Tag Archives: 2nd World War

Fun Friday Fact #11

Contrary to popular opinion, a Polish cavalry division did not charge German tanks at Krojanty, September 1st 1939.

I think we’ve all heard the story – a bunch of stalwart nincompoops hurling themselves with reckless abandon towards cold iron oblivion, armed only with stout hearts and mediaeval lances against the most sophisticated fighting force the world had ever seen.

Yes, the cavalry charge at Krojanty – one of the first attacks of the war – has become a legend. But, as is so often the case with these things, the truth is rather different. In actual fact, Polish cavalry charged against German infantry. They met with some success at first, but were subsequently forced to make a hasty retreat out of the range of the German machine-gunners. Italian and German journalists who visited the site of the battle soon after noted the bodies of Polish horses and cavalrymen, and attributed the cause of the destruction to a Panzer division, which had just arrived on the scene. As you can imagine, the Nazi press had a field day with this one, and the charge at Krojanty has since become a symbol for the futility of the struggle against the German tide.

It is sobering to reflect on the fact that Polish forces might as well have charged German tanks, so unable were they to resist the might of the Wehrmacht. Poland capitulated on September 27th and it was subsequently divided up and shared between the Nazis and their new allies the Soviet Union. The rest of Europe would soon follow suit. By 1940 the German army had swept through Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Britain alone remained in opposition. She was saved from certain annihilation by 21 miles of water, a sophisticated RADAR system and, most importantly, by the bravery and skill of a handful of RAF pilots. In the words of Winston Churchill, ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’

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Fun Friday Fact #8

On August 15, 1943, following an intensive naval bombardment, 35,000 US and Canadian troops stormed onto the Japanese owned island of Kiska. There were 17 fatalities in the ensuing fire-fight. 

Things might have been worse but for the absence of the enemy.

Unperturbed by the silence that greeted them, those brave boys prowled the island for several days – skirmishing here and there and triumphantly bearing their standards aloft – all the while completely unaware the Japanese had withdrawn. By the time they realised their mistake there had been roughly 200 casualties from accidents, friendly fire, enemy booby traps and general over excitement about the whole thing. An additional 130 men suffered cases of trench foot. And all this for an island of little to no strategic or military value. Nice one.

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Fun Friday Fact #4

A number of air crewmen from either side met a gruesome end as a result of flatulence.

Apparently ascending to 20,000 ft. in an un-pressurized aircraft causes intestinal gas to expand 300%. Messy.

From poo to farts… Please do note that it was never my intention to write what might be considered humorous posts about such a bloody and unwelcome conflict. I  hope you understand that I could not let the last two facts slip by without mention.

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Fun Friday Fact #2

For all the American and British soldiers who died on the Normandy beaches, the same number of Russians fell each day that the Red Army was at war.

This statistic, which I heard about when listening to an interview with Antony Beevor, reminds us that it was the Soviet Union that broke the back of the Germany army. Whilst the British and Americans debated plans for the invasion of Europe, for three years the Russian army grappled with the fearsome Wehrmacht largely by itself. After catastrophic losses within the first few weeks of fighting (roughly 2 million men) somehow the Red Army managed stand firm against the tide. It is estimated that some 10 million soldiers and a further 10 million civilians perished altogether in the course of the conflict. But in spite of these figures (then over a 6th of the entire British population), the line held. By the time the British and American paratroopers landed in Normandy, the war in the East was already won.

For the soldiers of the Western Allies, on the other hand, death was the exception rather than the rule. In fact, according to Richard Overy, only 3% of the American soldiers prepared for war perished. If one compares that to the British casualties of the First World War one finds, in some places, that the survival rate dropped as low as 50%. That’s not to say, I wish to note, that one would fancy those odds. Nothing should be taken away from the bravery of the men making the Normandy assaults.

Why the difference? Well for a start there was no static warfare, aside from a few localised battles. From the day that it was repelled from France in June 1940 to D-day in July 1944 the British (and later American) army largely waged war without really fighting. The major struggle took place in the air, in the Battle of Britain and the subsequent Allied bombing campaign, and at sea, where the Royal Navy and her American counterpart tried to stop German and Italian submarines from starving Britain into submission.

Even in those theatres in which the Western Allies did directly engage German forces they faced but a fraction of their enemy’s strength. In North Africa, for example, the British army was stretched to its limit containing 4 German divisions compared to the 178 that were deployed in Russia.

On August 12 1942 Stalin met with Churchill and pleaded with him to open up a second front in Europe, to ease the strain from his own beleaguered forces digging in around Stalingrad. Churchill hinted vaguely at a campaign in the Mediterranean. No substantial front was opened until D-day.

It is easy to sympathise with Stalin’s frustration. He feared that the British and the Americans were content to let Communism and Facisim wipe each other out; that, as far as they were concerned, Russian soldiers should continue to run onto German lines until the Germans had run out of bullets.

There’s probably some truth in that, but the fact of the matter is that Britain was never in a position to engage in a direct war. Even after Pearl Harbor and the introduction of America into the equation, the Western Allies were still obliged to wage a war that was capital intensive, rather than one that was based on military labour. In this way, when analysing the war effort of the three major allies in terms of casualties, the Russians stand alone.

The story of the Russian people is one of extraordinary courage and tragedy. It was deep war, in the words of Ilya Ehrenburg, at a time full of unobtrusive day-to-day heroism.

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Fun Friday Fact #1

Adolf Hitler was awarded the ‘Times Man (later, Person) of the Year’ award in 1938.

This award, given just one year before the outbreak of war – when it was already more than clear to most the way the penny was falling – shows an astounding lack of awareness that really beggars belief.

Hitler would later be joined by the esteemed company of fellow happy-go-lucky dictator Joseph Stalin (1942), hands still dripping red with Polish blood after the purges of the ’30s, and American funny man George Bush (2000 & 2004).

As far as the award goes as a measure of integrity, I’d say it is better not to have won it. But then I would say that, I have not won it; for some reason the good people behind the damn thing are yet to look my way…

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