1939 — The Uranium Committee meets for the first time

The first meeting of what would evolve into the Manhattan Project – at that time called the Briggs Advisory Committee on Uranium – was held in Washington DC on October 21, 1939, a little less than two months after the outbreak of World War Two (and more than two years prior to the USA actually entering the war).

The first meeting was basically a planning session. It identified four key problems that needed solving – finding a reliable source of uranium, developing better methods for extracting uranium-235, making atomic (fission) bombs and finally, exploring the use of nuclear fission as a power source. In addition, $6000 was allotted to Fermi and Szilard to continue their experiments (which promised to shed light on at least one of the four problems).

On December 18, 1941, the S1 Uranium Committee was reorganised under the leadership of Vannevar Bush and tasked with developing an atomic bomb, a mission that would reach completion on August 6, 1945, in the skies above Hiroshima.

Referenced in:
To The Teeth — Ani Di Franco

1942 — Japanese planes attack Darwin

The Japanese air raid on Darwin was mounted by 242 Japanese planes launched from four aircraft carriers. It was intended to soften up the air force and navy bases there in preparation for the Japanese invasion of Timor the following day. Between 9:58 and 10:40AM that day, the planes sank three warships and five merchant ships, while damaging ten more. Twenty-one dock workers were killed in the raids.

This would be the first of a total of 97 air raids against targets either in Australian waters or on the Australian mainland. Most of these were on various sites across the northern coast of Australia between Port Hedland, Western Australia and Townsville, Queensland, with the great majority of them being on military or civilian targets in Darwin. The last air raid took place on November 12, 1943, striking Parap, Adelaide River and Batchelor Airfield (all in the Northern Territory). By that time, the tide of war had turned, and Japan could no longer strike so close to Australia, although the end of the war was still nearly two years away.

Referenced in:
Tojo — Hoodoo Gurus

1941 — Zyklon B is first used at Auschwitz

One of the deadliest chemicals ever invented, Zyklon B is a derivative of Prussic acid. It was invented in 1922 by a small team of German chemists led by Nobel Prize winning chemist Fritz Haber, whose previous creations included mustard gas and other chemicals of warfare used in World War One.

In 1941, the gas was first deployed in three death camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Majdanek, and Sachsenhausen. Its first large scale use was one September 3, when 600 Russian POWs, 250 Polish POWs and 10 criminals were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some of the victims survived more than 24 hours of exposure to the gas – when this was discovered, additional quantities of it were pumped into the killing chambers. By the time the war ended, an estimated 1.2 million people were killed with Zyklon B, most of whom (960,000) were Jews.

Referenced in:

Point of No Return — Immortal Technique

1945 – The Trinity nuclear test is carried out

The world entered a new age – the nuclear age – when the scientists and soldiers of the Manhattan Project test detonated the first ever atomic bomb at White Sands in Nevada. Less than a month later, two more bombs just like it would destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing World War Two to an abrupt end.

On the day, however, no one knew quite how destructive the bomb would be (some worried that it would ignite the entire atmosphere of the planet, for example), or how long its effects would last. But after the explosion, Robert Oppenheimer’s apropos quote from the Bhavagad Gita was generally agreed to be the most apt: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Referenced in:
Russians — Sting

1941 – The siege of Tobruk begins

In early 1941, the Allied forces in North Africa, comprised mostly of British and Commonwealth units (the Australians being the largest of the Commonwealth contingents), were making very good progress in driving the Italian forces out of Libya (which the Italians had conquered in 1911). The port of Tobruk was captured by Australian forces from the 6th Division on January 22 along with 27,000 Italian troops.

But in March, Rommel and his Afrika Korps arrived in North Africa to bolster the Italian forces. On March 24, Operation Sonnenblume commenced, an opportunistic effort to push back the Allies. Rommel’s advance was very successful, as the British had sent many of the forces previously stationed in North Africa to fight in Greece, and much of what remained, especially the armour, had fallen back for maintenance and recovery. On April 4, the Axis forces recaptured Benghazi, and by April 10, had encircled Tobruk. An assault on April 11 proved inconclusive for both sides, and the siege commenced in earnest.

The 14,000 men who remained in Tobruk were primarily Australians, with some British and Polish soldiers among them. Collectively, they became known as ‘the Rats of Tobruk’, when the Australians adopted the name they had been given in German propaganda as a badge of honour. (They even made their own service medal in the likeness of a rat, using metal from a German Bomber that they had shot down.) Nearly 4000 of them would give their lives while the siege lasted. The first attempt to break the siege, Operation Battleaxe, was launched by the Allies on June 15, but failed in its goals. The siege was lifted on November 27, and Tobruk would eventually be relieved on December 7, 1941, the same day that the Pearl Harbor attacks brought the US into the war. The siege had lasted a total of 283 days.

Referenced in:
All the Fine Young Men — Eric Bogle

1940 – Denmark surrenders to Germany

The Danish surrender to Germany took place only 2 hours after the invasion of Operation Weserübung began – although in fairness, the Danes were massively outnumbered and also had a direct land border with Germany. Arguably, the surrender saved many lives that would otherwise have been lost pointlessly.

But a military surrender is a long way from a capitulation, as the Danes repeatedly demonstrated in the five years (to May 1945) that they were occupied. Although the Nazis installed a collaborationist government, the Danish people as a whole were among the most dedicated and active resistance movements (notably evacuating 7800 Jews when the Nazis set out to arrest them in 1943), and scuttling their navy rather than let the Germans take it over.

Referenced in:
To Be Or Not To Be (The Hitler Rap) – Mel Brooks

1941 – Hitler announces the destruction of the Jews

Of all things, it was the entry of the United States into the war that prompted Hitler to move the Holocaust into high gear. Now that the Americans were in it, the usefulness of the remaining Jews as hostages was at an end, and Hitler saw no reason to delay the complete destruction of the Jewish race – all the ones he could get his hands on, at least – a moment longer.

This announcement was made to a group of fifty or so of the highest ranking Nazis, chiefly the politicians and bureaucrats who formed the Third Reich’s top echelon, whom Hitler had summoned to a meeting in the Reich Chancellory. Himmler, Goebbels and Bormann are all known to have attended the meeting. Moreover, documents related to this meeting – including Goebbels’ diaries – make it clear that the plan to exterminate the Jews was not carried out without Hitler’s knowledge or responsibility, but that he was an enthusiastic proponent and participant of it. The following year, 1942, would account for almost half the total Jewish deaths in the Holocaust all by itself.

Referenced in:
The Final Solution — Sabaton

1943 – The Burma Railway is completed

The Burma Railway is a railroad connecting Rangoon (Yangon), Burma (Myanmar) to Bangkok, Thailand. It runs for some 415 kilometres over very rough terrain, including numerous hills and several rivers. It was built by thousands of forced labourers compelled by the Japanese Army during World War Two to construct it – approximately 180,000 Asians and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war.

The death toll among the workers was terrible: half the Asians and more than 12,000 of the prisoners of war – including British, Dutch, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, Indians and Americans. The railway saw some use during the war, but due to its hasty construction, it was largely abandoned after the war, with parts of it salvaged for use in other railway projects.

The film “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was inspired by the experiences of POWs building the railway.

Referenced in:

Nearly Over Now — Eric Bogle

1944 – Anne Frank and her family are arrested by the Nazis

Anne Frank is perhaps best known for the posthumous publication of her diaries. In them, she recounts how, along with her parents and older sister, she hid in a back room of her father’s office block for two years from 1942, after the Nazi invasion of Holland. During this time, they were joined by four other Jews, also in hiding from the Nazis. Conditions were cramped and food was scarce, leading to occasional outbursts of ill-temper. On the whole, though, the eight people showed remarkable fortitude and self-control, at least as depicted in Anne’s diary.

Only six people outside of it knew of the hiding place: four of Otto Frank’s employees, the spouse of one employee and the father of another. It is believed that none of these six were responsible for the tip off that led to a raid by Nazi forces on August 2, 1944. Whoever was responsible, the results were tragic: all eight were arrested along with two of the conspirators who had helped them, and all but Otto would die in the camps, mere weeks before the Allied forces liberated them.

Anne’s diary was saved from the Nazis, and later published around the world under the title “Diary of a Young Girl.”. It is widely regarded as a moving tale of the human spirit, and also a stark caution regarding fascism. While Holocaust deniers have decried it as a forgery, its authenticity has been repeatedly proven – indeed, one of the Nazi officers who participated in the arrest has verified many of the details in it.

Referenced in:

Anne – Discus
Dear Anne – Ryan Adams
So Fresh, So Clean – Oukast
Oh Comely – Neutral Milk Hotel

1942 – the defence of the Kokoda Trail begins

It is one of Australia’s greatest military triumphs: a simple holding action across a narrow dirt trail that spanned the inhospitable mountains of the central spine of New Guinea. A much smaller Australian force aided by allied natives struck, fell back, harassed and repeated these steps against the might of the Japanese Army.

Although at almost every step the Australians gave ground, they slowed down the Japanese advance to a crawl, while nibbling away at their forces until the invaders’ supply lines were hopelessly over-extended – and until the Australians could be reinforced. The tide of battle swiftly reversed, but the retreat of the Japanese was much less a fighting retreat than that of the Australians had been.

Referenced in:

All the Fine Young Men — Eric Bogle

1944 – The D-Day landings at Normandy

Code-named Operation Neptune, the D-Day landings took place along a 50 mile stretch of Normandy beach. 156,000 Allied troops – primarily Americans and British, but also Commonwealth and Free European forces – landed across five beaches code-named Gold, Juno, Omaha, Sword and Utah. It was the largest amphibious operation in history, and took the Nazi forces in Normandy almost entirely by surprise, beginning the rollback of German forces in Europe.

It was also only a part of Operation Overlord, which featured co-ordinated airborne assaults, two separate deception operations aimed to distract from it, and a range of additional actions by the French Resistance. The operation was largely successful, opening a Western front in Europe, and sealing the end of the Nazi occupation of France.

Referenced in:

The Longest Day — Iron Maiden
Say Goodbye to it All — Chris de Burgh
To Be Or Not Be (The Hitler Rap) — Mel Brooks

1940 – Belgium surrenders to Germany

The German advance into Belgium in the spring of 1940 was swift and decisive. Belgium was militarily unprepared for war – as late as November 7, 1939, the Belgian government had called for an end to hostilities – and even if its military had been prepared, it was massively outgunned by the Nazi war machine. The invasion of Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg began on May 10, 1940.

By May 17, the Belgian capital of Brussels had fallen to the German advance, and deciding that the Allied cause was lost, King Leopold III surrendered to the Germans against the advice of his government on May 28, 1940. He would spend the rest of the war as a prisoner of the Nazis, while the majority of his government went into exile (primarily in Britain) and continued to lead Free Belgian Forces in the fight. Belgium was eventually liberated in 1944, although it was not until the end of the German Ardennes Offensive in 1945 that fighting on Belgian soil concluded.

Referenced in:

To Be Or Not To Be (The Hitler Rap) – Mel Brooks

1941 – Rudolf Hess crashes in Scotland

To this day, there is no clear explanation of his motives, but the facts in the case are these: on May 10, 1941, Rudolf Hess – the third most powerful man in Nazi Germany behind Hitler and Goring, flew a plane to Scotland, where he crash landed and was taken into custody. He had come on a mission of peace, trying to secure an end to hostilities between Germany and the United Kingdom.

However, his offer was quickly disavowed by the German government, and Hess stripped of al authority. He spent the rest of the war as a p.o.w., and stood trial alongside the other surviving Nazis at Nuremberg.

It seems that he had experienced some sort of guilt-motivated nervous breakdown, causing him to undertake his quixotic mission. It remains an open question whether his guilt was about the war by itself, or also about the Holocaust.

Referenced in:

Air Crash Museum — Dead Milkmen