Archives For WWII

Danish Defiance

August 29, 2013 — Leave a comment
Danish Navy

Peder Skram Scuttled in the Royal Dockyard
Photo: Royal Danish Naval Museum

Following the Nazi invasion in April 1940, Denmark entered an uneasy period of occupation by their Nazi overlords. Because of their ethnic heritage as a Nordic/Scandinavian people, the Danes were generally treated better than other occupied peoples, however, King Christian X famously rode his horse through Copenhagen on a daily basis as a symbol of silent resistance. Among the institutions left to function with only a modicum of Nazi intervention was the Danish Navy which performed minor minesweeping duties off the nation’s islands to prevent the sinking of coastal ferries.

As the war progressed and it became clearer that the Nazis would soon confiscate their warships, the naval high command devised a plan to deprive the Nazis of the entire Danish Navy. The Danish Navy had once been among the most powerful in the world and it wasn’t until Admiral Nelson’s successful attacks on Copenhagen that it was reduced to a minor fleet. By August 1943 it consisted of two coastal defense ships, ten torpedo boats, seven minelayers, a dozen submarines, five ocean patrol vessels, seventeen minesweepers and a handful of auxiliary vessels. The Nazis decided to take over the Danish Army and Navy on August 29, 1943, however, the officers of the Danish Navy were determined not to let even their meager force fall into enemy hands. As the Nazi forces approached the Royal Dockyard in Copenhagen early on the morning of the 29th, a pre-arranged signal was hoisted which instructed each of the vessel’s commanders to scuttle their ships.

Within 30 minutes, 32 of the Danish Navy’s vessels lay at the bottom of Copenhagen harbor and another four were on their way to internment in neutral Sweden. Out of 52 vessels, the Nazis were only able to seize 14 untouched. Nine Danish sailors perished in the scuttling, another ten were wounded and a significant portion of the Danish Navy’s personnel were interned by the Nazis. While it may not have deprived the Kriegsmarine of any significant warships, the defiance exhibited by the Danish Navy strengthened the morale of the Danish Resistance and told the world that the Danes would not go quietly into the night.

fish wrap

frozen-in-time

Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff is a thrilling tale of survival, heroism and discovery. Set in Greenland, Zuckoff switches between World War Two and the present day to relate the loss of three American military aircraft and the epic search for both the planes and their survivors. Zuckoff writing flows smoothly between the historic loss of the planes and the modern day search and the book’s 330+ pages seem much shorter as a result.

Perhaps one reason for Zuckoff’s engaging style is that he accompanied the 2011 expedition in search of the Coast Guard float plane that had gone down while searching for the other two missing planes. While set in World War Two, the book is not military history, but rather reads more like heroic survivor stories such as David Howarth’s We Die Alone or polar exploration tales like The Last Viking.

Frozen in Time showcases Zuckoff’s excellent attention to detail as the minutae of daily survival in a downed plane in arctic conditions is relayed to the reader; however, Zuckoff avoids the trap of losing the story (and the reader) in the minor details. The book also benefits from the generous use of photographs to document both the characters and the events described in the book. One amusing anecdote from the book is the author’s description of the whiskey his team chose to bring with them to Greenland – a modern recreation of Ernest Shackleton’s whiskey. Overall, Frozen in Time is a highly readable book that will appeal to anyone wishing to relieve the dog days of summer with a chilling tale of survival in a frozen land.

kickstarter

Kickstarter, the wildly successful crowdfunding website, is currently hosting two nautical themed projects. The first is “Twice Forgotten,” a documentary about the USS R-12, a training submarine that sank off the coast of Key West, Florida seventy years ago today. Forty US sailors and officers as well as two Brazilian officers went down with the sub and it was not until 2010 that she was re-discovered. Funding will allow the team to return to the site and conduct filming this summer to complete the documentary.

kickstarter

Instead of seeking to tell a true story from the past, the second project aims to produce a fictional film about a World War II submarine and its mysterious disappearance during the war. The film team has partnered with Battleship Cove, the home of the battleship USS Massachusetts and submarine USS Lionfish, to provide a filming location. If the project is funded, then the remaining half of the project’s expenses will be covered and the filming will be able to proceed as planned.

Dornier 17

A joint team from salvage company SeaTech and the Royal Air Force Museum have successfully recovered an intact Dornier 17 medium range bomber from the Goodwin Sands in the English Channel. The plane was first located in 2008 and in the intervening years efforts have been made to bring together a team to recover and restore the aircraft.

Dornier 17s were medium range bombers developed for the Nazi Luftwaffe and put into service 1937. The plane is one of the lesser known Luftwaffe designs as it was largely obsolete by 1942. Powered by two 1,000hp 9-cylinder engines, the plane could reach speeds of 265mph while delivering a 2,200 lb. bomb load. There are currently no surviving examples of a Dornier 17 as most were melted down after they were shot down or confiscated after the war.

The Hunt for Hitler's Warship

Regnery History, a relatively new imprint of Regnery Publishing, has brought readers yet another fantastic offering in Patrick Bishop’s The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship. Previous books from Regnery History reviewed here include Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron and Fatal Dive. Over the span of ~400 pages, Bishop familiarizes readers with the epic saga of the Nazi battleship Tirpitz from her gestation in Wilhelmshaven to her cataclysmic death at the hands of British bombers in November 1944.

Bishop brings to life the tireless efforts of the Royal Navy, Fleet Air Arm, Royal Air Force and Norwegian Resistance to reduce Nazi Germany’s last remaining battleship Tirpitz to a worthless heap of scrap iron. The reader is also introduced to life aboard the Tirpitz through Bishop’s interviews with surviving crew and archival research. This aspect helps round out the work and present readers with a better understanding of both the dread struck in British military planners’ minds by the Tirpitz as well as the fear and trepidation experienced within the ranks of the Kriegsmarine at the prospect of the loss of the Tirpitz in a surface action.  Unlike Hunting Tirpitz, which I reviewed earlier last year and is essentially a compendium of after-action reports by the British Admiralty, The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship, is an engaging work designed to bring the story of the sacrifices of British and Norwegian sailors and airmen to life for modern audiences.

Death in the Baltic

In Death in the Baltic, Cathryn Prince relates the tragic tale of the greatest maritime disaster in recorded human history – the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Prince has written previously about World War Two as well as the American Civil War and her latest volume is an excellent work of vernacular history. The Wilhelm Gustloff was among the numerous vessels pressed into service for Operation Hannibal – the Nazi seaborne evacuation of East Prussia in early 1945. Prince’s work especially shines in her weaving together various first-hand survivor accounts to paint a picture of what civilian life was like in the waning days of the Third Reich. Her description of the sinking as well as the story of the Soviet sub commander who led the attack are superb and make for highly engaging reading.

The only hiccup in Death in the Balticis Prince’s misuse of some nautical and military terms throughout the book. This is a minor quibble though and on the whole the work is a compact and very readable account of an often forgotten story. For several reasons which Prince highlights in the closing chapters of the book, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff has largely been overlooked in pop history even though its death toll was several orders of magnitude than even the RMS Titanic. Death in the Baltic is a wonderful blend of vernacular, maritime and military history and as such will appeal to a broad cross-section of readers.

voyage of the damned

SS St. Louis in Havana Harbor
Photo: US Holocaust Memorial Museum

On May 13, 1939, the Hamburg-Amerika Line ocean liner SS St. Louis departed Hamburg, Germany for Havana, Cuba. Aboard the St. Louis were more than 930 Jewish refugees seeking refuge in Cuba from Nazi oppression. The refugees had secured legitimate landing certificates for Cuba, however, upon their arrival the refugees learned that the pro-fascist Cuban government had invalidated the visas and all but 27 of the refugees were denied entry. Much like White Russians after the 1917 Revolution, the refugees were now a people without a country. The refugees sought entry into the United States, but in a shameful and cowardly act, the US government denied them access.

Thus, on June 6 the St. Louis was forced to return to Europe where the refugees were eventually divvied up among several European countries – 287 to the United Kingdom, 214 to Belgium, 224 to France and 181 to the Netherlands. As the Nazi juggernaut flattened Europe over the next 18 months many of the refugees once again found themselves under the heel of the Nazi jackboot. Many of the refugees perished in the Holocaust, however, a majority were able to survive the war.

In the subsequent years, the plight of the refugees aboard the St. Louis has been highlighted in print (Refuge Denied & Voyage of the Damned) and the big screen (Voyage of the Damned). As the great statesman Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Sadly, good men chose to do nothing when the refugees aboard the St. Louis came calling in Cuba and the United States.

Scotch

Today, two bottles of scotch from the wreck of the 8,000 ton SS Politician went up for auction on Scotch Whisky Auctions’ website. Politican departed Liverpool in February 1941 with a general cargo bound for Kingston, Jamaica and New Orleans. Stuffed within the ship’s holds were 28,000 case of malt whisky. While sailing around the Outer Hebrides, the Politician wrecked off the island of Eriska and the local islanders moved quickly to salvage the cargo and quench their war-deprived thirst.

Forty six years later, in 1987, professional diver Donald MacPhee discovered 8 bottles of whisky on the wreck which were subsequently auctioned by Christie’s for £4,000. As of this writing the winning bid for just 2 of the bottles at the Scotch Whisky Auctions site is £2,400 – a tidy profit for the previous owner.

japanese submarines

Operation Storm by John J. Geoghegan relates the obscure story of Japan’s last ditch effort to launch an attack on American soil in the closing days of World War II. Geoghegan, the executive director of The SILOE Research Institute’s Archival Division, devotes much of his writing to white elephant technology and thus his choice of subject matter is quite apropos. Over the course of ~400 pages, Geoghegan introduces the reader to the Japanese naval officers and designers who helped craft a Hail Mary strategy of launching an airstrike on the Panama Canal from the largest submarines of the war. Each submarine was designed as an underwater aircraft carrier to carry two or three specially developed strike aircraft and the path of their development makes for incredible reading.

Geoghegan also tells the backstory of the USS Segundo (a sub that often operated in conjunction with USS Razorback) which captured one of the subs in the uneasy days following the capitulation of Japan. Relying on extensive archival research as well as interviews with survivors of the Japanese program, Geoghegan provides readers with a highly readable account of this overlooked aspect of World War II history. In addition to the strength of his research, Geoghegan integrates the story into the continued development of America’s submarine program in the years following World War II. Finally, readers are brought full circle to the present day via two modern points of reference. First, one of the subs (I-401) was re-discovered in 2005 off the coast of Hawaii where it had been used for torpedo practice by the US Navy after the war. Second, the Smithsonian Institution displays the only surviving example of the subs’ Seiran attack planes at its spectacular Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia near Dulles Airport. Operation Storm is highly recommended for anyone interested in obscure technology, warfare or a non-traditional history of World War II.

Greek Battleship

Greek Battleship Kilkis Sunk at Anchor
Photo: Wrecksite

On April 6, 1941, the Axis powers launched Operation Marita – an all out invasion of Greece. Two weeks later, on April 23rd, the Luftwaffe dispatched a swarm of Ju-87 dive bombers to strike Greece’s principal naval facilities at Salamis. Caught in port during the raid were the obsolete Greek battleships Limnos and Kilkis. The ships had originally been built for the US Navy in the early 1900s and were sold to Greece in 1914. At the time of the raid, Limnos was merely serving as a floating barracks; however, Kilkis had found more gainful employment as a floating battery to support Greek ground units. The Luftwaffe strike force made quick work of the battleships and by the end of the raid both were resting on the port’s shallow bottom. Following the war, both ships were salvaged for scrap.