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

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Mercenary Behind Alexander Skarsgård: The Real Tarzan Story

The man who found Tarzan, Swedish soldier of fortune Ivor Thord-Gray, and the latest person to portray Tarzan, Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård. PHOTOS: Umeå University Research Library & Nick Step

All reviewers of the most recent Tarzan movie have so far missed a most ironic (even spooky - compare the faces above) aspect of a Swede portraying the "lord of the jungle": the origin of the Tarzan legend can be traced to a Swedish mercenary in Africa. I have researched his long and stunning career.

Alexander Skarsgård´s face is now on several magazine covers here in Sweden and many other countries too - because of his latest film role, depicting one of the oldest and most iconic action characters ever. I too have now been to the cinema and have seen "The Legend of Tarzan". This latest version of the story mostly takes place after he has spent several years in England, but it also looks back at the crucial childhood moments of John Clayton, the baby boy that after some rather rough ape training turned into the legendary Tarzan. However, nowhere in the movie or on the internet have I found anything to suggest that any film maker, critic or Skarsgård himself is aware of the Swedish origin of the Tarzan story. True, very little has been written in English about this in recent years. But if one can understand Swedish there is a book focused on this aspect, the translated title being The Man Who Found Tarzan (so far only available in Swedish, Mannen som hittade Tarzan) by Joakim Langer.

Well, who found Tarzan, or more correctly, who gave Edgar Rice Burroughs the story that he in 1912 transformed into Tarzan of the Apes? There is much that points at a man from Stockholm, Thord Ivar Hallström. His life might seem just too incredible to be true, especially coming from such a peaceful country as Sweden. But there are many thousand documents, including good photographs, in several official archives in Sweden, Britain and the United States plus private archives in several countries - all proving that Hallström, who after entering British military service in Africa became Ivor Thord-Gray, is Sweden´s most experienced soldier of fortune ever. He served under no less than 13 different flags and fought not only in Europe and Africa but also in Asia and Latin America. In Mexico, 1914, in Pancho Villa’s service, he was in charge of the artillery. During the Russian Civil War (1917-1922) he was highly decorated and rose to the rank of a Russian general in Siberia. In 1935, he was again promoted to the rank of general, this time in the United States. Fighting in hot or freezing places was not his only talent, though. Before he died he managed to conduct enough research to become a respected ethnologist and linguist. You will find more details about Thord-Gray´s military career in Swedes at War 1914-1945 by yours truly and Lennart Westberg.

The above photograph of Thord-Gray is one of several I found in his under-researched archive within the University of Umeå. It depicts him as a cavalry volunteer on the British side in South Africa. It was during these years that he took part in the capture of a human, a boy, who had been living with some baboons. Joakim Langer has found the first traces of this account in Cape Town. It was in the Mount Nelson Hotel that Thord-Gray in September 1906, thus soon 110 years ago, told a local journalist about a boy raised by apes. That interview was later quoted by American journalists. The similarities between Thord-Gray´s account in 1906 and the 1912 tale of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs are in themselves telling. But one can also, as Joakim Langer has done, look closer at Tarzan´s noble name. Aside from being born as John Clayton he is also Lord Greystoke. In the early 20th century Thord-Gray spellt his name Thord-Grey. Lord Greystoke and Thord-Grey...

The 1906 interview with Thord-Gray about a boy raised by apes seems not yet to have appeared on the net. However, search engines can locate, in old US newspapers, this article that appeared in print the first time in May 1934:

The story of a famous fiction character, who was raised from babyhood by a tribe of apes, is entirely plausible, says Major General Ivor Thord-Gray, soldier of fortune who recently received the most valued decoration of the Swedish Government. Thord-Gray, who has campaigned and explored in a dozen countries and holds numerous decorations, related the story of a sickly eight-year-old white boy, who was seized by baboons while he was serving in the British Army at Pondoland, South Africa. The boy was being wheeled about in a perambulator by a native girl when several score of baboons swooped down upon a nearby field, where corn was ripening. The girl became frightened and fled. Soldiers drove off the animals and found the perambulator empty. The body of a young baboon lay alongside the carriage. "Well, it was not until four years later," he said, "that we got any inkling of his whereabouts." "About a day's march from camp," he said, "a sergeant came running up and told us he had discovered a hairless baboon. We followed him to the base of a. cliff and there before us was the body of a big, husky boy. his skull cracked and bleeding "The scouting party had found him among a family of baboons. The beasts, seeing the approach of the party, tried to scamper up the cliff. Most of them escaped but the boy, not as agile as the beasts, slipped and fell to the bottom. "The boy was more ferocious than the baboons. He jabbered in their language and was as wild as any ape."

Considering Ivor Thord-Gray´s words and that Tarzan now also is portrayed by a countryman of Thord-Gray, one might say that in 2016 Tarzan of the Apes earned a new title: Tarzan of the Swedes.

What I thought about the new movie? Beautiful and pretty good entertainment, but the ending is kind of...

Friday, June 10, 2016

Remains of Panzerkampfwagen 35 S Close To Sweden

Tank commander cupola from a Panzerkampfwagen 35 S, still out in the open.

I had underestimated how much there was left to see of the 1944 battles on the Finnish side of the Tornio Valley, the bilingual region situated where Sweden and Finland share a common land border. Thanks to Finnish author Mika Kulju we got to see not only WWII foxholes - some still quite deep - but also the remains of a German tank turret cupola, still out in the open.

Mika Kulju has written extensively about both the Winter War and Continuation War. It is no wonder he knows his stuff as he actually grew up on a 1944 battlefield. So, we could not have had a better guide to see physical remains of what happened around Tornio when the Finnish Army launched a surprise attack against the German troops there, in October 1944. But how did a tank from France end up in this battle??? Because the above tank commander cupola was once attached to a French tank. It was first known as Somua S 35 and 450 of them were made...

Well, the German Army in 1940 managed to capture almost 300 of these tanks and soon put them to use against new enemies, mostly the Soviets. They made some slight improvements, like cutting down the commander's observation cupola a bit and adding a two-piece hatch to it. They called the result Panzerkampfwagen 35 S. In the big French tank museum in Saumur you can see one of these, albeit painted in pre-German fashion.

The Saumur Tank Museum´s Panzerkampfwagen 35 S with the same type of cupola (on top) as in the previous photo, but plus the two-piece hatch. PHOTO: Antonov14

When the Finnish troops were confronted with this type of tank by Tornio in October 1944 they used not least German anti-tank weapons to blow them apart. In typical Finnish fashion a local citizen then decided to put the cupola to use by making it part of a sauna! Make sauna, not war... The "tank sauna", however, did not last and the cupola was chucked out in the open, where it still is in 2016.

Mika Kulju (left) with the owner of what may be the last remaining part of the German tanks that were destroyed by the Finnish Army by Tornio.

Below are some more photos to give you an idea of our trip, including a sign in Russian and Finnish on the Tornio railway station that was fought over in 1944 but had already been part of world history, when Lenin in 1917 was there on his way from exile in Switzerland to chaos in Russia.

Just what are we doing in the above photo? Well after having walked the battlefields we of course simulated the battle by playing TORNIO ´44, a board game in English produced in 2015 by a talented wargamer, Mikael Grönroos. The game is soon to be marketed in Pennan & Svärdet. Much more can be said about what we saw and learnt thanks to the generous Mika Kulju, but I am saving some special stories from this battle for a coming book of mine in English about WWII in Arctic Europe. Meanwhile, if you can read Swedish or Finnish, make sure to check out Mika Kulju´s books and then find out from TORNIO ´44 if you can "alter" history. If you haven´t seen my previous report about WWI & WWII sights in central Tornio I think you might now want to check it out.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

German Submarine U-864 Norwegian News

Excellent video update in English.

There is some good news about the wreck of the German submarine U-864, recently the subject of a book also translated into Swedish (Jakten på ubåt 864). Check out the above video update in English from the Norwegian Coastal Administration.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Joining the Legion

Nope, I have not joined the Foreign Legion and at my age I do not think I would be accepted either.

But have a good April 1st!

And... if you are interested in Swedes (and some Norwegians too) that actually were in the French Foreign Legion - then click the tag below these words that reads "Foreign Legion" and you will then see all my blog posts about the subject.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Skorzeny, Mossad & Sweden

Otto Skorzeny in Nuremberg in late 1945. Photo: NARA

Waffen-SS special operations commander Otto Skorzeny, at one point known as the most dangerous man in Europe, became one of the Israeli Mossad’s "most valuable assets". That is the assertion in the most amazing WWII story to be published in a serious newspaper in a long, long time.

The article "The Strange Case of a Nazi Who Became an Israeli Hitman" was published yesterday in Haaretz and reads almost like a Hollywood script. The newspaper and writers behind the article force one to take the story seriously in spite of how unlikely it sounds. But, what should the next steps be? Because, considering just who Skorzeny was, more commentary is necessary, and then some documents. Who to call? Well, aside from German historians I would recommend the Swedish author and journalist Niclas Sennerteg. He has recently written a most impressive book about Third Reich officers and scientists in the service of postwar Egypt: Hakkorset & halvmånen, in English it would be "The Swastika & The Crescent". My first take is that what Sennerteg has written about the disappearance of the German rocket scientist Heinz Krug and also about Skorzeny make parts of the new story not that hard to accept, but I would especially like to see more about Skorzeny himself shooting Krug.

My interest in Skorzeny goes back many years. Right here and now I will reveal that in a coming book of mine (out next year, I reckon) there will be a chapter about a Swede who opposed Skorzeny´s unit during the Battle of the Bulge.

Monday, March 21, 2016

First Star Wars Scenes Ever Were Filmed 40 Years Ago

The Star Wars Lars´ homestead interior is now also being restored by Tunisian fans.

on March 22, 1976 the actual filming for the first ever "Star Wars" movie began, in the Tunisian desert. In moviemaking language: principal photography started. As a fan mostly of the first movie, later known as Episode IV, I will of course be watching the first recorded scenes again, exactly 40 years since they were filmed. The filming happened to start at Luke Skywalker´s home, the Lars´ homestead.

Yes, the same set that a group of fans restored in 2012 and that I blogged about then. Since that project was realized a group of Tunisian fans decided to also restore the interior of the homestead, located inside the Sidi Driss Hotel in Matmata, Tunisia (do not miss the above clip made by the fans themselves).

From the book The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler one can learn about day 1 that the first scenes to be filmed included Mark Hamill as Luke, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, Kenny Baker in the R2-D2 shell, Phil Brown as Owen Lars (uncle Owen) and twelve Tunisians, local children, as Jawas. "I got very badly cut up" Daniels remembers about day 1, and for more memories from it you really should ge Rinzler´s great (also in size) book.

As I am writing these words I feel a great urge to go back to my roots, my early motives. Because, silly as it may sound, that first Star Wars movie affected my thinking about life in several ways. Had the good fortune to be able to see it when it came out here in Sweden in late 1977.

Right now, Episode VIII is being filmed and if you are wondering how I feel about it, well - I am not that strongly interested. Certainly, I will go see it with my family. But there is no true passion in my interest - as Episode VII in my opinion was only a small improvement compared to the previous three movies (i.e. Episodes I-III). Sure, Ep. VII has some terrific scenes and as a Swede it was pretty fun to note that it opened with a Swedish actor, Max von Sydow, and ended with a Swedish American, Mark Hamill. But, all in all, I can´t help thinking of how the immense resources available to the moviemakers could have been used with a better script, one with better dialogue. Princess Leia had such wonderful lines in Ep I-III and sadly nothing came even close to them in Ep. VII. And it is not like there was a lack of dialogue out there that could have been used. Take for example Boba Fett in book 1 of the series The Bounty Hunter Wars: The Mandalorian Armor (1998) by K.W. Jeter. To quote Jeter/Fett: "They have their standards ... and I have mine".

Boba Fett is on to something.

Speaking about Tunisia, soon after seeing Star Wars (Ep. IV) I discovered another theme that I still feel passionate about: WWII special forces in North Africa. As a result, I am currently translating a book about the first of them.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

He Found Swedish Wartime Missing Links

With Carl Finstrom, instrumental in bringing to light Swedish WWII history, in 2010.

At the time of writing, a colonel of special significance for modern Swedish history is being interred at the Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington. He had a very Swedish name: Carl Gustav Finstrom (originally Finström) and his parents were from Sweden and Norway. But Carl, as he mostly was known, was a US citizen and officer. But most of all he was a gentleman.

Carl was one of the most talented persons I have met. He was born in 1936 and graduated from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois with a bachelor's of science degree in chemistry minoring in geology. He earned several postgraduate degrees. As an officer in the US Army he experienced many different assignments, finally as a military attache in London and Stockholm. After having retired he could use more of his time to conduct research in the sphere of history (not just military) and not least in Nordic WWII history.

To me and my co-author Lennart Westberg, Carl will always be in our memories as a cheerful friend and fellow WWII researcher. Without Carl it is most doubtful if there would exist an English version of Swedes at War 1914-1945. Therefore it was a good moment in the midst of my sadness when I learnt from Carl´s wonderful wife, Joanne, that Carl in spite of his illness was able to read our sequel to that book shortly before he died.

Carl provided lots of documentation from US archives, proving the extent of Sweden´s covert and even today not fully known support for Allied WWII operations. His research work is part of two of my books and one can also see traces of Carl´s work inside two of the still standing Sepals bases here in Swedish Lapland. Thank you, Carl, for all your support and for making us glad so many times.