Custer and Gall, Jellicoe and Heisenberg and the Monkey Wrench

This week’s musings are a little more esoteric than usual, but there it is.  While we note the birth of Martin Van Buren on 5 December 1782, of Clyde Cessna in 1879, of Walt Disney in 1901, the patenting of nitrocellulose in 1846, and the end of Prohibition in the United States in 1933, today your intrepid researcher chooses some more closely related persons to expound upon…and things like pipe wrenches that your intrepid researcher and consistently failed plumber owns but cannot use.

By the end of the Civil War he was a major general of Volunteers (a strictly wartime rank) and a reputation as one of the boldest cavalry leaders in the Army.

On 5 December 1839 George A. Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio.  Known variously as Armstrong, Ringlets (for his hair, about which he was quite vain) and Iron Butt (for his stamina in the saddle), Custer graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point (albeit a year earlier than scheduled) and was commissioned a lieutenant in the cavalry in 1861. He distinguished himself with dash and initiative in the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 enough to be brevetted to lieutenant colonel dating from Antietam, and was made a brigadier general of volunteers just before Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, where he led the Michigan cavalry to stop JEB Stuart’s flanking maneuver on 3 July. By the end of the Civil War he was a major general of Volunteers (a strictly wartime rank) and a reputation as one of the boldest cavalry leaders in the Army. After his mustering out, Custer returned to the regular Army at his permanent rank, lieutenant colonel.  For the next decade Custer led the 7th Cavalry on long marches, campaigns and battles primarily with the Sioux in the northern Plains.  His death, with some 200-odd of his troopers at the Little Bighorn on 25 June 1876 has overshadowed the rest of his accomplishments.

After fleeing to Canada for a few years, Gall brought his people back to the United States, surrendered and was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation on the Dakota border.

Very little is known for certain about the early life of Hunkpapa Lakota/Sioux leader known as Chief Gall–who got his name, it is said, after he ate the gall bladder of an animal.  Born around 1840, almost certainly in modern South Dakota, Gall was a war chief by the time he was in his twenties, and was present at the Little Bighorn when Custer met his end.  After fleeing to Canada for a few years, Gall brought his people back to the United States, surrendered and was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation on the Dakota border.  Gall encouraged his people to assimilate to their lot in the white man’s life, and apparently they did for a time. Gall himself converted to Christianity, served as a tribal judge, and died peacefully in his sleep on 5 December, 1894 in Wakpala, South Dakota.  Gall was one of the only Native American chiefs of the Little Bighorn battle to die of natural causes, and ironically on Custer’s birthday.

Jellicoe, called “the only man who could lose a war in an afternoon” because of Jutland, was appointed First Sea Lord after Jutland, and after the war was Governor-General of New Zealand.

On 5 December 1859, John Jellicoe was born in Southhampton, England.  At the age of thirteen Jellicoe entered the Royal Navy, and was in that service for the rest of his adult life.  He was best known as an early advocate of Fisher’s “big gun” battleship and “large cruiser” ideas, resulting in the Dreadnaughts and the Invincible battlecruisers. He was also something of an innovator of naval gunnery, testing early central gun directors. Jellicoe was also the commander of the Grand Fleet, the renamed Home Fleet, at the beginning of World War I and was in charge at the largest naval clash of the Great War, the ambiguous Jutland/Skagerrak battle in late May 1916.  Depending on point of view, Jutland resulted in either a tactical draw, an operational defeat for Britain (who lost more ships), a strategic defeat for Germany (who never sortied the fleet again), and a grand strategic defeat for Tsarist Russia (who was completely cut off from any assistance from her allies).  Jellicoe, called “the only man who could lose a war in an afternoon” because of Jutland, was appointed First Sea Lord after Jutland, and after the war was Governor-General of New Zealand.   Jellicoe died 20 November 1935 in Kensington.

In 1939, Heisenberg was a part of the “Uranium Club,” the German effort to build nuclear weapons.

Werner Heisenberg was born on 5 December 1901 at Wurzburg, which was then a part of Bavaria.  In 1919, though he managed to avoid military service in WWI, he was a member of the Freikorps fighting the Bavarian Socialist Republic. This didn’t seem to have affected his studies: he studied physics in Munich and Gottingen, and met Niels Bohr in June 1922. His work on matrix and quantum mechanics earned him notoriety in the theoretical physics community, earning him a Nobel Prize in physics in 1932. In the early days of the Nazi government, Heisenberg was under examination for his work in “Jewish” (theoretical) physics, but was eventually rehabilitated into the fold of academics on the cutting edge of science. In 1939, Heisenberg was a part of the “Uranium Club,” the German effort to build nuclear weapons. By 1942, Heisenberg told his Nazi masters that 1) nuclear weapons were not possible to produce within the expected timeframe of the war, and 2) they were probably not within Germany’s industrial capacity within that timeframe.  Nuclear research in Germany thereupon switched priorities to energy extraction, which proceeded in fits and starts until the end of the war.  According to postwar interrogations of the leading German nuclear physicists in Allied hands, it seems clear that Heisenberg had miscalculated uranium decay by orders of magnitude, and likely would not have resulted in any practical applications.  Heisenberg died 1 February, 1976, in Munich.  His lasting legacy, it is said, is the “uncertainty principle” which says that a measurement affects the phenomenon.

His 5 December 1876 patent, one of many follow-ons, was for a wrench suitable for both pipe and flat-sided fasteners.  This one wasn’t near as successful, nor near as popular or emulated as his first.  

In the mid-19th century, indoor plumbing was beginning to matter a lot more than it had before.  Cities were growing; the flush toilet made buildings over three stories practical; sanitation was becoming a growing concern.  Threaded pipe, developed sometime between 1850 and 1860, wasn’t easy to tighten and was the only practical way to plumb in tall buildings.  A number of inventors tackled the problem of tightening pipe, but Daniel Stillson, working at the Walworth Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, came up with an innovative idea that took advantage of the relatively soft outside of a steel pipe by gripping it with angled teeth.  Stillson’s first wrench patent, issued 12 October, 1869, shows the familiar outlines of what we have come to call the monkey (for “monkey paw,” an appellation from South African plumbers), pipe, or Stillson wrench ever since.  His 5 December 1876 patent (above), one of many follow-ons, was for a wrench suitable for both pipe and flat-sided fasteners.  This one wasn’t near as successful, nor near as popular or emulated as his first, which made him well-off on royalties.  Stillson was granted a number of other patents over the years, nearly all for something related to pipes or plumbing, including fire apparatus. Stillson died in Somerville, Massachusetts on 21 August 1899. The original Stillson wrench still exists, is said to still work, and its parts are said to be interchangeable with a wrench of similar size manufactured yesterday.  Be that as it may, my wife still won’t let me touch water or gas-carrying pipes with tools, regardless of how much I know about my wrenches. Smart woman.

 

20 November: Cambrai and Tarawa

As a matter of perspective, these two battles shouldn’t even be in the same century.  The British attack on the German positions in front of  Cambrai  in norther France were a part of a conflict that Tarawa could not seriously have been a part of, but the slaughter-fest of Tarawa was easily a throwback to the butchery of the Western Front of WWI.

By late 1917 the Allied planners were not only running out of men they were running out of generals willing to use their soldiers bodies as battering rams against each other.  1917 was a weak mirror of 1916’s horrific bloodletting on all fronts from Flanders to the Caucasus.  The French Army was on the verge of collapse, the British relying on Canadians and Australians to shore up their staggering troops, and the Americans were unwilling to do what they were supposed to do, which was to turn over their milk-and-beef-fed manpower to the French and British to shore up their bleeding divisions.

So the British turned to Winston Churchill’s “land battleships” that we now know as “tanks.”  They had nearly four hundred of the huge mechanical contraptions on hand, and thought that with creeping barrages, infiltrating infantry, close air-ground coordination and some good weather they might achieve a breakthrough that could seize the German supply hub at Cambrai, cutting off supply to the Hindenburg Line and displacing the whole of the German force in France.  Although this sounds a great deal like what the Germans would do six months later in the “Michael” offensive and beyond, the British had taken the same lessons from the success of the Huitier tactics first seen in Russia that the Germans who developed them had.

A generation later, the Americans were trying to decide the best way to grapple with the Japanese in the Pacific.  With New Guinea in hand, the Solomons more secure than they were, and the Japanese fleet unbalanced, the planners looked at the next step towards the prewar plan to blockade Japan prior to invasion.  They needed the Marshall Islands as bases, and from the Solomons and the Allied bases in New Zealand and French Polynesia, that meant they needed the Gilbert Islands.  The largest island in that chain was Betio, a part of the Tarawa atoll.

The Americans had spent much of the period between Versailles and Pearl Harbor thinking about how to cross a quarter of the world to bring Japan under its guns.  The US Marines were the US Navy’s base-grabbers, and the Marines had been built from the fire team level up to secure the bases needed to do that.  But like the large numbers of tanks at Cambrai, they had very little live experience at capturing hot beaches.  They had been blooded in the Solomons (where the landing was essentially unopposed) and at Makin (a raid), but their long training and many beach landings had not prepared them for an opposed landing.  They knew that the Gallipoli campaign was, to put it mildly, a negative example of what to do.   But, tactically, how this would work was still a theory.

Cambrai kicked off on 20 November 1917 with the British Third Army under Julian Byng barraging the German Second and Third Armies under Georg von der Marwitz in front of Cambrai, followed by a fraction (sources differ, but probably more than  400) of the tanks that made it to the front and their accompanying infantry.  Though the Germans were ready and had some antitank weapons the sheer number was a problem, even if the early machines were more likely to simply break down than be knocked out by enemy action.  The result was an unexpectedly spectacular British success in some places, unexpected failure in others.

At Tarawa, success was a matter of staying alive.  By the time the Marines stormed ashore on 20 November 1943 the Americas had pounded the two mile by 800 yard coral rock with more ordnance in three days than the Americans used in their civil war.  As the landing craft carrying Julian Smith’s 2nd Marine Division approached the beaches they grounded, often as not, on  coral reefs that hadn’t been accounted for in pre-battle planning.  No one had expected that around that blasted coral rock, oceanographers would first discover the maximum neep tide that would only occur about twice a year, and not everywhere at the same time.  But the landing craft grounded on the reefs that were supposed to be underwater a hundred yards or so from the beach, the ramps would drop, and the Marines would step out into the water often over their heads, and the lucky ones would merely drown.  Many of the rest would be shredded by the Japanese of Keiji Shibazaki’s garrison’s automatic weapons and artillery, which were quite unaffected by the American bombardment.  By dark on the first day the Marines were barely ashore, their casualties in some companies was more than 50%, and the Japanese just kept fighting.

Cambrai turned into a version of what had already happened over and again on the Western Front: attack, counter-attack, bombardment and repeat.  This went on until 7 December, and the territorial gains were minuscule compared to the human cost.  Both sides used the new infiltration tactics, but in the end the artillery dominated, as did exhaustion and a weariness of killing.  Very little changed for another eighty thousand casualties and a quarter of the tanks in the world.

On Tarawa, the slaughtering went on for three days.  The first use of what what would be called “corkscrew and blowtorch” tactics were used against Japanese strongpoints (essentially pinning the defenders down with automatic weapons fire so that flamethrowers could get close enough to be effective).  The Marines suffered some three thousand casualties with about half killed out of a 16,000 man division.  Of somewhat more than 4,600 Japanese defenders, all but 150 or so were killed.

Cambrai pointed the way to eventual success of armored thrusts and coordinated air/ground tactics, together with quick and intense artillery barrages that the Germans would use in 1918, and again in 1939.  Tarawa would point the way to Japanese destruction by isolation because death was their only option as long as they kept faith with the leadership in Tokyo.  It would also show the Americans that hot beaches would need somewhat more than raw courage to overcome.

11 November: Nat Turner, VMI, George Patton, and The War to End All Wars…That Wasn’t

It is axiomatic for a  military history scrivener such as myself to write about the end of World War I on Armistice/Remembrance/Veteran’s Day.  And I shall…in a moment.  First we should take a moment to consider that other things happened on that day in other years, both before and after.

In 1831, a Virginia slave, lay preacher and mystic named Nat Turner interpreted from the two solar eclipses of that year that the time was right for a slave rebellion.  There had been eleven such risings in the United States since 1712, the latest before Turner’s was in South Carolina known as the Denmark Vesey revolt in 1822.  On 21 August 1831, the revolt began.  For two days the seventy slaves and free blacks that participated in the rising ravaged farms and homes in Southampton County, Virginia, eventually killing some sixty white men, women and children.   As local militias rounded up and arrested the rebels, Turner hid out until 30 October.  Tried for servile insurrection rather than murder, Turner was hanged on 11 November 1831.  The Nat Turner Revolt, as it has been called since, sent a chill through the slave-holding South second only to the the more successful slave revolt in Haiti in 1804 that resulted in hundreds of slave owners being brutally murdered.  New and repressive laws were passed restricting slave social activities and what few liberties they had.

In 1839, the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) was founded in Lexington.  Originally one of several Virginia arsenals set up after the War of 1812, the first President was Claudius Crozet, a French-born graduate of the exclusive Ecole Polytechnique engineering school who had taught at West Point.   VMI has produced some of America’s best soldiers, including George C. Marshall, Lemuel Shepard, Leonard Gerow, and John Jumper.

On this day in 1885, in San Gabriel, California, George Smith Patton Junior was born.  Georgie, as he was called by his family, always had a marital career in mind.  He attended VMI as an undergraduate before being accepted at West Point.  Graduating 46th in a class of 103 in 1909, he was branched to the cavalry.  Patton always had a mind of his own, and a private fortune to back it up, so his career was only limited by his ability to get higher postings.  While he was a superb organizer and tactician he had little patience for those who disagreed with his plans, including his superiors.  Patton did not understand that the larger the units the bigger the politics and public exposure, and refused in some cases to be anything other than his own vision of marital glory.  Even as he rose in the ranks the consensus was that he was useful, but not indispensable.  As a tactical commander he was useful: as a senior officer, less so.  His death in a traffic accident in 1945 put a counterpoint on a style of soldier who had outlived its usefulness.

And on 11 November, 1918, when the guns finally fell silent on the Western Front, the killing did not yet stop, not for several days.  Parts of the Meuse-Argonne sector, where the Americans had been attacking since September, were out of communications, and the German forces in Africa wouldn’t get the word of the surrender at Compiegne.  Aside from that, Russia was in civil war, Germany was in revolution, and Austria and Hungary were in chaos,  Worse, the 1918 Influenza was still killing people at a rate that made the Western Front seem…amateurish…and was not a respecter of non-combatants or borders.  While the war caused some ten million dead directly, the influenza probably killed one hundred million, affecting one in four people on the face of the earth before it died out in 1921.

9 November: A Banner Day for Germany

Although some years were much better than others, 9 November for Germans was momentous, especially in the 20th century.

In 1914, the Dresden-class light cruiser SMS Emden was operating in the Indian Ocean, where she sank Russian and French warships at Penang, captured two dozen cargo vessels and converted one into raider Kormoran.   On 9 November she was raiding a British radio station on Direction Island in the Cocos Islands when she was caught by an Australian light cruiser, HMAS Sidney. In a short and uneven fight where the Australian out-ranged the German by at least a thousand yards, Sidney managed to damage her opponent enough that Emden grounded on North Keeling Island to save what could be saved of the crew.  About a third of the Germans were killed, compared to less than ten percent of the Australians.  Part of the German’s landing party that had been left behind on Direction Island made it back as far as Turkey, where they joined the crew of battle cruiser Goeben.

Four years to the day later, Wilhelm II of Germany was abdicated from his thrones by his chancellor, Prince Max of Baden as Wilhelm fled into Holland ahead of a howling mob inspired by the Russian revolution.  He was the last king of Prussia (a dynasty that had been founded in 1701), and the third and last emperor of Germany, an empire his grandfather pronounced in 1871 and to which he ascended in 1881.  He was also the eldest grandson of Queen Victoria of Great Britain, and was thus related by marriage and blood to nearly every royal house in Europe.  On 25 November, Wilhelm submitted his formal abdications.  Max, in the cusp of a revolution boiling throughout Germany, had tried unsuccessfully to preserve a monarchy, but to avoid chaos agreed to the formation of a republic in Germany and renouncing any claims of the Crown Prince, also named Wilhelm.

In 1938, Germany was once again wracked by violence on what was known as the “night of broken glass,” or Kristallnacht.  Using the murder of a German diplomat in France as a pretext, German paramilitary organizations and disorganized mobs killed hundreds of Jews and destroyed thousands of businesses, schools, synagogues and homes of Jews throughout Germany.  Further, some thirty thousand Jews were arrested, eventually to be killed in the German camps.  It was the first time that the outside world saw what Germany had become, internally, as police and other authorities stood by and watched.

Finally, on 9 November 1989, after weeks of unrest in Eastern Bloc nations, it became obvious even to the East Germans that the hemorrhaging of Germans into Hungary and across the border into Austria (which had been opened on 11 September) was not going to be abated, and permission was given for East Germans to “visit” the West.  Not to be delayed by hundreds of miles of travel, soldiers and civilians alike in Berlin broke up and tore down the wall as the border guards looked on…or helped.  For days afterwards Berlin was a carnival atmosphere as old Stazi hands and other DDR functionaries were detained, hunted down or murdered in the “bloodless” revolution that followed.  As Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and finally Romania threw off their Moscow-controlled chains for the next few months, the West realized that Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union had been weaker than they had earlier thought.