[ Note: Excerpt from a long read on the realities of World War II: Losing the War - by Lee Sandlin]
For the Vikings, this was the essence of war: it's a mystery that comes out of nowhere and grows for reasons nobody can control, until it shakes the whole world apart. Njal's saga ends with a vision of war as the underlying horror of the world, always waiting underneath the frail mirage of peace. In a final dream image, spectral women are seen working an occult and horrible loom: "Men's heads were used in place of weights, and men's intestines for the weft and warp; a sword served as the beater, and the shuttle was an arrow. And these were the words the women were chanting:
From the cloudy web
On the broad loom
The web of man
Gray as armor
Is being woven.
This is as good a description as is available for the course of World War II from the fall of 1944 on -- after the Allies at last acknowledged that, despite the decisive battles of the previous summer, the Axis was never going to surrender. That was when the Allies changed their strategy. They set out to make an Axis surrender irrelevant.
From that winter into the next spring the civilians of Germany and Japan were helpless before a new Allied campaign of systematic aerial bombardment. The air forces and air defense systems of the Axis were in ruins by then. Allied planes flew where they pleased, day or night -- 500 at a time, then 1,000 at a time, indiscriminately dumping avalanches of bombs on every city and town in Axis territory that had a military installation or a railroad yard or a factory.
By the end of the winter most of Germany's industrial base had been bombed repeatedly in saturation attacks; by the end of the following spring Allied firebombing raids had burned more than 60 percent of Japan's urban surface area to the ground.
There was no precedent even in this war for destruction on so ferocious a scale. It was the largest berserker rage in history. The Allies routinely dropped incendiary bombs in such great numbers that they created firestorms in cities throughout the Axis countries. These weren't simply large fires. A true firestorm is a freak event, where a large central core of flame heats up explosively to more than 1,500 degrees, and everything within it goes up by spontaneous combustion -- buildings erupt, the water boils out of rivers and canals, and the asphalt in the pavement ignites. Immense intake vortices spring up around the core and begin sucking in oxygen from the surrounding atmosphere at hurricane speeds. The Allied raids reduced cities in minutes to miles of smoldering debris. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed -- about 20 percent of them children. Tens of thousands suffocated, because in the area around a firestorm there's no oxygen left to breathe....
Such was the discipline of the Axis armies that they went on fighting even in the midst of these cataclysms. But the homelands they were defending disintegrated into anarchy and rubble. Tens of millions of Germans and Japanese were driven from the wreckage of their homes to join the hundreds of millions of people already flooding the roads of Europe and Asia. They were seen everywhere, trudging away from smoking villages and along the ruined autobahns, across cratered fields and through burned forests. "DPs," they were called, displaced persons: interminable lines of refugees carrying a few possessions (a bag of tools, a handful of books, a house cat, a crying baby) in an anonymous stream. Amid the chaotic flux of collapsing empires, no one could sort out what side the latest flood of DPs had been on or where they wanted to go now; their movements were as unpredictable as tidal waves. Millions of Japanese came pouring back into the home islands from the dwindling fringes of the "coprosperity sphere," but there was nowhere to house them, with so many millions already on the streets because of the firebombings. In the eastern provinces of Germany a wave of terror and panic spread through the population as the Red Army at last approached. Overnight more than ten million people bolted for the west, abandoning land that had been cultivated and treasured by Germans for more than a thousand years, since before the time of Die Meistersinger, since before an anonymous poet in a royal court had first written down the legends of the Nibelung's ring. Not everyone joined the stampede, but those who stayed to protect their homes learned that their worst fears had been wholly justified. The Red Army murdered more than a million civilians in the eastern provinces of Germany as it marched toward Berlin.
Meanwhile the crimes the Axis had so long fought to conceal were coming to light. Every day brought news of some large-scale atrocity or revealed years of bottomless despair -- even now, historians examining newly discovered archives are finding evidence that the Axis occupation was much worse than had been previously imagined. When the three-year siege of Leningrad was at last broken, it was learned that more than a million people had died of starvation; they'd killed their house pets for food, and before the end there were pervasive rumors of cannibalism. The collapse of the Japanese empire revealed famine throughout China; more than ten million people in provinces once controlled by the Japanese were dying or dead. And in April 1945 the line of German defenses finally shrank back far enough that the death camps were discovered by Allied troops. "A crime beyond the imagination of man," the first news reports called it. People who thought they'd been permanently numbed to horror found they were wrong.
But by then the Holocaust seemed almost lost in the universal destruction. The deaths are still being counted. In the decades after the war it was believed that between 15 million and 20 million people had died in the war, but historians now believe the real number was at least three times higher, and some recent estimates (based on studies of newly declassified archives in Russia and China) put the total at close to 75 million. The extent of the material damage was incalculable. The civilian economies of Europe and Asia were a shambles. Most industries not related to war production had been shut down or destroyed outright. Basic commodities were unobtainable, even on the black market. Roads and bridges throughout two continents had been blown up, ports had been wrecked, and commercial shipping had stopped. The submarine war had sent rivers of oil into the ocean -- a torrent that made the great postwar spills look like irrelevant trickles; oil from torpedoed tankers was washing up on beaches all over the world. Nobody knew enough to care about environmental damage in those days; what mattered to them was that their essential fuel source had become as rare as gold. The unavailability of fuel was what finally broke the last German armies still fighting in the field. The Japanese government, its supply of oil cut off, had ordered civilians to dig up every pine tree on the home islands so that a synthetic oil could be distilled from the roots (it didn't work).
Food too was desperately scarce -- not only because the armies had commandeered so much of the supply, but because the war had ruined agricultural production in much of the world. There had been rationing for years on all sides. "Hitler butter" was what the Germans had called their foul-smelling margarine substitute, the only kind available; the British had learned to expect the promising-looking morsels of beef in their stew to have the unique, disgustingly sweet taste of horse meat. But even these delicacies vanished in the war's final fury. Hundreds of millions of acres of farmland were left fallow or destroyed by the movement of the combat zones. Countless herds died of starvation, were slaughtered by troops for food, or were killed by the universal, indiscriminate shelling. With no safe transport, thousands of tons of fresh fruits and vegetables were left unharvested or rotted in the warehouses of blockaded ports. The standard food ration in Japan fell far below the subsistence level, and in Europe fresh meat and fruit, when they could be had at all, were found only in the black markets -- which were officially discouraged but universally tolerated because they helped stave off the growing threat of famine.
Even in America, which had been the least damaged of any combatant nation, the final year of the war at last eroded the basic textures of life. Rationing, after that giddy summer of expectancy was over, was reimposed more stringently than before. The black market dried up, and beef was scarce for the first time since the war began. There was a serious shortage of heating oil by the end of the year, in the middle of the coldest winter in a decade. Blackouts were still in effect on both coasts, and to conserve fuel the government ordered brownouts in midwestern cities -- all businesses were to close at dusk. For the first time since the war began the lights of Chicago, like those of all the major cities of the Northern Hemisphere, went dark.
[ Note: Excerpt from a long read on the realities of World War II: Losing the War - by Lee Sandlin]Posted by gerardvanderleun at February 23, 2017 11:13 AM