Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A very cold war (and some Trump and Hitler stuff)

I like to post unfamiliar war time stories on ANZAC Day, but before I get to the main part, I wanted to quote this section out of a recent New York Review of Books article Lesson from Hitler's Rise, which uses a new-ish biography of Hitler's rise to compare and contrast with Trump.   (It's pretty well done, really, and spends more time on the differences than the similarities.)   This part, about who Hitler was initially impressing electorally, was not something I was really aware of:
However, while both men created coalitions of discontent, their constituencies were quite different. The first groups to be taken over by Nazi majorities were student organizations on university campuses. In their electoral breakthrough in 1930, the Nazis won the vast majority of first-time voters, especially the youth vote. Above all, the Nazis vacuumed up the voters of other middle-class parties, and women of different social backgrounds voted in roughly the same proportions for the Nazis as men.

The two groups among whom the Nazis were relatively unsuccessful were Germany’s religious-block voters (in this case Catholics voting for their own Center Party) and blue-collar industrial workers (who more often shifted their votes from the declining moderate Social Democrats to the more radical Communists rather than to the Nazis). Still, the Nazis drew votes much more broadly across German society than any of their rival class- and sectarian-based parties could boast with some justification to be the only true “people’s party” in the country.
That's a pretty big difference with Trump right there:  most polling shows Trump approval is way low with young adults, although I see that one poll in March found that youngsters in "Trump country" (countries that flipped to Trump, and in which he had big winning margins) gave him the highest approval of all age groups. Just goes to show, I suppose:  have too many young people without a job and they'll vote for any idiot.

Anyway, back to the main story.  On a whim, I Google "World War 2 and Antarctica", and, apart from links to various nut sites about Nazi bases and UFO's down there, I found a few links to Operation Tabarin, in which, late in the war, the British sent a small navy crew (14) on a couple of (presumably) small ships to go and re-establish British claim to some cold islands down around Antarctica.

Wikipedia has a short entry about it (which includes the claim that there was concern in 1941 that the Japanese might seize the Falkland Islands, either as a base or just to hand them over to Argentina to encourage their support of the Axis.)

But more interesting is the account in The Telegraph in  2014, which includes comments by the last surviving member of the crew, George James.   As it explains:
For 70 years, little has been known about this most peculiar episode of the Second World War. Even the men involved never quite knew what they were doing there, improbably told that their secret mission, codenamed Operation Tabarin, was designed to deter German U-boats from lurking in Antarctic waters. 

However, the author of a book about it explains that it was actually all about putting Argentina back in its place:
“By 1941, Argentina quite rightly thought the war was going the way of the Axis powers,” said Stephen Haddelsey, the book’s author. “Would Britain have either the will or the resources to challenge them if they staked a physical claim to the territories? They thought not.”

So, in early 1942, the Argentines sent a ship to Deception Island, a tiny volcanic whaling station in the South Shetlands, where they flew the Argentine flag and buried a cylinder with a formal note proclaiming their territorial rights.

When the Colonial Office heard of this, however, our mandarins’ response was not at all what Argentina had predicted. The War Cabinet was determined to respond, to protect vital revenues in the region and prevent a precedent being set that might encourage incursions elsewhere in the Empire.

The war was still at too delicate a point to provoke outright conflict with Argentina, however, especially as Britain was dependent on substantial cargoes of beef from South America. So the U-boat myth was put about to provide cover for the operation.
George James, that ageing crew member, says:
“A few reasons were put out. We were told it was to do with the Germans but when it came to it, the first party to go down were mainly scientists,” said Mr James. “Now that’s not going down to fight off Germans, is it?”

The crew’s first months in the Antarctic, where the average temperature is minus 10 degrees centigrade, were tough. They moved from island to island constructing rudimentary bases from timber and depositing a handful of scientists at each. But they spent most of their time adjusting to the conditions.

“It was completely alien to all of us,” said Mr James. “Life was in the raw. It was hard going at times but it was a bit of a thrill to think you were there. It was a magical place – we’d be breaking through the ice with ice cliffs on either side.”
It was a very lonely wartime operation:
The war was at its height but there was no conflict here. There were no Argentines to be seen, and Mr James had to face another enemy entirely. “I was once chased along a beach by a sea leopard, with its mouth wide open,” he said. “The penguins would get a bit shirty, too, and have a nip at your legs.” On one occasion, a colony of 10,000 penguins took over one of their bases, entirely surrounding it. Rather than face them down, the crew built another hut. 
And as for the poor Argentinians:
At last, a year into the mission, the Scorseby spotted its first – and only – Argentines, defending their meteorological station on Laurie Island, part of the South Orkneys. Yet the crew could not have had a more hospitable reception. Six of the original Argentine party of 10 men had died, and were buried by their fellow men with wooden stakes behind the hut. After being cut off with no supplies for 18 months, they were delighted to meet the advancing Brits.

“They were lovely to us,” explained Mr James. “They came down to the beach to meet us, crying. We gave them cigarettes and edam cheese. The wireless operator got so excited that he put his arms round me. He took all the badges off his uniform and gave them to me.”

In fact, boredom was a much more persistent danger. “It upset some people a lot. One man got quite scary about it and tried to influence the skipper to turn back. But that didn’t happen, of course.”
Better than being shot at, I suppose; on the other hand, probably not the type of service to make you feel you had been particularly useful to the war effort.

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