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

Friday, March 26, 2021

Guarding Hitler

A 22-year-old Swiss student decided to kill Adolf Hitler and got very close to succeeding. The capture of two unusual Waffen-SS soldiers in Normandy resulted in another of the many close calls with death that the Nazi leader had. If you are keen to learn about the close protection around Hitler, his body guards and their vehicles, then this book by Dr. Mark Felton should be of great interest to you.  

Mark Felton has become a familiar name to many WWII buffs thanks to YouTube. By January 2021 his main YouTube channel reached one million subscribers. But with books like Guarding Hitler he has shown that he is much more than a talented YouTuber. In Guarding Hitler he tells the story of the SS forces directly responsible for the personal safety of Hitler and while doing so makes it clear how complicated the SS empire was. The number of similar (competing) branches within the SS is quite baffling and reflects a basic feature of the whole German state under National Socialism. The Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the intelligence agency of the SS and NSDAP (Nazi Party), has become well known, but Guarding Hitler instead acquaints the reader more with the two SS forces responsible for Hitler´s close personal security, the rather confusingly named Reichssicherheitsdienst (RSD) that was not part of the SD, and the Führerbegleitkommando (FBK). To not complicate life too much I here only use the last names that these groups had.

 

Guarding Hitler is not least about the many attempts to kill Hitler – I found the Swiss student´s to be the most fascinating one. Although this subject has been covered in previous books and documentaries, Felton manages to make also these sections of his book highly readable. He presents own archive finds about the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) assassination plan called Operation Foxley. The plan, focused on sending a sniper team to Obersalzberg, was created due to the capture of two very special Waffen-SS soldiers in Normandy in June 1944 – soldiers that made the SOE realize that the security at Hitler´s Obersalzberg complex was not perfect. The prisoners opened up a window of opportunity for the SOE. In my opinion Guarding Hitler has all the ingredients to form the basis for a really strong documentary about Operation Foxley, that of course could be followed by a WWII “what if” movie.     

 

Nordic readers may be surprised to learn from Guarding Hitler how RSD body guards protected also the Reichskommissars in Norway and Denmark. The RSD came to protect not only Hitler but many leaders of the Third Reich. 

 

Aviation buffs will no doubt be most interested in what Felton has written about Hitler´s private air force including the “parachute seat” that was added to the personal Condor aircraft of Hitler. To quote from the relevant chapter: “Air travel was dangerous, particularly during wartime, yet Hitler seemed to prefer the risks rather than using his train for most long-distance journeys.”

 

Hitler´s train is of course also present, the Führersonderzug and what I found particularly interesting in that part was what happened to it after the war, how it was used by different states and that Hitler´s saloon coach (dining carriage) was taken out of service only in 1990 (!) and is now on display in a Bavarian steam locomotive museum.

 

Well then, Guarding Hitler should be of interest to both the average WWII buff, WWII researchers and close protection specialists.

Friday, March 05, 2021

The Americans and Germans at Bastogne

Can anything more and also of interest be said about the Battle of the Bulge? This new book by Gary Sterne shows that it is still possible. This is a book of particular interest to wargamers and others who want to get into details of the fighting in December 1944.

The British author Gary Sterne is rather famous for his Normandy research, not least concerning the Maisy Battery (check it out!). To produce The Americans and Germans at Bastogne he located the early postwar interviews with several German commanders who took part. He then matched them with US Army reports and selected a large number of wartime and postwar maps. The result is a source that should be very useful for those intending to visit the areas in question, and for wargamers. Also, anyone wishing to research the most involved German generals should have this book. Waffen-SS Oberstgruppenführer (Generaloberst) Josef “Sepp” Dietrich is of course among the quoted generals but there are more pages with Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein and Generalmajor Heinz Kokott and others. 

Given that most featured German officers are generals the perspective is mostly on larger units, mainly the involved divisions. But from time to time you get to read about smaller units and even individual tanks. My impression of the Volksgrenadiers seems to be in need of revision as I understand from this book that their quality was very varied.

The clash in thick fog between US Army Staff Sergeant Michael Lesniak´s Sherman tank and a German Tiger is memorable. From the explosive account of the fighting around the village of Marvie I conclude that if I have the opportunity to again go there by car I would like to see what the place looks like today. Perhaps some buildings still show signs of the fighting? I have found scars from WWII before, many times.

If you are not into visiting battlefields I believe you will find that the most interesting part of The Americans and Germans at Bastogne is the chapter “German Commanders Assess the Reasons for Failure”. From it I note that “the failure to take St. Vith in time” is Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt´s number one reason. This was written down shortly after the war, without all the hindsight.

The book’s many maps should be of great interest, even though the image quality is not always the best. The photos are not that many but mostly good. This is a book that one gets for the text and maps, there are already plenty of photo books out there. If only this 291 page book would have had an index, and there are spelling mistakes (names). But hopefully there will be more editions, and then an index can be added.

Monday, March 01, 2021

Total Undersea War

Were the German U-boats in the Atlantic defeated in May 1943? Not only is that an illusion but submarine historian Aaron S. Hamilton proves that some of the last German sub operations, shortly before the big German surrender and right beside the North American coastline, are among the most amazing. 

The book title, Total Undersea War, at first seemed a bit vague. But once you get into the book it becomes logical, as Mr. Hamilton is able to show how largely surface-bound submarine warfare was transformed by the introduction of an air mast, or “snorkel”, opening up a new era under the surface of the sea. Thus this book is both about submarine design, late U-boat operations and postwar submarine design. 

 

Submarine buffs, and especially those that are residents of North America, will be richly rewarded by Hamilton´s research. If you are not already a buff you might have problems believing the Germans cruised so close to your shores even when the war was about to end. There is no doubt, however, that Hamilton´s book is based on hard facts. 

 

More U-boats departed for the East Coast in the spring of 1945 than at any point since 1942. Let that sink in. The US Navy took this German underwater offensive very seriously, and more than most people now realize. This was not least because of the possibility that a U-boat might launch a V-weapon against a US city or base. Why this V-rocket scare must have been especially troublesome can be understood by taking into consideration how Allied intelligence, in spite of all its resources, had failed to predict the massive German offensive in the Ardennes in late 1944. Hitler there proved that he could still deliver large and unpleasant surprises.

 

In fact, in January 1945, the German Minister of Armaments Albert Speer made a radio broadcast in which he said V-rockets would fall on New York “by February 1”. We all know that this didn´t happen, but it is amazing enough to learn how despite a tight US naval barrier, German U-boats still managed to slip through, reach the East Coast and remain undetected to the end. To quote Hamilton: “[…] a submarine that didn´t surface and didn´t transmit by radio was almost impossible to track, find and destroy.”

 

This brings us to the final chapter of the book, about the mystery of U-869. Here the author has gone to very great lengths to provide a credible solution, and any future expeditions to the wreck ought to use Total Undersea War as the starting point.

 

This 416-page book contains plenty of fine photographs that I have never seen before, plus several interesting appendices.

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.