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  • Shropshire Airfields Through Time by Alec Brew

    Wander nowadays down many Shropshire country lanes near small villages like Atcham, Condover, Montford Bridge or Rednal, and you will come across silent, sightless sentinels, looking out across empty fields of corn or cows, derelict control towers watching over long forgotten airfields. High above, only soaring skylarks can be heard, where once aircraft engines filled the heavens with noise, as young men from across the World learned the necessary skills to fight the aerial battles of the Second World War.

    The Spitfires moved south in August and were replaced by the Lockheed Lightnings of the 14th Fighter Group, who flew their aircraft from California. An RAF officer greets one of the pilots. (Shropshire Airfields Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    When war clouds loomed in the late Thirties, the adjacent counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire were seen as the ideal place to site the training airfields which would be needed for an expanding air force, thought to be far enough away from Europe to be out of range of the Luftwaffe. Shropshire alone had nearly twenty airfields across its Northern plain, two of them, at Shawbury and Tern Hill, reviving First World War airfields, which had served the same function. Suddenly the skies over Shropshire were filled with aircraft, the circuits at many airfields almost touching.

    There was basic training from RAF Tern Hill, advanced training from RAF Shawbury, Bomber Operational Training Units (OTUs) at Tilstock, Sleap and Peplow, a fighter OTU at Rednal and Montford Bridge, the Fleet Air Arm used an airfield at Hinstock which they called HMS Godwit, about as far from the sea as a godwit could fly. Even the Americans came, operating a Combat Crew Replacement Unit at Atcham, and when their P.47 Thunderbolts chanced upon the Spitfires from Rednal, could they resist a mock dogfight?

    Other combats were far from mock. Night fighters operated from High Ercall and Tern Hill, stalking the Germans who came to bomb the North-West or the Black Country. Bomber OTUs joined raids on Europe, new crews testing their skills.

    Even in training accidents were many, young men let loose on powerful machines, always a recipe for disaster, and especially with the Shropshire and Welsh hills close at hand. The Americans at Atcham had a favourite sport, chock to chock races in their powerful Thunderbolts, all around the Wrekin, which loomed large just to the south. Such was its peril that they placed a warning beacon on the top, with the on/off switch in Atcham control tower, turning it off when Germans were about. After the War, when Atcham closed, the switch was moved to High Ercall, and now resides in the tower at RAF Shawbury.

    This photograph has always been attributed to Tern Hill, but shows 1456 Flight Turbinlite aircraft. In the foreground is a Handley Page Harrow transport ‘Boadicea’, sometimes called a ‘Sparrow’ without the front turret. Behind is an Airspeed Oxford of No. 286 Army Co-operation Squadron, a Havoc and two black Hurricanes of 1456 Flight. The Pontoon and Dock Company, currently make Marina equipment in this Type K hangar on No. 2 Sub Site. High Ercall has a total of three Type K hangars. (Shropshire Airfields Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    When the invasion of Europe loomed, assault gliders were assembled at RAF Cosford, and glider pilots trained at Tilstock, Peplow and Sleap, and then they went away to carry the fight to Normandy fields.

    At the end of the War the cut back was swift, airfields soon closed, those at High Ercall and Tern Hill lasting longer than most. RAF Shawbury remains today training the helicopter pilots for all three services, including, in its time, two young princes. Its runway remains a safe haven for aircraft in difficulty, in an area of the country where few remain. RAF Cosford remains the sole training base for ground based trades, and the home of the RAF’s only surviving annual Air Show. Tern Hill was turned over to the Army but the helicopters from Shawbury visit often. Sleap became Shropshire’s main general aviation airfield, and up on the Long Mynd, the one airfield closed during the War, has thrived since, as the home of the Midland Gliding Club. One other airfield is a surprising survivor, little RAF Chetwynd, a neat grass field lost down the lanes north of Newport, continues to serve as an extra landing field as it has for over 75 years, currently for the helicopters from Shawbury.

    Hopefully my book makes sense of what once was there, and what little still remains, those silent sentinels, the old control towers, those small industrial estates in surprisingly rural places, built on the old technical sites like Condover, Hinstock, Atcham or Rednal, those derelict Romney or Maycrete huts in farmyards or woods. Unsung memorials to a generation of young men now disappearing as they are reclaimed by Nature and the march of time.

    Alec Brew's book Shropshire Airfields Through Time is available for purchase now.

  • Through Adversity - 'Lives of Three Operational Pilots' by Alastair Goodrum

    The Story of Life in the RFC and RAF Through Three Operational Pilots

    My seventh and latest book tells the stories of three pilots from widely differing places: Lincolnshire, Warwickshire and South Africa, and social backgrounds: sons of a country JP, a market gardener and a vet. They are typical of the composition of the RAF and their individual military careers link to present day in a dramatic perspective of the period from the fragile biplane-age when the Royal Flying Corps/ Royal Naval Air Service (RFC/RNAS) was created in April 1912, through the First World War, Inter-war, Second World War and up to the strategic, atomic-age jets of the RAF V-Bomber force, at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s. One introduced air reconnaissance in BE2s over the battlefields of France; another flew Hurricanes and Spitfires in combat; while the fourth tested and introduced air-to-air refuelling for Valiant bombers that gave the RAF V-Force its global capability.

    BE 2a '272' was first allocated to No. 3 Squadron at Larkhill in March 1913 then passed to No. 2 Squadron at Montrose in May 1913, where it took part in the squadron deployment to Ireland. (Through Adversity: The Story of Life in the RFC and RAF Through Three Operational Pilots, Amberley Publishing)

    Major Leonard Dawes learned to fly at his own expense in 1912, gaining Royal Aeronautical Club (RAeC) pilot certificate number 228, on a Bristol Boxkite, marking him as one of the very earliest 'fledgling' airmen. He joined the Royal Flying Corps's (RFC) first aeroplane squadron (No.2) in whose frail BE2 biplanes he made many ground-breaking long-distance flights throughout England, Scotland and Ireland before the outbreak of the First World War. He attended the embryo Central Flying School, training alongside airmen - including Hugh Trenchard and other famous names in aviation – many of whom established the formative organisation and traditions of the RAF and went on to occupy its highest echelons.  Leonard flew his aircraft to France as part of the first RFC operational deployment to the battlefront upon outbreak of war in August 1914. Having been in some of the very first air-to-air combats - firing rifles and pistols at equally primitive German aircraft; decorated by the British and French governments while flying some of the first air reconnaissance patrols of the First World War; because of his experience, Leonard was posted back to England in 1915 to raise new squadrons and prepare them for battle over the Western Front. In the course of this training phase, he became associated with several squadrons that still exist today in the RAF, such as No.2 Squadron (Leonard's own first squadron; now flying Typhoons) and No.29 Squadron (He was its first CO; Typhoons).

    Ex-Battle of Britain Hawker Hurricane I, R4118 in the markings of 605 Squadron. Wg Cdr Dickie Barwell flew Hurricane R4115 with 242 Squadron, as wingman to Sqn Ldr Douglas Bader during the Battle of Britain. (Through Adversity: The Story of Life in the RFC and RAF Through Three Operational Pilots, Amberley Publishing)

    Gp Capt Dickie Barwell volunteered and learned to fly with the RAF in 1926.  He became the youngest Group Captain when in 1942 he took charge of Biggin Hill, the RAF's most famous fighter airfield, at a crucial period of the air battles of the Second World War. Having been schooled in the unique, traditional inter-war method of on-squadron flying training, his exceptional flying skill was quickly recognised and he was sent to the Central Flying School, first as a student for Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI). When later called back to join its staff, Barwell became a member of the crack CFS Air Display team at the RAF Hendon Pageants.  After further training as an aero engineer, he returned to flying duties in the 1930s, rose to command No.46 Squadron, the fighter squadron he had joined as a novice in 1926. When the Second World War began in September 1939, he gained fame and a DFC as the victor of the Battle of Spurn Point, the first major air battle of the Second World War, fought off the east coast of England in October 1939. With his skills and experience, Dickie was earmarked for high rank and promoted to command RAF Sutton Bridge and after a spell at No.12 Group Fighter HQ, became station commander of RAF Biggin Hill. Always keen to get a slice of the action and see how his subordinates did their work, he flew combat sorties in the Battle of Britain as wingman to the legendary Douglas Bader and even as a station commander, flew on highly demanding fighter 'sweeps' over France in 1941/42, during which he was always in the thick of the action and credited with shooting down enemy aircraft. It was a sad end to his brilliant career when he was himself shot down and killed in 1942 by a novice Spitfire pilot in a tragic case of 'friendly fire'.

    Brian Fern in Vickers Valiant WZ376 refuels Avro Vulcan ZX478, 1959. (c. Brian Fern Collection, Through Adversity: The Story of Life in the RFC and RAF Through Three Operational Pilots, Amberley Publishing)

    Born in Mafeking, South Africa and educated in England, Sqn Ldr Brian Fern joined the RAF and learned to fly at the British Flying Training School in Ponca City, Oklahoma, USA during 1942. Returning to England, he was selected for training at the Central Flying School (CFS) to became a Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI) for multi-engine aircraft, after which he trained hundreds of other pilots destined for Bomber Command during the Second World War. Made redundant from the RAF - like thousands of his contemporaries - at the end of the war, he joined the Tanganyikan Police Force for five years but with the advent of the Cold War, Berlin Air Lift, and Korean War, the RAF found itself very short of aircrew and mounted an advertising campaign for recruits. Out in Africa, Brian responded and with his past experience, was gratefully accepted by the RAF, eventually becoming operational on the Canberra and Valiant bombers at the height of the Cold War. Having served as aircraft captain of a Valiant bomber he was deployed frequently to distant parts of the British Empire. When the RAF decided it should become a global-reach, nuclear-equipped, jet-bomber force it required a new approach to the question of in-flight refuelling in order to achieve this strategic aim. As a Flight Commander of 214 Squadron, at this point Brian became one of the earliest exponents of air-to-air refuelling operations in the RAF's new V-bomber force, carrying out lengthy operational trials with the Valiant as a flying tanker, including claiming its first long-distance flying record. He later trained Valiant and Vulcan pilots how to re-fuel in the air, a technique vital, not only to the strategic aims of the RAF, but also to the many record-breaking long-distance flights made in that era to all corners of the Commonwealth. Brian ended his RAF career as deputy station commander of RAF Gatow in Berlin where, among his diplomatic duties, he carried out spying sorties, for BRIXMIS, at the controls of the innocuous DH Chipmunk trainer aircraft flying at low level over East German territory in the Berlin Corridor.

    Alastair Goodrum's new book Through Adversity: The Story of Life in the RFC and RAF Through Three Operational Pilots is available for purchase now.

  • Surrey's Military Heritage by Paul Le Messurier

    Canadian troops riot in Epsom, Surrey in June 1919

    Just over one hundred years ago, the First World War officially came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on the 28 June 1919. The brutally of combat had ended the previous year following the armistice of 11 November 1918. Yet sadly, in the same month that the Treaty was signed, the war would claim one more victim as a result of a tragic incident that would change the lives of a Surrey family forever.

    The grave of Station Sergeant Green in Epsom cemetery. (Copyright Paul Le Messurier, Surrey's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Following the end of hostilities, repatriation of Commonwealth troops proceeded at a very slow pace leading to frustration, boredom and confusion. By the summer of 1919 there were still over 2,000 Canadian soldiers in Woodcote Park Camp near Epsom in Surrey.

    Trouble had been brewing over a period of time between local men, mostly ex-soldiers, and Canadians in Epsom town centre. One such occurrence took place on the evening of Tuesday 17 June 1919, during which a Canadian soldier was arrested. A group of soldiers attempted to free their colleague but were seen off by the local police who arrested a further soldier for obstruction. The group returned to their camp and word spread about the arrests. At around eleven o’clock that evening, an estimated four to five hundred Canadians left the camp heading for Epsom police station. Armed with iron railings and wooden stakes, they stormed the station.

    After about an hour of fighting, the police were eventually overwhelmed. The Canadians managed to free their two colleagues and returned to the camp. Practically every policeman had been injured during the battle, some worse than others. Station Sergeant Thomas Green, aged 51 and close to retirement, was taken unconscious to the local hospital and died the following morning having suffered a fractured skull.

    The memorial to Station Sergeant Green erected by the Metropolitan Police. (Copyright Paul Le Messurier, Surrey's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    A scene of devastation met the crowd that gathered around the police station the following morning. Local magistrates issued an order closing all public houses to prevent further trouble and the town was placed out of bounds to all troops at the camp. The Canadian authorities had claimed that the original disturbance started when a Canadian soldier, walking with his wife, was insulted by a group of locals. This explanation was strongly refuted by Epsom Council.

    Station Sergeant Green had been in the police force for 24 years after having served in the Royal Horse Artillery in India. A large number of residents assembled in Epsom town centre for his funeral procession, local shops were closed. Several hundred members of the Metropolitan Police Force were in attendance. He was survived by his wife and two daughters aged 19 and 18.

    A plaque near the site of the riot in Epsom town centre. (Copyright Paul Le Messurier, Surrey's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Seven Canadian soldiers appeared in court charged with manslaughter and riot. The charges against two were dismissed. The remaining five were found guilty of rioting, but not guilty of manslaughter, and sentenced to one year in prison. The men were released early, handed over to the Canadian authorities, and returned home in December 1919.

    In August 1929, New Scotland Yard received a telegram from the Chief of Police in Winnipeg. One of the soldiers, who had appeared in court in 1919 on a charge of manslaughter, was in custody for a minor offence and had decided to clear his conscience. He admitted killing Station Sergeant Green by striking him on the head with an iron bar. The telegram read, ‘Am detaining Allan McMaster, who admits being murderer of Police Sergeant Green at Epsom on June Seventeenth Nineteen Nineteen. Do you want him. Wire instructions.’.  New Scotland Yard replied that since the case was closed no further action would be taken. McMaster would take his own life 20 years after the tragic incident in Epsom.

    Station Sergeant Green is still remembered to this day. One hundred years on from his death, memorial events were recently held in Epsom in his honour.

    Paul Le Messurier's book Surrey's Military Heritage is available for purchase now.

  • Police in Nazi Germany by Paul Garson

    The Third Reich officially ended with the signing of the unconditional surrender on May 7, 1945, only after Nazi Germany had been reduced to a smoldering heap of ashes, its borders breached by the Allies from the west and the Soviet Army from the east. Although Hitler and Goebbels were dead by suicide in the Berlin Fuhrerbunker, his henchmen sought to save their necks. Topping the list was Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler, head of the dreaded SS and under its aegis of terror, the Police.

    1925 pre-Nazi era policemen employ the latest portable communications gear in their combat of crime. It is the same year the Schutzstaffel (SS) takes first form, eight years before Hitler takes control of Germany. (Police in Nazi Germany, Amberley Publishing)

    In an attempt to disguise himself, a face known to the whole world as evil incarnate, he had shaved off his mousy moustache and traded in his signature wire-rimmed glasses for an eyepatch. He also stepped out of his black and silver skull adorned uniform for the gray-green uniform and identify of a military policeman, one Sgt. Heinrich Hitzinger, the two sharing a first name. Ironically, policeman Hitzinger had been killed by Himmler’s SS some months earlier for making a comment about the course of the war deemed “defeatist” and thus punishable by summary execution.

    The choice of a police uniform would prove a fatal error as Himmler and his SS contingent fled toward escape. While he had switched into civilian clothes, his escort for some reason had changed from their SS uniforms into those of the Schutzpolizei des Gemeinden, the dreaded Secret Field Police. When attempting to blend in with the displaced persons and refugees clogging the roadways, they encountered a Scottish military checkpoint where their choice of uniforms sealed their fate. The Secret Field Police were listed among war criminal groups targeted for apprehension. In the end, Himmler, the Third Reich’s most ruthless policeman, had been caught by a police uniform.

    While Himmler escaped justice by biting down on an ampule of cyanide, many of his SS comrades escaped completely, taking up new lives in other countries or even in Germany itself. Among them were many of the policemen that had served as the advance guard of Himmler’s murderous campaign of annihilation, who participated in the Holocaust by Bullets that saw mobile bands, the Einsatzgruppen, methodically murdering, “face to face,” over a million men, women and children.

    Other policemen would take part in anti-partisan campaigns, killing anyone perceived to be an “enemy of the state” and taking part in so-called ‘punitive actions’ that saw whole villages decimated, while some also joined front line regular army units battling in most part the Red Army during the later stages of the war.

    Where had these policemen come from? Few were actual Nazi Party members or fanatics, many had previously served on street patrol and traffic duty in German cities and towns, their responsibility to “protect and serve” their fellow citizens. Many had wives and children of their own.

    Customs Police gather for a group photo somewhere in the Rhineland. (Police in Nazi Germany, Amberley Publishing)

    Although Himmler had assimilated the regular German civilian police under the black umbrella of the SS organization, they were not coerced or forced to commit their crimes or punished if they chose to opt out of the mass executions. And yet they pursued their tasks with unwavering dedication. And when it was over, both the war and the Nazi dictatorship, many resumed their pre-Third Reich police duties without facing any form of justice. They blended back into the general population with faces no different than their fellow citizens, a path paved easier by both their own efforts to cover-up their war crime links and safeguard their fellow policemen from prosecution and also by a less than enthusiastic effort by governments, both home and abroad, to “rake up old coals.” The West was more concerned with the growing Cold War with their previous ally the Soviet Union and in fact often sought out Nazi “experts” to join in their war against the spread of Communism.

    When coming face to face with the Police in Nazi Germany, it begs the same questions asked of the Nazi plague itself and its takeover of an entire, highly advanced country? How was it possible? How did ordinary men, in this case, ordinary policemen change their motto from ‘protect and serve’ to ‘hunt down and kill’?

    Was it years of Nazi propaganda hammering home racial hatred and German superiority? Was it an aberrant sense of patriotism, engrained submission to authority and ultra-nationalistic fervor? Was it something deeper found in the primal human capacity for violence and destruction?

    Members of Police Battalion 322 take a break from their mass execution operations in Eastern Europe. (Police in Nazi Germany, Amberley Publishing)

    Who can answer when hearing such words written by a police lieutenant to his wife in October 1941: “I must tell you something else. I took part in a mass killing the day before yesterday. When we shot the Jews brought by the first truck my hand trembled somewhat during the shooting, but one gets used to it. By the tenth truck I was already aiming steadily and shooting accurately at the many women, children, and babies.”

    As an indication of how little justice followed in the wake of millions butchered, one can regard the so-called Einsatzgruppen Trial that began on September 29, 1947. Because of budget constraints, only 22 of the some 3,000 “hands-on killers” were brought to trial in West Germany. The defense lawyers, all former Nazi Party members, amassed 136 days of testimony on behalf of their clients. The prosecution relied only on the killers’ own meticulous, ultimately damning documentation of their murders. While 13 received death sentences, only four were executed. All the other defendants received prison sentences, but by 1958 all had been granted early release by the West German authorities, basically citing the “past was the past, time to move on.”

    To this day, mass graves, small and large, are still being discovered across Eastern Europe and what was once the Soviet Union. The searchers estimate the number killed in each by the number of empty bullet casings, one allowed per victim. However, they do not factor in the testimony of Einsatzgruppe leader Otto Ohlendorf who in court stated: “He told his men never to use infants for target practice nor smash their heads against a tree (as other units had done). He ordered his men to allow the mother to hold her infant to her breast and to aim for her heart. That would avoid screaming and would allow the shooter to kill both mother and infant with one bullet. It saved ammunition.”

    Ohlendorf was one of the four hanged, one small measure of justice.

    Paul Garson's book Police in Nazi Germany is available for purchase now.

  • The Great Scuttle by David Meara

    The End of the German High Seas Fleet

    Witnessing History

    One hundred years ago last summer an extraordinary and dramatic event took place, a coda to the end of the First World War. The scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, on 21st June 1919, Midsummer’s Day was the greatest single loss of shipping in maritime history, 74 capital ships scuttled, of which 52 went to the bottom.

    A panorama of the surrender of the German fleet on 21 November 1918, showing HMS Cardiff leading the German battlecruisers, flanked by HMS Lion and HMS Queen Elizabeth. (The Great Scuttle, Amberley Publishing)

    In spite of the drama and magnitude of the event, it is not as well known as it should be, certainly not in England. Partly because it happened after the First World War had ended, partly because of reporting restrictions at the time, partly because it was, publicly at least, something of an embarrassment to the Admiralty and the British Government, and partly because the Orkney Islands seem to be a long way away. Indeed I have discovered that some people are surprisingly vague about where the Orkney Islands are!

    So it seemed to me that the one hundredth anniversary year was a chance to remind ourselves of this dramatic postscript to the First World War. My personal interest in this subject stems from the fact that my mother and my uncle were witnesses of the event, because they were members of a party of school children from Stromness Academy who were being given a summer treat. A trip around the interned German Fleet on board the boat the Flying Kestrel: and right in the middle of their outing the scuttling began. Big ships turning turtle all around them, German sailors taking to the boats, English sailors shooting at them, the sea foaming and boiling, panic and pandemonium everywhere. It was an experience they never forgot, and my uncle’s diary account of the experience gave me the idea of writing an eye-witness account of the events of that day to mark the 100th anniversary.

    The story of the Great Scuttle is really a drama in three acts:-

    Act I)       The Surrender of the High Seas Fleet at the end of November 1918.

    Act II)     The Scuttling itself, after 7 months of internment in Scapa Flow.

    Act III)    The subsequent salvaging of some of the ships during the inter-war years.

     

    The Flying Kestrel, a tug used to take water and supplies to the British fleet. (Orkney Photographic Archive, The Great Scuttle, Amberley Publishing)

    Act I

    Under the terms of the Armistice of 11th November 1918 the German High Seas Fleet was to be interned in an allied port pending its disposal – and because no-one else wanted it, Admiral Wemyss suggested Scapa Flow.

    On 21st November 1918 under “Operation ZZ” the entire Grand Fleet, plus Allies, put to sea, 370 ships and 90,000 men, to rendezvous with the German Fleet off May Island in the Firth of Forth, flying as many white ensigns as possible. One immense line of ships dividing into two lines, meeting the German Fleet in line ahead, 9 battleships, 5 battle cruisers, 7 light cruisers, and 49 destroyers – under the command of Admiral Ludwig von Reuter in the Battleship Friedrich Der Grosse. The British light cruiser Cardiff led the German ships between the two allied lines, which then reversed course to escort the Germans to the Forth.  The whole operation was conducted in silence. At about 11.00 am Beatty gave the order that the German flag would be lowered at sunset and not hoisted again without permission. The entire event was carefully choreographed to demonstrate the power and might of the victorious British and Allied Navies, and the humiliation of the Germans. The British could hardly believe that the German Naval Command would submit so meekly, and so the prevailing mood was one of disgust and sadness.

    The ships were then inspected to ensure they were completely disarmed, and then over the next few days groups of ships were escorted northwards by the 1st Battle Squadron to their internment in Scapa Flow.

    Von Reuter decided early on in the internment that he would not let his ships fall into enemy hands unless ordered to by his own government, and so began making plans for scuttling but kept them secret, only telling his commanding officers. Vice Admiral Sir Sydney Freemantle, officer Commanding 1st Battle Squadron, didn’t keep von Reuter informed about the negotiations, and in fact took his ships out on torpedo exercises in the Pentland Firth on 21st June because of the good weather. So the fates conspired to present von Reuter with the perfect moment to scuttle his fleet and redeem his country’s honour. For the Stromness schoolchildren, the morning dawned fine and bright, and they prepared for their treat blissfully unaware of the tensions, humiliations and confusions of the previous seven months. It was going to be a day to remember.

     

    German destroyers ashore on the island of Flara. (Author's collection, The Great Scuttle, Amberley Publishing)

    Act II

    Leslie Thorpe, my uncle, twelve years old at the time, wrote a detailed account of the day afterwards in his diary and in a letter to his father. He takes up the story:-

    “Went down to see the German Fleet. Everyone came to school about 9.45 am and we marched to the Flying Kestrel, which was at the New Pier.” The Flying Kestrel was a tug from Liverpool, used to supply water and general stores to the British ships in Scapa Flow.

    The Stromness Senior School classes were being taken on the trip, leaving behind the Infants, and they marched down to the pier in class order, between two and three hundred children in all. Leslie Thorpe goes on:-

    The Kestrel was quite big enough to hold us, and we had liberty to go almost all over her. We had the Red Ensign at the stern, the Union Jack at the bow, and the pennant with the ship’s name at the fore-mast-head. We passed through the hurdles” (the anti-submarine defences) “and the first German ship we came to was the SMS Baden. She is a battleship, having two masts, and two funnels close together, two big guns aft, and two forward. The next was the battlecruiser König Albert. The battlecruisers all have very pointed sterns, and their names are at the stern instead of at the bow.

    The next ships were the battle cruisers Kaiserin, Derfflinger, Hindenburg, Von der Tann, Moltke and Seydlitz. I never noticed the Kaiser or the Karlsruhe. Perhaps I wasn’t looking when we passed them.” The central section of my book continues the narrative of the scuttling, largely using eye-witness accounts, which vividly bring to life the events of the 21st June 1919, and the impact it had on those who watched the drama unfold.

    At the end of that extraordinary day there must have been many excited children being coaxed to bed. Admiral von Reuter, after a game of piquet with his flag lieutenant in his cabin aboard the British flagship, HMS Revenge, now a prisoner of war, settled down in his bunk. The next day he and the rest of the German sailors were taken south to prisoner-of-war camps in England.

     

    The battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg has by this stage settled on the bottom, with only her masts, funnels and the upper part of her superstructure showing. (Imperial War Museum Photographic Archive, The Great Scuttle, Amberley Publishing)

    Act III

    This extraordinary drama was played out over the years leading up to the start of the Second World War, when through the efforts of Ernest Cox, a scrap metal merchant from the Isle of Sheppey, and his successors, all of the destroyers and many of the bigger vessels were salvaged, using pioneering techniques and sheer dogged hard graft and determination.

    Seven wrecks still remain at the bottom of the Flow, now scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act. They have become a top diving destination, bringing in a substantial boost to the local economy. Those wrecks and the German graves at Lyness Naval Cemetery on the Island of Hoy remain as mute testimony to the events of that day in 1919.

    The events of the 21st June 1919 were never forgotten by those who witnessed them. When interviewed for a magazine article in her 85th year one of the schoolchildren, Peggy Gibson said:-

    “I still think about it. It was really remarkable, and not something anyone could easily forget, seeing those great ships first listing, then sinking, with a great roar of steam escaping, and the German sailors jumping into the water.”

    One hundred years on, there are no witnesses to the scuttling still alive. But, through the memories and records they left behind, the drama, chaos and terror of that fateful day can be vividly recreated for later generations for whom the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet is simply part of distant history. Young Leslie Thorpe called his outing on the Flying Kestrel with his sister and schoolmates “a most thrilling experience”, and in a PS to his long letter to his father describing their adventures, added:-

    “Don’t you think I’d better write a book about the scuttling of the German Fleet!”

    Over the succeeding years a number of accounts have indeed been written, and one hundred years later my own account of that one momentous day, Saturday 21st June 1919, fulfils that young boy’s aspiration, and tells this dramatic story afresh, through the eyes of those who saw it happen. As the young Leslie Thorpe said to his sister Winnie at the time: they were indeed “witnessing history.”

    David Meara's book The Great Scuttle: The End of the German High Seas Fleet is available for purchase now.

  • 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.

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