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

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Great Escape – New Nordic Details

This new book about the 1944 prison break by 76 men has some wonderful details.

You perhaps remember from the classic 1963 movie "The Great Escape" (with Steve McQueen) how only three escapees made it to safety - meaning Sweden in two cases. There is now a terrific new book about this most famous escape, with some more Nordic detail.

75 years ago, in March 1944, 76 prisoners of war from different Allied units crawled their way to freedom. The 77th man was spotted by one of the German camp guards. The True Story of the Great Escape by Jonathan F. Vance is a must for people like me, who have always appreciated books about escapes. It is also clear how this book is the result of a lifelong personal interest, and I just love how it starts with the author´s childhood memories of learning about the great escape, contacting veterans and their kind responses to him, a stranger. I have the same experience – all but two or three of the WWII veterans I have contacted over the years have been very helpful and a privilege to get to know.

Going back to the film that has inspired both Mr. Vance and myself, the escape of “Danny” and “Willie” in the movie is based on two Norwegians who escaped by boat to Sweden. Their real names were Per Bergsland and Jens Müller and they were both Norwegian pilots. Now, being Swedish and partly Norwegian, I thought that the final leg of their indeed perfect escape could have been shown some more in the film. Well, I am grateful that the new book has informed me about many nice little escapee details from both the war years and afterwards, and one piece of postwar info about Per Bergsland I feel obliged to share here. Bergsland ended his flight career by becoming CEO of the Norwegian airline Widerøe, the largest regional airline operating in the Nordic countries. So, if you ever fly with Widerøe you can ponder how your flight is connected to one of the best escapees ever.

Read this book both for inspiration and the reading pleasure. The full title of the new book is: The True Story of the Great Escape: Stalag Luft III, March 1944.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

The Undercover Nazi Hunter

"The Voice of Doom" and the SS general designated to lead the British SS legion.

This remarkable book by Wolfe Frank, chief interpreter at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, has two main characters that both deserve more attention: Wolfe Frank himself and the SS general that was supposed to lead the British section of the Waffen-SS.

Thanks to the editor of The Undercover Nazi Hunter, Paul Hooley, a vivid and often surprising picture of Wolfe Frank emerges. He became "the Voice of Doom" which Hermann Göring and other top Nazi leaders heard when they learned their sentences at Nuremberg. But Frank was so much more than an extremely talented interpreter. His path to Nuremberg, from playboy to German refugee to British Army volunteer, is one of those most incredible but true stories of WWII. The amount of work that the editor has invested in researching Frank´s whole career is impressive and the result is also a vast painting of post-war Germany with many insights.

A large part of the book, almost a hundred pages, deals with the testimony of SS General Waldemar Wappenhans. This amount of pages is warranted. Wappenhans was told by SS leader Heinrich Himmler that he was to take charge of the "British Legion" within the Waffen-SS. In other words the British Free Corps of the Waffen-SS originally known as the Legion of Saint George. Now, very little became of those ideas, but this book does provides some amazing pieces of the fantasy world of Himmler. The main value of the book´s large section about Wappenhans lies in something else - he managed to serve both in the German army, Luftwaffe and SS. His pilot experiences from 1918, flying against Lawrence of Arabia, are sure to interest WWI researchers and buffs. His account of fighting Soviet partisans is another highly interesting passage, although it quite surely lacks several darker aspects of these actions. While the chapters about Wolfe Frank were in some cases too long, the parts about Waldemar Wappenhans could have been longer.

Monday, June 03, 2019

LRDG & SAS Veteran Still Knows How To Win

LRDG & SAS veteran Jack Mann with the authors at the book launch in London.

There are Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) enthusiasts all over the world, but only a handful have driven in the tracks of the LRDG in WWII Jeeps to find what remains of the legendary unit in modern Egypt. Having taken part in the "2,300-mile Sahara epic", my friend Karl-Gunnar Norén decided to write a book with LRDG history highlights, original LRDG training notes and his own Jeep experiences.

Karl-Gunnar had been to several deserts, not least in Libya, but to experience something of the original environment and challenges of the LRDG he needed to find fellow enthusiasts. This he did by joining the LRDG research expedition of Toby Savage, that consisted of two 1943 made Jeeps and a team of true LRDG enthusiasts from the UK and US supported by Egyptian travel & security professionals. One of the results is the wonderful photograph on the front cover of our book, taken by John Carroll. That´s Karl-Gunnar behind the S Patrol Ford. To his own desert experiences he added LRDG training notes and photographs from the archive of LRDG founder Ralph Bagnold within the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge.

By inviting me to join his LRDG book project, Karl-Gunnar could add one more ingredient to the historic chapters, the story of William "Swede" Anderson of the LRDG G Patrol. I had the good fortune to be introduced to "Swede" in 1988 by the always helpful LRDG Association Secretary James D. Patch (whom I probably found thanks to the journal After the Battle - at any rate that journal´s LRDG issue played a key part in this whole project). I wrote to Bill "Swede" Anderson and received several letters in reply. Some he wrote himself, some his wife Pat wrote for him due to his health.

William "Swede" Anderson of the LRDG. Photo via Peter Anderson & David Hall.

In the 1980s I was not able to realize my dream to travel to North Africa in a Jeep and then write a book about the LRDG. But the mail from Bill Anderson did have a profound effect on me. While he had never been a Swedish citizen and was actually of Swedish-Norwegian descent, the fact that he had been known as "Swede" within the LRDG inspired me to find out how many Swedes (mainly Swedish citizens) served in various armies during WWII, a search that has so far resulted in several books in Swedish and one in English (Swedes at War with Lennart Westberg).

And in the end, thanks to Karl-Gunnar and two publishers, Lind & Co in Sweden and Helion & Company in England, my now rather old book idea has finally been realized. With some help from e.g. Jack Valenti of the LRDG Preservation Society and the family of William Anderson, some more photographs could be added to the English edition of our book, that we were able to release at the Swedish Embassy in London on May 24. We were delighted that several relatives of Bill Anderson could attend together with a very much alive LRDG and SAS veteran, Jack Mann. The best operators are not only warriors but can also talk their way out of prison. Which is exactly what Jack Mann did. You can read about Jack in the brilliant Churchill´s Secret Warriors by Damien Lewis, but meeting him in person is of course extraordinary. After just a few words from him, some in very good Swedish, it became clear why Jack Mann is still a winner. His willpower and charm are intact.

We also revisited our Egyptian "star", the LRDG Chevrolet at IWM London.

A close relative of LRDG founder Ralph Bagnold was also present, and we will never ever forget the special gift we received from you sir! We were also pleasantly surprised that a man who has long inspired us could attend the book launch, After the Battle Editor-in-Chief Winston G. Ramsey. We are also indebted to Peter Jörgensen, Colonel Per Jenvald, Nigel Hirst, John Gilmour and Mikael Norman. We hereby thank all who attended the launch and look forward to meeting you again in London, Stockholm, Cairo or up here in Swedish Lapland.

Finally, a huge thank you to all the staff at our UK publisher, Helion & Company.


Friday, May 03, 2019

Nordic Combat Uniform News

In a few years no longer standard issue: the Swedish uniform system 90.

The contract for a common uniform system for the Nordic states will be signed next year. Also, Sweden´s current standard camouflage pattern might be replaced. All according to the new issue of the official journal of the Swedish Armed Forces.

Nordic defence cooperation has been going on longer than many realize and seems to rarely spark major interest here in Sweden. However, this may be about to change due to the coming common uniform system of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. The latest issue of the Swedish defence journal Försvarets Forum contains some interesting news about the coming Nordic Combat Uniform (NCU). First of all the article (on p. 5) makes clear that the NCU prototypes will be tested at six Swedish regiments, and the tests there will start later this year. Next year the contract will be signed and the first regular uniforms are to be delivered to Swedish units in 2023 - for some unknown reason it seems the Danes will get them before the Swedes.

The article states that the new uniforms will both be "lighter and more durable". The camouflage pattern used on the outerwear garments may differ from country to country. But, the article also states that "For Sweden, it might be time to change camouflage pattern". This is confirmed in this more illustrated article, also from an official website. The current standard Swedish camouflage pattern for outerwear is called M90 and yours truly witnessed some of the M90 tests during my basic military training in 1988-89. Agreed, that is a pretty long time ago. But personally speaking I reckon the M90 is rather perfect in Swedish forests. Well, I guess I should not exclude that they will come up with something even better.

Being a history freak I would say that NCU will not be the first Nordic uniform, as due to the Soviet Winter War against Finland in 1939-40, the Swedish Volunteer Corps (SFK) issued one uniform system to both Swedish and Norwegian volunteers for Finland. This system was essentially the Swedish m/39. The main difference was the buttons, that were not Swedish Army issue.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Luftwaffe Kitbag

The cover provides a glimpse of the many excellent photos inside.

Having seen many books about uniforms and equipment I can say few are in the same league as The Luftwaffe Battle of Britain Fighter Pilot´s Kitbag by Mark Hillier. Yes, it is not about the invasion of Norway - but as the Battle of Britain began only a month after the fall of Norway, most items featured in this book were also used in the skies over Scandinavia.

As the long subtitle makes clear, Uniforms & Equipment from the Summer of 1940 and the Human Stories Behind Them, this book provides more than uniform photos and captions. It also contains rare and excellent period photographs and other illustrations, as well as text filled with insights and Luftwaffe terminology. The mostly large size photographs are splendid, all those showing preserved items are of course in colour.

Mark Hillier´s new book clearly demonstrates how different the Luftwaffe was in its uniform and insignia style, when compared to the army, navy and SS. My favourite section of the book is "Other Flying Equipment and Paperwork" because it includes two types of watches, the Luftwaffe basic flight computer and ground strafing/dive bombing flight computer, maps, pencils, logbook, Wehrpass and handbook.

This is a very useful guide for museum staff, private collectors, the film industry, reenactors and model figure enthusiasts.

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.