Tag Archives: Airborne

Heaven and Hell: The War Diary of a German Paratrooper by Martin Poppel

Airborne Warfare has always been one of my favourite subjects in military history. Its probably got something to do with the fact that my Granddad was a paratrooper and an Arnhem veteran, and – not surprisingly – I have read pretty much every book I can get my hands on about the great airborne battles of the Second World War. Or at least I thought I had. I’ve read about Bruneval, Sicily, Normandy and Arnhem, but only from the British and American (and Polish!) perspectives. But considering that the allies were relative latecomes to airborne warfare, its surprising to think that I have read virtually nothing about German paratroopers. Until now, that is.

Martin Poppel joined the German Fallschirmjaeger shortly before the start of the Second World War, and went on to see action in Poland, Holland, Crete, several stints on the Russian front, in Sicily and Italy, in Normandy and finally in Holland and north west Germany during early 1945. He was wounded three times (in Russia, Italy and Normandy). Initally serving as a junior soldier, he was eventually commissioned as an Officer, and ended the war as a Company Commander. He was captured when the allies crossed the Rhine in March 1945. Whatever the political direction of their masters, there can be no doubt that many Germans – especially the paratroopers – fought tenaciously throughout the war. After capture Poppel was taken to England and held in a Prisoner of War Camp in North East England, an experience he does not seem to have minded too much. He was finally released a year later in 1946. Fortunately, his family were in the US zone in Munich – many of his comrades families were in the Russian sphere.

Poppel’s war diary is a fascinating read. We gain a unique insight into the daily life of the German soldier. Poppel gives us plenty of interesting snippets, about comradely relations, equipment, rations, attitudes to the Nazis and the war in general. Its interesting to note that the elite status felt by parachute troops was not limited to the allies – the fallschirmjaeger were very proud of their status. They seem to have preferred to jump into action (Poppel performed two combat jumps) towards the end of the war the paratroopers were used increasingly as a ‘fire brigade’ in order to reinforce weak points. Another interesting point to note is that Germany’s airborne troops came under the command of the Luftwaffe rather than the Army, unlike the allies.

Its also interesting to note how Poppel refers to British soldiers almost completely as ‘Tommy’ or ‘the Tommies’. Also, how dismissive the German troops were of British and American equipment, and their fighting prowess. However, for me the most interesting point was how Poppel – by his own admission a supporter of the Nazi party earlier in the war – began to see the Nazi ideology in different eyes as the war went against Germany. When returning to his unit after being wounded, his commander warned him that his negative attitude had been noted. But, interestingly, when in a Prisoner of War Camp Poppel remarked that, even though he was by no means an ardent Nazi, he still could not believe what had happened to Germany, and it took some time for the last vestiges of years of Nazi indoctrination to disappear. Evidence of just how politicised the youth of Germany were. No wonder they fought so doggedly.

I found this a fascinating and enlightening read. It has reinforced, above all, my feeling that very often fighting men on either side have more in common with each other than they do with their own generals, and definitely more in common than they do with their own politicians. And, no matter how unpleasant some ideologies might be, in many cases men simply did not have any choice but to fight. And if we are to curb extremism, we need to understand how it takes hold.

Heaven and Hell: The War Diary of a German Paratrooper is published by The History Press

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Filed under Airborne Warfare, Army, Book of the Week, d-day, World War Two

Updated: Sapper Ernest Bailey

Reading about people from your home city who died in the second world war can be quite a sobering experience. But what about someone who came from your very own neighbourhood, at a time when it consisted of a few streets and pig farms? And who, sadly, died in the most tragic circumstances.

By 1942, using heavy water obtained from Norway, the German atomic weapons programme had come close to developing a nuclear reactor. This, obviously, was not something that the Allies could allow to happen, and British forces devised a plan to cut off the supply of heavy water from Norway, and so bring the Nazi atom bomb programme to a halt. Bombing raids were not possible due to the difficulty of locating the plant, and the level of accuracy required.

The heavy water was obtained from the Norsk hydro chemical plant, near the village of Vermork. 2 Airspeed Horsa gliders, carrying 34 British Airborne Engineers, would land near the plant, destroy it, and make their way on foot to neutral Sweden. It was to be the first use of Gliders in action by British forces.

On 19 November 1942 the Gliders took off from northern Scotland. The Operation was doomed from the start. The first Glider crash landed. Of the seventeen men onboard, eight were killed, four were injured and five were unhurt. The second Glider also crashed, with seven men being killed on impact. Although brave Norwegians managed to shelter some of the wounded, they were eventually rounded up. The four injured surviviors from the first glider were poisoned by a German doctor, and the rest shot along with the survivors from the second glider.

These killings were in accordance with Hitlers Commando order, which ordered that all Commando troops were to be killed immediately on capture, as enemy spies. Several German personnel implicated in the killings were tried and executed after the war.

Among these brave but tragic events, was a Paulsgrove man. Sapper Ernest William Bailey, 31, of Paulsgrove, was a member of 9 Airborne Field Company, Royal Engineers. He is buried in Stavanger Cemetery in Norway. I am not sure exactly how he died – his date of death is given as 19th November, so it seems that he probably died in one of the crashed gliders. However there are quite a few files at the National Archives from the post-war investigation of war crimes, so hopefully there will be something at Kew that will tell the story of Sapper Bailey.

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I have manaed to find the following fascinating information from Stephen Stratford’s website on British Military Law. Stephen has pieced together what happened to the men of Operation Freshman from official documents at the National Archives. There is also some information on ParaData regarding operation Freshman.

Sapper Bailey was in the second Glider (Horsa HS114), which was being towed by a Halifax Bomber W7801 B for Baker. The glider crashed approximately 2.5 kilometres North East of Lensmanngard. Both glider pilots were killed in the crash, along with one of the passengers. The remaining soldiers, including Sapper Bailey, were captured and shot near Egersund on the same day.

After the war Stabsarzt Werner Fritz Seeling, Hauptscarfueher Erich Hoffman and Unterscharfuehrer Fritz Feuerlein were tried for war crimes by a British Military Court. Their specific crime was the murder of the poinsoned prisoners, who were also found to have been strangled. All three were found guilty. Seeling was executed by Firing Squad, Hoffman was hanged. Feuerlein was handed over to the Russians to answer charges regarding atrocities against Russian Prisoners of War. His fate is unknown.

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Military Museums – at a crossroads?

Airborne Assault at Duxford

Airborne Assault at Duxford

Think of a military museum, and most people’s images will be of row upon row of cases, full of medals, uniforms, weapons, and overly-deferential tributes to a regiments old boys. And, frankly, rather boring to most people.

There are good reasons for how this situation came about. Most regimental or corps museums were established and cared for by the Regiment in question. Partly to preserve their espirit-du-corps, and to provide new recruits with a sense of the units special heritage. Whats more, usually the managers, curators, even shop cashiers are ex-army. Whilst the old-boys network of giving old soldiers a job is admirable, it often means that a museum has a very narrow outlook that is one-way, and does not take into acount any wider thinking, or do enough to meet the public halfway. Any museum needs to be fully aware of the society that it is trying to engage with. It is no longer enough to put up displays then sniff that people dont look at them. Over-protective and possessive curators are by no means limited to military museums, but the military-civilian distinction blurs matters further.

But now the priority has changed. With a real need to educate and inform the wider public about the role of the military, it is no longer enough to simply put objects in a case and let people look at them. They need to be interepreted, brought to life. And in the digital age, when childen are used to wiis, xboxes and iphones, there is a whole range of technology out there to enthuse and entertain.

The brand new Airborne Assault Museum at Duxford is a great example. The old Airborne Forces museum in Aldershot had a fine collection, but was in a very off-putting location. By the time the Paras moved to Colchester it was definitely showing its age. Not only that, but it was a Regimental museum in every sense of the word – here was a museum that held an internationally important collection of objects and documents, but effectively barriered them off from anyone looking at them.

When the site at Aldershot was sold, a real chance for change came up. And the solution was bold – why not find a truly accessible site? why does a regimental museum have to be at the HQ? The chosen site, the Imperial War Museum’s outpost at Duxford, was ideal – a complementary focus on war in the air, thousands of visitors a year, and a world renowned site.

The museum itself is revolutionary too. It takes the old, proud elements of a regimental museum, and combines them with the modern, technological strengths of a ‘civilian’ museum. But most importantly, the emphasis is on the relationship between the history and the visitor, both in participation and thought. It more than does its bit for informing the public about the role of Airborne Forces.

Several other military museums have gone this way, and not before time. Firepower, the Royal Artillery Museum at Woolwich, and the Tank Museum at Bovington and the Royal Signals Museum at Blandford are examples of forward thinking, succesful military museums. But there are many more museums out there that probably havent changed in decades. Which is really sad, as there are probably legions of stories waiting to be told, and thousands of visitors waiting to be inspired. Many of them are staffed by volunteers, who must be admired.

The problem is an ideological one, that faces all museums. Are museums there to keep and protect, or to engage and involve? As it is our history, our military history, and us that the armed forces need to support them, the focus should be primarily on the public, without whom no museum could survive.

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Arnhem Airborne Museum opens new extension

The new Airborne Museum extension, Arnhem

The new Airborne Museum extension, Arnhem

The Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek, Arnhem opened its brand new multi-million extension during this years 60th anniversary commemorations.

A museum about the battle was first opened in 1949 in Doorwerth Castle near the Rhine. In 1980 it moved to the Hotel Hartenstein in Oosterbeek. This large white hotel had been the headquarters of Feldmarschall Walter Model before the battle and was the HQ of Major General Roy Urquhart during the siege of Oosterbeek. I’ve visitied the museum three times now and every time I have been struck by the loving care with which it has obviously been put together, and how it is looked after so well.

An ambitious renovation programme has brought the museum right into the 21st century, with dramatic and evocative dioramas, new multimedia displays and a thoughtful emphasis on the future. It involved closing the museum for 9 months, digging an underground basement next to the museum and turning this into a new extension, leaving the original museum intact. This should make what is a grand and famous museum more accessible and enjoyable for younger visitors.

It looks like the legacy of the Battle of Arnhem is in safe hands for years to come. I can’t wait to go and see the new extension.

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65 years ago today – Arnhem: The Aftermath

Oosterbeek War Cemetery

Oosterbeek War Cemetery

The end of Operation Market Garden left the allies in possession of a 60 male salient into Holland. While a large part of Dutch territory had been liberated, the corridor led to nowhere, the aims of Market Garden had not been achieved.

For the Allied soldiers left fighting in Holland, the coming winter would be cold and miserable. The US Airborne Divisions were only withdrawn into reserve in time to take part in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes. Meanwhile to the west the British and Canadians were involved in a bitter struggle to clear the approaches to Antwerp, a priority that had been overlooked in the dash to outflank the Rhine.

The Dutch civilians left in Arnhem and Oosterbeek were cleared from their houses after the battle. They suffered a terrible winter, during which much of the Dutch population starved, being left to eat tulip bulbs. They paid a terrible price for an operation that Monty described as ‘90% succesful’.

The wounded and captured faced months of hardship and anguish until they were liberated at the end of the war. Many of the wounded were taken to a Hospital in Apeldoorn, and then on to POW Camps in Germany. Many were held at Stalag XIB near Fallingbostel, on the North German Plain. One of them was my Granddad, who was later moved to Stalag IIIA near Berlin before being liberated by the Russians.

Strategically, the British Second Army had been driven northwards by its advance. This in turn led to the US First Army moving northwards to stay in touch with it, opening up a dangerous gap with Patton’s US Third Army further South. In typical Patton fashion his Army had been advancing eastwards of his own accord. This gap was exploited by the Germans in December 1944.

Could Monty’s plan have worked? If Eisenhower had backed it fully with resources, and halted Patton, it is likely that the plan would have had more success, despite the failures at Arnhem. Whether the Allies could have carried on into Germany is difficult to assess. The Battle at Arnhem would have been very different had the Dropping Zones been selected closer to the Bridge, if the whole Division had been landed in two drops on one day, if Browning had stayed at home and if XXX Corps had driven with more haste at critical moments. Concerns about flak were unfounded, and Browning played little part in the battle.

Market Garden has often been cited as a blot on Monty’s reputation. It would be hard to argue that it was indeed a daring plan, and very nearly worked. But as much as it is true to say that the allies needed to capture all of the Bridges or the operation was not worth it, it is also accurate to state that unless the operation was made a complete priority and given the appropriate resources, it was not worth the risk. While Eisenhower did not want to upset American public opinion, winning the war quickly should have been more important.

Arnhem was eventually liberated in April 1945, by the 49th (West Riding) Division. The town has been rebuilt, and every year in September Veterans and grateful Dutch people gather to commemorate the Battle, which has passed into legend as one of the bravest yet most spectacular failures in military history. Nevertheless, Heroic stories abound. The story of Flight Lieutenant David Lord VC, who kept piloting his burning Dakota so his crew could escape. Major Robert Cain VC, who repeatedly fought off German tanks. Of Lance Sergeant Baskeyfield VC, who manned an anti-tank gun on his own, destroying tank after tank until killed. But most of all, the ordinary men who fought at Arnhem, and maybe didnt win medals, but did their best. We should be very proud of them.

1,514 men are buried in Arnhem-Oosterbeek War Cemetery. Nearby the Hartenstein Hotel Airborne Museum tells the story of the battle, and has just undergone a multi-million refurbishment. All of the sights and places of the battle are still there to look at, from the Drop Zone at Ginkel Heath to Arnhem Bridge.

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65 years ago – The battle slips away

Sosabowski and Thomas at Driel on the 23rd

Sosabowski and Thomas at Driel on the 23rd

After the Poles landed south of the Rhine, the Germans carried on mortaring and shelling the British positions in the Oosterbeek perimeter. By now the British were severely lacking in ammunition, food and other supplies. They faced a number of determined attacks that threatened to overwhelm them completely.

After the Irish Guards began their advance from Nijmegen, it became clear that the high, exposed road leading to Arnhem was completely unsuitable for tanks. As a result, the 43rd (Wessex) Division took over the attack, choosing to swing left away from the road and attempt to link up with the Poles at Driel.

Given the grievous losses suffered at Arnhem and Nimegen by the airborne soldiers, it is not difficult to escape the conclusion that Thomas and his Division could have tried harder. When they eventually reached Driel and came into radio contact with Urquhart, Thomas asked Urquhart why he did not counter shell the Germans. “with what?”, was Urquharts infuriated reply.

On the night of 24 September the 4th Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment attempted to cross the River. Like the Poles before them they were met with heavy fire, and only a few men got across. Many of the Dorsets were taken prisoner, including their Commanding Officer.

It was becoming clear that the German opposition to Operation Market Garden had been much stronger than anticipated. All along the corridor, from the Belgian border, Eindhoven and up to Nijmegen and beyond XXX Corps and the US 82nd and 101st Division were fighting tooth and nail to hold their ground. A bridgehead over the Rhine near Arnhem could possibly have been accomplished, but it was apparent that the Ground Forces did not have the resources to carry on the advance and outflank the Ruhr, thus rendering the whole Operation a failure.

At a conference back down the corridor Horrocks and Browning met with Miles Dempsey, the commander of the British Second Army. This was the first time that Dempsey had played any meaningful part in the battle. The naturally ebullient Horrocks wanted to carry out a left hook and cross the Rhine to the west, but Dempsey ordered that this was not possible, and that the survivors of the 1st British Airborne Division were to be evacuated as soon as possible. This was done with Browning’s approval, the only real contribution Browning had made to the whole operation since landing.

Sadly, the recriminations were already beginning. Sosabowski’s abrasive character had made him few friends, and rapidly senior British officers began to treat him most shamefully. He received no backing from Browning, technically his commanding officer. The Poles were placed under the command of Thomas, an officer junior to Sosabowski, who told the experienced Pole that if he did not carry out his orders, he would find someone who would.

Even though the fighting at Arnhem was drawing to a close, the shameful episode over who was at fault was only just beginning.

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