That that, you Fascists

“Rea Leakey, a Kenyan-born subaltern (and first cousin of the famed anthropologist Louis Leakey) commanding a light reconnaissance tank of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, joined with the Hussars in an attack on the Italians’ Beau Geste-style Fort Capuzzo. Once within range, Leakey found himself forced to fire his service revolver at the fort through the gaping port in his turret that should have been filled by a Vickers machine-gun. His gunner had to fire a rifle through the port that was intended for the other Vickers. Leakey’s tank had only recently arrived from England, and somewhere along the way someone had removed its armament, rendering it about as lethal as a tractor.” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein

Think, man

“Prime Minister to Minister of Agriculture, September 26, 1940: ‘I am far from satisfied at the proposal to reduce pigs to one-third of their present number by the middle of the autumn. This is certainly not what was understood by the Cabinet. . . .  Meanwhile, what arrangements are you making for curing the surplus bacon that will come upon the market through the massacre of pigs?’ “ – Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour

They got lucky, too

“It was a great, quaintly organised England that had destroyed the Spanish Armada. A strong flame of conviction and resolve carried us through the twenty-five years’ conflict which William II and Marlborough waged against Louis XIV. There was a famous period with Chatham. There was the long struggle against Napoleon, in which our survival was secured through the domination of the seas by the British Navy under the classic leadership of Nelson and his associates. A million Britons died in the First World War. But nothing surpasses 1940. By the end of that year this small and ancient island, with its devoted Commonwealth, Dominions and attachments under every sky, had proved itself capable of bearing the whole impact and weight of world destiny. We had not flinched or wavered. We had not failed. The soul of the British people and race had proved invincible. The citadel of the Commonwealth and Empire could not be stormed. Alone, but upborne by every generous heartbeat of mankind, we had defied the tyrant in the height of his triumph.” – Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour

A good-faith argument

“It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the Fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.” – Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour

A friend in need

“The transfer to Great Britain of fifty American warships was a decidedly unneutral act by the United States. It would, according to all the standards of history, have justified the German Government in declaring war upon them. The President judged that there was no danger, and I felt there was no hope, of this simple solution to many difficulties. It was Hitler’s interest and method to strike his opponents down one by one. The last thing he wished was to be drawn into war with the United States before he had finished with Britain. Nevertheless the transfer of destroyers to Britain in August, 1940, was an event which brought the United States definitely nearer to us and to the war, and it was the first of a long succession of increasingly unneutral acts in the Atlantic which were of the utmost service to us. It marked the passage of the United States from being neutral to being non-belligerent. Although Hitler could not afford to resent it, all the world, as will be seen, understood the significance of the gesture.” – Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour

Tight with Their Majesties

“The King changed his practice of receiving me in a formal weekly audience at about five o’clock which had prevailed during my first two months of office. It was now arranged that I should lunch with him every Tuesday. This was certainly a very agreeable method of transacting State business, and sometimes the Queen was present. On several occasions we all had to take our plates and glasses in our hands and go down to the shelter, which was making progress, to finish our meal. The weekly luncheons became a regular institution. After the first few months His Majesty decided that all servants should be excluded, and that we should help ourselves and help each other. During the four and a half years that this continued, I became aware of the extraordinary diligence with which the King read all the telegrams and public documents submitted to him. Under the British Constitutional system the Sovereign has a right to be made acquainted with everything for which his ministers are responsible, and has an unlimited right of giving counsel to his Government. I was most careful that everything should be laid before the King, and at our weekly meetings he frequently showed that he had mastered papers which I had not yet dealt with. It was a great help to Britain to have so good a King and Queen in those fateful years, and as a convinced upholder of constitutional monarchy I valued as a signal honour the gracious intimacy with which I, as First Minister, was treated.” – Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour

Smokin’

“On November 15 [1940], the enemy switched back to London with a very heavy raid in full moonlight. Much damage was done, especially to churches and other monuments. The next target was Birmingham, and three successive raids from the 19th to the 22nd of November inflicted much destruction and loss of life. Nearly eight hundred people were killed and over two thousand injured; but the life and spirit of Birmingham survived this ordeal. When I visited the city a day or two later to inspect its factories, and see for myself what had happened, an incident, to me charming, occurred. It was the dinner hour, and a very pretty young girl ran up to the car and threw a box of cigars into it. I stopped at once and she said: ‘I won the prize this week for the highest output. I only heard you were coming an hour ago.’ This gift must have cost her two or three pounds. I was very glad (in my official capacity) to give her a kiss. I then went on to see the long mass grave in which so many citizens and their children had been newly buried. The spirit of Birmingham shone brightly, and its million inhabitants, highly organised, conscious and comprehending, rode high above their physical suffering.” – Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour

As ye sow, so shall ye grimly reap

“One day after luncheon the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kingsley Wood, came to see me on business at Number 10, and we heard a very heavy explosion take place across the river in South London. I took him to see what had happened. The bomb had fallen in Peckham. It was a very big one—probably a land-mine. It had completely destroyed or gutted twenty or thirty small three-story houses and cleared a considerable open space in this very poor district. Already little pathetic Union Jacks had been stuck up amid the ruins. When my car was recognized, the people came running from all quarters, and a crowd of more than a thousand was soon gathered. All these folk were in a high state of enthusiasm. They crowded round us, cheering and manifesting every sign of lively affection, wanting to touch and stroke my clothes. One would have thought I had brought them some fine substantial benefit which would improve their lot in life. I was completely undermined, and wept. Ismay, who was with me, records that he heard an old woman say, ‘You see, he really cares. He’s crying.’ They were tears not of sorrow but of wonder and admiration. . . . When we got back into the car, a harsher mood swept over this haggard crowd. ‘Give it ‘em back,’ they cried, and ‘Let them have it too.’ I undertook forthwith to see that their wishes were carried out; and this promise was certainly kept. The debt was repaid tenfold, twentyfold, in the frightful routine bombardment of German cities, which grew in intensity as our air power developed, as the bombs became far heavier and the explosives more powerful. Certainly the enemy got it all back in good measure, pressed down and running over. Alas for poor humanity!” – Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour (emphasis in original)

Bathing nations in blood

“I have often wondered . . . what would have happened if two hundred thousand German storm troops had actually established themselves ashore. The massacre would have been on both sides grim and great. There would have been neither mercy nor quarter. They would have used terror, and we were prepared to go all lengths. I intended to use the slogan, ‘You can always take one with you.’ I even calculated that the horrors of such a scene would in the last resort turn the scale in the United States. But none of these emotions was put to the proof. Far out on the grey waters of the North Sea and the Channel coursed and patrolled the faithful, eager flotillas peering through the night. High in the air soared the fighter pilots, or waited serene at a moment’s notice around their excellent machines. This was a time when it was equally good to live or die.” – Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour

That’s the way to do it

“When I said that the French Army, fighting on, wherever it might be, could hold or wear out a hundred German divisions, General Weygand replied, ‘Even if that were so, they would still have another hundred to invaded and conquer you. What would you do then?’ On this I said that I was not a military expert, but that my technical advisers were of opinion that the best method of dealing with German invasion of the island of Britain was to drown as many as possible on the way over and knock the others on the head as they crawled ashore.” – Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour

Smoke ’em if you got ’em

“Most people know that the surviving leaders of the Third Reich were prosecuted at Nuremberg before an international military tribunal in 1945–1946, and that a substantial number of them, including the head of the Luftwaffe and the ‘second man in the Third Reich,’ Hermann Göring, the former foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Hans Frank, the Nazi ruler of Poland, were found guilty and condemned to death. Less well known are the twelve specialized trials that followed, of senior Nazi judges, industrialists, doctors, and others. And hardly any trace has remained in the public memory of the large number of trials held, mostly from 1946 to 1949, of the lower-level functionaries of the regime, including the personnel of the concentration and extermination camps. The British alone held 358 trials in their zone of occupied Germany, resulting in the conviction of 1,085 people, 240 of whom were condemned to death, with two hundred actually executed. American military tribunals conducted a lengthy series of 489 trials at the former concentration camp in Dachau, most of which concerned offenses that had no direct connection with events at the camp itself. Altogether, these American trials went on for three years, and resulted in the conviction of 1,416 lower-grade servants of the Third Reich. More than two thousand war criminals were tried in the French Zone, while the convention that offenders should be tried in the countries where they had held office under the Nazi regime resulted in a further series of trials in countries formerly occupied by the Germans, including Italy, Norway, and Poland, where over two thousand Germans were extradited and indicted between 1945 and 1949, including the former commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss.” – Richard J. Evans, “The Anatomy of Hell”

He speaks figuratively, methinks

“An accepted leader has only to be sure of what it is best to do, or at least to have made up his mind about it. . . .  If he trips, he must be sustained. If he makes mistakes, they must be covered. If he sleeps, he must not be wantonly disturbed. If he is no good, he must be poleaxed.” – Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour

Much less write

“The bread ration was now down to under 200 grams a day, and often little more than 100 grams. The horseflesh added to ‘Wassersuppe’ came from local supplies. The carcasses were kept fresh by the cold, but the temperature was so low that meat could not be sliced from them with knives. Only a pioneer saw was strong enough. The combination of cold and starvation meant that soldiers, when not on sentry, just lay in their dugouts, conserving energy. The bunker was a refuge which they could hardly face leaving. Often, their minds went blank because the chilling of their blood slowed down both physical and mental activity. Books had been passed round until they disintegrated or were lost in the mud or snow, but now few had the energy left to read.” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad

At the rat-haus

“If there was any wood to burn in the small bunker stoves, smoke emerged from little chimney stacks, made from empty food tins rammed together. Duckboards, tables, even bunks as men died, were broken up as fuel. The only substitute for real warmth was a fug, created with packed bodies and tarpaulins, but men still shivered uncontrollably. The comparative heat did little more than stir their lice into activity, and drive them wild with itching. They often slept two to a bunk with a blanket over their heads in a pathetic attempt to share body heat. The rodent population swelled rapidly on a diet of dead horses and humans. Out in the steppe, mice became voracious in their search for food. One soldier reported that mice ‘had eaten two of his frozen toes’ while he was asleep.” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad

Take me to the river

“Our lives are completed at the moment of death: until then we are incessantly becoming, our potential outstanding like a debt. But as soon as we are all that we are ever going to be, we vanish, and it is left up to the living to process the meaning of a life—or, rather, to give it meaning by transmuting being into something that was. . . . It’s our job to finish the dead’s unfinished business, take the whole of a life and house it in our memory, turn present into past. What the body can no longer do, we do for it: we bathe it, dress it, keep it safe.” – C. Morgan Babst, “Death Is a Way to Be”

The best lack all conviction

“We’ve sold people on sure. And we’ve sold people on omniscience, and on the loudest, most declarative voice. That has been damaging just in terms of human civilization. The people who are the most certain are often the ones who lead us in the wrong directions.” – Eric Asimov (interview by Meara Sharma in Guernica)

For the good of all

“Over 1,500 factories had been evacuated from the western regions of the Soviet Union to behind the Volga, particularly the Urals, and reassembled by armies of technicians slaving through the winter. Few factories had any heating. Many had no windows at first, or proper roofing. Once the production lines started, they never stopped, unless halted by breakdowns, power failures, or shortages of particular parts. Manpower posed less of a problem. The Soviet authorities simply drafted in new populations of workers. Soviet bureaucracy wasted the time and talents of its civilian people, and squandered their lives in industrial accidents, with as much indifference for the individual as military planners showed towards their soldiers, yet the collective sacrifice—both forced and willing at the same time—represented a terrifyingly impressive achievement.” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad

Learning their lessons

“Although shelter was the first priority, civilians faced the virtual impossibility of finding food and water. Each time there was a lull in the bombardments, women and children appeared out of holes in the ground to cut slabs of meat off dead horses before homeless dogs and rats stripped the carcass. The chief foragers were children. Younger, smaller and more agile, they presented less of a target. They sneaked down at night to the badly burned grain elevator south of the Tsaritsa, which the Germans had finally captured. There, they often managed to fill bags of satchels with scorched wheat and scamper away, but German sentries, protecting the silos for their own army’s use, shot a number of them. Those who attempted to steal German Army ration tins were also shot on the spot.” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad

If you can’t crawl, we will carry you

“The medical services in the Red Army were seldom regarded as a high priority by commanders. A seriously wounded soldier was out of the battle, and senior officers were more concerned with replacing him. Yet this attitude did not deter the very bravest figures on the Stalingrad battlefield, who were the medical orderlies, mainly female students or high-school graduates with only the most basic first-aid training. The commander of the 62nd Army’s hundred-strong sanitary company, Zinaida Georgevna Gavrielova, was an eighteen-year-old medical student, who had received the job on the basis of a strong recommendation from the cavalry regiment in which she had just served. Her medical orderlies, few of them much older than herself, had to conquer their terror and crawl forward, often under heavy fire, to reach the wounded. They then dragged them out of the way, until it was safe to carry them on their backs.” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad

You can’t get a medal for that

“Men fell silent when the vodka was produced, everyone eyeing the bottle. The strain of battle was so great that the ration was never considered enough, and soldiers were prepared to go to desperate lengths to meet their need. Surgical spirit was seldom used for its official purpose. Industrial alcohol and even anti-freeze were drunk after being passed through the activated carbon filter of a gas mask. Many soldiers had thrown their gas masks away during the retreats of the previous year, so those who had held on to them could bargain. The result could be much worse than just a bad headache. Most recovered because they were young and healthy and did not resort to it frequently, but those who tried too often went blind.” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad

Fate worse than death

“With ill-defined front lines, and a defence in depth of no more than a few hundred yards in places, command posts were almost as vulnerable as forward positions. ‘Shells exploding on top of our command post were a common occurrence,’ wrote Colonel Timofey Naumovich Vishnevsky, the commander of the 62nd Army’s artillery division, to a friend from hospital. ‘When I left the bunker, I could hear sub-machine-gun fire on all sides. Sometimes it seemed as if the Germans were all around us.’ A German tank came right up to the entrance of his bunker and ‘its hull blocked the only way out’. Vishnevsky and his officers had to dig for their lives to escape into the gully on the far side. The colonel was badly wounded. ‘My face is completely disfigured,’ he wrote, ‘and consequently I will now be the lowest form of life in the eyes of women.’ ” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad

They’ll slap you silly, you try any of that monkey business

“The armored spearhead of 16th Panzer Division had advanced virtually unopposed across the steppe for nearly twenty-five miles. ‘Around Gumrak,’ the division recorded, ‘enemy resistance became stronger and anti-aircraft guns began firing wildly at our armored vehicles from the north-west corner of Stalingrad.’ This resistance came from the batteries operated by young women volunteers, barely out of high school. Few had fired the guns before, owing to the shortage of ammunition, and none of them had been trained to take on targets on the ground. They had switched targets from the bombers over the city on sighting the panzers, whose crews ‘seemed to think they were on a Sunday promenade’. . . . The anti-aircraft battery crews were astonishingly resilient. According to [one officer], ‘the girls refused to go down into the bunkers.’ One of them, called Masha, is said to have ‘stayed at her post for four days without being relieved . . . . Russian soldiers treat such women with great wariness.’ “ – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad