Most People Picture History Wrong, These Facts Will Set Them Straight
Most People Picture History Wrong, These Facts Will Set them Straight

Most People Picture History Wrong, These Facts Will Set them Straight

Khalid Elhassan - April 25, 2020

Most People Picture History Wrong, These Facts Will Set them Straight
German armor plunging into the Soviet Union in 1941, at the start of Operation Barbarossa. Encyclopedia Britannica

12. How the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact Benefited the Soviets

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact bought the Soviets nearly two years in which to prepare for war. Poor as the Soviet military’s performance was in 1941, it was even less prepared for war in 1939. Moreover, the Pact, which gave the USSR nearly half of Poland, pushed the Soviet borders hundreds of miles westwards, giving the USSR that much additional buffer.

Space and distance proved decisive to Soviet survival in 1941: the Germans came within 10 miles of the Kremlin before they were turned back. Without the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Germans would have launched their invasion from a start line hundreds of miles further to the east and closer to the Soviet capital. The same effort that ran out of steam within sight of the Kremlin, would likely have pushed far beyond had it started hundreds of miles closer to Moscow.

Most People Picture History Wrong, These Facts Will Set them Straight
Soviet women digging trenches and fortification on the outskirts of Moscow in 1941. Wikimedia

11. Did the Soviets Owe the Western Powers and Poland Anything in 1939?

As the Soviets saw it, they owed the Western Powers and Poland nothing. The Western Powers were viewed as capitalist foes. Soviet leaders remembered that Britain and France had tried to strangle the Bolshevik Revolution in its cradle, and had sided with the Whites against the Reds during the Russian Civil War. As to the Poles, they had fought a war against the Soviets only two decades earlier, and the USSR still had outstanding border claims against Poland.

The Germans offered to satisfy those claims, while the British and French offered little. Seeing how they were expected to do the bulk of the fighting and dying in a war against Germany, it seemed like chutzpah to the Soviets for Germany’s foes to offer so little in exchange for the high price the USSR would pay for siding with them. So they opted for benevolent neutrality with Germany.

Most People Picture History Wrong, These Facts Will Set them Straight
Second century AD bust of Homer. Wikimedia

10. Did the Greek Poet Homer Actually Exist?

Homer is the name ascribed to the author of the Iliad and Odyssey, ancient Greece’s national epics about the closing stages of the Siege of Troy and its immediate aftermath, and the centerpieces of Greek literature and culture. They are arguably history’s most influential poems. They shaped not only ancient Greek culture, which viewed the epics as sources of moral and practical instruction, but also exerted an outsize influence on Western culture in general.

Homer was not a contemporary of the Trojan War, believed to have been fought sometime between 1260 – 1180 BC, but lived hundreds of years later, in the eighth century BC. Greek tradition has it that Homer was a wandering blind bard from Chios in Ionia, a region of former Greek settlement on the western coast of modern Turkey. Scholars doubt that the epic poems were actually the work of a single author, as opposed to the outcome of a process spread over generations, and to which numerous poets contributed.

Most People Picture History Wrong, These Facts Will Set them Straight
‘Homer and His Guide’, by William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1874. PD Photography

9. The Poems Ascribed to Homer Were Composed Hundreds of Years Before His Birth

Homer’s poems were first composed during a centuries-long period of societal and cultural collapse known as the “Greek Dark Ages” in which literacy vanished. They were transmitted orally for generations, until writing was rediscovered. Composed to be memorized and sung, the poems utilize a formulaic style and structure that relies heavily on stock phrases and repeated verses that lend themselves to memorization.

Memorization was further eased by reliance on a number of fixed phrases to express ideas in similar parts of verse. E.g.; referring to Odysseus with the single word “divine”, two worded “many counseled”, or three worded “much-enduring divine”. The choice depended on where “Odysseus” was inserted in a verse, and how much space was left in that verse that needed filling to make it come out in the desired hexameter. In essence, once a bard learned the limited number of stock phrases, he need not memorize the entire poem, such as the 16,000 verses of the Iliad, but only the key words. Once a particular word is mentioned, the singer need simply select from the limited number of appropriate stock phrases, depending on where in a verse the key word is mentioned.

Most People Picture History Wrong, These Facts Will Set them Straight
A katana forged by thirteenth century master swordsmith Masamune. Tokyo National Museum

8. Katanas Were Not Folded Thousands of Times, Nor Could They Cut Through Machine Guns

Thanks to Hollywood and assorted works of history, fiction, and historic fiction, the Japanese katana is probably the world’s most recognizable sword. It is a single-edged curved sword, with a long handle for two-handed use that features a square or circular guard, and a slender blade usually measuring two and a half feet in length.

Katanas are among the finest cutting weapons in history, and were used by Japanese samurai since feudal times, with the earliest recorded mention in the historic record dating to the twelfth century. Many legends have sprung around katanas, from the forging process by master sword smiths who hammered and folded the blade’s metal over a thousand times, to katanas that cut through machine guns during WWII. Unfortunately, as seen below, those are just legends.

Most People Picture History Wrong, These Facts Will Set them Straight
Antique paired daisho blades. Wikimedia

7. The Evolution of Katanas

Katanas are the product of natural evolution. They started off as hefty “great swords” that grew thinner, lighter, and more agile over time in order to meet the demands of emerging combat styles that were increasingly reliant upon speed. They became popular with samurai because the ease and swiftness with which they could be drawn was a decided asset for the newer and faster-fighting styles. They were collectively dubbed kenjutsu, the art of sword fighting, in which the issue was often settled within seconds, and reaction time spelled the difference between life and death.

Katanas, coupled with a smaller sword, were thrust, sharp edge facing upwards, through the bearer’s obi – a sash wrapped tightly around the samurai’s waist. The configuration was known as daisho, and it identified the wearer as a samurai – the only people authorized to tote paired swords. Wearing the katana in the daisho style facilitated a speedy draw, ideally allowing samurai to draw and cut down opponents in a single fluid motion. An entire martial art, Iaido, was dedicated to the speedy retrieval of katanas from their scabbards.

Most People Picture History Wrong, These Facts Will Set them Straight
A WWII military issue katana. Pintrest

6. Combining Soft and Hard Steel

Katanas are made from tamahagane steel. It is produced by traditional Japanese smelting processes that result in layered steels with varying carbon concentrations, that are welded, folded, and hammered out to reduce impurities. A katana needs a sharp and hard edge. However, steel that is hard enough for a sharp edge is brittle, while softer steel that is not brittle will not take and retain a sharp edge.

Katana makers solved the dilemma by using four metal bars: a soft iron bar to guard against breaking, sandwiched by two hard iron bars to prevent bending, and rounded off with a steel bar to take the cutting edge. The result was a sword that had a hard enough blade with a sharp cutting edge. However, contra many a WWII tall tale, no katana was ever hard enough, or sharp enough, to cut through machine gun barrels.

Most People Picture History Wrong, These Facts Will Set them Straight
A katana gifted by a shogun to a German traveler in 1861. Five Continents Museum, Munich

5. Katanas Were Not Folded Anywhere Close to a Thousand Times

The four metal bars of which katanas were made were heated at high temperatures, then hammered into a long bar that would become the blade. Contrary to myth, samurai blades were not folded thousands or even hundreds of times – that much folding would be counterproductive, and render the steel useless for a sword. Instead, katana blades were folded between eight to sixteen times.

When the sword was sharpened, the steel took a razor-sharp edge, while the softer iron prevented the blade from breaking. Well-crafted katanas became prized heirlooms, passed down generations of samurai families for centuries. Magnificent specimens of centuries-old katanas can be seen in the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya, Japan.

Read More: 12 of History’s Deadliest Swords.

Most People Picture History Wrong, These Facts Will Set them Straight
Tiger tanks. Wallpaper Flare

4. Germany’s Tiger Tanks Were Actually a Bit of a Flop

During WWII, few weapons struck as much terror into the hearts of British, American, Soviet, and other allied soldiers, than the prospect of coming across a German Tiger tank. So intimidating were they that the term “Tiger Fever” was coined to describe the panic that sometimes gripped Allied soldiers when they thought a Tiger tank was in the vicinity.

However, in the grand scheme of things, the Tigers were a bit of a flop. They were over-engineered – or more accurately poorly engineered. They were plagued with bugs, and often spent more time in the repair shop than on the front line. They were also expensive and hard to produce, consuming resources that could have been better spent on more effective weapons.

Most People Picture History Wrong, These Facts Will Set them Straight
Tiger tanks’ overlapping wheels were prone to accumulating mud, snow, and ice. Bundesarchiv Bild

3. The Tiger’s Downside

The Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf. E, or the Tiger I, entered service in 1942. It was a heavy tank whose main assets were thick armor that its common adversaries could not penetrate except from close range, and a powerful 88mm gun that could wreck its foes from prodigious distances. That gave Tigers an extensive safe standoff distance within which they were practically invulnerable. They were scary, and exerted a powerful psychological hold on their enemies’ imagination: few if any Allied tank crews relished the prospect of coming across Tigers.

On the other hand, Tigers were heavy, slow, guzzled fuel at prodigious rates, had a limited range, and were difficult to transport. They were also notorious for their mechanical unreliability and propensity to breakdown, and became immobilized when their overlapping wheels got jammed with snow and mud. They were also expensive to produce and difficult to manufacture, with only 1300 built during the war – a number lower than the typical monthly production figures of Soviet T-34 or American Sherman tanks.

Most People Picture History Wrong, These Facts Will Set them Straight
A Tiger tank in northern France, 1944. Bundesarchiv Bild

2. Taking on the Tigers

When Tiger tanks worked, they were terrifyingly good. Fortunately for Germany’s enemies, the Tigers often did not work, and there were too few of them to make a difference in the war’s ultimate outcome.

On the Western Front, where the Allies lacked powerful armor capable of taking out Tigers, other than up-gunned Sherman Fireflys and M10 tank destroyers, Tigers maintained their superiority until war’s end. But on the Eastern Front, that superiority was increasingly challenged by T-34/85s, IS-2s, and IS-122s whose guns could destroy Tigers from various ranges.

Most People Picture History Wrong, These Facts Will Set them Straight
A Royal Tiger. Girls und Panzers

1. The Royal Tiger Was a Royal Flop

In 1944, Tiger I production was discontinued in favor of the Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. B, more commonly known as the Royal Tiger or Tiger II. 492 were manufactured by the war’s end. Weighing 77 tons, the Royal Tiger replaced its predecessor’s thick flat armor with thicker sloped armor that was significantly more difficult to penetrate.

Royal Tigers were exceptionally well protected. From January to April, 1945, they were credited with destroying over 500 tanks on the Eastern Front, at a cost of only 45 Royal Tigers, most of them destroyed by their own crews to prevent their capture after they broke down or ran out of fuel. On the downside, Royal Tigers suffered most of their predecessors’ mechanical problems plus a few more, and were even slower, capable of only 9 to 12 m.p.h. cross country.

Related: 12 Tanks of World War II.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Fall of the Western Roman Empire

Chant, Christopher – Lancaster: The History of Britain’s Most Famous World War II Bomber (2003)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Montezuma II

Ericson, Edward E. – Feeding the German Eagle: Soviet Economic Aid to Nazi Germany, 1933 – 1941 (1999)

GQ, June 20th, 2019 – A Dirty, Rotten, Double Crossing (True) Story of What Happened to the Italian American Mob

Hastings, Max – Bomber Command (1980)

Japan Talk – 8 Common Ninja Myths

Lane Fox, Robin – The Search For Alexander (1980)

Military Factory – Avro Lancaster

Military History Now – Enter the Ninja: Facts and Myths About Japan’s Most Mysterious Warriors

Montefiore, Simon Sebag – Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2004)

National Archives, UK – Operation Unthinkable

National Geographic History Magazine, January 17th, 2019 – Jesse James: Rise of an American Outlaw

National Museum of the United States Army – The M28/ M29 Davy Crockett Nuclear Weapon System

Popular Mechanics – Was the Famous German Tiger Tank Really That Great?

Venturi, Franco – Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth Century Russia (2001)

Washington Post, May 5th, 2017 – Five Myths About the Mafia

Wikipedia – Homer

Wikipedia – Narodnaya Volya

Yarmolinsky, Avrahm – Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism (1955)

Yeatman, Ted – Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend (2003)

 

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