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

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Nordic Soldiers in Congo

Twenty thousand UN-soldiers served in Congo during the long "Congo Crisis" of the 1960s. No less than six thousand of these troops were from Sweden. A new Norwegian book provides an interesting perspective on them.

Nineteen Swedish soldiers were killed in action in UN-service in Congo in the 1960s. The operation in which they died, ONUC, was officially a peacekeeping operation. One Swedish civilian died too, the Swedish UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, in a still somewhat mysterious incident.

Not only the Swedish Army contributed to the UN forces in Congo. This wreck of a Saab 29 fighter aircraft, in Sweden often called Flygande tunnan ("The Flying Barrel"), was photographed in Congo by Svenn Willy Mikaelsen from Narvik, Norway. PHOTO: Svenn Willy Mikaelsen

Several books have been written about the Swedes in Congo and I have most of them. However, it is always refreshing to read something about Swedish soldiers from another perspective. Therefore I was glad to hear there was a new Norwegian book that mentions the Swedes in several places. FN-tjeneste i Kongo ("UN-Service in Congo") by Svenn Willy Mikaelsen came out only this year, released by a publisher in Arctic Norway as the author is from Narvik.

Mikaelsen describes with many personal anecdotes - some very painful - his experiences in Congo as a Norwegian military policeman (then sergeant). He lets the reader join him on guard duty and patrols in a very exotic environment. I should think that quite a lot of what Mikaelsen writes about cultural differences is still valid today.

The extremely multinational nature of his MP-job has become very relevant for Nordic soldiers of today. It is good to read about Swedes from a Norwegian perspective. I reckon that the Swedish armoured cars Mikaelsen calls "rolling bath tubs" were m/42 KPs.

But how come Mikaelsen was armed with a German Walther pistol and even a MP 40 submachine gun in Congo, twenty years after WWII? Well that´s not strange at all, actually. The MP 40 was a weapon of the Norwegian armed forces until the late 1980s, finally being used only by the home guard.

I took this photo of a Norwegian MP 40-armed UN-soldier in the Norwegian Defence Museum in Oslo in the 1980s. The depicted soldier shows what the Norwegian troopers looked like in the Middle East in the 1960s.

There is no photo in the book of Mikaelsen with his MP 40 - it has many other photos - but the above photo proves I am not kidding.

Still today in 2010 there is some Wehrmacht equipment in use by the Norwegian Army (no weapons though as far as I know). Perhaps not in Oslo but definately in more remote areas - I know this from a first-hand source.

BTW I recently wrote a piece about the MP 40 in Finland.

The cover of "UN-Service in Congo" shows the author, Svenn Willy Mikaelsen, in white MP-helmet in Kaminaville in 1964.

For more information about the book and ordering see the publisher´s website.

Writing about Congo I feel I must mention a Swedish soldier who was there, because his story is just amazing. Armed with a Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle Torsten Stålnacke took out an enemy armoured car (M8 Greyhound?) and several shooters but then he himself was hit - his jaw was virtually blown away. Although he almost suffocated from this he still somehow managed to save the lives of two comrades by dragging and carrying them to safety.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Lapland´s New War Museum

A crucial thing during my childhood was inheriting some things from Finnish Lapland. These souvenirs from the Winter War and also the Continuation War were to a large extent the spark that ignited my interest in military history.

The souvenirs came from a relative I never got to meet, my paternal grandfather´s brother Gunnar Gyllenhaal who was one of the Swedes at war for Finland during WWII. He died some years before I was born but his will was written in such a way that when his widow died I inherited his military belongings. In the Swedish Army he was finally a captain of the Svea Life Guards, one of the world's oldest regiments.

Finnish WWII infantryman in Salla´s new museum, armed with a "Suomi" submachine gun that had an international influence (i.a. it was bought by Sweden) and served Finland till the 1980s. The small bottle hanging from the belt was for mosquito repellent.

Thus it is with great interest I have followed the development of the first war museum in the Salla area in Finnish Lapland, which is where my great uncle was a company commander (heavy weapons company) in 1940. It opened some months ago but I have been unable to visit it until now. The full name is Salla´s Museum of War and Reconstruction.

It was moving to see the souvenirs I had earlier handed over to the museum, now on display, including several that I had received from Russian searchers active on the Salla/Kandalaksha Front.

Among the largest photos in the museum is this studio portrait of Swedish volunteer Gösta Kihlberg. I received the photo of Kihlberg from his son, who lives just some hundred meters from our home. Note the northern knife which is probably something Kihlberg bought locally.

A reproduction of a Molotov cocktail. Behind it a Red Army eating bowl with many inscriptions in Russian. Judging from the words it is probable the owner was a Soviet prisoner of war from the Narva area.

The German forces on the Salla/Kandalaksha Front presented this wooden chest, filled with money, to the municipality of Salla sometime before their retreat in the fall of 1944. The gift was for the postwar reconstruction of the area.

Do any readers know anything about the German chest pictured above? Was the money (partly) from the common soldiers? I gather it contained an impressive sum and is something the local community appreciates. Was this unique for the Salla area and exactly when was the chest handed over? The carved letters on it say "To the community of Salla from the German brothers in arms on the Kandalaksha Front".

There are many small items in the museum including an original Mannerheim Cross. However, I had no time to photograph them properly. But I can describe with words that there are half a dozen rooms with interesting and recent finds from the Arctic battlefields. Some personal soldier items are really moving, especially when you get to hear the story behind them. Many rusty remains are the result of years of searching with metal detectors and careful hands. The local search group has gone to great lengths to locate soldiers missing in action in the area. But many still remain unlocated, of all nationalities. Also some Finnish civilian casualties are still out there.

Uniform of a twelve-year-old Finnish "Lotta". The Lotta Svärd organisation was a Finnish voluntary auxiliary paramilitary organisation for women. Both Sweden and Norway copied the Finnish Lotta concept.

What moved me most during my museum visit was to hear how a civilan victim was found only after several years although it was known where the person had been killed. There was one single metallic giveaway, one bullet. Had that bullet not stopped inside the body, the person would probably never have been found. Many tragic episodes like this happened in Finnish Lapland due to the actions of Soviet partisans who had been encouraged by their instructors to "take revenge" on the Finnish people as much as possible.

Far from all about 5,000 Soviet partisans sent against Finland committed war crimes. But the totally around 200 Finnish civilians murdered by them have marked them in Finland.

By the way, did you know that Yuri Andropov, one of the last leaders of the Soviet Union, trained partisans that were sent to Finland? If he himself operated in Finland is unclear to me - quality sources (books) regarding this are welcome.

An enlarged photograph in the museum, illustrating the first period after the war, is also something that will always remain with me. Few places in Europe 1945-1950 had such harsh living conditions.

From the left, a supporter of the museum, local school headmaster Tapani Niskala together with the director of the Salla Museum of War and Reconstruction, Asko Viitanen. The XL coffee kettle is another Lotta item.

Although the museum to a large extent is about human tragedy it also speaks of some of the best qualities in humanity. Courage, perseverance and also cross-border cooperation are illustrated by many exhibits. Since many years Finnish and Russian historians and search groups are cooperating, e.g. exchanging remains of soldiers and honouring their memory regardless of the uniform they wore.

Regarding my own family I can add that my grandfather´s youngest brother, Carl Gustaf, also volunteered for Finland during the Winter War, but could not enter the Volunteer Corps. As for my paternal grandfather, Lars-Herman, I am not sure if he tried to volunteer for Finland but I do know from newly discovered wartime documents, found by my dad, that he clearly volunteered for Norway. But as he could not find a means of transport to the Norwegian forces in exile he was unable to serve Norway in that capacity. Thus he chose to never bring up this subject with his son or grandson (me).

Forced Landings in Sweden

If you have the slightest interest in downed Luftwaffe, RAF and USAAF aircraft in Sweden, check out the Swedish FORCED LANDING COLLECTION. You can see photos of those individual aircraft that are white.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Wiking" and Rutger Hauer

"Frostbite", the Swedish movie featured in my previous post, was not the first film featuring a soldier of the "Wiking" division. It turns out there is an old Dutch movie with a bit of "Wiking", starring Rutger Hauer.

Thanks to a tip from the Axis History Forum I am now aware of "Soldier of Orange"/"Survival Run" (originally "Soldaat van Oranje"), a 1977 Dutch film starring one of my favourite actors, Rutger Hauer. Wikipedia has an extensive description of the film.

In this trailer you get a glimpse of some Waffen-SS soldiers (including one in a SS Panzer uniform):

In the following scene you can see more of the same Dutch SS Panzer ace including his "Wiking´" cuff title:

I wonder, as I am sure someone from the Netherlands will read this, how much does the film show from the Eastern Front? Does it mention the division and give any idea of it? What about that Knight´s Cross, is there an explanation for it in the movie?

The movie is based on the bestselling book with the same title written by Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, who during WWII was a RAF-pilot and spy. The book/film is being turned into a musical featuring life-size aircraft and vehicles. Does anyone know if there is some "Wiking" in the musical? That would be a definitive first...

Hm, I will have to find this one on DVD somewhere...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Waffen-SS Viking Vampire

In the Waffen-SS chapter of Swedes at War my co-author and I mention the only movie (so far) about Swedes in the SS: "Frostbite". Here I can describe the movie a bit more.

"Frostbite" (Swedish title: "Frostbiten") was released in 2006 and was a pioneering work in many respects. The first Swedish vampire movie; the first Swedish film to include a massive amount of modern special effects and the first movie featuring a Swedish soldier of the Waffen-SS.

Nordic and German soldiers of the SS-division "Wiking" in the winter battle scene from the vampire movie "Frostbite". The soldier to the far left is clutching a Panzerfaust anti-tank weapon. Photo courtesy of Solid Entertainment.

Like the Waffen-SS soldier on the cover of Swedes at War, the main character of "Frostbite" belongs to the 5th SS Division "Wiking". "Frostbite" was not, however, the first movie with a horror theme to be shot up here in Swedish Lapland, but the second. It is rather ironic that our first ever horror movie focused on the midnight sun, whereas the plot of "Frostbite" turned around the polar night phenomenon.

Selecting the most relevant genre for "Frostbite" is difficult. Some have suggested vampire comedy. I am not able to suggest anything better using just two words, but with more words I´d say it starts out extremely seriously as a movie about the WWII Eastern Front, with vampires sneaking into the story in a rather credible way, and then the movie transforms. There is zero comedy element in the first segment, the ten-minute long part in Ukraine 1944.

The main character (at least while in Ukraine) is a Swedish SS-volunteer, Gerhard Beckert. He holds the rank of a Unterscharführer, a kind of junior sergeant. Together with a Swedish-speaking Finnish comrade and a few German soldiers he is cut off from his company. They belong to "Wiking", apparent also from their cuff titles.

Among the insignia worn by the Swedish vampire-to-be one can notice a tank destruction badge (on the upper right arm) and cuff title (on the lower left arm) of the "Wiking" division. Photo courtesy of Solid Entertainment

The movie is actually very close to reality in two respects here. First, the name of the Swedish SS-volunteer is quite similar to that of an actual Swede in the SS. It signals German family. This is a realistic detail - several Swedes in the Waffen-SS had a German father or mother. Secondly, it is realistic to portray the Swede (Gerhard Beckert) as part of a multinational group. It was only in the "Nordland" division that Swedes were really concentrated so that a Schwedenzug, a Swedish platoon, could come about.

"Wiking" soldier retreating with his Panzerfaust and MP 40 submachine gun. Photo courtesy of Solid Entertainment

Could it be that the man behind the script, Daniel Ojanlatva, and the director, Anders Banke, were well-versed in the reality of the Swedes in German uniform? I think so. The plot and main location of the story in northernmost Sweden are also explained by the fact that Ojanlatva comes from Kiruna, which like the town where the movie mainly was shot, Kalix, is located in the county of Norrbotten (Swedish Lapland), where yours truly also resides.

About the plot of "Frostbite" I will here only add that the SS-veteran Gerhard Beckert surfaces in present-day Kalix as a medical doctor and because of two careless colleagues at his hospital, Beckert's past as a SS-soldier infected by a Ukrainian vampire catches up with him. Alas, there is then only a brief flashback into his wartime past.

If you can accept the way that the movie changes from dead serious to comedy, and especially if you are into vampire movies, I do think you will want to see this one. By the way, it seems that the Swedish moviegoers generally had a problem with the switch from serious to comedy, but the Russian moviegoers did not. The movie was no big hit in Sweden but did really well in Russia. Presumably, the Russians were better at appreciating the Arctic and the Russian opening music, the classic 1940s song "Dark Night".

Watch the movie till the very end and you will see some rather funny credits.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Tarzan-Discoverer´s Mystery Division

A reader of Swedes at War in the United States, Mr. N. Faller, has enquired about a mysterious unit mentioned in our book, the volunteer division "Theodore Roosevelt". Mr. Faller is right in doubting the existence of this unit.

However, the reply is not simply that it never existed. Mr. Faller has kindly allowed me to make the full reply to his question public, as it may interest other American readers and also British and Swedish readers.

The Swede behind the recruitment drive for the British-American division "Theodore Roosevelt", Ivar Thord Hallström, who in British service became Ivor Thord-Gray. Here he is in South Africa where he discovered the real-life Tarzan. PHOTO: The Research Archives, Umeå University Library

The volunteer division "Theodore Roosevelt" is only mentioned in one sentence in Swedes at War. Still, we should have added a footnote or endnote about it because it is a pretty unknown unit, to say the least.

The division is mentioned in our book in a CV for Ivar Thord Hallström who became Ivor Thord-Gray in conjunction with becoming a British officer in South Africa. In the United States Thord-Gray got the approval of then former president Roosevelt to start up the unit. He focused on recruiting Britons or ex-Brits in the US. By the time the project was stopped, in April 1917, 3,500 men har enlisted for the division. Roosevelt personally thanked Thord-Gray in a letter dated May 25, 1917, and said it was sad the project had to be aborted due to lack of support from President Woodrow Wilson.

As part of Thord-Gray´s work for the "Theodore Roosevelt" project he produced a manual entitled Tactics on Attack and Defence in Trench Warfare. You might possibly be able to find that book via some internet bookseller.

Speaking of World War One, it is not that difficult to prove how close we still are to that war. Close? Well, now in late 2010 there are still at least three WWI veterans alive. Or four if you like: Frank Buckles (US Army 1917-1919), Claude Choules (Royal Navy 1916-1956) and Florence Green (RAF 1918-1919). In addition theres is Mr. Jozef Kowalski of the Polish Army who began his service after the WWI armistice but before the Treaty of Versailles. Here is a nice master list about these veterans if you want to research them.

Why the hard feelings between Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson? The most recent arcticle on this subject was the superb piece "War & Diplomacy" in Armchair General July 2010.

For more on Thord-Gray, not least his role in bringing about the Tarzan icon, see Joakim Langer´s book Mannen som hittade Tarzan ("The Man Who Found Tarzan").

BTW Swedes at War was recently used as a source in this Mexican history article, as Thord-Gray was there too, fighting as a soldier of fortune.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

One Tough King

It is not every day you get to see a cool and previously unpublished photograph of the King of Sweden. But in a new book written by a friend there is such a photo, with the king being instructed by Sweden´s most famous special operations veteran.

Taking into account that Allan Mann was a hand-to-hand combat expert our king (then crown prince) presumably learnt a thing or two about how to most effectively defend himself without weapons, and also with a knife and so on.

From the left, Carl XVI Gustaf, King of Sweden, unidentified person and Allan Mann, veteran of the Soviet-Finnish Winter War, the battle of Narvik and several years of SOE missions. PHOTO: Sten Bråkenhielm

I had the privelege of meeting Allan Mann, who served as a volunteer in Finland in 1940 on the Salla Front and then in Norway, lastly on the Narvik front. After there earning admission into the Légion d'honneur (French Legion of Honour), he joined the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and served as a SOE agent and eventually also uniformed operator. He thus returned to Norway during WWII many times, the last time by parachute. A summary of his exploits can be found in Swedes at War.

Since a few days ago there is a somewhat more complete chronicle of Allan Mann´s wartime experiences. The book´s title is De glömda agenterna, "The Forgotten Agents". The book´s author, Anders Johansson, earned well-deserved praise for his previous book, about the division of Norwegian "Police Troops" that was trained and organized in Sweden 1943-45. Here is the cover of Johansson´s new book:

The cover of the brand new book "The Forgotten Agents" by Anders Johansson. So far only available in Swedish. Rather than showing agents on the cover the publisher chose to convey the occupation of Norway. Great cover IMHO.

"The Forgotten Agents" features not only Allan Mann but rather attempts to give an idea of all the not that few Swedes that served Norway as agents in one form or another. Still, Mann is a big part of the story, as is apparent from the back cover where a German-issued ID-card for Mann can be seen together with a photo of him in Norwegian uniform:

On the back cover, one of Allan Mann´s counterfeit IDs and a postwar photo of Mann in a Norwegian captain´s uniform. You can click on the cover to see it larger.

If you have a special interest in Swedes at war during the 20th century or in the SOE in Scandinavia and read Swedish, I cordially recommend you to acquire De glömda agenterna. I also hope that in the future it might be translated into Norwegian and even English.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Where Eagles Dare

If you are a WWII movie buff I reckon you have seen the classic "Where Eagles Dare". But did you know there is an English-language Swedish website devoted to this movie? It has some truly amazing movie trivia. If you have not checked it out I reckon you will not regret doing so, here it is.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Only SS Battalion in Sweden

Seventy years ago, on October 4, 1940, a battalion of the Waffen-SS arrived in Luleå, Sweden. The below photos show the place where they arrived, Luleå harbour. I took the photos today, truly without thinking about the date - that it was exactly 70 years ago.

The place where the first complete German unit to arrive in Sweden arrived exactly 70 years ago. Not much seems to have changed, the wood certainly looks like it could have been around for 70 years.

The battalion was directly transferred to railway carriages that probably were standing on exactly these rails. The buildings in the background constitute the city centre of Luleå.

The battalion was part of the SS-Totenkopfstandarte (SS death´s head regiment) "Kirkenes" that was being set up around Kirkenes in Finnmark in Arctic Norway.

The battalion was transported from Germany to Luleå by the ship Isar, escorted by the Swedish Navy. The ship carried the complete second battalion (1,030 men) of "Kirkenes", which later became part of the SS-Division "Nord". Virtually all battalion weapons were brought over on the same transport, but on Swedish territory the soldiers did not carry their weapons.

From Luleå the battalion was transported by train to Narvik and from there to the province of Finnmark which bordered the then Finnish Petsamo area, beside the Soviet border.

I did not choose the date to take these photos - another person did, even more unaware of the uncanny timing. Weird...

BTW it was the first time I went to the place.

I will be writing more in English about this still rather unknown event in a coming book. In Swedish I have written about it in Slaget om Nordkalotten (1999, with James F. Gebhardt).