Stuff most of you did not know about well-known historical events

This isn’t a debunking piece, but a tidbits piece. I combed my brain to think of small stuff that might make events more interesting.

The Nazi German battleship Bismarck was not only not the mightiest battleship of World War II, it was far from the heaviest-armed. The British had a couple of heavies that outgunned her a bit (HMS Rodney, HMS Nelson), and so did the US Navy even before the Iowa-class superbattleships went to war. Japan’s Yamato, which was on Bismarck‘s side, outgunned it handily. Bismarck, however, was itself a superbattleship in that it could take far more punishment than a typical WWII battlewagon, on a par with the Yamato (Japan built two; Musashi was the other) and Iowa classes. The major powers built only eight superbattleships during the war: four for the US, two for Germany, two for Japan (they laid down a third, but converted it to a heavy fleet carrier).

When the Royal Navy was hunting Bismarck in 1941 (and its sister ship Tirpitz, which never did much), the problem was that battleship guns of the day could beat on Bismarck all day without sinking it–which is about what happened. Of course, once the Royal Navy hammered her guns and propulsion out of action, Bismarck was doomed.

Why didn’t the B-25s that made up Doolittle’s 1942 Tokyo raid return to their carrier? For one thing, they could take off from a carrier but could not land on one, which made their mission a one-way run requiring balls of titanium. Dockside equipment had to winch the planes aboard at San Francisco. For another, their host–the carrier USS Hornet–had to get so close to Japan in order to launch the B-25s that its escorts sank a Japanese picket trawler whose job was to make sure no one got that close to Japan without some sort of warning. That was dangerous on a grand strategic level, because the USN could not afford to lose a single carrier. Thus, as soon as the last B-25 began to climb away, Hornet‘s task force was getting the hell out of there.

Despite their reputation, German WWII tanks were not all that superior to those of the Allies. France, Britain and the Soviet Union all had tanks that were all but impervious to their German adversaries of the time: the French Char B1 bis, the British Matilda II, and the Soviet KV-1 and T-34. By the time German armor met the US Army, the German tanks had better weaponry and range, which was good for the Germans, because they were a) outnumbered, b) prone in some cases to mechanical trouble, c) running out of fuel, and d) subject to death by rocket attack from the Army Air Force.

Why, then, the mystique surrounding the Panzers? For one thing, the Germans pioneered armor/close air support tactics and audacious mobile warfare leadership, which compensated for some deficiencies. (“No, I can’t blow up your tank. But Uncle Stuka can.”) For another, in the US, history is told mainly from a US perspective, and the short version there is that the early US Sherman and Lee tanks were in serious trouble against the German models they faced. Given that the German crews also had far more experience, to us, their performance seemed badass. To the British and Soviets, who had fought and beaten German armor, the latter seemed quite mortal (though deserving healthy respect).

To those unfamiliar with black powder weaponry, Revolutionary (1775-83), Napoleonic (1805-15) and US Civil War (1861-65) weaponry looks pretty similar: muzzle-loading muskets, right? The first two were indeed fought with similar weapons, mainly smoothbore muskets (which were unlikely to hurt anyone farther away than fifty yards). In the Civil War, both sides’ main weapon was the rifled musket, which could hurt someone two hundred yards away and more.

If you think about how armies closed to engage, the situation is explained. Napoleonic armies, when in range to take fire, were a long field goal away from engaging with cold steel. Civil War armies could bang away at the oncoming enemy starting two football fields away. This subtle but key modernization affected tactics throughout the war.

Why didn’t World War I planes break the trench deadlock with bombing? There were not enough aircraft, nor could they carry enough bombs to make a difference. Arguably the highest use of WWI warplanes was to gain aerial reconnaissance information–an art in its infancy–or deny the same to the enemy. Okay, why didn’t tanks break it? To a degree, they did, but the tanks were a) few, b) slower than a walking infantryman, and c) not very reliable. Fun fact: the British had ‘male’ and ‘female’ tanks. The female tank had a vulva surrounded with coiled wire, the better to attract the male tank to mount her, and wore a steel brassiere for comfort.

Okay, okay. The he-tank had a long gun, and the she-tank just had machine guns.

Did the British really march and fight in bright red rows in the Revolutionary War? When the terrain was suitable, yes–but that was a strength, not a weakness. If you leave it up to every individual soldier to fire, military science has learned, a minority have any potential to harm the enemy, and they shoot where they feel like. The European system incorporated this realization, and made sure that nearly everyone did everything at once, which meant that everyone shot, in the same direction, with said direction being chosen by a senior sergeant or officer (who was likely to know where the volley was most needed). In any case, a lot of the Revolution pitted colonial militia against Loyalist militia, where neither side had a significant tactical advantage.

Could the United States have won the Vietnam War? Let’s ask what it would have taken. War ends when one side gives up; thus it would have required the North Vietnamese, and their Viet Cong allies in the south, to give up. The Revolutionary War had something in common with Vietnam (which is why Ho Chi Minh, who was not a fool, took some time to study George Washington): like the colonials, the Communists could only lose if they decided they could fight no more. In Vietnam, the US, South Vietnamese, and their allies killed and wounded well over a million soldiers, guerrillas and civilians–at least one person in twenty. Would it have taken two in twenty? Five in twenty? That approaches the proportion of death that occurred shortly after the war under Pol Pot in Cambodia; would we really have wished to go down in history as a parallel to his kind? Even then, would the Viet Cong have given up?

What if the US-led forces had launched a conventional invasion of North Vietnam, even taken Hanoi? Would China have intervened, as it did in Korea when the UN got too close to its border? Would there have been a nuclear crisis? A fair answer, in my view: “Perhaps we could have…but would it have been worth the cost?” Too many hypotheticals complicate the answer, which is why people are still arguing about it.

Is there any chance at all that Hitler got away to South America? Nope. The NKVD sifted his bunker with all the thoroughness you’d expect of Stalin’s secret police, and went so far as to confirm Hitler’s dental work with his dentist. Stalin found it advantageous to raise doubt in the Allies about the issue after the war. Our best evidence is that most of what the NKVD dug up from the Führerbunker was quietly buried at a Soviet Air Force base at Magdeburg, East Germany, where it sat until the base’s 1970 handover to the East German Air Force. Before the handover, the KGB leadership ordered the remains exhumed, incinerated, crushed, and chucked into a river. There is no credible evidence to suggest that this account is false, nor any reason to doubt it, revealed as it was shortly after the collapse of the USSR.

In any case, even had Hitler escaped, it is unlikely he would have lived much longer. He was a mess by 1945, thanks to a combination of stress, deteriorating sanity, the effects of the 1944 assassination attempt, and quack drug prescriptions such as meth. Yes, meth.

How come the Japanese kicked the crap out of the Anglo-Dutch-Americans at first in WWII? The Dutch had little to fight with (though that little acquitted itself well). The Anglo-Americans were tactically and strategically surprised at the outset, and very much underestimated the Japanese on all levels. It took the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor (a strategic failure, in hindsight), occupying the Dutch East Indies with its oil wealth, and grabbing the Philippines (humiliating the Americans in Asian eyes, which was an idea with political currency in the time and region) for the Allies to learn that their Japanese adversary was brave, well-equipped, highly motivated, and committed to winning or dying.

Gods only know how it might have gone if the Japanese had imagined that dumb foreigners could break some of their naval codes, or if the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy had cooperated better. By the way, had the Anglo-Americans shown their erstwhile WWI ally Japan a little more respect, there might not have been a war at all. Of course, that would have meant letting Japan do as it wished in China, and what Japan wished to do was loot China’s resources and crush opposition without mercy. Considering that the West had done that in Africa and Asia without much remorse, the Japanese didn’t understand why they couldn’t join the colonial exploitation club.

World War II didn’t start on December 7, 1941. That’s just when the US made its entry official (we had been leaning to the Allies for over two years). It could be argued that it began on September 1, 1939, except that the Asian conflict at that point was Japan vs. China, with no direct connection to the European war. The Japanese full-dress invasion of China began July 7, 1937, when Japanese troops left Manchuria (which they had grabbed in 1931) to invade the rest of China. So you can argue that it began in 1941, or 1939, or 1937, or 1931 depending on perspective and your definition of a global war. Of course, go that far back, and you can argue that WWII was a resumption of WWI after a mismanaged intermission.

When it comes to the root cause of the Civil War, there aren’t many objective commentators. While the Confederacy talked big about ‘states’ rights,’ the primary right in question was to continue slavery, and to extend it into new states. If all new states became free states, Southern leaders could see that they would begin to lose sooner rather than later in both Congressional houses. And while the Union made plenty of noise about slavery, hardly anyone in the North would have willingly gone to war to eradicate human bondage. To the Union, the war was an insurrection to be suppressed, representing the transition from a loose association of self-governing states (the original vision, which the Confederacy more closely resembled) to a strong Federalized power.

For the United States’ first seventy-five years or so, the available money was inconsistent enough in value to bring to mind Bitcoins. We did not mint nearly enough coinage for commerce, so foreign silver circulated in large amounts that didn’t always match up to round-number $US conversions. Banknotes were just that, paper money issued by a bank, tending to decrease in value as the bill traveled farther from the issuing bank. And if the bank went bust (and before the FDIC, more banks did), so did its money.

You probably know that Columbus didn’t ‘discover America,’ because in the first place it was already fully discovered by the Native Americans who populated it, and in the second, there is unimpeachable evidence at least of previous Norse visits, and reasonable suspicion of others. It’s pretty simple: the American continental mass blocked all sea travel from the Arctic ice sheet to a point several hundred miles from Antarctica, which means if anyone traveled by sea and sailed in the right direction, and survived long enough, he would hit the Americas. Survival was the main problem, since ships could run short of fresh water on long voyages. Inability to determine longitude was the other. In 1492, a European sailing vessel knew exactly how far north or south it was, but not exactly how far east or west.

Okay, what did Columbus actually do? He first landed, we believe, in the Bahamas. We have no evidence he ever set foot on the future territory of the fifty United States (though he did in Puerto Rico, and at least spotted the Virgin Islands). He did land in America, but it was Central America, and only on his fourth voyage. He didn’t initiate the Transatlantic slave trade, but did enslave, rape and torture Natives. The idea of naming anything after him, especially a religious fraternal order or a celebratory day, is disgusting.

The golden age of piracy, as we see it in the Western world, didn’t really last very long; one might date it from 1650-1730 CE. It has a fair analogy to the gold rushes of the American West, in that very few actually practicing piracy got wealthy, but a lot of people got wealthy off piracy without ever turning pirate. Why? All that stolen swag was either money or goods. Pirates could spend the money with merchants. Merchants could buy the goods at criminally cheap prices and resell them for great profit. A very, very few pirates themselves retired wealthy. It’s also important to distinguish between privateers, who were legal pirates in a sense provided they preyed only upon certain powers’ shipping, and pirates, who had no legal sanction.

If a World War II country deserves to be remembered for a never-quit attitude, it’s Poland. The first Western country to have its territory subdued by warfare rather than diplomatic bullying, Poles showed up on land, sea and air for nearly every Allied campaign for the duration of the war. They also kept up an obstinate resistance on home soil in spite of one the most ruthless and protracted occupations of the war. A Polish destroyer helped chase the Bismarck to its fate. Poles fought in the snow at Narvik, flew in the Battle of Britain, defended the Maginot Line, fought the Afrika Korps in the Western Desert, stormed Monte Cassino when other highly regarded troops could not, and jumped in with three Allied airborne divisions in Operation Market-Garden.

The War of 1812 had elements of Revolutionary War Round 2, but like the Revolutionary War, was to some degree a sideshow of a greater conflict. In the Western world at that time, the central power struggle was France vs. Britain, the classic land power vs. the classic naval power. The colonies (later states) were never Britain’s biggest worry. That worry was the potential for the stars to align enabling France to invade Britain in force; whether due to a weather event that broke the Royal Navy’s screen, or some mistake by an admiral, this was necessarily uppermost in British strategic thought. As hard as it may be for us to accept, we just weren’t that important in the grand scheme of things–except, of course, to ourselves.

Hitler’s SS (Schutzstaffel) was not just an elite, brutal striking force (nor was all of it elite or brutal). It more resembled a megacorporation with a military arm, and that arm was not of universally high fighting ability, nor did all of it commit atrocities. The SS recruited over a dozen divisions that were not even of Germanic background, plus many smaller units; some fought well, while some were semi-useless or even mutinous. Some units (of various backgrounds) were guilty of systematic atrocities, while others have no documented record of war crimes.

In World War I, why didn’t they just blow up all that wire and trenching with artillery, and break the stalemate? They tried, and it did not work. WWI artillery of the day, assuming it struck precisely where it should, didn’t clear a usable path through barbed wire. It would have an impact on the trenches just by landing near them, but only direct hits had potential to clean out a small local section of trench defense, which could be reinforced quickly enough. The trench systems were several levels deep, with connecting trenching, so it wasn’t just a matter of getting lucky enough to take out one whole sector of the front.

World War II came home to the United States in more ways than just a few Japanese balloon incendiaries and crap-your-pants shelling from submarine deck guns. Very shortly after the US entered the war, German submarines entered a very productive period of sinking our tonnage. Our anti-submarine capability and tactics were awful at first, leading to many sinkings within sight of US shores. The government, not unreasonably, kept the magnitude of this from the public. The British and Canadians, with a vested interest in getting our warmaking means across the Atlantic, tried to recommend better tactics. Our pigheadedness cost thousands of American mariners’ lives.

The country that could have decided World War II in Europe: Turkey. Except for the pro forma war declaration near the end, the Turkish Republic remained neutral, with not a single Turkish soldier dying in combat. Let us imagine that Turkey had joined the Axis in early 1942: immediately the Soviet flank is turned in the Caucasus, the British flank is turned in the Near East with probable loss of Egypt, Germany and Italy grab the Caucasian oil fields–and most likely those in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula as well. The Suez closes to Allied shipping. A disaster of the first magnitude.

Or, let’s suppose Turkey joined the Allies at that same time. Right when he could least spare it, Hitler would have to scrape up a force to hold Bulgaria and Greece, and even if he brought enough muscle to drive the Turks from Thrace, he’d still have Istanbul to control and an angry Turkey bristling from the Asian side of the Sea of Marmara. The Soviet Caucasus front would acquire more depth; Turkish troops might tip the balance in North Africa, or at least free up the Commonwealth garrisons in Palestine, Syria and Iraq. Even granting that Turkey would not welcome Soviet troops on its soil except in the gravest extreme, there is no reasonable scenario that imagines the Axis conquering an Allied (mountainous, rugged, obstinately defended) Turkey while watching the French coastline, trying to conquer Egypt, keeping many subject populations suppressed, and fully engaged in the USSR. Turkish airbases would have made it very practical for the Allies to bomb the Ploesti oil facilities in Axis-aligned Romania. There are reasons Churchill had as a key geopolitical goal the persuasion of Turkish President İsmet İnönü to enter the war as an Ally, well beyond the urgency to keep him from entering the Axis.

The Roman Empire did and did not last a thousand years. Let’s sort this out once and for all. For its first 250 years, Rome was a kingdom, ruled for the last century of that monarchy by kings of Etruscan heritage. (Etruria is modern Tuscany, where you go in search of dolce vita and Chianti after reading too much Frances Mayes.) For its next 500 years, Rome had a republican form of government. It did not consolidate the rule of the Italian peninsula until the second half of this period, and did not begin to show imperial ambitions until the last 200 years, mostly as a result of wars to the knife with Carthage. In the Republic’s last century, when Rome had become master of most of the Mediterranean, civil war began to tear apart the fabric of republican government.

The question of when Rome transitioned from republic to empire is not so clear-cut as people usually make it out to be. Julius Caesar was never Emperor of Rome, though he seized as much power over the state as he could grasp. After his famed assassination, and some more civil war, Octavian (who became Augustus, the name by which history remembers him) was voted power much like Caesar’s, but still went through the republican motions. So did his son Tiberius, to a degree, though it began to be polite fiction in his day. That gets us from 45 BCE (Caesar’s primacy) to 37 CE, when Gaius (you know him as Caligula) ceased any pretense of republicanism–a span of eighty-two years.

The Empire began to crack into halves around 300 CE, and by 363 its division seemed irreparable. Within just a bit more than a century, the Western Empire found itself overrun by mostly Germanic peoples, but the Eastern Empire survived and became what we know as the Byzantine Empire, dominated more by Greek culture than Roman. The last Byzantine bastion, Byzantium itself, fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE. Whether it was still much of an empire in 1400 is a fair question, since Byzantium had been in decline for two centuries, but at least in that form, the Roman Empire did last for well over a millennium. At what point it ceased to deserve the label ‘Roman’ is as valid a question as when Byzantium deteriorated into a mere city-state with some hinterland. However, there is no valid doubt that Byzantium was the unbroken successor government to the Eastern Roman Empire.

Ancient Sparta’s military prowess was directed more inward than outward. The Spartan city-state depended upon helots–slaves–for its economic viability. Much like antebellum Virginia, a major slave revolt sent chills up and down spines. The Spartan army had the primary duty of making sure the helots didn’t rebel. Admire Sparta if you wish for its toughness, but do remember that its society was morally on a level with the harshest examples, even stereotypes, of plantation slavery in US history.

6 thoughts on “Stuff most of you did not know about well-known historical events”

  1. Interesting tidbits!!! I didn’t know about a lot of these curious and sometimes counter-intuitive facts.

    I’m curious about your statements about Columbus. Unfortunately slavery was commonplace across most the the planet (and effectively still is in some parts today). The natives of the America’s practiced slavery, torture, rape and even human sacrifice when Columbus landed.

    The Norse who discovered the Americas centuries before (and in open boats across the North Atlantic!) were some of the fiercest most savage fighters and conquerors to have ever walked the planet. The Norse were notorious as slavers in Europe.

    So even mentioning slavery as something worthy of note regarding Columbus strikes me as a reflection more of today’s politics than what is noteworthy from the history of the Americas at that time or the history regarding the discovery of the Americas.

    Yet my understanding is that Columbus, as a governor, was a cruel, incompetent, pig-headed, tyrannical bastard by the measure of his own period in history. He relied on torture to enforce laws more than more moderate measures and common sense.

    Unfortunately, much of the information regarding Columbus’ nastiness hasn’t come to light until recently (the last 35 years). The one thing that Columbus excelled at was dead reckoning navigation. This is one of the principle reasons that Portuguese fishermen in New England in the 1880’s chose Columbus as their patron figure for their fraternal organization. Deep sea fishermen today have a 10% mortality/incapacitation rate. In the 1880’s it was closer to 50%.

    So one of the few benefits of having a fraternal organization named after Columbus is that it shows us the critical importance of studying history and educating ourselves about what took place.

    Thank you for the these intriguing insights into history!

    1. You’re welcome, Aubrey, and thanks for amplifying the Columbus story. Everything you wrote (including his prowess as a mariner) is accurate to my knowledge. Here’s why the Columbus story is brought up: we have a national holiday for him. His name applies to one of the synonyms for our continent. It is found in state capitals, county names (it would not surprise me if thirty states had either cities named Columbus/Columbia, counties by that name, or both), and my favorite river (within a half hour of which I lived half my life, and will soon again). The motive for me bringing it up, therefore, is not so much modern politics as it is the ubiquity of his name on our landscape, which is not justified in any way I can see. A secondary motive, of course, is that our pop history has greatly misrepresented him in many respects–and that has been going on for a very long time. It is not that he was the worst human being in our history; far from it. It is that he in no way merits his place on our landscape.

  2. I hadn’t even thought about the number of locations and geographic features named after him. His name really is all over the place!

    What’s interesting is that I don’t mentally associate these things with the man Columbus. My association is with nature and beauty. I think of something named Columbia and I think of natural beauty and old limestone buildings. Perhaps that’s a good thing — or a testament to the extent which history becomes embedded within the backdrop of plain sight.

    I would be interested to see if people would be willing to rename some of the Columbus-named natural features after some of the great native Americans of which we have recorded history? Even just a few re-namings would shift focus a lot.

    I’m not suggesting we erase his name — I think there is value in understanding and remembering his significant failures as a human being along with some of his accomplishments. But, I definitely don’t think his name should be effectively enshrined all over our landscape — it’s a bit ridiculous. This is a bit extreme as an example, but can you imagine naming a river or lake after Brutus? How about Stalin Avenue? How about Pinochet place?! That would be crazy.

    1. It’s a fair point. It would be no service to erase him–he is part of history–but I’d like to see the admiration dialed back. Unfortunately, he quickly becomes tied in with religious defenders, whom our leaders are afraid to challenge in a nation where a certain level of religious devotion to some portion of a majority faith is a prerequisite for most offices.

      There’s one simple solution, at least to natural terrain features: find what the local Native Americans called them, and use that. Denali is a prominent example. And I wouldn’t love the Columbia a bit less if it became again N’chi-wana, or Mt. Adams became once again Pah-to.

      Perhaps the best handled example was the renaming of Squaw Mountain, or something like that, for Lori Piestewa. You probably recall her as a southwestern Native who, caught in an Iraqi ambush, fought to her death. But most of our solutions will not make everyone happy that way, and some people would just have to exercise their right to be offended while accepting the new reality. Which might be the very old reality brought back to life.

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