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

100px-e6b3a2e898ade7acace4b880e8a39de794b2e5b8abe79a84e6a899e8aa8c

 

*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 – 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.

History With Snark – Vol 1, Issue 5

Hey, Keps. You’ve slacked for like two weeks.

What?! Only one week.

For the love of all that is historic, don’t count that beach episode as a real issue. Everyone knows the beach episode is to appeal to the fanboys.

For real? Low blow. I had trenches. (Okay, so that was for my strange version of fanboy.)

Sure. Whatever. What’s today’s issue? The Italian Renaissance? The Warring States period in China? French architecture? Heck, maybe something obscure like a scandal during the Taft administration?

Well, the Renaissance is nice, and I’ll definitely look into that Taft thing (or some other obscure presidency)… no guarantee there even is a scandal, though. I was thinking something different.

Like the Panzers?

No. However, you know how Europe has a rich history…

Yeah…

Well, hearkening to that which is obscure, I was thinking Poland…

Well, that’s a pretty unheard history. When?

Oh, you know. World War II.

I hate you.

 

And now we return to our scheduled programming.  Welcome back to History With Snark, now with 75% more history and 10% more snark (or horrid one-liners)!

I mentioned, way back in the first issue or so, that Poland had things bad.  I had said in that issue:  “Poland had expected such an invasion and withdrew (most of) its troops from the border, choosing instead to concentrate their forces on defending inner Poland.”  This is about those small people who did not withdraw.

The Battle of Wizna is known, at least to the Poles, as the “Polish Thermopylae,” referring to the legendary Battle of Thermopylae where a force of Spartans fought the greater army of Persians and all died.  Just like the movie 300 except historically accurate, because it was history.  Much like Thermopylae, a lot of them died.  In fact, only 70 out of the 720 defenders (the low estimate is 350) initially survived against the 42,000+ German onslaught.  The remainder either escaped to friendly lines or were captured — which still spelled death for some of them.  So what happened?  They were not slaughtered like cattle, or I would not be telling you this today.

The area around the city of Wizna was highly fortified, meant to prevent the crossings of the strategic rivers of Narew and Bierbza and buffer southern Polish positions.  Though sixty bunkers were planned, only sixteen managed to be completed before the invasion, though these sixteen were no small affairs.  1.5-meter-thick concrete reinforced with 20-centimeter steel was the standard for the bunkers (with heavier bunkers under construction when the invasion began), leaving them immune to even the heaviest German firepower.  Each bunker was armed with anti-tank guns and machine guns, with the exception of two bunkers armed solely with machine guns.  The bunkers were built into hills beside the swamp that was the Narew river valley.  The only paths to attack the bunkers were from a causeway from Wizna or straight into the swamp, being pelted by artillery and machine gun fire the whole way.  Trenches, barbed wire, land mines, and anti-tank obstructions made the situation even harder for the Axis forces.

These defenses were put to the test on 7 September 1939, a week after the initial invasion of Poland.  By this point, Poland really preferred that these meager forces pull back and form a stronger defense in inner Poland, and pulled out the cavalry brigade in the area.  Captain Władysław Raginis did not get that message.  He therefore remained faithful to his original orders: defend Poland at any cost.  On the seventh, the Germans dropped propaganda leaflets claiming that they had captured most of Poland, suggesting the Poles surrender while they still could.  To raise morale, Captain Raginis swore that he would not leave his post alive until the Germans had been repelled.  The Germans proceeded to easily capture Wizna (the light reconnaissance force stationed there put up a small fight), though the retreating Poles destroyed the bridge to the bunkers.

Though attacked from three sides, the northern-most bunkers held against the German advance with heavy Axis casualties.  These fortifications eventually folded under heavy artillery barrage and given orders from above to retreat.  The southern-most bunkers, meanwhile, found themselves at a stalemate.  The Germans could not advance over the marshy terrain without being cut down by machine guns, but the Polish guns were unable to penetrate the German Panzers.  This forced the infantry in the trenches to hide in the bunkers later on the evening of the seventh, still holding back the insurmountable German Blitzkrieg.  (Please applaud me; I’ve managed to fit the content of the three prior issues into one paragraph.)

As the war across Poland continued on September 8th, their remaining forces were all recalled to Warsaw, stranding the bunkers at Wizna.  Now without even the smallest hope for reinforcements, Raginis and his men continued to stave off the Germans.  Even at night, German assault was repelled.  Finally on September 10th, the combined forces of the German engineering corps, tanks, and artillery did away with all but two bunkers.  Both continued fighting despite having suffered almost total casualties from injury/death (even Captain Raginis was heavily wounded) and having lost most of their machine guns.

General Heinz Guderian (head of the Panzer divisions and one of the authors of the Blitzkrieg) finally grew sick of losing to a couple of inexperienced soldiers hiding in concrete rooms, and threatened to execute his Polish POWs if they did not stop resistance.  Raginis found the threat useless and continued fighting for another hour, at which point the Germans, under white flag, proposed a truce.  It lasted until 1:30 PM, at which point Raginis came upon a realization:

  1. His troops were practically dead and in normal circumstances would have surrendered multiple times by now.
  2. He was completely out of ammunition.

Captain Raginis ordered his men to surrender themselves, then kept to his word and refused to surrender the bunker, committing suicide by throwing himself over a grenade.

Guderian estimated 900 Germans were killed in assaulting Raginis’ bunkers, though this is considered an underestimate by historians.  It is known as fact that his bunkers were responsible for the destruction of ten tanks (remember how I said earlier their anti-tank guns couldn’t penetrate Panzers? That is still true).

Raginis is known to Poland as their modern Leonidas.  His original grave was a simple war grave next to his command bunker, where the Germans planted a tree.  When the Red Army came upon Raginis and learned of this, they exhumed the body and moved it to a crossroads in Wizna, where an obelisk now stands.  The bunker remains a memorial site with a symbolic grave for Raginis, with an inscription that reads: “Passerby, tell the Homeland that we fought to the end, fulfilling our duty,” echoing the Spartan memorial at Thermopylae.  A list exists of translations for the Thermopylae epitaph, and the one that I feel echoes that of Wizna is this:

Go tell the Spartans, you who read:
We took their orders, and lie here dead.

I love your fighting spirit in the face of everything, Poland.

 

(But hey, extra reading! This is a theme, guys.)

  • It should be noted that almost every single soldier defending Wizna was a conscript. That’s right, drafted. Despite being forced to fight an army that was fifty-eight times larger than them… they had the highest of morale and fought until their commanding officer commanded them to lay down arms.  When said officer committed suicide to save them.
  • Also, here is the final line-up of the battle, in terms of men and materiel:

Poland: 720 men, 12 bunkers, 6 pieces of artillery (76mm), 24 heavy machine guns, 18 machine guns [I assume a medium MG that is portable as opposed to a massive affair], and two Kb ppanc wz.35 anti-tank rifles.

Germany: 42,000 men, 350 tanks, 108 howitzers, 58 pieces of artillery, 195 anti-tank guns, 108 mortars, 188 grenade launchers, 288 heavy machine guns and 689 machine guns.

Poland had no business lasting three days straight.

History With Snark – Vol 1, Issue 3

(Be sure to read the extensive footnotes after this issue.)

So I may have lied to you two weeks ago about discussing World War I. I’m going to perpetuate that lie and talk about Panzers, because Panzers are cool. Deviating from the proposed plan shouldn’t hurt my ratings anyway. I don’t have ratings.

The Panzer was almost groundbreaking, as far as tanks were concerned. While in World War I the British showed the world that the tank was to become part of the future of warfare, in World War II the Germans showed the world that the tank was to become part of its backbone. The Nazis built 25,767 tanks during World War II (excluding prototypes like the Maus and vehicles never intended for combat like the Leichttraktor*). The Soviet Union had 22,000 tanks by the end of the war. While this makes it appear that Germany outnumbered even the Soviet Union, consider that the Soviet Union had in excess of 18,000 tanks at the start of the war, and Germany’s not quite 26,000 was their entire production history.

I claim that the Panzer was groundbreaking, but the original Nazi plan for the tank was not the formidable Tiger seen toward the end of the war. This was the Leichttraktor tank, which was only ever designed for training, but nonetheless an example of the first Panzer:

320px-leichttraktor_rheinmetall_assembled_1930_side

Yes. Since I am adverse to confusing you and adding non-Panzer images, quickly google the British Mk. V tank, produced twenty years earlier. It would eat this light tank for breakfast. This tank was only produced as an experiment — a template for future Nazi tanks to follow. The Soviet Union and Germany shared a top-secret testing ground within Russia where both powers tested new tank models and trained together; this was the only interaction the Leichttraktor had with a foreign power.

The Panzerkampfwagen (Armored fighting vehicle) I was just as bad a tank as the Leichttraktor, if not worse. This is almost excusable as the tank was only developed to train the new Panzer force and familiarize the Wehrmacht with their new backbone. It stopped being excusable thanks to Franco. The Spanish Civil War saw Franco’s Nationalists against the “Popular front” communists. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany used this opportunity to wage a proxy war and test their experimental weaponry without ever firing a shot for themselves. German tanks were defeated by Soviet armored cars, and the Nationalists turned to capturing Soviet tanks to even the fight. While the use of Panzers during the Spanish Civil War shaped the German Blitzkrieg on Poland and France, it also told the Russians just how useless the first Panzers were.

Oh, and while you’re reading, here’s what the thing looked like:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Yes, those are machine guns. You see why it failed.

Even despite those failings, due to tank shortages, these vehicles continued to see use during the first half of the war, participating in all German invasions (excluding the Soviet Union**) and Africa. Superior strategy and tactics allowed these tanks to succeed even as the Panzer IV was in production. These tanks were finally put down before D-Day and their turrets repurposed for bunkers along the Atlantic Wall. The Pz. I remained in Spanish service until replaced by the M47 Patton in 1954.

The Pz. II was largely the same affair and served as a scouting tank. It was not designed very seriously and only meant to serve as a rushed and immediately ready tank while Krupp and Porsche designed heavier models. Starting from the Battle of France, it was the most common tank the Germans had. Its turrets had the same fate as the Pz. I’s by the end of the war.

320px-pzkpfw_ii_01

Aww. It’s so cute. And pathetic.

The Nazis were saved by the invasion of Poland by the Pz. III and IV:

pzkpfwiiih-saumur-000a1y8q640px-panzer_iv_1

These tanks were the first diverse ones: the Pz. III’s chassis also saw service in the Sturmgeschütz III, Flammpanzer III Ausf. M, Minenräumer III, and Panzerbefehlswagen III**. The Pz. IV chassis was also used in the Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyer, StuG IV, and… Wirlbelwind self-propelled anti-aircraft gun, which is so silly-looking I’ll show it to you.320px-wirbelwind_cfb_borden_2

Wirbelwind. I’m not going to get over that.

Anyway, these tanks were also the first tanks to make use of the “Ausf.” abbreviation — Ausfürung, the German equivalent to the “mark” designation — and they made extensive use of it. The Pz. III saw models between Ausf. A-N, and the Pz. IV had variants ranging from Ausf. A to J, including in-between modifications with designations like “F2.” I have chosen to depict a Pz. III Ausf. H and Pz. IV Ausf. F2, as they are some of my aesthetically favorite tanks of all time (I prefer the IV Ausf. H, but it features armor skirts and spaced turret armor that most Panzers did not have and I wanted a representation more accurate of all Panzers of the period). If you think of a Panzer, you will either envision a Tiger or a Panzer IV.

The Panzer III was the first main battle tank of the Nazis. It was outclassed by comparable Soviet models, but fortune smiled on Germany and the majority of tanks the Pz. III faced were semi-obsolete models; combined with superior German tactics the tank was a success on the Eastern Front. Its role was replaced by the Pz. IV and Panther tanks after the miserable Battle of Kursk (let’s put it this way… you walk in with three tanks and they walk in with seven. You take out three of theirs. They take out one of yours and decide to send in three more tanks. Who is losing? Curse the T-34.).

The Pz. IV was a good tank, all things considered. It butchered enemy armor in Poland, Denmark, France, and later the Normandy beaches, and its regular upgrades meant that it never fell behind the German standard. The KV-1 and T-34 were just better tanks. Their armor remained 100% impenetrable to the German forces when they were first encountered, and the KV-1’s only vulnerability was a single type of flak gun that still would ricochet from its sloped armor. German engineers did what any sane person would do and gave the Pz. IV a new gun and designation: Pz. IV Ausf. F2. (Hey, the one pictured above!) The nigh-ubiquitous T-34 was no longer a problem, though the rare and expensive KV remained a monster throughout the war. (So there, Hovawart. They’re not all that better.)

The Panther! This is what some people, myself included, think or thought “Panzer” meant. “Panzer” actually means “armor.” “Panther” in German is… “Panther.”

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The PzKpfw V Panther† was specifically designed with Soviet armor in mind and was intended to fully replace the Pz. III and IV. With incredible armor and firepower, it almost succeeded, and as mentioned above it did become the main tank of the German forces, rightly earning notoriety alongside the Tiger. It actually had a better gun and frontal armor than the Tiger I, essentially the same engine as the Tiger I (that will become important in a minute), cost less than half the Tiger I and barely more than the Pz. IV. However… in their attempt to simplify the inner workings of the tank for higher production rates, the Germans created numerous technical problems that remained unresolved when the Panther was rushed to the Eastern Front. They suffered quite a few losses from mechanical failure alone. While the blueprints were adjusted by the end of the war, Allied advancement caused fuel shortages, loss of testing ground, and most importantly a lack of metal resources or factories to build Panthers. It spawned two notable variants: the Ausf. F (there were no Panther Ausf. A-E) and the Jagdpanther (hunting panther) was built upon its chassis. Due to the above flaws and shortages, it was not nearly as feared as weaker models despite its firepower and armor.

So, how’s about the fearsome Tiger? Everyone knows what a Tiger tank is; it is perhaps the most iconic tank of the war, above even the Sherman. It is renowned for its terror. However, the Tiger I was not the first Tiger. First came the Tiger (P), officially known as the VK 4501 (P). In 1942, Porsche and rival company Henschel & Son were asked to submit designs for a new, bigger tank chassis, which was to be outfitted with a Krupp turret.

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Ferdinand Porsche (left, in civilian dress) with the Porsche Tiger.

Porsche’s tank was a technical mess. Its complex engineering created too much room for failure, and due to a copper deficiency in Germany at the time, its electrical systems were wired with a low-quality copper that caused extensive breakdowns. It was not very maneuverable and literally required almost constant maintenance, including while running. If this entirely-accurate image doesn’t sum things up, I don’t know what does:

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The German government used Henschel’s design and the pre-built Porsche chassis went into the Elefant tank destroyer (also known as the Ferdinand).

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It was very good at blowing away Soviet tanks from a range of three kilometers, but suffered from a total lack of peripheral vision and not a single antipersonnel gun. Soviet infantry learned to wait until the tank had crossed their lines and then destroy it from the sides or behind with grenades and Molotov cocktails. This is why you have that little slit in the front of the tank, remember, guys? To see? Put some in the sides.

The Tiger I was the PzKpfw VI Ausf. H† (for Henschel — H was the first model), but later redesignated Ausf. E. Again, this was the first model and there were no Ausf. A-D. The Nazis just liked confusing their operators. It was an effective tank in the West, but the snow, ice and mud would freeze between the wheels and immobilize the tank; the transmission could not handle too much strain; it was difficult to transport by truck (good luck finding a railway line out there); and it was a gas-guzzler. It was not suited for the harsh Soviet winter and off-road combat.

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Tiger I inevitably implies that there is a Tiger II (or that the Germans suck at designations, cf. Porsche Tiger, Tiger I & Leichttraktor). The Tiger II was, obviously, and upgrade from the Tiger I, and it is telling that when I google “Tiger II v,” Google suggests “Tiger II vs. Abrams” as the third option after the Tiger’s contemporaries. Whether it’s telling that the Tiger II is that advanced, the Abrams is that terrible, or people are that stupid as to not know which would win in a battle, I don’t want to find out.

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The rough, wavy coating on this tank is “Zimmerit” — it prevents anti-tank mines from magnetically attaching to the armor. Ironically, only Germany used many magnetic mines.

This was not actually a different Tiger. The “Tiger II” was the Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. B. I’m going to emphasize this point: The Tiger H came first and it was renamed the Tiger E. It was upgraded and named the Tiger B. Evidently the German alphabet starts with Z and ends with A. The German alphabet is also missing about 75% of English letters. It was known as the Königstiger — this name was not official and refers to the Bengal tiger. While “König” is “king,” the word “Königstiger” does not mean “king tiger,” as Allied forces often thought. The “King Tiger” tank is a mistranslation, if an understandable one.

But here I go about semantics. Let’s talk about TANKS. The Tiger II did not suffer the technical flaws of its contemporaries (it was designed somewhat alongside the Tiger I), but it still wasted a lot of fuel and and considered underpowered for a heavy tank. More orders were made for the Tiger II than the Tiger I, but the destruction of factories meant that only 492 units were made during the war. In a series of bombing raids over a two-week period, 657 Tiger IIs were destroyed in production.

The Tiger II chassis was used for the heavy tank destroyer Panzerjäger Tiger Ausf. B, known more simply as the Jagdtiger. It’s very ugly and reminds me of the Soviet SU-152, so I’m not going to show it here. If you have to see it, google it.

There are some other tanks here I didn’t get to talk about (not to mention tank destroyers and assault guns), so I expect another issue will be released describing those. I particularly wanted to cover the Maus (the featured image at the top of this issue), but this issue has gotten so long that I’ll pass for now. Instead, have a Maus:

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(Also reminding you now that I have four footnotes that expound upon some things above)

* The Leichttraktor’s name stems from the fact that Germany was not allowed to have tanks or aircraft after the Versailles Treaty. During the early development and testing of the vehicles, they were disguised as “tractors” — hence the name “light tractor.” How or if this fooled anybody I don’t know, and I almost hope never to know. You’d have to be an idiot to see this wasn’t a tank. Good thing they did their testing in the Soviet Union.

** The Germans realized that as even their newest Panzer models were outclassed by Soviet armor, the Pz. I would be a waste of manpower. These tanks did participate but were relegated to towing loads through terrain where ordinary vehicles would have trouble.

*** You can tell I’m having fun with these. The tanks above were, respectively: a tank destroyer/assault gun, flamethrower tank, minesweeper, and command tank with a long-range radio and… no functioning gun.

† Hitler personally ordered the “V” removed from the Panther’s designation for unknown reasons; the same went for the Tiger. They are officially just the PzKpfw Panther and PsKpfw Tiger Ausf. E. The Pz. VII Löwe and VIII Maus both retained their numerals.

History With Snark – Vol 1, Issue 1

Hello and welcome, all!  This is the pilot issue (or first issue, or prologue, or so on) to my weekly series, History With Snark.  Like all pilot episodes, this will contain little humor and merely attempt to sell to you the idea of watching a series that is actually very different from what you just saw, by breaking all accepted television (or writing) traditions and conventions.  With no further ado, let us begin.

The title says it all.  History will be explored through a harsh, laconic, and often darkly humorous lens that tends to portray the past with an overwhelming degree of snark.

I know that at least one reader will ask just was this “snark” is.  It certainly did not exist in the English language in 1995.  Here, I defer to the illegitimate child of Oxford and Merriam-Webster, the Urban Dictionary, which states that snark is a:

Combination of “snide” and “remark”. Sarcastic comment(s).

Well, that was not so hard, was it? Simple contractions. Perhaps I ought to spell it “sn’ark.”

With that question out of the way, I can already anticipate your next: “What can I expect from this clearly derisive series that intends to do away with any amount of respect that history ought to receive?”  Well, dear reader who likely never asked that, I am glad you asked!  In this series, we (or I) will laugh at the folly of the Trojans, make light of the losses at Agincourt, and question just how the world did not arrive at electricity sooner.  I will attempt to humor you by mocking Panzer designs, and probably get myself banned from writing another issue after I complain about the ineffectiveness of Hitler’s strategy and propose better solutions to the European Front (you didn’t actually think I was going to propose solutions to the other question, did you?).

(To break more academic conventions,) I would like to say in closing, thank you for reading this much.  Next week will promise a glance at the First World War through the ever-fogged lens, for history is never objective and my glasses need cleaning.  Tschüss!