17. Red Christmas: The Surprise Soviet Attack That Sealed the Nazis’ Fate at Stalingrad
On Christmas Eve, December 24th, 1942, the Red Army carried out the Tatsinskaya Raid, also known as “Red Christmas” or the “Christmas Raid” because of the date. It was an enterprising armored raid deep into the German rear to destroy the Tatsinskaya Airfield, from which Luftwaffe transport planes were frantically airlifting supplies to the besieged German 6th Army in Stalingrad. Planes flying out of Tatsinskaya were the surrounded Germans’ only lifeline, so its destruction, along with its irreplaceable Ju 52 transport planes, would seal the besieged Germans’ doom.
Conducted by the 24th Tank Corps, the raid hit the airfield from three sides and caught the Germans by surprise. T-34 tanks rolled down the tarmac, machine-gunning and shelling facilities and installations, as well as the precious planes. Some planes were still in crates on railway cars that had recently brought them to Tatsinskaya. When the T-34s ran low on ammunition, they simply rammed the airplanes, smashing through their aluminum frames and crushing them and their engines beneath tens of tons of armor. German pilots and crews, desperately racing to their airplanes to try and get them airborne and away to safety, were ruthlessly cut down or ran down and ground into pulp beneath Soviet tank treads.
16. These Enterprising Raiders Were Virtually Wiped Out, but Not Before They Had Won a Strategic Victory
The Tatsinskaya raiders ended up cutoff. Encircled and unable to breakout back to Soviet lines, they suffered heavily: the 24th Tank Corps lost most of its tanks, was nearly destroyed, and had to be reconstituted. However, the mission had been accomplished, and the result was a Soviet strategic victory. The attackers claimed 300 aircraft destroyed, while the Germans admitted to the loss of 72 irreplaceable Ju 52 transports. Whatever the figure, the destruction of the airfield and the loss of transport planes and their trained pilots, crews, and maintenance personnel, were severe enough to seal the fate of the Germans surrounded in Stalingrad.
The supply situation of the besieged 6th Army had already been dire before the raid, despite Luftwaffe transports operating at full capacity to keep it supplied. The besieged Germans’ situation became impossible after the destruction of so many transports and their base of operations. With aerial resupply virtually cutoff, German resistance inside Stalingrad began to crumble. The last survivors were forced to capitulate a month later in the greatest German defeat of the war until then. That altered the balance of the conflict. The Germans were placed in the strategic defensive, while the Soviets went on a strategic offensive that culminated two years later with the capture of Berlin.
15. Renaissance Italy’s Most Enterprising Mercenary
Francesco Sforza (1401 – 1466) might have been the most enterprising mercenary of the Renaissance. An Italian condottiero, or soldier of fortune, Sforza’s life was full of twists and turns. He started off as a mercenary, then a mercenary general, during which career he turned on his employers and switched sides multiple times. By the time it was finally over and the dust had settled, he had made himself duke of Milan, and founded the Sforza Dynasty that ruled that city and strongly influenced northern Italy and Italian politics for a century.
Sforza was the illegitimate son of a mercenary commander. He got his start in the family business at age seventeen, when he began accompanying his father on campaigns. Sforza quickly developed a reputation for toughness and strength, and became famous for his ability to bend metal bars with his bare hands. Following his father’s drowning during battle against a rival in 1424, Sforza took command. Proving himself a brilliant tactician and battlefield commander, he went on to win the battle and killed his father’s rival while he was at it.
14. Francesco Sforza Did Not Let Family Ties Get in the Way of Business or Keep Him From Fighting His Kin
After becoming a mercenary commander in his own right, Francesco Sforza embarked on a soldier-for-hire career that saw him sign on to fight for multiple Italian rulers. His clients included the Pope, the Neapolitans, and Duke Visconti of Milan. The latter played a key part in Sforza’s career, as the enterprising mercenary fought alternately for and against him during the next two decades. In 1433, during one of the intervals when he got along well with Milan’s duke, Sforza got engaged to Visconti’s illegitimate daughter and only child.
Sforza’s betrothal to the Duke of Milan’s daughter did not stop him from switching sides a year later. He abandoned his prospective father-in-law’s employ to sign up with his rival, Cosimo de Medici of Florence. In 1438, Sforza fought for Florence against Duke Visconti, and inflicted crushing defeats on Milan. In 1441, he patched things up with Milan’s duke, and finally married his daughter. Two years later, in 1443, he once again switched sides and fought against his now-father-in-law.
13. An Enterprising Soldier of Fortune’s Rise From Mercenary to Duke
Francesco Sforza’s enterprising career received a heavy boost in 1447, when his father-in-law Duke Visconti, the ruler of Milan, died without a male heir. The people of Milan rose up in rebellion, proclaimed a republic, and hired Sforza as their military commander. A three-sided struggle then ensued between the Milanese republic, the rival city of Venice, and Sforza. When the Milanese signed peace with Venice in 1449 against Sforza’s wishes, he turned on his employers and switched sides.
This time, Sforza backed himself, and besieged Milan. He eventually starved the city into submission, and entered it in 1450 as its new duke. Sforza’s shrewdness, opportunism, and successful deviousness caught the attention of Niccolo Machiavelli, who modeled his Prince after the enterprising mercenary. Sforza was Machiavelli’s ideal ruler. He won his state by dint of exceptional ability and skill rather than through luck or inheriting it by winning the lottery of birth, then went on to consolidate his gains and secure them sufficiently to found a dynasty.
12. An Enterprising Plan to Flood the Nazis’ Industrial Heartland
On March 21st, 1943, a special Royal Air Force unit, 617 Squadron led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, was formed to destroy dams in the Ruhr Valley. Bombers were to fly at night along a dangerous route that left them exposed to deadly antiaircraft fire until they reached attack positions. Then they were expected to accurately deliver their ordnance to the targeted dams, despite the presence of protective torpedo nets that shielded the concrete structures. The result was Operation Chastise, one of WWII’s most enterprising and daring air raids, against the Edersee, Sorpe, and Mohne dams, conducted on the night of May 16-17, 1943.
For years, the British had explored the feasibility of destroying the Ruhr dams in case of war. Various proposals were examined, but none produced a plan that stood a reasonable chance of success. The problem was accuracy. Theoretically, a big enough bomb, such as the 10 ton Grand Slam, or Earthquake Bomb, that burrows deep underground before exploding, could destroy a dam by seismic waves if dropped from 40,000 feet. However, no bomber existed at the time that could carry such a heavy bomb to the required height, then drop it close enough to the targeted dam.
Technological limitations in 1943 prevented the dropping of a big enough bomb with enough accuracy to damage the Ruhr dams. A smaller bomb – if it went off against a dam wall at a sufficient depth – could destroy a dam. However, the Ruhr dams were protected by underwater torpedo nets to prevent that. Enterprising British scientist Barnes Wallis finally figured out a solution: bounce a bomb over the water’s surface and over the torpedo nets like a skipping stone until it struck the dam’s wall. It would then sink down the dam’s wall, and once at the requisite depth, explode.
The surrounding water would concentrate the resulting blast against the dam, resulting in a breach. In order to get the explosive to skip on the surface, then sink along the dam’s inner wall after striking it instead of bouncing back, Wallis devised a spinning drum filled with explosives. A bomber would approach the dam flying low above its reservoir, and at the proper height and distance from the target, release the explosive drum, which a motor had set to spinning counterclockwise. The bomber’s speed would propel the drum skipping over the water surface, bouncing over the underwater torpedo nets.
Once Barnes Wallis’ rapidly rotating drum bombs skipped across the water, over the anti-torpedo nets, and struck the dam, the drum’s counter-rotation would ensure that it hugged the dam’s wall while sinking. Once the bomb reached the proper depth, hydraulic pistols would set it off, and basic physics would take care of the rest. Wallis’ science was good and his theory was sound. Next was getting pilots and aircrews with enough skill and courage to conduct the night time raid.
24-year-old Wing Commander Guy Gibson was personally selected by RAF Bomber Command’s chief, Arthur Harris, to form and lead 617 Squadron for that and similar missions. It was essentially a unit of elite aerial commandos. Gibson’s enterprising aircrews trained in modified Lancaster heavy bombers, fitted with a motor in the bomb bay to spin the explosive drum. The drum had to be released at a height of 60 feet to properly skip on water. To determine the correct height, an ingeniously simple technique was adopted: two spotlights were placed on a bomber’s front and rear, and angled so their lights would meet at the water’s surface at a height of 60 feet.
9. These Enterprising Raiders Began Suffering Losses Before They Had Even Reached Their Targets
Correct distance for releasing the bombs against the Ruhr dams was determined by lining up two sticks on the windshield with two towers to the sides of a dam. As the bomber flew in, the sticks would visually be to the outside of the dam towers, sandwiching them. As the bomber drew nearer, the angle between the bomber and towers would grow wider. As seen from the windshield, the towers would “move” closer to the sticks until, at the correct distance, sticks and towers lined up.
On the night of May 16th, 1943, nineteen Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron, divided into three formations with separate assignments, flew out along routes chosen to avoid known flak concentrations. Losses began soon as the enterprising flyers reached Europe’s coast. Two bombers had to turn back after one flew too low and struck water, losing its explosives. Another had its radio damaged by antiaircraft fire. Soon thereafter, a third bomber was shot down, a fourth went down after striking electric pylons, and a fifth crashed after flying into power lines.
8. The Dambuster Raid Caused Significant Damage and Boosted Allied Morale
Guy Gibson made his attack run against the Mohne Dam, then flew his Lancaster across the dam to draw antiaircraft fire while other bombers made their approaches. One bomber was lost and another damaged, but the dam was finally breached after the fifth bombing run. Gibson then led the Lancasters that still had bombs to the Edersee dam. It was undefended, but the angle of approach was difficult, and was made even more hazardous by fog. After repeated aborted runs, it was finally breached. The attack on the Sorpe dam failed.
Flooding from the breached dams killed about 1700 civilians, of whom 1000 were forced laborers. The greatest impact was the loss of hydroelectric power in the Ruhr for two weeks, as two power stations were destroyed and seven more damaged. Coal production also dropped, declining by 400,000 tons that month. The damage was temporary, however: within two months, Ruhr production was back to normal. Still, the raid boosted British morale as an impressive feat of enterprising derring-do. Guy Gibson was awarded a Victoria Cross, and 617 Squadron, known thereafter as the “Dam Busters”, went on to fly further successful special raids.
For the ancient Greeks, the word “tyrant” did not carry the modern connotations of brutal oppression. It had instead a narrower meaning of a populist strongman who, with a support base of commoners excluded from power by an aristocracy, overthrew an oligarchy and replaced it with his own one-man rule. Many tyrants were wildly popular – except with the aristocracy. Commoners had little power in the aristocracy-dominated system, so they were no worse off ruled by one tyrant than when they had been ruled by a clique of nobles.
Additionally, with the power of an overbearing aristocracy reduced, government under tyrants was usually fairer, rather than heavily stacked up to benefit the nobles. Economically, commoners also tended to do better under tyrants, who usually encouraged commerce and crafts and manufactures – activities viewed as socially gauche by the aristocracy. The aristocrats also feared that such commercial activities would destabilize the social order by making jumped up commoners as rich as, or richer than, their social betters.
6. The Poor of Athens Invited an Enterprising General to Seize Power and Rule the City as a Tyrant
An ancient Greek tyranny was often a predicate for democracy because it removed from its path the barrier of a strongly entrenched aristocracy. Tyrants had a strong interest in weakening the power of the nobles who had monopolized power for centuries. So when they seized power, tyrants usually adopted populist policies that appealed to commoners, whose support was necessary for the tyrant’s continued hold on power. Only after the aristocracy had been weakened, and its stranglehold on power broken, would there be an opening for democracy.
That is what happened in Athens. Its path to democracy was paved by a tyranny that weakened the power of the city’s aristocrats, who had monopolized power for centuries. Athens’ poorest and most populous region, the Hill District, teemed with impoverished residents. They received little benefit from recent reforms that had averted a civil war, other than a meaningless vote. So the Hill people invited an enterprising general named Peisistratos to make himself tyrant. With their support, he marched into Athens in a procession headed by a tall girl dressed up as the goddess Athena, who blessed Peisistratos and declared it her divine will that he be made tyrant.
5. If a Fake Goddess Doesn’t Work, Try Again, This Time With an Army
Peisistratos’ mummery with the fake goddess did not work. The other Athenians saw through it, and chased him and his followers out of town. In exile, Peisistratos bought silver and gold mines in northern Greece, and got rich off their proceeds. Investing his wealth in mercenaries, he returned to Athens and tried again, this time with a well-equipped private army instead of a girl dressed up as a goddess. It worked, and in 546 BC, he overthrew the government and had himself proclaimed tyrant. Peisistratos suppressed the feuding factions, and championed the lower classes. His tyranny was a wild success.
Peisistratos exiled his aristocratic enemies. He confiscated their land holdings, broke them up into small farms, and redistributed them to his followers, thus cementing their support. He also loaned small farmers money for tools, lowered taxes, standardized currency, and enforced the laws even-handedly. He promoted the growing of olives and grapes, encouraged commerce and craftsmen, built an aqueduct, implemented a public buildings program, and beautified Athens. Culturally, he funded popular religious rites such as the Dionysia and promoted theater and the arts. By the time Peisistratos died, circa 527 BC, Athens was peaceful and more prosperous than it had ever been, with a growing and increasingly affluent middle class.
4. An Enterprising Ancient Athenian’s Scheme to Free His City From Tyranny
Cleisthenes, born circa 570 BC, is known as “The Father of Athenian Democracy” for creating the system that, with incremental reforms, governed Athens during the Classical era. Before that, Athens had been governed by two tyrants, Hippias and Hipparchus, brothers who had inherited the position from their father, Peisistratos. The siblings governed Athens competently and with a light hand, until Hipparchus was assassinated in 514 BC in a private feud stemming from a romance that went bad. After his brother’s assassination, Hippias grew paranoid, and his rule became oppressive, and wellâ¦ tyrannical.
Hippias lashed out indiscriminately at enemies real and imagined, and his descent into violence eroded the popularity the tyranny had enjoyed since the days of Peisistratos. The number of victims and exiles forced to flee Athens grew, and they included Cleisthenes, who began plotting with other exiles to overthrow the tyranny. Invasion was considered, but Hippias had a well-equipped army, while the exiles did not, and lacked the funds for an army of their own. So they sought to enlist the help of Sparta, which had the Greek world’s best army, to liberate Athens. To secure Sparta’s help, Cleisthenes came up with the enterprising idea to bribe the gods.
3. Bribing the Gods to Put in a Good Word For One’s Cause
To induce help from the Spartans, who were known for their piety, the enterprising Cleisthenes bribed the priests of Delphi, the Greek world’s most important religious site and home of the Oracle of Delphi. For centuries, Ancient Greeks had turned to the Oracle for answers, and it typically replied to petitioners with cryptic answers that could be interpreted in a variety of ways. Once Cleisthenes bribed Delphi’s priests, however, every Spartan petitioner who showed up received the very clear and not at all cryptic answer: “LiberateAthens!” So the Spartans marched into Attica in 508 BC, liberated Athens, then marched back home.
Left to govern themselves, the Athenians immediately split into rival camps. Oligarchs, led by Isagoras, wanted the government returned to the hands of the wealthy. Populists, led by Cleisthenes and comprising a majority of Athenians, declared Athens a democracy ruled by a popular Assembly. Cleisthenes’ camp prevailed, but the oligarchic faction solicited Spartan aid to overthrow the democracy. The Spartans, no fans of democracy, sent another army to Attica, overthrew the democracy, and replaced it with an oligarchy. Cleisthenes and 700 democracy-supporting Athenian families were exiled.
2. An Enterprising Solution to Geographic and Nepotistic Tribalism
Cleisthenes and democracy’s supporters did not stay exiled for long. They armed themselves, returned to Athens, and the population rose up in revolt. The city’s aristocratic faction and the Spartan garrison that was there to support them soon found themselves besieged in the Acropolis, Athens’ fortified hilltop. The rebels’ beef was not with Sparta, so they allowed the Spartans to leave and return home. The aristocratic anti-democracy Athenians were shown no similar mercy: Cleisthenes and his supporters massacred them to a man. Having decisively dealt with the oligarchic threat, Cleisthenes set about establishing the Athenian democracy.
The major reform was the reorganization of the citizen body (demos) of Athens. Athenians had been grouped into four tribes, based on kin groups. Cleisthenes argued that such grouping lent itself to factionalism. He replaced it with an artificial classification system that divided the citizen body into ten at-large tribes, with membership drawn at random from all classes and all parts of Attica. Each tribe thus contained a representative sample of the entire population, including all classes and regions. That reduced the incentives for parochialism because no tribe had cause to act out of geographical or familial loyalties at the expense of Athens as a whole.
1. Ancient Athens Adopted a Creative Method to Get Rid of Unpopular People Without Killing Them
In addition to creating at-large tribes whose members were drawn at random from the citizens of Athens, Cleisthenes continued his enterprising reforms by creating a new council, the boule. It was a democratic body, in which all of Athens’ citizens had the right to speak and voice their opinions on public matters and the affairs of the day. Cleisthenes thus eliminated the parochialism that had plagued Athens for generations, and granted the entire male citizen population access to institutions and powers previously reserved for the aristocracy.
Another of Cleisthenes’ reforms was ostracism. An annual vote would be held in which each citizen could name any person, whose name he wrote down on bits of broken pottery known as ostra, whom he thought was too dangerous or was becoming too powerful. The citizen receiving the most votes would be exiled for ten years, without prejudice to his property while he was gone, or to his citizenship rights upon his return. Cleisthenes’ reforms thus established basic democracy in Athens, and created the constitutional structure by which further incremental reforms were made in future years to transform Athens into a direct democracy.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading