Monthly Archives: March 2012

In Darkness – Holocaust Film

In Darkness is a Polish film, directed by Agnieszka Holland,  which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 2011. The dialogue is a mixture of Polish, Yiddish, German and Ukrainian. The English subtitles were clear, helped by the background generally being very dark.

The film is set during the Holocaust in World War II. A number of Jews attempt to escape into the sewers of Lvov in Poland (now L’viv in Ukraine) when the Germans liquidate the Ghetto. Some of them are helped by Leopold Socha, a sewer inspector and former petty criminal.  He is excellently played by Robert Wieckiewicz.

In Darkness is very atmospheric, re-creating both the cramped, dark and unhealthy conditions in which the Jews have to live and the initial level of distrust between Socha and the Jews; at first he appears to aid them only because they pay him to do so, whilst some of them distrust Poles and/or look down on him because he is uneducated.  It shows that Socha risked the lives of himself, his wife Wanda and their daughter by helping the Jews, but that Poles were also executed in reprisal for acts of resistance that they had nothing to do with.

The film is based on a book by Robert Marshall called In the Sewers of Lvov: A Heroic Story of Survival from the Holocaust. One of the Jews, Krystyna Chiger, then a small child, wrote a memoir called The Girl in the Green Sweater: A Life in Holocaust’s Shadow.

SPOILER ALERT! The links in the next two paragraphs reveal more about the story than some may wish to know before seeing the film.

Socha was helped by Stefan Wroblewski, another sewer worker. Both men and their wives were later recognised by Yad Vashem as being amongst the Righteous of the Nations for their roles in saving Jews during the Holocaust. As with most films about true events, it claims to be ‘based on true events’ and has a degree of fictionalisation and character amalgamation.

This article from the Los Angeles Times is by David Lee Preston; his mother, Halina Wind, was saved by Socha but does not appear in the film. It mentions that Stefan Wroblewski’s fate was not as shown in the film, and that a third sewer worker, Jerzy Kowalow, also helped. There is a character in the film called Kovalov who helps Jews, but he was a factory owner/manager rather than a sewer worker.

A very good film, but one that has a limited release in the UK and, I suspect, the rest of the English-speaking world. There is some sex, nudity and violence, but none of it is gratuitous.



Filed under Reviews, War History

The Spanish Link in Cracking the Enigma Code

This morning, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme broadcast a short report by Gordon Corera on the presentation of two German Enigma code machines by the Spanish Army Museum in Toledo to GCHQ, the British signals intelligence agency. GCHQ will retain one of the machines and the other will go to the museum at Bletchley Park, Britain’s World War II code-breaking centre. The Spanish Army Museum received a later and more sophisticated machine in return. An NCO found several Enigma machines in the Spanish Defence Ministry a few years ago.

Germany and Italy both sent forces to support the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. The Germans used Enigma machines to ensure that their communications were secure. Britain was aware of the Enigma machine and in 1927 bought a commercial version, which was less sophisticated than the military one. German military radio traffic could not be heard in Britain, but Britain could detect the radio signals of the Germans in Spain, enabling work to start work on decoding the Enigma.

The main benefit of these efforts were that they showed the British that the Enigma code was not unbreakable. The Poles, who could pick up German military radio signals, had made more progress in breaking the military Enigma code and shared these with Britain and France just before the start of the war.

The story of the successful efforts to break the Enigma code during World War II  is now well known, although the Polish contribution is sometimes underplayed. The manner in which the foundation to these attempts was laid during the Spanish Civil War was unknown until now.

Gordon Corera wrote an article on the story for the BBC’s website. It emphasises the importance of technology and co-operation between countries in intelligence and security. This link to the BBC website includes his report; not sure if it will work outside the UK. (Warning! It starts as soon as the page opens.) He interviewed GCHQ’s official historian, who was introduced as being called just Tony. Apparently, GCHQ is so secret that the surname of its historian cannot be revealed!

1 Comment

Filed under War History

Britain and Vichy France – Document – BBC Radio 4

Document is a BBC radio series, presented by Mike Thomson, that takes a document as the starting point into an investigation of historical events. The document dealt with in the most recent programme, broadcast on 19 March 2012, was found by Eric Grove, Professor of Naval History at Salford University in the UK National Archives. It revealed that discussions had taken place between the British Chiefs of Staff and representatives of the Vichy French Army in May 1942. British and Vichy French troops were then fighting each other on Madagascar. They had previously fought each other in Syria, and Britain bombarded the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in 1940, provoking the French to bomb Gibraltar in retaliation.

Vichy France, so-called because Vichy was its capital, controlled southern France after the Franco-German armistice of July 1940 and had some authority in the occupied north. It was allowed an army of eight divisions. The Anglo-Vichy talks, which began in December 1941, centred on the idea that, if and when the Allies invaded France, Britain would equip Vichy’s army, which would re-enter the war on the Allied side.

I did not quite understand how this was going to work. Landings around La Rochelle or Bordeaux were suggested, but the Atlantic and English Channel coasts of France were German occupied. As Eric Grove said, the document is a starting point and further research is required.

The Germans invaded Vichy France in November 1942, after Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa. The Vichy Government continued to exist, but its armed forces were disbanded, so did not exist on D-Day, 6 June 1944.

One interesting point was that Field Marshal Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, minuted that Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, should not be told of the talks. It is not surprising that they were not informed of discussions that were taking place at a staff level, which they might need to deny knowledge of. It is strange that it was specifically minuted that they should not the told.

The format of the programme is that Mike Thomson starts with the document and the person who has found it, and then interviews others to find out more.  In this programme they included, as well as Eric Grove, Vichy historians Robert Paxton, Henry Rousso and Simon Kitson, eminent French historian Jean-Louis Cremieux-Brilhac, who was one of De Gaulle’s intelligence officers, and military historians Max Hastings and Colin Smith, as well as Gerald Bryan, who was badly injured fighting Vichy forces in Syria. It was suggested that the French archives might shed more light on the matter, since the document being discussed gives only the British side of the story.

Document is an interesting series, which I had not previously come across. This was the last of the current series but 37 editions are available via the BBC I-Player. These are free to UK listeners but not available outside the UK, although I have read suggestions that the BBC may introduce a pay version of the I-Player for overseas listeners (and viewers). It appears that radio programmes, unlike TV ones, remain on the I-Player long after their first broadcast.


Filed under Reviews, War History

Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain by Paul Preston – Aye Write Book Festival, Glasgow

I recently attended a talk by Paul Preston on his book The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain, held as part of Glasgow’s Aye Write book festival. The book deals with murders and other atrocities committed during and in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, which was started by a military coup in 1936 and lasted for three years. The supporters of the elected government are referred to as the Republicans and those who backed the coup as the Nationalists.

Paul Preston began by explaining the title of his book. He used the word holocaust to shock as he was shocked by what he learnt during his research. Most people do not appreciate the scale of the killings and some positive views of Franco persist. The proportion of Spain’s citizens who died as a result of the coup and the actions that followed it was higher than the proportion of Germans who were killed by the Nazis within the borders of Germany. He was not trying to compare the killings in Spain to the Jewish Holocaust. The word exterminate was used in planning of the military coup and inquisition evoked the atmosphere of intolerance in Spain, going back to the Spanish Inquisition.

The Spanish Civil War started as a Spanish war but within a fortnight the involvement of Germany, Italy and the USSR meant that it became a European one, fought in Spain.

The progressive government of the Spanish Republic wanted to make major changes quickly to help those who had nothing and therefore made enemies. Conditions in the Spanish countryside were then equivalent to those in Africa now.

The Nationalists believed that they were fighting a Jewish-Bolshevik-Masonic conspiracy. Paul Preston pointed out that there were few Jews in Spain, the Spanish Communist Party had less than 20,000 members and there were less than 6,000 Freemasons in Spain, although the Spanish Army created a card file index of over 80,000 alleged Freemasons. The Nationalists made no distinction was made between Jews and Arabs.

The Spanish Civil War had elements of a colonial war. The Nationalists saw the working classes of the south as being similar to African colonial peoples and thought that Spain’s colonial army, the only effective part of the Spanish Army, was the appropriate body to deal with them.

Paul Preston argues that historians should be honest, demonstrating this via foot and end notes, but claims that the idea of them being entirely objective is ‘lunacy.’ A work of history will be a filter of the historian’s own ethical views. His sympathies are with those who had nothing and the progressive forces who were trying to help them.

Killings took place between Republican lines as well, but these could not have happened without the coup. The Nationalists had 40 years to hide their crimes and devoted a massive effort to investigate Republican crimes. There were monsters on both sides, for example the anarchists who travelled around in the ‘death’s head bus’ carrying out murders, but there were more on the Nationalist side.

The Republicans were accused of raping large numbers of nuns; a Church investigation showed that the total of nuns raped was 12. Just under 7,000 clergy were killed, just over 6,000 of whom were men. People who were perceived to support the Nationalists, such as army officers and priests, were killed behind Republican lines. The Church supported the great inequality that existed in Spain. Some will have killed priests for personal motives, including theft of church property. Clergy who helped the poor were generally not harmed.

Mass rape was used as a weapon by the Nationalists, who despised feminists and wanted to humiliate them. Spanish women had no property rights until the Republic was established in 1931. Silence on this subject has continued for decades because of the humiliation.

In recent years, a huge number of books have been published in Spain by local historians. Some are just lists of names, but these are often the only memorial to the dead. Silence was imposed on the survivors, and their children were brought up in silence. The grandchildren are now demanding to know the truth. To a large extent, Paul Preston’s book is gathering in the information discovered by these local historians.

Paul Preston is disbelieved by the Right because he’s a foreigner and because he is a friend of King Juan Carlos, something he finds amusing. Most people believe him because he’s a foreigner and thus uninvolved.

This was a very interesting talk, and I will be buying the book. A couple of warnings from Amazon reviews are that it is a harrowing read and that it assumes a fair degree of knowledge of the war and its political background. It is available in hardback and e-book editions. No doubt a paperback will follow, but the UK hardback edition was only published on 1 March 2012.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews, War History

Leningrad by Anna Reid – Aye Write Book Festival, Glasgow

I recently attended a talk by Anna Reid on her book Leningrad: Tragedy of a City Under Siege, 1941-44, held as part of Glasgow’s Aye Write book festival. The US edition of the book is called Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944.

She described the Siege of Leningrad as being one of the great atrocities of World War II. Estimates of civilian casualties range from a quarter to a third of the population of 2.5 million; she says that the best estimate is that 750,000 civilians  died, most in the first winter of the siege, 1941-42. This excludes military casualties. The Germans tried to starve the population rather than assaulting the city. The Siege lasted from 8 September 1941 until 27 January 1941

The book covers military history, but it is mainly a social history about civilian life in the city. Internal government documents are now available, as are NKVD archives, including informers’ reports.  She mainly used diaries written at the time to learn the opinions of Leningraders, although she did conduct half a dozen interviews with survivors. She didn’t do any more because of the amount of information available in diaries. Diarists risked arrest if their diaries were found and contained criticism of the Soviet regime. Many therefore wrote in coded language and hid their diaries. They are still being handed in to museums and archives.

The differences between the traditional Soviet view of the siege and the truth is now being discovered:

  • A  significant minority of the population at first wanted a German victory as a price worth paying to get rid of the Bolsheviks. These attitudes mostly changed once the brutality of the Germans became apparent. Most people distinguished between the country and the regime and fought for their country rather than for Communism.
  • The dreadful military mistakes were not talked about in the USSR. There was criticism of Stalin by Khrushchev and subsequently, but specific actions such as the huge casualties caused by sending the militia, the Opolcheniye, into action with no training and poor equipment were not mentioned. Neither was a naval retreat from Tallinn that was ordered too late because the leadership were in denial over the situation. Half the ships were lost in what was like Dunkirk, but without air cover.
  • Stalin considered giving up the city, as it was more important to preserve the army.
  • Political repression continued during the siege. The NKVD archives contained a number of diaries whose authors had been arrested. They were harmless people, often denounced by neighbours.
  • Contrary to the view that everybody was in it together, there was inequality in the allocation of rations. They were skewed in favour of soldiers and manual workers and against women, infants and adolescents. Some institutions, such as the Hermitage and the radio station, were privileged and their employees did better. Those at the Party HQ did best of all. In the winter of 1941-42, people’s world narrowed and they became interested only in food. In the spring of 1942, some mothers were offered evacuation with their work places. They could generally take their children but not their elderly parents, who were often dependent on them. Some mothers even had to leave their children. Anna Reid told the harrowing story of one mother who was evacuated. Her daughter went with her, but her son was too weak to travel. The mother died, but the daughter survived and returned to Leningrad; she was unable to find out what happened to her brother.

Russian historians now discuss the truth about the Siege of Leningrad, but the general population still believe the Soviet myth. The view that, whilst Stalin was a murderous dictator before and after the war, he was a great war leader persists. Anna Reid employed several Russian researchers and translators who were shocked at what they learnt during the course of their work.

There is some self-censorship in discussion of the Siege because of consideration for the feelings of the survivors. Anna Reid finds their stories inspirational once the Soviet propaganda is stripped away.

Leningrad was the first city that Hitler tried and failed to take. Neither side had the strength to end the siege, resulting in static warfare. It differed from Stalingrad, where fighting took place in the city and most civilians were evacuated. Civilians could not leave Leningrad until the spring of 1942.

Even in the spring of 1942 evacuation was difficult. People not being evacuated with their work place had to bribe the drivers to get onto the trucks that were driving along the Ice Road across Lake Ladoga. The trucks were open so many died on the journey. The presence of feeding and medical stations is a myth, at least in the spring of 1942.. Even once across Lake Ladoga, you still had to get onto a train and find a town that would give you a residence permit and ration card.

The city’s normal death rate of 4-5,000 per month rose to 11,000 in November 1941, 50,000 in December and 100,000 in each of January, February and March 1942. There was a subsequent drive to clean up the city, grow more food and return to normal life.  a mass evacuation by barge in the summer of 1942 reduced the population to 600,000 by August, making life more normal in the winter of 1942-43, when things were better organised.

This was a very interesting talk, although my interests are more towards the military aspects of the Siege. The book took three years to research and a further two to write. It is available in hardback and as an e-book. Amazon are taking orders for the paperback, but do not give a publication date.

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews, War History

The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918 by Sean McMeekin

The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918 by Sean McMeekin is the story of German attempts to raise a Jihad against the Allies in the Middle East during World War I. Reviews have mostly been positive; negative ones on Amazon are mostly from readers who assumed from the first part of the title that was about the construction of the railway. That is part of the story, but a long way from being the whole of it. The second part of the title, The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, more accurately describes the book.

The story is of the strategy of the Central Powers, so concentrates on them, but the Allied response is not neglected. Russian, British, US and French archives have been used as well as Turkish, German, Austrian ones. An Epilogue discusses the impact of German wartime actions on the modern Middle East.

McMeekin manages to combine the telling of an exciting story with archival research. The number of characters can be hard to follow, but they are well drawn. He points out that German and Ottoman relations were often poor, and that their aims sometimes conflicted, especially in the Caucasus in 1918.
The Germans thought that that could use the power of Islam to bring down the British Empire. In fact, many Muslim leaders took German gold but did little in return, and often tried to play off Germany against Britain.

Logistics were a major problem for the Germans, who could not supply enough arms to their potential Muslim allies. The two main Ottoman victories over the British Empire, Gallipoli and Kut-al-Amara, resulted from German discipline and Turkish tenacity, not Islam. There isn’t a great deal on the main military campaigns.

The number of quotes from John Buchan’s novel Greenmantle are a bit strange in a non-fiction work. The author comments on the historiography of the Armenian massacres, but does not take a clear stance; he teaches at Bilkent University in Ankara, so may be constrained in what he can say. These are minor criticisms. The book is now out in paperback as well as hardback, and it is also available as an e-book.

This review is a slightly re-worded version of one that I originally posted on the Great War Forum, an excellent website for anybody interested in World War I. This link is to the thread that includes my review, and this one is to Forum’s home page.

1 Comment

16 March 2012 · 5:57 pm

War Horse: The Real Story

War Horse: The Real Story is a documentary that was recently broadcast by Channel 4, the UK TV channel. UK residents can download the programme from Channel 4 On Demand until 27 March from this link.

War Horse: The Real Story told the real story of British Army World War I horses. The role of horses in the war has been highlighted by War Horse, the Michael Morpurgo novel made into a successful stage play and a recent Steven Spielberg film. About a million horses served with the British Army during the war; only 2% served with the cavalry, with the vast majority pulling wagons or guns.This was both arduous and dangerous; supply routes were regularly shelled. Around 250,000 British horses were killed in the war; most died from exhaustion, disease or exposure to bad weather rather than enemy action. War Horse: The Real Story talked mostly of horses, but mules and donkeys also served.

One cavalry horse featured was Warrior, the personal mount of General Jack Seely, a Liberal MP who was Secretary of State for War until just before the war. He re-joined the army on the outbreak of war and rose to command the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. On 30 March 1918 Seely and Warrior led the Canadians in a charge at Moreuil Wood. This helped to stop the German Spring Offensive. The story of Warrior and Seely was told by Brough Scott, a racing commentator and former jockey who is Seely’s grandson and wrote a biography of him called Galloper Jack.

Interviews with several veterans, all sadly no longer with us, were included. The close bond between men and horses was clear from the comments of the former soldiers. Military historians featured were Andy Robertshaw, curator of the Royal Logistics Corps Museum and author of several book on World War I and David Kenyon, author of a PhD and a book, Horsemen in No Man’s Land, on British cavalry on the Western Front in World War I.

In 1914 the British army had 26,000 horses. A census of British horses had been conducted over the previous two years, allowing the army to quickly find and buy the extra animals it needed; 140,000 were acquired in two weeks. This had a great impact on businesses and individuals across the country; one interviewee, a child at the time, said that the army took three of the four horses on his family’s farm.

Mark Evans, formerly chief veterinary surgeon of the RSPCA, interviewed Colonel Neil Smith, current Director of the Army Veterinary and Remount Service on the treatment of horses; the British Army still uses horses for ceremonial purposes. The importance of horses during the war was shown by the medical care given to them. Animal hospitals were established and about 2.5 million horses received treatment.

John Singleton’s article on ‘Britain’s Military Use of Horses 1914-1918’, in Past and Present, vol. 193, issue 1 (1993) notes that soldiers had great compassion for their horses and that organisations such as the RSPCA lobbied for animal welfare after the high horse casualties in the Boer War. He argues that the Army treated its animals well because it was more efficient to do so. British animal casualties were proportionately much lower in World War I than in the Boer War.The RSPCA wanted better treatment of animals on compassionate grounds; the War Office did improve the treatment of  its horses, but because it was uneconomic to lose them at the rate of previous wars.

At the end of the war the army had to reduce its number of horses back from 750,000 to the peacetime level of 25,000. Many did not return home; only 60,000 according to the War Horse: The Real Story, whilst Singleton says over 100,000. The programme claimed that 85,000 worn out horses were butchered for meat to feed the French and Belgian populations and German prisoners of war. Singleton says that 45,000 were sold to French horse butchers, with others being butchered by the army itself. The documentary stated that 500,000 British horses were sold in France and Belgium to be used by farmers and local businesses. The numbers given for horses killed, butchered, sold locally, retained and sold at home don’t quite add up to the total who served, but there will be some rounding errors and many officers, like Seely, kept their horses.

Some horses survived the whole war. War Horse: The Real Story and Singleton both relate the story of the black horses of Troop F of the Royal Horse Artillery. They fought from 1914 to 1918, participating in the retreat from Mons, the battles of First and Second Ypres, Festubert, Aubers Ridge, Vimy Ridge, the Somme, Hill 70, Cambrai and the 1918 campaigns. They returned to the Army after the war and pulled the gun carriage that took the body of the Unknown Warrior to Westminster Abbey.

War Horse: The Real Story showed that horses played a vital role in World War I. It the claimed that this was the last war in which such large numbers of horses served and suffered. This is true if it refers to Britain, but large numbers of horses were used on the Eastern Front of World War II. Even the British Army suffered horse casualties as recently as 20 July 1982, when seven animals and 11 soldiers were killed when the IRA set off bombs during military parades in Hyde Park and Regent’s Park.

There is more information on horses and war on the website of the Blue Cross, a British animal charity. Another animal charity, the Brooke, was founded by Dorothy Brooke  to care for working horses, donkeys and mules. She visited Egypt in 1930 and was horrified to see large numbers of emaciated horses on the streets of Cairo and appalled to learn that many were former British Army horses.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews, War History

PhD Theses available for free download

Following on from my recent post about my own PhD, I’ve been looking at the British Library’s Electronic Theses Online service (EThOS). It lists over 250,000 British PhD theses. Many can be freely downloaded as PDFs, and hard copies of others can be purchased. It claims thatthey will digitise a thesis not currently available for download on request in 30 days. However, when I requested one I was told after the 30 days that it was not available. Some people restrict access for a while as they fear that free availability of their thesis will hurt their chances of getting it published. I was told in a university seminar on copyright was that this was not the case because of the extent that a thesis has to be changed in order to make it publishable, but some of the other students present were clearly not convinced.

The number of hits for some military history keywords are given below. The first number is the total of theses and the second is the number available for download. There will be a fair degree of double-counting and some are cultural history or engineering theses, but there are still many military history theses available:

War 2337/1068
Army 330/173
Navy 108/54
Naval 129/80
Air Force 108/64

Published military historians whose theses are available for download include Gary Sheffield, Gerard Oram, Ross Anderson, Matthew Hughes, Annika Mombauer, Nicholas Lloyd, David Kenyon, Bryn Hammond, John Buckley, Gerard de Groot, Saul David, Charles Esdaile and David Zabecki. When searching for a particular author note that sometimes the first name(s) are given in full, but sometimes only initials are stated, especially for older theses or Oxbridge ones. Also, authors may use a diminutive of their first name on the cover of their books, but theses normally quote their full name.

Click on the link below to go to the British Library EThOS homepage:


Filed under War History