Daily Archives: 8 March, 2010

Fighting Fit? Or fit to drop?

The problem with reading and writing about military history, is that you come across all kinds of incredible accounts of super-fit human beings doing extraordinary things, like marching mile upon mile carrying a small house, or scaling mountains.

You cannot help but be impressed. But then, you look down at your own bulging gut, and think, surely this is a bit hypocritical? How many slices of carrot cake or chocolate biscuits does it take, before you’re too fat too talk about the ten mile march into Arnhem without looking like a practical joke?

And thats not the only problem. I come from a family of runners. My younger brother only yesterday ran 10 miles in just over 59 minutes. My Dad used to run up and down Butser Hill for fun. And when I stuggle running for the bus without coughing and spluttering, I tend to stand out as the black sheep of the family.

So I’ve decided to start living what I read, and get myself fit and healthy. And I reckon if you follow the example of the men who are fit enough to fight, then you can’t go far wrong. I’ve got hold of a couple of good books, The British Army Official Fitness Guide, and Fighting Fit by Adrian Weale.

So for the past week or so I’ve been running every other night, round the block. Humble beginnings, I know, but you can’t overdo it. The idea is to ever so gradually increase the distance. And aside from running, the odd swimming session might be on the cards too. And I’ve always had a liking for getting out in the countryside and stretching my legs, even more so with a ruksack, tent and a stove. I love the thought of having a crack at hills like Pen-Y-Fan in the Brecon Beacons.

Its already had a knock on effect on my diet. When you’re exercising regularly, you’re less likely to eat junk, cos you know you’ll be letting yourself down. And as a vegi-phobe and a sugar junkie, thats a real test. But the exercise does have other benefits – you sleep much better, and you feel more alive throughout the day.

Stay tuned for regular updates on Operation Get Fit 2010……!

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The Hitler Youth in Britain before the war

It might sound slightly farcical – almost like something from Dad’s Army in fact -but recently released files from the Security Services show that there was serious concern about the activities of members of the Hitler Youth in Britain prior to the Second World War.

In November 1937 a visit of German officials aimed to build links with the Boy Scout movement in Britain. During the visit a meeting was held with Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout Movement. A lengthy report on the visit details speeches made by the German representatives, and mentions that visits were made to Eton School and the Army Gymnastics School at Aldershot. The writer of the report felt that one of the delegates, Herr Lauterbacher, seemed keen to make a good impression and was most pleasant. Fascinatingly, one War Office official stated that ‘…their party smoked and drank double whiskies and I wondered whether they did this when with the Hitler Youth’.

That the representatives were so amenable is not surprising. Officials were under no illusions that such visits were part of a campaign to promote the Hitler Youth in a positive light by building links with the Boy Scouts. A report by Baden-Powell after the visit in question sheds fasinating light on the incident. He reports that Herr Benneman spoke very little English. Baden-Powell was also invited to to Germany to meet Hitler, in what would have been a considerable publicity coup.

The File, in the National Archives, also contains much intercepted correspondence. One address in Catford in London was found to be sending and receiving an unsual amount of mail to and from Germany. Most of them are in German, and concern proposed visits to Britain. The Metropolitan Police were also asked to report on whether Hitler Youth groups wore uniform on visits and at events. On 6 November 1937 a party of Hitler Youth, in full uniform, took part in a ceremony where their new standard was dedicated at Dalston Church. A song sang at the ceremony included mentions of the Munich Beer Ball Putsch, the Feldhernhalle where he putsch failed, Hitler’s Mission, martyrdom and the Greater German Reich.

The authorities seem to have been particularly concerned that parties of Hitler Youth officials and members were using visit to Britain as cover for carrying out espionage. As a result, the Home Office kept an increasingly close watch on Germans entering Britain who were known to have links with the Hitler Youth. For example, files records that Kurt Petter, 28 years old, arrived at Harwich from the Hook of Holland and spent 4 days visiting public schools. Ingeborg Schwerdtfeger, a former paid official in the sport section of the Hitler Youth, and had ran a Town organisation. She originally came to Britain to work as an au pair, but later studied to become a secretary. In November 1937 MI5 were asked for their opinion on whether a known Hitler Youth Member should be allowed to work at a German Orphanage in Britain. It was felt at the time that membership of the Hitler Youth alone was not enough grounds to refuse entry, but that his activities would have to be closely monitored.

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Stalingrad: How the Red Army triumped by Michael K. Jones

Stalingrad

German Officer: ‘I must compliment you on your street fighting. I fought at Stalingrad and this was a tougher battle’.

British Officer: ‘This was our first try, we’ll be much better next time’.

So went a conversation shortly after the fall of Arnhem Bridge. The quintessentially English response aside, this exchange illustrates perhaps one of the biggest problems for western historians of the Second World War. As brave and hard-fought battles such as El Alamein, Normandy and Arnhem were, compared to the millions clashing in the East, the war in the west was peripheral. And if the war in the east was the Schwerpunkt, the Battle of Stalingrad, as Michael K. Jones shows here, was the tipping point.

I must confess to not having done much reading about the Eastern Front in the Second World War. Aside from the fact that – naturally enough my attention has usually been drawn to the more British aspects of the war, I have found the Russian experience hard to fathom. Apart from the sheer numbers and the epic scale of the fighting from Barbarossa to Berlin, I have found that there are far too many ‘ov’s and ‘sky’s to keep track of!

Perhaps I’m not alone among western historians, and the broader public at large, in not having a brilliant grasp of events such as the titanic struggle at Stalingrad. Aside from the lack of Western involvement and the distance, until the fall of the Iron Curtain an ideological barrier prevented in depth-western study of Stalingrad. During and immediately after the war communist propaganda coloured events, then after the death of Stalin destalinisation affected history to the point where the city bearing his name was changed to Volgograd.

In this book Jones uses research techniques and a writing style very reminiscent of Martin Middlebrook – especially his use of veterans accounts. Of course, until relatively recently the official Soviet version of History has dominated our understanding of the battle, so this reinterpretation, using the words of the people who fought it, is long overdue. Their accounts slice through the lingering clouds of Soviet propaganda.

But what really impresses me about this book is the emphasis given to the psychological factors that allowed the Red Army to triumph against the odds. This is not a mere narrative of the battle. We are taken under the skin of the battle’s participants, including lucid studies of the characters of the respective commanders, Chuikov and Paulus. The most salient point in the book, for me, is the impact of Stalin’s famous Order 227 – no step backwards. It is sometimes hard for those of us who live in a democracy to fathom the motivations of the millions of men fighting in a climactic struggle between two totalitarian ideologies. But to grasp these motivations is more than halfway to getting a feel for exactly how the Red Army triumphed in the bitter street fighting – a form of war that requires iron will and determination.

Books such as Anthony Beevor’s and Alan Clark’s may have covered Stalingrad in extraordinary length, but Jones’s ability to dig deeper – in terms of use of Russian sources and his probing of them – yet also write lucidly, raises the bar.

Stalingrad: How the Red Army triumphed is published by Pen and Sword

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