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

Friday, July 29, 2016

German Paratrooper Bicycle Mystery

Very rare and, being made for paratroopers, collapsible: a Fallschirmjäger Fahrrad, in the new Narvik museum.

How did a German paratrooper bicycle end up in Narvik? I think I have seen every published photo of German paras at Narvik and have never seen them riding any kind of bike. But there certainly was such a thing as a special collapsible bicycle for German paras. Well, the rare bike was not the only surprise I got in the new Narvik War Museum.

To get to Narvik my pal Mikke and I took the train from Luleå in Swedish Lapland. Before entering Narvik itself we did a quick hike in the border area, as it still, after a dozen or so hikes, presents us with traces of WWII that we have not seen before. Not to speak of the splendid view you get from the WWII border positions. This time we saw three German positions we had missed previously and were surprised to see how, on the top Swedish position, the Swedish three crowns painted by Swedish soldiers in 1940 (!) were more easily discernible, thanks to the damp weather. I have some photos from that hike on my other blog (in Swedish but with several photos).

Moving on to central Narvik, the largest museum sign is still (July 2016) there, on what used to be the Red Cross War Memorial Museum. But the museum itself is no longer there but has transformed into the Narvik War Museum and is located across the street inside the very modern Narviksenteret, to be precise on Kongens gate 39.

Well, what about the contents? I have good news and not so good news.

Being able to see unique pieces of history real close, like the above hand-painted German mine sign, was one of the best aspects of the previous museum. Sadly, most artifacts are now behind glass. One can understand why (theft, vandalism), but nevertheless it is sad. This mine sign is one of the items still on open display.

Another fav artifact of mine is this British tropical helmet that was washed ashore in Narvik during the fierce naval battles of April 1940. Why a tropical helmet? Well, missions in tropical waters were considered highly probable for many British naval vessels - so it was part of standard kit on board.

Have you seen this type of Luftwaffe oxygen mask before? Interesting to see rare artifacts, but how about some more info about it?

A new and good aspect of the new museum is how some key facts are highlighted, like how 4 of 10 male adults in Norway 1940-45 were German soldiers or civilians in occupation duties.

Good to see how modern presentation technology is used to explain the fighting around Narvik.

Also good to see the very first Victoria Cross ( but a replica?) awarded during WWII, beside which are these, the last words of the recipient, Captain Bernard Warburton-Lee. However, his last name is incorrect in this place in the museum ("Warbourton") while in the other place it is correct.

Also interesting to see badges of units for Georgian, Russian and Norwegian "volunteers" (some were genuine, some not) in German military and construction service in Norway. But what about some more info and photos? This is a part of the occupation years that one would like to know more about.

Well, here there are several errors in the text. To start with these are not "service badges" but campaign shields, and German soldiers did simply not "...get badges for each battle they participated in". There were not even a dozen campaign shields. But the Narvik shield was the first one.

The French Hotchkiss tank that previously was outside the museum is now on the bottom floor and part of an arty display with some sort of peace message. There is no info about the tank itself and its role in the Allied amphibious operation of May 28, 1940.

This is one of the strangest aspects of the new museum - this is all the information about the Allied bases on Swedish territory whose personnel operated well inside the Narvik region. Not even the names of the bases are mentioned (Kari, Sepals I-III).

The whole museum starts with this large size conflict cycle. Sure, it can be said to be true for many conflicts. But how relevant is it to the Narvik 1940 scenario?

Now, my main criticism about the new museum is difficult to illustrate with artifacts now on display, because, basically, it is about what is NOT there. I have no exact stats but it is clear from many visits to the previous museum that a very large part of the artifacts one could see before are no longer displayed. There are some new things, the IMHO most interesting of them in the above photos. But even when one adds the new artifacts the total number is low when compared to similar museums. Add to this that the new entrance fee, 100 NOK, is about double what it was.

Quantities aside, the new museum largely does not highlight what was and still is so special with the battle of Narvik. Before 1940 there had only been very small scale airborne operations - in the Soviet Union against Muslim insurgents. One can therefore say that the paratroopers in Narvik are part of a milestone in warfare. Right now the airborne dimension of Narvik is shown only by that paratrooper bicycle. Do keep the rare bike in the exhibition, especially if it nevertheless was in use in Narvik in 1940 (I am not excluding that but would sure like to see a photo), but please also show a paratrooper and a parachute container with contents.

Also of significance, but mainly for the Allied side: the amphibious operation against the Germans in Narvik town on May 28, 1940. Why not at least a scale model diorama of that event, highlighting the failed use of French tanks, the extremely steep landing area, and the German use of railway guns?

Then there were the impressive Norwegian and Polish infantry operations high up in the mountains (and why not explain General Fleischer´s significance?). The challenge of the mountains was well illustrated in the previous location of the museum by a 1:1 diorama, an original German mountain position that had been moved into the museum. This was one of the most impressive displays and should be possible to show on the bottom floor of the new museum.

Many of the most interesting larger artifacts in the previous museum such as a "human torpedo" and a Kettenkrad tracked motorcycle should be possible to show either in the long winding corridor to the bottom floor or on that floor.

Lots of photographs from the previous museum could easily adorn the walls of that same corridor. And why not add some info about how to get to the unique wreck of the destroyer Georg Thiele and places where you can easily still visit German and Norwegian WWII positions, e.g. Björnfjell?

Finally, how about at least a sentence about the dozen Swedish volunteers at Narvik (in Norwegian and French uniforms)? The museum has received at least one battlefield trophy from one of them, Jan Danielsen.

Basically, the museum ought to have in storage most of what is needed to improve it.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for your thorough and interesting review of the Narvik War Museum. On behalf of the museum I would like to take the opportunity to comment on a couple of your points.
    As you know: at the heart of all storytelling lies identifying your audience and the angle of your story. Given that the Ministry of Education provides a significant part of our funding for us to provide training to youth we have chosen to set these as the primary target group. In contrast to the old museum this has some consequences for the way the texts are written, the level of detail provided on each subject and the amount of items on display in the museum. Although many of our visitors with a keen interest in WWII history would like to see as many items as possible, a very common criticism to the old museum from the not-so-interested was that there simply was to many items, not labeled etc.
    For us it has been a laborious and painful exercise having to cut historic facts and items to make the museum as understandable as possible to a broad public, keeping the text length to a minimum.

    The new exhibition also has a larger scope with regards to geography and time, which means that not only items and stories exclusively related to Narvik has a place in the exhibition. That is also the reason for the «Anatomy of War». Actually, if you look at Narvik 1940, it does not fit at all, which can be said for many of todays situations as well. In order to understand Narvik 1940 you have to look further, which is what he will try to help young people to do.
    We are acutely aware of the importance of the use of paratroopers and airborne supplies in the war theatre of Narvik 1940. There are other «firsts» as well, of particular interest to military historians, for instance the first integrated allied naval, army and air operation. But again, having chosen our primary audience we have not chosen to put those at the front.

    Having said that, I must add that there is actually a drop-container set to be mounted on the wall above the display, the mini-submarine will be on display (and this time fully mounted on top of a full size torpedo). There are also plans for displaying the Kettenkrad as well as several of the other large items. There simply wasn’t enough time before opening….
    We also have plans for some more interactive maps but we had to make some cuts due to budgets.
    When it comes to visits out of the museum we are working with the proper authorities to do that. Sadly, there are many looters and as none of the Bjørnfjell positions have been properly excavated and preserved by archeologists we have been advised not to give the precise locations. However, this is something we are working on.
    We will take your comments and suggestions into account when further developing the museum. We already have plans and space for temporary exhibitions to show items in storage, which we have quite a lot of.

    Eystein Markusson
    Narvik War Museum

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    1. Sorry for my late reply - see below. Cheers, Lars

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  2. Many thanks for the above comments! Sadly, it was sorted as spam and I only discovered it today. Wishing you the best of luck with your important work. Kind regards, Lars

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