Monthly Archives: November 2013

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.

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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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The Battle of Crysler’s Farm 11 November 1813.

In September 1813 the USA invaded Lower Canada with the intention of capturing Montreal, thus cutting the lines of supply to British troops in Upper Canada. See this website for a map of the theatre of operations.

Two US armies took part in the invasion. One, commanded by General Wade Hampton, was to move from Plattsburgh along the River Chateuaguay, whilst the other, under General James Wilkinson, was to advance from Sackett’s Harbor along the River St Lawrence. The two were to unite at Montreal, but co-operation between them was hampered by a long running feud between the two US generals.

On 6 November Wilkinson learnt that Hampton’s army had been defeated by a Canadian force in the Battle of the Chateuaguay on 26 October. Wilkinson sent a messenger ordering Hampton to march west and rendezvous with him at Cornwall in Eastern Ontario. However, Hampton was retreating towards winter quarters at Plattsburgh.

Wilkinson’s 8,000 men were being followed and harried by a 1,200 man corps of observation as it sailed down the St Lawrence. It was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Wanton Morrison, a British officer who had been born in New York when it was still under British control towards the end of the American War of Independence. The main British force was at their naval base of Kingston, which they assumed was Lawrence’s objective.

Morrison’s troops consisted of a mixture of British regulars from the 49th and his own 89th Regiments of Foot, three Royal artillery guns and crews, Canadian Fencibles, Canadian Voltigeurs, Tyendinaga and Mississauga Mohawk warriors and the Dundas County Militia. They were supported by a flotilla of gunboats commanded by William Howe Mulcaster. Two-thirds of the 270 Canadian regulars were French speakers.Crysler's Farm 1813

On 10 November a skirmish was fought at Hoople’s Creek. The next day Wilkinson decided that he needed to chase Morrison away before crossing the Long Sault Rapids. He was ill and his second in command, Major-General Morgan Lewis was unavailable, so Brigadier-General John Parker Boyd was put in command.

The Anglo-Canadians headquarters was at Crysler’s Farm, sometimes mis-spelt Chrysler’s Farm. Morrison was able to fight on ground of his choosing . Woods and two ravines enabled his men to take up concealed positions , but the Americans were moving across an open battlefield that exposed them to the accurate fire of the Anglo-Canadians

On 11 November the Americans were slow to attack, used only 4,000 of their troops and committed them piecemeal.  They lost 102 killed,  237 wounded  and 120 captured. Anglo-Canadian casualties were 31 killed, 148 wounded and 13 missing. About a third of the Fencibles, half of whom were French-Canadians, became casualties.

The American attack was called off after three hours. Their men were tired and hungry, and they had fewer experienced officers than their opponents. Despite the defeat Wilkinson ordered his army to cross the Long Sault rapids. However, the next day he received a message informing him that Hampton would not make their planned rendezvous, as he had retreated to winter quarters. Wilkinson therefore ordered his army to retire to winter quarters at French Mills.

As well as ending the US 1813 invasion, the battle is very important in Canadian history because it was a victory won by a mixture of British, English-speaking Canadians, French-Canadians and Mohawks.

The following websites were used in researching this post, in addition to those linked in the text:

About. com Military History

Canadian Military History Gateway.

The Friends of Crysler’s Farm Battlefield Memorial.

The Register of Canadian Historic Places.

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The Battle of the Nivelle 10 November 1813

The Duke of Wellington’s Allied army of British, Spanish and Portuguese troops captured San Sebastian on 31 August 1813, and on 7 October invaded France by crossing the River Bidassoa.

The advance was then delayed, allowing the French, commanded by Marshal Nicolas Soult, to retreat to the River Nivelle. As Charles Esdaile says, ‘the reasons were political.’[1] The French had been cleared out of Iberia, apart from the blockaded and starving garrison of Pamplona, and some in Portugal and Spain were reluctant to participate in an invasion of France. There was also the risk that Napoleon would win his German campaign, allowing him to move huge number of reinforcements to the Franco-Spanish border.

Pamplona surrendered on 31 October, meaning that there was no justification for further delay. The political disputes were overcome, allowing Wellington to use his entire army offensively

The Nivelle itself was not a formidable obstacle, but it was overlooked by hills that had been fortified. Wellington decided to attack to the centre-left of the 20 mile long French position. An assault on the extreme French left was rejected because the mountain passes there were often blocked by snow in winter. The right flank, from the sea to the village of Ascain, was too strongly defended.

Wellington was aware that the French had a strong position, but believed that it could be taken. He told the senior officers of the Light Division that:

‘It appears difficult, but the enemy have not men to man the works and lines they occupy. They dare not concentrate a sufficient body to resist the attacks I shall make upon them. I can pour a greater force on certain points than they can concentrate to resist me.’[2]

Sir John Hope was ordered to demonstrate between the coast and Ascain with 23,000 men in order to tie down an equal number of French troops. The main attack would come between Ascain and the Mondarrain mountain, where the 26,000 men of Sir Rowland Hill’s corps and the 29,000 of Lord Beresford’s corps would be opposed by 40,000 Frenchmen.[3]

The key French position was a hill called the Lesser Rhune, separated from the Great Rhune, taken by the Allies just after they crossed the Bidassoa, by a ravine. The Light Division was selected to attack the Lesser Rhune. Success would expose the flanks of the French troops either side of it.Battle of the Nivelle 10 November 1813

There were three separate enclosed fieldworks along the crest of the Lesser Rhune, and it appeared to be almost impregnable against an assault across the ravine from the Great Rhune. However, Wellington worked out a route that enabled the Light Division to descend into the valley and manoeuvre into a position to attack the Lesser Rhune’s flank. The fieldworks would not then be able to support each other against the attackers, and could be taken one after the other.

The Light Division began its attack before dawn, and had taken the Lesser Rhune by 8 am. The rest of the Allied army then advanced. The French were forced to retreat in order to avoid having their flanks turned.

The French lost 4,500 men killed, wounded and captured, plus 59 guns, and the Allies 2,700 men.[4] The November day was short, and the onset of darkness probably saved the French from a disaster. Soult was able to establish a new line along the next river, the Nive.


[1] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 476.

[2] Quoted in J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 320.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 325.

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The Battle of Hanau and the End of Napoleon’s 1813 German Campaign.

Napoleon was forced to retreat to the Rhine after his defeat at Leipzig on 16-19 October 1813. His retreat ‘was on the whole a remarkably successful operation’ in the opinion of David Chandler.[1] The Coalition armies pursued cautiously, and the French were moving along their main line of communications, enabling them to resupply and re-equip as they retired.

About 100,000 French troops reached the large supply base of Erfurt on 23 October.[2] They were issued with new equipment, but had to resume the retreat the next day because the Coalition forces were close behind. The French continued to lose many tired, sick and hungry stragglers on the retreat.

France’s erstwhile ally Bavaria had changed sides and joined the Coalition against France on 14 October. On 30 October, following two days of skirmishing, 43,000 Austrians and Bavarians under the command of the Bavarian General Karl Phillip von Wrede attempted to block Napoleon’s retreat at Hanau, a few miles east of Frankfurt-on-Main, the next supply base on the French line of retreat.

Wrede believed wrongly that the French main body was further north, on the road towards Coblenz, so thought that he faced only 20,000 men. Wrede took up a position described by F. Lorraine Petre as ‘hopelessly bad.’[3]

The River Kinzig flowed behind the Austro-Bavarian centre before turning to divide the right from the rest of the army. They could cross only at the Lamboi bridge because the river was swollen by the autumn rains. A thick forest allowed the French to approach close to the enemy without being spotted.

Napoleon had only about 17,000 men available at first, but attacked the Austro-Bavarian left flank. He was able to obtain a local superiority because of the terrain. Wrede’s left flank, consisting mostly of cavalry, was driven off the field by French cavalry and artillery.

The centre resisted for a little longer, but then had to retreat because its left flank was threatened by the victorious French cavalry. Casualties were increased because the river obstructed the retreat. Wrede brought reinforcements from his right to the centre, but they were forced to retreat back over the Lamboi bridge, and hundreds were drowned.

Napoleon, having driven Wrede off, continued his retreat. The French bombarded Hanau at 2 am on 31 October. Wrede evacuated it, and the French occupied it at 8 am. Wrede launched an unsuccessful counter attack, in which he himself was wounded, and the French passed through Hanau on their way to Frankfurt.

Wrede’s army lost 9,250 men killed and wounded at Hanau. French combat casualties were far lower, but the Coalition captured five French generals, 280 officers and 10,000 men from 28-31 October.[4]

The French reached Frankfurt, less than 20 miles from the Rhine, on 2 November. About 70,000 organised troops and 40,000 stragglers made it across the Rhine. Nearly 300,000 men had been lost so far in the campaign. Another 100,000 in isolated garrisons across Germany were effectively lost.

On 11 November Marshal Laurent St Cyr accepted terms for the surrender of Dresden that would allow the garrison to return to France provided that they did not take part in the war. However, Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg, the Coalition commander, refused to ratify the agreement, leaving St Cyr little choice other than unconditional surrender. The same thing happened at Danzig and Torgau.

Napoleon had suffered an enormous defeat for the second year running. He failed to learn one of the lessons of the failure of his 1812 Russian Campaign, which was that his army was too big for one man to co-ordinate with the communications of the day. Before the decisive defeat at Leipzig, Napoleon had won all of the battles where he was in personal command, Lützen, Bautzen and Dresden, but his subordinates had lost the other three significant battles of the campaign.

The marshals had to operate more independently than most were capable of. Napoleon should be blamed for failing to train them to do so, and did not make the most of his better commanders. Louis Davout, commanding the Hamburg garrison, and André Masséna, not employed after his defeat at Fuentes de Oñoro in 1811, would surely have done better than Nicolas Oudinot, beaten at Gross Beeren, Jacques MacDonald, beaten at the Katzbach or Michel Ney, beaten at Dennewitz.

Napoleon came up with impressive plans throughout the campaign, but his army was no longer able to execute them successfully. His inexperienced troops were tired and hungry because they were short of supplies. Napoleon also lacked good intelligence of the enemy’s strength and movements because the huge horse casualties of 1812 left him short of the cavalry needed to carry out reconnaissance.

The Emperor made key mistakes during the campaign. He should not have agreed to an armistice after his victory at Bautzen, since the opposing Coalition was building up its forces faster than he could. He might have won at Leipzig if he had not broken his rule of concentrating all available forces at the decisive point by leaving a substantial garrison at Dresden.

In the Autumn campaign the Coalition stuck successfully to its Trachenberg Plan of retreating when facing battle with Napoleon himself, whilst attempting to threaten his lines of supply and defeat isolated French corps, until it was able to concentrate all its forces at Leipzig and win a decisive victory.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 937.

[2] Troop strengths are from Ibid., pp. 937-38.

[3] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 391.

[4] Ibid.

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