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Author, film researcher and member of the Swedish Military History Commission.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Digging Hitler´s Arctic War

Focusing on the German Wehrmacht and SS presence in Finnish Lapland.

There has never been a more dramatic part in Finnish Lapland´s history than the war years, but not that much has been written in English about this area during WWII. Even less about what remains to be seen there from the war.

Well, now there is a book in English, released some months ago, focusing precisely on these matters, Digging Hitler´s Arctic War by archeologist and geographer Oula Seitsonen. It contains a lot of information unknown to non-Finnish speakers and also some very interesting photographs and maps. However, let me immediately state that it is an academic dissertation, and thus has a looong subtitle, Archeologies and Heritage of the Second World War German Military Presence in Finnish Lapland. Also, the book has a very long introduction and some other parts that could have been more edited. But, bearing in mind that this is a dissertation, the length is motivated and one can very simply skip some introductory pages. However, do not miss the first part of the introduction, because it starts with an amazing conversation between the author and an old Sami man, that took place by the former headquarters of several German-run POW and forced labour camps. In fact, Hitler´s chief architect Albert Speer once visited the place personally.

It soon becomes obvious that the book ties in nicely with an earlier blog post of mine, about “Wir waren Freunde” (“We were friends”), i.e. the most popular (and now closed) exhibition ever at the Provincial Museum of Finnish Lapland.

While you might expect from the subtitle that the book is mostly about the legacy of WWII in Finnish Lapland, it actually contains a rather long summary of events 1940-45. But not too long, and it is very informative. The quotes from Germans and Finns about each other (as soldiers) are well chosen.

Oula Seitsonen makes it very clear how much more than expected there is left of the German military presence in Finnish Lapland, not least in the form of German-run POW and forced labour camps. Officially some 9,000 prisoners (i.e. Soviet soldiers) were taken on the northern front. In addition the Germans “imported” to Finnish Lapland some 20,000 POWs and labourers and not only from Soviet areas but also from France, Norway, Poland and the Netherlands. Remains of these German camps sometimes are situated right next to modern “tourist traps” without a single sign pointing them out.

Seitsonen exemplifies what can be visited with greatest ease today by history buffs/tourists, i.e. the large German defensive positions “Sturmbock” and “Schutzwall” and he also presents some interesting ideas about using mobile phones and augmented reality to provide information/projections on historic sites.

One part in the book that could have been longer is when Seitsonen mentions the Soviet partisan-related sites.

If you have a special interest in Finnish Lapland during WWII, and especially if you do not speak Finnish, Digging Hitler´s Arctic War is a real must. If you wish to purchase a hard copy of the book, contact the author himself i.e. Oula Seitsonen: oula.seitsonen (at) gmail.com

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Airborne T-24 Discovery In Arctic Sweden

It is not that often that one sees a WWII airborne ops vehicle IRL. Photo: Mika Kulju

It started with a tip about a WWII British armoured vehicle still parked in a forest in Arctic Sweden. Could the vehicle in question, a Universal Carrier, still be there? Nope, it had been sold earlier this year, the owner informed me. But, he asked, might I be interested in seeing a tracked WWII vehicle for airborne operations?

Well, that made me enthusiastic to take the trip towards the Finnish border, but I was still slightly skeptical. Was the tracked vehicle not just a regular M29 Weasel? I had seen such before, many times. But what the gentleman in the Arctic town had told me indicated it might be a rare prototype that had underwent airborne tests, a type I had never seen in real life. By a strange coincidence, Weasels are mentioned in my latest book, Swedes In Combat vs. Hitler, because one of the Swedes in the US Army that I interviewed for my book, Sivert/Ron Windh, was part of a special winter unit connected to the creation of the Weasel. The main creator was the British inventor Geoffrey Pyke and the reason he came up with it was to support his proposals to attack German forces and industrial installations in Norway. The main industry of Allied interest was the heavy water plant that was crucial for the development of the German nuclear plans. The first Allied plans for a large airborne raid against Norway (mainly the heavy water) became Project "Plough". For this, the T-15 Weasel tracked vehicle was made in 1942. The small dimensions of the T-15 were chosen to make it possible to fit in glider aircraft. It proved to be a fast and handy vehicle, giving the Allies a real edge in winter/mountain operations. However, there was also the perceived need for dropping the vehicle by parachute, from British Lancasters. So, the T-15 was improved and thus the T-24 was born.

Two of the four parachute container attachments. But what about "USB 118/528"?

Thanks to WWII researcher Erik Brun I learnt exactly what to look for on the "mystery machine". Up front an airborne T-24 does not look that different from an M29. In the front there are only some small holders/handles that tell you it is a T-24. But an airborne-modified T-24 also has four large attachments on the sides - to connect the vehicle body with the parachute container. So, no doubt about the type. But what does the original "skin" say? Below the green paint (probably from the Swedish Army/Vattenfall, i.e. the previous owners) the owner has found a white (snow camouflage) layer with the identification "USB 118/528". This does not seem to relate to the number inside the hull, see below.

This is the largest number inside. The final three numbers are the identity?

I am no Weasel expert, but I reckon T-24s are pretty rare. Just how rare are they? I know only of two more in Sweden. Are there a hundred preserved, worldwide, or less? What is your take? Would you also happen to know something about this particular vehicle´s history, that might explain "USB"? Was it parachuted over Scotland during some test? The Norwegian operation was modified (parachuting Weasels was dropped, excuse the pun) and therefore the Weasel was not used for its original intention. However, it was used in Italy and Weasels went ashore on the beaches in Normandy, were used in the Battle of the Bulge etc. Both by the US Army and some British units. Was it, as some have claimed, the very first Allied vehicle to come ashore in Normandy on June 6, 1944? Or is that impossible to now prove? Please leave some feedback here if you know some answers to my above questions.

Finally, thank you Karl-Olov and Mika!

Thursday, October 11, 2018

"Never imagined I could end up in a war"

Dan Norrgård fought at Remagen Bridge, here depicted in a US Army painting.

In August 1939, the month that Hitler and Stalin agreed to divide Poland between them, Dan Norrgård joined the crew of the large passenger liner MS Kungsholm. Norrgård had recently left his small village of Skäggsta outside Timrå in north Sweden and to quote him about what he then still thought about his future: "I never imagined I could end up in a war".

But that is precisely what happened to Norrgård and many other Swedish sailors - literally several thousand of them became part of the many convoys that supplied the arms, ammo etc vital for the Allied war effort. What has been far less known, until now, is that many of them instead or also became soldiers, airmen etc in the US Armed Forces (I have focused on the US Army including the USAAF).

As a member of a machine gun platoon, Dan Norrgård was one of the first Allied soldiers to cross the river Rhine, after a bloody fight for Remagen Bridge (official name: Ludendorff Bridge). I portray Norrgård as well as his sailor colleagues Helge O. Persson and Sivert Windh in Svenskar i strid mot Hitler i.e. Swedes In Combat Against Hitler.

In mainstream accounts of Swedish WWII history the many thousand Swedes in Allied units - such as Dan Norrgård - have so far, for some reason, been largely ignored.

Friday, September 28, 2018

1,500+ Swedish Citizens Became US Soldiers 1941-45

Items from Swedes in US units and Sweden-born fighter ace William Y. Anderson.

Well over 1,500 Swedish citizens became soldiers of the US Army during World War Two. This fact was unknown in Sweden until a few weeks ago. Nor was it previously known that more than 4,000 US soldiers had been born in Sweden.

Previously, Swedish researchers, such as Lennart Westberg and myself (authors of Swedes at War), have had no clear picture of how many from Sweden joined the US Army in 1941-45. Having met or corresponded with several US Army Swedes, I decided to write a book specifically about them. Well, some weeks ago, thanks to my publisher in Stockholm, Lind & Co, I could present the result: Svenskar i strid mot Hitler i.e. Swedes In Combat vs. Hitler. Here follows the text on the back cover in my translation (the above photo is the image on the back cover):

After the outbreak of World War Two, Anders Kullander from Gothenburg [in Swedish: Göteborg] went to America and became a soldier in the US Army. He landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy and took part in bloody battles on his way to Berlin, where he reached Hitler´s bunker and was photographed by the spot where the dictator´s corpse was burnt.

Kullander was only one of many Swedes who in US service were in combat against Hitler´s forces. Some Swedes were part of elite units and many served with great success – on the ground, in the air and on the oceans – in Europe, Africa and against Hitler's ally in Asia.

The Swedes who fought in the ranks of the Waffen-SS have received a lot of attention. Time to look at the many more Swedes on the other side, in a book with many previously unpublished photographs.

Speaking of the Swedes in the Waffen-SS, they were about 180, and in the Wehrmacht there were an additional 20 Swedes. Thus: 200 Swedes in German uniform. Aside from Swedes in US and German units there were also Swedes in the Finnish, Norwegian and British Armed Forces as well as in the French Foreign Legion and Soviet Red Army (for an overview of all these plus Swedish volunteers in WWI and the Spanish Civil War, see Swedes at War).

My new book does not portray in detail all the 4,000+ men and women born in Sweden who joined various US units. That would have required several more years of work and presenting the results would demand many volumes. But what about their motives, were they not “just” in US uniform because they had emigrated from Sweden? Well, as my book shows, not all were emigrants, many were Swedish sailors. In addition there were those many, many soldiers who had been born in the United States but who nevertheless were called Swedes because of their Swedish parents, grandparents etc. Well, in my new book I portray a dozen of the many thousand more or less Swedish men and women in US uniforms, with all their military details and photographs. It has so far sold really well in Swedish, hopefully it can be translated in the not too distant future.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Arctic WWII Wrecks Tour 2018

Marking the 75th "Dambusters" anniversary by "EASY ELSIE" - "EASY" still visible. PHOTO: Mikael Norman

This summer´s WWII field research tour to Narvik and Setermoen included some nice stops also in northernmost Sweden, as we have some rather remarkable traces of WWII also on Swedish soil, not least the remains of a 617 Squadron "Dambusters" Lancaster and a German Ju 52 with paratroopers.

Although we, the expedition members, had been to these places before, we hoped that we might be able to find some new traces from the war years. And so we did, both by hiking and visiting museums. Here follow some of the highlights IMHO. Well, our first stop was the privately owned Tractor Museum in Svartbyn outside Överkalix (not to be confused with the many other Svartbyns), better known as Holgers traktormuseum. It is, of course, mainly a tractor museum, but it does have some military vehicles and, since a few weeks ago, also a propeller from a Heinkel He 111 bomber aircraft (donated to the museum after our trip). Let me also stress that this is an informal museum, more of a private collection. For current opening hours etc you will have to search the web.

Holger´s M29 Weasel is, like his tractors, preserved outdoors - but functioning.

What I find so fascinating about the M29 Weasel is that its father was the British inventor Geoffrey Pyke, as a result of the early and abandoned idea to attack German forces in Norway by conducting massive raids with elite forces using new snow equipment. One of the units earmarked for these operations was the US 99th "Viking" Infantry Battalion, that I have written about quite extensively in my latest book (Svenskar i strid mot Hitler) as it contained not only Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans but also some Swedes and Swedish-Americans.

My fist ever trip to Normandy was in 1984 on a GMC. Some friends and I went to the 40th anniversary of D-Day, and to do this we lived as inexpensively as possible, on the truck. Holger´s GMC thus brought back many memories.

This was my mobile home in Normandy, June 1984.

Aside from these WWII vehicles Holger also has i.a. an odd British 1950s (?) tracked vehicle from the Atkinson Hacker Tractor Company Ltd. that seems to be based on a tankette - but I have not been able to figure out which tankette it might be. Please do comment if you happen to know the answer.

The tracked vehicle from the Atkinson Hacker Tractor Company Ltd.

Then we briefly stopped in Kiruna to i.a. check out a non-public diorama there, depicting the German battleship Tirpitz shortly before it was attacked by British X-craft midget submarines. Click the below photos to see them in larger size.

Note the anti-submarine nets and the X-craft lurking in the lower left corner.

To see how realistic this diorama is, check it out without colour.

After Kiruna we drove to the border and hiked from the Norwegian village of Björnfjell to the Rombak fjord, walking along the old navvy trail - yes, it is spelt navvy and it means manual labourer working on a major civil engineering project, in this case the incredible railway stretch between Kiruna and Narvik. As you can see, we had great weather conditions, in fact it was almost a bit too warm.

Hiking on the navvy trail on a day like this is just awesome. PHOTO: Mikael Norman

My son Jarl discovered something quite amazing by the Katterat railway station. We had on a previous trip seen that the easternmost building still has marks from an attack with British aircraft (Swordfish, if I recall correctly). Well, Jarl pointed out some bullet holes in a mast close to the wall with the marks. How could we have missed that mast?

Jarl pointing out the bullet holes we had missed on our previous visit.

A closer look at the holes, probably caused by a British attack in April-May 1940.

After having hiked for two days and enjoyed the Rombaksfjord all to ourselves (no other tents in spite of superb weather), we took a train back to Björnfjell railway station and then drove to the Troms Defense Museum in Setermoen. Remember, you can click the below photos to see them in larger size.

A Blohm & Voss Bv 138 flying boat diorama in the Troms Defense Museum.

The museum in Setermoen differs from the Narvik War Museum. Both are very worthwhile seeing, but for the military vehicle enthusiast the Troms Defense Museum in Setermoen has much more to offer, and it deals with older times as well as Norway´s more recent defense history. Setermoen also covers the war in Norway after the battle of Narvik, including the Allied special operations in the area, conducted from bases on Swedish soil, e.g. the "Kari" and "Sepals" bases.

Scout Car used also postwar for many decades by the Norwegian Armed Forces.

The Troms Defense Museum offers visitors the chance to study WWII up close.

Full size diorama of the inside of an Allied special operations base in Sweden.

German occupation soldier in Norway after 1940, with a MG 34 machine gun.

Norwegian "police trooper" from the Norwegian forces in Sweden 1943-45.

A 1-shot gun made in a German POW camp, probably by Soviet POWs.

The above photographs show only a fraction of the equipment and vehicles on display in Setermoen. Speaking of military vehicles I was very happy to receive a copy of MUD & SNOW, the journal of HMK, the Norwegian MV buff club. I was just astounded by the restoration of a 1917 T-Ford ambulance and a Hotchkiss H-39 tank. The latter was a simply horrible wreck but is gradually being restored. From Setermoen we drove into Narvik town, revisited the Narvik War Museum and had a great dinner in the sun at the fish restaurant by the main town square.

Back in Sweden, but within sight of Norway, we revisited the remains of the German Junkers Ju 52 with paratroopers that was shot down over Sweden by Swedish AA-gunners on June 2, 1940. I have visited this site many times before, but once in a while we see parts or personal gear that we have not seen before. This time we happened to find a piece of wreckage with German writing on it, something none of us had seen there before.

"Entlüftung" means the "out" part of the ventilation.

An entrenching tool among the wreckage. Presumably from one of the paras.

As with the next plane we visited, we took nothing away from the Ju 52, and hope future visitors show the same respect.

The remains of the Lancaster "Easy Elsie" of "Dambuster" squadron fame are located a few kilometers outside the Swedish village of Porjus in the municipality of Jokkmokk.

"Elsie" is missing engines etc but has parts that are not visible in museums.

Yes, after all these years you can still see "EASY", but "ELSIE" has faded away.

Might this be the last remaining mechanism for the "Tall Boy" bomb?

The single bomb that "Easy Elsie" carried was a "Tall Boy", the second biggest bomb type used during WWII. The most famous use resulted in the sinking of the German battleship Tirpitz. But to achieve this, 77 "Tall Boys" had to be dropped, in three attacks.

Having visited the remains of "Easy Elsie" one might want to have lunch or dinner. Well, we can warmly recommend the new restaurant/cafe in Porjus: Arctic Colors, that also offers accommodation. Delicious reindeer and elk burgers and much more! Plus the place is run by a gentleman whose father belonged to the Dambuster squadron.

Our final stop was a flea market/cafe outside Gunnarsbyn (municipality of Boden), where I just happened to notice the below item, for sale for 30 Swedish Crowns. I had a hunch (seeing "DRGM" on it) that it might be something from WWI or WWII, so I bought it.

Note the DRGM-marking, commonly used on German equipment.

Back home I discovered it was a German oil can for machine guns, and it was still in good shape. It may well have come to Nestors Cafe via a downed German aircraft.

Monday, August 20, 2018

The Lost Tank Battalions

Raiders of the lost tank battalions, this is the book you are looking for.

On 4 December 1942 Adolf Hitler ordered that all Tiger tanks that had been shipped to Italy and were earmarked for fighting Montgomery´s Eighth Army instead be sent to the newly formed 5th Panzer Army in Tunisia. To quote Harry Yeide: "American tankers were [thus] destined to find out that there was a top league of tank design that their own side had not even considered when designing their machines."

That is a quote from the surprising opening chapter of The Infantry´s Armor by military historian Harry Yeide. Yes, I have to admit that I was very surprised by it, because I was totally unaware of the prequel to the first US tank battles in North Africa - that took place on the other side of the world. US tankers were in fact in combat within twenty-four hours of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Where? In the Philippines. But perhaps due to the fact that these tankers were not part of any tank division, but instead one of numerous separate tank battalions assigned to infantry formations, their bloody experiences are not that well known.

Well, thanks to The Infantry´s Armor I am now a great deal more aware of the very varied combat that the US Army´s separate tank battalions saw, starting in the Pacific and then in Africa, Italy, France, Belgium and Germany.

Returning to how everything started, here is a small but telling remark from the Bataan Death March orchestrated by the Japanese Army:

"Some 600 Americans and 5,000 to 10,000 Filipinos died during the march. According to a veteran of the 192nd Tank Battalion, tankers removed their Armored Force insignia once they saw that the Japanese were picking tankers out and taking them away, never to be seen again. The tankers had done the Japanese a great deal of damage."

In Africa and Europe it was initially harder for the US Army´s separate tank battalions to make that kind of impact on their enemies. One reason was, I learnt from The Infantry´s Armor, the uncertainty about how to employ tanks in support of infantry. The way that the US Army gradually learnt how to use them is a story told by the often ignored separate tank battalions. It is a story that still today is valuable for serving tankers, especially tank officers. But, make no mistake, this book also tells the rough and bloody stories of individual tankers. You get a sense of the conditions inside the tanks, both in the Pacific jungles and in Europe. The life of the tanker was often chaotic, hot and filled with nauseating gasses from heavy firing.

Normandy buffs get the best account I have ever read about how the countless hedgerows affected the fighting after D-Day, both through words and maps. Speaking of illustrations, this book contains some really great photos of US tanks in action. The number of photographs is not immense, totally 33 photos, but of these I had only come across one or two before. Several of them could be made into dioramas.

The Infantry´s Armor is very valuable for relatives of WWII tankers and other researchers looking for solid and reliable information about the US Army´s separate tank battalions, but it should also be read by currently serving tankers.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Swedish Armour & Leatherman Adventure

Swedish Landsverks in Dutch service saw action against the 1940 airborne assault.

For years I have been wanting to see the Swedish Landsverk M38 armoured car that is being restored privately in the Netherlands. The Landsverks of the Dutch cavalry took part in the fighting against the invading Germans in 1940. This summer my dream came true - plus we got a major surprise on the same trip, from Tim Leatherman himself.

We went to the Netherlands this summer, not least to later be able to write a story about the WWII Swedish Landsverk armoured cars in service first against German forces and then in captured German service. Thanks to the Bosman brothers my family got to see their wonderful restoration job up close. Their M38 was a few years ago a very sorry looking wreck on Ireland. I will show many more photos of this most impressive project in a coming book. Just let me add here a huge thank you to the talented Bosman brothers.

When planning our Dutch trip we had not heard about the NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam. Nor did we have an inkling that the inventor of the Leatherman multitool, Tim Leatherman himself, would be there to kick off a world tour. The Leatherman multitool was "born" on a 1975 trip from Amsterdam with a repeatedly malfunctioning little Fiat. A long trip through Europe and all the way to to Iran, that included leaky hotel plumbing and many other situations that so to say demanded a multitool.

Well, while visiting NEMO we became aware of Mr. Leatherman´s presence that day and decided we´d like to see what he looked like and perhaps even hear him speak. In fact, we got to talk to him and he turned out to be amiable, humble and also attentive to our son. I was in the process reminded of my first Leatherman, that I gave away to a Russian gentleman many years ago.

Tim Leatherman and our son Jarl at NEMO in Amsterdam.

Without hoping too much, our son left his name and address on a slip of paper to possibly win a limited edition multitool signed personally by Mr. Leatherman. Well, some hours later I got a call from an unknown number. I had a good feeling, took the call and heard a representative for Mr. Leatherman announce that our son was one of a handful of winners.

The next day we were not going to be in Amsterdam, but the Dutch Leatherman importer Mr. Jerko van den Hazel kindly suggested he would find us where we would be, at the Dutch National Military Museum in Soest, a museum that focuses on the Dutch Armed Forces in the past, present and even in the future. So, at the museum, which turned out to be one of the best museums I have ever visited, Jarl was presented with a limited edition Leatherman that is basically the same design that I once gave away to a Russian who hade been more than helpful for a WWII documentary that I was involved in at the time. Out on the Russian tundra, just before we parted ways, I slipped the multitool into his pocket.

Since those days, some twenty years ago, I have purchased another Leatherman for myself, of a later design. I had not, though, gotten a multitool for our children. So, that Jarl won one was both good timing and amusing, since the type he got was like the one I had once given away.

Jarl using his Leatherman to repair a half-track in the National Military Museum.

Many thanks to Tim Leatherman and Jerko van den Hazel for reminding us, in an unforgettable way, that giving away stuff is a great idea.

Now, just a few examples of what we saw at the museum - that has many hundred other large artifacts and thousands of smaller ones. Let me recommend you to stay there at least one full day. Best is to have two days, to be able to experience the interactive parts. Check out their website for special events (like a big show in the fall, that you should book). Many thanks to Dr. Mathieu Willemsen for your kind help and replies for a future publication.

WWI era FT-17 tank in good shape.

German V-1 meets Spitfire.

A Sherman tank after one or two hits...

This MiG-21 is just one of several Cold War planes that you can see up close.