Thursday, September 19, 2019
Thanks to a Norwegian friend I was recently invited to a WWII research meeting right beside Hitler´s largest Arctic project, his railway line that was meant to end in Kirkenes by the Finnish (now Russian) border. This blog post is mainly to provide a visual idea of the amazing days we spent up there.
The Organisation Todt (OT) was a German paramilitary engineering organization named after Fritz Todt, an engineer and senior Nazi leader. The OT was one of the Wehrmachtgefolge, German Armed Forces auxiliaries. The organization was responsible for implementing the vision of connecting by rail south Norway with Kirkenes, the northeasternmost town not far from Soviet Murmansk. This meant working in one of the most challenging landscapes on earth due to a staggering amount of mountains and fjords. The Arctic climate and often total lack of roads for supporting motor vehicles did not make things easier. As usual, the OT would rely on forced labour, mostly Soviet and Yugoslav prisoners of war. The section responsible for this most extreme railway project was called OT-Einsatzgruppe "Wiking". The project was pursued right to the very end of the Third Reich, at the cost of thousands of lives.
Our trip last week began with a visit at Klungset, beside the town of Fauske, about 70 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle. Klungset is probably the most intact OT base that there is in 2019, and one of few WWII German military hospitals still around. Last time I visited it, 18 years ago, it was in a deplorable state. Now several parts of it have been restored. In 2015 it became protected by the Directorate for Cultural Heritage in Norway.
In connection with the huge Arctic railway project to Kirkenes, this hospital complex was built in 1942-43, mainly for the benefit of German OT staff. Construction was carried out by forced labour, local companies, a southern Norwegian construction company and others. When the base was completed in 1943, it consisted of 12 buildings with a total capacity of 200 beds. Today, four of these buildings are preserved. Although the bulk of the labour force consisted of prisoners of war, this group received limited treatment at the base. This changed radically after the German capitulation, when, in June 1945, the US Army flew Swedish Red Cross personnel, diet foods and medical equipment to treat the most ill Soviet former prisoners of war. Thus American C-47 aircraft flew a Swedish hospital staff from Luleå to Bodö, not far from Klungset. The above 1945 photo from Klungset shows the main building with Swedish medical staff and also some Germans under Norwegian command.
Hopefully Klungset will sometime in the future also become a true museum. We saw why that would be a good idea - not only has the main building been restored, another building has been left virtually untouched since 1945 and contains many both unusual and moving artifacts and photographs. Just walking around on the base, especially in the cellars, is a remarkable experience in itself. The two gentlemen who own the premises also have some relevant WWII military vehicles, some virtually untouched since the war, some restored.
Thank you so much, Trond Ole Slettvoll, for showing us around on Klungset. Our next big thank you goes to Trond Inge Mathisen of Hamaröy, whose WWII researcher event took place by a mountain lake 90 kilometres north of Klungset, beside the last large German tunnel that was made before the German capitulation. It was never completed and is dangerous to enter, but can be entered with a guide and special equipment - see the last photograph below.
What is inside the last large German Arctic railway tunnel? First, please understand that abandoned WWII tunnels should not be entered, or at least not without safety equipment and a guide, as they are more or less unsafe for various reasons. Well, what about my experiences from the above tunnel? I am saving them and the relevant photos for a manuscript I hope to finish next year which will contain largely unknown and unpublished material. You can support this by reading my books, two are available in English (check Amazon etc). The next one (in October) in Swedish you can see below. It contains chapters i.a. about some very large gifts from Soviet former prisoners of war in Sweden and a previously unknown Allied base on Swedish soil - the Norwegian SOE operators on the cover came from one of these bases. If you are wondering about the submarine on the cover it is U 3503, one of the extremely advanced German submarines of the type XXI class, en route to Norway but scuttled on 8 May 1945 west of Göteborg, Sweden.
Thursday, September 12, 2019
Recently I reviewed Visiting the Normandy Invasion Beaches and Battlefields, a terrific book for first-time visitors to Normandy and those planning to lead school groups and similar groups. Now I will review a Normandy guide so comprehensive that it could also be considered a battlefield encyclopedia.
This book, Major & Mrs Holt´s Definitive Battlefield Guide to the D-Day Normandy Landing Beaches (75th Anniversary edition) by Tonie and Valmai Holt, is an impressive mix of good maps, photos and information, the result of decades of Normandy experience and countless meetings with veterans. Aside from many colour maps inside the book you also get a separate map which in itself will probably be very helpful, not least while you are in the area. Simply put, I have never seen a better battlefield tour map before.
Major & Mrs Holt´s new guide can be used not only to plan a trip to battlegrounds or museums of special interest, it is a tool for historians, serving officers, history buffs and wargamers. Even if you have been to Normandy a couple of times I bet you will find several new and highly interesting places thanks to this guide. I did. Also, you will probably find the purely historical information in the book very readable, motivating, and sometimes also very moving.
Nordic readers will be pleased to know that Major & Mrs Holt have not missed the Norwegian and Danish memorials in Normandy and thanks to the maps and photos you will be able to locate them. So far there is no memorial to the Swedes who were also a part of the Normandy landings (mostly at sea but also on the ground and in the air), but there is at least a Bofors anti-aircraft gun in the Bayeux Museum (there is a photo of it in the guide), one of hundreds of Bofors guns used in Normandy.
Major & Mrs Holt´s guide also cover where to stay and eat and special tips for those wishing to tour Normandy by bicycle. The book is 350 pages long but still quite handy (not that large), and filled with good illustrations, mainly in colour.
Tuesday, September 10, 2019
Rather surprisingly, this year two books focused on Nordics in the Waffen-SS have been released. First The Finnish SS-volunteers and Atrocities 1941–1943 by Professor Lars Westerlund, and just recently III. Germanic SS Panzer-Korps by Lennart Westberg, Petter Kjellander & Geir Brenden.
This SS corps was a Waffen-SS armoured corps which saw action mainly on the Eastern Front and is often associated with the Estonian city of Narva due to its fighting there. The corps was formed in April 1943 and first commanded by the former Wiking commander Felix Steiner. III. Germanic SS Panzer-Korps is being released in two volumes by the UK publisher Helion & Company. The first volume, just released, covers the background of the corps, its creation and history until September 1944.
Counting myself as a close friend of Lennart Westberg (we have written two books together) I should not really review his new book, but I see no reason why I can not give an idea of the contents. Naturally, the III. Germanic SS Panzer-Korps is the main focus, but the first 45 pages summarize the latest research about the roots and purposes of the Waffen-SS and especially about its recruits from the Nordic states. The authors describe both the incredible expansion of the Waffen-SS and how the SS "brand" was renewed in 1944. Already in the introduction there are several images that few will have seen before, and not just propaganda photographs.
While photographs, especially previously unpublished ones, are important (not least in this book), the III. Germanic SS Panzer-Korps also contains new insights, e.g. into the serious difficulties to keep Norwegian volunteers within the Waffen-SS. Associate Professor Sigurd Sörlie has contributed a summary of his relevant research to this book.
Many books about the Waffen-SS just mention the often very large component of ethnic Germans/Volksdeutsche (from German minorities outside the Third Reich), but in III. Germanic SS Panzer-Korps they are very much present.
The many large photographs are in some cases of spectacular quality and those from within the city of Narva 1944 should be of interest to a wide group, not least those who plan to visit the city. Military vehicle (tank) buffs will find several images of Panthers and other vehicles, also Italian ones, of great interest.
Finally, the propaganda posters in the book deserve special mention. The SS, for Ersatzkommando Danmark, even produced a poster highlighting the significance of Narva, and the book´s poster captions explain the symbols and messages in this and other relevant Waffen-SS posters.
Friday, September 06, 2019
Very pleasantly surprised by this one. Visiting the Normandy Invasion Beaches and Battlefields is both a great guide and a compact WWII reference book.
This book by history teacher and guide Gareth Hughes is mostly intended for those planning and leading groups of young people to the World War Two sites in Normandy. But I do believe it should be read and used also by those with a deep interest in Normandy and WWII in general. It starts with a short but brilliant section entitled “D-Day in Numbers”. Two figures that I found to be of particular interest were: “127 – aircraft lost by the Allies” and “15 – percentage of paratroopers that landed in their planned drop zone”.
The general planning and travel tips are in themselves very valuable. The author then provides a very good WWII timeline followed by one of the best summaries I have come across of both the world wars. Then comes a short but still good glossary of key D-Day terms, such as Bigot, Bocage, PLUTO and SHAEF. A 14-page history of Normandy and D-day follows – a very nice summary.
The WWII location parts of the guide do not include every WWII site in Normandy but instead focus on places suitable for school groups and similar groups. One gets really invaluable advice both how to effectively present these places and their context, why they matter. Now, you might want to instead show around a group of military cadets or aviation/tank buffs. Well, I would still recommend this book as your primary Normandy guide. In my next posts I will present some more “extreme” Normandy guides for those already interested in particular units or vehicles.
As I am always looking for connections to the Nordic countries I was glad to note that the author among the tips for extended tours has included the Utah Danish Memorial, that commemorates the about 800 Danes who were also a part of the D-Day landings. They, like the Swedes, served mainly on board ships, but were nevertheless part of the D-Day machinery.
Saturday, August 31, 2019
Could there really be traces of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) and Special Air Service (SAS) on the island of Rhodes, not far from the old town? Yes there are such traces but you will not learn about them from most Rhodes guides.
The Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes is not just a Gothic castle inside the old town on Rhodes. During the Italian period on Rhodes (1912-1943) the castle was extensively restored and became a holiday residence first for the Italian king and later for Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, whose name can actually still be seen on a wall by the castle entrance. That wall and the The Rhodes Jewish Museum would to many visitors seem to be the only traces of WWII on the island, but there is actually much, much more to see, especially if you venture outside the old town.
In this old blog post I presented my first tips where to look for traces of the Italian and German occupation periods. Some days ago I returned from our latest Rhodes holiday, during which I found rather intact WWII trenches and the ruins of an Italian WWII workshop, and visited two sites connected to the LRDG and SAS.
Why on earth is there a Long Range Desert Group trooper in the Commonwealth war cemetery on Rhodes? Surely there are no deserts on Rhodes? Well, let me first explain that after the North African campaign ended in May 1943 the LRDG became more like the SAS/SBS and was used mainly for raids/sabotage on various Mediterranean islands and in Italy and Yugoslavia. New Zealand LRDG Trooper Hector Mallett died from wounds he sustained during an assault against the Germans on the small island of Levita (now Levitha), more than 100 kilometers from Rhodes. The cemetery is not only for those who lost their lives on Rhodes but also on many other islands in the region, some quite isolated. The Rhodes cemetery is located in the southern outskirts of the city of Rhodes, by the old coastal road to Lindos, opposite the Italian, Jewish and Turkish cemeteries.
What about traces of the SAS then? Well, first find Mandraki Port. Just north of it stands a war memorial not far from the water, topped with a winged bronze figure representing Victory. It is located in Pl. Antinavarchou Perikli Ioannidi. One of the units specifically named on the memorial and also represented by its insignia is the Sacred Band (or Sacred Squadron). This Greek special forces unit was attached to the SAS from March 1942 and below is a close up of their insignia including the motto "Return Victorious or Dead" (in Greek), said to be the words with which Greek wives once saw their men off to battle.
By conducting literally hundreds of island raids together with the SBS, the Sacred Band pinned down thousands of German troops on many islands, thus preventing them from reinforcing the German troops in Italy or France. There are two images of the Sacred Band in action on the war memorial, the better preserved one can be seen below.
In the modern Greek Army, the Sacred Band's traditions are carried on by the 1st Raider/Paratrooper Brigade, that sports both the band´s sword and the motto of the SAS "Who Dares Wins" in Greek: O Tolmon Nika. If you are a bit of a patch collector you might want to know that the below one was purchased in an army store a short walk from the memorial.
What about the WWII trenches and ruins of an Italian workshop that I also found? Well, I need some more input before blogging about them - but don't worry, I will eventually get that and then blog some more about Rhodes.
Tuesday, August 27, 2019
If you are looking for the greatest books about Normandy 1944 I have some suggestions for you in this and several coming blog posts. Let us start in an unorthodox way with the German view.
There is an abundance of books that focus on the Allied side of this story. In The Germans in Normandy by Richard Hargreaves it is the other way around, and this in itself raises ones interest. Then I was also encouraged to read the book by some words from a fellow author and the Guild of Battlefield Guides (more about Normandy guides in future posts). But, before I venture into actually reviewing The Germans in Normandy I should mention that this 2019 paperback edition is not an entirely new book, as the first edition was published in 2006. Well, that having been said, this book should still rank as one of the best Normandy books.
Richard Hargreaves paints convincing portraits not only of the highest German officers involved. The quotes from them that he presents are both fascinating and in some cases even amusing. One gets the feeling that Hargreaves has correctly identified both the strengths and weaknesses of the German occupiers in northern France. He makes it very clear how much the Germans relied on foreign volunteer troops (many of whom were no true volunteers): “By the spring of 1944, one in six infantry battalions along the Atlantic Coast was composed of Osttruppen and [other] foreign volunteers […]”. In fact, as Hargreaves also points out, in some parts of France the ratio was even higher, so that in certain areas one in five “German” soldiers was not German at all.
The pre-battle conflict between Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg is amazing to follow and perhaps that row even caused the world famous “longest day” words from Rommel. What about the frontline soldiers then? Well, they are in the book too. Air power enthusiasts also do not have to worry – this book does not just cover the Heer and Waffen-SS but also Luftwaffe aspects.
How were the catastrophic German defeats in Normandy communicated to the German population? Richard Hargreaves shows how the main newspaper of the national socialist party at first rather convincingly “balanced” the defeats with colourful descriptions of the first V1 (flying bomb) strikes against London.
Hargreaves does not end his book with just the final shots in Normandy, but also gives an idea of what the cleaning up there entailed.
You might be tired of Normandy books – but even if you are I reckon you will appreciate The Germans in Normandy. It certainly renewed my interest in that beautiful and once very bloody part of France.
Tuesday, August 13, 2019
Many books have been made about the first, now iconic, Second World War Jeeps. So why one more? Well, this is a Jeep book with a difference, being specially focused on modelmakers and military vehicle restorers - and not least those with a special interest for SAS and LRDG Jeeps.
Being a co-author of The Long Range Desert Group: History & Legacy my interest in LRDG & SAS Jeeps is pretty strong. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to see a SAS European Theatre of Operations Jeep as the main illustration on the cover of the new Pen & Sword Land Craft series book The Jeep by car designer, author, journalist, restorer etc Lance Cole. The scale model focus of the series (like in the Tank Craft series) is apparent from the SAS Jeep on the cover, as it is a model. But photographs of actual vehicles and color line drawings are also very much part of the book. I would say that even if you are not at all into models and rather describe yourself as a restorer and/or reenactor, you will find this book to be both helpful and simply a pleasant read and good source.
Basically, this book contains the essential development and design history, describes the lovely details of wartime Jeeps, many variants and, of course, the services they provided on various WWII battlefields. Lance Cole delivers both excellent text and many photographs of actual Jeeps and model Jeeps. Modern military vehicle designers would do well by studying the small, very clever touches of the original Jeeps.
The scale models of SAS Jeeps are well covered, both the Jeeps used in North Africa and in the ETO. The book has only one wartime SAS Jeep photo - the most classic one there is. But the many excellent colour photos of SAS Jeep models made me forgive that. The LRDG part is just one page of line drawings, but on the other hand the four page SAS in North Africa showcase features two wonderful LRDG figures that have replaced the original Tamiya SAS figures. The book informs exactly where these figures are from, and describes and shows just about every 1:24, 1:35, 1:72 and 1:76 scale Jeep kit ever made by various manufacturers around the world. The mostly stunning photos show lots of details, scale model modifications (improvements) and in some cases the models have figures and diorama bases.
Not every aspect of this vast subject is covered in the 64 pages and one hopes that Lance Cole might one day produce a second volume with e.g. Red Army Jeeps, captured Jeeps, unpublished wartime photos of SAS & LRDG Jeeps etc. But, let me be clear, this first Land Craft series book is both a very useful and beautiful guide for Jeep lovers and especially those into scale models of this superb little green machine.