Tag Archives: World War II

Siege of Leningrad Begins (8 September 1941)

On 8 Sep 1941, German forces began their siege of Leningrad that would last 872 days making it one of the most grueling sieges in modern warfare. Let’s find out more about it.’

The fire of anti-aircraft guns deployed in the neighborhood of St. Isaac’s cathedral during the defense of Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg, its pre-Soviet name) in 1941.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Leningrad (formerly known as St. Petersburg and capital of Russia before the Communist takeover in 1918), was a major industrial center and the Soviet Union’s second largest city. When Germany in June 1941, many of the city’s industrial plants and inhabitants were relocated far to the east to prevent capture. Two million were left behind though to face the rapidly moving German army. Everyone who could lift a shovel (men, women, and children) were conscripted to build anti-tank fortifications around the city’s edge. The railway to Moscow was cut off at the end of July by German forces and they were starting to penetrate the outer fortifications of the city.  On 8 September, German forces began besieging the city but were held back by the fortifications and the tenacity of the defenders, some 200,000 Red Army soldiers. German bombers destroyed a warehouse containing food making life more difficult for the defenders.

Germans next moved to seal off the remaining highways and rail lines south of the city. Finnish forces joined the Germans by coming down the Karelian Isthmus in the north so that by November the entire city was encircled. German bombings intensified with raids several times a day. Most people were reduced to eating one slice of bread per day and starvation was rampant. One of the coldest winters on record would set in as well adding to the misery of the inhabitants. Many continued to work to produce arms to help defeat the Germans despite the lack of food and warmth as well. Just about anything that could be burned for heat was used from books to furniture. Pets (dogs and cats) were eaten along with animals from the city zoo. Wallpaper paste was used for food and leather boiled to make an edible jelly. Plants, grasses and weeds were put to use to produce vitamin supplements. Cannabilizing the dead was a major issue resulting in the Leningrad police department having a special unit to handle it.

Some supplies were able to be brought in over Lake Ladoga, but it was very small and not enough to alleviate the conditions in the city. Some were evacuated-mostly elderly and children-but many were unable to leave and starved and or froze to death. In June 1943 the Soviet Army was able break through the German blockade and establish a better supply line along the shores of Lake Ladoga. The city was kept alive through this and later an oil pipeline and electric cables were connected to the city despite the ongoing siege. When spring came in 1943, land was put to use so that by summer produce could be grown. The siege would end when the Soviet Army forced the German army to retreat in January 1944. The siege ended but the human toll was enormous. Over a million died. Survivors got the Order of Lenin in 1945. The population of Leningrad (now renamed to St. Petersburg) did not regain its former population of three million until the 1960’s.

St. Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad?

St. Petersburg was found in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great and named after the apostle St. Peter. Until 1918, it served as capital of the Russian Empire when it was moved by the Bolsheviks to Moscow. The city was both a cultural center as well as the capital in old Russia. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the city was renamed Petrograd because of the strong anti-German sentiment and the fact its name contained two German words. In 1924 after Lenin’s death, the city was renamed for him, Leningrad. In 1991 a public referendum approved the renaming of the city back to St. Petersburg. The city is a major tourist destination owing to its cultural and historical significance. And old guidebook reminds the city is spread out, so be prepared to spend time going to and from the various historical sites. Summers can be warm and sometimes rainy (bring waterproof jackets and something to wear if it gets chilly as well). Winters are cold, so bring cold gear. Surprisingly St. Petersburg is not as cold as Moscow during the winter.

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Remembering History: Hitler Invades Poland (1939); Japan Surrenders Ending World War II (1945)

Hitler attends a Wehrmacht victory parade in Warsaw on 5 October 1939
Public Domain

On 1 September 1939, German forces using the pretext they were acting in self-defense against Poland, invaded. The German infantry was not fully mechanized but had Panzers and fast-moving artillery that included truck mounted artillery. The German strategy was to quickly concentrate forces and encircle an enemy quickly. Thanks to the relatively flat terrain of Poland, it made it easy to move mobile infantry about. The invasion came one week after the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact on 23 August. This non-aggression pact meant neither side could assist the enemy of the other. A secret protocol to the agreement defined German and Soviet spheres in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. This protocol would not be proved until the Nuremberg Trials. So, when Germany invaded, Poland was already split with defined borders between the two countries. With this pact, Poland signed defense agreements with Britain and France. Talks between those powers and Germany did take place and the invasion was held up until they were concluded. Hitler did not believe they would declare war, and if they did would be willing to compromise after the invasion of Poland. Germany wanted the restoration of Danzig (in Polish Gdansk) as a free city (it had a large German population), the Polish Corridor, and the safeguarding of Germans in Poland. Germany demanded that a Polish representative with the power to sign such an agreement be present. The British, remembering what happened before when Czechoslovakia was forced to capitulate to the Germans, did not like that demand. When the Polish representative met with Ribbentrop on 31 Aug, he was dismissed when he had no power to sign. The Germans then claimed that Poland had rejected their demands and Hitler ordered the invasion for 1 September. The Germans were better prepared for war than the Polish. They had higher numbers of troops and had air superiority. Poland had older fighters while the bombers were more modern. They waited too late to upgrade so newer fighters and bombers would not be there when the Germany invaded. Poland had two armor brigades and its 7TP light tank was better armed than the German Panzer. But they only had 140 of those and 88 tanks they imported from Britain and France. The Polish Navy was a small fleet with destroyers, submarines and support vessels. Most of the surface vessels escaped and joined the British Royal Navy. Submarines did engage German shipping in the Baltic Sea but it was not successful. Polish merchant ships that did escape or elsewhere would join the allies and take part in wartime convoys. By 3 October both German and Soviet forces had secured their spheres ending the Second Polish Republic. Both German and Soviet governments quickly took control of their territories, organizing and annexing, and setting up regional controls. Government and military leaders who did escape would form a military force in support of the Polish government-in-exile. In response to the invasion of Poland, Britain and France formally declared war on Germany on 3 September but little else (France did invade the Saar but quickly withdrew). ==

Japan Surrenders

Surrender of Japan, Tokyo Bay, 2 September 1945: Representatives of the Empire of Japan on board USS Missouri (BB-63) during the surrender ceremonies.
Army Signal Corps, Public Domain

On the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, the Japanese formally surrendered ending World War II. By this time Japan was no longer the military power it once was. The Battle of Midway in June 1942 had been the turning point when four Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk. Since then Japanese control over its captured territories were pushed back under massive effort of U.S. and Allied forces. By the summer of 1945, and with the capture of Okinawa, Japan was being blockaded and being bombed often. Plans for the invasion of Japan had been drawn up. After the bloody experience of capturing territory such as on Iwa Jima, it was expected to be a difficult invasion that would cost a lot of allied lives. However, the dropping of two atomic weapons on Japan in August on Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed things dramatically. Members of the Japanese War Council and Emperor Hirohito favored accepting the peace terms; some objected and acted to stop a surrender. On 15 Aug a coup was attempted against Prime Minister Suzuki, but it was crushed. At noon that day, and for the first time in Japanese history, Emperor Hirohito addressed the nation by radio. “We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.” The US and the allies accepted the surrender.

 

 

News that Stunned: Hitler and Stalin Neutrality Pact (23 August 1939)

Stalin and Ribbentrop shaking hands over the newly signed pact between Germany and Soviet Union. August 23,1939
Source: German Federal Archive

On August 23, 1939 it was announced that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had signed a non-aggression treaty. The pact has various names but was commonly known as the Nazi–Soviet Pact or the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Both countries had suffered in World War I. Both ended with their monarchies toppled and both started as nascent democracies. Neither survived and both countries became ruled by authoritarian states. In Russia, the Communists seized power and for a while sought to bring about promised world-wide revolution that never happened thanks to British efforts to expose their purposes in neighboring countries. Germany fell into NAZI power because Hitler promised to end the chaos, bring order, and restore German power in Europe.

By 1939 though, it was evident Germany was on a collision course in Europe. The winds of war were certainly blowing with the French and British appeasing Germany. The view in Moscow was simple: they did not want war with Germany but saw Hitler as the means to weaken and divide Europe to their advantage. The view there was that an all out war in the West would so weaken them that they would be able to infiltrate and take over (either by stealth or force). Stalin too wanted territory and the Nazi-Soviet Pact gave his country much of what it needed: spheres of influence. Poland and Romania were divided between the two in secret protocols to the pact. And the countries of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland were similarly divided as well. It gave them access to raw materials (iron, coal etc) and oil. All needed to build up the Soviet Union. For Hitler it was strategy. He wanted to invade Poland but did not want to risk war with the Soviets at that time. Although the officer corps had been severely depleted during the Great Purge of 1936-1938 (aided in part by the German Gestapo who created documents that implicated military officers or party officials of spying for Germany or others),the Soviet Union was not underestimated either.

The announcement of the pact was sensational. Many were aghast and surprised the two would sign such a pact. And when Hitler invaded Poland in September, Stalin invaded a few days later to claim the territory ceded to him in the secret parts of the pact.

Aftermath
Stalin unfortunately believed Hitler would hold up his end of the bargain. He thought Hitler would be more interested in subduing the West rather than heading East. And he also believed Hitler would not want a two front war. He was wrong. Despite getting warnings from the British and his own intelligence services, Hitler invaded on Sunday, June 22, 1941. Operation Barbarossa had as its goal to completely defeat the Soviet Union, kill its leadership, and reduce its population so that German settlers would occupy the land. The Germans had initial successes but after the failure of Battle of Moscow in 1942, the German army would be held back and a vicious war between the two countries along what was called the Eastern Front would emerge. It ended up demanding more resources and manpower that caused severe problems for Hitler. The Soviet Union was being supplied by the Allies (at great cost to those doing the dangerous supply missions from the North Atlantic to Murmansk). Ultimately as Germany became weaker after Allied forces invaded Europe and the Soviet Union pushed through towards Berlin, Hitler was forced to commit suicide rather than be captured by the Russians.

Stalin though came out ahead in the end. After expanding westward to push back the German army, the Soviet Union would hold on to the territory it gained. Communist parties would gain control in everyone of those countries creating, as Winston Churchill would say later, an Iron Curtain. East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Bulgaria were all part of that curtain with the Soviet Union. Only Czechoslovakia would stay out of the Warsaw Pact but only because Tito had an independent streak but otherwise was a dedicated Communist. Only after the fall of Communism in Russia in 1992 would many of these states finally be liberated from the Soviet Union.

Remembering History: Roanoke Colony Found Empty;Hitler Suspends Euthanasia Program(18 Aug)

The Mystery of Roanoke Colony

In 1585 the first English colony at Roanoke Island (now part of North Carolina) was established. Faced with food supply issues and Indian attacks, they left in 1586. Sir Walter Raleigh assembled another group of settlers under John White. The 100 settlers arrived in 1587 and began establishing the colony. Governor White had to return to England for more supplies but was delayed in returning due to war with Spain. When he returned on 18 August 1590, he found it deserted and no trace of its inhabitants could be found. Only the word CROTOAN carved into the palisade built around the settlement provided a clue.

Searching that island some 50 miles away proved fruitless. There was no indication of them ever being there. And nothing back at the colony suggested something violent had occurred. They did find though something had occurred since many houses had been dismantled and many items that could be carried away were gone. This suggested to White they relocated elsewhere and were not dead. However they failed to locate any evidence as to where they might be. Explorations by others failed to shed light except for John Lawson.

John Lawson’s 1701-1709  expedition of northern Carolina revealed some intriguing details. He encountered the Hatteras people and found they had some influence of English culture. They revealed that several of their ancestors had been white. Some of the people he encountered had grey eyes, which seemed to collaborate the claim. At the old colony he found the remains of the fort, some English coins and firearms. He believed the 1587 colony had been assimilated with the Hatteras when the community lost hope of hearing back from England.

Reconstructed earthworks from archeological records of Fort Raleigh in the 16th century.
Credit: Sarah Stierch (Wikimedia Commons)

Interest in what happened diminished over time and other more promising areas to colonize were used. It was not until the 19th century interest in the lost colony would be rekindled. Many theories have been put forth, including a few supernatural ones. Modern day research has shown that during the period in question, tree rings show the area suffered persistent drought. This may have caused them to leave since, without water, you could not survive. Probably the simplest explanation, and there is some genetic evidence that may support it, is that faced with drought and starvation, they lived with a local Indian tribe. And over time became assimilated into them.

Sources:

The Lost Colony of Roanoke (Britannica.com)
Roanoke Colony Deserted (History.com)

 

Hitler’s Suspends Euthanasia Program

In 1939 the systematic killing of children deemed “mentally defective” (Kinder-Euthanasie) began under the direction of SS-Oberfuehrer Viktor Brack. The program was given the code name T-4 to hide its true purpose and the euphemism used for the killings was disinfection. It was Brack’s job to determine who would be killed in the program. Six centers were set up but the most well known was Hadamar.  Children were transported to these centers and were killed. Jewish children were especially targeted but also non-Jews. Each child had to be certified mentally ill, schizophrenic, or incapable of murder. Children were either killed by lethal injection or were gassed to death. The program was expanded to adults who met the same classifications as well.

The program, however, was not well hidden and became publicly known. Doctors and clergy began voicing protests in letters to Nazi officials and even Hitler itself. In 1940 the Vatican made its opposition known to such a practice. Catholic bishops began speaking out against the program as well and there were protests. Hitler was jeered during the summer of 1941 when his train was held up while they off loaded patients into trucks. It was clear that there was serious opposition to the program, so on 18 August 1941, Hitler suspended the program. This was followed up with a formal order of 24 August 1941 which rescinded his order for the euthanasia operation. It was formally disbanded on 28 August 1941. The death toll is estimated to be 90,000. Of those 80,000 were mental patients and 10,00 came from concentration camps.

Heinrich Himmler commented that had the SS overseen the program, they would have made sure there would have been no uproar.

Sources:

Aktion T4: The Nazi Euthanasia Program (Axis History
Hitler Suspends Euthanasia Program (History.com)
Child Euthanasia In Nazi Germany (Wikipedia)


Remembering History: Warsaw Uprising Begins (1 Aug 1944)

Rare Agfacolor photo (invention from 1936) dated August 1944 taken in Warsaw, Poland in the Old Town Market Place during Warsaw Uprising in August 1944
Ewa Faryaszewska (1920-1944)
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

On 1 Aug 1944 Poles in Warsaw launched a major uprising against the Nazi occupation. The Soviet Army had advanced to the Vistula River on the eastern suburb of Warsaw prompting the revolt. Polish General Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski, commander of the Home Army (an underground resistance group of around 40,000). The Home Army had ties to the government-in-exile in London, which was anti-communist. The hope was to gain at least partial control of Warsaw before the Soviets arrived.

By this time, the German Army had been pushed back considerably from its gains in Russia. And their taking Warsaw seemed likely. Despite this, Adolf Hitler ordered that the uprising be suppressed at all costs. The Nazi SS directed the defense force and engaged in brutal street fighting. The Polish Home Army fought back hard despite having limited supplies and no support from the Soviet Army (which cause friction between Poland and the Soviet Union for years).

The Red Army did capture several bridgeheads across the Vistula River in preparation to take Warsaw but held back doing anything more. Only under intense pressure from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin Roosevelt did Stalin relent and allow Allies to drop supplies to the rebels. But it was too late as by that time, both the rebels and the citizens ran out of food, supplies, and medical supplies. The uprising came to an end on 2 October when the remaining forces surrendered. The revolt had lasted 63 days but the cost for both sides was high. An estimated three-fourths of the Home Army died along with 200,000 civilians. The Germans suffered 10,000 dead, 9,000 wounded, and 7,000 missing. In keeping with their dislike of the Polish people (they were seen as just a notch above the Jews but were slated for either slavery or death by the Nazis) the survivors were deported.

Deploying demolition squads, most of the remaining intact buildings in Warsaw would be destroyed over the next several months. All of Warsaw’s treasures were looted, burned, or destroyed. Meanwhile the Red Army sitting outside Warsaw did nothing to stop the Germans. They would not move until January 1945 when their final offensive was launched. On 17 January 1945, the ruins of Warsaw were liberated by the Soviets who faced little or no opposition. Thus, making it easy for them to establish a Communist state in Poland. After suffering from Nazi occupation, the Polish people would suffer a longer one under the Communists.

 

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Nazi Germany Prepares For Final Solution (31 July 1941)

Portrait Reinhard Heydrich in Uniform of SS-Gruppenführers ca. 1940/1941
German Federal Archives via Wikimedia Commons

On 31 July 1941 Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, following instructions by Hitler, sent a letter to SS General Reinhard Heydrich directing him to “to submit to me as soon as possible a general plan of the administrative material and financial measures necessary for carrying out the desired final solution of the Jewish question.” In the instruction, Goering recalled a general outline that had been drafted on 24 January 1939 that called for the emigration and deportation of Jews in the best possible way. The program to be implemented by Nazi Germany was the mass and systemic extermination of Jews in al countries under German control.

Heydrich had already started implementing the strategy by bringing back the medieval ghetto in Poland. Jews were forced to live in cramped walled areas and held as prisoners. Their property was confiscated and given to Germans or local non-Jewish people. The instructions from Goering would lead to the Wannsee Conference on 20 January 1942 where details on implementing this mass murder scheme would be decided upon.

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Il Duce Gets The Boot-Mussolini Dismissed From Office (25 July 1943)

Benito Mussolini
Public Domain

On 25 Jul 1943 the Fascist Grand Council formerly voted Mussolini from power and was arrested later after meeting with King Victor Emmanuel III. So what happened to the once all powerful Duce? Let’s find out.

Italy had entered into the Pact of Steel with Germany in 1939 which committed Italy to fighting along with Germany if it declared war or was attacked. Mussolini entered the agreement knowing full well Italy did have the resources or industrial capability for a sustained military conflict. Mussolini had grand ambitions about expanding the Italian sphere of influence in the region and even into central Europe. Mussolini believed that Fascism was on the march and aligning with Hitler seemed a good choice at the time. Italy had successfully invaded Ethiopia (1935-1937) though not without them putting up a strong fight. Using mustard gas against troops and civilians had gotten Mussolini severely criticized and international sanctions.

The war in Ethiopia and his intervention on the side of Franco in the Spanish Civil War had brought Italy closer to Germany with a treaty of mutual interest in 1936.  And he needed coal from Germany since international sanctions over Ethiopia had made acquiring it more difficult. Mussolini believed a German-Rome Axis would be how Europe would turn but relying on Germany to supply items like coal meant Italy was more dependent on Germany rather than a true partnership. Mussolini tried to get all kinds of concessions from the British and French after the Munich Agreement in 1938; none were given. He made it clear in speeches (and those by others) that they wanted territory in France, Tunisia, a small part of Switzerland, and Albania. He upped his demands to demand free access to the world’s oceans by breaking British control of key places such as Gibraltar.

From the viewpoint in London, Paris, and elsewhere, his bellicose talk signaled major territorial ambitions. The Fascists mostly supported this though some, like his foreign minister Count Galeazzo Ciano, were concerned about aligning with Germany. Taking on both Britain and France became accepted since they were the major colonial powers that Italy saw as blocking them from achieving their rightful position in the world. On 7 April 1938, Italy invaded Albania and took control in three days. The formal military alliance with Germany (the Pact of Steel) was signed on 2 May 1939 cementing further the military ambitions of both countries together. The Italians thought war with Britain and France would not occur for years but dreadfully miscalculated Hitler’s ambitions.

Italy was not ready for major war operations until 1942 according to his own advisors. The Pact of Steel had said neither side was to enter war until 1943. Italy desperately needed this time in order to get its industry running and lacked critical military industrial production. Both Britain and France had highly developed military industrial production, but Italy was woefully behind in key areas such as automobile production (key to making tanks and other mobile artillery). Additionally Italy needed to acquire all the needed raw resources needed for war production. Italy was primarily an agriculturally based economy with small pockets of industrial sectors. They needed to setup a supply chain to bring in all the raw materials like coal and import steel. Italy’s merchant marine was not managed in preparation for war and would lose those ships as they were in foreign ports when war was declared by Italy in 1940.

Prior to that, raw materials being sent from European ports to Italy were subject to seizure. Coal, for instance, was shipped out of Rotterdam. The British declared it contraband and seized it, infuriating Mussolini. The Germans offered to ship by train over the Alps while the British countered saying they would supply all of his country’s needs if Italy supplied them armaments. The British hoped to lure Italy away from its alliance with Germany. And it appeared to work as Mussolini had approved a draft contract to provide military equipment. It was suddenly scrapped under intense pressure from Germany caused Mussolini to fold. This decision would come back to haunt him much later down the road.

Italian debt, already large when Mussolini, came to power, had increased thanks to his generous support of General Franco in Spain that increased it. The blockade of coal was strengthened and deeper reliance on German imports of raw materials occurred. The economy was bolstered by the important of goods from Germany, but inflation was occurring causing basic goods and service to become more expensive. When Italy entered the war in 1940, its merchant marine in foreign ports were seized leaving the country without hardly any means of getting needed supplies by cargo vessels.

Adding more to the woes, the warnings of his advisors were accurate. Italy’s army was huge making it a major land force on paper but in reality lacked modern transport and weapons. The army, because of the weak economy, did not have the needed armaments or supplies for war, and was the major reason it failed. Lightly armored infantry is no match for a fully equipped company of troops with full battle-ready equipment like the British had. Along with both a navy and air force that did not work together well, Italy was ill-prepared for general warfare except for a country that had a worse military than it had. There was poor leadership as well at the top that never had clearly defined military objectives and seemed to go at the whim of whatever Duce wanted them to do. They easily took the lower portions of Vichy France and Corsica. About the only good thing they did in taking that was providing a refuge for fleeing Jews. The Italians did not follow the German lead much regarding the Jews, which caused the Germans frustration over the Italian non-compliance in this area.

The succeeding campaigns in North Africa and Greece ended badly. In North Africa the British pulled up a good fight and had routed the Italians. Then the Germans arrived with Rommel in charge making it a much tougher campaign for the British and later the Americans, Greece was a total debacle. They invaded from Albania, but the Greeks pushed them back into Albania ending up in a stalemate that cost both sides. Once again, the Germans invaded (the British were using Greece to fly bombing raids into Romania) and successfully took Greece and Crete. Only Yugoslavia was a success but that was because the Germans were part of the campaign and once the country was divided up, Italy got the coastal area.

By 1943 though, things had gotten worse for most Italians. Food and other items were rationed, wartime inflation made everything more expensive, and the war itself was unpopular with most Italians. Mussolini was no longer seen as the great leader and the recent bombing of Rome showed how his boasts were hollow. The invasion of Sicily and later the south by Allied forces showed the proverbial “writing was on the wall.” Mussolini knew that his military could not successfully fight the Allies but stuck to the war because he saw no other option but to fight it out. The Fascist Grand Council knew the war was lost and that Mussolini had lost his stature with the people.

On the night of 24 July and in the early morning of 25 July, the Grand Council met with Mussolini. Accounts of the meeting indicate he was sick, tired, and felt the burden of the military reverses suffered by the Italian military. To some, it seemed he was looking for a way out and it was given to him. The Grand Council voted to remove him from power and transfer some of his duties to the King. While some opposed it, the vote was carried by the majority. Even his son-in-law Count Galeazzo Ciano voted for his ouster. Mussolini seemed dazed by the vote and while his supporters tried to get him to act, he seemed unable to do anything. He would go to his meeting with the King (unshaven and groggy) where he would be arrested. The King told him that General Pietro Badoglio would be taking over as Prime Minister and that the war was lost. He and his family were assured of their safety, and he was whisked away.

When it was declared Mussolini was out, the general response was one of relief. His fellow Fascists did not stage marches or protests over his dismissal and did nothing to release him from his incarceration on La Maddalena (he would be moved elsewhere). Hitler was furious and knew that the Italians would seek an armistice with the Allies (which was true but in public said otherwise to keep the Germans at bay). For the Allies his dismissal was good news as they hoped it might bring an end to the Italian campaign. And many Italians thought it would as well, Unfortunately the Germans had other plans and that would drag out the war in Italy until June 1944, but that is a story for another time.

 

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The Failed Plot to Kill Hitler (20 July 1944)

Martin Bormann, Hermann Göring, and Bruno Loerzer surveying the damaged conference room
20 Jul 1944
Source: German Federal Archives via Wikimedia Commons

On 20 July 1944 a bomb placed in the briefing room of  Wolf’s Lair would explode in an attempt to kill Hitler. It failed and many of the conspirators, including Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, would either be executed or commit suicide. So, who were the conspirators and why did it fail? Let’s find out.

The conspirators were a combination of both civilians and military and had varying reasons for coming together. Some opposed the anti-Jewish policies and were shocked by Kristallnacht, others were upset with how Hitler had mismanaged the war. Many wanted to save Germany from a catastrophic defeat they saw coming. Some of them no doubt would have faced a military tribunal had they survived for war crimes for working or assisting with the elimination of Jews. An earlier plot to kill Hitler on his airplane had failed, so the plan was changed. Called Operation Valkyrie, the plan was to take control of cities, disarming the SS, and arresting Nazi leaders.

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was to place a bomb under a table at the East Prussian headquarters called Wolf’s Lair. Then once Hitler was confirmed dead, a radio announcement would go out saying that the Nazi Party had murdered Hitler and ordering the Reserve Army to take control of key installations in Berlin, arresting Nazi leaders. Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, former mayor of Leipzig would become chancellor with former army chief of staff Ludwig Beck becoming president. Then the new government would begin negotiating for an armistice.

Stauffenberg arrived with two bombs on 20 Jul 1944 but was unable to arm one of them. In the briefing room where military aides were briefing Hitler, he placed the briefcase with the bomb under the table and near Hitler. He excused himself and left the room. Unfortunately, the briefcase was moved to under a thick leg of the table. When it detonated at 12:42 PM, Stauffenberg believed Hitler had been killed and put Operation Valkyrie into action. Hitler was wounded but not killed but the stenographer and three officers died. However instead of acting right away, many of the conspirators waited until Stauffenberg arrived in Berlin three hours later. By that time rumors of Hitler’s survival sapped the courage of many to go through with their plans. Precious time was lost, and it was too late now.

General Friedrich Fromm, who knew of the plot and condoned it, quickly saved himself by arresting the key conspirators and executing them. Hitler would go on the radio on 21 July 1944 to announce his survival to the nation and that those who had done this would be taken care of. The Gestapo swung into action arresting and torturing the remaining conspirators. Some were hauled before the infamous Volksgericht (People’s Court). There the infamous Nazi judge Roland Freisler handed out death sentences. Some were hanged, shot, and a few were strangled with piano wire. Fromm did not escape eventually being arrested, tried, and executed. General Beck was allowed to commit suicide but only wounded himself and had to be shot. The surprising revelation that Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was involved (he knew of the plot but took no active role in its planning or execution) shocked Hitler. Due to his popularity-and to avoid a trial-he was told if he committed suicide his family would be spared. Upon his death from an “illness”, he was given a full military funeral.

The assassination attempt did not weaken Hitler but strengthened it. His grip was tightened, and they went after not just those involved but other enemies, they could get rid of at the same time by claiming they were part of the plot as well. Over 7,000 were arrested and 4,980 were executed. The barbaric deaths of some by piano wire was specifically ordered by Hitler

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Remembering History: Rome Bombed by United States (19 Jul 1943)

Daily News, Los Angeles- Headline on Bombing of Rome
Source: RareEarlyNewspapers.com (All Rights Reserved)

By 1943, Italians had seen shortages in basic goods and supplies requiring rationing as their merchant marine had been decimated by the war. This led to a lot of grumbling about the war and its effects on Italy. Mussolini’s popularity had begun to wane. He had convinced Italians that the Allies would never bomb the eternal city of Rome. Then on 19 July 1943, the U.S. bombed the Rome railway yards.

Both President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had made a public appeal for Italians to reject Mussolini and save their country. The Allies by this time had invaded Sicily, and thanks to a clever deception, Hitler thought it initially a diversion. The Axis had been furthered weakened by its defeat in North Africa which had seen losses by both German and Italian forces. The advance of the Allied troops shook the Italian government. The bombing of Rome really caused panic in Rome as people went out into the streets.

It was much worse though as panic gave way to anger at Mussolini. People started destroying effigies of the dictator. And oddly, there was actually celebration of the attack as it was seen as leading to Mussolini’s demise. Hitler met with Mussolini to shore up his confidence after the attack. The attack had shaken him as well. Mussolini appeared unusually quiet in the meeting (he spoke poor German) and relied on the transcript later. Hitler tried to restore his confidence worried he might cave in and seek an armistice with the Allies. In the end, Mussolini agreed to continue the war though by this time he knew the truth. The Italian army was beaten and there was no way they could win the war. He could not tell that to Hitler fearing what he might do in response.

Hitler for his part was concerned that either Mussolini would surrender, or his own people might remove him. He quietly ordered Rommel to take control of the Greek islands in case something went wrong in Rome. The Germans would be ready to pounce when it did. And events happened faster than expected. Within a week the Fascist Grand Council would relieve Mussolini and he was put under arrest by the King.

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Book Review: The Assisi Underground:he Priests Who Rescued Jews

The Assisi Underground: The Priests Who Rescued Jews
Ramati, Alexander Stein and Day, New York 1978

Alexander Ramati’s The Assisi Underground: The Priests Who Rescued Jews recounts how in Assisi that Jews were saved by Catholic priests, nuns, and locals. And remarkably none of the Jews sheltered by them were captured by the Nazis.

The fall of Mussolini in August 1943 brought the German occupation of northern Italy, which meant that Jews faced arrest and deportation to concentration camps. In the Vatican, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty ran an operation to help conceal Jews and later escaped allied prisoners of war. Through a network of priests and others, Jews were also transited to outlying cities and towns like Assisi, where this story takes place. Assisi is a unique city owing to its religious significance. St. Francis and St. Clare both came from here and the city has a rich and deep spiritual history with famous churches (Basilica of San Francesco, Basilica of Santa Chiara, Cathedral of San Rufino, and Church of San Damiano). The city is also a major Christian pilgrimage site.

Father Rufino Niccacci, a Franciscan, and Bishop Giuseppe Placido Nicolini would lead the efforts to conceal in Assisi. Father Rufino would be summoned to meet with Bishop Nicolini after the Germans occupied Rome to help Jews that had fled get to safety. Father Rufino was stunned and asked why he was being asked to do this. Bishop Nicolini responded he wanted someone who would not lose his head in dealing with the Germans and OVRA (the Italian secret police). The group of Jews was being disguised as Catholic pilgrims heading home. Father Rufino’s task was to make sure they got to Florence. One of the group, a Rabbi, asked the Bishop to safeguard the Torah until he returned, which the Bishop was happy to do so.

The trip itself by train was uneventful until the Germans at one point boarded to check identification papers. Fortunately, an allied bombing cut that short and the train had to quickly move on. Rufino thanked God and the British for their intervention. So began Father Rufino’s involvement in the Assisi Underground. At first the task was simply to try to move Jews out of the country (by land to Switzerland, to a port where they could get on a ship, or across a river in the south to get into Allied controlled Italy). Those options became impossible as the Germans began cracking down and the Swiss were refusing entry to but the very old or pregnant. This meant Jews had to be concealed for the long haul requiring the use of convents, monasteries, and private homes to hold them.

It also meant having to come up with skillful counterfeit identification documents, which was done by a local printer (Luigi and Trento Brizi). Their birthplaces were all in areas under Allied control, so there was no way to verify them. For those who could easily move about (many were native born Italians so spoke Italian well), they taught them various Catholic customs and traditions so they would pass easily and not stand out. Some men were disguised as monks and learned how to look like they were in deep prayer in church should anyone notice them. Those who had stronger accents generally had to stay concealed as that would raise suspicions. Concealing was not enough since raids were not uncommon, so they set up a system that in case a raid was spotted coming to Assisi, bells would ring 5 times and Jews would go into a more secure place to avoid being caught. Many who lived in private homes showed their counterfeit identification and were never arrested.

Assisi under German occupation meant the city faced the possibility of being bombed, so effort was made to change that by having it declared an open city. While the city, the Bishop, and the Vatican sought this, help would come from an unlikely source: Colonel Valentin Müller. Müller as a doctor was in charge of treating wounded German soldiers in Assisi. As a devout Catholic, he appreciated the spiritual side of the city. He wrote to Field Marshal Kesselring asking Assisi to be declared a hospital city. This was agreed to, and German troops and military police departed leaving only the hospital staff and its patients in Assisi. Colonel Müller became a familiar site through his walks, drinking wine in the public area, attending church, and seeing the holy sites with Father Rufio as his guide. He also met with Bishop Nicolini and had extra food rations sent to them during Christmas. Father Rufio believed he had been sent by God to help Assisi.

Despite it being a hospital town, the regional SS along with the OVRA were hard at work to find antifascists, partisans, and of course Jews being hidden. The local SS captain ordered raids of convents, monasteries and churches and had no scruples about violating areas deemed off limits by the religious order. Rufio fell under suspicion from this SS captain after returning from a expedition south near the Allied demarcation line (he went there to test out it being used to smuggle Jews across the river) where smuggling was going on. He would be arrested at one point by this SS captain, forced to endure three days without food and water, and then taken to an execution site to see what happens to those who oppose them. Rufino did not give him anything and faced execution but was reprieved and released from custody thanks to some high-level intercession.

During this time, the Jewish children still attended school but not in public. Thanks to people such as Don Aldo Brunacci, lessons would continue so they would not lose time in getting educated. Brunacci also working with Bishop Nicolini, found housing for over 300 Jewish refugees. For Father Rufino, working with Jews opened his eyes about who they were. Since Jews were mostly in the large cities like Rome, he never encountered them and thus had no experience in their customs and practices of Jews. He learned much during this time which opened his eyes and appreciated more deeply the Jews he was helping.

When the Allies defeated the Germans at Monte Cassino, it was the end of the German occupation. Sappers were sent to Assisi to mine the city, but Müller received orders (counterfeit it turns out) from Kesselring that Assisi was an open city. Müller ordered the German army and the SS out and started the evacuation of the German wounded that were scattered over the city. Before he left, Müller left all the medical supplies to Assisi. When the British arrived, they were greeted with joy by the people of Assisi. All of those who had been hidden during the occupation came out of hiding in joy. For Father Rufino and Bishop Nicolini, it was a great moment in time. Most of the Jews that were hidden would return home though one family did choose to stay. The wife of one of those who had died while being hid now had her name changed to Weiss with a Star of David above it. As Jews recorded their stories of survival in Assisi, others outside became aware of the remarkable effort to conceal and save Jews from being deported and killed in the Nazi death camps.

This remarkable story shows how Catholic priests, nuns, and bishops took the risk of helping Jews from being caught by the Nazis. They did not for any fame or glory but because it was the right thing to do. They certainly knew the risk. Many religious in other places under German occupation had been arrested and sent to concentration camps (often to die there from infections or execution). The Vatican could not publicly support this for obvious reasons that it would result in the Germans occupying the Vatican. So, the public posture was to appear neutral but behind the scenes to do anything they could to assist (such as Monsignor O’Flaherty). Both Rufio and Nicolini, along with Don Aldo Brunacci would be recognized by Yad Vashem, which would award them Righteous Among the Nations. This is a very special honor given to non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust. Oskar Schindler was given the same honor as well as were others who risked their lives to help Jews during this time. Colonel Müller would return in 1950 with his family and be warmly welcomed. At the time the book was published, there was no official recognition of his role in helping Assisi during this time. There is now with the road to the hospital bearing his name and a plaque.

The book is well written and really gives you a good look at how they concealed Jews (and others as well) during the German occupation. The fact it was a simple Franciscan priest who spearheaded the effort speaks as well to the simple faith that guided his and others to do it. There was never any question of doing it, just the logistics. The Jews that were saved were grateful and let it be known. Ramati had learned of the story when he was there after the liberation and said that one day, he would write a book to chronicle this remarkable story. And it is a book worth reading to see how the accomplished it under German control. Whether Müller knew what Rufino was doing is not clear, but as Ramati reveals from interviewing his son, he probably did and why him being there made a difference.

The book was made into a 1985 movie The Assisi Underground starring Ben Cross as Father Rufino and James Mason as Bishop Nicolini (it was his last movie). It is okay but takes liberties with the source material and adds an unneeded search for a scientist. Maximilian Schell plays Colonel Müller pretty close to the original (there were a few deviations from the book but not too many). Read the book and then watch the movie is my humble suggestion.

Stars: 4
Genre: History/non-fiction
Audience: 15+

The book is out of print though checking your local library would be a good place to start. Libraries are part of a shared network so even if they do not have it, you can retrieve the book to be checked out. Amazon does have it available for purchase as a used book, so you can also try there. The movie can also be found in many libraries and as of the date of this posting, available for free viewing by Amazon Prime members.

The Assisi Underground and Related Books