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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.

  • Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS – The final testament of the Oostfronters by Jonathan Trigg

    Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS - Coolens Dries - Karel Goeman (JM) Flemish volunteers in the Sturmbrigade Langemarck. Dries Coolens, fourth from the left, stands with his best friend on his right – Karel Goeman. Coolens would be the only one from the photo to survive the fighting in the Ukraine. (Author's collection, Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS, Amberley Publishing)

    Our fascination with the Second World War is as strong as ever, and it remains the most popular historical period for authors and readers alike. That fascination has partly been fed by the living reminders of the war that walk around with us every day – the veterans themselves – men and women for whom the war was the defining aspect of their young lives and who played a part, however large or small, in it. But the ranks of veterans are thinning. No-one lives forever and the survivors are now nonagenarians or centenarians.

    For example, over 16 million Americans served in their armed forces during the war, and by 2014 only one million of them were still alive. In ten years that number will be fewer than a hundred thousand. But as one of those self-same US veterans once wrote: No war is really over until the last veteran is dead.”

    If that is the case with the leviathan that is the United States then what of far smaller nations, and their combatants? Flanders – the northern Dutch-speaking half of Belgium – is today one of the most highly developed and densely populated parts of modern Europe. It is a prosperous place, with its own culture and traditions, and this history fuels a deep-seated sense of belonging that nurtures a powerful independence movement that wants to break away from their French-speaking southern neighbours in Walloonia and establish their own country.

    Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS 2 Some of the Flemish veterans group in the summer of 2016, from left to right; Theo D’Oosterlinck (sitting), Oswald Van Ooteghem (standing), Lucie Lefever (sitting) and Herman Van Gyseghem (standing). (Author's collection, Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS, Amberley Publishing)

    Back in the early summer of 1940, after the victorious Wehrmacht had invaded and occupied Belgium, the Nazis sought to take advantage of both the Flemings nationalism and their strident anti-communism and use it for their own ends. A new military unit was formed by the Waffen-SS – the Nazis own private army – called the Legion Flandern. Thousands of young men volunteered, and began a process that would see Flemish Waffen-SS men fight and die across the Eastern Front in some of the most savage battles of that most savage campaign; the siege of Leningrad, the Volkhov Pocket, Krasny Bor, Narva. The end of the war would find them on the losing side, and many would spend years in Belgian prisons convicted of collaboration. Finally released back into society, most would find it very hard to rebuild their lives, the authorities and their own neighbours often unwilling to accept them and viewing them with suspicion and mistrust.

    Most have never told their story – preferring to look forward rather than back, and get on with their lives; marry, raise and provide for their family and then retire and play with their grandchildren.

    Capturing their memories, recording their voices before it’s too late, is like finding an old treasure map and following it to a treasure trove– a veritable El Dorado of stories and experiences from the war.

    Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS 3 Dries Coolens in his nineties at home in his retirement flat in Metzingen, Germany. Coolens’s flat is full of memorabilia from his Waffen-SS service, including the berkenkruis (birch cross) symbol above the wardrobe behind him. The Legion Flandern illustration he is holding is by the celebrated Flemish artist, Frans Van Immerseel. (Author's collection, Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS, Amberley Publishing)

    One such Oostfronter – the collective name they are known by in Flanders – is Oswald Van Ooteghem. Now a 93-year-old pensioner, back in 1941 he was a bright-eyed 16-year-old from a strongly nationalist family. He was one of the very first to step forward for the Legion, and was joined by others including Albert Olbrechts, Dries Coolens and Theo D’Oosterlinck. Their initial enthusiasm was soon dampened by a chauvinist German training machine that viewed them as inferior, and they were then shuffled off to the grinding trench warfare that was the siege of Leningrad in late 1941, early 1942. Unglamorous though that sector was, neither was it easy, and casualties were high. Battling the bitter cold, the miserable conditions as well as the Red Army, the survivors had their eyes opened to the often-dreadful realities of war. All were wounded at some point – most more than once – and the effect of the war on all of them was profound.

    Olbrechts, invalided back home after severe illness, saw first-hand the brutality of Nazi rule in Belgium as his best friend was shot for helping shot-down British airmen try and escape home. Dries Coolens became a hard-bitten NCO, wounded multiple times, as he somehow survived the likes of the Battle of Narva in the summer of 1944. Van Ooteghem was also wounded in action, and became a war reporter, photographing his comrades and building up a unique record of the Flemish Waffen-SS. New recruits continued to join-up, and not just as infantrymen. Herman Van Gyseghem became a panzer signaller in 1943, and the young Lucie Lefever enlisted as a Red Cross nurse to treat wounded Flemings.

    Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS 4 Albert Olbrechts, aged 101 years old, at home in Karlsruhe, Germany. (Author's collection, Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS, Amberley Publishing)

    As the war came towards its end, a previously-wounded D’Oosterlinck returned to his company to find no-one he knew still survived in the unit, while Van Ooteghem was ordered to lead teenaged Flemish Hitler Youth youngsters into a final, pointless stand. But undoubtedly the worst fate was reserved for Lefever, who was caught up in the Soviet siege of Breslau and then raped by Red Army soldiers.

    This book is built on in-depth interviews with these veterans and others, and gives an insight into their lives, and what the war was like from a human angle. That angle includes the very real horror of the Holocaust and the evils of Nazism. This is the conundrum that sits at the very heart of interviewing the Flemish veterans. These old men and women, so friendly, so polite, often funny and enthralling – may not have been Nazis themselves, but they still fought for a régime that was one of the blackest in all human history, how could that be? It is a tremendously difficult question to answer, and not one I have ever received a satisfactory answer to, however, one author put it very well when he wrote of both sides on the Russian Front - “…there were brave and extraordinary soldiers on both sides, but it is a sad truth of military history that some of the most remarkable warriors have fought for some very shabby causes.”

    9781445666365

    Jonathan Trigg's new book Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS – The final testament of the Oostfronters is available for purchase now.

  • The Defeat of the Luftwaffe by Jonathan Trigg

    What’s the best thing about writing history? For me that’s easy. Stepping back in time into the shoes of another generation and looking around at the world through their eyes, and as you look around you can read what they read, touch what they touched, and try to understand why they did what they did. A lot of the time you can only achieve this through what they left behind; artefacts, buildings (more likely ruins), papers, etc. These are all powerful tools in a historian’s armoury and can be utterly fascinating. Probably my favourite example of this is a crude carving in a balcony rail high in the magnificent Hagia Sophia cathedral in Istanbul (now the Aya Sofia mosque). It simply reads: ‘Halfdan made these runes’, or to put it another way, ‘Halfdan was here’. We don’t know for sure who Halfdan was, but the evidence suggests he was a Viking member of the Byzantine Emperor’s famous Varangian Guard. So, Halfdan was a soldier, he could read and write and like all soldiers he got bored on guard duty – some things never change.

    How amazing would it be to speak to Halfdan? To hear him tell of his time, tell his story, in his own words - that for me is still the draw to writing about the Second World War, people who lived through it are still alive – although time marches on. Over the last decade of writing about the most terrible conflict our world has ever known I have seen so many voices go silent – except in Scandinavia where people seem to live forever! So, I take every chance I can get to write down peoples words. Those stories are all around us, often in the most unlikely places. I was once asked by an old friend to come up to Durham and be the after-lunch speaker at his local Rotary Club. I chose as my subject the exploits of the Waffen-SS during the War. I had written several times on the topic and hoped I could make it interesting for the audience. I mean no criticism of them at all, but they were mainly an ‘older’ crowd if I can put it like that, and I was worried that me droning on after a good lunch, and with the afternoon sun streaming in through the hotel windows, it would all be a bit much for some of them and a few might drift quietly off. How amazed was I then when the self-proclaimed oldest member of the Club asked to speak as soon as I had finished my little talk. He sat there and said, ‘The first member of the Waffen-SS I met was the chap that took me prisoner when I was on a night patrol in Italy….’ Brilliant! Just a few yards away, living history.

    Then there are the stories that got away. One of my neighbours is a consultant anaesthetist in the NHS, his family is Anglo-Polish, the Polish side coming from a daring escape to the West through snow-covered pine forests before the Iron Curtain snapped shut. His grandmother was the family’s matriarch, their totem, and she was over 100 years old. Standing around his barbecue one summer evening he was telling me a bit about her when he dropped in that when she was a little girl in 1917 she lived with her family in a very smart house in St Petersburg. On one occasion, hearing a lot of commotion, she, her family and their servants, all rushed to the windows to watch a crowd of armed men storm the building across the way. Those were desperate, troubled times, and the event may have gone unremarked, except the building was the Tsar’s Winter Palace, and the armed men were Bolshevik Red Guards. She had just witnessed the storming of the Winter Palace and a giant step in the Russian Revolution. Unsurprisingly I was desperate to talk to her and get it all down on paper, but she was adamant – the past was the past and it should stay there. Sadly she passed away soon after and her story went with her.

    Vitaly VVS pilot Vitaly I. Klimenko

    Missed opportunities like that spur me on to seek out tales from those that were there, and so I was determined to include as many as I could in my history of the victory of the Soviet Red Air Force over the Nazi Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front – and there were some gems. Surprise was so total when the Luftwaffe first attacked on the morning of the 22nd of June 1941, that no-one on the Soviet side expected it. The fighter pilot, Vitaly Klimenko, was planning to take his pretty Lithuanian girlfriend to a local lake for some swimming and sunbathing, but instead he was rudely awakened by the sounds of an air-raid. He threw open the flap of his tent to hear a neighbour shout, ‘Guys the war has started!’, and Vitaly’s response was, ‘F**k you, what war?’ On that day alone the Soviets lost close to 2,000 aircraft. Two thousand! The numbers involved are hard to credit. The entire German Air Force today numbers around two hundred planes, and the British RAF only around 230. But, as ever, numbers are only part of the story. As I researched the book one of the most harrowing accounts I read was from a German soldier talking to one of his comrades about his experiences on the ‘Russian Front’;

    Müller: “When I was at Kharkov the whole place had been destroyed, except the centre of town. It was a delightful town, a delightful memory! Everyone spoke a little German – they’d learnt it at school. Taganrog was the same. We did a lot of flying near the junction of the Don and Donets. Its’ beautiful country…everywhere we saw women doing compulsory labour service.”

    Faust: “How frightful!”

    Müller: “They were employed on road making – extraordinarily lovely girls; we drove past, simply pulled them into the armoured car, raped them and threw them out again, and did they curse!”

    9781445651866

    The Defeat of the Luftwaffe: The Eastern Front 1941-45, A Strategy for Disaster by Jonathan Trigg is available for purchase now.

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