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

Thursday, May 21, 2020

A GI in the Ardennes

A terrific cover for a book full of amazing photos and essays, not just about GIs.

As a collector of WWII books since the 1980s it takes quite a lot to stun me. But I am truly stunned by A GI in the Ardennes by Denis Hambucken. This book is so filled with brilliant essays about GIs, the Battle of the Bulge and relevant artifacts that I must immediately congratulate the author and his publishers.

Having read several Battle of the Bulge books, seen lots of documentaries and driven around in the Ardennes in an original WWII Jeep one comes to think of new questions about what the fighting there was like and how various practical matters were resolved. In Belgian author Denis Hambucken´s new (2020) book, first published in French in 2017, so many of these questions are answered in 109 short but brilliant essays on subjects such as the draft, the GI uniform, dog tags, individual and squad weapons, a solder´s pay, field rations, "battle fatigue", V-mail and German trophies. I find myself especially impressed with the sections about the M1928 haversack, "Axis Sally", German mines and Christmas in the Ardennes.

What makes this book so outstanding is that combines excellent photographs of original artifacts (many types I have never seen before) with testimonies of veterans and Belgian civilians. You might think that the author is uncritical of the GIs, considering his deep passion for their artifacts. Well, there are actually several passages that are critical, moving and surprising.

Briefly put, I would say that Denis Hambucken has set a new standard for WWII books. The Ardennes aside, this is one of the best WWII books I have ever come across.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

When The SAS Stormed An Embassy

The SAS operation "Nimrod" took place here in 1980. My photo from 2019.

30 April 2020 it is 40 years since the start of one of the most famous anti-terrorist operations ever. In the end, Special Air Service (SAS) operators saved all but one of the remaining hostages. Do watch the movie about the event, but bear in mind that it says very little about one lesson from the event - a lesson that we ought to be more aware of.

As a kid in the early 1980s I was favourably impressed by the abseiling SAS soldiers that hit the global news. But their appearance at the Iranian embassy in London was also a bit terrifying. Dressed largely in black, with their faces inside black respirators and wielding black submachine guns (Heckler & Koch MP5s), they looked rather sinister (Darth Vader-ish). Naturally, as soon as "6 Days" was released I was keen to see how a detailed reenactment of the event would look like. Well, it is not just about the 17 minute SAS assault, but about the whole Iranian embassy siege of 30 April to 5 May 1980. The siege situation is presented from three perspectives and it is quite moving to follow the negotiator Max Vernon (Mark Strong). But, being fond of books about the SAS, I was more interested in the SAS perspective, i.e. Rusty Firmin (Jamie Bell). "6 Days" made me wonder about some of his decisions and therefore I wanted to know more from the actual Rusty Firmin. Here is the book by him that I then got:

The book Rusty Firmin wrote about his career in the SAS. Some surprising insights.

Rusty Firmin´s The Regiment (2015) explains a key moment in the embassy that the movie "6 Days" portrays rather poorly, it seems to me. There is also the book focusing on the siege that Firmin wrote together with Will Pearson, entitled Go! Go! Go! (2011), and then there is e.g. Who Dares Wins (2009) by Gregory Fremont-Barnes. But hey, no book will probably affect the general public´s knowledge about the event as much as the movie "6 Days", which is why I decided to write this blog post. In spite of everything that I appreciate in "6 Days", there is one big thing the film makers could have done better. Who was behind the whole thing? Of course, the movie informs a bit about the terrorist group that took over the embassy, the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan. However, there was a state behind the group: Iraq. The Iraqi state under Saddam Hussein not only prepared, financed and supplied the terrorists (e.g. with Soviet RGD-5 hand grenades and Czechoslovak Skorpions). One of their Iraqi intelligence handlers had even taken them to London. In "6 Days" this is summarized too much, the relevant scene is so short that some may miss it.

So, what on the surface looked like the act of a terrorist group of Arabian separatists from Iran was more like an Iraqi strike against Iran. Byt why is this small proxy war in London forty years ago relevant for us in 2020? Well, there were several terrorist actions during the 1980s, in different countries, that still today are sometimes not portrayed as what they mostly were, war by proxy. That is a form of warfare that has made a comeback in recent years, and therefore we need to be able to identify and understand it. Iraq under Saddam was not the main culprit, usually it was one or more security/intelligence agencies from the Soviet bloc. But these quite often used terrorists, not least Arab terrorists. This modus operandi even affected my native Sweden, and it took many years for Swedes to start realizing this.

Seeing the Iranian embassy in London today is just like seeing it on 30 April 1980. It was seriously damaged at the end of the siege but has been nicely restored. It is easy to see the embassy yourself as it is in the heart of London. There are some other places connected to SAS history not far from the embassy and I will be writing about these in a London guide that I intend to release here in a month or so.

Monday, April 27, 2020

T-14 Armata MBT

The first book to focus on the most radical new MBT since the Swedish S-tank.

The Russian T-14 Armata tank differs so much from previous main battle tanks that one could say it is the most radical "production" tank since the turretless Swedish "S-tank" (strv 103). The first book in English about this vehicle, written by James Kinnear, is more interesting than the parade photo on the cover indicates.

Of course, some who read this blog post will not consider the S-tank to have been a tank. Some will say it was actually a tank destroyer or an assault gun. Well, let us not here argue about that vehicle´s capabilities. I could argue quite a lot, because I was trained to use it during 15 months. But whatever your opinion is, it is a fact that in the Swedish Army the strv 103 was officially classified as a tank. "Strv" is short for stridsvagn which is Swedish for a tank (MBT). Let us move on to what is new. Well, at least fairly new. This May 9 it will be exactly 5 years since the T-14 was officially presented during the Victory Day parade in Moscow. But the T-14 still can be considered "the new kid on the block" and there still are good reasons to read the first book in English to focus on the T-14, written by the armour expert James Kinnear and first published in 2018.

At first glance the T-14 might not look so revolutionary. But first of all its resemblance to previous Russian and Soviet tanks is almost zero. It thus constitutes a break with tradition. Then, inside, there is a huge difference. The tank turret has no tankers, it is remotely controlled by the three-man crew, located safely within the hull. The latter two features were two of the main features of the S-tank.

Looking closer at the exterior lots of interesting features become clear. And this book will certainly delight both tankers and scale modellers because it has many really nice photos of the exterior. But, to me, the real gem is the surprisingly detailed chapter about the development of the vehicle. However, before I describe it I must say something about the current status of the T-14. There are huge doubts about the T-14, mainly if it will become a mass produced tank. Media sources have gone from stating that there would be over two thousand T-14s by now (are there more than twenty now?), to playing down the need for the T-14. There seem to be endless amounts of Soviet tanks that can be modernized to a remarkable degree.

So, there is much that is unclear about the future of the T-14, something which was evident already when James Kinnear wrote his book. Kinnear also made the question marks clear already on the rear cover.

Well, no matter what the future holds, the history of the T-14 is amazing and not something you will find on Wikipedia. Kinnear´s book describes several design bureau projects with details and some photos that I have never come across before. Scale modellers into making "what if" tanks ought to get some inspiration from this chapter.

T-14 Armata by James Kinnear has no doubt expanded my understanding of the T-14s history, but at the same time it has made me wonder if not the Soviet tank design bureaus in Kharkov (Kharkiv) and Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) had been studying developments in Sweden during the 1980s quite a lot. I am thinking of the various Swedish UDES vehicles, especially the UDES 19 and UDES XX20. While I did not have the privilege of seeing a UDES 19 IRL (check it out via the link to the UDES page I just provided) I did get to see the UDES XX20. Below is a photo from my one and only encounter with it.

Seeing an UDES XX20 up close. Not sure about the year but I reckon 1985/86.

Finally, I must say I am very impressed with the quality of all Canfora books, T-14 Armata is just one of several terrific books from Swedish Canfora. Do visit the Canfora website and look around.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Churchill: A Graphic Biography

Yes, I am reviewing a comic book now! But, trust me - it is seriously good.

Now, Churchill is one fellow that is very hard to summarize. With such a rich and long life in various positions, almost an impossible task. But I´d say that Vincent Delmas has succeeded, both because of the comics and the superb introduction, which is more like an illustrated article.

Of course, lots of important stuff is not part of Churchill: A Graphic Biography, and as a Nordic reader I wanted more about Norway 1940. Still, most of the key moments in his life are here. Speaking about Norway - the heavy water sabotage operation is in the book.

My one real criticism is that the military hardware shown could have been more correct and detailed. But, generally speaking, this is one of the best, if not the best, fact-based comic books that I have read.

One subject that takes up a fairly large part in the final pages of the book is the failure to secure Poland´s independence. Rightly so!

Being a history nerd you have either seen or will probably see the brilliant historical drama web television series "The Crown" created and principally written by Peter Morgan for Netflix. Well, here comes a suggestion for you TV people out there. Check out Churchill: A Graphic Biography by Vincent Delmas etc. Because it is both brilliant and credible. I suspect that this has a lot to do with Francois Kersaudy, the project´s historical consultant. It should be possible to use Churchill: A Graphic Biography as the basis for a Netflix movie, or even a TV series.

Monday, March 09, 2020

A Deniable Operation Under The Swedish Flag

SAS VC holder Anders Lassen (1st from the left) always catches my attention.

The story they presented was that they were a neutral Swedish crew on a neutral Swedish yacht. In fact, they were a group of SOE agents on an incredibly daring mission, commanded by an actual "M", with whom Ian Fleming worked. This is a book that especially Nordic SOE, SAS & Fleming/Bond buffs can appreciate.

While the Swedish flag was mere camouflage, there were actually Danes aboard, one of whom later would join the SAS and earn a VC, Anders Lassen. Thus it should already be apparent that Ian Fleming & SOE´s Operation Postmaster by Brian Lett is of special interest to Danish military history buffs. Norwegian WWII buffs also have several reasons to pick up this book, because Brigadier Colin Gubbins was "M" and he had a great deal to do with Norway from 1940.

Well, what kind of special operation is Ian Fleming & SOE´s Operation Postmaster about? In 1941 the British started receiving reports that German submarines were using rivers in French parts of Africa for refuelling. At the time, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a new outfit with many enemies, not just among the enemy. The SOE had to prove its worth. The cunning plan was to sail a "Swedish" SOE ship, with some great characters, to West Africa and locate German submarine bases. But having arrived in the area the main aim became to steal enemy ships from a neutral Spanish port on the volcanic island of Fernando Po. I will here not give away the wonderful story of what happened but just say that the British Government lied in order to conceal British responsibility for the operation, and basically recommend that you read this book yourself.

Being the author that I am, I do not think that the characterization of Sweden as "pro-German" in Lett´s book is fair. Regardless if one means the Swedish state or the majority of the Swedish people, the largest Swedish sympathies were about Finland, Norway and Denmark. Yes, there were Swedish Nazis and pro-German sympathies, but they never dominated. The thousands of Swedish citizens in Finnish, US and Norwegian service can be compared with the 200 in various German units. For more about Sweden during WWII please turn to e.g. John Gilmour or yours truly.

Nevertheless, Brian Lett´s book is an inspiring and exciting book that should please not just SOE and Fleming/Bond buffs. First published in 2012, the edition I got is from last year. Brian Lett has written other books about special ops and thanks to his own website I am now aware of his latest book, SOE`s Mastermind - Sir Colin Gubbins, a book that I very much look forward to reading.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Real James Bonds

That strange gun on the cover is a Welrod, a British bolt action suppressed pistol.

Having reviewed Nigel West´s Secret War: The Story Of SOE, I must of course also review his take of the organization that SOE quite often found itself in conflict with, MI6/SIS, i.e. the home of James Bond.

Being an entirely factual book, Nigel West´s MI6: British Secret Intelligence Service Operations 1909-1945, does not waste words on James Bond and only mentions Ian Fleming on one page. Fleming is mentioned not because of his later secret agent novels but due to the fact that he during WWII was an assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence. However, it is hard not to think of Captain America´s enemy Red Skull when reading about agent SKULL, one of the most important double agents of the war in West´s opinion.

Secret intelligence operations can be hard to explain and summarize. Yet, West often manages to do so. One of the most catastrophic aspects of the the initial stage of the intelligence war 1939-45 is how almost unbelievably unprepared the British were for the eventuality of Germany actually overrunning other countries. In spite of six years of Hitler in command of Germany the SIS had set up no stay-behind networks. Initially there were not even aircraft to fly agents into occupied Europe. Such a unit, 419 Flight (Special Duties), was set up only in July 1940.

Well, what about my favorite aspects of any WWII book, the Nordic aspects? The Norwegian heavy water is of course covered but after the German invasions of 1940 the SIS was itself not that active in Norway and Denmark. In those countries intelligence gathering was mainly performed by the SOE. Stockholm was much more of a stage for the SIS, and West provides a wonderful picture of how absurd it was to be stationed there considering that "[...] personnel from the German, Japanese and British [embassies were] all visiting the seaside together on Sundays during the Swedish summer".

Nigel West is very clear about his view of SIS performance in Stockholm during WWII: "The Stockholm Station was arguably the most successful of the war". West also states that thanks to "unofficial assistance" from Swedish military intelligence, more than fifty Norwegians were detained in Sweden as known infiltration agents from the Sicherheitsdienst in Oslo.

Like West´s SOE book, MI6 is not new but a new edition of a 1983 book. Still, MI6 by Nigel West is a highly readable book and ought to be a useful source for many years yet to come.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Keystone of 22 SAS

Without him there would today probably be no 22nd Special Air Service Regiment.

Quite a few readers of this blog may have read several books about the WWII Special Air Service and also the SAS during recent years. But what about the first postwar decades of the SAS? Here is a book that both covers WWII experiences and some of the more interesting post-1945 SAS episodes until the 1970s. And, of course, there are some Nordic connections.

As some readers may have noticed, I have a special interest in SAS history. This should become more apparent here, as I am planning to blog more about the SAS. Keystone of 22 SAS is, simply put, a fine account both of the life, mostly in the SAS, and times of Lieutenant Colonel John Woodhouse MBE MC. He first experienced combat in a conventional British Army unit in North Africa and there, strangely enough, is the first Nordic connection in the book. For more than twenty years I have been hiking on Arctic WWII battlefields and the type of tin cans that I have most often encountered in German positions are cans that once contained Norwegian fish. Therefore I can recall images from my memory when the book´s author, Alan Hoe (himself an SAS veteran), writes about Woodhouse often eating captured (from the Germans) Norwegian sardines in North Africa.

Keystone of 22 SAS quite often contains Woodhouse´s own words and here are some sentences from his diary in 1944 to give you an idea of his wartime reflections:

"The German soldiers had an unshakable belief in their superiority over all other nations and armies. They had been led to believe that war was glorious and Hitler [...] was invincible. The Wehrmacht was very well led, better equipped and by 1943 more battle experienced than we were. [...] I was often fearful but it always mattered greatly to me that I should be well regarded and respected by the soldiers I commanded. This helped in overcoming fear."

It was in the ruins of the Third Reich that Woodhouse entered a door that eventually led to the SAS. By exaggerating his contacts with Soviet soldiers while he was a PoW, he managed to get a place in a Russian language course. On the successful completion of the course he was posted to Germany where he joined the Control Commission to act as interpreter between Soviet and British military groups. A short time later he was switched to army intelligence. He then exeperienced some memorable encounters both with Soviets, including an early defector, and Germans like Hanna Reitsch, "[...] the only German I met who had the courage still to proclaim loyalty to the Nazis".

In 1950 he reacted positively to an invitation to join the Malayan Scouts and thus fight in the deep jungles of Malaya. He volunteered not least because he was keen to serve under the legendary Mike Calvert, famous for having commanded a Chindit Brigade in Burma. Woodhouse sensed that Calvert was a great source of "original ideas and concepts". Woodhouse became both nervous and "a bit resentful" when Calvert made him Unit Intelligence Officer. But then he meets a very unlikely character in the jungle, "Yorkie" Bjorkman:

"With a good intelligence network the battle is half won. Yes. You can learn a lot from Yorkie. He´s a man with personality, guts and imagination. He´s got thirty Malay police there and he controls the jungle for miles around - controls the jungle."

Bjorkman was awarded both a Distinguished Conduct Medal, the oldest British award for gallantry, and a Military Medal, for bravery. The encounter in the jungle with a man obviously of Nordic extraction is only one of many surprises in Keystone of 22 SAS. The SAS in Cold War Denmark is also part of the book, but one wishes there had been more details in that part.

Woodhouse´s fascinating career did not end at all with his formal retirement in 1964. The year after he was asked by SAS founder David Stirling to lead a team of three men to Yemen and in cooperation with Royalist forces attack an Egyptian airfield. These experiences alone could be made into a good movie.

John Woodhouse passed away in 2008. Now it is time for you to read about his rich life in Keystone of 22 SAS.