the experience. The young Grass knew he wanted to be an artist of some sort, but took several years before his thinking began to jell.

The First Volume of Grass’s Autobiography

Peeling the Onion loses its focus during the years that Grass tries to find out what he is to do with his life. It takes a while for him to find that his parents and sister are still alive, and he joins up with them.

I strongly recommend the first half of this book. The second half? Not so much. Uncertainty is not quite so winning a literary trait. There are some excellent moments, but for the most part, I could have done without them.

 

Lend-Lease

American M3 Lee Tank Used by Russians in WW2

I have just finished reading David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House’s The Battle of Kursk, probably the authoritative study of the campaign that turned the tide on the Eastern Front against the Germans. (For some reason, I always spend part of every summer boning up on military history, particularly the American Civil War, the Roman legions, and the Second World War on the Eastern Front.)

The Soviets were greatly helped by the Lend-Lease program that provided the non-Fascist combatants in the war with surplus military equipment. Russia was the beneficiary of $11 million worth of war supplies (though Britain got the lion’s share), including planes, tanks, and miscellaneous trucks and other military vehicles. Even Britain and Canada joined in, as shown in the below photo:

British Valentine Tank Earmarked for the USSR

Of course, things didn’t always go smoothly. You might be interested in reading a memo by a Comrade Korobkov relating to miscellaneous problems with the tanks arriving by convoy to Murmansk.

The Glantz book contains a couple of amusing nicknames assigned by the Soviet troops to the gifted tanks. Because of its odd layout and insufficient armor, the M3 Lee was referred to as a “grave for seven brothers.” The unreliable and flammable British Valentine and Matilda tanks were called “field crematoriums.”

 

Kursk

It Was the Greatest Tank Battle in History

People in the United States know very little about World War Two as it was fought in Europe. The real war in Europe was waged on the Eastern Front, after Hitler invaded Russia in the summer of 1941. At first, it was all blitzkrieg, with German victories on all fronts and horrendous Russian losses. Things began to change after Stalingrad, however, when the entire German 6th Army surrendered to the Soviets.

The next big battle was at the Kursk salient. Hitler and his generals planned to attack the salient from two sides, take Kursk, and trap several Soviet armies. This was the intent of Operation Citadel, as shown in the map below:

Operation Citadel as the Germans Planned It

The German General Staff thought the Russians would take fright at the Nazis’ technologically superior tanks and surrender in droves. But the Russians—beginning with Stalin himself—learned their lesson in 1941 and 1942. In July 1943, Stalin realized he had more human and industrial resources to draw on than the Germans. This was similar to Ulysses S. Grant realization during the American Civil War when, after the Battle of the Wilderness, realized that he could afford to take more casualties than Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and still win.

Instead of pinching off the Russians in the salient, General Walter Model advanced only 10 miles on the north, where he was beaten by Rokossovsky’s Central Front. The real battle was in the south, where General Erich von Manstein battled with Nikolai Vatutin’s Voronezh Front over the town of Prokhorovka. Vatutin kept throwing rifle regiments, tanks, and artillery at von Manstein’s Army Group South until, after a 30-mile advance, the Germans could go no further.

The Russians had a very good idea of what the Germans were planning with Operation Citadel, and they had more men (at a 2.5:1 ratio) than the Germans, and more tanks (though not as good). So they planned carefully to fight to the last man, if necessary.

The Battle for Prokhorovka (The Germans in Blue)

By the time Vatutin and Rokossovsky had finished with the German army, there was no more blitzkrieg. Hitler didn’t know it yet, but from this point his armies were in retreat.
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Manzanar Revisited

White Racism at Its Ugliest

Living in Los Angeles as I have for over half a century, I have lived and worked with many Japanese whom I regard as my friends. They are also as American as apple pie—if not more so. So it strikes me as one of America’s crimes that 112,000 Japanese Nisei and issei were interned in some ten concentration camps scattered across the Western States.

The most famous of these camps is Manzanar, located midway between Lone Pine and Independence in the Eastern Sierras. The former camp is now the Manzanar National Historic Site, managed by the National Park Service (NPS). Martine and I had visited it in the past, perhaps as much as three times. Last week, we visited it again. We were happy to see that the NPS had reconstructed four buildings in Block 14 of the camp: two barracks, a women’s latrine, and a mess hall. (Beware of dinner on Tuesdays, when the infamous Slop Suey was served.)

In the crazy divided political world of today, it is nice to see a park whose reason for existence is an indictment of American racism during World War II. Yes, the Japanese were our enemy; but so were the Germans, and we didn’t intern any of them. More’s the pity: Perhaps our current Presidente might never have been born.

If you are driving up (or down) Highway 395, it is worth spending an hour or two visiting Manzanar. And be sure to see the 22-minute video shown every half hour.

 

The United States of Fear

Kalashnikov AK-47

Kalashnikov AK-47

When we won the Second World War, we changed as a people. It’s like the gunfighter who’s gained such a fearsome reputation that everyone comes gunning for him. And, indeed, as a nation we got our asses kicked in Korea, Viet Nam, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and a number of other places we never heard of before our famous victory. (Besides, truth to tell, the Second World War was more of a Russian victory than one for America and Britain: Stalin did far more to destroy the German war machine than we did.)

Sometime later, after we clumsily started being the world’s policeman, we discovered that we were not liked. For me, it all started in Caracas, Venezuela, in May 1958 when our Vice President, Richard M. Nixon, was met by an angry mob which attacked his limo. “How could that be?” I thought as a grade school student at the time. “Aren’t we the good guys?”

Then, shortly after I returned from Iceland in September 2001, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked by Al Qaida terrorists. Then we learned there are all these Muslims out to get us, people who revered the terrorists and decided to name their sons Osama. As recently as yesterday, I heard a Syrian refugee blame Washington and Moscow for destroying his country—as if ISIS, Al Qaida, and the Syrian Baath Party had no part to play in it.

With the world turning against us, we started to look fearfully at Afro-Americans and Mexican immigrants (whom Trump calls “rapists,” except for a handful of good ones). Among our own kind, there were these strange homosexuals who started attacking our cherished institution of marriage.

Well, I guess we should all buy guns, the more the better. Let’s all build ourselves a fort and blow the heads off anyone who crosses its perimeter. Or if we’re feeling particularly depressed, maybe we could shoot up our old school or our workplace. How dare anyone criticize us? After all, aren’t we the good guys?

Not any more we aren’t.

 

 

 

A B-17 Collision

B-17 in the Air

B-17 in the Air

This B-17 met a head-on attack by three Focke Wulf Fw 190 fighters. The gunners exploded two of them, and the top turret poured a stream of shells into the cockpit of the third. With a dead man at the controls, the fighter screamed in, and at a closing speed of 550 miles per hour smashed head-on into the number-three engine.

The tremendous impact of the crash tore off the propeller. It knocked the heavy bomber completely out of formation as though a giant hand has swatted a fly. The fighter cartwheeled crazily over the B-17.

It cut halfway through the wing, and then sliced a third of the way through the horizontal stabilizer. The top and ball turrets immediately jammed, the radio equipment was smashed to wreckage, and all the instruments “went crazy.” Pieces of metal from the exploding, disintegrating Focke Wulf tore through the fuselage, and a German gun barrel buried itself in the wall between the radio room and the bomb bay.

Crews of nearby bombers watched the collision. They saw a tremendous explosion, and the bomber hurtling helplessly out of control, tumbling as she fell. They reported when they returned to base that the Flying Fortress had blown up, and that the crew must be considered dead.

The old Queen hadn’t blown up, and the crew was far from dead. The pilots struggled wildly in the cockpit, and somehow between them, managed to bring their careening bomber back under control. The gunners shot down a fourth fighter that had closed in to watch the proceedings.

And then they brought her all the way back to England, and scraped her down for a belly landing on the runway.

Postscript: not a man was injured.—Martin Caidin, Black Thursday

Hugging the Enemy

General Vasily Chuikov, Commander of the 62nd Army at Stalingrad

General Vasily Chuikov, Commander of the 62nd Army at Stalingrad

We know a whole lot more about Field Marshal Friedrich Wilhelm Ernst Paulus, who commanded the German 6th Army besieging Stalingrad, than we know about General Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov, who fought the German war machine to a draw by his creative leadership of the Soviet 62nd Army. Part of the reason is that we have letters from Paulus and his staff describing the horrors of the siege of Stalingrad, letters that were to give Hitler and Goebbels fits as they tried to devise their own myth as to what really happened on the banks of the Volga.

What really happened was one of Stalin’s generals, who lived in a society where candid comments in private letters were used by the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) as evidence of disloyalty to Stalin. Whatever Chuikov may have thought, it was what he did that made him one of Stalin’s favorite generals.

Both Hitler and Stalin had issued contradictory clear-cut orders regarding Stalingrad. Hitler insisted that the Wehrmacht capture the city at all cost, and that surrender was not an option. Stalin, on the other hand, issued equally clear-cut orders that the city must be held at all costs, and that surrender was not an option.

For almost six months, Chuikov invented a new kind of urban warfare in which the idea was to “hug the enemy.” By staying close to the Germans, Chuikov prevented the aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe in that it turned out to be as dangerous to the Nazis as to the Red Army. By this time, much of the city was rubble. Chuikov ingeniously hid artillery and tanks in the ruins, and used small squads of six to eight men, supplemented by sharpshooters, to attack pockets of Wehrmacht troops. Extensive use was made of hand grenades and Molotov Cocktails.

Frequently, burnt-out tanks became bases for these squads, as the men were protected by the wrecked tank above their heads. The following is a quote from Chuikov:

The Germans underestimated our artillery. And they underestimated the effectiveness of our infantry against their tanks. This battle showed that tanks forced to operate in narrow quarters are of limited value; they’re just guns without mobility. In such conditions nothing can take the place of small groups of infantry, properly armed, and fighting with utmost determination. I don’t mean barricade street fighting—there was little of that—but groups converting every building into a fortress and fighting for it floor by floor and even room by room. Such defenders cannot be driven out either by tanks or planes. The Germans dropped over a million bombs on us but they did not dislodge our infantry from its decisive positions. On the other hand, tanks can be destroyed from buildings used as fortresses.

For five months, Chuikov fought the Germans to a draw. During this time, Marshal Georgi Zhukov formulated his Operation Uranus, which led to the encirclement and surrender of Paulus’s 6th Army.

Even as his men were out of ammunition and close to starving to death and being eaten alive by lice and other vermin, Hitler prevented them from surrendering. As it became obvious to the Fuehrer that Stalingrad was lost to him, he preferred the German people to think that the 6th Army committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Russians. In the end, the 90,000 men who remained did surrender. Total German casualties were between 500,000 and 850,000 killed, wounded or captured.

Chuikov later led one of the armies converging on Berlin, where he accepted surrender of the city from General Helmuth Weidling. After the war, in 1955, he was made a Field Marshal by Khrushchev and eventually served as a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Even under a tyrant such as Stalin, it is possible to find heroism and innovation such as Chuikov’s. Because we tend to see World War Two as mostly a Anglo-American alliance, we have suppressed any knowledge of the awful 3,000-mile front that was the war in Russia, called by them the Great Patriotic War. They earned their victory … the hard way.

The General Who Came Back from the Dead

Field Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky of the Soviet Union

Stalin was one of the great paranoids of history. Beginning in 1937, he purged a large percentage of the top officers in his military—just before Hitler invaded Russia and caught the army and Stalin flat-footed. Gone were three of the five marshals of the Red Army, including Mikhail Tukhachevsky (a brilliant strategist who has influenced warfare to this day), Vasily Blyukher, and Aleksandr Yegorov; thirteen out of the fifteen army commanders; eight out of nine of the admirals; fifty of fifty-seven army corps commanders; 154 out of 186 division commanders, 16 of 16 army commissars; and 25 of 28 army corps commissars.

Did he not think he would be needing his military commanders to fight off the coming Nazi onslaught? It’s hard to tell, but when Operation Barbarossa kicked off in 1941, the Russians had 3.3 million men under arms, 2.1 million of whom were dead or missing in the third quarter of 1941 alone!

Somehow Stalin had to find generals to replace those whom he had shot or imprisoned. In fact, he had to release about 30% of the purged generals and admirals who were festering in various of his Gulags.

One of them was General Konstantin Rokossovsky, who was half-Polish and half-Russian. Under interrogation by Stalin’s NKVD (the predecessor of the KGB), the General had eight was his teeth knocked out (which is why you don’t find too many pictures of him smiling). Yet, Rokossovsky was the go-to guy for such operations as the victory at Stalingrad, where he all but wiped out a whole German army. For this, he was promoted to Field Marshal and, later, promoted to command one of the three Russian armies converging on Berlin.

After the war, he was made one of the leaders of the Polish Peoples’ Republic and returned to Russia to serve in several key defense posts under Khrushchev. He died in 1968 at the age of seventy-one and is buried in Red Square.

Apparently, once he returned to active service after being tortured and accused of false crimes—mostly for being an adherent of the brilliant Marshal Tukhachevsky—there was no longer any question of his loyalty, which he proved time and time again by clipping the wings of the Nazi war machine.

Here in the United States, we don’t know much about the men who had more to do with Hitler’s defeat than anyone on the Western Allies’ side, including Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and Montgomery. Rokossovsky was just one of those immortal heroes, along with others such as Zhukov, Konev, Vasilevsky, Cherniakhovsky, and other men whose names we can’t pronounce but who helped change the course of history.

The Time magazine cover shown above was for the issue of August 23, 1943.

 

The Bludgeon

German POW Surrendering to Russian Defender at Stalingrad

For us, it was the last “Good War.” For the Russians, it was “The Great Patriotic War,” in which 20-30 million soldiers and civilians died defending the Rodina, or Fatherland. I am currently reading David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House’s When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler.

I’m not going to say we had it easy on the Western Front: There’s a lot we don’t know and perhaps never will know about some of the horrors of the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, as well as D-Day and its aftermath in France, Belgium, and Germany. (If you can, see John Huston’s WW2 documentaries, especially The Battle of San Pietro.) But there was something particularly horrible in the way that the two great 20th century dictators, Hitler and Stalin, moved great numbers of men and materiel across the Russian steppe as if it were a chessboard:

The superb German fighting machine was defeated by more than distance. The German rapier, designed to end conflict cleanly and efficiently, was dulled by repeated and often clumsy blows from a simple, dull, but very large Soviet bludgeon. That bludgeon took the form of successive waves of newly mobilized armies, each taking its toll of the invaders before shattering and being replaced by the next wave.

Stalin had a huge supply of manpower at his beck and call. Once the Nazis invaded Russia during Operation Barbarossa, their forces kept getting farther and farther from their source of supply, while, at the same time, the Russian supply lines were getting shorter and shorter as the battle zone neared Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad.

It was not just a matter of manpower, however.The Russians were developing new tanks that could take on the best that the Panzer divisions could throw against them, new fighters and bombers that harassed the rapidly dwindling Luftwaffe, and bringing terrifying new weapons such as the Katyusha rocket launchers that helped to turn the tide against the hapless Germans, who were stuck fighting a two-front war once the Americans and British invaded North Africa, Italy, and France.

We don’t think much about the Eastern Front. After all, we weren’t there. And we were taught that the real show was in Western Europe. The Germans knew, though, that it was in Russia that the coffin nails were pounded into the Thousand-Year Reich. Hitler wound up blowing his brains out, while Stalin died in bed.

No, we don’t like to credit the Russians for their victory; but they deserved it. They certainly gave up enough to achieve it.