The New Midway Movie Actually Might Be Good

Given that they seem to actually be concentrating on the history. ‘Midway’ movie takes war in the Pacific seriously – We Are The Mighty – Americas Tactical Military Entertainment Brand.

When I first heard of this movie, I was sure it was going to be a joke. The director of Independence Day and Godzilla (the 1998 version, not the new version). Woody Harrelson as Chester Nimitz. These two things didn’t sound like a winning combination to me. But then I saw the Bonnie and Clyde movie that Harrelson was in, and I thought he might actually have promise.

And Roland Emmerich did direct the 2000, Mel Gibson movie The Patriot. And now they seem to be trying to get the history right. They’ve spent a fair amount of time visiting the actual places, and talking to navy personnel to understand what it must have been like.

Once the Department of Defense approved a production support agreement with the movie’s producers, the writers got busy working to get the script as accurate as practicable. Multiple script drafts were provided to the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC). Those same historians viewed the rough and final movie productions.

At the same time, I’m sure that the special effects (mostly digital) will be over the top, as you can see in the trailer.

I think when all is said and done, I will still prefer the Charlton Heston version.

August 25th – 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Paris

I hate it when I miss important anniversaries. This one is August 25, 1944. Paris celebrates its liberation from Nazis, 75 years on.

Paris celebrated the American soldiers, French Resistance fighters and others who liberated the City of Light from Nazi occupation exactly 75 years ago on Sunday, unleashing an eruption of kissing, dancing, tears and gratitude.

Firefighters unfurled a huge French flag from the Eiffel Tower, recreating the moment when a French tricolor stitched together from sheets was hoisted atop the monument 75 years ago to replace the swastika flag that had flown for four years.

The White Rose of Stalingrad

Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak (Лидия Владимировна Литвяк) 18 August 1921 – 1 August 1943. She was known to everyone as Lilya. ‘The White Rose of Stalingrad’ was a female pilot who terrorized the Nazis.

Litvyak was only 20 years old when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The young girl rushed to the recruiter and tried to join to be a fighter pilot. The recruiters sent her packing. In their minds, she was just a small, young girl.

In truth, she was flying solo at 15 and was an experienced pilot. A biographer estimated she trained more than 45 pilots on her own. She knew she could do this. So instead of giving up, she went to another recruiter and lied about her flying experience, by more than a hundred hours. That did the trick.

She flew a number of missions in an all-women fighter regiment, but was later transferred to a mixed gender regiment over Stalingrad.

The Wiki says she was the first female pilot to shoot down an enemy fighter in combat, and she was the 2nd woman pilot to achieve the title “Ace.”

Back to “We Are the Mighty.” On August 1st, 1943:

“The White Rose of Stalingrad” was last seen being chased by eight Nazi ME-109 fighters on an escort mission south of Moscow. Her body was lost until 1989 when historians discovered the unmarked grave of a female pilot in the Russian village of Dmytrivka.

The next year, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev awarded Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak the title “Hero of the Soviet Union,” the USSR’s highest military honor.

Badass of the Week’s story on Litvyak is fairly colorful, and worth a look as well.

For the next year, the White Rose of Stalingrad ignited enemy fuselages up and down the Eastern Front. She was transferred to a Guards Regiment, the elite of the Soviet military, and flew as a Junior Lieutenant and Flight Commander in the recently-established all-female 586th Fighter Air Regiment. She flew bomber escorts, attack missions, and was so ridiculously awesome that she was given a James Bond license to kill at will – she was assigned “Free Hunter” status, meaning that she was free to go balls-out into enemy airspace without orders to do so. Over that year she flew 66 combat missions, sometimes four or five a day, including one attack when she busted through a gauntlet of AA guns and fighters to shoot down an observation balloon that was fucking with the Red Army and helping Nazi artillery range their shells on Russian positions outside Stalingrad. So fuck those guys. She notched twelve solo kills – the most of any woman ever – and had four or five more assisted kills. Basically, she kicked some Fascist ass.

Lilya Litvak was one of only 2 female fight-pilot, aces in history. The other was her wingman Katya Budanova.

This video is 10 minutes, longer than I like for something like this, but interesting enough to be worth your time. It isn’t perfect, but there you go. YouTube will choke on the privacy settings in your browser; use the link when that happens. (You do have privacy cranked up to 11, don’t you?) And no, the video isn’t perfect, but then what it?

A NOTE: Several people have asked me, “Why all this Soviet history?” Well, I love WWII history, and I’ve studied a lot of the American and British involvement, but the Russian side of things I hadn’t studied until just recently. I also love stories about strong women, and given that the Russians were the only country who deployed women in combat in WWII, it seemed natural to look into it.

It is sad really that the some of the same people who will defend studying Lee’s Army of Virginia and what they managed to do during The Civil War will give you grief, if you apply the same standards elsewhere. The Soviet Union was a horrible country, but some of the things its citizens and soldiers did were amazing.

It is also nice to throw some sand on the people who say women have no place in combat, by pointing out the pilots and snipers who did amazing things. History can teach you a lot, if you bother to look.

The Largest Military Invasion in History

As I’ve mentioned, the Soviet side of World War Two has captured my attention recently. Why was it that when the rest of the world didn’t think women had a place in combat, the Soviet Union was fielding women snipers, and whole regiments of women bomber and fighter pilots?

The answer is Operation Barbarossa, the largest military invasion in history.

On June 22, 1941, more than 3 million German (and other) troops, spearheaded by panzer divisions and supported by the Luftwaffe, invaded the Soviet Union. Before grinding to a halt less than 100 kilometers from Moscow, Operation Barbarossa would inflict 4.9 million military casualties on the Red Army, and destroy 1000s of towns and villages. It would destroy tanks, and planes, and nearly destroy the Soviet Union.

While the Wiki and other sources are good for a quick overview (the link above is to Britannica), most of my knowledge comes from Operation Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia 1941. That link is to Amazon, but I got a copy of the book courtesy of my local public library. (As several people have noted, it is NOT the definitive account of that period of the war. It is too short. There is a 3-volume set that probably fills that bill, in the Osprey Campaign Series, but I haven’t gotten to it.) It is a bit dry, considering the nature of the material, but it does seem to be a good overview of the campaign. I’m sure there are more readable accounts of what went on, but that volume covers information from both sides of the conflict.

While I can’t go into details here it is a hell of a story. The treaties signed between Germany and the Soviet Union that the Nazis never intended to honor. The initial invasion that all but destroyed Soviet command and control. The ensuing insanity of the Russian generals, and the secret police, until reality intruded. The Soviet Union’s wholesale dismantling of industry in the west and moving it to the east, followed by “scorched earth” tactics denying everything to Germans – destroying their own railroads, power plants, etc. On the German side there were war crimes. The Germans were especially brutal to the civilians.

As summer turned to fall and winter, the Germans had problems with the Russian weather. First the fall rain turned the mud in Russia into a paste that could stop German panzers. From the Wiki

Additional snows fell which were followed by more rain, creating a glutinous mud that German tanks had difficulty traversing, whereas the Soviet T-34, with its wider tread, was better suited to negotiate.

That winter saw temperatures that were exceptionally cold, early in December. This was significant because of the destruction of Russian railroad engines. The Russians used a different gauge track, so Germany had to rebuild any railroad that they intended to use, and then when winter set it, the German engines could not maintain steam pressure in the cold. (That is COLD!)

Even so, the Germans managed to come within a very short distance of Moscow. Though I think they were stopped as much by logistics as by the Red Army.

On 2 December, part of the 258th Infantry Division advanced to within 24 km (15 mi) of Moscow. They were so close that German officers claimed they could see the spires of the Kremlin, but by then the first blizzards had begun.

The other problems from the cold were coming up. Lack of cold-weather uniforms were only the start. Germans were running short of everything, because the tanks – even with the problems they faced, kept outpacing their wheeled support vehicles.

Operation Barbarossa was the largest military operation in history — more men, tanks, guns and aircraft were committed than had ever been deployed before in a single offensive. The invasion opened up the Eastern Front (World War II), the largest theater of war during that conflict, and it witnessed clashes of unprecedented violence and destruction for four years that resulted in the deaths of 26 million Soviet people and about 8.6 million being Red army deaths. More people died fighting on the Eastern Front than in all other fighting across the globe during World War II. Damage to both the economy and landscape was enormous for the Soviet Union as approximately 1,710 towns and 70,000 villages were razed. [Reference]

There isn’t room in a post like this for everything, and the War Crimes of the Einsatzgruppen (“Deployment groups” of the Schutzstaffel – SS – were paramilitary death squads) could fill a book, let alone a post. One of the more interesting (and disturbing) events surround the Jewish Ghetto in Vilna, and the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye (United Partisan Organization) and Abba Kovner. Before there was a Marvel Cinematic Universe, and even before there was Mr. Steed and Ema Peel, there was Nakam, “The Avengers.” Though that would come after the war. Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye was the resistance in the Vilna Ghetto. Even in the face of eyewitness testimony, a large number of Jews in Vilna didn’t want to believe that the SS was committing mass-murder. Kovner understood, and the FPO took to the woods to fight the war alongside other Soviet Partisans. There are books written about Vilna, the uprising, Kovner and The Avengers.

The same people who will talk about recognizing the valor of soldiers commanded by Robert E. Lee during the Civil War, have given me grief over recognizing the accomplishments of the Red Army during The Great Patriotic War. (That’s what the Russians still call World War Two.) The Confederate States of America was not the greatest government ever, but Lee, and his troops, fought with valor, and honor, and what they did was even recognized by the Union veterans before the Turn of the Century. The Soviet Union was an awful government, but the Red Army did some amazing things in defending Russia from the Nazis, even – and especially – if you consider the insanity of the officer corps, Stalin and his government, let alone the Secret Police. And they managed to do some things right, like move their industry when it became clear they couldn’t protect it. That kept that industrial base out of German hands – it was one of the reasons Hitler wanted to invade – and it meant that they could continue to prosecute the war for the next 3 years. And the Soviet Union’s ability to call up reserves, in the face of what can only be described as devastating losses, impressed me.

Note: By way of comparison, the D-Day invasion consisted of “nearly 175,000” men.

„Zo” – The only woman member of Poland’s “Silent Unseen”

The Cichociemni (Silent Unseen) was a group from the Polish Army in Exile (or the Polish Home Army) that was trained in Britain and parachuted into Poland during WWII. Someday I will, perhaps, get to a posting on their exploits, but today we remember Elżbieta Zawacka, better known by her nom de guerre, „Zo.”

Born 19 March 1909 in what is today, Toruń, Poland. She was promoted to Brigadier General of the Polish Army in 2006 by President Lech Kaczyński, in honor of the work she did during the war.

After the 1939 invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, „Zo” joined Związek Walki Zbrojnej, an underground army formed as a result of that invasion.

In late 1940 she was moved to Warsaw and began her courier trips. She was also a deputy of Zagroda — the Department of Foreign Communication of the Home Army. In February 1943 she traveled across Germany, France and Spain to Gibraltar, where she was transported by air to London.

In the UK, Elżbieta Zawacka joined the Home Army being trained by the Special Operations Executive (SOE). She was parachuted into Poland and took part in the Warsaw uprising.

After the war she briefly was a member of an anti-communist organization, but quit and started teaching. In 1951 she was arrested by the Urząd Bezpieczeństwa (Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs), and served about 5 years of a 10 year sentence.

She then got a Ph.D. from Gdańsk University, and taught at another university. She supported Solidarność in the 1980s. She passed away 10 January 2009.

If you aren’t old enough to remember Solidarność (Solidarity), and the 1980 strikes at the Gdańsk Shipyard (then the Lenin Shipyard) you should brush up on some history. While I’m sure that professional historians may disagree with me, I think it marks the beginning of the end for The Warsaw Pact, and The Soviet Union. August of 1980 was Gdańsk, and in November 1989 the Berlin Wall came down, and Germany was reunified. (Though reunification was in 1990, since these things take time.) But the Cold War is a story for another day.

The Night Witches – The WWII, All-female Bomber Regiment

More WWII History? Sure. Night Witches: The Female Fighter Pilots of World War II. The Germans came to call them Nachthexen – Night Witches. Why? Keep reading.

Officially, they were the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, though that designation changed over time as they accumulated honors. It was the only regiment that remained all female during the war. (Or at anytime since.) Pilots, navigators, mechanics, the CO… They were ALL women.

The Atlantic calls them fighter pilots, but it is hard to characterize the planes they flew as “fighter planes” by WWII standards. They flew wood and canvas biplanes originally designed for training, and then pressed into service for crop dusting. Low and slow doesn’t begin to cover it. The image at the right is of a Polikarpov Po-2, the plane used by the regiment. (Click to enlarge.)

Its members, who ranged in age from 17 to 26, flew primarily at night, making do with planes that were—per their plywood-and-canvas construction—generally reserved for training and crop-dusting. They often operated in stealth mode, idling their engines as they neared their targets and then gliding their way to their bomb release points. As a result, their planes made little more than soft “whooshing” noises as they flew by.

Those noises reminded the Germans, apparently, of the sound of a witch’s broomstick. So the Nazis began calling the female fighter pilots Nachthexen: “night witches.” They were loathed. And they were feared. Any German pilot who downed a “witch” was automatically awarded an Iron Cross.

The old biplanes had a maximum speed that was slower than the stall speed of most of the German planes of the day. This made them fairly difficult to shoot down in a dog fight. Difficult, but not impossible.

And tracer fire was especially a problem. Wood and painted canvas don’t react well to incendiary fire. They were flying very slow by the standards of the day, and even if their planes didn’t make a lot of noise, the Germans did learn to identify the noise they did make.

As you can imagine, they didn’t get a lot of respect at the beginning of their service. Aside from the substandard planes, they had hand-me-down uniforms, and senior officers who were upset at being sent a bunch of “girlies.” That changed as they proved that women really can fly planes. They were one of the first aviation regiments to be elevated to “guard status.”

They dropped 3,000 tons of bombs on the Germans over the course of the war. They also dropped food and ammunition to Soviet troops.

While I was trying to find a decent video on this subject, I ran across this one from NBC. They managed to get part of an interview with one of the last survivors of the regiment, from the Russian Archives. (I can’t embed it here, so just a link.) It isn’t as entertaining as the one below, but it is good, and it isn’t an hour long. (It’s a bit over 5 minutes.) And it is in English.

This video from “We are the Mighty” is pretty good – it has a lot of info – even if it is a bit over the top. (They get points for a Monty Python reference.)

There is an all-female Black Sabbath tribute band named Nightwitches, (I can’t recommend them) and there is also a Sabaton song (Heavy Metal) that is a tribute to the Soviet regiment. I also can’t recommend it. YMMV

If you have the stamina for English subtitles on a Russian film, there is a 2008 film by Gunilla Bresky (available on YouTube in several parts) that includes quite few interviews with the Natten Haxor (Night Witches in Russian) who were still alive at the time. As well as letters they sent, and film from the time. While it won’t give Ken Burns a run for his money, it isn’t bad, even if it is in fairly low resolution. There is supposed to be a feature film from the 1980s, but I haven’t had time to look that up just yet. There is also a Russian series The Night Swallows, but with the English subtitles, and the soap-opera nature of the show, I haven’t been able to watch much of it.

Two World War II Anniversaries That I (Almost) Missed

The start of World War II. September 1, 1939 – Germans invade Poland.

At 4:45 a.m., some 1.5 million German troops invade Poland all along its 1,750-mile border with German-controlled territory. Simultaneously, the German Luftwaffe bombed Polish airfields, and German warships and U-boats attacked Polish naval forces in the Baltic Sea. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler claimed the massive invasion was a defensive action, but Britain and France were not convinced. On September 3, they declared war on Germany, initiating World War II.

OK, so maybe I didn’t miss that one, depending on how you slice it.

And the end of World War II. September 2, 1945 Japan surrenders.

On Sunday, September 2, more than 250 Allied warships lay at anchor in Tokyo Bay. The flags of the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and China fluttered above the deck of the Missouri. Just after 9 a.m. Tokyo time, Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signed on behalf of the Japanese government. General Yoshijiro Umezu then signed for the Japanese armed forces, and his aides wept as he made his signature.

Hat tip to The O.K. Corral, who reminded me that this weekend isn’t just about “honoring the labor movement.” (Even if that is the official excuse for having Monday off.)

The Most Dangerous American Spy in WWII – Virginia Hall

In honor of the anniversary of The Americans With Disabilities Act. An American who didn’t let the loss of her leg stand in her way. (OK, that’s an excuse – I didn’t want to wait for her birthday, which is in April.)

Born April 6, 1906. Virginia Hall: America’s Greatest Female Spy – Historic Heroines. This linked article is long, but still worth your time.

She spoke five languages, and worked at several consulates across Europe, but the Foreign Service kept rejecting her application. Mostly it seems, because she was raising the alarm about Hitler long before most Americans – and especially those in the US Foreign Service – were taking him seriously.

While hunting in Turkey, she had an accidental discharge of her firearm, which resulted in her losing her left leg below the knee. (She was climbing over a fence.) She named her wooden leg Cuthbert. Despite the injury she volunteered as an ambulance driver in France during the Blitzkrieg. After the Nazi occupation of France, she made her way to England and joined the Special Operation Executive. (SOE was competitor to MI6, but protected by Churchill.)

After rigorous spy training designed to test the mettle of even the most resolute male candidates, she returned to Vichy France undercover as an American Journalist (prior to the US having joined the war). There, at great personal risk, Virginia, worked doggedly to collect intelligence, help form the French Resistance and rescue downed RAF pilots. She organized sabotage efforts on German supply lines and successfully planned daring POW prison escapes. All the while, knowing that capture would mean imprisonment and certain torture at the hands of the Vichy Police or German Gestapo.

She was on the Gestapo’s “most wanted” list.

After America got into the war, she “transferred” to the OSS (which later would become the CIA). And did more of the same. By this point the Americans wanted experienced agents to prepare for the invasion everyone knew had to come eventually. But since she was known to the Gestapo, she disguised herself (and her limp) as an old woman.

Upon her return to occupied France, Virginia immediately jumped back in with the French Resistance working tirelessly as a covert wireless radio operator reporting critical intelligence that could affect the D-Day invasion. … While on the move, Virginia used her previous experience organizing resistance efforts to assemble a fighting force of French guerillas that could support the Allied Invasion. Many initially refused to take orders from a woman, however, as she demonstrated her ability to provide valuable weapons and explosives with London’s full confidence, their sentiments rapidly changed. When the Allied Troops invaded Normandy on June 6, 1944, Virginia and her resistance army of over 400 volunteers sprang into action. Destroying train tracks, disrupting supply lines, attacking German troops and committing other acts of sabotage, Virginia and her force slowed the Nazi response to D-Day in any way possible.

After the war, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the only civilian woman to receive one. The recommendation, and citation – from the desk of Harry S. Truman – can be viewed at this link. (The interface isn’t the best, but you can enlarge the documents.) Some of the documents weren’t declassified until 1991.

Rejected Princesses also has a nice piece on Virginia Hall. I am really starting to love Rejected Princesses. (“Well-behaved women rarely make history.”)

The CIA has an official site devoted to her, but it is a bit short. Virginia Hall: The Courage and Daring of “The Limping Lady”. Still, it is worth a look. (And they gave me the idea about the ADA.)

A native of Baltimore, Virginia Hall Goillot is perhaps best known for her heroic service in the British Special Operations Executive and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, but she actually spent more time in CIA.

She died in 1982. In 2017 the CIA named a training center in her honor, and a commissioned painting of her hangs in CIA headquarters.

June 6, 1944: The D-Day Invasion of Europe

In honor of the troops that went ashore in France.

The BBC did 1 hour segment entitled “Bloody Omaha” as part of the series BBC Timewatch. (See the link to the full BBC show below the video.) It concentrates on the American landing at Omaha Beach

I love this short (and I love the song). This first video is how 3 guys recreated the Omaha Beach landing for the camera in a couple of days. Saving Private Ryan had a few more people (and a lot more money). See below the video for a link to the full documentary. It is about an hour. (It was an episode on a BBC show.) And if you haven’t seen the 1962 movie The Longest Day, you should. It has truly an all-star cast, from John Wayne and Richard Burton to Red Buttons and Fabian.

The entire documentary is about an hour long, and can be found at this link.