Tag Archives: World War II

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.


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

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)



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


Remembering History: Germany and Italy Sign Pact of Steel (22 May 1939)

The signing of the Pact of Steel on 22 May 1939 in Berlin
Photographer unknown
Public Domain/WIkimedia Commons

On 22 May 1939, Germany and Italy signed the Pact of Friendship and Alliance that became known later as the Pact of Steel. This began the formal military and political alliance between the two countries. Initially Japan was to be part of the agreement but there was disagreement on the focus of the pact. Germany and Italy wanted it aimed at the British Empire and France, while Japan wanted the Soviet Union to be the focus. The agreement was signed without Japan but would later join in September 1940.

The agreement brought together two countries that opposed each other in World War I. It also required each country to come to the aid of the other if it were in armed conflict with another nation. Neither party could make peace without the agreement of the other. One of the assumptions of the agreement was that war would start in three years at the latest. Italy needed the time to get its war production into high gear. The agreement was for ten years but there was some concern within the Italian government the agreement would suppress Italian autonomy. The agreement was still signed despite these objections, which also came from Mussolini’s son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Hitler, however, would soon declare his intentions of invading Poland. Mussolini was not happy he was not consulted on this, nor about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement. Italian forces did not commit fully to war until June 1940 when German forces had defeated British and French forces with lightning speed. Italy seized Nice as its prize. Other countries it tried to invade proved more difficult. Greek partisans brought the Italian force to a halt. Germany would intervene to help there and in Yugoslavia where Italian troops also pushed back by partisans. A disastrous attack on British Egypt from Italian Libya required German assistance as well. The economic consequences of the war were bad for most Italians generating widespread resentment that would lead one day to Mussolini’s fall from power in 1943.

Sources:

History.com
School History
World War II Database


Remembering History: World War II Ends in Europe (8 May 1945)

German Instrument of Surrender signed on 7 April 1945 effective 8 May 1945.
Original source: U.S. Government Employee
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

It was a day long anticipated for both Great Britain and the United States. After years of hard fighting on both land and sea, the war against Germany was at an end. 8 May 1945 all German troops in Europe laid down their arms and surrendered. In formerly occupied cities and throughout Britain and the United States, celebrations broke out. Flags and banners were hung, people gathered in the streets, many went to church to give thanks to God for this wonderful day to finally arrive. Nazi flags, banners, and reminders of their former occupiers were quickly taken down and destroyed. The hard work of rebuilding would begin soon and for many countries that had suffered under Nazi occupation, it would take time. Germany in many areas would have to be rebuilt from the bombardment that had destroyed many cities. American and German prisoners of war were released and sent back home.

VE Day in London, 8 May 1945. Crowd is at Whitehall waiting to hear from Winston Churchill.
Source: Imperial War Museum
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

German troops tried, if possible, to surrender to British or American forces. They believed they would be better treated and a better chance of living. The Soviets had a reputation for being particularly nasty to captured German officers and soldiers. In Salzburg, Austria the two oldest sons of Captain Georg von Trapp, later to be immortalized in The Sound of Music, found their home they left behind when the family fled Austria to Italy (their tale, to be recounted later, is a fascinating one). They learned their home had been occupied by none other than Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the hated SS and under whose leadership the Final Solution had been carried out. The Trapp family would later give their home to a religious order that lives there to this day.

The war would linger a day longer in the East. The Soviets continued to battle small pockets of resistance in Silesia until they surrendered. This marked the end of hostilities in Europe for the Russians, who consider 9 May 1945 their day to celebrate the defeat of Germany. Stalin announced the end on a radio broadcast: “Your courage has defeated the Nazis. The war is over.”

 

Sources:

History.com
World War II Database
Wikipedia

Remembering History: Hitler Commits Suicide;War in Europe Nearly Over

U.S. Army newspaper Stars and Stripes announcing Hitler’s death
2 May 1945
Original source: U.S. Army
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

On 30 April 1945, Adolf Hitler–the leader and founder of the 1,000 Reich–committed suicide with his wife Eva Braun in the underground bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery. It would lead to the end of the war in Europe on 8 May 1945 when Germany unconditionally surrendered to Allied powers.

Since the defeat of German forces in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, it had become increasingly apparent that Allied forces had turned the tide. Germany had been pushed out of North Africa at this point, faced Allied armies in Italy, and of course on 6 June 1944 the Allied invasion of Europe had occurred. An attempt on his life was unsuccessful in July 1944 (he was saved when the briefcase with the explosive was pushed under a heavy table) but resulted in imprisonment and executions for many who were involved. Field Marshal Rommel was forced to commit suicide rather than a public court martial.

Hitler had become more erratic, and many were concerned with his mental state. After withdrawing to the underground bunker in January 1945, he met with Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels. By 22 April 1945 though he realized the war had been lost with Soviet troops now in Berlin. On 23 April, Goering seeing that Hitler was encircled in Berlin, tried to take over as his presumed successor. Hitler stripped him of his powers and orders his arrest (this was futile since Goering surrendered himself to American forces). Himmler also had hopes of succeeding Hitler. In April, he was negotiating through a Swedish diplomat and with the Americans. When Hitler learned of this, he was stripped of his powers and his arrest ordered. Himmler tried to escape posing as an ordinary soldier but was caught and arrested. He committed suicide by taking poison.

By the end of April most of his aides and lieutenants (with some exceptions such as General Krebs) had deserted him with only Goebbels and Martin Bormann staying along. Albert Speer had declined to carry out Hitler’s orders to carry out a scorched earth policy in Berlin. Believing Germany had been unworthy of his genius and allowed themselves to be defeated, he decided to commit suicide. He married his long-time mistress Eva Braun in the early hours of 29 April 1945. He then dictated his last will and political testament that justified what he had done.  The will itself is quite short while the separate political testament that laid out a defense of his life and work, as well as appointing those who would lead the German government after his death.

In the afternoon of 30 April 1945, Hitler pointed a gun to his head (though he may have taken poison as well) and committed suicide while Eva took poison. Their bodies were burned, in accordance with his instructions, in the Chancellery garden. Goebbels transmitted a message to Admiral Karl Doenitz that Hitler had died and appointed him Reich President. Six hours later Goebbels and his wife committed suicide after poisoning their six children with cyanide.

Hitler’s death was broadcast on 1 May 1945 by Hamburg Radio. On 2 May 1945, German troops in Italy surrendered (it was signed on 29 April 1945) and Berlin surrendered to Russian Marshal Georgi Zhukov. More surrenders of German forces would follow. German forces in Denmark, the Netherlands, and northwestern Germany surrendered to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery on 4 April 1945 (effective the next day). The German Ninth and Twelve armies surrendered to U.S. forces.

Sources:

Books

Snyder, Lewis: Encyclopedia of The Third Reich, Marlowe & Company, New York, 1976

Internet

Britannica.com
History.com
World War II Database


Remembering History: US Army Liberates Dachau (30 April 1945)

Young and old survivors in Dachau cheer approaching U.S. troops.
29 April 1945
Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Photograph #45075
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Established in 1933, 10 miles northwest of Munich on the outskirts of a town called Dachau, this concentration camp would initially house 5,000 political prisoners. The number of those opposed to the Nazi regime would increase from the original Communists it held. Soon it would include Roma (Gypsies), religious dissenters (Catholic priests and nuns, Protestant ministers, Jehovah’s Witnesses etc.) repeat criminals and homosexuals. In 1938, Jews began becoming a large number of those sent to this camp.

Dachau prisoners were used as forced laborers for German armaments production and was used as a training facility for SS concentration camp guards. Prisoners were also used in hideous medical experiments resulting in many dying or being crippled for life. While many thousands died at Dachau, many were sent to the extermination center near Linz, Austria until a gas chamber and crematorium were added in 1942. Satellite camps supplemented the main camp and were set up near armaments factories. Collectively all these camps were administered by Dachau and part of it.

The situation by April 1945 was dire for Germany with Allied forces closing in.. Many prisoners were sent from camps nearer the front to Dachau resulting in epidemics and overcrowding. Over 7,000 mostly Jewish prisoners were forced to March from Dachau to Tegernsee in the south. Most of the camp guards left Dachau and only light resistance was given to the U.S. Army troops that arrived on 29 April 1945. Near the camp, they found 30 railroad cars full of corpses. More bodies were found at the camp but there were 30,000 survivors, many who were emaciated. The scene was appalling to the American troops. Many would write or talk about it later as one of the most horrific things they had ever seen. 30 captured SS guards were killed by American soldiers over what they saw (others claim it is was a lot more). German citizens of Dachau were later forced to bury the 9,000 dead inmates found at the camp.

(Here is a video on the liberation, but you will need to view it on YouTube.)

Sources:

Books

Gilbert, Martin: The Holocaust-A History of The Jews of Europe During The Second World War, Henry Holt & Company, New York 1985

Snyder, Lewis: Encyclopedia of The Third Reich, Marlowe & Company, New York, 1976

United State Holocaust Memorial Museum: Historical Atlas of The Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing USA, New York 1996

Internet

History.com
Holocaust Encyclopedia
Jewish Virtual Library

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Remembering History: Mussolini Caught Fleeing Italy and Executed (28 March 1945)

Benito Mussolini
Public Domain

Attempting to flee Italy into Austria dressed in a Luftwaffe coat and hat, the deposed dictator of Italy–Il Duce–Benito Mussolini was caught by partisans along with his mistress Clara Petacci. The partisans executed him and Petacci, transported their bodies to Milan, and hung them upside down so that everyone (especially his supporters) could see he was dead. He ruled Italy from 1925-1943, when he was deposed and subsequently imprisoned. He was rescued by Hitler’s forces and made the puppet leader of the Italian Social Republic in northern Italy. With German troops in retreat, he hoped to avoid being captured by either British or American forces. Pictures of his body being hung upside down in Piazzale Loreto in Milan would be spread to prove that Il Duce was no more.

Sources:
History.com