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

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Luxurious Tankspotting Guide

 

With the recent completion of James Kinnear´s Soviet and Russian military vehicle trilogy one might think that there would be no reason to so soon produce another parade book. However, last year´s (2020) 75thanniversary parade was something special and practically demanded a special book. 

 

Kinnear´s three previous parade books are great for WWII and classic Cold War military vehicle buffs but there are 20 weapons systems missing in those books, weapons that made their parade debut only during the 2020 parade. Bearing in mind the very high Russian regard for anniversaries, especially when something happened 50, 75 and 100 years ago, the parade decision-makers chose to make the 75thanniversary parade a bit surprising. Thus some vehicles that made their parade debut last year even had not yet entered service with regular units.      

 

Fans of fully restored T-34s and SU-100s (where most of them were found surprised me a lot) will appreciate the first pages of The Russian Commemoration Parade of the 75th Anniversary of Victory in World War Two, but then this large format book switches to contemporary weapons systems. It does so by showing them in big and excellent colour photographs that should please not least scale modelers. 

 

The text about each weapons system matches the high quality of the illustrations and I found the following sections to be of particular interest: the K-4386 “Taifun-VDV” armoured car specially made for the Russian airborne troops; the 2S38 “Derevatsiya-PVO” air defence vehicle and the TOS-2 “Tosochka” thermobaric MRS vehicle.

 

For readers into luxury cars the section about the “Aurus-412314” parade limousine will be a sure favourite. The Aurus V-8 turbo engine was developed in collaboration with Porsche. Speaking of which there is a neat photo in the “then and now” chapter of two Tigers, one being a King Tiger, on display in Gorky Park in 1945. 

   

Authors James Kinnear and Andrey Aksenov have with the help of their Swedish publisher Canfora produced a highly informative and visually terrific tankspotting guide.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Bletchley Park's Secret Source

Having read and watched several books/films/TV productions about Bletchley Park (BP) my interest was aroused when I learnt that there was a new book about the little-known network behind the information supplied to Station X (BP). The Swedish Navy is also part of the story.

 

Let it be said immediately that Bletchley Park´s Secret Source focuses on the very secret Y service that ran a global chain of wireless intercept stations. This new book by Peter Hore, former Head of Defence Studies for the Royal Navy, especially illuminates the Y service Wrens – the operators from the Women´s Royal Naval Service. Thus the subtitle of this book: Churchill´s Wrens and the Y service in World War II. My main reason for reading this book was my interest in the German-speaking Wrens who listened to German radio chatter, but for those of you who are interested in the monitoring of Japanese signals this book is also for you. 

 

While many Wrens of the Y service had zero military experience there were also some really experienced ladies, such as Violetta Thurstan. Not only had she won the Military Medal for her bravery as a nurse in the First World War, she had been decorated by Russia and Serbia as well, had served in the RAF and the Spanish Civil War and therefore spoke several languages and had a good grasp of many military matters – key Y service skills. 

 

Several Y service Wrens had been to Germany before the war and some had spent years there and even seen Hitler himself up close. Such a Wren was Elizabeth Agar, who didn´t know much about the Wrens but as soon as she met a smartly dressed one was intrigued and got a “[…] burning desire to join […] even though my only knowledge of the sea was that it made me seasick”.      

 

In the chaos of 1940 there sometimes was not even time for any training course, not even an issue of uniform! Those times also meant not only listening to the enemy but also observing Luftwaffe aircraft over Britain, sometimes close: “The girls became rather blasé, so they were surprised during a visit by a superintendent from London, when their visitor suddenly jumped into a ditch to take shelter.”

 

In the book´s chapter “Winning The Big Battles” the Swedish cruiser Gotland´s sighting of the German battleship Bismarck plays a vital role for the British naval attaché in Stockholm, Captain Henry Denham. The part that Denham´s report to London played in sinking the Bismarck is made clear by a personal signal from the First Sea Lord to Denham.   

 

The author writes that “At the height of the war, the Y stations sent more than 3,000 messages a day to Bletchley Park” and it seems natural to agree that this volume must have been a major contribution to the success of BP. The Y service Wrens in Colombo on Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) even helped prevent a second Pearl Harbor. Bletchley Park´s Secret Source highlights a small group of women, often in miserable working conditions, that indeed had a real effect on the war.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Russian Military Vehicle Encyclopedia

With The Russian Army On Parade 1992-2017 James Kinnear has, with the help of several Russians and a Swedish publisher, produced an impressive three volume encyclopedia of Soviet and Russian military "tekhnika". 

Military vehicle (MV) buffs and scale modelers have something to wish for, or treat themselves with. This sequel to The Soviet Army On Parade 1946-1991 of course focuses on the post-Soviet parades on Red Square but also contains a great deal of information and photos of parades in other places, also with restored Soviet WWII vehicles. In addition, it has the best photo documentation I have ever seen of the most serious "demonstration of Russian armour" that occurred in Moscow 1993, when the Russian Federation was on the brink of civil war and the Russian parliament building was destroyed by tank gun fire. No wonder that this part is so captivating, the author was at the time living beside the parliament and a stray 7.62 round came through the author´s elder daughter´s bedroom window.

Thus this is a book not only about glorious parades but actually, especially in the introduction, provides a summary of recent Russian history - that has been more harsh and violent (the wars in Chechnya) than most readers outside Russia realize. The book has some good summaries of actions now largely forgotten, not least involving the VDV, the Russian airborne forces. The post-Soviet rise of the VDV can also be observed in the official parades. 

In the most recent years other very interesting themes have become highly visible through parades, such as the growing importance of the Arctic, the Rosgvardia and remote control combat vehicles like the "Uran-9".  

Like in the previous two volumes, this volume includes a photo guide and glossary of Russian military vehicle terms, that ensure the lasting value of these books. Like with volume two of this series, I totally or partially disagree with the author about certain passages, not least about Ukraine. But those paragraphs do not concern the main focus of the book. Although I have been a rather fanatic MV buff since the 1980s I learnt a lot from it. 

Does The Russian Army On Parade 1992-2017 conclude this impressive portrayal of the world´s heaviest military parades? In a way yes, but not quite, because in 2020 a 75th anniversary victory parade was held, and I am currently reading the special book about that parade and will review it too, in the near future. To check out the recent books by James Kinnear and other MV specialists, visit their publisher, Canfora.

Thursday, July 08, 2021

Sepals Base Investigation


The most secret WWII Allied bases on Swedish territory are now being investigated by proper field research. Last week I had the privilege to take part in the investigation of an until now in modern Sweden basically unknown base under the Special Force HQ (insignia above with the standard British wings worn by many SFHQ operators).

 

The location of this Sepals base under SFHQ (and perhaps also the Norwegian XU) and most of the artifacts that we found can at this time not be shown, as the place and most artifacts are still under investigation by Swedish archaeologists. What I now can reveal is that a number of issues of the newspaper Stockholms-Tidningen found their way to this remote mountain location. Given the rarity of that paper above the Arctic Circle it is probable that these papers came to this place as part of the flow of weapons, ammunition, food etc between Allied embassies in Stockholm and the resistance groups in the Norwegian county of Nordland. It is known from Norwegian WWII literature that the place we searched was an important point in the secret supply chain to German-occupied Norway.  

 

Among the newspapers we found there were several articles that really bring home how the reader back then learnt of the major events as they unfolded. The headlines with Stalingrad and 10,000 destroyed Soviet tanks, see below, remind of the scale and connect the base to the larger picture. 



I could not help being rather amused by finding the below article entitled “Invasion In Western Europe Excluded”, that explains how the German fortifications there had become so numerous that successfully invading Western Europe was now impossible.


 

We were also reminded by the civilian history of the place by several finds. Again, most are waiting to be properly identified, but below is one artifact identified as the foundation for making traditional Sami shoes.



Finally, I wish to thank all those involved in this trip for making it happen, and for good company in a most beautiful area of the mountains shared by Sweden and Norway. For those of you not familiar with the Sepals bases, check out the books by Roger Albrigtsen and myself.   

Friday, March 26, 2021

Guarding Hitler

A 22-year-old Swiss student decided to kill Adolf Hitler and got very close to succeeding. The capture of two unusual Waffen-SS soldiers in Normandy resulted in another of the many close calls with death that the Nazi leader had. If you are keen to learn about the close protection around Hitler, his body guards and their vehicles, then this book by Dr. Mark Felton should be of great interest to you.  

Mark Felton has become a familiar name to many WWII buffs thanks to YouTube. By January 2021 his main YouTube channel reached one million subscribers. But with books like Guarding Hitler he has shown that he is much more than a talented YouTuber. In Guarding Hitler he tells the story of the SS forces directly responsible for the personal safety of Hitler and while doing so makes it clear how complicated the SS empire was. The number of similar (competing) branches within the SS is quite baffling and reflects a basic feature of the whole German state under National Socialism. The Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the intelligence agency of the SS and NSDAP (Nazi Party), has become well known, but Guarding Hitler instead acquaints the reader more with the two SS forces responsible for Hitler´s close personal security, the rather confusingly named Reichssicherheitsdienst (RSD) that was not part of the SD, and the Führerbegleitkommando (FBK). To not complicate life too much I here only use the last names that these groups had.

 

Guarding Hitler is not least about the many attempts to kill Hitler – I found the Swiss student´s to be the most fascinating one. Although this subject has been covered in previous books and documentaries, Felton manages to make also these sections of his book highly readable. He presents own archive finds about the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) assassination plan called Operation Foxley. The plan, focused on sending a sniper team to Obersalzberg, was created due to the capture of two very special Waffen-SS soldiers in Normandy in June 1944 – soldiers that made the SOE realize that the security at Hitler´s Obersalzberg complex was not perfect. The prisoners opened up a window of opportunity for the SOE. In my opinion Guarding Hitler has all the ingredients to form the basis for a really strong documentary about Operation Foxley, that of course could be followed by a WWII “what if” movie.     

 

Nordic readers may be surprised to learn from Guarding Hitler how RSD body guards protected also the Reichskommissars in Norway and Denmark. The RSD came to protect not only Hitler but many leaders of the Third Reich. 

 

Aviation buffs will no doubt be most interested in what Felton has written about Hitler´s private air force including the “parachute seat” that was added to the personal Condor aircraft of Hitler. To quote from the relevant chapter: “Air travel was dangerous, particularly during wartime, yet Hitler seemed to prefer the risks rather than using his train for most long-distance journeys.”

 

Hitler´s train is of course also present, the Führersonderzug and what I found particularly interesting in that part was what happened to it after the war, how it was used by different states and that Hitler´s saloon coach (dining carriage) was taken out of service only in 1990 (!) and is now on display in a Bavarian steam locomotive museum.

 

Well then, Guarding Hitler should be of interest to both the average WWII buff, WWII researchers and close protection specialists.

Friday, March 05, 2021

The Americans and Germans at Bastogne

Can anything more and also of interest be said about the Battle of the Bulge? This new book by Gary Sterne shows that it is still possible. This is a book of particular interest to wargamers and others who want to get into details of the fighting in December 1944.

The British author Gary Sterne is rather famous for his Normandy research, not least concerning the Maisy Battery (check it out!). To produce The Americans and Germans at Bastogne he located the early postwar interviews with several German commanders who took part. He then matched them with US Army reports and selected a large number of wartime and postwar maps. The result is a source that should be very useful for those intending to visit the areas in question, and for wargamers. Also, anyone wishing to research the most involved German generals should have this book. Waffen-SS Oberstgruppenführer (Generaloberst) Josef “Sepp” Dietrich is of course among the quoted generals but there are more pages with Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein and Generalmajor Heinz Kokott and others. 

Given that most featured German officers are generals the perspective is mostly on larger units, mainly the involved divisions. But from time to time you get to read about smaller units and even individual tanks. My impression of the Volksgrenadiers seems to be in need of revision as I understand from this book that their quality was very varied.

The clash in thick fog between US Army Staff Sergeant Michael Lesniak´s Sherman tank and a German Tiger is memorable. From the explosive account of the fighting around the village of Marvie I conclude that if I have the opportunity to again go there by car I would like to see what the place looks like today. Perhaps some buildings still show signs of the fighting? I have found scars from WWII before, many times.

If you are not into visiting battlefields I believe you will find that the most interesting part of The Americans and Germans at Bastogne is the chapter “German Commanders Assess the Reasons for Failure”. From it I note that “the failure to take St. Vith in time” is Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt´s number one reason. This was written down shortly after the war, without all the hindsight.

The book’s many maps should be of great interest, even though the image quality is not always the best. The photos are not that many but mostly good. This is a book that one gets for the text and maps, there are already plenty of photo books out there. If only this 291 page book would have had an index, and there are spelling mistakes (names). But hopefully there will be more editions, and then an index can be added.

Monday, March 01, 2021

Total Undersea War

Were the German U-boats in the Atlantic defeated in May 1943? Not only is that an illusion but submarine historian Aaron S. Hamilton proves that some of the last German sub operations, shortly before the big German surrender and right beside the North American coastline, are among the most amazing. 

The book title, Total Undersea War, at first seemed a bit vague. But once you get into the book it becomes logical, as Mr. Hamilton is able to show how largely surface-bound submarine warfare was transformed by the introduction of an air mast, or “snorkel”, opening up a new era under the surface of the sea. Thus this book is both about submarine design, late U-boat operations and postwar submarine design. 

 

Submarine buffs, and especially those that are residents of North America, will be richly rewarded by Hamilton´s research. If you are not already a buff you might have problems believing the Germans cruised so close to your shores even when the war was about to end. There is no doubt, however, that Hamilton´s book is based on hard facts. 

 

More U-boats departed for the East Coast in the spring of 1945 than at any point since 1942. Let that sink in. The US Navy took this German underwater offensive very seriously, and more than most people now realize. This was not least because of the possibility that a U-boat might launch a V-weapon against a US city or base. Why this V-rocket scare must have been especially troublesome can be understood by taking into consideration how Allied intelligence, in spite of all its resources, had failed to predict the massive German offensive in the Ardennes in late 1944. Hitler there proved that he could still deliver large and unpleasant surprises.

 

In fact, in January 1945, the German Minister of Armaments Albert Speer made a radio broadcast in which he said V-rockets would fall on New York “by February 1”. We all know that this didn´t happen, but it is amazing enough to learn how despite a tight US naval barrier, German U-boats still managed to slip through, reach the East Coast and remain undetected to the end. To quote Hamilton: “[…] a submarine that didn´t surface and didn´t transmit by radio was almost impossible to track, find and destroy.”

 

This brings us to the final chapter of the book, about the mystery of U-869. Here the author has gone to very great lengths to provide a credible solution, and any future expeditions to the wreck ought to use Total Undersea War as the starting point.

 

This 416-page book contains plenty of fine photographs that I have never seen before, plus several interesting appendices.