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

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Bletchley Park's Secret Source

Having read and watched several books/films/TV productions about Bletchley Park (BP) my interest was aroused when I learnt that there was a new book about the little-known network behind the information supplied to Station X (BP). The Swedish Navy is also part of the story.


Let it be said immediately that Bletchley Park´s Secret Source focuses on the very secret Y service that ran a global chain of wireless intercept stations. This new book by Peter Hore, former Head of Defence Studies for the Royal Navy, especially illuminates the Y service Wrens – the operators from the Women´s Royal Naval Service. Thus the subtitle of this book: Churchill´s Wrens and the Y service in World War II. My main reason for reading this book was my interest in the German-speaking Wrens who listened to German radio chatter, but for those of you who are interested in the monitoring of Japanese signals this book is also for you. 


While many Wrens of the Y service had zero military experience there were also some really experienced ladies, such as Violetta Thurstan. Not only had she won the Military Medal for her bravery as a nurse in the First World War, she had been decorated by Russia and Serbia as well, had served in the RAF and the Spanish Civil War and therefore spoke several languages and had a good grasp of many military matters – key Y service skills. 


Several Y service Wrens had been to Germany before the war and some had spent years there and even seen Hitler himself up close. Such a Wren was Elizabeth Agar, who didn´t know much about the Wrens but as soon as she met a smartly dressed one was intrigued and got a “[…] burning desire to join […] even though my only knowledge of the sea was that it made me seasick”.      


In the chaos of 1940 there sometimes was not even time for any training course, not even an issue of uniform! Those times also meant not only listening to the enemy but also observing Luftwaffe aircraft over Britain, sometimes close: “The girls became rather blasé, so they were surprised during a visit by a superintendent from London, when their visitor suddenly jumped into a ditch to take shelter.”


In the book´s chapter “Winning The Big Battles” the Swedish cruiser Gotland´s sighting of the German battleship Bismarck plays a vital role for the British naval attaché in Stockholm, Captain Henry Denham. The part that Denham´s report to London played in sinking the Bismarck is made clear by a personal signal from the First Sea Lord to Denham.   


The author writes that “At the height of the war, the Y stations sent more than 3,000 messages a day to Bletchley Park” and it seems natural to agree that this volume must have been a major contribution to the success of BP. The Y service Wrens in Colombo on Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) even helped prevent a second Pearl Harbor. Bletchley Park´s Secret Source highlights a small group of women, often in miserable working conditions, that indeed had a real effect on the war.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Russian Military Vehicle Encyclopedia

With The Russian Army On Parade 1992-2017 James Kinnear has, with the help of several Russians and a Swedish publisher, produced an impressive three volume encyclopedia of Soviet and Russian military "tekhnika". 

Military vehicle (MV) buffs and scale modelers have something to wish for, or treat themselves with. This sequel to The Soviet Army On Parade 1946-1991 of course focuses on the post-Soviet parades on Red Square but also contains a great deal of information and photos of parades in other places, also with restored Soviet WWII vehicles. In addition, it has the best photo documentation I have ever seen of the most serious "demonstration of Russian armour" that occurred in Moscow 1993, when the Russian Federation was on the brink of civil war and the Russian parliament building was destroyed by tank gun fire. No wonder that this part is so captivating, the author was at the time living beside the parliament and a stray 7.62 round came through the author´s elder daughter´s bedroom window.

Thus this is a book not only about glorious parades but actually, especially in the introduction, provides a summary of recent Russian history - that has been more harsh and violent (the wars in Chechnya) than most readers outside Russia realize. The book has some good summaries of actions now largely forgotten, not least involving the VDV, the Russian airborne forces. The post-Soviet rise of the VDV can also be observed in the official parades. 

In the most recent years other very interesting themes have become highly visible through parades, such as the growing importance of the Arctic, the Rosgvardia and remote control combat vehicles like the "Uran-9".  

Like in the previous two volumes, this volume includes a photo guide and glossary of Russian military vehicle terms, that ensure the lasting value of these books. Like with volume two of this series, I totally or partially disagree with the author about certain passages, not least about Ukraine. But those paragraphs do not concern the main focus of the book. Although I have been a rather fanatic MV buff since the 1980s I learnt a lot from it. To check out several armour books from Sweden in English, visit the publisher Canfora.

Thursday, July 08, 2021

Sepals Base Investigation

The most secret WWII Allied bases on Swedish territory are now being investigated by proper field research. Last week I had the privilege to take part in the investigation of an until now in modern Sweden basically unknown base under the Special Force HQ (insignia above with the standard British wings worn by many SFHQ operators).


The location of this Sepals base under SFHQ (and perhaps also the Norwegian XU) and most of the artifacts that we found can at this time not be shown, as the place and most artifacts are still under investigation by Swedish archaeologists. What I now can reveal is that a number of issues of the newspaper Stockholms-Tidningen found their way to this remote mountain location. Given the rarity of that paper above the Arctic Circle it is probable that these papers came to this place as part of the flow of weapons, ammunition, food etc between Allied embassies in Stockholm and the resistance groups in the Norwegian county of Nordland. It is known from Norwegian WWII literature that the place we searched was an important point in the secret supply chain to German-occupied Norway.  


Among the newspapers we found there were several articles that really bring home how the reader back then learnt of the major events as they unfolded. The headlines with Stalingrad and 10,000 destroyed Soviet tanks, see below, remind of the scale and connect the base to the larger picture. 

I could not help being rather amused by finding the below article entitled “Invasion In Western Europe Excluded”, that explains how the German fortifications there had become so numerous that successfully invading Western Europe was now impossible.


We were also reminded by the civilian history of the place by several finds. Again, most are waiting to be properly identified, but below is one artifact identified as the foundation for making traditional Sami shoes.

Finally, I wish to thank all those involved in this trip for making it happen, and for good company in a most beautiful area of the mountains shared by Sweden and Norway. For those of you not familiar with the Sepals bases, check out the books by Roger Albrigtsen and myself.