Thursday, September 19, 2019
Thanks to a Norwegian friend I was recently invited to a WWII research meeting right beside Hitler´s largest Arctic project, his railway line that was meant to end in Kirkenes by the Finnish (now Russian) border. This blog post is mainly to provide a visual idea of the amazing days we spent up there.
The Organisation Todt (OT) was a German paramilitary engineering organization named after Fritz Todt, an engineer and senior Nazi leader. The OT was one of the Wehrmachtgefolge, German Armed Forces auxiliaries. The organization was responsible for implementing the vision of connecting by rail south Norway with Kirkenes, the northeasternmost town not far from Soviet Murmansk. This meant working in one of the most challenging landscapes on earth due to a staggering amount of mountains and fjords. The Arctic climate and often total lack of roads for supporting motor vehicles did not make things easier. As usual, the OT would rely on forced labour, mostly Soviet and Yugoslav prisoners of war. The section responsible for this most extreme railway project was called OT-Einsatzgruppe "Wiking". The project was pursued right to the very end of the Third Reich, at the cost of thousands of lives.
Our trip last week began with a visit at Klungset, beside the town of Fauske, about 70 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle. Klungset is probably the most intact OT base that there is in 2019, and one of few WWII German military hospitals still around. Last time I visited it, 18 years ago, it was in a deplorable state. Now several parts of it have been restored. In 2015 it became protected by the Directorate for Cultural Heritage in Norway.
In connection with the huge Arctic railway project to Kirkenes, this hospital complex was built in 1942-43, mainly for the benefit of German OT staff. Construction was carried out by forced labour, local companies, a southern Norwegian construction company and others. When the base was completed in 1943, it consisted of 12 buildings with a total capacity of 200 beds. Today, four of these buildings are preserved. Although the bulk of the labour force consisted of prisoners of war, this group received limited treatment at the base. This changed radically after the German capitulation, when, in June 1945, the US Army flew Swedish Red Cross personnel, diet foods and medical equipment to treat the most ill Soviet former prisoners of war. Thus American C-47 aircraft flew a Swedish hospital staff from Luleå to Bodö, not far from Klungset. The above 1945 photo from Klungset shows the main building with Swedish medical staff and also some Germans under Norwegian command.
Hopefully Klungset will sometime in the future also become a true museum. We saw why that would be a good idea - not only has the main building been restored, another building has been left virtually untouched since 1945 and contains many both unusual and moving artifacts and photographs. Just walking around on the base, especially in the cellars, is a remarkable experience in itself. The two gentlemen who own the premises also have some relevant WWII military vehicles, some virtually untouched since the war, some restored.
Thank you so much, Trond Ole Slettvoll, for showing us around on Klungset. Our next big thank you goes to Trond Inge Mathisen of Hamaröy, whose WWII researcher event took place by a mountain lake 90 kilometres north of Klungset, beside the last large German tunnel that was made before the German capitulation. It was never completed and is dangerous to enter, but can be entered with a guide and special equipment - see the last photograph below.
What is inside the last large German Arctic railway tunnel? First, please understand that abandoned WWII tunnels should not be entered, or at least not without safety equipment and a guide, as they are more or less unsafe for various reasons. Well, what about my experiences from the above tunnel? I am saving them and the relevant photos for a manuscript I hope to finish next year which will contain largely unknown and unpublished material. You can support this by reading my books, two are available in English (check Amazon etc). The next one (in October) in Swedish you can see below. It contains chapters i.a. about some very large gifts from Soviet former prisoners of war in Sweden and a previously unknown Allied base on Swedish soil - the Norwegian SOE operators on the cover came from one of these bases. If you are wondering about the submarine on the cover it is U 3503, one of the extremely advanced German submarines of the type XXI class, en route to Norway but scuttled on 8 May 1945 west of Göteborg, Sweden.
Thursday, September 12, 2019
Recently I reviewed Visiting the Normandy Invasion Beaches and Battlefields, a terrific book for first-time visitors to Normandy and those planning to lead school groups and similar groups. Now I will review a Normandy guide so comprehensive that it could also be considered a battlefield encyclopedia.
This book, Major & Mrs Holt´s Definitive Battlefield Guide to the D-Day Normandy Landing Beaches (75th Anniversary edition) by Tonie and Valmai Holt, is an impressive mix of good maps, photos and information, the result of decades of Normandy experience and countless meetings with veterans. Aside from many colour maps inside the book you also get a separate map which in itself will probably be very helpful, not least while you are in the area. Simply put, I have never seen a better battlefield tour map before.
Major & Mrs Holt´s new guide can be used not only to plan a trip to battlegrounds or museums of special interest, it is a tool for historians, serving officers, history buffs and wargamers. Even if you have been to Normandy a couple of times I bet you will find several new and highly interesting places thanks to this guide. I did. Also, you will probably find the purely historical information in the book very readable, motivating, and sometimes also very moving.
Nordic readers will be pleased to know that Major & Mrs Holt have not missed the Norwegian and Danish memorials in Normandy and thanks to the maps and photos you will be able to locate them. So far there is no memorial to the Swedes who were also a part of the Normandy landings (mostly at sea but also on the ground and in the air), but there is at least a Bofors anti-aircraft gun in the Bayeux Museum (there is a photo of it in the guide), one of hundreds of Bofors guns used in Normandy.
Major & Mrs Holt´s guide also cover where to stay and eat and special tips for those wishing to tour Normandy by bicycle. The book is 350 pages long but still quite handy (not that large), and filled with good illustrations, mainly in colour.
Tuesday, September 10, 2019
Rather surprisingly, this year two books focused on Nordics in the Waffen-SS have been released. First The Finnish SS-volunteers and Atrocities 1941–1943 by Professor Lars Westerlund, and just recently III. Germanic SS Panzer-Korps by Lennart Westberg, Petter Kjellander & Geir Brenden.
This SS corps was a Waffen-SS armoured corps which saw action mainly on the Eastern Front and is often associated with the Estonian city of Narva due to its fighting there. The corps was formed in April 1943 and first commanded by the former Wiking commander Felix Steiner. III. Germanic SS Panzer-Korps is being released in two volumes by the UK publisher Helion & Company. The first volume, just released, covers the background of the corps, its creation and history until September 1944.
Counting myself as a close friend of Lennart Westberg (we have written two books together) I should not really review his new book, but I see no reason why I can not give an idea of the contents. Naturally, the III. Germanic SS Panzer-Korps is the main focus, but the first 45 pages summarize the latest research about the roots and purposes of the Waffen-SS and especially about its recruits from the Nordic states. The authors describe both the incredible expansion of the Waffen-SS and how the SS "brand" was renewed in 1944. Already in the introduction there are several images that few will have seen before, and not just propaganda photographs.
While photographs, especially previously unpublished ones, are important (not least in this book), the III. Germanic SS Panzer-Korps also contains new insights, e.g. into the serious difficulties to keep Norwegian volunteers within the Waffen-SS. Associate Professor Sigurd Sörlie has contributed a summary of his relevant research to this book.
Many books about the Waffen-SS just mention the often very large component of ethnic Germans/Volksdeutsche (from German minorities outside the Third Reich), but in III. Germanic SS Panzer-Korps they are very much present.
The many large photographs are in some cases of spectacular quality and those from within the city of Narva 1944 should be of interest to a wide group, not least those who plan to visit the city. Military vehicle (tank) buffs will find several images of Panthers and other vehicles, also Italian ones, of great interest.
Finally, the propaganda posters in the book deserve special mention. The SS, for Ersatzkommando Danmark, even produced a poster highlighting the significance of Narva, and the book´s poster captions explain the symbols and messages in this and other relevant Waffen-SS posters.
Friday, September 06, 2019
Very pleasantly surprised by this one. Visiting the Normandy Invasion Beaches and Battlefields is both a great guide and a compact WWII reference book.
This book by history teacher and guide Gareth Hughes is mostly intended for those planning and leading groups of young people to the World War Two sites in Normandy. But I do believe it should be read and used also by those with a deep interest in Normandy and WWII in general. It starts with a short but brilliant section entitled “D-Day in Numbers”. Two figures that I found to be of particular interest were: “127 – aircraft lost by the Allies” and “15 – percentage of paratroopers that landed in their planned drop zone”.
The general planning and travel tips are in themselves very valuable. The author then provides a very good WWII timeline followed by one of the best summaries I have come across of both the world wars. Then comes a short but still good glossary of key D-Day terms, such as Bigot, Bocage, PLUTO and SHAEF. A 14-page history of Normandy and D-day follows – a very nice summary.
The WWII location parts of the guide do not include every WWII site in Normandy but instead focus on places suitable for school groups and similar groups. One gets really invaluable advice both how to effectively present these places and their context, why they matter. Now, you might want to instead show around a group of military cadets or aviation/tank buffs. Well, I would still recommend this book as your primary Normandy guide. In my next posts I will present some more “extreme” Normandy guides for those already interested in particular units or vehicles.
As I am always looking for connections to the Nordic countries I was glad to note that the author among the tips for extended tours has included the Utah Danish Memorial, that commemorates the about 800 Danes who were also a part of the D-Day landings. They, like the Swedes, served mainly on board ships, but were nevertheless part of the D-Day machinery.