The “Blobel Commando” begins its cover-up of Atrocities
On this day in 1943, Paul Blobel, an SS colonel, is given the assignment of coordinating the destruction of the evidence of the grossest of Nazi atrocities, the systematic extermination of European Jews.
As the summer of 1943 approached, Allied forces had begun making cracks in Axis strongholds, in the Pacific and in the Mediterranean specifically. Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, the elite corps of Nazi bodyguards that grew into a paramilitary terror force, began to consider the possibility of German defeat and worried that the mass murder of Jews and Soviet prisoners of war would be discovered. A plan was devised to dig up the buried dead and burn the corpses at each camp and extermination site. The man chosen to oversee this yearlong project was Paul Blobel.
Blobel certainly had some of that blood on his hands himself, as he was in charge of SS killing squads in German-occupied areas of Russia. He now drew together another kind of squad, “Special Commando Group 1,005,” dedicated to this destruction of human evidence. Blobel began with “death pits” near Lvov, in Poland, and forced hundreds of Jewish slave laborers from the nearby concentration camp to dig up the corpses and burn them–but not before extracting the gold from the teeth of the victims.
On this day in 1940, Parisians awaken to the sound of a German-accented voice announcing via loudspeakers that a curfew was being imposed for 8 p.m. that evening-as German troops enter and occupy Paris.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had tried for days to convince the French government to hang on, not to sue for peace, that America would enter the war and come to its aid. French premier Paul Reynaud telegrammed President Franklin Roosevelt, asking for just such aid-a declaration of war, and if not that, any and all help possible. Roosevelt replied that the United States was prepared to send material aid—and was willing to have that promise published—but Secretary of State Cordell Hull opposed such a publication, knowing that Hitler, as well as the Allies, would take such a public declaration of help as but a prelude to a formal declaration of war. While the material aid would be forthcoming, no such commitment would be made formal and public.
By the time German tanks rolled into Paris, 2 million Parisians had already fled, with good reason. In short order, the German Gestapo went to work: arrests, interrogations, and spying were the order of the day, as a gigantic swastika flew beneath the Arc de Triomphe.
While Parisians who remained trapped in their capital despaired, French men and women in the west cheered-as Canadian troops rolled through their region, offering hope for a free France yet.
The United States did not remain completely idle, though. On this day, President Roosevelt froze the American assets of the Axis powers, Germany and Italy.
On this day in 1944, Germany launches 10 of its new V1 rockets against Britain from a position near the Channel coast. They prove to be less than devastating.
Mired in the planning stages for a year, the V1 was a pilotless, jet-propelled plane that flew by air-driven gyroscope and magnetic compass, capable of unleashing a ton of cruise missile explosives. Unfortunately for the Germans, the detonation process was rather clumsy and imprecise, depending on the impact of the plane as the engine quit and the craft crash-landed. They often missed their targets.
This was certainly the case against Britain. Of the 10 V1, or Reprisal 1, “flying bombs” shot at England, five crashed near the launch site, and one was lost altogether—just four landed inside the target country. Only one managed to take any lives: Six people were killed in London. The Germans had hoped to also mount a more conventional bombing raid against Britain at the same time the V1s were hitting their targets—in the interest of heightening the “terror” effect. This too blew up in their faces, as the Brits destroyed the German bombers on the ground the day before as part of a raid on German airfields.
Kaiser Wilhelm concludes meeting with Archduke Franz Ferdinand
On June 13, 1913, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany leaves Konopischt, Bohemia (today the Czech Republic), the hunting lodge and country estate of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, after a weekend visit.
Although Wilhelm had ostensibly come to admire the lavish gardens at Konopischt, the reality was that he and Franz Ferdinand wanted to discuss Austria-Hungary’s insecurities about the tenuous balance of power in the tumultuous Balkan region. In 1908, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, formally still a province of the Ottoman Empire, and populated not only by Bosnians but also by Croats and Serbs. Serbia reacted angrily to the annexation, reasoning that if Bosnia were not under Turkish rule, it should be governed by Serbia. After two successful Balkan Wars—and enjoying support from the Russian empire, the other great European power in the region apart from Austria-Hungary—Serbia had emerged as a more powerful and ambitious nation than ever before, thus threatening the position of the Dual Monarchy, already in decline.
Historical evidence exists to suggest that Franz Ferdinand, at the behest of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, was intending to extract a promise from Wilhelm (similar to a pledge the kaiser had made in November 1912) that Germany would back Austria unconditionally in the case of a confrontation with Serbia. Wilhelm resisted making such a commitment at the time, however, as he disagreed as to the extent of the Serbian threat. Also at the meeting, the two leaders discussed which Balkan nation should be wooed as their main ally in the region.
Though the Austrian government preferred Bulgaria, Serbia’s opponent in the Second Balkan War of 1913, Franz Ferdinand, along with the Germans, favored Romania, despite the latter country’s clash with the Magyars (Hungary’s majority population) over their oppressive rule in Transylvania, ethnically Romanian but part of Hungary. Franz Ferdinand detested the Magyars, and resented the weakness that forced Austria to partner with Hungary in government of the empire. Wilhelm was more inclined to negotiate with the Hungarian prime minister, Istvan Tisza; at Konopischt, he and Franz Ferdinand discussed the possibility of persuading Tisza to look more favorably on an alliance with Romania.
The meeting of June 12-13, 1914, at Konopischt was not, by any means, a war council. Both Wilhelm and Franz Ferdinand—though anxious over the situation in the Balkans and fearful of Serbian and Russian aggression—had up to that point been voices of restraint among their more belligerent colleagues in the government and military of the two nations. Some historians have argued that if the two men had continued to work together to pursue their common aims, the Great War of 1914 might never have happened. Two weeks later, however, on June 28, Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were killed by a young Serbian nationalist during a diplomatic visit to Bosnia. Vienna, along with most of the world’s capitals, blamed Serbia. Kaiser Wilhelm was stunned, saddened and outraged. Barely a month later, Europe was at war.
On this day in 1940, 54,000 British and French troops surrender to German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel at St. Valery-en-Caux, on the northern Channel border, as the Germans continue their gains in France.
Even after the evacuation of Dunkirk by the British Expeditionary Force, tens of thousands of British and Allied troops remained in France. Overwhelmed by the German invaders, over 3,000 Allied troops attempted to escape by sea but were stopped by German artillery fire. Surrender was the order of the day; among those taken prisoner were 12 Allied generals.
But all was not lost, as Britain refused to leave France to German occupation. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had already ordered more British troops back into France, and British bombers were also attacking German lines of communication. British and Allied troops were still active in other parts of France-some 50 British fighters and 70 bombers were moving on German forces.
But despite the British reinforcements and encouragement (Churchill flew to France himself to encourage the French leaders), General Maxime Weygand ordered the French military governor of Paris to ensure that the French capital remained an open city-that is, there was to be no armed resistance to the Germans. In short, he was pushing for an armistice, in effect, capitulation. The enemy would be allowed to pass through unchallenged. Weygand addressed his cabinet with his assessment of the situation: “A cessation of hostilities is compulsory.” He bitterly blamed Britain for France’s defeat, unwilling to take responsibility for his own inept strategies and failed offensives. Paris was poised for occupation.
On this day in 1917, King Constantine I of Greece, the foremost champion of Greek neutrality during World War I, abdicates his throne in the face of pressure from Britain and France and internal opponents—most notably Prime Minister Eleutherios Venizelos—who favored Greece’s entrance into the war on the side of the Allies.
As crown prince during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, Constantine had led Greek troops to victory on the battlefield; he ascended to the throne in March 1913 upon the death of his father, George I. Educated in Germany and married to Sophia, a sister of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Constantine was naturally sympathetic to the Central Powers after the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914. For this reason, Constantine refused to honor Greece’s obligation to support Serbia—its ally during both Balkan Wars—when the latter country was attacked by Bulgaria in 1914. Constantine’s position was complicated, however, as Venizelos, along with the majority of the Greek government, was determinedly pro-Ally, and the British and French navies held an unwavering dominance over the Mediterranean Sea.
Despite dedicated efforts by the British and French to woo Greece with promises of territorial gains in Turkey, Constantine maintained a position of neutrality for his country. He did allow British and French forces to disembark at Salonika as part of an operation planned in late 1914 to aid Serbia against Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian forces. By the time the Allied forces were ready, however, Serbia had fallen and the Central Powers drew closer to the Greek border.
By the end of 1915, Allied operations had bogged down in Salonika and failed spectacularly in the Dardanelles, and Constantine was understandably even less inclined to support the Entente. As the British cabinet was told at the time, “His Majesty’s decided opinion was that Germany was winning on all points, and that there were only two possible endings to European war, either that Germany would be entirely victorious or that the war would end in a stalemate largely in favor of Germany.”
In this position, Constantine was undermined by the charismatic and ambitious Venizelos, who led the movement in favor of joining the war on the side of the Entente in the name of building a more powerful Greek nation. Constantine dismissed Venizelos in October 1915; the ex-prime minister subsequently received Allied recognition of a provisional Greek government, under Venizelos’ control, in Thessalonica in 1916. Meanwhile, civil war threatened in Greece, and Constantine desperately sought promises of naval, military and financial assistance from Germany, which he did not receive.
By the summer of 1917, the Allies had lost their patience with Constantine. On June 11, they sent an ultimatum to Athens, demanding the king’s abdication. That same day, blatantly disregarding the country’s neutrality, British forces blockaded Greece and the French landed their troops at Piraeus, on the Isthmus of Corinth. The following day, Constantine abdicated in favor of his second son, Alexander, who reinstated Venizelos as prime minister. On July 2, 1916, Greece declared war on the Central Powers. Over the next 18 months, some 5,000 Greek soldiers would die on the battlefields of World War I.
On this day in 1943, after 10 days of bombing runs, Britain lands troops on the Italian island of Pantelleria, off the southern coast of Sicily, in Operation Corkscrew. The Italian garrisons surrenders upon orders from Mussolini, who would later deny the order when the Germans express outrage. This defeat shakes the confidence of many in Mussolini’s cabinet, since they had been assured that Pantelleria was impregnable.
Britain would continue its collection of Italian islands over the next two days, with the occupation of Lampedusa and Linosa—all in preparation for the Allied invasion of Sicily itself in July.
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