THE BOMER MAFIA: A DREAM, A TEMPTATION, AND THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR by Malcom Gladwell


Curtis LeMay coffee or die
(Colonel Curtis LeMay officially congratulates a bomber crew of the 306th Bomb Group in front of their B-17 Flying Fortress at Chelveston Airfield, England, June 2, 1943)

For the last few years, the historiography of allied bombing during World War II has undergone much greater scrutiny.  The death and destruction of civilians and their property has been labeled as unethical and immoral as cities such as Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo and of course German bombing of allied cities experienced a level of violence that was unprecedented when compared to the pre-World War II era.  The role of technology in the process cannot be downplayed without which the carnage of war would not have reached the levels it did.  Malcom Gladwell, the spirited writer for The New Yorker normally explores the realm of social psychology, but in his latest work, THE BOMBER MAFIA: A DREAM, A TEMPTATION, AND THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR he turns his focus on to a group known as the “Bomber Mafia” that argued for a new type of bombing during wartime.   The group was made up of generals who went against the standard view of warfare put forth by the U.S. Army and Navy and broke away from the ideology of the Army Air Corps and set up the Army Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama.  Gladwell’s focus is on four generals particularly the much maligned Air Force General Curtis LeMay who led and designed American air power that culminated in the firebombing destruction of German and Japanese cities.

Gladwell creates the juxtaposition of Air Force General Haywood Hansell who tried to win the war in the Pacific Theater through precision bombing of Japan.  According to Gladwell this strategy was unsuccessful and gave way to LeMay’s approach whose goal was to win the war against Japan as soon as possible by saturating Tokyo with napalm bombs which would result in the death of over 100,000 people in just a few hours and went on to firebomb other Japanese cities killing thousands of civilians that held no strategic value.  Gladwell concludes that LeMay’s approach followed by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war and set the United States and Japan on the road to peace and prosperity much quicker than  had Washington pursued a more conventional approach to warfare into 1946 that would have killed millions of Japanese civilians and who knows how many American soldiers.

Firebombing Tokyo coffee or die
(The devastatiopon suffered by Tokyo March 9, 1945)

Gladwell’s work can be considered anti-revisionist or the new revisionism as without mentioning the likes of Gar Alperovitz’s ATOMIC DIPLOMACY, he purports that the United States pursued their strategy to end the war quickly and was not sending a message that would spark the Cold War.  Gladwell’s fascination with “bombing” during World War II stems from his childhood in London where his father recounted the horrors brought on by the German Luftwaffe over the English capitol and other cities.  As Gladwell mines his topic, he includes portraits of the most important characters involved.  Men like General Haywood Hansell; General Lauris Norstad who fired Hansell; General Curtis Le May; General Ira Eaker, the head of the 8th Air Force bombers stationed in England;  Frederick Lindemann, a friend of Churchill who helped alter the British Prime Minister’s view of strategic bombing; RAF Marshall Arthur Harris, who doggedly opposed the new American approach to bombing; Louis Fieser, a Harvard chemistry professor, who is credited with developing a Dupont chemical along with E.B. Hershberg and created an incendiary gel known as napalm; and perhaps the most important person in the process, Carl L. Norden, the inventor of the “bombsight” that allowed true precision bombing are all explored among a number of others.  Gladwell is correct when he argues that the firing of Hansell in Guam on January 6, 1945 set the United States on a strategic road that still reverberates today.

Gladwell states his goal in writing the book was to present what led up to the firing of Hansell, what changes were made, and how the shift in US strategy had implications for the war itself and the future conduct of warfare.  For Gladwell, “THE BOMBER MAFIA is a case study in how dreams go awry.”  A strategy designed to save lives during wartime in the end did not result in the goals set out by this group of Air Force Generals.   Instead, a Dutch genius and his home made computer who developed the 55 pound bombsight; a “band of brothers” in Alabama; a British psychopath; and pyromaniacal chemists in basement labs at Harvard were responsible for the creation of a weapon that still affects us on a daily basis.

Gladwell begins by explaining how difficult it is to successfully hit a target on the ground from thousands of feet in the air.  The key to solving this conundrum was the work of Carl Norden who began working on his bombsight in the 1920s.  After its development it would take six months to be trained on the Norden bombsight and if it were a success these powerful men thought we would no longer need to leave young men dead on the battlefield or lay waste to entire cities.  War would be made “precise and quick and almost bloodless.  Almost.”

Curtis LeMay coffee or die
(Brig. Gen. Thomas Power, right, senior officer on the March 10 attack on Tokyo by more than 300 B-29s, talks to Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, second from left, 21st Bomber Command commander, and Brig. Gen. Lauris Norstad, far left, 20th Air Force Chief of Staff, after returning from the attack that burned out huge areas of the Japanese capital)

The Bomber Mafia’s mantra was “high altitude.  Daylight.  Precision bombing.”  These men had a radical mind set much different than the army and navy and passionately believed that they were pursuing a revolutionary goal.  Gladwell explores this group with deft, but not overwhelming detail and to lighten the reader a bit he provides priceless descriptions of a number of characters.  The nicknames he provides labeling Arthur Harris as “Butcher Harris,” Carl Norden as “old man dynamite,” a devoted Christian who believed he was saving lives, Haywood Hansell was called possum, and Curtis LeMay was described as “brutal” by Robert McNamara as all provide insights to the type of people that Gladwell describes.

One of the major strengths of Gladwell’s narrative is how he integrates historical experts, World War II aviators, and comments by other participants providing the reader with greater insight than most into the thinking of the major characters.  These characters would be successful in their mission to end the war early but by 1943 they had hit a wall as disagreements with the British, missions that failed to live up to expectations, and inter-service rivalries played a role.  What is interesting is that LeMay was not part of the “Bomber Mafia” circle.  He was drawn to practical challenges and doctrine left him cold.

Maj. Gen. Hansell

(Major General Haywood Hansell)

Gladwell’s digressions are entertaining but also educational as he pontificates on weather technology, cloud formations and wind over Japan, along with descriptions of certain chemicals and their strengths and weaknesses.  One of those chemicals would lead to the development of napalm a discovery that probably did more to end the war than Norden’s bombsight.  Napalm was chosen by LeMay as the key component in devastating Japan and ending the war quickly.  Once he took over the 21st Bomber Command from Hansell in January 1945 he would soon realize the difficulties that Hansell faced and the obstacles in directing precision bombing against Japanese industrial capacity on the mainland.  LeMay changed American bombing strategy by adopting a low flying approach that was the antithesis of the Bomber Mafia’s methodology.  Gladwell’s chapter “It’s All Ashes” is an incisive look at how LeMay’s personality and modus operandi would lead to the events of the night of March 9, 1945.  Gladwell describes LeMay as suppressing his own nerves and fears as he focuses on the mission that ultimately dropped 1,665 tons of napalm on Tokyo over a three hour period burning everything for sixteen square miles and the death of over 100,000 people.  LeMay’s planes would continue to wreak havoc, death, and devastation on 67 Japanese cities killing at least 500,000 or perhaps 1,000,000 people before the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  After the atomic explosions LeMay continued to bomb Japanese cities as he believed the nuclear attacks were superfluous as the hard work had already been done.  One can debate the necessity for this type of devastation, but Gladwell is correct in arguing that it was so effective that it must be given credit for shortening the war.

In summation it is clear Gladwell has written an informative and important new slant on World War II bombing and I agree with historian, Diana Preston’s conclusions in her April 23, 2021 review in the Washington Post, “Gladwell does however confront us with difficult questions: “Ask yourself — What would I have done?” he suggests at one point. In so doing he has produced a thought-provoking, accessible account of how people respond to difficult choices in difficult times. Albert Einstein once warned that “our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Gladwell suggests that, given their concern not to cross a moral line, the Bomber Mafia would have approved of modern technical innovations like the B-2 stealth bomber, capable of precision strikes on military targets while minimizing civilian casualties. Yet ingenuity and conscience always sit uneasily in warfare, and Einstein’s warning should not be forgotten.”  But in the end Gladwell is correct as high altitude precision bombing soon replaced firebombing – “Curtis LeMay won the battle.  Haywood Hansell won the war.”

Curtis LeMay coffee or die
(B29s flying over Tokyo, March 9, 1945)

THE LIGHT OF DAYS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF WOMEN RESISTANCE FIGHTERS IN HITLER’S GHETTOS by Judy Batalion

(Crowds of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, Poland, 1942)

The role of women during the Holocaust be it their experiences in the death camps, participants in the resistance, and the effect of Nazi atrocities on the families of victims has not received the attention it should.  Five years ago, Sarah Helms’ Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women was published and provided numerous insights into what women experienced in the camps, but their role in the resistance has not received the serious treatment that needed to be afforded until now with the publication of Judy Batalion’s THE LIGHT OF DAYS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF WOMEN RESISTANCE FIGHTERS IN HITLER’S GHETTOS.   In her remarkable book Batalion has created a narrative that follows the exploits of a number of women who fought back against the Nazi genocide.  Batalion focuses on Renia Kuklieka, who was a courier for the Zionist youth organization; “Freedom,” Zivia Lubetkin, a “Freedom” leader in the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising;  Frumka Plotnicka, a “Freedom” comrade who led the fighting organization in Bedzin, Poland; and Vladka Meed, who rescued countless people from the Warsaw Ghetto and other acts of bravery and genius.    There are numerous other courageous women that Batalion brings to the reader’s attention and they all exhibit an unimaginable degree of courage, tenacity, and empathy as they confronted their situation on a daily basis.

Batalion tells her story through the eyes of numerous women through their personal experiences, first trying to maintain a degree of normalcy once the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.  They would continue their work with Zionist Youth organizations working to gain passage to Palestine, trying and manipulate the Judenrat, and training their members for what appeared to be a dismal and dangerous future.  Batalion examines the lives and personalities of these women and explores their character as they evolved into strategists, leaders, and carrying out dangerous missions.  Their bravery was unquestioned, and their work was rewarding in that they chose to return to Poland rather than emigrate to Palestine in order to contribute as much as possible to derail the Nazi machine.

Renia Kukiełka in Budapest, 1944

(Renia Kukiełka in Budapest, 1944)

The origin of the book stems from Batalion’s research into the life of Hannah Senesh, one of the few female resisters in World War II not lost to history.  While examining material in London’s British Library she came across a book written in Yiddish, FREUEN IN DI GHETTOS (WOMEN IIN THE GHETTOS) published in New York in 1946.  Up until that time Batalion and numerous others were unaware how many women were involved in the resistance effort, nor to what degree.  The stories recounted in the book speaks of women who engaged in violence, smuggling, gathering intelligence, committing sabotage, and engaging in combat.  This exposure to the heroism of these women led Batalion to pursue her narrative that resulted in LIGHT OF DAYS.

The core of female exploits originated from “female ghetto fighters”: underground operatives who emerged from Jewish youth group movements and worked in the ghettos.  These young women were combatants, editors of underground bulletins, and social activists.  The role that stands out is the contribution women made as “couriers,” disguised as non-Jews who traveled between locked ghettos and towns all across Poland smuggling people, cash, documents, information, and weapons, many of which they obtained themselves.  In addition, women fled into the forests and enlisted in partisan units, carrying out sabotage and intelligence missions.

Batalion has the uncanny ability to tell the personal stories of her protagonists uncovering their emotions, strengths, and private thoughts.  She presents the horrors of ghetto and camp life that the Nazis perpetrated very clearly.  She traces European anti-Semitism dating to the 19th century that culminated in Nazi atrocities.  German malice and sadism are on full display as they carried out Hitler’s Final Solution which made Renia and her compatriots sick and haunted from what they witnessed. For Jews anything they did or said at any moment could result in execution of themselves and their families.  Jews faced a dilemma even if they escaped the ghetto as their families would be eliminated in retaliation.  The options women faced were limited; stay and try to protect the community, run, fight, or flight.

Judy Batalion
(Judy Batalion)

Batalion accurately and poignantly describes life in the Warsaw, Bedzin, and Vilna Ghettos.  She examines people’s fears and coping strategies that were developed in order to survive from soup kitchens, autobiographical writings and meetings to share experiences, including medical care and cultural activities.  Batalion presents a vivid portrait of the role women played in the preparation for the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.  She delves into the acquisition of weapons, explosives, and other necessities including the training that women had undergone.  The end result was a disaster from a military point of view, but it provided Jews with self-respect as they achieved revenge against the Germans as they killed over 300 Nazi soldiers suffering over 13,000 deaths of their own.  Renia and others escaped to continue their goal of revenge against the Germans.

The resistance organizations that women were a part of were not uniform in their beliefs and strategies.  Batalion explains their differences from the left wing Zionist groups to the more religious Akiva organization.  The key for these groups was that they were led by individuals mostly in their late teens and late twenties who were committed to seeking vengeance against  the Nazis.   Batalion’s presentation allows the reader to get to know Renia who by 1944 was only 19 years old and her compatriots on a personal level in addition to their exploits on the battlefield.

Perhaps Batalion’s most powerful chapter, “The Courier Girls” offers a description that humanizes the women in a world of atrocities and genocide.  Her details of their preparation and missions are eye opening and for them life affirming.  Another important chapter, “Freedom in the Forests – Partisans” is well thought out as life in the forest was extremely difficult but the partisans accomplished a great deal.  They set up a village of underground huts which included printing and weapons capabilities, medical attention, a communication network, the accumulation of clothing and food, in addition to the work of the couriers.

Forged papers of Zivia Lubetkin. (Courtesy Agnes Grunwald-Spier)
(Zivia Lubetkin)

At times reading Batalion’s account is literary torture as she describes the use of sex as a means of exchange for survival, torture, rape and other perversions fostered by the Nazis.  This material is difficult to digest unless you realize the perpetrators were a version of animals.  How Renia and others did not lose their minds is beyond my comprehension.

Batalion’s narrative is somewhat bifurcated as she relates the actions of couriers, events in the ghettos, partisans in the forest, and preparation by all groups in seeking revolt and revenge against the Nazis.  On the other hand, her story is one of endurance and survival as she probes the daily travails women faced under the most ominous conditions including imprisonment, torture, and the constant fear of death.  A case in point is Renia’s capture resulting in constant torture and deportation to Auschwitz.  Her story is one of amazement as she would survive the camp by escaping, traveling across Slovakia, Hungary and Turkey and eventually arriving in Haifa, Palestine on March 3, 1944.

Batalion’s epilogue is important as she delves into why women were left out of the “history of resistance” for so long.  She focuses on the politics of the newly created state of Israel, how their role was viewed by American historians, the image of women needed to fit the policy and personal goals of the survivors, and why so many women “self-silenced.”  It is clear that an incalculable number of women suffered from survival guilt, nightmares, and post-traumatic stress syndrome after the war, and Battalion’s recounting of their role is important to set the historical record straight, but also to clarify the emotions the survivors felt and how the next generation views what they accomplished.  I agree with Sonia Purnell’s comments in her April 6, 2021 New York Times book review that a simpler narrative with fewer subjects might have been even more powerful.

(Warsaw Ghetto, 1942)

FALLOUT: THE HIROSHIMA COVERUP AND THE REPORTER WHO REVEALED IT TO THE WORLD by Lesley M.M. Blume

Hiroshima
The A-bomb Dome, which survived the 1945 atomic bombing on Hiroshima. 
Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

On August 6, 2020, the world commemorated the dropping of a “10,000 pound uranium bomb” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.  The weapon referred to as the atomic bomb unleashed the nuclear age and brought about the threat to human civilization.  According to journalist John Hersey the use of the bomb has kept the world safe from its use again because of the memories of the devastation unleashed on Hiroshima.

At the outset, the American government was open about the use of the weapon as President Harry Truman stated it was by far the largest bomb ever used in the history of warfare.  As time went on Washington began to clamp down on information circulating as to the effects of the bomb on the city’s landscape and its people.  Between 100-280,000 people may have died by the end of 1945, but the actual figure and its effects on future generations will never be known.  The government tried to convince its people that the atomic bomb was a conventional superbomb and ignored its radioactive aftermath.  The US military limited journalist access to the area to control its message, but reporter John Hersey was able to make his way to the site leading to his 30,000 word essay printed in the New Yorker magazine which ultimately became a book that millions of people have read since its publication in 1946.  The story of how Hersey gained access to Hiroshima and the impact of his writing is the back story of Lesley M.M. Blume’s provocative new book, FALLOUT: THE HIROSHIMA COVERUP AND THE REPORTER WHO REVEALED IT TO THE WORLD.

Leslie Groves.jpg(General Leslie M. Groves)

If the reader wonders why there was so little outrage over the use of the bomb one must keep in mind the need for revenge because of Pearl Harbor.  In addition, a war that produced the Holocaust, the Japanese rape of China, the eastern front, all contributed to the carnage on such an unprecedented scale that the public began to suffer from what Blume terms “atrocity exhaustion.”  According to Blume, Hersey’s goal was to drive home the gruesome reality of what occurred in Hiroshima and “create a work that would help restore a shared sense of humanity,” a difficult task considering the demonization and hatred that existed among the combatants and the societies that supported them.  The fallout from Hersey’s article was an embarrassment for the US government, but once the cover-up was blown, the reality of nuclear war would now be permanent.

Blume’s work is an important contribution to the literature that exists on the dropping of the bomb.  Hersey’s view of the bomb changed after the second one was dropped on Nagasaki.  The first he could rationalize, not the second which he saw as barbaric.  Almost immediately the US government began to limit information and journalistic access as reporters were forced into what Wilfred Burchett of the Daily Express described as a “press ghetto.”

Blume focuses a great deal on the role of the New Yorker magazine under the stewardship of its founder and editor, Harold Ross and the magazine’s deputy editor William Shawn and how they supported Hersey’s desire to go to Hiroshima and report on the human element of the bombing’s aftermath.  Providing important biographical information of each, Blume does an excellent job recounting their motivations, skill set, and ultimate triumph in eluding military censorship to bring the story to the public.

John Hersey at his desk, pen in hand, in the office at TIME. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Pix Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

(John Hersey)

Blume’s research is impeccable as she quotes General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, particularly his commentary that dying from radiation poisoning was not a bad way to die.  Comparing Hersey and Groves’ views is a useful tool that Blume employs throughout the book. Hersey’s approach to his reporting is based on a book by Thornton Wilder, THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY which detailed the lives of five people killed in Peru when a rope suspension bridge over a canyon broke.  After reading the book, Hersey admired how Wilder tracked the lead-up to the accident and how these people were led to that tragic moment.  Hersey’s research focused on how to connect with actual human faces; those belonging to a struggling widow and her three children, a young clerk, two doctors, a priest, and a pastor.  Hersey was lucky enough to establish relationships with Father Superior Hugo Lassalle, Father Wilhelm Kleinnsorge, and Reverend Kiyoshi Taminto upon his arrival in Hiroshima who introduced him to the 25-50 survivors he interviewed during his two weeks in the city.

Blume delves into the psychological component of the survivors in detail as they were confronted with the “atomic disease” that the bomb unleashed.  Hersey employed Japanese studies in addition to his own research as he avoided MacArthur’s attempts at repressing information.  An excellent source to consult on this aspect of the tragedy is Robert Jay Lifton’s classic, DEATH IN LIFE:SURVIVORS OF HIROSHIMA which describes Lifton’s work in Japan after the bombing.

The narrative brings the reader inside the New Yorker editorial room as Shawn and Ross edited the article and developed a strategy as to how it should be released.  Blume’s portrayal of Henry Luce of Time is priceless as the owner of the magazine could not tolerate Hersey, who at one time was his prodigal son and the New Yorker’s success.

Two aerial photos of atomic bomb mushroom clouds, over two Japanese cities in 1945
Atomic bomb mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)

Perhaps one of her best chapters, entitled “Aftermath” is eye opening as it portrays the military’s reaction to publication in the August 31, 1946 edition of the New Yorker and the lengths they went to counter act its influence as its cover-up was now in the open.  Former Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson penned a rebuttal, and President Truman went out of his way to justify the weapon’s use as the United States now had a “Hiroshima” image problem.  The US went from a global savior to a genocidal superpower in the eyes of many.  Despite the government’s counter arguments, Hersey had connected atomic war with actual human faces.  Once the magazine was released it sold out worldwide as did the book that was also published, fostering forever doubt as to whether the bomb should have been dropped.

Blume’s narrative is presented with an even prose that allows the reader to digest Hersey’s daring efforts and ultimate success in producing one of the most important books of the 20th century.  It is a story that has remained in the background for decades, and to Blume’s credit it has now been brought to the public’s attention.  FALLOUT provides powerful insights into the length’s governments will go to create a story that covers up real events and the means employed by a reporter to unearth the truth.

Hiroshima
(The A-Bomb Dome)

THE RATLINE: LOVE, LIES, AND JUSTICE ON THE TRAIL OF A NAZI FUGITIVE by Philippe Sands

The twisting tale of the career and flight of Otto von Wächter sounds like something that would make a superb film or a TV box set. Photo / Horst Wächter

(Otto Wachter)

Who was Otto Wachter?

According to the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal at the conclusion of World War II he served as Hans Frank, the Governor-General of occupied Poland’s deputy, the Governor-General of Krakow, and a number of other positions in the SS and SD in Austria.  He was indicted for mass murder of at least 100,000 people, if not thousands upon thousands more.  Wachter is the subject of Philippe Sands latest book, THE RATLINE: LOVE, LIES, AND JUSTICE ON THE TRAIL OF A NAZI FUGITIVE, the “Ratline” was an organization that Wachter and the likes of Adolf Eichmann, Joseph Mengele, Klaus Barbie, and countless others used as an escape route out of Europe as the war ground to a close.  Sands builds upon his previous book EAST WEST STREET: ON THE ORIGINS OF ‘GENOCIDE’ AND ‘CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY” were he wove together the story of his quest to uncover family secrets in the Ukrainian city of Lviv in the 1940s and the Nuremberg tribunal after World War II.  The route Sands describes, known as the “Ratline” was popularized in Frederick Forsyth’s THE ODESSA FILE, and thoroughly researched by Uki Goni, an Argentinian researcher in his book, THE REAL ODESSA and other monographs exploring how Nazis were able to avoid justice, the most important of which was Gerald Steinacher’s NAZIS ON THE RUN.  These works among many other titles uncover the role of the Vatican, the governments of Argentina, the United States, Switzerland among a host of countries each for its own reasons assisted former Nazis in their attempts to avoid prosecution.

Sands, a British and French lawyer, and Professor of Laws at the University College London is the author of seventeen books dealing with international law, many of which focus on the concept of genocide.  In his latest effort Sands traces the life of Otto Wachter, with special emphasis on his marriage to Charlotte Wachter, as he rose through the Nazi Party ranks, first in Vienna and later in Germany landing in his positions in occupied Poland.  After recounting his subjects’ Nazi career, he follows his attempts to avoid justice as he meanders his way employing the Ratline from 1945 to 1949.   Sands research is noteworthy as one of his main sources was through the relationship, he established with Wachter’s fourth child, Horst.  Through a series of interviews that resulted in a 2013 article for the Financial Times, Sands was able to extract a great deal of documentation dealing with the family from his mother’s diary, copiously kept from 1925, except at times when it came to the atrocities her husband was involved in.   But what must be kept in mind during Sands’ quest to decipher the life of a man on the run, and his wife’s attempts to help him; can be described as some sort of a “Nazi love story!”

Lawyer, humanitarian, and writer Philippe Sands. (Wikimedia Commons)

(Philippe Sands, author)

Horst was adamant during their many conversations that his father had done nothing wrong.  Horst argued that “his father was not responsible for any crimes…Rather, he was an ‘endangered heretic’ in the National Socialist system, opposed to racial and discriminatory actions applied in the German-occupied territories of Poland and Ukraine.”  His father was “an individual, a mere cog in a powerful system, part of a larger criminal group.”  Horst did not deny the horrors of the Holocaust and saw the process as criminal, but he did not think his father’s actions were criminal.

Sands does a remarkable job piecing together Wachter’s personal life and SS/SD career.  He takes the reader through the important events in Europe culminating with the Anschluss (union) between Austria and Germany and the role played by Horst’s god father Arthur Seyss-Inquart who served as Chancellor of Austria after it was taken over by Hitler’s forces.  Following the Anschluss, Wachter’s career advanced rapidly as he starts out as a lawyer in the Criminal Division of the SD ending up as Governor of Krakow were he implemented the creation of the Jewish ghetto for the city, the execution of numerous Poles, and advanced the process of Jewish deportation to the concentration camps.

Sands interest in Wachter is deeply personal as his grandfather, Leon Bucholz who lived in Lemberg, Galicia was deported from the city to his death during the Holocaust.  Between 1942 and 1944 Wachter was installed as Governor of the District of Galicia and supervised the city of Lemberg and probably signed the death warrant of Sands’ grandfather.

Horst Wächter

 Horst Wächter: ‘I do not return the objects for me, but for the sake of my mother.’

The most important  aspect of the book revolves around the 1945-1949 period.  This period comes to light once Horst agreed to make available his mother’s archive.  After the material was digitized Sands had access to “8677 pages of letters, post cards, diaries, photographs, news clippings, and official documents.” This required a painstaking act of reconstruction and interpretation that evolved over a number of years.  The result was detailed information how Charlotte Wachter assisted her husband even though she believed she was under surveillance.  Charlotte Wachter was the only reason Otto survived along with the vast network that supported him in the Austrian mountains in the Lower Tauerin area.

What becomes clear as the narrative unfolds is no matter how much documentation to the contrary concerning his father’s culpability in the death of thousands, Horst refuses to accept his guilt.  No matter how many interviews with people who were involved, scholars etc., Horst remained adamant.  As Otto Wachter came down out of the mountains and left for Rome in late April 1949, he took on the identity of Alfredo Reinhardt and would make his way to a monastery in Rome called Vigna Pia where Catherine Wachter sent money, clothes, and other survival necessities.  After living in the monastery for three months, Otto Wachter would die of a liver ailment leading to Sands’ investigation of how he died.  Horst was convinced that he was poisoned, probably by the Soviet Union, or perhaps by the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, or even the Americans.

The last third of the book is spent analyzing Otto’s death.  What emerges is documentation of the role of a number of individuals, two of which stand out, Bishop Alois Hudal and SS Major Karl Hass.  It is clear from the evidence that Hudal was a focal figure in the escape of a number of important Nazis employing the “Ratline” and contacts within the Vatican.  Hass is an example of former Nazis that were used by the United States after the war in the developing Cold War with the Soviet Union.  Interestingly, he would escape and turn up working for the United States Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) on Project Los Angeles in Rome recruiting spies to be used against the Italian Communist Party.  It is clear from the evidence that  Otto was in contact with Hass right before he died.  Horst was certain that Hass might have been the double agent who murdered his father.

Black and white portrait photograph of Hudal

(Alois Hudal)

As Sands investigates the last three months of Otto’s life, he pieces together his movements and who assisted him with life’s necessities and the forged documents to survive.  What cannot be questioned is that Charlotte Wachter, Nazi acquaintances, and others from the Vatican were Otto’s prime enablers, many of which facilitated the “Ratline” for others like Walter Rauff, Joseph Mengele, Franz Stangl, Erich Priebke, Karl Hass, and others.  In effect Otto Wachter walked in the footsteps of his “old Nazi comrades.”

Sands has composed a remarkable historical detective story, bordering on a “thriller.”  Through the life of the Wachters, the Nazi “Ratline” comes into full focus, in addition to how Otto Wachter’s actions, a man who oversaw numerous atrocities during the war was not accepted by his son Horst.  As a result, the book has a great deal to offer about the mindset of a Nazi murderer, but also the lengths people went to, to allow him to maintain his freedom.

(Otto and Charlotte Wachter and their children))

THE LAST MISSION TO TOKYO: THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF THE DOOLITTLE RAIDERS AND THEIR FINAL FIGHT FOR JUSTICE by Michel Paradis

(Doolittle and his crew were the first off the deck of the Hornet. L to R: Lt. Henry A. Potter, Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, SSgt. Fred A. Braemer, Lt. Richard Cole, SSgt. Paul J. Leonard.)

The shock of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the morning of December 7, 1941 left Americans calling for revenge for the 2,403 Americans who were killed, and over 1000 wounded.    Eighteen ships were sunk or run aground, including five battleships. All of the Americans killed or wounded during the attack were legally non-combatants, given that there was no state of war when the attack occurred.  The American response came in the form of the Doolittle Raid on April 18, 1942 as sixteen B-25 “Billy Mitchell Army bombers” were launched without fighter escort from the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier USS Hornet deep in the Western Pacific Ocean, each with a crew of five men. The plan called for them to bomb military targets in Japan and to continue westward to land in China, at sites prepared by Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces in China. The bombing raid killed about 50 people, including civilians, and injured 400. Fifteen aircraft reached China, but all crashed, while the 16th landed at Vladivostok in the Soviet Union. The attack provided the American people, the military, and the Roosevelt administration with a measure of satisfaction and a victory for US morale.  Of the eight men who survived and imprisoned by the Japanese, three were executed and five had their sentences reduced to life in prison by Emperor Hirohito.

Chase Nielsen

The story of the Doolittle Raid and the plight of the survivors is effectively portrayed in Michel Paradis’ new book, THE LAST MISSION TO TOKYO: THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF THE DOOLITTLE RAIDERS AND THEIR FINAL FIGHT FOR JUSTICE.  Paradis himself was a Pentagon lawyer who defended detainees held by the American military at Guantanamo Bay provides intimate details of the men who conducted the raid, their training and planning, and ultimately narrates the trial of the Japanese perpetrators of

(Chase Jay Neilson)

the execution of William Farrow, Dean Hallmark, and Harold Spatz along with the death of Lt. Robert J. Meder and the torture of George Barr, Chase Neilson, Robert Hite, and Jacob De Shazer.  Paradis’ research is impeccable as he mines the transcripts of the war crimes trial in Shanghai of the Japanese accused of responsibility for the executions and torture.  He prepares the reader with the background of the raid and delves into how Major Robert Dwyer and Lt. Colonel John Hendren, Jr., two JAG lawyers under the leadership of Colonel Edward “Ham” Young prosecuted the case against the Japanese perpetrators defended by Lt. Colonel Edmund Bodine who was not trained as a lawyer, and Captain Charles Fellows, a corporate lawyer from Tulsa, OK.

The trial in Shanghai was significant because it was seen as a dry run for the more important trials in Tokyo that included the prosecution of Hedeki Tojo, Japan’s Prime Minister and Minister of War, among others.  As far as Dwyer was concerned what transpired in the Shanghai trial would set precedents for what would take place in Tokyo.  After observing the trial of General Tomoyuki Yamashita in Manila Dwyer would develop the concept of command responsibility – making commanders responsible for war crimes committed by their subordinates.   As Commander of the Japanese 13th Army Lt. General Shigeru Sawada would be held responsible of the actions of those who conducted the trial and execution of the three Doolittle Raiders.  Dwyer would also prosecute the three Japanese judges who oversaw the 20 minutes to a half hour trial of the American flyers.

(General Douglas MacArthur coming ashore at Leyte in 1944)

Paradis follows the twists and turns of the prosecution and defense strategies during the Shanghai trial introducing new legal theories dealing with war crimes and its ultimate outcome.  Paradis also explores the lives of the men on both sides.  The Japanese officers who were culpable, the Doolittle Raiders, and the judges involved.  The author delves into Japanese culture and how it related to their actions.  For the Japanese, their argument was simple, the Doolittle Raiders had attacked civilians and were conducting a guerilla war from the air which made it a matter of honor and a war crime against the Japanese people thus justifying the executions.  The legal battle between Dwyer and Bodine is on full display with Paradis capturing the emotions exhibited by both sides.

Paradis brings out many salient points, perhaps most important were the bureaucratic roadblocks placed in front of Dwyer as General MacArthur seemed more concerned with “the occupation” and recreating Japan in his own image rather than the Shanghai trial.  MacArthur saw many Japanese officers who would be put on trial as possible allies, not war criminals in his effort to “Americanize” the new Japanese system of government.

Michel Paradis

(Author, Michel Paradis)

Paradis’ approach to his subject differs from Ted Lawson’s THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO and James Scott’s TARGET TOKYO as he focuses a great deal on the procedural aspects of a war crimes trial, and as Gary Bass states in his New York Times  review, “Trying the Japanese for War Crimes,” he “offers a more troubling history than some triumphalist American chronicles of the Doolittle Raid,” as the defense lawyers presented a much stronger case than expected casting doubt on witness statements and suggesting that the American pilots may have committed a war crime.  Paradis’ strength is that he has a “keen sense of the injustices, vagaries, and ironies of war crimes trials.”  Bass “notes that Doolittle instructed his airmen to avoid nonmilitary targets. Yet his book makes it uncomfortably clear that they may well have killed Japanese civilians. To this day, Japanese commemorate the strafing of an elementary school in eastern Tokyo during the Doolittle raid, where a 13-year-old boy was killed.”

Paradis has written an exceptional narrative that delves into a number of controversial issues.  Further, he deserves credit for uncovering details and analysis that are sound and had not seen the light of day previously.  If you are interested in the topic it is a worthwhile read.

Jimmy Doolittle

(Colonel Jimmy Doolittle)

THE IMPECCABLE SPY: RICHARD SORGE, STALIN’S MASTER AGENT by Owen Matthews

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1985-1003-020, Richard Sorge.jpg

(Richard Sorge)

As early as April 1941 British intelligence informed Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin of German intentions to discard the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 and invade Russia.  Stalin seemed to ignore those warnings and others as he would do on June 21, 1941 when London once again warned him of the impending German attack.  Unbeknownst to many in Europe Stalin did take certain precautions, for example, relocating Soviet industry east of the Ural Mountains and certain military accommodations as he had read MEIN KAMPF and believed eventually war with Germany was inevitable.  By November 1941, the German onslaught would be stymied outside of Moscow as Owen Matthews relates in his superb biography, AN IMPECCABLE SPY: RICHARD SORGE STALIN’S MASTER SPY.

Richard Sorge was a fascinating character and had the personality traits, the skills of a chameleon, and intellect to ingratiate himself with diverse types of people, manipulate them, and gather and cull intelligence.  In fact, at one time he was spying for the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany simultaneously.  He eventually became embedded with German and Japanese officials, military types, and others which allowed him to gather intelligence to play a crucial role in saving the Soviet Union from a disaster in 1941 and enabled Stalin and his countrymen to defeat the Nazis is 1945.  Sorge survived for nine years as a spy in Tokyo.  He was able “to steal the most closely kept military and political secrets of both Germany and Japan while hiding in plain sight.”

(Joseph Stalin)

Matthews main thesis revolves around Stalin’s need to know whether Japan would attack the Soviet Union.  Once Sorge provided the answer he moved Soviet troops from the east to block the Nazis in the west.  Without that knowledge and troop movements the course of the war would have been quite different.  What is fascinating despite the value of his intelligence he turned over to his handler’s Soviet intelligence chiefs did not trust him and as a result were very wary of the information he sent until after the Nazi invasion.  It must always be kept in mind that during the Stalinist period that was dominated by Stalin’s paranoia with show trials and purges leading to the execution of thousands Sorge was able to navigate the intelligence minefield to survive until arrested by the Japanese in 1941 and executed in 1943.

If Matthews were a novelist, it would be difficult to create a character like Richard Sorge.  His personality and lifestyle make it difficult for any biographer.  Sorge lived most of his life in the shadow world where his survival depended upon secrecy.  Despite this need he was an extrovert and in many ways an exhibitionist who manipulated people, was a womanizer, and at times could be considered an alcoholic who saw himself as an intellectual who believed he should be an academic.  One of the best sources for Sorge must be taken with a grain of salt.  Once arrested by the Japanese he admitted to an idealized version of his life to interrogators.  He left an extensive correspondence with Moscow and numerous letters to his wife Katya, along with his journalistic and academic writings left quite a record.  Matthews summarizes Sorge well describing him as a man with three faces.  One face was that of a social lion, “the outrageously indiscreet life of the party, adored by women and friends.  His second, secret, face was turned to his masters in Moscow.  And the third, the private man of high principles and base appetites living in a world of lies, he kept mostly to himself.”

image

(Agnes Smedley)

Matthews traces Sorge’s life growing up mostly in Berlin, his experiences in World War I that turned him into a socialist because of what he experienced and eventually a true believer in communism.  Matthews explains in a clear fashion how he grew more and more convinced in his own radicalization and how he was recruited by the Comintern which was developed by Lenin to help spread world revolution.  However, after Lenin died in 1924 and Stalin seized power it became a vehicle to protect the Soviet Union.  Matthews carefully lays out Sorges evolution intellectually from WWI to his move to Moscow in 1924.

Matthews is highly effective in relating numerous tidbits about Sorge personally and events in Germany, Russia, and Japan during his subject’s intelligence career, i.e., sharing lodgings during his training as a spy with Chou En-Lai and Josip Broz Tito, providing details about the internal competition between military and civilian elements in Japan, the thought processes of different historical figures, and other examples.  Sorge’s cover was as a journalist and commentator throughout his career.  This afforded him exposure to important decision makers and helped develop sources for his spy networks.

Matthews offers a wonderful description of Shanghai in the early 1930s, a city that consisted of bordellos, drugs, banking, trade – “the pleasurable city.”  Shanghai was nicknamed the “whore of the orient” where gangsters and warlords mixed with bankers and journalists.  With no residence permit for foreigners it was Asia’s espionage capitol.  The city was used as a hiding place for members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to escape persecution from Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang.  Sorge used his base in Shanghai to ingratiate himself with German military officers who trained the Kuomintang.  Eventually Sorge’s best sources as he built his network were Nazis and military types.  He assumed the role of a “debauched bourgeoisie expatriate,” a role he played well.

The author discusses many of the important figures in Sorge’s life and intelligence work.  Agnes Smedley, an American socialist and journalist who had access to the CCP was recruited by Sorge and plays a prominent role in the creation of the Shanghai network.  Max Christiane-Clausen became Sorge’s radio operator when he moved on to Tokyo was invaluable as was Hotsumi Ozaki who had excellent contacts in the Japanese Consulate in Shanghai and eventually joined Sorge in Tokyo, along with businessmen and officials in the Kuomintang.  Yotoku Miyagi, a young artist from Okinawa developed into an excellent member of the Tokyo network.  Later Eugen Ott, a senior member of the German embassy in Tokyo as a senior military attaché and eventually replaced Herbert Dirksen as German ambassador to Japan was an exceptional source.

Eugen Ott (ambassador) Stock Photo

(Eugen Ott)

For Stalin, Sorge was able to provide information on Japanese expansionism particularly his fear of an attack against Russia.  Matthews follows developments within the Kwantung Army and Japanese civilians and how it impacted Sorge’s work.  Stalin feared the anti-Comintern pact of Japan, Germany, and Italy and his paranoia would lead to the purges.  In an important chapter, “Bloodbath in Moscow” Matthews lays out the impact of the show trials that led to the executions of Lev Kamenev and Grogiry Zinoviev, 1.6 million arrests, and 700,000 executions, the gutting of the Soviet officer corps, the intelligence community, and other officials.  It is fascinating how Sorge navigating the atmosphere in Moscow in the late 1930s was able to survive.  Later, Sorge concluded he was trapped in Tokyo as war became obvious and worked to meet Moscow’s needs which centered on the fear of a German-Japanese alliance which would surround the Soviet Union and making sure Hitler attacked anyone except Russia.

Hanako Miyake

(Katya Sorge)

Matthews is correct when he argues that Hitler did not believe Japan would make a good ally because of his own racial proclivities seeing them as inferior.  This became the impetus for the August 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact.  In addition, fighting broke out on the Soviet-Mongolian border between Japanese and Russian forces called the Nomohan incident which would have a profound impact on the Second World War.  Tokyo kept the fighting localized as it did not want to fight Russia and the ongoing war in China at the same time.  The Kwantung armies influence would be strengthened as they pushed for expansion against their Asian neighbors and leave Russia alone.  This would lead to trying to remove the British and American fleets as a threat as they engaged in trying to create a “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

Matthews does a good job describing the planning and machinations emanating from Berlin, Tokyo, and Moscow as the date of the Nazi invasion approached throughout the Spring 1941 culminating in the German onslaught on June 22, 1941 along with the reaction of the major principals involved.  Stalin’s attitude during the entire period was one of distrust believing that what he was received was misinformation designed to weaken the Soviet Union.  Information contrary to his beliefs like what he received from Sorge can be summed up in his comment that “you can send your ‘source’ from headquarters of German aviation to his fucking mother.  This is not a source but a dezinformator – a dis-informer.”  By June 1941, the powers that be in the Kremlin had turned a deaf ear to Sorge’s reports/warnings.  Sorge grew depressed as more and more he was ignored.

Jonathan Steele in his The Guardian review of May 16, 2019 agrees with Matthews that “Sorge recognized that Hitler’s invasion of the USSR was a major blunder for the Nazis, and he came close to revealing his true loyalties by shouting in front of his German colleagues that the idiot had lost the war. He had greater success in signaling the inevitability of war between the US and Japan three months before it happened. He did not predict the assault on Pearl Harbor but his report on Japan’s decisive shift of focus to conquests in the south allowed Stalin not to move troops to Siberia but make them available to block the Germans from moving further east into Russia.”

Steele concludes that “in the Brezhnev and Andropov eras in the 1970s and 80s, Sorge became a Soviet hero with a flood of books about him, even though he had been totally abandoned in 1941 when he was arrested in Tokyo. He had hoped the Soviet authorities would press the Japanese to let him go back to Moscow, but the Kremlin betrayed the man who had done so much for it. No effort was made to save him.” Overall Matthews’ book is a spy thriller that doubles as an enthralling history of revolutionary Germany in the 1920s, Tokyo during the country’s prewar militarization, and Moscow in the 1930s, where Stalin’s mass terror consumed, among others, seven of Sorge’s military intelligence bosses, and Sorge’s ability to accumulate and transmit important intelligence through a series of networks he and his cohorts created.  Matthews provides many insights into Sorge’s work and his impact on events and if you are a general reader or a spy aficionado this book should prove very satisfying.

(Richard Sorge)

 

HANNS AND RUDOLF: THE TRUE STORY OF THE GERMAN JEW WHO TRACKED DOWN AND CAUGHT THE KOMMANDANT OF AUSCHWITZ by Thomas Harding

Rudolf Höß crop.jpg

(Rudolf Hoss)

After World War II a small coterie of individuals morphed into Nazi hunters.  From Simon Wiesenthal to agents of the Israeli Mossad their mission was to capture and bring the Nazi perpetrators to justice.  This has produced numerous books about their exploits in the form of memoirs, narratives about the role of governments, and certain individuals.  Of these individuals many remain unknown and little has been written.  Thomas Harding introduces us to Hanns Alexander, a German refugee and British serving officer who should be considered part of the pantheon of Nazi Hunters in his book HANNS AND RUDOLF: THE TRUE STORY OF THE GERMAN JEW WHO TRACKED DOWN AND CAUGHT THE KOMMANDANT OF AUSCHWITZ.

The format chosen by the author is a series of alternating chapters telling the life stories of the two men, at times in detail, and at times in a more cursory manner.  Beginning with Rudolf Hoss, the future Kommandant of Auschwitz we learn about a dismal childhood and a bigoted and fanatical father, along with a distant mother.  Hoss would enlist in the army at the age of fourteen during World War I serving mostly in Iraq and Palestine.  After the war Hoss would join the Freikorps which were irregular German military volunteer units that existed from the 18th to the early 20th centuries, which effectively fought as mercenary or private armies.   The Freikorps fought against communists in Latvia and also joined in the so-called Kapp Putsch. The Kapp Putsch was a right-wing coup that sought to end the Weimar Republic in March 1920. The revolt resulted in failure.  Hoss was also involved with the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923 which resulted in his imprisonment and being charged with murdering a “right wing” traitor.

By 1928, Hoss was released from prison and became enamored by Adolf Hitler. He married and hoped for an idyllic rural lifestyle.  Hoss would join the Atamanen League  under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler in Bavaria.  Himmler took Hoss under his wing and by 1933 he joined the SS and became a supervisor at Dachau and developed what Dachau Kommandant, Theodor Eicke called an “attitude of hatred.”  By 1936 he was promoted to SS-LT and became part of the camp administration and began his bifurcated life of rural family life and the demands of concentration camp work.  By 1938 he was transferred to Sachsenhausen to be adjutant to the camp Kommandant, Hermann Baranowski.

Harding carefully recreates Hoss’ slow rise up the Nazi camp bureaucracy and at each step his responsibilities would increase.  By 1940 he was the Kommandant at Sachsenhausen and by April of that year he was tasked to oversee the construction of Auschwitz overcoming numerous obstacles to build the camp.  Due to a lack of food and sanitation Hoss adopted the drastic methods used at Dachau and Sachsenhausen including euthanizing thousands, mass shootings with burials in huge ditches, starvation, etc.  In the summer of 1941 Himmler informed Hoss about the Final Solution and between 1940 and 1944 he would witness the arrival of 1.3 million prisoners at Auschwitz.  Of these some 1.1 million that perished, 1 million were Jews.  Auschwitz had over 1 thousand guards and at any given time held 80,000 prisoners.  After a short assignment to straighten out Sachsenhausen he returned to Auschwitz in May 1944 to oversee “Aktion Hoss,” the extermination of Hungarian Jewry.  Within a year Hoss’ world fell apart and he realized he had to escape leaving his family in Flensburg took assuming the identity of a dead German sailor and hoped to disappear.

 

 Hanns Alexander

(Hanns Alexander)

 

Hanns Alexander came from a not especially religious upper-class Jewish family in Berlin where his father, a physician built a successful medical practice.  Throughout his childhood he was surrounded by Berlin’s most successful and powerful people and his father was one of the city’s foremost physicians.  As long as the Weimar Republic survived the Alexander family did well.  Hanns and his twin brother Paul were precocious boys who even into adulthood loved to play pranks.  However, their world began to come undone with the rise of the Nazi Party and Hitler’s assumption of the German Chancellorship in 1933.  Slowly the noose was tightened around the family as Dr. Alexander’s medical practice was gutted by Nazi racial laws and they witnessed the actions of bullies and thugs on Berlin’s street against Jews.  Dr. Alexander, like many assimilated Jews believed the violence was temporary and it would soon pass, and normality would resume.  Much to his chagrin this was not the case and the family left Berlin in a piece meal fashion for England.

On a visit to London to see his daughter and grandchild in 1936 Dr. Alexander learned he was on a Gestapo list and sought refuge in England.  Later in the year with the Olympics being publicized emigration laws were eased and the twins Hanns, and Paul, 19 years old left Germany, followed months later by their mother.  With the arrival of war in 1939 both boys decided to enlist but since they were German refugees, they were part of a large group that was suspected of possibly being spies.  It took Hanns months to prove he was not and in December 1939 he joined the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps created to make use of thousands of German refugees against Hitler.  Training was mostly non-military and his assignment consisted of manual labor in support of the army.  He would be sent to France and was part of the 300,000 British soldiers who were saved at Dunkirk.  Hanns realized the only way he would be treated with respect was to become an officer. And in January 1943 he was accepted as part of the Officer Cadet Training Unit and after real training landed at Normandy in June 1944.  His role was to translate for the interrogation of captured German officers.

<p>The <a href="/narrative/9934/en">defendants</a> listen as the prosecution begins introducing documents at the <a href="/narrative/9366/en">International Military Tribunal</a> trial of war criminals at Nuremberg. November 22, 1945.</p>

(The Nuremberg Trials)

It is at this point, about two-thirds into the narrative the book takes an especially important turn as Harding finally deals with Hanns’ work as a “Nazi hunter.”  If there is a major criticism of Harding’s work is that he spends too much time providing the comparative background of his major characters and not enough dealing with events following the defeat of the Nazis, in an addition to a number of historical issues and editing.  First, he relies too heavily on Hoss’ prison memoir composed in Poland as he awaited trial.  As historian David Cesarani points out in a The Independent, 4 October 2013 book review there are numerous examples of Hoss’ jumbled approach to historical detail, not to mention his deliberate attempt to shift blame.  Further his reliance on Gustav Gilbert and Leon Goldensohn’s psychological profile  seems to soft peddle Hoss’ ideological formation, training, and socialization of the SS.  Harding states that Dachau was the first concentration camp, not so, it was first built as a camp for political prisoners and a model for what later camps would become.  Harding also states that Auschwitz was located in “rural isolation,” in fact it was a busy town next to a major railroad junction.  Harding’s description of Zykon B gas (it was not an insecticide but used to exterminate lice on clothing) and its application in showers is another misstatement as it was not “poured out of false shower heads,” when it resulted in death from pellets dropped into a tube or onto the chamber floor through an opening.

The key for Hanns was translating for the interrogation of Josef Kramer, Hoss’ former adjutant.  His trial in September 1945, “The Belsen trial of Josef Kramer and 44 others” became a dry run for the Nuremberg Trials.  Following Kramer’s conviction Hanns received permission to hunt for uncaptured war criminals.  He was promoted to Captain and was now a fully-fledged British war crimes investigator, not just a German refugee who helped with translations.

According to John Le Carrie, Hanns’ hunt for Hoss reads like a spy novel.  True, as the last 50 pages plus traces Hanns’ pursuit of Hoss, even though the reader is completely aware of how the story will end, Rudolf Hoss hanging from the gallows in 1947.  Harding follows Hoss’ movements, contact with his family, his final capture, interrogation, as a witness at the Nuremberg Trials,  and trial in Poland in detail and forms the most important aspect of the narrative.  In addition, Hanns Alexander happens to be the authors great-uncle and he devoted six years of research to finally tell his story, an important one, but one that could have been organized better with improved editing.

 

 Rudolf Hoss

(Rudolf Hoss)

THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE: A SAGA OF CHURCHILL, FAMILY, AND DEFIANCE DURING THE BLITZ by Erik Larson

Standing out of the flames and smoke of surrounding blazing buildings, St Paul's Cathedral during the great fire raid in London.

(The bombing of London during the WWII “Blitz”)

Living at a time when leadership seems to be severely lacking with a president who enacts his personal agenda seemingly on a daily basis when people are dying is eye opening and ultimately a tragedy.  In times like this it is important to examine historical leadership that is grounded in fact and strength of personality.  Leadership during times of crisis is of the utmost importance be it a pandemic, wartime, economic or weather-related catastrophes.  The public needs to rely on someone to step up and provide honest and factual information with direction to mitigate people’s anxiety and provide hope for the future.  Examining the aerial atrocities committed by the Germans during World War II over London, Coventry and other English cities in late 1940 and early 1941 is a case in point.  Winston Churchill the newly appointed Prime Minister would rise to the occasion through his wisdom, wit, and force of personality and provide the British people a degree of solace.  Erik Larson’s latest book, THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE: A SAGA OF CHURCHILL, FAMILY, AND DEFIANCE DURING THE BLITZ successfully captures Churchill’s role and the courage of the British people in that moment and builds upon his series of historical narratives that ranges from hurricanes, murder in Edwardian London, a serial killer in Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893, the sinking of the Lusitania, to the rise of the Nazis.

In his current work Larson explores “the year in which Churchill became Churchill, the cigar smoking bulldog we all think we know…and showed the world what courage and leadership looked like.”  Larson has produced a workmanlike synthesis of events, policies, and personalities of the time period though he does not add a great deal that is new for historians.  What Larson does accomplish is a synthesis of information and sources focusing on many individuals that seem to fall through the cracks in other historical monographs.

Wikimedia Commons

(Sir Winston Churchill)
Larson’s grasp of the most salient historical points is evident for all to see.  Churchill’s obsession with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s thoughts serves as a background to most of Churchill’s actions.  Churchill is fully aware that England cannot defeat the Nazis without American equipment and financing and finally their entrance into the war.  Larson describes the political and personal machinations of FDR and Churchill in traditional fashion as he labors through the Destroyer-Base Deal and Lend-Lease as the United States slowly become more and more of a belligerent.  Larson’s description of the visit of Harry Hopkins, perhaps FDR’s closest ally and friend to England for four weeks in January, 1941 is a case in point as Churchill rolled out the red carpet to flatter and convince Hopkins to support American aid to England and encourage the eventual entrance of the United States into the war.
Everyday English citizens are presented through their daily lives and travails as they confronted by the German “Blitz.”  In addition, Larson takes figures like “Jock” Colville, Churchill’s reluctant private secretary and drills down exploring aspects of their lives in detail.  In Colville’s case the unrequited love he pursues in the name of Gay Margesson, a student at Oxford, supplemented by his important role by Churchill’s side.  Others explored include Pamela Churchill who had the unfortunate task of being married to Churchill’s son Randolph, an alcoholic, gambler, and philanderer.  Mary Churchill, the prime Minister’s eighteen-year-old daughter provides an interesting perspective of an upper-class youth through her diary entries.  More importantly Larson pursues the role of Max Aiken, better known as Lord Beaverbrook, a newspaper magnate who performs miraculous work increasing British airplane production at the newly created Ministry of Aircraft Production as well as serving as Churchill’s closest friend and alter ego.  Frederick “Prof” Lindemann , an Oxford Physicist assesses the world with “scientific objectivity” who Churchill brought into government to deal with German technology and efforts to counter the damage it caused.  The marriage of Sir Harold Nicholson, Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister for Information and his marriage to the writer Vita Sackville-West receives a great deal of attention.  Churchill’s bodyguard Detective Inspector Walter Henry Thompson provides numerous nuggets of information.  Mass-Observation diarist Olivia Cockett chronicles many of the horrors resulting from the German onslaught.   There are of course portraits of the military types like Major-General Hastings “Pug” Ismay, the Military Chief of Staff and political figures such as Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, who is then shuffled off to Washington as ambassador to remove a political threat to the Prime Minister’s leadership.  Characters abound and Larson has the knack of providing just the right amount of detail to make them interesting in of themselves for the reader.

TIME Magazine Cover: Lord Beaverbrook -- Nov. 28, 1938

If Churchill was obsessed with FDR, Adolf Hitler was obsessed with Churchill.  In Larson’s accurate rendition of the Hitler-Churchill enmity, the Fuhrer did not want to go to war with England at first.  He wanted to negotiate a deal that would be somewhat satisfactory to Churchill to end England’s adversarial role toward Germany so he could concentrate on lebensraum, living space is the east against Russia.  When Churchill refused to comply, Hitler unleashed the German Luftwaffe led by Hermann Goring against England to knock them out of the war.  At times a cartoonish, despicable, and insidious figure, Goring did all he could to raze English cities like Coventry to create the terror that would force the English people to remove Churchill and replace him with a more pliable figure.  Hitler and Goring could never quite comprehend why Churchill refused to give up based on the physical and psychological damage they inflicted on the English people.  Larson provides a fascinating aside to Goring’s terror bombing of civilians in his ravenous pursuit of cultural artifacts anywhere he could steal them.  With Churchill’s obstinacy remaining constant, Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s Deputy Fuhrer hatches a plan to achieve peace with England. Larson does his best to break down the myths of Hess’ attempted flight to Scotland to try and negotiate England’s exit from the war delving into the latest material available.

Larson is successful in explaining Churchill’s historical significance as he describes his speeches and physical appearance throughout London and other areas refusing to kowtow to Nazi bullying and bombing.  He demonstrated “a striking trait: his knack for making people feel loftier, stronger, and above all, more courageous.…he gave forth a confidence and invincible will that called out everything that was brave and strong,”  as his voice became a reassuring wellspring of hope and resolve.  Churchill was an expert at mass psychology, and he knew just how to hearten his downtrodden people and lead them to ultimate victory, even as so many people lived in shelters that were crumbling or pursuing an existence in the London Underground.

Goering Lounging In Chair

(Hermann Goring, Head of the Luftwaffe)

Larson is successful in reaching his stated goal of “hunting for stories that often get left out of the massive biographies of Churchill, either because there’s no time to tell them or because they seem too frivolous.”  Larson writes with verve and the character formation of a novelist.  He seems to leave no rock unturned in seeking out the intimate lives of his characters so they can provide a feel for what England is experiencing between May 1940 and 1941.  He find’s vignettes that are a treasure.  For example, Churchill constantly critiques the writing of his Cabinet and military figures correcting grammar and demanding brevity.  Deeply personal aspects garner Larson’s attention exemplified by his comments on Churchill and Clementine’s life in the bedroom, which was separate and as far as intimate relations, it took place only upon an invitation from Clementine!

As with any historical monograph there are always suggestions for improvement.  According to Gerard DeGroot in his February 28, 2020 review in the Washington Post in Larson’s case it may be fair to argue that Churchill is given too much credit for saving England when English factories and workers produced the Spitfires and Hurricanes that consistently outperformed their German counterparts.  Further British workers, male and female were much better mobilized than in Germany.  In addition, the idea that England acted alone is an overstatement when the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish contributed greatly as did members of the vast empire including Canadians, Australians, Indians and South Africans who all did their part.  One also cannot forget the 145 Polish pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain, in addition to the 88 Czech, and 30 pilots  from Belgium.  One must also not forget that other parts of the United Kingdom were also bombed – cities like Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast were also severely damaged.   Churchill needs to share the limelight a bit more than Larson offers.

Though Larson has not written the definitive account of Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister he has written an evocative description of what life was like for the English people during the period.  One cannot go wrong hunkering down with Larson’s narrative particularly at a time of extreme crisis and discomfort.  I was scheduled to hear Larson at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire at the end of March, however due to the pandemic it was cancelled.  I fervently hope it can be rescheduled.

In the aftermath of a bombing raid, a bus lies in a crater in Balham, South London.
(London during the WWII “Blitz”)

OPERATION CHASTISE: THE RAF’S MOST BRILLIANT ATTACK DURING WORLD WAR II by Max Hastings

Operation Chastise by Robert Taylor (Lancaster)

During World War II a debate raged among allied strategists as to how much civilians should be targeted to defeat the Nazis.  As the Germans wreaked havoc on civilian populations throughout Europe and the United Kingdom the defeat of Hitler’s henchmen was deemed a necessity no matter the cost.  Max Hastings, a British journalist and historian, the author of numerous volumes ranging from World War I, the Battle of Britain, World War II, Winston Churchill and Vietnam tackles the issue of civilian casualties in his latest effort, OPERATION CHASTISE: THE RAF’S MOST BRILLIANT ATTACK DURING WORLD WAR II.

By May 1943 the British had accomplished little against the Nazis when compared to the effort and suffering of the Soviet Union which was finally making its push from Stalingrad westward.  Further, Winston Churchill was under a great deal of pressure to produce victories to stir the English people.  The allied grand strategy to this point was cautious to allow their slow industrial buildup to take hold before making a stronger presence on the battlefield.  To this point their most significant action concerned the use of heavy bombers.  The British decided in October 1940 that instead of pursuing largely vain efforts to locate power plants, factories, and military installations the Royal Air Force (RAF) would bomb German cities which would continue until 1945 and the end of the war.  The C-in-C Bomber Command Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris believed that air attacks on Germany could render a land invasion of Europe as unnecessary.  Winston Churchill did not care for Harris, but he believed in his sense of purpose and his ability to create positive publicity, i.e., the thousand bomber raids” over Cologne in May-June 1940.  There were a number of skeptics concerning Harris’ approach to winning the war, but Harris’ publicity machine and ability to put out positive bombing figures made him an important component in RAF leadership.  By “by war’s end, Bomber Command was capable of reigning upon Hitler’s people in a single twenty-four-hour period as many bombs as the Luftwaffe dropped during the course of its entire 1940-41 blitz on Britain.”

Barnes Wallis

(Barnes Wallis)

It is at this point that Hastings introduces his main topic the bombing of German dams as a means of destroying Hitler’s Ruhr Valley industrial complex. The Ruhr and its industries accounted for 25% of Germany’s entire consumption, much of it derived from the Mohne reservoir.  Flooding the low-lying Ruhr Valley would render railways, bridges, pumping stations, and chemical plants inoperative.  The key figures that Hastings explores in depth are Barnes Wallis, an engineer who become the hero of Operation Chastise, the mission to destroy the Mohne Dam as well as others, as he was able to design and develop the immense bomb that could “bounce” along the water to breach the Mohne Dam.  Next, Guy Gibson who led the 617 Squadron of the RAF Bomber Command that would bomb the dams of north western Germany employing a revolutionary new weapon that required plans to fly at an extremely low level after conducting over 170 successful bombing missions over Germany.  Ralph Cochrane, Harris’ subordinate was in charge of the mission who was one of the RAF’s ablest senior officers who has been described as a “ruthless martinet.”  Air Chief Marshall Sir Charles Portal, the head of the RAF believed in assaulting urban areas and was a prime mover behind Operation Chastise.  Arthur Collins, a scientific officer in Harmondsworth’s “Concrete Section” who proved to Wallis that “a relatively small charge might achieve a wholly disproportionate result if it was detonated sub-aqueously and close to the target, using a timer or a hydrostatic pistol: it could thus harness the power of the water mass to channel the force of the blast.”  Lastly, Sir Arthur Harris, the commander, who when pulled over by the military police at one time and was admonished that he could have killed someone, he responded “I kill thousands of people every night.”

Guy Penrose Gibson, VC.jpg

(Guy Gibson)

Hastings does a marvelous job explaining the scientific experimentation, the training of the pilots, the shifting of resources, the strategic planning of the operation, and the different personalities with their own agendas in detail.  By doing so  Hastings highlights his own expertise and command of the material, but also the ability to explain complex information and make it easily understood for the reader.

Hastings introduces numerous pilots, bomb aimers, navigators, wireless operators, and gunners that made up the core of the mission.  These men formed groups of seven for each Lancaster bomber that was sent into Germany the night of May 16, 1943.  Hastings narrative provides intimate portraits of the men and how they interacted and were organized.  The squadron reflected all social classes, but despite a degree of class consciousness they were able to form into workmanlike groups of young men most of whom were in their late teens and early twenties with a sprinkle of men in their thirties.  Among these individuals included are Richard Trevor-Roper, the Squadron Gunnery Leader and bomb aimer who at 27 was the oldest among the squadron; F/.SGT Len Sumpter, a bomb aimer was a shoe makers son who left school at 14; wireless operator Jack Guterman, a very literary young man faced with the decision to follow his pilot Bill Ottley from another command joined the 617th;  F/LT Joseph McCarthy, the only American pilot involved with Operation Chastise who grew up in the Bronx, NY; F/LT John “Hoppy” Hopgood, Gibson’s closest friend; F/LT David Shannon, an Australian pilot; and aircraft navigator Jock Rumbes a pilot washout who became an excellent navigator.  These and many others new by the nature of the mission flying at night at an altitude of under 100 feet over water that their chances of survival were limited and the result is that 52 of the 133 men involved in Operation Chastise would not return.  As Hastings points out, “the margin for error, both for successful attacks and survival was virtually zero.”

Mohne dam before and after 617 squadron's famous Dambuster raid

(Mohne Dam May 16-17, 1943)

 

Hastings provides a blow by blow account of Operation Chastise from its takeoff on May 16, 1943 describing the difficulty of lifting off the ground with such a heavy payload, flying under 500 feet in the air to avoid German radar and flak, the mindset and experiences of the 133 men during the long flight, the final successful delivery of Wallis’ “bouncing bombs,” and the severe losses in planes, five of which crashed before reaching the target area in addition to three more at the site out of nineteen in total that took off on May 16, and the 52 men that perished.  As Hastings correctly concludes, Operation Chastise was a huge extravagance and essentially a gamble, a piece of military theater, rather than serious strategy.  In the end the Mohne and Eder dams were breached causing flood waters that would kill  between 1400-1500 people, half of which were non-German forced laborers.  In addition, the Nazis suffered an undetermined amount of economic and production losses.

Operation Chastise was largely hidden from the public until 1955 when the film, “Dam Busters” was released.  Hastings follows upon the works of other historians like James Holland to describe the events and personalities surrounding the mission whose idea dated back to 1937 and presents it to an audience after conducting voluminous research and interviews over his long career as a war correspondent, journalist and historian.  With the inclusion of maps, charts, and photos Hastings effort has produces a wonderful addition to monographs that focus upon the lesser known operations conducted during World War II, but were extremely important as in this case it reflected the turning of the tide, a small and symbolic step towards the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.

OPERATION CHASTISE

Operation Chastise was an attack on German dams carried out on 16–17 May 1943 by Royal Air Force No. 617 Squ

 

NEPTUNE: THE ALLIED INVASION OF EUROPE AND THE D DAY LANDINGS by Craig L. Symonds

image__header__normandy-visit-the-omaha-beach-american-cemetery-memorial-in-colleville-sur-mer__croix-r-ale-goff-calvadostourismejpg

(American Cemetery at Normandy)

Last year there were a number of new books that appeared commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D Day landing in June 1944.  These books include COUNTDOWN TO D DAY: THE GERMAN PERSPECTIVE by Peter Margaratis, NORMANDY ’44: D DAY AND THE EPIC 77 DAY BATTLE FOR FRANCE by James Holland, SAND AND STEEL: D DAY AND THE LIBERATION OF FRANCE by Peter Caddick-Adams, THE FIRST WAVE:THE D DAY WARRIORS WHO LED THE WAY TO VICTORY IN WORLD WAR II by Alex Kershaw, and SOLDIER, SAILOR, FROGMAN, SPY, AIRMAN, GANGSTER, KILL OR DIE: HOW THE ALLIES WON ON D DAY by Giles Milton.  Another important book appeared in 2014, Craig L. Symonds, NEPTUNE: THE ALLIED INVASION OF EUROPE AND THE D DAY LANDINGS.

Symonds the author of THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY, and LINCOLN AND HIS ADMIRALS does a remarkable job describing the preparation and implementation of allied plans for a cross channel invasion that culminated on June 6, 1944 in NEPTUNE: THE ALLIED INVASION OF EUROPE AND THE D DAY LANDINGS.  The book is broken down into two parts. First, Symonds explores the coming together of the British-American special relationship that begins following the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, the role of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and the integration of allied planning for the invasion with the personalities of Dwight Eisenhower, George C. Marshall, Sir Alan Brooke, General Bernard Montgomery and a host of others.  The second half of the narrative delves into the placement of allied shipping and personnel in England and their preparation for the invasion, and the actual landings themselves culminating in the allied attempt to drive the Germans out of Cherbourg.  The book is heavily researched including interviews with survivors, archival material, and the leading secondary works.

Symonds takes the reader through all the major conferences and planning sessions that took place between 1941 (nine months before Pearl Harbor) and 1944 and breaks down the major issues from unity of command, the disagreement over which should take precedence a cross channel invasion or landing in the Mediterranean theater, the number of troops and shipping needed, what types of landing craft should be employed, and the actual timing of any invasion.  According to Symonds the key to D Day was Operation TORCH, the allied invasion of North Africa.  All the major issues that would emerge for a cross channel invasion were already present in preparing TORCH which would become a dress rehearsal for D Day – creating a multi-national force under one allied commander.  In the end TORCH was a success but it highlighted that a great deal of work needed to be done to prepare for Operation OVERLORD.

What makes Symonds narrative so compelling are the numerous insights he offers.  Especially interesting is his analysis of the cultural differences between British and American society that led to the low opinion that the British had of American soldiers, the American approach to war, and the attitude they felt Americans engendered. The British believed that they had been fighting for a number of years while the Americans may have produced their weaponry, shipping, and other necessities they did not have the combat experience and know how of British planners and soldiers.  On the other hand, Americans viewed the British as rather haughty, slow in preparation, and in part beholden to the United States.  Symonds explanation of the pros and cons of the Anglo-American relationship is very valuable and reflects how they were dependent upon each other.

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(General George C. Marshall)

What separates Symonds account from others is his focus on the different types of landing craft that were needed for OVERLORD, how each fit a particular need, the necessary ingenuity particularly on the part of the British, and the production process and schedules that were developed.  Symonds breaks down each type of landing craft and points out the differences of each, the training components, their positive aspects and design flaws, and overall, how important they were to the success of D Day.

Symonds explores the experiences of the soldiers who were dependent upon the landing craft as they departed the 171 launching sites dispersed around England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, their experiences in the channel, and what it was like to land on the Normandy beaches.  Symonds delves into production issues that forced a one-month postponement of OVERLORD in addition to the weather issues that would force a postponement of one day to launch the operation and forced Eisenhower to smoke even more cigarettes than normal!

Symonds is correct when he points out that despite the massive allied firepower the overall impact, particularly on Omaha Beach turned out to be less than hoped for.  “….the bombs fell too long, the rockets fell to short, and the naval gunfire was too brief.  Ashore, the Germans crouched down in their bomb proof shelters, many with concrete walls five feet thick, and they covered their ears, but none of the Allied ordnance penetrated their bunkers and pill boxes.”

Symonds is dead on in arguing that OVERLORD contained so many working parts with a timetable that made each element dependent on so many others.  As a result, early errors created a series of difficulties that threatened to ruin the invasion especially on Omaha Beach.  However, in the end what saved the day “was the ability of the men both afloat and ashore to adapt and adjust.”  Further, what saved the day for those dealing with the heavy German guns were the destroyers in the channel that maneuvered expertly and were able to rein hellfire on the well ensconced German pill boxes.  It was clear that even though Omaha Beach fell into allied hands the assault had not gone according to plan and Symonds describes the reasons for the failure.  It would take over 10,000 casualties, 3,000 of which occurred on Omaha Beach, a sum greater than the losses on all four of the other invasion beaches combined.

 

Symonds integrates the personal stories of the men who fought and died on D Day into the narrative.  Whether describing the men who climbed Pointe du Hoc to knock out heavy German artillery; the men who climbed the bluffs to the shock of the German gunners; Ensigns who found themselves in command of landing craft; or those who splashed in the water or crawled onto the beaches under withering German fire Symonds tells their stories in a clear fashion so one can get a feel for what these brave individuals experienced.

The book reads like a work of fiction in parts particularly as the author discusses the planning stage.  It morphs into more of a non-fictional work as he gets into the nitty gritty of the types of ships that were employed.  If there is a criticism to be made it is that Symonds approach seems a bit American-centered.   However, in the end this is an efficient work that is well written and should maintain reader interest.  I look forward to reading Symonds latest work WORLD WAR II AT SEA: A GLOBAL HISTORY soon.

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(American Cemetery at Normandy)