Across the Ether

Forgive the indulgence while I briefly divert along a Geoff Manaugh-type tangent.

The Singapore strategy was employed by the United Kingdom as its dominant  in the interwar years, up until about 1941…when Singapore fell. Of course, the origins of the Singapore strategy arose as a counter to the Japanese and US Navies, the Royal Navy’s original nemesis of the German High Seas Fleet having been scuttled at Scapa Flow.

More importantly, though, was the later role that ghostly, sunken fleet would play: a source for “low-background steel.”

3D model of the wreck of the Kronprinz Wilhelm at Scapa Flow.

Now, the very concept of low-background steel is one that makes me shudder with excitement. Low-background steel is a necessary component in certain devices, particularly medical equipment and Geiger counters. The latter is of prime interest: nuclear explosions from 1944 onwards raised the worldwide level of background radiation to the point where obtaining a proper control requires quite literally salvaging the past.*

Every ounce of steel that has been produced in the postwar error has been irrevocably contaminated by a natural sin of background radiation levels and radionuclides. Humankind changed the entirety of the natural world. It’s kind of a mind-boggling idea.

What also intrigues me is that thought that a century from now our materials might be useful for similar reasons, as a sort of living archeological project or time capsule that doesn’t just reveal something about the past, but is a necessity; The only available option in the absence of time travel.

We live inside our own time capsules. The coveted “prewar” buildings in New York and Providence and Boston abound, particularly in the latter two, in which close to 40% of their housing stock was built before 1940. Could that too have some relevance to future researchers and laboratory scientists? Housing patterns and living arrangements before the advent of doormen and glass-and-steel constructs? And seeing the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy, of sunken cars and drowned tunnels, one wonders if someday the subways and highways of New York might become their own aquatic monument to the past. The DC Metro, “America’s Subway,” submerged beneath the waves.

It is, of course, difficult to hear about low-background steel without thinking of the Fallout 3 series’ “pre-war artifacts.” In that universe, the Great War is when everything changed and hundreds of millions perished in a nuclear holocaust. But a player can still find mementos of a lost era. Pre-war money, steak, and soda can all be picked up – and in the case of the latter, consumed. Even the aesthetic of that bygone age – a heavily saccharine version of a 1950s idyll – remains a coveted item in the form of furniture for your house.

Perhaps, if there’s a unifying theme across all these disparate threads, it’s that war and conflict and destruction serve as a natural line of demarcation, and once crossed, nothing will ever be the same again. What reserve fleets and low-background steel and prewar buildings and all the rest offer us is a tenuous link with that past, and a means of making it tangible. It’s comforting to think that maybe no era is truly lost forever.

*It should be noted that since the advent of the Partial Test-Ban Treaty background levels have dropped worldwide. But they still remain significantly higher than pre-war levels.


American Stuart and Lee tanks advance on a German position.

I gave the real-time strategy game R.U.S.E. a quick whirl last night. Expect a formal review at some point, but here are some initial impressions:

– From what I’ve played, it already seems somewhat more historically accurate than others in the this genre, at least with regards to the campaign. So far I’ve been operating in a support role in the Battle of Kasserine Pass (the North Africa campaign itself is woefully underused in games), and it seems to have a fairly accurate order of battle, down to the Italian bersaglieri regiments and Free French units you’re operating with.

– The actual “RUSE” system has so far been limited to “spies” and “decryption,” the former of which reveals the identities of units in a given sector, and the latter which reveals movements only. Used in tandem, it is a neat trick to predict enemy attacks and move to ambush. Presumably as the game progresses, more elaborate ruses will become available.

– Selecting and issuing orders to units is less easy than one would expect, and the imprecision with which you move a given unit compares pretty unfavorably with something like Company of Heroes. It’s hard to get, say, an infantry squad exactly where you want it, and the AI does not at all compensate for that.

– The zoom-in/out system is pretty neat. Zoom all the way in and you’re practically at the level of a first-person shooter, with individual units all moving separately. As you zoom out from there, your units gradually change to a stacked-counter view, and at the farthest zoom levels, you see you’re actually moving counters on a map table in some sort of command post. The micro/macro views do help.


C Company, 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment marches in the Victory Day Parade in Red Square for the first time.

Saturday marked the 65th anniversary of V-E Day in most of Europe, but for Russia – being several time zones removed – Sunday, May 9th was V-E Day.

Throughout the Soviet era, a yearly military parade was held in Red Square to commemorate victory in the Great Patriotic War, but after the Soviet Union’s dissolution these parades were reduced in scope and grandeur. Vladimir Putin restored the Victory Day Parade to its former prominence in 2008, and this year’s parade was possibly the most epic yet.

For the first time, Allied and CIS forces also marched in the parade – an American company from the 18th Infantry Regiment, a British company from the Welsh Guards, a Polish battalion, a French aviation detachment, and troops from nine other countries – commemorating the global effort it took to rid the world of Hitler and Nazism.

French troops march in the Victory Day Parade in Red Square.

While there was certainly some resistance to Western troops marching in the holiest-of-holy Russian secular holidays, it mostly ascribed to the Communists and ultranationalists. Many veterans welcomed the other Allied troops:

“This parade unites all those who participated in the war,” said Iosif Efron, 85, who recalled that his Soviet division encountered American forces at the Elbe River in Germany at the end of World War II. “The invitation was absolutely proper. We fought together, and they helped us.

“Of course, without Russia, no one would have defeated Germany,” he added.

There are a ton of stunning (and not a little bit intimidating) photographs of the parade at Wiki Commons – including a real, live T-34! – and the BBC.

The Mask of the Bear: Soviet Deception in Operation Bagration

German columns advance past immobilized Russian tanks, July 1941.

From the moment the first Wehrmacht tank crossed the Soviet border in 1941 until the Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43, German victory in World War II seemed inevitable. The fighting on the Eastern Front took place on a scale never seen before or since, a colossal undertaking that consumed three-quarters of all combat forces in Europe, and cost the lives of over twenty-five million Soviet citizens.[1] The war could not have been won without the Soviet front, and even after the Red Army had successfully defended Moscow and Stalingrad, while holding out in besieged Leningrad, victory was far from certain.

The summer offensive of 1943, culminating in the Battle of Kursk—the largest tank battle ever fought by man—finally pushed the Germans onto the defensive. It was not until Operation Bagration, the 1944 summer offensive, that the German ability to conduct offensive operations was curtailed once and for all.

Operation Bagration won the war in the east, and that victory can be attributed to a practice at which the Red Army excelled—deception. The Soviet practice of maskirovka literally translates to ‘camouflage,’ but in the context of military doctrine has a wide variety of definitions covering everything from strategic disinformation to the effective  masking of an individual soldier’s foxhole. The official Soviet definition for maskirovka was:

The means of securing combat operations and the daily activities of forces; a complexity of measures, directed to mislead the enemy regarding the presence and disposition of forces, various military objectives, their condition, combat readiness and operations, and also the plans of the command … Maskirovka contributes to the achievement of surprise for the actions of forces, the preservation of combat readiness, and the increased survivability of objectives.[2]

The Soviets invented the art of maskirovka, and perfected it over the course of World War II. By the summer of 1944, it was second-nature, and the operational planning reflected this. In absolute secrecy, the Soviet High Command (Stavka) managed to position over 2.3 million men and the necessary supplies, all the while deceiving the Wehrmacht as to the actual objectives of the offensive.

It is no stretch to say that Operation Bagration would have unfolded far more poorly without the extensive deception operations, and as it marked an end to any chance of a German victory, the maskirovka so skillfully executed in the summer of 1944 in fact shortened World War II by a substantial amount.

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But I Repeat Myself

A reminder that history does not repeat itself; it merely rhymes:

Beneath azure blue skies on Sunday, an intrepid band of Englishmen tried to stage a scaled-down rerun of the “little ships,” hundreds of private craft that joined the Royal Navy in the improbable 1940 rescue [at Dunkirk], saving hundreds of thousands of British, French and Canadian soldiers to fight on against Nazi Germany.

This time, the effort centered on a group of men in a flotilla of inflatable speedboats who set out from Dover to ferry some of their stranded compatriots home from the rail and ferry chaos created by the cloud of volcanic ash that has shut down much of Europe’s air traffic.

The Thirty Years’ War and Collective Memory

T. Greer at The Scholar’s Stage tell us World War II provides a convenient metaphorical framework for understanding the world today, but goes on to explain that today’s political situation is more akin to the 30 Years’ War than World War II.

You can summarize the history of the Second World War in two paragraphs. Squeezing the causes, campaigns, and countries of the war into these paragraphs would be a gross simplification, but it is possible. This does not hold true for the Thirty Years War. It is one conflict that simply cannot be related in a paragraph. The number of actors involved, the myriad of motivations and goals of each, and the shifting alliances and intrigues between them all are simply too complex to be stripped down to a single page. Piecing together the events of the Thirty Years War inevitably takes up much more time and effort than single page summaries allow.

Single page summaries or 5-minute interviews allow no room for nuance, deliberation, or even explanation. The goal of televised news seems to be for one side to “win” at the other’s expense, and victory means hammering home as simple an argument as possible. Sure, the Maginot Line is long-gone, we have airborne robots and laser weapons, and even Communism has been defeated, yet somehow the analogies of ‘the last good war’ resonate in our collective memories.

The great majority of policy makers are familiar with the Second World War. If asked to, I am sure that most folks in Washington concerned with foreign affairs and security policy could provide an accurate sketch of the countries and campaigns involved. Indeed, we conceptualize current challenges from the standpoint of World War II; allusions to it are the lifeblood of both popular and academic discourse on foreign affairs. Pearl Harbor, Munich, Stalingrad, Normandy, Yalta, and Hiroshima are gifts that keep on giving – they serve as an able metaphorical foundation for any point a pundit or analyst wishes to make.

Compounding the problem is that old familiar anti-intellectual strain in American public discourse. Just the thought of applying something other than a 20th-century analogy to a contemporary situation seems like high-falutin’ blasphemy, further evidence that the pansy college boys have no place deciding what’s what. But we need to start comparing other human conflicts (thought not so all-over-the-place as Edward Luttwak) to our own, and figuring out what really matters – and what really doesn’t.

Via zenpundit.

Operation Tannenbaum, Part IV

It is now November 9 1940. The bitterness of the Battle for Switzerland is something that will live with all Swiss and those German soldiers who participated. Out of the 800,000 Swiss under arms on September 24, 120,000 did not reach the redoubt. Only 15,486 of these soldiers were taken prisoner. In fact, there are more French and Polish prisoners in the German laagers then there are Swiss!

The Zytglogge in Bern, Switzerland.

Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, commander of Heeresgruppe C.

Guisan and his staff are secure in the Redoubt, with the Germans unable to penetrate the massive defense works. However, the Germans are rather unwilling to commit so many forces to the strategically irrelevant alpine region. In the areas at higher altitude, the first snow has fallen, tabling any large offensives until the spring of 1941.

No less than 20 divisions are in occupied Switzerland, and tensions between occupier and occupied are running extremely high. Just as in Czechoslovakia, all popular gatherings have been banned. Weapons and wireless sets owned by private citizens have been ordered to be turned into authorities, including hunting rifles.[1] Heeresgruppe C has not been redeployed to the eastern front for a Russian offensive, and Wilhelm von Leeb has established his headquarters in occupied Bern for the winter.

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Operation Tannenbaum, Part III

While the odds were against any sort of meaningful Swiss victory in the event of invasion, such a German offensive was equally unlikely in the early years of the war. By 1943, the possibility of a successful German invasion had dwindled to virtually nothing, as the Swiss Army had expanded and modernized to a point that would make Tannenbaum a suicidal mission. This begs the question: why, then, would Hitler ever have chosen to invade Switzerland? Let us proceed with our counterfactual under the following premises.

It is now September 15. The unrestricted bombing campaign authorized by Churchill four months ago has been relatively unsuccessful. Fewer than 25 percent of the bombs dropped are landing within five miles of their intended targets, and only 30 percent have landed in any built-up areas.[1] However, this has had an unintended benefit. Having disguised the few industrial plants manufacturing jewel bearings, the Germans were fairly certain of their security. However, in a truly ironic case, this ended up being more costly, as the plants have been disproportionately hit by the British bombs. Jewel bearings are a main component of bombsights, and without them, Hitler is reluctant to press his luck in the Battle of Britain, much less Operation Sealion.

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Operation Tannenbaum, Part II

Hitler, flush with victory over France, now demanded to see plans for the invasion of Switzerland. His rage knew no bounds, as the head of OKH Franz Halder recalled: “I was constantly hearing of outbursts of Hitler’s fury against Switzerland, which, given his mentality, might have led at any minute to military activities for the army.”[1] Within hours of the French capitulation, Captain Otto Wilhelm von Menges in OKH submitted a draft plan for the invasion.

Menges' Fall Schweiz, first draft (June 26 1940).

Generaloberst Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe ‘C’ (HGr. C), led by Generalleutnant Wilhelm List and the 12th Army would conduct the attack. Leeb himself personally reconnoitered the terrain, studying the most promising invasion routes and paths of least resistance.[2] Menges’ plan called for a pincer movement from German troops in France and Germany focused on taking Bern quickly, with Italian divisions invading from the south. Speed was critical: the plan’s primary objective was to seize the industry in the Solothurn area and capture the railroads, bridges, and transportation infrastructure across the Alps intact.[3]

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