Sunday, June 26, 2016

Don't Invade Russia

Last Wednesday was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany. If I made a list of mistakes to avoid if you want to conquer the world, it would have just three things on it. First, don't mess with the Royal Navy. Second, don't underestimate American resolve. And third, whatever you do, absolutely never, never, never invade Russia.

Hitler broke all three of these rules, and a good many others, in his bid for world domination. He underestimated British resolve and, crucially, failed to understand the advantage the British had in the form of the Royal Navy. He terribly misunderstood the character of the American people and foolishly declared war on the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, even though he was under no treaty obligation to do so. His interference in military procurement led to countless delays in the development of new weapons systems that could have greatly impacted the course of the war. He thought that the Italians would be a useful ally, he ordered foolish offensives when his generals urged caution, he diverted critical resources away from the war effort towards his sinister program of industrial-scale murder, and generally made a thorough mess of being a war leader. Indeed, there have been some suggestions that proposals to assassinate Hitler were rejected by the Allies because removing him from the stage would only help the German war effort.

But of all his mistakes, none matched the sheer stupidity of his invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. It was a mistake that would bring to ruin Hitler's sick dreams of a European empire centered around his conception of Aryan racial purity, as well as cost him his life. True, the Soviet victory would not have been possible without the crucial contribution of the United Kingdom, the United States, and the other Allied nations (most directly in the form of Lend-Lease supplies sent directly to the USSR, without which the Soviets would not have been able to resist the Nazis). But we can see that the invasion of the Soviet Union was the event around which the outcome of the Second World War swung. From the moment the panzer divisions crossed the border, Nazi Germany was probably doomed.

Hitler was fully confident that his armies could crush the Soviet Union quickly and easily. After all, they had already conquered Poland, Denmark and Norway, the Low Countries, and the Balkans. Most impressively, they had defeated the French, believed before the war to have the strongest army in Europe, in a mere six weeks of fighting. The might of the German panzers on the ground and the Luftwaffe in the air had appeared to be invincible. The Red Army, by contrast, had had a humiliatingly difficult time defeated the Finns in 1940, despite outnumbered them by a massive margin, and many of the best Russian commanders had been executed in Stalin's political purges.

The invasion led to the most brutal and nightmarish war that the world has ever seen, a titanic struggle between two equally evil dictators and two equally malevolent political ideologies. At the onset, it seemed that nothing could stand in the way of the Germans, whose panzer divisions sliced through the Soviet lines as though they were butter and whose Luftwaffe obliterated the Soviet Air Force before it could take off. For months, the German armored spearheads advanced, killing or capturing millions of Soviet soldiers, taking Kiev and Minsk, and coming within a hairsbreadth of Leningrad and Moscow.

It was then that two crucial elements played into Russian hands. First, the weather turned on the Germans, trapping them at the end of their supply lines in subzero temperatures beyond anything they had ever experienced. Second, Russian reserve armies launched a massive counteroffensive, for the Germans had failed to grasp the power of the Russians to raise armies of enormous size almost at will. In nightmarish fighting around Moscow in the winter of 1941-42, the Germans were hurled back.

They tried against the following year, launching a spring offensive that drove eastwards towards the Volga River, threatening the city of Stalingrad and the crucial Russian oil fields in the Caucasus Mountains. This ended in complete disaster that winter, with the massive Russian victory at the Battle of Stalingrad, which snuffed an entire German army out of existence. The following year, a last ditch German offensive was turned back in the Battle of Kursk, by some accounts the largest land battle in history. After that, the Russian steamroller really got going. Soviet war production, by itself, now significantly outstripped that of the Germans and the Soviet armies seemed to have almost limitless reserves of manpower. By the spring of 1945, the shattered remnants of the German forces were utterly defeated in the Battle of Berlin, Hitler shot himself inside his famous "Fuhrerbunker", and the Soviet flag was raised over the Reichstag. The Second World War in Europe was over.

The German Fuhrer wasn't the first man to invade Russia with dreams of an easy victory. One hundred and twenty-nine years ago almost to the day, the enormous army of Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, had crossed the Neman River to begin the invasion of the Russian Empire. His army of six hundred thousand men, not only Frenchmen but Germans, Italians, Poles, and Dutchmen, was quite possibly the largest army ever marshaled in European history up to that point. Napoleon had defeated Russian armies in the past, at Austerlitz and Friedland, having always found them poorly led and slow to maneuver. The French Emperor, perhaps the greatest military genius in history, had no doubt that his invasion of Russia would succeed and leave him master of the world.

Napoleon's invasion of Russia went off in much the same way as that of Hitler's a century-and-a-quarter later. The Russian armies withdrew in the face of the overwhelming onslaught of Le Grande Armée trying to avoid being pinned down and losing much territory in the process. Eventually, the Russians stood and fought at the cataclysmic Battle of Borodino, the largest and bloodiest single-day battle of the 18th Century. Napoleon won a tactical victory, but a Pyrrhic one at best, for he suffered massive casualties and the Russian army withdrew to survive as a fighting force. Napoleon entered Moscow a week later, but the city almost immediately began to go up in flames thanks to Russian arsonists. He found that he had taken not a grand city, but a charred ruin.

The great retreat began a month later. It was a nightmare almost without parallel in human history. The Russian winter engulfed the French and allied soldiers, like the icy grip of the Grim Reaper, to the point where men who fell out of the ranks from exhaustion froze to death on the side of the road. Food ran short and many men starved; there were scenes of men frantically rushing towards any horse that fell down to cut away its flesh and consume it in a frenzy, whether or not the poor animal was dead. The Russian army constantly sought to interpose itself between the French army and its route of retreat, nearly succeeding in November at the Battle of Berezina, where the French suffered heavy losses as they crossed the river from which the battle took its name. Through it all, Cossacks and rural partisans swarmed around the French army like white blood cells attacking bacteria. The horrific tortures they inflicted upon French prisoners are almost too terrible to bear reading about and I shall not repeat them here.

Napoleon had entered Russia with an army of 600,000 men. When it limped out of Russia six months later, only about 100,000 had survived. Although Napoleon would miraculously raise another army and fight on for another three years, the disaster in Russia spelled the true end of his dreams for dominating Europe. He was never able to recover from the disaster of 1812 and the combined might of the British, Russian, Austrian, Prussian, and Swedish armies gradually wore him down. Napoleon met his final defeat at Waterloo in the summer of 1815, but his doom had probably been sealed when he had invaded Russia three years before.

Hitler and Napoleon are the two best known would-be conquerors who came to grief in the snows of Russia, but they are not alone. Just over a century before Napoleon's invasion, the Swedish king Charles XII had tried his luck. A figure almost unknown to modern Americans, Charles XII was one of the most fascinating people of the 18th Century. He led his nation through the long and bitter Great Northern War for the first two decades of the 18th Century, fighting against an alliance of Denmark-Norway (then united as a single realm), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, various German states, and the Russian Empire. Against such a coalition, no one gave Sweden much of a chance.

Yet Charles XII quickly proved himself to be one of the most gifted military leaders of his time. At the Battle of Narva in 1700, with only 10,000 men, he destroyed a Russian force four times his strength, seemingly knocking them out of the war altogether. That accomplished, Charles turned to campaigning in Germany and Poland for the next several years, winning many victories and attempting, with varying degrees of success, to place friendly monarchs on the thrones of the various states.

Unfortunately for Charles, the Russian Empire at this time was led by the most ferocious and implacable man who would ever sit on the throne, Czar Peter the Great. Stung by the humiliating defeat at Narva, he embarked upon a massive military reform program, slowly building up the strength of the Russian army, improving its training and tactics, and equipping it with up-to-date weapons. With his new forces, Peter began attacking Swedish holdings along the Baltic Sea, slowly chipping away at vital Swedish territory.

Realizing that he had been wrong to write Russia off after the victory at Narva, Charles XII now decided upon a full-scale invasion. With a battle-hardened army, he set off on his march to Moscow in January of 1708. At first, everything went well. Despite superior numbers, Russian forces were defeated in a number of battles, including the Battle of Holowczyn that summer, in which 12,000 Swedes trounced twice their number of Russian troops. But inevitably, things began to go wrong. An anticipated anti-Russian uprising by the Cossacks was thwarted by a devastating preemptive Russian attack. A reinforcing Swedish army was intercepted by the Russians and defeated at the Battle of Lesnaya. Worst of all, the Swedes were forced to endure what the French and Germans in future turns would endure, as the winter of 1708-08 turned into the coldest in living memory, resulting in countless Swedish soldiers freezing to death amid the wastes of Russia.

With a weakened army reduced to less than 25,000 men, Charles XII faced off against Peter the Great's much larger army at the Battle of Poltava in the summer of 1709. The result was probably a foregone conclusion. Attacking with great gallantry, the Swedes fought as hard as men could fight, but against vastly superior numbers, strongly entrenched and backed by strong artillery, they had no chance. The Swedish army was crushed in one of the decisive battles of history, forever ending Sweden's status as a great power and marking the emergence of Russia on the stage of the world. Charles himself would escape into the Ottoman Empire, to pursue further adventures in the years left to him, but his dream of conquering Russia ended in the bloodbath at Poltava.

Adolf Hitler. Napoleon Bonaparte. King Charles XII. In each of the last three centuries, a mighty warlord has attempted to conquer Russia. Each of them failed, and for remarkably similar reasons. In each of these three examples, the same three factors inevitably led to failure.

First, the Russians were always able to put into the field enormous numbers to resist the invaders. Even if the invaders were qualitatively superior in fighting capability, Russian numbers often proved able to turn the tables. No matter how many Russians were killed by the Germans of Hitler, the Frenchmen of Napoleon, or the Swedes of Charles XII, there were always more to replace them. This was due not only to the large Russian population, but to the autocratic nature of the Russian government under both the Czars and the Communist dictatorship of Stalin, which could mobilize an unimaginable proportion of their people into military use. Anyone invading Russia can expect to be at a severe numerical disadvantage.

Second, Russia is simply too big to be conquered. Invaders might inflict defeats upon the Russians, but there was always enough territory behind the Russians for them to retreat and regroup.This is why several serious defeats, such as the Battle of Holowczyn during Charles XII's invasion, the Battle of Smolensk and the Battle of Borodino during Napoleon's invasion, and the Battle of Kiev during Hitler's invasion, did not turn out to be truly decisive. The Russians were able to regroup and reorganize their forces father to the east and continue their resistance. Even Napoleon, who actually was able to capture Moscow, simply discovered that the Russian army withdrew to the east and remained ready to fight. There was simply too much land in Russia for it to be taken under any kind of occupation.

Third, and finally, the Russian winter played a critical role in defeating all three of the invasions. It's entirely likely that more German, French, and Swedish soldiers froze to death as were killed in battle. It not only killed and maimed men, but it destroyed morale and made the movement of food and supplies all but impossible. The Russians were quite familiar with this extreme form of weather and operated much more freely under its constraints. Making a bad situation even worse, the spring thaw following the winter turned the roads into a morass of mud and sludge, almost immobilizing the movements of the invaders. This was especially problematic for the mechanized German forces in the Second World War.

These underlying three aspects of Russia - its ability to mobilize immense numbers, its vast size, and the terrible ferocity of the winter - make the country effectively immune to direct invasion. So please take my advice. If you're in the world-conquering business, don't invade Russia. Trust me on this one. It's just an all-around terrible idea.

Unless, of course, you happen to be the Mongols.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

United Kingdom Should Leave The European Union

The American media has never been very good at bringing foreign news items to the attention of the American people. It sometimes seems to me that aliens could invade Australia and a massive fireball might destroy a chunk of France on the same day without the slightly mention of either on an American news channel. This year, with media attention fixated on the presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, is even worse. This is a shame, because in less than a week, on June 23, we will see perhaps the most important election in the United Kingdom in our lifetimes, as the British people vote in a referendum on whether their country should remain in the European Union or withdraw from it. The two opposing camps, understandingly, have been designated "Leave" and "Remain".

I am neither British nor European, so perhaps I have no business stating my opinion about this referendum. But the fact that Britons and Europeans aren't Americans doesn't stop them from forthrightly expressing their opinions about our politics. Besides, I have close ties with Britain and studied there during my university days. I see no reason why I shouldn't state my opinion on this question, even if it only impacts me indirectly. So, here goes.

I believe that the United Kingdom should vote to leave the European Union.

The United Kingdom, the union of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, stands proudly as one of the greatest and most successful political entities that has ever existed. For its size, its positive impact on the rest of the world has simply been astounding. All over the world, nations use British-inspired political systems, economic systems, legal systems, and educational systems. British writers, scientists, inventors, artists, and philosophers rank among the most important that have ever lived. For an island nation with a comparatively small proportion of the world's population, there is no doubt that Britain has had a greater positive impact than any other nation in history.

Moreover, while their history is by no means unblemished, the British have long been a force for the expansion of liberty. From the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, through the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and on into the 20th Century, the story of British history has been the gradual expansion of freedom. British thinkers such as John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Francis Hutcheson, and many others, have laid the foundations for the political ideals of liberty that today dominate global thought. It was British soldiers and sailors who brought down tyrants as diverse as Philip II, Louis XIV, Napoleon Bonaparte, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Adolf Hitler. Britain also played crucial role in the containment and collapse of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The men flying the Spitfires and Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain in 1940 were, as Winston Churchill well realized, fighting for the freedom of the whole human race.

If the British people vote to remain in the European Union, they will essentially be voting to turn their backs on this glorious history. For as Europe gradually centralizes from a loose confederation into a more unified federation in the coming years, the members will inevitably lose their national sovereignty, which will drain away like water emptying out of a tub. Unless it votes to leave, the United Kingdom must eventually shrink into being simply a large region of a European super-state, at best being on the level of one of the larger of the fifty American states.

On the other hand, if the European project crashes and burns, then it would make sense for Britain to get off the sinking ship while it still has a chance, rather than go down with it. The events of recent years, with the euro currency all but collapsing, nations losing control of their own borders in the face of a mass refugee crisis, unemployment in many member states reaching terrifying proportions, and bailout after bailout being required to secure the finances of the less fiscally responsible states. The EU bureaucracy in Brussels has proven wholly incapable of dealing with these problems, which seem likely to get worse rather than better. Moreover, the EU has proven wholly incapable of dealing with foreign policy crises, ranging from serious ones like the breakup of Yugoslavia and the continued division of Cyprus to minor ones like a dispute between Spain and Morocco over an uninhabited rock. Setting all other arguments aside, perhaps it's best for Britain to get out of the EU while it still can, rather than remaining chained to it as it falls apart.

The Remain camp has focused like a laser beam on building an economic case for Britain to vote to stay in the EU. If the United Kingdom leaves the EU, it will lose preferential access to the Common Market and will have to renegotiate its trading relationship. Well, so what? Neither Norway or Switzerland are members of the EU and they have negotiated quite happy terms of their trading relationship with the European bloc. So, for that matter, have many others among the major economies in the world. Negotiating a new trade deal between the UK and the EU will take some time, just as it will take time to unwind and reframe other aspects of Britain's relationship with its European neighbors. Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon specifies a two-year process for withdrawal, during which time trade matters will be dealt with properly. Britain is the world's fifth largest economy. It's not like the EU is going to ignore its existence when it is no longer a member. Renegotiating a trade agreement will be in the best interests of everyone. Since Britain is already in complication with EU rules and regulations, it can choose for itself which to retain and which to discard if the Leave vote wins.

Moreover, leaving the EU will allow Britain to make its own trade agreements with other nations in whatever way it sees fit. It's rather astonishing to reflect on the fact that Britain does not have comprehensive and binding trade deals with the United States, China, and India. As a member of the EU, the United Kingdom has not been allowed to negotiate its own trade agreements with non-EU nations, which has often meant that British trade has suffered due to the concerns of other constituencies. As a single example, efforts to establish a free trade agreement between the EU and Australia (a country much more like Britain than any member of the EU)  have been stymied by a dispute over Italian tomatoes. Leaving the EU will free Britain from such concerns, allowing it to negotiate its own trade agreements in whatever way it sees fit.

There has been a lot of back-and-forth between the Remain and Leave campaigns regarding how EU funding would be affected by a Leave vote. The Leave has oft-repeated a figure of 350 million pounds a week, or more than 18 billion pounds per year, which would be the equivalent of 25 billion dollars per year. Now, clearly, Britain gets a chunk of that money back in various forms as EU institutions allocate funds to Britain just as they do to every other member state, such as farm subsidies and research grants. But even the Remain camp acknowledges that Britain as a net loser as far as money is concerned. And the British government, if it wished to do so, could pay for these programs itself using the money saved from no longer paying into the EU budget.

And that goes to the heart of the matter. All the nitty-gritty details of trade deals and research grants pale when set against the overriding question: does the United Kingdom wish to govern itself or does it wish to be governed by others? Does do the British people want their laws made by their own elected representatives or do they want them being made by unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels?

This is no mere philosophical question. Perhaps half of all the legislation and regulations British citizens are legally required to follow come not from the House of Commons, or the devolved local administrations, but from EU rules emanating from Brussels. Elected members of Parliament have no say in what these rules and regulations are and it is becoming increasingly difficult for the British government to negotiate opt-out agreements regarding those elements of EU law and regulation that it does not wish to see incorporated in its territory. It seems that every year, as Germany and other EU states push for increasing integration, the British are dragged along against their will, slowly and incrementally becoming just a sub-region of a larger European superstate.

It was not supposed to be like this. When Britain joined what was then the European Economic Community in the early 1970s, it was sold to the British people as a free trade zone and customs union. Now, having had the wool pulled over their eyes, the British people find themselves ironically in the same position as the American colonists before the Revolutionary War: not in control of their own destinies and having the law made from them by people far away, whom they have not elected and over whom they have no influence. Ironically enough, if one wanted the clearest explanation for why Britain should leave the EU, all they need to do is read A Summary View of the Rights of British America, which Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1774.

By freeing itself from the EU, the United Kingdom would be able to reforge the "special relationship" with the United States, which has long been a linchpin of global security and which has frankly suffered a bit in recent years. It will be able to reestablish stronger ties with the rest of the "Anglosphere" - Canada, Australia, and New Zealand - which have been neglected since Britain's accession to the EEC in 1973. Britain, after all, has more in common with the nations of the Anglosphere than it does with any member of the European Union. It might even seek to revitalize the Commonwealth of Nations, which has become little more than a friendly club since Britain first joined the EEC. In any case, Britain would be freed to pursue its own foreign policy, building its own political and economic relationships both in Europe and outside of it, which it currently cannot do.

Some Remain proponents have argued that the European Union has been instrumental in the preservation of peace in Europe since the Second World War. Leave proponents counter that it was NATO, and especially the involvement of the United States in the alliance, that actually preserved peace. Both have solid points on this score. The Leave proponents are correct in asserting that it was NATO, and not the EU, which deterred Russia (in the guise of the Soviet Union) from attempting to dominate Europe between the 1940s and 1980s. But the Remain proponents are also largely correct, for it was the Franco-German rapprochement which secured the peace of Europe and which today forms the foundation of the European project. But this would remain true whether or not Britain is a member of the EU. I am, personally, a supporter of the European project, who happens to believe that the United Kingdom does not fit into it. The British have steadfastly resisted the move towards greater centralization, and continually refused to adopt toe euro currency, and thereby have encouraged given encouragement to Euroskeptics in many other EU member states. If the other members of the EU genuinely want to pursue the quest for an "ever greater union", then perhaps they should happily wave goodbye to the United Kingdom if it votes to leave later this week.

The irony is that, at least since the 16th Century, the cornerstone of British foreign policy has been the preservation of its independence from whatever happens to be the most powerful state on the Continent at that time, be it Spain, France, Germany, or Russia. When we recall the Royal Navy defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588 and winning the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, or the British Army battling against Louis XIV at Blenheim in 1704 and Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, or the Royal Air Force fending off Hitler's Luftwaffe in 1940, we are recalling Britain defending its sovereignty against Continental powers. Yet since the 1970s, the United Kingdom has meekly been surrendering its independence to an army of Brussels bureaucrats, who might be well-meaning but whose ultimate aims still spell the end of the United Kingdom as we know it. Now, the British have a chance to win their sovereignty back. And it might be their last chance.

I hope that the British people vote Leave on June 23.

(Note: It is disappointing to see that the tone of the debate in Britain on this critical question has become so inflammatory and visceral. Remain supporters routinely accuse Leave supporters of racism, while Leave supporters not so subtly accuse Remain supporters of being traitors to Britain. Indeed, some of this overheated rhetoric might have encouraged the brutal murder of Jo Cox, MP, a Remain supporter, last week, although the suspect also appears to suffer from mental illness. On such an important issue as this, the campaigns should be conducted with reason and rationality and not by appealing to the baser elements of human nature.)

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Room 40

A week-and-a-half ago, the world commemorated the one hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle of the First World War. During the famous engagement, the British Grand Fleet sortied to intercept the main force of the German High Seas Fleet, which itself was trying to catch what they thought was an isolated portion of the Royal Navy.  The Germans were mystified when they were suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with a superior British force that seemed to know their exact location and course. At the time, they put it down to an unlucky coincidence. They could not have been more mistaken.

In fact, the Royal Navy knew exactly where the German fleet was and where it was headed because they had pulled off one of the greatest intelligence coups in military history. They had successfully broken the secret codes of the German Navy. This victory, bloodlessly achieved by brains rather than brute force, was one of the most important of the entire war.

Wireless telegraphy, what we today call radio, was still a new factor in warfare when the Battle of Jutland was fought. After all, it had been barely a decade since the experiments of Marconi proved the usefulness of long-range wireless transmitting. The advent of wireless technology made possible instant long-range communication, and with it, the coordination of military operations on a scale much larger than that ever achieved before. A commander was now able to give instant commands to armies or fleets hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

The problem with wireless is that anyone can listen in on it. It thus became necessary to deny the enemy knowledge of what was being said through the use of codes and ciphers. Failure to do this would allow the enemy to listen in on one’s own radio transmissions and could conceivably lead to disaster. Earlier in the war, the 1914 Russian invasion of East Prussia had resulted in a catastrophic defeat largely because the Russian commanders had communicated in the clear, without any attempt at using codes or ciphers, and the Germans therefore knew almost as much about Russian troop dispositions and movements as the Russians did themselves.

It was recognized quite quickly that wireless would be of particular use in naval warfare. While generals could communicate with their forces on land by cable or written message, admirals had to coordinate the activities of warships across vast stretches of ocean, and wireless was the only way to accomplish this. Before the war, in order to safeguard the security of its wireless transmissions from prying British eyes, the German Navy had carefully created a complex encryption system that consisted of three different codes.

Each code was known by a two-or-three letter codename. Perhaps the most important German code was SKM, which the Germans used only to communicate with important naval units during major operations. It was made up of more than 34,000 three-letter groupings, each of which represented an order, a name of a ship, or some other piece of information the German admirals would need to communicate to their vessels. A code of lesser importance was HVB, which the Germans used to issue various routine commands that were done on a regular basis, and also when warships needed to communicate with German merchant vessels. The final code, VB, was used by the German Admiralty to communicate with its naval attachés overseas, and also used by flag officers when they were at sea.

Wireless telegraphy was such a new innovation that few countries had put much thought into intercepting and decrypting enemy transmissions. When the war broke out, the British knew that the maintenance of their naval superiority was going to be a critical factor in the final defeat of Germany. If the Germans were able to seriously challenge British mastery of the seas, it would be impossible to maintain the naval blockade of Germany and the British Isles might find themselves threatened with invasion. Very early in the war, therefore, it was decided that an operation had to be set up to break the German naval codes.

The Royal Navy turned to a somewhat unlikely person to tackle this key problem: Sir Alfred Ewing, a Scottish engineer who taught at the University of Cambridge and had spent many of his pre-war years working in Japan. At the outbreak of the war, he was the Director of Education for the Royal Navy, helping develop better methods for recruitment and training of naval officers. He had absolutely no professional experience in cryptography, but Rear Admiral Henry Oliver, the Director of Naval Intelligence for the Royal Navy when the war broke out, simply had an intuitive feeling that Ewing was the man for the job. As it turned out, Ewing was an excellent choice.

As a first step, Ewing did what any intellectual would do when faced with such a challenge: he went to the British Museum and began reading books on cryptography. He also began to assemble a staff of quirky eccentrics to help him in his task. Since no one had ever assembled a team to break wireless codes before, Ewing essentially made things up as he went along. Among the men he recruited were mathematicians and linguists, but there was a heavy dose of intellectuals who were well-versed in classical languages and ancient history but had no knowledge of code breaking. Many of them were academics on leave from their universities, and there was a bit of culture shock as these civilians began working with officers of the Royal Navy.

The men recruited by Sir Ewing gathered in the quarters he had found for them in the Admiralty Building, Room 40, which was soon the unofficial name for the operation as a whole. The very existence of Room 40 was a highly-classified secret. Outside of the high councils of the Admiralty, only the top two British admirals, John Jellicoe and David Beatty, were allowed to know about it.

As it turned out, by the end of 1914, the men of Room 40 had a lot of material to work with.  Immediately upon the outbreak of the war, the Royal Navy and its Dominion counterparts had begun the straightforward task of ridding the world’s oceans of German merchant ships. Unless they were lucky enough to find refuge in a neutral port where they could sit out the war, any German steamship was soon to be captured by the British. All German merchant ships, of course, were under strict instructions to destroy their copies of the HVB code the moment it looked like capture was likely.

On August 11, a Royal Australian Navy ship boarded the German-Australian merchant vessel Hobart, whose captain was not even aware that war had broken out. The Australian officer commanding the boarding party presented himself as the head of a quarantine inspection unit, thus gaining control of the ship before the captain had a chance to destroy his codebook. The Australians then tricked the German into revealing the location of the codebook, which was soon on its way to London.

Only days later, Room 40 received another stroke out luck, courtesy of their Russian allies. In the Baltic Sea, the Germans and Russians fought a largely isolated naval war with one another, in which superior numbers and tactics gave the Germans a decided advantage. The Russians restored to the naval equivalent of a guerrilla war, launching occasional hit-and-run attacks, striking only when targets of opportunity presented themselves, and otherwise keeping their ships in well-fortified bases. 

During a sortie against the Russians in the first month of the war, the German light cruiser Magdeburg ran aground in heavy fog. Frantically, she tried to free herself before Russian warships could arrive and attack her in her vulnerable state. When it became clear that she was well and truly stuck, and that the Russians were indeed on their way, the captain of the Magdeburg decided to destroy the ship rather than see it captured. Being aground, it couldn’t be properly scuttled, but charges were set to blow the ship up. Two Russian cruisers soon approached and, as soon as they were in range, began firing at the helpless Magdeburg. In the confusion that reigned as the German crew abandoned ship, the charges apparently went off too soon, killing many of the German sailors while not fully destroying the ship. Some of the Germans were rescued by a nearby German destroyer, while the others were taken prisoner by the Russians.

When the firing died down, the Russians sent a boarding party onto the charred remnant of the Magdeburg. Onboard, they discovered the codebook and current key for the SKM code, and almost immediately recognized their significance. Figuring that the priceless codebook would be of much more use to the British than to themselves, the Russians made a copy of it and then generously sent the original to London, where it soon found its way to Room 40.

The final German code was said to have fallen into Allied hands through a bizarre coincidence. On November 30, in an incredible stroke of luck, a British fishing trawler accidentally hauled up a metal chest that had earlier been dumped into the North Sea by a damaged German destroyer. Upon investigation, it was found to contain the VB codebook. It’s not clear why a humble destroyer was carrying the VB codebook, which was used for communications to overseas naval attachés and consulates, or by Flag Officers, but the British certainly weren’t going to complain. (I have sometimes wondered if this story was cooked up by the British to conceal the fact that they acquired the VB codebook by stealing it from an overseas German embassy, which would have been a massive violation of diplomatic protocol and international law.)

Before the end of 1914, therefore, the British had acquired the three most critical German naval codes. Clearly, Room 40 led a charmed life. But simply having the codebooks did not allow the British to decrypt the German messages, because the Germans were using ciphers as well as codes. A code is basically just another language written down in a codebook, in which combinations of letters are substituted for regular words and numbers. A cipher, on the other hand, is a system of scrambling up those letters so that they appeared to be gibberish to anyone who doesn’t possess the cipher. The men in Room 40 may have obtained the German codes, but unless they could unlock the German ciphers, the messages they were intercepting still were incomprehensible.

The men at Room 40 set to work. There were no established methods and procedures for the work they were doing, so they simply starting building up their operation from scratch. They were helped by the fact that the Germans made excessive use of wireless and did not change their ciphers regularly. By assembling vast numbers of intercepted German messages and comparing them with one another, over time the ciphers began to be broken. By the end of 1914, Room 40 was beginning to read German messages with increasing ease.

One of the mysteries of the First World War is why the Germans never fully realized that their codes had been compromised and that the Royal Navy was, in effect, readings its mail. When the Magdeburg was captured, concerned messages fluttered around the German Admiralty regarding whether the vital SKM codebook had been successfully destroyed. No one could say for sure, but the Germans went right on using the code anyway. In all three of the German codes, ciphers were often not changed for weeks at a time, and as Room 40 gained in experience, each new cipher would be broken within a few days.

When the Royal Navy appeared as if from thin air to attack a German naval unit or intercept a German vessel, rather than consider the possibility that the British had broken the German codes, the German naval commanders ascribed these events to either unlucky coincidence or reports sent to Britain from spies in Germany. Indeed, in the entire German Navy, only Captain Looff of the Konigsberg, hiding in the Rufiji Delta in German East Africa, seems to have realized that the British could read the German codes. Supply ships clandestinely sent from Germany to assist the Konigsberg were intercepted by the British, who could only have known about them by breaking the German codes. But while Looff realized this, no one else in the German Navy seemed to comprehend it.

The first hint of what Room 40’s capabilities came during the Battle of Dogger Bank, when the Royal Navy was able to intercept a powerful German flotilla with an even more powerful flotilla of its own. Only good luck and poor British command and control during the battle allowed the Germans to escape a potential severe defeat. As it was, the Germans had been forced to flee for home with undue haste. The British victory at Dogger Bank was made possible only by the intelligence provided by the men in Room 40.

Eventually, the man who emerged as the guiding spirit of Room 40 and its devoted band of code-breakers was the new Chief of Naval Intelligence, Captain Reginald Hall, truly one of the unsung heroes of the First World War. He professionalized and reorganized the staff of Room 40, transforming the ad hoc group created by Sir Ewing into a proficient unit that not only provided critical intelligence for the British throughout the war, but laid the foundation of the future code-breaking operations at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

In the middle of 1916, Sir Ewing took his leave from Room 40 and returned to academia, whereupon Hall officially took over Room 40 in his capacity as Director of Naval Intelligence. If the code-breaking operation had one weakness, it was organizational ambiguity, but Hall now cut through the red tape and greatly improved operations.

Room 40 would play a tremendously important role in the war. It would not only help the Royal Navy keep the German High Seas Fleet cooped up in its North Sea bases, but would help them defeat the U-boat threat that posed such a great danger to the survival of Britain. It would also help bring the United States into the war as a member of the Allied powers, for it was via the codebreakers in Room 40 that the notorious Zimmerman Telegram came to be revealed to the public, raising American anger against Germany to a fever pitch in the early months of 1917.

If ever there was proof that the simple power of the human mind, carefully applied, can change the course of history, it was in the work of the men in Room 40.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Ten Good History "Beach Reads" for the Summer

It probably won't surprise any readers of my blog that most of my spare time - the time not taken up in being a full-time teacher, writer, father, and husband, in other words - is taken up with reading history books. My ratio of reading nonfiction to fiction is probably around twenty-to-one. If you ask me, a well-written history book is better than the best novel, with the added attraction of being a true story.

As the summer begins and we all try to relax a bit, I thought I'd offer a few modest suggestions for good history books to read over the summer, perhaps while lounging around on the beach. None of these are overly academic. Each is written by a good historical writer, tells a rollicking good story, and is intended for the general public. They tell important stories, to be sure, but aren't so heavy as, say, books about the Holocaust or the Soviet gulags. It's important to read those books, but maybe not on the beach during summer vacation.

Of course, my first recommendations would be my own books, Shattered Nation: An Alternate History Novel of the American Civil War and Blessed are the Peacemakers: A Shattered Nation Novella. Trust me, I have read both of them very carefully and consider them quite good. But this is not about tooting my own horn. Let's talk about what I think would be the ten most fun history books to read over the summer.

First up is The Neptune File, by Tom Standage, published in 2000. I loved this book, which tells the remarkable story of how Neptune was discovered in the late 19th Century. Mathematicians and astronomers, armed with their understanding of Newton's laws of gravity, had noticed something odd about the orbit of Uranus, the first planet invisible to the naked eye to be discovered, which suggested that an object of enormous mass was "tugging" on it with its gravity. Yet no such planet was known to exist. Much of the drama of the story comes from the controversy over whether English mathematician John Couch Adams or French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier deserves the credit for the discovery. It may sound cerebral, but I can assure you it's a delightful, entertaining book that you won't regret reading. It also leaves one with a profound respect for the ability of the human being to comprehend the universe in which we live.

Next is the wonderful book Longitude, by Dava Sobel, published in 1996. Like The Neptune File, it's a story of a complicated problem being solved by human ingenuity. The problem of finding longitude at sea might seem insignificant today, but it was a matter of life and death to the people of the 18th Century, not to mention extraordinary profits and military supremacy. Parliament offered an astounding monetary reward to anyone who could devise a solution. Amazingly, this task fell to an amateur clock-maker and choir director, John Harrison, a man from rural Yorkshire rather than London. But it was far from an easy task. In this lovely volume, easily read in a single day, Sobel details hows Harrison solved each technical challenge as it came up, as well as how he navigated the corridors of scientific and political power in the British Empire to claim the prize against all odds.

Another wonderful summer read I would recommend is The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk. In prose that flows like fine wine, Hopkirk details the clock-and-dagger struggle that took place in Central Asia between the Russian Empire and the British Empire during the mid-to-late 19th Century. British spymasters in India feared that Russia, steadily pushing down from the north, might one day penetrate through the Khyber Pass and invade Her Majesty's most valuable colonial possession. The stories of daring escapes, secret missions, espionage, and counterintelligence that Hopkirk describes makes one feel as if James Bond or Jason Bourne had been dropped down into the imperialistic age of the 1800s. Honestly, I have no idea why half a dozen different movies haven't been made out of this material.

We now come to Queen Victoria's Little Wars, by Byron Farwell. This book is by one of my favorite authors, who tells stories of soldiers in the British Empire in such an engrossing and entertaining way that one feels less like they are reading a book and more like they are on a rollicking amusement park ride. Yes, war is terrible, yet somehow the gentlemen of the Victorian army made it all seem like a game. With stories of adventure and glory as far afield as Canada, China, India, Africa, and the Middle East, filled with the most colorful characters in all of military history, this book is sure to delight anyone who reads it.

Next up is Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben MacIntyre. The deception campaign by the Allied against the Germans before the D-Day invasion, leading them to believe that the landing would be at Calais rather than Normandy, is arguably the greatest counterintelligence effort of all time. It had many aspects, but perhaps the most important was the "turning" of literally every German agent operating in Britain at the time, using them to feed false information to Berlin. It's a story of colorful characters and dramatic escapades, masterfully told here in highly entertaining prose.

The next book on my list of recommendations is City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley. There is something about the Republic of Venice that fascinates me and fills me with wonder. It's the story of a small city on an island in the middle of a great lagoon, which through courage, daring, skill and a head for business, comes to dominate the Mediterranean world and become one of the great powers of Europe. It then held the line for Christian Europe against the Islamic power of the Ottoman Turks, engaging in a series of wars that eventually exhausted it. With highly entertaining writing, the story comes alive in the pages of this book.

A Short History of Byzantium, by John Julius Norwich, comes next. It's a one volume abridged edition of a three-volume work. Norwich's witty, always clear and often amusing writing style takes what is often seen as a boring and esoteric subject and makes it easily accessible and hugely entertaining. The history of the Byzantine Empire is a subject deeply fascinating and this lovely volume is a magnificent introduction to it.

Another lovely book to read in the summer appeals to though who, like me, like wine along with their history. It is Passions: The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson, by James Gabler. This book describes in loving detail the travels of Jefferson in Europe, through France, northern Italy, southern England, and the Rhine Valley. Its primary focus is wine, for Jefferson was the greatest wine connoisseur of the late 18th Century, but it also gives attention to the gardens and architecture that Jefferson so loved. Politics is touched on only fleetingly, for this is a book about Jefferson the Renaissance Man, not Jefferson the revolutionary. The last few chapters detail how Jefferson's European experience impacted his time in the White House and in his retirement at his beloved Monticello.

A book I cannot recommend highly enough is Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic, by Tom Holland. If you're looking for epic drama in history, you can't do better than the collapse of the Roman Republic in the First Century BC. In Holland's skillful hands, the story comes alive in all of its complexity and its astonishing cast of characters. When you come to the end of the book, you'll have been taken on a fantastic ride, yet find yourself shaking your head at the thought that such events were even possible.

We come to the end of the list with Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, by Laurence Bergreen. I've always loved stories of the great explorers and this one certainly ranks among the best. The story of Magellan's heroic crew and the suffering they endured during the first circumnavigation of the world, it is a gripping adventure story that leaves one astonished. Of course, the one "fact" that everyone knows about this story is false; Magellan was not the first man to sail around the world, because he died halfway through the voyage. Yet a few skeleton survivors did make it back to Spain and the story they had to tell defied imagination. In the capable hands of Bergreen, it comes alive in this wonderful history book that is written like the best novel.

And that's the list. Happy reading, everyone!