Grunt; The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach.

Grunt; The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach. W.W. Norton, 2017 paper.

Mary Roach’s book is not about giving belligerents greater fire power, it is about keeping them alive and battle worthy.  Her investigation involves everything from the composition of a “grunt’s” uniform and his rations to how best to assure that sailors manning both submarines and surface warships can escape their “metal coffins.” Much of the life-saving research was carried on at the Natick Soldiers’ Research, Development, and Engineering Center.

Recent wars fought in the Middle East have had to deal with Improvised Explosive Devices, IEDs. Most WWII vehicles – tanks, troop carriers – expected to be attacked by machine guns and hand grenades from their flank or from above. Mines were the exception. But today these explosive devices are detonated by walking on or running vehicles over them. So army contractors have been set to work to arm the underbelly of Humvees and other All-Terrain vehicles.

The coffee break. Coffee keeps the soldier alert but only for a half-life of six to eight hours. The Germans developed much more effective drugs for that purpose during WWII. Our Natick labs developed freeze-dried coffee which didn’t need to be brewed, only water heated to boiling.

Military uniforms have to be flame-resistant, warm in cold weather, cool in hot weather, and insect repellant. Roach points out that some of these requirements are contradictory. Wool is more flame resistant than cotton, but also warmer than cotton.

Whatever the fabric of the infantryman’s uniform, it is thoroughly saturated with chemicals. But crawling around in those battlefields requires washing and the material soon lost most of its chemical treatment.  So there has been much investigation of how to prolong the life of those chemicals. The next time that you see soldiers in military outfits, be admiring of the science that goes into them.

There was a requirement that service men be clean shaven. This was a holdover from World War I when whiskers compromised what was designed to be air-tight gasmasks. (Roach makes the point in the first years after our entry into World War II, we were fighting with WWI technology.) Fortunately chemical warfare was not used in World War II. So whiskers, or at least several days’ growth of facial hair, flourished.

The US did use something like a stink-bomb. Very smelly chemicals were frequently sprayed airily over Japanese soldiers that smelled like objectionable body odors. These “body smells” were so objectionable and so durable that those sprayed were frequently ostracized. No one wanted to share a fox hole with a soldier who smelled like excrement. (One of the ‘fragrances’ was “Who, me?”) This created a problem for the individual odorous soldier but also for his squad who needed to keep together.

Buttons. Always problematical. So much so that the U.S. military had twenty-two pages of specifications. Replacement: zippers? They could be a problem, especially after the person wearing the zipper had crawled around in the dirt long enough to thoroughly foul a zipper. The solution was to remove the zippers from the front of the garment and put them onto the side where they were less vulnerable.  Velcro; can you imagine the attention that its noise would get from a nearby enemy snipper. Of course camouflage prints were carefully worked out to blend with the alien vegetation. Eventually they escaped into high fashion.

The “Essentials of Sea Survival” was a British wartime publication which laid out what to do in case your submarine or warship sank. There would be an immediate effort to stop the sea water from rushing through any hole however tiny. Should that prove impossible, an immediate decision had to be made to seal off the flooding compartment even if that involved the lives of sailors inside. Still the navy did everything it could procedurally to prevent the sinking of a ship from being fatal to its crew. These weren’t technological, but rather common sense procedures to get the sailor to the surface of the ocean where he could be found and picked up by a rescuer.

On such occasions there was said to be a problem of man-eating sharks. Were sharks attracted to the presence of blood?  The navy devised a chemical that could be sprayed around the struggling survivors to discourage sharks from attacking. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution worked on a chemical that promised to deter sharks from going after wounded survivors of a sinking ship.

It turned out that while there were various unfortunate results of long-term exposure to ocean water discussed in “Essentials of Sea Survival”, sharks were not mentioned. But the idea was sobering enough to result in a background dread of sea warfare. Though not to worry about sharks if you were dead; they do not go after dead meat!


Indestructible; One Man’s Rescue Mission That Changed the Course of WWII by John Bruning.

Indestructible; One Man’s Rescue Mission That Changed the Course of WWII by John Bruning. Hachette, 2017 paper.

This is a tale from the South Pacific during World War II. Pappy (P.I. or Paul Irving) Gunn was a pilot for the Philippines Air Lines when war broke out in December 1940. Prior to that he had served in the US Navy for twenty-one years. In 1941 he was commissioned into the US Army Air Services where he became a legend for his skill and determination to be part of the fight to liberate the Philippines. Having said this, John Bruning’s claim that he single-handedly changed the course of the war is an exaggeration.

It had been decided that the Allies’ first priority would be the defeat of Germany and its allies; supplying the Far Eastern Theater would be a lower priority. That angered Gunn and other American military serving in the South Pacific intent upon defeating the Japanese.

Stationed in Manila, Gunn had wanted to move his family to a less dangerous place than Luzon. He felt guilty for not having done so before the War began. Meanwhile unbeknownst to Gunn, his family (wife Polly, two sons, and two daughters) had been forced into an internment camp when the Japanese occupied Manila. Gunn hoped that he would receive an assignment which would allow him to find and rescue them, and fly them to Australia. That, also, never worked out.  For the rest of the War, neither the family nor Gunn knew that the other was alive. They were only reunited after the Philippines was liberated in 1944.

While the title of Bruning’s book is hyperbole, he, Gunn did devise alterations in the B-17 and B-25 medium bombers that allowed them to fly low enough to drop bombs with devastating effect on Japanese aircraft carriers and troop transport. He was also given small but important assignments. For example, he was assigned the task of flying some of General MacArthur’s headquarter’s staff out of Manila. He also delivered quinine to treat besieged American troops suffering from malaria in Bataan.

It is amazing how unscripted the Pacific Theater seems. According to Bruning’s Indestructible; One Man’s Rescue Mission…, the War was fought from one day to the next. Gunn would propose a mission, and his commanding officer would generally approve it. Or if he, Gunn, thought a mission would accomplish the purpose of defeating the Japanese – and ultimately finding his family, he would, get permission, grab an idle plane, and take off for the target.

The reader soon begins to appreciate the quandaries that arose, given this informal front. Could a target be reached with the amount of aviation fuel that the plane could stow on board and still get off the ground? There was always the trade-off between additional cannons built into the nose of the plane to add fighting power and room for those fuel tanks needed for the greater distances. The Japanese Zeros were a formidable opponent and Japanese pilots skilled. Could Pappy Gunn’s skills off-set these formidable fighter escorts and their pilots?

Perhaps Gunn’s most important contribution to the air war in Southeast Asia was to instruct pilots under his command to fly low, barely above the ocean waves to achieve greater accuracy in their bombing runs. The B-25 had been designed to support ground troops in the European theater and had to be adapted to the precision bombing of Japanese shipping. According to the author, Gunn kept the B-25 alive in those years of aviation innovation.

Gunn was a gifted mechanic as were many of the ground crews on whom he depended to keep the bombers going. But they needed spare parts to do their job. Gunn found the American military warehouse system established in Australia to be as frustrating as the enemy was formidable. Shelves containing spare parts in Brisbane and Darwin were carefully guarded by their staffs. If the supply manual did not specify that they should stock a spare part, nothing would get them to do so. Some of the planes were shipped in crates to be assembled by Australians. There were no instructions and often missing parts, and the Australians were reluctant to improvise.

The author tells stories that encourage the reader to commiserate with the Japanese. He describes Japanese seamen being eaten by sharks after their ship was sunk in the Bismarck Sea with no one to rescue them. And the story of the Japanese teenaged soldier who had the task of going from door to door in Manila to order American civilians to proceed to a detention camp. His rifle and fixed bayonet were taller than he. Bruning describes him as being as frightened as the Gunn family. What would have been his fate in this ghastly war?


Blitzed; Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler & Shaum Whiteside, trans.  

Blitzed; Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler & Shaum Whiteside, trans.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

The National Socialists preached an ideology of physical, mental, and moral purity. The Party was intent upon separating itself from the excesses of the preceding Weimar decade. But there was an extensive use of drugs in the Third Reich and Norman Ohler has documented this in his study of drug use in Germany during the war years. Various addictive drugs were consumed by the German public: cocaine, opiates, and most commonly methamphetamines – “uppers.” They were supplied by a growing German pharmaceutical industry. Two companies are familiar to us – Merck and Bayer. There were others as well.

A distinction was made between drug addictions and, on the other hand, prescription drugs that helped maintain one’s stamina and focus – socially useful objectives – even though they often involved the same generic drug. Drug addicts were considered criminals and sent to prison.

The Nazi regime required detailed record keeping of both populations. Hence Norman Ohler had access to the drug regime of “Patient A” – Adolf Hitler – as prescribed by his personal physician, Dr. Theodor Morell.

Those Germans who used these addictive drugs regularly did so because it improved their energy level and made them more confident of themselves. The author speculates on how drugs might have affected Adolf Hitler’s decision-making. What persuaded Hitler that he was a better commander of the German Wehrmacht than its generals? Was it an overly-stimulated self-confidence that convinced Hitler to order a halt in the German offensive in France in May 1940, allowing 338,000 British soldiers to escape at Dunkirk? Confused, Hitler had decided that he was losing control of the German military command, that his generals were overshadowing him.  Might it have been a variance in how the drug cocktails that he was taking and the confidence they generated? Perhaps a bad drug day?

Norman Ohler believes that some of the stamina that the German troops showed in their drive through the Low Countries and northern France was because they had been issued drugs to prevent battle fatigue and even hunger. Those motorcyclists and tank crews that you see racing across France and Belgium had been issued a drug, Pervitin, which was the trade name for methamphetamine.

Army doctors, however, were already beginning to see some adverse side effects of drug use by German soldiers; particularly speeding up the heartbeat. Pervitin was made subject to the Reich opium regulations in June 1942. Under pressure the administrative ruling was reversed; the drug was declared ‘crucial to the war effort.’

Hitler was given the full pill regime regularly. Morell prescribed as many as 28 pills a day, plus several prophylactic injections. Ohler counted 90 different pills over the months when Hitler spent most of his time in a bunker in eastern Poland from whence he oversaw the invasion of Russia and then the retreat after Stalingrad. His drugs were telling him one thing; the Russian armies another. Would the war on the Eastern Front have been conducted differently had Hitler been in his ‘right mind?’ Would Hitler have declared war on the US in December 1941, following Pearl Harbor?

Hitler decided that he could not face the reality of meeting with Benito Mussolini in Salzburg in 1943 without swallowing Eukodal pills, an opiate (Oxycodone). The result was that Mussolini had to listen to a three-hour long speech by the “peppered up” Führer. Though likely Hitler, without narcotics, was more difficult to deal with than his fueled and often unrealistic optimism.

On 20 July 1944, a group of German army officers attempted to assassinate Hitler. Patient A’s file card indicated that he was ‘full of beans’ that day from an injection. Hitler survived, but his hearing was damaged by the bomb blast. A specialist called in to examine his ears was appalled to learn that Hitler was being maintained by his personal physician on drugs and injections. Thus began what the author calls the Doctors’ War.

Was Hitler’s growing megalomania and physical decline due to his drug-taking? Once revealed by the Doctors’ War, his Nazi colleagues became concerned about the hold which Dr. Morell’s pills had on Hitler.  The drowsiness. The shuffle. The trembling. What was Morell doing to their Hitler?

Morell could stage-manage Hitler for shorter and shorter periods of time. Moreover, the supply line for these pills had been cut. Morell was running out of pills, and Hitler was showing symptoms of withdrawal.

Some authors have suggested that these were symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Norman Ohler thinks it far more likely that those symptoms were the result of the cocktail of drugs that he was taking. Doctor’s orders!


The War That Ended Peace; The Road to 1914

The War That Ended Peace; The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan. Random House, 2013, paper.

            Margaret MacMillan describes in detail the complicated great-power diplomacy that led up to World War I. There was, she argues, no inevitability in the series of diplomatic and military events in the decades before the War. She believes that war could have been avoided and looks to the failure of diplomats and the ruling classes to take the threat of war seriously.

            She is critical of the European royal families, many of them related. They were playing with a new set of strategies and weaponry which encouraged a rapid mobilization of armies and on planned short, but decisive, military campaigns. These ‘shielding strategies’ were, however, quick on the trigger. Strike before your rival was capable of doing so.

            These new strategies required the great powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Britain, Russia, and France – to have well-formulated plans for mobilization and attack. The Schlieffen Plan is a good example. Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen was Chief of the German General Staff, Imperial Army. The plan that bears his name was worked out by the General Staff between 1906 and 1914. The strategy avoided crossing through the Netherlands, which had declared its neutrality, instead invading France through Belgium and Luxembourg on 4 August 1914

            MacMillan’s focus on the importance of European royalty and social elites, but ignores the fact that most of the military and civil leaders of the time were drawn from a rising middle class. They had made their money during the prosperous nineteenth century, and service to their country was now expected of them. They were imbued with the nationalism they had picked up in their education and at the public spectacles of the decades before the war.

            Oddly MacMillan begins her story with the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900. It was the world’s fair of that year with pavilions dedicated to harmony and peace. But in the midst of the Boer War (1899 -1902)! The British fought an alliance of the small Dutch-speaking republics in the Cape of South Africa. Although they won the War, Britain’s armies performed badly and much of Europe had cheered for the Boers.

            Russia also looked unprepared, even weak, after their defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). The Russians needed a year-round warm-water port and Vladivostok wouldn’t do. But they took on a formidable opponent, Japan, and their supply lines were stretched over the length of the Trans-Siberian railroad. There were demonstrations and strikes in St. Petersburg in 1905 and the Imperial Guard fired on the marchers approaching the Winter Palace. Bloody Sunday, it was called.

            It was feared that military defeat would lead to revolution within the belligerent country. Defeat would also complicated efforts to establish a system of alliances and alignments like the international structure that had kept the peace during the Bismarck era. For example, was a defeated Russia a dependable partner for France, given the revolutionary activity that had convulsed St. Petersburg?

 And France had its own weaknesses as an alliance partner.  The French public was distracted by the Dreyfus Affair, 1894 to 1906. Alfred Dreyfus, a young artillery officer from Alsace and of Jewish descent, was convicted of treason on a trumped up charge in 1894 and again in a second trial in 1899. He was eventually acquitted, but this and other public controversies made France a somewhat doubtful alliance partner.

Thus neither France nor Russia appeared to have the domestic stability to make them an easy choice for the British. And Great Britain was having its own “troubles,” conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. Sir Edward Grey was serving as Foreign Secretary in Herbert Asquith’s Liberal British cabinet from 1905 to 1916. He is often treated as a clairvoyant by historians because of his famous statement to a friend, as he looked out over a courtyard in the Foreign Office as it was being lighted, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” But he was less successful as a peace-keeper.

Grey was uncertain about how to proceed – join up with Russia and France or pursue an understanding with Germany. Germany and Britain had been engaged in an armaments race for several years – constructing battleships. Just when Britain seemed to be winning, the battleship count was complicated by the opening of the Kiel Canal across the isthmus between the Baltic and North Seas in 1895. Now the two German fleets could serve on either Sea during a war.

The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a young Serbian nationalist while being driven through the streets of Sarajevo was but one of several violent events that are considered to be “The Road to 1914.” But the “peace of Europe” was crumbling step-by-step as diplomacy no longer settled anything.

The General vs. the President; MacArthur and Truman

The General vs. the President; MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War by H.W. Brands.  Doubleday, 2016.

In April 1951 Harry Truman, in his second term as President, fired General Douglas MacArthur, then commander of the United Nations forces in the Korean War. North Korean forces had crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded South Korea one year earlier in June 1950, with the intention of uniting the peninsula. At that time General MacArthur was the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Occupied Japan, and he continued in this role until the peace treaty was signed in San Francisco in September 1951. He is considered to have been successful at guiding Japan toward a democracy and helping to restart its economy. He was also in charge of American forces in the Pacific and thus Korea fell under this command.

In 1948 MacArthur had indicated an interest in running for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Presidency. He withdrew after the Wisconsin Primary and the nomination went to Thomas Dewey. H.W. Brands suggests that MacArthur’s interest in elected office was a factor in the friction between the General and the President.

It happened that Russia was boycotting the United Nations Security Council when it received the call from the Republic of South Korea asking for military assistance. Hence Russia was not able to block the UN’s decision.

China also had a permanent seat on the Security Council held by the Nationalist Chinese (Kuomintang). The Nationalists had lost a civil war on the Mainland to the Communists. Their power was confined to the island of Taiwan (Formosa). Most of the troops were supplied by the US, but several other countries also contributed: the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Philippines, and Turkey.

Almost from the beginning of our deployment, General MacArthur and President Truman had disagreed about the conduct of the War, and how autonomous a field commander should be from his Commander-in-Chief. MacArthur considered the Korean peninsula to be part of his Pacific command and, without waiting for instructions from President Truman, had begun sending military aid to the South Koreans. Next came American ground troops, part of the occupation forces stationed in Japan. Then the use of American airpower based in Japan, and then the bombing of the Yahu bridges to intercept the supply of arms coming from China and Russia.

Each time, MacArthur claimed that his decision was essential to keeping the North Koreans from permanently occupying the peninsula south of the 38th Parallel. And they were the prerogative of the field commander.  Each time Truman edged closer to firing MacArthur for insubordination; but hesitated to do so in view of his popularity with the American public.

The use of the atom bomb as a tactical weapon, according to Brands, was under discussion. It had only been five years since the bomb had been used against Japan. But that had been for strategic objectives, never on the battlefield. The Truman Administration worried about MacArthur being “trigger-happy.”

One major bone of contention was MacArthur’s suggestion that the UN make use of the Nationalist troops on Formosa against the North Koreans, now being reinforced by Chinese “volunteers.” Truman understood the nature of limited warfare better than did several of his successors in the Presidency, and he realized that this might bring on a larger confrontation and involve large numbers of American fatalities.

In 1951 my older brother turned eighteen. The extended family had lost a father/son in World War II. Even as a twelve-year old, I sensed the unpopularity of another war. But I was also captivated by The Des Moines Register’s daily maps showing the progress of the North Koreans; I read about the successful amphibious assault at Inchon and then the Chinese intervention and our retreat from the Yalu River.

The author makes clear his own reservations about MacArthur’s rambunctiousness. And that was true of this reader in the first half of the book. But Brands also allows the reader to wonder about the way MacArthur was treated after his dismissal. Was his firing the result of his advocating a more aggressive policy in Korea?  Might it have involved American presidential election politics? As it turned out MacArthur’s dismissal resulted in another general, Dwight Eisenhower, pushing MacArthur aside and ending any chance of his gaining the Republican nomination in1952.

MacArthur had his comeuppance, however. As he bid farewell to Japan, crowds gathered to provide him with a royal departure. More crowds greeted him when he arrived in San Francisco, and then in Washington. He received a ticker-tape parade in New York. MacArthur was the “man of the hour.”

Truman managed to sulk in silence. Though telling his Whitehouse staff and cabinet that his mistake had been not to fire MacArthur earlier. It is interesting that Eisenhower never invited MacArthur to assist his run for the Presidency.

The peace process stretched out over a two-year stalemate. Our demand for unconditional surrender was eventually relaxed and the war ended. Though obviously not the continuing conflict between the two Koreas and their sponsors. Fortunately so far in this twenty-first-century version of the scrap, both sides are being cautious.

To Hell and Back; Europe 1914-1949

To Hell and Back; Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw. Viking 2015.

To Hell and Back by the British historian, Ian Kershaw, suggests that World War I, World War II, and the intervening years can be viewed as a single period of European warfare, another Thirty Years War. Both Wars have some of the same protagonists, but different characteristics and outcomes.

Both were deadly wars, World War I for battlefield participants. World War II saw huge non-combatant casualties when cities were devastated by aerial bombardment. In WWI (the Great War) both sides settled into defensive trench warfare not unlike the last years of the American Civil War. WWII was more of a war of movement, of offenses. The Great War introduced to European warfare new weaponry: poison gases, tanks, submarines, and the beginnings of bombardment by aircraft. WWII was the opportunity for improvements in this new weaponry. Plus the use of atom bombs.

The Great War destroyed most of the European empires established in the last half of the nineteenth century: the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, German, and the Russian Empires. The inter-war years were dominated by republics: in France, Germany, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and the United States of American (USA).

WWI ended with an armistice in November 1918. After four years of warfare both sides had lost confidence in their ability to “win” the War, but it had been so deadly that both sides also needed a victory to justify their expenditure of lives.  Moreover, the leadership, particularly the German military command, worried about revolution spreading from Russia to central Europe.

The fact that Germany had not been defeated on the battlefield gave rise to a “stab in the back” legend. Soldiers and their commanders had been betrayed by socialist politicians on the German home front. The military and the several right-wing parties including the Nazis considered the Versailles peace agreement in 1918 to be a Diktat, a victor’s peace. Germans were not invited to participate. They were particularly bothered by the “war guilt clause” – having to accept full responsibility for the War. An international mechanism, the League of Nations, was created to mediate conflicts among the successor states created out of the dismantled empires.

Kershaw notes that the boundaries of the successor states mapped at Versailles were based on dominant ethnic groups. Hence minorities found themselves ‘under the thumb’ of nationalist regimes often dominated by military strongmen or fascist parties.

He argues that the American contribution to inner-war instability was to export our Depression to a generally successful European economic recovery from the Great War. History, Kershaw contends, is open ended. Had the Depression not struck Europe in the early 1930s, the continent might have avoided another war.

Great Britain had been left with a leadership position it could not perform. Hence the interwar governments, mostly Conservative, pursued an “appeasement” of Adolf Hitler’s Germany. The Munich agreement in 1938 seceded a valuable asset in Central Europe. Czechoslovakia’s security depended upon retaining the Sudetenlands inhabited largely by Germans.

Poland, with even less secure borders and also housing substantial German populations, was given a guarantee from Britain and France in March 1939. Taking no notice of that guarantee, Poland was invaded and occupied by Germany and Russia in June 1941.

Much has been written about the Ribbentrop/Molotov Pact of August 1939. A non-aggression pact between the two major European powers, but included the secret protocol that divided up Poland.

Stalin had no illusions about German plans. Was he hoping that the Pack would turn German aggression in a westerly direction? The Pact provided him with time to move war plants eastward and marshal his military resources to confront the well-equipped German armies. While the British Conservatives and the French were thinking in terms of various “peaceful solutions,” Stalin was organizing the eventual defeat of the German military machine.

Kershaw has included the well-known story of the Jewish holocaust that followed the German invasion of Russia in June 1941. He has added the role of the Papacy in Germany’s immense criminal act.  Hitler had negotiated a Concordat with the Papacy that was intended to protect German and other European Catholics from Nazi persecution. In return Pius XI largely maintained a public silence on the “Jewish question.” Fearing Bolshevism, there was some sympathy within Papal circles for the Italian and German fascism.

The European states were badly damaged and could not so easily bounce back after 1945, as they had following the Great War. They lacked capital to reinvest in their infrastructure and crippled industries. They had millions of housing units to rebuild. The US fashioned recovery programs such as the Marshall Plan (June 1947), named after General George Marshall then our Secretary of State. The Soviet Union blocked Eastern European participation. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) established militarized borders to protect that recovery.

The alliance that had fought the War and obtained an unconditional German surrender began to squabble. By 1949 two hostile blocs had emerged.  A “Cold War” it is called and an “iron curtain” divided the former allies.


Never Surrender; Winston Churchill and Britain’s Decision to Fight Nazi Germany

Never Surrender; Winston Churchill and Britain’s Decision to Fight Nazi Germany in the Fateful Summer of 1940 by John Kelly. Scribners, 2016 paper.

Never Surrender opens with the victory parade in London in July 1919. Britain and her allies had won the Great War, but the toll on European lives had been huge. It is estimated that thirty-seven million men, women, and children were killed or wounded in World War I. “Never again” was a commitment to peaceful ways of resolving conflicts amongst the European nations to avoid another slaughter. It produced a strong British pacifist movement, one that would have to be overcome twenty years later as the European skies once again darkened.

British military planners recognized that warfare would be different in future wars. Air power would be decisive; naval power could no longer ensure the safety of British cities. Good people on both sides of the English Channel were talking about the necessity to negotiate solutions, and if necessary even make concessions. Appeasement! But it did not have the connotations of weakness that the policy would come to have.

Appeasement is a considered policy associated with Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940. The Munich Agreement that he negotiated with Adolf Hitler in 1938 was intended to solve through negotiations the problems of the Sudeten Germans living as a minority in Czechoslovakia. The author, John Kelly, ‘goes easy’ on Chamberlain. But unfortunately for his reputation with historians, Chamberlain, returned from Munich making the claim that appeasement had brought “peace in our time.”

Chamberlain’s determination to negotiate an amiable settlement was supported by the prominent Conservative statesmen, David Lloyd George who had led Britain to victory in WWI. Winston Churchill, also a Conservative, believed that in future negotiations, Britain must keep to its commitments to its allies, France and Belgium and after 1939 to Poland.

Kelly makes it clear that Churchill believed Britain would ultimately have the support of the United States. But President Roosevelt would also have to overcome pacifist sentiments in America. Among other prominent supporters of American neutrality in European affairs was the U.S. ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy.

It was hoped that Benito Mussolini and Italy would continue to play the role of peacemaker as he had at Munich. Churchill never trusted Mussolini but there were those in Britain who believed that his interests were sufficiently different from Adolf Hitler’s to qualify him as neutral. But in return for his participation in 1940, Mussolini was asking for concessions, even some of Britain’s Mediterranean possessions. Mussolini was waiting to see who was going to win the war. Ultimately he miscalculated.

Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940 and was immediately confronted with the German invasion of Belgium and France. An expeditionary force sent to France was an attempt to bolster French morale, crumbling under the rapid German advance, the Blitzkrieg.

The French pressured the Brits to send more troops and more aircraft. Churchill, assumed that once Germany had defeated the Allied armies in France, it would invade the British Isles. To defend Britain he would need his army and the British air squadrons that he had sent to France. Much to the outrage of the French high command, he withheld their request for more planes.

Perhaps the single greatest “victory” in Churchill’s first months as Prime Minister was the evacuation from Dunkirk. There is a touching story about the “the little boats” summoned to ferry a substantial army across the English Channel. Kelly reports that most of the evacuees were transported across the Channel on destroyers and troop transports, not fishing boats.

Dunkirk poses a conundrum. Why did Hitler order a halt of his armies as they approached Dunkirk, favoring a bombardment by his Luftwaffe? (The order was given by General Gerd von Rundstedt but validated by Hitler.) Kelly offers no hypotheses.

The miracle of Dunkirk, as Churchill referred to it, saved 340,000 British and French troops from death on the beaches or a long wartime imprisonment. Soldiers’ lives were saved but all of their military equipment and supplies had to be abandoned.

The Battle of Britain, German air bombardment of British cities and military installations, began almost immediately in June 1940 and lasted until the following June. Britain, despite having fewer aircraft, had the advantage of home air bases, had radar which allowed them to use their fighters more effectively and acted and which acted as an early warning system. Kelly points out that German bombers only had enough fuel to remain in the skies over Britain for a half hour. Rarely was that enough time to find their targets, while being chased by British fighters.

The reader is left with the Battle of Britain not over and its outcome uncertain. “Britain’s decision?” Kelly would have us believe that it was a series of small decisions that extended back to the botched peace after WWI and forward to the decision to continue the good fight after the fall of France and the Battle of Britain. Never Again became Never Surrender.






Camp Blanding; Florida Star in Peace and War by W. Stanford Smith. Research Triangle Publishing. 1998, paper.

Camp Blanding; Florida Star in Peace and War by W. Stanford Smith. Research Triangle Publishing. 1998, paper.

Camp Blanding was one of the largest World War II training bases in the country. Its construction began in November 1939. It received its first division of the Florida National Guard in the spring of 1941, while the construction crews from the Civilian Conservation Corp were still working on the vast camp. The U.S. had not yet entered the war. But military preparedness was now an essential part of our national defense. German U-boats were menacing the east coast of Florida, and the Japanese navy would soon strike Pearl Harbor.

The earlier Florida National Guard’s Camp Foster, near Jacksonville, had been closed and land for Camp Blanding purchased near the town of Starke. Kingsley Lake was part of the terrain and proved to be useful in training for the amphibious warfare in both theaters. Stanford Smith tells us that one of the boasts of those promoting the Starke location for Camp Blanding was that it was “free of mosquitoes.”

The first two infantry divisions to be assembled and trained at Blanding – the 31st and the 43rd – arrived in the spring of 1941. The 31st was largely made up of National Guard units from Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, the 43rd from the New England States. This was the first time that most of these northerners had come up against the South’s Jim Crow and it took some adjusting. The two divisions were divided by a parade ground which they called “the Mason-Dixon Line.”

The army was still segregated in World War II. There were detachments of “coloreds” on the base but they were mostly support staff. African-Americans also became “engineers,” that is they built military roads and bridges in Africa, India, and Burma (Myanmar). Their officers were all white. All facilities at Blanding were segregated except for the hospital.

There were bad feelings between draftees and those regulars drawn mostly from the various state National Guards. The latter had had some basic training and were already introduced to the trials of camp life. Later, by the fall of 1943, Camp Blanding was mostly training “replacements,” men who would undergo basic training similar to any enlistee but then be sent abroad as replacements to fill the ranks of depleted infantry divisions. Their training lacked the camaraderie that developed when whole divisions were trained together.

As the base grew so did the surrounding towns, particularly Starke. Smith suggests a good measure of the changes in the town: the Coca-Cola bottling plant upped its capacity from 24,000 bottles a day to 112,000. There was bus service available to several towns with United Service Organizations (USO) Clubs that held dances and provided free meals for the trainees. Gainesville’s USO is still around, now functioning as a senior citizen’s center (Thelma Boltin Center). Movie theaters in surrounding towns were packed on the weekends. Movies were also shown on the base. Many entertainers gave live performances at Camp Blanding.

After some exhausting days of training, the soldiers wanted to “relax.” A “honky-tonk community” (Smith’s term), sprang up just outside the Camp’s gates on the road to Starke.

At its height as a training camp, Blanding employed 4,000 civilians.  It is difficult to ascertain the number of soldiers who received all or part of their training at Camp Blanding, but perhaps as many as 800,000 if you include all of the replacements and others who received the specialist training that went on at Blanding. Some trained for as long as two years; others for a week or two. We fielded a well-trained army.

Blanding also served as a War Department Personnel Center for soldiers returning from the European theater after the German surrender in May 1945 to be processed before they were shipped off to the Southeast Asia Theater. Fortunately for these weary warriors that mostly didn’t happen. Instead they were sent to bases closer to their homes and demobilized from those locations.

In the last years of the War, Blanding served as a Prisoner of War Camp; nearly 4,700 POWs passed through its gates. The earliest to arrive were German naval prisoners, from U-boat crews. They were an elite amongst the millions of Germans that served in Adolf Hitler’s military and generally fervent Nazis. Later came more ordinary Germans, many in their teens, conscripted into the army in the nation’s final months of agony. These two groups of German POWs did not get along. After beatings and death threats, the diehard Nazis were moved on to another camp.

Perhaps most interesting of the informative Appendices in Smith’s Camp Blanding are the “campaign credits” listed for each of the nine divisions that were trained there. Soldiers that trained at Camp Blanding saw military service around the globe, participants in a world at war.

After the War many of the 10,000 structures at Camp Blanding were torn down or moved to nearby towns including Gainesville. Once again these barracks housed G.I.s, now taking advantage of a free education. A number of the structures still survive tucked away in a small community just north of the Campus.


An Empire on the Edge; How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker. Vintage, 2015, paper.

An Empire on the Edge; How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker. Vintage, 2015, paper.

Having read Nick Bunker’s An Empire on the Edge, our familiarity with the American Revolution seems remarkably shallow. The Boston Tea Party, the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Declaration of Independence, and John Hancock’s overly large signature on that parchment is about all most of us know, and we learned that in our grade-school history.

Nick Bunker’s story of how Britain came to the fight with its American colonies is much more complicated. The author describes the political protests in the colonies from 1775 to 1782 as seen from Britain and in the eyes of its ruling elite. He has given us a full account of a parallel political and economic crisis in Britain combined with the considerable ineptitude of the Administration of Lord North (Frederick North), prime minister, and Lord Dartmouth (William Legge Dartmouth), colonial secretary, in dealing with the thirteen colonies. While the separation of the colonies now seems to have been an inevitable consequence of an American coming of age, it also involved considerable mismanagement of colonial affairs.

Tea, yes, the crisis did involve tea. The tea, then largely from China, was transported to England by the ships of the East India Company, a public/private company chartered to bring tea to the home market and to the North American colonies. Tea imports were taxed as part of the more general tax on a triangular commodity trade between the colonial ports stretching from Halifax to Charleston, the West Indies, and London. That commodity trade also included wheat and tobacco from the Chesapeake region; cotton from India; sugar, indigo, and rum from the West Indies. The tax on this commodity trade was an important source of imperial revenue.

Britain in turn exported mostly the products of its booming iron and steel industry. An ‘industrial revolution’ was transforming the English economy and creating an entrepreneurial class out of its landed elite. This elite dominated political life, largely because of the unreformed parliament. Its interests were framing the North Administration’s views about colonial taxation.

The Lord North government generally neglected to take seriously warnings from its administrators in the colonies, Thomas Hutchinson and later Thomas Gage. It tended to view the unrest largely as a problem in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, ignoring the growing discontent from the southern and Chesapeake colonies as well. That colonial administrative apparatus was also compromised by the time it took to send and receive reports and orders by sailing ships – thirty to forty days. The North administration could not respond quickly to fast-moving events in the colonies.

The British thought that the North American colonists ought to pay for more of the cost of its administration. Bunker points out that there is some truth to the contention that they were not paying their share. The average tax per annum paid in Britain was 25 shillings per head; North American 6 pence (12 pence to a shilling).

On the other hand the Americans worried about the colonial administration in London paying the salaries of judges and customs officials serving in the colonies. This resulted, they believed, in undue influence of London over the decisions of these officials. Taxation without Representation.

All might have been different if the North Government had not been reeling from bad economic news, if there had not been the continued Russian and Austrian threat to the British position on the European continent, and if there had not been a looming war with France and Spain. Without European allies, that war would require a naval presence in the North Sea and a greater military presence on the Continent, all that costing money when government coffers were emptying. Thus even greater dependence on taxing trade.

Perhaps the “last straw” was the Quebec Act enacted by the British parliament in May 1774. The French in Canada would be free to worship as they chose. This seemed to be an act of toleration but not through American eyes. It would, they felt, create a catholic presence in the Ohio Valley, in other words handing American settlers over to “popery”.

Nick Bunker compares the various parliamentary debates over the enforcement of British colonial taxation in the 1770s to the debate over the Munich Agreement in 1938.  In both cases the likelihood of war weighed heavily on Britain. Perhaps some who hesitated to enter World War II against Nazi Germany sensed the irony of the different role that those American colonists, now the United States of America, played in that decision almost two centuries later.




The Conquering Tide; War in the Pacific Islands, 1942 to 1944. By Ian Toll, W.W. Norton, 2015.

The Conquering Tide; War in the Pacific Islands, 1942 to 1944. By Ian Toll, W.W. Norton, 2015.

Ian Toll’s The Conquering Tide is the second volume in a trilogy covering the Pacific War from 1942 to 1944. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the declaration of war that followed, the Roosevelt Administration and the War Department under George Marshall determined that the major effort would be the defeat of the Axis Powers in Europe. With that accomplished, the U.S. would then turn its attention to regaining the former territories of the Dutch and British Empires lost to the Japanese after Pearl Harbor.

It was necessary, however, to pay immediate attention to the safety of the sea routes to Australia and India. And that would involve recapturing crucial islands that the Japanese had occupied and fortified. Also, by 1942 the Allies had determined that they would demand unconditional surrender from the Japanese. The aerial bombardment of Tokyo and other cities would be necessary to bring them to the negotiating table. That in turn would require occupying island bases and landing fields sufficiently close to the Japanese homeland to make bombardment by land-based planes possible.

An intensive bombardment by battleships and cruisers but also carrier-based aircraft must precede any amphibious assaults on these islands. Hence battles in the Pacific would involve huge naval operations. Initially both sides used submarines as scouts for the battleships and cruisers. Later the U.S. altered its submarine warfare, allowing its submarines to search and destroy supply ships, particularly oil tankers, and troop ships.

The best strategy to use against the Japanese in the Pacific was the subject of much debate among the navy and army leadership. Should the our amphibious forces proceed systematically from island to island? Or should our landing forces leapfrog over most islands, liberating crucial ones thus saving time and lives.

Amphibious landings would involve enormous casualties; the Japanese forces were determined to hold out at any cost. Much has been made about the Japanese notion of bushido, a Samurai code that exalted an honorable death in battle. Faced with that fanaticism, the U.S. wisely adopted the policy of island skipping. But that involved less secure rear supply lines.

As this volume stops in mid-1944, the two most remembered battles, the capture of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, await Toll’s last volume. What makes The Conquering Tide interesting are his accounts of sea and land battles that turn out to be decisive, but have been given little attention in most of the narratives about the Pacific War.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was planned by Isoroku Yamamoto. Yamamoto understood, Toll contends, that ultimately the U.S. would win a war of attrition. So the purpose of the Pearl Harbor attack was to delay our entrance into the Pacific War, and encourage the U.S. to come to terms with Japan. More than anything else Yamamoto’s goal was to gain recognition for Japan’s future role in Southeast Asia, replacing British and Dutch imperial powers with the Japanese Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere

It is commonly argued that the Battle of Midway, a sea battle that took place near the island of that name in early June 1942, was one of the decisive battles of the Pacific war. The Japanese fleet sent to occupy the island was dispersed with heavy losses, and the Japanese drive toward the North American continent was halted.

In the years covered by Toll in this second volume, the Battle for Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands was fought over the longest period of time, from August 1942 to February 1943. It was both a sea battle and a land war to capture the island and particularly its important airstrip, later called Henderson Field. There were heavy casualties on both sides.

The Battle of Tarawa in November 1943 was perhaps the most deadly. Others would argue for Saipan earning that dubious distinction.  The big Japanese base at Rabaul was bypassed. It was decided that the better strategy would be to limit the base’s usefulness by almost continuous bombardment using both land-based and carrier-based airplanes.

Ian Toll’s account raises issues about our conduct of the war. Although it wasn’t common, there were instances of U.S. submarine crews surfacing and shooting Japanese troops floundering at sea when their ship was torpedoed. Also we had broken the Japanese naval code, and we used our knowledge of Japanese air traffic to shoot down a plane in which Yamamoto was flying in April 1943, thus his assassination. Toll, however, reminds us of the atrocities that troops under Yamamoto’s command had committed in China.

Ultimately the strategy of delaying our concentration on the Pacific struggle and our decision not to systematically recapture the islands occupied by the Japanese seems to have been correct. Saving American lives was an objective of the leadership in liberation of these Pacific islands. Perhaps it ultimately saved Japanese lives as well.