Found: one (1) Nazi aircraft carrier, slightly waterworn

Here’s an item I noted and filed away this summer: back in July, a Polish oil company stumbled across the sunken wreck of the Graf Zeppelin, an aircraft carrier built (but never fully completed) by Germany shortly before the Second World War. (And here’s some additional speculation about its ultimate fate.) Although it never saw combat action and was scuttled in the final stretch of the war, it had the distinction of being the only carrier in Germany’s fleet. As usual, Wikipedia’s got the gritty details.

It’s a pretty monumental artifact of the war, and not surprisingly the Russians have been quick to lay claim to it. It’s also good fodder for those always-entertaining “what-if” questions: what if Germany had focused more heavily on its naval forces, supplementing its famous submarine fleet with a carrier task force or two? (Of course, as any Axis and Allies player knows, that’s just not practical–the money is much better spent building tanks with which to invade Russia, and even if Germany managed to launch a carrier, those pesky British would just immediately fly over and sink it.)

WW2: identifying the turning points

Here’s an interesting piece looking at the key “turning points” of the Second World War and wondering what the war might have looked like had those events gone differently.

I think there’s a general tendency when discussing WW2 (and most any other major conflict) to focus too heavily on specific “pivotal points” in isolation, overlooking their place in the context of the broader trends of the war. Individual decisions and pivot-points in a historical event as big as WW2 flow from years’ worth of cultural, military, and economic trends. But that depressing thought aside, it’s always fun to look at an event in history and ask “what if?”

A historicity city: Berlin

We recently returned from two weeks in Germany. We had a really good time, and also got some ideas for some Historicity subjects. Since we began and ended our trip in Berlin, I thought I’d begin with it.

We stayed in the Kurfürstendamm neighborhood on the way in and out of the city. Apparently even Germans don’t try to pronounce this; we saw it abbreviated as “Ku’damm” everywhere (though curiously called “Ku’damn” here, maybe Lonely Planet doesn’t like it there). Ku’damm’s main reason for being seems to be the many malls, department stores, and boutiques lining its main drag, and is right across the Tiergarten from a bunch of historical stuff we didn’t see, such as the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate.

When I was in England several years ago, the scars of World War II were apparent in the urban landscape–remains of bombed-out buildings and entire towns and neighborhoods consisting of immediate post-war rebuilding. This was no surprise to me; the blitz was familiar to me from literature as well as from history classes. I was less aware of the devastating effect of Allied bombs on Germany in late WWII as well as after the war was over. Everywhere we went in Germany, one of the main points in every town was how much of the town had been destroyed in the war, and how the town had gone about rebuilding.

In the midst of Ku’damm is a bombed-out out church next to a tower built of blue glass blocks. Adjacent to the square in which the church stands is a big mall, the Europacenter, which houses the Tourist Information office. I asked the lady there what this was; she said that it was a church bombed in World War II and left standing as an anti-war monument. We went over and investigated: the church is the Kaiser Wilhelm Church, built by Kaiser Wilhelm II in honor of his grandfather, Wilhelm I, and decorated inside with mosaics pertinent to the Hohenzollern family.

The church’s official site is here, it’s in German only. More on Berlin and the rest of our trip from us, hopefully soon!

Unpleasant anniversary

If you can tolerate yet another WW2 link, here’s a moving piece about Hiroshima and its place in Japanese cultural memory.

The way the world ends

The Second World War has always been a topic of interest to me, but it’s been especially on my mind as the 60th anniversary of the war’s end approaches. Today I started reading Max Hasting’s Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, which sets out to tell the tale of the bloody, drawn-out, and surprisingly difficult defeat of Germany after D-Day.

Armageddon asks a simple question: why did it take the Allies so long to defeat Germany after D-Day?

I first took note of Hasting’s book when Christianity Today flagged it as one of 2004’s top 10 books. This interview with the author several months ago cemented my interest. Hastings, from the interview:

I have always had a nagging fascination with what happened [after D-Day], in particular with why the Allies didn’t win in 1944. At the beginning of September 1944, most of the Allied leadership, with the notable exception of Winston Churchill, was completely convinced that the war was going to be over by the end of the year. In the West, the Germans seemed completely beaten. The Western Allies had overwhelming superiority in tanks, aircraft, everything—you name it. So I wanted to look at this question of why we didn’t end the war in 1944. Secondly, and almost as important, virtually all the books that have been written about this period look at either the Eastern or the Western front—not both. And I wanted to set the two in context: to see what happened to the Western Allies in the context of what happened with the Soviets.

I’ll report back again when I’ve finished the book.

The atomic decision, 60 years later

On the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima, newly-uncovered information provides fresh perspectives on Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb.

terrorism and the law

In 1942, eight men landed on U.S. soil, tasked by the Nazi government to carry out acts of sabotage within the U.S. One of them, himself actually an American citizen who had returned to Germany at the beginning of World War II, informed on the project to the FBI. The eight men were arrested, tried by a military court directed by FDR himself; and the six of them who did not cooperate were executed shortly thereafter.

This incident has direct implications for us today, since these tribunals are the precedent for the incarceration and trials of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

A new book discusses the case of the Nazi saboteurs, and argues that these proceedings allocate too much power to the executive branch, both then and now. Various accounts of the incident can be found at U of C law, the FBI, and The text of a 1942 White House press release about the incident is here.

Success or failure at Yalta?

What happened at the Yalta conference? Was President Roosevelt too sick to deal effectively with Stalin? Could he have done more to temper the Soviet Union’s postwar ambitions? An interesting piece about Roosevelt, Stalin, and the Yalta conference.

The short but glorious reign of the schnellbomber

Over the holiday weekend, we had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of the USAF near Dayton, Ohio. It’s a phenomenal museum, and well worth the visit should you find yourself in the area.

Due to time constraints, we were only able to fully explore the World War II section of the museum, which includes among other things the B-29 that dropped the second atomic bomb. The aircraft that interested me the most, however, was a restored Junkers Ju 88–an aircraft I’d not before seen in person. (A subsequent internet search revealed that there are just a handful of restored Ju 88s today–the first one pictured on that list is the one we saw at the Museum.)

The Ju 88 represents a curious and short-lived period of military aviation history. Between the two World Wars, military thinkers around the world (Billy Mitchell being perhaps the most famous) spent a lot of time trying to figure out how airplanes, which had shown promise but had not proved decisive in World War I, could best be used in future conflicts.

The Ju 88 was an effort to meet the German ideal for combat aircraft: the schnellbomber, a fast, agile plane that combined the speed and manuverability of a fighter with the heavy armament and payload of a bomber. It was a fast medium bomber that could, in theory, hit enemy ground targets while holding its own against enemy fighters. The Ju 88 was but one of several aircraft built to meet this vision–other German aircraft in this vein included the infamous Stuka dive bomber, the unusual Me 110 “Zerstorer,” the Do-17 “Flying Pencil,” and the He-111. These bombers are unique, perhaps a bit ugly even, in appearance–but they seem to me to possess a sort of curious elegance.

All of these fighter/bomber hybrids saw action in the early months of World War II. They enjoyed great success in the Spanish Civil War, and performed reasonably well during the Blitzkrieg. The Battle of Britain, however, was where they were really put to the test–they would be facing a prepared foe armed with capable aircraft. By the end of that hard-fought campaign, it was clear that the schnellbomber concept didn’t work as well in reality as it did in theory. Their speed was not enough to protect them from the top-of-the-line British fighters of the day (which were themselves getting faster and more powerful as time went on); the Ju 88 and its brethren actually required a fighter escort if they hoped to survive above England. Nor were their bombing capabilities sufficient for the task; their relatively limited payloads (compared to the Allied heavy bombers that would soon be clouding the skies over Germany) made them rather mediocre strategic bombers.

Like its fellow medium bombers, the Ju 88 was a solid aircraft but too much of a jack-of-all-trades to hold its own in the face of rapidly-advancing fighter and bomber technology. After a short period of dominance before and immediately after the start of the war, most of the schnellbomber-type planes were quickly outclassed. Most German planes of this type ended up being reassigned to secondary roles (reconnaissance, night-fighter duty, etc.), where they performed competently but unremarkably until Germany’s surrender. But they were important precursors to the more specialized fighters and bombers that, by the war’s end, would completely redefine the practice of war.

Which version of WW2?

Here’s an interesting article on the many different versions of World War II that sprang up in the war’s aftermath.