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Trump’s character traits are really disturbing

Trump’s character traits are really disturbing

Near the end of a book I was reading recently was this description of a familiar political leader:

He was impervious to advice. He listened but did not absorb the opinions of others. If critics persisted (according to one of his senior staff members) ‘he would break into short-tempered fits of enraged agitation’. He brushed aside uncongenial facts so habitually that his staff began to filter out intelligence of the worst complexion. He displayed in all this not a shred of self-criticism. When things went wrong he blamed others’.

Characterizing his subject as sulky, vindictive, intolerant and irascible, the author goes on to cite his subject’s poor powers of leadership which were masked with a self-constructed myth of infallibility. Add a few more equally unpleasant traits such as bullying, endless lying and bullshitting, a complete absence of empathy and a demand for loyalty from others which goes unreturned and we have a fairly complete picture of Donald Trump, right? Indeed. But the the excerpt is from Why the Allies Won by historian Richard Overy, published in 1995, and the subject is Adolf Hitler.

Klessheim Palace (now a casino) to Mar-a-Lago (now a playground)

Now obviously Trump is no Hitler. For one thing, Hitler wrote a book, Mein Kampf. Trump, who has the attention span of a gnat and can’t even sit still long enough to read the President’s Daily Brief  (with potentially disastrous consequences) has likely never even read a book cover to cover much less written one (having a book ghost written for you doesn’t count). 

More significantly, there is no evidence that Trump harbors a megalomaniacal desire to conquer the world; in fact he has more of a penchant for retreating from commitments abroad and betraying allies – Kurds and Afghans so far, and probably our NATO allies too given half a chance. And whilst Trump is monstrously incompetent, narcissistic and vile (among other things), there is no evidence that he is an actual monster capable of acts of unspeakable evil. Fortunately for us, Trump is constrained by his own enormous limitations, principally his own monumental stupidity; for example, he is still unable to accept the deadliness of the coronavirus pandemic even after everything that’s happened.

There really isn’t much doubt about this and it has been amply demonstrated both publicly before our eyes and in myriad accounts from those who have had to deal with him. He has some smarts, of course, but they’re confined to a gift for relentless self-promotion combined with an uncanny ability to manipulate the media and to exploit the vulnerable by drawing out their very worst instincts.

Second his ambitions, thank the Lord, seem to be limited to getting re-elected and, as Max Boot writes, “..the rallies and the ratings“. His ineptitude protects us from his worst authoritarian instincts but also carries with it devastating consequences for the nation in the face of a deadly pandemic.

All the caveats aside, however, the similarities between the two men’s character traits are unmistakable. Trump’s demonstrated lack of empathy even for the people on whom he is depending for re-election echo Hitler’s studied unconcern for his people suffering privation and under constant bombing, or his soldiers later in the war sustaining one crushing defeat after another.

One more trait they share is a gross overestimation of their own abilities. Hitler thought he was a better general than his field marshals whilst Trump thought he could actually function as president of his nation. Both were wrong. For Germany it brought catastrophe but then a better future. Will America salvage something good also from our own ongoing catastrophe? The jury is still out on that one.

The Battle of the Bulge was won by the tenacity and bravery of US soldiers in a hundred places that most Americans have never heard of.

The Battle of the Bulge was won by the tenacity and bravery of US soldiers in a hundred places that most Americans have never heard of.

Tuesday, December 16th marked the 70th anniversary of the greatest battle fought by soldiers of the United States army in the Northwest European Theatre in World War II following D-Day.

Despite the crushing defeat of the German armies in Normandy in August 1944 and the pursuit of the remnants to the very borders of the Reich, the Allied autumn advance had ground to a halt. Long supply lines which created a logistical nightmare, the still formidable fortifications of the Siegfried Line, the resilience of the German army, and foul fall conditions of rain, cold and mud combined to make further progress tediously slow and very costly.

Meanwhile Hitler, believing that a shattering counter-blow in the west could change Germany’s sagging fortunes, mustered a formidable reserve containing some of the best divisions in the German army and settled on the Ardennes, scene of a successful German breakthrough in 1940, as the location for such an offensive, and Antwerp to split the Allied armies in two, as the ultimate objective.

Although the offensive met with some initial success against a completely surprised and lightly held American front, determined defense by US troops slowed the enemy advance and bought time for the arrival of reinforcements to first halt the Germans and then drive them back. The battle lasted about a month and cost each side 100,000 casualties and 7-800 tanks and other armored vehicles. Heavy though these losses were to the Americans, they were disastrous for the Germans who had little strength left with which to oppose the final offensive into Germany.

My family and I visited parts of the Ardennes battlefield in the summer of 2013 including Bastogne, Belgium, where the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division made their epic and successful stand to deny the Germans this key road centre.

But we also visited a town called Stavelot further to the north that was the scene that cold December of a lesser known but equally important and epic battle waged by a single US infantry battalion (6-800 men) of the 30th Infantry Division.

Ambleve River, Stavelot, Belgium
Ambleve River, Stavelot, Belgium

A powerful kampfgruppe (or battlegroup) of the German 1st SS Panzer Division under ace panzer leader, Joachim Peiper, had penetrated deep into the American rear and threatened to reach the Meuse River, a potentially disastrous development. But in the constricted topography of the Ardennes, bridges over rivers and streams were critical to Peiper’s advance, and plucky bands of US engineers had seriously hindered the column by destroying several on his preferred routes to the Meuse.

Peiper seized the critical bridge over the Ambleve River at Stavelot, Belgium, against poorly led and disorganized American opposition. But after the bulk of his force continued west towards Stoumont along a single narrow road, the 1st Battalion of the 117th Infantry Regiment with attached companies of tanks and tank destroyers descended on Stavelot from the north and retook the town, thereby cutting Peiper off from the rest of 1st Panzer. Under fire, they also managed to blow the all-important Stavelot bridge.

There followed a fierce battle as the American troops fought furiously to simultaneously fend off efforts by the rest of the 1st SS Panzer Division to the south to force the Ambleve and retake the town, while resisting determined attacks from the west by elements of Peiper’s force sent back to restore his line of communication and supply.

But the Americans would not yield. Under attack by other American forces, what was left of Peiper’s kampfgruppe (800 out of an original force of 5800) eventually escaped on foot, abandoning all their vehicles and heavy weapons. The rest of the battered 1st SS Panzer Division ceded Stavelot to the indomitable men of the 1st Battalion, 117th. The spearhead of the 6th Panzer Army, designated by Hitler as his main effort, had been defeated.

Remembering the Americans who fought in Operation Market Garden

Remembering the Americans who fought in Operation Market Garden

On the morning of 17 September 1944 amid the droning sound of hundreds of aircraft, the clear skies over southern Holland were suddenly filled with what resembled a myriad of snowflakes. Operation Market Garden had begun.

Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, commanding the British/Canadian 21st Army Group, planned to leap the Lower Rhine River (the Nederrijn in the Netherlands) and outflank the German Siegfried Line on Germany’s borders with France and Belgium for a concentrated thrust into the North German Plain.

The US 82nd and 101st and 1st British Airborne Divisions would provide an airborne carpet along a sixty mile route from Eindhoven via Nijmegen to Arnhem capturing bridges over several major waterways. The paratroopers would then await relief by the ground forces of the British 2nd Army’s XXX Corps led by General Sir Brian Horrocks attacking north along a single road.

The 1st Airborne had the most dangerous assignment since their objective, the road bridge at Arnhem, was the farthest from XXX Corps; however, the two US divisions had the complicated task of both securing a number of vital bridges, and defending the road against German counterattacks from both flanks (which in the event they did, heroically).

The success of the plan was jeopardized by the presence of two battered yet powerful German SS panzer divisions that were refitting near Arnhem. Ultimately, these units and German proficiency at improvisation would determine the outcome of Market Garden.

The two American airborne divisions achieved most of their initial objectives but the 82nd Airborne, which had secured key bridges over the Maas River and Maas-Waal Canal, and vital high ground needed to block German counterattacks from the Reichswald Forest, lacked the manpower to move immediately on the road and rail bridges over the Waal River at Nijmegen. By the time they did, it was too late – German SS troops had arrived from Arnhem to strongly fortify the approaches to both bridges.

The 1st British Airborne whose drop zones were 6-8km from Arnhem, encountered strong German opposition and only managed to get an understrength battalion, perhaps 700 men, under Lieutenant Colonel John Frost to the north end of the bridge. The rest of the division was unable to break through and soon found itself in a fight for its life against ad hoc German battle groups, as did Frost.

Meanwhile the ground offensive by XXX Corps encountered strong German resistance in its attack from the Meuse-Escaut Canal.

Already behind schedule when they reached Nijmegen, the British joined the 82nd in attacking the road and rail bridges but made little progress. So confident were the Germans that they decided not to demolish the bridges but to defend them for use in future operations.

On the fourth day with time running out for Frost’s gallant band, a battalion of the 82nd launched a daring assault in daylight across the 250-metre wide Waal downriver from Nijmegen in flimsy British canvas and plywood boats. Under intense German fire, about half of the craft managed to reach the north bank. The surviving paratroopers stormed ashore and charged towards the north end of the bridges where they met tanks of the Guards Armoured Division who, along with other American paratroopers, had finally cracked the German defences south of the bridges. German attempts to demolish the latter failed. The Nijmegen bridges were in allied hands.

By then, however, Frost’s band had been overwhelmed. And to the fury of the American paratroopers who had sacrificed so much to capture the Nijmegen bridges, XXX Corps did not attack north for 18 hours while they regrouped. By then the Germans had blocked the way to Arnhem.

The British reached the Nederrijn but could not reinforce the 1st Airborne across the river. Two thousand survivors of the 10,000 who landed were evacuated on the night of 25/26 September. Market Garden had failed.

The 82nd and 101st suffered 3,500 casualties but had performed brilliantly, solidifying their reputations as two of the finest divisions fielded by any army in World War II. That Market Garden achieved 90% of its objectives, as Montgomery later put it, was due in no small measure to their efforts. Unfortunately, the other 10% was the difference between success and failure.

For the cinematic version of this story, watch Richard Attenborough’s 1977 film, A Bridge Too Far, starring Anthony Hopkins as Lieutenant Colonel Frost, Edward Fox as Lieutenant General Horrocks, plus Sean Connery as Major General Urquhart.