About Me

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

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Last 1945 Battle in Northwest Europe

The general public might think mostly of Nordics when hearing “foreign troops in German uniform”, while in fact the typical foreigner from Western Europe was from Spain and if one looks also eastwards the typical foreigner was from one of the Soviet republics. Thus Night of the Bayonets, is mainly about a very underreported group of soldiers. 

This new book by historian and journalist Eric Lee should be on your WWII reading list not only for focusing on Eastern European soldiers in German service. It is above all a surprising and well-written account of the last fighting to take place in 20thcentury Northwest Europe. Then there is a special reason for learning more about the homeland of the main characters, Georgia. By any measure a man from that part of the world was one of the most influential men of the 20thcentury, Joseph Stalin (born Dzhugashvili). Georgia has played and will play a large role in the fate of both Caucasia and Russia. 

 

It was in Oslo in the 1980s that I first heard about a strange and bloody battle in which Georgian troops in German uniform played the key role. This battle took place on Texel, a Dutch island, and ended only several days after the formal end of WWII in Europe. Ever since I have been keen to learn more about the fighting on Texel, what initiated it and what the underlying motives were. Sure, there have been some books and articles mentioning the battle for Texel. But until I read Night of the Bayonets I had only a rough idea of what happened. 

 

Eric Lee wisely begins his book by showing how the Georgian Legion in German WWII service was a revival – there had been such a legion during the First World War. Of course, that first legion had no national socialist profile, and it gained a good reputation in Georgia, from which the second legion could benefit. Georgian history in this respect is similar to Finland´s – during WWII the phenomenon of Finnish volunteers in German uniform was to a great extent a consequence of the battalion of Finnish Jaegers in German service between 1915 and 1918.


Just like the Finnish Jaeger Battalion veterans, men who had served in the first Georgian Legion played an important role in the formation of a new national army. The Soviet authorities did their best to erase the memory of that army and most parts of Georgia´s independent period 1918 to 1921. But Eric Lee summarizes those years well and lets the reader glimpse into an amazing alternative to what happened in Lenin´s Russia. German troops arrived in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi just two weeks after Georgia had proclaimed independence in 1918. Knowing that is fundamental to understanding the relationship between Germany and Georgia. 

 

Likewise it is fundamental to Georgian history that there was a nationwide rebellion after the Soviet conquest. It took place in August 1924 and led to both thousands of deaths and a great career boost to a local Soviet secret police officer, Lavrenty Beria – later second only to Stalin and actually described as “our Himmler” by Stalin during the Yalta summit in 1945.  

 

During his invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler´s forces never made it far beyond the Georgian frontier, although they somehow found the energy and time to climb Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in the Caucasus. 

 

While German WWII troops never held any sizeable Georgian town they did manage to take a number of Georgian prisoners, who were joined by Georgian deserters and Georgians in German and French exile. At first, while Germany was basically on the offensive, there could be no new Georgian Legion, due to Nazi optimism and racism. But long before the new legion was formed, German military intelligence set up a largely Georgian unit within the Brandenburg Regiment (Wehrmacht special forces). This unit was the Sonderverband Bergmann and by the spring of 1943 it was itself of regimental size. But, rather tellingly, all the officers in it were German. The Germans, especially Hitler, just didn´t really trust former Red Army soldiers. This somewhat changed, initially, with the advent of the Georgian Legion.

 

The low trust was quite rational, as very many Georgians (and other nationalities) had “volunteered” to serve in German uniform mainly to avoid starvation. Especially during the first year of the great invasion the conditions for Soviet prisoners of war were incredibly grim. The Germans realized that it would be much harder for their Georgian troops to desert (attempt to rejoin the Red Army) on another front than the Eastern one. So, Georgians were sent to Northwest Europe, even to the Channel Islands (Guernsey etc). Still, even in France some managed to desert also in groups, and Eric Lee´s account of what happened in Hirson is remarkable – a Georgian group there managed to join the French resistance. There is also an amazing passage about a similar mutiny by Ukrainian troops in France.

 

Until April 1945 one of the most peaceful places to end up in as a Georgian was the Dutch island of Texel. Although it did have a large amount of bunkers, some 500, it was also a haven for children from the Dutch mainland. Why the Georgians rebelled there in April 1945 and not just waited calmly for the war to end has puzzled me ever since that day I learnt about the very bloody Texel mutiny. Well, to avoid spoilers I will here just say that Mr. Lee provides credible motives for this seemingly irrational course of action. 

 

The Germans, of course, counter-attacked, not least with an impressive amount of artillery rounds. Texel, the peaceful oasis, was shot to pieces while the war in Europe was largely winding down. The reader learns about these events both through accounts of Georgians, Germans, Dutchmen and Canadians. Mr. Lee has found some fantastic quotes. 

 

Night of the Bayonets also deals with the many misunderstandings and remains of Soviet era propaganda that still surround “the Russian War”, as the uprising on Texel is to this day called among the Dutch. More than 3,000 people died in the battle, mostly Germans. No Russians, but the name has stuck.

 

The photographs are not that many (20) but they are very interesting and some of the WWII photos of the Germans on Texel are even in colour.

   

So, Night of the Bayonets is a great book, a real must if you are into the last WWII fighting in Europe or Soviet/Georgian history.     

Thursday, October 08, 2020

From Averting Another Armageddon To Losing Norway

 

You probably have read a number of books about Winston Churchill, and seen several films about him. There is now even a decent Churchill biography in comic book format - that I have previously reviewed. But Churchill was not ”the man who averted another Armageddon”. Those words were about the man most associated with appeasement policy, Neville Chamberlain.

 

Military and natural historian Nicholas Milton has written a very readable biography about “the architect of appeasement”, Neville Chamberlain´s Legacy, and not far into the book I started thinking of it as a good foundation for a TV series. Like no other book, Milton´s book (his first!) captures the incredible and genuine popularity that Chamberlain experienced following the signing of the Munich peace agreement on 30 September 1938. The prime minister who sincerely believed he had thus secured “peace for our time” soon thereafter received 20,000 letters and telegrams from a grateful public. To say that he was greeted like a rock star just after Munich is something of an understatement. More precise would be to say that he was treated like the Beatles. Even the royal family showed him unprecedented respect, also in public.

 

Nicholas Milton has found such a wonderful illustration that says a lot about the immense enthusiasm for Chamberlain and his policy – a photo of a Chamberlain doll that was actually produced, to cash in on the general mood in 1938. The name of the product was “Chamberlain the Peacemaker”. I believed that such dolls, mainly of Hollywood/TV stars, only appeared in the 1950s. I was wrong.

 

But Milton also lets the reader sense the completely different mood in the state that was sacrificed at Munich. The prime minister of Czechoslovakia even called his new task “a duty which is worse than dying”.

 

The British media was during these days almost totally focused on the peace that a large chunk of the world thought had been secured by Chamberlain. Especially in the UK Chamberlain was the man who had averted another huge war in Europe. Here is what Nicholas Milton writes about one of the few British newspapers that contained a different take, the Manchester Guardian: “Their diplomatic correspondent presciently reported, `[Hitler] will be master of Czechoslovakia´s main defences, and there is nothing to stop him from making himself master of all Czechoslovakia in the course of time´.” 

 

How did Chamberlain then handle the outbreak of war in Europe, less than a year after Munich? This is where the book gets most interesting for us readers in Norway and Sweden. Nicholas Milton shows how Chamberlain viewed the Norway campaign, how especially impressive the German air component seemed to be. Here, as a reader in Scandinavia, one would have wished for some more pages. Still, this is an important source to better understand how the “strategic withdrawal” from Norway for most members of parliament was more of a “humiliating defeat”, and how this perception very much put an end to Chamberlain´s career.  

 

Two major surprises in the book that I also feel I should mention are Chamberlain´s fanatical birdwatching, and how – as one of his last acts as a statesman – he was crucial for the creation of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). An international movement for German-occupied countries that was a total contrast to regular armies, and to the image of Neville Chamberlain. There really is a lot more to him than his, at the time, extremely popular policy of appeasement. Historical TV drama producers ought to contact Nicholas Milton as soon as possible.

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Essential Study of Foreign Volunteers in the Waffen-SS & Wehrmacht


There are lots of books about foreign volunteers in the Waffen-SS and not as many about the foreigners in the Wehrmacht. What makes A European Anabasis unusual is that it looks at both categories, and contains a lot of credible military analysis.

 

Last year a paperback version of A European Anabasis: Western European Volunteers in the German Army and SS, 1940-45 by Kenneth W. Estes was published by Helion & Company and it is this version of the book that I shall now review. Unlike many books about foreign volunteers in German formations I would say it treats Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS volunteers with equal attention and the author´s background as a marine, tanker (lieutenant colonel) and professor of history has made possible a convincing evaluation of how the different volunteer groups actually performed. The volunteers from Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Denmark and Norway (I have placed them in the order of contingent size) are the main focus, and this is a good choice by Estes, in my opinion. Sure, there were also groups from several other Western European states, like Switzerland and Sweden, but as these groups never reached anything even close to the number of Spaniards and Dutchmen etc their significance for the battles of WWII was, basically, microscopic. 

 

Well then, two-thirds of the West European volunteers in German formations came from Spain and the Netherlands. Kenneth W. Estes does, however, on occasion mention both Swiss and Swedish volunteers and in one case highlights a Swiss national, Dr. Franz Riedweg, as he was a key figure in the Waffen-SS recruitment program aimed at Germanic populations.  

 

The author in no way hides the fact that Volksdeutsche from Eastern and Southern Europe played the major role in alleviating the mostly unsuccessful recruiting in Western Europe, especially in Scandinavia. Here the author could have inserted a quote from my co-author Lennart Westberg about how dissatisfied Hitler was with the low Swedish turnout, barely 200 men.  

 

In the Netherlands the recruiting drive had a rather different level of support. Even the former Dutch Army Chief of Staff, General Hendrik Seyffardt, lent his prestige for a Dutch national “legion” under German SS command. However, it should be noted (as Estes does) that Anton Mussert, leader of the Dutch collaborationist NSB, was too optimistic about Dutch willingness to volunteer for German frontline formations.

 

Speaking of the frontline, the Wehrmacht´s Spanish Division experienced over three thousand (!) casualties in the fighting at Krasny Bor and the Izhora alone. 

 

Although Estes has concentrated on understanding the fate of contingents and units, he also presents fascinating details about individual volunteers - men that mostly went down with the Third Reich but in some cases also became rather successful, like the first commander of the Spanish Division, General Augustin Munoz Grandes. In fact, Munoz Grandes became the second-ranking man in the postwar Franco regime. 


Of the book´s 50 photos and paintings most are interesting and often depict Spaniards and Belgians (Walloons). In addition there are 15 useful maps. 

  

A European Anabasis remains an essential study to better understand the complicated German use of foreign volunteers from Western Europe, and their actual military/political value.