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  • D-Day Through German Eyes by Jonathan Trigg

    How the Wehrmacht Lost France

    Who Did the Allies Face in Normandy on D-Day?

    This is what the landsers feared - an RAF Typhoon fires a barrage of rockets at German troops. (c. Jonathan Trigg, D-Day Through German Eyes, Amberley Publishing)

    In the early summer of 1944, Berlin knew the Allies would soon land in Continental Europe, and had assembled 850,000 men and over fifteen hundred panzers to face them. Who many of these men were is one of the most fascinating stories of the Second World War.

    Amidst the barbed-wire entanglements and sandbag bunkers of Hitler’s much-vaunted Atlantikwall, a stern-faced sentinel stares out to sea, eyes fixed on the horizon, watching for the Allied landing fleet. His rifle is slung over his shoulder, and on his head sits his turban…turban?

    Yes, turban, because this was no member of the Nazi master race – the Aryan herrenvolk of Goebbels’s delusional propaganda – but a Sikh rifleman in the Wehrmacht’s Infanterie-Regiment 950 (indische), recruited by a Calcutta (modern-day Kolkata) lawyer from former British Army POWs.

    Several thousand strong, the origins of one of the Nazis’ most bizarre and least well-known units lay in British India’s powerful independence movement. Under the guidance of its spiritual leader – Mohandas Gandhi – the Indian National Congress believed in a non-violent path to self-rule.

    However, not all its adherents were wedded to that approach, and one above all – Subhas Chandra Bose – thought freedom would only come through armed struggle.

    Escaping house arrest, the bespectacled firebrand arrived in Nazi Germany in April 1941 and offered to form an army to help drive the British out of his country. With German support he toured the POW camps filled with Indian soldiers captured in the fighting in North Africa. One such prisoner – Barwat Singh – remembered his arrival;

    “He was introduced to us as a leader from our country who wanted to talk to us. He wanted 500 volunteers who would be trained in Germany and then parachuted into India. Everyone raised their hands.”

    In no time the ‘Indian Legion’ – or more dramatically the ‘Tiger Legion’ as it was occasionally called – numbered almost three-thousand men and was being trained and equipped as the vanguard of a future Nazi invasion of the Raj.

    German defeats at El Alamein and Stalingrad put paid to that fantasy, and the now-purposeless unit was instead sent west to help man the German defences against the anticipated Allied landings. The build-up to D-Day found it on France’s Atlantic coast at Lacanau, near Bordeaux, as part of Kurt von der Chevallerie’s 1. Armee.

    British Soldiers escort captured German troopers - almost certainly from 716. Infanterie-Division - down to a collection point on the beach. (c. Jonathan Trigg, D-Day Through German Eyes, Amberley Publishing)

    As it turned out, the Allied fleet never appeared off Bordeaux, instead its destination was Normandy – some three hundred miles to the north.

    There, the Allied troops would face Friedrich Dollmann’s 7. Armee, which, although without any Indian troops in its ranks, was itself a phantasmagoria of nationalities that mirrored more the polyglot forces of Europe’s Middle Ages than the national armies of the Twentieth Century.

    On the beaches themselves, the Allied assault troops would face three of Dollmann’s divisions; the 352nd, the 709th and the 716th.

    The latter two were ‘fortress’ formations; disparagingly called bodenständige (literally ‘rooted to earth’) divisions, or more simply ‘belly units’ – many of them equipped with a single motor vehicle; the commanders staff car.

    Only two-thirds the size of normal German infantry divisions, the ranks of the 709th and 716th were filled with the middle-aged, medically unfit or previously-wounded; men like Martin Eineg:

    “Although I was tall, I had a chronic lung condition which technically classed me as ‘unfit for active service’. Nevertheless I was sent to France to man the Atlantikwall,”

    There was also Gustav Winter:

    “I suffered very badly from frostbite during the first winter in Russia…I lost the little fingers on each of my hands…also the tip of my nose, and my toes were damaged as well.”

    Standing next to Eineg and Winter were thousands of men of dubious military value; the men of the Ost-Bataillone (‘East Battalions’), ex-Soviet prisoners-of-war or deserters, as well as thousands of beutedeutscher (‘booty Germans’) – ethnic Poles and Czechs caught up in the war against their will, men like Aloysius Damski:

    “I am a Pole. I was working in the office of a munitions factory…when the manager called me in and said I could either go into the German forces or be declared ‘politically unreliable’, which almost certainly meant a concentration camp. I was only 20-years-old and I loved life, so I chose the army. After training I was sent to Normandy to a mixed unit of Poles, Czechs, Russians and some German NCOs and officers.”

    A Tiger I of Schwere SS-Panzerabteilung 101 knocked out by the British infantrymen of 1/7 Queens Regiment in Villers-Bocage on 13 June 1944. (c. Jonathan Trigg, D-Day Through German Eyes, Amberley Publishing)

    On the morning of 6 June the Allies made swift work of much of the defences, as attested by Emil Thiem, an ethnic German farm worker from outside Warsaw who was on Utah:

    “I was manning a mortar with my comrades, but it was in an open pit, so we stayed in a bunker a few metres away. The bombardment was terrible….one of my comrades put his head round the corner of the bunker to try and see what was going on, and as soon as he did he was hit by shrapnel – his whole head was gone, just like that…we climbed out of the bunker with our hands up and that was that, our war was finished.”

    Not everything went the Allies way though, an intelligence lapse meant they hadn’t picked up that the ‘belly’ 716th defending Omaha had been reinforced by the 352nd. The 352nd was no élite – its rankers were mainly 17 and 18-year-old conscripts with just a few weeks basic training behind them – but they had a core of experienced veterans and they were ready:

    “The Americans were about four hundred metres away from us. I did not sight on them individually at first, but I began firing and swept the gun from left to right along the beach. This knocked down the first few men in each line; the MG 42 was so powerful that the bullets would often pass through a human body and hit whatever was behind it.

    So many of these men were hit by a bullet which had already passed through a man in front, or even two men…”

    Despite German resistance the Allied landings were astonishingly successful. What followed would become known as the battle of Normandy as the Allied armies poured onto the beaches and came face to face with an all-together different German army, one characterised not by the belly soldiers of the fortress divisions, but by the panzergrenadiers and tank crews of the Waffen-SS and the Panzer-Lehr.

    Jonathan Trigg's new book D-Day Through German Eyes: How the Wehrmacht Lost France is available for purchase now.

  • SOE Heroines by Bernard O'Connor

    The Special Operations Executive's French Section and Free French Women Agents

    A 1944 aerial shot of RAF Tempsford, the airfield from which most women agents were flown. (Courtesy of the East Englian Aviation Society, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

    It was not until the last few decades of the 20th century that history books and media coverage of the Second World War began to change their focus from men’s roles to include the experiences of women and girls. It was the rise of feminism in the 1960s and 70s, the introduction of women’s studies in universities and changes in examination syllabi that ensured young people began to get a more balanced view of history.

    Researchers began to investigate what life was like for women and girls during the war years. Instead of their traditional portrayal in wartime films and books in secondary, subservient roles or included only for a love interest, the importance of many women’s roles in the Second World War, including in the secretive world of the Intelligence Services, has begun to be told.

    Academics and authors like Juliette Pattinson, Kate Vigurs, Penny Starns, Margaret Collins-Weitz, Clare Mulley, Susan Heim and others, have brought their stories into the public eye. While Gillian Armstrong’s 2001 film Charlotte Gray portrayed the life of a woman secret agent in France, a more realistic portrayal was Jean-Paul Salomé’s 2008 film Les Femmes de l’Ombre (Women Agents).

    An agent receiving her last kiss before boarding the plane to the Continent. (Courtesy of Pierre Tillet, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

     

    Living near RAF Tempsford, a Second World War airfield about 80km north of London and about half way between Cambridge and Bedford, I have spent several decades researching its role in supplying the resistance movements across Western Europe. It was from there that agents of the British, American, Soviet, Polish, Czechoslovakian, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Belgian and French intelligence services were infiltrated into occupied Europe as organisers, couriers, wireless operators, weapons instructors, saboteurs and assassins. It was also involved in exfiltrating downed pilots and aircrew, escaped prisoners-of-war, politicians, diplomats, military personnel, resistance leaders and others who were evading capture by the authorities. In 1946, the RAF Film unit produced School for Danger, later renamed Now the Story can be Told which told the story of Jacqueline Nearne and Harry Rée, British agents who parachuted into France on a secret mission and successfully returned. Over the last few decades I have published some books on the airfield, the early ones entitled RAF Tempsford: Bedfordshire’s Secret Airfield and Churchill’s MOST SECRET Airfield.

    Andree Borrel parachuted near St Laurent Nouan (Loir-et-Cher), on 24/25 September 1942. (Courtesy of the National Archives, TNA HS9/183, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

    I found that most of the more than 2,000 personnel, both men and women based on the airfield, had signed the Official Secrets Act and were unprepared to talk or write about their experiences. Some who had been awarded medals after the war, under pressure from reporters keen to tell the stories, had their experiences printed in newspapers. However, the British, and I imagine the French government, vetted such articles to ensure no sensitive information was revealed like the names of members of the intelligence services or of people who were still alive. Names of people and places had to be changed.

    However, biographies of pilots and secret agents were published after the war; films and TV documentaries were produced and eventually autobiographies appeared. While most books have been about the men, there is an increasing number about the women, notably Violette Szabó, Nancy Wake, Odette Churchill/Sansom, Christine Granville, Noor Inayat Khan and Diane Rowden.

    The Government restriction on the release of sensitive documents to The National Archives, formerly the Public Record Office in Kew, has meant that formerly top-secret documents are only gradually becoming available. The introduction of the British Freedom of Information Act in 2000 has released thousands of files into the public domain. The National Archives online discovery catalogue allows anyone to locate and occasionally download personnel files, mission reports and other secret government documents related to RAF Tempsford and the wartime intelligence services and has encouraged an increasing number of people to publish their memoirs and historians to reveal their secrets. The Imperial War Museum also has taped interviews with individuals who had a connection with Tempsford and the intelligence services.

    The women of the SOE were not the only ones to help in the liberation of France; pictured is Simone Segouin, a member of the French Resistance who was reported to have captured 25 Nazis in the Chartres area, in addition to killing others. (Courtesy of the US National Archives and Records Administration, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

    As I gave talks to local history societies, women’s institutes, town women’s guilds, church and other groups, there were numerous questions from women asking for details of what their father, grandfather, husband, uncle, brother or cousin were doing during the war as they had never talked about it. They had kept their promise having signed the Official Secrets Act. Based on my research, I was able to tell them as much as I had learned.

    Focussing on the women’s stories, I published The Courier, a historical faction, in 2010, The Women of RAF Tempsford: Bedfordshire’s Secret Airfield in 2011 which covered not just accounts of the women agents but also the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and the catering staff. Return to Holland and Return to Belgium, also published in 2011, tell the stories of women agents infiltrated into the Low Countries. Churchill’s Angels, a revised and updated account of the British women agents was published in 2012; Elzbieta Zawacka: Polish soldier and courier during World War Two in 2014, Agent Rose: The True Spy Story of Eileen Nearne, Britain's Forgotten Wartime Heroine; Designer: The true spy story of Jacqueline Nearne, a courier sent on a top secret mission to France during World War Two in 2014 and Agent Fifi and the Wartime Honey Trap Spies in 2015.

    Royal Victorian Patriotic School, Wandsworth, London, where, from January 1941, MI5 interviewed refugees to determine if they were enemy agents and gain intelligence about conditions overseas. (Courtesy of Mike T under Creative Commons 2.0, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

    Having been a Trustee of the Tempsford Memorial, unveiled by Prince Charles in 2013 to commemorate women agents infiltrated behind enemy lines, mostly from RAF Tempsford, I had a tentative list of over eighty women, many whose stories had yet to be told. I decided therefore to focus on the many Frenchwomen who were parachuted, landed by plane or boat into remote parts of France on moonlit nights between 1942 and 1944. SOE Heroines: The Special Operations Executive French Section and Free French Women Agents tells the stories of 36 brave women. Most were trained in paramilitary warfare, fieldcraft, the use of weapons and explosives, sabotage, silent killing, parachuting, codes and cyphers, wireless transmission and receiving, and general spycraft. The youngest was 19 and the oldest 53. Of the twelve who were captured, only two survived; the others were executed, some after being tortured by the sadistic officers of the Gestapo.

    In recognition of their contribution to the liberation of France, the British, French and American governments honoured these 36 women with 49 awards including 11 Croix de Guerre, four with palms, nine Medaille de la Resistance, five Companion de Legion d’Honneur, four King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct, four Member of the British Empire Medals, three Chevallier de Legion d’Honneur, two Order of the British Empire Medals, two Certificates of Commendation, two Sussex Medals, one Commander of Legion d’Honneur, King’s Medal of Commendation, one Medaille de Republique Française, one Military Cross, one Mentioned in Dispatches, one US Distinguished Service Cross, one US Bronze Star and one George Cross.

    Bernard O'Connor's new book SOE Heroines: The Special Operations Executive's French Section and Free French Women Agents is available for purchase now.

  • Joan of Arc and 'The Great Pity of the Land of France' by Moya Longstaffe

    Joan of Arc depicted by Albert Lynch in Figaro magazine, 1903. The epitome of the received Joan image; anyone would recognise this figure, despite the fact that no portrait from life of the Maid exists. (Author's collection, Joan of Arc and 'The Great Pity of the Land of France', Amberley Publishing)

    The facts of Joan of Arc’s life are (and always have been) well known, established beyond dispute. Her life and death are fully documented from childhood to her very public execution in Rouen. Both in the chronicles of the time and above all in the verbatim proceedings of the two trials. The first of which (1431, Rouen) condemned her and the second (1452-56, essentially appeal proceedings, with hearings held in Rouen, Domrémy, Orleans and Paris) which annulled the verdict of Rouen. I devote three chapters of the book specifically to the first trial and examine the second trial in the final chapter (there are twenty-one chapters in total).

    What challenges our understanding is the transformation of this quiet, obedient and pious child into the young girl who, overcoming all opposition and barriers, determinedly made her way to the king and persuaded him to let her lead an army to lift the siege of Orleans and next, again despite all opposition, led him through hostile territory to his coronation at Rheims. What was the nature of her inspiration? What did she tell the king in that first famous interview that left him radiant with joy? I can only present the evidence and leave the reader to ponder it. Throughout her trial, Joan stubbornly refused to divulge the secret she had revealed to Charles VII.

    A more imperious Joan. 'Joan of Arc imprisoned in Rouen' by Pierre Henri Revoil, 1819. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art via the Isaacson-Draper Foundation, Joan of Arc and 'The Great Pity of the Land of France', Amberley Publishing)

    No startling new facts about Joan are likely to be unearthed. We would like to have a contemporary portrait, but none has come down to us, although one at least did exist and she mentions it during her trial.  One important document is missing: the proceedings of the commission which examined her at Poitiers. Before she was allowed to set out for Orleans. The panel, numbering about twenty members, was composed of several bishops and senior clergy, mostly qualified in law or theology. No-one knows what happened to this document, we only have a summary of the findings. Quicherat, the editor of the five great volumes of the two trials (1841-1849), writes, Posterity will forever mourn the loss of the minutes of Poitiers, the finest document, I have no hesitation in saying, that we could ever possess on Joan of Arc, since that immortal young woman showed herself there in all her freshness and inspiration, full of gaiety, vigour, enthusiasm, replying spontaneously to unbiased judges that she was sure to win over”. A copy must have been sent to Rome, but so far all searches in the Vatican archives have yielded nothing.

    A 1905 photograph of the keep of Rouen Castle, which is now known as the Tower of Joan of Arc. This tower, with walls four metres thick, is the only remaining part of the castle of Rouen, dismantled in 1591. Joan was imprisoned in one of the other six towers, but was taken here and threatened with the instruments of torture on 9 May 1431. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Joan of Arc and 'The Great Pity of the Land of France', Amberley Publishing)

    The social, political and military history of the quarrel between France and England from the turn of the fifteenth century until the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453 is of course presented and examined in all its complexity. In France that covers the reigns of Charles VI and Charles VII, in England that of Henry IV and Henry V, ending during the reign of the unfortunate Henry VI. In Burgundy it covers the reigns of the devious Duke John the Fearless and that of his son, Philip the Good, the magnificent Duke of the Western World, with his three wives (not all at the same time!), twenty-four mistresses and eighteen illegitimate offspring,

    Above all, I wanted to bring to life Joan, as we hear her describe her childhood and adolescence and her career in her own words, recorded in the minutes of the first trial, and as we meet her again in the testimony of childhood friends, neighbours, comrades–in-arms, and various persons who had observed her or played a more active role during the Rouen trial. The second trial is a very important source of evidence, often unfairly overlooked or decried (pace George Bernard Shaw, that wicked old tease). But of course, we can understand her properly only in her time and it was equally important to bring to life the people of France. From the nobles at court and in the army to the terrible distress of the poor ordinary inhabitants of besieged towns, of the countryside and villages, suffering all the ills of war, from famine to the utter destruction of homes and fields and the rampaging of mercenaries on the loose.  I hope that the overall picture I have painted is full and fair.

    Moya Longstaffe's book Joan of Arc and 'The Great Pity of the Land of France' is available for purchase now.

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