Friday, November 28, 2014

This Day in WWII History: Nov 28, 1954: Enrico Fermi, architect of the nuclear age, dies

On this day in 1954, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi, the first man to create and control a nuclear chain reaction, and one of the Manhattan Project scientists, dies in Chicago at the age of 53.

Fermi was born in Rome on September 1, 1901. He made his career choice of physicist at age 17, and earned his doctorate at the University of Pisa at 21. After studying in Germany under physicist Max Born, famous for his work on quantum mechanics, which would prove vital to Fermi's later work, he returned to Italy to teach mathematics at the University of Florence. By 1926, he had been made a full professor of theoretical physics and gathered around him a group of other young physicists. In 1929, he became the youngest man ever elected to the Royal Academy of Italy.

The theoretical became displaced by the practical for Fermi upon learning of England's Sir James Chadwick's discovery of the neutron and the Curies' production of artificial radioactivity. Fermi went to work on producing radioactivity by means of manipulating the speed of neutrons derived from radioactive beryllium. Further similar experimentation with other elements, including uranium 92, produced new radioactive substances; Fermi's colleagues believed he had created a new, "transuranic" element with an atomic number of 93, the result of uranium 92 capturing a neuron while under bombardment, thus increasing its atomic weight. Fermi remained skeptical, despite his fellow physicists' enthusiasm. He became a believer in 1938, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for "his identification of new radioactive elements." Although travel was restricted for men whose work was deemed vital to national security, Fermi was given permission to go to Sweden to receive his prize. He and his wife, Laura, who was Jewish, never returned; both feared and despised Mussolini's fascist regime.

Fermi left Sweden for New York City, Columbia University, specifically, where he recreated many of his experiments with Niels Bohr, the Danish-born physicist, who suggested the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction. Fermi and others saw the possible military applications of such an explosive power, and quickly composed a letter warning President Roosevelt of the perils of a German atomic bomb. The letter was signed and delivered to the president by Albert Einstein on October 11, 1939. The Manhattan Project, the American program to create its own atomic bomb, was the result.

It fell to Fermi to produce the first nuclear chain reaction, without which such a bomb was impossible. He created a jury-rigged laboratory, complete with his own "atomic pile," in a squash court in the basement of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. It was there that Fermi, with other physicists looking on, produced the first controlled chain reaction on December 2, 1942. The nuclear age was born. "The Italian navigator has just landed in the new world," was the coded message sent to a delighted President Roosevelt.

The first nuclear device, the creation of the Manhattan Project scientists, was tested on July 16, 1945. It was followed less than a month later by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, Fermi, now an American citizen, became a Distinguished Service Professor of Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago, consulting on the construction of the first large-particle accelerator. He went on to receive the Congressional Medal of Merit and to be elected a foreign member of the Royal Society of London.

Among other honors accorded to Fermi: The element number 100, fermium, was named for him. Also, the Enrico Fermi Award, now one of the oldest and most prestigious science and technology awards given by the U.S. government, was created in his honour.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

This Day in WWII History: Nov 27, 1942: French scuttle their fleet

On this day in 1942, French Admiral Jean de Laborde sinks the French fleet anchored in Toulon harbor, off the southern coast of France, in order to keep it out of German hands.

In June 1940, after the German invasion of France and the establishment of an unoccupied zone in the southeast, led by Gen. Philippe Petain, Adm. Jean Darlan was committed to keeping the French fleet out of German control. At the same time, as a minister in the government that had signed an armistice with the Germans, one that promised a relative "autonomy" to Vichy France, Darlan was prohibited from sailing that fleet to British or neutral waters. But a German-commandeered fleet in southern France, so close to British-controlled regions in North Africa, could prove disastrous to the Brits, who decided to take matters into their own hands by launching Operation Catapult: the attempt by a British naval force to persuade the French naval commander at Oran to either break the armistice and sail the French fleet out of the Germans' grasp—or to scuttle it. And if the French wouldn't, the Brits would.

And the British tried. In a five-minute missile bombardment, they managed to sink one French cruiser and two old battleships. They also killed 1,250 French sailors. This would be the genesis of much bad blood between France and England throughout the war. General Petain broke off diplomatic relations with Great Britain.

But two years later, with the Germans now in Vichy and the armistice already violated, Admiral Laborde finished the job the British had started. As the Germans launched Operation Lila, the attempt to commandeer the French fleet, Laborde ordered the sinking of 2 battle cruisers, 4 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 1 aircraft transport, 30 destroyers, and 16 submarines. Three French subs managed to escape the Germans and make it to Algiers, Allied territory. Only one sub fell into German hands. The marine equivalent of a scorched-earth policy had succeeded.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

This Day in WWII History: Nov 26, 1941: Japanese task force leaves for Pearl Harbour

On this day in 1941, Adm. Chuichi Nagumo leads the Japanese First Air Fleet, an aircraft carrier strike force, toward Pearl Harbor, with the understanding that should "negotiations with the United States reach a successful conclusion, the task force will immediately put about and return to the homeland."

Negotiations had been ongoing for months. Japan wanted an end to U.S. economic sanctions. The Americans wanted Japan out of China and Southeast Asia-and to repudiate the Tripartite "Axis" Pact with Germany and Italy as conditions to be met before those sanctions could be lifted. Neither side was budging. President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull were anticipating a Japanese strike as retaliation—they just didn't know where. The Philippines, Wake Island, Midway—all were possibilities. American intelligence reports had sighted the Japanese fleet movement out from Formosa (Taiwan), apparently headed for Indochina. As a result of this "bad faith" action, President Roosevelt ordered that a conciliatory gesture of resuming monthly oil supplies for Japanese civilian needs canceled. Hull also rejected Tokyo's "Plan B," a temporary relaxation of the crisis, and of sanctions, but without any concessions on Japan's part. Prime Minister Tojo considered this an ultimatum, and more or less gave up on diplomatic channels as the means of resolving the impasse.

Nagumo had no experience with naval aviation, having never commanded a fleet of aircraft carriers in his life. This role was a reward for a lifetime of faithful service. Nagumo, while a man of action, did not like taking unnecessary risks—which he considered an attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor to be. But Chief of Staff Rear Adm. Isoruku Yamamoto thought differently; while also opposing war with the United States, he believed the only hope for a Japanese victory was a swift surprise attack, via carrier warfare, against the U.S. fleet. And as far as the Roosevelt War Department was concerned, if war was inevitable, it desired "that Japan commit the first overt act."

Taken from: [26.11.2014]

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

This Day in WWII History: Nov 25, 1941: A "war warning" is sent to commanders in the Pacific

On this day in 1941, Adm. Harold R. Stark, U.S. chief of naval operations, tells Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, that both President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull think a Japanese surprise attack is a distinct possibility.

"We are likely to be attacked next Monday, for the Japs are notorious for attacking without warning," Roosevelt had informed his Cabinet. "We must all prepare for trouble, possibly soon," he telegraphed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Kimmel's command was specifically at the mid-Pacific base at Oahu, which comprised, in part, Pearl Harbor. At the time he received the "warning" from Stark, he was negotiating with Army Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, commander of all U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor, about sending U.S. warships out from Pearl Harbor in order to reinforce Wake and Midway Islands, which, along with the Philippines, were possible Japanese targets. But the Army had no antiaircraft artillery to spare.

War worries had struck because of an intercepted Japanese diplomatic message, which gave November 25 as a deadline of sorts. If Japanese diplomacy had failed to convince the Americans to revoke the economic sanctions against Japan, "things will automatically begin to happen," the message related. Those "things" were becoming obvious, in the form of Japanese troop movements off Formosa (Taiwan) apparently toward Malaya. In fact, they were headed for Pearl Harbor, as was the Japanese First Air Fleet.

Despite the fact that so many in positions of command anticipated a Japanese attack, especially given the failure of diplomacy (Japan refused U.S. demands to withdraw from both the Axis pact and occupied territories in China and Indochina), no one expected Hawaii as the target.