Thursday, January 30, 2020
Quite a few readers of this blog may have read several books about the WWII Special Air Service and also the SAS during recent years. But what about the first postwar decades of the SAS? Here is a book that both covers WWII experiences and some of the more interesting post-1945 SAS episodes until the 1970s. And, of course, there are some Nordic connections.
As some readers may have noticed, I have a special interest in SAS history. This should become more apparent here, as I am planning to blog more about the SAS. Keystone of 22 SAS is, simply put, a fine account both of the life, mostly in the SAS, and times of Lieutenant Colonel John Woodhouse MBE MC. He first experienced combat in a conventional British Army unit in North Africa and there, strangely enough, is the first Nordic connection in the book. For more than twenty years I have been hiking on Arctic WWII battlefields and the type of tin cans that I have most often encountered in German positions are cans that once contained Norwegian fish. Therefore I can recall images from my memory when the book´s author, Alan Hoe (himself an SAS veteran), writes about Woodhouse often eating captured (from the Germans) Norwegian sardines in North Africa.
Keystone of 22 SAS quite often contains Woodhouse´s own words and here are some sentences from his diary in 1944 to give you an idea of his wartime reflections:
"The German soldiers had an unshakable belief in their superiority over all other nations and armies. They had been led to believe that war was glorious and Hitler [...] was invincible. The Wehrmacht was very well led, better equipped and by 1943 more battle experienced than we were. [...] I was often fearful but it always mattered greatly to me that I should be well regarded and respected by the soldiers I commanded. This helped in overcoming fear."
It was in the ruins of the Third Reich that Woodhouse entered a door that eventually led to the SAS. By exaggerating his contacts with Soviet soldiers while he was a PoW, he managed to get a place in a Russian language course. On the successful completion of the course he was posted to Germany where he joined the Control Commission to act as interpreter between Soviet and British military groups. A short time later he was switched to army intelligence. He then exeperienced some memorable encounters both with Soviets, including an early defector, and Germans like Hanna Reitsch, "[...] the only German I met who had the courage still to proclaim loyalty to the Nazis".
In 1950 he reacted positively to an invitation to join the Malayan Scouts and thus fight in the deep jungles of Malaya. He volunteered not least because he was keen to serve under the legendary Mike Calvert, famous for having commanded a Chindit Brigade in Burma. Woodhouse sensed that Calvert was a great source of "original ideas and concepts". Woodhouse became both nervous and "a bit resentful" when Calvert made him Unit Intelligence Officer. But then he meets a very unlikely character in the jungle, "Yorkie" Bjorkman:
"With a good intelligence network the battle is half won. Yes. You can learn a lot from Yorkie. He´s a man with personality, guts and imagination. He´s got thirty Malay police there and he controls the jungle for miles around - controls the jungle."
Bjorkman was awarded both a Distinguished Conduct Medal, the oldest British award for gallantry, and a Military Medal, for bravery. The encounter in the jungle with a man obviously of Nordic extraction is only one of many surprises in Keystone of 22 SAS. The SAS in Cold War Denmark is also part of the book, but one wishes there had been more details in that part.
Woodhouse´s fascinating career did not end at all with his formal retirement in 1964. The year after he was asked by SAS founder David Stirling to lead a team of three men to Yemen and in cooperation with Royalist forces attack an Egyptian airfield. These experiences alone could be made into a good movie.
John Woodhouse passed away in 2008. Now it is time for you to read about his rich life in Keystone of 22 SAS.
Friday, January 24, 2020
For students of Germany´s WWII submarine warfare and the very last days of the Greater German Reich (the official name until 23 May 1945) there is one source that must be considered a real must read, The Memoirs of Karl Döenitz.
Many forget that the last head of state of the Großdeutsches Reich, i.e. Greater German Reich, was not Adolf Hitler but Grand Admiral Karl Döenitz (more commonly spelt Dönitz). In 1936 he had been made the supreme submariner, in German Führer der U-Boote. In 1943 he was made supreme commander of the whole German Navy, the Kriegsmarine. After Hitler´s suicide it was Dönitz who headed the remnants of the Third Reich until it ceased to exist on 23 May 1945. Thus it should be clear that there are several reasons why his memoirs have again appeared, in a new paperback version. What is my take then? Well, there is a whole lot here that is still of military relevance, in spite of all technological advances. This is because Dönitz was a very gifted officer and strategist. Had he earlier on been given more power it seems probable that he would at the very least have prolonged the war by some months (or even more) with his submarine "wolf packs". Thus it was fortunate for the Allies that he reached the naval top only in 1943.
The Dönitz memoirs are naturally filled with U-boats and naval strategy and, coming from Dönitz himself, this of course makes fascinating and also very important reading for all naval strategy and U-boat buffs. But, those major ingredients aside, what does Dönitz write about WWII in a more general sense? His mindset becomes pretty clear. Let me quote from page 52: "Whether any war is a war of aggression or not is a purely political question. The policy of any and every country will be to seek to prove that its adversary was the aggressor or that it had itself been menaced and had been compelled to act in self-defense."
Let me also quote a sentence that I find very telling from the following page: "At the outbreak of hostilities, then, I had no idea in my head other than to do my duty." In other words, the political side of these memoirs offers no surprises - it is yet another "my duty" memoir by a former member of the National Socialist German Workers' Party - which he joined on 1 February 1944.
The Dönitz memoirs can at times be a bit demanding reading, but the chapter about the invasion of Norway has an optimal length and explains the major technological significance of this campaign for the Kriegsmarine, the so called "torpedo crisis".
The impact of one British midget submarine, the X6, and its attack on 22 September 1943 in an Arctic fjord (Kåfjord) is pretty clear from these memoirs. The explosion under the German battleship Tirpitz´s stern, caused by a mine from the X6, meant not only big problems for the Kriegsmarine, but a "grave strategic handicap", according to Dönitz. In other words, no small praise for the commander of X6, Commander Donald Cameron VC. Actually, the X6 was not alone in managing to plant a mine, as the X7 also did so, but the point still is that Dönitz credited one midget sub to have caused a "grave strategic handicap".
American readers might want to go straight to the chapter "Operations in American Waters". Had Dönitz received the "timely warning" of the German declaration of war against the United States that he had requested from Hitler, the US would probably have suffered "a real blow".
Speaking about the Großdeutsches Reich, what was to have come after it according to national socialist visions? The answer is the Großgermanisches Reich, for short. The full name being the Großgermanisches Reich der Deutschen Nation meaning the Greater Germanic Reich of the German Nation. But what Dönitz inherited from Hitler was something very, very different.
As a Swede it is interesting to read about how Dönitz viewed the "Schellenberg plan" to surrender German-occupied Norway to Sweden.
The epilogue does not lack self-criticism but is also the one part of the book that should have been considerably longer.
Thursday, January 16, 2020
Not that many of the first British commandos managed to fight all the way to Germany. Fewer still managed to experience danger in so many different places as did Leslie Young. His son, Sir Nicholas Young, has researched his wartime odyssey not least by going to Norway´s Lofoten Islands.
Having survived Dunkirk, Leslie Young was among the first to volunteer for a new special force, the Commandos. He managed to become one of the "specially trained troops of the hunter class" and the author lets us know what early wartime commando training was like. Being a Nordic in love with the awe-inspiring Lofoten Islands I then was amazed to read details of the famous Lofoten raid that I was unaware of. There is also some comic relief: a telephone exchange was captured and one of the British officers could not resist the temptation to send a telegram "To A. Hitler, Berlin". But I will not spoil your reading by here revealing the text of the telegram.
The Lofoten Islands of today are also in the book, as the author did research there in 2011, i.a. visiting one of the best military history museums in Norway, the Lofoten War Museum in Svolvaer. Back in 1941 it was the telegraph station and post office, and was the first building to be taken over by the Commandos, who landed just a few metres away. I can only agree with Sir Young: "The museum houses an extraordinary collection of uniforms, photos, flags, pieces of old weaponry [...]".
Having checked off Norway on his bucket list (I am just kidding about the list), Leslie Young then served on the battlefields of Tunisia - and of course, his son (the book´s author) went there too and could locate the very spot where his father made some fateful observations.
The book also has many amazing glimpses of Leslie Young´s life on the run in Italy (with villages in shocking conditions) and while fighting in Normandy against i.a. the 12th SS Panzer Division "Hitlerjugend". Strangely enough he then reaches the same area where he fought back in 1940. This last stage of the war in North West Europe is grim, but once in a while the advancing British units also get superb treatment from grateful locals. Reading about this and the author´s research travels inspires me and makes me recall similar feelings, how such travels forge deeper relationships.
What about the skull insignia on the cover? It is the badge of the unit that Major Leslie Young belonged to during the Lofoten raid, No. 4 Commando.
Finally some words about the book´s author - he began as a lawyer, then discovered his vocation as a charity worker and was knighted in 2000 for services to cancer care and in retirement remains a charity trustee and is chair of the Monte San Martino Trust, set up by former PoWs in Italy. This trust will receive proceeds from the sale of Escaping with his Life.
Friday, January 10, 2020
Few people find the time to spend hundreds of hours on a single scale model. The results can be simply stunning. They certainly are in the books from the Swedish publisher Canfora, and that is why I recently payed them a visit.
Finding little time to myself build scale models, I have come to the conclusion that what I mainly long for is being able to see really good models up close. I mean, REALLY close and in superb photos. Therefore I visited Toni Canfora in Stockholm to discuss his own models and his books - that contain both his finished models and those of many other "model artists" as I would like to call them. On top of the superb photos in all his books Toni Canfora has added really interesting historical facts and model information as well as good captions (IMHO really good books must have really good captions). The main focus of Canfora is scale models and dioramas, but they have other kinds of books too. But first let me show you two more scale model book covers:
What most of all appeals to me with the Canfora scale model books is that some contain dioramas based on actual photographs, like the StuG book above. To me, that sort of diorama is the most amazing to see, the experience can be both like experiencing art and history.
In addition to the now quite many books on scale modeling, Canfora also offer books focused on large & previously mostly unpublished photographs of actual AFVs and aircraft. Mostly taken during WWII. Let me just say how very much I have been surprised by the three AFV Photo Album books about Panther tanks and other AFVs in Czechoslovakia. This is the latest volume, vol 3.
I had never thought that so many previously unpublished amazing Panther photos would appear. Like the scale model books, the AFV books have captions full of information, pointing out lots of details in the photos that one would otherwise miss. Now, do check out all the amazing books from Canfora.
Tuesday, January 07, 2020
Several personal highlights in 2019 were connected to my first book release in London. But it was not in that city I found last year´s most impressive military history book.
Karl-Gunnar Norén and yours truly had a splendid time releasing The Long Range Desert Group: History & Legacy at the Swedish Embassy in London. Few experiences can beat meeting a cheerful LRDG & SAS veteran and the editor-in-chief of After the Battle. However, the day after was almost equally brilliant, as we then were given a surprise we had never even dreamt of: we were shown the ultimate collection of original Special Air Service (SAS) artifacts. We have still not fully recovered from this and I will return to our surprise visit in a special blog post. The above photograph is not from the SAS museum but from the desert section of the Imperial War Museum - that we visited later that day. The fly swatter actually bears the name "Giant Killer" and was used by Monty himself, in the desert - where also the Rommel portrait once was. More precisely, the portrait adorned Field Marshal Erwin Rommel´s own HQ until it was captured by the British Eighth Army.
Since those London days in May 2019 we have had the pleasure of reading about our LRDG book in After the Battle No. 186 and Classic Military Vehicle No. 219. By the way, my two English language articles about WWII in the Arctic are still in print, in After the Battle issues 99 and 136.
Summer in 2019 again meant history hiking with good friends in Narvik, and in October I had the privilege to break the news of the first film footage of a Junkers Ju 52 in pretty good shape at a depth of 75 metres, in a lake north of Narvik. Then three friends and yours truly located another Junkers aircraft, but this time a rather rare bomber, a Ju 86/B 3, and one not seen by anyone since it went down in 1943. This time the location was not in Norway but in Sweden and this is a discovery that is still not complete as we have yet to photograph and film the cockpit and tail section. So far we have basically recorded only the wings and brought up an aircraft tire and Junkers factory data plate, to clearly prove the aircraft identity. The bomber broke into sections upon crash landing on the lake ice, and the parts are very hard indeed to locate due to the nature of the lake. More info about the Ju 86/B 3 discovery will sooner or later appear on this blog.
Finally, in November, I came across the military history book that for me was the most original and important one last year, Red Assault: Soviet Airborne Forces 1939-1941 by Vladimir Kotelnikov. May the year 2020 provide less events that will go down in military history and more books as amazing as his.
Many thanks to all friends around the globe who made my three 2019 books possible.