Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Treasure Hunt

During World War I, England was desperate to buy supplies from the United States, and money ran low. The Laurentic was loaded with a secret consignment: small plain 12x12x6 wooden boxes weighing 140 pounds each. These boxes were stowed in a second-class passenger baggage room with tight security.

The White Star's Laurentic was a miniature Titanic, one third in size. Because of its speed,
it was refitted as an armed merchant cruiser during World War I.

The Laurentic left Liverpool on January 23, 1914. Rounding the northern coast of Ireland, it struck a pair of mines laid by a German submarine. The ship sank within an hour in bitter cold. Of the 479 souls on board, only 121 survived. Many others had gotten into lifeboats but froze to death. Also lost was the secret cargo: 3,211 gold ingots, worth more than £5,000,000.

An artist's impression of the sunken Laurentic.

Britain had to get that gold back. Naval Commander Guybon Damant, an experienced salvage diver, was given the job. His task was dangerous with the possibility of encounters with submarines and mines, the harsh northern weather, and a depth of 40 meters (43.7 yards).
Damant’s success didn’t come easily. Strong currents and storms quickly destroyed the ship. From season to season, the divers had to clear out their work areas that had been filled in with silt and debris. The gold compartment had been quickly located during the first season, but when the team returned after a storm, the upper decks had caved in. When the baggage room was finally reached, they found holes in the floor. The heavy gold had fallen through to the bottom of the ship. Most of the wooden boxes had disintegrated and the ingots were loose.

Luxurious with ornate, high-ceilinged public rooms, the Laurentic was popular on
White Star's Liverpool to Montreal or Quebec City route.

Success came slowly. 542 bars were salvaged in 1917; 31 in 1919; only 7 in 1920, 43 in 1921; 895 in 1922; 1,255 in 1923, a banner year; 129 in 1924.
In seven salvage seasons over eight years (none in 1918), Damant’s team recovered 3,186 bars of the original 3,211. The total cost of the operation was £128,000, or 2.5% of the £5 million. The government was thrilled. No deaths or serious injuries resulted despite the limits of diving technology and the highly hazardous conditions.

Divers prepare to search for the Laurentic's lost gold.

In the intervening years, others searched for the missing gold, and found five bars. Twenty bars remain unaccounted for. Anyone interested in taking up diving?

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Formidable Lady

Eleanor Roosevelt is known for her public activism and passion for human rights, championing the poor and oppressed. In Eleanor, A Spiritual Biography, the author traces how she came by her religious faith and how it prompted her actions.

She was a lifelong member of the Episcopal Church and her understanding reflected the thinking of many who attend mainline churches. She believed in preparing for eternity by building a just world for all God’s children. This she did through her travel, columns, articles, interviews, and lectures, focusing attention on injustice and inhumane conditions.

A young Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt with James and Anna.

Her outspokenness made her a target of hatred and criticism. She believed it did little good to believe something unless she told her friends and associates her beliefs. She was more concerned with how one lived one’s faith than with the particularities of one’s beliefs. Her personal mantra was “The way your personal religion makes you live your life is the only thing that matters.”

What religion one belonged to didn’t matter as long as one practiced that religion. One of her great-grandsons became a Reconstructionist rabbi, and the author believes that would have pleased her. During World War II, she harbored prejudice against Jews, writing to a friend in Germany, “I realized quite well that there may be a need for curtailing the ascendency of the Jewish people.” Many close friends were Jewish.

After FDR's death, Eleanor served as a UN ambassador.

Jesus’ commands to care for “the least of these” spurred her activism. Yet she did not believe in hell or the virgin birth. She believed the story of Adam and Eve to be allegorical. On the basis of science, it couldn’t be true. For her, there was only one fundamental law: love one another. Everything else, including the Ten Commandments, was all interpretation.

There is no denying the good she did in a time of social upheaval. Her personal feelings may have been contradictory, but she pressed on because she took to heart and practiced the command to love one another.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Remembering The Professor

While clearing out a stack running over with old magazines and books, I found a newspaper clipping from January, 2014. The headline reads, “Russell Johnson, “Gilligan’s Island” professor, has died.”

The Professor and Gilligan: they're both gone now.

What’s the first thing you thought of when reading that name?
High school science teacher Roy Hinkley could rig up a four-bicycle-powered generator, create a glow-in-the-dark substance, and program a robot to walk to Hawaii. At times, he seemed the only level-headed castaway among the cast of seven.

The Professor with one of his gadgets.

The comedy ran for three years in the mid-60s, but remains beloved in syndication. Johnson described the show’s enduring appeal because, “No one gets hurt. No murders. No car crashes. Just good, plain, silly fun – that’s the charm.”
The primitive island setting makes it ageless. That includes the actors. We always see them at the age they were during filming. Johnson was about 40.
His obituary details his World War II service. Like Vinny Zamperini, he was a B-24 bombardier flying missions in the Pacific theater. His plane was shot down over the Philippines and he broke both ankles.

Before Gilligan's Island, Russell Johnson acted in many westerns, often as the villian.

The GI Bill enabled him to enroll in the Actors Lab in Hollywood after his discharge. If not for that, we may not have had The Professor.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Quanza - A Moral Victory

In 1939, the ship St. Louis sailed from Europe with Jews fleeing the Nazi take-over. The ship was refused entry to any port in the Americas, and had to return to Europe. Anti-Semitism was alive and well in the United States, and the Nazis had a field day, crowing how no one wanted the Jews.
The following year, 317 passengers charted a Portuguese ship to take them to New York and Mexico. They had visas, but the captain suspected some were forged, and demanded they buy return passage should no one admit them.
A model of the SS Quanza on display in the University of Richmond law school library. 
The Quanza arrived in New York City on August 19, 1940, where 196 passengers, American citizens or visa-holders, disembarked. The other 121, nearly all Jewish refugees, were barred entry.
In Veracruz, Mexico, only 35 passengers were allowed to disembark. Local authorities ordered the ship to return to Europe with the remaining 86 passengers, primarily Belgian Jews.
When the Quanza arrived in Norfolk, Virginia, to refuel, a Jewish maritime lawyer filed suit in federal court, suing the Portuguese National Line for breach of contract on behalf of four of the passengers. During the six days the ship was held in port, Jewish-American associations lobbied for the passengers’ admittance to the United States. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was apprised of the situation and appealed to her husband. The president sent Patrick Murphy Malin, a member of the President’s Advisory Committee for Political Refugees, to investigate the refugees’ status. He issued them all visas and they entered the United States on September 14.
President Roosevelt received roses with a note reading, "With everlasting gratitude for your humane gesture, from the refugees of the SS Quanza."

The State Department vehemently opposed their admittance. Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long, a rabid anti-Semite, worked to block further immigration and, by mid-1941, almost no war refugees were admitted to the U.S.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


Lebensborn means source of life. During the Nazi era, it meant tearing families apart and traumatizing children.
The birth rate had been falling for decades in Germany. The Nazis determined to reverse the trend. They rewarded mothers who gave birth to large families. Advertising for birth control was banned, as was abortion. Still, the population didn’t increase sufficiently.
In their effort of creating the ideal Aryan race, the Nazis combed through the children in conquered nations and stole 300,000 “racially valuable” children. Most came from Norway, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. Examiners measured blond, blue-eyed children for head size and body size, making sure they had no Jewish aspects. Those determined as capable of being Germanized were sent to Lebensborn homes in Germany. From there, they were given to adoptive or foster parents.

A Polish child is grabbed for the Lebensborn program.

Heinrich Himmler headed the Lebensborn program and organized his paramilitary Schutzstaffel (SS) to be the vanguard of Aryan supermen. He encouraged them to have children with racially pure women, whether or not they were married.
The pregnant women could apply to give birth in a Lebensborn home, after which their children were often parceled out to adoptive families. While in the homes, the children were allowed little contact with their mothers, who were discouraged from talking to or cuddling their children. For all of them, their lifestyle was severe, to produce strong, ruthless future Aryan leaders. They needed love but got discipline.
Anni-Frid Lyngstad of the Swedish pop group ABBA is the child of a Norwegian mother and German soldier father. After her birth in November, 1945, her mother and grandmother were branded as traitors and ostracized in the Northern Norway village. They emigrated to Sweden, where Anni-Frid’s mother died of kidney failure before her daughter was two.
In the postwar years, many birth families searched for their missing children. Sometimes they were found and sent back. For young children with no memories of home, this was more traumatizing than the original kidnapping. All traces of their former lives and language were erased. They spoke only German, and returned to a country where all things German were hated. Even those who lived with their birth mothers found their mothers unwilling to reveal the truth about their fathers.
These children had been kidnapped or bred to be racially pure, strong, confident leaders of the master race. Instead, they often suffered low self-esteem and uncertainty about who they were. The Lebensborn program was a colossal tragedy.

Recommended Reading: Hitler’s Forgotten Children: A True Story of the Lebensborn Program and One Woman’s Search for Her Real Identity by Ingrid von Oelhafen and Tim Tate.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Hollywood's Spies

Ever since World War II, questions have been raised as to why the American Jews didn’t do much to aid the beleaguered Jews of Europe. The absence of a strong national organization handicapped the American Jews. Their decentralized culture led to bickering. When solidarity was most needed, internal differences prevented them from finding common ground.
But they didn’t do nothing.
Antisemitism’s worst period in U.S. history coincided with the Nazi rise to power. Germany played an active role in fomenting political antisemitism in the U.S. For eleven years, from 1934 to 1945, the Los Angeles Jewish Community Committee maintained an active, if hidden, defense and counterpropaganda program against Nazi infiltration in the United States.
The LAJCC carried on covert fact-finding partnered with non-Jewish organizations and individuals. Working with groups like the American Legion kept their findings from being discarded because they came from Jewish sources. If Jews protested against the far right, the fascist would claim their protests were proof of their communist allegiances.
Informants found their way into the Friends of New Germany, forerunner of the German America Bund, and documented the relationship between Berlin and FNG. They provided warnings for new activity, such as the desire of FNG to acquire blueprints of National Guard armories. Anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi books and newspapers written in English in Germany for American audiences were shipped to America on German tourist ships for distribution.
From 1939 to 1941, the LAJCC, operating under the name News Research Service, published News Letter, a weekly, timely expose with information from their files, linking past and current events. Most of the major U.S. periodicals subscribed to News Letter—Life, Look, New Republic, Saturday Evening Post, Time—and used this research for their own articles and requested more information. The News Letter influenced national opinion makers with credibility to publicly confront Nazis in the U.S. in a way no Jewish defense group could.

Some of the biggest names in Hollywood supported the Los Angeles Jewish Community Committee.
From left: Louis B. Mayer, Eddie Cantor, George Cukor, Jack Warner, and David O. Selznick

While the Jewish community was divided in how to deal with Nazism and different groups appeared to compete for funds and status, this wasn’t a problem in Los Angeles. The LAJCC maintained its undercover operations because of the support of movie moguls of Hollywood. Dozens of Hollywood actors, directors, producers, and writers lent their money.
Los Angeles Jewish community fought its fight against Nazism with the financial support and skills and contacts of the motion picture industry to effectively enter the national political arena. The Hollywood moguls were not absent from the fight. They were merely hidden.

Recommended Reading: Hollywood’s Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles By Laura B. Rosenweig, coming in September.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

All My Children

“Sing, O barren woman, you who never boar a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the Lord.   ~~  Isa 54:1

That verse spoke to me. I would never have children of my own, but here was a promise. It came true for me through World Vision and Compassion. For the past many years, I have had two, three, four, and more children at a time.
I sponsor them.
Marialina was my first, a young girl in Costa Rica. And then a baby. Her mother wrote letters. When their community “graduated” from the World Vision program, she wrote, “No one ever helped us before.” That’s stuck in my mind.
When I switched to Compassion, my first child was Marco Antonio, my little Mark Anthony. He had a cowlick, ears that stuck out, and a big grin. In Brazil, he wanted to be a soccer player when he grew up. One year, his father used the birthday money I sent to buy a second-hand, “much desired” bicycle. I almost went to Brazil to meet Marco and a young girl I sponsored, but I applied too late. The tour was already filled.
The vast majority of my children have been girls in Central and South America. They’ve lived in Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico.

A few of my children through the years.

When I visit Compassion’s website, their photos call to me. I have to restrain myself from taking on too many. They’ve shared their dreams for the future, reported on their progress in school, and told me about their friends. Two of the girls are now Facebook friends.

I invite you to visit Compassion's link at the right and give to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Climbing the Family Tree

Genealogy has been an interest of mine since a college history class. We lived in Michigan at the time, and frequently drove back to Green Bay. My family humored me by stopping in Milwaukee so I could look through birth, marriage, and death records at the court house. (This was before genealogy became such a booming hobby, and I had ready access to the records, unlike today.) I also visited the Brown and Manitowoc county court houses, and filled a notebook with names and dates.

One of my great-grandmothers displays her hourglass figure.

These days, finding ancestral clues is easier with online genealogy sites and networking. In recent weeks, I’ve come in contact with two distant cousins.
My ancestry is three quarters German, one eighth Dutch, and one sixteen each Belgian and French Canadian. For the longest time, my Dutch line dead-ended with my great-great-grandfather, Gerhard Vogelzang, known in Wisconsin as George Vogels. My new Dutch contact clued me in to the Dutch website, where my Dutch ancestry has burst into bloom. I now know who my gr-gr-gr-gr-grandparents were. That equals some of my German branches.

My gr-gr-grandfather (lower right) was killed in 1925. He was struck by a car while bringing home ice cream.

Despite its small fraction, my French ancestry traces back the farthest. Many of my French ancestors arrived in New France in the mid-1600s. Many of the men were soldiers, come to guard French interests in the New World. In order to maintain a presence there, the king sent marriageable women, including several of my foremothers. Upon arrival, they paired off and married within weeks.
As I enter their names in a family tree on, I’ve been struck by the high number of babies these women bore. And lost. Ten to fourteen children was common, as was losing more than half of them. Many of them, men and women, could not read or write.
My Belgian ancestors continue to elude me. My great-great-grandmother Josephine Dennis is listed on the 1860 census as a 12-year-old, Belgian-born domestic living with a 45-year-old Belgian man and a 17-year-old French male. Where were her parents? Her mother may have died and her father parceled out his children, but what kind of life was that for a young girl in a strange country? All too common, unfortunately.

My only great-grandparent still alive when I was born. He always had pink and white mints for my sister and me.

Many of my books’ characters bear my ancestral names. In Friends & Enemies, there’s Paul Braedel and Heidi Steinhorst Wetzel; in No Neutral Ground, Rafe Martell; and in Soar Like Eagles, Chet Vogel and Carol Doucet. Amazingly, in my next book, no one has an ancestral name. What was I thinking? Hmm, I can still change that.

Paul says in 1 Tomothy 1:3-4, “You may command certain men not to teach…endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work—which is by faith.” Do you think this applies to the hobby of genealogy?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Remembering My Mom

My last book, Soar Like Eagles, is dedicated to my mother, Carol Wangard. I wrote, “My mother had the gift of serving. She would have made a fine Doughnut Girl.”
Why do I think that?
From my elementary school days, I remember Mom working in the kitchen of First United Methodist Church in Green Bay, Wisconsin, mixing Kool-Aid and preparing snacks for Vacation Bible School.
I remember the birthday parties she organized for me. We’d play the party games like dropping clothes pins into a bottle and Pin the Tail on the Donkey. And there’d be a cake she baked.
She sewed clothes for my sister and me, and for our Barbie dolls. The day before I started my freshman year in university, I’d tried to sew a new top to wear. The sewing machine and I never became friends, and that evening, I left in frustration for a department get-together, sure I’d have to wear something else. I came home to find Mom had finished it for me.
She held a variety of church offices through the years. When my dad opened his own real estate business, Mom got her real estate license and served as receptionist and salesperson. When my sister and I had out-of-town swim meets, Dad volunteered to drive one of the buses for the Green Bay YMCA swim team, and Mom came along as unofficial den mother
The Red Cross doughnut girls left home and served in some difficult situations, in all kinds of weather extremes. They had minimal comforts. (Read Soar Like Eagles and you’ll get an idea what their lives were like!)
No, I doubt Mom would have enjoyed washing her hair in a helmet, freezing her hands preparing the dough, or using a slit trench. But the combat troops didn’t have an easy life, and Mom would have seen the benefit of boosting their morale. Serving was her gift.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Calling All Space Addicts

Who else always gravitated to the television when NASA launched a space shuttle? Who didn’t thrill to the majesty of the thundering launch? Who didn’t wish for the opportunity to look back at the earth from on high, seeing the earth’s curvature, and sunrises and sunsets every ninety minutes?

I never got to attend a manned spaceflight launch, but did an unmanned launch a few years ago.

Do you remember what you were doing when you heard Challenger had exploded seventy-three seconds after launch? I’d been listening to the countdown as I drove to my library job in Fullerton, California. I arrived at the law school before the launch took place, so it wasn’t until I went out to the front desk later that morning and a law clerk asked if I’d heard. I rushed back to workroom and asked our student assistant if he knew anything about the explosion. I’ve never forgotten his dumbfounded expression.
How about Columbia’s last ill-fated flight? My mother and I had been downtown running errands and heard the news at the post office. I remember a sick feeling.
Before the shuttle, the Apollo flights mesmerized me. Imagine, flying to the moon. I’ve read nearly all the astronaut memoirs. So maybe you can imagine my pleasure at receiving an advance copy of Jeffrey Kluger’s Apollo 8, which releases next week.

I have a NASA print, Earthrise taken by Bill Anders on Dec. 24, 1968, hanging on my wall.

The crew of Apollo 9 consisted of Commander Frank Borman with Jim Lovell and Bill Anders. Busy training for their earth orbital mission at the Rockwell plant in Downey, California, Borman was abruptly called to Houston. Apollo 8 was to test the new lunar module, but the LM was delayed. NASA decided on a bold, audacious stroke. Switch the crews around, and send Borman and company into lunar orbit.
So far, Apollo had been a failure. The crew of Apollo 1 had been killed in a fire during training. No Apollo spacecraft had yet flown. The first manned flight, Apollo 7, was still to come. It would be followed by Apollo 8. To the moon.
Imagine the thoughts of Susan Borman, Marilyn Lovell, and Valerie Anders. Mrs. Borman asked Chris Kraft, NASA manager, what her husband’s chances of returning home were. Fifty-fifty, he told her.
Apollo 8 was a thrilling success. While orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve, the astronauts read from Genesis to a listening world. Said Bill Anders, “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
How can anyone not take pride in our accomplishments in space?

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Berliners love zoos

The Berlin zoo has been popular in Germany since its opening in 1844. It stimulated their intellectual curiosity about the broader world, lands and peoples beyond their borders. Unlike other zoos in Europe, the Berlin zoo was open to the public.

Overview of the pre-WWII zoo.

A zoo in the nineteenth century was much different than today. Folks went there for society: concerts, restaurants with 5,000 tables, evening strolls away from the urbanization of the city, and to see animals. In Through the Lion’s Gate, author Gary Bruce shares another quirky attraction: Berliners were excited by the prospect of smoking at the zoo, an act banned since 1787 on streets and squares.

The Predators House

People were less concerned about the welfare of animals than the need for educational and scientific goals. One of the founders, Martin Liechtenstein, was aghast that visitors put lit cigarettes in the hands of monkeys, but also promoted social dinners serving surplus zoo animals.
Animals were captured in the wild by hunters killing the mother and capturing the baby. Dominating nature and imposing man’s will on the animal world were the themes of the nineteenth century.

The Elephant House. Buildings visually signified the lands from which the animals came.

People were also displayed in the zoo. Inuits from Greenland, Nubians from northeast Africa, Mongolian nomads, Chileans, Lapps. As late as the 1920s, human exhibits were common. The people demonstrated their hunting skills, wedding traditions, and dances. This may sound similar to today’s living history museums, but in at least one instance, when an Inuit didn’t do what the sponsor wanted, he was whipped with a dog whip.

The Antilope House.

In the twentieth century, a new emphasis grew to save animals rather than hunt them into extinction. Animals’ lives, freedom and happiness are more important than dominance. During the Nazi era, nature conservation and animal protection were big themes. The Berlin zoo was implicit in identifying with Nazi racial policies, and tried to whitewash its past. At the outset of the war, the zoo had over 4,000 animals. At war’s end, only ninety-one had survived. Despite towering piles of rubble and make-shift shelters among the ruins, the zoo reopened two months later. More than a million Germans visited the zoo in the year after the war.

The zoo director, a close friend of Herman Goring, kept him supplied with young lions from the zoo, retrieving them when they got too big and dangerous for the field marshall's private residence.

A devoted population saved the zoo many times, as they did during the Berlin Airlift. Zoos are expensive, and the people gave money to the zoo even when they had little.
After the war, the first female director discontinued public feeding of the animals, which led to deaths through overfeeding or intestinal infections. A polar bear died after being fed salt herring.

Through the Lion’s Gate by Gary Bruce releases in August. It offers an engrossing history of Berlin’s zoo.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Milkweed Pods

Remember playing with milkweed pods as a kid? If you weren’t careful picking them, you’d get that sticky white sap all over your hands. We’d open the pods and release all the fluff into the wind.

All that fluff was valuable to make life jackets during World War II. The floss was used as a substitute for kapok, which could no longer be imported from Indonesia.

School children in the Midwest collected pods. Five thousand bags of pods were collected in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. The bags were sent to a pod separation plant in Petosky, Michigan. It took eight hundred pods to fill a bag, and two bags per life vest.

Who knew that stuff could save lives? Now you do.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Sad Queen

If you’ve read No Neutral Ground, you may remember the role played by the Queen Mary. The luxurious ship was stripped of its fancy furnishings and transported troops to the battlefields.

The Queen Mary as the Gray Ghost during WWII.

Since 1967, the ship has been in Long Beach, converted into a floating hotel. Now it’s in serious trouble. A small news item appeared in the newspaper:
Price for Corrosion Repairs on Queen Mary Nears $300 Million
Say what??
A single paragraph explained:
“The Queen Mary is so corroded that it’s at urgent risk of flooding or collapse, and the price tag for fixing up the 1930s ocean liner could near $300 million, according to experts. It would likely take five years to rehab the ship, a tourist destination docked permanently in Long Beach Harbor south of Los Angeles. The hull is severely rusted and areas, including the engine room, could be prone to flooding.”
How could this have happened?

A very many years ago, I toured the Queen Mary during a visit to California. Like so many other places I’ve visited, I had no idea I would one day write a book featuring the Queen. Now I appreciate its history and wish I could remember that visit. But the only thing that comes to mind is dark paneling.

Have you visited the Queen?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The World Remade

After reading the new book, The World Remade, I realized how little I knew about World War I. Woodrow Wilson is lauded as a man of peace, but he was a self-righteous fool. He believed he was always right about anything. If anyone disagreed with him, that person was not only wrong, but morally wrong and forever scorned. Wilson refused to consult with his cabinet, Congress, anyone but his pal Edward House, who knew how to manipulate him with effusive praise. He was so intent on creating his League of Nations he allowed France and Britain to write a horrendous peace treaty.
The British manipulated Wilson (and America) from the beginning: severing underwater cables so only their propaganda got through, collaborating with Wilson’s pal Edward House to write America’s responses to British atrocities, setting a precedence for the future. Britain had been in decline since 1870, while united Germany grew industrially. Britain’s resentment of Germany was a significant reason for going to war. Wreck the upstart rival and reassert their global supremacy.
Germany had been the last European nation to mobilize. The others had mobilized on the basis of false reports. When Russia and France mobilized, Germany was motivated, not by the desire of conquest, but fear of being crushed by its neighbors.
Innocent little Belgium was not so innocent; rather, it was a junior partner with Britain and France, secretly planning for war with Germany and receiving British aid.
Britain decried Germany’s U-boats, but actually had more subs than Germany, preying on Baltic Sea shipping lanes. London’s censors created stories of German “frightfulness” with their U-boats to divert attention from their own transgressions—an illegal blockade of Germany and denying neutrals the right to trade with anyone Britain didn’t want them to. Britain ruled the waves and waived the rules.
The U.S. should have maintained strict neutrality, not supplying the Allies and giving them credit, and should not have intervened. The warring nations would have soon exhausted themselves.

Recommended: The World Remade by G.J. Meyer, Penguin Random House, 2017

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Sinking the Bismarck

The Bismarck had to be sunk. It posed a huge threat to Allied shipping. And it had just sunk Britain’s Hood.
Bundesarchiv_Bild_193-04-1-26, Bismarck firing during the May 24 battle.

In a reenactment of David and Goliath, a tiny, flimsy Swordfish biplane torpedoed the 50,000-ton battleship. The torpedo jammed the mammoth ship’s rudder, rendering steering impossible. The German ship can only wait for the British ships to circle round and tear it to shreds.
Late on the night before the deadly encounter, Captain Lindemann tells his crew they may take whatever they want from the ship’s stores, everything from cheese and chocolate to Swiss watches and fountain pens. He knows they’re doomed. May as well have a bit of cheer.
During the night, U-73 finds the crippled ship and watches the British destroyers shadowing the Bismarck dart in and away to fire on the ship. They don’t expect to sink it, but can prevent the men from getting any rest. Where was U-73 when the British capital ships tore their compatriots apart and left hundreds in the sea?
The battle raged for ninety minutes on the morning of May 27, 1941. The Bismarck fired its guns but, unable to manoeuver, couldn’t land any hits on the British ships. They scored countless hits in the sustained bombardment.
The ship was on fire from the continuous shelling. Crewmen leaped overboard. British sailors saw possible semaphore blinking, arms waving in semaphore. A black flag fluttered, We want to parley with you. This were ignored. The ship still flew its colors; some guns still fired. Crewmen in the most vulnerable parts of the dying ship may have attempted to capitulate.

Warped hatches and doors block exit routes. A shell exploded in the compartment medical staff worked on the wounded, killing everyone. Sailors trapped in an ammunition magazine drowned when the magazine was flooded to prevent a threatening fire to trigger an explosion. The Bismarck had become a charnel house.
Did so many have to die? Several among the British wanted the slaughter to cease. A chaplain said to a captain, “You are firing shells at a ship that can’t reply.” The captain replied, “You go and mind your own business and get off my bridge.” The killing brought revulsion to men imbued with British fairness.
The shelling finally stopped. Torpedoes were fired to send the wreck to the bottom. Two destroyers picked up 111 survivors. The warning of a U-boat nearby caused the destroyers to clear the area immediately after throwing life rafts to the hundreds still in the water. This may have been the U-74, sent to retrieve the Bismarck’s war diary. The U-boat picked up three sailors; a German weather ship found two more. Out of 2,365 crewmembers, 116 survived, although one died of wounds while aboard the destroyer.
The Bismarck had to be sunk. The British couldn’t capture it. Not with U-boats and Luftwaffe bombers rushing to the Bismarck’s defense. Not after 1,418 British sailors died three days earlier on the Hood, with only three survivors.
This was war.
For Further Reading: Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom by Iain Ballantyne

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Belgium’s Unfortunate King

Belgium’s 38-year-old King Leopold III had more power and government responsibility than any western European monarch. He served as commander-in-chief of the Belgian army and took charge of Belgian’s defense when Germany invaded on May 10, 1940.
The Belgians had insisted on remaining neutral, to the dismay of the British and French, who wanted to enter Belgium before the fighting broke out. King Leopold III suspected they wanted to keep the war off their soil. A French general admitted as much.
When the Germans broke through the Ardennes and the British planned to evacuate, they told neither the Belgians nor the French so they would keep the Germans at bay while the they fled. Their Belgian liaison asked if the Belgians would be allowed to participate in the evacuation. British Gen. Henry Pownall said, “We don’t care a bugger what happens to the Belgians.”
The Belgians mounted a determined, well-directed defense but, with their army near disintegration, informed the British and French they must surrender. Unlike the monarchs of Norway and The Netherlands, Leopold refused to flee his country. Abandoning his army would be tantamount to desertion. He asked to stay with his army in a prisoner-of-war camp, but the Germans refused. For a time, he was confined to his palace. Later, he and his family were moved to Germany, then Austria. He was unable to share in his country’s suffering or bolster his people through radio broadcast.
The British and the French unleashed vicious verbal attacks on the king in the press, making him and the Belgians the scapegoats for France’s defeat and all their troubles instead of acknowledging their own ineptitude and stupidity. They bullied the Belgian ministers who escaped to support their attack on Leopold, blackmailing them with the safety of Belgian refugees. They agreed, making false accusations, and calling Leopold a traitor. Instead of protecting their countrymen, the Belgian refugees were jeered, beaten, and ejected from hotels. Belgian pilots were thrown in jail while several thousand Belgian men in military training in France were imprisoned in their barracks.
Leopold’s cousin King George VI of Great Britain expressed sympathy and had no criticism of Leopold’s effort as commander-in-chief, but felt he should have left his country and established his government elsewhere. He apparently forgot he had vowed he wouldn’t leave England in Germany invaded.

Leopold III with his son Baudouin

After the war, the Socialist government didn’t want him back. He lived in Swiss exile and abdicated in 1951 in favor of his son Baudouin.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Netherland's Fiesty Queen

Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands had been warning her government for years of the growing danger of Hitler. They paid her no heed. Even as surrounding nations fell, they didn’t believe they’d be next. They’d been neutral in World War I; why not now?
Even if Germany invaded, they had a plan. They would flood the northeast and south while defending the western provinces where their major cities were. But then the Germans’ airborne troops parachuted into the heart of Holland’s defenses, making obsolete the flooding plan.
Hitler determined to seize Wilhelmina, ordering her to be treated with respect and honor, even going so far as to give her a bouquet of flowers when she was taken prisoner. She was popular with her people and the whole world, and would be a prize for the Nazis.
The 59-year-old queen regarded the Third Reich as an immoral system headed by “those bandits.” She made clear to Hitler and everyone else that whoever threatened her country was her enemy.
She had grown up in “the cage,” an oppressively formal, strict atmosphere that precluded any kind of initiative, no opportunity to show vigor and courage. She had dreamed from childhood of doing great deeds. The youngest and only surviving child of her elderly father, she became queen at 10 and had no friends her age.
Her ministers made clear she had no power. The European monarchs had the right to encourage, to warn, and to be consulted and informed. Like Norway, she was not consulted and her advice was ignored. Like Norway, Holland’s military was antiquated.
On May 10, 1940, the German invasion began. For three days, the royal family took refuge in an air raid shelter in the palace garden. The queen was furious the guards wouldn’t allow her to leave the palace.
She begged King George VI of England for aircraft to defend Holland, but England had none to offer. A British destroyer was sent with orders to bring her directly to England. She wanted to join her troops on the battlefield like her illustrious ancestors and “be the last man to fall in the last ditch.” This was definitely not allowed.
Once in England, she demanded to return to Holland, but the situation had worsened. Rotterdam was firebombed, incinerating much of the downtown and killing nearly one thousand residents. Holland capitulated.
Wilhelmina lived in a small, bomb-pitted house in a formerly elegant neighborhood in London. She refused to move to gander quarters befitting her status as head of state, believing she didn’t belong in a palace while her people were in such miserable conditions at home.
If Germany invaded England, she would try to join her daughter Princess Juliana in Canada. If that failed, she had ordered her private secretary to shoot her before the Germans captured her.

In London with no parliament, she now had power. The government-in-exile had to consider her views, get her approval, and submit to her overrules. She was out of her “cage.” She met every Dutch citizen who escaped to England and broadcast to her people in Holland. Her late night broadcasts were eagerly received by her people. who had to listen to them illegally.
After the war, she hoped for a government made up of people who had been active in the resistance, but was disappointed to see the same political factions as before the war. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

They Should Have Listened to Their King

King Haakon VII foresaw war in Europe if Hitler came to power. He repeatedly urged Norway’s political leaders to strength their defenses. They had a small, obsolete navy and an army with outdated weapons and one tank. Field maneuvers had been abolished to save money.

Sixty-seven-year-old Haakon had studied Hitler, even read Mein Kampf, and he knew his country would be in danger from Germany because of its strategic value with access to the North Atlantic and the Baltic Sea. Norway also possessed a vast merchant marine.
Norway had been at peace for more than a century, including during World War I, and intended to remain so. The political leaders ignored the king. They saw the monarchy as a useless relic they didn’t want.
England’s first lord of the admiralty, Winston Churchill, advocated Britain to take the offensive against Germany, but not on German soil or, of course, English soil. Instead, it should take place in Norwegian waters to stop the shipment of Sweden’s iron ore to Germany. He claimed they were fighting to protect the liberties of small countries.
On April 8, 1940, the British sowed mines along the Norwegian coast. The next day, the Germans attacked and occupied Norway.
The German minister met with Haakon and demanded Norway’s surrender. The king refused. After briefing his ministers, he informed them that if they capitulated, he would abdicate, renouncing the throne for himself and his family.
Many of the ministers had wanted to accept the German demands. The country was unprepared to fight. The king’s resolve, however, stopped all talk of surrender. His defiance stimulated resistance throughout the country.
 Hitler flew into a rage over Haakon’s resistance. The “petty king” of Norway must be tracked down and killed. For two weeks, the Germans bombed and strafed every place they thought the king and his government might be.
Having provoked the Germans, the British sent a force to help. They didn’t do any good. Knowing nothing about Norway, they relied on travel brochures. Routed after nine days, they evacuated. They did send a cruiser to retrieve the king, his ministers, and half of Norway’s gold.