About Me

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

Friday, March 15, 2019

Best Photo Book About Normandy 1944

This photo on the cover has a Swedish connection, of course. PHOTO: NARA

There are so many books about Normandy 1944, so why another one? Well, The Americans On D-Day & In Normandy by Brooke S. Blades was better than I expected because it largely consists of 252 pages of great photos with mostly excellent captions. The majority of the photos are new to me, a "Normandy buff" since the 1980s.

What about the Swedish connection to the front cover photograph? Well, it is also featured in my latest WWII book. I had the good fortune to be able to establish good contact with one of the paratroopers who sat in the captured Volkswagen pictured above, or one just like it. His name was Gösta Wollin and he was a volunteer from Ystad in south Sweden. In my book Gösta Wollin mentions this vehicle and what it was like riding around Normandy in it.

The captions in The Americans On D-Day & In Normandy are mostly very informative and the book includes good credits, notes and references. A few of the photos I had seen before - but Brooke S. Blades has then provided a better caption than in previous publications. Several of the images are not only interesting for military historians but are just really amazing photographs - I was baffled I had not seen these before. Several maps and after the battle photographs (so important for trips to the area) make this book a must to bring along on my next trip to Normandy. Simply put, The Americans On D-Day & In Normandy is the best photo book about Normandy 1944 that I have so far come across.

Monday, March 04, 2019

The Empire Strikes Norway

First to be filmed back in 1979 was Mark Hamill. PHOTO: Dutch National Archives

Forty years ago, the filming of "The Empire Strikes Back" began. The location is more spectacular than most people realize - it is connected to Hitler´s "Uranprojekt".

The first planet you get to know in "Star Wars" (later retitled "Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope") is Tatooine, one big, hot desert. Principal photography for that movie began in March 1976 in Tunisia. So, to contrast nicely, the filming of the sequel began near a remote Norwegian village, Finse, on March 5, 1979. The wilderness around Finse, mainly the Hardangerjøkulen (Hardanger Glacier), portrays Hoth, a planet consisting basically of an endless desert of ice and snow. Hoth is the home of the Rebel Alliance's secret Echo Base.

For fans who would like to visit Hoth/Finse, THE place to stay is Hotell Finse 1222, where the now mega-famous cast and crew lodged. Most of the Hoth locations are pretty close to the hotel. Now, to really experience the large Norwegian chunk of "The Empire Strikes Back" there is a special program taking place in Finse March 8-10. But ultra fans will of course be there earlier, to reenact the first scene with Mark Hamill, that was filmed on March 5 due to a bad snow storm that began the day before. The storm made filming that day on the glacier virtually impossible, so director Irvin Kershner instead filmed a scene in which Luke Skywalker was mostly just crawling in the snow. This scene was possible to film with the camera within the hotel. Thus, when Hamill/Skywalker escapes from the snow monster he is actually just some metres from his warm and cozy hotel.

The weather did not stop challenging the production and some props were very well covered with snow. According to a reliable Norwegian source, a few years ago it was still possible to find remains of "The Empire Strikes Back" on the glacier. Now I reckon there are very few, if any, left outside, but at least there are some nice photos in the hotel, as well as an original rebel "ski cap" left behind in 1979. What will always remain is the Hoth landscape, and the atmosphere.

What many Star Wars fans have not realized is that this part of Norway is of global significance not just because of "The Empire Strikes Back". Only some 100 kilometres southeast of Finse one finds Vemork, a hydroelectric power plant outside Rjukan. Vemork was the site of the first plant in the world to mass-produce heavy water - needed for the German nuclear weapons program, the "Uranprojekt". My latest book in Swedish, Elitförband i Norden, happens to partly be about the Special Operations Executive (SOE) sabotage operations that destroyed the heavy water production. So, if you are both a true Star Wars fan and WWII buff, you ought to combine your visit to Finse with seeing Vemork and visiting the museum there.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Modern Italian View of El Alamein

M13/40 at El Alamein. Photo: No 1 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Windows (Sgt)

You have seen the classic Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) movie "Sea of Sand" as well as "Ice Cold in Alex" (both from 1958!) and are looking for some other good movies about WWII in the desert? Well, recently I saw an Italian film about El Alamein that really made an impression on me.

There have been more movies made about the war in North Africa than most can imagine, both British, US, Italian and French films. In 2008 even a Czech & Slovak production was released, "Tobruk", about two Czechoslovak soldiers fighting in Tobruk. I have not yet been able to get hold of the latter, but here follows a short review of the probably latest Italian movie, marketed as either just "el-Alamein" or "El Alamein - The Line of Fire" (In Italian: "El Alamein - La linea del fuoco"). It is a 2002 film written and directed by Enzo Monteleone that lets the viewer see the Second battle of El Alamein from an Italian perspective. This alone is refreshing, as most war movies shown here in Scandinavia have an American or British perspective. But aside from that it is quite simply a good movie - not the best war movie I have ever seen, but certainly among the ten best.

"el-Alamein" does not really focus on one soldier, although Private Serra (Paolo Briguglia), an enthusiastic student who has volunteered, holds the film together. I would say that this film is unusually good at portraying a unit, in this case a platoon in the Italian 28th Infantry Regiment. The film brings home the alien atmosphere of the desert and how the Italians adapt to it. While I am no expert at Italian uniforms, small arms and vehicles I believe the film makers have gone to unusually great lengths to give it an authentic and gritty look. In some scenes they have been forced to use modern APCs as tanks - but they have done this in a very clever way, making it difficult to recognize their true shape. Generally speaking, almost every scene in this film has an amazingly authentic look and the desert itself is filmed with great talent.

There are few scenes with German and British troops, but that is quite all right, because after a short while you really want to find out what will happen to the Italian characters.

Now, if only some film director could realize how much movie audiences need a colour movie about the LRDG. Then, if that director could find the people behind the amazing look of "el-Alamein"...

Friday, February 15, 2019

Countering Terrorism Today

Actions by counter-terrorist units in 16 different states are portrayed in this book.

If you are interested in how different countries act against terrorists, there is a new book out by Austrian investigative journalist and author Judith Grohmann. Her book Fighting the War on Terror: Global Counter-terrorist Units and their Actions provides insights into selected actions of counter-terrorism (CT) units in 16 countries.

The IS-terrorists may have lost most of their territory, but terrorism has always adapted and transformed itself. Thus the specialized CT units around the globe will hardly be disbanded anytime soon - and it is interesting to compare where these units stand today. As the book´s author is Austrian the book quite logically begins with an action of the Austrian Einsatzkommando Cobra. What the author does is to immediately make clear how many preparations are necessary to make sure a major VIP visit ends the way it should. There is, naturally, much more safety work behind these visits than you can imagine. Well, this book makes it possible to imagine a bit more.

Equipment and insignia are not so much the focus of this book (I will be reviewing such a book in the near future), but rather some of the major actions of CT units of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Israel, Austria and eleven more states. There is also an interesting part about the European police tactical unit network called ATLAS, that has evolved since 2001, i.e. after the September 11 attacks. Too bad this exchange of proven CT practices and procedures between nations didn't start right after the catastrophe of the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. The number of units within ATLAS is currently no less than 36. The major Swedish CT unit, NI, is not really featured in this book but yours truly can here add that NI is a part of ATLAS.

Interestingly, the UK focus of the book is the Specialist Firearms Command, SCO19. The main Israeli unit featured is Yamam. The Russian chapter, focused on SOBR, is of little interest and there is only one SOBR photo. The chapters about CT units in smaller states provide more valuable information.

The copy of Fighting the War on Terror that I have reviewed is an English one but the book has also appeared or will appear in German, Polish, French, Romanian and other languages.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

New 6th SS "Nord" Book

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

Swedish WWII Paratrooper Song

Gösta Wollin jumped over Normandy on D-Day without any jump training.

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

The Gestapo´s Most Improbable Hostage

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.