Tag Archives: Arnhem

Arnhem: Battle of the Woods DVD by Battlefield History

I’ve reviewed quite a few Battlefield History DVD‘s before, and they just keep getting better and better. This edition in their Arnhem series looks at the role of the 4th Parachute Brigade, from their drop on Ginkel Heath on 18 September 1944 until they joined the Oosterbeek perimeter two days later.

I should register a vested interest, in that my late Grandfather fought with the 11th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment at Arnhem. He hardly ever talked about the battle – unsurprisingly, as he was wounded and taken prisoner and the battle did not go well for the 11th Battalion – so it is a real treat to see so much focus given to his unit, one that has often been overlooked in the history of Arnhem. It’s nice to see a contribution from a soldier who was with the 11th, as so few histories of Arnhem contain anything from them.

I’ve been to Arnhem a couple of times myself, and have always found it hard to describe the terrain in that corner of Holland. This DVD does an admirable job of helping he viewer get a feel for what the battlefield was like. And that’s half the ‘battle’ – bad pun – with military history, ‘smelling’ the battlefield. The clips of re-enactors, equipment and visits to military museums add to the atmosphere and depth of the production.

I enjoyed watching it immensely, and recommend it wholeheartedly.

Arnhem: Battle of the Woods is published by Pen and Sword Digital

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Filed under Airborne Warfare, Army, Arnhem, Book of the Week, World War Two

Encouragement for the ‘non-establishment’ historian

One of the first military history books I read, as a young lad, was Arnhem by Martin Middlebrook. For no other reason than that it was the biggest book about Arnhem in the library, and it simply screamed ‘Arnhem’ from ten paces away. If only one day I could write a book like that. Years later, it is still a staple on my bookshelf, and I’ve reccomended it to most of my family (my late grandfather being an Arnhem veteran).

Years later, I’ve got a book of my own on the shelf at the same library, not very far from where Middlebrook’s Arnhem sat (and still does). Now that I’m researching the First World War I’ve gone to Middlebrook’s first book – the First Day on the Somme. For those of you who aren’t aware, Martin Middlebrook was an established poultry farmer when he went to the Somme battlefields in the late 1960’s. Motivated by what he saw, he resolved to write a book about 1 July 1916, the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. Remember, he was a poultry farmer with no literary background.

After writing ten chapters, he sent it to his prospective publisher. The publisher in turn sent it to an un-named military historian for feedback. They received back 13 pages of critique, some of which I quote below:

‘mugged-up knowledge by an outsider’

‘familiar and elementary stuff’

‘all the old bromides’

‘his account of the army’s organisation and the trench system… rather like a child’s guide’

‘flat and wooden in the narrative’

Over 40 years later, Martin Middlebrook has written almost twenty books on military history, many of them bestsellers, about Arnhem, the RAF in the Second World War, and the Falklands. Isn’t is a good job that he and his publisher didn’t listen to the advice of a so-called military history expert?

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Walking D-Day by Paul Reed

Paul Reed has carved out something of a niche with his ‘Walking’ Battlefield Guides. His ‘Walking the Somme‘ in particular set the standard for Battlefield Guides, long before the explosion in Battlefield tourism. The interesting thing I find about Battlefield Guides is that I own so many of them, yet out of all the Battlefields out there I have only ever actually been to Arnhem! The thing is, they are actually useful for getting a grip on what happened, where and when. If you forget that you’re sat in living room, and if the book is well written and well illustrated, then you can still go some way to visualising what happened at the Battlefield in question. Paul has spent an awful lot of time around Battlefields in North West Europe, and it certainly shows in the manner in which he writes.

This is unlike most other Battlefield Guides on Normandy, in that it only deals with D-Day itself. No doubt if you are interested in visiting the Battlefield area in Normandy in general you might find this a bit anaemic, but I actually think its a very good choice. To do all of the D-Day beaches and all of the Normandy sites, in detail, would take you forever. However, doing the D-Day Beaches and the airborne areas might take you a nice couple of days, and would make much more sense into the bargain. And from what I have seen such a tour would take in some lovely scenery as a nice by product. There are plenty of museums and sites to see along the landing beaches too. Perhaps a Holt’s style map might make a useful addition, but there are plenty of places from where the tourist can obtain a good map nowadays. It has enough useful practical information without being overloaded – the beauty of the modern world is that anyone can go online and search for hotels, ferries etc, so there isn’t such a need to include them in what is first and foremost a history book.

I’ve written a fair bit about what happened on D-Day, unsurprisingly, for a Portsmouth military historian and somebody who has worked at the D-Day Museum in Southsea. I found Paul’s book very illuminating – in particular, I enjoyed the section on Sword Beach near Ouistreham, where I was unable to get off my ferry a month or so ago! I also enjoyed reading about the 1st Hampshires at Hamel in the first wave on D-Day. I’ve written about them in my own book, but reading their story here certainly added to my understanding of what happened in those fateful hours on 6 June 1944. Obviously elements such as Pegasus Bridge and Merville have been raked over so much that it is difficult to write much new about them. It’s also got some cracking illustrations, including many that I haven’t seen before. In common with many battles, we are used to seeing the same old photographs of D-Day again and again, so it’s nice to see some that I suspect have never been published before.

It’s quite hard to write about such a well-known event as D-Day in a fresh way, in what is a very crowded market, and especially when it comes to the battlefield guide. But Paul Reed has done a very good job indeed here. My acid test for any battlefield guide is whether it makes me feel like I have been there, when I haven’t. This one sure does. I don’t know how Paul finds time to fit it all in!

Walking D-Day is published by Pen and Sword

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Thinking about writing about Arnhem

At some point I’m going to have to think about writing subjects a bit broader than just Portsmouth. Equally, it’s always been an ambition of mine to write about Arnhem. Given that my Grandad was an Arnhem veteran, it’s pretty much what got me into military history in the first place.

But the historiography is pretty crowded. For what was, essentially, a divisional level battle, more has been written about Arnhem than any other comparable battle in history.  So many books have been written about it – scores of general histories, and pretty much every kind of unit history or personal memoir imaginable. In many cases I suspect authors and publishers have been a bit deceptive about publishing new books that don’t offer anything new, knowing that anything about Arnhem will sell.

It’s a big ambition of mine to write about Arnhem, but my historian’s conscience won’t allow me to re-hash something. But equally, it has to be something with enough appeal that publishers will take it on. The ideal scenario would be some new sources that have never been looked at, or some kind of new angle.

I’m a bit stuck for ideas – any suggestions?

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The Devils Birthday by Geoffrey Powell

In the past I have been quite critical of the historiography of Arnhem. More than half of the books published that have Arnhem in the title or blurb offer little or no new analysis – the battle has been so raked over, that you have to wonder if there is really anything new to write. Such is why I will probably never attempt a book on Arnhem.

Written some years ago now, The Devils Birthday has aged rather well, and has always been one of my favoured works on Market Garden. And now, it has been reprinted by Pen and Sword. And not before time – it might serve to remind younger scholars and enthusiasts that much of what is presented as ‘new’ in military history, has already been written years before. This was, as the blurb tells us, the first book to be written about Market Garden as a whole by a British writer.

Perhaps the greatest faux pax in this book, is that Powell suggests that Lieutenant-General Boy Browning uttered the immortal ‘Bridge too far‘ line.  But crucially – and I have no idea why it took anyone so long to realise – Powell doesn’t actually substantiate how he knew that Browning had said such a thing. In all likelihood, it was – and remains to this day – an urban myth. As recent research has shown, there is no evidence that Browning made the ‘Bridge too far’ statement prior to the battle.

But that aside, this is a very good book. And especially so for a particpant in the battle, and a military man. It is well referenced and has good bibliography, particularly when it comes to official documentary sources. And we have to remember that Powell was writing originally in 1984- at a time when many of the key participants were still alive and able to contribute. It is perhaps a little heavy on narrative and a touch light on critique and robust conclusion – particularly when compared to modern Arnhem writers such as Robert Kershaw and William Buckingham – but military officers do tend not to drive points home against the establishment in writing!

It is a very able and useful study of the battle of Arnhem. What makes it all the more interesting is that Powell served as a company commander with the 156th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment at Arnhem, and was one of very few officers to return across the Rhine after the battle. Remarkably, when he and the remnants of his battalion landed on the south bank of the Rhine, they formed up and marched to billets in Nijmegen. And after almost ten days of bitter fighting. Tellingly, Powell tells this story, but is too modest to state that he was the officer in command.

The Devils Birthday is published by Pen and Sword

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Surgeon at Arms by Lipmann Kessel

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I tend to devour anything written that pertains to Operation Market Garden. It’s what got me into military history, and even when I’m in a nursing home myself I’ll probably still be reading my Op MG library. The funny thing is, I don’t actually enjoy the general histories – there are so many of them, and to be honest, since Martin Middlebrook none of them have really offered anything new. But there are a wealth of personal and micro histories out there, many of them under-published and little-known.

Captain Alexander Lipmann-Kessel was serving with 16th Parachute Field Ambulance during the Battle, parachuting in on the first day and leading a surgical team at St Elisabeths Hospital in the town until after the surrender. Not only was he a very brave man and a distinguished surgeon, but he was, miraculously, a South African Jew. As such, he had more to lose than most. And as he himself states in the text, he did look stereotypically Jewish. Heaven knows how the germans did not cotton on.

Having previously read Stuart Mawson’s Arnhem Doctor, I was very interested to read another account of battlefield medicine. The privations of running an operating theatre in action, under enemy occupation, using very basic equipment and a minimum of supplies, is very inspiring indeed. For much of the battle Kessel was working alongside Dutch civilian doctors and nurses, and under pressure from the Germans all of the time. Kessel has some interesting observations about the German doctors approach to battlefield medicine. The SS doctors refused to operate on any head or stomach wounds, preferring to administer a lethal injection. Lipmann-Kessel, on the other hand, decided to operate on Brigadier Shan Hackett’s severe stomach wound, with a casual, ‘oh I don’t know, I think I might have a go at this one’.

After the withdrawl across the Rhine, the Germans gradually evacuated the hospital – not before Kessel could have Brigadier Hackett spirited away into hiding, and assist the Dutch underground in giving a ‘funeral’ to a consignment of arms. Transported to a barracks in Apeldoorn, Lipmann-Kessel eventually escaped. Coming into contact with the Dutch underground, he took part in the abortive Pegasus II attempt to get airborne fugivites back across the Rhine. Lipmann-Kessel finally made it to allied lines by canoeing down a Dutch river, evading German patrols along the way. It’s stirring stuff indeed, the stuff of a boys own novel.

Although it doesn’t state so in the book, when Lipmann-Kessel died in the 1980’s, he requested to be buried in Arnhem civilian cemetery, close by to his comrades who were killed in September 1944. Having read his account of those dramatic days, such a gesture seems completely in character with the man.

Surgeon at Arms is published by Pen and Sword

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Merville Battery and the Dives Bridges and Pegasus Bridge and Horsa Bridge by Carl Shilleto

Having received these guides that both relate to the Airborne Brigdgehead in Normandy, and are both by Carl Shilleto, I thought it would make sense to review them together. I have used the Battleground series of Battlefield Guides myself when visiting Arnhem in the past. To my eternal regret, I haven’t actually managed to get to any other battlefields apart from Arnhem, so until the time that somebody gives me a break in becoming a battlefield guide I will have to make do with reading battlefield guide books from the comfort of my own home!

Mind you, in this case it’s not really a case of making do – these are very good books indeed. Exceptionally well illustrated with archive and contemporary photographs, and with a wealth of appendices covering recommended reading, order of battle, glossaries and a handy reference list of grid reference co-ordinates for Satnav use. The maps in particular are a great resource – in particular the colour maps on the back are very useful. Perhaps the only thing that is missing with this series is a larger scale, detailed Holts-style map, but I guess if you want something like that you can go out and buy one yourself, or one of the French Michelin maps. There isn’t a huge amount on tourist information – some basic information such as climate, health, getting there, the perils of battlefield relics are well covered. With the internet, and ever disappearing international borders, it shouldn’t take too much trouble to google up some ferries and hotels.

I’ve done a fair bit of studying of individual soldiers who fought in the airborne bridgehead – namely Portsmouth’s own Sergeant Sid Cornell DCM and the 16 year old Boy Para Private Bobby Johns. Reading this book has helped me understand what happened to both of them in much more context. And I guess that’s what a good battlefield guidebook should do – make you feel like you have been there, without actually being there. I wouldn’t mind betting that out of everyone who buys a battlefield guide, something like 75% might not actually got to the area. And is that such a bad thing?

Both Battleground guides are available from Pen and Sword

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Battleground General Arnhem 1944 by Jon Sutherland and Diane Canwell

Wargaming is something that I have always fancied having a go at. In the main, it has been time and expense that has precluded me having a go. Similarly, I tend to steer clear of wargaming PC games, as I find it all too easy to spend all weekend playing them! Therefore I was very interested to see this book by Sutherland and Canwell which is, in essence, wargaming in a book. And obviously, with my personal interest in the Battle of Arnhem, I was doubly fascinated to have a go at wargaming Arnhem.

The concept is thus. You play in the role of either of the opposing commanders – in this case, either Major General Roy Urquhart or Waffen SS General Wilhelm Bittrich. After reading the opening entry, you are given a series of choices, which usually entail making a tactical decision. Each step entails going on to another decision if you decide on a particular course of action. In essence, it is kind of like a giant flow chart, but only listed in a book. As far as I can tell it is pretty accurate to history, militarily and in terms of the geography and the ‘feel’ of the battle. I’ve walked over the ground at Arnhem a couple of times, as well as reading every book about the battle more than once, so I guess I’m as much an expert about Arnhem as you can get. Of course, it is quite simplistic, compared to say a PC game or a school hall long board wargame, but that’s the beauty of it – you can sit on the train and play it with yourself, or maybe in conjunction with another fellow military history nerd.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, I won! Playing as Urquhart, I stayed at my HQ initially on the first day, but went ahead to switch the Recce Squadron and the rest of 1st Parachute Brigade to the southern route once I hit opposition on the way into the town. As a result the 2nd Battalion made the Bridge, and more of the Brigade than did in reality. Of course, I know that on the evening of the 17th Urquhart got himself trapped in Arnhem, so I prompltly pulled myself back to main HQ. The rest of the 1st Brigade were held up in the town, but on the second day I switched the 4th Brigade (Grandad included!) to the southern route, down through Oosterbeek. Along with the balance of the 1st Brigade, they made it to the Bridge. The 1st Airlanding Brigade remained on the drop zones, where the Poles later landed. With enough men on the northern end of the Bridge, I sat it out – too many Germans on the south, my probing recces found that the opposition there wasn’t worth wasting too many men on. However, once I heard that XXX Corps had taken Nijmegen Bridge and were advancing up the Island, I charged the south bank in an all or nothing coup de main – and took it!

Having read plenty of Arnhem books, I think that plan might well have worked – but of course, that takes a lot of hindsight. But then again, isn’t that what we do, as historians? Take account of hindsight where others could not at the time? When you consider how it must have been trying to make decisions back in September 1944 – when Urquhart et al knew none of this – you can see how success and failure were divided by such a thin line. A very sobering realisation indeed.

Battleground General Arnhem 1944 is published by Pen and Sword

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The (inceasingly tedious) historiography of Arnhem

I know its something I have written about before, but it never ceases to amaze me how historians and publishers will attempt to flog dead horses. Well, maybe thats not a great analogy, but some battles have been written about so much, without anything substantially ‘new’ being offered.

Coming from a background of academic history, my philosophy is that you only undertake to write something if you have a new vein of original material that has never been worked on before, or you can offer a dramatically new appraisal of something that has already been done. What you don’t do is just re-hash what somebody else has already done. It gets very tiring when you see yet another book about an epic battle, that promises much but delivers little.

Therefore I am astounded by just how many books get written about Arnhem and Market Garden. Most of them are very general books, telling any reader who has more than a little knowledge what they already know and offering nothing new in return. In Waterstones yesterday I picked up a copy of a new Arnhem book by a well-known military history duo, whose books I have previously enjoyed, but whose new effort on Arnhem appears to be re-inventing the wheel. It does seem to be publisher-motivated, as any military history publisher knows, books on Arnhem sell.

Out of the virtually hundreds of books written about Arnhem, only a handful of them are really indispensible, in my experience. Arnhem by Martin Middlebrook is the best overall, general introduction about the Battle. A Bridge too Far by Cornelius Ryan is, for obvious reasons, another good introduction, which reads almost like a novel, and takes a wider perspective. It never snows in September by Robert Kershaw is invaluable, as it is the only book that really tells the German side of the battle – and a history of a battle that only focuses on one side is like watching a football match but only being able to see half of the pitch. Arnhem 1944 by William Buckingham was, in my opinion, the first book to look at Arnhem through a more challenging, modern historiographical perspective. Even if you don’t agree with his conclusions, putting the cat amongs the pigeons leads for a more rigorous history in my opinion. And obviously ‘original’ texts like those by Roy Urquhart, John Frost etc are invaluable, as primary sources.

It’s so disappointing, to see big name authors with big publishing deals re-hashing what is already out there, when there are legions of historians out there who are working hard on original material, yet never get the credit that they deserve. As much as I want to sell books and pay the bills, I also want to contribute to history, and you do that by offering something new or different. I guess in that respect military history does lag behind some other disciplines, in that sometimes it is nowhere near challenging enough, and of course as a popular subject for publishing it is open to market forces more than say the history of ferret stuffing in deepest Somerset.

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The Soviet Soldier of World War Two by Philippe Rio

This book is an absolute gem!

As somebody who was brought up on D-Day and Arnhem, my knowledge of the Eastern Front is pretty limited. Sure, I know about Stalingrad,  the Kursk, Berlin, that kind of thing. But to say I know very little about the Red Army is an understatement indeed.

In concept this book is very similar to the ‘handbook’ series produced by Sutton, but bigger, shinier, and more detailed. My first thought was, how the hell did they get hold of all this militaria and ephemera? If it’s somebody’s personal collection, it must have taken them years – and a decent bank balance – to acquire. Some of the photographs in particular have never been seen before.

Im also glad to say its not just a nerdy look at trinkets. If there is one thing that you can say about the Red Army, it is that it was very much a child of its contexts. And those contexts are very important – Lenin and the 1917 Revolution, the Civil War, Stalin and the Great Purges, and the Spanish Civil War. The fact that Russian -and indeed Soviety – history, culture and society are so different from what we know in the west make it all the more important for us to come to terms with peculiarities such as the commisar and womens service.

It’s jammed full of statistics – hardware, manpower and units – and also gives good coverage to the different arms of service – infantry, cavalry, ski troops, parachutists, armour, and services such as the signals, medics, engineers, NKVD and partisans. But it is in medals, orders, badges and insignia where things get really crazy. For what was supposed to be a classless society, the USSR had an unbelievable amount of decorations, rank distinctions and identifying marks! The possibilities for different arm of service colours on headwear, sleeves and shoulder boards are mind boggling!

The amount of different headgear and uniforms is also interesting – in particular my personal favourite, the Ushanka. Of course, the Red Army also developed much specialist equipment and clothing for cold weather fighting, such as warm footwear and greatcoats. Personal Equipment and small arms are also covered, and the book finishes with a number of portrait studies and interpretations of Red Army figures. An Infanty Kapitan in Brest-Litovsk in 1941, for example, or a Serzhant of the Guards Infantry in Poland in July 1944.

I should imagine anyone wanting to re-enact the Red Army would find this absolutely invaluable.

The Soviet Soldier of World War Two is published by Histoire et Collections

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2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 73,000 times in 2010. If it were an exhibit at The Louvre Museum, it would take 3 days for that many people to see it.

In 2010, there were 436 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 694 posts. There were 74 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 32mb. That’s about 1 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was November 11th with 463 views. The most popular post that day was Arnhem: Tour of Duty on Channel 5.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were newwars.wordpress.com, ww2talk.com, savetheroyalnavy.org, thinkdefence.co.uk, and twitter.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for atlantic conveyor, type 45 destroyer problems, daly history blog, navy days 2010, and saladin.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Arnhem: Tour of Duty on Channel 5 November 2010
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2

‘The Sinking of the Laconia’ to hit our screens soon February 2010
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3

About me July 2009
30 comments

4

Gallery November 2009
2 comments

5

Book Reviews November 2009

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Arnhem: Tour of Duty

The Airborne Cemetery in Oosterbeek, Arnhem.

The Airborne Cemetery at Oosterbeek (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve just finished watching the second and final part of this very interesting programme, taking a group of young people from Croydon and training them as 1940’s Paras. The programme culminated in parachute jump from a C-47 Dakota over Arnhem during the annual anniversary celebrations. My, how I wish I was ‘young’ again!

My impressions are that it was a very well put together and well thought out programme. Staffed by ex-Paras and youth workers – an interesting combination! – the young people were put through a taster of the physical training required to join the 1940’s Parachute Regiment. Some of the kids found the physical training pretty hard – are we softer nowadays?… answers on a postcard. Modern day favourites such as the log race were in evidence. The kids were also taken out on a mock exercise with re-enactors, but unbeknown to them a group of German re-enactors had set up an ambush, very similar to the kind that might have taken place in Arnhem during September 1944.

We also got an insight into the social problems of being young nowadays, when three were sent home for sniffing aerosols. Obviously pretty stupid and dangerous, not to mention wasting an opportunity of a lifetime. But then again, whilst the 60’s generation thought they were ‘expanding their minds’ on LSD and speed and god knows what else, their parents during the war had probably taken far more Benzedrene in the course of duty. The programme makers also made a decent effort to get the kids to wear contemporary uniforms, eat contemporary foods, and such like.

The parachute training was also fascinating. Some of the kids in particular had trouble getting to grips with the parachute landing – feet and knees together, roll etc (I can remember my Grandad telling me that!). Their trip to Brize Norton in particular was an eye-opener – jumping out of a mock-up fuselage, and from the old-style fan, which would have been familiar to second world war Paras. No barrage balloon jumps, however! Most of the kids seem to have taken the parachuting side of the programme well in their stride.

On the whole, this was a very grood programme, and exactly the kind of living history that brings teaching to life and really enthuses young people. I wasn’t too sure about the reality TV feel, how when individuals had to leave for various reasons it had the feel of Big Brother and being evicted.

The veterans accounts were very moving, however. But most of all I found the ending of the programme very touching – the young lads sharing a pint with some of the veterans at the crossroads, and placing flowers on the graves in the Airborne Cemetery in Oosterbeek. It really seemed to me like the young people ‘got’ the spirit of the programme. I hope all the nay-sayers are happy.

Arnhem: Tour of Duty can be watched on the Channel 5 website

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Arnhem: Tour of Duty on Channel 5

This is quite an interesting one. Channel 5 have got together a group of young people from Croydon, South London and put them through the training process to take part in a re-enactment of the Battle of Arnhem.

Now first of all, I’ve read some pretty sniffy comments about this, from people purporting to be military history experts. I might claim to have more of a personal stake in what this programme is about, as my late Grandfather was an Arnhem veteran. To me what happened at Arnhem in September 1944 is not just history or something I’m interested in, its part of my family, and by default, who I am. It would be so easy for me to knock it, but I can’t and I won’t. Because its something I would love to have done myself, and I think its a great way of teaching military history in a fun way. Fun learning = good learning. It sounds very well put-together, with ex-Paras working alongside youth workers.

Of course no TV programme is ever going to fully recreate the intensity, the danger and the courage of a Battle like Arnhem, how could it ever? But that doesn’t mean its not worth a try. As a result of this programme there will be a bunch of young people from Britain who will know more about Arnhem than they did before they started. And how, exactly, is that a bad thing? It’s their history too and they are entitled to learn about it. And not just from books, but from really getting out there and getting to grips with what made those men so special. I remember watching a similar programme about the D-Day Landings, which involved D-Day veterans, and that worked quite well.

Dismissing it as cheap reality TV is in itself a pretty cheap shot. I’ve got no time for snobby put-downs, they’re not big and they’re not clever. It reminds me of the supposed Great War enthusiast who moaned about the amount of school groups visiting the Western Front, complaining that it was turning into a theme park – is this guy for real?! Porbably the same kind of person who would moan about young people not having enough respect for history.

Lets watch the programme with an open mind and see how it works. I’m looking forward to it.

Arnhem: Tour of duty is on Channel 5 on Wednesday 10 and Thursday 11 November at 8pm each day.

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Airborne Armour by Keith Flint

A Tank in a Glider. How the hell do you fit a Tank in a Glider, and then fly it hundreds of miles, land it, and then fight from it? It seems ridiculous, but this really did happen during the latter stages of the Second World War.

Although Britain was woefully slow in developing Airborne Forces, one aspect in which she was far in advance of her allies and enemies was that of developing means of transporting tanks into battle by air. Obviously it would have been impossible to carry anything like Sherman or Churchill by air, but it was found that the Tetrarch – a small light tank – could fit inside a General Aircraft Hamilcar Glider. Hamilcars were the largest glider used by British Forces during the war, and flew in action in Normandy, at Arnhem and during the Rhine Crossing. Flying a huge Glider loaded with a light tank was an impressive feat for the men of the Glider Pilot Regiment, who upon landing became infantry in their own right.

Flint gives us an impressive overview of the development of both the Tetrarch and Locust, and also of the Hamilcar glider that carried them into battle. Not only are we informed about the machines, but also the men and the units that fought with them. It was indeed a surprise to me to learn that once the ground forces linked up with the airborne recce units the airborne men swapped their light tanks for heavier Churchill tanks, which gave the Airborne Division much more firepower and enabled it to act as a regular infantry Division, such as in the advance to the Seine in the summer of 1944 and from the Rhine Crossing to the Elbe in 1945.

One aspect I am particularly interested in is the lack of any serious Armour in the 1st Airborne Division that landed at Arnhem. As Flint has shown, this was more by accident than by design. It would be reasonable to suggest that while Tetrarchs or Locusts might not have fared too well against Mark IVs, Tigers of Panthers later in the battle, in the early advances to the Bridge tanks might have fared better in the infamous ambush than lightly armed Jeeps. Even better, a troop of tanks in front of each Battalion heading for the Bridge would have been most effective. The 1st Airborne Recce commander, Major Freddie Gough, suggested that some of 6th Airborne’s tanks could have been used at Arnhem, but this suggestion was not taken up. This more than fits in with the impression that the Arnhem operation was badly planned and opportunities were missed.

Keith Flint has made valuable use of some original documents, particularly from the Tank Museum at Bovington and the Museum of Army Flying at Middle Wallop. This is the kind of history I like – original research, on a new subject, that focuses on both the men and the machines. This is a significant addition to both the armoured and airborne historiographies of the Second World War.

Airborne Armour is published by Helion Press

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The Germans who fought Hitler

I’ve just been reading a very interesting article on the BBC’s online Magazine about German citizens who fought for Britain against Nazi Germany in the Second World War.

Its not the first time I have come across this story. In my research into the Battle of Arnhem, it transpires that a number of exiled German and Austrian Jews took part in the battle. Having fled Germany and settled in Britain, on the outbreak of war they were interned as enemy aliens – even Jews.

Gradually though, the assumption that all enemy nationals were hostile was re-evaluated. Many of those of Military service age were allowed to join the Pioneer Corps – the part of the Army that performs hard physical labour – easily the least glamorous Corps in the entire British Army.

Remarkably, many of the German and Austrian Pioneers were champing at the bit to get back at Hitler, and they soon realised that digging trenches and building roads was not enough. Some of them not only volunteered for the Parachute Regiment, but for the 21st Independent Company – the elite unit that landed first and marked out the Drop Zones for the rest of the Division.

According to Mark Hickman’s Pegasus Archive, around 25 Germans and Austrians joined the Company. They were thought to be particularly useful due to their bilingual abilities and tenacious fighting skills. All of them fought under assumed names, to try and avoid the dire consequences if their true identities were discovered by the Germans.

Two of them died at Arnhem. Corporal Hans Rosenfeld, 29, was killed on 23 September. Rosenfeld fought under the assumed name of John Rodley, and is buried in Oosterbeek War Cemetery. Private Timothy Bleichroeder, 22, was killed on 25 September, the last day. He fought under the name of Bleach. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Groesbeek Memorial.

These men were incredibly brave. Whilst it is often said that the average soldier is fighting for himself and his comrades, the German and Austrian anti-Nazis had an added motivation for wanting to see the end of the Nazi regime – most of them had suffered under their persecution. And for each of them, the consquences of being captured were acute. Not only would they have been shot out of hand as traitors, given their nationality, their status as Jews would have led them on a one-way journey to the concentration camps.

They more than anyone must have known why the Allies were fighting.

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