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.

the battle(s) for Masada

Last year when I was in Israel, I was able to visit the site of Masada. They take archaeology seriously over there, and a lot of sites are made into national parks. They are all informative and well-kept, but Masada is clearly something special. Most sites had a small shed where you stopped to buy entry permits, Masada had an enormous, very nice building with multiple ticket windows, a large gift shop, concesssions, and so forth. Masada is, of course at the heart of Israeli nationalism, based on Josephus’ stirring account of the small group of Zealots who bravely defended Masada against a Roman siege, and finally preferred to die rather than become slaves to the Romans.

The Zealots were vastly outnumbered by the Romans, but when you are there it is clear that this site was eminently defensible: sheer cliffs rise nearly straight up from a wide plain. The Zealots re-used the wall and structures which had been built by Herod the Great as an oddly-located royal resort. The view is beautiful, and you could see incoming troops many miles in advance of their arrival. It is hot, breezy, and very dry up there, and it’s easy to start getting dehydrated in a very short period of time, so access to water was important, but Masada had a vast capacity for water and food storage.

The heroic tale of Masada based on Josephus’ account and supported by the work of the great Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin goes something like this, but there are some naysayers to this narrative. Nachman Ben-Yehuda deconstucts the Masada Myth and discusses how it has been used to bolster nationalism. Ben-Yahuda has also cast aspersions on archaeological work at Masada.

Whatever the truth of the story of the Zealots, Masada is a beautiful and impressive place; and one would have to be at least somewhat heroic to attempt to live there (currently, the two choices to ascend to the top of the site are the Snake Path, 900 feet in elevation–remember the temperature tops a dry 100 out there–or by cablecar). The main thing I wanted to post in regards to Masada, however, was this picture of the Roman seige tower from Masada. A picture like this was on display at the site, and we all commented on the resemblance to the Lord of the Rings.

Queen of the desert

Zenobia is one of antiquity’s more fascinating individuals. She was queen of the city of Palmyra (which you can see on the far right side of this map of the Roman Empire). During the mid-3rd century, she annexed a surprisingly large swath of Syria (and beyond) and declared independence from Rome.

That sort of thing rarely ended well for the would-be-secessionists, but Zenobia held out until a Roman army under Aurelian finally defeated her. From this entertaining account of Aurelian’s victory we get a brief glimpse at Zenobia’s feisty attitude:

[Zenobia responds to Aurelian’s demand for her surrender, writing:] “Zenobia, Queen of the East, to Aurelian Augustus. No one, saving you, has ever required of me what you have in your letter. One ought in war to harken only to the voice of courage. You demand that I surrender myself, as if you did not know that the Queen Cleopatra preferred to die rather than to live in any other save her station. The Persians do not abandon us, and we will wait their succors. The Saracens and the Armenians are on our side. The brigands of Syria have defeated your army, O Aurelian; what will it be when we have received the reinforcements which come to us from all sides? You will lower then that tone with which you–as if already full conqueror–now bid me to surrender.”

Fightin’ words, to be sure.

Diary of a madman

In the aftermath of World War 2, plenty of literature emerged from the ashes of the Third Reich, much of it journals and memoirs penned by German generals and soldiers recounting their wartime experiences and/or service to Hitler. When, in 1983, a German magazine announced that it had discovered Hitler’s 62-volume personal war diary, historians were understandably excited.

Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, the “Hitler diaries” turned out to be fakes. (Here’s a more thorough account, with some interesting details about the forger.)

One if by land, two if by submarine

There was no shortage of quirky personalities on the side of the Americans during the Revolutionary War. One of them was David Bushnell, who invented a bizarre machine that he hoped would turn the tide against the powerful British navy. He called it the Turtle, and while it didn’t exactly send the British navy fleeing for home, it did earn Bushnell a place in history as the creator of the world’s first functioning submarine.

The egg-shaped, one-man Turtle took to sea in 1776 to take on a true Goliath of an opponent: the 64-gun British man-o-war Eagle.

A recent effort to build a replica of the Turtle provides us some photos of the re-created craft, and Bushnell’s legacy is nicely laid out in this history of the American submarine.

Zooming in on the siege of Osaka

By the early 1600s, the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu had essentially established himself as ruler of a newly-unified Japan. But at least one potential threat to his legitimacy remained: Toyotomi Hideyori, the son of a previous ruler, encamped at Osaka Castle with unclear intentions… and a growing army.

Ieyasu decided to take action, and unleashed his troops against Hideyori in 1614. The resulting conflict is often billed as the last great samurai battle. (No word on whether or not Tom Cruise was involved.)

National Geographic has a beautiful (and zoomable) painted map depicting the siege of Osaka Castle, along with a short history of the conflict.