The Downfall that never was

How many were killed on the first few days of the Allied invasion of Japan? Tens of thousands of bodies lay mangled on the blood soaked beaches. The sea churned, frothing pink-tinged waves pounding the sticky, red sand. Memories of the D-Day landings were eclipsed by this new slaughter, the desperate defence producing a suicidal savagery that surprised leaders on all sides. Waves of devoted but poorly armed locals had been thrown against the invaders, the feudal mown down by the mechanized as the spirit of the samurai was crushed by the tank.

The Allies moved in wave after wave of reinforcements and eventually secured their beachhead. The vast armies moved on, paying an unthinkable price for each and every mile they captured. Slaughter on this scale brought to mind the Mongol decimation of China or the grinding body count of the Soviet-Nazi clash of ideologies. The invasion would succeed – it had to succeed – but would cost millions of American, British, Soviet, Commonwealth and, of course, Japanese lives. The invasion of Japan became the truly terrifying climax to the deadliest war in history.

By mid-June, the theatre of war had shifted decisively away from Europe into the Pacific. After a bloody and tortuous 82-day campaign, America had captured Ryukyu Islands of Okinawa. The USA was now poised to finish the war against their original enemy and now had the territorial base from which to strike.

Marines burrow in the volcanic sand on the beach of Iwo Jima, as their comrades unload supplies and equipment from landing vessels despite the heavy rain of artillery fire from enemy positions on Mount Suribachi in the background.

The invasion of the Japanese home islands was an awesome and terrifying prospect for the Allied military planners. The Pacific war had become infamous for its savagery and the extreme belligerence of the Japanese forces.

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The ultimate grudge match

The legendary Bill Shankly once drolly summed up how important football had become: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” There are very few occasions when football lives up to this quote and is literally a matter of life and death, but a game played in Kiev’s Zenit stadium on 9 August 1942 truly lived up to its billing. The ‘Death Match’ between the Ukrainian and German teams became symbolic of the brutality of Nazi occupation and a mythic totem of the spirit of resistance.

On a sunny weekday, the Zenit stadium is an oasis of calm in the middle of a high rise residential quarter. It is located in the north-west of Kiev’s central suburbs, sandwiched between the Staroobryadnyts’ke cemetery to the east and Zoopark to the west. It is at the heart of an academic quarter, close to the Politekhnichnyi instytut and the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. The running track that surrounds the football pitch is almost as well used as the pitch.

A football match - Nazi style

The stadium itself has seen better days, with rotting planks making up the benches of the terraces and the main building crumbling and peeling. Although worn by age, the pitch has its charms. The stadium is lined by handsome, broad and mature trees. Some have grown enthusiastically into the terraces, lending an unexpected sylvan aspects as if the stadium has been hewn from a forest glade. Continue reading “The ultimate grudge match”

America’s official wars

The United States of America has only officially declared war on five occasions in over two centuries of its existence. Formal declarations were made by Congress in 1812, 1846, 1898, 1917 and 1941. So does this mean the US has spent most of its history at peace? And what about the Korean, Vietnam, Gulf, Iraqi and Afghanistan wars?

Under Article One of Section Eight of the Constitution of the United States, Congress is given the power to declare War. Formal declarations of war have been made in the following conflicts:

  • The War of 1812 (18 June 1812);
  • Mexican-American War (13 May 1846);
  • Spanish-American War (25 April 1898);
  • World War I (6 April 1917 (Germany) and 7 December 1917 (Austria-Hungary); and
  • World War II (8 December 1941 (Japan), 11 December 1941 (Germany and Italy) and 5 June 1945 (Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania).

Given the limited number of times formal declarations of war have been made, how was the US been engaged in so many military conflicts over the centuries? A little bit of semantics and a lot of power politics between the legislature and executive have provided room for military clashes. 

In some cases, Congress has authorised extended military combat and the deployment of the United States’ armed forces. Such authorisations have covered conflicts such as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Gulf War and the support of South Vietnam in the Vietnam War.

Other conflicts have been authorised by a United Nations Security Council Resolutions and funded by Congress. UN-backed military engagements have included interventions in Korea, Libya and Haiti.

Finally, there are a bunch of conflicts that have not involved any Congressional oversight or sanction. Wars against native American tribes, the Philippines and the bombing of Yugoslavia have all been undertaken under presidential sanction but without the approval of Congress.

The wicked wit of Josef Stalin

Josef Stalin is remembered for many things – establishing a brutal dictatorship over the Soviet Union, his determination to create a buffer zone in Eastern Europe and thus close the iron curtain, the capriciousness and cruelty of the security system he set up and brutalising terror of the gulag system. It is, therefore, not surprising that Stalin’s wit and raw intelligence are rarely focused on. But a selection of quotes and anecdotes reveal the wit of the monster.

The Soviet Union had suffered like no other country before, during or since the Second World War. Millions of its people had been butchered, liquidated or enslaved, its armed forces had faced almost total collapse as the German Wehrmacht advanced with unseemly haste to Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad, villages and towns were burnt to the ground and a systematic looting and pillaging of the occupied areas ensured little was left for the liberators.

No one understood better than Stalin how close the Soviet Union had come to collapse in 1941. The leader had himself collapsed after being told of the commencement of Operation Barbarossa and the ripping up of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. He retreated to his Moscow dacha, communicating with no one and probably suffering a breakdown of sorts. He only snapped back into action when members of the Politburo arrived. His initial question was to ask if they had come to arrest him.

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Lies to protect the truth

“In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

–       Winston Churchill to Josef Stalin

Military history abounds with stories of bluff, deception and feints – lies seem to be the constant companion of military genius. Few operations, however, have been as comprehensively swaddled in so impenetrable a shroud of subterfuge as the Normandy landings of D-Day.

A vivid and fascinating book by Ben Macintyre, Double Cross: The True Story of The D-Day Spies, tells the story of Britain’s audacious bluff – a piece of counter-intelligence that was so successful it completely fooled the Nazi war machine, saved thousands of soldiers’ lives and possibly shaped the successful outcome of the war.

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Britain’s fiercest of foes

Who was Britain’s greatest ever foe? The contest, run by the National Army Museum, lends itself to controversy and debate. And that is exactly what the museum encouraged by hosting a day long event with presentations on behlf of five leading contendors followed by questions, discussion and a secret ballot.
The list was narrowed down from a long list of twenty to the top five by a public vote on the museum’s website. The top five foes (in order of votes cast) were:
1. George Washington (30)
2. Michael Collins (14)
3. Napoleon Bonaparte (12)
4. Erwin Rommel (7)
5. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (4)
Three, perhaps four, of these names are well known. I personally would not have identified Atatürk as one of Britain’s foes and I read the case for his inclusion with interest. The reson for his inclusion was soon obvious – Atatürk masterminded the campaign against the allied forces at Gallipoli. His defence of the Dardanelles forced the disastrous evacuation and withdrawal of the allies from Turkey. This alone merits his inclusion in the list – Britain’s failure to force the Turkish front prevented the piercing of the Central Powers’ soft southern underbelly.

Rebuilding Germany stone by stone

The period immediately following Germany’s defeat in the Second World War became known as Stunde Null, or zero hour. It become the bleakest chapter in the nation’s modern history. There was no longer even the hope of a surprise victory – Germany was a defeated and occupied country facing an uncertain and divided future. It had plunged the world into a global catastrophe and its armies had carried out some of the worst atrocities ever committed.

Its reputation as a ‘kulturstaat’, or cultural state, seemed irreparably tarnished – what cultured society carried out the mass, merciless killing of innocents? What civilisation would plunge a continent into flames and destruction? What people would tolerate such behaviour from their leaders?

Germany’s historic cities had been flattened. They were now vast, rubble strewn voids messily squatting on the space once occupied by homes, offices, factories, palaces and cathedrals. The most lustrous of Germany’s cultural pearls, Dresden, had become a byword for complete and utter destruction. A perfect firestorm had been unleashed by the RAF and USAAF, towering whirlwinds of flames that sucked the life out of basement refuges.

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The deadliest battle

More people died in the Siege of Leningrad than the combined World War Two losses of the United Kingdom and United States combined. The Siege, also known as the Leningrad Blockade, lasted 872 days and, according to some estimates, resulted in over a million deaths each from the Red Army and the civilian population.
Estimates of total deaths range from 1,117,000 to 4,500,000, but even at the lower end of estimates it ranks as one of the, if not the, bloodiest battles in recorded history. In total casualties it rivals two other bloodbaths of the Eastern Front – the Battle of Stalingrad (with losses estimated at between 1,250,000 and 1,798,619) and the Battle of Moscow (estimates of 930,000 to 1,680,000 dead).
It probably even exceeded the losses in the Battle of the Somme (with approximately 1,200,000 dead).
Many of the civilian deaths came from starvation, particularly in the savage winter of 1941 – 1942. During this period the official bread ration was reduced to 125 grams with the bulk of this meagre sustenance comprising sawdust and plaster. Cannibalism became such a threat to morale that the Leningrad Police formed a unit to deal with cannibals. Leningrad was rewarded with the Order of Lenin to commemorate its bravery.
It took more than laudatory speeches and medals to restore the city – its population collapsed to 600,000 and only returned to its pre-war level of three million in the 1960s.