History With Snark – Vol 1, Issue 7

Welcome back, esteemed readers, to a seventh issue of History With Snark!  We’ve come a long way… or, well, I have.  I’ve been unfortunately too busy to continually find the obscure to give to you, but today is your just-before-Christmas treat!

Today, I want to talk about another hero of the Polish Army (maybe that’s Volume 1’s theme… Germany and Poland), General Stanisław Maczek (stah-nyee-swav mah-chek)*.  Maczek was the commander of Poland’s only armored division during World War II, never losing an engagement in the 1939 invasion of Poland.

Maczek was born in Austrian-controlled Poland in 1892 and studied Polish philology at Lwów University.  During this time he was part of the Polish Rifleman’s Association, where he acquired basic military skills. At the outbreak of World War I, Maczek was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army.  He was deployed to the Italian Front and gained experience in mountain combat — the only Polish commander to do so during the war.  Initially an NCO, he was a lieutenant by the war’s end.  With the formation of the Republic of Poland, he left the Austrian army and joined the Polish Army.  He fought in the Polish-Ukrainian war with distinction, leading a motorized unit under the 4th Infantry Division.  The idea was taken from the Germans during World War I… Given what came next, though, it seems like they should have taken the idea for tanks instead.

By the outbreak of WWII, Maczek was a full colonel and commander of the 10th Motorized Cavalry Brigade, armed with only light tanks, tankettes (which are kind of like sports cars for tanks but not nearly so high-performance), and eight heavy cannons.  On the first day of the war, the brigade faced the entirety of the XVIII Army Corps and managed to protect the southern flank.  He soon battled the 2nd and 9th Panzer Divisions and the 3rd Mountain Division, though he had the assistance of a few border guard battalions (you know, the guys who keep the Mexicans out?).  Maczek used the terrain to his advantage — unlike most of his opponents, he had fought in the Alps in the last war and already had valuable combat experience.  He translated this infantry skill into his current situation with tanks and reduced the Blitzkrieg’s pace to less than ten kilometers per day.  Compare that to France, where Rommel achieved 322 kilometers in a day.  To be fair to these Germans, they were not Rommel… but Maczek was certainly not French.  His brigade was ordered to retreat as the entire northern sector collapsed.

Maczek continued operating in western Poland, covering for other units to escape to the interior.  When the Soviet Union invaded Poland on September 17th, this operation was abandoned and he was ordered to cross into Hungary (Hungary was aligned with the Axis but neutral until November 20, 1940).  By the end of the September 1939, the brigade had lost half of its men, but it had not been defeated in battle and is considered the only Polish unit that did not lose a single battle during the invasion.

Maczek traveled to France with several other Polish units, forming a Polish Army-in-exile in France to defend it from the Reich.  Here, he was promoted to brigadier general and given command of a military camp in northern France.  He wrote a detailed report on his experiences with the Blitzkrieg and gave suggestions on how to defeat it, but the French did not read the report and provided Maczek with obsolete vehicles — months after he arrived.  When Germany invaded by going around the useless Maginot Line (seriously, using Belgium to replace your fortifications? I thought that failed in the first war.), Maczek was provided with all the equipment he asked for and immediately deployed.  Because they had no time to learn how the new tanks worked, Maczek took only his best men and formed the 10th Armored Cavalry Brigade (named after the original), leaving the rest to train with their new equipment.  The brigade was assigned to the 4th Army in northeast France, near Reims.  They were ordered to cover the 4th Army’s left flank, but their size and weaker tanks hindered their effectiveness and they were forced to withdraw.  Maczek’s brigade attacked the German-held city of Montbard with great success, but the French defense had already collapsed.  Perhaps if they had read Maczek’s report, they would have successfully repelled the German attack.  Stranded in the open and out of fuel, the brigade destroyed their vehicles and retreated on foot.  Some of them joined resistance groups in France and Belgium, but Maczek and many of his men made their way to London to join the other Poles that had assembled there.

The British government, skeptical of the Poles’ usefulness, had planned to use their army as the Scottish line of defense — that is, to defend Scotland after England and Wales fell.  Maczek’s arrival changed these plans and Władysław Sikorski, the commander of the Polish army-in-exile, convinced the British government to provide Maczek with the newest tanks, including the legendary Churchill and M4 Sherman.  Maczek was still held in reserve, but this was because the British intended to use him as a powerful weapon in the upcoming Normandy invasion.  Maczek’s 1st Polish Armored Division arrived in the end of July, 1944 (after the initial danger of landing had passed — why waste your best men before they even reach shore?) and was attached to the First Canadian Army.  Maczek tore through German lines, achieving victory after victory.  In one daring battle, the 1st Polish Armored Division surrounded and destroyed fourteen SS and Wehrmacht divisions.  He went on to liberate large portions of Belgium and, at no small cost to his own forces, liberated the Dutch city of Breda without any civilian casualties.  For this, the people of Breda created a petition that resulted in Maczek being made an honorary citizen of the Netherlands.  It was his division that accepted the surrender of Wilhemshaven, a massive German naval base.  Two hundred vessels were capture along with the entire garrison.**  The Poles remained part of its occupation force until 1947.  At the close of the European Theater, he was promoted to major general and received command of all Polish forces under the British military.

Oh, and just in case you thought Polish people were allowed to get happy endings:  after the war’s end, the People’s Republic of Poland (Russia) stripped Maczek of his citizenship, forcing him to stay in the UK.  The United Kingdom, for their part, did the right thing and denied Maczek combatant rights or a pension. The great general was forced to take up work as a bartender in a hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland, just to pay bills and take care of his chronically-ill daughter.  Despite this, he still had a strong relationship with the people of Breda, and when the mayor of Breda heard of Maczek’s situation, he made an appeal to the Dutch government to give the man a pension.  The government quickly came to a decision and awarded Maczek a secret allowance appropriate for his rank.  On top of this, the public held a fundraiser to get him enough money to cover his daughter’s medical costs.  Despite him never serving until the Dutch flag, it was they who cared for him most.

Because of the tensions of the Cold War, the government of the Netherlands could never publicly reveal that they were paying a former general of the Polish Republic: Communist Poland would have been outraged.  In addition to this, it would call into question Britain’s failure to deliver a pension to one of their own officers.

In 1989, the last Prime Minister of Communist Poland issued a public apology to Maczek and in 1994 the Republic of Poland presented him with their highest honor, the Order of the White Eagle.  It didn’t acknowledge all the crimes of the Communist regime, but it’s a good step.

On September 11, 1994, Stanisław Maczek died in Edinburgh.  He was 102.  Per his last wishes, he was laid to rest in Breda, next to the fallen soldiers of the 1st Polish Armored Division.  The division and its commander are still remembered every year on Liberation Day in Breda.

Okay, so maybe he got a happy ending.

Emblem of the Division

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*I’m not going to attempt to guess the emphasized syllables in his name, though I feel as if they’d be on the second and first syllables, respectively.

Polish is a West Slavic language, relating more to Czech and Slovak more than Russian.  Although it was traditionally an important diplomatic language between Central/Eastern Europe, after the Second World War the dispersion of Poles led to many speakers in places like Britain and United States. Poles constitute the largest Slavic ethnicity in the States, though until 1918 the Polish state did not exist and most Polish immigrants were classified as Prussian, Austrian, or Russian.

Two notable Polish-Americans are Kazimierz Pułaski and Tadeusz Kościuszko, who led Patriot armies in the Revolutionary War.  Any place in America named Pulaski is named for him.  Kościuszko returned to Europe, where Napoleon soon created a tiny puppet-state of Poland that Kościuszko detested.  After Napoleon’s fall, he attempted to create a Polish state with Tsar Alexander, only to discover that the Tsar’s planned “Poland” was even smaller than Napoleon’s, and he left for Switzerland — you know what, I’ll make him the subject of next week’s issue.

**Wilhemshaven is still a German naval base today, and it operates a pretty cool museum with some warships on display, discussing German naval history from the 19th century-onward.  If you’re interested in naval history and happen to have that kind of money.  I know I don’t.

History With Snark – On Hiatus

Title says it all, lady/ies (do I even have regular female readers? Comment below, if so. I mean, other than the ones with whom I speak on a daily basis.) and gentlemen.  I will be taking an intensive college course and learning Arabic in the short, sweet space of four weeks, so during those Fridays I will be unable to bring you quality history.

I hope you survive without me. I promise I’ll make it up when I get back, and it won’t be World War-related (I mean it!).

Tchüss!

History With Snark – Vol 1, Issue 6

So, dear readers, I found this amazing story on the way home from a friend’s house…

And it has absolutely nothing to do with the Renaissance, French architecture, or the Taft administration.  I should really just stop pretending I’m going to give you something ahead of time (I mean, I found some Taft scandals, but this is so much better).

Behold, dear reader, and be amazed, for as it is says in Habakkuk 6:1,  “Behold ye among the heathen [the reader not necessarily included], and regard, and wonder marvellously: for I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you.” (King James Version)

This is Project Habakkuk (or Habbakuk, according to some contemporary documents), and it is the story of an aircraft carrier made of water.

Project Habakkuk was conceived from a need for British planes to make anti-U-boat runs in the Atlantic beyond the range of land-based aircraft.  An aircraft carrier at that time was implausible and expensive; the short-supplied aluminum and steel that would have gone into the construction of a new carrier were more desperately needed elsewhere in the war.  Geoffrey Pyke of Combined Operations Headquarters – a British think tank and special operations group dedicated to harassing the Germans – came to the conclusion that ice was an economically-suited material that may be able to cover the convoys and seaborne landings of the North Atlantic.  After all, it took one percent of the energy to produce an equivalent amount of ice than it did steel, and ice floated… right?*  Pyke sent this concept to Lord Mountbatten, the head of the COHQ (who deserves an issue of his own).  Mountbatten, who approved of unorthodox methods and new ideas, sent it straight away to Winston Churchill, who was in turn enthused by the proposal.  Project Habakkuk had begun, its name taken from the verse above, which reads in the New International Version: “Look at the nations and watch- and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.

Project Habakkuk hit its first block as a result of its building material: ice.  Pyke had suggested that natural or artificial icebergs be used to carry aircraft, hollowed out and flattened to store, launch and land aircraft.  Because the icebergs would be so large, they could carry conventional aircraft that the standard carrier could not.  The issue with this was that icebergs were seldom large enough for an airstrip, and on top of that they overturned easily; furthermore, ice was not strong enough for conventional aircraft.  Pyke, the ever genius, had a solution.

During his time in America, he had met a chemist by the name of Herman Francis Mark.  Mark himself was Austrian and fled the country after being arrested during the Nazi takeover – yet another example of potential military genius lost to the Nazis as a result of their brutal ideals.  Working at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, an early project of his was the formation of a strong, solid polymer.  While at a meeting in New York regarding the deployment of M29 Weasels in winter operations (the Weasels themselves the results of Pyke’s invention), Pyke met Max Perutz, a former student of Mark’s.  It was Perutz who determined that ice alone was not suitable for the carriers and provided Pyke with Mark’s research on the material. This material was named pykrete in honor of Geoffrey.

block_of_pykrete

Pykrete demonstrates some amazing properties.  Composed of an ideal mixture of 86% water and 14% wood pulp, it can be poured (cast) like a metal, cut and manipulated like wood, and remains solid as concrete.  Being an ice mixture, it can also be maintained with water – even seawater with its higher melting point.  Pykrete is slow to melt compared to regular ice, and the carrier would only begin to experience difficulties at 5 °F/-15 °C.  Past this point, according to Perutz’s research for the Admiralty, pykrete began to slowly sag under its weight (this specific type of deformation is the same as plastic or metal when subject to heat).  Unlike ice, pykrete is also entirely shatterproof.

Mountbatten reportedly went to Churchill’s residence to demonstrate pykrete, only to be told that he was in his bath.  Mountbatten replied, “Good, that’s exactly where I want him to be,” and took the sample to the Prime Minister.  The pykrete was placed in Churchill’s steaming bath (no worries, I presume he exited the bath first) and naturally began to melt… though after the outer layer disappeared, the wood pulp protected the inner layers of ice from melting.

Mountbatten later brought a block of pykrete and equal-sized block of normal ice to the 1943 Quebec Conference – a similar meeting to the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences, this was a meeting between the heads of the Canadian, American, and British governments (Stalin declined for military purposes) and where planning for D-Day began.  In front of the highest military and civilian commanders of three countries, he drew his pistol and fired at the ice block, which shattered. He proceeded to fire at the pykrete block, where the bullet ricocheted, grazed Admiral Ernest King’s leg – Navy Chief of Staff and second-senior admiral of the United States – and embedded itself in a wall.  Pykrete was also demonstrated to absorb rifle fire without cracking.

Durable as it was, pykrete have to remain at a temperature of five degrees Fahrenheit in order to survive.  To achieve this, a refrigeration system, complicated ventilation, and insulation for the ship’s surface were to be provided.  The system was proven in Patricia Lake in Alberta, Canada, where a 1,000-ton scale model was kept afloat and frozen by a one horsepower engine.  Mountbatten informed his scientific advisor that Churchill “invited” the Chiefs of Staff Committee to make an order for a pykrete ship to be their highest priority, and that if the ship succeeded, that more orders be placed.

Alas, by May 1944 it was decided that current insulation methods were not sufficient for the ship and that more steel supports would be required.  Project Habbakuk’s estimated cost jumped from 700,000 pounds to 2.5 million.  It was determined that  no ship could be completed by late 1944, and furthermore Pyke was removed from the project to secure relations with America: his frequent arguments with the American staff behind the Weasels had already forced him out of that project.  Development of the vessel continued without him, but as outside forces demanded more requirements for Habakkuk to meet, the project became more infeasible.  Mountbatten left the project, and noted that improvements in other sectors, such as larger fuel tanks and permission to use airstrips in Portugal, made the Habakkuk ships obsolete.  It was finally decided that the war was already being won on conventional grounds, and projects such as Habakkuk were a drain of resources.

That said, pykrete remains an incredible phenomena.  The prototype constructed in Canada only fully melted after three summers, and projects such as pykrete ice domes have been constructed.  Pykrete was considered as a building material for a quay in Oslo, but there were concerns regarding reliability and safety.  It was also found by the MythBusters that newspaper-made pykrete was significantly more durable than traditional pykrete.  The show also attempted to create a boat of pykrete, but neglected to add a refrigeration system and was designed with a proportionally thinner hull to the Habakkuk version; for this I consider their “busting” of Habakkuk to be incomplete.  Even despite those omissions, the boat survived for thirty minutes at speeds of twenty-three miles per hour.

Now you know what to take to the science fair.

(And yes, I have extra reading.)
*Pyke’s postwar exploits were similarly reasoned, dealing with logic and forgetting about the people reading them).  He reasoned that as coal and oil were in shortages, but sugar and postwar unemployment were common, that muscle-powered trains were a possibility.  According to his research, a pound of sugar cost the same as the equivalent calories in coal.  This idea was clearly rejected; after a lifetime of rejected inventions and proposals to make the world a brighter place, Geoffrey Pyke fell deeper into depression and took his own life on February 21, 1948.  The world was deprived of an unfortunate genius whose mind was always on the greater good, if not the reactions of the people whom he strove to help.