Tag Archives: germany

New Year’s Resolution – learn German!

My new years resolution this year…. is to brush up my German.

I learnt French at School, and to be honest, I can remember very little. The quality of teaching was merde, as they say, but then again you can’t blame the teachers as they were more occupied with crowd control and anti-social behavious than la belle francais.

I knew hardly a word of German before I first went there in 200o. Since then I’ve been to Berlin, Nuremberg, Munich (twice), Duisburg, Dusseldorf (three times), Cologne (twice), Hamlin (as in the pied piper), Paderborn, and the Rhine Valley down near Koblenz. Its true what they say, that you learn a language much better from going there and practicing it and hearing it. I’ve picked up German a lot easier than I ever did French.

As a modern military historian I reckon having a good grasp of German must be an advantage, and it can’t exactly look bad on the CV. I know the basics – hello, goodbye, how to order a beer, where is the Football Stadium, can I have a currywurst and chips please, the Panzers are coming etc, but you could hardly say I can speak German. Therefore I’ve signed up to the BBC’s new German Steps course, to learn German in twelve weeks. They send you an email every week, and you work through the modules.

I’ll let you know how I’m getting on!

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The British Army of the Rhine

Sleeve patch of the British 21st Army Group.

Image via Wikipedia

My recent trip to the Nord Rhein Westfalen region of Germany has got me thinking about the role that British forces played in that part of the world for many years during the Cold War. I wrote an article on this subject some time ago, submitted to Britain at War (and apparently vanished into their ether). Sadly it disappeared on a crashed and rebooted PC, so I have to re-write from memory.

21st Army Group ended the War occupying large portions of Northern Germany, from the Dutch border across to the Baltic, with Montgomery receiving the German surrender on Luneberg Heath. Although initially the British Army was very much an occupation force, and involved in de-Nazification and keeping the Germans to heel, as the Soviets became more and more confrontational, western military doctrine in Germany focussed more on keeping the Russians out than keeping the Germans down. The Berlin Airlift, the creation of West Germany and the Deutsche Mark and the formation of NATO polarised the former allies across either side of the Iron Curtain.

British forces in Germany from the late 1940’s onwards were under no illusions that they were there to face the Russians. British Land Forces in Germany came under the command of the British Army of the Rhine. The Commander-in-Chief of BAOR also served as the commander of NATO’s northern Army Group, and as such had Dutch and German units under command in the event of war. British Air Forces in Germany came under the command of RAF Germany.

In the event of the Balloon going up, the BAOR was to face the Soviet 3rd Shock Army. Intelligence reports suggest that the BAOR was heavily outnumbered and seriously in danger of being rolled over very quickly – a likelihood that was not lost upon British squaddies. Documents I have discovered in the National Archives also suggest that there were very few reinforcements available for BAOR – pretty much a few TA Battalions, and two TA SAS Regiments for special forces work. And these units would take days to arrive by air and sea. And from 1969 onwards, the troubles in Northern Ireland proved a constant drain upon manpower in the BAOR. Evacuation of casualties and civilians would be almost impossible due to the lack of transport. But for the first time in British military history, the Army was at the forefront of British defence policy and strategy.

Thousands of British men – and indeed women in children – spent some of the most formative part of their lives in Germany. Imagine the experience a young 19 year old might enjoy being posted to a strange country, going abroad for the first time, and to a country that until relatively recently was the enemy. Only to find that actually, the German Beer and Food is quite to his liking! No wonder many former servicemen look back on their time in Germany so fondly.

Places such as Celle, Hohne, Herford, Hameln, Krefeld, Bielefeld, Paderborn, Detmold, Lippstadt, Sennelager, Soltau, Fallingbostel, Osnabruck and Minden became almost as well known to the British Army as Aldershot, Colchester, Salisbury Plain, Tidworth, Winchester and Catterick. Whole parts of Germany were occupied by thousands of Brits, in virtually exclusive British settlements, on base and off base.

At its height BAOR consisted of over 50,000 men. Add to that the amount of women, children, civilian workers et al, and then consider the turnover of troops every few years, and its no wonder that so many people experienced life in Nord-Rhein Westfalen and Niedersachsen. This experience probably went a long way to establishing Anglo-German relations again after the war.

British Forces in Germany have been in the process of winding down since the end of the Cold War. Few garrisons remain, concentrated mainly around Paderborn and Fallingbostel. There is no military reason for the British Army to be in Germany, but we still have access to some excellent training facilities and the Germans like having us. Indeed, during the Cold War the West German Government paid part of the Army’s basing costs. And until recently, it was cheap to base units in Germany.

Eventually – by 2020 – the British Army in Germany will be nothing more than a memory. We have to hope that this period of history is not lost, simply because the Cold War never became hot. Im particularly interested in the social history of life in BAOR – the human experiences, the impact of living in a foreign country on men, women and children. Sadly the excellent BAOR locations website seems to have gone offline, which is a real pity.

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Four days in Dusseldorf

Well I finally got back to Portsmouth at 2am this morning, after a long(er) weekend in Germany!

We flew into Dusseldorf Weeze airport, a small budget airline airport not far from the Dutch border between Kleve and Kevelaer. Weeze is actually an ex-RAF airbase, better known as RAF Laarbruch, where units of RAF Germany were stationed during the Cold War – most notably the Harrier GR force. Much of the RAF base still remains, and there is an RAF Museum on the site, which unfortunately I did not have time to visit.

We stayed in Dusseldorf, and went to watch Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Hamburg on Friday night. German football is a real experience, for anyone who can remember the time before English football sold its soul its a real experience. You can still stand on the terraces, and you can quite happily stand there drinking a beer and eating Currywurst. Its cheap as chips to get tickets, and the whole experience is far more fan focussed, so you’re not being treated like a customer (eg mug) like English football. Borussia have got a strong fan culture, and there is a ‘Fan Haus’ near the ground selling beer and playing heavy metal before and after the game. The atmosphere in German football is electric – as you would expect considering that normal people can afford to go and they still have terracing. Borussia also have an unusually strong British following, thanks to the long-term presence of a large British military presence at nearby Rheindahlen and places like Krefeld. My Uncle John watched a pre-season friendly between ‘Gladbach and Liverpool in the late 70’s when he was based at St. Tonisvoorst with the Army.

Borussia vs. Hamburg

Borussia are rooted bottom of the table with 10 points, and haven’t won a game at home all season. Not surprisingly the fans are calling for the Manager’s head. And after a lacklustre 2-1 defeat, unbelievably Michael Frontzeck still hasn’t been sacked. Zweite Bundesliga for Borussia next year… I’d forgotten just how could it is to stand on terraces, and believe me 90 minutes stood still in -15 celsius is no joke. Even when you’re wearing three pairs of socks!

Borussia Park

I’ve got a bit of a thing about football stadiums… Borussia moved to their new Borussia Park stadium a few years ago after years at the enigmatic but antiquted Bokelberg Stadion. I went to the Bokelberg in 2003 and it was a real old fashioned ground. The 55,000 seater Borussia Park reminded me very much of the identikit-Meccano stadiums that sprang up in England a few years ago (St Marys, Riverside, Pride Park, Walkers Stadium etc) that look very nice from afar, but are incredibly cheap and cheerful and devoid of character. This isn’t such a problem however, as the atmosphere in German football makes up for the bland architecture. One nice touch I did like was the use of green light to illuminate the stadium inside and out – I’ve never seen that at an English stadium, it would obviously cost too much for clubs to bother about. Near Borussia Park is an innocent looking school, that in fact used to be a hospital used for Hitler’s medical euthenasia programme during the Third Reich.

Espirit Arena, Dusseldorf

The next day we went to see Fortuna Dusseldorf vs. Greuther Furth in the Second tier. The game was at the Espirit Arena in Dusseldorf, a new 55,000 capacity stadium. I was really impressed with the ground. The U-Bahn station runs right up into the ground, which looks very good from the outside, with an effective screening technique that enclosed the outer concourse. Once inside the facilities are roomy and first class. The whole of one end is terraced, and can be converted to seats quickly for European and international matches. There is a retractable roof in the ground too.

inside the Espirit Arena

There were only 19,000 at the match, but with the atmosphere it felt more like 30,000. The Dusseldorf fans really made some noise. One guy is obviously the leader, given that he spent most of the match egging the crowd on and hollering into a mic. And it worked! When Fortuna scored to go 1-0 up he even took off his jacket to reveal huge tattooed arms. Quite a sight!

Fortuna Dusseldorf

Having fulfilled one-thing-to-do-before-you-die (watch a match with an Orange ball) we went back into Dusseldorf accompanied with some Polish Fortuna fans, and then ended up in a pub serving the excellent Koening Pilsener. A nice evening, even with the German bloke who decided to grab one of the bar girls round the neck! That aside, a night out in Dusseldorf’s altstadt is highly recommended. By now the snow was falling heavily. For most of the weekend my feet were completely soaked, even with multiple pairs of socks on. Why oh why didn’t I take my waterproof walking boots? I ate four Currywurst and fries over two days just to try and keep warm!

Dusseldorf overlooking the Rhine

The fun really began when trying to get home on Sunday. We had heard that airports and flights were looking dicey, and every other flight from Weeze was cancelled one-by-one. Our flight looked OK right up until we were at the boarding gate, at which point it was cancelled. Faced with the prospect of hanging around at a tiny airport for days, with no information and plenty of backlogged flights, we went back to Dusseldorf, got on the internet and managed to find a hire car to get to Calais. Having picked up the Car and made good time driving the 260 odd miles to Calais in about 6 hours, via Monchengladbach, Genk, Antwerp, Ostend, Bruges, Dunkirk and listening to Europop and  dodging veering lorries – we couldn’t find the car hire place to drop it off. A quick call to the car hire firm informed us that there was not in fact a branch in Calais, and they had entered our booking as dropping off in Celle in Northern Germany. Now, for those of you who don’t know, Celle is a British Army Garrison town between Hannover and Hamburg – clearly we were not going to take it there. So in the end we pretty much dumped the car in Calais, handed the keys to someone in the ferry port, and told the car hire company.

Fortunately we walked straight onto the next Calais-Dover ferry, which sailed uneventfully. The serving lady on the ferry refused to open the restaurant ‘until the Fish and Chips is ready’, in her words – brilliant, makes you proud to be British! We then managed to jump on a train from Dover to London… great!… but then the train was delayed at Ashford for an hour after the train in front was stuck on the points. After some nailbaiting the train got going, and using the high-speed rail link reached St Pancras in incredibly quick time. From there a quick hop on the underground, and we managed to catch the last train home from Waterloo. I finally got through my front door at around 2am, some 24 hours late. I really like Germany, but it’s always great to get home.

Obviously it was a seriously stressful time, but to quote Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks:

‘this is a story you will tell your Grandchildren – and mightily bored they will be!’

Don’t be surprised if I don’t go abroad during the winter for a while!

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I’m Back

It might be a few days later than planned, but I’m finally back from Dusseldorf having got caught up in the all the weather travel chaos. After our flight was cancelled on Sunday evening we hired a car, and drove from Dusseldorf to Calais, from there on the ferry to Dover, train to London, then train down to Portsmouth. I finally got in the early hours of this morning, over 24 hours late. Which isn’t bad, considering people who were on our flight and stayed put at the airport are still there now… I’ll write a full report when I’ve thawed out a bit!

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Auf Wiedershien… for a few days!

Hi all, just to let all you regular readers know that I’m going to be away for a few days… I’m off to Germany, to catch Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Hamburg, and Fortuna Dusseldorf vs. Greuther Furth. I might just be catching the christmas markets in Dusseldorf too! I might write a photo-essay post when I get back if anyone is interested.

See you all soon!

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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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Duisburg, Germany

Duisburg

Duisburg

More than 8 years ago now, when I was Leader of Portsmouth City Youth Council, I was invited on an official council visit to Portsmouth’s twin city in Germany: Duisburg.

Duisburg is in the Ruhr Industrial area, on the banks of the river Rhine. It is the twelfth largest city in Germany, with a population of 495,668 people – thats over twice as big as Portsmouth. Like other cities in the Ruhr area, Duisburg is well known for being an industrial centre. In particular, Duisburg has been well known for its steel production. Indeed, on the banks of the Rhine, it is ideally placed to ship steel by river. It also has a large Brewery, which produces König Pilsener beer.

It has been the major central trading place of the city since the fifth century. The city itself was located at the “Hellweg”, an important medieval trade route, and at a ford across the River Rhine. Due to the town’s favourable geographic position a palatinate was built and the town was soon granted the royal charter of a free city. The rise of tobacco and textile industries in the 18th century made Duisburg an industrial center. Big industrial companies such as iron and steel producing firms (Thyssen and Krupp) influenced the development of the city within the Prussian Rhine Province. Large housing areas near production sites were being built as workers and their families moved in. In 1938, as part of the Kristalnacht, the Nazis destroyed the Synagogue.

A major logistical center in the Ruhr and location of chemical, steel and iron industries, Duisburg was a primary target of Allied bombers. A total of 299 bombing raids had almost completely destroyed the historic cityscape. 80% of all residential buildings had been destroyed or partly damaged. Almost the whole of the city had to be rebuilt, and most historic landmarks had been lost.

Like most cities in Germany, Dusiburg made a fantastic job of rebuilding after the war. Arguably, German cities had a much clearer canvas as they had been destroyed far more than cities such as Portsmouth, Coventry and London. Although the steel industry is perhaps not quite as strong as it once was, the city still has a thriving port. Its a fascinating city to visit. One of the old steelworks has been turned into a landscaped tourist attraction, fully lit up with colourful lights at night. Its a clean, green city, like most in Germany, and with impressive public transport. Only in England do we paint the tarmac red and call it a cycle lane!

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