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Tag Archives: Second World War

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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