All posts by Mark Taylor

Historical Movie Review: The King’s Choice

 

The King’s Choice
Nordisk Film A/S, 2016
133 Minutes

Summary: In April 1940 the Germans decided to invade Norway to preclude the British from blockading the area and cutting off supplies off raw materials. As Norway was a sovereign nation and a declared neutral, Germany tried to convince Norway its action was merely defensive and to allow access to defend it from Britain. King Haakon VII, the constitutional monarch of Norway, was forced to make a decision that would shape its outcome.

Plot

The film begins on 8 April 1940 with King Haakon being informed by his son, Crown Prince Olav, that a German transport ship had been sunk by the British in Norwegian territorial waters. He is concerned with the government neutrality position in the face of ongoing German aggression. The German envoy in Oslo is instructed to contact the Norwegian government and seek their permission to allow German troops on their soil to protect Norway from a British invasion. Curt Bräuer, the envoy, goes to meet with the Norwegian Foreign Minister Halvdan Koht. Koht, after consulting with the Cabinet, declines.

As tensions start to increase, Colonel Birger Eriksen in command of the Oscarborg Fortress prepares his garrison, both undermanned and with inexperienced personnel, for combat. He receives reports for other fortresses of German ships. The German cruiser Blucher is spotted on the morning of 9 April in Drobak Sound. Eriksen considers it hostile and orders his guns and torpedo battery to fire sinking the Bucher. The King is notified by the Prime Minister of the sinking and impending invasion. He is advised to flee Oslo and the entire royal family boards a train to Hamar. The Norwegian Parliament convenes to discuss negotiations while Brauer meets with with the Oslo police chief who his acting as intermediary with the Cabinet. Lieutenant-Colonel Hartwig Pohlman, the military attaché in Norway, receives orders to use paratroopers to capture the royal family and Cabinet in Hamar.

Adding more fuel to the fire, the leader of a fascist group tied to Nazi Germany (Nasjonal Samling) Vidkun Quisling takes to the airwaves and proclaims himself Prime Minister calling on people to accept the German forces. Meanwhile the German envoy receives orders directly from Hitler to negotiate with King Haakon. Brauer does not believe the people, nor the King will accept Quisling, but sets off to meet him. Meanwhile as German troops advance towards Hamar, most of the royal family are sent off to Sweden while the King and his son remain. German forces meet resistance from Norwegian soldiers in trying to get to where the King is.

A meeting of the Cabinet takes place about the German envoy wanting to meet with the King alone. His son opposes it, and the Cabinet is uneasy about it. The King decides to meet with the envoy. Brauer tries to convince Haakon to follow what his brother, King Christian of Denmark did, and agree to capitulate. Haakon gets angry when the envoy tries to use his brother in this manner and tells the envoy he will relay the message to the Cabinet.

At the Cabinet meeting, King Haakon states that Quisling would never be accepted by the people, and he would not appoint him as Prime Minister. He offers to abdicate if the Cabinet decides otherwise. The Cabinet is moved by the king’s statement and Brauer is sent back to Oslo empty handed. With Norway officially turning down the German request, it now becomes war with Germany. German planes start bombing the area they are in forcing the King and those with him to flee into the woods. Both the Cabinet and King Haakon along with Crown Prince leave Norway and end up in Britain for the rest of the war. He would lead the government-in-exile and resistance to the German occupation.

At the end of the movie, King Haakon is reunited with his grandson who has been in America during the war. Then the entre royal family returns to Norway. King Haakon would continue to rule as monarch until his death in September 1957 at the age of 85 after a 52-year reign.

Review
This is really excellent movie and thoroughly enjoyable for those who like movies set in World War II. This deals not with the big actors, but one of the small countries that had declared itself neutral. Norway had strategic importance for both sides, which is why both were planning military action to control its ports, raw materials, and access to the North Atlantic. The film excellently portrays the dilemma that countries that were in the same spot. They did not want to be invaded and tried to thread a needle that would keep them safe. The Norwegian King, though avowedly non-partisan, was drawn into having to provide guidance to the government during this historic crisis for Norway.

The film does not delve deeply into the history of King Haakon, though in the opening credits it outlays how Norway had split (peacefully) from Sweden and selected its new monarch. Haakon was well respected for being above politics and getting to know the country well. His leadership during the crisis really helped the government stay focused despite the German invasion of their land. The easy thing would have been to simply surrender, as Denmark (ruled by his brother) did. When the Germans tried to impose the disliked Quisling, he opposed it saying he could never appoint him as Prime Minister knowing how he was widely disliked. In the famous scene where he would prefer to abdicate rather than do that, the Cabinet looks at him with awe and affection. They all knew exactly what it meant, that the German would end up taking their country. The Norwegian military would put up a fight, but they did not have the means to defeat the very powerful German war machine.

Seeing the movie also from the German envoy’s side was interesting. He understood Norway and was a supporter of invading. He tried to explain to Ribbentrop that Quisling had no support amongst the people but was Hitler who made the call. The envoy hoped to convince King Haakon to spare his country from the invasion and to accept Quisling. When the cabinet informed him later that they turned down the German request to accede, the German military then went into full gear. It is telling when her returns to the embassy that the military are now in complete charge and his role was essentially over.

They do not show it in the movie (and they should have) of the King’s return at the end of the war. During the exile, both he and the government in exile would organize the resistance and provide hope to their people. Film I have seen of how he was greeted with great joy by Norwegians tells much about how they loved him. The same could not be said for those who had collaborated like Quisling, whose name would become synonymous with traitor.

An excellent movie to watch. The version I watched was subtitled (it was filmed in Norwegian) on Amazon, so it was easy to follow.

A few historical notes
There is quite a lot of information out there about the German occupation of Norway, so I will not go deep into it here. Norway became a heavily fortified country during the war, with more German soldiers there then Norwegians. Quisling, as the German envoy noted, was not liked by the people, and was replaced by a German appointed governor. He would be brought back into the government but not hold executive power (but still did a lot of nasty things). His last name became an adjective, coined by the British press, and picked by Churchill. To be called a Quisling meant you were a traitor.

The Norwegians lost all of their trade after the invasion and totally dependent on Germany. Food was rationed and people took to growing vegetables, fruits, keeping chickens, pigs, and even cows if they could. It was not a happy time for Norway and there were opposition activities that took place though nothing as dramatic as elsewhere. The Germans imposed their usual controls over the local populace and of course rounded up and deported any Jews they found to concentration camps.

According to various reports, nearly 2/3 of the Jewish population fled to Sweden or Britain with the assistance by the resistance movement. Those that remained who could not flee faced deportation. 765 died in German hands and only between 28-34 of those deported survived. Norwegian police assisted the Germans in arresting Jews in Norway.

Vidkun Quisling was tried and executed for betraying his country. Others who had assisted or collaborated with the Germans were dealt harshly with as well.

King Haakon VII continued to serve as the monarch until his death in 1957 at the age of 85. He would be succeeded by his son who became King Olav V who reigned until his death in 1991.

To thank Britain for having the King and government-in-exile stay there during the war, each year Norway sends a Christmas tree (Norwegian Spruce of course!) to be put up in Trafalgar Square.


Titanic News-Italian Titanic Found, Precious Book on Titanic, Belfast Harbor, and Juneteenth

From Outer Space To The Bottom Of The Sea: UAE Adventurer To Explore Wreckage Of Titanic Next
Khaleej Times, 13 Jun 2022

The UAE resident Hamish Harding who blasted off to space as a tourist on board Blue Origin’s crewed flight is now set on a new mission – to explore the depths of the Titanic. Harding is a jet pilot, avid adventurer and chairman of Action Aviation. He has just returned from his maiden space exploration and is ready for a new adventure. Speaking to Khaleej Times, Harding says, “I’ve been lucky enough to get another opportunity to dive to the Titanic which sank in 1912, when it hit the iceberg and split in to two as it sank, in 10 days’ time. I’ll be lucky enough to go down the submarine and explore the Titanic and see what’s left off the Titanic now over 100 years later.”

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The Very Precious Book Sank With The Titanic And Burned In The Bombing Of London
Wire Service Canada, 15 Jun 2022

Among the artworks of enormous value lost with the sinking of the Titanic, in April 1912, is the painting “La Circassienne au bainfor the French painter Merry Joseph Blondel, whose value at that time amounted to 100 thousand dollars, which is equivalent to three million euros today. Another equally famous work was a very valuable version of quatrains (Rubaiyat) by the Persian poet Omar Khayyam, a collection of poems also mentioned in the book Titanic. The right story by American writer Walter Lord, who inspired director James Cameron for the famous 1997 film.

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Titanic Lunch Menu 14 April 1912
Photo: AP

A Titanic Theatrical Dining Experience Is Coming To Canberra And My Heart Will Go On
Her Canberra, 16 Jun 2022

If you’ve ever imagined yourself intertwined with Leo or Kate, ‘flying’ at the front of a cruise ship, then it’s your time to be the king of the world (let’s just ignore the ‘sunk by a massive iceberg’ part)! That’s right, Hidden (the crew behind unique events such as the Alice’s Mad Hatter’s Cocktail Party and The Teletubbies Bar) are set to take you back to 15 April, 1912 on an immersive voyage aboard the RMS Titanic. The theatrical dining experience is based on the 1997 Academy Award-winning film which focusses on the tragic love story between Rose and Jack.

Event info:

The Titanic Theatrical Dining Experience: Canberra
Multiple Dates (24 Sep 2022-28 Feb 2023
Location: Disclosed later
Price: $99 (AU)
Information for the event and signing up can be found at https://explorehidden.com/event/details/the-titanic-theatrical-dining-experience-canberra-1554928

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Researchers Have Discovered The Wreckage Of The “Italian Titanic”
Political Lore, 16 Jun 2022

The victims of the wreck of the ship, converted into an auxiliary cruiser with the onset of the war, were 1926 people out of more than 2600 on board. This is the largest naval disaster of the First World War. The wreckage of the ship, which in the publication of the newspaper il Messaggero is called the “Italian Titanic”, rested at a depth of 930 meters in the waters of the Strait of Otranto. The researchers repeated the route of the convoy, which included the “Prince Umberto”, and using sonar detected the presence of wreckage at great depths After three unsuccessful attempts, an underwater robot was lowered to the crash site, which was prevented by a strong current in the sea strait and managed to film and photograph what was left of the steamer.

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4 Titanic Artifacts That Didn’t Go Down With the Ship
Discover, 17 June 2022

The Titanic rests about 12,500 feet below the surface. An exhibition company received sole permission to salvage remains from wreckage. The company has taken seven trips and resurfaced more than 5,500 artifacts ranging from handbags to clocks. Traveling expeditions, in places like the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, display these relics. Many of the interesting items, however, come from people who didn’t go down with the ship. Survivors and witnesses have also offered amazing artifacts. Here are four fascinating finds.

(In case you cannot view the full article, the four things are (1) Iceberg Photograph, (2) Ice Warnings, (3) Life Vest, (4) Menus)

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Belfast’s Iconic Harbour And Docklands Through The Years
Belfast Live, 20 Jun 2022

This is really a nice collection of photos of Belfast, Harland & Wolff, and other things in the area around the harbor. A few you may recognize as they have been published elsewhere. A nice time capsule of different times in the harbor’s past.

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Today is Juneteenth, a Federal holiday in the United States.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in Confederate states. Most African Americans would not learn of this act until after the areas they lived in were liberated by Union troops. On 19 June 1865, Union troops entered Galveston, Texas (Texas was a Confederate state during the war) and learned that they were freed. Celebrations began with prayers, feasts, and dance. The following year it would take place throughout Texas on the same date becoming an annual tradition  and holiday in 1980. The celebration would spread to other states and sometimes recognized as a state holiday as well. As a result of its importance to African-Americans and to the United States as well, the U.S. Congress made it a national holiday in 2021 with President Biden signing the resolution of Congress, It formally began as a holiday on Monday, 20 June 2022. Per federal law, since June 19th fell on a Sunday this year, it was celebrated the following Monday as a national holiday. The formal name of the holiday is Juneteenth National Independence Day


Happy Father’s Day

Father and son on a Sunday afternoon, 1943.
Public Domain (U.S. Library of Congress, digital id#fsa 8d19170)

Father’s Day is celebrated on the third Sunday of June in the United States. The movement to recognize fathers began in a West Virginia church in 1908. The sermon that day asked to remember 362 men who had perished in a mine explosion the previous December and many of the men were fathers. In 1909 Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Washington tried to establish an equivalent of Mother’s Day for male parents. She had been raised by a widower and believed the recognition was due. She promoted it so well to local churches, service organizations, and government officials that Washington State celebrated Father’s Day on June 19,1910. The movement to recognize fathers spread slowly but in 1924 President Calvin Coolidge urged state governments to observe Father’s Day. Since then most states now recognize the third Sunday of June as Father’s Day but it is not a public holiday (neither is Mother’s Day).

Father’s Day is also celebrated in many countries. In Europe and most Spanish speaking countries it is celebrated on St. Joseph’s Day on March 19. St. Joseph is the patron saint of fathers.

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Remembering History: Germans Take Paris (14 June 1940)

German Troops in Paris, 14 June 1940
Photo: Heinz Fremde (1907-1987)
German Federal Archives:Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-126-0350-26A / Fremke, Heinz / CC-BY-SA 3.0

On 14 June 1940, the open city of Paris was taken by the German army. There was no opposition. Le Havre in the north fell as to German control. The Maginot Line in the east was broken by the German 1st Army under General Erwin von Witzleben near Saarbrucken. The French government had relocated to Bordeaux and appealed to the United States to enter the war. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had asked the French to hold on and not surrender.

In the United States, the fall of France was seen as a catastrophe but there was hesitation on what to do. The French premier Paul Reynaud asked President Roosevelt for aid in either a declaration of war or, if not possible, any help they could provide. Roosevelt was sympathetic but advisors such as Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State, argued any open support for the French would be seen as a declaration of war by the Germans. Public opinion was still in support of the U.S. staying out of the European war, and the Congress would not wholly support it either.

Parisians had been fleeing the approaching German troops. It has been estimated that over 2 million Parisians fled ahead of the German arrival in Paris. Parisians awoke that morning with messages blaring over loudspeakers that a curfew would begin at 8 pm that night. The Germans took quick control raising the German swastika on the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. The Gestapo quickly began to start rounding up those already on lists for arrest, interrogation, and execution or deportation to Germany. While the United States did not offer any formal support for France, it implemented a freeze on Italian and German assets in the country (meaning they had no access to funds in U.S. banks or to any property they owned).

By this time, the formal relationship between had already deteriorated. As a response to Kristallnacht in 1938, the U.S. ambassador had been withdrawn. Only a Charge d’Affairs*represented the U.S. from that point on. Germany withdrew its ambassador in response. This would remain unchanged until Germany formally declared war on 11 December 1941.

*A charge d’affairs is a diplomat who handles the ordinary duties of an ambassador when they are not present (whether temporary or permanent). Often this will occur when an ambassador has ended his tour and they are awaiting a new one to be posted. A person acting in this capacity has the same immunities that the ambassador does. In formal ceremonies, a charge d’affairs is treated with a lesser precedence than an ambassador.

Sources:

History.com
History.net
World War II Database


Looking Back at Nazi Titanic

Wilhelm Gustloff in Danzig, September 1939.
Photo: German Federal Archives (Bild 183-H27992 )

Recently a posting on HistoryofYesterday.com caught my eye concerning the Wilhelm Gustloff. This is one of those maritime tragedies that got buried and forgotten. It was buried by the Nazi’s in 1945 since it was embarrassing to them. And later it was forgotten after the war ended in Europe when everyone turned to celebrating the end of World War II. Only much later when researchers and survivors sought to bring this story to life did it become known for what it was-a terrible maritime tragedy that dwarfs what happened to Titanic.

In 1937 the German cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff was launched. The ship was to be used to bolster the image of Nazi Germany. From all accounts, it was designed to be a comfortable ship for its passengers though it omitted any class distinctions you would find on cruise ships. There were not first, second or third class passengers as everyone had more or less the same basic rooms. This was in keeping with Nazi ideology of the master race not having first or second class since they were all the same. When war broke out though,  the Gustloff was first a hospital ship, a floating barracks, and then later a transport ship. Originally designed for 2,000 passengers, its final journey would well exceed that.

With the Soviet Army advancing, it was decided to evacuate both civilian and military personnel from occupied Poland (Operation Hannibal). The Gustloff took on at 10, 582 that were mostly civilians but had military as well. Departing Gdynia on 30 January 1945, the ship faced the danger of Soviet submarines trying to sink her enroute to Germany. She was lightly escorted making her prone to attack as well. A skilled submarine captain aboard tried to warn its captain about Russian submarines and how to evade them. However his warnings were dismissed, but the proved to be accurate. The Gustloff was tricked into turning on her lights allowing her to be scene and for a Soviet submarine to fire three torpedoes. All three hit their target with deadly precision.

With many of the crew killed, it was left to the passengers to get off any way they could. Unfortunately there were not enough lifeboats for the 10,000 aboard, so it became a melee to escape the cold waters of the Baltic. People were crushed or stomped on as they raced to the lifeboats. While some crew were around, passengers had to lower the few lifeboats which proved difficult. Due to the freezing temperatures, davits were frozen. Only 1,252  would be rescued by two nearby ships leaving over 9,330 dead. The bodies would wash up in nearby beaches for months.

News of the tragedy was censored in Nazi Germany as it seen as demoralizing. However news got out about it thanks to German newspapers printed by the Allies.  A 1960 German movie Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen (Darkness Fell on Gotenhafen) dramatizes the disaster.

Sources:

Sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff 30 Jan 1945
Forgotten History, 6 June 2022

Operation Hannibal 1945: the Germany evacuation that dwarfed the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’
History Extra

wilhelmgustloffmuseum.com

Interesting History: Ben Franklin’s Famous Electricity Experiment

Franklins_experiment
Ben Franklin’s Famous Experiment To Capture Electricity on 10 June 1752. Public Domain

On June 10, 1752 Benjamin Franklin conducted an experiment on electricity that has become both famous and legendary. Electricity was not well understood but many knew the effects of lightning. Franklin was fascinated by the subject and decided to conduct an experiment on a stormy day. He used a kite with a key to gather electricity the storm gave off and used string to transfer it to a Leyden jar. His son was the only witness to it. Franklin made sure he was grounded and that the string his hands were touching were not wet. Franklin’s delving into electricity would give us words we use today:battery, conductor, and electrician. He also developed the lightning rod,a very useful tool if you live in an area where you get thunderstorms. Simply put, a lightning rod on a house (or other elevated structure) acts to capture the electricity from lightning and then sends it through a wire to the ground thus avoiding it passing through the structure (which can cause damage). There are more modern variations of it but all use the same principle of grounding electricity so it does little harm to people or structures.

Attempts to replicate Franklin’s Experiment show how lucky he was and that it is difficult to do even under controlled circumstances. Some doubt it happened at all. Mythbusters found that in their recreation of the experiment he likely would have died. But they concede some parts were feasible such as collecting a charge from a damp string and accumulating it in a Leyden jar. So did it happen or not? Like all good stories, there is likely something to it. If he did do it as claimed,he was truly fortunate or blessed because it is extremely hazardous to do. Many places ban such experiments because of how dangerous it is. Whether he did as claimed or through some other means we may never know the full tale. But likely he did try something close to it and obviously he never tried it again.

Further Reading

Benjamin Franklin’s Inventions, Discoveries, and Improvements
Encyclopedia Britannica
History.com


Remembering D-Day, 6 June 1944

[This would normally would have been published on June 6, but due to technical difficulties I was unable to post it on that date. D-Day was the largest amphibious assault in history requiring massive amounts of planning, men,  supplies. It did not go according to script with numerous problems that occurred nearly immediately. And the planners underestimated the hedgerows causing more headaches. What ultimately won the battle was the sheer tenacity of the ordinary soldier. In many cases, officers were injured or killed putting the noncoms in charge. There are some excellent depictions of D-Day: The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan to name a few. Books written by Cornelius Ryan and Stephen Ambrose about that day and World War II are also recommended. I also highly recommend both the book and miniseries Band of Brothers as well, MT]

"Into The Jaws of Death" U.S. troops from Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division disembarking landing craft on 6 June 1944. Photo:Chief Photographer's Mate Robert F. Sargent Public Domain (National Archives and Records Administration)
“Into The Jaws of Death”
U.S. troops from Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division disembarking landing craft on 6 June 1944.
Photo:Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent
Public Domain (National Archives and Records Administration)

Today we cannot imagine or fathom the resources and manpower needed for this highly complex operation. It took years of planning, putting together needed resources, and training the men needed. Even then things went wrong right away, but despite the terrible odds and the high casualty rate, the Allied forces prevailed. With many junior officers wounded or killed right away, it was the ordinary soldier that won the day.

The world of 6 June 1944 was this: Nazi Germany held total control over Western Europe except for Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland who remained neutral. However, its invasion of Russia had collapsed at this point with the German army now forced to retreat. It had already been forced out of North Africa and Allied troops had landed in Sicily in 1943 and by 1944 were in Italy. Mussolini had been deposed in 1943, rescued by German paratroopers, and put in charge of a German supported puppet state in Northern Italy. The Germans knew the allies were planning a major invasion along the coast of France.

Crossing the English Channel was going to be an enormous challenge. Despite what some want to believe, it was easier in concept that actual implementation. While cries of a second front had been going on for years, it required a vast amount of resources to pull off. You not only needed the men, but they all had to be trained, fed, and properly outfitted. Not just the foot soldiers but also the special units. Then you needed ships not only to bring them over to England, but camps to house them and continue their training. The Army Air Corp needed runways and facilities. The list goes on and on. Imagine a list of needed items that stretches, when laid out flat, from San Francisco to Los Angeles and you get an idea of how enormous an operation this was going to be. And that is just on the planning and supply side.

Then the problem of getting men over to France was a major hurdle. Landing craft at the start of the war were not very good and unreliable. New ones would have to be devised (they were, the Higgins boats) that would allow troops to be dropped off as close to shore as possible. Then you needed accurate intelligence to tell you what the troops were going to face. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had put up every possible fortification on the beaches and the area around. From mines in the water to barbed wire to turrets filled with guns and German troops. Hitler wanted an Atlantic wall and Rommel was pretty darn close in getting it done.

National D-Day Memorial at Bedford, Virginia Photo:Public Domain
National D-Day Memorial at Bedford, Virginia
Photo:Public Domain

That is why D-Day is important. This was a massive operation unlike anything in history. A full fledged invasion of Europe on a tricky North Atlantic where weather was hardly ever your friend. It did not go to plan, some parts went hideously wrong (landing at wrong places etc). Yet the Allied forces prevailed because of the determination of the soldiers, mostly noncoms and enlisted, to get it done. It came at great cost in lives yet when it was over began the march to push Germany out of many conquered lands. Today some talk down this military success out of some desire to lessen having to celebrate in any way war or military accomplishment. Yet had this invasion not happened or been unsuccessful, the Third Reich likely would have lasted a lot longer or worse perhaps not fallen at all.

Further Information & Suggested Reading
1)Books
Ambrose, Stephen (1994) [1993]. D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Gilbert, Martin (1989). The Second World War: A Complete History. New York: H. Holt.
Keegan, John (1994). Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris. New York: Penguin Books.
Ryan, Cornelius (1959). The Longest Day. New York: Simon & Schuster.

2)Websites
The Normandy Invasion (US Army Center of Military History)
NORMANDY LANDINGS, Operation “OVERLORD” (NavalHistory.net)
D-Day Documents (Eisenhower Presidential Library)
Veteran Memories of D-Day(normandy.secondworldwar.nl)



Please Stand By!

“Please Stand By”
Old Indian Head test pattern from RCA used from 1940’s till color was used.
Public Domain

I apologize to not being able to post anything since last Friday. Due to technical issues, the site was not working properly but that has been fixed. I will be updating the blog in the next day or so with the missing posts. As they used to say in the old days, please stand by!

Mark

Remembering History: Battle of Midway (June 4-7 1942)

Midway Atoll, 24 November 1941 Public Domain (Official U.S. Navy photo)
Midway Atoll, 24 November 1941
Public Domain (Official U.S. Navy photo)

In June 1942 the Empire of Japan had become the dominant power in Asia and ruled a sizable empire. It acquired Formosa (Taiwan) in 1895, Korea in 1905, and Manchuria (renamed Manchukuo) in 1931. It invaded China in 1937 seizing control of key cities such as Shanghai, Nanking and Peking (Beijing). French Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand) were invaded after the fall of France in 1940 to prevent it from being used by the Chinese to funnel arms. A treaty with German backed Vichy France made French Indochina neutral but within the Japanese sphere of power. British Hong Kong fell to the Japanese after 18 days of heavy fighting on Christmas Day in 1941. Fortress Singapore, so-called because it seemed impregnable to attack, would fall to the Japanese on 15 Feb 1942. The Japanese avoided a frontal assault by coming through the less protected jungle at its rear. The Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) was conquered by March 1942 and The Philippines would fall in May. Burma would also be taken over as well. To protect their position in Dutch West Indies they began attacking northern Australia to prevent it from being used as a staging area. With the old imperial powers gone and Japan firmly in charge, nothing seemed to be in the way of Japan. The Battle of Midway changed that.

Although the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 Dec 1941 was considered a success in Japan, the United States was still in the game. The unexpected bombing of Tokyo on 18 April 1942(The Doolittle Raid) and its ability to fight as shown at the Battle of the Coral Sea (4-8 May 1942) convinced Japanese leaders they needed to so demolish American morale they would not want to fight any further. They choose a small virtually unknown atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean called Midway to draw out the American fleet to be destroyed. Midway is aptly named and 1300 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor and nearly halfway between Japan and the West Coast of the United States. Its strategic importance meant it was valuable for both sides. A military base was already there and seizing it from the United States would draw out their remaining carriers along with support craft to be destroyed. The plan was to send four carriers and support craft for the initial attack. Then a larger task force comprised of destroyers, support craft and troops commanded by Admiral Yamamoto would follow up to destroy the American ships than came to liberate Midway. A feint of attacking American outposts in the Aleutian Islands was used to distract the U.S. while it attacked Midway.

The Japanese, however, did not know that its code had been broken. A special naval intelligence unit called HYPO had broken it in March resulting in much of the plan becoming known to the U.S. A task force was assembled of three carriers (Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown) seven heavy cruisers, 1 light cruiser, 15 destroyers, and 16 submarines would go out to meet the Japanese fleet. The Yorktown, already in badly need of repair, was patched up and its depleted aircraft and pilots scrounged up from whatever was available. In overall command was to have been Vice Admiral William Halsey but fell sick prior to the mission. Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, who headed up the escorts under Halsey, would command Enterprise and Hornet. Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher was in command of Yorktown.

On 4 June 1942, Admiral Nagumo aboard the carrier Akagi launched the initial air attack on Midway comprised of dive and torpedo bombers escorted by Zeroes. PBY’s launched that morning from Midway would sight two Japanese carriers and radar picked up incoming Japanese fighters. Midway sent up unescorted bombers to delay the attack while the fighters remained behind to defend Midway. Midway came under heavy attack and its air interceptors took a heavy beating fighting the Japanese. Anti-aircraft fire from ground personnel proved to be more precise. Midway took a beating but was still functional and could launch planes.

Meanwhile scouting reports flying ahead of the American carriers placed the Japanese carriers at the extreme range for air attack. Making matters more difficult was the fact that Japanese scout planes had sighted the American fleet. Despite the extreme range, Spruance ordered the planes to be launched and increased the speed of the task force to close the distance. The torpedo squadrons left first but due to mechanical problems in launching the dive-bombers, had to fly unescorted. They would reach the Japanese and be quickly shot out of the sky by Japanese Zeroes and anti-aircraft fire. Not one torpedo launched did any serious damage.

Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu, photographed by a Yokosuka B4Y aircraft from the carrier Hosho shortly after sunrise on 5 June 1942. Photo: Public Domain ( U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)
Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu, photographed by a Yokosuka B4Y aircraft from the carrier Hosho shortly after sunrise on 5 June 1942.
Photo: Public Domain ( U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)

Admiral Nagumo had a problem. His planes returned from Midway and were being re-armed for the next bombing run. But he had just gotten a report that the American navy was in the area. Its exact composition was unknown. So he ordered a change in the ordnance for the attack planes. Instead of attacking land-based targets they would arm to destroy ships. The result was there was a lot of ordnance out on the deck on the carriers where this was being done. With the Japanese combat air patrol out of position having dealt with the torpedo squadrons they were not able to intercept the next wave of attack. American dive-bomber squadrons from Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown would seemingly arrive nearly at the same time. It was one of the greatest coincidences in military history. Three Japanese carriers–Akagi,Kaga, and Soryu–would be sunk that day. The surviving carrier Hiryu counter-attacked by sending our air squadrons to attack any American carrier they could find. They found Yorktown and dropped three bombs heavily damaging the ship but not sinking it. Admiral Fletcher moved over to cruiser Astoria while it was being repaired. A second air attack an hour later would further damage Yorktown. She would later sink when being towed on 6 June by a torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine, which also sank the destroyer Hamman.

The Japanese believed they had turned the tide and would be able to go on with the Midway plan. They knew a huge fleet of destroyers and support craft was on the way. However the Hiryu was found late in the afternoon. An air attack by Enterprise and Yorktown bombers resulted in four or possibly five bombs seriously crippling her. The fires prevented any planes taking off or landing. The crew would evacuate and later Hiryu would sink. Spruance, not wanting to risk exposure to Japanese forces and wanting to protect Midway would retire to the west. Admiral Yamamoto still wanted to invade Midway and proceeded on course. Had Spruance not changed course, the remaining two carriers of the American fleet would have been exposed to Yamamoto’s destroyers. Spruance would go after the stragglers. Yamamoto ultimately ordered the fleet back to Japan not knowing the full composition of the American forces that might be pursuing.

The U.S. Navy lost 1 carrier, 1 destroyer, 150 aircraft and 307 killed. Many of those killed were from the torpedo squadrons that lost 80% or more of their pilots. The Japanese lost 4 carriers, 1 heavy cruiser, 248 aircraft and 3,057 killed. It was a major victory for the U.S. but most Japanese would never learn the full details until after the war was over. The survivors of the sunken carriers and those aboard the ships that survived would be quarantined or sent on duty assignments far away from home. None of the senior officers would face any serious repercussions. Only those at the very top were informed as to what really happened. Only the Emperor and the top naval officers knew the full details. The public was told it was a great victory and the Imperial Japanese Army believed the navy was in good condition. However Admiral Yamamoto and the other senior leaders of the Japanese Navy knew the truth. The United States would soon come out stronger than it had been before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

For the United States it would prove the value of intelligence gathering and code-breaking. It would continue to be an important part of the war effort and would yield even more useful information down the road with dire consequences for Admiral Yamamoto. The code breaking led directly to his plane being shot down in 1943 as payback for Pearl Harbor.

(Please note this is a very condensed description of the Battle of Midway and had a lot more stages in it than reflected in this writing).

Sources:
Books
1. Lord, Walter (1967). Incredible Victory. New York: Harper and Row.
2. Prange, Gordon W.; Goldstein, DonaldM.; Dillon, Katherine V. (1982). Miracle at Midway. New York: McGraw-Hill

Websites
1.Naval Warfare History-Battle of Midway, U.S Navy
2. Battle of Midway (History.com)
3. USS Enterprise:Battle of Midway