This week in the War, 17–23 May 1943: ENIAC at the University of Pennsylvania

The ENIAC, at the University of Pennsylvania [Public domain]

The ENIAC, at the University of Pennsylvania [Public domain]

This week in the war saw the beginnings of one of the landmarks of the computer age: on 17 May 1943, the US Army contracted the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering to build the ENIAC: Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer.

The ENIAC was not the world’s first computer—or even the world’s first programmable computer. That honour goes to the Z3, built in Berlin by Konrad Zuse, the man who is widely regarded as the ‘inventor of the computer.’ (The Z3 was destined to be destroyed in the bombing.) Also, before the end of 1943, the Colossus was up and running in Bletchley Park, UK.

Regardless of whether the task was code-breaking (like at Bletchley) or artillery calculations (as was the case with the Z3 and to some extent with ENIAC), all three computers shared a common feature: to program the machine, thousands of individual plugs and switches had to be inserted or clicked by hand. (No stored programs in those days! No disks or magnetic tape or even punched cards.)

University of Pennsylvania engineers, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, take credit for the design of ENIAC and its almost 18,000 vacuum tubes. When a tube burnt out—which typically occurred a few times a day—then the machine had to shut down until the tube had been identified and replaced.

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This week in the War, 10–16 May 1943: The Dam Busters

The Dam Busters-----by Paul Brickhill (Evans Brothers, London, 1958) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

The Dam Busters—–by Paul Brickhill (Evans Brothers, London, 1958) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

It is over fifty years since Australian-born writer, Paul Brickhill, wrote his bestselling account of the bombing raid on the dams that provided water and hydro-electric power to industries in the Ruhr valley. The book led to a movie and to a popular and easy-to-whistle tune.

This week in the war, on the night of 16 May 1943 and the early hours of the following day, Lancaster bombers from the RAF’s recently formed 617 Squadron attacked the Möhne, Edersee and Sorpe dams in Germany. The ‘boffin’ providing the technical expertise was Vickers engineer, Barnes Wallis, and the squadron was commanded by Wing Commander Guy Gibson.

Wallis had come up with the idea of breaching the dams, and the idea of doing it by sinking a bomb (in fact a depth charge) in the water alongside the dam wall—which would then crack from the shockwave when the bomb exploded. But how could one deliver a bomb so precisely—particularly when the approaches to the dams were defended by antiaircraft guns and by torpedo nets, positioned in the water?

Wallis’s solution was to design an oil-drum-shaped bomb that would spin as it descended. Each Lancaster would fly low and level and drop its bomb from an exact height, which would be measured by having a pair of searchlights—one in the plane’s nose, one in the tail—cross in an appropriate spot. After release, the bomb would bounce a couple of times on the surface of the water before thumping into the dam wall and sinking. The explosion would be triggered by water pressure.

The Möhne and Edersee were breached. The Sorpe was slightly damaged. Well over a thousand people died, some being civilians, others being prisoners in German P-o-W camps in the valleys below the dams. Fifty-three were from the aircrews of the Lancasters that had taken part.

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Vignette: The 70th Anniversary of VE Day

British girls in London on VE Day, 1945 [Public domain]

British girls in London on VE Day, 1945 [Public domain]

Seventy years ago today the most costly war in human history came to an end in Europe.

Every year since 1945, people the world over have celebrated the 8th of May—Victory in Europe Day—and have honoured the ones who lived through those times and who, in so many cases, gave their lives. Seventy years later, on this year’s 8th of May, the memories remain alive in those who were there and in their descendants.

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This week in the War, 3–9 May 1943: The fall of Tunis

British Churchill tank and other vehicles parade through Tunis, 8 May 1943 [Public domain, IWM]

British Churchill tank and other vehicles parade through Tunis, 8 May 1943 [Public domain, IWM]

This week in the war, 0n 7 May 1943, tanks of the British 7th Armoured Division (newly detached from the British Eighth Army to join the American First Army) entered Tunis.

On the same day as the fall of the Tunisian capital, American and Free French troops of the US Second Corps took the city of Bizerta further north.

The Allied conquest of Tunisia was almost complete, regardless of Hitler’s assurance to Mussolini in Salzburg that Tunis would be defended. The Duce’s dream of riding his white horse triumphantly into Cairo would never come to pass. Within a week, the German and Italian forces in Tunisia had surrendered: over a quarter of a million men.

On 13 May 1943, the army-group commander for the North Africa theatre, General Harold Alexander, sent the following message (subsequently recorded in his memoirs) to Winston Churchill: “Sir, it is my duty to report that the Tunisian campaign is over. All enemy resistance has ceased. We are masters of the North African shores.”

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This week in the War, 26 April–2 May 1943: “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker”

Flight-lieutenant Charles Christopher Cholmondeley, RAF/MI5, 1943 [Public domain]

Flight-lieutenant Charles Christopher Cholmondeley, RAF/MI5, 1943 [Public domain]

Lieutenant-commander Ewan Montagu, British Naval Intelligence, 1943 [Public domain]

Lieutenant-commander Ewan Montagu, British Naval Intelligence, 1943 [Public domain]

This week in the war, in the early hours of the morning of 30 April 1943, British submarine HMS Seraph surfaced off the coast of Spain. A canister was brought on deck and opened to reveal a dead body dressed in the uniform of a major in the Royal Marines. A briefcase was then attached to the body by a chain and the body was fitted with a life jacket and slipped overboard so that it would float ashore with the morning tide.

The event signaled the start of Operation Mincemeat, an elaborate deception designed to fool the Germans into thinking that the Allies would not invade Sicily (which was the obvious target after North Africa) but were interested instead in landing in Greece and Sardinia. Identification on the body indicated that the deceased was a Major William Martin of the Royal Marines, and receipts and bills plus love letters and a photo of his fiancée Pam found in the major’s pockets backed up the story of a man who, in fact, did not exist.

Operation Mincemeat-----by Ben Macintyre (Bloomsbury, 2010) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

Operation Mincemeat—–by Ben Macintyre (Bloomsbury, 2010) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

The idea for Operation Mincemeat was due to an eccentric RAF intelligence officer named Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced ‘Chumly’)—doomed never to fly on account of his poor eyesight—and a brilliant barrister named Ewen Montagu who was serving in Naval Intelligence, in fact in the same unit as Ian Fleming of James Bond fame. After the war, Montagu described the events in his book The Man Who Never Was which, in 1956, was turned into a movie. More recently, Ben Macintyre has provided a well-researched and highly readable account in his book Operation Mincemeat (Bloomsbury, 2010).

After the body of the fictitious major was washed up on the beach, the briefcase was opened and the bogus plans were examined by Spanish authorities and the details reported to Berlin. The major was subsequently buried with due military honours.

The Germans, including Hitler, were convinced that the plans were genuine and began to strengthen their forces in Sardinia and Greece. The British realized that the trick had worked and a cryptic telegram was dispatched to Churchill (who was in the USA): “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker.”

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This week in the War, 19–25 April 1943: The Warsaw ghetto uprising

Jewish civilians in the Warsaw ghetto, May 1943 [Public domain]

Jewish civilians in the Warsaw ghetto, May 1943 [Public domain]

This week in the war, on 19 April 1943, the eve of Passover, German troops entered the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. Many Jews had already been taken from the ghetto and deported to the east, supposedly to work camps. But by April 1943, the Jews remaining in the ghetto had finally realized that the deportations were to extermination camps, and they decided to resist.

Armed with Molotov cocktails and a few handguns plus some weapons captured from the Germans, the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto put up a fierce resistance. The Germans sent in crack troops, equipped with artillery and armour.

Resistance continued well into May, although the end was inevitable. Over 10,000 Jews died in the fighting. The remaining inhabitants of the ghetto, some 50,000, were captured and deported to extermination camps such as Treblinka.

The photograph above is one of the most famous pictures of World War II. It was taken by the Germans and originally used for propaganda purposes. Notice that the soldiers have eagles on their left sleeves, clear indication that the troops are SS.

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This week in the War, 12–18 April 1943: Murder in Katyn forest

Memorial to the Katyn Forest massacre, Gunnersbury, UK [Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, author: Jake from Manchester]

Memorial to the Katyn Forest massacre, Gunnersbury, UK [Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, author: Jake from Manchester]

This week in the war, on 13 April 1943, Radio Berlin announced a grisly discovery in Katyn forest, close to Smolensk. Upwards of 3,000 Polish officers were found buried in layers in a number of mass graves. The officers had been captured by the Soviets during their invasion of Poland in 1939. (One of the German officers who made the discovery was an army intelligence officer named Colonel von Gersdorff—the same man who, a few weeks earlier, had attempted to blow up Hitler.)

The Germans were quick to blame the Soviets for the massacre and invited international observers and forensic experts to inspect the site. The Soviets were equally quick to blame the Nazis. Britain and the USA, being unwilling to offend their Soviet allies, concurred with the Soviet view. Neither Churchill nor Roosevelt was willing to accept evidence to the contrary.

Letters, postcards, newspaper clippings and other items found on the bodies in the Katyn forest confirmed that the murders took place in the spring of 1940, well before the German army had arrived in the region.

Over 20,000 Polish military officers, police officers and intellectuals were murdered in 1940 at camps and prisons in Russia.

It was not until 2010 that the Russian Dumas (parliament) officially admitted that the Stalinist regime was to blame and that Stalin had personally ordered the executions.

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