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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Churchill , the Battle of the Atlantic and War in general

The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril" – From Carlo D'Este's masterful Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945


Sir Winston Churchill , British Prime Minister during WWII. That’s saying a lot. He was confident –he knew the odds- that the British with radar and Spitfires versus light bombers and short range German fighters –would win the Battle of Britain. He had observed how the RAF made mincemeat of the JU-87 Stukkas at Dunkirk. Many German planes could operate only at short range for tactical purposes and in an environment of COMPLETE AIR SUPERIORITY. Anywhere the Nazis lost Air Supremacy –North Africa, Russia, Southern Italy, Northern France they were finished and most of their vaunted Air Force was almost useless particularly during day time operations.

I always teach that the Battle of the Atlantic, underplayed in most text books, was one of the most critical if not the most critical battle of WWII. Without victory here there would have been no Torch nor Operation Overlord. It was the longest continuous battle campaign of WWII beginning in 1939 and ending about February 1943. There were over 100 ship convoy battles and over 1,000 single ship encounters. Here, once again, technology like RADAR developed for non-military purposes, gave the Allies the edge. ASDIC (or Sonar as it is now known) and the Ultra Secret (Enigma cipher) which led to the breaking of the German Naval Code, were decisive intelligence weapons Nonetheless, it was no an automatic advantage. German U-boats could dive far deeper than Allied submarines, to well below the deepest setting on the British depth charges with were effect to only about 300 or 350 feet. German U-boats in WWII could dive to 210 meters (700 feet) or more. Depth charges also disturbed the water so greatly that if the first attack failed it was very difficult to regain contact. The U-boats’ Achilles heel of course that though they had diesel engines –which could be used only on the surface they had to charge their batteries on the surface which they usually did under the cover of darkness. The introduction of the Leigh Light or L/L as it was known to the tars combined with radar, enabled devastatingly accurate nighttime attacks L/L was used on surface ships and on B-24 Liberators.

A great book that deal with this cat and mouse warfare is The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monserrat. Which was made into an excellent film with the late Jack Hawkins. (though I never show it to my students; it is too grown up and too British for them I recommend it however)

Victory was achieved at a huge cost: between 1939 and 1945, over 3,500 Allied merchant ships were sunk (gross tonnage 14.5 million) . Over 175 Allied warships were sunk Over 30,000 Allied sailors (chiefly Canadian and British but also Americans) were killed. This does not count the Allied soldiers and Marines drowned when their ships were torpedoed. The Germans, of course, lost heavily, particularly in late 1942 and early 1943. They lost 783 U-boats and about 28,000 sailors. The U-boat became known a the “Iron Coffin.” Das Boot is a fairly realistic account of the German U-boaters but of course it is partially a remake of the ENEMY BELOW in which Curt Jurgens is the anti-Nazi Naval officer. It is a pretty movie and it was popular in 1950’s Germany because most of the Germans are good Germans and reluctant warriors just doing their duty. The truth is many U-boat captains were cruel and fanatical Nazis who did in fact not only abandon thousands of ship-wrecked men, women and children to their fates in the North Atlantic but also ordered their men to machine gun Allied survivors. Of course, I have friends and relatives who were Islanders (that is to say Gaels of the Western Islands). They have told me harrowing stories of thunderous explosions far out to sea and the shores littered the following day with debris and the bodies of dead sailors –many of whom died from exposure not drowning.

War is a terrible thing.
A wasteful thing and really, of course, a stupid thing and a tragic thing. And let me say no one knows this like the soldier, the sailor, the airman or Marine because it is they who make the greatest sacrifices.

There is no doubt in my mind that peace is better than war. (La paz es mejor que la guerra) La palabra "Guerra" es horrorosa por su significado (it is horrible and terrific in its sound) so is the German “Krieg” (war) as in blitzkrieg. War (originally Warra), Guerra and Krieg, I can’t help but add are all Germanic in origin. So great is the memory of the break up of the Pax Romana.

But though I am a lover of peace, I am no pacifist.

There is an old Highland saying, “Am fear nach gleidh na h-airm san t-sith, cha bhi iad aige ‘’n arm a ‘chogaidh, which means, “the man who keeps not his arms in peace will have none at the ready when war comes.”

And , ladies and gentleman, the world is a dangerous place. War always comes whether we bid her or not. She is an uncontrollable and terrible and bloodthirsty as the Morrigan and her evil manifestations, Neman, Macha and Fea (not to be confused with FEA –the Florida Education Association). . The Morrígan –“The Great Queen of War or the Phantom Queen” is seen a a Black Carrion Crow after a battle and before hand was seen in the role of a bean nighe or “washerwoman”. When the hero Cúchulainn rides out to war, he encounters the Morrígan as a hag or witch, washing his bloody armor in a river. . From this evil omen he comes to the realization that the battle that awaits him will be his last. “Toom (empty) cam his saddle, a’ bloody to see, oh, back cam his guid horse but never cam he!” .

Neman , confounded armies, so that friendly bands fall in mutual slaughter. (cf. the Greek Nemesis) The name may plausibly be an extended form of the Proto-Indo-European root of the name is *nem- ‘seize, take, deal out’ to which is related the Ancient Greek Némesis ‘wrath, nemesis’ and the name Nemesis the personification of retributive justice in Greek mythology. There fore Neman means the “enemy” or “twisted sister”.

The Macha –related to the (the jealous goddess of boundaries and land as well as cattle and horses –wealth- the cause of so much earthly strife). The acorn crop of Macha –I was told- were the harvest of heads gathered by Celtic warriors. The city of Armagh Ard-Macha (the High Place of Macha) –the burial place of St. Patrick- recalls her name and probably was the pagan worship center of the goddess Brian Boru is buried at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh (Church of Ireland; formerly a Catholic Cathedral).

and Fea, of course, one of the manifestations of the Morrigan, could mean the Ugly Hag as the Spanish word (possibly Celtic? ) suggest. We do know that Hags “ Cailleach or Caileachan- they were called once upon a time - or witches were supernatural beings of malign influence who dwelled in dark caves, dark wood and isolated corries in the far hills and bens. The Morrigan by tradition took on the guise of an ugly old woman in times of misery, starvation and war and in peace and good times they appear as beautiful maidens.

One can dismiss these things –as silly pagan myths but I think here as in Greek mythology we find the personification of mankind’s true nature –his dark side if you will or what they used to call Original Sin, that hereditary stain of mankind and its consequences. Man’s fate is man’s fate.

We, are, as my Auld Pop gravely told me, all descendant of cannibals, head hunters and killers. He often spoke of the ‘mire-catha’ or the “Irish “in us or the ancient blood lust or battle frenzy which he considered hereditary.

Yes, we are killers.
Killers of great herds of bison, horse and mammoth.
Killers of great fish.
Violators of maidens.
Destroyers of forests and destroyers of the beauty of the mountains.

What is the Angle-Saxon but a “killer Angel”?

What is the Celt but a “Striker or Killer”?

What is a Scot but a “Pagan Pirate , a Reiver and a free booter”.

What are the Germans –the Germani- “the many brothers’ but Alley-men , Huns and Boche?

I was told that Boche was originally Cabbage Head in other words a French verson of Krauthead. My uncles, who served in the European theatre of WWII often called the Germans the “Krauts”.

Terms of disparagement in English during WWII used by British troops were ‘Jerry’ and ‘Fritz’ in the British army and navy, and ‘Hun’ in the RAF, though my Auld Pop usually called them “Jairmens’ or “Huns.” Canadian and American troops generally preferred ‘Heinie,’ ‘Kraut’ or Fritz. Many of these definitions are to be found in an old book of my father’s called Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914-1918, edited by John Brophy and Eric Partridge, published in 1930. Perhaps we should never use such terms; it is not my tendency to use derrogatory or offensive words. But they are historic terms and my forefathers certainly earned the right to use them; they didn't pick a fight with the Germans in two world wars but it was thrust upon them. And in my opinion they are the working man equilament of Kaiserism, Prussian Militarism or Nazism. In other words the Germans OF THAT ERA are fair game and there is no need to beat about the bush or the boshe so to speak.

We are, the Most Dangerous Game and the Most Dangerous Killer. Who could deny that? Perhaps it is man’s nature to kill and to fight and this is especially true, I think of the male of the species, though I have known many savage and wild women too. Auld Pop also added this is why we needed and needed badly to be taught restraint and self-control. Never hit a woman or a child if at all possible he said and know that a man can kill a man with a single blow. Having almost killed a man myself –in the line of duty- I know this to be true. Auld Pop was never proud of the scores of Germans, Bulgarians and Turks he killed and the killing of column of mere boys at Ypres –some must have been at young as fifteen- haunted him his entire life. He was strongly against the death penalty for example especially for soldiers under arms. He had to witness numerous French firing squads of French soldiers who were often picked by lot. He witnessed many terrible things and suffered many terrible things but one thing he never had to do was be part of a firing squad of his own people.

Auld Pop often said the worst thing about the Nazis was their glorification of war –he considered it a Death Cult- and the glorification of pre-Christian war gods and warriors. It is very interesting of course that Wagner , German nationalists and Hitler himself were fascinated by the Nordic equivalent of the Morrigan –the war deities called the Valkyries.

“Those were things the Great Teacher taught us to leave behind or at the very least try to master”. “He who conquers himself is greater than he who conquers cities” was a favorite quote of the Psalms. It is interesting to note that this was also a favorite quote of George Washington , Abraham Lincoln and General Eisenhower.

Man and by that I mean woman too will never be in complete mastery of his or her passions. It is unjust to make us responsible for an act committed before our birth”, say some. Strictly responsible, yes; responsible in a wide sense of the word, no; the crime of a father brands his yet unborn children with shame, and entails upon them a share of his own responsibility. If you don’t believe this ask the Germans what they think of Nazism or many White people what they think of slavery or many Catholics what they think of Anti-Semitism. There is such a thing as War Guilt, White Guilt and Christian Guilt.

The wise man –and woman- knows there is a peace to be found only after war.

Yes, war is terrible but can anyone imagine what living under the Shadow of the Swastika would not have meant terror and mass killing on a scale that if left unchecked would have surpassed all the killing and dying for both World Wars combined.

The wise man –and woman- knows there is a peace to be found only after war. Let all our wars be just and let them be short and yes, let them happen Over There not here.
On a final note it is interesting that Eleanor Roosevelt did not like Churchill at all.
As John Baron says “To the first lady, the English Prime Minister was a dogmatic, chauvinistic, war-mongering night owl who imbibed and smoked too much, and was a bad influence on her husband.” In FDR’s opinion,
In the president's opinion, Churchill was "about the greatest man in the world. In fact, he may very likely be the greatest." FDR was wise enough to know that without absolute victory against the Nazis there would be no survival. We may take that as a prophecy of our own survival and success as we seek peace and freedom in our own time.


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