Tag Archives: nuremberg

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!

16 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

‘But I was only following orders…’

I’ve noticed something striking, and dare I say it, sadly ironic, whilst browsing wikipedia of all places.

1999… Kosovo… British Lieutenant-General Sir Mike Jackson is in command of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, a NATO formation in the process of moving into Kosovo to implement a peace agreement. All is well apart from a Russian armoured column moving towards Pristina Airport from Bosnia. Jackson’s superior, Supreme Allied Commander Wes Clark, orders Jackson to block Pristina Airport to prevent the Russians flying in troops. Jackson considered it a dangerous order, and refused, saying ‘I’m a three star General, you cannot give me orders like that… I will not start World War Three for you’. Jackson phoned the British Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, and stated his objections. Guthrie agreed, and called his counterpart in the US – General Hugh Shelton – who also agreed. Their opinion was passed on to Clark. In the end Jackson flew up to the Airport and met with the Russian General, and over a bottle of Whisky, smoothed things over. Crisis averted.

1946… Nuremberg… Numerous Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg War trials – and indeed, at many other war crimes trails after the defeat of Nazi Germany – claimed that they were innocent, as they were ‘only following orders’. The Nuremberg trials went on to establish the precedent that it is an inadequate defence to claim that you were only following orders, and that the individual has a responsibility, if they feel they are given a dangerous, immoral or criminal order, to not carry it out. The crux is, that military discipline and obedience does not trump all – humanity and reason, however, does. We live in democracies, after all.

But what really distubed me, was to read that shortly after the Kosovo War, a US Senator branded Mike Jackson’s refusal to carry out Clark’s orders as ‘insubordination’. General Hugh Shelton has also called it ‘troubling’ (which is strange, seen as he agreed with it at the time). In effect, US Senators and commanders are advocating an ignorance of the Nuremberg protocol, and suggest that any and every order should be followed without question. The realities of coalition warfare are somewhat different. While serving under NATO command each national contingent commander has a link to his own Government, and has a right of appeal to his national superiors. What makes a good coalition commander – such as Wellington or Marlborough – is to get to know all of the national peculiarities involved, such as who can do what, and work within them. Not to just blindly expect everyone to follow your orders.

I don’t think there will be many historians or military historians who disagree with the fact that setting up a blocking force on Pristina Airport would have been provocative and un-necessary. Of course, there wouldn’t have been an issue if Clark hadn’t given such a ridiculous order in the first place. In Jackson’s memoirs he records that Clark was often jumpy and acted strangely, and that he seemed to have a Cold War mentality, particulary where the Russians were concerned. At one point he ordered the US Admiral commanding naval forces in the region to block the Dardanelles, when right of passage through them is governed by international treaty. He also asked a senior German General, during a video conference, if German soldiers ‘had the spirit of the bayonet’.

Troubling stuff from an alliance commander indeed. But, also, a reminder of why History should never be too far away from the mind of any General…

7 Comments

Filed under Army, debate, defence, politics

Talking to Rudolf Hess by Desmond Zwar

This really is quite some book. In fact, its a book about two other books!

Desmond Zwar, an Australian journalist living in London, was sent by a downmarket Aussie Newspaper on the trail of an English artist who, aparenly, painted ‘nudes on horseback’. Although the equestrian nudes turned out to be an urban myth, it did however transpire that the artist in question was employed by the British Government to paint proceedings at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial. Zwar’s fascination with Nuremberg led the artist to put him in touch with an old friend, Colonel Burton Andrus of the US Army, who had been the Governor of Nuremberg Prison at the time of the trials. Andrus had kept numerous documents of his time at Nuremberg, and Zwar and Andrus collaborated to write The Infamous of Nuremberg.

From there, the natural path by Zwar was to write about Spandau Prison, where the leading Nazi figures who had not been executed at Nuremberg were taken. By the mid-1960’s the only occupant of Spandau was Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy who had flown to England in a bizarre attempt to negotiate for peace. Spandau was managed by the US, Soviet Union, UK and France in a bizarre arrangement throughout the Cold War, whereby each country would control the prison for three months each year. Spandau was almost certainly the only place in the world where quadripartite co-operation continued on such a basis for so long.

Zwar made contact with Eugene K. Bird, the US Governor of Spandau for three months each year. After some persuasion Bird was convinced to secretly interview Hess, with a view to a book. For several years Bird carried out the painstaking task of visiting Hess and recording his thoughts about his life, the Nazi regime, the War and all manner of subjects. Hess himself even gave his consent for the project. After several years Bird’s superiors in the US authorities in Berlin learnt of his actions and shipped him back to he US, in effect ending his career.

Bird was interrogated at length by the CIA, and both he and Zwar were lent on severely to try and forestall the publishing of the book. After much intimidation and legal wrangling the ‘establishment’ consented to the book, after making a token protest for the benefit of the Soviets. Bird’s actions had been a breach of the quadripartite agreement over the running of Spandau, and were a severe embarassment to the US Government. Finally, however, The Loneliest Man in the World was published.

On first impressions, a book written about the process of writing two other books might not be the most interesting. But when we consider that the books in question are about the Nuremberg Trials and Rudolf Hess in Spandau prison, this book takes on a whole new meaning. Sneaking in and out of Spandau to interview Hess reads like something out a spy novel, and Bird and Zwar’s encounters with the CIA afterwards could have come straight out of a Robert Harris thriller.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Not only does it chart some pivotal events in history, it is also a very entertaining read. I virtually read it from cover to cover.

Talking to Rudolf Hess is published by The History Press

12 Comments

Filed under Book of the Week, cold war, Uncategorized, World War Two

Sinking of the Laconia

Filming began last week on a new TV Docu-Dama series, based in the sinking of the Cunard Liner SS Laconia in the second world war.

SS Laconia

SS Laconia

On 12 September 1942, at 8:10pm, 130 miles north-northeast of Ascension Island, Laconia was hit by a torpedo on the starboard side, fired by U-boat U-156. There was an explosion in the hold and most of the 450 Italian prisoners the ship was carrying were killed instantly. The vessel immediately took a list to starboard. Captain Sharp, who had also commanded Lancastria when she was torpedoed, was beginning to control the situation when a second torpedo hit.

Captain Sharp ordered the ship abandoned and the women, children and injured taken into the lifeboats first. Some of the 32 lifeboats had been destroyed by the explosions and some surviving Italian prisoners tried to rush those that remained. The efforts of the Polish guards were instrumental in controlling the chaotic situation on board and saved many lives.

At 9:11pm Laconia sank with many Italian prisoners still on board. The prospects for those who escaped the ship were only slightly better; sharks were common in the area and the lifeboats were adrift in the mid-Atlantic with little hope of being rescued.

However, before Laconia went down, U-156 surfaced. The U-boat’s efforts to rescue survivors of its own attack began what came to be known as the Laconia incident. Realising who the passengers were, U-156 started rescue operations flying the Red Cross flag. The Laconia incident had far-reaching consequences. Until then, it was common for U-boats to assist torpedoed survivors with food, water, simple medical care for the wounded, and a compass bearing to the nearest landmass; it was extremely rare for survivors to be brought on board as space on a U-boat was barely enough for its own crew. Now Dönitz prohibited rescues; survivors were to be left in the sea. Even afterwards, U-boats would still occasionally provide aid for survivors. At the Nuremberg Trials held in 1946, Dönitz was indicted for war crimes, including the issuance of the “Laconia order”:

Although hardly known, more people perished when the Laconia was sunk than died on the Titanic. For such a far-reaching and destructive incident, it plays almost no part in the history of the second world war, or in peoples awareness.

Of course, I await the Sinking of the Laconia reaching the screen with interest, as my great-uncle Leading Stoker Thomas Daly was onboard the Laconia when she went down. He was transferring home after being promoted to Leading Stoker onboard HMS Enterprise. He died later in 1943 from illness he suffered while in French captivity in Morrocco, after being picked up by Vichy French Warships.

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Leading Stoker Thomas Daly

Brian Cox (Sharpe, Troy) will star as the Laconias Captain, Rudolph Sharp.

Click here for more on The Sinking of the Laconia

24 Comments

Filed under Navy, News, On TV, World War Two