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  1. Reprinted with permission from Australian Bunker and Military Museum Milne Bay is located on the south-eastern tip of Papua. Before World War II, most of the area’s inhabitants were local Papuans, the only Europeans being a few missionaries and plantation managers. The area came to the attention of senior Allied officers in May 1942, when General Douglas MacArthur decided that an airbase should be established so that aircraft could patrol over the eastern seaward approaches to Port Moresby and raid Rabaul. Development of the first airstrips at Milne Bay began in July 1942. Australian infantry and American engineers were sent to begin clearing land for the airstrips and the base that would support them. Over the following weeks, more ships arrived, bringing more men, supplies, and equipment for base development, and by the end of August nearly 9000 Allied personnel, mostly Australian, were based at Milne Bay. The environment at Milne Bay was unpleasant and depressing. It rained every day during the construction period, and the few roads became impassable to vehicles. Living in rain-soaked tents on muddy ground, the men felt that ‘even Hell would be preferable,’ at least they would be dry. The area was also one of the worst places in the world for malaria, and many men became infected during the first weeks there, though it would take a couple of months before an epidemic broke out. Papua Attacks 1942 The Allies expected an attack. The inexperienced militia infantry brigade that had previously served only in Australia was now reinforced by a veteran Australian Imperial Force (AIF) brigade that had served in the Middle East. Unfortunately, their training in jungle warfare was hindered by the requirement to lend many men to the construction effort. Australian troops at Milne Bay, 1 October 1942 On 25 August, Kittyhawk fighters of 75 and 76 Squadrons RAAF, based at Milne Bay, attacked Japanese barges that had been intended for use in an attack on Milne Bay. In spite of the loss of these barges, on the next night, the Japanese landed a force of some 2000 marines at Milne Bay in an attempt to seize the airstrips and secure a base from which to provide naval and air support for the battle on the Kokoda Track. Believing that only a few infantry companies protected the area, the Japanese landed just before midnight on 26 August. They landed east of the Allied airfields and had to advance 11 kilometers to capture them. The Japanese troops overwhelmed and pushed back the first Australian battalions encountered, the 61st and 2/10th Battalions, but began suffering heavy casualties when the Kittyhawk fighters of 75 and 76 Squadrons RAAF began bombing and strafing them. Nevertheless, they continued advancing for a few days and reached the edge of one of the airfields, No 3 Airstrip, where the attack was turned back by Australian and American troops who were dug in and armed with artillery, mortars and heavy machine-guns. A Kittyhawk comes in to land at No. 1 Airstrip, guarded by a Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft gun of the 2/9th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery. The Australians then counter-attacked, pushing the Japanese back towards their original landing area. Finally, 12 days after that landing, after bitter fighting along the coastline, the Japanese evacuated the survivors of the attack on the night of 6-7 September. The Australians had suffered 373 battle casualties, of whom 161 were dead or missing. Several captured men had been bayoneted. The Japanese death toll was at least 700. Although the battle was relatively minor in scale, it was a significant morale booster as the first real land defeat suffered by the Japanese. The Allied victory at Milne Bay showed that the Japanese soldier was not invincible. After the battle, the Allies continued to develop the base at Milne Bay to support the counter-offensive along the northern coast of Papua and New Guinea. The Australian Bunker & Military Museum is dedicated to All the Australian and Allied Servicemen who were not recognized for the part they played in defense of Australia. Seeing that underground installations were top secret, still to this day the Servicemen that are remaining feel that they cannot speak of one of the greatest feats undertaken on Australian soil. View the full article
  2. During WWII, the American government tricked him into going on a secret and dangerous mission to save lives. After the war, only France and Russia thanked him. Robert Matlack Trimble was born on October 5, 1919, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He later joined the Boy Scouts, little knowing how well it would serve him. In the war, he served as a bomber pilot with the US 8th Air Force in England. When his tour of duty ended in December 1944, he was given a choice: return to America on a 21-day furlough to see his wife and newborn daughter, or go to a small US Airbase in Russia as a ferry pilot retrieving downed planes. He and his wife agreed that the latter option was best. Germany was losing, by then, and there was no more fighting in Russia. Such a posting would keep him safe until the war was over. Or so they thought. Britain, the US, and the USSR had become Allies against Nazi Germany and had agreed, amongst other things, to take care of each other’s troops. The USSR, however, had different ideas about what that meant. By 1945, the Soviets controlled all of Poland as they advanced towards Germany. They had no qualms about freeing civilians from concentration camps. However, they felt differently when it came to Soviet POWs. As far as they were concerned, the latter were not victims. They were traitors who deserved to be punished further. They did not care about the British, American, and other Allied POWs either. Those trapped in Soviet territory (including Poland) were left to fend for themselves; if they were lucky. Some were robbed and even killed by Soviet soldiers. Others were imprisoned as potential spies. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (seated left), US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference in Crimea in 1945 The Allies were in a tight spot. With the war still raging, they needed the Soviets and could not afford to annoy them. Pleas to release Allied personnel trapped behind Soviet lines fell on deaf ears. There was the same reaction with requests to bring in rescue teams to retrieve them. This was why Trimble was lied to. In early February 1945, Trimble was sent to an airbase in Poltava, Ukraine – the HQ of the Allied Eastern Command. It had been used as a staging post for bombing operations between England and Italy. Now, with the Italians subdued, it had become obsolete. Trimble was not there to salvage planes. He was the rescue mission – armed with only his diplomatic status, cash, his wits, and his Boy Scouts training. With these, he had to find Allied soldiers and get them to Odessa where British ships were waiting to take them home. He had to do all this under the watchful eye of the NKVD – predecessor of the KGB. Trimble was not happy. Neither were the Allies. They had no intelligence network within Soviet territory, and without a viable cover story, he could not go to Poland. Fortunately, the Soviets gave him one. Auschwitz survivors liberated by the Red Army in January 1945 On January 26, 1945, the Red Army discovered Auschwitz and wanted the Americans to see it. Trimble was horrified at what he saw, but was his intelligence correct? The Soviets were kind to the prisoners, doing what they could to feed and care for them. Surely they did the same for Allied soldiers. Getting away from the camp and his Soviet escorts, he found a farm building with about 50 men – all former Auschwitz prisoners, one of whom was an American. He offered to get them to Krakow, but they asked about the women and children at another camp. They took him there and found another 25 emaciated survivors. “They come with us?” one of the men asked pleadingly. “They come with us,” Trimble replied as he held Kasia, a baby who had been born in the camp. He got them to the train station and bought everyone tickets to Odessa – all but one. Kasia did not make it. Although furious at having been tricked by his government, he resolved then to do what he could – sometimes camping out in the frozen countryside to find more victims. Back in Ukraine, he heard that some foreign men were living in a barn. He found all 23 of them, emaciated and struggling to stay warm – all British and Americans. He put them on a horse-drawn cart and sneaked them into the City of Lviv by bribing the guards with cash and alcohol. They also went to Odessa. Then he found more British soldiers in the city, wandering around begging for food. He sent them to the British Embassy in Moscow, but he still had to fulfill his cover story. In mid-March, he retrieved a B-17 bomber that had crashed in Poland following a bombing raid on Germany. Despite their agreement, the Soviets were giving him a hard time because they wanted it for themselves. After threatening the Soviet captain, he repaired the plane and got it flying as Soviet reinforcements arrived. Unfortunately, he could not go far as it did not have much fuel. Worse, he hit a snowstorm, forcing him to stay in Poland at the Hotel George. There he rescued another 22 Allied soldiers who had escaped from a Soviet camp. That same month, a French woman dressed in rags went to his hotel. Isabelle had heard that an American was saving Allied soldiers. She asked if he would make an exception for her. She had been taken to Poland by the Nazis to work on a farm and wanted to get back home. “Of course,” said Trimble as he counted out money for train tickets. “Who else is with you?” “400,” she replied. Their guards had abandoned the farm, so the women were hiding in the woods outside the city. He had never rescued that many at once, but Isabelle refused to abandon them – it was all or nothing. Trimble bribed train workers to stop their vehicle outside the city and let the women board. After the war, he found out what happened to them. He was flown to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio where the French Ambassador presented him with the Croix de Guerre for rescuing the women. As his mission was secret, no one knows how many he saved. In 1995, the new Russian government also awarded him for what he did. The US only gave him a Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal, and a Bronze Star. They have yet to acknowledge the rest. Trimble kept his story a secret until just before his death. He was still haunted by the horrors of what he saw and his conviction that he could have done more. His amazing legacy was entrusted to his son, Lee Trimble, who teamed up with Jeremy Dronfield to relate his feats in “Beyond The Call: The True Story of One World War II Pilot’s Covert Mission to Rescue POWs on the Eastern Front.” Hopefully, Captain Trimble will get the official recognition he so truly deserves. View the full article
  3. Diesel-powered U-boats had to surface every day for four hours to recharge the batteries. It significantly increased their exposure, and hence vulnerability. Even after the invention of the snorkel, a method for underwater operation while using diesel the engine, the problem was solved only partially. Snorkels had imposed operational and habitable penalties on the submarine’s operations. While snorkeling, submarines couldn’t move at high speeds and extended cruising on diesel underwater led to a dangerous CO2 build-up of in the submarine’s compartments. The real breakthrough in submarine capabilities came with the development of a nuclear submarine, which could be underwater for several months. The Cold War between two superpowers, U.S. and USSR, had many “fronts”. The competition involved all three elements: space, land and water, and even underwater. The invention of the first nuclear-powered submarine USS Nautilus (SSN-571) was so important that it could be compared with the first human flight to the moon. It is hard to imagine the emotions of the people who were the first crew of this submarine. What could be the effects of radiation on sailors who had to undergo a long-term stay in the reactor proximity? How safe was it really? A big government project could become a real triumph or a terrible catastrophe. The submarine USS Nautilus (SSN-571) got its name from the famous novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” by Jules Verne, as well as in honor of the other submarine which was involved in World War – II USS Nautilus (SS-168). The vessel design efforts were led by Hyman George Rickover (January 27, 1900 – July 8, 1986) – four-star admiral of the US Navy who is known as the “Father of the nuclear fleet.” Admiral Hyman Rickover was born in a Jewish family in the town of Makow Mazowiecki (these days it was part of the Russian Empire, now Poland). Forced by the anti-Jewish pogroms of 1905, the family emigrated to the United States. After four years following the Congressional approval of a nuclear submarine program for the US Navy, “Nautilus” was ready for its maiden sail, and Eugene Wilkinson, its first Captain, transmitted a historic message: “Underway on nuclear power.” A view through a porthole aboard the large harbor tub PUSHMATAHA (YTB 830) of the nuclear-powered attack submarine ex-USS NAUTILUS (SSN 571) Eight months later, September 30, 1954, the submarine was approved by the US Navy. The crew of “Nautilus” consisted of 13 officers and 92 sailors. The submarine was equipped with six 533-mm bow torpedo tubes and carried 24 torpedoes aboard. Contrasted with the diesel-electric boats, “Nautilus” was characterized not only by the presence of a new power plant, but also by the housing design, the location of cisterns, premises, and other facilities. Rear Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, 1957 Nautilus had a deadweight of about 4,000 tons, it was equipped with twin-shaft nuclear power plant with total capacity of 9860 kW and was capable of reaching a speed of over 20 knots. On August 3, 1958, Nautilus accomplished the first undersea voyage to the geographic North Pole. The “Nautilus” design had significant shortcomings. The mass-to-power ratio of the nuclear power reactor had been vast, so designers failed to house a part of the intended arsenal. The reactor shell alone weighed about 35 tons, while the weight of the biological protection, which comprised lead, steel, and other materials layers, reached about 740 tons. Interior space on board ex-USS NAUTILUS (SSN 571), 1985. Another problem was the noise that came from the working generator turbines. They produced a vibration that made boat’s sonar useless at a speed of 4 knots: the submarine became “deaf” while the noise-exposed it to enemy sonars. This major disadvantage was taken into account in the next generation nuclear submarine design. Starboard quarter view of the nuclear-powered attack submarine ex-USS NAUTILUS (SSN 571) moored at the Naval Shipyard. On May 8, 2002, submarine USS Nautilus (SSN-571) ended its service and went into retirement in the same city where it launched on 21 January 1954: Groton, Connecticut. Nowadays Nautilus is one of the exhibits of Submarine Force Library & Museum that is located next to the Naval Submarine Base New London, Groton, Connecticut. Aerial starboard quarter view of the nuclear-powered attack submarine ex-USS NAUTILUS (SSN 571) being towed under the Golden Gate Bridge, 1985 See more images of the legendary submarine at PICRYL, the largest public domain repository and search engine. Author: Tatiana Kiryukhina Picryl is a cross-platform application that allows finding traces of history in rare, ancient books, photos, posters and postcards from hundreds of sources like Library of Congress, The Internet Archive, and NASA. With convenient search tools and crowd-sourced tags — it’s one place for all your historical photography research needs.Follow them on Facebook or Twitter. All pictures provided by the author. View the full article
  4. During WWII, the US Army and its justice department dealt with many offenses carried out by the men in their ranks. From petty theft to rape and murder, life on the frontline sometimes caused soldiers to turn to crime for personal gain. But the army also had another problem ― one that was much more common during wartime ― desertion. Around 21,000 American soldiers faced charges for desertion, and 49 of those were given severe sentences. Out of those 49 soldiers who were sentenced to death, only one was executed. His was the first death sentence for desertion that was carried out since the American Civil War. His name was Eddie Slovik. Slovik was a troubled youth and was frequently arrested as a minor. At 12 years of age, he was arrested after he had broken into a foundry with several accomplices to steal brass to sell on the black market. Between 1932 and 1939, he was apprehended several times for crimes such as petty theft, breaking and entering and disturbing the peace. Slovik’s last adventure into disobeying the law during peacetime happened in 1939 when he and a few friends stole a car and crashed it while extremely intoxicated. Having spent three years in jail, Slovik was paroled in 1942. He found a job in a plumbing company, married and sort of backed down from his turbulent life. As he had a criminal record, he was at first classified as unfit for duty by the authorities. But as the war progressed and the US Army was in need of fresh recruits for the invasion of France, Slovik was reclassified in January 1944 and drafted. In August he was sent to join the 109th Infantry Regiment, US 28th Infantry Division in France, as part of a 12-man replacement detachment. En route to his unit, somewhere in France, he was met by an enemy artillery barrage. It was his first encounter with the reality of war, and his first instinct was to hide. Together with a friend he had met in basic training, Slovik found refuge in an improvised cover. As a result, the two men became separated from the rest of the detachment. A German heavy mortar firing in defense against a U.S. attack on 22 November 1944 in the Hürtgen forest. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J28303 / CC-BY-SA 3.0. It was there that he witnessed the true horror of war. Later, he stated that his christening in the barrage of fire was the moment when he realized that he “wasn’t cut out for combat.” Slovik and Private John Tankey, the friend with whom he sought cover during the bombardment, wandered around for a while. Eventually they encountered a Canadian military police unit. They spent the next six weeks with the Canadians, after which they finally joined their designated unit. Slovik became persistent in his attempts to avoid combat in any way possible. When he was refused transfer in a rear unit, he became determined to desert. On October 9, that was exactly what he did. In order to make his intentions clear, he wrote a letter which he handed to an enlisted cook at his headquarters detachment, who was to serve as his messenger: I, Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, 36896415, confess to the desertion of the United States Army. At the time of my desertion, we were in Albuff in France. I came to Albuff as a replacement. They were shelling the town and we were told to dig in for the night. The following morning they were shelling us again. I was so scared, nerves and trembling, that at the time the other replacements moved out, I couldn’t move. I stayed there in my foxhole till it was quiet and I was able to move. I then walked into town. Not seeing any of our troops, so I stayed overnight at a French hospital. The next morning I turned myself over to the Canadian Provost Corp. After being with them six weeks I was turned over to American M.P. They turned me loose. I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out there again I’d run away. He said there was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again AND I’LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THERE. — Signed Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik A.S.N. 36896415 He was soon captured and taken into custody. Slovik was then brought before Lieutenant Colonel Ross Henbest, who offered him the chance to return to his unit and forget about deserting. The cook and the military policeman whom he had met before his capture both advised him to do so as well, before it was too late. A United States wartime poster deprecating absence What constitutes as bravery, in this case, was the fact that Slovik refused to stand down from his decision, no matter the price. On the other hand, he was also aware that, given the circumstances, the worst thing that could happen to him was a dishonorable discharge and a prison sentence, all of which he considered far more acceptable than combat. After he refused all of his chances to return to his unit, Slovik was court-martialed. His trial could not have occurred at a worst time. In November 1944 the Battle of Hurtgen Forrest, which proved to be the longest and perhaps the bloodiest battle that the US Army faced during WWII, was entering its third month. The fear of desertion was becoming a real threat to the American war effort, as the winter weather was taking its toll on an otherwise successful campaign in continental Europe. Slovik was court-martialed and sentenced to death, partially as an example to others who thought desertion was an option. Once he realized he was actually going to be executed, Slovik wrote a plea addressed to General Eisenhower. His desperate last attempt to preserve his life was rejected and on January 31, 1945, just a few months before the war ended in Europe, Edward Donald Slovik was executed by firing squad. As noted earlier in this article, a number of other soldiers were sentenced to death for desertion, but their sentences were all revoked due to different reasons. The US Army certainly did not feel comfortable with killing their own men. But Slovik’s case was different. The way he acted, his nonchalance towards authority and the fact that he had even written a stubborn explanation for his decision apparently triggered his superiors much more than he expected. Slovik was buried in the notorious Plot E of Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in Fère-en-Tardenois, alongside 95 other members of the US Army; all of whom were sentenced to death due to crimes such as rape and murder. This decision sparked sympathy after the war, as Slovik’s honest statement was perceived as an act of a true pacifist by some and not that of a coward. Somewhere in between, Slovik’s soul still roams. Before we cast the stone of judgment concerning his fate, we must first realize how absolutely horrendous it is to witness the devastation of war. Slovik’s rational fear overcame his sense of duty which was not at all uncommon during the time. However, the combination of circumstances made him the only one who had to pay for his decision with what he considered dearest ― his own life. View the full article
  5. In 1812, Napoleon’s Grande Armée (Great Army) invaded Russia. Though made up of about 680,000 soldiers, they lost. Historians have given many reasons as to why they did – citing weather, logistics, and crazy Russian tactics which didn’t care how many of their own civilians suffered and died. While all true, a recent discovery revealed another, more devastating explanation. It was made in Vilnius, Lithuania in the autumn of 2001. Workers were destroying a Soviet Army barracks and digging trenches to lay down telephone wires when they came upon something gruesome – human bones. A lot of them. Given where they were found, everyone was convinced that they were victims of the KGB. Eight years before, they had found a mass grave filled with about 700 bodies – all confirmed KGB killings. So they called in the Lithuanian Prosecutor General’s office, which in turn called on the Institute of Forensic Medicine. But the bones predated the Soviet occupation, so they called in archaeologists. Digging a little more, they discovered 3,269 bodies at one site, alone. A search through the historical records found that after Napoleon’s retreat, locals dumped 7,190 people and 12 horses in the area. Vasily Vereshchagin’s, “On the Big Road,” depicting the Grande Armée’s retreat They also found coins, medals, buttons, belt buckles, and the remains of uniforms belonging to Napoleonic France. Forensic evidence not only supported the historical narrative, but it also revealed something new. So first the history. Napoleonic France was originally allied with the Russian Empire, but there was a problem – Britain. Thanks to its vast navy, Britain ruled the waves and wasn’t happy about Napoleon. The feeling was mutual, so to force them into submission, he imposed the continental system – a trade embargo meant to isolate the British and force them into a peace treaty. But the Russians weren’t happy, either. They were rich in natural resources but were technologically backward and poor. Britain was the exact opposite, so its growing number of factories were always hungry for raw materials. Desperate for cash, Russia defied the blockade. Nikolay Samokish’s “Courage of General Raevsky,” depicting Russian forces at the Battle of Saltanovka on July 23rd, 1812. Which upset Napoleon, of course. Under the pretext of liberating Poland, he invaded Russian Poland. The bulk of his troops gathered at Kaunas and Aleksotas (both in Lithuania) and crossed the Neman River into Western Russia on June 24th, 1812. Supplying such a large army wasn’t easy, but he had expected a quick victory. It was anything but quick, as the Russians kept avoiding him save for some engagements like those at Smolensk in August and at Borodino in September. When not fighting, Russian troops would burn their own towns and fields to deprive the invaders of food and shelter. Unfortunately, it had the same effect on their own civilian populace. Starving, exhausted, and facing the brutal Russian winter, Napoleon withdrew his army to Smolensk and Vilnius with the Russians in hot pursuit. Only about 27,000 soldiers made it out, leaving some 100,000 captured and another 380,000 dead. Napoleon’s invasion ended on December 14th, 1812 – and with it, his reputation was devastated and his eventual defeat assured. John Heaviside Clark’s “Crossing the Neman,” by the Grande Armée. The mass grave proves that his army had indeed suffered from hunger, cold, and other injuries associated with war. They also came from other parts of Europe, consistent with the fact that the Grand Armée was an international force. A few were also women who served as cooks, clothes-washers, and nurses, as well as wives and camp followers. The most devastating thing the archeologists found, however, were DNA samples of the bacteria which cause trench fever and typhus. You can’t get either from cold, hunger, or injury. You can only get them from lice. So that was the other thing they found – DNA from lice. It was on everything. Sadly, even that is mentioned in the historical records. Across the river, most Russian roads were nothing more than dirt tracks. Though not a problem for the infantry and cavalry, it was a problem for the supply wagons and slowed them down considerably. Even before they reached Vilnius, records show that they lost almost 20,000 horses due to the lack of water and fodder. Men became delirious from high fever, others got rashes all over their bodies, and still others turned blue in the face before dropping dead. The doctors just couldn’t cope with the numbers. Lack of adequate sanitation, wearing the same uniform for weeks on end, as well as close quarters, made excellent breeding ground for lice, fleas, and disease. According to Baron Dominique Jean Larrey (the head military surgeon), the lice were everywhere because of the unusual summer heat. When it became too much, men would rip their off uniforms and burn them for fun. Why for fun? Because the clothes were so thickly infested that they’d first explode. Then they’d fizzle before bursting out in tiny fireworks from the burning insects. Charles Joseph Minard’s famous 1869 chart depicting the Grand Armée’s losses during the Russian Campaign. Winter took care of the insects, but most didn’t have sufficiently warm clothing to deal with the extreme cold. With supply wagons bogged down, the land insufficient to sustain such vast numbers, and the Russians burning what was left, hunger did the rest. But it doesn’t end there. The archaeologists also found that all of the bodies had been malnourished since childhood. While some may have joined the Grand Armée for glory, many must have done so in the hope of regular meals, and the chance of a glorious reward which never came. View the full article
  6. Perhaps you’ve had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Andy Robertshaw on either side of the pond where he reminds us that the Great War experience for many soldiers wasn’t about combat, despair or all that nonsense about futility that drives fiction writers and other propagators of myth and legend who have done so well out of the conflict in recent years. The army called up a whole lot of butchers and bakers and candlestick makers for their trade skills. Soldiers needed bread, their horses needed blacksmiths and farriers and in this book by Jeremy Gordon-Smith we learn that the dead needed photographers. Well, actually, that isn’t quite correct. The dead didn’t need anything; it was their grieving relatives and the great bureaucratic machine that was the British Expeditionary Force that needed the snappers. One of them was Ivan Bawtree, an employee of Kodak in London who went out to Flanders to work for the Graves Registration Commission to record the tens of thousands of graves, the cemeteries and workings of the people making sure all the king’s men were afforded a decent burial. This was a gargantuan task that led to the construction of hundreds of war cemeteries dubbed the greatest architectural project of the age and if you ever see these places as they are today with their lovely lawns and shrubbery, you do have to marvel at how it all got done so promptly in the twenty years following the Armistice. Ivan Bawtree was a good church going man from Surrey who understood the importance of community and doing things right. He was devoted photographer from a young age and this book will confirm he was also a very good one. He did us the service of leaving a very accessible diary in which he had the ability to describe places, people and events in some style. He had the photographer’s eye for detail and he cared about what he was doing. The author is his great-great nephew and enjoys that slightly frustrating pleasure of knowing his father and uncle had the chance to spend time with Ivan before he died in 1979 and it is obvious he was a fascinating man who influenced people who knew him. I only had one Great War veteran in my family circle as a child and the only thing he ever said about those years was when I saw the scars on his chest and arms one day when he was rummaging around for a lost packet of cigarettes early one morning. “He pointed to the marks made by shell fragments and said “Don’t you ever get any of these, boy!” and that was it. Nothing else. He died in 1972 when I was 12 years old. But Ivan left much more of a physical reminder and this book is the sum of much of it. Mr Gordon-Smith writes from the heart as he tells Ivan’s story and those of other relatives who experienced the war to end all wars. We learn about the daily grind of travelling around the battlefields visiting cemeteries and individual graves to photograph the spots where men were buried. Some of this was done under shellfire and always with an element of risk when working in the Ypres Salient. The difficulties of doing the work, building dark rooms and drying facilities, handling glass plate negatives and even the simple act of getting from A to B are all included in Ivan’s story. The author does a lot to get things into context and is careful to remember many of his readers will have only a minimal understanding of the war and its phases. I found the diary entries and the day-to-day stuff to be quite enthralling and the book really came alive for me after the Armistice when Ivan, who served with the Royal Engineers, began working for the nascent Imperial War Graves Commission. We see all the grizzly stuff of men going out to recover the dead and bringing them in for burial. The author recalls the work of Chinese labourers involved in clearing the battlefield and just what a dangerous place it could be even after the guns had fallen silent. I’ve reviewed a lot of Great War books and talked often about battlefield touring and the cemeteries. Rudyard Kipling had insured each man could at rest under a headstone confirming he was known unto God and that his memory was not blotted out. The thing that hit me hardest from reading this book was appreciating there are still over 160,000 men out there in France and Belgium who have no grave at all save for the patch of ground they may one day be found in. I’ve heard stories about rich farmland that shields thousands that may never be exhumed. One man who does have a decent grave is my uncle Leslie. He can be found in Divisional cemetery at Vlamertinghe just a mile and a bit west of Ypres. Ivan almost certainly took the photographs used on one or both of the graves registration cards for my uncle that are treasured items in my family archive. He had been working in that area and the village is referred to a number of times in his diary and other writing. The fact he was there gives this book extra resonance for me. We won’t all have that connection, but if you are looking for more from your Great War reading in the form of books that add depth and new dimensions to your understanding of the conflict, then this book really is ideal. Aside from the information, it also happens to be a good read and the photography is outstanding. The author has been busy with Photoshop merging the old and the new to make interesting montages of well-known locations. He is a genuine battlefield pilgrim and this book is not just an exercise to take advantage of the centenaryfest now, happily, in it’s final year. The book acts as a battlefield guide of sorts and will fit well into your bookshelves filled with traditional guides and gazetteers of the war. Above all it is a tribute to the hardy and sensitive men of the Graves Registration units who built the silent cities, the brilliance of Fabian Ware and the IWGC and the on-going work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. And then there is Ivan, a man I would like to have known. That he was a good man shines through the pages of this lovely book. It is fitting to know that he rests in peace. Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online PHOTOGRAPHING THE FALLEN A War Graves Photographer on the Western Front 1915-1919 By Jeremy Gordon-Smith Pen & Sword Military ISBN: 978 1 47389 365 8 View the full article
  7. “A visually impressive Hollywood calling card” – The Hollywood Reporter A star-studded account of the real-life Operation Anthropoid, the audacious World War Two mission to kill top-ranking Nazi, Reinhard Heydrich, based on the international bestseller HHhH. Synopsis: Prague, 1942. The Third Reich is at its zenith, controlling most of Europe. Reinhard Heydrich, dubbed “the man with the iron heart” by Hitler, has risen to the top of the Nazi Party as head of the SS, the Gestapo, and the seemingly unstoppable architect of the ‘Final Solution’. However, a small group of Czech Resistance fighters are about to attempt the impossible – a veritable suicide mission to assassinate this embodiment of evil. We like it because: “This is not an ordinary mission.” Based on Laurent Binet’s internationally bestselling book HHhH, THE MAN WITH THE IRON HEART tells the incredible true story of how the brave men and women of the Resistance sacrificed everything in the name of freedom. Still from the trailer Director Cédric Jimenez, following up his acclaimed 2014 crime film The Connection, has assembled an absolutely sterling cast for this handsomely mounted, brilliantly absorbing biopic. Jason Clarke (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) is mesmerising as the title character, the steely-eyed and unflinching Reinhard Heydrich, also known as ‘the blond beast’ and behind some of the worst atrocities of the war; Rosamund Pike (Oscar-nominated for Gone Girl) is impeccably unpleasant as Heydrich’s wife Lina; and Stephen Graham (Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire) is outstanding as the diabolical SS general Heinrich Himmler. Meanwhile, BAFTA-winner Jack O’Connell (Starred Up, ‘71), Jack Reynor (Free Fire) and Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre) make up the resistance fighters intent on halting evil in its tracks. Still from the trailer In part a chilling portrait of the rise of the Nazis, as well as an inspiring account of an extraordinary attempt to stop them by striking at their very core, THE MAN WITH THE IRON HEART is a bold, superbly made war film that ranks alongside the likes of Dunkirk and Valkyrie. Still from the trailer Hot quotes “A visually impressive Hollywood calling card” The Hollywood Reporter RELEASE DATE On DVD & Blu-ray 8th January 2018 Runtime 115 mins approx View the full article
  8. John W. “Jack” Hinson, better known as “Old Jack” to his family, was a prosperous farmer in Stewart County, Tennessee. A non-political man, he opposed secession from the Union even though he owned slaves. Friends and neighbors described him as a peaceable man, yet despite all this, he would end up going on a one-man killing spree. Jack’s plantation was called Bubbling Springs, where he lived with his wife and ten children. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he was fiercely determined to remain neutral. When Union Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant arrived in the area in February 1862, the Hinsons hosted the man at their home. The general was so pleased with the plantation that he even turned it into his temporary headquarters. Even when one of their sons joined the Confederate Army, while another joined a militia group, Jack remained strictly neutral. They were content to manage their plantation despite the ongoing conflict. Grant had stayed at the Hinson estate after capturing Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. In taking the last, he secured a vital gateway to the rest of the Confederacy. The Union’s victory at the Battle of Fort Donelson was also its first major one since the start of the Civil War. His victory also meant that Union troops became a permanent fixture in the Kentucky-Tennessee border where the Hinsons lived. While the family had no problem with that, others did – and the Hinsons would pay dearly for it. In the end, so would many Union soldiers. Since many in the region were sympathetic to the Confederacy, some turned to guerrilla tactics to deal with the better armed and trained Union soldiers. These were called bushwhackers, because they hid in the woods where they could attack Union troops before fading back into the wild. The only known image of Jack Hinson It wasn’t just soldiers they went after, however. There were many cases where they’d target Unionist farmers and sympathizers, as well. Still others were not so politically motivated. Some bushwhackers were bandits who took advantage of the deteriorating law-and-order situation to prey on isolated homesteads. In some cases, they even attacked entire communities. After the fall of Fort Donelson to Union troops, guerrilla attacks on Union soldiers and their supporters increased. As a result, it became policy to torture and execute any suspected bushwhackers without a trial. In the fall of 1862, Jack’s 22-year-old son George Hinson, and his 17-year-old brother, Jack, went deer hunting about a mile from their home as they always did. Unfortunately, they came across a Union patrol who suspected them of being bushwhackers. The boys were tied to a tree then shot, after which their bodies were dragged back to town. There the corpses were paraded around the Dover courthouse square as an example of the Union’s zero-tolerance policy toward resistance. The remains were then decapitated and left there, while the heads were brought to the Hinson plantation. Ulysses Grant went on to become the 18th president. This picture of him taken between 1870 to 1880 is his official presidential portrait Before the entire family, the heads were stuck on two gate posts as an example of Union justice. The lieutenant in charge wanted to arrest the Hinsons for their relationship to the two alleged bushwhackers but was informed about Grant’s stay on the property. He was also told that the major general would not take kindly to any mistreatment of the surviving Hinsons, so they were left alone. That was the lieutenant’s second mistake of the day. Of Scottish-Irish descent, Jack could not let the murders of his sons go unpunished. He buried his children’s remains, then sent the rest of his family and slaves to West Tennessee to stay with relatives. He then commissioned a special 0.50 caliber rifle with a percussion-cap muzzle-loader. Besides its lack of decorative brass ornamentation, this rifle was also unique because it had a 41” long octagonal barrel that weighed 17 pounds. The length of the barrel ensured that he could accurately hit targets from half a mile away. As to the octagonal shape, it was based on the Whitworth Rifle. With its hexagonal barrel, it could shoot farther (2,000 yards) and more accurately than the Pattern 1853 Enfield (1,400 yards) with its traditional round rifled barrel. Moving into a cave above the Tennessee River, Jack became a bushwhacker at the age of 57. His first target was the lieutenant who ordered his sons shot and beheaded. The man was killed as he rode in front of his column. The second target was the soldier who placed the heads on the gateposts. It didn’t take the Union long to connect the dots, so they burned down the abandoned Hinson plantation. The British Whitworth sharpshooting rifle which served as the basis for Jack’s own The Tennessee and Cumberland rivers were major transport hubs, so he frequented both. From his higher vantage points, he targeted Union boats, picking off captains and officers, as well as disrupting the flow of river traffic. The most spectacular story of his sniping career was when an entire boat of Union soldiers surrendered to him. After Jack fired on the boat, the captain thought he was being attacked by Confederate soldiers. To avoid further bloodshed, the captain beached his boat, raised a white tablecloth, and waited to be captured. But Jack couldn’t possibly handle them all, so he retreated and let them wait. Though he remained apolitical, he began helping the Confederate Army. In November 1864, for example, he guided Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest to Johnsonville to attack its Union supply center. Jack died on 28 April 1874 and lies buried in the family plot in Cane Creek Cemetery. With help from the locals and by constantly staying on the move, he avoided capture despite the massive manhunt for him. His family was not so lucky, however. Two of his younger children had died of disease, while the son who joined the army also died, as did another during a guerrilla raid. Jack survived the war and cut 36 circles in the barrel of his rifle to mark the number of Union officers he killed. Union records, however, blame him for over 130 kills – though it’s believed that he may have killed “only” a little more than 100. View the full article
  9. Since the early 1990s, the general public has been very aware of the term friendly fire. Incidents between coalition troops in the Gulf brought the phrase and its deadly meaning into the headlines. Suddenly, everyone knew that troops sometimes hit their own side. Friendly fire is not a new problem. As long as there have been guns, there have been friendly fire incidents. The Death of Stonewall Jackson The shooting of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is one of the most significant friendly fire incidents in history. On May 2, 1863, Confederate and Union forces began five days of fighting at Chancellorsville. The American Civil War was at its height. Although outnumbered two-to-one, the Confederate army was better led. At its head was Robert E. Lee. His right-hand man was Stonewall Jackson. On the first day of the battle, Jackson led a flanking maneuver around the Union right flank. It was a decisive move which sent the Union men reeling. Unusually, fighting went on into the night. Wanting to maintain momentum, Jackson took several officers ahead of the lines to reconnoiter for another attack. As they returned, nervous confederates mistook them for Union soldiers and opened fire. Jackson was hit twice in his left arm which was amputated, but it was not enough to save him. Pneumonia kicked in; infection was a common problem among wounded soldiers of the era. Eight days later he died. Jackson’s death deprived the Confederacy of one of its most daring, if erratic, commanders. Lee lost his good right hand. The Dogger Bank Incident On the night of October 21, 1904, battleships of the Russian fleet were caught in fog in the North Sea. When they spotted other ships in the mist, they thought they belonged to Japan, with whom Russia was at war. The Russians opened fire, hitting a group of British trawlers and two of their own cruisers. The incident almost started a war between Britain and Russia. Damaged trawlers after return to St Andrews Dock, Hull. The Arrival of Aeroplanes In August 1914, as WWI erupted, Britain’s Royal Naval Air Service sent unarmed reconnaissance aircraft to France. Unfortunately, troops on the ground had no way of knowing which side they belonged to. Friendly forces fired at the planes. The British promptly painted Union Jack flags onto the underside of their planes’ wings, so their comrades on the ground would know who they were. It was replaced by the roundels adopted by Allied flyers during the war. Falangists Versus Friends During the Spanish Civil War, inexperienced volunteers from all over the world signed up to fight for both sides. In those circumstances, it was easy for mistakes to be made. In 1937, a Falangist unit opened fire on the Nationalist Irish Brigade. Both units were there to fight for Franco’s far-right regime, and neither had seen combat before. An hour-long firefight ensued, leaving 17 dead. The Sinking of the Oxley On September 10, 1939, just after the start of WWII, the British submarine HMS Triton spotted another submarine off the coast of Norway. When that vessel did not answer their challenge, the crew of the Triton assumed it was a German U-boat. They fired two torpedoes, sinking the other boat. Unfortunately, it was not a U-boat. It was another British submarine, the HMS Oxley. Only two of its 54-man crew survived. The incident was kept secret until the 1950s. British T class submarine HMSM Triton underway. Bio-Weapons in China Between May and September 1942, 10,000 Japanese soldiers taking part in the Zhejiang-Jiangxi Campaign fell ill. Around 1,700 of them died. It was not as the result of a naturally occurring disease. The Japanese had deliberately spread cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and plague to attack Chinese soldiers and civilians. Unable to control the diseases, they had suffered as the attack rebounded on them. Fox’s Self-Sacrifice Just occasionally, a friendly fire incident happens on purpose. On December 26, 1944, First Lieutenant John R. Fox of the US 366th Infantry Regiment was part of a forward observer group on the Italian front. His job was to call directions to artillery firing from behind the American lines. As German troops overran the village of Sommocolonia, Fox’s unit was cut off. It became apparent they would be overwhelmed. Fox called in an artillery strike on his own position. He knew he would be killed but so would the German forces around him. Fox’s self-sacrifice bought the Americans time to regroup and retake the village. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1997. In 2005, toy company Hasbro produced an action figure of him. 2nd Lt. John R. Fox, a soldier in the U.S. army. Israel’s First General Mickey Marcus, a colonel in the US Army, went to Israel in 1948 to assist in the Arab-Israeli war. He became Israel’s first modern general, but his career with the Israelis was cut short on June 10 that year. Returning to an Israeli position at night, he was mistaken for an enemy infiltrator and shot. ANZACS in Vietnam In the drawn-out chaos of the Vietnam War, just as in WWII, there were dozens of friendly fire incidents. They included one such incident on February 6, 1967, when New Zealand artillery accidentally fired 12 rounds on a company from the Royal Australian Regiment, killing four and injuring thirteen. 1991 Gulf War The Gulf War was when the phrase “friendly fire” came into the public consciousness. With better awareness of what was happening and more scrutiny from the media, such incidents were more likely to be identified and reported. During the Battle of 73 Easting, there were several friendly fire incidents. They resulted in the wounding of 57 American soldiers but no fatalities. View the full article
  10. Machine-guns were essential during WWII. Not until the final year was anything approaching a modern assault rifle seen on the battlefields. As a result, specialist automatic weapons were vital to laying down heavy fire, both as a part of attacks and as a defensive measure. The German Maschinengewehr 42, or MG42, was one of the best machine-guns of the war, both in combat and in ease of production. It set the standard for machine-guns in the years that followed, and as such was the most important machine-gun of the war. The MG34 The MG34 preceded the MG42. The MG34 was itself a significant weapon. Recoil-operated and air-cooled, it was light enough to be portable while powerful enough to be deadly. At 900 rounds per minute, its rate of fire was unmatched when it came into service. The MG34 was developed during the 1920s when Germany was quietly finding ways to circumvent the Treaty of Versailles and rebuild its armed forces. Hitler’s repudiation of the treaty in 1936 opened the way for the gun to be widely distributed. It was taken to Spain by German forces supporting Franco’s coalition during the Spanish Civil War, where it was field tested, and troops gained experience using it. The MG34 provided the firepower, maneuverability, and reliability that the German army wanted from a machine-gun. It was, however, very expensive to produce. That became a serious drawback as Germany undertook a massive process of rearmament. Soldiers of the German Großdeutschland regiment man a heavy MG 34 on a stationary tripod mount. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B00456 / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Building Something Better The solution to the problem was the MG42. Designed by the weapons engineers at Mauser, it built on their previous machine-gun designs, including the MG34. Ideas were also incorporated from experimental weapons captured from the Poles during the 1939 invasion. Broadly speaking, the MG42 was like the MG34. Strong, simple, and relatively light, it used a recoil-operated system to achieve sustained fire. A muzzle trap added to its efficiency by keeping pressure high until well after the bullet left the barrel. The main difference in design was in the bolt and locking system. Rather than turning while locked together, bolt and barrel recoiled straight back. An extension at the back of the barrel used cams and locking studs to close the barrel and bolt together while pressure was high in the barrel, then separate them automatically. The movement of the bolt triggered an ammunition feed arm that supplied cartridges at a faster rate than any previous machine-gun while maintaining a complete accuracy of feed, avoiding jams. MG 42 mounted on a Lafette 42 tripod with MG Z 40 telescopic sight attached. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-587-2253-17 / Schneiders, Toni / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Battlefield Practicality The feed system provided one of the MG42’s major advantages – its high rate of fire. At 1500 rounds per minute, it was significantly better than the MG34’s 900 rounds and nearly double the firepower of other predecessor weapons. It was a devastating weapon, invaluable for providing the shock and damage needed in the early phases of an assault. The sound of the gun alone made it an intimidating beast. A folding bipod was ingenious for firing at close range. It could be quickly stabilized and used by troops on the move. The MG42 could be combined with a Lafette 42 tripod which provided greater stability at the price of mobility. Coupled with indirect-fire sights, it made for deadly sustained fire. As such, it was invaluable in laying down suppressing fire against enemy troops. The MG42 and its tripod could be adapted to circumstances. It could be turned into a portable and efficient anti-aircraft weapon. It was a simple adaptation that was particularly important in the latter stages of the war when the Allies gained dominance in the air. Tough, reliable, simple, and easy to use, the MG42 followed the path set down by the MG34 but went much further. Well-entrenched Fallschirmjäger defend the ruins of Monte Cassino, inflicting heavy casualties on assaulting Allied forces. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J24116 / Lüthge / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Ease of Production Ease of production was as important as battlefield superiority for the MG42. WWII was a fully industrialized war, in which the efficiency of a nation’s manufacturing made a huge difference to its capability in the field. For Germany to supply a gun to its troops in large quantities, that gun needed to be cheap and easy to manufacture. The MG42 fitted the bill. It was cheaper, easier, and perhaps most importantly quicker to produce than the MG34. As such, it could easily be brought into action. One of the most important features of the manufacturing process was stamped sheet metal. It was used as much as possible, including to make the barrel housing and the receiver. It made production easier, removed bottlenecks in the process, and contributed to the fast assembly of the MG42. Metal stamping allowed a feature vital to the gun’s use – its barrel-changing mechanism. The high rate of fire led to barrels quickly heating up. It could be hugely problematic if the barrel overheated. An ingenious device allowed the gun’s crew to quickly change barrels to avoid the problem. The MG42’s optimum crew consisted of six men, enabling them to carry spare barrels and swiftly change them in action. A German Waffen SS soldier involved in heavy fighting in and around the French town of Caen in mid-1944. He is carrying an MG 42 configured as a light support weapon with a folding bipod and detachable drum belt container. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1983-109-14A / Woscidlo, Wilfried / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Lasting Impact The MG42 was useful to German armed forces during WWII, but the real measure of its success is in the weaponry that has followed. As German and international manufacturers saw how effective it was, they adapted its technology into derivative guns. In 1959, West Germany began using the MG1, almost identical but changed for use with standard NATO ammunition. Wartime stocks of the MG42 were rebuilt as the MG2 to enable them to also use the NATO ammo. The MG3 followed, made ou t of lighter materials, and is still in use by the German military today. MG42s and their derivatives have been used by dozens of armies in every corner of the world. It did not enable the Nazis to win WWII, but its impact on gun design meant it far outlasted the regime that created it. Sources: Christopher Chant (1986), The New Encyclopedia of Handguns View the full article
  11. Joe Ekins remains one of the most famous WWII British tank gunners for taking down three Tiger tanks with five shots, including that of Nazi panzer ace Michael Wittman. With The Tiger Collection opening in April, it is vital not to forget the stories of tank crews on both sides of the conflict. Although Ekins described volunteering for the army as “the biggest mistake of my life”, his skill, courage and luck in combat marked his place in history. On 8 August 1944, as part of an Allied offensive to break through the German defences south of Caen, A squadron of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry positioned themselves just south of the French town of St. Aignan de Cramesnil. Spotting the Tigers Looking out across a flat expanse of land from the cover of an orchard Joe recalls the moment he spotted the Tigers: “There were three Tigers coming across our front, about 1200 yards away all three in a line with quite a space apart. We waited until they were at 800 yards and our tank commander pulled us out from the orchard and told me to target the rear one.” He recollected thinking: “There’s no way one tank is gonna knock out three Tigers, no way! You allow five Sherman to one Tiger, there’s no way they’re gonna knock ‘em out, but he still sent us out on our own, I mean, I don’t know how I weren’t killed, I should’ve been, should’ve been.” For Allied tank crews the sight of three Tiger tanks was not a welcome one. Their reputation for having unmatchable strength – a deadly 88mm gun and almost impenetrable 120mm thick armour – preceded them so much so Allied crews believed it would take five Shermans to bring down just one. Ekins’ Five Shots Joe Ekins Firing two shots, Joe hit the rearmost Tiger setting it alight. “At 800 yards the things were only tiny but I could see the gun of the second Tiger coming round to fire at us,” he recalls. It was at this point Joe realised his Sherman Firefly would be on its own against the two remaining Tigers, the ordinary Shermans that were positioned alongside Joe were no good at this kind of range and the squadron’s two other Fireflies were elsewhere nearby. To this day Joe doesn’t know why his commanding officer didn’t re-deploy them to face the threat he was now facing alone. The second Tiger fired two rounds and hit the turret of Joe’s tank injuring the commander and causing him to jump out. With the troop officer taking command, the tank pulled out from the orchard again and Joe was ordered to fire at the second Tiger. This time one shot was enough to turn the enemy tank into a ball of smoke and flames on the horizon. By now the third Tiger was in search of some shelter from the onslaught but two more shots from the Firefly and it too was reduced to flames. “I was frightened to death,” says Joe. “After I was just so relieved and I said to the lads ‘it’s not going to be us today’.” Amazingly the five rounds Joe fired on this day were the first he had ever fired in combat. He had successfully destroyed three of Germany’s most deadly machines and all at a range that made them look like miniatures. You might assume such accuracy came from extensive and rigorous training. Not so. The Fireflies had only been ready six weeks before the squadron was deployed and the number of times Joe took it out on the firing range: once! 3rd troop, A Squadron, 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry in Normandy during short rest. Joe Ekins 3rd left, front row “I suppose I must some have some natural ability,” Joe smirked. And who can argue? On a visit to The Tank Museum in 2000 Joe was given the opportunity to fire the gun of a Challenger 2 – the tank the British Army uses today. Not surprisingly the then 78-year-old hit the target first time and became the oldest gunner of a Challenger 2. Michael Wittmann Incredibly, what makes Joe’s Tiger assault even more remarkable is with one of his hits he had unknowingly killed German gunner Michael Wittmann, a member of the SS and claimed to be one of the Nazi’s most prolific commanders with 140 tank kills to his name. Wittmann had shot to fame in Nazi propaganda for his role in resisting the Allied offensive at the Battle of Villers-Bocage. What’s incredible is the contrasting legacies of Wittmann, a well-documented Nazi, SS career soldier and close friend of Hitler’s (the Führer attended his wedding) and the quiet, humble and relatively uncelebrated man opposite who had brought about his downfall in such extraordinary fashion as a voluntary member of Britain’s wartime citizen army.This fact is of little consequence to Joe who despised the way the Nazis heralded their commanders as heroes. “I’m quite proud,” he said, “but he was just another man who would have killed me if I hadn’t have killed him first.” Article on Ekins and Wittmann from Daily Mail, 2006 The same day as destroying the three Tiger Tanks, Joe’s Firefly went on to disable a fourth German tank before being hit and immobilised itself leaving Joe to be reassigned to a new Sherman tank crew as – much to his disbelief having demonstrated his natural ability for tank gunnery – a wireless operator, meaning Joe would never have to fire in combat again. Joe remained with this crew for the rest of the war. Remarkably, this crew remained together for the rest of the war without being knocked out. After the war After 1945 Joe went to work in the shoe factory he left before the war and married the woman he’d fallen in love with whilst training with his regiment in Gloucester. Putting himself through night school he became manager within four years of returning and spent the rest of his working life there. He passed away in 2012 at the age of 88 with two grandchildren. Despite having spent the war destroying them, Joe strongly supported the Museum’s mission to renovate Tiger 131: “It’s so important to preserve the Tiger tank and keep it moving so that young people can understand the fatality of war.” The quotations used within this article were taken from interviews he gave while visiting The Tank Museum on several occasions. Here more from Ekins and other veterans at The Tiger Collection. A message from The Tank Museum: “Please Support Us: As a charity, we rely on public support for all our activities. Our work is funded entirely by people like you. With your support, we can continue to create content. With the right support we might be able to do it more regularly – and can be even more ambitious. Please Click on the Banner Below.” Thanks to the Tank Museum for this Blog, which originally appeared here. View the full article
  12. The Western Front of WWI was fought mainly from defensive positions. They were not pre-built fortresses or border defenses. The boundary between the two sides emerged from a series of battles in September and October 1914. It was a Race to the Sea. The Schlieffen Plan Fails The war began using one of the most well-known plans in military history – the Schlieffen Plan. The Germans expected to march boldly and decisively into France, swing around the formations defending the country, and catch many troops between German armies. The Schlieffen plan rapidly ran into difficulties. Once separated from Germany’s efficient railway network, the troops could not advance as quickly as expected. They became weary from marching and fighting. The enemy had also put up a better fight than they expected, so the Germans were not able to mobilize as in the original plan. In early September 1914, only a month into the war, Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke had to admit that his strategy – an adaptation of Count Alfred von Schlieffen’s original plan – was failing. He pulled German troops back north to the River Aisne. It had two main effects. One was that it committed Germany to an extended war on two fronts instead of the swift series of victories the nation’s planners had hoped. Secondly, Moltke was replaced for his failure; General Erich von Falkenhayn took his place as Chief of Staff. Example of an erroneous and misleading map, purported to represent a “Schlieffen Plan” by post-war writers. The First Battle of the Aisne The Allies saw an opportunity in the German failure. Until then, they had been fighting a defensive war. Maybe it was time to strike back. The French Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Joseph Joffre, was keen to outflank the Germans. Their swift advance followed by retreat had left the German right flank exposed. If the Allies could get around it, they could inflict the crushing defeat the Germans had aimed for. The Allies tried to do just that during the First Battle of the Aisne, fought in mid-September. French and British troops crossed the River Aisne and attacked the Germans. A shortage of heavy weapons hampered their attack. They were unable to push the Germans back and begin to outflank their forces. With neither side able to shift the other, the fighting on the Aisne turned into a bloody stalemate. Soldiers on both sides began digging trenches, setting the tone for the rest of the war. German trenches on the Aisne, circa 1914. Fighting North The fighting on the Aisne was only the first in a series of flanking maneuvers. Over the following month, both sides tried to get around each other’s flanks. They moved more troops north then attacked east or west, hoping to break through and encircle their opponents. Both sides were thwarted in their aims. Fierce fighting took place in Picardy between September 22 and 26 and in Artois from the 27th until October 10. From there, both sides continued further north into Flanders, where they fought a series of bloody battles. The result was not a breakthrough. It was a stalemate. The Allies were trying to move east, and the Germans were trying to move west. The result was that both armies moved north, following an almost straight line from the Aisne to the coast and the Straits of Dover. It was this retrospective appearance of a rush north that earned the fighting its label of the Race to the Sea. Belgian soldiers in 1914. Photo: Garitan – CC BY-SA 3.0. The Fall of Antwerp The effect of the Race to the Sea was the formation of defensive lines facing each other across northern France and the western tip of Belgium. The lines were completed, and the race brought to a halt by another piece of fighting – the attack on Antwerp. From the start of the war, the Belgian government had intended to use the city of Antwerp as its last bastion. Surrounded by strong concrete fortifications, they thought they could hold out until their allies arrived. They had not counted on the power of German artillery. After beating all the other Belgian defenses, the Germans laid siege to Antwerp on August 28. The arrival of British forces was not enough to save the Belgian city. In early October, the defenders withdrew. The city surrendered on the 10th. The troops withdrawing from Belgium formed the final part of the line from the Aisne Valley to the English Channel. They took up defensive positions between Boesinghe and Nieuport, using the Yser Canal. It put them in line with the Allied troops advancing north. The forces joined up, completing the Race to the Sea. Belgian guns in action during the defense of Antwerp. Last Attacks The Germans were not ready to give up on their flanking plan. During the second half of October, two important actions took place. One was the formation of the Ypres salient. That territory, around 20 miles from the coast, was held by Allied forces despite the presence of Germans to the north and south. It was defined by the indecisive fighting in October. Although no-one knew it at the time, it was also the site of some of the heaviest fighting later in the war. Meanwhile, the Germans launched an attack which became the Battle of the Yser. They tried to overrun the Allied defensive positions along the canal, breaking their enemy’s anchoring point against the sea. The Belgians responded by opening the sluice gates of their irrigation systems, flooding the low-lying area. The region east of the Yser line became impassable to troops. Digging In The Race to the Sea was over. Each side now held a complete defensive line from the Swiss border to the sea. There could be no flanking maneuvers. The war of movement was over. The war of attrition was about to begin. View the full article
  13. Erich Friedrich Michael Lackner is considered to be one of the most influential engineers of the last century. He developed a revolutionary type of concrete construction and was responsible for many projects worldwide. His legacy remains in the Inros Lackner AG construction firm, the Erick Lackner Foundation, and the Erick Lackner Award for “outstanding contributions in scientific and technical work.” Lackner has another claim to fame, however. He was the on-site supervising engineer for the Valentin Submarine Factory in Germany. A massive facility, it took between 10,000 to 12,000 slave labourers to build it in just 20 months. These labourers were taken from their home countries and forced to work at the site. Thousands died from over-exposure, malnutrition, and summary executions, but it was never completed. Construction began in 1943 along the Weser River in the Bremen suburb of Rekum. The Nazis already had a much bigger U-boat base in Brest, France, but it wasn’t a factory. To win the war, Germany needed to take out Britain – its only threat at sea until the Americans entered the war. There was only one problem. Britain ruled the waves with its vast naval fleet. It also had a global empire and could call on large numbers of people and resources. But its strength was also its weakness – ships were essential to connect the empire and keep the home front supplied. Aerial raids had failed to bring the country to its knees, so Germany used submarines to disrupt Britain’s commerce and access to its crucial food supplies. The “Wilhelm Bauer” U-Boot Type XXI U-2540 submarine in Bremerhaven, Germany in 2013. By Clemens Vasters – CC BY 2.0 In 1943, however, America joined Britain to create a huge naval force. Worse, the British had cracked the German Enigma code and could understand secret German communications. The Allies knew where and when to attack the German submarines. In May of 1943 alone, Germany lost 42 of its existing fleet of 110 submarines. There were already three U-boat sites in Germany – Nordsee III on the island of Heligoland, Fink II and Ebe II in the city of Hamburg, and Kilian in the neighboring city of Kiel. More were under construction, but Bremen was chosen to host two of the biggest – Valentin and Valentin II (which was never started). A slave laborer at Auschwitz in 1941 with the OT badge on her work shirt. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de The entire project was doomed from the very start, however. Despite their talent for organization and planning, the Germans really made a mess of the project. Since the Allies had already begun bombing German cities, it was decided that submarines would not be constructed in Valentin. Type XXI U-boats and would instead be built at other factories then brought to Valentin and assembled there. The idea behind this complicated scheme was to ensure that no single bombing raid could take out U-boat production. It was also hoped that the Allies would be kept guessing as to where they were being made and where they were being assembled – bearing in mind that the Germans didn’t know that their code had been cracked and that the British were aware of their plans. Slave laborers working on Valentin in 1944, positioning a prestressed concrete arch with iron bars. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de Valentin was designed and overseen by the Organisation Todt – the civil and military engineering arm of the Third Reich which made use of prisoners, some of whom came from the various concentration camps. Edo Meiners was in charge of the project, but Lackner was in charge of the site and the day to day running of the project. The facility stood between 74’ to 89’ tall, stretched 1,398’ long, and was 318’ at its widest point. To protect it from aerial bombardment, its walls and roof were 15’ thick. In time, parts of the roof were further thickened to 23’. By the time they were 90% done in March 1945, some 500,000 cubic meters of concrete was used for the project, while the human cost was much higher. Flying Officer Jerry Fray of the RAF took this picture of the breached Möhne Dam after it had been hit by a bouncing bomb on 17 May 1943 Valentin was to be operated by the Bremer Vulkan shipyard, which would assemble the U-boats in 12 bays, supported by workshops and storerooms. Once built, they would be tested for leaks in a 13th bay which could be flooded with water. If they passed, they would then be released into the Weser for service. Using more slave labor, the facility was expected to produce a fully functional submarine every 56 hours. Seven camps were built to house the slave laborers, though others were kept at the Bremen-Farge concentration camp (part of the much bigger Neuengamme concentration camp complex). Others were kept at a naval fuel oil storage compound, while some were put in an emptied underground fuel tank. A 22,000 lb Grand Slam bomb Besides French, Polish, and Russian POWs, German civilian criminals and others deemed “undesirable” were also put to work as slave labourers. The workers did 12-hour shifts and more with little food and medical care under the careful watch of SS soldiers. Those too sick or too slow were executed. This brutal policy of killing prisoners created labor shortages by 1944, greatly slowing down production. It’s estimated that some 6,000 people died on the project – a figure which doesn’t include Russians and Poles since their deaths were not recorded. To the Nazis, they were sub-human and not worth mentioning. Most fatalities occurred in the “iron detachments” – among those responsible for moving girders of iron and steel. Valentin’s 15′ reinforced ferro-concrete roof damaged by a 22,000-pound M Grand Slam bomb The Allies knew about Valentin not just because of German communications, but also because they weren’t blind. When night fell, all towns and villages had to shut off their lights, but not Valentin where construction took place 24/7. Rather than put a stop to it, the Allies decided to let it continue because it drained limited German resources. Besides, they were very successful at destroying German supply lines. In 1943, the Allies experimented with a new weapon called an earthquake bomb –which could create maximum damage with fewer bombs. These were considered for use on several German dams from May 16 to 17, 1943 as part of Operation Chastise but ultimately the bouncing bombs were used to destroy the dams and drown villages and towns in the Ruhr and Eder valleys. A 4500 lb Concrete Piercing/Rocket Assisted bomb “Disney Bomb” Valentin neared completion in 1945, so the Allies finally attacked on March 27. Two Grand Slam quake bombs blew holes through the roof, while others destroyed the nearby supporting facilities. On March 30, the US Eighth Air Force launched their Disney bombs to finish the job, but only one hit the facility. By this date Valentin was never going to produce any submarines because the Nazi regime was on the verge of defeat. The place was finally evacuated in April. Its surviving prisoners were put on the SS Cap Arcona which was sunk by the British Royal Airforce on 3 May 1945. Of the 5,000 POWs aboard, only 350 survived. The British Army’s XXX Corps captured Bremen at the end of April 1945. Friedrich Stein’s monument dedicated to those who suffered and died building Valentin, commemorated on 16 September 1983. By Jocian – CC BY-SA 3.0 In 2011, the Bremen Regional Authority set aside $3.8 million to turn Valentin into a museum to remind the current generation about the cruel treatment of the slave labourers and prisoners at the site. It will serve as a reminder to future generations of the cruelty of the Nazis. View the full article
  14. During WWI, military designers created the first tanks which changed the face of warfare. Not every nation, however, embraced them with the same level of enthusiasm. Britain Tanks in the British army were viewed with eagerness by the government and together with the ingenuity of engineers, resulted in the deployment of heavy tanks. The man who kicked off the development of the modern tank was Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Swinton. An official eyewitness tasked with recording the events of the war, in 1914 he saw tractors with caterpillar tracks, an American invention, pulling artillery in France. Struck by the use of the technology to get across the difficult ground, he wrote a proposal for an armored fighting vehicle using such tracks. When it was rejected by the British military leadership in France, he sent it to Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Hankey, Secretary of the Committee for Imperial Defence. It was then passed to Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill, always keen to keep his department at the forefront of military endeavors, had already been looking for a way troops could cross the trenches. Seizing on Swinton’s idea, he set up the Admiralty Landships Committee. With the backing of the Prime Minister, Churchill, Swinton, and others continued their work until a tracked armored fighting vehicle became a reality. The first working vehicle was created by William Ashbee Tritton and Major Walter Wilson. Tritton was the managing director of Fosters in Lincoln; the company tasked with building a working prototype. Wilson, a military engineer, worked with him in examining examples of American tracked farm vehicles. After repeated problems with the tracks, they applied their engineering experience to create a heavy-duty steel track that ran around the vehicle. Combined with a powerful engine, ship-style armored plating, and a mixture of guns, it was the first tank. The first use of the tanks was in September 1916 on the Somme. The massive machines intimidated the Germans and had some success, but the conditions were not right, including no repair facilities and an insufficient number. The staff of Field Marshal Haig, not a fan of the tanks, tried to have their production canceled. Major Albert Stern, a friend of the Prime Minister and a powerful financier in civilian life, believed in the vehicles. His belief in them once again won political backing. J. F. C. Fuller secured the future of tanks in the British army. A gifted staff officer, Fuller saw how a solid concentration of tanks, suitably supported, could be a powerful military tool. Under his leadership, tanks won their first significant victory at Cambrai in 1917. Due to a variety of skilled and keen men, the British were convinced of the value of tanks. The story of their closest allies would be similar, but with a Gallic twist. A Mark I tank, moving from left to right. The rhomboidal shape allowed it to climb parapets and cross trenches. Photo by Ernest Brooks. France French tanks evolved in parallel but separately from the British ones. Central to the story of the French tank was the Schneider company. As agents for the sale of Holt tractors, Schneider sold their wares to the French army for towing guns. Looking to expand their market, in the summer of 1915 they started adding armor and weapons to make a fighting tractor, which they demonstrated in December 1915. At the same time, Colonel Estienne, having seen Holt tractors towing artillery around, got General Joffre’s support to develop a tractor-based fighting vehicle. When the Renault company proved uninterested, Estienne went to Schneider, learned about their experiments, and teamed up with them. Together, they began work on the first French battle tank – the Schneider CA. Unfortunately, Estienne had been unwise in his campaign to create the tank. By going directly to Joffre, he had offended the official military automobile service. They decided to develop their own tank and so put him in his place. The resulting Saint Chamond was not a success. The French became disillusioned with heavy tanks but retained their enthusiasm for the principle of armored fighting vehicles. Instead of the large vehicles favored by the British, they moved toward light, two-man vehicles, resulting in the Renault FT. They wanted to see their vehicles swarm across the battlefield, returning to the bold spirit of attack with which the French had, somewhat disastrously, begun the war. Although they started building tanks later than the British, they soon produced more than their allies. Schneider tanks, here with the later cross-hatched camouflage, were mostly transported by rail. Germany During WWII, the German way of fighting was characterized by the swift, decisive, and effective use of tanks. However, in WWI, their attitude was very different. German troops were shaken by the first appearance of tanks at the Somme. The British had done well at hiding their invention, and it was a fearsome-looking machine to the soldiers encountering it. The effect of the tanks on that first occasion was underwhelming. They were deployed in unsuitable circumstances and without the use of tactics. Even at Cambrai, the Germans saw the limitation of tanks. General von Walter brought field artillery close to the front, trained his gunners to hit moving targets, and took out 11 British tanks. As a result, the Germans initially developed a disdain for tanks, believing their value would disappear once the novelty wore off. Instead, the Allies learned to use their tanks effectively, and the Germans began to suffer. Late in the war, they started studying and using captured tanks. They developed their own design and put it into production. It was too late. Only a handful of German tanks made it into action before the war ended. The power of German tanks would come in the next generation. Sources: Taylor Downing (2014), Secret Warriors: Key Scientists, Code Breakers and Propagandists of the Great War Ian V. Hogg and John Weeks (1980), The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Military Vehicles William Weir (2006), 50 Weapons that Changed Warfare Ian Westwell (2008), World War I View the full article
  15. Artillery was one of the most significant elements in WWI. The shattering bombardments that preceded infantry assaults led men to dig deeper and deeper into trench lines and bunkers, creating the static warfare that endured for most of the four-year conflict in the west. Heavy artillery firing from behind the lines was important, but a lighter, more localized form also played a huge part: field artillery. Field Artillery Advances in weapon technology had taken artillery down two different but related paths in the years leading up to the war. On the one hand, there were the heavy artillery batteries. They were organized at levels above the division. They hurled shells miles across the countryside, allowing artillerists to strike their enemy while safely out of danger from their targets. In its extreme form, it led to weapons such as the German Big Bertha guns and the Austro-Hungarian Skoda howitzers that smashed Belgian fortresses in the opening battles of the war. On the other hand, there were the field artillery pieces. They looked old-fashioned with pieces small enough to be drawn by horses and brought close to the front lines, but they were sturdier, powerful, and sometimes lighter than their predecessors. They were allocated at the level of divisions. They accompanied infantry and cavalry formations on the march and in their positions on the front. Mk1 carriage gun action in the open desert of lower Mesopotamia, March 1917. Resolving Recoil The most significant advance in artillery in the preceding decades had been the solution of the recoil problem. Previously, there had been no way of avoiding recoil when a gun fired. Fixed pieces could be held in place, but field artillery always rolled back when it was fired. In the 1890s, a retired French officer named de Port, building on German developments, created the first effective solution. A system of oil, air, and pistons absorbed the recoil from the barrel and then returned it to its position. It made field artillery much more effective. It could be used with protective screens for the crew, as it would stay in place. It could also be prepared and fired quickly. As it did not roll backward, there was no need to return it to its position after firing. In WWI, a growing number of weapons had anti-recoil systems. French gunners with 75 mm anti-aircraft gun, Salonika Front, World War I. The Weapons There were two main types of field artillery – guns and howitzers. Guns were closer to the canons of earlier warfare. Their long near-horizontal barrels fired rounds at a high velocity on a relatively flat trajectory. They shot directly at enemy positions and formations that lay within sight. Howitzers were mortar-style weapons. They were identified by their steeper upward angled shorter barrels. Their rounds were not fired at such a high velocity. Instead, they were propelled in an arcing curve landing among the enemy from above. In that way, they could fire indirectly, getting around cover which was particularly important as it enabled rounds to be fired into enemy trenches. One of the first Big Berthas being readied for firing. The Shells Two features defined the shells launched from those weapons – their size and what sort of ammunition they contained. Many countries measured the size of shells by the diameter of the bore of the gun they were made to fire out of. A typical French field gun of 1914, the Model 1897, fired a 75mm shell. The British, on the other hand, defined the size of artillery by the weight of the shell. Their leading field artillery of the early war was the Mark I 18-pounder. The two types of ammunition used by field guns were shrapnel and high-explosive. High-explosive rounds were packed with as much explosive as possible and fitted with an impact fuse. When they hit a hard target such as a building or solid ground, they detonated with incredible force. They were better for destroying inanimate objects. Both the strength of the blast and the splinters from their casing were deadly to troops. Their biggest problem was hitting soft, muddy ground which did not trigger the detonator – a common problem on the churned up terrain. Shrapnel rounds were designed to kill infantry. Their timed fuses were designed to trigger in flight just above enemy formations. Instead of being packed with explosives, they had a smaller charge surrounded by metal balls. The explosion sent them scything through flesh. The 14th Battery of Australian Field Artillery, 5th Field Artillery Brigade, 2nd Division, loading a British 18-PDR field gun near Bellewaarde Lake, in the Ypres Sector. Rate of Fire The rate of fire on field artillery, although superior to previous eras, still varied hugely from weapon to weapon. The French 75 gun, built around de Port’s phenomenal recoil-dampening system, had an incredible rate of fire. A well-trained crew could use it to fire 25 rounds per minute – one nearly every two seconds. The British 18-pounder was superficially similar to the 75, but its performance was less. It fired only a third as fast as the French gun, launching up to eight rounds per minute. It was still a lot of fire-power. Firing a shrapnel shell every eight seconds, a British gun team could wreak carnage on a German formation. A French Colonial 75 mm artillery gun in action near Sedd el Bahr at Cape Helles, Gallipoli during the Third Battle of Krithia, 4 June 1915. Field Artillery in the Field Field artillery was designed for mobile warfare. The static nature of the Western Front made it less useful than its advocates expected. Soldiers were protected from shrapnel by their trenches. High explosive rounds proved inadequate to pierce deeply dug concrete bunkers. Improvements were made, such as fuses to help the shells destroy barbed wire. Field artillery was still used heavily throughout the war. Of 1,600 British artillery pieces opening up the Battle of the Somme in 1916, 1,200 were a field or medium gun. The Germans used 3,965 field artillery pieces in the launch of Operation Michael two years later. Field artillery had problems, but it was a vital part of the war. View the full article
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