Tag Archives: German

Fun Friday Fact #12

The first Allied shot of the First World War was fired by the Australian coaster Woniora. By coincidence, the first Allied shot in the Far Eastern theatre of the Second World War was fired at the same ship.  

A pretty remarkable state of affairs, I think you’ll agree.

On August 5th 1914, the UK having declared war on Germany only the day before, the Woniora fired on the German steamer Pfalz (not to be confused with the manufacturer of German planes) when it attempted to leave Australian waters. The Pfalz was captured and served out the rest of the war the Australian troopship HMT Boorara.

Then on September 3rd 1939, the Woniora was fired upon by a (n Allied) twin 6-inch gun emplacement at Point Nepean, the entrance to Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay. The ship’s commander, Captain F. N. Smale, had ignored orders to heave-to for inspection.

If you’re interested, the first shot of the Second World War in Europe was fired at 4:47am on the morning of September 1st 1939 (thats 20 years, 9 months, 19 days and 18 hours after the last shot of the First World War) from the 13,000 ton German gunnery training battleship Schleswig Holstein. The target was the ‘Westerplatte,’ an area of Danzig, now Gdansk, containing Polish troop barracks, munitions storage and workshops.


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Fun Friday Fact #9

New location, same format. As part of my relentless categorising the Fun Friday Facts have moved to become part of the larger History section. They can now be found under the Second World War heading. And now to business…

Colonel-General Ernst Udet, chief technical director of the German air force (1941) had a diet that consisted exclusively of meat.

Interesting. You will, of course, remember Udet from his dashing exploits in the First World War, where he was a great German air-ace, second only to Manfred von Richthofen,  the legendary Red Baron in terms of victories (62 to 80). He was a gouty buffoon of a man. His peculiar dining habits left him in chronic ill health for large periods at a time that was critical for German operations in the Eastern Front. The Luftwaffe’s technological superiority of the early war years had faded away in the wake of Russian air reforms in 1941. It badly need to reinvent its image. But, whatever his past glories, Udet was singularly unqualified for the job. Indeed his only contribution to air force development was to insist that all bomber aircraft, even the large, four-engined craft, should have a dive bombing capability. This pointless and taxing demand, which was subsequently abandoned after a great deal of time and effort and vast sums of money, set German bomber development years behind that of the Allies.

Eventually the strains of his office overwhelmed the beleaguered man and on 17 November 1941, with a courage bought by two bottles of brandy coursing through his meat-clogged veins, Udet shot himself in the head. But by this point it was too late. The prospect of developing German air strategy with long-range bombing and enhanced battlefield firepower evaporated. Priority switched to defending the Reich against the Anglo-American bombing campaigns, (see they did do something!). Air superiority on the Eastern front passed to the Russians. It was never recovered.

Udet, we hardly knew thee. RIP.


Filed under The Second World War - Fun Friday Facts, Trivia

Double Dutch

In spite of all appearances to the contrary, this phrase – meaning, ‘nonsense’, or ‘gibberish’ – does not seem to have originally been spoken with the Dutch in mind at all. Rather it was once intended as a slur against the Germans, those rascally scapegoats of the 20th Century, although my research suggests that even at the time (late 1700s – early 1800s), this little detail might not have been apparent to your average slurrer.

‘Dutch’ was originally the generic name for both Germans and, as they were formally called, Hollanders. High Dutch was the language of southern Germany and Low Dutch the language of The Netherlands. I have been at least partially persuaded that ‘Double Dutch’ is in fact a synonym for High Dutch and as such involves the Germans and not the Dutch.

In the way of so many of the greatest idioms, ‘Double Dutch’ originated from sailors. Indeed, the first recorded usage of the phrase, and many subsequent usages, refer(s) to Double Dutch in terms of the winding of rope. The indication here is that ‘Double Dutch’ is the linguistic equivalent of a badly coiled rope. Those sailors really knew how to make a man feel small.

There are a host of phrases in English that include the word ‘Dutch’. Given the close proximity of the two countries, their proud maritime traditions and their long standing trading and military rivalries, this is hardly surprising. Here are a few. All of them, as you will see, paint the Dutch in a fairly poor light.

Dutch bargain – a bargain made when one is debilitated by drink – first recorded in 1654.
Dutch defence – a legal defence in which the defendant seeks clemency by deceitfully betraying others – 1749.
Dutch comfort – cold comfort; only good because things could have been worse – 1796.
Dutch metal/Dutch gold – a cheap alloy resembling gold – 1825.
Dutch courage – brash bravery induced by drink – 1826.
Dutch treat – no treat as such; each person pays for their own expenses – 1887.

In other news, Double-Dutch is also the name of a children’s skipping game, in which two ropes are used. I’m told the game is still played, both on the street and at tournament level, most commonly in the USA.

Wow, we’re really learning something today, aren’t we?


Filed under Idioms & Their Origins

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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