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

Friday, July 29, 2016

German Paratrooper Bicycle Mystery

Very rare and, being made for paratroopers, collapsible: a Fallschirmjäger Fahrrad, in the new Narvik museum.

How did a German paratrooper bicycle end up in Narvik? I think I have seen every published photo of German paras at Narvik and have never seen them riding any kind of bike. But there certainly was such a thing as a special collapsible bicycle for German paras. Well, the rare bike was not the only surprise I got in the new Narvik War Museum.

To get to Narvik my pal Mikke and I took the train from Luleå in Swedish Lapland. Before entering Narvik itself we did a quick hike in the border area, as it still, after a dozen or so hikes, presents us with traces of WWII that we have not seen before. Not to speak of the splendid view you get from the WWII border positions. This time we saw three German positions we had missed previously and were surprised to see how, on the top Swedish position, the Swedish three crowns painted by Swedish soldiers in 1940 (!) were more easily discernible, thanks to the damp weather. I have some photos from that hike on my other blog (in Swedish but with several photos).

Moving on to central Narvik, the largest museum sign is still (July 2016) there, on what used to be the Red Cross War Memorial Museum. But the museum itself is no longer there but has transformed into the Narvik War Museum and is located across the street inside the very modern Narviksenteret, to be precise on Kongens gate 39.

Well, what about the contents? I have good news and not so good news.

Being able to see unique pieces of history real close, like the above hand-painted German mine sign, was one of the best aspects of the previous museum. Sadly, most artifacts are now behind glass. One can understand why (theft, vandalism), but nevertheless it is sad. This mine sign is one of the items still on open display.

Another fav artifact of mine is this British tropical helmet that was washed ashore in Narvik during the fierce naval battles of April 1940. Why a tropical helmet? Well, missions in tropical waters were considered highly probable for many British naval vessels - so it was part of standard kit on board.

Have you seen this type of Luftwaffe oxygen mask before? Interesting to see rare artifacts, but how about some more info about it?

A new and good aspect of the new museum is how some key facts are highlighted, like how 4 of 10 male adults in Norway 1940-45 were German soldiers or civilians in occupation duties.

Good to see how modern presentation technology is used to explain the fighting around Narvik.

Also good to see the very first Victoria Cross ( but a replica?) awarded during WWII, beside which are these, the last words of the recipient, Captain Bernard Warburton-Lee. However, his last name is incorrect in this place in the museum ("Warbourton") while in the other place it is correct.

Also interesting to see badges of units for Georgian, Russian and Norwegian "volunteers" (some were genuine, some not) in German military and construction service in Norway. But what about some more info and photos? This is a part of the occupation years that one would like to know more about.

Well, here there are several errors in the text. To start with these are not "service badges" but campaign shields, and German soldiers did simply not "...get badges for each battle they participated in". There were not even a dozen campaign shields. But the Narvik shield was the first one.

The French Hotchkiss tank that previously was outside the museum is now on the bottom floor and part of an arty display with some sort of peace message. There is no info about the tank itself and its role in the Allied amphibious operation of May 28, 1940.

This is one of the strangest aspects of the new museum - this is all the information about the Allied bases on Swedish territory whose personnel operated well inside the Narvik region. Not even the names of the bases are mentioned (Kari, Sepals I-III).

The whole museum starts with this large size conflict cycle. Sure, it can be said to be true for many conflicts. But how relevant is it to the Narvik 1940 scenario?

Now, my main criticism about the new museum is difficult to illustrate with artifacts now on display, because, basically, it is about what is NOT there. I have no exact stats but it is clear from many visits to the previous museum that a very large part of the artifacts one could see before are no longer displayed. There are some new things, the IMHO most interesting of them in the above photos. But even when one adds the new artifacts the total number is low when compared to similar museums. Add to this that the new entrance fee, 100 NOK, is about double what it was.

Quantities aside, the new museum largely does not highlight what was and still is so special with the battle of Narvik. Before 1940 there had only been very small scale airborne operations - in the Soviet Union against Muslim insurgents. One can therefore say that the paratroopers in Narvik are part of a milestone in warfare. Right now the airborne dimension of Narvik is shown only by that paratrooper bicycle. Do keep the rare bike in the exhibition, especially if it nevertheless was in use in Narvik in 1940 (I am not excluding that but would sure like to see a photo), but please also show a paratrooper and a parachute container with contents.

Also of significance, but mainly for the Allied side: the amphibious operation against the Germans in Narvik town on May 28, 1940. Why not at least a scale model diorama of that event, highlighting the failed use of French tanks, the extremely steep landing area, and the German use of railway guns?

Then there were the impressive Norwegian and Polish infantry operations high up in the mountains (and why not explain General Fleischer´s significance?). The challenge of the mountains was well illustrated in the previous location of the museum by a 1:1 diorama, an original German mountain position that had been moved into the museum. This was one of the most impressive displays and should be possible to show on the bottom floor of the new museum.

Many of the most interesting larger artifacts in the previous museum such as a "human torpedo" and a Kettenkrad tracked motorcycle should be possible to show either in the long winding corridor to the bottom floor or on that floor.

Lots of photographs from the previous museum could easily adorn the walls of that same corridor. And why not add some info about how to get to the unique wreck of the destroyer Georg Thiele and places where you can easily still visit German and Norwegian WWII positions, e.g. Björnfjell?

Finally, how about at least a sentence about the dozen Swedish volunteers at Narvik (in Norwegian and French uniforms)? The museum has received at least one battlefield trophy from one of them, Jan Danielsen.

Basically, the museum ought to have in storage most of what is needed to improve it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Mercenary Behind Alexander Skarsgård: The Real Tarzan Story

The man who found Tarzan, Swedish soldier of fortune Ivor Thord-Gray, and the latest person to portray Tarzan, Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård. PHOTOS: Umeå University Research Library & Nick Step

All reviewers of the most recent Tarzan movie have so far missed a most ironic (even spooky - compare the faces above) aspect of a Swede portraying the "lord of the jungle": the origin of the Tarzan legend can be traced to a Swedish mercenary in Africa. I have researched his long and stunning career.

Alexander Skarsgård´s face is now on several magazine covers here in Sweden and many other countries too - because of his latest film role, depicting one of the oldest and most iconic action characters ever. I too have now been to the cinema and have seen "The Legend of Tarzan". This latest version of the story mostly takes place after he has spent several years in England, but it also looks back at the crucial childhood moments of John Clayton, the baby boy that after some rather rough ape training turned into the legendary Tarzan. However, nowhere in the movie or on the internet have I found anything to suggest that any film maker, critic or Skarsgård himself is aware of the Swedish origin of the Tarzan story. True, very little has been written in English about this in recent years. But if one can understand Swedish there is a book focused on this aspect, the translated title being The Man Who Found Tarzan (so far only available in Swedish, Mannen som hittade Tarzan) by Joakim Langer.

Well, who found Tarzan, or more correctly, who gave Edgar Rice Burroughs the story that he in 1912 transformed into Tarzan of the Apes? There is much that points at a man from Stockholm, Thord Ivar Hallström. His life might seem just too incredible to be true, especially coming from such a peaceful country as Sweden. But there are many thousand documents, including good photographs, in several official archives in Sweden, Britain and the United States plus private archives in several countries - all proving that Hallström, who after entering British military service in Africa became Ivor Thord-Gray, is Sweden´s most experienced soldier of fortune ever. He served under no less than 13 different flags and fought not only in Europe and Africa but also in Asia and Latin America. In Mexico, 1914, in Pancho Villa’s service, he was in charge of the artillery. During the Russian Civil War (1917-1922) he was highly decorated and rose to the rank of a Russian general in Siberia. In 1935, he was again promoted to the rank of general, this time in the United States. Fighting in hot or freezing places was not his only talent, though. Before he died he managed to conduct enough research to become a respected ethnologist and linguist. You will find more details about Thord-Gray´s military career in Swedes at War 1914-1945 by yours truly and Lennart Westberg.

The above photograph of Thord-Gray is one of several I found in his under-researched archive within the University of Umeå. It depicts him as a cavalry volunteer on the British side in South Africa. It was during these years that he took part in the capture of a human, a boy, who had been living with some baboons. Joakim Langer has found the first traces of this account in Cape Town. It was in the Mount Nelson Hotel that Thord-Gray in September 1906, thus soon 110 years ago, told a local journalist about a boy raised by apes. That interview was later quoted by American journalists. The similarities between Thord-Gray´s account in 1906 and the 1912 tale of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs are in themselves telling. But one can also, as Joakim Langer has done, look closer at Tarzan´s noble name. Aside from being born as John Clayton he is also Lord Greystoke. In the early 20th century Thord-Gray spellt his name Thord-Grey. Lord Greystoke and Thord-Grey...

The 1906 interview with Thord-Gray about a boy raised by apes seems not yet to have appeared on the net. However, search engines can locate, in old US newspapers, this article that appeared in print the first time in May 1934:

The story of a famous fiction character, who was raised from babyhood by a tribe of apes, is entirely plausible, says Major General Ivor Thord-Gray, soldier of fortune who recently received the most valued decoration of the Swedish Government. Thord-Gray, who has campaigned and explored in a dozen countries and holds numerous decorations, related the story of a sickly eight-year-old white boy, who was seized by baboons while he was serving in the British Army at Pondoland, South Africa. The boy was being wheeled about in a perambulator by a native girl when several score of baboons swooped down upon a nearby field, where corn was ripening. The girl became frightened and fled. Soldiers drove off the animals and found the perambulator empty. The body of a young baboon lay alongside the carriage. "Well, it was not until four years later," he said, "that we got any inkling of his whereabouts." "About a day's march from camp," he said, "a sergeant came running up and told us he had discovered a hairless baboon. We followed him to the base of a. cliff and there before us was the body of a big, husky boy. his skull cracked and bleeding "The scouting party had found him among a family of baboons. The beasts, seeing the approach of the party, tried to scamper up the cliff. Most of them escaped but the boy, not as agile as the beasts, slipped and fell to the bottom. "The boy was more ferocious than the baboons. He jabbered in their language and was as wild as any ape."

Considering Ivor Thord-Gray´s words and that Tarzan now also is portrayed by a countryman of Thord-Gray, one might say that in 2016 Tarzan of the Apes earned a new title: Tarzan of the Swedes.

What I thought about the new movie? Beautiful and pretty good entertainment, but the ending is kind of...