Category Archives: Reviews

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

Generation War: Fact and Fiction – BBC2

Generation War, the German WWII TV drama series, has now finished on the BBC. Its German title is Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter, which translates as Our Fathers, our Mothers. As described in this blog post, it tells the story of five German friends from 1941-45: two brothers, Wilhelm and Friedhelm, who are soldiers, Charlotte, a nurse, Greta, a singer and Viktor, a Jew.

The BBC showed a discussion programme titled Generation War: Fact and Fiction immediately after the final episode. For viewers in the UK it is available on the I-Player until 17 May, and is described by the BBC’s website as below:

Following the final episode of the award-winning German drama Generation War, Martha Kearney is joined by a panel including the programme makers, leading historians and cultural commentators, to examine the historical facts behind the series, the controversy it has caused and why now Germany is confronting the difficult issues of its past.

The members of the discussion panel were: Benjamin Benedict, producer of the series; Prof. David Cesarani, Professor of History at Royal Holloway, London and author of several works on the Holocaust; Prof. Sir Richard Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University and author of a three-volume history of the Third Reich;  and Dr Eva Hoffman of Kingston University, London, whose Jewish parents survived the Holocaust in hiding in the part of Ukraine that was then Polish.

Other contributions to the programme came from Witold Sobków, the Polish Ambassador to the UK, the scriptwriters of two recent British war dramas, Anthony Horowitz (Foyle’s War) and Sarah Phelps (The Crimson Field) and Anne McElroy, a writer and broadcaster who has written extensively on German history.

Horowitz said that he had ‘no responsibility necessarily to inform, to educate people…but to entertain.’ However, if he were ‘to twist history, to tell lies’ he would be ‘letting down the viewer.’ Phelps asked ‘whose historical accuracy are we recording?’ Different accounts ‘put a different spin on it.’ She thought that a drama could not give the complete picture of what happened to everybody. A dramatist should tell ‘the complete picture of something that’s deeply personal…[Her] obligation… is to send [her] characters there and then ask what it does to them.’

McElroy argued that the unprecedented scale of the Holocaust means that other crimes of  Nazi Germany have been overlooked until recently. She argued that this drama was a way of asking ‘where would you have stood, who do you identify with and what would you have done.’ She added that there will not be living German witnesses who can talk about it for much longer.

Note that the rest of this post includes spoilers.

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Generation War – BBC2

The BBC has recently started to show the German WWII drama series Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter. Its title translates as Our Fathers, our Mothers, but it is called Generation War in the English speaking world. It tells the story of five friends from Berlin from July 1941 until Christmas 1945. The BBC are showing it on the mainstream BBC2: usually subtitled foreign language dramas are shown on the more niche BBC4.

The first episode begins with the five having their last meeting before three of them head off to the Eastern Front: Wilhelm Winter (Volker Bruch) is an infantry officer; his bookish brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling) is a private in the same unit; and Charlotte (Miriam Stein), a newly qualified nurse known as Charley, at least on the English subtitles, has been assigned to a hospital behind lines.

Greta (Katharina Schüttler) is an aspiring singer, whilst her Jewish boyfriend Viktor (Ludwig Trepte) is a tailor. His father, a WWI veteran, still refers to Germany and its army as ‘we’ despite being stripped of his civil rights and business by the state.

The five promise to meet again at Christmas, which they assume will mean Christmas 1941. If anybody is wondering why I did not give the female characters’ surnames, the answer is that the cast list does not.

Warning! There are spoilers for the first episode in both the reviews linked below.

None of the characters is a Nazi, and the others have remained friends with a Jew despite having been educated almost entirely under the Nazis: I assume that they are meant to be about Trepte’s real age of 25 at the time of filming, although Bruch, Schilling and Schüttler are in their 30s.

Some have criticised this; e.g. the Daily Telegraph review  described it as ‘never less than compelling’ but thought it unlikely that the others would not be ‘openly…associating with Jews’ well after the Nazis came to power. However, the deportation of the German Jews to the East is still a rumour at the start of the series, and they were not required to wear yellow stars until September 1941, about half way through the first episode.

The Telegraph also thought that the characters were too optimistic after two years of war, but in July 1941 the Germans were unbeaten on land and RAF bombing raids were causing only minor damage.

The Arts Desk, an arts review website, notes that:

 its detractors don’t buy the series’ portrayal of five photogenic young German friends as largely innocent victims of Nazism.

The attitudes of the characters may well not be those held by the majority of Germans of their age in 1941. It is a common fault of films set in the past to give the sympathetic characters modern day attitudes and the unsympathetic ones the attitudes of the day.

However, in my view making them seem more like 21st century Germans makes it more powerful when they become complicit in the crimes of the Nazi regime. By the end of the first episode all four of the non-Jewish characters have betrayed their principles.

On the basis of the first of three episodes, this is a well made, compelling and thoughtful drama, which shows how the crimes of the Nazi regime involved ordinary Germans, not just Nazi fanatics. Its main area of controversy is in its treatment of the Poles, which comes in a later episode.

The first episode is available on the BBC I-Player for UK residents until 10:59 pm on 3 May, which is unusual: normally series stay up for a week after the broadcast of the last episode, but the first episode is available only until a week after it was broadcast. The second episode in on BBC2 at 9:30 pm on Saturday 3 May.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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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