About Me

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

Friday, July 03, 2020

The Americans From The Ardennes To VE Day

Highlighting US and German troops in the Ardennes and Operation Varsity.

Last year I reviewed another book by Brooke S. Blades, The Americans On D-Day & In Normandy and I found it to be better than I had expected. What about this new book by Mr. Blades then?

Well, the amount of photographs in The Americans From The Ardennes To VE Day is again unusually high, and the photos are generally large and nicely reproduced. This time the book consists of 256 pages and the focus is mainly on the Ardennes i.e. the Battle of the Bulge and to a lesser degree it is about the Allied advance to the Rhine, the airborne operation called Varsity and the final days of the war in Europe. There are several stunning images I have never seen before and the captions are often more informative than normally is the case. Several photos should be able to inspire modellers and reenactors. Some are also quite puzzling, like a British 6th Airborne paratrooper during Operation Varsity, who is wearing several American uniform items. Could he in fact be an American para? Hardly, because his helmet and Sten Mk V ("commando" type) are both British. Thus I reckon the man is either a British or Canadian para.

The text provides views from all ranks and my favorite is a quote from Alfred Jodl that shows just how deluded he was about how British and American soldiers thought. The evaluation of Operation Varsity, a huge airborne operation in which Swedish volunteer Erik G:son Lewenhaupt took part, is sobering. Was Varsity really that necessary? By the way, British airborne volunteer Lewenhaupt is not mentioned in this book but he is in three of mine. James Gavin´s insights about the attitude among regular US infantrymen at the end of the war are also a highlight in the text.

In case you are new to collecting books about the Battle of the Bulge, that constitutes half of this book, you will probably be very pleased with The Americans From The Ardennes To VE Day. If you, like me, already have many Ardennes books, you will recognize several photos from previous books and articles. But, because of the strong images I had not seen before I "forgive" the author for having included those classic photos.

Friday, June 19, 2020

An Eagle´s Odyssey

Ju 52 and Bf 110 are highlighted but in the end the author commanded Bf 109s.

Luftwaffe pilot memoirs are not rare but An Eagle´s Odyssey by Johannes Kaufman deserves special attention. Kaufmann was an extremely experienced pilot when the war ended and tells his story with precision.

Johannes Kaufmann´s first training flights took place in 1935. Ten years later, in April 1945, he escorted colleagues on Kamikaze type missions. What you get from reading An Eagle´s Odyssey is a real insider´s account of what life in the Third Reich´s Luftwaffe was like, from the incredibly fast rise to the ferocious end.

Professor Richard Overy provides a fitting foreword to this piece of air power history and I find it hard to not agree with him both about the great value of the book and also what it is lacking. It is a book that is very, very focused on the Luftwaffe pilot´s training, tools and combat experience. It is almost as if the war beyond the view from the cockpit did not exist. But the author explains this somewhat in passage about when news reached him of Hitler´s order to unleash war upon the West in 1940:

“All hopes of an early end to the war appeared to be dashed. Every radio bulletin was followed with keen interest. There was a definite feeling of apprehension, not to say concern [but] nobody expressed their misgivings out loud. We had already reached the stage where most of us were beginning to think it prudent to keep our views on current events to ourselves.”

Well, if you are aware of the book´s focus on aircraft and flying and are trying to understand e.g. the German side of some event in the air war, then you will be rewarded. To begin with, Johannes Kaufmann will take you along to the Luftwaffe´s early version of basic flying training. Then he flies Ju 52s during the war against Poland, becomes a flight instructor and is put in charge of collecting captured aircraft from all over France. All the time Kaufmann vividly describes his flights.

Messerschmitt´s twin-engined long-range Zerstörer (destroyer), i.e. heavy fighter, the Bf 110, then comes alive. This is thanks to Kaufmann´s posting to the Zerstörerschule (destroyer school) Schleissheim. Then follows a pilot´s view of the Eastern Front and here is a quote from the book to illustrate the early missions over the Soviet Union: “First we dive-bombed the hangars and technical sites, and then went in low to strafe the few aircraft dispersed about the field.”

Of great interest to UK readers should be Kaufmann´s words about how the RAF performed, and how he viewed the Spitfire. The real gem, though, in my opinion, is his time in Jagdgeschwader 4 and especially what he writes about the German Kamikaze equivalents, in German called SO pilots, SO meaning Selbstopfer = self-sacrifice.

This book was first published in German in 1989 but only last year appeared also in English. I have a strong feeling that the translation has captured both the meaning and style of the original text. It has also been somewhat updated, I understand. There are only four photos, on the back cover, but the text is the richest I have so far come across about a Luftwaffe pilot´s flight experiences.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

New LRDG Field Research Expedition

The issue includes two LRDG buff expeditions and some remarkable barn finds.

The times are strange and more trouble seems to be brewing. Still, there is some good news for fans of the early Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) and Special Air Service (SAS) - in the June 2020 issue of Classic Military Vehicle.

CMV has put together a very special LRDG 80th anniversary issue. It starts with a terrific and very visual summary by Toby Savage about the Egyptian LRDG field research trip featured in-depth in Karl-Gunnar Noréns and my book The Long Range Desert Group: History & Legacy, which is also shown in the article.

Very happy too see our book and the LRDG Preservation Society in CMV.

Toby brought along a kite on the trip and took aerial photographs with it and his article starts with a stunning example. The same CMV issue contains a complete surprise for me, an article by James Davis and Martin Spriggs about their Tunisia expedition in late 2019 to find LRDG patrol vehicles. While no complete vehicles were found, LRDG buffs will still find the article of interest and the finds they did make prove that there is more out there to be found. Good to learn about this and that the search in the area will continue.

I was chuffed to bits that CMV editor Andrew Stone was also able to do an interview with LRDG veteran Jack Mann, who was present at our book launch in London last year. Just before Stone was to meet the amazing Mann the pandemic changed everything. But IMHO the interview, mainly by telephone, turned out nicely and above all transmits some of Jack Mann´s remarkable attitude. No wonder he later served with the SAS.

Another morale-boosting section of this CMV issue is the "Military Vehicle Market" that includes some really inspiring barn finds. If you too have a soft spot for the Daimler Dingo - well, then you will just love the issue´s Dingo story. Now, don´t tell me that you also appreciate the odd Panzer? Well, the June issue also has a great Jagdpanzer 38 article that of course also has a Swedish connection. If you have trouble finding CMV for sale where you live, you might consider getting a (digital) CMV subscription.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Hitler´s Spanish Division

This book covers more units than the "Blue Division" of Spanish volunteers.

One of the baffling things about foreigners in the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS is how the really large categories are often ignored, like the Spaniards. This is not least true if we look at articles and books produced here in Scandinavia. Hitler´s Spanish Division provides a surprisingly rich visual overview of the different units with Spanish volunteers.

To give an idea of just how popular it initially was in Spain to volunteer for service in German units on the Eastern Front we can start by just looking at the number of Spanish volunteers in the Luftwaffe, 659 men. That in itself is many more than the number of Swedes in all types of German formations 1939-1945 - there were about 200 Swedes all in all. However, the vast majority of Spaniards of course served in German Army (Heer) units, more than 46,000. Well, if one adds up these with Spains Luftwaffe volunteers and the Spaniards in the Kriegsmarine, Waffen-SS and various Wehrmachtsgefolge (Wehrmacht auxiliaries) like Organisation Todt, then the total figure is around 48,000 Spanish men and women.

Hitler´s Spanish Division by Pablo Sagarra, Óscar González and Lucas Molina make clear just how large the Spanish contribution to Operation Barbarossa was. This they do in an unexpected way - not by focusing on the actions of the German 250th Infantry Division more commonly known as the Blue Division (blue = colour of Spain´s Falangist/Fascist Party) and other German units with Spaniards, but by looking at a select number of individual volunteers. The first chapter is about the three Spanish generals on the Eastern Front, the next about three of the sixteen Spanish colonels in German uniform. I bet you can guess what the third chapter is about. After the two chapters about NCOs and men follows a short but fascinating chapter about the Blue Legion, the successor of the Blue Division (the legion was more like a regiment). The remainder of the book briefly covers Spaniards in the Waffen-SS, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine etc.

The strength of the book lies in the many Eastern Front photos, studio portraits and Osprey-style colour illustrations by Ramiro Bueiro. A large number of original artifacts from volunteers are also shown in colour, mainly decorations and documents. The uniforms demonstrate that the look of the Spaniards could differ quite a lot from German regulations.

In other words, this is a book above all for readers who are into militaria and scale models. But readers more interested in studying volunteer movements, especially Falangist/Fascist volunteers, are at the same time provided with an overview of the Spanish presence on the Eastern Front, plus a rather good glimpse into how much Eastern Front veterans affected the postwar Spanish Armed Forces.

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.