Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Great Siege: PLUNDER, VARSITY, Gotterdamerung

OPERATION PLUNDER; OPERATION VARSITY; The Twilight of the Gods. Three things, naturally linked.

Except that PLUNDER and VARSITY were real things that happened. The "Twilight of the Gods" turned out to be grandiose fantasy. 

We don't write much about the combined assault on the Rhine by 21st Army Group (including US 9th Army), which led to the greatest opposed river crossings in historys. (In the interests of accuracy i hyperbole, it should be noted that any given assault crossing the Yangzi was probably a bigger deal in terms of water work, but the Mandate of Heaven has not yet been transferred by a modern mechanised army.) That a vast army, supported by enormous logistical preparations, closed the world's eleventh-largest river and fought its way across against the resistance of the army of the world's second largest economy, should be a big deal.

The problem was that it was dead easy, so no-one cares about it, which is why this post is two weeks late. (Apart from yours truly having to deal with a congenital lack of labour in the Canadian economy that somehow does not show up as a "labour shortage.") This is because, as it turns out, "Gotterdamerung" springs from Snorri Sturlusson's head. Gods and heroes heroes may go down in glorious last stands, but the spear carriers have made a discrete departure. 
Germany, ever so quietly, was going from this to this. Germans, actual living Germans, had learned a lesson that the rest of us could stand to remember. "Blood and nation" are not things immanent in us, unalterable and compelling. Trapped by an idea? Defect in your head,  hollow out your will to be a German landser, drag your feet until the tail of the column turns the corner ahead, leave your rifle by the side of the road.
Congratulations: you're a "straggler." Keep it up for eight weeks more, and you'll be a live straggler. It's nothing to be proud of later. Lost causes flourish in romantic legend; not the men who kept their heads down and came home to their families --or made new ones. Spring is coming, the world needs to be renewed, and the glorious dead will make no babies. 

For those who cling to lost causes, the first week of April is bitter. One-hundred fifty years ago, the Confederate States of America collapsed; 75 years ago, the Wehrmacht was vanishing, tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of men simply not on the rolls.
That's  the German Fifteenth Army under watch below. 

On the other hand, OPERATION KIKUSUI was 75 years ago. Another of the horrifying moral aporia of the world war, the attack of the floating crysanthenums is not easy for me to parse. The young men who piloted the suicide bombers do not seem to have been particularly traditionalist, nationalist or right wing. It is certainly not very helpful to focus on the supposedly fixed essentials of Japanese character to explain them, and it certainly is possible to frame a narrative around inescapable social pressure to commit suicide, which is pretty horrible in its own right.

The kamikazes flew while the German and Confederate armies were disintegrating. I'm not going to present a half-baked explanation for this, only point to it as a problem. The "national character" thing usually invoked does not convince. I grew up on the Pacific shore, after all, surrounded by Japanese Canadians and German Canadians, and on and on, so I can claim some experiential credibility for my skepticism. So could Californians, which I think might explain why the actual response to the kamikazes proved so ambiguous in the end. 

 I would gesture out at the Pacific and conjure up Owen Chase's arrival in San Francisco on the whaleship Winslow sometime between 1825 and 1827, and notice that while whalers and sealers are already ranging from the Japan Grounds to Alaska and down past the Bass Strait, where "sea rats" and "pirates" took seals for the China trade in cockleshell boats ranging all the way to Middle Island off Western Australia. 

That is, twenty years before San Francisco became American, it looked out on a Pacific where there were already sealing plantations and offshore fisheries off multiple future Australian and American states, one Canadian province, New Zealand, various pelagic nations and "overseas territories," The Empire of Japan and the Kingdom of Hawaii. The process by which the only autochhthonous state formation in a non-state ordered society became the American territory of Hawaii, while New Zealand became a resolutely British nation. How? It's all so slippery. But disintegrating armies have to fit in here somehow..

This is an introduction to a discussion of floating and other temporary bridges.
The Rhine between Emmerich and Wesel.  The Dutch border is just out of frame in the upper left corner.

Now let's look at First Canadian Army's experience of an Army Group attack. 

From C. P. Stacy's Victory Campaign, via Hyperwar.

From this you can see that First Canadian Army is crossing between Emmerich and Wesel opposite the hamlet (and bridgehead) of Rees, and just to its north. 

Through Google Maps, again, we get a better sense of the geographic situation. 

Here's a zoom-in, "Earth" overlay:

And here is an image of the parish church of Grieth, a nice little German town, full of what look to be 15th--18th Century buildings. 

It's a screen grab of a Panoramio photo, but I'm doing something wrong navigating Google Maps and can't get back to the original to give credit where credit is due. 

In this view, Greithkirche seems pretty precariously located for so much infrastucture. It's admittely up two terraces on the Rhine's natural levees, but the Rhine is a big river. So what the survival of Greithkirche is telling is just how much flat, flooding land there is around it to absorb the river's overflow and leave the buildings of Greith, if not their basements, dry during all but the worst Rhine flooding seasons. 

So now we know why the Canadians are going to cross here. Out of the warm and sunny world of the Panoramio photo viewer, we know that this was a cold and wet spring. Greith was a place where you could launch your bridge dryshod. 

Hanging over everything in the spring of 1945 is "the miracle of the House of Brandenburg." Even if the idea of a repeat is a far-fetched fantasy as a political possibility, if it leads to a man being shot at,  as many men were shot at in the last month-and-a-half of the European war, it is a very real thing. How many days will it take for this fantasy to collapse? It matters when every day brings battle deaths which could have been avoided.

We know the story, from constant repetition. In August of 1762, the Russians nearly took Berlin. Only frantic manouevre staved them off. By December, at the end of the campaigning season, looking forward to the resumption of operations with the first grass of spring, Frederick the Great was on the verge of suicide. Then, on 22 January, 1762, the King-Elector received word that the Czarina Elizabeth had died, bringing a not-unexpected policy reversal as her son Czar Paul, There is no realistic sense in which Franklin Roosevelt was the Czarina, but Berlin was in a febrile mood this spring. It did not matter, I repeat, whether it could happen; it mattered how long the Germans kept on fighting.

I am going to start with the earliest the potted history gets. These towns of Emmerich and Wesel, and much else besides, were both sites, manors with attached churches under St. Willibrord's mission at Utrecht. The Wikipedia links will take you all kinds of places, but I want, again, to take a slice of a bi gger history. During my comps reading, the great Jonathan Israel introduced me to the idea that it was Philip II's attempt to break up the oversized archdiocese of Utrecht that was, as much as anything, the cause of the Dutch War of Independence. (Before you use the word "Calvinism" to explain anything ever again, be aware that you will die in seven days. Or, to reach less for dubious Internet humour and more for Very Serious Argument, we should look at the success of the complex of ideas that we call "Calvinism" in part in an attempt to put an ideological gloss on the defence of Utrecht's primacy.) 

By the time of independence, however, these principalities had long since departed the Prince-Bishop of Utrecht's sway, for various reasons (which actually do matter to the "Miracle"). I want to pick out the status of the left bank as an Imperial Forest, Here is the political context of the geography with which the Canadians were struggling. The "wild, forested" terrain that made this legal status necessary is, in fact, the low, flooding land in the Rhine bend. The details are less important than the heroically acquisitional House of La Marck, which assembled Cleves, Mark, Ravensberg (including its alleged possession of Bielefeld), Juelich and Berg into a very nice portfolio of territories, before expiring (in the main line) of exertion in 1609, triggering the Juelich War, one of the events that makes sure that you will be too tired of reading about the Thirty Years War in standard narrative histories of the Thirty Years War before the Thirty Years War even starts. (Spoiler: the King of Sweden is dudebro historians' BFF.) What you need to know is that the La Marck family properties were divided between the two main claimants, and that one of those claimants was the Elector of Brandenburg, of the House of Zollern, later Kings in Prussia. ("In," not "Of." It's an important distinction, damn it!) This cheesed the House off, and it either patiently bided its time for world-historic vengeance, or acted with hot-headed haste when an opportunity arose, more than a century later. 

You decide. Only the first interpretation is wrong. Frederick the Great ended by precipitating his Electorate-Kingdom into not one, but two wars. Whether or not he seized Silesia in 1740 as a bargaining chip to extract Juelich and Berg from the Habsburgs, or because his far-sighted, cameralist emphasis on fertile fields and healthy peasants foresaw the importance of Silesia in the growth of Prussia into a great power which could lead the unification of Germany (No, just no), he ended up having to defend it against a hostile coalition in the Seven Years War which followed. And that, of course, leads to the Miracle of the House of Brandenburg.

To imagine how one could think that this might repeat, one must begin with the diplomatic context.

So back to those western Hohenzollern possessions. Cleves, the most imortant, was occupied by the French in the Seven Years War, and returned to Prussia at its end. This is the crux. Frederick was defeated, but his enemies could not finish him. So they negotiated instead, and Frederick got Cleves back. The war left Hohenzollern "Prussia" intact, and so could be seen as a victory --at leat to the extent that the regime survived, and Frederick comes down to us as a hero, and not a feckless fool. This is a point that bears emphasis; because Frederick invaded and conquered the Electorate of Saxony at the outbreak of the Seven Years War and held onto it. he had something to put on the negotiating table at its end. Returning Saxony to its rightful owner allowed Frederick to hold onto his patrimony. 

Holding territory, every inch and scrap that he could, turned the Seven Years War from a disaster into a public relations victory. Whenever you hear German generals retrospetively bagging on Hitler for his obsession with territory, remember that.

So that's the first actual lesson that 1763 brings to bear on 1945. German strategy could not be just about waiting for a miracle. It had to be one of waiting for a miracle and holding onto territory.

There is a second echo between 1761/2 and 1945 to be heard in these little western river towns, though. Why did the Hohenzollern care so much about these little principaltiesworry so much about these small, western principalities, which add so little to the patrimony of the Hohenzollern? It is not because they could see the future of the Bielefeld Schoo1 and thought it would be funny for Hans-Ulrich Wehler to be a titular Prussian. It is because Bielefeld on the Lippe was a major road-and-river junction in a prosperous region, just like all the other properties assembled by the House of La Marck.

Since there are themes in this blog, and this one is pretty much signalled at the head, I'll cut to a nice picture, instead.

Rheinbruecke-Emmerich. Very nice: it's twilight, and the bridge beckons us... well, it would be perfect if we were looking west at eventide, but then the structure wouldn't be backlit, A remarkable structure with a free span of 500 meters, putting it in a four-way tie for 86th place in the list of the world's longest free span suspension bridges, it certainly doesn't seem like a big deal (the Golden Gate has a free span of over 1200 meters), until you appreciate that both ends of the bridge are on low, flooding land, and that the Rhine is a huge shipping artery. The bridge has to clear the freighters beneath, and it has to rise from land that not only provides poor footings for heavy structural loads, but which is, well, low. This is probably why Emmerich lacked even a rail bridge in 1944, being served by a spur from Wesel. (1945, as we shall see, will be a different matter.) 

Emmerich did eventually get a rail bridge, though:

J. H. Joiner, One More River to Cross: The Story of British Military Bridging
Joiner says that work on this bridge began on 28 March, while Follifant has it beginning on 3 April, the difference probably being that work began on the "rail tail" that turned a pre-existing Reichsbahn spur serving a refinery into a major bridge approach. The first train rolled across on 10 May 1945, and work began that summer to clear a shipping gate and to winterise it against the floes of ice which periodically float down the Rhine and smash their way through lightly built structures under a current of up to 4 knots. 

Getting back to the old days, a bridge implies a bridge toll. My excursion into Prussian history was intended to imply that the Rhenish territories were disproportionately important to the Hohenzollerns, and the reason for that is no harder to seek than the point of the La Marck's acquisitions spree in the first place. They generated a solid revenue from their tolls. 

Since we're talking about nation-building, and the organisation of states, the background implication here is the-state-as-highwayman. There is a place where one needs to cross the river, or descend it, and the "state" pops up here to charge what the traffic will bear, until the bright future day of anarcho-capitalism is finally achieved. (At least until the resurgent state uses mobile, intelligent ..Wait, never mind, that's a spoiler.)  

There's another way of looking at this, though. In this case, it is the state as arbiter and organiser. Rheinbruecke-Emmerich allows both ship and land traffic by virtue of being a miracle of modern engineering. Without modern engineering miracles....

I can't believe how on-the-nose this is. The image is a WWI-era bridge on the Scheldt, apparently, but the source is from the "Invisible Public Architecture" thread at an interesting New Zealander blog called Flatrock, which "grew out of a disastrous investment in New Zealand forests." Sounds interesting, and I'll have to check it out. 

A floating bridge isn't so much "invisible" as it is ephemeral. There are permanent floating bridges, although not many, but boats are, in general, holes in the water to throw money in. Besides, locomotives hammer the  hell out of the structures that carry them, and this is not calculated to do much good to a structure that consists of individual buoyancy compartments ("pontoons," "boats"), linked by naturally-flexible chesses. As a result, the vast majority of the world's floating bridges have been...

I caught myself starting to write "short-lived," here,  but while that is a synonym for "ephemeral," it is not a very helpful one. I have no idea when the first "temporary" bridge of boats was erected at Emmerich, but a bridge of boats appears in the first history ever --Darius built one across the Hellespont to bring his army to Europe, and another, subsequently, to get at the Scythians. Herodotus tells us that this (somehow) goes to show what an awful person he was. Trajan, by way of contrast, built an impressive but incredibly pointless permanent, that is, piling-built bridge across the Danube, to show that he wanted to stay, or overcome the river's status as a "natural" boundary, or something that someone with a better sense of the Roman mentalite can presumably explain. 

It's not, however, just a matter of bridges coming and going. If you want to let ships pass a floating bridge, you have to dissassemble the thing every day. That's where "state-building" comes in. Someone has to organise and pay for an extraordinary, ongoing effort of making and unmaking this bridge to order.  

And yet, again, invisible, ephemeral, these are all good words for these things that are made to disappear on the day, and, perhaps to reappear the next. If you are fascinated by these things (and I do not see why you would be), there is good news from Google Books. General Sir Howard Douglas,  Bt.'s 1816 Essay on the Principles and Construction of Military Bridges is now available there. The illustrations do not appear to have made it into the digital realm, so, if you ever have to build, say, a two-league bridge of boats across the flooded Dniepr, you will have to figure out for yourselve how to anchor the boats (with springs, especially against the rising and falling of the tide in a tidal reach), and the precise methods of joining the deck to the boat so that it does not stretch apart, crush the boat, or twist away.

I think that it's safe to say that if you are an expert deckhand, a good carpenter, and handy with ropes and knots, you probably will not need Douglas's illustrations. If not, well, good luck. 

At the end of the chapter on "Bridges of Boats," notice Douglas's description of "withdrawing a bridge" by "wheeling." That is, by letting go of the far shore and then piloting the entire bridge to one shore under the current without wrecking it. If the bridges of the Lippe, or of the Rhine at Wesel or at Cleves were not actually disassembled, joint by joint, whenever ships or ice floes had to pass, then in the deep past when those nice little houses of Greith were built, every day in these little Prussian towns, men got down into the boats that formed these bridges and "wheeled" them to shore. 

Here is the French "specialist pontooner battalion" establishment, as screen caps from Google Books:

I doubt that any the peacetime floating bridges were inflated to anything like this kind of roster. This is a picture of the Grande Armee, at best. It's quite a different table of organisation from the one for the military engineer companies which passed the Rhine in 1945, and that of the Railway Construction Groups which built the temporary Rhine bridges of the spring of 1945, and the slightly-less-temporary bridges of the reconstruction era which followed. It's an end-of-war thing, which tells us something about how the British (and other) armies were coming to run out of infantry manpower in the last gasps of the war. It also tells us why hopes of a "Miracle of the House of Brandenburg" were given up during April of 1945, as it became clear that the Allied railway construction troops were as ready to vault the Rhine as were armour and infantry. There would be no relief from Allied pursuit if they could bring their ammunition, and their construction materials up with them. 

And if, incidentally, they could bring coal up with them. For as the war comes to an end, as America prepares itself for "194Q," Europe has another concern. Summer might be dawning, but....

 1946 is coming.


  1. On the motivation of a Kamikaze pilot, the book I most heartily recommend is Ohnuki-Tierney's fantastic _Kamikaze Diaries._ Reading it really made my think about them in a whole new light.

    The impression that I was left with most strongly a comparison to my great uncle Martin, one of the men they were trying to kill. Marty was drafted into the US Army, and his memoirs certainly never mention him volunteering for anything. He ended up as a radio operator on a shore party in the 1st Special Engineering Brigade, so he went ashore in the third wave at both Utah Beach and Okinawa.Before D-Day, he remembered a briefing to the effect of 'look to your left, and look to your right- one of the three of you will be killed and one of the three of you will be wounded when you get off the boat,' but all of the men got off the boat anyway. He never really interrogated the motivation that drove them, but I don't really think it was that different from the Kamikaze's. Older men told them that this task was necessary to be done, and so they did it.

    Similarly, the men who became Kamikaze's- at least the ones who left the diaries that Ohnuki-Tierney worked with[1]- went to bed one night as normal men and then woke up one morning and told that isn't it wonderful that you volunteered for the Special Attack Squadrons. How brave and how noble! And the old men could salve their conscious that these men were volunteers, when they really had no more choice in the matter than Marty did to get off the boat.

    At that point it's worth contemplating how different were the Kamikaze's from Donald Garland's Fairey Battle's, Eugene Esmonde's Swordfish, John Waldron's TBD's, etc. etc. etc. Is the 60% chance of death that different than a 99% chance, when it's staring you in the face?

    [1]: About a third of them were graduates of Japan's top Liberal Arts colleges, fluent in multiple languages, and deeply read (far better than I, also having majored in the liberal arts at a top college in the US) in Western Literature. The other two-thirds were officer candidates who had been taken from their families at age 12 and given over to the tender mercies of the Japanese officer education system, and then before they became officers were volunteered into the Special Attack Squadrons. The diaries that the book is based on were all written by the liberal arts graduates, not the OCS men.

    1. The problem here is that, volunteers or not, air forces disintegrate by the failure of sortie rates to match book strengths via aborts and low availabilities.

      So the mechanic tells you that he can't fix the intake manifold without a part that's not in stock at the field. I'll just run down to the depot for a replacement, he volunteers, helpfully. Should be back this afternoon, unless my tyre goes flat. . .

      Yeah, sure, whatever.

      Meanwhile, back comes your latest this-year's-cherry-blossom. You don't ask him why he thought he could get away with crash-landing back onto the field with a bomb in the crutch, because you don't really want to hear him evade what seems pretty clear: he didn't mind if the bomb went off because he was aiming for you.

      Anyway, turns out the engine was missing. Or he was sick. >Cough, cough<.

      None of this would surprise anyone who has worked in any kind of organisation. The morale goes out of it, one dribble at a time, and then the absent-minded and counterproductive powers of a large organisation are pitted against the perverse survival instinct of an alert young mind that no longer "shares the objectives of the organisation."

      This isn't what happened off Okinawa in the springing of the year. It probably was happening by the end of the campaign, though. It's worth investigating just why, when, and how the Japanese gave up on the war. The traditional explanation is that it was assholes like Halsey who hardened Japanese resistance, and the modification of unconditional surrender to the effect that the Japanese could choose their own institutions ("you can keep the Emperor") that opened the way to peace.

      I don't see any particular reason to disagree. The kamikazes were a collective answer to the perception that America had carelessly created, that its Pacific war effort was led by the Klan. And it's such an incredible irony that the "progressive" officer who stepped forward to take the Navy/Marine Corps in hand was ---Douglas MacArthur.

    2. Vice Admiral Halsey and Enterprise slipped back into Pearl Harbor on the evening of December 8. Surveying the wreckage of the Pacific Fleet, he remarked, "Before we're through with them, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell."

      Even at this calm remove, I can't be sure that's not a policy statement. I can't imagine anyone in Japan being willing to bet it wasn't a policy statement.

    3. I think that there is more to morale failure than simply defeat, and that the collapse of the Luftwaffe after Nordwind is, to some extent sui generis. While one can’t rely on a post-war Nazi memoir too much, First and the Last is supported in several other ways that Goring continually blamed the failures of the Luftwaffe on the ineffectiveness of the LW fighter pilots, dating all the way back to 1940. Even January 1945, after years of being blamed for every defeat by their leaders and years of having their ass kicked by superior Allied fighters flown by better trained pilots, the key core experienced guys still strap it on and light it up for Operation Nordwind. It’s only after that failure that the Luftwaffe totally collapses in the manner you describe above, with the revolt of the Squadron Leaders, etc.
      By contrast, you don’t have that in the Japanese case. Instead of continual blame, the members of the Special Attack Squadrons received ridiculous praise at every turn for their heroism and bravery- culminating in an honor ceremony after they completed the mission, to encourage the others. The Japanese military leaders also seem to have felt far more secure in their positions than Goring felt- no need to worry about losing favor with Hitler when you already control the entire country unopposed. Look at the Japanese Navy high command: except for plane crashes/shoot downs/going down with the ship, there is a surprising amount of stability throughout the entire war. Compare Ugaki taking all the blame on himself, rather than passing it down with Goring. That loyalty to their men was rewarded by their willingness to keep killing themselves in a way that didn’t happen for the Luftwaffe.
      In other words, Goring was a really bad leader. Don’t be like him.

  2. William J. Halsey, everyone. Deflecting searching inquiries into his own effectiveness with macho bullshit ever since Army-Navy 1901-1902-1903-1904. (Quite the string there, "champion Annapolis fullback.")

    "A storm delayed Enterprise on her return voyage. Instead of returning to Pearl Harbor on December 6 as planned, she was still 200 miles out at sea from Pearl, when she received word that the surprise attack anticipated was not at Wake Island, but at Pearl Harbor itself. News of the attack came in the form of overhearing desperate radio transmissions from one of her aircraft sent forward to Pearl Harbor, attempting to identify itself as American."

    And not from, say, Enterprise's search aircraft.

    1. Following up on this purely randomly and not for any reason at all, I am now called in to work to deal with a totally, actually real emergency. So much for a blogging Saturday, and finishing my post today.

  3. Notice that it's everybody else's fault, except for mine for binge watching Daredevil Thursday-Friday.