Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Convoy PQ-17

If you’ve watched World War II movies about German U-boats, you’ve seen them torpedo merchant ships which explode in a huge fireball. How could anyone survive such a catastrophe?
Supply convoys consisted of slow, lightly defended ships venturing into the war zone where they were easy pickings for U-boats or German surface vessels and bombers. Guns were installed on merchant ships and manned by a naval Armed Guard, but they provided scant protection. (The Navy Armed Guard’s motto was “We aim to deliver.” Unofficially, it was “Sighted sub, glub, glub.”) The real protection came from the escort force of warships.

In June, 1942, convoy PQ-17 sailed from Hvalfjord, Iceland, for Archangel in North Russia, a distance of 2,150 miles, a ten-day voyage. At this time, the German battleship Tirpitz terrified the Allies. Its mere presence in Trondheim, Norway, caused the British to tie up a fleet of their warships on standby to make sure it didn’t break free and wreak havoc.
First Sea Lord Dudley Pound, Admiral of the Fleet and operational head of the Royal Navy, considered the convoys a most unsound operation. They benefited the Russians and diverted American aid from the British. They’d already lost two cruisers on convoy duty, and the threat of Tirpitz endangered more of their dwindling fleet.
On July 3, a British fighter overflying Trondheim noted the Tirpitz was missing from its anchorage. A decoded German message announced the arrival of their heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper in Altenfjord in northern Norway. Pound feared the Tirpitz was about to pounce on convoy PQ-17 and its escorts. The next day, he issued the order to scatter the convoy.

The first message sent to the convoy read, “Cruiser force to withdraw to westward at high speed.” The escorts assumed this meant the Tirpitz was fast approaching and they were to intercept it. A clarifying message read, “Convoy is to scatter.” Each ship was to head off on its own and hope to reach Russia.
The merchant mariners were stunned to watch the warships speed away. Convoy PQ-17’s escort consisted of a core escort of six destroyers and fifteen smaller ships: four corvettes, two antiaircraft ships, two submarines, three rescue vessels, and four armed trawlers. These ships would take the convoy all the way to Archangel.
A second part of the escort force had four heavy cruisers and a group of destroyers that would follow the convoy until they came within range of German bombers in Norway. Then they would turn back.
A third layer of “protection” included a British aircraft carrier accompanied by two battleships and a dozen destroyers that trailed hundreds of miles behind. If the Tirpitz attacked and came far enough west that German bombers could not protect it, the British aircraft would attack it.

That morning, the convoy had already come under attack by German bombers. Three merchant ships sank. The U.S. destroyer Wainwright had put up a 4th of July fireworks display that caused half the attackers to drop their torpedoes early and flee. Now the merchant ships were alone with only a German long-range reconnaissance plane circling, reporting their whereabouts.
Officers on the warships that had abandoned the merchants listened in agony. They had now learned that the Admiralty had scattered the convoy on flimsy intelligence, assuming the Tirpitz was near, and felt betrayed. Officers on one British destroyer, the Offa, had considered reporting a mechanic problem and sneaking back to protect the merchants. One recalled, “There must always be a sense of shame that we did not do so.”
The corvettes from the core escort group resented being ordered to stay with an antiaircraft ship instead of the defenseless merchants. They had reached the Russian island of Novaya Zemlya. One corvette, the Lotus, turned back to the sinking ships and rescued 81 men.
Only eleven of the thirty-five merchant ships reached Archangel. (Two had turned back to Iceland shortly after setting out.) The human casualties were surprisingly low. One hundred and fifty-three men died out of over 2,500 in the convoy. More than 120,000 tons of war supplies were lost.

For a complete account of convoy PQ-17, I recommend The Ghost Ships of Archangel: the Artic Voyage that Defied the Nazis by William Geroux. The focus is on the three “ghost ships,” the American merchants Troubadour, Ironclad, and Silver Sword, along with the British trawler Ayrshire, that sailed into the polar ice to escape the Germans.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

During my visit to New Zealand in 2007, I spent a morning at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. When I wrote Where My Heart Resides, I determined that my characters needed to visit the park too.
Wai-O-Tapu features erupting geysers, spitting mud pools, colorful scalding hot pools, and the stench of sulphur.
Join me for a quick tour.

The Lady Knox Geyser erupts sporadically every twenty-four to forty-eight hours, but that means you never know when to be present. So the park rangers help it out. The story goes that, a century ago, convicts discovered how to cause an eruption when they washed their clothes using soap powder. Imagine their surprise when their laundry shot up into the air.
Below the ground are two layers of water of differing temperatures. The soap breaks the tension between the two, and an eruption occurs. On a good day, it can go up twenty meters.

The harsh conditions around steam vents allow no vegetation.

Sulphur deposits paint the steaming lakes in various bright colors.

Mineral terraces offer more color.

If you ever have the chance to visit New Zealand, don’t miss it.

Friday, October 4, 2019

RIP Nine-O-Nine

A B-17 crashed in Connecticut last Tuesday. Seven of the thirteen aboard died. The B-17 pages on Facebook have been full of shock and sorrow.
Nine-O-Nine was built in 1945, too late to fly in World War II. It had no notable history of its own, but was named for a previous Nine-O-Nine. Many people have no opportunity to see the old warbird where they live. The Collings Foundation brought their “museum” planes to the people. Nine-O-Nine toured the country, providing thrills and excitement for the thousands who took a ride. For most, it was a hands-on introduction to the iconic airplane previously only seen in movies or books.
Pilot Earnest “Mac” McCauley spent 300 days a year touring with Nine-O-Nine as a volunteer pilot. He is quoted in Plane & Pilot, saying, “The B-17 is a very stable, nice-flying airplane, but it’s so big that it’s like driving a cement truck on a go-cart track. It’s all cables, so it’s slow on the controls. And the trickiest part of flying the B-17? It doesn’t like crosswinds. You have this huge mass that wants to swap ends with you all the time.
He died at the controls of the plane he loved. “I realize how lucky I am, and it is an honor to fly it.”

I did not fly in Nine-O-Nine. I flew in Aluminum Overcast. But I did explore the interior of Nine-O-Nine. My family had no connection to the B-17. When I wrote Friends & Enemies, I put Paul Braedel in a B-17 to get him into Germany at a time when the only American military personnel in Germany were downed airmen.

The crash of a B-17 today is newsworthy. It’s a rare event. It wasn’t during the war. My research revealed too many instances of bombers crashing on take-off. Full of fuel. Full of bombs. A massive explosion. Fragile bodies torn apart and charred.
Scores of WWII veterans, now in their 90s, are dying every day. Nine-O-Nine may not have been a veteran, but it allowed us to glimpse the past, and now it is gone from our lives, too.

If you have a moment, please vote in the next two days for my e-novella Where My Heart Resides in a Cover of the Month contest at

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Just Released!

I have a new novella out this week! Where My Heart Resides is a contemporary romance, quite unlike my four WWII books.
I started this quick-read story last December when my WWI novel refused to progress. Despite knowing where I wanted the story to go, I could not keep it moving. Setting it aside for a while seemed like the best thing to do.
In the meantime, I worked on a writing exercise that included a foreign city and three objects that had to be incorporated in the story. The result is Where My Heart Resides. Writing it was fun, and I hope that shows through. It takes place in beautiful New Zealand, which I visited in 2008.
Because of its short length, this is available only as an ebook for both Kindle and Nook, and is priced at 99¢.

The rights to my WWII books reverted to me last spring and I’ve been busy getting them available again. All are listed at Amazon as ebooks, and two are now available as print books with the other two still to come. I never realized book formatting equated with rocket science, but alas, it does!

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Touching History

During a visit to our hometown of Green Bay in June, we were shocked to discover the old neighborhood swimming pool is no more. Why tear up a swimming pool? My sister and I spent a lot of time there, first learning to swim and then competing on the swim team.

Several days later, while searching through for any mention of Wangards, I found repeated references to my sister and me. We’d made the sports page after doing well in swim meets.
And then, there we were. The undefeated Schmitt Park swim team. A bygone day.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Saving Belgium

Learning more about my Belgian ancestry has led to greater interest in Belgium’s history. I knew Belgium had been overrun by Germany at the beginning of World War I, but I hadn’t known how bad the war was for Belgium until reading a new book about the Americans who went to Belgium to provide relief for the starving nation.

Belgium became a country in 1830. It was a divided country of French-speaking Flemings and Dutch-speaking Walloons. By the time of World War I, Belgium was the most industrialized country in Europe, and the most densely populated. It imported 75% of its food.
The Germans kicked off their war by marching through Belgium to get into France and capture Paris. They didn’t expect the Belgians to display nationalistic feeling when they were already divided ethnically. The Germans were shocked when the Belgians resisted their advance. They felt swindled by the Belgian endeavor to maintain independence, and their timetable for winning the war by Christmas was obliterated.
Their occupation of Belgium turned brutal. Men, women, and children were executed for resisting. Belgian industries were dismantled and transported to Germany, leaving massive unemployment in Belgium. Forty million francs per month was demanded as a contribution to the war. Thousands of men were deported for slave labor in Germany. Movement outside of one’s town or village was forbidden without difficult-to-obtain passes. Imports and exports were stopped, which meant starvation.
Belgian representatives traveled to London, looking for a way to avert the starvation of the country. Herbert Hoover, a wealthy American industrialist who was helping Americans stranded in Europe by the war, volunteered to lead the effort of getting food to Belgium.
The British were against the neutral effort to feed the ten millions people of Belgium and northern France cut off by the German occupation. They believed the Germans were obligated to feed the conquered people. By allowing the Belgians to starve, more German troops would be required to stay in Belgium to subdue the inevitable revolts. By relieving the Germans of that duty, the Commission for Relief of Belgium prolonged the war.

Little girl eating bread supplied by the Commission For Relief In Belgium.

The Germans allowed the relief because they saw it as serving their interests. Belgium would remain peaceful if fed, making their occupation easier. As the war dragged on, they, too, put up resistance. The British blockaded the North Sea to starve the Germans. They would have to relax the blockade to save Belgium, but the CRB weakened the pressure to do so.
They also came to resent the hero image the American delegates acquired for the Belgians. Belgium was their country now. It was the people’s duty to be submissive to them. Besides, the Americans were probably spying. (Yes, they did report on what they saw of Germany’s ability to carry on the war.)
Both sides allowed the relief to continue because Herbert Hoover masterfully orchestrated a worldwide PR campaign to highlight the plight of the Belgians and gain universal sympathy that the belligerents couldn’t ignore.
When the American relief delegates had to leave Belgium in 1917 upon the US entry into the war, the still-neutral Netherlands and Spain kept the relief going to feed Belgium.
Further Reading: World War I Crusaders: A Band of Yanks in German-occupied Belgium Help Save Millions From Starvation as Civilians Resist the Harsh German Rule. By Jeffrey B. Miller

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

My Belgian Roots

For the longest time, I’ve known who all my great-great-grandparents were. For most of them, I knew their parents and beyond. One brick wall was my great-great-grandmother, Josephine Denis. She was born in 1848 in Belgium; her parents were Francis and Florence. In the 1860 census, she lived with a 48-year-old Belgian man and a 17-year-old Dutchman. That’s all I knew.

Until this summer. I discovered a Belgian genealogical site and made contact with Ron, a knowledgeable genealogist who thrives on tearing down brick walls.
Josephine’s mother died in 1854. Her father took her and her four surviving brothers to Wisconsin, where he sent away his children to four different homes. The two youngest brothers were placed with two elderly seamstresses. Why didn’t Josephine go there instead of ending up as a maid by the tender age of twelve? The women may have been much better at raising a young girl and taught her sewing.
I don’t know anything else about Josephine until she married. Did she have contact with her father and brothers?

Why did Francois Denis leave Belgium? Probably for economic improvement, but at the cost of breaking up his family. The young children had already lost their mother; now they were separated in a strange country. Apparently, Francois didn’t have family who would help him with his youngsters. In Wisconsin, he moved to another county, remarried, and had a second family.
Ron says it was common for parents to put their children in what was basically foster care when they were in economic hardship. Being a single parent, mother or father, was very difficult for parent and children at that time. Still, I would like to know about Francois’ continued involvement with his first family.
I didn’t know much about Belgium’s history other than its brutal occupation of the Congo. As I’ve learned more about the country’s experience in the twentieth century, I take more pride in my Belgian heritage. More on that later.