Tuesday, January 15, 2019
The only division of the Waffen-SS to fight by, partly above, the Arctic Circle was the 6th one. This meant that the division fought both in Finland and Norway and thus it is of particular interest to students of WWII in the Nordic countries. Here I will review the latest book about it, 6th SS Mountain Division Nord At War 1941-1945 by Ian Baxter.
This book, part of the Pen & Sword series "Images of War", is largely a collection of photographs. There is nothing wrong in that, as there have been quite many books published about this division, in particular if you count not only the English language ones. So, the idea of publishing a collection of photographs is a logical one. The book also largely lives up to the subtitle: Rare Photographs From Wartime Archives.
Not only individuals and groups of soldiers are depicted but also quite a few vehicles and one gets a feel for the landscapes of the Arctic.
The quality of the images varies from excellent portraits and battlefield photographs to some blurry ones of little interest. But as most of the images are interesting and probably new to the vast majority of readers much can be forgiven, even the very poor overview map at the beginning. However, one hopes that if a second edition of this book will be made - then the map will be exchanged and several of the captions improved. Places and dates are quite often lacking and sometimes incorrect.
Well, the bottom line is that this book - even in this first edition - adds to the visual record of the Arctic front during WWII.
Saturday, December 29, 2018
The release of the ballad "Normandie 13" about paratrooper Gösta Wollin is the most pleasant news I came across in my field of work during 2018. Let me explain why and also tell you about some of my other 2018 highlights.
Thanks to help from friends all over Scandinavia and in the US it was my privilege to this fall present new and, I believe, surprising figures regarding how many Swedish citizens donned US Army uniforms in 1941-45. Well, they were over 1,500 persons and there were many more who had been born in Sweden but had changed their citizenship. However, for historical research to become common knowledge, our screen-focused society needs more than books. Especially non-fiction is only read by a rather small minority of the population. The stories of the Swedes who fought on the battlefields against Hitler´s forces thus have to be told in different kinds of media to make a real impression. I had hoped for articles, TV documentaries and movies. Several articles have indeed appeared about them during 2018 and I believe we will eventually see also TV and film productions. What I had not at all expected was Stefan Andersson´s new record "Flygblad över Berlin" full of Swedish WWII history including "Normandie 13", a simply great song about 82nd Airborne paratrooper Gösta Wollin´s jump over Normandy. I believe that Wollin, whom I was in touch with several times and is featured in my latest book, would also have been pleasantly surprised by the song, had he lived to this year. Yes, you can listen to it right now on Spotify.
Not many days ago I was again baffled, when I called Viking Battalion veteran Sigvard Johnson and learnt that at the time of joining the US Army he had been not only a citizen of Finland but also of Sweden. I had taken for granted that by 2018 all Swedish citizens who had joined up were deceased. Well, I am glad I was wrong and if you can read Swedish (or can stand computer translations) I wrote this blog post about Johnson.
What about my favourite book this year? Well, limiting myself to history books I would say the book that left the strongest impression on me is The Gestapo´s Most Improbable Hostage by Squadron Leader Hugh Mallory Falconer. An amazing story of survival. But as I have already reviewed it I will not discuss it more now.
As you have already surmised I am pretty interested in Swedish-American history and it was therefore a nice treat for me to this year see one of the most special Swedish Americans ever on the big screen, I am talking about Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, portrayed by Corey Stoll in "First Man". But, let us not here talk that much about Aldrin´s Swedish roots in the province of Värmland, or the fact that there are still a dozen Swedish Hasselblad cameras resting on the surface of the Moon... This is perhaps also not the place to point out that the filmmakers somehow missed that the first liquid ever poured on the Moon, by Aldrin, was wine - because he chose to take communion there. What matters most about "First Man" is that it is such a stunning movie in just about every respect. I am positive that you do not have to be a history nerd to appreciate it. If you have not yet seen it, make sure you do in 2019 - year of the the 50th anniversary of Buzz Aldrin´s walk on the Moon and 60th anniversary of the first human-made object to reach the surface of the Moon, the Soviet Luna 2. By the way, dear reader, I wish you a happy, healthy & peaceful 2019.
Wednesday, December 12, 2018
This book, the indeed improbable wartime experiences of Squadron Leader Hugh Mallory Falconer, proved to be not only very informative but also more thought-provoking and entertaining than I had thought. Most books about the Second World War are limited in their outlook. A few, like this one, rise above the rest and simultaneously tell a strong story from WWII and another, larger one.
I had expected, and also got, a book about life as a special prisoner of the Third Reich and the half-baked idea of the top Nazi leadership to create a pool of prominent hostages, as a kind of insurance policy to make sure that they would be able to survive the defeat of the Third Reich. The essence of this idea was to collect regime opponents, not only foreign ones, that the Nazi leaders deemed were somehow valuable to the outside world. This plan was connected to the larger idea of the "Southern Redoubt" in Austria.
Squadron Leader Hugh Mallory Falconer, a French Foreign Legion veteran and agent of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), delivers a personal account of the Nazi hostage idea that also says a great deal about Nazism itself, mankind in general and how to cope with solitary confinement and mental torture. Mallory effectively teaches about mental strength, the SS guard mindset, secret communications and how to never give up. His survival strategy is a shining example of how to overcome the worst odds, but not inexplicable – he really helps the reader to understand the stages he went through during his long imprisonment.
The Gestapo´s Most Improbable Hostage is a disturbing, inspiring book that also contains some unexpected but very British humour.
Wednesday, November 07, 2018
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.