Monday, February 21, 2011

Wasted in War: Sometimes, losing your mind is the only option.

  I thought I might have some fun this week and put together a little something on alcohol usage in military history. However, the subject soon got way out of control and is proving way too big for a single post so I've had to narrow things down to just a select few of my favorite drinkers in military history.

   Any decent history of humans getting wasted and killing people under the influence probably starts with the moment alcohol was stumbled upon by Stone Age men. However, 'Ugg' smashing in 'Goggz' skull while hammered on fermented fruit skins and all for Ika's affections is one of countless human stories that happened in some cave somewhere but never got written down and therefore doesn't exist for us.  So the 'history of wasted' must begin, for us at least, with the recorded history of any number of ancient civilizations. It's hard to choose which one because who doesn't like a drink?

   Only one thing is for sure.

 Once alcohol was discovered, rulers were quick to control its use for their own gain. It's like anything in human history that people like. A strong man steps in and makes money off human desire. Sometimes, alcohol was used to get warriors in the mood for killing the enemy and other times it was used just to make sane people believe crazy shit.

   Either way, controlling hearts and minds is primarily a chemical affair.

   For instance, the Pharaohs knocked up the Pyramids with an army of dumb fuck worker citizens who were  duped  into believing in the Pharaoh's immortality. This worldview was administered by priests (a necessary subclass funded by the pharaohs) who expounded the virtues of citizens slaving their asses off all day under the hot sun while straining to lift multi ton rocks; all so dear leader could have an eternal life in his triangular bunker. This may seem to us today like a difficult amount of bullshit for the average Egyptian to swallow but throw in the priestly handout of two gallons of free beer per day and a tent to crash in at night and suddenly shit didn't seem so bad to the average laborer. Hey presto, the pyramids still stand today. That daily Egyptian beer ration was a serious factor in getting those things built, possibly the deciding factor.

   Score one for ancient alcoholism!

   By the time the cultivation of the grape had spread to the Greeks around 2000 BC, most of the ancient world was pretty clued in on the virtues of getting wasted. Alexander the Great liked to get black out drunk, especially after his victories at Issus and Gaugamela, when all the decadence of the Persian Empire was his. A few hundred years later, the Romans seemed to have a remarkably temperate view of alcohol use, using it just like me, that is, for 'medicinal purposes'. While habitual drunkenness was rare for the ancients, being hammered at banquets and festivals was not. The Greeks and Romans even had their very own 'god' of getting wasted, the Greek Dionysus or, in the Roman context, Bacchus, a god of wine, fertility and fucking. Our gods today are boring compared to the gods of antiquity. We today are stuck with various 'angry daddy' cloud gods with long beards and a wagging finger every time we're about to get our fun on; the ancients had gods who commanded them to get drunk and run out into the forest naked while looking for unsuspecting females to have surprise sex with. Of course, today they lock you up for shit like that and put you on the sex offender registry. In antiquity, that same  night of debauchery would just be considered a  fun  and typical night out at the festival.

   My favourite Roman drunk was Marc Anthony. A legendary boozer, he drank everyone under the table while fighting at Caesar's side in Gaul, banged legendary amounts of women including Cleopatra (after Caesar got JFKd). She was probably the hottest chick in the ancient world or, at the very least, a sultry seductress who knew how to make men think she was the hottest chick since sliced panem. Anthony avenged Caesar's death and killed the conspirators and headed off to Egypt for a few years where he fell deeply in love with the urn. Who wouldn't I suppose? He was living like a king, downing buckets and having his knob polished by Nubian beauties. But he lost it all to Caesar's adoptive son Octavian in the ill fated sea battle at Actium. He and Cleopatra offed themselves soon after, her by poisonous snake, him by 4 gallons of Chianti and a Gladius short sword. Still, not a bad outing for a boozer in human history.  Marc Anthony's ancient bender still beats the life out of the average life of a drunk hanging outside a 7 Eleven today, begging for change even if it's in our technological fantasy sci fi world.

   If you could live the life of any historical figure, who would you choose?

   Or is today's office job the best life's ever been?

Dionysus, naked and drunk as usual.

   Perhaps my favourite army of alcoholic lunatics whose actions in a single week in 900AD would get you locked up for life in 2011 were the Viking raiders. If I were given a choice of where to be inebriated in military history, I'd probably hop in a Longboat and set sail with the Norsemen.  Fun times. We're talking serious badass drinking and plenty of 'non consensual temporary marriage' to captured females. Also, you got to avail yourself of a lot of free gold and silver trinkets. I wonder how many of us today would trade in our mind numbing cubicle job to go plundering foreign shores with the Norsemen? Sure it'd be risky and there'd be no Internet but it does make you wonder if the side benefits of non prosecutable sex and violence would make up for the lack of modern medicine, traffic jams and the added ability to punch your mother-in-law every time she dropped that comment about you not having a real job.

   As Europe settled down after the Dark Ages, alcohol manufacture fell into the hands of a transnational global cartel known as the Catholic Church. Monasteries with carefully maintained vineyards sprang up all across southern Europe. Monasteries had free recruitment. They were essentially the place where you stored that 'difficult' son in the family who didn't like girls and had no other excuse for not being married. To offset this, monks had a daily ration of a liter of wine which was a decent way to make life in a prison camp bearable.

   The next major impact of alcohol on world history emerged after the discovery of the New World. In the century following, the British Royal Navy emerged as a force that would soon dominate the seas. This was an outfit which practically ran on booze. As the empire expanded, there was a constant need for fit men to man ships and these were often gathered when they were passed out in a gin joint and grabbed by a gang of heavies. Wow, that puts today's otherwise uneventful stumble to the pub in a certain historical perspective doesn't it.

Getting drunk on a Friday night could result in many non voluntary years at sea with the Royal Navy.

   Once you found yourself a member of a Royal Navy crew, you were issued with a daily ration of a half pint of rum, a practice which soon got nixed because a lot of sailors were saving up their half pints over a few days so they could get well and truly wasted twice a week. By 1650, the brass decided to mix all rum with four parts water (using the rum as a water purifier and algae suppressor... tasty) and hence giving us the drink known as 'grog'. The Royal Navy still used alcohol as a pacifier on their ships and the officers fed the men just enough to keep the crew tipsy but never enough that they got wasted and wondered what they were doing 8000 miles from home in the middle of some ocean and getting paid in diluted gin for what the fuck reason nobody could explain to them.

   It wasn't so much that the British used alcohol as a motivator for its men and more that they adapted to the situation as they found it, that is, the population were already hammered on a regular basis and military service needed to adapt to this fact. It's a lot like one of those beach resorts in Spain or Greece today that gets invaded every year by British 'tourists' and we're using the term 'tourist' very loosely here. We're talking planeloads of drunken young working class men, the very same people that in 1750 the Crown dressed in Red Coats, handed a musket and daily gin ration to and shipped out to the far flung corners of the earth to bring 'civilization' to the 'savages'.

   The British could also use 'wasted' as an offensive weapon.

   They trafficked opium and shipped boatloads of the stuff into China from India in the 1800s. Low Chinese demand for European goods, and high European demand for Chinese goods, forced European merchants to purchase tea, silk and porcelain with silver, the only commodity the Chinese would accept. This quickly resulted in depleted treasuries in Europe and back then you couldn't simply 'print' more gold and silver like they do these days. This highly pissed off the British and they decided it was time to create some demand for a product they could supply. Opium. The Chinese quickly developed a taste for that particular flavor of wasted. Obviously, the Chinese authorities weren't happy about this and fought two abortive Opium Wars in 1839 and 1856 to no avail. It's so much easier to dominate a country many times your size and population if you can keep a sizable portion of the men of fighting age wasted.

   During World War I many countries tried to crack down on alcohol use for fear that it would negatively impact production. The Russians banned vodka in 1914 which resulted in lots of home made varieties that also made handy paint stripper and could be thrown at the authorities while alight. In January 1915, Lloyd George claimed that Britain was "fighting German's, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink." Times had certainly changed since the glory days of the Royal Navy in the Age of Sail. In the trenches too, the British rum ration had dried up to a few tablespoons per man on a cold winter's morning. The industrial revolution and the hourly wage had taken its toll on attitudes to inebriation. Being wasted now got in the way of all important efficiency.

   By the outbreak of WW II, alcohol found itself competing for shelf space with new varieties of mind altering chemicals. The Germans in particular experimented with a new drug called Pervitin better known to us today as methamphetamine. It was distributed to pilot and tank crews, often in chocolate, and kept them alert, sleepless, and in too high a dose, fighting off the shadow people. Hitler himself, growing ever more demented after Stalingrad, ditched the chocolate part and began injecting the stuff which may have directly affected the course of the war. Holding back the Panzer divisions at Normandy, the Ardennes Offensive, poor usage of new weapons (Me 262) may not have changed the outcome but having a deranged tweaker meddling with strategy certainly didn't help.

   Current US policy under Order Number 1A basically rules out any consumption of alcohol by any US service member while in Iraq, Afghanistan or Kuwait. These days, a soldier can't even get a drink before dying for his country. This has led to some fun conflicts in the NATO mission in Afghanistan with the US bitching that the German Army performance is sub par due to a generous alcohol allowance. Over a million liters of alcoholic drinks were sent to troops based at German camps in Afghanistan last year.

   If you can't get wasted in war then when would be a better time?

   Humans in the 21st century and especially in the US are becoming dangerously prudish it seems. Sex and drugs are deemed decadent because pleasure is dangerous. While killing and maiming for one's country are seen as good and one's patriotic duty. You know humans are fucked if this continues. Think of it, you can turn on the TV anytime and witness a high number of violent deaths per hour. This is considered 'normal' entertainment. Yet the depiction of sex, the loving act by which humans create new humans, is considered obscene. Think what an alien intelligence might make of us upright apes. We've managed to glorify destruction and abhor creation, the very thing that got us here in the first place. We've somehow managed to get the whole purpose of life exactly backwards. We prefer killing to creating. We prefer pain to pleasure. From the aliens point of view, we're probably the most fearsome species in this sector of the galaxy. Thank the heavens, say the hypothetical aliens that we're not a space faring species and we'll probably wipe ourselves out before we ever are.

   And many of us are confused and wonder why there are so many wars.

   I do know and that is probably why I drink. 



Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Tiger Tank: German armor and why the Tiger I got made.

 Chillin' on a Tiger's back.

   I got pretty much burned out on Middle East rioting this week so I thought I might cheer myself up and write about Tiger tanks instead. World War II armor is the kind of thing that cheers me up when I'm down. There's something about the way Germans over engineered their tanks that makes me happy. It's like even in the midst of WWII the Germans were still churning out vehicles that could win not just militarily but also on style points. Even if those production actuary tables cost them the war.

   Sure, the Germans could never win. Not with 30 million Russians punishing them on the OstFront and the Americans and British running an effective strategic bombing campaign on German factories. That's why it's fun to play "what if" with history and wonder what the Germans were thinking when they came up with the Tiger Tank. My favorite  thing is that the Germans named their new main battle tank in 1942 the "Tiger". Well actually Ferdinand Porsche gave it that name. Officially, it was known as the 'Panzerkampfwagen VI Ausführung H' which is somehow not as sexy. What was it with the WW II era Germans and sexily named vehicles? The Americans at the time tended to name their tanks after stuffy old Civil War generals like "Sherman" and "Lee". Hell, the British named one of their best tanks of the war the "Matilda", which is possibly the worst name for a tank ever. It conjures up an image of your granny in combat boots. Psychologically damaging yes, but not that scary.

   But the Germans?

   They called their tank a "Tiger" just to mess with the average infantryman's head.

   The Tiger I gets a lot of flak for being expensive, heavy, slow and prone to break downs. And it was all of those things. But it was also a damn fearsome piece of engineering. Before we talk about all the fun stuff though, first let's get to the point in the war where the Germans realized a need for such a heavy tank.

   When the Germans invaded France in 1940 and first unveiled Guderian's Blitzkrieg to the world they did so with some pretty shitty tanks. Panzer Is, IIs and IIIs. The Panzer I had paper thin armor, a two man crew and sported two 7.92mm machine guns. Yes, you heard that right. No anti tank gun of any kind fitted. One fifth of German armor in the Battle of France in 1940 was composed of Panzer Is. Keep in mind here that the French at the time were no slouches in tank design. They fielded the frighteningly powerful Char B1 which was a heavy tank with 40mm armor, a 47mm anti tank gun and, I shit you not, a 75mm howitzer poking out of its belly. Sure, it was slow and heavy but it could blow Panzer Is and IIs in half in a pitched battle.
The French Char B1. An ugly fucker but formidable if driven by anyone but the French!
   The French fielded it wrongly though and used it as some kind of movable arty piece and tended to spread them out across the front rather than bunching them together in single tank units where they might have been more effective against the oncoming Wehrmacht tank rush. The Germans merely bypassed the isolated Char B1s when they stumbled across them (the one thing the light Panzers had on their side was a top speed of 50 km/h). There is one fun story though of a Char B1 taking out 13 German Panzers IIIs and IVs (the 'better' German tanks in 1940) and returning to its staging point having been hit 140 times to no effect by German guns. Even Guderian himself relates a similar story and laments his casualties after a face to face encounter with one of these Gallic behemoths.

   But it was Barbarossa that finally convinced the Germans that they needed to up the ante in terms of heavy armor design. The single catalyst was a little Red Army tank known as the T-34. Probably the best tank of WW II, maybe the best tank ever, it deserves its own post, but, in short, it was a beast and an all rounder. Fast, with sloped armor, a reliable diesel engine, and with a nasty 76.2mm short barrel high velocity gun, the Russians spammed these from factories behind the Urals and in many cases rushed them onto the battlefield unpainted. Suddenly, for the first time in the war, the Wehrmacht found its armor totally outclassed. The German's best medium tank in 1941, the Panzer IV, was hurriedly fitted with a new 75mm gun and as much extra armor slapped on as the engine could handle and designated the Panzer IV Ausf. G. It still proved vulnerable to the oncoming Russkis.

   And this was where the Germans lost their minds.

   Much has been made of the lack of a German heavy bomber in WWII. The Battle of Britain was lost because the Luftwaffe design philosophy in the 1930s (and due to the Versailles restrictions) stipulated/forced a preference for fast twin engined medium bombers like the He 111 or the Ju-88 over four engined heavy bomber designs. That Germans were capable of producing such aircraft as the Focke Wulf Fw 200 'Condor' clearly proves that there were no technological hindrances to production of four engine bomber designs. Those Condors the Germans did produce were used as maritime patrol craft rather than pressing some variant into service as a heavy bomber and getting with the strategic bombing program that the Americans and British had such a hard on for.

   It was perhaps because of such mistakes that the Wehrmacht went decidedly overboard when they dreamed up the Tiger I. They overcompensated. Of course, another factor in this whole equation was Hitler himself, who was always interfering in every design decision and invariably fucking things up royally. When the Germans pulled off the amazing feat of producing the world's first jet fighter, the ME-262, Hitler decided it would make a good "fighter bomber" when it was obviously way ahead of its time as a high altitude interceptor. A war changing weapon was hobbled and never given its chance to turn the tide, relegating it to the dustbin of "what if's" in military history. Hitler similarly messed with the Tiger design.

   In response to the T-34, two designs for a 45 tonne plus tank were submitted. One by Ferdinand Porsche and the other by Henschel & Son, a German locomotive manufacturer. The Porsche prototype looked decidedly T-34ish in the chassis with a familiar Tiger I turret bolted on top. Porsche was zealous enough to produce over a hundred working prototype chassis before he was told that the Fuhrer had gone with Henschel's design.

The failed Porsche prototype chassis was later adapted as the Elefant self propelled anti tank gun.

   Henschel won the contract and the Tiger went into production in August 1942 at a rate of twenty five per month. Yes, I shall repeat that. Twenty five per month. Meanwhile, the American 'arsenal of democracy' Chrysler factories were churning out tin can Shermans at a rate of fourteen per day.

   Could the Germans have matched this production rate if they had a simplified generic tank? No they could not have. Could they have made life easier for themselves and come up with a simpler tank design than the Tiger I that would have made production faster? Absolutely. But they pressed ahead with their over engineered and expensive uber tank nonetheless. So what was the rationale here?

   For one thing, part of the Tiger was already proven technology. That was the main gun. The legendary German 88mm. Originally an AA gun, Rommel proved its lethality in North Africa as a potent tank killer. It had a high muzzle velocity and a remarkably flat shell trajectory which made it ridiculously easy to hit targets and penetrate 150mm of frontal armor at ranges beyond 2 km. Those stats spoke for themselves so it was understandable that the Germans would try anything to marry such a weapon to a chassis that could accommodate it.

An 88mm in action.
   Of course, having figured out how to mount an 88 in an enclosed turret and mounting that turret on a chassis that could carry it, you'd already pushed up the cost of your new tank significantly. Now, after having spent that money, the designers were almost forced to up armor the thing. I mean, after creating something so formidable attack wise you didn't want to lose it to a couple of pot shots from a Sherman or T-34. So the Germans packed on the armor plate to the point where its engine, suspension and gearbox met the stress limits of structural steel. The Tiger operated right at those limits which is pretty badass if you ask me.

   But obviously there were many design sacrifices made.

   The Maybach diesel engine was underpowered for the 60 tonne weight but even despite this the Tiger I managed the respectable top speed of 38 km/h. That's something often overlooked when historians rag on the Tiger. It was slow but not 'useless slow' as many like to portray it as. It was actually quite maneuverable and even boasted less ground pressure than a Sherman due to its 725mm wide tracks, unprecedented at the time. One big weakness was the traverse time of the turret. Housing that heavy 88mm meant a hydraulic motor was needed and it took a full minute to turn through 360 degrees. That proved problematic especially because Russian and Allied tactics dictated that when attacking a Tiger the attack was carried out by four tanks, all of them attempting a flanking maneuver to land a rear shot where the Tiger's armor was weakest. This could work but involved the sacrifice of three Shermans/T-34s before the fourth one could flank in and land a rear shot to the Tiger's ass.

   58,000 Shermans and 36,000 T-34s were produced as opposed to a mere 1350 Tiger Is. And here comes the fun part. The Wehrmacht even went so far as to develop a whole new variant, the Tiger II, otherwise known as the 'King Tiger"! Holy shit, run for the hills! Seriously, the dying German Reich under assault on two fronts attempted to rectify the Tiger's design problems and win the game on style points alone. You must admit the King Tiger wins on every metric except rationality and a reliable drive train. But doesn't it look damn beautiful?

The King Tiger. They accidentally the whole German war economy.

   I'm not sure if the Allies or Russians got to try out the four tank attack tactic on a lurking King Tiger. It must seem to the generals that sacrificing three cheap tanks to kill a really expensive one looks good on paper when you break out the actuary tables. But when you look at it from a purely human perspective, you are talking about sacrificing 15 guys to kill 5.

   Stupid me, getting all philosophical and viewing war from a "human" perspective. That's never the way to look at it right? Because, I suppose, if humans had any real perspective, there would be no wars at all.