Category Archives: Today in History

1943 Nazis arrest White Rose resistance leaders

Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie, the leaders of the German youth group Weisse Rose (White Rose), are arrested by the Gestapo for opposing the Nazi regime.

The White Rose was composed of university (mostly medical) students who spoke out against Adolf Hitler and his regime. The founder, Hans Scholl, was a former member of Hitler Youth who grew disenchanted with Nazi ideology once its real aims became evident. As a student at the University of Munich in 1940-41, he met two Roman Catholic men of letters who redirected his life. Turning from medicine to religion, philosophy, and the arts, Scholl gathered around him like-minded friends who also despised the Nazis, and the White Rose was born.

During the summer of 1942, Scholl and a friend composed four leaflets, which exposed and denounced Nazi and SS atrocities, including the extermination of Jews and Polish nobility, and called for resistance to the regime. The literature was peppered with quotations from great writers and thinkers, from Aristotle to Goethe, and called for the rebirth of the German university. It was aimed at an educated elite within Germany.

The risks involved in such an enterprise were enormous. The lives of average civilians were monitored for any deviation from absolute loyalty to the state. Even a casual remark critical of Hitler or the Nazis could result in arrest by the Gestapo, the regime’s secret police. Yet the students of the White Rose (the origin of the group’s name is uncertain; possibly, it came from the picture of the flower on their leaflets) risked all, motivated purely by idealism, the highest moral and ethical principles, and sympathy for their Jewish neighbors and friends. (Despite the risks, Hans’ sister, Sophie, a biology student at her brother’s university, begged to participate in the activities of the White Rose when she discovered her brother’s covert operation.)

On February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie left a suitcase filled with copies of yet another leaflet in the main university building. The leaflet stated, in part: “The day of reckoning has come, the reckoning of our German youth with the most abominable tyranny our people has ever endured. In the name of the entire German people we demand of Adolf Hitler’s state the return of personal freedom, the most precious treasure of the Germans which he cunningly has cheated us out of.” The pair were spotted by a janitor and reported to the Gestapo and arrested. Turned over to Hitler’s “People’s Court,” basically a kangaroo court for dispatching dissidents quickly, the Scholls, along with another White Rose member who was caught, were sentenced to death. They were beheaded–a punishment reserved for “political traitors”–on February 23, but not before Hans Scholl proclaimed “Long live freedom!”

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1915 Zeppelin L-4 crashes into North Sea

After encountering a severe snowstorm on the evening of February 17, 1915, the German zeppelin L-4 crash-lands in the North Sea near the Danish coastal town of Varde.

The zeppelin, a motor-driven rigid airship, was developed by German inventor Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin in 1900. Although a French inventor had built a power-driven airship several decades before, Zeppelin’s rigid dirigible, with its steel framework, was by far the largest airship ever constructed.

The L-4‘s captain, Count Platen-Hallermund, and a crew of 14 men had completed a routine scouting mission off the Norwegian coast in search of Allied merchant vessels and were returning to their base in Hamburg, Germany, when the snowstorm flared up, bombarding the airship with gale-force winds.

Unable to control the zeppelin in the face of such strong winds, the crew steered toward the Danish coast for an emergency landing, but was unable to reach the shore before crashing into the North Sea. The Danish coast guard rescued 11 members of the crew who had abandoned ship and jumped into the sea prior to the crash; they were brought to Odense as prisoners to be interrogated. Four members of the crew were believed drowned and their bodies were never recovered.

One month earlier, the L-4 had taken part in the first-ever air raid on Britain in January 1915, when it and two other zeppelins dropped bombs on the towns of Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn on the eastern coast of England. Four civilians were killed in the raid, two in each town. Zeppelins would continue to wreak destruction on Germany’s enemies throughout the next several years of war–by May 1916, 550 British civilians had been killed by aerial bombs.

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1943 Battle of the Kasserine Pass

Rommel in Tunisia speaking with troops riding a captured American built M3 Half-track.

On this day, German General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps launch an offensive against an Allied defensive line in Tunisia, North Africa. The Kasserine Pass was the site of the United States’ first major battle defeat of the war.

General Erwin Rommel was dispatched to North Africa in February 1942, along with the new Afrika Korps, to prevent his Italian Axis partner from losing its territorial gains in the region to the British. Despite his skill, until this point Rommel had been unable to do much more than manage his own forces’ retreats, but the Battle of Kasserine Pass would finally display the “Desert Fox’s” strategic genius.

In the Battle of El Alamein in August 1942, British General Bernard Montgomery pushed Rommel out of Egypt and into Tunisia, behind the Mareth Line, a defensive fortification built by Vichy French forces. After taking several months to regroup, Rommel decided on a bold move. Rommel set his sites of Tunis, Tunisia’s capital and a key strategic goal for both Allied and Axis forces. Rommel determined that the weakest point in the Allied defensive line was at the Kasserine Pass, a 2-mile-wide gap in Tunisia’s Dorsal Mountains, which was defended by American troops. His first strike was repulsed, but with tank reinforcements, Rommel broke through on February 20, inflicting devastating casualties on the U.S. forces. The Americans withdrew from their position, leaving behind most of their equipment. More than 1,000 American soldiers were killed by Rommel’s offensive, and hundreds were taken prisoner. The United States had finally tasted defeat in battle.

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1942 The “Channel Dash”

On this day, the German battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, as well as the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, escape from the French port of Brest and make a mad dash up the English Channel to safety in German waters.

The Gneisenau and Scharnhorst had been anchored at Brest since March 1941. The Prinz Eugen had been tied to the French port since the Bismarck sortie in May 1941, when it and the battleship Bismarck made their own mad dash through the Atlantic and the Denmark Strait to elude Royal Navy gunfire. All three were subject to periodic bombing raids–and damage–by the British, as the Brits attempted to ensure that the German warships never left the French coast. But despite the careful watch of British subs and aircraft, German Vice Admiral Otto Ciliax launched Operation Cerberus to lead the ships out of the French port.

The Germans, who had controlled and occupied France since June 1940, drew British fire deliberately, and the Gneisenau, Scharnhorst, and Prinz Eugen used the resulting skirmish as a defensive smoke screen. Six German destroyers and 21 torpedo boats accompanied the ships for protection as they moved north late on the night of February 11.

In the morning, German planes provided air cover as well; ace pilot Adolf Galland led 250 other fighters in an unusually well coordinated joint effort of the German navy and Luftwaffe. The British Royal Air Force also coordinated its attack with the Royal Navy Swordfish squadron, but a late start–the RAF did not realize until the afternoon of February 12 that the German squadron had pushed out to sea–and bad weather hindered their effort. All three German warships made it to a German port on February 13, although the Gneisenauand Scharnhorst had been damaged by British mines along the way.

The British lost 40 aircraft and six Navy Swordfish in the confrontation, while the Germans lost a torpedo boat and 17 aircraft. The “Channel Dash,” as it came to be called, was extremely embarrassing to the British, as it happened right under their noses. They would get revenge of a sort, though: British warships sunk the Scharnhorst in December 1944 as the German ship attempted to attack a Russian convoy. The Gneisenau was destroyed in a bombing raid while still in port undergoing repairs, and the Prinz Eugensurvived the war, but was taken over by the U.S. Navy at war’s end.

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1915 Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes begins

On this day in 1915, in a blinding snowstorm, General Fritz von Below and Germany s Eighth Army launch a surprise attack against the Russian lines just north of the Masurian Lakes on the Eastern Front, beginning the Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes (also known as the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes).

A previous battle in the Masurian Lakes region, located near the villages of Frogenau and Tannenberg in East Prussia, had taken place in September 1914 and ended in the second major defeat of the Russians by Erich Ludendorff s German forces (the first had come at Tannenberg the previous month). The second battle marked the beginning of an aggressive strategy against Russia conceived by the German commander Paul von Hindenburg, who reasoned that if the Central Powers could manage a string of decisive victories on the Eastern Front, it could knock Russia out of the war and concentrate on the real challenge: confronting Britain and France in the west.

Hindenburg’s strategy called for two armies–the Eighth and Tenth–to be deployed in East Prussia against Russia’s Tenth Army, commanded by General Thadeus von Sievers, which consisted of four corps positioned north of the Masurian Lakes. On February 7, 1915, Below’s Eighth Army attacked the Russian left flank in the driving snow and quickly overwhelmed the Russian lines, easily advancing against the enemy position from the south.

On the second day of the battle, General Hermann von Eichorn and Germany s Tenth Army came at the Russians from the north, severely outnumbering and nearly surrounding Sievers army, which had retreated into the Augustow forest. Faced with tremendous opposition, the Russian XX Corps managed to hold off the German advance for more than two weeks–long enough for the three remaining Russian corps to escape–before finally surrendering to the Germans on February 21, 1915.

All told, the Russians suffered 56,000 casualties in the Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes; an estimated 100,000 more had been taken prisoner. German losses were comparatively small, though many German troops suffered from exposure due to the extreme cold.

General Fritz von Below was awarded Germany s highest military medal, the Pour le Merite, for his service as commander of the Eighth Army during the Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes. The Germans had managed to advance a full 70 miles during the first week of the battle. Further German progress eastward was halted, however, when the Russian Twelfth Army attacked the German right flank on February 22, and the victory at the Masurian Lakes ended up having little strategic impact on the Eastern Front.

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1915 Germany declares war zone around British Isles

A full two years before Germany’s aggressive naval policy would draw the United States into the war against them, Kaiser Wilhelm announces an important step in the development of that policy, proclaiming the North Sea a war zone, in which all merchant ships, including those from neutral countries, were liable to be sunk without warning.

In widening the boundaries of naval warfare, Germany was retaliating against the Allies for the British-imposed blockade of Germany in the North Sea, an important part of Britain’s war strategy aimed at strangling its enemy economically. By war’s end—according to official British counts—the so-called hunger blockade would take some 770,000 German lives.

The German navy, despite its attempts to build itself up in the pre-war years, was far inferior in strength to the peerless British Royal Navy. After resounding defeats of its battle cruisers, such as that suffered in the Falkland Islands in December 1914, Germany began to look to its dangerous U-boat submarines as its best hope at sea. Hermann Bauer, the leader of the German submarine service, had suggested in October 1914 that the U-boats could be used to attack commerce ships and raid their cargoes, thus scaring off imports to Britain, including those from neutral countries. Early the following month, Britain declared the North Sea a military area, warning neutral countries that areas would be mined and that all ships must first put into British ports, where they would be searched for possible supplies bound for Germany, stripped of these, and escorted through the British minefields. With this intensification of the blockade, Bauer’s idea gained greater support within Germany as the only appropriate response to Britain’s actions.

Though German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg and the German Foreign Ministry worried about angering neutral countries, pressure from naval leaders and anger in the German press about the British blockade convinced them to go through with the declaration. On February 4, 1915, Kaiser Wilhelm announced Germany’s intention to sink any and all ships sailing under the flags of Britain, Russia or France found within British waters. The Kaiser warned neutral countries that neither crews nor passengers were safe while traveling within the designated war zone around the British Isles. If neutral ships chose to enter British waters after February 18, when the policy went into effect, they would be doing so at their own risk.

The U.S. government immediately and strongly protested the war-zone designation, warning Germany that it would take any steps it might be necessary to take in order to protect American lives and property. Subsequently, a rift opened between Germany’s politicians—who didn’t want to provoke America’s anger—and its navy, which was determined to use its deadly U-boats to the greatest possible advantage.

After a German U-boat sank the British passenger ship Lusitania on May 7, 1915, killing over 1,000 people, including 128 Americans, pressure from the U.S. prompted the German government to greatly constrain the operation of submarines; U-boat warfare was completely suspended that September. Unrestricted submarine warfare was resumed on February 1, 1917, prompting the U.S., two days later, to break diplomatic relations with Germany.

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1916 Zeppelin crashes into North Sea

Two days after nine German zeppelins dropped close to 400 bombs throughout the English Midlands, the crew of the British fishing trawler King Stephen comes across the crashed remains of one of the giant airships floating in the North Sea.

Developed by a German army officer, Count Ferdinand Zeppelin, and first flown in 1900, the zeppelin was an impressive aircraft by the beginning of World War I. With the capacity to carry five machine guns and up to 2,000 kilograms (4,400 pounds) of bombs, it could reach a maximum speed of 136 kilometers per hour (84.5 miles per hour) and a height of 4,250 meters (13,943 feet).

The first zeppelin attack on England took place on January 19, 1915, when two of the airships bombed the English coastal towns of Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn, killing a total of four people. The first bombing raid on London came on May 31 of that year, when a single zeppelin dropped 90 small bombs and 30 grenades on the city, leaving seven dead and 35 wounded.

The raid of January 31, 1916, by nine zeppelins was one of the largest Britain saw during the war. The Germans bombed the West Midlands towns of Bradley, Tipton, Wednesbury and Walsall. Across the region, more than 70 people were killed and more than 100 injured in the attacks.

Just before daybreak on February 2, King Stephen skipper William Martin spotted a downed airship partially submerged in the North Sea. The skipper and his crew waited at a safe distance until daylight when they confirmed the wreckage was that of a German zeppelin with the identification mark L-19. With three of its four engines failing, the L-19 had reportedly come under Dutch fire, which punctured its gas cells and brought it down, killing some of the crew.

The nine unarmed men aboard the King Stephen saw that about 20 German soldiers had survived the crash. Fearful that the German airmen could easily overpower them and take control of the ship, Martin and his crew refused the soldiers’ pleas for help and did not take the men aboard, choosing instead to return to Britain to report their discovery to the authorities. The remaining crew of the L-19 disappeared with their craft. Word of the incident soon got out in both Germany and Britain–some saw Martin’s decision as a necessary one to protect his crew, while others, including some Britons, vilified Martin for what they saw as an unpardonable act of cruelty, even for wartime.

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