Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of books, TV programmes, radio broadcasts, plays and films.

The Great War in Portraits – National Portrait Gallery London

The National Portrait Gallery in London has an exhibition called The Great War in Portraits running until 15 June 2014. The Museum’s website describes the exhibition as:

In viewing the First World War through images of the many individuals involved, The Great War in Portraits looks at the radically different roles, experiences and, ultimately, destinies of those caught up in the conflict.

Setting the scene in 1914, the splendour and formality of portraits of national leaders are contrasted with a press photograph of Gavrilo Princip, the 19-year-old assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The narrative unfolds with power-portraits of commanders Haig, Foch and Hindenburg, asserting  military authority, which are displayed together with dignified pictures of their troops by artists including Orpen, Sickert and Nevinson. Finally, images of heroes and medal-winners are shown alongside the wounded and the fallen, representing  the bitter-sweet nature of a war in which valour and selfless endeavour were qualified by disaster and suffering.

From paintings and drawings to photography and film, the exhibition considers a wide range of visual responses to ‘the war to end all wars’, culminating in the visual violence of Expressionist masterpieces by Beckmann and Kirchner.

The majority of the portraits on show are by British artists of British Empire subjects, but there are some from other countries. There is a clear difference in style between post 1918 paintings of war scenes by British and German artists. The exhibition argues that in Britain, victorious but traumatised, many rejected Modernism in favour of a return to past values. In defeated Germany, however, the old order was rejected, resulting in a move the other way.

The curators were obviously restricted in their choice of portraits because few other than politicians, generals, admirals and VC winners would have had their portrait painted. However, there are also a number of paintings of unnamed ordinary British Empire soldiers made by William Orpen, with the aim of showing the importance of collective endeavour in the war effort.

The War Office did not want paintings of dead British soldiers to be shown, censoring one of dead Tommies by C. R. W. Nevision, ironically titled Paths of Glory. However, it was more relaxed about pictures of the wounded. Public exhibitions of war art in 1918 included paintings by Orpen and Eric Kennington of wounded men and hospital scenes.

After the war a group of artists led by Gilbert Rogers, an artist and wartime Royal Army Medical Corps officer, were commissioned by the Committee for the Medical History of the War to paint a series of pictures of the work of the RAMC. Another type of medical painting shown in the exhibition is a number of before and after portraits by Henry Tonks of men undergoing plastic surgery after suffering facial wounds. Some similar photos are also displayed.

The exhibition features other photographs and film as well. A wall displays 40 photographic portraits, some of unknown subjects intended to display different aspects of the war, but many of famous people, including several women. Extracts from two films, one British and one German, about the Battle of the Somme are shown on a rolling loop.

Both films featured a mixture of actual footage of the battle and reconstructions of battle scenes. The British one, Battle of the Somme by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, came out first and was very successful, being seen by 20 million people in its first six months of release. It is available on DVD and on YouTube. The German rival, Bei unseren Helden an der Somme [With our Heroes on the Somme] was less successful. It included footage clearly from earlier in the war and its reconstructed scenes were not even filmed on location. It can also be found on YouTube.

This is a very interesting exhibition. It is too small to make a lengthy journey just to see it, but is well worth seeing if in the area.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews, War History

Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War

I recently attended an exhibition of war art by Stanley Spencer titled Heaven in a Hell of War at Somerset House in London. It is on until 26 January 2014, before transferring to Pallant House in Chichester, West Sussex from 15 February to 15 June 2014.

The bulk of the exhibition consists of 17 pictures that are normally displayed at the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, near Newbury, Hampshire, which is currently closed for renovation. They were painted specially for the chapel by Spencer, and show scenes from his experiences in the First World War.

Spencer volunteered to join the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1915. He was initially stationed at Beaufort Hospital, a mental asylum near Bristol that had been requisitioned as a military hospital. In 1916 he was posted to the Macedonian Front, initially as a medic. In 1917 he volunteered to transfer to the infantry, before becoming an official war artist.

The majority of the pictures show scenes from daily life Beaufort Hospital, but there are also some based on Spencer’s memories of Macedonia. The Daily Telegraph review of the exhibition reproduces some of them. The Resurrection of the Soldiers, Spencer’s vision of the end of the war, in which heaven has emerged from hell, is adhered to the wall over the high altar at Sandham, so could not be moved to the exhibition. It is instead depicted by a projection onto a wall.

The exhibition also includes some studies for Spencer’s paintings at Sandham and a number of war scenes from Macedonia and a portrait of Spencer painted by Henry Lamb, who was also served in the RAMC in Macedonia and as an official British war artist. He was instrumental in obtaining Spencer the commission to paint the pictures at Sandham.

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews, War History

The Silent War Part 2 BBC

On 12 December 2013 the BBC broadcast the second episode of a two-part series called The Silent War, which dealt with a secret underwater espionage war that the UK and USA fought against the USSR during the Cold War. Click here for my post on the first episode. The BBC website describes the second episode, titled The Russians are Coming! as follows:

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the front line of the Cold War was hidden beneath the ocean. Submariners from three navies – American, Soviet and British – played a deadly game of cat and mouse in a secret war of espionage and intimidation. The nuclear balance between East and West was constantly shifting. This was a constant struggle to gain technological advantage, and the Soviets developed submarines that were ever more sophisticated – bigger, faster and more luxurious – than any developed by the West.

For over 40 years the details of this tense stand-off have been a closely guarded secret. Now submariners from all three navies are able to talk more openly than ever before. They reveal how the underwater arms race took ballistic missiles beneath the Arctic ice, and they remember how it nearly ended in nuclear disaster at sea.

In 1973 the hunter killer submarine USS Flying Fish was sent to Barents Sea to detect and obtain intelligence on the new Soviet Delta class of ballistic missile submarines, which were thought to carry new long-range missiles capable of hitting the USA without leaving the USSR’s waters. The existing Yankee class, as NATO codenamed the Soviet Project 667A submarines, had to go to the mid Atlantic in order to be in range of the USA, making them vulnerable to American and British hunter killer submarines.

The Flying Fish was  detected and became the target of a major anti-submarine exercise. She went closer in instead of withdrawing and watched the whole exercise. This provided vital intelligence about Soviet anti-submarine tactics.

The advent of the Deltas meant that American and British hunter killer submarines now  had to enter the Barents Sea in order to detect and shadow Soviet missiles submarines. There are two methods by which a submarine can detect another whilst both are submerged. Active sonar is more accurate, but reveals the presence of the searcher by pinging the enemy. It is usually used to get an exact fix before firing. Passive sonar entails silent listening, which hides the searcher, but makes it harder to detect the enemy. American and British submarines were quieter than the Soviet ones, but the Soviets were working hard to close gap.

The Flying Fish was the first submarine to use a passive towed array sonar. This consisted of ultra sensitive hydrophones towed up to mile behind the submarine. They could hear more than the human ear and the distance from the towing submarine reduced interference from its noise.

By 1977  the Soviets had more ballistic missile submarines than the UK and  USA combined. The Soviets were also developing cruise missiles to attack US aircraft carriers. Spying on Soviet weapons testing became more important than ever so that NATO could develop counter measures.

In 1982 the USS Grayling reported that the Delta that it was tracking was heading north, and was ordered to follow, although she lacked the necessary charts. The Delta disappeared below the ice, which was  normal for the Soviets, who had surveyed the Arctic sea bed and possessed accurate charts of it. their submarines could hide under the ice, which is noisy, cancelling out the American and British advantage.advantage. The Delta had a hovering system that allowed it to go completely still then break through ice. A missile fired from the North Pole would reach the USA in 20 minutes, allowing little time for  retaliation. The Deltas each carried 16 missiles with multiple warheads each.

The Soviets then introduced the Typhoon class, the world’s biggest ever submarines, which were designed to break through ice. They could  stay submerged for six months: American and British submarines never patrolled for more than two months. A nuclear submarine’s endurance is limited only by its food supply and the morale of its crew. The Typhoons had better living conditions, including a  sauna, swimming pool and  gym. The crew slept in proper cabins, with even ordinary sailors having four berth ones. A Typhoon carried 20 missiles which each had 10 self guided warheads, allowing it to attack double the number of targets as a Delta.

In the early 1980s the Soviets introduced the Victor III hunter killer submarines, which were intended to destroy all American and British ballistic missile submarines in the event of war. They were approaching technical parity with the American and British hunter killers, and the West was alarmed and puzzled by the speed of Soviet technological advance.

After taking office in 1981 President Ronald Reagan reversed US military budget cuts and dismissed the policy of arms control as being a one way street. He approved the most aggressive naval exercises conducted since WWII in the North Cape region. John Lehman, his Navy Secretary, said that the  purpose was to scare the Soviets. The USN’s war plan was now to attack Soviet Navy in Barents Sea, forcing them to keep their hunter killers at home to defend their ballistic missile submarines.

The level of tension was now the greatest that it had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1985, however, Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the USSR. He restructured economy and reopened arms talks.

Also in 1985, the Americans uncovered a spy ring led by John Walker, an ex USN submariner & communications expert. He had recruited other spies, including his son, a US sailor serving on an aircraft carrier, and sold the Soviets secrets that enabled them to close the technological gap on the USN. He was betrayed by his estranged wife.

In 1987 the Soviets launched Operation Atrina. Five Victor IIIs were found by SOSUS, the US submarine detection system, as they moved into Atlantic. NATO wondered why the Soviets would send their best team out in strength? Four were quickly detected as they headed south. The fifth was quieter,: one of the ex-RN officers interviewed suggested that she was better maintained and managed.

Admiral Vladimir Chernavin, a submariner who was then Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy, explained that the second stage was to see if a submarine detected by enemy could become invisible and escape. He allowed he first use of a system of hydro-acoustic resistance. Special torpedo that emitted the same sounds as the  submarine were launched, with the submarine then going a different way to the torpedo

The Victors escaped, and the Americans first searched for them at the entrance to the Mediterranean, but they were headed for the Sargasso Sea. Soviet submarines were not built for such hot waters, making conditions on board very uncomfortable. Their objectives were to confirm their belief that US ballistic missile submarines hid there, and to see if could have carried out a strike on the USA from such a position. They were spotted after eight days but had accomplished their mission in five days.

By 1987 some Soviet submarines were  very sophisticated, but most were older, for example the K219. It suffered an explosion due to sea water leaking into its missile tubes and mixing with the missiles’ liquid fuel. Two sailors were killed in the explosion and another gas poisoning.

All compartments were quickly sealed, preventing the whole boat from flooding, but 25 men were trapped in the damaged section. The captain decided to risk opening the section in order to save them. There was then a 14 hour battle to save the submarine. The nuclear reactor had to be shut down, but the automatic system to do so failed. Sergei Preminin, a conscript seaman, volunteered to enter the reactor room and shut it down manually. He succeeded in doing so, but a change in the pressure meant that he could not open the hatch to escape the reactor room and was killed. The rest of the crew was rescued just before the submarine sank, along with 16 missiles and 48 nuclear warheads.

This was a human tragedy and a symbol of the unreliable condition of the Soviet Navy and economy.  The USSR was broken by its huge investment in armaments. The Soviet sailors interviewed argued that they suffered a political rather than a military defeat in the Cold War.

There are profiles of  some of the submariners interviewed on the BBC website. For UK viewers it is available on the I-Player until 19 December and is repeated on BBC2 at 23:20 on BBC2 on 18 December (23:45 in Scotland) and at 3:00 on 29 December: the latter showing may have signing for the deaf, as repeats of BBC programmes in the early hours of the morning often do.

Leave a comment

Filed under Political History, Reviews, War History

The Silent War Part 1 – BBC

On 5 December 2013 the BBC broadcast the first episode of a two-part series called The Silent War, which dealt with a secret underwater espionage war that the UK and USA fought against the USSR during the Cold War. The BBC website describes the first episode, titled Know Your Enemy, as follows:

For decades, Britain and America’s Cold War submarines waged a secret war of espionage against the Soviet navy. Deep in the ocean, crews were locked in a game of cat and mouse as each side battled to gain the tactical and technological advantage.

After decades of silence, submariners from both the east and west are now allowed to talk more openly than ever before about how they plotted to win the war beneath the waves. The west’s superior technology allowed them to secretly shadow the Soviet fleet, at close quarters, giving them vital intelligence and the upper hand if war broke out.

Shadowing submarines was dangerous. The film explores close encounters between western and Soviet forces that put the lives of submariners at risk. Candid interviews with British, American and Russian submariners reveal the pressures of lengthy underwater patrols that drove them to the edge of their physical and mental limits.

1950s submarines were little advanced from those of WWII. They were still powered by diesel-electric engines on the surface and rechargeable batteries underwater, limiting the time that they could stay submerged and the speed that they could travel at when underwater. Water supplies were restricted, meaning that even junior officers such as Sandy Woodward, later commander of the RN task force that recaptured the Falkland Islands in 1982, were unable to wash whilst at sea. Much of their time was spent giving anti-submarine training for their own side.

NATO was heavily outnumbered on the ground, and had little hope of resisting a Soviet land offensive by conventional weapons. Dr Owen Cote of MIT pointed out that this meant that nuclear weapons were to NATO an ‘incredibly attractive’ way of deterring the Soviets and preserving the status quo. In the 1950s these would be delivered by aircraft or land based missiles. However, the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, by the USSR in 1957 left the USA vulnerable to nuclear attack, meaning that its land missiles could be destroyed before they could be launched.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower therefore decided that submarine based nuclear ballistic missiles were required, but the necessary technology did not then exist. Nuclear powered submarines were developed, which were armed with Polaris nuclear ballistic missiles capable of destroying a Soviet city from over 2,000 miles away. They were twice as fast underwater as diesel-electric submarines, and could stay submerged indefinitely. They produced their own water, and the only constraint on their time at sea was food supply. One US nuclear submariner told his wife that in wartime he would be safer on his submarine than she was at home.

The USSR needed to develop its own nuclear missile submarines, but struggled to do so. In the interim it tried to establish a land base for nuclear missiles closer to the USA, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviet forces sent to Cuba included four Foxtrot class submarines, which were powered by diesel-electric engines, but each armed with a torpedo with a nuclear warheads. They were detected by SOSUS, a system secretly laid by the USA in the Atlantic to detect submarines. The USN harassed them, forcing them to surface. They would have been destroyed had it been a shooting war, and returned home in disgrace.

This experience convinced the Soviets that they needed nuclear powered missile submarines of their own, building 34 of the Project 667A class in five years. Both sides could destroy the enemy’s land based bombers and missiles, but not its nuclear missile submarines. They were the ideal weapon for the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction, which meant that neither side would attack the other because it would be destroyed in retaliation. In what was an ideological conflict neither planned to attack, but both feared that they would be attacked. Cote argued that nuclear missile submarines actually made the world more secure, because they deterred both sides from attacking.

Britain launched its first ballistic missile submarines in 1966. Its submarine service worked extremely closely with the American one, with submarines from both countries being based on the west coast of Scotland. Submarines from all three navies went on long patrols, trying to remain undetected. Only a very few officers knew exactly where they were. British captains had sealed orders telling them when to fire. Soviet ones did not know which enemy cities their missiles were aimed at.

By 1970 NATO was concerned at the growing size of the Soviet Navy, fearing that there was no reason for the USSR, which had invaded Czechoslovakia two years before, to have such a large fleet unless it intended to use it. A plan to detect and track all Soviet missile submarines so that they could be destroyed before launching their missiles in the event of war was therefore devised.

Soviet missiles had a range of only 1,300 miles, compared with 2,500 for the Polaris ones used by the RN and USN, so Soviet submarines had to cross the Atlantic in order to be in a position to fire on the USA. SOSUS could detect them, and was now so sophisticated that it could identify different types of submarine. However, NATO needed to know the as much as possible about the acoustic signatures of the Soviet submarines.

In order to obtain this information hunter killer submarines were used to closely track Soviet submarines. The hunter killer boats were also nuclear powered, but armed with only torpedoes, so were smaller and stealthier than the missile submarines. The programme implied that they were a new type, but in fact they predated the missile boats. From 1975, however, the RN and USN hunter killers were given a new role, which was to track Soviet missile submarines in the Atlantic.

The Soviet submarines were first detected by SOSUS. An RN or USN hunter killer submarine would then be ordered to get as close to the Soviet boat as possible, exploiting its advantages of being quieter and having twice the detection range. The objective was to gather as much information as possible about the acoustic signature of the Soviet submarine.

This was dangerous work because the two submarines were so close to each other. One British boat was badly damaged in a collision with what its crew were told was an iceberg. Lord Owen, a former government minister, admitted that it was a Soviet submarine, but the Ministry of Defence has never officially confirmed this. Crews from all three navies were banned from talking about their missions at the time.

NATO was also concerned by the Kiev, the USSR’s first aircraft carrier, which was armed with eight cruise missiles with nuclear warheads as well as aircraft, and was faster than any submarine. In 1977 HMS Swiftsure, Britain’s newest submarine, was sent north to the Barents Sea to gather information on her acoustic signature. This was a difficult and dangerous mission as Swiftsure had to go into the Soviet Northern Fleet’s home waters.

Submarines have their interior lit by only dim red lighting when it is dark outside as it is essential that the light at the bottom of the periscope is at least as dark as that at the top, or else it will be impossible to see anything after dark. As there is only an hour’s daylight per day so far north at that time of the year Swiftsure had only red lighting all day for almost two months.

Her task was made even harder because the Soviets were conducting a major naval exercise when she entered the Barents Sea. However, she was able to get close enough to Kiev to take photographs through the periscope, and to obtain full details of her acoustic signature. This would have enabled NATO to detect and sink her before she got close enough to Europe to fire her missiles in wartime.

This fascinating programme concluded by arguing that the RN and USN hunter killer submarines for two decades obtained vital intelligence that gave NATO ‘a priceless strategic advantage.’ The second episode, to be broadcast on BBC2 at 9 pm on Thursday 12 December, covers the Soviet fight back, weapons under the ice and a disaster at sea.

No overseas co-producers were listed, so those outside the UK will have to hope that their local stations buy it.

There are profiles of  some of the submariners interviewed on the BBC website. For UK viewers it is available on the I-Player until 19 December and is repeated at 11:20 pm on BBC2 on 11 December and at 3:15 am on BBC2 on 22 December: the latter showing may have signing for the deaf, as repeats of BBC programmes in the early hours of the morning often do so. The second episode is on BBC2 at 9:00 pm on Wednesday 12 December.

2 Comments

Filed under Political History, Reviews, War History

Treblinka: Inside Hitler’s Secret Death Camp – Channel 5

Channel 5 broadcast a TV documentary titled Treblinka: Inside Hitler’s Secret Death Camp in the UK on Wednesday 27 November 2013. It is available from the 5 On Demand catch up service until 22:30 UK time on 27 November 2014. I am not certain if there are any geographical restrictions, but I would be surprised if it works outside the UK. Channel 5 documentaries are often subsequently shown globally on the History or Discovery channels.

Channel 5′s website describes the programme as follows:

This revealing documentary follows a team of British archaeologists who have been granted unprecedented access to excavate and investigate one of Hitler’s most notorious extermination camps, 50 years after it was dismantled.

Between 1942 and 1943, the Nazis murdered more than 800,000 people at Treblinka in north east Poland, brutally exploiting many more as slave labour. Today no visible traces of those atrocities remain. The Nazis dismantled the camp in 1943 in an attempt to conceal what had happened there.

In the summer of 2013, British archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls led a team that carried out the first ever comprehensive forensic investigation of the camp’s remains. Her goal was to piece together the grim mechanics of industrialised slaughter that were used there, using a combination of forensic detective work, aerial surveys and, for the first time, archaeological digs.

This film follows Caroline and the team as they get to work at Treblinka, uncovering the location and remains of the camp and detailing its key structures, including the processing rooms, gas chambers and burial pits. Drawing on testimony from one of the last survivors of the camp and newly-discovered documentary sources, the programme provides a new, visceral and compelling narrative of one of the darkest chapters in human history.

Dr Caroline Sturdy Colls is a forensic archaeologist who works with the police on murder and missing persons cases. She has spent six years using the skills that this work has taught her to carry out forensic archaeology on the site of mass murders.

There were two camps at Treblinka. Treblinka 1 was a labour camp that was set up in 1941 for Polish Gentile and Jewish prisoners. About 20,000 died by starvation, torture and execution.

Treblinka 2 was set up in 1942 purely to murder people. A handful of prisoners were used to operate the camp, but most were killed soon after arrival. Almost all the victims were Jewish, but some were Roma, a point that the programme did not mention.

The Germans destroyed the camp in 1943, planting trees on its site. This means that the exact layout of the camp is not known. Survivors and former guards have produced plans, but these have been drawn from memory years after the event, so are not identical.

The use of airborne lidar produces images with the vegetation stripped away, revealing features in the ground that are otherwise hard to spot . These can then be archaeologically investigated to see if they are sites of historic significance.

Lidar revealed a number of depressions that may be unknown mass graves near Treblinka 1. No physical evidence of the gas chambers of Treblinka 2 has ever been discovered, but lidar revealed possible sites.

Investigation of the possible mass graves at Treblinka 1 discovered human bones, including those of children. A survivor, who had been sent there in 1942 when he was 15, recounted the brutality of the guards. On one occasion they chopped up a prisoner with axes whilst he was still alive. The injuries that he would have received were consistent with wounds on one of the bones found.

Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, put Odilo Globocnik, an Austrian Nazi who commanded the Police and SS units in Lublin, in charge of  Aktion Reinhard, the murder of the Jews of occupied Poland. Globocnik was ordered to build three death camps at Belzec, Treblinka and  Sobibor, transport the Jews to them, seize their assets and valuables for the Reich and kill them in 18 months.

Colls was keen to find the site of the gas chambers at Treblinka. She visited Majdanek, a German concentration camp on the outskirts of Lublin, in order to inspect its gas chambers. She wanted to know what types of building materials were used to build it in order to help her know what to look for at Treblinka.

The archaeologists faced an enormous challenge because of the efficiency of the clean up. No buildings and only a small number of witnesses survived. The first account was by Vasily Grossman, who pieced together a number of accounts just after Treblinka was liberated by the Red Army in 1944. He wrote that flames from the grill pits used to burn the corpses of the dead were visible from 30-40km away. Local peasants were forced to scatter the ashes along the road to Treblinka 1.

Fragments of cremated human bones are still present on the surface. Colls took advice from the Chief Rabbi of Israel about the treatment of remains. He advised that bones should be buried, and that excavation should stop if a mass grave is found.

The second commandant of Treblinka was Franz Stangl, another Austrian Nazi. Like many of the personnel at the Aktion Reinhard death camps, he had previously worked in the T4 Euthanasia programme, the murder of mentally and physically disabled people by the Nazi regime. The methods used in it, including using carbon monoxide to gas the victims and the methods of disposing of the corpses were repeated on a much greater scale in Aktion Reinhard.

When Stangl arrived at Treblinka he encountered corpses from 15 to 20 minutes drive away. He attempted to replace a chaotic system with production line efficiency, but it remained savage.

Colls was curious to know how much the victims knew of what awaited them. The problem was that what happened was so far beyond what could be imagined. The Jews arrived at Treblinka exhausted, dehydrated and with no idea of where they were.

She visited Warsaw, where she met a historian and a woman who had survived the Warsaw Ghetto. She was aged six in 1942, when the Germans murdered her father. She and her mother escaped the Ghetto before deportations to Treblinka began in July 1942.

Around 350,000 Jews lived in Warsaw in 1939, a third of the city’s population. Deportations from surrounding areas took the Ghetto’s population to over 400,000, who were crammed into a small area. Starvation and disease were rife, with about 83,000 Jews dying between 1940, when the Ghetto was sealed, and July 1942. At least 300,000 more were killed at Treblinka.

There is limited, but clear, eye-witness evidence of the gassing process. Accounts from the war crimes trial of Willi Mentz, an SS NCO, testimony of Pavel Leleko, a Ukrainian Guard, the memoirs of Franciszeck Zabecki, the local station master, and a report by Abraham Krzepicki, one of the few Jews to see the gas chambers and live, were read out. The programme spelt Krzepicki’s name as Zrzepicki, but all other sources spell his name with a K. He escaped and recounted his experiences, but did not survive the war.

Samuel Willenberg, the only person from the 6,000 on his train from Opatow to Treblinka to survive, was interviewed. He met a friend on arrival, who told him what was happening at the camp, and warned him to tell the Germans that he had a trade, so that he might be selected for slave labour.

There were two sets of gas chambers, and the lidar evidence suggested their possible locations. Excavations at the larger one produced sand and stones but no building materials. It appeared that the 1943 cover up had buried it, and that the ground level was now much higher than in 1943.

Colls, however, was convinced by her experience working with the police that was not possible to hide all clues at crime scene this large. Digging then began at the possible site of smaller gas chamber, which was the first to be built. It had also  been buried underneath sand, but not as much sand had been used in this case. Items such as combs, coins, pendants, jewellery and false teeth were found.

Krzepicki wrote that the gas chambers looked like the shower rooms of  a public bath house with white tiles on walls and terracotta ones on the floor. White and terracotta tiles with stars of David on them were found at the suspected site of the second gas chamber, along with bricks and concrete. The Germans are known to have put a Star of David on the outside of the gas chamber as part of their attempt to disguise it as a bath house, so may well have continued this deception inside.

Less than 80 of the 1.6m Jews sent to the Aktion Reinhard camps survived. At the better known Auschwitz a higher proportion of the Jews were selected for slave labour, but almost all died the day they arrived at the Aktion Reinhard ones. The programme ended with the burial of the bones that were found, the first time that the remains of Treblinka victims have had a proper interment. More archaeology work is planned in 2014.

Unfortunately the programme did not put the names of people interviewed on the screen, and I would not like to guess at spelling a Polish name that I have only heard spoken, so I have not been able to name some of the interviewees. The names of now deceased survivors or guards whose recollections were read out were put on-screen, and I recognised Samuel Willenberg from previous TV documentaries on Treblinka.

5 Comments

Filed under Reviews, War History

The Nazi Killers – UK Channel 5 TV

Channel 5 in the UK broadcast a documentary called The Nazi Killers on Friday 22 November. For UK viewers it is available on the 5 Demand online catch up service until 22 December. According the filmmakers’ website, it has been shown in other countries at various film festivals and on the Discovery and History channels under the title The Real Inglorious Bastards.

Channel 5′s website describes the programme as follows:

Documentary exploring one of the hundreds of undercover missions launched by the US government’s Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Operation Greenup consisted of two young Jewish refugees and one Wehrmacht officer, who parachuted one winter night into the Austrian Alps and risked their lives to strike back at Nazi Germany.

It featured a few re-enactments, but most of the story was told by the two Jewish refugees, Hans Wijnberg and Fred Mayer, with the widow and son of Franz Weber, the Wehrmacht officer, also contributing.

Mayer was the son of a German WWI veteran. He and his family escaped to the USA in 1938. Wijnberg was sent by his parents, along with his twin brother, from the Netherlands in 1939to live with his father’s business partner in the USA in 1939. His parents and younger brother were all murdered in the Holocaust.

Both men joined the US Army, and were then approached to join the OSS, the US intelligence service, because of their language skills. It trained them for operations behind enemy lines. Mayer was put in command of Operation Greenup, with Wijnberg as his radio operator.

Their mission was to gather intelligence in the Tirol region of Austria. It was feared that the Nazis would establish an Alpine redoubt in order to make a last stand there. The team  needed somebody with local knowledge, and Franz Weber, an anti-Nazi local who had deserted from the German Army to the Allies, volunteered to join it.

The three were to be dropped by parachuted near Innsbruck in February 1945. It was difficult to find a suitable drop point, as the obvious places were all occupied by the enemy. A pilot called Billings volunteered to drop them on a glacier. All three landed safely with most of their equipment, but the canister containing their skis was lost. They therefore had to walk in deep snow to Oberperfuss, Weber’s home village. There they were helped by his family.

Operation Greenup’s purpose was intelligence gathering. Mayer obtained a German uniform and impersonated a wounded officer. This enabled him to pick up information from other German officers, which Wijnberg relayed back to the OSS. One of their pieces of intelligence enabled the Allied air forces to bomb a large number of trains in a nearby marshalling yard.

Mayer was then ordered to investigate a nearby underground factory that was building Me 262 jet fighters. He infiltrated it by obtaining work as an electrician, using a French translation of his own name, discovering that supply problems with parts meant that no aircraft were being completed.

Mayer was then betrayed and captured. Wijnberg and Weber had to flee, whilst Mayer was tortured by the Gestapo. His two interrogators discounted the possibility that he might be Jewish, because their anti-Semitism meant that they refused to believe that a Jew could be brave enough to withstand their tortures.

The interrogation was watched by a third man, who eventually took Mayer to the house of Franz Hofer, the local Gauleiter [Nazi Party boss]. By this time Hofer, like many Nazis, realised that the war was lost and was interested only in surrendering to the Western Allies rather than the Soviets. Mayer was allowed to send a message to the OSS. When US troops approached Innsbruck he met them and informed them that the city was willing to surrender.

The documentary ended with Fred Mayer talking to Hans Wijnberg via Skype. Wijnberg died shortly afterwards.

Both programme titles are somewhat misleading, since the members of Operation Greenup were tasked with gathering intelligence rather than directly killing Nazis, and the only connection with the film Inglorious Basterds is that they were American Jews operating behind enemy lines.

It was a good documentary. There were some contributions from historians, mainly to set things in context, and some re-enactments in the absence of archival footage, but the story was told largely in Mayer and Wijnberg’s own words.

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews, War History

Patrick Leigh Fermor – An Adventure – Artemis Cooper

A few weeks ago I heard Artemis Cooper talk about her recent biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Leigh Fermor is best known as a travel writer. His travel writings included a trilogy about his journey on foot from Rotterdam to Istanbul. The final instalment, edited by Artemis Cooper and Colin Thurbon, has only just been published.

His journey began in December 1933, when he was 18. He reached Istanbul at the start of 1935, but then travelled in Greece, before living with a Romanian noblewoman until the start of World War II. I am most interested in his war career, so will concentrate on that, but Artemis Cooper’s Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure covers all his life, not just WWII: he lived from 1915 -2011.

Leigh Fermor wanted to join the Irish Guards, but was assigned to the Intelligence Corps, because of his language skills. He was trained by SOE for operations behind enemy lines, before being sent to Crete, a vital German supply base, in June 1942. He spoke Greek, but with a clearly foreign accent.

His time with the local andartes (rebels/guerrillas) was a mixture of danger and monotony. He relaxed with poetry and song.  After accidentally killing an andarte he became the target of a blood feud that was not lifted until 1972. Until then he was safe on his post-war visits to Crete only when in the company of somebody not in blood feud with his enemy. He loathed the Communist ELAS partisans because he had learnt of the famines in the USSR from his Romanian contacts.

After the Italian surrender in September 1943 Leigh Fermor escorted an Italian general off Crete. High seas meant that Leigh Fermor had to stay on the vessel that was taking the Italian to Egypt. He was parachuted back into Crete in February 1944, and planned to kidnap General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, the brutal commander of the German garrison.

Bad weather delayed the arrival of the rest of the SOE party, including Captain William Stanley Moss. Müller was promoted and replaced by General Heinrich Kriepe. Leigh Fermor decided stick to the plan of kidnapping the German garrison commander.

On 26 April 1944 Leigh Fermor, Moss and a group of Cretan andartes kidnapped Kriepe. They drove him through 22 German checkpoints to a beach where they were picked up and transported to Egypt.

Leigh Fermor was awarded the DSO, but always felt that the andartes received too little credit for their role in the kidnap. After the war Moss published an account of the kidnap titled Ill Met by Moonlight. It was made into a film starring Dirk Bogarde as Leigh Fermor, David Oxley as Moss and Marius Goring as Kriepe.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews, War History

Deserter – Charles Glass – Edinburgh Book Festival

At last month’s Edinburgh book Festival I attended a presentation by Charles Glass on his latest book, which is called Deserter: The Last Untold Story of the Second World War in the UK and The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War in the USA.

He began by apologising for the sub-title of the UK edition of his book, which he blamed on his publisher. He does not think that it is ‘the last untold story of the Second World War’, as his next book is also about that conflict.

His website describes the book as follows:

The extraordinary story of the deserters of the Second World War. What made them run? And what happened after they fled?
During the Second World War, the British lost 100,000 troops to desertion, and the Americans 40,000. Commonwealth forces from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Britain’s colonial empire also left the ranks in their thousands. The overwhelming majority of deserters from all armies were front-line infantry troops; without them, the war was harder to win. Many of these men were captured and court-martialled, while others were never apprehended. Some remain wanted to this day. Why did these men decide to flee their ranks?

The website says 40,000 US deserters, but Glass stated that there were 50,000 in his talk.

The book concentrates on three of the deserters: two American, Steve Weiss and Alfred Whitehead, and one British, John Bain. As he was in the UK, he talked mainly about Bain.

Most of the deserters were front line combat troops. A policy of just replacing casualties rather than rotating units out of the front line meant that some Allied soldiers fought throughout the war, whilst others did not see combat, causing great resentment amongst the former group.

John Bain was an Englishman who joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders after he and his brother ran away from their brutal father. His first choice had been the Merchant Navy, but it rejected him. He was a poet and boxer who disliked the army. He deserted, was caught, demoted from corporal to private and transferred to the Gordon Highlanders.

He fought at El Alamein and in Libya and Tunisia. He adopted a persona of a hard drinking boxer, forgetting about literature. He wandered off in a daze after seeing members of his unit looting the corpses of dead Seaforth Highlanders. An officer gave him a life to the rear area, where he had no idea what to do. He was arrested and sentenced to nine months in the British Army’s toughest prison, which was the model for the prison in the Sean Connery film The Hill.

After six months he accepted an offer of an honourable discharge after the war if he volunteered to train for D-Day. He was wounded in Normandy, and sent back to the UK. He deserted on VE Day instead of waiting for his discharge, and became part of an underground of 20,000 deserters in London. He met a Leeds University student, and moved and studied there. He was eventually arrested and court-martialled, but discharged after psychiatric evaluation.

He changed his name to Vernon Scannell, and became a poet and teacher, but still boxed and drank heavily. He deserted three times but never from combat.

Most deserters were brave men who eventually cracked. Their treatment depended on their officers. After the fall of Tobruk 20,000 British troops deserted, but most came back after General Bernard Montgomery took command. Glass claimed that some of those who had been most adept at surviving on the run in the Nile Delta took those skills to the SAS or the LRDG. Montgomery’s predecessor, Claude Auchinleck, had asked the War Cabinet to restore the death penalty for desertion. It refused, as doing so would reveal the scale of desertion to the British public and the Germans.

The USA did retain the death penalty for desertion, and sentenced 49 soldiers to death for desertion. Only one, Eddie Slovik, was actually executed, during the Battle of the Bulge. He was supposed to have been shot as an example, but his execution was kept secret at the time, meaning that it could hardly serve as an example.

The German executed about 15,000 of their own men during the war; most of them were summarily executed, with barely a court martial.

American and British treatment of soldiers who have cracked under the strain of combat is now better than in WWII, but more needs to be done to deal with PTSD. There is no possibility of deserting in Afghanistan or Iraq. Modern deserters are those who refuse to be sent to the operational theatre for political reasons.

A British Normandy veteran in the audience took exception to the numbers quoted by Glass, arguing that desertion on such a scale would have been more visible to him than it actually was. The discussion did not progress beyond Glass saying that he had seen the numbers in archives, and the veteran refusing to accept them because of his personal experiences.

A good presentation. I am not sure that the story was unknown: I certainly knew about the large number of British troops who deserted after Tobruk and returned before El Alamein. However, it is subject that is mentioned briefly in other books and has not, as far as I know, had a work dedicated solely to it before.

2 Comments

Filed under Reviews, War History

Fatal Rivalry: Flodden 1513, George Goodwin, Edinburgh Book Festival

I attended a presentation by George Goodwin on his recent book Fatal Rivalry: Flodden 1513 at last month’s Edinburgh Book Festival. It tells the story of the rivalry between King James IV of Scotland and Kings Henry VII and Henry VIII of England, which ended with James’s defeat and death at the Battle of Flodden.

James came to the throne in 1488 after his father James III was killed at the Battle of Sauchieburn. James IV was not officially involved in his father’s death, but later wore signs of penitence. Goodwin said that James IV was by 1513 arguably the first monarch to be king of all of Scotland. He was a renaissance man and a builder.

James signed a Treaty of Perpetual Peace with Henry VII in 1502, and married Henry’s daughter Margaret Tudor. The penalty for breaking this treaty was excommunication by the Pope. Henry was not interested in English claims to Scotland, but was focused on the security of himself and his realm.

James and Henry both claimed to be the inheritor of King Arthur. Henry named his eldest son Arthur, and James claimed that Stirling was Camelot.

Arthur died before his father, so Henry VII’s was succeeded by his second son, who became Henry VIII on his father’s death in 1509. Pope Julius II wanted the French out of Italy, and encouraged Henry VIII to invade France. Henry could have kept Scotland neutral with a new treaty, but he displayed a lack of tact, treating James as a vassal.

James was allied to both England and France. He had a large navy, including the Great Michael, the biggest warship in Europe, and could have conducted a naval war against England without contravening the terms of the Treaty of Perpetual Peace with England. However, he chose to invade England in 1513. He was excommunicated by Cardinal Christopher Bainbridge, the Archbishop of York.

This was the largest ever Scottish invasion of England: 42,000 men with pikes and artillery. The French had delivered the pikes, but not the promised handguns. The Scottish army enjoyed dramatic early success, capturing all the major fortresses of the English Eastern March. It then took up position at Flodden on a plateau with steep slopes and its own well.

It was opposed by Northern levies armed with War of the Roses weapons, commanded by the 70 year old Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, who was a friend of James from the time of the King’s wedding. The English did have good artillery, but their best troops were in France with Henry VIII. Queen Catherine of Aragon was ruling England in her husband’s absence.

Surrey asked James on 7 September 1513 to move his army as there was, in the custom of the day, an agreement to fight on flatter ground. James objected to taking direction from an Earl. It was now dishonourable for Surrey not to attack, but he moved his army north towards Berwick, still held by the English, the next day. On 9 September he turned to cut the Scottish lines of communication.

James then moved his army to Branxton Hill. The battle began with an exchange of artillery fire, but it and long range bow fire were ineffective due to the blustery wind.

The Scottish pikes then attacked, successfully at first. Surrey then brought up reserves, and the second Scottish pike unit lost momentum due to groundwater. The Scots dropped their pikes and used their sidearms. The English bills, a polearm derived from an agricultural implement, were more than a match for these.

The English archers were effective, for the last time in a major battle, against the lightly armoured highlanders and retreating troops.

10,000 Scots and 4,000 English were killed. Casualties were particularly heavy amongst the Scottish nobles. James was amongst the dead. His excommunication was posthumously lifted by Pope Leo X because of the suffering that he had endured. Howard regained the title of Duke of Norfolk that his father had lost after fighting for Richard III against Henry VII at Bosworth.

Goodwin said that James’s defeat as a general overshadowed his brilliance as a king. Joan of Arc and William Wallace also suffered defeats. The battle was a strategic victory for Catherine, though Henry had to receive the credit. However, it is James and Margaret’s line that holds the British throne: Henry’s died out.

An excellent presentation about an important battle that is overshadowed by Bannockburn in Scotland and victories over the French in England.

2 Comments

Filed under Reviews, War History

Churchill’s First World War – BBC4

On 30 July 2013 BBC4 broadcast a documentary called Churchill’s First World War. The BBC website describes it as follows:

Drama-documentary about Winston Churchill’s extraordinary experiences during the Great War, with intimate letters to his wife Clementine allowing the story to be told largely in his own words. Just 39 and at the peak of his powers running the Royal Navy, Churchill in 1914 dreamt of Napoleonic glory, but suffered a catastrophic fall into disgrace and humiliation over the Dardanelles disaster.

The film follows his road to redemption, beginning in the trenches of Flanders in 1916, revealing how he became the ‘godfather’ of the tank and his forgotten contribution to final victory in 1918 as Minister of Munitions. Dark political intrigue, a passionate love story and remarkable military adventures on land, sea and air combine to show how the Churchill of 1940 was shaped and forged by his experience of the First World War.

The programme was billed as being a drama-documentary, but the dramatisations were fairly limited: scenes of Churchill (Adam James) in the trenches and making a speech and shots of Clementine (Verity Marshall) at home. Most of it consisted of comments by experts, archive footage and extracts from private papers. The majority  of these were letters between Winston and Clementine, but there were also extracts from the papers of others, including Admiral Jackie Fisher, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s wife Margot and Andrew Gibb, an officer in Churchill’s battalion on the Western Front.

Churchill began the war as First Lord of the Admiralty, the Royal Navy’s political head. In July 1914 the bulk of the fleet was at Portland on the south coast. He decided to move it overnight to its war station at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, which was, according to Prof. Andrew Lambert of King’s College London, the critical point.

Prof. Gary Sheffield of Birmingham University said that Churchill’s problem was that he was not trusted. He regarded himself as a soldier, perhaps a warrior, and possessed an unquestioning belief in the British Empire, as did most British people at the time.

In 1914 Churchill wanted to be involved in the land campaign, which was then more significant than the war at sea. The RN’s air arm, the RNAS, had sent units to Dunkirk in order to bomb Zeppelin bases, which gave him an opportunity. They were accompanied by armoured cars, which were supposed to protect the airfields, but also undertook what David Tilley, Curator of the Tank Museum, describes as ‘buccaneering patrols.’

Churchill would build on the RNAS’s experience with armoured cars to carry out experiments with trench crossing machines, eventually leading to the development of landships, or tanks. Prof David Ceserani of Royal Holloway London noted that Churchill was a very modern military figure who appreciated the value of science and technology in warfare. However, he was an egomaniac, who had enormous self-confidence and energy, but sometimes struggled to work out what was a good idea and what was a bad one.

On 3 October the port of Antwerp was on the verge of surrender. Holding it would stall the German advance. Churchill rushed the Royal Naval Division, made up of naval reservists without ships and marines, to Antwerp, with some of them travelling in 100 commandeered buses. He wanted to resign his Cabinet post and be appointed a general. According to Sheffield, this caused derision amongst his Cabinet colleagues, who laughed at him.

Antwerp fell on 10 October, and 1,000 member of the RND were interned in the Netherlands. Churchill was branded a reckless adventurer by the Press, although Lambert noted that the extra week that the Germans took to capture Antwerp did make some difference to the war.

Lambert and Sheffield agreed that Churchill wanted to emulate his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough by producing a war winning stroke. He saw Gallipoli as being his chance, but the campaign ended in disaster. Churchill fell out with Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, the navy’s professional head, the First Sea Lord. Lambert said that each really wanted the other’s job. The deterioration in their relationship was shown by Allen Packwood, Director of the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge, via letters held by that archive.

The failure at Gallipoli meant that the ruling Liberals had to bring the Conservatives into a coalition government. Churchill had originally been elected to Parliament as a Conservative, but then switched to the Liberals, so was distrusted and disliked by the Conservatives. He lost his job as First Lord, though he remained in the Cabinet.

It was at this time that he took up painting. It had a therapeutic effect on him, although Alice Martin, the House and Collections Manager at Chartwell, his former home, noted that he painted a very dark self-portrait at this time: usually his paintings were bright.

In late 1915 he resigned from the Cabinet, and sought a commission on the Western Front: he was a Major in the Oxfordshire Hussars, a yeomanry [reserve cavalry] unit. He hoped that Sir John French, the commander of the BEF, would give him command of a brigade, but French was replaced by Sir Douglas Haig before this could be finalised. Haig gave Churchill command of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Churchill was English, but he was MP for a Scottish constituency, Dundee.

It was probably better for Churchill that he was given command of a battalion rather than a brigade; the latter would have been too big a promotion, and would have meant that he would have been out of touch with the average soldier.

Clementine, according to Dr Tiffany Jenkins, agreed. She knew he was under great danger in the trenches, but urged him to stay for the sake of his political career, which was more important to him than his life. Clementine saw Winston’s war lust and realised that she was the only person who could restrain him. She wrote to Asquith defending Winston when he was sacked as First Lord, but Jenkins said that she was really accusing Asquith of being weak.

Packwood noted that Clementine was his defender and anchor in Westminster whilst she was in France. She was very busy, since she was also involved in setting up canteens for munitions workers. She and Winston wrote to each other almost every day whilst he was at the Western Front.

Patrick Hennessey, a former Army officer, noted that Churchill, a cavalry officer commanding an infantry battalion, got off to a disastrous start, but quickly turned it round. He recognised the importance of making the men’s conditions better, and targeted lice. His battalion became, and remained, one of the least lice plagued battalions on the Western Front. His time on the Western Front showed him as caring, focussed and sensitive. He possessed the ability of great military commanders to be imperturbable under fire.

On 7 March 1916 Churchill returned to the House of Commons. He had by then made his peace with Fisher, and made a very badly received speech calling for Fisher to be recalled. He returned to the Front, staying to May, when his battalion was merged with the 7th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers because to casualties

Churchill believed in attrition by metal and machines rather than men. He noted that the Allies had lost air superiority, and criticised the government and the generals. He said that: ‘Machines save life. Machine power is a substitute for manpower. Brains will save blood.’ He wanted tanks to be used in a mass attack, so was angry when the secret was given away in November 1916 by an attack of only 50 tanks.

Churchill was close to David Lloyd George, who became Prime Minister in late 1916. He hoped that this would mean his return to the government, but Prof. Richard Toye of Exeter University pointed out that Lloyd George was not initially in a strong enough political position to bring Churchill back to office.

By the summer of 1917 U boats were threatening  to starve Britain into submission. Lloyd George took the  risk of appointing Churchill as Minister of Munitions in July 1917 as his spirit and imagination were needed to increase production of the equipment and ammunition required to win the war. Churchill also had the grasp of detail needed to organise munitions production. He was not, however, in the War Cabinet so was excluded from the highest level of strategy and decision-making.

Sheffield commented that Churchill wanted to build up resources, wait for US help and win the war in 1919. However, the Germans took the offensive in March 1918. Ceserani noted that this converted the war into one of manoeuvre in which tanks, trucks and logistics were vital. Churchill’s Ministry of Munitions replaced the huge losses of tanks and guns in March 1918 and provided the enormous quantities of ammunition needed in 1918.

At Amiens in August 1918 the British Empire forces combined the use of tanks, artillery and aircraft to defeat the enemy. This led to the 100 days campaign that culminated in victory.

Lambert argued that the First World War convinced Churchill that he was a man of destiny because he could recover from anything.

The programme showed that Churchill made many mistakes during the First World War, losing office for a while and ending the war with a lesser political position than he had held at its start. However, its conclusion was that during the First World War:

‘No man learnt more of war command. It was a bitter but complete apprenticeship…First would come more wilderness years… But when summoned again, a greater warlord, steeled by the Great War, was ready and prepared to fulfil his destiny.’

For UK viewers, the programme is repeated on BBC4 at 2240 on Thursday 1 August, and is available on the I-Player until 6 August. It will probably be shown again on BBC4: such programmes tend to be shown a lot.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Political History, Reviews, War History