Tag Archives: WWII

Test Site of Biggest British WWII Bomb Explored

Archaeologists are investigating a concrete structure at the Ashley Walk Bombing Range in the New Forest in the south of England. On 13 March 1945 it was used for a test drop of the 22,000 pound Grand Slam bomb, the largest bomb dropped until the first atom bomb.

The survey is using ground penetrating radar, magnetometry, electrical resistivity and electrical resistivity tomography  to study the damage done to the large concrete target building.  The bomb was dropped by a Lancaster bomber from 16,000 feet and hit the ground at 700 mph. It achieved its objective of creating a large but localised earthquake, leaving a crater that was 70 feet deep with a diameter of 130 feet.  It has subsequently been filled in.

The archaeologists want to find out how much damage was caused by the bomb.. The Independent newspaper reports that:

oral history research recently carried out by the New Forest archaeological team suggests that the entire structure was seen to physically move when the bomb exploded some 250 feet away.

The Grand Slam had been conceived by Sir Barnes Wallis five years earlier as a deep penetration bomb. It was first used against the Schildesche railway viaduct near Bielefeld Railway Viaduct on 14 March 1945, the day after the only test drop. The viaduct, which was a vital communications link for the Ruhr and had survived several previous bombing raids, was brought down.

Over 40 Grand Slams were dropped in nine raids, with other targets including railway bridges at Arnsberg, Arbergen and Neinburg, submarine pens at Bremen and gun emplacements on the island of Helgoland.

The Lancasters that dropped Grand Slams had to be stripped of their gun turrets and the armour plating behind the pilot’s seat in order to increase their bomb capacity from its normal 14,000 pounds. Their bomb bay doors were also removed because of the size of the bomb.

Grand Slams were also made in the USA, which but the USAF had not used any by the time that it dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

See the BBC website for a film report and the Daily Mail one for pictures of the results of Grand Slam raids. YouTube contains a news film from Movietone on the Bielefeld and Arnsberg raids.

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Japanese attack on Shanghai 8 December 1941

The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 is extremely well known, but far fewer people know that the Japanese also attacked British and US warships at Shanghai without declaring war. This took place on the same day, although it was 8 December in Shanghai because it was on the other side of the International Date Line.

Britain and the USA both then maintained small naval forces on the Yangtze River in order to protect their interests in China. These included the Shanghai International Settlement, an autonomous district of the city inhabited by Westerners. It was originally protected by British soldiers, US Marines and Royal Navy and United States Navy gunboats, but most of these had been withdrawn by December 1941.

Japan and China had been at war with each other since 1937, when China began to fully resist Japanese encroachments into her territory that had begun in 1931.

By 8 December 1941 the British and US military presence in Shanghai had been reduced to the gunboats HMS Peterel and the USS Wake, which both had skeleton crews as they were being used primarily as communications stations. Even at full strength they would have stood no chance against the Japanese forces present, which included the cruiser HIJMS Izumo;

The Wake displaced 350 tons, normally carried a crew of 59 and was armed with two 3″ guns and eight 0.3″ machine guns. On 8 December she had a crew of only 14, most of them reservist radiomen. Her captain was Lt Cdr Columbus D. Smith, USNR.

Peterel displaced 310 tons, normally carried a crew of 55 and was armed with two 3″ AA guns and eight machine guns. On 8 December she had a crew of only 21 British sailors, plus 19 Chinese locals. Her captain was Lieutenant Stephen Polkinghorn RNR, a 62 year old New Zealander. As an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, he would have been a merchant navy officer in peacetime.

Neither ship could use her 3″ guns because their crews were small and consisted mostly of radiomen rather than gunners. They could fire the machines guns, but lacked the specialist training needed to operate the bigger guns.

Izumo, sometimes called Idzumo, was an elderly ship that had fought at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. She displaced 9,750 tons and in December 1941 was armed with four 8″ guns, eight 6″ guns, four 3″ guns and one 3″ AA gun. The website linked at the start of this paragraph gives her armament when built.

The Japanese attacked Wake 2 hours after the start of the attack on Pearl Harbor. She had not been informed of events in Hawaii, so was taken by surprise and her crew captured.

Peterel was warned by the British Consulate of the attack on Pearl Harbor, so was at action stations. Polkinghorn had orders to scuttle her if the Japanese attempted to capture her, and she was rigged with demolition charges.

A launch full of Japanese Marines approached Peterel. Polkinghorn, trying to win time in order to scuttle his ship and destroy his code books, allowed their officers on board and invited them to discuss matters. They refused to talk, so he ordered them to ‘Get off my bloody ship!’

The Japanese officers returned to their launch, and Izumo, other Japanese warships and shore batteries opened fire. Peterel could return fire only with machine guns, but killed several Japanese, presumably in the launch. Her crew was ready to repel borders with pistols and cutlasses, in the style of Nelson’s navy.

Peterel was sunk, and her crew abandoned ship. Six were killed, some in the water, but 12 managed to get to a Norwegian officered and Panamanian flagged merchant ship, the SS Marizion. The Japanese took them off, and they became PoWs, along with two of the three crewmen who were ashore at the time. Two of the PoWs died in the appalling conditions of Japanese prison camps.

The third man, Chief Petty Officer Telegraphist James Cuming joined an American Chinese spy ring and remained at liberty for the rest of the war.

This account of the sinking of Peterel  is based on an account on the website of the Children and Families of Far East Prisoners of War, a list of casualties and survivors given on the website of the Force Z Survivors Association and a newspaper obituary of Peterel’s last survivor, Able Seaman James Mariner, who died in 2009 at the age of 90. It describes him as being the first British serviceman to fire on the Japanese during WWII

Lt Polkinghorn was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross when he returned from captivity after the war. Other members of the crew may also have deserved medals, but the RN is not generous with gallantry awards, and often decorates the captain of a ship as a tribute to the entire crew. Britain has no award equivalent to a US Presidential Unit Citation.

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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.

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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.

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In the Fog (V Tumane)

In the Fog (original title V Tumane) is a German/Dutch/Belarussian/Russia/Latvian Film, directed by Sergei Loznitsa. It is set in Belorussia, as Belarus was known when it was part of the USSR, in 1942, during the German occupation. It is in English with Russian subtitles. Click here for cast and other details from the IMDB.

The central character is Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy), a railway worker who is married with a son. It starts with the execution of three suspected saboteurs by the Germans and their local collaborators.

Sushenya was arrested with the three executed men, but then released. This leads the local partisans to assume that he betrayed them. Two men, Burov (Vladislav Abashin) and Voitik (Sergei Kolesov) are sent to execute Sushenya as a collaborator.

The enemy appear just as Burov is about to shoot Sushenya. He escapes, but returns to rescue the wounded Burov. The partisans decide to keep Sushenya alive, as he can carry Burov and knows his way round the local forests.

The back stories of all three men are told in flashbacks. Sushenya is trapped between an occupier who kills anybody who resists and carries out reprisal killings of innocent victims, and a resistance that kills collaborators. While he is a prisoner of the Germans, they give him a choice that is really only a choice of which side will kill him.

The film is very well acted, especially by Svirskiy, whose haunted expression conveys the impossible dilemmas faced by Sushenya far better than any dialogue could. It is slow-moving, but thoughtfully directed and well filmed. It lasts 127 minutes, but I was very surprised when it ended, as I thought that at least 15 minutes less had passed.

The final scenes are shot in fog, but the title probably refers to the fog (or uncertainty) of war.

Although a war film, there is not much violence; one shot of the three hanged men and three brief shoot-outs. There is no nudity or swearing. The UK certificate was 12A, which means that anybody can see it, but those under 12 must be accompanied by somebody over 18.

A bleak but thoughtful film about the dilemmas faced by somebody living in a country under a brutal occupation. Unfortunately, it has not been widely distributed in the English-speaking world. It was released in the UK on 26 April 2013, but did not reach the Edinburgh Filmhouse, where I saw it, until 10 May and finishes on 15 May. According to the IMDB, it has been shown only at film festivals in the USA, and has no release date for any other English-speaking country.

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