Operation Uranus – Don Front


On the Don Front, the going was more difficult. Batov threw his 65th Army at General Alexander Freiherr Edler von Daniels’s 376th Infantry Division, but his infantry made little progress against a determined German defense. Batov found easier going at the junction of the 376th and the 1st Romanian Cavalry Division, and the Soviets were able to advance as they pushed the Romanians aside. Von Daniels was forced to arc his left flank to prevent the Russians from breaking into his rear as a result of the Romanian cavalry’s retreat.

In Stalingrad, Paulus was informed of the Soviet attack at 9:45 AM, but he seemed relatively unconcerned. The German general ordered Heim’s XLVIII Panzer Corps to advance toward Kletskaya to support the Romanians and then went back to briefings concerning the fight for the city. Heim put his units on the road and headed toward his objective, but at 11:30 new orders arrived, this time from Hitler’s headquarters. The feisty panzer general cursed roundly as he read the message ordering him to turn his forces northwest to the Bolshoy area and stop Romanenko’s armored units. Valuable time and fuel were lost as he reformed his attack force.

Meanwhile, Paulus began receiving more reports concerning the Russian attack. The first fragmented information had caused little alarm. After all, they were coming from Romanians, and everyone knew that they tended to exaggerate and were prone to unnecessary panic.

Toward noon, the situation became clearer. This time the staff officers of the 6th Army definitely took notice. A Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft reported hundreds of Soviet tanks advancing across the steppes northwest of Stalingrad. Clear reports from German liaison officers flatly stated that the 9th, 13th, and 14th Romanian Infantry Divisions had been shattered and were no longer capable of any organized resistance.

Although Paulus had three panzer divisions (14th, 16th, and 24th) and three motorized divisions (3rd, 29th, and 60th) at his disposal, he did nothing to form a strike force to stop the Soviet armor. Preferring to keep them engaged in and around Stalingrad-a pure waste of armor in an urban battle-he relied on Heim’s panzer corps to deal with the Russian attack.

A German panzer corps in 1942 was a formidable weapon that could take on a Soviet Tank Army and usually come out on top. Heim’s corps, however, was a panzer corps in name only, something that seemed to slip by the generals that were expecting him to stop the Russians.

By the time Heim was ordered to attack, his 22nd Panzer Division had only about 30 combat-ready tanks. His motorized elements were critically short of fuel, and the orders changing the direction of his attack only made the problem worse.

Heim’s mechanized units were also plagued by the forces of nature. While bivouacked, mice had gotten into the tanks and armored personnel carriers and had gnawed on or through some of the electrical wires in the vehicles, causing them to break down as the systems shorted out. Another problem was the width of his tank treads. The Russian T-34 had a wide, gripping track while German tanks had narrow tracks, causing them to slip and slide on the icy terrain. Nevertheless, Heim and his men pushed forward, hoping to surprise the Russian spearhead.

The weather worsened during the afternoon of the 19th, with the freezing mist lowering visibility to almost zero, and maps were practically useless as the Soviets continued their drive. Taking into account the possibility of bad weather, Russian commanders had enlisted area peasants as guides, but even they were having a difficult time traversing the mist-shrouded landscape.

It started getting dark before 4:00 PM, which only added to the difficulties faced by the Russian tank crews as they pushed toward their objectives. To make things worse, the wind picked up and snow began falling, which led to almost blizzard-like conditions on the steppes.

Having essentially obliterated the Romanian defenses, the Soviet tank commanders felt reasonably assured that their only threat would come from a possible German counterattack. All things considered, that attack would probably be directed against Kravchenko’s 4th Tank Corps, as that unit was advancing closest to the main 6th Army forces at Stalingrad.

It would have worked that way if Heim had not received new orders sending him toward Bolshoy. Heim’s panzers, now numbering about 20, hit Butkov’s 1st Tank Corps near the Chir River at Pestchany. It was an uneven battle from the start, with the Germans being outnumbered, outgunned, and outmaneuvered. In an almost suicidal action, an armored group led by Oberst (Colonel) Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski tore into the Russians. Supported by the 22nd Panzer’s antitank battalion, von Oppeln’s tanks managed to isolate and destroy several Soviet tanks in Butkov’s spearhead.

The Soviets regrouped, and the unequal struggle continued into the night until Heim ordered the battle to be broken off. He told his commanders to make for the Chir River crossings and get to the west bank of the river, thus saving his panzer corps from encirclement and annihilation. Those retreating units would remain a thorn in the side of the Russians for days to come.

The retreat order had the expected consequences for Heim as a furious Hitler recalled him to Berlin, stripped him of his rank, and had him imprisoned. He was released 10 months later without having been tried. On August 1, 1944, his rank was restored, and he was appointed commander of Fortress Boulogne on the Western Front.

At Heeresgruppe B headquarters, Generaloberst Baron von Weichs recognized the danger he faced earlier than most. He issued directives at 10:00 PM on the night of November 19 to try and forestall the looming disaster.

“The situation developing on the front of the 3rd Romanian Army dictates radical measures in order to disengage forces quickly to screen the flanks of 6th Army,” he wrote.

Among those measures was ordering all offensive operations in Stalingrad to cease. He also directed Paulus to detach two motorized formations, an infantry division, and all anti-tank units he could spare to stop the assault forces of Vatutin and Rokossovsky. These measures may have blunted the Soviet advance, but it was already too late. On November 20, the second stage of Uranus began as Eremenko’s southern anvil began moving to meet the northern hammer.

The same bad weather plaguing the northern Soviet forces also hampered the Russians in the south. Icy fog made the going slow as the assault forces of the Stalingrad Front edged closer to Constantinescu’s 4th Romanian Army. At 10 AM, the Russian artillery opened up along the front. Soon after, the initial assault troops were already pouring through the Romanian line.

German soldiers in the 297th Infantry Division, adjacent to the 20th Romanian Infantry Division, watched in awe as the human flood of Russians advanced. As on the northern sector, some of the Romanians fled or surrendered almost immediately, while others fought bravely until being overwhelmed. Reports came in speaking of Romanian antitank crews firing their pitiful 37mm guns until they were crushed beneath the marauding Soviet tanks of the initial attack forces.

The leading Russian armored and mechanized forces performed well, but command and control problems, the bad weather, and problems getting across the Volga River crossing points delayed the spearhead units designated to exploit the breakthrough. Maj. Gen. V. T. Volsky’s 4th Mechanized Corps, designated to advance with Maj. Gen. N. I. Trufanov’s 51st Army, was supposed to strike between Lakes Sarpa and Tsatsa, but its units had not yet concentrated. The same could be said for Colonel T. I. Tanaschishin’s 13th Mechanized Corps.

Angry messages flew back and forth as the delay continued. The spearhead units were supposed to attack at 10 AM, but it was already well after noon, and there was still no sign of movement from the corps. General Markian M. Popov, the deputy commander of the Stalingrad Front, headed to Volsky’s headquarters and confronted him directly.

The angry exchange between the two lasted for some time before Volsky finally gave in and ordered his still disorganized units forward. Tanaschishin was also ordered forward immediately. It was already past 4 PM, and the Soviet timetable was hours behind schedule. As they moved out, Volsky’s units became intermixed, causing further confusion as they headed westward.

The Germans reacted much more quickly to the southern attack than they had on the previous day. General Hans-Georg Leyser’s 29th Panzergrenadier Division, nicknamed the Falcon Division, was ordered to hit the flank of Tanaschishin’s 13th Mechanized Corps. The 29th was a first-rate division, and its troops moved out quickly to meet the foe.

About 10 miles south of Beketovka, Leyser’s armored columns slammed into elements of Tanaschishin’s corps. The panzers bloodied the Russian tanks and sent the mechanized units reeling, causing the Soviets to beat a hasty retreat. It was a shining moment in an otherwise dismal day for the Germans, but the victory was short lived.

Farther west, the Soviets were running rampant through the retreating Romanians. Leyser was ordered to turn his division around to protect the exposed southern flank of the 6th Army, leaving the field to Tanaschishin’s forces, which were regrouping for a counterattack.

While the fighting raged south of Stalingrad, the northern sector reeled under hammer blows from the South West and Don Fronts. General Strecker’s IX Army Corps, its left flank left hanging by Dumitrescu’s retreat, was forced to form an arc to meet the advancing Russians. General von Daniels’s 376th shifted its front westward to meet the 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps, while General Heinrich-Anton Deboi’s 44th Infantry Division, forced to leave much of its heavy equipment in place because of lack of fuel, extended its line to cover the gap left by von Daniels’s shift.

Meanwhile, Kravchenko’s 4th Tank Corps turned toward the southeast. Its objective was the Don River town of Golubinski, which happened to be Paulus’s headquarters. At the same time, units of the 5th Tank Army continued to smash isolated pockets of Romanians that tried to stand and fight.

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A Motley Crew in the American Revolution

Impressment

In October 1765 a mob of sailors wearing blackface and masks, and armed with clubs and cutlasses, visited the home of wealthy Charleston merchant Henry Laurens. Eighty strong and warm with drink and anger, they had come to protest the Stamp Act, recently passed by Parliament to raise tax revenues in the American colonies. Responding to the rumor that Laurens had stored in his home the stamped paper everyone would be forced to buy in order to conduct the business of daily life, they chanted, “Liberty, liberty, and stamped paper!” and demanded that he turn it over so that they could destroy it in an act of defiance. Laurens was rattled, as he later explained: they “not only menaced very loudly but now & then handled me pretty uncouthly.” Finally convinced that Laurens did not have the paper, the men dispersed across the waterfront, shedding their disguises and straggling into the smoky taverns and bare boardinghouses, onto the damp wharves and creaky ships.

Their protest had consequences. Parliament, taken aback by colonial protests, would soon repeal the Stamp Act. And in Charleston, one thing led to another, as a mob met in January 1766 to cry again for liberty. This time the protesters were African slaves, whose action caused greater fear and “vast trouble throughout the province.” Armed patrols stalked the city’s streets for almost two weeks, but the tumult continued. Since Charleston’s harbor was crowded with ships, the seafarers were soon “in motion and commotion again,” styling themselves, said a cynical Laurens, the “Protectors of Liberty.” South Carolina governor William Bull looked back over the events of late 1765 and early 1766 and blamed Charleston’s turmoil on “disorderly negroes, and more disorderly sailors.”

Laurens and Bull identified a revolutionary subject, often described by contemporaries as a “motley crew.” Rarely discussed in the American Revolution, the history of the motley crew extends from the piracies of the 1710s and 1720s to the slave revolts and urban insurrections of the 1730s and 1740s. The defeat of these movements allowed slavery and maritime trade to expand, as gangs of slaves extended plantation acreage and gangs of sailors manned ever-growing fleets of naval and merchant vessels. Britain confirmed its place as the world’s greatest capitalist power by defeating France in the Seven Years’ War in 1763, protecting and expanding its lucrative colonial empire and opening vast new territories in North America and the Caribbean for the hewing of wood and the drawing of water. And yet at the very moment of imperial triumph, slaves and sailors opened a new cycle of rebellion.

Operations on sea and land, from mutiny to insurrection, made the motley crew the driving force of a revolutionary crisis in the 1760s and 1770s. They helped to destabilize imperial civil society and pushed America toward the world’s first modern colonial war for liberation. By energizing and leading the movement from below, the motley crew shaped the social, organizational, and intellectual histories of the era. Their stories demonstrate that the American Revolution was neither an elite nor a national event, because its genesis, process, outcome, and influence depended on the circulation of proletarian experience around the Atlantic. Such circulation would continue into the 1780s, as the veterans of the revolutionary movement in America would carry their knowledge and experience to the eastern Atlantic, initiating pan-Africanism, advancing abolitionism, and helping to revive dormant traditions of revolutionary thought and action in England and Europe more broadly. The motley crew would help to break apart the first British empire and inaugurate the Atlantic’s age of revolution.

Two meanings of “motley crew” appear in this chapter. The first meaning refers to an organized gang of workers, a squad of people performing similar tasks or performing different tasks contributing to a single goal. The gangs of the tobacco and sugar plantations were essential to the accumulation of wealth in early America. Equally essential were the crews assembled from the ship’s company, or ship’s people, for a particular, temporary purpose, such as sailing a ship, making an amphibious assault, or collecting wood and water. These crews knew how to pull together, or to act in unison, not least because they labored beneath the whip. The first meaning, then, is technical to plantation and seafaring work. The economies of the eighteenth-century Atlantic depended on this unit of human cooperation.

The second meaning describes a social-political formation of the eighteenth-century port city. “Motley crew” in this sense was closely related to the urban mob and the revolutionary crowd, which, as we shall see, was usually an armed agglomeration of various crews and gangs that possessed its own motility and was often independent of leadership from above. It provided the driving force from the Stamp Act crisis to the “Wilkes & Liberty” riots, to the series of risings of the American Revolution. The revolts of the eighteenth-century Atlantic depended on this broader social form of cooperation.

To say that the crew was motley is to say that it was multiethnic. This was characteristic of the recruitment of ships’ crews since transoceanic voyaging began with Columbus and Magellan. Its diversity was an expression of defeat—consider the deliberate mixing of languages and ethnicities in the packing of slave ships—but defeat was transformed into strength by agency, as when a pan-African, and then African American, identity was formed of the various ethnicities and cultures. Originally “ethnic” designations, such as the “free-born Englishman,” could become generalized, as shown by the case of the African sailor Olaudah Equiano.

This chapter will show how the second (political) meaning emerges from the first (technical) one, broadening the cooperation, extending the range of activity, and transferring command from overseers or petty officers to the group. We will observe the transition from one to the other in the actions of the motley crew in the streets of the port cities. As sailors moved from ship to shore, they joined waterfront communities of dockers, porters, and laborers, freedom-seeking slaves, footloose youth from the country, and fugitives of various kinds. At the peak of revolutionary possibility, the motley crew appeared as a synchronicity or an actual coordination among the “risings of the people” of the port cities, the resistance of African American slaves, and Indian struggles on the frontier. Tom Paine feared precisely this combination, but it never materialized. On the contrary, the reversal of revolutionary dynamics, toward Thermidor, shifted the milieu of the motley crew, as refugees, boat people, evacuees, and prisoners became the human form of defeat.

Sailors

Sailors were prime movers in the cycle of rebellion, especially in North America, where they helped to secure numerous victories for the movement against Great Britain between 1765 and 1776. They led a series of riots against impressment beginning in the 1740s, moving Tom Paine (in Common Sense) and Thomas Jefferson (in the Declaration of Independence) to list impressment as a major grievance. Their militancy in port grew out of their daily work experience at sea, which combined daring initiative and coordinated cooperation. Sailors engaged in collective struggles over food, pay, work, and discipline, and brought to the ports a militant attitude toward arbitrary and excessive authority, an empathy for the grievances of others, and a willingness to cooperate for the sake of self-defense. As Henry Laurens discovered, they were not afraid to use direct action to accomplish their goals. Sailors thus entered the 1760s armed with the traditions of what we call “hydrarchy,” a tradition of self-organization of seafaring people from below. They would learn new tactics in the age of revolution, but so too would they contribute the vast amount they already knew.

Part of what sailors knew was how to resist impressment. This tradition had originated in thirteenth-century England and continued through the Putney Debates and the English Revolution, into the late seventeenth century, with the expansion of the Royal Navy, and on to the eighteenth century and its ever-greater wartime mobilizations. When, after a quarter century’s peace, England declared war against Spain in 1739, sailors battled and often defeated press gangs in every English port. Fists and clubs flew in American ports as well, in Antigua, St. Kitts, Barbados, Jamaica, New York, and New England. Admiral Peter Warren warned in 1745 that the sailors of New England were emboldened by a revolutionary heritage: they had, he wrote, “the highest notions of the rights and liberties of Englishmen, and indeed are almost Levellers,” referring to one of the most radical groups of the English Revolution.

During the 1740s sailors began to burn the boats in which press gangs came ashore to snatch bodies, cutting their contact with the man-of-war and making “recruitment” harder, if not in some cases impossible. Commander Charles Knowles wrote in 1743 that naval vessels pressing in the Caribbean “have had their Boats haul’d up in the Streets and going to be Burned, & their Captains insulted by 50 Arm’d Men at a time, and obliged to take shelter in some Friends House.” After Captain Abel Smith of the Pembroke Prize had pressed some men near St. Kitts, a mob of seamen “came off in the road and seized the Kings boat, hawled her up . . . and threatned to burn her, if the Captain would not return the Prest Men, which he was obliged to do to save the Boat, & peoples Lives, to the great Dishonour of Kings Authority (especially in Foreign Parts).” These attacks on the property and power of the British state were intimidating: by 1746 the captain of HMS Shirley “dared not set foot on shore for four months for fear of being prosecuted . . . or murdered by the mob for pressing.”

The struggle against impressment took a creative turn in 1747, when, according to Thomas Hutchinson, there occurred “a tumult in the Town of Boston equal to any which had preceded it.” The commotion began when fifty sailors, some of them New Englanders, deserted Commander Knowles and HMS Lark. In response, Knowles sent a press gang to sweep the Boston wharves. A mob of three hundred seamen swelled to “several thousand people,” seized officers of the Lark as hostages, beat a deputy sheriff and slapped him into the town’s stocks, surrounded and attacked the provincial council chamber, and posted squads at all piers to keep naval officers from escaping back to their ship. The mob soon faced down Massachusetts Governor William Shirley, reminding him of the murderous violence visited upon sailors by the press gang in 1745 and threatening him with the example of Captain John Porteous, the despised leader of Edinburgh’s City Guard, who after murdering a member of a protesting crowd in 1736 was seized and “hanged upon a sign post.” Governor Shirley beat a hasty retreat to Castle William, where he remained until the riot ran its course. Meanwhile, armed sailors and laborers considered burning a twenty-gun ship being built for His Majesty in a local shipyard, then picked up what they thought was a naval barge, carried it through town, and set it aflame on Boston Common. Commodore Knowles explained their grievance:

The Act [of 1746] against pressing in the Sugar Islands, filled the Minds of the Common People ashore as well as Sailors in all the Northern Colonies (but more especially in New England) with not only a hatred for the King’s Service but [also] a Spirit of Rebellion each Claiming a Right to the same Indulgence as the Sugar Colonies and declaring they will maintain themselves in it.

As sailors defended liberty in the name of right, they captured the attention of a young man named Samuel Adams, Jr. Using what his enemies called “serpentine cunning,” and understanding “Human Nature, in low life” very well, Adams watched the motley crew defend itself and then translated its “Spirit of Rebellion” into political discourse. He used the Knowles Riot to formulate a new “ideology of resistance, in which the natural rights of man were used for the first time in the province to justify mob activity.” Adams saw that the mob “embodied the fundamental rights of man against which government itself could be judged,” and he justified violent direct action against oppression. The motley crew’s resistance to slavery produced a breakthrough in revolutionary thought.

Adams thus moved from “the rights of Englishmen” to the broader, more universal idiom of natural rights and the rights of man in 1747, and one likely reason why may be found in the composition of the crowd that instructed him. Adams faced a dilemma: how could he watch a crowd of Africans, Scotsmen, Dutchmen, Irishmen, and Englishmen battle the press gang and then describe them as engaged simply in a struggle for “the rights of Englishmen”? How could he square the apparently traditional Lockean ideas in his Harvard master’s thesis of 1743 with the activities of “Foreign Seamen, Servants, Negroes, and other Persons of mean and vile Condition” who led the riot of 1747? The diversity of the rebellious subject forced his thought toward a broader justification. Adams would have understood that the riot was, literally, a case of the people fighting for their liberty, for throughout the eighteenth century the crew of a ship was known as “the people,” who once ashore were on their “liberty.”

The mass actions of 1747 moved Adams to found a weekly publication called the Independent Advertiser, which expressed a remarkable, even prophetic variety of radical ideas during its brief but vibrant life of less than two years. The paper reported on mutiny and resistance to the press gang. It supported the natural right to self-defense and vigorously defended the ideas and practices of equality, calling, for example, for popular vigilance over the accumulation of wealth and an “Agrarian Law or something like it” (a Digger-like redistribution of land) to support the poor workers of New England. It announced that “the reason of a People’s Slavery, is . . . Ignorance of their own Power.” Perhaps the single most important idea to be found in the Independent Advertiser appeared in January 1748: “All Men are by Nature on a Level; born with an equal Share of Freedom, and endow’d with Capacities nearly alike.” These words reached back exactly a century to the English Revolution and the Levellers’ Agreement of the People, and simultaneously looked forward to the opening words of the Declaration of Independence of 1776.

Another connection between 1747 and 1776 appeared in Jonathan Mayhew’s sermon A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers, delivered and published in Boston in early 1750. The eminent clergyman delivered his sermon at a time when the riot and its consequences were still on the minds of towns-people, especially the traders and seafaring people who made up his own West Church. By 1748 Mayhew’s preachings were considered heretical enough to get one listener, a young Paul Revere, a whipping by his father for his waywardness. By early 1749 Mayhew was tending toward what some saw as sedition, saying that it was not a sin to transgress an iniquitous law, such as the one that legalized impressment. Mayhew defended regicide in his sermon of January 30, the anniversary of the execution of Charles I, which was to him no day of mourning but rather a day for remembering that Britons will not be slaves. Like Adams before him he argued passionately for both civil disobedience and a right to resistance that utilized force; indeed, passive nonresistance, Mayhew claimed, was slavery. Mayhew’s influential defense of the right to revolution could not have been made without the action of the riot and its discussion among Sam Adams and the readers of the Independent Advertiser.

The ideas and practices of 1747 were refined and expanded during the 1760s and 1770s, when Jack Tar took part in almost every port-city riot, especially after the end of the Seven Years’ War (1763), when the demobilization of the navy threw thousands out of work. For those who remained at sea, the material conditions (food, wages, discipline) of naval life deteriorated, causing many to desert. The Admiralty responded with terror. In 1764 deserters John Evans, Nicholas Morris, and John Tuffin took seven hundred lashes on the back; Bryant Diggers and William Morris were hanged. Admiral Alexander Colvill admitted that these were, for desertion, “the most severe punishments I ever knew to have been inflicted.” Such deadly punishments at sea imparted a desperate intensity to shoreside resistance once the press gang resumed its work.

Sailors revived their attack on the king’s naval property. They recaptured pressed men, forced naval captains to make public apology, and successfully resisted efforts in court to convict any member of the mob of wrongdoing. Soon after, another mob of maritime workers in Casco Bay, Maine, seized a press boat, “dragged her into the middle of Town,” and threatened to burn it unless a group of pressed men were freed. In Newport in 1765 a mob made up of sailors, youths, and African Americans seized the press tender of HMS Maidstone, carried it to a central location in town, and set it ablaze. As popular antagonism toward the customs service rose in the late 1760s, sailors began to attack its vessels. Thomas Hutchinson wrote that in Boston in 1768, “A boat, belonging to the custom-house, was dragged in triumph through the streets of the town, and burnt on the Common.” Seamen threatened or actually torched other vessels belonging to the king in Wilmington, North Carolina, and in Nevis in 1765, in Newport again in 1769 and 1772, and twice in New York in 1775. Sailors thus warned local leaders not to sign press warrants as they twisted the longest and strongest arm of state power.

In the late 1760s sailors linked movements in England and America by engaging in revolts that combined workers’ riots over wages and hours with protests about electoral politics (“Wilkes and Liberty,” in which the London mob supported John Wilkes, the journalist and ruling-class renegade, in his battles with King and Parliament). The sailors of London, the world’s largest port, played leading roles in both movements and in 1768 struck (took down) the sails of their vessels, crippling the commerce of the empire’s leading city and adding the strike to the armory of resistance. Seamen’s strikes would subsequently appear on both sides of the Atlantic with increasing frequency, as would struggles over maritime wages, especially after the reorganization of British customs in 1764, when officials began to seize the nonmonetary wages of seamen, the “venture” or goods they shipped on their own account, freight free, in the hold of each ship. In leading the general strike of 1768, sailors drew upon traditions of hydrarchy to advance a proletarian idea of liberty. One writer, looking back on the uprising, explained: “Their ideas of liberty are the entering into [of] illegal combinations.” Such combinations were “a many headed monster which every one should oppose, because every one’s property is endangered by it; nay, the riches, strength, and glory of this kingdom must ever be insecure whilst this evil remains unchecked.”

Sailors also continued the struggle against impressment, battling the press gangs in the streets of London in 1770 (during the war against Spain) and 1776 (during the war against the American colonies, not a popular cause among sailors). “Nauticus” observed the clashes between seamen and the navy in London in the early 1770s and wrote The Rights of the Sailors Vindicated, in which he compared the sailor’s life to slavery and defended the right to self-defense. He echoed the Putney Debates more than a century earlier when he imagined a sailor asking a magistrate, “I, who am as free-born as yourself, should devote my life and liberty for so trifling a consideration, purely that such wretches as you may enjoy your possessions in safety?” Like Sam Adams, Nauticus went beyond the rights of Englishmen, pitting the rights of private property against common rights and the “natural rights of an innocent subject.” John Wilkes also began to argue for the right to resist impressment in 1772.

The motley crew helped to create an abolitionist movement in London in the mid-1760s by setting in motion the eccentric but zealous Granville Sharp, who became one of slavery’s most implacable foes. The key moment was a meeting in 1765 in a queue at a London medical clinic between the obscure, flinty clerk and musician, Sharp, and a teenager named Jonathan Strong, formerly a slave in Barbados who had been pummeled by his master into a crippled, swollen, nearly blind indigent. Sharp and his brother, a surgeon, nurtured him back to health, but two years later his former master imprisoned and sold him. To prevent such inhumanity, the African sailor Olaudah Equiano pushed Sharp to study the law and the writ of habeas corpus, the most powerful legacy of the “free-born Englishman,” because it prohibited imprisonment or confinement without due process of law and trial by jury, and thus might be employed against impressment and slavery alike. Sharp believed that the law should be no respecter of persons and concluded in 1769 that “the common law and custom of England . . . is always favourable to liberty and freedom of man.” He was especially moved by the struggles of black sailors on the waterfront; he used habeas to defend several who struggled to resist reenslavement, often by the press gang. Sharp won a lasting victory in his legal defense of James Somerset in 1772, which limited the ability of slaveowners to possess and exploit their human property in England. Habeas corpus, however, was suspended in 1777, although not without opposition. Meanwhile, the police magistrate, John Fielding, founded the “Bow Street Runners,” an urban metropolitan parallel to the notorious slave “padrollers” of the southern plantations. He paid close attention to the motley crew in London and observed their westward circulation back to Caribbean insurrections.

Sailors and the dockside proletariat attacked slavery from another angle in 1775, when they went on strike in Liverpool, as three thousand men, women, and children assembled to protest a reduction in wages. When the authorities fired upon the crowd, killing several, the strike exploded into open insurrection. Sailors “hoisted the red flag,” dragged ships’ guns to the center of the city, and bombarded the mercantile exchange, leaving “scarce a whole pane of glass in the neighborhood.” They also trashed the property of several rich slave-trading merchants. One observer of the strife in Liverpool wrote, “I could not help thinking we had Boston here, and I fear this is only the beginning of our sorrows.”

There was a literal truth to the observation that Boston, the “Metropolis of Sedition,” had popped up in English ports on the eve of the American Revolution. An anonymous eyewitness noted that multiethnic American sailors “were among the most active in the late tumults” of London in 1768. They were “wretches of a mongrel descent,” the “immediate sons of Jamaica, or African Blacks by Asiatic Mulatoes.” When such seamen chanted “No Wilkes, No King!” during the river strike of 1768, they displayed the independent revolutionary spirit that informed their actions ocean-wide. An escaped indentured servant named James Aitken, better known as “Jack the Painter,” took part in the Boston Tea Party, then returned to England to wage revolutionary arson in 1775 against the king’s ships and shipyards, for which he was captured and hanged. The mobility of sailors and other maritime veterans ensured that both the experience and the ideas of opposition carried fast. If the artisans and gentlemen of the American Sons of Liberty saw their struggle as but “one episode in a worldwide struggle between liberty and despotism,” sailors, who had a much broader experience of both despotism and the world, saw their own as part of a long Atlantic struggle between slavery and freedom.

Operation Uranus –Begins

The senior Soviet officers got very little sleep during the night of November 18. Shortly after midnight, the Russian artillery started firing smoke shells from the eastern bank of the Don. Soviet propaganda units had already set up loudspeakers close to the front weeks before, so the Germans and their allies paid little attention to the political messages and music that blasted through the night air. As usual, Axis soldiers regarded the loudspeakers as more of a nuisance designed to keep them from getting a good night’s sleep.

This time, however, the smoke and noise from the Russian line had a different purpose. Under cover of these distractions, Soviet armored and mechanized forces streamed across the Don to the already established bridgeheads. A little after 2 AM, more than a million men from the three attack fronts received their orders. They were told that they were about to participate in a deep raid toward the enemy rear. The word “encirclement” was not mentioned to the troops in case something went wrong with the plan. Nevertheless, the old timers knew that something was up. There were too many men and too many vehicles for this to be just a raid. Are we, they wondered, finally starting to see the beginning of the road to victory?

The Russians were helped by snow and a thick fog that cut visibility down to almost nothing. On the German-Romanian line, sentries strained to see just a few feet ahead of them, but all seemed fine except for the damned Soviet loudspeakers blaring in the distance. Only a few yards away, Red Army engineers, camouflaged in white uniforms, had been working their way toward the enemy lines all night, clearing mines and cutting wire obstacles to make a path for the Russian assault forces.

On the Soviet side, commanders anxiously looked at their watches. The fog offered good concealment and would not hinder the effects of the planned Russian artillery bombardment, as the guns had been pre-sighted for just such a situation. Minutes ticked away until, at 7:20 AM Moscow time (5:20 AM German time) the Soviet artillery commanders received the code word “Siren.”

The earth trembled as battery after battery of Katyushas (Stalin Organs) sent their rockets screaming toward the enemy lines. A ghostly glow reflected off the fog as the batteries fired again and again. To be on the receiving end of the rockets tested the courage of the best German units. For the Romanians of Dumitrescu’s 3rd Army, the effect was devastating.

Strongpoints and trenches literally disintegrated as the rockets struck their preplotted sites. Communications between the forward outposts and higher headquarters were shattered, and many of the ammunition dumps close to the front were destroyed in spectacular explosions. Many of those not killed outright in the bombardment were already fleeing to the rear, trying to escape the carnage.

Ten minutes later, the massed Russian artillery was given the order to fire. Thousands of guns roared at once, causing many an artilleryman to bleed at the ear from the concussions caused by so many artillery pieces firing at the same time. Almost immediately, shells began crashing into Romanian artillery emplacements and secondary positions behind the front line. Those fleeing from the opening bombardment were now caught in a second rain of steel, which further decimated the retreating troops. Black earth churned up from shell impacts was interspersed on the snow with red blotches that had a few seconds earlier been men fleeing for their lives.

The bombardment kept up for one hour and 20 minutes. Dazed Romanians lucky enough to escape death from the rain of explosives were in a state of near paralysis as they desperately tried to dig their way out of their shattered positions. Wounded men howled in agony for their comrades to help them while the surviving NCOs and officers worked to regain control over their troops.

Above the cries of the wounded, a new sound was heard. It was not the sound of artillery or tank motors, but the deep, guttural sound of a beast preparing to pounce on its prey. The Romanians strained to see through the fog, hoping not to see what they knew was coming. As the fog lessened, shapes appeared-first hundreds and then thousands. Coming toward them were the massed echelons of Romanenko’s 14th and 47th Guards and 119th Rifle Divisions. The sound that the Romanians now heard-the one that struck fear into their very souls-was the Russian battle cry coming from thousands of soldiers: “Urra! Urra! Urra!”

In some sectors of the Romanian front, soldiers made split-second decisions on whether they would live or die. Hundreds of them threw down their weapons and, with hands held high, hoped for the best as the Russians bore down on them. For the most part, the Soviet assault forces bypassed them and continued their advance, leaving the surrendering Romanians to be picked up later by units in the second or third wave of the attack.

In other Romanian sectors the story was different. The 13th Romanian Infantry Division, for example, occupied a sector of the front opposite the 21st Army. When the Soviet infantry attacked, survivors in the front trenches repulsed them. A second attack, this time supported by tanks, met the same fate. Frustrated, Christyakov ordered another round of shelling. At the same time, he ordered A. G. Kravchenko’s 4th Tank Corps and P. A. Pliev’s 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps to prepare to attack.

Christyakov wanted to hold these units in reserve until the Romanian line was broken, but the resistance of the 13th and some other Romanian divisions had already upset his timetable. Together with fresh waves of infantry, the Soviet assault smashed the remaining positions of the Romanian IV Army Corps, allowing the 21st Army to advance.

To the west of the IV Corps, the Romanian II Army Corps, facing the 5th Tank Army, was undergoing its own personal hell. Following the bombardment and infantry assault, Romanenko unleashed V. V. Butkov’s 1st Tank and A. G. Rodin’s 26th Tank Corps, followed by the 8th Cavalry Corps. The attack hit the Romanian 9th, 11th, and 14th Infantry Divisions like a sledgehammer, and their positions crumbled as the Russian armor rolled forward.

The Soviet cavalry spread out toward the west, severing communications between the Romanians and General Giovanni Messe’s 8th Italian Army. As the Romanians fled, the cavalry formed a barrier against any possible counterattack while the armored and infantry forces swung southeast toward the Chir River and Kalach.

The gods smiled on the Soviets about mid-morning as the fog dissipated enough for the Red Air Force to enter the fray. Aircraft from K. N. Smirnov’s 2nd and S. A. Krasovsky’s 17th Air Armies swooped down upon the retreating Romanians with a vengeance. The Luftwaffe was nowhere to be seen as the Soviet pilots bombed and strafed enemy troops and positions.

Operation Uranus – The Soviet Planning

The battle for Stalingrad and the Caucasus raged throughout September and October as both sides continued to pour more men into the region. Meanwhile, using the maxims that had served him so well, Zhukov and the general staff were working on a plan that would change the balance of the war in the east once and for all. The plan was known as Operation Uranus.

Looking at the extended front in the Stalingrad sector, Zhukov and his staff immediately grasped the opportunities afforded by the large areas held by the Axis allies. The Soviets had two extensive bridgeheads on the western bank of the Don facing Dumitrescu’s forces, which would provide them with their northern strike points. Constantinescu’s army, with its long, thinly held defensive front, would provide the perfect spot for the southern strike.

The Russians were already masters of deception and camouflage, but Zhukov and his staff turned it into an art. As the plans for Uranus got under way, the Soviets launched several small attacks against Heeresgruppe Mitte. Dummy formations with their own radio nets were set up in the sector, giving German intelligence officers the impression that the Russians were concentrating forces for a late fall or early winter offensive against the Heeresgruppe.

Generaloberst Reinhard Gehlen, the head of the German high command’s Fremde Heeres Ost (Foreign Armies East), was in charge of gathering and deciphering intelligence information on the Eastern Front. Although surprised at the number of Russian divisions identified during the first few months of the 1941 invasion, his office still did not appreciate the vast manpower reserves possessed by the Soviet Union.

With the purported buildup of Soviet forces in Heeresgruppe Mitte’s sector, Fremde Heeres Ost was convinced that the Russians could not possibly possess enough men to launch any sort of major offensive in the south. When nervous Romanian commanders brought up the subject of a possible Soviet offensive, they were told not to worry because the Russians were already stretched to the limit.

Zhukov faced a daunting security problem. Massing the divisions for his offensive without being discovered by the Germans meant that the units could only be moved at night or in bad weather as they neared the front. During the day, the trains and convoys transporting men and materiel for Uranus would stop, and troops would camouflage the vehicles, making them invisible from the air.

In all, Zhukov would have 11 armies to mount his offensive. They would be augmented by several separate mechanized, cavalry, and tank brigades and corps. About 13,500 artillery pieces and mortars were assembled along with 115 rocket artillery detachments, 900 tanks, and more than 1,000 aircraft. It was a tremendous logistics operation, but the Russians were able to pull it off without the Germans being any the wiser.

Although stationed in Moscow, the Soviet marshal made extensive visits to the front to confer with his commanders about Uranus. Although they were not privy to the overall scope of the operation, the Front and Army commanders made suggestions about objectives in their particular sectors and coordination with neighboring units and gave other opinions that the marshal sent back to his Moscow staff.

The supreme headquarters and Zhukov’s staff incorporated many of the suggestions into the final plan for Uranus. Intelligence concerning opposing enemy units was also funneled directly to Moscow. As German and Russian soldiers fought and died in the rubble of Stalingrad, the buildup continued. By mid-October, the final plans for Uranus were being fine-tuned, and it was hoped that the operation could begin sometime in the first week of November.

As November approached, German commanders in the 6th Army were facing shortages in both men and materiel. They were also becoming increasingly nervous about unconfirmed reports that the Soviets were massing on their flanks. Zhukov’s deception had worked for the most part, but even the Russians could not totally mask the movements of such a massive force as it came within earshot of the Germans. Motors rumbled and horses neighed, and the sounds carried well in the crisp late fall air.

On Paulus’s left flank, General Karl Strecker’s XI Army Corps had three divisions to cover a front of more than 60 miles along the Don bend. Strecker knew that this was too much for his divisions to defend, so he pulled them back to well-prepared secondary positions, cutting his frontage by half.

Lieutenant General P. I. Batov immediately took advantage of the situation by sending units of his 65th Army across the Don to establish yet another Soviet bridgehead. Batov then conducted several spirited attacks against Strecker’s new positions, but the Germans were too firmly entrenched to make any progress.

While pleased with his own divisions’ performance, Strecker kept a wary eye on the Romanians to his left. The 3rd Romanian Army was woefully short of everything, especially antitank weapons. Their own were obsolete, and Dumitrescu continually badgered the Germans for more effective pieces. Some 75mm guns had been transferred to his army, but not nearly enough to stop any major Russian attack.

Berlin had also ordered General Ferdinand Heim’s XLVIII Panzer Corps to disengage from its sector on the front and form a ready reserve behind Dumitrescu’s army. Elements of the 14th Panzer Division and the 1st Romanian Tank Division were also ordered to the area. It seemed a good plan, but the nucleus of Heim’s corps, the 22nd Panzer Division, was equipped mostly with outdated Czech tanks. Also, one of its panzergrenadier regiments had been detached from the division and moved to another sector of the front.

Zhukov planned to begin Uranus on November 9, but the date had to be postponed after the marshal made another series of visits to his commanders. Arriving in Serafimovich, a small Cossack farming and fishing village on the middle Don, he conferred with Generals Konstantin K. Rokossovsky and Nicholai F. Vatutin, the commanders of the Don and South West Fronts. They pointed out that the freezing rain and hard frosts of the previous week had made things very difficult for the forces trying to reach the front. They also said that shortages in winter clothing had to be addressed before they felt their men were ready for battle.

Moving on to the headquarters of General Fedor I. Tolbukhin’s 57th Army south of Stalingrad, Zhukov was told that men and equipment were not arriving on schedule and that the artillery had yet to be entrenched and targeted. He returned to Moscow and postponed Uranus until November 17. Upon hearing that air units marked for the offensive might not be ready on that date, Zhukov postponed the operation for two more days.

Stalingrad was on the verge of collapse as Uranus was postponed not once, but twice. The more time that elapsed, the more chance that the Germans would find out about the massive buildup. Luckily, Berlin had other problems to deal with. On November 8, the Allies landed in French North Africa, threatening Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s rear and dooming the vaunted Afrika Korps and Panzer Army Afrika. The German high command now had to split its attention, focusing on potential disasters on two fronts.

As the 19th approached, Zhukov sent out his final orders. Uranus would involve a double envelopment of Stalingrad with a primarily infantry force encircling the city itself. An outer ring, consisting of tank, mechanized, cavalry, and infantry units, would form a steel buffer against any possible German counterattack. German and allied units caught between the two rings were to be systematically destroyed and, if the opportunity arose, Soviet forces in the south would advance to Rostov and trap the divisions of Heeresgruppe A, which was still engaged in the Caucasus.

The first phase of the operation involved Vatutin’s South West Front attacking the 3rd Romanian Army out of the bridgehead on the west bank of the Don. At the same time, Rokossovsky’s Don Front would begin the envelopment of Stalingrad from the north and east. A day later, General Andrei I. Eremenko’s Stalingrad Front would attack the 4th Romanian Army in the Lake Sarpa area south of Stalingrad.

Both fronts were to send armored and mechanized forces to link up near Kalach. At the same time, other units of the fronts would spread out and head west to protect flanks as the outer ring formed.

ISU-152 ‘Zvierboi’

The ISU-152 was a further development of the SU-152 Assault Howitzer, but based on the IS tank’s (Iosef Stalin) lower chassis and running gear instead of the KV tank’s (KV from the prewar defense minister, Klimenti Voroshilov). Although the ISU-152 mounted the same 152mm M1937/43 (ML-20S) gun-howitzer of the SU-152, the new crew compartment was now higher (as the IS chassis was not as deep as the KV) and more rectangular. The old circular KV hatches were replaced with the SU-100 style cupolas and new standard periscopes installed in each. The new ISU 152, and the similar ISU-122 (fitted with a 122mm A-19 cannon), were first produced at Chelyabinsk during late 1943 at the same time as the IS-1 heavy tanks.

The success of the SU-152, coupled with the development of the IS (losef Stalin) heavy tank hull, led the NKTP to order design teams at Chelyabinsk, in cooperation the Mechanized Artillery Bureau (BAS) and General F. Petrov, to design two new heavy assault guns based on the IS-2 tank’s hull and chassis. The initial vehicle, designated Object 241, or ISU249, was similar to the SU-152, except for a higher superstructure and more rectangular with less sloped side armour. Thicker frontal and side armour (90mm/3.54in compared to 60mm/2.36in on the SU-152) meant that the internal area of both vehicles was the same, with storage for only 20 rounds each for the 152mm (5.98in) ML-20 howitzer gun. The main difference between the SU-152 and ISU series of vehicles was a lower suspension and a new, heavy two-piece gun mantlet bolted onto the right-hand side of the hull. Re-classified as ISU-152, production began at the end of 1943.

The appearance of the immensely powerful Panzerkampfwagen King Tiger in fighting south of Warsaw in August 1944 led to a number of plans to up-gun both types of ISU with the new 122mm (4.8in) BR-7 and 152mm (5.98in) BR-8 long-barrelled guns, but the realization that the Germans could not deploy the Royal Tiger in significant numbers caused production of these prototypes to be abandoned. Another reason was the conclusion of Soviet technicians, based on combat results, that the IS-2 tank could deal with this new threat.

Post-war changes were made to the final production run of ISU-152Ks by using the IS-2m chassis and the IS-3 engine deck. A total of 4075 ISU-152s were produced during the war, and a further 2450 manufactured between 1945 and 1947, when production ceased.

The heavy SU regiments were originally equipped with the SU-152, a 152mm howitzer mounted on a KV-1S chassis. The first 25 of them were rushed into service in time for the Battle of Kursk, where the effect of their 100 pound shells on German Panthers and Tigers earned them the nickname ‘Zvierboi’ (‘Big Game Hunters’). The SU-152 was only in production during 1943, and 670 were built. They were increasingly replaced in 1944 by two heavy SUs on the chassis of the new IS-II tank: the ISU-152, which was built until 1947.

The Soviets used term “Shturmovaya Artilleriiskaya Ustanovka” (Assault Gun) for the SU-122, SU-152, ISU-152, ISU-122.

When the ISU- 122/152 heavy self-propelled artillery regiments were originally formed in February of 1944, the vehicles were placed in groups of 21 assault guns with four batteries per regiment. The SP guns were intended to support offensive breakthrough operations and expected to deal with German strong points and anti-tank defenses from long distances. First deployed during the summer of 1944 offensive “Bagration”, the ISU-122/152 regiments took part in what was probably the largest concentration of Soviet armor up to that time and proved themselves to be very useful AFVs. After WWII the construction of these assault vehicles continued and they were sold to other Warsaw Pact member countries as well as Algeria, Egypt and China.

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This Soviet News photo illustrates the internal hatch detail of both the gunner’s on the left and the commander’s split hatches. The hatch half with the periscope closes first and the second half then slightly over laps the first and has two small latches at its edge to hold the hatch in place. Normally there was a leather covered pull chain connecting these latches (as seen on the gunner’s hatch) and a simple pull on the strap would release both latches so you could open the hatch from the inside. The commander here appears to be holding his cloth tanker’s helmet in his left hand while the right rests on the long handle of his periscope. Notice the antenna base, just forward of his hatch, and also the domed armor cover over the hull fan, located directly between the two hatches.

The early ISU-152M was updated to the last version in 1956, adding more ammo storage to the new K model for a total of 30 rounds, most of the additional rounds being stored in a third rack on the left side of the hull. Also added to the ISU-152K was a new TPKU ranging sight on the commander’s cupola and an improved PS-10 telescopic sight for the gunner, as well as a revised engine and cooling system.

Soviet Assault Guns – Designation

The Soviets used “Self-Propelled Gun” (or SP Artillery) for every fighting vehicle that consists of a gun mounted on a chassis.

The Soviets used term “Istrebitel tankov” (Tank Destroyer) for the SU-85 and the SU-100.

The Soviets used term “Shturmovaya Artilleriiskaya Ustanovka” (Assault Gun) for the SU-122, SU-152, ISU-152, ISU-122.

The Soviets used term “Shturmovoi Tank” (Assault Tank) for the KV-2.

“One AFV that I think can be termed one of the most effective is the ISU-152. Soviets using this vehicle gave it the nickname “zvierboi” (animal hunter) due to its effectiveness against the Tiger I tanks.”

At first, it isn’t ISU-152 but SU-152. And second, it was called such not because it was very good against Tigers and Panthers (i.e. animals) but it was the first weapon that could kill them.

“…in the source I read these AFV’s were organised into “otdelni tyazheli samhodno-artilleriski polk” (Separate Self-propelled Artillery Regiments).”

This is true (if you’re about (I)SU-152). Often their abbreviation used: OTSAP or simply SAP. Some of them were of “RGK” that means “Rezerv Glavnogo Komandovania” (Reserve of the High Command).

The Red Army called their assault guns for
”samokhodno-artilleriiskie ustanovki” abbrevation Kyrrillic ”CAY”, with our letters ”SAU”.
the other version ”samokhodno ustanovki” abbrevation Kyrillic ”CY”, with our letters ”SU”.
The first word ”samokhodno” could be translated to self-propelled.
The next word ”artilleriiskie” does not need further clarification.
Finally ”ustanovki” could be translated with gun carriage.

These assault guns was organized into heavy ”samokhodno-artilleriiskie” regiments with 21 assault guns. In Operation Bagration the four fronts initially had 2 Assault Guns brigade and 57 Assault gun regiments.
1.Baltic had four regiments (of which three were heavy).
3.Belorussian had 16 regiments (of which five were heavy) .
2.Belorussian had 10 regiments (of which two were heavy).
1.Belorussian had 27 regiments (of which five were heavy) and two brigades (8. in 3rd Army and 12. in 69th Army).

 

The Secret Story Of The Ice Airfield


Geoffrey Pyke, better known for his ambitious proposals for a kind of floating mid-Atlantic airbase constructed of ice. His idea was first promoted in 1942 as an ice aircraft carrier, and magazines featured pictures of a conventional aircraft carrier of a translucent, glistening appearance looming like a ghost out of the mist. Pyke’s idea was rather different – it was for a floating raft to act as a fuel base. The concept was developed starting as Project Habakkuk, from the biblical text that includes the words: ‘Be utterly amazed, for I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.’ Pyke consistently misspelt it Habbakuk, and that is how it is usually recorded. The idea was for the construction of a vast floating airbase made with a mixture of wood pulp and ice. The compound substance was slower to melt and more bullet-resistant than ice alone, and was named Pykrete. But in fact, although his name is forever associated with this grand design, neither the concept nor the substance were really Pyke’s. The first proposal for an ice airbase actually came from a German engineer, Dr Gerk, and was reported in 1932.

Gerk’s proposals from that time look very like the later magazine illustrations that Geoffrey Pyke promoted. What is more, Pyke was not even the inventor of what became known as Pykrete. The secret story behind this curious idea began when Pyke was shown a paper written, many years earlier, by Professor Herman Mark in Austria. Mark was a former professor of physical chemistry at the University of Vienna and an expert on the structure of plastic materials. For many years he studied X-ray diffraction, a technique in which the effect of a material on a beam of X-rays can be used to work out the molecular structure that lay hidden within the material. In 1926 he joined the chemical company IG Farben and worked on the development plastics that we now take for granted – PVC, polystyrene, polyvinyl alcohol and synthetic rubber.

Mark laid plans to leave Germany as Hitler was preparing for war. He had a huge store of platinum wire that he wished to take with him because it is a catalyst that is crucially important for his research. He knew the authorities would not permit him to remove such an important element from Germany, so Mark conceived a way of smuggling the wire with him. He bent the platinum wire into the shape of coat hangers, and his wife knitted neat covers for them all. When his suitcases were checked for contraband, the coat hangers did not even attract a second glance. The Canadian International Pulp and Paper Company in Dresden had asked Mark to come and organize research at their research headquarters in Canada, but the Gestapo arrested him, confiscated his passport, and gave him an official order not to contact any Jews. By bribing an official with a payment equal to his annual salary he secretly retrieved his passport, and – with the help of the paper company – he managed to obtain a visa to enter Canada. In April 1938 he mounted a Nazi pennant on the front of the family car, tied their skis to the roof of the vehicle, and drove across the frontier to Zurich, Switzerland, with the clothes (on their coat hangers) safely concealed in suitcases. From here they set off to reach London, England, where Mark boarded a transatlantic vessel to sail to Montreal.

He ended up carrying out research on paper pulp not in Canada, but in the United States at the Brooklyn Polytechnic where he set up the first course in the world for students of polymers and plastics. Mark was convinced that there was an important future for composite materials made from fibres held together in a mass by a plastic bonding agent. He was right, of course; the new Boeing Dreamliner is largely constructed from just such composite plastic materials. One of Mark’s early trials was an investigation of a wood pulp composite that was bonded, not with plastic, but with ice. The resulting material had properties rather like present-day fibreglass and was very strong.

In 1942, Mark sent a paper on his research to one of his former students, Max Perutz, who had escaped from Germany to England. Perutz is the scientist who coined the term ‘molecular biology’. I knew him later at Cambridge. When Perutz passed the papers to Geoffrey Pyke, it was Mark’s research on which Pyke set out to base his proposals for a floating mid-Atlantic airfield. His plan was for a top-secret ‘aircraft carrier’ made of ice and pulp that floated in the middle of the Atlantic; it would allow planes to stop and refuel, thus bringing Europe within easy flying distance of the United States. But would it work? Several practical trials were carried out in the summer of 1943, and a small prototype was constructed at Patricia Lake, Alberta, Canada. It measured 60ft (18m) by 30ft (9m) and was thought to weigh 1,000 tons. A 1hp (0.75kW) engine drove the freezer unit to keep the ice solid. Pyke himself was not permitted to join these trials, as he had already caused problems when the Weasel idea was being investigated in America, but he remained a persistent advocate of the concept.

Pykrete proved to be a solid material; buoyant, slow to melt, low in density and floating high in the water. In recent years television documentary producers have recreated Pykrete and there is no doubt that it works. But Pyke was not easy to work with, the scaling-up of the project would have cost prodigious amounts of money, and the sheer size of the project meant it was never tried on a larger scale. As a result, Pyke’s private experiments continued and he is, to this day, firmly associated with the strange saga of the aircraft carrier to be made of ice; but both the concept, and the material, had already been published years before. The secret origin of Pykrete was nothing to do with Pyke, and Professor Mark surely deserves his own place in the history of World War II.

Walther PPK

Modern PPK variants are finished in a traditional deep blue or stainless steel.

The Compact Pistol That Shook, Not Stirred

Produced: 1930–Present

Pocket pistols first appeared in Walther’s product line in 1908, making them one of the very first firearm companies to manufacture small, compact pistols. That DNA has always been entwined in all Walther pistols, especially in the svelte-looking PPK.

In 1931-1932 Walther followed the Model PP with the smaller Model PPK. Although some sources claimed that the “K” in the pistol’s designation refers to kurtz (German for “short,” as in Police Pistol Short), most favor kriminal as the more correct choice. The designation Polizei Pistole Kriminal thus indicates the pistol’s intended use by the Kripo or Kriminal Polizei, the detective branch of the German police. At 6.1 inches in overall length and 1.25 pounds, the Model PPK was essentially a smaller Model PP with a shorter grip and slide and a 3.4-inch barrel. It was offered in the same calibers as its larger predecessor. Walther also eliminated the Model PP’s metal back strap and instead manufactured the Model PPK with a comfortable one-piece wraparound plastic grip. Owing to the PPK’s shortened grip, its magazine accepted seven cartridges rather than the Model PP’s eight. The shorter grip also necessitated the addition of a plastic extension to the magazine base for the shooter’s little finger-a feature found on some Model PPs.

Walther manufactured approximately 150,000 Model PPKs during the Nazi era. The small pistol became a favored sidearm of the civilian police and the notorious Gestapo-the Nazi secret police. High-ranking Nazi officials and military officers also considered smaller sidearms more prestigious than the larger service pistols and purchased numbers of engraved Model PPKs as personal status symbols. Some PPKs manufactured for Nazi Party officials were embellished with special grips molded with the Nazi eagle and swastika motif or party insignia stamped on their slides. The Model PPK played a role in hastening the end of World War II when, on 30 April 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide with his engraved, gold-plated model in his bunker in Berlin as Russian troops closed in.

Today steel stampings are common, and the PPK is iconic. The pistol is still extremely popular today with law enforcement agencies as a backup gun and civilians holding concealed carry permits. The German military used it extensively during World War II, and Ian Fleming armed his famous spy character, James Bond, with the PPK. The PPK’s size, caliber, simple controls, ease of use, and the pistol’s relentless reliability make it a benchmark in compact pistols. All compact pistols manufactured since owe many design characteristics to the PPK.

The compact PPK pistol uses a simple blow back operating system and features a traditional DA/SA trigger; a single stack magazine with a thin grip, a barrel fixed to the frame, exposed hammer, and decocking lever are some of the other features. Some magazines also include a floor plate with a finger rest. The checkered plastic grips of the pistol form the pistol’s back strap. Old school for sure, but ever so effective. A trademark feature of the PPK is the decocking safety lever. With the hammer cocked all the way back the safety is rotated downward, decocking the hammer and allowing it to fall against the decocking lever. This model also has loaded chamber indicators that can be seen and felt in the dark if need be, telling the user a round is in the chamber. Models are available in a matte stainless steel finish or a traditional deep blue.

The PPK/S is mechanically the same as the PPK but uses a longer full metal frame that holds 7+1 rounds, of .380 ammo. PPK/S models mate a PP frame to a PPK slide to meet United States firearms importation guidelines set down by the Gun Control Act of 1968. The PP, PPK, and PPK/S family of pistols are some of the most popular and successful small pistols ever designed.

During World War II the PPK was issued to numerous German military and police forces. Adolf Hitler is purported to have committed suicide with a PPK in his bunker stronghold in Berlin as the Allies and Soviets entered the city.

The PPK inspired other small pistol designs like the Soviet Makarov, Bersa Thunder 380 from Argentina, the Hungarian FEG PA-63, and more. Though smaller and lighter polymer-frame pistols have taken away market share, the PPK’s influence and notoriety was sealed when Ian Fleming issued the PPK to his secret agent character, James Bond, in his series of spy novels. PPK has been licensed by Manurhin in France, and it is now licensed by Smith & Wesson. Originals were made in Zella-Mehlis, Germany.

Specifications

CALIBER: .22 LR, .25 ACP, .32 ACP; .380

BARREL LENGTH: 3.3 inches

OA LENGTH: 6.1 inches

WEIGHT: 21 ounces (unloaded)

STOCK: Checkered plastic

SIGHTS: Fixed notch rear/blade front

ACTION: Straight blow back, semiautomatic

FINISH: Deep blue or stainless (later variants)

CAPACITY: 8+1 (.22 LR), 7+1 (.32 ACP), 6+1 (.380)

Walther Brings Sexy Back

Postscript: The PK380 is built with a polymer frame and steel slide and barrel. The first thing you will notice when you pick up the PK380 is how good the grip feels in your hand. From a petite female to hulking brute, the PK380 feels right in anyone’s hand and it naturally points. A finger rest is built into the magazine floor plate so your little finger—if you have a big hand—does not dangle off the bottom of the grip. The PK380 is angular and aggressive looking. The controls consist of an ambidextrous safety mounted on the slide near the thumb of either a right- or left-handed shooter. Flip it up to fire the gun, rotate it down to put it on safe. The magazine release is also ambidextrous and built into the trigger guard so it is easy to release the magazine with whatever hand you shoot with. The trigger is traditional DA/SA meaning the first shot is first DA (double-action) requiring more effort to press the trigger, then once the round is fired the action goes into SA (single-action) which requires a lot less effort to press the trigger. The Walther PK380 is a provocative and inviting compact pistol.

While other pistol manufacturers have gone the micro design route, building .380 pistols that are small and ultra concealable, the PK380 is slightly larger though still very compact.