Category Archives: World War II

The nuts-and-bolts history when studying the nuts-and-bolts OF history

This last weekend, we took the aide-de-camp to World War II Weekend at the Eisenhower Farm, Gettysburg.  As one might expect for a boy his age, the attraction was the soldier stuff on display. And a number of the displays were “hands on.”  At one of those tents, we stopped to examine some World War II era signal equipment operated by some living historians.


In front of the young man is a telephone switchboard.  For the demonstration, the crew had a couple of field telephones wired up.  They demonstrated the process involving hand-cranked phones, bells, flags, and patch cords. And this is rightfully defined as a process.  The operator had specific functions to perform in a sequence, lest the call be broken or otherwise disrupted.

Very early in my Army days, I trained on and operated similar switchboards (with marginally better “insides”).  So I was acquainted with the process.  One point the living historians placed emphasis on was the call termination.  When the conversation was over, they didn’t just hang up the phone.  Instead, the caller had to ring the switchboard again to let the operator know to close the connection… basically pull the patch cord out and return it to the stored position.

It was that point that the aide-de-camp looked confused.  In his experience, when you hang up the phone, the call is terminated.  Done.

But field telephones of World War II (and even many of the Army’s phones of the 1980s) didn’t “just hang up.”  The technology to “just hang up” required some development and refinement.  That said, few are the readers who will recall having to ask the operator to terminate a call at the switchboard (heck, few will actually recall having to reach a real, live operator to make a call!)   I had to pause and explain all this to the Aide.  He was very intrigued and noted the complication involved with making a simple phone call (paraphrasing here, of course).

So other than a quaint demonstration at some nostalgic event, what would that matter?   Well, to me this was another example of how the nuts-and-bolts fit into our greater understanding of history.  Technology has a way of abstracting people from our primitive past.  Consider….

There may be a future where these food replicators are all over the place.  And when that day comes, how far will the people be abstracted from the primitive?  Will they know and understand the supporting activities needed to put catfish on the plate?   Will they relate to the frustration of “the fish are not biting today” given that the nearest fishing hole is hundreds of light years away? Will they gladly accept the “clean the fish” chore as a necessity to obtaining the meal?  Will they have their own personal recipes for catfish?  I prefer mine breaded and fried with a side of hush puppies, please, Mr. Replicator.   And how would I know that as a favored preparation, verses the baked version that the computer spit out?  Answers depend upon how far the people have allowed the technology to remove them from the primitive.

And will the people of those times look back and wonder how any food shortages could have existed? Will they understand the great deal of effort required, in our time and even more so in “primitive” times of old, required just to obtain nourishment?  In essence, will they cast presumptions upon our times and our decisions because they don’t know first hand just how hard it is to catch, clean, and fry a catfish?

Likewise, do we, as we look at history, understand the effort required just to make a phone call on those primitive devices of 1944?  The idiosyncrasies of placing a call on the battlefield of 1944 has some value to the historian studying the time period.  One must understand the nature of that experience, at the nuts-and-bolts level in order to put in context the interactions made between participants of the events.

More to the point, we must understand the process… or protocol… of using a courier to send orders on the battlefield of 1863.  Battles and campaigns, and ultimately the course of a war, turned on how those couriers were used to convey information.  Ask Robert E. Lee or William Rosecrans about that.  It’s not enough to simply say “things were misunderstood.”  And beyond just battlefield activities, we might consider how public opinion was shaped in a time without Cable News Network and the immediacy of a 24-hour news cycle… you know when one had to wait until the morning paper… the LOCAL morning paper, that is, which might be carrying news from three day’s earlier.

We’ve got to work with the nuts-and-bolts of the process to understand the particulars as to why things occurred as they did.  That’s the nuts-and-bolts of history.

If the Dutch can confront their complex history, can we?

I think it a good practice to consider how other countries and cultures chose to display their history, and heritage, in public spaces.  For instance, from Goirle, Netherlands:

The helmet identifies the nationality and context of this figure very well – he is a German soldier.  A soldier serving in the German Army in World War II.  Why would the Dutch people chose to honor a soldier from an army which occupied their country – a brutal occupation I would add – with a statue? An article from War History Online offers some background for this statue memorializing Karl-Heinz Rosch:

October 6, 1944 – Three days after Rosch’s turned 18, the young German soldier, along with his platoon, was stationed in a farm in Goirle when Allied forces took fire on them. He was about to hide in the basement along with his comrades when he noticed that the two children of the farmer who owned the land seemed oblivious of the danger that was on them and continued to play in the courtyard. He quickly dashed to them, took each in his arms and brought them into the safety of the basement. He again ran outside to position himself on the other side of the courtyard when a grenade hit him right at the spot where the children were earlier.

The article goes on to say that Rosch was killed on the spot. Years pass and yet the villagers of Goirle remembered the incident.  It stood out large among many other, arguably more important, incidents during World War II.  Rosch’s story was a part of their shared history.  But it was not one that could be spoken of without reservation.  After all, Rosch was “...just a damn Kraut” in the eyes of some. Then after three-quarters of a century, the village decided something should be done.  Herman van Rouwendaal, a former city councilor of the area, determined in 2008 that it was time to bring Rosch’s story out into the light of day.  To explain and interpret this display, the statue has this plaque at the base:

I’m not going to fool you with my attempt to translate the whole.  It is the last line which stands out to me:

Dit beeld is een eerbetoon aan hem en allen die het goede doen in kwade tijden.

My Dutch is not even passing. But from about every other word I can translate, I get:

This is a tribute to him and all who do good in bad times.

The direct approach to the “good, bad, and ugly” of history. But this project was not necessarily a “feel good” story where everyone simply joined hands to agree. Those advocating for the memorial argued with others contending that no honors should be offered to soldiers who fought for Nazi Germany during World War II.  In the end, the memorial was placed on private space, without public funding.  But the display was allowed. The article provides another “gem” for us to consider.  Rouwendaal went on to say:

Some Dutch are caught in a black-and-white way of thinking. The Germans were all Nazis, the Dutch were all good. That there were also unsavory characters among us, who for example betrayed Jews and robbed them, one does not like to hear… We will not be honoring the Wehrmacht, but rather the humanity of a young German soldier.

At a time in our history where many loud calls are made towards extreme ends about memorials and unsavory aspects of our own history, we might paraphrase Rouwendaal’s to reflect that “some Americans” are caught up “in a black-and-white way of thinking.”  I don’t think that would be threading the eye of some needle.

O/T… HMAS Perth wreck stripped by salvagers (A warning about Civil War wrecks, sites?)

This is a bit off topic for “To the Sound of the Guns” and the sort of news item I prefer to send over to my pal XBradTC.  However, I think this is a story those interested in Civil War shipwrecks, and beyond that even Civil War battlefields, should take interest.

On Friday the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ran this story:

HMAS Perth: World War II warship grave stripped by salvagers

Survivors, historians and Defence personnel have been horrified to discover that the wreck of HMAS Perth, which was sunk by the Japanese in 1942, is being destroyed by commercial salvagers in Indonesian waters.

Australian authorities have tried to keep the scandal a secret, fearing the issue might add fuel to the ongoing diplomatic tensions between Australia and Indonesia.

The warship, which sank in the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java, is the last resting place of as many as 355 Australian sailors who went down with the vessel after it was struck by multiple torpedoes.

But it has never been protected as an official war grave.

Australia and Indonesia are yet to ratify the UNESCO Convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage, a binding national treaty which would oblige both countries to protect such sites.

Since at least September, scuba divers have made official reports of large-scale damage to the wreck from a massive floating crane equipped with a salvage claw.

These reports have been made to the Australian embassy in Jakarta and to local officials in the Department of Environment and Heritage, and the Department of Defence.  (Read more.)

There’s a video segment and additional information with the news article.  As the citation above notes, there was no legal protection for this war grave.  So any action to block further salvage rests with the respective governments.

A bit of background, the HMAS Perth sank in the battle of Sunda Straits, fought during the opening phases of World War II.  The ship is well remembered by Australians.  A modern frigate carries the name and memory of the Perth.  So this is a touchy subject for many, to say the least.  Like many shipwrecks close enough to the surface, divers have visited the wreck… to include commercial sport divers from what I gather… but there has always been an effort to keep the activity respectful.

And we cannot say this is just an Australian-Indonesian issue.  The wreck of the USS Houston, another cruiser sank in the action, lays nearby.  I think, but have not confirmed, that the Houston is protected by the UNESCO treaty.

Furthermore, with the cost of scrap metal on the open markets, there is ever more a threat to other wreck sites around the world.  Although with respect to Civil War era wreck sites, it is more so the lure of “treasure” and “relics” as opposed to raw scrap metal.  Of course we have a set of laws and regulations which protect, preserve, and govern access to the wrecks in American waters.  Even when the wrecks are disturbed by officially sanctioned maintenance, reviews are made to ensure preservation and if necessary proper recovery.  (For example, the long running story of the preservation and recovery efforts of the CSS Georgia.)

Beyond that, what about on land?  Anyone who has picked up a National Park Service brochure knows metal detecting is illegal on the battlefields.  Same goes for most state and local sites (and lump in there most sites owned by preservation groups).  But with so much battlefield lands in public hands, “digging” does occur on Civil War battlefields.  And in most cases the work is done without any regard for the archeological context that lies beneath.  Or for that matter who’s grave is being disturbed.

I don’t wish to have readers interpret this as a “broad brush” condemnation.  I know many in the hobby who have done right, and in many cases helped efforts to preserve, protect, and interpret Civil War sites.   The hobby can and should police itself.  However, there’s little difference in my mind from the people hauling steel from the HMAS Perth for sale as scrap, and the fellow using the metal detector to find musket balls for resale at some trinket store.

OT… a little: Long buried Spitfires may fly someday

From the Telegraph (UK):

Squadron of ‘lost’ spitfires could be flying again in three years
A lost squadron of Spitfires buried in Burma after the Second World War could be flying again within three years, experts said today.

Archaeologists will begin digging for the historic hoard of at least 36 British fighter planes in January.

A proportion of the aircraft will then be carefully packaged and brought back to the UK next spring, where they will be restored.

David Cundall, a farmer and aviation enthusiast from Scunthorpe, Lincs, has spent 16 years researching the project after being told about the burial by a group of US veterans.
It was his tenacity and perseverance and his “obsession to find and restore an incredible piece of British history” that will finally see a team begin digging in the New Year.

The extraordinary treasure hunt was described as a “story of British determination against all odds”.

Surveys undertaken at one of three sites in Burma have shown that large areas of electrically conductive material are present underground at a depth of around 10 metres.

The location and depth is consistent with eight eye witness reports given to Mr Cundall that the rare Mark XIV Spitfires were buried there in August 1945.

“We put a camera down a boorhole and went into a box and through two inches of Canadian pine,” Mr Cundall disclosed.

“Yes, we did see what we thought was an aeroplane.”

Mr Cundall was first told about the fighters in 1996 and spent two years researching the claims. He found eight people who “told the same story” about the crates being buried and at what depth, all pointing to the same spot.

He has since been to Burma 16 times conducting surveys and negotiating with the authorities.

When sanctions forbidding the movement of military materials in and out of the country were lifted earlier this year, he knew his dream could be realised.

“Hopefully, they will be brought back to the UK and will be flying at air shows,” he said.

(Full story here)

This would be cool to the power of 10.

Not uncommon in any war for equipment to be buried or otherwise discarded in caches like this.  Who knows what Civil War equipment was just packed away in the corners of garrisons and forts.  There was some question about just such artifacts in regard to Fort Monroe.   And there was some question recently about buried cannons at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia.   But, in my opinion, we should turn to the archeologists to explore these possibilities.  Often the “treasure” isn’t just the physical artifact but the story it can tell.

150 years ago: Moving trains by water to supply the army

Yesterday I left off noting that armies on the move need support in order to keep up momentum.  Even without suggesting General Sumner should have crossed the Rappahannock and occupied Fredericksburg – just to stay in front of Fredericksburg – the Army of the Potomac needed logistic support.  To continue the offensive, the army needed everything from axle grease to hard tack to bullets, and even more in-between.

However by early November 1862, the logistic tail following the Army of the Potomac lay back along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.  Engines and their rolling stock worked the rails extending to the southwest of Alexandria.  With the change of objective, the army no longer needed depots at places like Manassas Junction or Warrenton.  Rather the army needed a line running due south towards Fredericksburg.  For General Ambrose Burnside’s plan to reach Richmond through Fredericksburg to work, the rail road had to move.  Problem was the old Fredericksburg railroad was not in shape to support anything, having suffered damage due to the war.  And even if built, railroaders feared the line was exposed to irregular activity.

To resolve the problem, the U.S. Military Railroad came up with a novel solution.  General Herman Haupt wrote of this in his reminiscences:

The reconstruction of the wharves and track from Acquia Creek to Fredericksburg was prosecuted with unprecedented expedition.  It was on November 10 that I directed W.W. Wright to hold himself in readiness to commence work so soon as General Halleck should decide upon its necessity. It was November 11 when a telegram was sent to Colonel Belger at Baltimore to provide canal boats, and five days later, November 17, considerable progress had already been made in the work of reconstruction.  The Superintendent reported that, in five days after commencement, a section of the wharf 1,000 feet long was completed, and a locomotive and cars landed and trains commenced running to Potomac Creek.  In five days more trains were running to the Rappahannock.

The Schuylkill barges answered admirably, and thus was formed a new era in Military Railroad transportation.  Two of these barges were placed parallel to each other and long timbers bolted transversely.  The length of the barges was sufficient for eight tracks carrying eight cars, and two such floats would carry the sixteen cars which constituted a train.

In this way hundreds of loaded cars were transferred from the advanced location of the Army, on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, loaded on the floats, towed sixty miles to Acquia Creek, transferred from river to rail, and sent to Falmouth without break of bulk, in about the same time required to march the army across the country by land.  Supplies were at Falmouth as soon as there were forces there for their protection.

We might fact-check Haupt’s claim about the arrival of supplies and troops coinciding.  Still the point made is valid – the railroad system shifted with remarkable speed and flexibility.  While the repair of port facilities was certainly nothing new, the use of barges to move the rolling stock was a new practice at the military operational level.

One wartime photo shows a pair of barges, as described by Haupt, with eight box-cars loaded.

Rolling stock on barges

Another wartime photo shows perhaps a variation on the theme – three lashed barges with more tracks.

Three barge floats

I’ll defer to the railroading experts out there.  But this seems to me a likely means to transport the heavier locomotives.

As a “trained” logistician, I’d point out the genius of this operation was not just floating the rolling stock, but alluded to in Haupt’s closing – no breaking of bulk cargo.  In other words, the cars were packed at a depot or warehouse and then shipped directly to the front without cross packing.  Such was a significant time savings. And time is everything when discussing transportation and logistics in the military context.

Fast forward a little over eighty years.  Different location, similar logistic problem, but larger scale.  For the armies going into Normandy in June 1944, logistic support was more so a monumental task.  A modern mechanized army requires more than just hay and hardtack.  No doubt, you’ve seen the D-Day documentaries that cite tens of millions of tons of supplies going ashore at the Mulberry harbors.  But just getting those supplies to the beach didn’t meet the needs of the front line soldier.  As the beachhead enlarged and extended, the supplies had to be transported over one-hundred miles (excuse me… kilometers) to the front line areas.  As with the Civil War days, the logisticians needed to save time by avoiding the practice of breaking bulk.  So they did this:

Rails allowed the LST to carry the cars from English ports to the French beaches.  There the LST opened its bow doors and the stock rolled down onto a pre-fabricated line across the beach.

Take away the trucks and helmets, and you have a scene not too far removed from Acquia Landing in November 1862.

World War II Podcasts

A bit… OK… a good bit off topic for me – World War II.

Recently I discovered Ray Harris’ The History of World War II Podcasts.  Thought I’d mention his excellent work as there are a few readers out there who’s focus is in that direction… and a good number of us who really need to diversify our military history!

Ray’s approach is somewhat different than other podcast series on the subject.  Instead of touching upon several different aspects of the war, he takes the listener through major events or campaigns providing both a macro- and micro-viewpoint.  For example, over the span of six episodes Ray covers the Dunkirk evacuation.  He addressed the rather sticky situation between allied Britain and France, the failures and successes in German high command, all the while detailing the daily operations in the port and on the beaches.

He devoted a full episode to the destruction of the French fleet in 1940.  As I’ve mentioned before I am rather familiar with that topic, having written my thesis on Operation Catapult.  I found Ray’s coverage well rounded and complete for the allotted time slot.

Currently he is working through the Battle of Britain.  The last few episodes have covered the opening actions in that air-battle – three days at a time.  Beyond just the standard trip through the Battle of Britain – Hurricanes, Spitfires, Me 109s, radar, Fighter Command, Goering, the Blitz, perhaps a bit about tactics, and then “the Few” – Ray’s approach walks us through the changes with strategy and tactics, all the while pinned against the backdrop of two nations at war.  The listener is not lost in the weeds discussing the aircrews and aircraft, but not held too high aloof considering the national leaders making grand decisions.

Ray’s got a great series going.  Even if you are only into Civil War history, these are good entertainment, providing some “rounding out” to your podcast library.

Military Collector and Historian Magazine: Winter 2011 Issue

Once again let me highlight the Civil War related articles in the  Military Collector & Historian Magazine, the quarterly of the  Company of Military Historians.  The magazine covers a wide range of military history (not just American, mind you).  So if the Civil War is not the only subject you like to tread upon, you should consider a membership.

Within Civil War themes, articles to note are:

  • Analysis of D.H. Hill’s Division at Antietam,” by Cadet Philip Schmedeman (USMA 2011).  A well documented look at this Confederate formation.
  • Major and Paymaster, William W. Russel: A Controversial Nineteenth Century Officer of Marines,” by David M. Sullivan.  Russel, who committed suicide in October 1862, served as Aide-de-camp to both Generals Robert Patterson and George McClellan.
  • Massachusetts Men in Gray at Fort Monroe, 1861,” by Ryan B. Weddle.  The 3rd and 4th Massachusetts Militia garrisoned Fort Monroe through July 1861.
  • ‘The Men That Saved Your Army’: Company K, 2d U.S. Infantry, April-July 1861,” by Donald McConnel and Gustav Person.  The article includes details of the company’s actions at First Manassas.
  • The Elusive Cadets of Harvard, 1759-1863: Observations on Their History and Uniforms,” by Anthony F. Gero and Roger D. Sturcke.

Other non-Civil War articles I would recommend include:

  • Wake Island Helmet,” by Larry Munnikhuysen.  A look at a rare artifact from World War II.
  • Revolutionary War Veteran’s Pension,” by Stanley B. Smullen.  A detailed look at the petition of Thomas DeRusy.
  • “‘The taylors of the regiment’: Insights on Soldiers Making and Mending Clothing, and Continental Army Clothing Supply, 1778 to 1783,” by John U. Rees.
  • The Hapless ‘Willie D’,” submitted by Stephen M Henry, covering the World War II career of the USS William D. Porter (DD-579).
  • Diary of my Army life from the time I left Camp Lee for France. S.G. Anderson: Co. A, 314 Machine Gun Battalion,” submitted by Gayle Weiss.  A Virginia volunteer’s view of World War I.
  • Allons!  Sgt. Clarence W. Warren of the 15th Field Artillery,” by Major James B. Ronan II (Ret.).  Another World War I veteran’s story.
  • A Brief View of African American Militiamen, Colonial New York, 1758-1763,” by Anthony F. Gero.

One final note, even if you are not a member of the Company, you can review (and post for a limited, trial run) on the CMH Forum.