Repost: Tisha be-Av

[Because the 9th of Av fell on a Shabbat (i.e., yesterday) this year, the day of lamentation is observed today.]

Spin, strangeness, and charm

[Reposted from last year.] Today marks the fast of the Ninth of Av (Hebrew: Tisha be-Av), the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. On this day, we observe a full 25-hour fast (sundown to sundown) and observe some mourning customs. In the synagogue, the Book of Lamentations is read. Work is not forbidden (I am in fact working today), but in Israel, Tisha be-Av is an optional day off, as many find working (efficiently) difficult owing to light-headedness or dehydration (don’t forget this is high summer here).

Originally, Tisha be-Av marked the destruction of the First and Second Temples, coincidentally on the same day of the Hebrew calendar in 587 BE and 70 CE. Over the years, however, further calamities befell the Jewish people on or near that day. Below follow some of the major ones.

  • August 4, 135 OS (9 Av, 3895): the crushing of the Bar-Kochba rebellion by…

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Operation Flash, Episode 2 update: publication soon

Yesterday I turned over the final line editing copy to my editor Karen F. Between the original draft and the revised draft, I added two new chapters and several additional scenes, and moved one chapter to the forthcoming Episode 3 (which I have about half written in draft).

Covers Girl” will do the cover like last time.

“Following the March 21, 1943 coup, Carl Goerdeler’s Emergency Reich Government in Berlin battles Bormann’s Nazi diehards on one front, and the USSR on another. Meanwhile, internal problems threaten to overwhelm the ERG as they struggle with the horrendous legacy of the Third Reich.”

Stay tuned for further updates.

Operation Flash, Episode 2 update

Life happens, work happens, and I’ve been running at peak capacity on both fronts.

Nevertheless, I have been making progress on the sequel to “Operation Flash, Episode 1” and hope to have a first draft ready soon. Actually, after restructuring my time line, a number of already written chapters were deferred to Episode 3.

Episode 1 currently holds a 4.8 Amazon review average (most of the reviewers completely unknown to me), and a number of people have told me they can’t wait for Episode Two. That is motivating and a little daunting at the same time — I would rather spend a bit more time to ensure the sequel is not a letdown.

Now back to the writing desk with me 🙂

D-Day plus 75

Never forget D-Day. See also the veteran who at age 97 (!) re-enacts his parachute jump with the 101st Airborne Division 75 years ago: https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2019/06/05/d-day-101st-airborne-veteran-parachutes-normandy/1356323001/

Cat Rotator's Quarterly

Grandpa Carl’s first visit to France began with the emergency bail-out signal. His plane had been hit by flack and the pilots could not keep it in the air (it was sort of on fire.) Windy, loud, dark, and dangerous was his impression of Normandy on June 6, 1944. He landed in a hedgerow, upside-down. Not the best way to begin an all expenses paid walking tour of western Europe.

He said he was lucky – he wasn’t in one of the gliders or in a tank. Tanks attracted unwanted attention.

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Origin of the expression “to encourage the others” (pour encourager les autres)

Anybody who has been reading war fiction or military history — or, to a lesser extent, crime fiction — likely has seen expressions like:

“A few of the mutineers were shot pour encourager les autres.”

or

“As executing all those who had refused the order to attack would have been impossible, a few of the ringleaders were made an example of, to encourage the others.”

The meaning of the expression is obvious from context. But the other day I stumbled onto its exact origins.

To cut a long story short: during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), an admiral named John Byng was ordered to relieve the besieged British garrison on the island of Minorca. He sailed in a hastily assembled fleet of ramshackle vessels, then after an inconclusive sea battle with the French returned to Gibraltar — probably figuring that, if he pressed on, he’d sacrifice his men for no tangible result.

He was court-martialed, found guilty of “failing to do his utmost” (Articles of War 12), and sentenced to death — under Article 12, as written, the court could not reach another outcome. As the court-martial were clearly troubled by this, they unanimously recommended that King George II should exercise his royal prerogative of clemency.
Several senior politicians, including Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder, were also willing to intercede for Byng, as they (rightly) suspected he was being made a scapegoat for the appalling state of readiness of his fleet.
Unfortunately for Byng, he had three factors working against him:
(a) as junior officers had been sentenced to death and executed for similarly not doing the impossible with defective means, there was pressure on the court martial to apply the law with the same severity to senior officers.
(b) King George II (grandfather of “Mad King George” III from whom the American colonists declared independence) clearly placed a great premium on personal bravery: he was, in fact, the last British monarch to personally lead his troops in battle (at the 1743 Battle of Dettingen).
(c) There was bad blood between George II and Pitt, who had pressured the king to relinquish his hereditary position as Duke and Prince-Elector (Kurfürst) of Hannover as it created a conflict of interest.
In the end, George II denied clemency, and Admiral Byng was executed by a firing squad aboard a ship at Portsmouth harbor.

Byng’s execution was satirised by Voltaire in his novel Candide. In Portsmouth, Candide witnesses the execution of an officer by firing squad and is told that “in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others” (Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres).[26]

As a postscript, this blatant error juris (miscarriage of justice) eventually, 22 years later, prompted a revision of Article 12 to allow for alternative punishments such as the court-martial deems appropriate in view of the details and circumstances.

But Voltaire’s idiom is with us to this day, even as its origins have gotten somewhat lost in the mists of time.

100 years ago: Armistice Day, end of WW I

nytimes-page1-11-11-1918

100 years ago to the day, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, an armistice went into effect that ended The Great War. Its reverberations are many to this day: I will just mention a few below. ( The Rearview Mirror has some further reflections. )

The people of the time did not call it (yet) World War One, as they thought the Great War would be the war to end all other wars. Sadly, its ambiguous ending sewed the seeds of another war, to be more terrible still. The myth spread that the losing side had not really lost on the battlefield, but had been “stabbed in the back” on the home front (the so-called Dolchstosslegende). The Versailles Treaty, and the crippling and frankly unrealistic reparations payments it imposed, did the rest: in the resulting instability, a demobilized, shiftless lance corporal who’d been sent to eavesdrop on a newly formed “German Workers Party” ended up its leader instead, and his case officer (Capt. Ernst Röhm) the commander of its party militia. The rest is (grisly) history.

In general, out of a quite human, understandable desire to never see such a large-scale conflict again, pacifist and appeasement sentiments ruled that actually emboldened such as had learned a very different lesson from the conflict — said corporal [y”sh] and his future partners in crime.

Not every invention brought to bear on WW I was just meant to kill people and break things. The Bosch-Haber ammonia synthesis, for instance, saved millions from starvation then and has been a life-giver ever since, even as its existence probably extended the war by another two years.

Another legacy of the war has been the attempts to create international organizations which were to prevent war — the League of Nations then, the United Nations after WW II. Lofty as the aims in their creation were, the UN, in particular, would degenerate into a sickening parody of itself, where “human rights commissions” can be chaired by bloody dictatorships, and an organization meant to assist one group of refugees from one conflict ended up perpetuating its own existence through the expedient of extending refugee status to all descendants of the original group in perpetuity — a definition not used for any other group of refugees.

Yet another, very different, legacy was in poetry. Fifteen of the best-known war poems are gathered here: let me quote just three.

In Flanders Fields, by John McRae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The Soldier, by Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Perhaps, by Vera Brittain

(Dedicated to her fiance Roland Aubrey Leighton, who was killed at the age of 20 by a sniper in 1915, four months after she had accepted his marriage proposal)

Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of You.

Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though You have passed away.

Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.

Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although You cannot hear.

But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago.

 

 

Saturday the 13th: Tale of another failed Hitler assassination

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the question: “why didn’t anybody try to kill Hitler” (y”sh), I’d have a tidy sum of money. In truth, depending on how you define an attempt, there have been over forty events that may qualify, over a dozen of which became serious. Four of the latter came within a hairbreadth of succeeding. In reverse chronological order, they are:

  • the July 20, 1944 plot (a.k.a. Operation Valkyrie)
  • Rudolf Freiherr von Gersdorff’s attempted suicide bombing on March 21, 1943, which I have blogged about here and fictionalized here. This one would have been a decapitation strike on the regime top, rather than a one-target assassination
  • Henning von Tresckow and Fabian von Schlabrendorff’s attempted bombing of the Führer’s plane on March 13, 1943, about which today’s blog post
  • Georg Elser‘s time bomb at the Bürgerbraukeller, November 8, 1939 — about which a future blog post

All would-be assassins had to find ways to circumvent elaborate security measures, that only got more stringent with every known attempt. By the time of the war, there were three concentric protection circles — not counting ad hoc deployment of Gestapo, SS, and SD:

  • outer perimeter security of the Wolfsschanze/Wolf’s Lair and other forward headquarters was assured by a battalion from the elite Grossdeutschland motorized infantry division: this Führerbegleitbatallion (Leader escort battalion) grew into a regiment with tanks, armored carriers, and anti-aircraft guns, and eventually (after Hitler holed up for the last time in his Berlin bunker) was sent to the front as a division.
  • inner security was provided the Reichssicherheitsdienst  (RSD) of up to a few hundred trained police and security personnel (not to be confused with the Sicherheitsdienst or SD, which was the SS’s domestic and foreign intelligence apparatus), which protected not just Hitler but other top Nazi functionaries. Its commander  Hans Rattenhuber was also the overall security chief.
  • finally, 8-12 trusted bodyguards recruited from the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (the 1st Waffen SS regiment, later a division) provided the closest-in security, and did double duty as valets and messengers. This Führerbegleitkommando answered to the Führer directly, in practice to his chief adjutant Julius Schaub. A number of those stayed with their master in the bunker to the last.

Gersdorff recalls in his memoirs, Soldat im Untergang/Soldier In The Downfall, that, when a senior officer pulled out his handkerchief as he had a cold, an RSD agent grasped his hand while it was in his pocket and brought it up very slowly, then only let go when he was certain it only contained an innocuous object.

Col. (GS) [**] Henning von Tresckow, the Ia Staff Officer (Operations) of Army Group Center, and his adjutant, Lt. Fabian von Schlabrendorff (who happened to be Tresckow’s cousin), had been convinced since the autumn of 1941 that Hitler had to be removed, if need be by assassination. While they were unabashed German nationalists and outright anticommunists, the mass murder of Jews and other civilians by SS “task forces” (Einsatzkommandos) had been a bridge too far — especially once Tresckow and his aide discovered that these were not isolated war crimes by rogue units, but part and parcel of a systematic policy handed down from the top itself. Gradually and carefully, Tresckow and Schlabrendorff gathered a group of conspirators around them, with the Ic Staff Officer (Intelligence) Col. (GS) von Gersdorff as an early recruit.

When the Führer was to fly to Army Group Center (Heeresgruppe Mitte) headquarters near Smolensk, a plan formed in the conspirators’ minds. If only they could smuggle a bomb with a time fuse on board of the Führer’s personal FW 200 “Condor” before it flew back, that could circumvent many of the problems with a shooting or grenade attack.

Gersdorff, via his contacts in the Abwehr (military intelligence) headquarters (where another group of conspirators went all the way to the top), had managed to get hold of a stock of captured British “Nobel 808” plastic explosives — more powerful and reliable than anything in their own arsenal — and of so-called “time pencil” detonators, which make no sizzling or ticking noise. The available time pencils came in 10 minute, 30 minutes, and 2 hours variants. The image below, from the US National Archives, illustrates their mechanism:

bombe-s-zuenderk

Briefly: on the inside of a soft metal housing was a glass vial with a strong acid. The pencil was primed by bending or applying strong pressure, which crushed the vial. The acid would burn through a thin metal wire that held back a spring, to which a striker pin was attached. The striker pin would hit a detonator cap, which finally would set off the explosive. The duration of the process will be determined by the concentration of the acid and the thickness (and composition) of the wire. In cold weather, of course, the chemical reaction will be slowed down…

Tresckow and Schlabrendorff did do their homework: in between their extensive staff officer duties, they managed to carry out thorough experiments with the explosives and fuses. They discovered that cold weather could extend the stated time of the time pencils by over 100%, but that they were otherwise quite reliable, and that about a kilogram of explosive should be adequate to blow the Condor’s fuselage to bits.

They prepared an explosive parcel disguised as two bottles of Cointreau liqueur, which contained about 2 kg of Nobel 808.

At any rate—while Hitler (and/or Rattenhuber?) were notorious for changing movement plans at the last minute, two planes carrying Hitler, his entourage, and his close-in protection detail did duly land on Saturday, March 13, 1943. (One was the dictator’s personal Focke-Wulf 200 Condor illustrated below — not the Junkers 52 shown in the opening scenes of the movie “Valkyrie”. [*])

FW 200

Schlabrendorff, in his memoirs Offizieren gegen Hitler (see also here in English), recounts  that during the dinner following the briefing, the dictator would only eat food prepared by his own cook, then taste-tested before his eyes by his personal physician Theodor Morell. “The proceedings reminded one of an oriental despot of bygone ages.” (F. v. S.)

Tresckow approached one of Hitler’s closest aides, Col. Heinz Brandt, if he could do him a favor: he owed his friend Gen. Hellmuth Stieff two bottles of liquor because he had lost a bet with him, and if Col. Brandt would be so kind as to deliver it to him? This being a not uncommon request among staff officers, Brandt agreed. Schlabrendorff, being Tresckow’s aide, was asked to bring the liquor to the plane.

Once Schlabrendorff saw Hitler board the plane, he surreptitiously primed the 30-minute time pencil he had earlier selected, and handed the package over to Brandt — who boarded the same plane as Hitler (otherwise Schlabrendorff would have had to come up with a last-minute excuse that it wasn’t the right parcel, or something).

The plane took off for Rastenburg, East Prussia (presently Ketrzyn, Poland) — the location of the Wolf’s Lair — and the conspirators gave a coded heads-up to their co-conspirators in Berlin. The next code word would follow once a signal had come to the HQ’s communications room that the plane had crashed.

The pair waited anxiously — then a signal came in that the plane had duly arrived at Rastenburg.

Gen. Stieff would later join the conspirators, but was not (yet) in on the plan, so if he started opening the bottles, he would be in for quite a ‘spirited’ surprise. So Schlabrendorff traveled to Rastenburg himself and told Col. Brandt that there had been a mixup: he had been given the wrong bottles (Cointreau), so if he wouldn’t mind giving them back and trading them for the right bottles (Cognac)?

Brandt suspected nothing, and the substitution was made with a smile. Schlabrendorff made his way to the nearby railroad exchange, and there caught a night train to Berlin.

Once in his sleeper compartment, he locked the door and very cautiously, with a razor blade, excised the failed detonator from the explosive charge and started disassembling it.

As it turned out, the glass was broken, the wire had been eaten through despite the cold, and the striker had been released.

Only the percussion cap, for the first time ever in all their experience, had failed to fire.

The English school children’s rhyme of old comes to mind:

For want of a nail a horseshoe was lost,
for want of a horseshoe a horse went lame,
for want of a horse a rider never got through,
for want of a rider a message never arrived,
for want of a message an army was never sent,
for want of an army a battle was lost,
for want of a battle a war was lost,
for want of a war a kingdom fell,
and all for want of a nail.

Or “all for the want of a percussion cap”, the war dragged on for two more years and many millions more were slain.

[*] Update: according to “Guarding Hitler” by Mark Felton, the second plane was also a Condor, but without the armored compartment (12mm steel, 50mm bulletproof glass) and parachute seat for the Führer.

Apparently, the first plane was taken up for a 10- or 15-minute test flight before every trip with the Führer. This would also have set off any bomb with a barometric fuse, had one been smuggled aboard.

[**] Note about ranks: Both Tresckow and Gersdorff’s formal ranks were Oberst i. G., in full Oberst im Generalstabsdienst: Colonel in General Staff service. I have rendered this as Col. (GS). Permanent assignment to the general staff was indicated by red vertical trouser stripes (“Lampassen”) in the uniform.