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  • Photographers of the Third Reich by Paul Garson

    Images from the Wehrmacht

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

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

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

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

     

     

     

     

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

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

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

     

     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

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

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

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

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

  • 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.

  • The F-14 Tomcat by Terry C. Treadwell

    My interest in aviation started when I was in the Royal Air Force and has continued unabated over the years. Some years ago I became the European Correspondent of Naval Aviation News, which is the official aviation magazine of the US Navy, giving me access to a great amount of material regarding American Naval aircraft. This allowed me to write about the various aircraft in the US Navy and I have written a number of books on these subjects. A few years later I also became the European Correspondent for a magazine called ‘Wings of Gold’, a magazine aimed predominantly at the US Navy and Marine Corps aviation, this gave me access to even more material.

    An excellent shot of an F-14 with its wings swept back. (The F-14 Tomcat, Amberley Publishing)

    In the 1930s the Grumman Corporation became the main supplier of aircraft to the US Navy and Marine Corps and the F-14 Tomcat was just one of a series of Grumman aircraft that were acquired by them. Throughout the Second World War the name Grumman became synonymous with US Naval aircraft and acquired the name ‘Ironworks’ because of their aircrafts rugged construction. Almost all the aircraft had ‘cat’ names, like the Wildcat, Hellcat, Tigercat and Bearcat. The Tomcat however was unofficially named (but widely accepted) after Vice-Admiral Thomas (Tom) F. Connolly championed the development of the aircraft for the US Navy at the cost of his fourth star. The full bitter story of this is in my book the F-14 Tomcat. The Tomcat was regarded by many as being the most lethal attack aircraft in the world at the time and was involved a number of conflicts.

    An F-14D Tomcat taxiing along the perimeter track at NAS Oceana. (The F-14 Tomcat, Amberley Publishing)
    F-14s being lined up for launch. (The F-14 Tomcat, Amberley Publishing)

    A number of F-14 Tomcats were sold to the Shah of Persia and in the book there are several unique photographs of the aircraft in Iranian colours and markings. However the Shah was deposed just after the delivery of the aircraft leaving the F-14 in Iran with no spares. The result was that within months they had to cannibalise all but two of the aircraft to keep them flying and even they were grounded within six months because of engineering problems.

    The history of naval aviation is extremely interesting, as it shows not only the development of the aircraft but also the aircraft carrier. It all started using converted cargo ships and warships and developed quite rapidly because of conflicts and wars.  The first carrier landings and take-offs were carried out by a civilian pilot, Eugene Ely in 1910 aboard the USS Birmingham. During the war against Mexico, seaplanes were carried aboard the USS Birmingham and were lowered into the water by crane. It was during the battle for Veracruz that a seaplane on patrol became the first American navy aircraft to be hit by gunfire and to sustain battle damage.

    Early aircraft carriers carried a complement of about fifty aircraft, today’s aircraft carriers like the USS George W. Bush, carries ninety-six aircraft and an array of weapons some nuclear. The development of the angled deck and the ski jump (both British innovations), enabled fast jets to be launched within minutes of each other.

    Amberley Publishing have produced a number of books on aircraft, all of which are of an equally high standard and extremely informative to the layperson without being too technical.  As the years progress so will aviation, but with drones becoming more and more sophisticated who knows what the future holds, but then that’s another story.

     

    Terry C. Treadwell's new book The F-14 Tomcat is available for purchase now.

  • Nelson at Naples: Revolution and Retribution in 1799 by Jonathan North

    Admiral Nelson by Leonardo Guzzardi, an unusual portrait of how Nelson might have appeared in late 1799. (Nelson at Naples, Amberley Publishing)

    Nelson and his Crimes

    We live in an age when figures from the past are being called to account for sins against the morals of today. Last summer, on the other side of the Atlantic, there was a wave of anger directed at statues of Confederate generals. A spate of demolition from Maryland to North Carolina saw marble memorials to yesterday’s men bite the dust, or, perhaps more accurately, saw them turned to dust. Over here, with a capital in which Cromwell still stands opposite a bust of Charles Stuart (glowering over a doorway to the parish church of the House of Commons), there has been little appetite to move against the nation’s stone idols. Nevertheless, in August 2017, an indignant broadside by Afua Hirsch in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/22/toppling-statues-nelsons-column-should-be-next-slavery) asked us to question the commemoration of one particular British hero: Horatio Nelson. It pointed out the admiral had been an advocate of slave owners’ interests, and so, beneath an illustration of a Baghdad-style toppling of Nelson’s column, suggested we should cleanse the nation of memorials to this white supremacist. It was a challenge she repeated in her recent Channel 4 documentary on the same theme but, before these hints launched a fleet of revisionist bulldozers, Nelson’s admirers manoeuvred to the admiral’s support, defending the man they see as “a fundamental icon of British national identity. Inspirational leadership, duty – and humanity”.

    Both these extremes are misleading. The admirers of the admirable admiral ignore anything which seems critical, whilst the bold claims of Hirsch impose an anachronistic orthodoxy on a man incapable of understanding her sensitivities. However, of the two, Hirsch’s is the greater disservice to history. For by pushing her own agenda, she draws attention away from the one area where Nelson really should be held to account: the atrocities he helped carry out against the Neapolitan republicans in the summer of 1799.

    Sir William Hamilton had arrived in Naples in 1764 and, for the next 25 years, his time was divided between entertaining British Visitors and collecting Ancient artefacts. The French Revolution and the wars that followed placed a new and complex burden on his scholarly shoulders. (Nelson at Naples, Amberley Publishing)

    When I began my new book on this subject, Nelson at Naples: Revolution and Retribution in 1799, for Amberley, I did not set out to sully Nelson’s reputation. I was aware of his qualities, as most historians should be. He was a dynamic, aggressive commander, exactly the kind of man needed when your aim is to destroy the enemy’s fleet. And he excelled at it, again and again. However, my focus was on his conduct away from the fighting, more particularly when he became involved in the brutal suppression of a revolution in Naples in 1799. And the more I looked into this episode, the more horrified I became. For me, Nelson’s wrongs have nothing to do with white supremacy, a failing true of most Georgians, but rather revolve around his war crime which saw the betrayal of thousands of surrendering Italian revolutionaries.

    Nelson arrived in Neapolitan waters in the autumn of 1798 following his destruction of Napoleon’s fleet at Aboukir off the coast of Egypt. In Naples he was swamped by an adoring coterie of fans who declared that the battered hero was their saviour. Each had their reasons for doing so. The British envoy, Sir William Hamilton, enjoyed the reflected glory and dubbed Nelson immortal. His wife, Emma Hamilton, was already a little in love with Nelson, and wanted him to support her friends, the king and queen of Naples, in their struggle against the rampaging armies of revolutionary France. Ferdinand IV of Naples, that Bourbon sex-pest in silk, hoped that Nelson’s presence would keep the French, then plundering Rome, at bay. His wife, the arch Maria Carolina of Austria, hoped for more. She wanted Nelson to persuade the king and his ministers to take the war northwards, and thus perhaps enable her cowardly husband to be proclaimed king of a united Italy.

    So it began. Nelson’s crime was preceded by a tragedy and a farce. The shambolic kingdom of Naples hoped to surprise a France shaken by the loss of her fleet and her Bonaparte, then stuck in Egypt, and so Maria Carolina sent her opera buffa of an army northwards to the Eternal City. It quickly ran into trouble in the shortest of campaigns and scurried home. The royals took Nelson’s ship for Sicily and the surprised French proclaimed a liberal republic in their stead. This new republic was governed by a remarkable set of scholars and reformers, men and women, who set about abolishing feudalism and dragging Naples into the modern age. However, their noble, revolutionary efforts were cut short by a royalist counter-attack in which Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo, a warrior cleric leading a horde of bloodthirsty pilgrims, swept up to the gates of the capital. Trapped by this Holy Army of cut-throats and cannibals, the republicans agreed to surrender Naples on condition they be allowed to leave for France. Ruffo, seeing that this would spare the capital further bloodshed, agreed and granted them generous terms. Just as they were about to troop out and board ships taking them into exile, Nelson sailed in from Palermo. He lured the republicans out into the harbour on the pretext they could now depart, then tore up the act of surrender, and promptly handed thousands of unfortunates over to a merciless court. The betrayed republicans were subjected to the full force and barbarity of royal justice in the market places of Naples in that summer of 1799.

    King Ferinard IV of Naples and Queen Maria Carolina. The king had married his Austrain consort, sister to Marie Antoinette, in 1768. His interests were largely restricted to eating and hunting but the queen was an energetic politician, sworn to fight a French revolution that had killed her sister. (Nelson at Naples, Amberley Publishing)

    The royal family were again grateful, raising Nelson up to be Duke of Bronte, and Emma Hamilton, basking in reflected glory, completed her journey from Duke Street to a duke’s bed. Even so, the exultation in having placed Ferdinand back on his throne was of short duration and such a victory could not win many friends. The Loyal Opposition back home was even moved to condemn this bloody series of events and naval officers looked askance at the admiral’s vindictiveness. Southey, an early biographer of the admiral, would agree for he too lambasted Nelson for the betrayal of the Neapolitan republicans, calling it “a deplorable transaction, a stain on the memory of Nelson and upon the honour of England”.

    This series of unpleasant events forms the basis for my book on Nelson at Naples. I place much of the blame for the bloodshed on Nelson as he had the authority to make possible this royalist vendetta and, despite the subsequent Victorian smoothing of Nelson’s record, it is clear that Nelson had innocent blood on his hands. I have no doubt that I shall be dubbed a revisionist historian for attacking Nelson so directly, and for questioning his wider legacy. But, in my defence, there is nothing revisionist about my handling of this episode. The truth is that Italian historians have been accusing him of a betrayal ever after the Neapolitan hangman finished his bloody work. And, for a time, many of their British peers advanced similar critiques, although this was more muted whenever the empire felt it preferred heroes.

    A View of Naples in 1800 by Johann Ziegler. (Nelson at Naples, Amberley Publishing)

    That imperial triumphalism heaped on Nelson wiped away not only this stain on Nelson’s memory but what was the sordid life of the naval hero following his victory for the Bourbons. The butchery in Naples was followed by insubordination, infatuation and a fair amount of dissipation before a bitter though diamond-encrusted Nelson limped home with the Hamiltons. Only a hero’s death at Trafalgar saved his reputation.

    Trafalgar and a state funeral for his pickled corpse were followed by heroic biographies which paved the way for the erection of that immutable column so beloved of pigeons and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Nelson’s column overshadows the admiral’s crimes at Naples, and a monument is no replacement for nuanced debate. But perhaps, rather than demolishing it, and replicating the fate of Dublin’s Nelson’s Pillar, we should see it as a prompt for further enquiry. A starting point on a historical journey.

    Afua Hirsch may not agree, but, even after reading about Nelson’s bloody rampage in Naples in 1799, my view is that Nelson’s column should continue to sit in Trafalgar Square. There it can remind us that heroes and history are never black and white.

    Jonathan North's new book Nelson at Naples: Revolution and Retribution in 1799 is available for purchase now.

  • Zealots by Oliver Thomson

    How a Group of Scottish Conspirators unleashed half a Century of War in Britain

    The entrance to Dunfermline Palace in Fife where ironically Charles I was born within a few miles of the men who were to initiate his downfall. (Zealots, Amberley Publishing)

    When I first thought of this book a couple of years ago I was going to call it Scottish Jihad, for Islamic Jihads were all in the news and I was curious to see how religious fanatics in 17th century Britain compared with those in Al Qaeda. The key difference was that AQ jihadists were mainly indoctrinated to accept the likelihood of a swift death, whereas the rebellious Scots in 1639 had to face the probability of torture and an unpleasant form of execution.

    Thus the Scottish Presbyterians who felt so strongly about getting rid of bishops were actually tasking a slightly bigger risk than the present day jihadists.

    Nor could we describe the Scots as radicalised or even indoctrinated for they were for the most part comfortably off ordinary men and women made angry by a dictatorial religious regime dictated from Canterbury. Both sides in the argument were of course Christian and Protestant, so the war they were starting was to be the most serious between two branches of Protestantism and to modern eyes the religious differences might seem quite petty.

    Charles I. (Zealots, Amberley Publishing)

    What makes it all the more significant is that it was this grouping of Scots Presbyterians who fired the first shots in what became the English Civil War or the Wars of Three Kingdoms. While much is made of the grievances of the English Parliament against the stubborn Charles I, none of the so-called Roundheads took up arms against the king till well after the Scots had done so first. It was these piously angry Scots who, by sending an army over the Border into England, demonstrated that the king’s troops were far from invincible. A gap of more than three years during which the Scots had taken huge risks, humiliated the royal army and made it much easier for the parliamentarians to start recruiting an army of their own.

    Having spent some time researching the psychology of the horrendous religious wars after the Reformation, the Catholic against Protestant wars in France, Holland and Germany, I was still interested in how this compared with 21st century jihads and the tragic fact that religious differences should lead to so much violence.

    It was after this that I was on a short walking holiday on the magnificent Fife coastal path that I began to notice how many of the main conspirators who had organised the two Bishops Wars were actually based in Fife and lived so close to each other. So I researched this further. The small Fife ports, particularly Crail, had been heavily involved in transporting ambitious young Fifers across the North Sea to fight as mercenaries in Germany during the Thirty Years War. Many of these men had been remarkably successful, especially the Leslie family which had produced a field marshal, a general and half a dozen colonels, all of them now ready to return home since the Thirty Years War was drawing to a close.

    The Battle of Bothwell Bridge. (Zealots, Amberley Publishing)

    Meanwhile the senior member of the Leslie clan, John Earl of Rothes, based in what is now Glenrothes, was taking the lead in a plot to start a rebellion against the religious policies of Charles I. He was thus perfectly placed for recruiting his own relations to form an army and bring in their other ex-colleagues, many of them Fifers, from Germany. The Earl also had a team of extremely able church ministers working with congregations along the Fife coast, all keen to start a rebellion and all well able to motivate the local population. Thus in 1639 Fife had a combination of military muscle, aristocratic support, fanatical churchmen and money that could not be matched anywhere else in Britain. It was thus the Fife Conspiracy that launched Scotland into a series of nine wars and England into three.

    Once the Scottish religious rebellion, the two Bishops Wars, had created the spark for the English Civil War, the affair south of the border became for a time more political than religious. But for the Scots it was still religious which accounts for the fact that in 1648 they changed sides from Roundhead to Royalist with disastrous results. The overall cost in lives for Scotland is reckoned as about 60,000, not counting plague deaths resulting from troop concentrations and harvest trashing. While I was looking at the casualties I accidentally found one that became quite personal. In 1679 Charles II sent an army to crush the Scottish Covenanters in the Battle of Bothwell Bridge on the Clyde. It was a rout and the survivors were marched to Edinburgh from which several hundred were to be transported to the colonies as indentured labour. Their prison ship the Crown of London was hit by a storm off the Orkneys and to avoid prisoners surviving the captain locked them in the hold. Only a few did survive and of those only four avoided recapture. One of those four seems almost certainly to have been an ancestor of my wife, hence the dedication of this book. It’s a small world.

    Oliver Thomson's new book Zealots: How a Group of Scottish Conspirators Unleashed Half a Century of War in Britain is available for purchase now.

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