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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    9781445666365

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

  • The Second World War in 100 Facts by Clive Pearson

    I was delighted when Amberley Publishing asked me to write a book on the Second World War for their 100 Facts series. I had already completed a manuscript for a book about Britain at war in 1939-45 and so I was able to include points from my research on this as well as from an article published previously about the Soviet Union in this period.

    Quite a lot of the book includes facts about Britain in the war. This was inevitable as Britain had a large part to play in all stages of the war as well as fighting on three continents. This was due, of course, to the fact that Britain had a huge sprawling empire. Added to this, British readers would want to know about how their country participated in the conflict and about the iconic moments such as Dunkirk and D-Day.

    Beyond this I was keen to introduce readers to what I consider to be two forgotten wars. The first ‘forgotten war’ was the British struggle against the Japanese in the Far East. From the film ‘The Bridge over the River Kwai’ many readers might perhaps be familiar with the idea that there was another war going on there and that life was horrendous for British and Commonwealth prisoners. But how many people know about the epic British march all the way from Burma to India and which ranks as the longest retreat in British military history. Following on this, mainly British and Indian troops managed to turn the situation around by forcing the enemy back from the gates of India and reinvading Burma. Taking the Japanese on in their favourite terrain (the jungle) proved to be crucial. The unsung hero in all this was Major-General Bill Slim who inspired his troops and engineered a winning strategy. He was one of the finest commanders of the war but few know of him. At the time British people were naturally preoccupied with the conflict on their doorstep and it fell to Churchill on VE Day to remind everybody that the war was not over and that the struggle against the Japanese continued.

    The second ‘forgotten war’ was the one between Nazi Germany and Russia in Eastern Europe. Brits generally do not understand how vast and cruel the conflict there was. Perhaps this is because of the secretive nature of the Soviet regime. When the Soviet Union eventually collapsed in 1991 the archives could at last be opened up and historians such as Richard Overy in his book Russia’s War and Catherine Merridale in her work Ivan’s War were able to reveal the true horror of the conflict.

    The immensity of the war was not just due to the size of the theatre of operations but also because the Nazi regime had turned a huge part of its military machine into the project of knocking out and occupying this enormous country. In total four million German and other Axis forces crossed the frontier into the Soviet Union in June 1941. It was to be an ideological war and Hitler gave his armies a free hand to carry out a campaign of barbaric cruelty not experienced in the west. Jews and Communists were to be rounded up and liquidated and the rest of the population were ultimately to be enslaved. Evidence of the horrific treatment endured there is the fact that a large percentage of the millions of Soviet soldiers taken prisoner were simply left to suffer a long lingering death through starvation. Others were used as slave labour. This was a very different story from that of British prisoners and based on the idea that they were fellow Aryans (and therefore received kinder treatment).

    The German invader did not have it all his own way, of course. The winters were terrible with the thermometer at times hitting -400 C leaving hundreds of thousands of ill-prepared German troops literally freezing to death or suffering from frostbite. In addition, Russian forces also committed atrocities on their enemy.

    Unfortunately for Soviet troops their own government was not above meting out horrific cruelty on its own people. An example of this is the ‘penal battalions’ which were composed of political prisoners and criminals who could be driven forward to clear minefields willy-nilly, without protection and without concern for losses. Indeed, the whole Soviet command was less concerned about casualties than with winning the war. No wonder, then, that in every battle fought on the Eastern front, even including Berlin, Soviet losses were always more than the enemy. The total cost of the conflict for the Soviet people was 27 million dead and Belarus lost a third of its population. German losses for the whole war were roughly five million.

    In the end the Fascist powers were defeated because they were out-manned and out-gunned. As pointed out in the book America’s production figures alone dwarfed that of the enemy countries combined. One big surprise is the total inefficiency of German armaments production. For example, only 2200 tanks were produced in 1940 (and plane production was a similar story) and it wasn’t until 1943 after the defeat at Stalingrad that full production really got going by which time it was too late. At the end of the day no matter how fearsome or valiant your soldiers are (and the German and Japanese soldiers were certainly this) it is of relatively little consequence if your enemy has countless manpower available and seemingly endless numbers of planes and tanks to throw at you. To have any chance the Germans and Japanese had to achieve some kind of knock-out blow in the early stages of the war and this they singularly failed to do.

    9781445653532

    Clive Pearson's new book The Second World War in 100 Facts is available for purchase now.

  • Operation Big - The Dirty Secret by Colin Brown

    Researching my book, Operation Big – The Race to Stop Hitler’s A-Bomb, forced me to revise my view of the biggest event of the 20th Century – the dropping of the nuclear bomb of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945.

    I had been brought up to believe that the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan to force Emperor Hirohito into surrender and end the Second World War. I began to revise my views when I read R V Jones’s highly-readable memoir, Most Secret War, and this line used on the back cover of Operation Big: ‘We ourselves were almost awestruck, not so much at the power of the Bomb, for this we had expected, but because the Americans had used it with so little notice.’

    R V Jones said that British intelligence knew the Japanese were putting out feelers for surrender when the Americans dropped the first of two nuclear bombs on them. I dug deeper into the American archives – many can be accessed online - and found a more disturbing story at the core of Operation Big and the Alsos Mission led by Colonel Boris T Pash to capture the leading nuclear scientists in the Third Reich in the dying days of the war.

    That is why I called the last chapter ‘The Dirty Secret’. It became glaringly obvious as I delved into the archives – the Pash papers at the Hoover Institute, Stanford University in California with the help of my researcher Dr Camilla Lindan, R V Jones’s papers held at the Churchill Archives at Churchill College Cambridge and the Cabinet papers of Sir Winston Churchill in the National Archives in Kew - that there was more to the Alsos Mission than the capture of Hitler’s nuclear scientists.

    Operation Big 1 Farm Hall as drawn by Erich Bagge while he was a ‘guest’ at Farm Hall.

    The fact that they were airlifted by MI6 to Farm Hall in Godmanchester, a beautiful bucolic slice of England by the water meadows of Cambridgeshire – Rupert Brooke wrote his elegiac poem The Old Vicarage about Granchester Meadows a few miles away – was always going to make the headlines. But the underlying story was more sinister. Facts kept nagging away: I discovered Sam Goudsmit, the scientific head of the Alsos Mission reported back to Washington as early as November 1944 that Hitler’s physicists had not built an atomic bomb.

    In Pash’s memoir, The Alsos Mission, backed by his archives at the Hoover Institute, Pash recalled the breakthrough came when they seized documents in Strasbourg and Goudsmit shouted: ‘We’ve got it!’

    ‘I know we have it,’ said Pash. ‘But do they?’

    Goudsmit’s eyes were wide with excitement. ‘No, no!’ he said. ‘That’s it. They don’t.’

    Pash recorded: ‘It was our Strasbourg operation which disclosed that it was unlikely that the Nazis could unleash an atom bomb in the near future. Thus Alsos exploded the Nazi super-weapon myth that had so alarmed Allied leaders. The fact that a German atom bomb was not an immediate threat was probably the most significant single piece of military intelligence developed throughout the war.’

    Pash claimed Alsos had “exploded the biggest intelligence bombshell of the war” in November 1944 – a full seven months before the German scientists arrived in Godmanchester. But if so, why I wondered did Pash and his team of US intelligence officers and soldiers in Jeeps – they were accused of operating as if they were in the “Wild West” - continue the hunt for the ten German scientists across the Rhine, into Germany and all the way to Heisenberg’s hideaway in the Bavarian Alps?

    Operation Big 5 Colonel Boris T. Pash (right) on Operation Big in Hechingen with Sergeant Holt (middle) and Corporal Brown (left).

    It is true Pash and Goudsmit had to be certain that they were right, that there was no Nazi A-bomb, but there was a bigger picture emerging that was exercising their chiefs back in Washington, led by the uncompromising General Leslie Groves, the Army engineer who headed the construction of Manhattan Project, the massive industrial effort to build the world’s first nuclear bombs.

    Groves operated on the principle that if the US could do it, so could the Germans. But he was also determined to stop the German physicists falling into Soviet hands. His biggest fear – now that the threat of a Nazi bomb could be discounted – was that the Soviets would gain the know-how from the Germans that had been achieved by the Americans over the past three years of hard work in the laboratories of the Manhattan Project.

    Groves in his own memoir, Now It Can be Told, makes clear he ordered the bombing of Auergesellschaft Works in Oranienburg 15 miles north of Berlin on 15 March 1945 to stop uranium ore being seized by the Russians because it was in the sector allocated to the Soviet Union at the Yalta conference of the Big Three. And it was not just the Russians Groves opposed. Groves did not trust the British, and particularly distrusted the French because their lead physicist in Paris, Joliot-Curie was a Communist. ‘Joliot convinced me that nothing that might be of interest to the Russians should ever be allowed to fall into French hands.’

    Operation Big 6 The Alsos team dismantling the German atomic pile at Haigerloch – portly Lieutenant Commander Eric Welsh stands on the rim handing out graphite blocks. Wing Commander Rupert Cecil is in the foreground.

    Against that background, the focus of the Alsos Mission and its conclusion – Operation Big – switched from Hitler and the Nazi threat to combatting the Russian threat. By the time Hitler’s Uranverein (Uranium Club) arrived at their five-star country house hotel in Godmanchester, Groves and the chiefs in Washington were preparing for the Cold War, and what they could do to regain some of the influence they had surrendered to the Soviet advance across Europe as Josef Stalin’s Red Army swept into Germany from the East, making huge territorial gains which would be described by Churchill as the “Iron Curtain”.

    In the Truman administration at the White House, the bomb was seen as the answer. Truman was completely unapologetic about his decision taken after the Potsdam conference with Churchill and Stalin in 1945 where he had been informed that the “Trinity” test of the new weapon had been a success. Truman convened a secret meeting of his top advisers – Byrnes, Secretary of State, Stimson, Secretary of War, Eisenhower and Marshall. ‘I asked General Marshall what it would cost in lives to land on the Tokyo plain and other places in Japan. It was his opinion that such an invasion would cost at a minimum one quarter of a million casualties, and might cost as much as a million, on the American side alone, with an equal number of the enemy…Dropping the bombs ended the war, saved lives and gave free nations a chance to face the facts.’ (Letter 12 January 1953 Truman to Professor James L Cate).

    Operation Big 3 The drawing room at Farm Hall where the scientists heard the news about the detonation at Hiroshima.

    But Truman was being “economical with the actualite” as the late Tory defence minister Alan Clark said in a different context. The truth is Truman, in addition to ending the war against Japan, also wanted to demonstrate to the Russians that America had become the first truly great super power because it possessed a bomb capable of destruction on a hitherto unimaginable scale. He did not know that thanks to Klaus Fuchs, the Soviet agent embedded in the Manhatten Project, Josef Stalin knew more than he did about the nuclear bomb.

    9781445651842

    Colin Brown's new paperback version of his book Operation Big: The Race to Stop Hitler's A-Bomb is available now.

  • An essential guide to faking it in WW2 Britain by Megan Westley

    It’s generally accepted that life in wartime Britain was tough. Civilians on the ‘Home Front’ were faced with a multitude of regulations and restrictions to follow, governing their diets, wardrobes and workplaces. But beyond these well-known rules were many others that came into force only between 1939 and 1945. Some were social, and could instantly mark you out as insider or outcast, whereas others were legal and carried heavy fines (or worse) for non-compliance.

    So, let’s imagine you’ve somehow taken a wrong turn and travelled to wartime Britain. What shouldn’t you do?

    Britain - Microsoft Word - Document1Help yourself: Spotted a tin of Spam lying in a bombed-out shop? Even if it looks like nobody’s coming back for it, leave it where it is. Helping yourself to things isn’t a cheeky win; it’s looting. Any form of looting carried a severe sentence. Technically, those found guilty could face the death penalty. Regardless of this, the opportunities offered up by the blitz were too great for many to resist. Some thieves kitted themselves out in an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden’s uniform in order to walk into damaged houses and shops unchallenged.

     

     

    Britain - Microsoft Word - Document1 The smiling faces of this couple, bombed out of their house in Coventry, show that the spirit of Britain was not easily broken. (Image courtesy of www.historicoventry.co.uk)

    Bring down the mood: So you’re having a rotten war and think the Germans may win? Keep it to yourself. Defeatist talk caused extreme contempt and could lead to a conviction for weakening national defence. Despite this enforced optimism, householders in their thousands tuned in to the broadcasts of ‘Lord Haw Haw’, an Irishman based in Germany who spoke to the British public with the aim of damaging their morale. Though his communications were upsetting, many listened in the hope of gleaning valuable news about their loved ones overseas.

     

    Britain - Microsoft Word - Document1 A shopkeeper is seen stamping a ration book, having weighed out all the items. (Amberley Archive)

    Waste money: If you’d like to avoid making friends with the ‘squander bug’, be sure to spend your money wisely. The War Savings Campaign encouraged householders to invest any spare cash in a fund for the war effort. It was seen as unpatriotic to waste money or keep it stuffed under your mattress when the country was in need. The squander bug was a nasty, swastika-emblazoned character who boasted “Go on! Keep your wallet stuffed with notes! I’ll help you squander them!”

     

    Step off a moving bus: Black and white films show people hopping on and off moving buses as a matter of course. But if you want to be a good civilian, you’d better not do it at night. London Transport released a number of advertisements warning of the dangers associated with getting around in the extreme darkness of the blackout. Every good campaign needs a character, and theirs was Billy Brown, a man ‘much too sensible and knowing to jump down off a bus that’s going.’

     

    Britain - Microsoft Word - Document1 (Amberley Archive)

    Talk too much: If, by any chance, you should come across some interesting information, do remember to ‘keep it dark’. The ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ campaign was rolled out in 1940, warning the public about potential spies in their midst. The Ministry of Information even screened films showing how the smallest piece of leaked information could result in loss of life. Keeping secrets wasn’t just a social nicety: in 1944, a Civil servant was sentenced to three months in prison on two charges ‘arising out of careless talk’.

    Find out more about negotiating everyday life in Home Front Britain in Living on the Home Front by Megan Westley.

    Britain - 9781445645278

    Megan Westley's new paperback edition of Living on the Home Front is available for purchase now.

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