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

Monday, February 22, 2021

Commando

 

You may have read several books about the Special Air Service, but what about the soldiers that are instantly recognized worldwide by a single word, commando? Leaving aside the Boer origin, it was the British WWII adoption of the term that eventually led to global recognition of the word. A great place to start reading up on the early Commandos is a book from 1953 (!) that is now again available. 

 

The first reason to pick up this book is its charming personal style, secondly because it provides good details of events like the raids on Guernsey and the Lofoten Islands. The name of the book is simply Commando and it was written by Brigadier John Durnford-Slater DSO and bar, the man credited with establishing the first British Army Commando unit.

 

I just loved reading how Durnford-Slater went about to find his “troops of the hunter class” to create a “self-contained, thoroughly equipped raiding unit” (quoting Winston Churchill). Here is an excerpt from the author: “I wanted cheerful officers, not groaners. A good physique was important, but size was not. I looked for intelligence and keenness.” You may have read something similar to that before, but then he goes on to describe accommodations and I was surprised to learn how, according to the first “Commando system”, there simply were no barracks. Instead, Durnford-Slater gave every officer and man of No. 3 Commando, established on 5 July 1940, a subsistence allowance and the man was then required to find his own accommodation and food. To directly quote the author about this idea: “It increased a man´s self-reliance and self-respect, developed his initiative and made him available for training at any time of the day or night.”

 

There was only one punishment, the order “RTU” meaning a man had to Return To his (previous) Unit. But as the selected personnel were all keen volunteers this was a very dreaded punishment. Reading about the characters that passed through the training is in itself a pleasure and then we get to the first operation, Guernsey. As I do not wish to spoil your reading, suffice to say that Guernsey was a lesson how not to do things.

 

The Lofoten Islands chapter provides what none of the previous books I have read on the subject have been able to do. It very clearly explains the motives for the raid and then paints a lively portrait of it. Of special interest for us Scandinavians is how Martin Linge, founder of the Norwegian Linge (SOE) Company, comes to life thanks to John Durnford-Slater. Also splendid to get confirmation from the author that one of his officers while on Lofoten visited a post office and sent off a telegram addressed to A. Hitler. However, I still have read no report of how it was received at the highest level. I suppose it was never delivered to him

 

It was just after Lofoten that the American Embassy in London sent forty US Marines to live and train with the Commandos. I had heard of this episode before but not read any details. Good to get some from Durnford-Slater, as well as his memories of Vaagso (the actual name is Vågsøy). I learnt that the Germans even had a tank there, an older type but it could still have wreaked havoc among the Commandos. It was blown up while still in its garage. Perhaps some Norwegian reader of this blog could inform what type it was and exactly what became of it. This incident is pretty unusual plus, being a former tanker, I am extremely interested in tank-related actions here in Scandinavia.  

 

For me the 1942 Dieppe raid chapter provided another insight into early, and largely unknown, US involvement in European WWII combat. A party from the 1stUS Rangers were made an integral part of No. 3 Commando for the period of the Dieppe operation. Three of these Americans were killed during the raid.

 

Simply put, this book is both a nice read and an important source for understanding the early Commandos and their fighting methods. It was great idea of Greenhill Books to again print Commando. I only wish the final operations in Germany had been covered a bit more. 

Friday, February 05, 2021

Marching From Defeat


A lot of people have seen “As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me”, a 2001 WWII movie based on a book by Josef Martin Bauer. Both can be summed up as an exciting escape story: a German soldier, Clemens Forell, is sent to a very remote Soviet camp and walks to freedom against all odds. However, it has turned out that very little in that film/book can have come from the actual life of the real Forell, Cornelius Rost. Well, is the new book Marching From Defeat by Claus Neuber better than Bauer´s book?

Marching From Defeat is a book from 2020 in English but was published in German seven years ago, as Marsch aus dem Untergang. Simply put it is an autobiographical escape account by Claus Neuber, who was a German Army artillery lieutenant on the 1944 Eastern Front, serving in the 18th Panzergrenadier Division. Like thousands of other German soldiers he finds himself caught up in Operation Bagration, the huge Red Army offensive in the summer of 1944. He is then on the run behind Soviet lines for more than two months and during that time he is captured by the Soviets but manages to escape from his first camp.

Neuber recorded his experiences of escaping from Soviet captivity in a report soon afterwards, and later expanded his account. But it was not published in Germany until 2014. To tell you what I think of his book I will start with the credibility and then what it was like reading it.

Basically I wish Claus Neuber had met a more objective and professional German publisher/editor. Because his account has many signs of being authentic and therefore it should have been “left alone”, i.e. not been mixed with a lot of postwar thoughts. Of course the book could still have included postwar insights and comments. Actually, it could well have had some more postwar comments – from different historians of the Eastern Front. But the postwar insights and comments should have been in chapters separate from the wartime experiences. So, I object to how Neuber´s 1944 memories have been “developed”, because that process has not improved the book.

Still, especially once you get to the start of the long trek towards the new German lines, Marching From Defeat is often an amazing read. One gets the feeling that these are indeed the thoughts, experiences and conversations of German soldiers on the run. Surprisingly often they are helped by locals and some of the most moving scenes in the book are the encounters between the author´s group and villagers that often had no reason to help Germans - but still did so because they recognized the human beings behind the remains of German uniform.

I do not wish to spoil your reading experience but think the following quote from the author gives an idea of the challenges he encountered, without revealing too much: “Had I known about the ordeal that lay ahead of me, I would have given up all hope, but luckily I didn´t know and none of us knew because it was unimaginable.”

Neuber encountered countless setbacks of all kinds but also learnt repeatedly how a setback can turn out to be for the best. Sometimes it is almost beyond belief how he could carry on walking.

So, if you are into WWII escape & survival stories and/or have been intrigued by As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, then Marching From Defeat should interest you. Hopefully some future book will examine Claus Neuber´s account in more detail, comparing it with wartime documents and also with similar fates.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

German Special Operations Book Of The Year

Prewar missions over the UK and Poland; German airfields behind Soviet lines and a "Tatzelwurm" mission against Stalin himself - there is so much amazing stuff in this book, and not just about the Luftwaffe´s most secret missions. Some spectacular photos are also in the book.

The two Russian authors Dmitry Degtev and Dmitry Zubov shed light on several German top secret missions with the help of both Russian archives and previous books only available in Russian. I reckon very few people in the West have seen most of the info and photos presented in this book. It starts with naming Luftwaffe officers involved in prewar reconnaissance missions over Poland, the Soviet Union and the UK. These missions were done mainly by using Deutsche Lufthansa aircraft and the first mission over the UK seems to have taken place in 1937. There are several exact officer and aircraft details in the text but here, like in other places in the book, one would have liked to have seen original documents and/or archival details - because the information is of such great interest. However, later on in the book some original wartime documents are shown, regarding other missions.

The invasion of Norway was of course preceded by secret Luftwaffe reconnaissance flights but nowhere before have I read about the exact aircraft used, and other details. There is also a Swedish connection as the reconnaissance aircraft mostly then used were Fw 200 Condors and part of the trip to and from Norway was a route over Sweden already frequented by civilian Fw 200s from Deutsche Lufthansa.

Most of the book is of course devoted to the Eastern Front and from these pages I believe almost every reader will learn new things about German spies, their equipment, the aircraft used and several secret German airfields behind the Soviet lines. The latter can be explained by very few radar stations, no Soviet night fighters as such and vast uninhabited areas. The many spy missions launched by the Germans over the Soviets, and much increased in numbers after the first German defeats, caused the Soviets to form two new formations: destroyer (anti-sabotage) battalions and a new type of security police, SMERSH, an abbreviation for "Death to spies". But, as the authors also note, quite often the Soviet security organs arrested people who had nothing to do with the Luftwaffe, Abwehr (German military intelligence) or SD (the SS intelligence service). These three German organs came to work together on the Eastern Front to such a degree that the title of the book might as well have contained the words "German special operations". 

Having an interest in the Arctic I was especially keen to read the sections about German insertions in the Arkhangelsk and Komi regions. Even though I have read some about these missions in Finnish books I found lots of new details in The Luftwaffe´s Secret WWII Missions. There are also some to me new details about German operations in Iraq and Iran, even illustrated with a Luftwaffe aerial photograph of an airfield near Teheran. But even more spectacular are the often illustrated pages of the special ops with the rare and futuristic Ar 232 "Tatzelwurm". It had a distinct advantage for special ops: "When taking off and landing on rough ground, eleven additional pairs of small wheels under the lower fuselage came into play, to which special rubber caterpillar tracks could be fitted if necessary."

The highlight of the book is in my opinion the description of Peter Tavrin´s failed but still most amazing Kremlin mission, that includes both German and Soviet photographs and Soviet documents that highlight the role of a "Tatzelwurm" in this desperate 007-type mission to assassinate Stalin. These pages could quite easily be transformed into a blockbuster or a TV series (isn't there already a Russian movie?).

The book ends with psychological portraits of Hitler and the Abwehr´s Wilhelm Canaris, which might seem a bit odd given the Luftwaffe title. But after having read these portraits I think I see the point of the authors. With men like Hitler and Canaris at the top, no secret mission could have altered the final outcome.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Das Book


OK, you have seen "Das Boot" and want to know more about the U-boat arm, its submarine types, bunkers, missions, special insignia, awards, aces and downfall. You are also keen to see original artifacts up close. Well, in that case this new book is what you are looking for.   

U-Boats At War In 100 Objects 1939-1945 is written by Gordon Williamson and the name will probably ring a bell with many reading these words, as he has written more than 40 books - many about German WWII armed forces. Because of his long experience and not least several visits in Germany he has been able to produce a simply stunning book with 100 short but still rich chapters. Each chapter is illustrated with at least one high quality photograph, often more than one and quite often in colour.

Here are just a few of the chapter titles/subjects: The Snorkel; Enigma; Air Support; The U-Boat War Badge; Award Documents; Clocks; Toilet Facilities; The Atlantic Bunkers; The Visor Cap; Propaganda; Hygiene; U-Bootsfrontspange.

For Nordic readers there are two parts of particular interest: The Norwegian Bases and the Type XXI Elektroboot. The latter is the very advanced submarine type featured on the cover of one of my Swedish language books, as one of these submarines was salvaged by the Swedish Navy and affected Swedish submarine design a great deal. Well, that is not unique, German submarines in one way or another affected all postwar navies.

It is no wonder that the recently taken photos are in high quality colour, but it is quite amazing how Gordon Williamson has been able to find several wartime colour photos that I have not seen before. 

Directors of future "Das Boot" films/episodes would do well to purchase a copy of this book, that I will call "Das Book". They should read it carefully and have it handy during filming.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Finest Aviation Book I Have Seen


I have previously been impressed by Mikael Forslund´s work, but his latest book, about the American, British, German, Italian and SAAB bombers in the Swedish Air Force 1924-58, is so stunning it is doubtless the finest aviation book I have yet come across. But there is one annoying thing about it.

This superbly illustrated 296 page aircraft book in A4 format has a title that I find a bit misleading: Swedish Bomber Colours 1924-1958. Given the narrow focus of the title and the rather high price of the book I reckon more than a few aviation buffs will wonder if this book is really worth the money. Well, the camouflage and markings of the aircraft in question are certainly covered in the best possible way both by spectacular photographs, several in colour, and many exclusive colour profiles. But the thing is that this book provides so much background and detailed history about the aircraft types and their use that it is more of a bomber aircraft encyclopedia than just a book about paint and markings. In other words the book delivers more than the title promises. Of course, that is better than the other way around, but it may also make some people refrain from getting this book. Now, hopefully some of you who have doubts are reading these words.  

Here are the aircraft types featured in this book, first I list the Swedish Air Force designation and then the international name:

B 1 - FIAT BR
B 2 - FIAT BR 1
B 3 - Junkers Ju 86
B 4 - Hawker Hart
B 5 - Norhrop 8A-1
B 6 - Republic 2-PA Guardsman
B 7 - Fokker G.1 (not delivered but still featured on one page)
B 16A - Caproni Ca 313
B 17 - SAAB 17
B 18 - SAAB 18

Let me add that all variants are featured. Then there are the wonderful sections about Swedish bombers in foreign service, mainly Danish SAAB B 17 bombers in 1945 and the SAAB B 17s in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian photos and interview are incredible and I was very surprised to learn that two former Ethiopian B 17As in 2020 were being restored in Lithuania, of all places.

If you are into building scale models of Swedish bomber aircraft and want to find good photos and colour profiles this book will be like Eldorado for you. But again, this book is much more than a book for scale model enthusiasts, it will delight any Swedish Air Force buff and it also constitutes a great source for researchers and writers. Well done, Mr. Forslund, very well done!

Friday, December 11, 2020

P-51 Mustang

The P-51 Mustang was first flown operationally not by the USAAF but by the Royal Air Force (RAF). This is reflected in this new book that should please both warbird buffs in general and especially modellers - here you will find sharp reviews of P-51 kits in all scales.

This book combines facts about the various Mustangs produced for the RAF and USAAF; text about how they performed (not least against the German Me 262); splendid b/w and color photos from WWII and the Korean War; superb color profiles; some photos of the plane in smaller air forces (including Sweden´s) plus a beautiful section about the plane in model form. 

The chosen photographs are excellent and I have to mention one in particular, of Major James H. Howard - seeing the photo of him and his plane marked for six victories over German aircraft and six victories over Japanese immediately inspired me to build his particular plane. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for a single-handed battle against over 30 enemy fighters.

Before opening this book I was just vaguely aware of the last Mustang, the Twin Mustang, basically two Mustang fuselages joined together. Weird design - I didn't think it had seen any service. But I was wrong, during the Korean War Twin Mustangs were among the first US aircraft to fight over Korea and they soon, as well as normal Mustangs, showed that they were not obsolete. In my mind the Korean War was a jet fighter war, so the book´s section about Mustangs over Korea held several surprises for me.

Of the book´s 96 large size pages, 37 are devoted to the Mustang in model form, starting with the Academy Mustangs in 1/72 scale and then covering the different 1/48 and 1/32 scale models by various manufacturers. I was surprised at the large number of different kits and appreciate very much how the authors describe the pros and cons of them. It is also in the model section that one finds two photos of Clarence "Bud" Anderson´s "Old Crow". Considering both his Swedish roots and ace status I plan to build  his plane in the near future and while doing so will no doubt have good use of this fine aircraft study produced by Robert Jackson and Lynn Ritger. "Bud" is still alive (!) and I hope he will soon be reading these words.

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

The LRDG In Action 1940-1943

 

This book is different from most books about the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) as it contains a great deal of rare or never before published photographs. It includes a lot of details of special interest to military vehicle buffs, special forces insignia collectors and scale modelers.

 

The New Zealander and LRDG buff Brendan O´Carroll has made this book in the series “Images of War” truly stand out. To start with, most books in this series are thinner. This one is 215 pages long and largely photographs but also some really good text. Sure, it does contain some photos I have seen before – but as Mr. O´Carroll is a true expert who knows how to write informative captions he has added new value to those photos. 

 

The many images in The Long Range Desert Group In Action 1940-1943 were taken both by official photographers and the LRDG men themselves, many come from private photo albums, drawers etc. The quality of the photos from personal cameras is not seldom poor (some have been enhanced), but this can both be forgiven, as they can still reveal a lot, and be explained – the films were often developed in Cairo photo shops with unclean water. The resulting images thus could show not only specks of dust but also hairs and parts of insects. Still, there are also plenty of photos in Brendan O´Carroll´s new book that are clear and sharp. Being Swedish I was particularly happy to find a new and crisp photo of a Bofors (made in Sweden) mounted on an LRDG Ford.

 

Uniforms and insignia of patrolmen are featured in some superb photographs I have never seen before. LRDG members could certainly look very strange and exotic! 

 

Several images ought to constitute strong inspiration for dioramas, and some of these also feature non-LRDG vehicles and I here have to make special mention of an Afrika Korps Panzerfunkwagen and a Marmon Herrington armoured car of the King´s Dragoon Guards. Simply stunning photos.

 

Those of you who have read the LRDG book I wrote with Karl-Gunnar Norén may recall the story of Nick Wilder, the LRDG captain who performed a miracle for Montgomery nor far from Tataouine, the town that later became Tatooine in the Star Wars films. Well, sadly we could not locate any good enough photos of Captain Wilder. But Brendan O´Carroll has succeeded in finding some photos of Wilder in preparation for the attack on the Barce airfield. It is just incredible to see these photos.    

 

You might think that the book ends with the LRDG operations in Tunisia – but this it does not! Instead, it follows the desert veterans to their next assignment as part of the Raiding Forces, Middle East, made up of around 200 LRDG patrolmen and 150 men of the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and No. 30 Commando. In other words the book ends with some photos from Greek Islands. As soon as I saw them I started thinking about visiting these islands in a year or two. The vaccinations have started folks, so let us start planning to visit LRDG sites again – yet another reason to purchase The Long Range Desert Group In Action 1940-1943.