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  • Photographers of the Third Reich by Paul Garson

    Images from the Wehrmacht

    What is it about photos that mesmerize us? When even life and death enemies find themselves smiling for their captor’s camera.

    A group of army officers struggle with various types of cameras, likely in France. (Photographers of the Third Reich, Amberley Publishing)

    What power do these images hold that in some cases linger with us for our entire lives? Is it because 70% of our sensory input is visual, recorded through our eyes and pasted into the infinite photo album that is our mind? And while we can only “see” a relatively small part of the electro-magnetic spectrum, evolution has seen to vision’s effectiveness as a paramount tool for survival. And then comes the camera and war itself, when first seen only in black and white images, seems to have been leached of color, as it were, of life itself.

    But still, the starkness of the monochromatic slips of paper, many such seen here, possess in many cases even more impact that color. Perhaps it is because at night, life itself is reduced to shades of shadow.

     

     

     

     

    Ica Icarette 500. Produced by the Dresden-based company, the 120 (6x9) roll film Icarette first appeared in 1914. (Photographers of the Third Reich, Amberley Publishing)

    My life-long co-existence with the camera, shall we say, first took focus more than half a century ago. I was an elementary school student in South Florida and for some reason had been “recruited” by my peers to the semi-vaunted position of Captain of the Safety Patrols. I was given a white belt with chest strap, a white “sailor’s” cap and a shiny badge, all part of my uniform. So outfitted, I found myself purportedly in charge of a “troop” of my fellows, now responsible with safe-guarding our schoolmates primarily during the morning and afternoon frenzy of “drop-offs” and “pick-ups.” As I recall we apparently adhered to the call of duty and no casualties were recorded.

    One of the perks was a group trip to Washington D.C. for the annual national safety patrol convocation that saw Pennsylvania Avenue inundated with marching safety patrollers gathered from all over the country. As I recall, even the President took in the review.

     

     

    Paris Occupied, May 1940. A wounded German mechanised trooper with what appears to be a Voigtlander or Plaubel large format press camera. (Photographers of the Third Reich, Amberley Publishing)

    Such a momentous event found me gifted with a Kodak Brownie camera and rolls of film to record safety patrol history in the making. That little Dakon plastic-bodied camera with its simple fixed focus and single shutter speed (original price of $5.00), found me snapping away in the nation’s capital. While the black and white images eventually were lost in time, the camera would later sprout into a current collection of over 200 vintage cameras, not to mention a number of “modern” 35mm film and digital cameras I would use professionally for some 30 years while working for various magazines. While several hundred of my images would see publication, the ones that would ultimately take precedence, were photos taken by countless others, their names unknown, and who for the most part while wearing the military uniform of several nations engaged in bloody conflict.

    Agfa Karat 3.5 with Deckel Compur Shutter, 1938. The modern-looking German-made Agfa Karat strut-folding camera was produced by Agfa from the mid-1930s until the mid-1950s. (Photographers of the Third Reich, Amberley Publishing)

    So what was the segue from camera as a utilitarian tool of my profession capturing colorful images for national consumer publications to a tangential role as a “photo-archeologist” drawn to excavating the imagery found lurking the darkness of the Third Reich and the Nazi era? It also began by chance.

    Some 20 years ago, I came upon a photo of German soldiers aboard a motorcycle, shouldering machine guns and smiling for the camera. It turned into a magazine feature about wartime motorcycles which eventually turned into an unending quest for wartime images that evoked both history and the power of the camera. It was also infused with an intellectual response to history’s greatest crime committed by humans against humans and where in the end, relatively very little justice prevailed, even decades later. And so, lest historical memory fade, I began “collecting” the original photographs literally from around the world. It took years, thousands of hours of scanning hundreds of thousands of images, selecting, not to mention purchasing them. Then thousands of more hours reading hundreds of relevant books and gleaning the historical context in which the images rested. Thus the evolution of my “photo” books.

    U-Boat Commander with Siemens C Model 16 mm Movie Camera. (Photographers of the Third Reich, Amberley Publishing)

    This book is actually the fourth in a series published via Amberley, preceded by volumes dealing WWII-era German motorcycles, horses, and police, a fifth following shortly focusing on Children of the Third Reich, all of which are populated by original, one of a kind photographs in my collection of over 3,000 images taken by individuals who lived, fought, killed and often died during the twelve years of Nazi Germany’s reign of terror. In effect, this book can be viewed as the pre-amble to all the other in the series.

    The photos were created by a variety of cameras, some simple, some advanced, a few seen here, examples from my collection, alongside images taken by those handheld light-capturing boxes and in some cases with snapshots of those who pointed the cameras.

    It can be said that the same advanced German technology that created the Panzer and the V-2 rocket also created some of the world’s highest quality photographic equipment feeding into an already world-wide fascination with the camera, millions sold and many taken to war. The Nazis themselves understood that without such imagery they would never have achieved their goals of social engineering a New Germany toward enslaving all of Europe. (Take that one step further, what would the world be like if the now ubiquitous image taking devices were never invented?)

     

    A Russien Army war correspondent poses at the infamous Auschwitz camp, his camera apparently a German Leica. (Photographers of the Third Reich, Amberley Publishing)

    What has the camera given us? Indelible images of an era seared into humankind’s consciousness? Yes. Individual time machines that capture a flicker of transient human behavior in all its brutal weaknesses? Yes. Self-fulfilling instruments of documentation of Man’s tendency to apocalyptic self-destruction? Yes. But moreover, hopefully a means of facing those tendencies and overcoming them by staring resolutely into the abyss and no longer seeing a reflection.

    Have we learned from our past? Have old cameras given us new insights? Bring out your own camera and start recording for a future answer.

    In the meantime, dwell on this book and its visual record of a time when a part of the world fell into a fatal obedience and vainly endeavored to snuff out all light, but ultimately failed. As part of that process the camera always refused to turn a blind eye.

    Paul Garson's new book Photographers of the Third Reich: Images from the Wehrmacht is available for purchase now.

  • School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain by Alastair Goodrum

    My latest book, School of Aces (Amberley; 2019), tells the story of how RAF Fighter Command prepared for battle. It takes an in-depth view of the creation and development of its premier fighter pilot and air gunnery school, located at RAF Sutton Bridge. This station is where, for example, the RAF prepared for the air Battles of France and Britain, a decade before they were actually fought. The story that unfolds throughout my book is nothing, of course, without the pilots themselves. Who were they? Where did they come from? What happened to them? These are a few of the questions the book addresses. It is interesting to discover, too, that by the time the Second World War was into its stride, RAF Sutton Bridge was training pilots of every nationality that served in the RAF. This first blog post uses the story of nineteen-year old Plt Off Denis Wissler, from Greenwich, England, to illustrate just what these young men – fresh from No.6 Operational Training Unit at RAF Sutton Bridge – were asked to do.

    Plt Off Denis Wissler Hurricane 1940. (School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    Together with sixteen companions, Denis learned to fly the Hawker Hurricane on the first course run at RAF Sutton Bridge. That course lasted six weeks but the deteriorating situation in France cut subsequent courses to a mere three weeks duration. Denis was posted to 85 Squadron on Lille-Seclin airfield in France on 27 April 1940 but, recognising his lack of experience, his CO, Sqn Ldr John Oliver, ordered him to fly only to get himself accustomed to the local area. The CO considered there was no pressing need at the moment for Wissler to go on operational patrols and he would be much better occupied putting in some more hours on the Hurricane; familiarising himself with squadron routine and generally making himself useful on the ground.

     

     

     

    Plt Pff Denis Wissler, 17 Sqn, 1970. (Courtesy B. B. M. London, School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    When the Germans rolled into France on the morning of 10 May 1940, Seclin was bombed, causing many casualties on the ground but fortunately most of the pilots were already in the air on patrol. Left behind, Denis Wissler literally had to run for his life for a slit trench when the bombing started and soon found out what war looked like when he helped to rescue the casualties afterwards. With mounting pilot casualties, too, his CO had no option but to commit Plt Off Wissler to combat operations and Denis took his place alongside his comrades in the air – and managed to survive. During his first patrol on 12 May, Denis became separated from his flight and got lost. Landing on what – fortunately – turned out to be a French Air Force aerodrome he had to ask for directions back to his own base. No sooner had he returned than he was airborne again for another patrol. That night Denis wrote in his diary: ‘I now have had just six hours sleep in the last forty-eight hours and have not washed for over thirty-six hours. My God, I’m so tired, and I am up again at 3 am tomorrow.’ Next day, 13th, he was indeed up at the crack of dawn for a patrol from which he returned safely. His second sortie of the day was part of a flight led by Sqn Ldr Oliver. They were jumped by enemy Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters and John Oliver was shot down. Denis Wissler made a bee-line for the cover of clouds and emerging cautiously, found himself alone and unsure of his whereabouts – again. Landing on another French airfield, this time Cambrai, it was pointed out to him that his Hurricane was leaking oil badly. For once, he was able to sleep soundly in the French officers’ mess while RAF ground-crew were sent to fix his aeroplane. Just four days had elapsed in which Denis had to try to learn to do all the things needed to simply get himself airborne from a bombed airfield; fly his Hurricane in combat; avoid being shot down and – as if that wasn't enough – then find home when he had spent most of his time pulling such tight turns that he hardly knew which way was up. Tired he was – weren’t they all? – but he survived until the squadron was withdrawn to England (RAF Debden) on 22 May. But Denis was not quite done with France yet. At Debden he was posted to 17 Squadron on 8 June and it was still operating in France, covering the British withdrawal while flying from Le Mans airfield. He flew out to join the squadron on 9 June and survived the final days of the RAF campaign in France, finally withdrawing via Dinard and Jersey once more to Debden airfield on 19 June.

    Hurricane Is of 111 Squadron up from Northolt, in July 1938. (Courtesy ww2images.com, School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    Denis Wissler remained with 17 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, scoring his first success on 29 July when he shared in the destruction of a Heinkel He 111 bomber. By September he was now considered an experienced fighter pilot but, in combat with Bf 109s over the Thames estuary on 24 September, after shooting at one ’109, he went for a gaggle of four more and in the ensuing scrap, his Hurricane took a cannon shell hit in the port wing. The explosion damaged the flaps on that side and a shell fragment wounded him in the left arm. Denis dived hard to escape the fight and flew back to Debden where he made a flap-less landing. His Hurricane ran into a pile of rubble which added to his woes by causing cuts and bruises to his face. After a couple of weeks in Saffron Walden hospital he returned to flying duties on 10 October. It was in the closing stage of the Battle of Britain, when 17 Squadron moved to RAF Martlesham Heath, that Fate finally caught up with Denis. On 11 November 1940, while leading a section of his squadron into action, he was shot down and posted as missing in action during an engagement off the Essex coast near Burnham-on-Crouch.

    Alastair Goodrum's new book School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain is available for purchase now.

  • Boulton Paul Defiant by Alec Brew

    The Myths of the Boulton Paul Defiant

    The aircraft most associated with Wolverhampton’s Boulton Paul Aircraft Ltd, and the Black Country’s highest profile contribution to the Second World War, was the Defiant turret fighter. It fought over the beaches of Dunkirk, two squadrons fought in the Battle of Britain, and then, during the dark nights of the Blitz, it was our most effective night fighter, seven Defiant squadrons operating against the German raiders using its unusual characteristics.

    A rare photograph of the Defiant prototype, K8310, in the air, fitted with the turret and other modifications, including a tailwheel and ejector exhausts, but as yet without guns. (Boulton Paul Defiant, Amberley Publishing)

    The Defiant was built to an official requirement for a fighter with all its guns concentrated in a power-operated turret. In the belief that bomber formations could only be broken up by fighters attacking in squadron strength, with pilots maintaining formation and gunners aiming the guns in their power operated turret. This theory had been around since the First World War, but finally came to fruition in the form of an official requirement in the mid Thirties, as bombers were becoming all metal, and much faster.

    The Defiant was born in Norwich, where the Aircraft Department of the firm of Boulton & Paul Ltd had existed since 1915. It had recently been sold off and was having a new factory built alongside Wolverhampton’s new Municipal Airport at Pendeford. The prototype was started at Norwich but its first flight was at Pendeford in August 1937, and a total of 1062 were to be built there.

    The first squadron of Defiants, No.264, went to War over Holland as the Germans invaded but it was over the beaches of Dunkirk that it had its greatest day. In two sorties over the Channel No.264 claimed 37 German aircraft shot down, for no loss of their own. The first of the myths surrounding the Defiant was created that day. It was said that the Germans mistook them for Hurricanes, attacked from the rear and were shot from the sky by the concentrated fire of 12 four-gun turrets. This hardly stands up to a second’s scrutiny, the majority of the German aircraft claimed were bombers, it was the Defiants doing the attacking. When they were attacked by Messerschmidts No.264 they adopted their practiced tactic of a defensive circle or spiral, and it didn’t matter from which direction the Germans attacked, they were met with defensive fire. These were tactics they successfully used on several other occasions over the Channel.

    A flight led by No. 264's CO, Squadron Leader Philip Hunter, which undertook the first patrol over the Netherlands together with six Spitfires of No. 66 Squadron. Between them they shot down a Junkers Ju.88. (Boulton Paul Defiant, Amberley Publishing)

    The CO of No.264 was careful to explain these tactics to the second Defiant Squadron, No.141, which joined the fight over the Channel on 19th July 1940. A patrol of nine Defiants was attacked by superior numbers of Messerschmidts and was decimated, six of them shot down, another written off and ten aircrew killed. The myth arose that the Defiant was a sitting duck against single seat fighters. The truth is that No.141 did not adopt No.264’s successful tactics, but continued to fly straight and level, and the Germans, who recognised the Defiants, took advantage. Even so the heavily outnumbered Defiants claimed four of the 109s in return.

    Nevertheless the panic button was hit at Fighter Command, and No.264 Squadron who were actually in the air at the time, were ordered back to the ground. No.141 was taken out of the Battle to lick its wounds and re-equip. No.264 eventually re-joined the fight, and had many more successful days of daylight fighting. I have interviewed many Defiant aircrew from No.264, and to many they believed they could hold their own in daytime battles and did not have a bad word to say about the aircraft. It is apparently true that whenever members of the two squadrons met in bars there was trouble, because No.264 blamed No.141 for the Defiants soiled reputation.

    The next myth now arose, that because the Defiants were failures during the day, they were relegated to night fighting. The truth is that, as the nights lengthened during the Autumn of 1940, the Germans increasingly attacked at night in what has been termed the Blitz, the front line was now at night, and the Defiants which had been designed as day or night fighters from the beginning, were the best available. They were faster than the clumsy twin-engined Blenheims, and in the days before radar they had the advantage over single-seaters of two pairs of eyes. In addition their very configuration enabled them to attack unsuspecting German bombers from below, silhouetted against the stars, and their gunners were often able to carefully aim for one engine or the other from very short range.

    Early production Defiants with 'L' serial numbers, that on the right being L7009, which was to be shot down on No. 141 Squadron's sole daylight operation. (Boulton Paul Defiant, Amberley Publishing)

    Seven squadrons of Defiants fought through the Winter of 1940/41, and then through the second Winter of the War, by which time twin engined heavier-armed, radar equipped fighters, like the Beaufighter and Mosquito, were becoming available. At the Wolverhampton factory, Boulton Paul workers would pin newspaper articles about Defiant successes on the noticeboard, with the words ‘Our Work’ scrawled across them.

    Even when they were withdrawn from night fighting the Defiants found new frontline roles. They equipped five air sea rescue squadrons looking for downed airmen all around the coast, and often having to defend themselves over the contested waters of the Channel and the North Sea. One unit of Defiants also equipped the World’s first electronic countermeasures squadron, No.515, jamming and spoofing German radar.

    When even these roles were taken by newer aircraft, the Defiant still had an important role to play as a target tug, towing targets for ground and air gunners in theatres right across the World, from India to the West Indies. The Defiant served right through the War and is rightly revered by the people who built them, men and women.

    At Wolverhampton’s Tettenhall Transport Heritage Centre, which has a display about the Defiant, including a restored cockpit, volunteers still have to defend the aircraft when visitors repeat the myths that beset it. They can now point to Amberley’s illustrated history of the aircraft to back them up.

    Alec Brew's new book Boulton Paul Defiant is available for purchase now.

  • Rough Justice: The True Story of Agent Dronkers by David Tremain

    The Enemy Spy Captured by the British

    Many books have appeared about the various agents employed by SOE, the Special Operations Executive, as well as the German agents who landed in Britain during the Second World War, due to the ongoing interest in anything related to the war. Some of these are new accounts, while others are reappraisals of some of the more familiar names. There are, however, many who have yet to be discovered and written about. That was what I had in mind when I wrote Rough Justice. I had originally wanted to call it The Spying Dutchman, a pun on Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, but the book required a title that better reflected the seriousness of the subject matter, so it was changed.

    The story of Johannes Marinus Dronkers and his two Dutch compatriots, Jan Bruno de Langen and John Alphonsus Mulder, is a fascinating one as it reveals MI5’s methodology in handling spy cases since the war began. Yet while MI5 had successfully rounded up all the spies working for the Abwehr within a few days of their landing, and turned some of them into double agents, the cat-and-mouse game played by both sides would sometimes appear as amateurish. It’s true MI5 had ISOS, the breaking of Abwehr hand ciphers, on their side which gave them forewarning of Dronkers’ arrival, but their decision to prosecute him under the Treachery Act (1940) and not to turn him as a double agent under the Double-Cross System was something I was curious about and wanted to explore. It also reflected how the Germans used these three men as pawns and how one, at least, was sacrificed for the greater good.

    Dronkers' Post Office identification card. (c. The National Archives ref. KV2/45, Rough Justice, Amberley Publishing)

    What got you interested in the story in the first place? My interest in Dronkers’ case stems from 1981 when a brief entry about him appeared in British intelligence historian Nigel West’s unofficial history of MI5’s early years. Dronkers’ yacht had been towed into Harwich, my birthplace, so that got my attention. A slightly longer account of his story appeared in 2000 in a declassified history of Camp 020 on Ham Common, London written by Lieutenant Colonel Robin ‘Tin-Eye’ Stephens, the Camp’s former commandant. The official files on the case had been released to the National Archives at Kew in 1999 but it wasn’t until the winter of 2014/15 that I discovered that most of them were now available digitally, meaning that I was able to download them from the comfort of my home in Ottawa. As I had retired in 2010 I now had the time to research the case fully.

    Why did you write the book? At first I hadn’t actually intended to write a book, but as I started reading the official files I began to realize that there was more to Dronkers’ story than met the eye. It wasn’t just a simple wartime spy story, but one which raised a lot of serious issues about how spies were treated during wartime, something which other authors of the genre have since commented on. It was a story that needed to be told. I’m not an historian but I’ve always been interested in history, right from when I was a small boy. Later it developed into military history and espionage. Most of what I’d written before had been professional papers on various heritage-related subjects in my former profession as a paper conservator and dealing with museum security, but never a book about espionage; however, I felt I was up for the challenge.  After that, it just took off.

    Researching the case. As well as Dronkers’ and Mulders’ files (there were none available on de Langen) I also needed to access files on other characters (British, German and Dutch) which helped to complete more of the jigsaw. I had some help in tracing the genealogy of the families from a second cousin of de Langen in The Netherlands. By a process of elimination I was able to uncover the identity of who I believe was Dronkers’ controller, the mysterious ‘Dr Schneider’, and with the help of a pharmacist friend information on Dronkers’ recipe for secret ink. One file I had declassified under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), although one page still remains unavailable in spite of attempts to get it released; a couple of other files which had not be digitized were seen when I went to Kew just before Christmas 2015. Particularly revealing were the judge’s notes from Dronkers’ trial. What struck me was by the peculiar way in which the court drama unfolded and the language of the courtroom during the trial, originally held in camera but now open for all to see. Was Dronkers really a spy? Was he really guilty of the charges of which he was accused? Had he been set up by the Germans and/or the British? Did British authorities go too far in this particular case, or were they justified in their actions? In the modern counter-terrorism context, these are questions of the sort that are also being asked today with regard to torture, ‘extraordinary rendition’ and legislation aimed at international terrorism. The war years were difficult times, and desperate measures needed to be introduced to curb the Nazi threat of world domination, but those measures seem as barbaric then and, at times, as unjust, as they do today.

    Spoiler alert! Also that year, before the book was published in 2016, my wife and I visited the Museum of London’s exhibition The Crime Museum Uncovered, which displayed artifacts from Scotland Yard’s Black Museum, items hitherto not available to the public. There in one section was the hangman’s kit from Wandsworth Prison, complete with a series of nooses, straps and hood. I froze. Could one of these have been the noose used to hang Dronkers? This was a surreal moment and as close as I had come to his eventual demise.

    David Tremain's new paperback edition of Rough Justice: The True Story of Agent Dronkers, The Enemy Spy Captured by the British is available for purchase now.

  • 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.

  • 'Aristides de Sousa Mendes' Heroes in the Shadows by Brian Fleming

    Humanitarian Action and Courage in the Second World War

    Aristides de Sousa Mendes (19 July 1885 – 3 April 1954) became the Portuguese Consul General in Bordeaux in 1938. Despite orders from António de Oliveira Salazar’s regime, he continued to issue visas and passports to refugees, including Jews, who were fleeing the Nazis. (Heroes in the Shadows, Amberley Publishing)

    During the course of World War Two a number of diplomats in various parts of Europe used their positions to save thousands of individuals. Of these, Raoul Wallenberg is by far the most famous but there were others whose heroic deeds need to be better known. One interesting example is that of the Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes. Under the dictator Salazar, Portugal, like its neighbour Spain, was determined not to become involved in WW2. Sousa Mendes, a lawyer by profession, served in his country’s diplomatic service and took up duty as Consul General in Bordeaux in 1938. The following year, Salazar, anxious not just to remain neutral but to be seen to be so, issued an instruction to his nation’s diplomats that visas were not to be issued to various categories of people. Essentially this covered all refugees who might be seeking access to Portugal. Exemptions could only be granted with sanction from the Foreign Ministry in Lisbon. It is clear that from the very start that Sousa Mendes was uncomfortable with this restrictive approach. He began to make exceptions without prior clearance and put forward, to the authorities, retrospective justification for his actions. The numbers involved were quite small but the situation changed radically in 1940 as French resistance to the Nazi invasion began to collapse. Millions fled south, many to avoid conflict but others, notably the Jews, had far more specific reasons to leave France. Hundreds approached the consulate in Bordeaux seeking assistance.

    The pressure began to tell on the diplomat and he became indisposed in mid-June with what he described subsequently as a breakdown. Clearly he was in a very difficult situation caught between his instructions from Lisbon and his humanitarian instincts. Happily the latter proved decisive. For the next few weeks he began to issue visas to all who needed them. Obviously Salazar’s government could not tolerate such defiance and he was recalled, an instruction he complied with but not in any great hurry. Estimating the numbers he saved is difficult as visas often covered more than the individual holder but included family members such as children. Some have suggested that between him, and his colleague Emile Gissot in Toulouse who followed his lead, 20,000 were saved. Certainly a figure of 10,000 would constitute a conservative estimate. The noted Holocaust scholar, Professor Yehuda Bauer has described the role played by Sousa Mendes as perhaps the largest rescue operation by a single individual during that period. Subsequently the career of Aristides de Sousa Mendes was destroyed on the direct instructions of Salazar. Sadly he lived in relative poverty for the remainder of his life and his actions were airbrushed from history. Eventually the truth began to emerge and a campaign in the US by a group including the diplomat’s son, John Paul, bore fruit in 1986 when seventy members of congress wrote to the then Portuguese Prime Minister asking that the good name of Aristides de Sousa Mendes be restored. Two years later the Portuguese parliament unanimously adopted a motion striking out all charges against Sousa Mendes and marked the decision with a standing ovation. Further recognition has followed in Portugal and in Bordeaux where he made his wonderfully courageous decision.

    Brian Fleming's new book Heroes in the Shadows: Humanitarian Action and Courage in the Second World War is available for purchase now.

  • Spitfire Leader: Robert Bungey DFC by Dennis Newton

    Tragic Battle of Britain Hero

    When you visit the Australian War Memorial in Canberra you can find Robert Wilton Bungey’s name low down on Panel 114 in the Commemorative Area. It is shown as ‘BUNGEY R. W.’ under the heading ‘PERSONNEL UNITS’.

    Robert Bungey DFC wearing his 'wings' and his RAF uniform. (c. Dennis Newton & Richard Bungey, Spitfire Leader, Amberley Publishing)

    Ask about him at the entry desk and you will find out that Bob Bungey was in the Royal Australian Air Force, that his service number was 257414, his unit was No.4 Embarkation Depot Adelaide, and that he was a squadron leader. You will learn that he died on 10 June 1943 and you will be informed that his death was ‘accidental’. And that is about all.

    But, that is not all – not by a long shot! There is so much more to Bob Bungey and his story than just that.

    Nothing informs you that Bob Bungey also had another service number, 40042, a Royal Air Force number, and that he was a wing commander who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

    Robert Bungey's name displayed at the Australian War Memorial. (c. Dennis Newton & Richard Bungey, Spitfire Leader, Amberley Publishing)

    Nothing tells you that he was a Fairey Battle light bomber pilot flying operations along the German/French border from the very first month of the Second World War and that he survived the overwhelming German onslaught through France in the desperate days of May and June 1940.

    Nothing tells you that he volunteered to fly fighters and that he was lucky to survive when he had to ditch his shot up Hurricane. Bob Bungey’s name is not only found in the Australian War Memorial, it can also be found on memorials throughout Britain – those commemorating the Battle of Britain - and over the years it has cropped up in many publications.

    Nothing informs you that he was the very first Australian to command the very first Australian Spitfire squadron, No.452 RAAF. Nothing lets you know that this squadron achieved the pinnacle of its achievements under his leadership, and at times he successfully led an entire Spitfire wing on operations over the Continent.

    Spitfire P7973 on display in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra during the 1960s. (c. Dennis Newton & Richard Bungey, Spitfire Leader, Amberley Publishing)

    Nothing informs you that he was one of the few pilots who actually flew the Spitfire which is on display in the Australian War Memorial.

    Nothing tells you of his role in the RAF’s fledgling Air/Sea Rescue Service while in command of a ‘front line’ airfield just across the Channel from the enemy, and nothing tells you of his connection with Britain’s Combined Operations Command.

    Nothing reveals the tragic circumstances of his homecoming after more than three years of ‘front line’ service. What happened in Adelaide on 10 June 1943 was not an accident – but what followed afterwards was a miracle.

    None of these things will be revealed when you ask at the desk.

    Now at last, for the very first time, Bob Bungey’s story is finally told in full in Spitfire Leader by myself, Dennis Newton, and Richard Bungey, Bob’s son.

    Dennis Newton and Richard Bungey's new book Spitfire Leader: Robert Bungey DFC, Tragic Battle of Britain Hero is available for purchase now.

  • Normandy Crucible by John Prados

    The Decisive Battle that Shaped World War Two in Europe

    The Allied Intelligence Advantage

    Cobra's breakout took American troops through a succession of ruined villages and towns. Here a Stuart tank and other armor passes a road control team on its way to find the Germans, July 27. (c. National Archives, Normandy Crucible, Amberley Publishing)

    The first-generation histories of D-Day and the Allied campaign in, and breakout from Normandy were written at a time when the success of Allied codebreakers remained a deep secret. Hence the contributions of ULTRA, an umbrella term for the product of work against the German codes, was lost to history. Since the 1970s and the revelation of ULTRA, conversely, this intelligence source has often been represented as omniscient, making the Allies supremely aware of every Nazi maneuver. Neither version is correct. There were inherent limitations on what potential ULTRA had, but given those boundaries, it is impressive what advantages the codebreakers provided for the Allied side in this decisive campaign in the West.

    For the European Theater, codebreaking activities were centered at Bletchley Park, location of the British Government Code & Cypher School (GC&CS). By the spring of 1944 some 5,600 people here worked on deciphering, translating, or interpreting messages intercepted by legions of radio operators located throughout the war zones. British and Americans worked together. But what they could accomplish also depended upon what was possible. We have actual data on German communications for just one day—January 31, 1945—because Hitler’s operations staff chief, Colonel General Alfred Jodl chose to record the numbers. That day Fuehrer Headquarters fielded 120,000 telephone calls, sent or received 33,000 messages by high-speed teleprinter (geheimschreiber), and dealt with 1,200 radio messages. Only the radio messages—if intercepted—were fully vulnerable to decryption. Teleprinter traffic was proof so long as it went by landline (sometimes radio transmission became necessary). Between July and September 1944, for example, the Allies recovered an average of only 56 of the teleprinter messages daily, a minute fraction.

    The other key drawback was that ULTRA could provide only what passed over communications. For example, Hitler gathered the German commanders Von Rundstedt and Rommel at Margival on June 17 where they made a strategic decision to respond to the Allied invasion by means of a multi-corps offensive. Many German actions over subsequent weeks concerned gathering the forces for such an attack, finding a target, or countering Allied moves which could make the offensive impossible. But the only message traffic about Margival concerned Hitler’s movements or those of his generals.

    Vital to assisint the Normandy breakout, the French Resistance helped in all manner of ways. Here a Jedburgh team receives its final briefing in London before parachuting into France. (c. National Archives, Normandy Crucible, Amberley Publishing)

    Given those caveats, a survey of ULTRA revelations during the Normandy campaign shows just how valuable it was:

    – ULTRA plus radio direction finding identified the headquarters of the Germans’ Panzer Group West, hit by a powerful air raid on June 10, wounding its commander, Colonel General Geyr von Schweppenberg.

    – Hitler suspected his generals of defying orders to send more troops into the Norman port of Cherbourg, demanding a run down on the garrison. ULTRA got the June 18 response, providing Allied leaders with a complete order of battle on the Germans at Cherbourg.

    – On June 24 ULTRA could report that the II SS Panzer Corps, with 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, were arriving at the front, but that they had had to detrain in eastern France, almost a week earlier. This bespoke the effectiveness of the French Resistance and Allied air attacks in disrupting German communications.

    – On July 5 ULTRA warned that the powerful Panzer Lehr Division would transfer from the British to the American sector. This came in time for air attacks to block roads, delaying the move. A few days later ULTRA warned Panzer Lehr would attack.

    – To help General Montgomery’s operations, on July 10 and 14 ULTRA provided the troop list for German forces defending the Bourguébus sector.

    A platoon of 2nd Armored Division tanks waits outside a village on August 10 for orders to resume the advance. (c. National Archives, Normandy Crucible, Amberley Publishing)

    – When the Americans moved to break out of their end of Normandy by means of Operation Cobra, ULTRA provided a succession of intelligence tips—quickly, that German stocks of artillery shells were running short; on July 26 a complete order of battle for the defending German LXXXIV Corps; on the 28th and again two days later that the corps had lost contact with its entire left wing; on July 29 warning of a panzer concentration for an attack into the U.S. flank; and on July 30 notice that the battered Panzer Lehr Division had begun leaving the front.

    – During the first week of August ULTRA reported the concentration for what became the Germans’ Mortain offensive, and, when that appeared to fail, on August 9 a Fuehrer order to continue the attack, even though risking being caught in the developing Falaise Pocket. Ironically, Hitler sent his order by radio because, after the July 20 Plot, he did not trust the landline networks to transmit his directives.

    – On August 17 ULTRA intercepted six of the ten parts of the message from the German high command in the West to withdraw from Normandy, beginning the Nazi maneuver to escape the Falaise trap. That the Allies ultimately could not seal the Nazis in was a product of tense command decisions, German desperation, and field coordination problems, not a lack of intelligence.

    Lyman B. Kirkpatrick, an intelligence officer with Omar Bradley’s American army group, once wrote that 70 percent of the best came from combat intelligence, by which he meant aerial scouts, the Resistance, and prisoner interrogation. This list of ULTRA accomplishments shows that Kirkpatrick indulged in a bit of deception of historians. Alternatively, the 30 percent includes some pretty incredible intelligence, which went far towards ensuring Allied victory in Normandy.

    John Prados's new book Normandy Crucible: The Decisive Battle that Shaped World War Two in Europe is available for purchase now.

  • Norfolk's Military Heritage by Neil R. Storey

    September 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War and after  five years of special events, exhibitions and projects to commemorate the First World War this book looks at the long military history of the county of Norfolk from its early fortifications and conflicts between the Iceni and the Roman occupiers right up to the end of the Second World War, hopefully there will be many stories and images that will be new to the reader, even if they have enjoyed studying local military history for many years. That's the enduring grip such a subject has on a historian, there is always something new to discover, even if you think you know a subject well.

    Iron Age fort at Warham, near Wells. (C. John Fielding, Norfolk's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Norfolk is one of England's largest counties, it still has thousands of acres of rich, fertile agricultural land and has had human settlements since the earliest times, along with their resulting conflicts. Add to this a coastline stretching nearly 100 miles from The Wash to Hopton-on-Sea with a number of natural harbours and navigable waterways and dear old Norfolk has been a target for raids and invasions down the centuries too. Perhaps these are some of the reasons why Norfolk people have a natural propensity for standing up for themselves and what they believe is right. Famously, in ancient history the Iceni were led in battle by Queen Boudica in a campaign that almost drove the Roman occupiers out of the British Isles and that fighting spirit remains in the blood, mingled with that of the Saxons, Vikings and Normans.

     

     

    Castle Rising, built more as a symbol of power and status than a fortification, is surrounded by some of the most impressive earthworks in Britain. (Norfolk's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    I wanted to show a variety of perspectives of the earliest fortifications, not just those visible at ground level and John Stevens kindly allowed me to use some of his brilliant aerial photographs of Norfolk's remarkable early fortifications such as the Warham 'Ring,' Burgh Castle and Castle Acre, and even took a few more especially for the book. Notably, during our exceptionally dry summer of 2018 the marks of the ancient roads buildings and walls of Venta Icenorum the Roman administrative centre that was established over the old Iceni settlement at Caister St Edmunds, had not been quite so clearly seen for years and having seen many of the old images of the site in black and white from when it was first discovered it was great to see them in colour at last.

    Norfolk people have risen in rebellion on numerous occasions against oppression and to defend their way of life, notably during the Peasant's Revolt in 1381 and Kett's Rebellion of 1549. Ultimately they faced forces that were larger and far better armed than them but rise they did and made their point.

     

    Members of the Norfolk Riflr Volunteers striking camp 1872. (Norfolk's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    During the English Civil War despite being predominantly in favour of the Parliamentary cause both Royalists and Parliamentarians made their stands in the county and many Norfolk men joined Regiments that fought in some of the notable actions of the war around the country. Captain Robert Swallow raised the 'Maiden Troop'of Cromwell's Ironside cavalry in Norwich and ultimately Norfolk formed part of the Eastern Association which proved to be the backbone of the Parliamentarian forces by late 1644.

    Norfolk fighting men have demonstrated their steadfastness and courage in battle again and again, notably through two World Wars. Lieut-General Sir Brian Horrocks summed this up in his special introduction to the volume on The Royal Norfolk Regiment in the Famous Regiments series in which he said:

    'The Royal Norfolk Regiment has always been renowned for its steadfastness and reliability in difficult situations. In fact it is the sort of Regiment which all commanders like to have available in order to plug a difficult gap. This staunchness has been developed over the years, for wherever the fighting was fiercest, climatic conditions most vile and the odds against victory most daunting, the 9th Foot was sure to be there.'

    The unveiling of the Thetford War Memorial by Major General Sir Charles Townshend on 4 December 1921. (Norfolk's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    This spirit is also reflected through the service of Norfolk personnel in the Royal Navy, in the Royal Air Force and even among those on the home front through dark times, danger and disaster.  The veterans many of us knew from the First World War are now all gone and sadly those who answered the call on both the home front and on active service during the Second World War are fading away too. I hope, in some small way, this book will encourage new generations to appreciate their experiences and sacrifices and will provide inspiration and a good starting point for future research.

    Norfolk has been the scene of riots, rebellions, sieges and military actions over past centuries and the landscape is dotted with earthworks, defences, moats, fortified manor houses and latterly pillboxes and other fixed defences from the First and the Second World Wars. Some of these are now long gone, others are ruins and some remain remarkable bastions to this day. This book does not attempt to be encyclopaedic but I hope it will highlight some of the most interesting places and inspire a visit to those open to the public. Above all I hope it will introduce the story of our local regiments and our military past to anyone with a budding interest in the subject be they Norfolk born and bred, resident or visitor and deepen their appreciation of Norfolk's rich military heritage.

    Neil R. Storey's new book Norfolk's Military Heritage is available for purchase now.

  • D-Day: The British Beach Landings by John Sadler

    Stan Hollis wins the VC

    Stanley Elton Hollis was born on Teesside in 1912, so he was in his thirties when he landed on Gold Beach with 6th Battalion Green Howards. His battalion had trained hard up by Inverary on Scotland’s hard north-west coast. Reveille on 6th June for the Green Howards was around 02.30 with a decent breakfast for those who had the stomach. Getting down via the nets into the landing craft wasn’t easy; the violent pitching of both vessels and the ungainly weight of kit wasn’t conducive to smoothness. If the motion of the ship was bad, this was much worse and the laden bobbing craft had to cruise around in circles, till like a line of ducks they set off in line abreast, ‘A’ Company on the left and ‘B’ on the right.

    View from the sea; British landing craft comes in. (D-Day: The British Beach Landings, Amberley Publishing)

    Stan identified a German strongpoint dead ahead as they cruised in to land, (in fact it was a railway shelter), and grabbing a Lewis gun he rattled off a full pan of ammo. The gun was stripped of its water cooling jacket and, as he hefted it clear of the bracket, forgetting it would be red hot by now, he badly blistered his hand!

    The plan called for Stan to lead mortar-men and Bren gunners from each platoon to charge ahead and set up at the high water mark, providing smoke and covering fire to get the rest through the belt of mines ahead. On their right a tank brewed up, one of ours obviously and the turret hatch bowled along the sand, a lethal projectile but no-one was hurt.

    Up the beach and onto a low ridge of dunes festooned with thick wire entanglements. Birds were sitting apparently unconcerned on the coils. One wag suggested they had no choice as there wasn’t any room left in the sky. Ahead now was a dense belt of mines. ‘D’ company were first through after their assault engineers had gapped, Stan and the others followed the reassuring lines of white tape. Beyond the minefield lay Meuvaines ridge and Mont Fleury Batteries.

    Troops move up off the beaches. (D-Day: The British Beach Landings, Amberley Publishing)

    Once through the hedge beyond the belt of mines, the Green Howards were fully exposed to the attention of the German defenders dug in on the higher ground. Inch by fire swept inch they crawled forward, Major Lofthouse had spotted the pillbox that was doing most of the damage. Hollis saw it too and stormed forward his Sten chattering, he made it and lobbed a grenade in, killing two defenders and persuading the rest to give.

    He barged ahead, up a shallow communications trench aiming for a larger bunker whose inhabitants went into the bag ‘about eighteen or twenty’. A pretty decent haul and it turned out these were the fire control team for the battery up ahead. It was only 09.30 and they could see enemy bolting from their positions but not that far, falling back behind a sheltering wall and firing. Hollis saw one German crazily loping along the top of the wall. Swapping his Sten for an Enfield rifle, he brought the fellow down first shot but was lightly wounded in the face just after.

    On they went into the village of Crepon. With Lieutenant Patrick now dead, Stan was commanding 16 Platoon and the Major ordered the company to check/clear the several farmhouses lining the approach road. Stan broke and entered one of the silent steadings; it seemed deserted except for one terrified boy, perhaps ten or eleven, the effect of seeing this ferocious, blood garnished veteran bursting in must have been utterly terrifying. As he came out to check the rear an enemy round smacked off the back yard wall, fragments whizzing. Aside from a pair of excited local canines, he could just about make out an enemy gun. His day was far from over.

    Stan Hollis won the VC for his actions, the only one to be awarded on D-day.

    John Sadler's new book D-Day: The British Beach Landings is available for purchase now.

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