01 September 2009

A Day of great historic Importance

Of all days in the year, September 1st is one of the most significant, if not the most important in history.
I am of course referring to the outbreak of World War II, which happened on this day exactly 70 years ago.

It is amazing how fast time passes, and how much we know of events we have not even experienced ourselves. I am meanwhile over fifty, but I cannot remember even one year of my life when there were not new books about World War II published, and new films about it produced.
Many of them are quite informative, but there is also a lot of rubbish, especially the sick and brainless attempts to make the war look 'funny'. For some strange reason the British are most eager on that (e.g. Hallo, Hallo or Dad's Army), which seems to appeal especially to the lesser educated elements of their society (and even to some people here in Ireland).

The British were the cause for many laughs of a different kind on the battlefields, where their poorly trained soldiers and their inferior equipment were rarely a match for enemies, especially the Germans and Japanese. (Only when the British used ever more American equipment, their performance improved slightly.) But this was not only the case during World War II. In fact, there was in the last three centuries not one major war Britain fought or won on its own, and it always had the same problems: poorly trained soldiers, with bad weapons and equipment, and not enough of either.

On a day like this, one is likely to reflect: on history, the world and on oneself. Had I been born just one generation earlier, I would most likely have fought in World War II. My father, who was five weeks away from his 13th birthday when the war began, was drafted for military training at the age of 17 and served - as an 18-year-old - for the last year of the war with an anti-aircraft artillery regiment.

My paternal grandfather, who was born in 1889, had fought already in World War I as a cavalry officer, from the first to the last day, and ended that war as a Captain with the highest decoration for bravery and several other medals.
After 1918 he lived a quiet life as a civilian, running the family estate in Bohemia (which had been Austrian for centuries, but was by then part of the first Czechoslovak republic).
When Hitler annexed the Sudetenland in 1938, my grandfather and his family became over night German citizens. It was neither their choice, nor had anyone bothered asking them for their opinion. It just happened, and both Britain and France sanctioned it.
A few months later my grandfather - at the age of 49 - was "re-activated" for military service, because of his "excellent war record from 1914 to 1918".

70 years ago he was one of the oldest Majors - perhaps even the oldest - in the German Army and in charge of a light squadron of (still mounted) cavalry in East Prussia.

His regiment was among the first German troops ordered to cross the border and advance into Poland (photo above left), where they met - and defeated - a regiment of Polish cavalry. This was one of the last battles in history with mounted cavalry on both sides.*

Earlier that day - beginning at 4.45 am - the German Airforce had started bombing raids on Polish towns and military positions (photo right), and shortly after daybreak the old German pre-dreadnought battleship Schleswig-Holstein (photo below left), which had been launched in 1906 and was a veteran of World War I as well, fired the first shots of World War II at the Polish garrison on the Westerplatte, an area at the outskirts of Danzig (Gdansk), an old Hanseatic city on the Baltic Sea which had been German for centuries, but was then a 'free city' under the neutral administration of the League of Nations.

Hitler had only days before signed a secret pact with Stalin, which brought the two worst dictators of the 20th century into an unexpected alliance against Poland, on whose territory both Russia and Germany had historic demands.
Poland had earlier received diplomatic guarantees from both Britain and France, but neither country was in a position to give any real - and especially military - support in case of war. They knew that only too well, but Poland believed that it had allies.
In fact, it was an isolated country, surrounded by potential enemies. The Polish army was quite strong and highly motivated, but on the technical level of World War I and thus no match for the well-equipped modern forces Germany and the Soviet Union sent against it.

Knowing that Britain and France were in no position to assist Poland militarily, Hitler - well known to be a political gambler - took the risk and invaded Poland, against the advice of many of his political aides and senior generals. And being also a life-long Anglophile (a fact that is often ignored by historians and commentators), Hitler did not believe that Britain would declare war on Germany "over a small and unimportant Eastern province like Poland".

He was wrong, of course, as we now know. And hindsight is always easier than making decisions on the day and under pressure.

When the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (right), who had tried long and hard to come to terms with Hitler and accommodate his various demands (the return of the Rhineland and the Saar province to Germany and later the annexations of Austria and the Sudetenland), eventually declared war on the morning of September 3rd, he felt that he had no other choice left.
With hindsight, he was wrong as well. But this is of course only an academic point.

Neither the British Army, nor the Royal Air Force (RAF) were ready for a war. Their numbers were low, and most of their equipment was either old and obsolete, or of inferior quality when compared with the German forces. Only the Royal Navy was of a superior strength and able to go to war at a moment's notice. But even in Britain's 'senior service' there were shortfalls (in particular a lack of modern submarines) that became soon only too visible.

The French army was much stronger than the British, and better equipped. But France had the problem that its - mostly elderly - generals were still thinking in a 19th century way and their strategy was at best of World War I vintage.

None of the French strategists - with one single exception - could see the tank as a modern offensive weapon. They used it mostly as fire support for the infantry.
The one exception was a young and bright Colonel called Charles de Gaulle (left).
He had written a book about modern armoured warfare in the 1920s, but was widely ignored by his superiors. Ironically, this book was read by the German General Heinz Guderian (below right), who agreed with de Gaulle's ideas and made them the core of his own 'Blitzkrieg' (lightning warfare) strategy.

September 1st, 1939 was the first day this strategy was used for real (and not just for exercise), and it worked even better than all optimists in the German General Staff had expected.

By September 17th most of the Polish forces were beaten, destroyed or in retreat, and the Germans controlled much of Poland's territory. On that day, seeing that all went according to their secret plan, Stalin ordered his 'Red Army' to invade Poland from the East and to occupy the areas Hitler had conceded to him previously.

The rest, as the often used phrase tells us, is history. This weblog is not the place (and has not enough space) to list all events of the war, not even those of September 1939. And most of them are well-enough known anyway, perhaps with the exception that the war ended on this day as well, after exactly six years, with the official surrender of Japan on September 1st, 1945.

But I like to mention a number of other historic events that also took place on this day, making it even more significant than it would be if only World War II had begun on this date.
  • Way back in the year 69 (CE) Jerusalem was - after a long siege - finally captured and destroyed by Roman legions.
  • In 1482 a Tatar army from the Crimea captured and plundered Kiev.
  • On September 1st, 1661 the first recorded yacht race took place in English waters. The only two competitors were King Charles and his brother James.
  • Five years later, in 1666, the Great Fire of London began on this day in Pudding Lane. When then flames were put out eventually some days later, 80% of London was in ruins.
  • On September 1st, 1715 King Louis XIV of France died after a reign of 72 years - the longest time any European monarch was ever in power.
  • In 1752 the famous 'Liberty Bell' arrived in the city of Philadelphia.
  • In 1859 the first Pullman (railway) sleeping car was put into service.
  • In the USA a federal tax on tobacco was introduced for the first time on September 1st, 1862.
  • In 1870 - during the Franco-Prussian War - the famous Battle of Sedan took place. It ended with a spectacular defeat of the French main army, and Emperor Napoleon III was captured by Prussian troops. (From 1871 to 1918 the day was subsequently celebrated in Germany as 'Sedan Day', a public holiday in commemoration of the great victory. It is quite possible that Hitler was influenced by the 1870 victory at Sedan when he chose the day for the invasion of Poland in 1939.)
  • In 1918 US troops landed in the Russian city of Vladivostok, on the Pacific coast of Siberia. (They stayed there until 1920.)
  • The modern state of Lebanon was created by France on this day in 1920 as a mandate territory.
  • In 1923 a major earthquake, measuring 7.9 on the Richter Scale, devastated parts of Japan. In Tokyo and Yokohama alone 142,000 people were killed, and many more injured.
  • In 1961 the 'War of Independence' in Eritrea began on this day as well.
  • And in 1969 - 40 years ago - a bloodless coup d'etat, led by Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, overthrew and deposed the ageing King Idris of Libya. (The day is a national holiday in Libya ever since, and today a special celebration - including a major military parade - takes place in Tripoli to commemorate the revolution.)
This is only a selection, of course, and there are many more minor events that happened on this day. As they happen almost every day, all year round. But I think the information above will show you that September 1st is indeed special and perhaps the most significant single day in the modern calender of the Western world.

The Emerald Islander

* Later my grandfather was transferred to a regiment of mechanised cavalry, which was equipped with light tanks and armoured cars. With them he took part in the campaigns in France, North Africa (photo), Italy and eventually Russia.
He was wounded several times, but - amazingly - he survived and ended the war as a Colonel, commanding a regimental task force.
Neither he, nor anyone in our family, ever liked or supported Hitler, or joined his party. In fact, since 1942 my grandfather was part of the Anti-Nazi dissident group within the German officers' corps. Only the fact that he was in a frontline position in 1944 - when Hitler's assassination by staff officers failed - prevented him from being discovered and shot by the SS.

But my family has paid a heavy price for Hitler's ambitions and adventures. In 1946 we lost our estate in Bohemia (where the family had lived for 300 years) and everything in it, were expelled from there (then the second Czechoslovak republic) and became penniless refugees.
It was only shortly before I was born that the family had managed to gain a proper house and farm again. But the war with all its terror, and also the day when it began, are engraved forever in the memory of every family member.
And even though I am too young to have lived through World War II, it has shaped - in a distant and indirect way - my own life and will always be there in the background. Without it, I would perhaps not even exist in the way I do. And I would most certainly not live and work in Ireland.


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