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.


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.


Russia marks Stalingrad defeat of Nazis

75 years ago, the surrender of Nazi Germany’s Sixth Army marked the end of the Battle of Stalingrad. It was a major turning point in the war, which remains important for many Russians even today.

During World War II, Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht intended to conquer the industrial city of Stalingrad — named after then Soviet leader Joseph Stalin — before advancing onward to capture its intended goal: The Caucasus oil fields. Given the city’s name, both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin afforded great symbolic meaning to the Battle of Stalingrad that transcended its strategic importance.

Due to the very long supply routes, the German Sixth Army’s offensive on Stalingrad was risky from the outset. Led by General Friedrich Paulus, the attack commenced in mid-August 1942, roughly one year after Nazi Germany first invaded the Soviet Union.

Back then, Hitler had claimed: “The Russians are exhausted.” His assessment proved to be wildly inaccurate. Despite fierce resistance, the Wehrmacht did succeed in conquering most of Stalingrad by mid-November 1942. By this time, however, Soviet forces had launched a two-pronged attack to encircle the German troops. In late November, the Red Army had encircled Germany’s entire Sixth Army and elements of the 4th Panzer Army — together, almost 300,000 German soldiers. Hitler, in turn, demanded they hold their position. Similarly, Stalin told his forces in July “not to move an inch.”

Stubbornly, both parties held their positions. German forces were encircled. And soon, their situation began to deteriorate. Over the course of several weeks, Germany’s Luftwaffe attempted to provide necessary supplies. But this was not enough. With the advance of the Red Army, supplies began dwindling further. Then winter set in, with temperatures dropping as low as -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit). Consequently many German soldiers died, not from fighting, but from starvation and hypothermia. A German relief operation that, after many delays, arrived to try and break the encirclement, and failed.

General Friedrich Paulus surrendered, despite Hitler’s orders.
General Paulus disobeyed Hitler in final moment

Despite these dire circumstances, General Paulus obeyed Hitler’s order to “stand and fight,” rejecting a Soviet offer to surrender on January 8, 1943. On January 29, Paulus sent the following message to Hitler: “On the 10th anniversary of your assumption of power, the Sixth Army hails its ‘Fuhrer.’ The swastika flag is still flying above Stalingrad. May our battle be an example to the present and coming generations that they must never capitulate even in a hopeless situation, for then Germany will be victorious. Hail my Fuhrer!”

But when the Red Army stormed Paulus’ headquarters, located in a cellar beneath a department store on January 31st, he was captured alive. Paulus had also forbidden his officers to commit suicide to avoid capture so they would share the same fate as ordinary German soldiers. At this stage, the surrounded German troops had been split into two encircled camps, one in northern Stalingrad, the other in the south. By late January, troops in the southern half surrendered. On February 2, 1943, those in the north followed suit. Hitler was furious when he learned of the surrender.

This was the center of Stalingrad after the Germans surrendered.
A horrendous death toll

Over half a million Soviets died in the Battle of Stalingrad, among them numerous civilians.This was due to Stalin refusing to evacuate non-combatants throughout the conflict. More than 40,000 died in German air raids during the early days of the battle. Of the 75,000 civilians who remained in Stalingrad until the German surrender, many died of starvation and hypothermia. Between 150,000 and 250,000 Germans are estimated to have died in Stalingrad. Of the 100,000 Germans who were taken as Soviet prisoners of war, only about 6,000 returned to Germany up until 1956: Among them, General Friedrich Paulus.

For Germany’s Wehrmacht, Stalingrad was not the battle that exacted the highest death toll, nor did it carry the greatest strategic significance. But “the psychological impact of Stalingrad was immense and in that sense it played a decisive role in the war,” says Jochen Hellbeck, a historian at Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA. “It took on this important meaning because both sides declared it to be crucial when the battle began.” Hellbeck has collated testimonies from German and Russian Stalingrad war veterans on his website “facing Stalingrad”. He says that after the Red Army emerged victorious in Stalingrad, it was keen to show the world it had “beaten the world’s best army.”

Stalingrad, which was renamed Volgograd in 1960, boasts many reminders of this bloody battle. The city’s Stalingrad museum is one of Russia’s most visited institutions. The legacy of Stalingrad is also evident in the Russian controversy surrounding the British comedy “The Death of Stalin.”

In Russia, Stalin has been held responsible for the death of millions of Soviet citizens, yet is also revered for defeating Nazi Germany. Russia’s Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, banned the comedy from being shown in the country’s cinemas, saying: “Many people […] will perceive the film as making a mockery of the Soviet past.” And, he added, it would be particularly distasteful to show the film one day before the annual ceremony to commemorate the Battle of Stalingrad on February 2.

German soldiers who survived were taken as prisoners of war.
Neither side ready for grand reconciliation gesture

So now, 75 years later, is there reconciliation between both sides? There are small gestures, certainly. Altogether, more than 700,000 soldiers and civilians died in the Battle of Stalingrad. To this day, corpses and mass graves are discovered during construction work in and around Volgograd. Thanks to the cooperation between the German War Graves Commission and Russian authorities, remains are transferred to official military cemeteries like the one at Rossoschka outside Volgograd. Here, German Wehrmacht soldiers and Red Army soldiers are buried in a single cemetery, albeit separated by a road.

There is still a long way to go before there will be any kind of gesture of reconciliation similar to the handshake between German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President François Mitterand in 1984 on the former battlefields of Verdun. Historian Jochen Hellbeck thinks that Germans and Russians are not yet ready for this step. He says Russians still have reservations and in Germany there is “no willingness and no feeling that corresponds to the feeling towards the western neighbors, the French, British or Americans.” Hellbeck believes that reconciliation requires both sides to accept each other’s way of remembering the past. “You cannot simply decide that both Germans and Russians must commemorate the Battle of Stalingrad as a senseless slaughter.” Because, he says, the battle certainly had great importance to the Soviet side. Still, he remains optimistic: “I hope that I will some day witness German and Russian leaders shaking hands over the graves of Stalingrad.”


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.