On this day in 1943, the worst British bombing raid on Hamburg so far virtually sets the city on fire, killing 42,000 German civilians.
On July 24, British bombers launched Operation Gomorrah, repeated bombing raids against Hamburg and its industrial and munitions plants. Sortie after sortie dropped fire from the sky, as thousands of tons of incendiary bombs destroyed tens of thousands of lives, buildings, and acreage. But the night of the 28th saw destruction unique in more than three years of bomb attacks: In just 43 minutes, 2,326 tons of bombs were dropped, creating a firestorm (a word that entered English parlance for the first time as a result of these events). Low humidity, a lack of fire-fighting resources (exhausted from battling blazes caused by the previous nights’ raids), and hurricane-level winds at the core of the storm literally fanned the flames, scorching eight square miles of Hamburg.
One British flight lieutenant recalled seeing “not many fires but one… I have never seen a fire like that before and was never to see its like again.” Despite the terrible loss of civilian life, there strange and awful irony: The horrific bombing runs affected Hitler’s war machine only marginally. It did more to wound the morale of the German people and its army officers than it did to the production of muniti
On July 28, 1914, one month to the day after Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were killed by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia, effectively beginning the First World War.
Threatened by Serbian ambition in the tumultuous Balkans region of Europe, Austria-Hungary determined that the proper response to the assassinations was to prepare for a possible military invasion of Serbia. After securing the unconditional support of its powerful ally, Germany, Austria-Hungary presented Serbia with a rigid ultimatum on July 23, 1914, demanding, among other things, that all anti-Austrian propaganda within Serbia be suppressed, and that Austria-Hungary be allowed to conduct its own investigation into the archduke’s killing. Though Serbia effectively accepted all of Austria’s demands except for one, the Austrian government broke diplomatic relations with the other country on July 25 and went ahead with military preparedness measures. Meanwhile, alerted to the impending crisis, Russia—Serbia’s own mighty supporter in the Balkans—began its own initial steps towards military mobilization against Austria.
In the days following the Austrian break in relations with Serbia, the rest of Europe, including Russia’s allies, Britain and France, looked on with trepidation, fearing the imminent outbreak of a Balkans conflict that, if entered into by Russia, threatened to explode into a general European war. The British Foreign Office lobbied its counterparts in Berlin, Paris and Rome with the idea of an international convention aimed at moderating the conflict; the German government, however, was set against this notion, and advised Vienna to go ahead with its plans.
On July 28, 1914, after a decision reached conclusively the day before in response to pressure from Germany for quick action—apart from Kaiser Wilhelm II, who by some accounts still saw the possibility of a peaceful diplomatic resolution to the conflict, but was outmaneuvered by the more hawkish military and governmental leadership of Germany—Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. In response, Russia formally ordered mobilization in the four military districts facing Galicia, its common front with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That night, Austrian artillery divisions initiated a brief, ineffectual bombardment of Belgrade across the Danube River.
“My darling one and beautiful, everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse,” British naval official Winston Churchill wrote to his wife at midnight on July 29. He was proven right over the next several days. On August 1, after its demands for Russia to halt mobilization met with defiance, Germany declared war on Russia. Russia’s ally, France, ordered its own general mobilization that same day, and on August 3, France and Germany declared war on each other. The German army’s planned invasion of neutral Belgium, announced on August 4, prompted Britain to declare war on Germany. Thus, in the summer of 1914, the major powers in the Western world—with the exception of the United States and Italy, both of which declared their neutrality, at least for the time being—flung themselves headlong into the First World War.
On this day in 1943, Joseph Stalin, premier and dictator of the Soviet Union, issues Order No. 227, what came to be known as the “Not one step backward” order, in light of German advances into Russian territory. The order declared, “Panic makers and cowards must be liquidated on the spot. Not one step backward without orders from higher headquarters! Commanders…who abandon a position without an order from higher headquarters are traitors to the Fatherland.”
Early German successes against Russia had emboldened Hitler in his goal of taking Leningrad and Stalingrad. But the German attack on Stalingrad, thought foolhardy by Hitler’s generals, because of Russia’s superior manpower and the enormous drain on German resources and troop strength, was repulsed by a fierce Soviet fighting force, which had been reinforced with greater numbers of men and materials. The Germans then turned their sights on Leningrad. Stalin needed to “motivate” both officers and civilians alike in their defense of Leningrad—hence, Order No. 227. But it was hardly necessary. On the same day the order was given, Russian peasants and partisans in the Leningrad region killed a German official, Adolf Beck, whose job was to send agricultural products from occupied Russia to Germany or German troops. The Russian patriots also set fire to the granaries and barns in which the stash of agricultural products was stored before transport. A partisan pamphlet issued an order of its own: “Russians! Destroy the German landowners. Drive the Germans from the land of the Soviets!”
On July 26, 1916, during the epic Battle of the Somme, Australian troops taking part in their first offensive action on the Western Front battle the Germans at Pozieres, near the Somme River in France.
Divisions of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, known as ANZAC, which had previously served on the Gallipoli Peninsula during the ill-fated Allied invasion there in 1915, were given the objective of capturing Pozieres Ridge, an early goal set by the British army’s command for the ambitious Somme Offensive, which began on July 1, 1916. They began their attack late on the night of July 22, just two days after their arrival in the Somme region. The ANZAC divisions were aided in their advance by the British 48th Division, which launched a simultaneous attack to the west of Pozieres, towards the Germans’ left flank.
After the initial Allied bombardment, Australian troops moved forward under heavy fire, but were able to press ahead and capture the village of Pozieres itself within an hour. The attack’s main objective, Pozieres Ridge, was heavily defended by the Germans, who had used the week preceding the attack to reinforce their positions with a network of machine guns placed in shell holes in front of their lines.
The night of July 26-27 saw a 12-and-a-half-hour-long grenade battle between the Australians, with British support, and the Germans at Pozieres Ridge. The German army had produced multiple types of grenades by that point in World War I—including the Stielhandgranate (stick bomb), the Diskushandgranate (disc grenade), Eierhandgranate (hand grenade) and Kugelhandgranate (ball grenade, a popular type that could be thrown a great distance and that included a grenade dubbed the pineapple grenade by the British for its distinctive shape). For their part, the Allies launched some 15,000 Mills bombs—a weapon designed by William Mills and introduced in May 1915. A 1.25-pound grenade with a serrated exterior, the Mills bombs were designed to break into fragments upon detonation, inflicting the maximum amount of damage. Improved throughout the war, they quickly became the leading British grenade.
Pozieres Ridge finally fell to the Allies on August 4, 1916, after two weeks of exhausting and costly fighting, but the Germans remained in control elsewhere in the region. The Allied command—particularly British commander Sir Hubert Gough—came under heavy Australian criticism for continuing the offensive for such a long time at a high casualty rate, especially when combined with an earlier failed operation, based near Fromelles to the north of the Somme. Though brief, the attack at Fromelles resulted in 5,708 Australian casualties, including 4,000 dead, and an additional 400 prisoners taken by the Germans.
On this day in 1944, Hitler cheats death as a bomb planted in a briefcase goes off, but fails to kill him.
High German officials had made up their minds that Hitler must die. He was leading Germany in a suicidal war on two fronts, and assassination was the only way to stop him. A coup d’etat would follow, and a new government in Berlin would save Germany from complete destruction at the hands of the Allies. That was the plan. This was the reality: Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, chief of the army reserve, had been given the task of planting a bomb during a conference that was to be held at Berchtesgaden, but was later moved to Hitler’s “Wolf’s Lair, a command post at Rastenburg, Prussia. Stauffenberg planted the explosive in a briefcase, which he placed under a table, then left quickly. Hitler was studying a map of the Eastern front as Colonel Heinz Brandt, trying to get a better look at the map, moved the briefcase out of place, farther away from where the Fuhrer was standing. At 12:42 p.m. the bomb went off. When the smoke cleared, Hitler was wounded, charred, and even suffered the temporary paralysis of one arm—but he was very much alive. (He was even well enough to keep an appointment with Benito Mussolini that very afternoon. He gave Il Duce a tour of the bomb site.) Four others present died from their wounds.
As the bomb went off, Stauffenberg was making his way to Berlin to carry out Operation Valkyrie, the overthrow of the central government. In Berlin, he and co-conspirator General Olbricht arrested the commander of the reserve army, General Fromm, and began issuing orders for the commandeering of various government buildings. And then the news came through from Herman Goering—Hitler was alive. Fromm, released from custody under the assumption he would nevertheless join the effort to throw Hitler out of office, turned on the conspirators. Stauffenberg and Olbricht were shot that same day. Once Hitler figured out the extent of the conspiracy (it reached all the way to occupied French), he began the systematic liquidation of his enemies. More than 7,000 Germans would be arrested (including evangelical pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer), and up to 5,000 would wind up dead—either executed or as suicides. Hitler, Himmler, and Goering took an even firmer grip on Germany and its war machine. Hitler became convinced that fate had spared him—”I regard this as a confirmation of the task imposed upon me by Providence”—and that “nothing is going to happen to me… [T]he great cause which I serve will be brought through its present perils and…everything can be brought to a good end.”
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