On this day, German aircraft blanket incendiary bombs over London, setting both banks of the Thames ablaze and killing almost 3,600 British civilians.
The German targeting of the English capital had begun back in August, payback for British attacks on Berlin. In September, a horrendous firestorm broke out in London’s poorest districts as German aircraft dropped 337 tons of bombs on docks, tenements, and teeming streets. The “London Blitz” killed thousands of civilians.
December 29 saw the widespread destruction not just of civilians, but of great portions of London’s cultural relics. Historic buildings were severely damaged or destroyed as relentless bombing set 15,000 separate fires. Among the architectural treasures that proved casualties of the German assault were the Guildhall (the administrative center of the city, dating back to 1673 but also containing a 15th-century vault) and eight Christopher Wren churches. St. Paul’s Cathedral also caught fire but was saved from being burned to the ground by brave, tenacious firefighters. Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and the Chamber of the House of Commons were also hit but suffered less extensive damage.
Fighting the blazes was made all the more difficult by an unfortunate low tide, which made drawing water a problem.
Should this giant bronze eagle and swastika be smelted or put on public display?
LIMA, Peru — War trophies don’t come much more imposing than the solid bronze statue that once adorned the prow of the Graf Spee, a notorious Nazi battleship that sank numerous Allied merchant vessels.
Weighing 700 pounds and with a wingspan of nearly 9 feet, the statue is a rare surviving example of the ultimate Third Reich symbol of an eagle perched atop a swastika.
It is also causing the Uruguayan government a headache after local businessman Alfredo Etchegaray had the statue salvaged from the wreck of the Graf Spee in shallow waters just off Uruguay’s capital of Montevideo in 2006.
Of course, it’s not the only Axis relic to ever pop up in these parts. An estimated 9,000 Nazi war criminals fled to South America after World War II, according to German prosecutors. The eagle is the latest reminder of the region’s unwanted links with the Third Reich.
Etechegaray claims to have shelled out $5 million over three decades in retrieving parts of the Graf Spee, and now wants a return on that investment.
After a lengthy legal battle, Uruguay’s supreme court has ruled that the PR mogul does own half the statue, with the other half belonging to the government.
He now wants to sell his rights and have the statue, currently under wraps in a Uruguayan navy warehouse, put on display in a museum. But he claims Germany is pressuring the administration of President Jose Mujica to keep the controversial sculpture out of public sight.
“If the government wants to bury this statue they have the right to do that, but we also have the right to get half the money for it,” Etchegaray said.
“Why shouldn’t it be displayed publicly, in an appropriate way, of course, with historical explanation? That’s what happens with the Roman Colosseum, with artifacts from the Khmer Rouge, with torture instruments used by the Inquisition.”
The German Embassy in Montevideo and the Uruguayan government’s National Heritage Commission declined to comment to GlobalPost.
Acting on Etchegaray’s behalf, Montevideo art gallery Gomensoro is now receiving offers for the businessman’s 50 percent stake in the statue, which it values loosely at up to $15 million. The reserve price, gallery owner Jose Enrique Gomensoro claims, is between $3 million and $5 million.
“It’s 100 percent certain it will sell,” Gomensoro adds. “But it’s very hard to say how much it will fetch. It could all depend on the whim of a single collector. How badly do they want it?”
That the statue is unique is beyond dispute. The only similar one used by the “Kriegsmarine,” Hitler’s navy, was on the prow of the Bismarck, a much larger warship sunk in the North Atlantic in 1941.
Classed as a “pocket battleship,” the Graf Spee was named after a German admiral and, for its era, used state-of-the-art technology. Just over 600 feet long, it had a top speed of 29 knots (about 33 miles per hour) and its main weapons were six 52-caliber guns mounted in two turrets, fore and aft.
It sank nine Allied merchant ships in the South Atlantic, as they brought vital supplies of beef, wheat and wool, from South America to the United Kingdom, in the early days of World War II.
But it was scuttled in December 1939 just off Montevideo after being damaged in the ferocious Battle of the River Plate and its captain, Hans Langsdorff, had been tricked by British intelligence into believing that it was about to be surrounded by the Royal Navy.
Residents of Montevideo watched the ship burn for three days before eventually sinking in water just 30 feet deep. Langsdorff shot himself in a Buenos Aires hotel three days later.
Uruguay eventually joined the conflict on the side of the Allies. Although after the war it also, unwittingly perhaps, provided refuge to a small number of war criminals, including one torturer known as Dr. Death.
But Gomensoro’s valuation for the eagle-and-swastika statue was trashed by William Rey Ashfield, a former head of the National Heritage Commission, who described the multimillion-dollar price tag as “delirious.”
“Really, the Uruguayan government should never have allowed any salvaging of the Graf Spee,” Rey Ashfield said. “But now that this statue is on dry land, I hope that an agreement can be worked out for it to be put on public display, but not in a triumphalist way, here in Uruguay. This is part of our history too.”
He was also skeptical of Etchegaray’s claim that Germany was opposed to the statue being displayed publicly.
“Germany is on the sidelines. If anything, the problem is that they don’t want to get involved, although they would definitely be concerned at the possibility of a private sale leading to the statue falling into the hands of neo-Nazis or being used to glorify the Third Reich.”
“It could be a good attraction for a museum. But it is a controversial piece that many people will also reject. It is a hot potato.”
Meanwhile, Etchegaray is waiting for the Uruguayan government to make up its mind about what it wants to do with its 50 percent stake in the statue. “I’m not waiting 20 years,” he said. “Deciding who owns it has already taken long enough.”
Germans form the Smolensk Committee to enlist Soviet soldiers
On this day, the German military begins enlisting Soviet POWs in the battle against Russia. General Andrei Vlasov, a captured Soviet war hero turned anticommunist, was made commander of the renegade Soviet troops.
Vlasov had been a military man since 1919, when, at age 19, he was drafted into the new “Red” Army to fight in the Russian Civil War. After joining the Communist Party in 1930, he became a Soviet military adviser to China’s Chiang Kai-shek. Returning to Russia in 1939, Vlasov was given the 4th Armored Corps to command. He distinguished himself in the defense of Kiev and Moscow against the German invaders, even winning the Order of Lenin in 1941, and later the Order of the Red Banner as commanding general of the 20th Army.
Then came the defense of Leningrad in 1942. The Germans were overwhelming the Soviet forces at the front, and Stalin would not allow Vlasov to retreat to a more favorable position. His army was battered, and he was taken prisoner by the Germans along with many of his men. Back in Germany, Vlasov became disgusted with Stalin and communist ideology, which he had come to believe was a more sinister threat to the world than Nazism. He began broadcasting anti-Soviet propaganda and formed—with Nazi permission, of course—the Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia. Its goal: to overthrow Joseph Stalin and defeat communism.
The German “Smolensk Committee” began persuading more and more captured Russians, Ukrainians, Cossacks, and other Soviet anti-Stalinists to join the German war effort. These now-pro-German Soviets were finally formed into a 50,000-man army, the Russian Liberation division, and fought toward the end of the war, with Vlasov at their command. Tens of thousands ending up turning back against the Germans, then finally surrendering to the Americans—rather than the advancing Soviets—when the German cause was lost. The Americans, under secret terms of the Yalta Agreement signed in February, repatriated all captured Soviet soldiers-even against their will. Vlasov was among those returned to Stalin. He was hanged, along with his comrades in arms.
On this day, the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst is sunk by British warships in the Arctic after decoded German naval signals reveal that the Scharnhorst is on a mission to attack an Anglo-American convoy to Russia.
Hitler’s navy had posed serious threats to convoys shipping supplies to the Soviet Union since the fall of 1941. American, British, and Soviet merchant ships had suffered devastating attacks in the Arctic, mostly by German U-boats. Operation Rainbow was the German plan to attack two Anglo-American convoys as they sailed between Bear Island and the North Cape en route to the Eastern front. But Enigma, the British code-breaker, once again provided the Allies with the sensitive strategic information they needed to anticipate and prevent disaster. The Scharnhorst, Germany’s 31,000-ton battle cruiser, which had already sunk the British cruiser Rawalpindi, was surprised by the British battleship Duke of York, which sank it in what became known as the Battle of North Cape.
Approximately 2,000 German sailors and crew drowned and only 36 survived.
On and around Christmas Day 1914, the sounds of rifles firing and shells exploding fade in a number of places along the Western Front in favor of holiday celebrations in the trenches and gestures of goodwill between enemies.
Starting on Christmas Eve, many German and British troops sang Christmas carols to each other across the lines, and at certain points the Allied soldiers even heard brass bands joining the Germans in their joyous singing.
At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s-land, calling out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ native tongues. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers. The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs. There was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer.
Some soldiers used this short-lived ceasefire for a more somber task: the retrieval of the bodies of fellow combatants who had fallen within the no-man’s land between the lines.
The so-called Christmas Truce of 1914 came only five months after the outbreak of war in Europe and was one of the last examples of the outdated notion of chivalry between enemies in warfare. It was never repeated—future attempts at holiday ceasefires were quashed by officers’ threats of disciplinary action—but it served as heartening proof, however brief, that beneath the brutal clash of weapons, the soldiers’ essential humanity endured.