About Me

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

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Invasion of Lapland 1959

Swedish science fiction pioneer and blue beret veteran Bertil Jernberg has passed away. I will always remember meeting him. Perhaps he even inspired Chewbacca in "Star Wars"?

I learnt from today´s morning paper (Dagens Nyheter) that Bertil Jernberg recently died, at 78. I will always cherish having met that remarkable movie pioneer. I guess I was 16 or 17 when I got to visit him and examine i.a. his collection of dioramas depicting WWII and his own service as a blue beret during the Congo Crisis of the 1960´s:

I reckon Jernberg will be most remembered for a now mostly hilarious science fiction movie he produced back in 1959, the first ever Swedish sci-fi movie (although it was really Swedish-American). It is still easily available on the net and on DVD as "Horror in the Midnight Sun, "Terror in the Midnight Sun", or "Invasion of the Animal People" (in Swedish it is only known as "Space Invasion of Lapland"). Here follows a trailer focusing on the largest alien in the movie, who IMHO has quite a lot in common with the later "Star Wars" wookiee Chewbacca (who also is oversized, but of course not that oversized):

The movie was shown already at the time in the United States. I suppose that the young George Lucas didn´t miss it. I know he has stated "Chewie" was inspired by a dog, but if one has seen "Terror in the Midnight Sun", well...

By the way, the movie was shot in Abisko, the area in Swedish Lapland where I work every summer/fall as a guide. It also features Swedish Army rangers and the Swedish Air Force in WWII era uniforms.

Bertil Jernberg too in later years realized his sci-fi was more of a comedy than anything else. But he also produced some remarkable documentaries that he really ought to be remembered more for, such as films for the UN peace keepers and a documentary about the amazing relocation of the Abu Simbel temples.

Some years after I met Bertil Jernberg I called him when I needed some movie props. He had a whole lot of military vehicles, uniforms and other stuff that he rented to the movie industry. For a modest sum he let me have seven uniforms from the era of king Charles XII. I needed them to stage a ceremony in 1991, together with my future wife Ann-Sofie and other fellow students. Our 18th century "reenactment" commemorated a group of prisoners-of-war, mostly from Russia, who 275 years earlier were brought to the island where we were studying the Russian language - at the Brahe School (est. 1636). During the ceremony seven Swedish 18th century soldiers held the flags of the seven nations that had prisoners on the island, Visingsö. The site was the "Russian cemetery" of Visingsö.

Shortly after the historic peace ceremony we left the school to further study Russian on the home turf of the prisoners, at a language institute in Moscow.

For making that ceremony so perfect I am still very grateful to Bertil Jernberg, and my wife. Just hours before the ceremony she made the Russian flag that we needed so much and that I had been unable to produce...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Soviet General Who Knew About Swedes

So, according to the Soviet Union´s most legendary paratrooper, General Vasily Margelov, he took six Swedish general staff officers prisoner during the Finnish Winter War (see previous posting). Let us now examine how Swedish sources match with the general´s statements.

Could the whole story be the result of not being aware of the Swedish minority in Finland, the Swedish Finns? No, that can actually be ruled out. Because it says "the sector adjacent to Kandalaksha" and we know that Margelov´s recon battalion belonged to the Soviet 122nd Rifle Division. That division indeed fought against the Swedish Volunteer Corps (abbreviated SFK) during the Winter War. There were several firefights between this division and the SFK. In fact, the Swedes took a number of war trophies from this division, some of which still today are on display within the Swedish Army.

A Soviet Degtyaryov light machine gun (DP) captured in Finnish Lapland by the 4th Ranger Company ("Grafström Company") of the 2nd Combat Group of SFK. Most of the soldiers in this company were volunteers from the Swedish Army´s K 4 Cavalry Regiment. The DP is preserved by K 4:s successor, the Army Ranger Battalion in Arvidsjaur.

Then there are six Swedish books with extensive accounts of the Swedes that were actually captured by the Soviets. There were three such incidents. Twice Swedish volunteer pilots were taken prisoner. Only once were Swedish infantrymen captured. This single incident, known as "Öjstad´s patrol", matches with Margelov´s account on several points. The three points where the accounts contradict can mostly be explained:

1. According to the Russian side six Swedes were taken prisoner. If one takes into account only the Öjstad patrol this is incorrect, as only four men from that patrol were captured alive (one of them soon died of wounds). But the two pilots that were captured were taken in the same area. Thus a total of six and, judging from the accounts of the pilots, the Soviet Captain that captured them may also have been Margelov.

2. Actually, only three of the captured were officers, one a 1st lieutenant and two were 2nd lieutenants. Considering the time lapse between 1940 and the occasion when the general was interviewed this can be simply an error of human nature.

3. None of the six Swedes belonged to the Swedish general staff. However, one of the captured officers, Arne Jung, was the nephew of Swedish Army Chief of Staff Helge Jung (later he became Sweden´s chief of defence). Margelov learned about the status of the Swedes from the NKVD (the later KGB). They may either have given Margelov the wrong idea or it may have evolved within Margelov through old age/vanity.

By a strange twist of fate I also stumbled upon the grave of one of the Swedes killed in the ambush. When the ambush started there were eight in the patrol. Immediately, the patrol leader Öjstad fell, soon two more - one being Private Linus Johansson, a miner from Arjeplog who, like most of his comrades, had done his military service at the K 4 Cavalry Regiment. I had no idea who Johansson was when I noticed his gravestone in Arjeplog. I was there, in the Arjeplog cemetary, with not the slightest intention of searching for Swedish volunteers. In fact, I was there to take part in the burial of a Soviet soldier, an escaped POW who succumbed to nature during his attempt to reach freedom in Sweden. I wrote about this story for Armchair General some years ago and it can still be read online here.

I stumbled upon Johansson´s grave on my away from the fresh grave of Soviet POW escapee Aleksey Matveyev - their graves are just some meters apart. Incidentally, Matveyev and Johansson are typical for their nations, like Smith in the UK.

From comparing Russian and Swedish sources I reckon the following could be considered as two new facts to have emerged, previously unknown outside Russia:

1. The Swedish estimates about the Soviet force that killed/captured the eight men strong Öjstad patrol were low. The surviving Swedes stated they thought they had fought against 60 Soviets or perhaps one company. Margelov makes it very clear that he used three companies for the ambush. Even if only one of these companies actually fired at the Swedes one can safely say that the Swedish survivors did not exaggerate about the opposing force...

2. We now know the identity of the unit that ambushed the Swedes: the Separate Reconnaissance Ski Battalion of the 596th Rifle Regiment of the 122nd Rifle Division.

The Russian statement that the fight was "fierce" (see previous posting) does not prove anything conclusively, but it makes the statement of the Swedish survivors that they fought till they expended their ammunition ring true.

There is to my knowledge nothing to support the Russian statements about how the incident is supposed to have affected Swedish government policy. But, at any rate, it is pretty interesting that there is such a view in Russia.

The fact that the Soviet battalion that the Swedes met was commanded by the later most legendary and long-serving Soviet airborne general might not just be considered a curiosity. According to the accounts about Magelov´s career he seems to have been fundamentally affected by his experiences in Finland. After the Winter War and until Gorbachev´s era virtually nothing was written or even said in the Soviet Union about the Winter War. Even less about Swedish participation in it. But, during most of the Cold War, the man in charge of the Soviet Union´s largest elite force, General Margelov, knew very well that Swedes too participated in the Winter War.

This all sounds like something one could make a TV documentary about, or even a movie. Well, there are already two relevant movies. In the Norwegian WWII blockbuster "Max Manus" all the winter fighting scenes depict the main character´s experience of fighting as a Norwegian volunteer in the SFK in Lapland. There were 727 Norwegian volunteers in the SFK. Here is a trailer with some of these scenes (sorry, taken down after this was written):

The same year "Max Manus" was released, 2008, Russian TV showed an 8-part TV-film about General Margelov called "Batya", also marketed as "Desantny batya" ("Airborne Dad"). I have not been able to watch it, but I did find this clip from it, depicting the young Margelov during the Winter War (sorry, now down):

Swedish volunteers are not mentioned in this clip, which is mostly about NKVD-men harassing Margelov because of his respect for Finnish soldiers. But perhaps one of you readers has seen more of this series and can use the commentary function of this blog?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Swedish Volunteers Versus Soviet Elite

It turns out Swedish volunteers in Finnish Lapland fought against a Soviet elite unit. Also according to Russian authors, an incident in Lapland strongly affected the course of Swedish history.

How were Swedish volunteer units during WWII viewed abroad at the time? Especially in the Soviet Union? Very little is known about this. But recently I stumbled upon some amazing insights into the Soviet view.

The largest Swedish volunteer formation during WWII was the Swedish Volunteer Corps (Svenska Frivilligkåren or SFK) for Finland, set up to fight in the Winter War of 1939-40. Almost 13,000 men applied and 8,260 were accepted into the ranks of SFK.

The insignia of the three (strids)grupper (combat groups, in effect large battalions) that constituted the infantry units of SFK, which also had i.a. an air element.

For more information about SFK in general see Swedes at War. What follows is not in the book, because the following information is mostly previously unpublished in other languages than Russian.

I made the discovery some weeks ago, while researching the history of the Russian Airborne Troops, the VDV (from Vozdushno-Desantnye Voiska). I was not looking for anything about Swedes but just trying to summarize the history of the VDV. But while doing so I came upon an intriguing passage about its most famous commander, Army General (i.e. a four-star general) Vasily Filippovich Margelov. This man headed the largest elite formation of the Soviet Armed Forces from 1954 to 1979 and his character is still today very much part of the VDV. The largest Russian website about him states (in my translation): "During one of the operations Margelov captured officers of the Swedish General Staff".

I was baffled, how could this be? Sure, there was a sort of explanation in that at the time, 1939-40, he had been in Finland commanding the Separate Reconnaissance Ski Battalion of the 596th Rifle Regiment. This battalion consisted of Leningrad´s and Moscow´s ski elite.

Still, I found it very odd I had never heard about Swedish General Staff officers being captured during the Winter War. I had however, been standing very close to Margelov once, in the spring of 1991, in Moscow. At the time I think I did not know much at all about him. I just happened to see his gravestone, shortly after his death. The reason I photographed it was probably because it sported a VDV emblem, a large medal of a Hero of the Soviet Union and a photo of the general wearing an incredible amount of decorations. here is the photo I took then:

The commander of the elite VDV 1954-1979, Army General V.F. Margelov.

I then googled +Margelov +"of the Swedish General Staff" in Russian, i.e. +Маргелов +"шведского Генерального штаба". I got 929 hits and saw that Wikipedia and many other websites repeated the claim. Still, one should be wary about strange statements and google results do not mean a great deal.

So I got hold of the most recent book about Margelov. Well, here are the relevant excerpts from from Airborne Trooper No. 1 – Army General Margelov by Alexander and Vasily Margelov (Moscow: Olma-Press, 2003), page 42-43 in my translation:

On one such raid Captain Margelov captured officers of the Swedish General Staff. […] when the soldiers were about ten kilometers inside Finnish territory, they discovered fresh enemy ski-tracks. The battalion commander announced his decision: ”We´ll ambush”. More formally he ordered: ”Fist company, to the right, second to the left, the third company will advance two hundred meters and cut off the retreat route of the opponent. Take some prisoners, preferably officers”.
The enemy skiers returning in their own ski tracks did not notice our camouflaged soldiers and thus came under their intense fire. During the course of the short but fierce fire-fight the battalion commander managed to notice that some of the soldiers and officers were wearing strange uniforms, not like Finnish ones. None of our soldiers could even imagine the possibility of here encountering soldiers from a neutral country. ”Since they are not in our uniform and fighting together with the Finns they must [anyway] be our adversaries”, the commander decided and ordered to take prisoners primarily among those wearing this strange uniform. There were, unfortunately, killed also on our side. To bring the prisoners through the frontline […] was a most difficult matter. Not only was it necessary to carry them around, it could also not be allowed that they froze. […] During the course of the fighting six persons were taken prisoner, not Finns but… Swedes. They were immediately sent off to Moscow. […]
Again the NKVD, again questioning [of Margelov]. During the questioning Vasily Filippovich [Margelov] then learnt who it was he had taken prisoner: Swedish officers, studying the possibility of combat employment for an expeditionary volunteer corps on the Finnish side, that had arrived already in late January, early February in the sector adjacent to Kandalaksha. […]
The deaths and the captured from the first small contingent sent to fight against the USSR, created such a depressed resonance in Sweden, that until the end of the war the Swedish government could not decide to send a single [regular] soldier. Only through the blood of their [volunteer] soldiers the Swedes once again reached the conclusion that traditional neutrality towards Russia was nevertheless better than war.
If the Swedes knew who they owed for the preservation of their neutrality and for saving the Swedish mothers and wives from having to cry over their [fallen] sons and loved ones…

Russian-language web-articles summarize the above like this (also in my translation): ”Thanks to the actions of Margelov´s scouts, Sweden did not enter the war and preserved its neutrality”.

The Russian federal news agency RIA Novosti in 2008 on the occasion of the General´s centenary repeated: "During one of the operations he captured officers of the Swedish General Staff".

What then is true about Margelov´s "Swedish General Staff officers" and how their capture affected the Swedish government? I will blog more about this tomorrow.

Those of you who understand Swedish might want to watch yesterday´s local TV news from northernmost Sweden, one of the later items is about this story including an interview with me.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The largest German helmet?

This place has perhaps the largest German helmet in the world:

The diameter of the helmet is about one metre...

The flag of this place looks like this:

No idea which place I am talking about? Well, even most Swedes and Finns do not recognize its flag. The place is the Tornio Valley, it is the bilingual region situated where Sweden and Finland share a common land border. There are some rather unusual remains of both WWI and II in this area. To begin with the first one you see coming from Swedish Haparanda and entering the Finnish border town of Tornio, a beautiful wooden Russian chapel (below) for Russian border troops (cossacks) and other Russians serving in Tornio. Finland was a part of the Russian Empire 1809-1917.

Also not very far from the main border road is this monument commemorating the WWI Prussian (German) 27th Ranger Battalion. Wait a minute!? Were there any WWI battles in North Finland? Not really, but because Sweden and Denmark were not willing to train Finnish youths seeking to form a liberation force during WWI, Finland turned to Germany. The Germans obliged and thus a stream of volunteers bound for Germany started to flow through the Tornio Valley. This is their largest monument in Tornio:

Notice the iron cross with "27", the battalion insignia. The same can be found on signs in and around Tornio denoting the illegal border-crossing paths of the volunteers, like this one north of Tornio in Jäkälänkangas, about 8 km west of Muurola:

In Finland this battalion hold a very special place in not only the history books but still today among the general public. Because the battalion members were instrumental in forming the Finnish army. Even until the 1950s veterans of the 27th dominated the top military positions in Finland. Half a dozen members of the battalion were Swedish citizens. More about the unit and especially the Swedish-speaking part of it you will find in Swedes at War.

All graves of volunteers bear the "27" insignia, which is unusual in Finland where unit insignia is usually not displayed on graves. This one also being in Tornio:

Although there was no fighting in the area during WWI there still is a large common grave for WWI soldiers, on the Swedish side, in the border town of Haparanda. The nationalities of the dead are reflected in that the monument has writing in both Hungarian, German and even Arabic. The Arabic alphabet was at the time used in Turkey and Turkish soldiers are among those buried here:

Why in Haparanda, Sweden then? Because this town was virtually the only place in Europe where there was the possibility to exhange POWs. Quite a few POWs got no further than Haparanda. Remember them too, when you visit Haparanda.

In the Torne Valley Museum, in Tornio itself, there are other reminders from both WWI and II, such as this Russian Maxim machine gun, used in both wars by all sides.

But why is a German paratrooper helmet also there? No German airborne troops are known to have operated in Finland. Does some reader of this blog know more? Here it is:

Driving along the Tornio river on the Swedish side the other week I made two discoveries. First this armoured turret which I reckon is either from WWII or the early Cold War. I had no idea we had such turrets right beside the Tornio river. Does someone know more about these?

Not very far from the turret was a flea market where this German-looking helmet was sold for 100 Swedish Crowns (about 14 US Dollars):

I do not really collect militaria any more, at least not as I did before. But in this case I couldn´t refrain. It turns out the helmet is in fact from Hungary, one of a lot sold/given to the Finnish Army. You can easily tell its Hungarian from the hanger in the back, to ease hanging the helmet from your belt.

A closeup of the hanger:

What about the German helmet at the very top of this page then? It is part of a monument commemorating the Finns (who in 1939-45 mainly wore German WWI and II helmets) who during the "Lapland War" fought against the German forces at Tornio in October 1944 (the Finns were under hard pressure from the Soviets to start killing Germans). It is situated right at the start of the road that leads to Tornio´s harbour. Is there a larger German helmet in the world I wonder? Well, I am sure there was, in the days of the Third Reich - but what about nowadays?

BTW I found out from the seller at the flea market that the Hungarian helmet too was from the Lapland War. It had been lying around on their property in Finland, on the ground surface, until the 1980s, when they finally picked it up.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Russians Are Coming!

In fact, the Russkies are already here! In Boden, the Gibraltar of the North! A joint multinational task force was swiftly sent to the scene...

This is the sign for the exhibition that opened on June 6 in the garrison town of Boden in north Sweden:

The sign is very similar to the ones that previously surrounded Boden, but in those days, while there was still a Soviet Union, the signs proclaimed the town´s status as a closed city, i.e. closed for foreigners unless they had obtained permission to enter. I remember well getting that permission for an American relative.

In 2010 the message "The Russians Are Coming!" has a different meaning. It is an exhibition of contemporary Russian art. The exhibition is housed in a massive military storage house for oats, for the many military horses that Boden had until the 1950´s. Aside from the Russian art there is this summer also an exhibition about the military horse in the north. Some really superb photos have been located.

The new art centre in Boden is named after the type of military storage house it is housed in: Havremagasinet.

Havremagasinet was inaugurated by i.a. the garrison commander and among the many congratulating parties was P 5, the local armour historical association. Here are some photos of some of the vehicles P 5 put on display by Havremagasinet. Although not all are in Swedish Army paint and with Swedish markings they have all served in Boden or in other northern locations. In the summertime they are on static display in the P 5 Museum that has this nice website.

A Swedish Landsverk ikv 103 infantry support vehicle, basically from the 1950´s and it served until well into the 70´s. In the backgound an armoured recovery vehicle 82, also of Swedish make.

WWII era Dodge Weapons Carrier.

WWII era German Klöckner-Deutz.

Swedish Army Monark.

A 1970´s reenactor in a Hägglunds tracked anti-tank vehicle. But that mobile is not 1970´s...

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Narvik Veterans - a Tough Breed Indeed

Never before have I met so many impressive and fit 90-year-olds, as I did this weekend in Narvik during the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Narvik (May 28). Narvik was in its best mood and also greeted modern soldiers from five nations including Germany.

In the town of Narvik summer had just arrived. Just a bit up into the mountains it was still late winter.

A Twenty-one gun salute was fired from a French frigate in the morning in honour of the attending veterans and other guests. After this, Norwegian F-16s and British Tornado fighters made some spectacular fly pasts above the crowd. Bands played. ambassadors - including Germany´s - held eloquent speeches and wreaths were layed on monuments and graves.

Most veterans seemed to be from Poland and Norway but there were at least three French alpine ranger veterans attending. Several veterans wore military berets and two Polish veterans wore complete uniforms. Here is one of them (click on the images if you wish to see them in larger size):

No German veterans were sighted but they were remembered too and there were modern German officers attending. The German flag was prominent in the parade that went from the common war cemetery to the main town square.

Note the third flag from the front, in front of the French flag. A bit surprising, I must say.

Edelweiss insignia was present, but not on German uniforms. It so happens that the Polish mountain infantry have the same symbol on their collars and right arm.

Greeting the Poles is Norway´s Chief of Defence, General Harald Sunde. And yes, that is a German officer to the right of him.

The main hosts of the ceremonies were General Sunde and Narvik´s town mayor Karen Margrethe Kuvaas, standing side by side in the following photo:

For me, personally, the most amazing veteran attending was Jan Danielsen, the last living Swedish veteran of Narvik. Danielsen was a Swedish cavalry officer when he in late 1939 volunteered for Finland and served in the "Winter War". This could be done with the approval and finally also support of the Swedish government. After Germany on April 9 1940 invaded Norway the Swedish government did not even approve of the formation of a volunteer corps for Norway. Still, Jan Danielsen and some 300 other Swedish citizens crossed the border with Norway to volunteer. Perhaps half of them saw combat. Twelve of the latter at Narvik.

Jan Danielsen was effectively given command of a Norwegian platoon in the high altitude fighting. His closest friend, from the same Swedish cavalry regiment, was killed in action. Still, he led his men onwards. That he and his men did not advance all the way into Bjoernfjell was no fault of Danielsen´s but of the larger strategy.

The following photo shows Jan Danielsen, wearing one of his Norwegian medals and his Finnish Winter War medal, together with local 1940 reenactor Jon K. Johnsen:

Johnsen is wearing the very same type of uniform that Danielsen wore in 1940.

There were more reenactors in the main town square, displaying WWII uniforms together with WWII military vehicles such as this British Humber scout car:

The Bren gunner is the former director of the Troms Defence Museum, Finn Fossum. Behind the Humber a M29C Weasel tracked vehicle can be seen.

Here is another reenactor, showing what the British airborne looked like:

Behind him a magnificent Dodge ambulance can be seen.

The Troms Defence Museum in Setermoen also displayed some postwar vehicles, like this tank-busting Norwegian Willys Jeep:

I will be writing more about the events of the day and individual Narvik veterans in two coming articles. The above photos are not the best ones I took. Hopefully the articles will later be online and I will then post links to them.

Finally just a photo to show you the view from our dinner table on May 28:

Sitting by the Rombak fjord is my good friend and travelling companion Mikael Norman. After dinner we followed the route of the Allied invasion force up into the mountains. Of course, we found several traces of the events exactly 70 years ago, thanks largely to local WWII historian Öyvind Johnsen, who has just released a very good battlefield guide. More about those traces in the coming articles.