Tag Archives: World War II

Normandy 44: The Battle Beyond D-Day

Many programmes about D-Day, or Operation Overlord, have been broadcast recently because of the 70th anniversary. One that took a slightly different approach was a BBC documentary introduced by James Holland called Normandy ’44: The Battle Beyond D-Day, which told the story of the entire Normandy campaign rather than just the events of 6 June 1944. Holland argued that ‘the Americans were not so dominant, the Germans so skilful or the British so hapless’ as is commonly believed.

Holland argued that the story is usually told from ”a predominantly American perspective, with the British effort often relegated to little more than an amateurish sideshow.’ He noted that there are three levels to warfare: strategy, the overall goals of the leaders; tactics, the actual fighting; and operational, the nuts and bolts, the logistical link between the first two. The third is often ignored.

His programme featured interviews with British veteran tank commander David Render of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, German veteran Johannes Werner, several historians, including Stephen Prince of the British Naval Historical Branch, Professor John Buckley of Wolverhampton University and Peter Caddick-Adams of Cranfield University and weapons experts. There were also readings from the diary of Stanley Christopherson, another Sherwood Rangers tank commander, and two German generals, Fritz Bayerlein, commander of the Panzer Lehr Division, and Sepp Dietrich, commander of the X SS Panzer Korps. Christopherson’s son David also took part.

Sea control stretching across the world was required to bring all the necessary supplies to France, as well as 2 million men from North America, 1.5 million from the USA and 0.5  million from Canada.

The Germans had 58 divisions in France on 6 June, but only six were Panzer or Panzer Grenadiers. The others were largely static infantry divisions, dependent on horse power. They had to be overcome on 6 June before the armour and mechanised infantry could reach the beaches.

The beaches were defended by MG34 or MG42 dual purpose machine guns in concrete bunkers. These had a much higher rate of fire than a British Bren light machine gun. This gave them a very distinctive sound. However, an MG34 took 115 man hours to manufacture and an MG42 75 hours, compared with 50 for a Bren.

The German machine gun’s high rate of fire meant that their barrels had to be changed frequently. The bunkers were sited on forward slopes, meaning that the Germans could not evacuate wounded or bring reinforcements or more ammunition forward once the fighting had begun. Very heavy casualties were inflicted by the German machine guns on the early waves of US troops landing on Omaha Beach, but the Germans fire died down as they suffered casualties, ran short of ammo and their guns over heated.

Panzer divisions moving to the invasion beaches were attacked continually from the air. Bayerlein reported that his division took two days and a nights to reach Caen. On 7 June it lost 85 or 86 armoured vehicles, 123 trucks, 5 tanks and 23 half tracks through air attacks.

Holland argued that, despite personality clashes,  the Allied command structure under General Dwight Eisenhower ‘was more efficiently structured’ than the German one. He also contended that the abilities of General Sir Bernard Montgomery, at this stage in command of all Allied land forces in Normandy, have been obscured by his tendency to annoy people.

The plan for Overlord was largely devised by Montgomery. He stressed the need to quickly form a continuous bridgehead and to capture Cherbourg and the high ground to the south and south east of Caen. It was a major junction of roads, railways and a river. He intended that the bulk of the German panzers should be drawn into the British and Canadians on the eastern flank, allowing the Americans in the west freedom to manoeuvre south.

Caen is the major query over Montgomery’s plan. It was supposed to be taken on 6 June, with the Allies reaching Paris within 90 days. This required a single British division to move 10 miles inland from Sword Beach on D-Day itself. Intelligence showed that German forces in the area had been reinforced in May, but a lack of landing craft meant that it was not possible to increase the British force heading for Caen.

Something that Montgomery did get right was the need to build up forces as fast as possible. The Allies did not control a port in Normandy, so they took their their own, the Mulberry Harbours. At their peak, they landed 7,000 tons a day. However, everything had to be ferried ashore by landing craft on D-Day, meaning that the men heading for Caen were lightly equipped. They were held up for a day a bunker complex, named Hillman by the Allies, which covered the Caen road and could not be by passed.

The German Tiger tank was feared by the Allies. It was a formidable opponent, but it used 5 litres of fuel per kilometre, compared with 2 for the American built Sherman, the most common Allied tank in Normandy. The Germans were short of fuel, the Allies were not. Additionally, the Tiger’s complex transmission system was vulnerable to breakdowns.

The German 88mm gun, fitted to the Tiger, fired its shells at a fearsome velocity, but so did the British 17 pounder, fitted to some Shermans, termed Fireflies. This made the normally undergunned Sherman a threat to the Tiger. However, Tigers could wreak havoc, as at Villars Bocage on 12 June, where the SS tank ace Michael Wittmann massacred a British column.

David Render, a British tank officer in Normandy, said that the Allies had a more team based approach. Troops of tanks would work together, with the destruction of an enemy tank being attributed to the troop rather than to an individual commander as was the case with the Germans.

Villars Bocage was of little strategic significance in itself, and it cost the Germans several Tigers, fighting in an urban area without infantry support. However, it signalled the start of a lengthy battle of attrition for Caen. Wittman and his crew were killed by a Sherman Firefly later in the Normandy campaign.

At the same time the Americans were being held up by difficult terrain of the bocage, small fields surrounded by high hedgerow. Shermans could not get through the hedges to support the infantry. If they tried to go over them, they would expose their poorly armoured undersides.

The problem was solved by the ingenuity of Curtis Culin, a US National Guardsman who had worked in a garage before the war. He came up with a hedge cutter that could be fitted to a Sherman. It was made from German beach obstacles and did not require great skill on the part of the welders, meaning that it could be manufactured quickly in the field. Culin’s prototype was ready to be demonstrated in a week, and 60% of US Shermans were fitted with his hedge cutters a fortnight later. He was awarded the Legion of Merit and survived the war, but lost a leg in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest.

Culin’s invention and its quick adoption showed the combination of ingenuity and fast moving flexibility that gave the Americans an advantage at the operational level.

The Germans concentrated large numbers of tanks near Caen. The British had advanced less than 10 miles from their beaches.  This looked unimpressive on the map, but gave them a major logistical advantage. The battles around Caen are usually portrayed as the British battering their heads against a brick wall, but Holland argued that it was the other way round. The Germans had a reputation for tactical excellence, but they could always be relied upon to counter attack. The Allies had only to probe forward, wait for the German counter attack and destroy it with their superior firepower.

Allied units, unlike German ones, could be resupplied and kept up to strength. The Sherwood Rangers were part of a brigade of three regiments each with 50 tanks. It received 1,073 new tanks during the campaign in order to keep 150 in the field. The Germans built only 1,500 Tigers during the war. David Render came out of three tanks in the campaign. Stanley Christopherson used five in a day in the desert campaign.

Stephen Prince argued that the Allied system built up and sustained larger numbers throughout the campaign. They had complete air superiority. The millionth Allied soldier arrived in Normandy on 12 July. The Germans started strong, but had to solve crises by taking troops from support functions. This worked for a while, keeping the Allies closer to the beach than they had intended. However, by late July the Allies had built up their forces and were able to break through the Germans, who could no longer stop them.

A major British offensive, Operation Goodwood, was launched on 18 July with huge air, naval and artillery support. It was to be followed by an American attack at St Lo. However, it advanced only seven miles, one for every 1,000 tons of bombs dropped. Montgomery had claimed that it would be a massive killer blow in order to get the air power that he wanted. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Eisenhower’s deputy, tried to get Montgomery sacked.

Holland argued that Montgomery was good at speaking to troops and the press, but bad at dealing with his peers and superiors. Goodwood would not have been so controversial had he explained his plan properly. 400 British tanks  were knocked out in Goodwood, but 300 of them were repaired and back in action in days. Montgomery was focussed only on Normandy, but Eisenhower had to look at a bigger picture, including the need to capture V1 launch sites and the greater progress being made by the Red Army on the Eastern Front.

The Americans launched Operation Cobra, the follow up to Goodwood, on 25 July. The Germans, over-stretched at Caen, were unable to resist the US offensive and were forced to retreat. A counter attack with all remaining German reserves was launched on 7 August. It failed and the Germans were forced back to Falaise. There were so many corpses that Werner had to walk on them. On 12 June he was part of a company of 120 men. Nine of them survived the campaign.

Allied casualties averaged 6,500 killed, wounded and captured on each of the 77 days of the Normandy campaign. Peter Caddick-Adams argued that in that time the Allied armies underwent a learning process the equivalent of which had taken four years in the First World War.

The campaign did not go to the initial plan, because the Germans tried to hold the Allies closer to the beaches than they had expected. However, the Allies moved very quickly once they had broken out of Normandy. They had planned to take Paris after 90 days, but were actually in Brussels 90 days after D-Day.

 

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BBC Coverage of D-Day 70th Anniversary

I was going to write a longer blog post on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, but I have been so impressed with the BBC coverage that I have instead posted a series of links to its website.

Throughout 6 June 2014, the BBC has shown live coverage of the events being held to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day on BBC News 24, its 24 hour news channel, including many interviews with veterans. It has also broadcast significant coverage on BBC1, its main channel.

This is the main page from the BBC website’s coverage. The  TV programmes on the I-Player are generally not available outside the UK, but I think that the videos on this link will work globally.

Other articles on the BBC’s website include:

D:Day in the words of BBC journalists at the time.

A story about an 89 year old veteran who was reported missing by the care home that he lives in. He had gone to Normandy. The head of the local police tweeted that:

“Love this: 89yr old veteran reported missing by care home who said he can’t go to Normandy for #DDay70 remembrance. We’ve found him there!”

The coverage obviously concentrated on British veterans, but it made it clear that people from many countries participated.

Coverage from other British media outlets include:

The Guardian (left wing quality newspaper).

Daily Telegraph (right wing quality newspaper: there is a restriction on the number of articles you can read per month).

Sky News (the other UK 24 hours news channel, owned by Rupert Murdoch).

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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.

Continue reading

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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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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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Spying on Hitler’s Army – Channel 4

Channel 4, the British TV channel, recently broadcast a drama-documentary titled Spying on Hitler’s Army: The Secret Recordings. It showed how the UK obtained intelligence from German PoWs by secretly recording their conversations. The initial interrogations of prisoners decided which ones could be useful sources of intelligence. They were then sent to one of three stately homes, where they lived in comfortable conditions, not knowing that their conversations were being recorded.

The programme focused on Trent Park, just to the north of London, where the inmates (or guests as the British called them) included seven generals; Wilhelm von Thoma, Ludwig Crüwell, Johannes Bruhn, Heinrich Kittel, Paul von Felbert and Dietrich von Choltitz. They were kept in a relaxed atmosphere, even being allowed day trips to London. Their chief captor, who they believed to be Lord Aberfeldy, a distant relative of the Royal Family, acted more like a host to his host guests.

Aberfeldy was actually Ian Monroe, an officer in MI19, the part of British intelligence responsible for obtaining information from enemy prisoners. He asked encouraged his ‘guests’ to speak by asking them leading questions. Even the grounds of Trent Park were bugged; Monroe made certain that he asked his leading questions when near enough to a microphone for it to pick up the reply.

Many of the people who transcribed and translated the prisoners’ comments were German Jewish refugees who had joined the British Army. One of them, Fritz Lustig, was interviewed in the programme. He gave an interview to BBC Radio’s Witness programme late last year; it is available online, apparently without time or geographical restrictions.

At the end of the war the recordings were destroyed and transcripts of the conversations locked away. The transcripts were declassified a few years ago, and are in now available in the UK National Archives. They were discovered there by chance by Prof. Sönke Neitzel, now of the LSE, when he was researching U-boat crewman. He and several other historians appeared in the programme: Helen Fry, author of The M Room: Secret Listeners who Bugged the Nazis, Joshua Levine and Col. Kevin Farrell. It also featured Prof. Stephen Reicher, a social psychologist who commented on how an ordinary person could become a genocidal murderer.

The programme showed reconstructions of conversations between the German PoWs, interspersed with archive footage and comments by the historians. The actors spoke English, but the dialogue was an accurate translation of what the prisoners actually said.

Much of the programme dealt with the conflict between von Thoma, a patriot but an anti-Nazi, and Crüwell, a Nazi. The other main focus was on war crimes. The transcripts showed that the German Army, not just the SS, had participated in the Holocaust. General von Felbert, who had been sentenced to death by Hitler because he allegedly surrendered too easily, was disgusted by war crimes. General Kittel, however, complained to the SS about mass executions of Jews, but only because they were being carried out in public and the location of the mass graves might lead to his troops’ drinking water being contaminated.

The transcripts gave useful military intelligence as well as information on atrocities. Von Thoma told Crüwell of the existence of the V2 rocket and the importance of the Peenemunde research facility, which was subsequently bombed by the RAF.

Not only officers had their conversations recorded. A private called Pffanberger talked about the terrible conditions and high death rate in the Buchenwald concentration camp. He had been an inmate there for seven years because he was suspected of being a communist, until manpower shortages led to him being conscripted into the army.

None of the information used was used in war crimes trials. The British decided that they did not want to give away an intelligence technique that had proved to be very useful in the war, so might be needed again

A very well made and interesting programme, although perhaps not as new a story as the makers seemed to believe, given that Prof. Neitzel’s book on the subject, Soldaten, was published in English early last year and in German in 2011. I did laugh at one point when the German generals, in captivity, berated the other German generals who had just surrendered to the Red Army at Stalingrad.

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Voices from the Ghetto – BBC World Service

The BBC World Service recently broadcast a radio programme called Voices from the Ghetto. It is available to listen to from this link. It is shown as being available for over a year and I do not think that there are any geographic restrictions on listening to radio programmes from the BBC website.

It tells the story of an archive of documents that was buried under the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II by an organisation called Oneg Shabbat (Joy of the Sabbath). The original idea came from Emanuel Ringelblum, a teacher and left wing political activist, who wanted to record what was happening to the 500,000 Jews in the Ghetto.

The OS collected diaries, poems, songs, reports, surveys, posters, paintings, sketches, maps, tram tickets and even sweet wrappings. It was intended to be both a chronicle and a warning.

The programme was narrated by Monica Whitlock and used the OS archive to tell the story of the Ghetto. Modern actors and singers read from its documents and sang songs collected by OS. One of the few survivors of the Ghetto, Janina Davidowicz, described her experiences. She now lives in Britain and writes under the name Janina David.  A previous BBC World Service radio programme in its Witness series gave a longer account of her experiences in the Ghetto.

Ringelblum built up a network of reporters and typists from his political connections and trusted friends. Everything was recorded in triplicate. For security reasons, nobody knew everything; there was what the programme said would now be called an information firewall.

There was believed to be a need to record events as they happened. The hope was to record every facet of Jewish life in the Ghetto. The situation of Warsaw’s Jews was dire from the start, even though nobody could predict how it would end; in 1940-41 most expected to survive the war.

Warsaw was bombed in the first month of the war, September 1939. More civilians were killed in Poland that month than have died in 8 years of war in 21st century Iraq.

Warsaw was called the Paris of the east; a third of its population were Jews. The Germans divided it into three parts; German, Polish and Jewish. Many Poles and Jews therefore had to re-locate. Jews from other parts of Poland were sent to Warsaw, meaning that the already over-crowded Ghetto contained 50% more Jews than had lived in the city before the war.

Disease and starvation were rife in the Ghetto, which survived only thanks to smuggling; you could not exist on the official rations. Children were good smugglers because they could get through small gaps, but were in great danger. Large numbers were shot by the Germans, but the smuggling continued.

Many people tried to survive by selling goods. Some ended up clad only in blankets in the style of Ghandi. Beggars were stripped of their clothes after they died. Janina Davidowicz said that people had to learn to step over the corpses.

There were some telephones in the Ghetto. OS recorded Wladyslaw Szlengel’s poem Telephone, which was about an inhabitant of the Ghetto who had a telephone, but nobody to ring except the Speaking Clock.

The Germans allowed Poles only primary schools and completely banned education for Jews. The penalty for educating Jewish children was death for the teachers, parents and children. Despite this, secret schools were established; there was believed to be a need to educate children for after the war.

There were restaurants, night clubs and orchestras for those who had money. Some events were held at the Femina Theatre; the Femina Cinema in modern Warsaw is on the same site.  Janina Davidowicz related that she attended a charity performance to raise funds for the orphanage run by Janusz Korczak.

OS received reports of the slaughter of Jews elsewhere, which it sent to London and New York via the Polish Underground. Its funds were tiny and it was left with a dilemma. Should it save the most talented? Or buy guns? What was point in collecting pieces of paper if everybody was to die? Some consoled themselves with the thought that the Germans could kill thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands but surely not 500,000?

The Jewish Symphony Orchestra rehearsed Beethoven’s ninth symphony with The Ode to Joy translated to Hebrew. It had no French horns, oboes or bassoons, so used saxophones. There was no paper for scores, so the musicians played from memory. The Germans suspended it in April 1942 because it had played Aryan music, but it continued to rehearse.

OS regarded 26 June 1942 as a great day because the BBC broadcast its reports of the fate of Polish Jewry, showing that its work not had not been in vain.

However, the deportations to the Treblinka death camp began on 22 July. At first people packed bags believing/hoping that they were going to a better life in work camps. OS documents for this period read out in the programme recorded the weather and the numbers deported in a matter of fact manner.

By the end of the deportations on 24 September there had been a depopulation unknown even in plagues. OS recorded that 253,742 Jews had been deported in 46 days. Others had earlier died of disease or starvation or had been killed by the Germans.

Those left in the Ghetto measured their life expectancy in weeks rather than months. Weapons were smuggled in and holes were knocked in walls and cellars, giving the Jews the ability to move between houses without going into the street. The month long Ghetto Uprising ended in mid-May 1943; the Ghetto was then destroyed.

In order to preserve OS’s record, Ringelblum had thousands of documents packed into 10 tin boxes and buried in August 1942. Other caches were buried later. He still looked for writers to record the end of European Jewry. Scraps of notebooks thrown from trains and reports from escapees from Treblinka were gathered and sent to London and New York by the Polish Underground.

Ringelblum, his wife and son were caught and shot in March 1944. Janina Davidowicz was smuggled to out of the Ghetto. Her father died in Majdanek. He was offered the chance to escape but too said he was too weak to do so. He asked one of the escapees to take a message to Janina, which he did after the war.

Most of the menbers of OS died at Treblinka.  There were three survivors; the journalist Rachel Auerbach, Bluma Wasser, a typist, and her husband Hersch, who had jumped from a train to Treblinka.

In 1946 they found 10 grimy metal boxes, containing part of the archive. In 1950 workmen building a housing estate discovered 2 milk churns full of documents. The two finds totalled 35,000 documents and artifacts. The third and largest cache has never been discovered. It is thought to have been buried near where the Chinese Embassy now stands. In 2003 a team dug down into its  garden, but they found only burnt scraps of a diary.

See also:

Kassow, Samuel, Who will Write our History?: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes Archive (London: Penguin, 2009. Originally published by Indiana University Press, 2007).

Note that the name of the body that gathered these documents is given as Oneg Shabbat, Oyneg Shabbes, Oyneg Shabes and Oyneg Shabbos by the various sources used in this post. The archive is often now called the Ringelblum Archive. The originals belong to the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw; the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has digital copies.

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The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in World War II – Halik Kochanski

On 23 January 2013 I attended a talk given by Dr Halik Kochanski at the National Army Museum in London on her book The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War. It was part of a regular series of talks that are held at the NAM on Thursday lunchtimes.

She argued that this is the first book published since the fall of Communism to cover the full story of Poland in World War II. Previous works have concentrated on Poles in the Battles of Britain and Monte Cassino, the Holocaust and the Warsaw Uprising.

Poland had a population of 32 million in 1939, which was made up of 22 million Poles, 4.5 million Ukrainians, 3 million Jews, 1 million Belarusians, 0.75 million Germans and 0.75 million people described as ‘locals.’ A total of 6 million of them were killed in the war, only 10% in military actions. The dead included 90% of the Jews. Five million of the pre-war population were outside the altered post-war borders of Poland at the end of the war.

Poland was in a hopeless position in 1939, with only 1 million troops to defend itself against a German attack from three sides. The Polish plan was to defend and withdraw slowly, launching a counter-attack once the Western Allies had drawn off the Germans.

This plan failed because of the speed of the German Blitzkrieg and because the British and French did little: they were preparing for a long war.

It is a myth that the Polish cavalry charged tanks. There was an action where Polish cavalry successfully charged German infantry but were then surprised by German armour.

It is also untrue that the Polish Air Force was destroyed on the first day. It managed to disperse and continued to fight.

The Poles had few tanks, but the 10th Cavalry (Mechanised) Brigade, the only Polish armoured unit, put up a good fight. Its commander, General Stanislaw Maczek, later commanded the Polish 1st Armoured Division, which fought in Normandy in 1944 and captured the German naval base of Wilhelmshaven in 1945.

The Poles had few forces left in the East to defend when the USSR invaded on 17 September.

The Polish government and high command left the country for Romania and ordered the army to follow. About 85,000 troops escaped to Romania. Most of the government were interned, but 40,000 troops and some politicians escaped to France. 19,000 soldiers made it to Britain in 1939.

Polish military casualties in 1939 were 200,000, a third of them dead and the rest wounded. The Germans took 640,000 prisoners. The officers remained PoWs for the duration of the war, but the other ranks were employed as forced labourers. The Soviets took 240,000 prisoners.

The German policy was to make Poland into an intellectual desert, with a pool of labour that would receive only a very basic education. They killed or imprisoned many intellectuals and priests.

The main difference in the part of Poland occupied by the USSR in 1939 was that education continued, albeit in Belarussian or Ukrainian and with a big political content. They imprisoned 10% of the population, targetting anybody who had been active in the Polish state, whether as a politician or a government employee. They murdered 15,ooo Polish officers at Katyn and elsewhere.

A single resistance body, initially called the ZWZ (Union for Armed Struggle in English) and later the AK (Home Army), was established. An underground government of all political parties was set up. Attempts to extend the network to the Soviet occupied area were made but ran into the problem that the NKVD was more efficient than the Gestapo.

The Germans annexed part of Poland, establishing the General-Government in the rest of their occupation zone. Poles were expelled from the annexed territories to the General-Government; Jews went  to the Lodz Ghetto, which was inside the annexed area. The Poles took revenge by expelling Germans from Poland in 1945. Poland then lost the territory taken by the USSR in 1939, but was compensated with parts of eastern Germany.

There was some collaboration with the Germans at a low-level but none at a political level. Some Poles obtained jobs with the local administration as this protected them from being deported for slave labour. Others were conscripted into the German army and deserted as soon as they could in order to join the Allies.

The Soviets deported a million Poles to the east. Victims were selected for political reasons. Both the Soviets and the Germans gave deportees little notice. Poles expelled by the Germans were given little time to pack, and were sometimes expected to leave their homes clean and tidy for their new German occupants.

After the Germans invaded the USSR in June 1941 Poland and the USSR signed an agreement. The 1939 territorial changes were annulled and diplomatic relations restored. Poles deported to the USSR were given an amnesty, although they had committed no crimes, and a Polish army was established on Soviet soil.

Poles made their way from labour camps and collective farms to the new Polish army. Most were in poor health, and many died along the way. There was a shortage of officers because many had been murdered by the NKVD. The army was eventually evacuated to Iran, where it was supplied by the British. Many civilians accompanied it; they were sent to various parts of the British Commonwealth or to Mexico.

In 1942 the Germans proposed deporting 30 million Slavs, including 85% of Poles, east. The rest of the Poles would be Germanised. 200,000 blue-eyed, blond children were taken from their families and sent to Germany and Austria. Only about 20% returned home after the war. This great tragedy was overshadowed by the even greater tragedy of the Holocaust.

The first of 400 ghettos was set up in October 1939, and mass shootings began when the Germans invaded the USSR in June 1941. These did not reduce the Jewish populations quickly enough, so the death camps were set up. Most Polish Jews died in the four purpose built camps of Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor and Treblinka.

The vast majority of those sent to these camps were murdered in the gas chambers on arrival, with only a small number of Jews being kept temporarily alive in order to provide the slave labour to operate the gas chambers and burn the corpses. Only 110 Jews survived these camps. Auschwitz and Majdanek were combinations of concentration and death camps, where a higher proportion of Jews were initially selected for slave labour rather than immediate death, and not all the inmates were Jews.

The systematic murder of the Polish Jews began in mid 1942 and was largely over by the end of 1943. By then, the only Jews left in Poland were either slave labourers, including the inhabitants of the Lodz Ghetto, or in hiding.

It was difficult for Polish Jews to find help in escaping, as 80% of them were unassimilated, and Poland was the only occupied country where the penalty for helping Jews was death. Despite this, Zegota in Poland was the only government sponsored scheme to help Jews in occupied Europe.

It took 100 helpers to save one Jew, whilst one collaborator could betray a 100 Jews. The people named as The Righteous Amongst the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel include over 6,000 Poles, but far more helped Jews. A few Jews collaborated; one of their tactics was to speak Yiddish in public in order to trick Jews into revealing themselves.

Jews resisted, including breaking out into forests and revolts in the Sobibor and Treblinka death camps and the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Polish government-in-exile in London commanded two corps and the AK. The Poles made a major contribution to the war in the air, most famously in the Battle of Britain, where 303 Squadron shot down more enemy aircraft than any other fighter squadron.

The 1 Corps included the afore-mentioned 1st Armoured Division and a parachute brigade. The latter unit was originally earmarked for operations in Poland, but was sent to Arnhem. Its commander, General Stanislaw Sosabowski, was unfairly criticised by General Frederick Browning, the commander of the 1st British Airborne Corps, after the operation failed. Sosabowski was later praised in the memoirs of General Robert Urquhart, commander of the 1st Airborne Division.

The 2 Corps, commanded by General Wladyslaw Anders, was made up of the men who had been captured by the USSR in 1939 and then moved to the Middle East. It fought in Italy, including at Monte Cassino. Most of its members came from the eastern parts of Poland, which were annexed by the USSR in 1945. Few of them returned to Poland after the war.

Poles made a major contribution to Allied intelligence, including the first success in breaking the Enigma code. The Germans knew that an early version of it had been cracked, and tortured four captured Polish code-breakers in order to discover if the current code had been broken. It had, but the Poles insisted, even under torture, that it had not. The Poles also provided intelligence on the German scientific research site at Peenemunde, the V2 rocket and the German plan to invade the USSR in 1941.

Poland broke off diplomatic relations with the USSR after the bodies of the Poles murdered at Katyn were discovered. It had little say in the decision taken by the Big Three of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. Stalin wanted eastern Poland, but was prepared to give Poland some German territory in return.

The Soviets formed the 1st Polish Army in 1943 from Polish PoWs who had not moved to the Middle East and Soviet officers. It was commanded by General Zygmunt Berling, a Polish officer who had refused to follow Anders to the Middle East. Its first battle at Lenino took place in October 1943, before Anders’s 2 Corps had been in action in the Middle East.

The AK had 400,000 members. A general uprising, called Operation Tempest, was planned in order to liberate Polish territory ahead of the advancing Red Army. The AK liberated Vilna and Lvov, but its members were conscripted into the Red Army when it arrived.

In 1943 a political body called the ZPP (Union of Polish Patriots) was formed in the USSR. It was dominated by Communists. In July 1944 the PKWN (Polish Committee of National Liberation) was established as a rival administration to the Polish government-in-exile in London. It was based in Lublin from 1 August, so was known as the Lublin Committee.

Also on 1 August, General Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski (Bor was his code-name and Komorowski his surname), the leader of the AK, launched the Warsaw Uprising. He thought that the Red Army was about to enter the city.

There were 50,000 members of the AK in Warsaw, but only 10% were armed. The German responded brutally to the uprising; 40,000 civilians were killed in one day. Stalin refused to give support to the AK. Only one US air supply mission was allowed to land on Soviet territory; other Allied air missions suffered heavy casualties and only 50% of the supplies dropped reached the AK.

The 1st Polish Army was ordered not to the cross the Vistula and join in the fighting. It made an attempt to do so in September, which resulted in Berling being removed from command.

Fighting ended on 2 October; most of the AK survivors were treated as PoWs, but the Germans destroyed Warsaw. The Red Army did not enter it until 17 January 1945.

A government recognised by the UK, USSR and USA was formed in 1945; it included representatives of the government-in-exile. Elections in 1947 were rigged, and the government-in-exile continued to exist in London until 1990. A referendum was held in 1946, with three questions. The official results showed majorities in favour of all three. However, in Krakow, where the elections were fair, around 85% supported the recommendation of the main anti-Communist party, the Polish People’s Party, and opposed the first question.

Dr Kochanski concluded by saying that Poland was the only Allied country to lose World War II.

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Keith Lowe – Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II – Edinburgh Book Festival

This is the second of a number of rather belated posts on talks by military historians that I attended at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2012.

Keith Lowe talked about his book, Savage Continent; Europe in the aftermath of World War II. He argued that the British view of the end of the war is fixed and cosy, different from that of the rest of Europe.

The end of the war was not clear-cut. A massive mess was left, which was inevitable after a war of this scale. American and British officials were shocked by what they found, including the level of destruction of German cities by bombing. Warsaw was 90% rubble. Millions of civilians had been killed. British deaths were far lower than those of countries such as the USSR, Poland and Germany.

Many people, such as refugees and former forced labourers, were in the wrong place. There were 18 million refugees of all nationalities in Germany. Huge numbers of starving displaced persons were crossing the continent. Messages to loved ones were left on trees and lamp posts at every crossroads.

Lowe told the story of Andre, a 9-year-old Polish refugee. Andre saw immobile and abandoned German wounded and huge numbers of PoWs with very few guards. Andre and his mother walked for a month and met nobody in any authority until they reached a UN Displaced Persons Camp.

Europe was full of very angry people who wanted revenge. Germans were universally hated. The Red army raped many women and large numbers of Germans were shot in Czechoslovakia. There was some symmetry between actions by the Germans during the war and actions against them after it, but nothing equal to the Holocaust.

Many of the Germans were guilty, but that does not excuse indiscriminate beatings and killings of Germans. The authorities did little to discourage these actions. In some cases they were openly encouraged; the Czech Justice Minister said that there was no such thing as a good German.

The fighting did not end on 8 May 1945. The Germans fought for another week in Yugoslavia and were massacred by the partisans after surrendering. The Greek Civil War started during WWII and continued until 1949. Nationalist partisans in the Baltic continued to fight the Soviets into the 1950s. The last Estonian partisan was caught in 1978.

WWII was more complex than Allies versus Axis. There were wars of liberation, but also ones of national purity, culminating in ethnic cleansing, and class warfare. The defeat of Nazi Germany was only one step in this process.

A former member of SOE asked a question about the escape of Klaus Barbie after the war. Lowe said that one of the reasons why there was so much unofficial punishment after the war was that official punishment of war criminals was ‘rubbish.’

Lowe said that he paid particular attention to statistics as these are often used to feed national sensibilities and views. German refugees from the East became a big voting block in the West. They exaggerated the number of post-war German dead from the actual 0.5 million to 2 million in order to increase their victimhood. The Yugoslavs increased their deaths from 1 million to 1.7 million.

An interesting presentation on a book that shows how the experience of the end of WWII in the UK is not typical of that of the rest of Europe.

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Antony Beevor – The Second World War – Edinburgh Book Festival

This is the first of a number of rather belated posts on talks by military historians that I attended at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2012.

Antony Beevor talked about his recent book on The Second World War on 21 August 2012. He began by pointing out that every country has its own perspective on the war, as memories and experiences of different countries are so different. It was an agglomeration of many conflicts. The German and Japanese did not co-ordinate their strategies.

Beevor related a number of stories from his book. It follows his usual format of combining analysis of strategy with stories of the experience of ordinary soldiers and civilians.

He begins in January 1939 with the Khalkin Gol conflict between Japan and the USSR. It was small but influenced the war. The victory of the Red Army under Georgi Zhukov discouraged the Japanese from later attacking north.

As an example of the global nature of the conflict, Beevor described the story of a Korean called Yang Kyoungjong who was captured by US paratroopers in 1944. He had been conscripted by the Japanese at the age of 18 in 1938, captured by the Red Army in 1939, conscripted into the Red Army in 1941, captured by the Germans in 1943 and conscripted into Normandy as part of an Ost Battalion composed of men from the USSR. He lived out the rest of his life in Illinois in the USA, so had a better fate than many.

Beevor was surprised to see that a memorial to French Jews murdered in the Holocaust described them as having ‘Died for the Glory of France.’ A local explained to him that the French Jews had insisted that their memorial should have the same wording as that on other French war memorials.

The fighting on the Eastern Front was brutal. The Germans carried out mass killings and the Soviets retaliated. Soviet snipers shot starving children who were taking bread from Germans at Stalingrad. Zhukov was ruthless, even threatening to execute the families of PoWs. This measure, which was not implemented, would theoretically have included Josef Stalin, whose son was captured by the Germans.

In November 1942 the Red army launched two major operations; Operation Uranus to encircle the Axis forces attacking Stalingrad and Operation Mars near Moscow. Beevor disagrees with David Glantz’s opinion that Mars was the main operation.

Glantz argues that the Soviets subsequently claimed that Mars was only a diversion for Uranus because Uranus succeeded and Mars failed. Beevor points out that far more artillery was allocated to Uranus. He argues that an NKVD double agent betrayed Mars to the Germans as part of the Soviet plan to distract them from Uranus, which he believes to have been the main operation.

Much has been said about the differences between armies, especially comparing those of democracies with those of dictatorships. Much less has been said about the similarities of the majority of soldiers. Most men did little fighting. A few always fight, a few always run and most follow the majority.

In Asia the Japanese benefitted from the complacency of European colonists, who failed to learn from the Sino-Japanese War. It was also ignored by Adolf Hitler, who failed to recognise that an army could withdraw into the interior when faced by a superior but smaller opponent.

The war in Asia was vicious. Japanese society was militaristic. Soldiers feared disgracing their family and village. They were treated brutally by their officers, leading to them treating the enemy brutally.

The Japanese claimed to be liberators, but Beevor argues that their racial arrogance made the British colonial administration look like a model of liberal tolerance. Japanese officers not only condoned but actively encouraged cannibalism.

The US Marines were more aggressive and faster moving than the US Army in the Pacific. Hatred of the Japanese was reinforced by their suicidal resistance and brutal treatment of PoWs.

Beevor concluded his talk by stating that the Second World War defies generalisation, before taking questions. Some points that came out from these were that:

The pivotal moments were:
May 1940: Winston Churchill rejected Lord Halifax’s proposal to request peace terms from Germany via Italy.
June 1941: German invasion of the USSR.
December 1941: The geopolitical turning point. The Allies could no longer lose, but might have taken much longer than they actually did to win.
November 1942: The Axis lost the initiative.

The British were not good at prioritisation.

Hitler’s main weakness was pride. He would not retreat or give up capital cities.

The Press at army headquarters were not able to report military details so reported on the generals. Some, including Mark Clark, Bernard Montgomery and Douglas MacArthur, were obsessed with PR.

The best commanders were Erich von Manstein, who was not an admirable man, Bill Slim, who was the most admirable commander and Chester Nimitz. In the Pacific Nimitz’s island hopping strategy was superior to MacArthur’s plan to invade the Philippines. MacArthur was a political threat to President Franklin Roosevelt, making it hard to reject his ideas, and the USA had the resources to do both.

The Allied bombing campaign continued for too long, but a lot of effort was invested in it, making it hard to stop. It did have a military effect. The Germans had to withdraw fighters and anti-aircraft guns from the Eastern Front to the homeland, leaving them with no aerial reconnaissance on the Eastern Front. German bombing raids killed 500,000 Soviet civilians.

Dunkirk was appalling ground for tanks. Hitler was convinced by Hermann Göring that the Luftwaffe could prevent the Allied evacuation, but he underestimated the RAF. Hitler, who wanted to save the tanks for operations against the French, was unfairly criticised by the army.

Alan Brooke was an excellent Chief of the Imperial General Staff, but his strategic ideas were not original. He supported the move throught Italy to save Eastern Europe, which Beevor called ‘mad’ because of the mountains. He opposed the US landings in the south of France, which were an excellent idea.

He described the atomic bombs as being the ‘best thing that could happen to Japan’. Only the shock of the second one led to Emperor Hirohito insisting on surrender. The Japanese military proposed forcing civilians to fight to the last armed only with sharpened sticks.

Arnhem and the Allied failure to secure the Scheldt Estuary in 1944 were big Allied mistakes.

An excellent presentation about what seems to be an excellent book, but the market for single volume histories of the Second World War is quite crowded.

Later the same day Beevor chaired a presentation by Anna Reid on her book about the siege of Leningrad. See this blog entry on her talk at the Aye Write book festival in Glasgow in March 2012.

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