Thursday, August 29, 2013

Chemical Warfare and World War Two

With the current situation in Syria seemingly including the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, it may be interesting to examine why the arguably most brutal totalitarian regime of the 20th century - Nazi Germany - refrained from using their vast stockpiles of nerve gas and other agents. Even with the Third Reich surrounded by the Allies and with most of its cities devastated due to the Allied strategic bombing offensive, the Nazi regime kept its chemical weapons under lock and key. But was the Third Reich considering adding chemical warfare to the horrors of World War Two?

The use of chemical weapons was widespread during World War One, and even the inter-war years had their fair share of chemical weapons use. In 1919, Great Britain used gas against the Boshevik Red Army in Archangelsk during the Russian Civil War, while the Soviets supposedly used gas against rebels and insurgents in Central Asia in 1920 and again in the 1930s. France mustard gassed Moroccans in 1925, and Great Britain used chemical weapons to police their Middle Eastern colonies between 1920 and 1925. The Italians used tear-, mustard- and phosgene gas against the Ethiopians between 1935 and 1936, and the Japanese did not mind using chemical weapons against the Chinese from the late 1930s on to the end of World War Two.  

At the outbreak of World War Two, the actual quantities of chemical weapons in the hands of the Axis and Allies were fairly limited, although both sides claimed that the other side had vast quantities at hand. There were several kinds of delivery systems available, though, and these included aerial bombs and sprays, mortars, artillery shells and canisters as well as torches and projectors. Multiple rocket launchers were added to the array of delivery systems as the war progressed. Once war broke out, the stockpiles increased radically, and by 1945 Great Britain had 36,000 tons of chemical weapons, Japan 8,000 tons, the United States 50,000 tons, and Germany more than 70,000 tons. The Soviet production was considerable as well. It is worth noting that the weights listed above include the weight of the ordnance itself, and not just the weight of the chemical agent. It is also worth noting that the US stockpile skyrocketed to 150,000 tons just before V-J Day, presumably to support an invasion of Japan.

All participants in World War Two planned for or against chemical warfare, and the approximately 1.3 million chemical warfare casualties of World War One were comparatively fresh in the memory of decision makers, not to mention the memory of how chemical warfare helped slow down the operational pace of the Western Front. Using chemical weapons to support the fast-paced deep operations conceived by Germans and Soviets in particular could be seen as negating the advantages of speedy advances and deep strikes. There was much discussion regarding the use of chemical weapons against civilian targets, but the consequences were seen by many as unpredictable and terrifying.

German chemical warfare vehicles. 

The Germans did plan for the use of chemical and biological weapons to support an invasion of Great Britain, and the captured plans remained classified by the Ministry of Home Security until June 2011. Great Britain, on the other hand, planned for the use of chemical weapons as a last-ditch defense if the Germans made it actually gained a foothold on the British Isles.

There were minor cases of the use of chemical weapons in Europe during World War Two, most notably on September 8, 1939, when Polish troops defending a bridge near the village of Jasno had rigged a bridge with explosives and mustard gas. As German troops from the first company of Gebigs-Pioniere Battailon 82 attempted to clear the bridge the charge detonated, and 14 German soldiers were affected by mustard gas, two of them fatally. The German High Command investigated the incident but deemed it to be of local character.

Another more destructive chemical warfare event took place December 2, 1943, when the American Liberty ship SS John Harvey was hit by a German bomber while at the Italian port of Bari. The vessel had a secret cargo of mustard gas, and the explosion spread the agent around the stricken ship. The Office of the Chief of Naval Operations claimed that there were 628 gas casualties. Sixty-nine of these casualties were fatalities.A number of Italian civilians were affected as well, but the Allies denied that this was due to mustard gas until 1974.

The chemical structure of Sarin.

The Third Reich had one potentially significant advantage over the Allies regarding chemical weapons: nerve gas. The nerve agent Tabun (Ethyl Dimethylphosphoramidocyanidate) was discovered in Germany by accident in 1936, when a scientist by the name of Gerhard Schrader was doing research on pesticides on behalf of industrial giant IG Farben. By 1942 the Third Reich started industrial scale production and further research led to discoveries of even more lethal agents, Sarin and Soman. However, since the original research regarding the class of compounds called organophosphates that are essential for the production of  nerve agents was done by a A. E. Arbuzov, a Soviet chemist at the school of organo-phosphorous chemistry Kazan, the Germans assumed that the Soviets had access to nerve gas. They had not.

Also, according to Hitler's nerve agent expert Otto Ambros, the Allies stopped publication of research regarding organophosphates, and considering the size and capacity of the U.S. petrochemical industry, Ambros came to the conclusion that the United States had nerve agents as well. They also did not, and the lack of publication on organophosphate research was actually to protect research into DDT. It was of course fortunate that many German leaders believed that the Allies had nerve agents, and that any use of chemical weapons on behalf of the Germans would involve Allied retaliation. The Allies were well aware of the German chemical warfare capabilities, and one of the many concerns facing Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower on D-Day was a German gas attack on the crowded beaches of Normandy, and Allied intelligence were concerned about chemical warfare attacks on the invasion beaches in Italy as well.

 158th Regimental Combat Team Bushmaster unit, equipped with M1A2 gas masks, training in Panama, 1942.

As the fortunes of the Third Reich declined, Hitler was pressured to deploy chemical weapons in general and nerve gas in particular to defend the crumbling Reich. Three leading Nazis, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, Reichsleiter Martin Borman and the head of the German Labor Front, Robert Ley, were particularly outspoken in support of the use of chemical weapons, especially in late 1944. Armaments minister Albert Speer quoted Ley as saying "You know we have this new poison gas - I've heard about it. The F├╝hrer must do it. He must use it. This is the last moment." Yet, Hitler did not allow the use of chemical weapons, although he is supposed to have hinted at using such weapons to stop the Soviet advance.

In retrospect it may seem a tad odd that a dictator with the ruthless characteristics of Adolf Hitler would refrain from using chemical weapons. Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qadhafi and in all likelihood Bashar al-Assad are amongst the users of chemical weapons, but Hitler is not. Can it be that his own experiences from World War One made him more than a little wary of the gas weapon?

Children wearing gas masks during WW2.


Austin Bay. Chemical Warfare: Perspectives and Potentials. Strategy & Tactics, Nr. 81, Jul/Aug 1980.

WWII German Chemical Warfare Plans Released after 72 Years of Secrecy.

Nazis planned WMD attacks on Britain during WWII using anthrax and foot-and-mouth disease.

Herman Ochsner. History of German chemical warfare in World War II. Part I, the military aspect.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Laura Ingalls was a Nazi Spy

Brooklyn girl Laura Houghtaling Ingalls was an aviatrix born on December 14, 1903, and by now the observant reader will realize that this woman had little or nothing to to with any minor buildings on the prairie, although she was often confused with the author Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her parents were Francis Abbott Ingalls and Martha Houghtaling Ingalls, heirs of the Houghtaling tea fortune, although Laura did not enter the beverage business. She had a brother, Francis Abbott Ingalls II, who was born in 1895. Francis was an army officer in both the First and the Second World War, and he married Mabel Morgan Satterlee, the grand-daughter of J. P. Morgan in 1926. Although many sources claim that Laura Ingalls was born in 1903, it has been claimed that she forged her birth date, and that she actually was ten years older, in that case being born in 1893.

Ingalls had the opportunity to study both music and language in Vienna and Paris, and she had a rich and varied career as a concert pianist, a nurse, a secretary, a ballet dancer, and an actress before learning how to fly in 1928, being the first woman to graduate from a U.S. government approved flying school. She then proceeded to accomplish a long list of aeronautic feats, establishing and breaking more aeronautic records than most of her contemporaries.

On May 3, 1930, Laura Ingalls performed 344 consecutive loops over St. Louis in her De Havilland Gypsy Moth. The previous loop record stood at a mere 46. After this feat, Ingalls told reporters that she was "terribly disappointed" that 66 additional loops could not be officially counted because she had to stop to pump gas from a reserve tank. Ingalls proceeded to break her own record with an astonishing 930 loops over the new Hatbox-Municipal Airport in Muskogee, Oklahoma on May 26. The loops performed while setting this new record averaged almost four and a half loops per minute for three hours and 40 minutes and they won her a prize sum of just above 1,000 dollars. 

She also established a record for barrel rolls on August 14 that same year when she 714 consecutive barrel rolls. However, Laura Ingalls was not limited to aerobatics. On February 28, 1934, Ingalls took off from New York in a Lockheed Orion. She was headed to Miami, but she told reporters that she "just had a yen to fly the Andes." The trip to Miami was supposed to be via Charleston and Jacksonville, but she never landed at Jacksonville. Instead, Ingalls landed in Miami 24 hours after leaving Charleston. Reporters tried to find out what she had been doing during those 24 hours, but she refused to provide any information: "Now I can have one little secret, if I want to. Put it down to anything you like, but not to romance. That’s out! You see, a friend gave me a six-shooter when I left New York, so I just had to dip off someplace and use it. I knew I would never have a chance to use it on the South American trip, so I went off, looking for adventure!”

As it were, she had managed to become lost and had to land at Lake Butler just a few miles southwest of Jacksonville. The Florida Times-Union found out about the navigational error and wrote about what really happened: "While aviators scoured the coast between Charleston, S.C., and Jacksonville for some sign of Laura Ingalls, the ‘missing’ aviatrix was calmly eating roast beef in this tiny Florida town. Armed with her hefty six-shooter and a pot of coffee, she spent the night alone in the cabin of her trim plane at the airport near here. Late Friday an airplane circled the airport and made off, only to return some time later and land. Out stepped a young woman who was willing to talk about anything other than her identity. She had her plane refueled and then rode to the restaurant on the gas truck, asking Deputy Sheriff R. B. McKinley to keep an eye on the airplane . . . she told him she was en route from New York to Miami and had become lost.”

Next day, March 8, Ingalls took off for Havana. She then proceeded over the Caribbean to the Yucatan Peninsula, through Mexico and to Cristobal, Panama. The next leg of the trip started on March 13, when she flew to Talara, Peru, a trip of 1,296 miles out of which 460 were over open sea. Ingalls then continued along the west coast of South America to Santiago, Chile, and on March 18 she flew over the Andes at an altitude of 18,000 feet, through the Uspallata Pass to Mendoza in Argentina. The next stops where Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro followed by Trinidad and Tobago on April 17. She was back in New York on April 17, having completed a solo trip of some 17,000 miles. The trip won her the 1934 Harmon Trophy for the most outstanding aviatrix of the year. Her records for the flight included the first solo flight round South America in a land plane, the first American woman to fly over the Andes and the first woman to fly from North to South America. Ingalls effectively broke Amy Johnson's distance record of 10,000 miles.

By now Ingalls was quite the celebrity, and media followed her activities and undertakings with much gusto. Later in 1934 she ran a read light while heading to a dinner with Mayor LaGuardia of New York. Ingalls received a summons but did not appear before the court. When the magistrate announced that ignoring a summons was a “serious matter,” Ingalls responded, “Your Honor, if the officer who served me with the summons were as good looking as the judge, I would have remembered it.” A suspended sentence followed. In 1935, additional suspended sentences were awarded for operating an automobile without a license and parking in a restricted area.

She broke yet another record in 1935, this time flying non-stop from the Union Air Terminal in Burbank, California, to Floyd Bennett field here in Brooklyn on July 11, 1935. The flight took 13 hours and 34 minutes, which was fiva and a half hours faster than Amelia Earhart's record from 1932. In 1936 Ingalls flew in the Bendix Trophy Race. She finished second after Louise Thaden.

It was around this time that Laura Ingalls became interested in politics. She saw war looming in Europe, and she joined the America First Committee (AFC), a non-interventionist pressure group whose members included isolationist Charles Lindbergh.

After the outbreak of war in 1939, she flew over the White House and Capitol Hill for two hours on September 26, showering the buildings with anti-war leaflets from the AFC's Womens’ National Committee to Keep the United States Out of War. The Civil Aeronautic Authority (CAA) greeted her after landing at Washington Airport, and Ingalls was ordered to show cause why her pilot license shouldn't be revoked.

However, this setback did not intimidate Ingalls, and she appeared at a meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee together with Ms. Catherine Curtis, the chairman of the Womens’ National Committee to Keep the United States Out of War. Media noted that Ingalls was dressed in a leather flying jacket, slacks and a black tam. Ingalls and Curtis demanded admittance to the proceedings, but they were turned back at the door. They left a message for the Committee's Chair, Key Pittman (D-NV), but they did not receive a reply. Media sources claim that Ingalls stated the following: "And this is the government of the United States! I can’t understand it. Imagine! Holding hearings behind closed doors! This is a dictatorship already."

Ingall's next meeting was with the CAA, and they had a "long and hard" talk on October 8. She claimed that the flight was prompted by "patriotic fervor", and since no real harm had been done, Ingalls argued that the case should be dismissed as an "unfortunate incident." Ingalls had yet another meeting with the CAA, and on December 22, 1939, the CAA announced that there were “disturbing deficiencies” in Ingalls’ knowledge of the Civil Air Regulations. In order to promote “safety in air navigation,” the CAA suspended Ingalls’ pilot certificate until she passed an examination dealing with aircraft certificates, pilot ratings and air traffic rules.

As increasing numbers of Americans favored intervention in World War II, Ingalls' celebrity status waned. There were also rumors that the AFC was sponsored by the Nazis, and that hardly helped her popularity. It is interesting to note that the search for Nazi spies and infiltrators in the USA had the FBI looking for suspects in many isolationist groups. Whereas there were both German sympathizers and outright National Socialists to be found in some of these organizations, the FBI also suspected that Elizabeth Arden's salons were covers for Nazi operations. Further FBI investigations found no such evidence, though.

Two years later, in December 1941, Laura Ingalls was charged with being a paid agent of the German Government  and failing to register as such under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The public was astounded, but J. Edgar Hoover claimed that several months of investigations by the FBI had produced evidence that Ingalls had made frequent contacts with representatives of the Third Reich through Baron Ulrich von Gienanth, the second secretary of the German Embassy as well as receiving a salary from a German agent. Ingalls was unable to make the $7,500 bond, and she was eventually arrested. She claimed to be innocent, but a witness testified that Ingalls wore a swastika pendant, and that she regarded Adolf Hitler to be a “marvelous man,” while looking forward to the day when Hitler’s New Order would be introduced to America. A second witness testified along similar lines.

According to Ingalls, she had attempted to act as a double agent on her own behalf after not having been hired by the FBI. She claimed to have attempted to infiltrate German institutions in the USA to pry for information that might be valuable for American interests, and she confessed to accepting payments from Germany. The front-page trial was described by media as "one of Washington’s most spectacular trials.” as the “fashionably dressed” aviatrix testified that she thought of herself as a kind of “female Mata Hari” or “international spy.” being turned down by the FBI.

Ingalls was found to be guilty and she was sentenced to eight months to two years in prison on February 20, 1942. After receiving her sentence, Ingalls held a patriotic speech describing her actions, and she ended the speech by proclaiming  “I salute the Republic of the United States.” Ingalls was sent to Alderson prison, the prison that later housed Martha Stewart. She was released on October 5, 1943, after 18 months in prison, and she applied for a presidential pardon. Her application was supported by World War I ace Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, but she never received clemency. She passed away on January 10, 1967, in Burbank, California.

l.aura Ingalls was a fearless and headstrong person in an age that was dominated by male aviators. Her records remain quite impressive to this day, despite her unfortunate and confused political leanings. She described the influence from her mother as follows: "My mother, partly through ill health, was extremely emotional and without adequate self-discipline; spoiled by her parents who thought she was wonderful and could do anything. Brilliant along certain lines, she possessed the trait I find most exciting in the American character, viz. the ability to hurdle difficulties and achieve the reputedly impossible. I grew up under such influence." However, it may very well have been that ego and self-obsession combined with her own particular perception of what the United States should be took her along an abyssal path to obscurity. During the trial against her, Ingalls’ attorney, James Reilly, told the jury his client was “a woman of daring initiative, ambition and a tremendous amount of egotism.”


Airmail postal cover signed by Laura Ingalls with her famous logo, which she called  "My Cresent and Cross", a combination of her initials L.I. This cover was carried with Laura Ingalls during her record-breaking transcontinental flight of 1935, as shown by the cancels. Her logo was prominently displayed on the side of her aircraft as shown in her picture above.



Thursday, August 8, 2013

Thomas the Tank Engine versus Adolf Hitler

Many regard armored trains as being both archaic and of questionable military relevance, but in times of war even unlikely resources are utilized for martial purposes.

The Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway (RH&DR) was the joint dream of two men: Captain J. E. P. Howey and Count Louis Zborowski. Captain Howey was indeed a former army officer, but also a part-time racing driver, a millionaire land owner and a miniature railway enthusiast. Count Zborowski was a very well-know racing driver between the world wars, and he owned and raced the original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Mercedes. He was even wealthier than Captain Howey, and he was very keen on building a fully working express railway using 15” gauge. Howey was known to own and operate miniature railways. He was inspired by Zborowski, and they initially attempted to purchase the Ravendale and Eskdale Railway in Britain’s Lake District, but this arrangement did not work out. Nevertheless, Zborowski ordered two 15” gauge locomotives named Green Goddess and Northern Chief. However, Count Zborowski was killed in a racing accident at Monza before the locomotives were delivered, but Howey was determined to continue building the 15” gauge railway line. He commissioned Henry Greenly to help out, and it was Greenly that suggested locating the railway line to the Romney Marsh in Kent and more specifically southwest of Dover.

The opening of the railway took place on July 16, 1927, and the inaugural train trip was between Hythe and New Romney with the mayors of both towns on board. The line was initially a humble eight miles long, but it was soon expanded to Dungeness via Greatstone for a stretch of 13.5 miles in total.

Despite the size of the railway and its stock, The RH&DR was not for amusement. The line was used for passenger and freight traffic between the wars, and it was also used for mail services. The railway became famous in its own right, and the number of locomotives was eventually expanded to nine with a number of luxurious coaches.

The Second World War obviously changed the fortunes of the RH&DR, and the line was requisitioned by the British War Department in 1940 and operated by the Somerset Light Infantry. Being so close to the shore as well as potential invasion beaches for any German invaders, the railway became quite important.

To defend the beaches of Kent against invaders the RH&DR did sport an armored train, a small contraption consisting of two armored railway cars with the locomotive Hercules in between. The locomotive was fitted with boiler plate armor, and two hopper cars were converted to mobile gun platforms. Each car was armed with a Lewis machine gun and a Boys .55 caliber anti-tank rifle next to each other in the rear of the car with an additional Lewis in an anti-aircraft pintle mount at the front. The armored train started patrolling from New Romney to Hythe at dawn, and at 8 AM the train was to be stationary, camouflaged and ready to fire on German low-flying fighters returning from missions over England until 5 PM. The train occasionally spent the night in Hythe, reversing the trip next morning. Despite the war, the personnel of the train were supposed to take off for lunch between 1 PM and 2 PM. The train was also used as a leave train on Sundays for excursions to Hythe. As stated in a contemporary article about the RH&DR armored train: “British Tommies man machine guns eager to pot any Jerry wot shows ‘is bloomin’ fyce.” It has been claimed that the armored train actually saw combat when it was attacked by a German aircraft at some point. The attacking aircraft was supposed to have crashed while attacking, since the pilot misjudged the altitude, thinking that he was attacking a full-size train. This has not been confirmed, although representatives of the RH&DR of course insist that this is true.

There will always be an England.

The RH&DR was used for extensive troop transport as well as freight transport, especially while building and supporting Project PLUTO (Pipe Line Under The Ocean), a pipeline used to support the fuel needs of the Allied invasion forces in France after D-Day. The railway resumed peacetime services after World War Two and it remains in use to this day.

Present-day replica of the RH&DR armored train. Notice that the locomotive is placed in the front instead of between the cars.

It should be added that the author is fully aware of Thomas the Tank Engine being a post-war product of literature, but the comparison was irresistible.