10 January 2018

Why Am I Still Here? The Story of Paul Titz, a German Merchant Seaman and POW in WWII

Why Am I Still Here? is based around the letters of Paul Titz, a young merchant seaman from the town of Düren who, as the captain's steward on the scout ship Gonzenheim, ex Kongsfjord, took part in Operation Rheinübung in 1941. 

After the interception of the Gonzenheim by HMS Neptune, HMS Nelson and Swordfish of 825 Squadron embarked in HMS Victorious, and despite not being armed and never having fired a shot in anger - he became a POW for more than five years, including for seventeen months after VE Day. He moved from the camp at Donaldson's College, Edinburgh, to Knavesmire, York, and from thence to Canada. He was held along with other Enemy Merchant Seamen at Farnham and Sherbrooke in Quebec and at Monteith, Ontario, before returning to the UK only to die in wretched circumstances at No. 23 Camp, Farnham, Derbyshire just before he was likely to have been repatriated.

The author, Jean Hood, has done a thorough job of researching Paul Titz, and German Merchant Seamen held in British captivity during the Second World War. This book provides a fascinating insight into a little known and written about aspect of the experiences of German POWs during, and after the war.

Available from:

4 January 2018

Prisoner of the Swiss

During World War II, 1,517 members of US aircrews were forced to seek asylum in Switzerland. Most neutral countries found reason to release US airmen from internment, but Switzerland took its obligations under the Hague Convention more seriously than most. The airmen were often incarcerated in local jails, and later transferred to prison camps. The worst of these camps was Wauwilermoos, where at least 161 U.S. airmen were sent for the honorable offense of escaping. To this hellhole came Dan Culler, the author of this incredible account of suffering and survival. Not only did the prisoners sleep on lice-infested straw, were malnourished and had virtually no hygiene facilities or access to medical care but worse, the commandant of Wauwilermoos was a die-hard Swiss Nazi. He allowed the mainly criminal occupants of the camp to torture and rape Dan Culler with impunity. After many months of such treatment, starving and ravaged by disease, he was finally aided by a British officer.

Betrayal dominated his cruel fate - by the American authorities, by the Swiss, and in a last twist in a second planned escape that turned out to be a trap. But Dan Culler’s courage and determination kept him alive. Finally making it back home, he found he had been abandoned again. Political expediency meant there was no such place as Wauwilermoos. He has never been there, so he has never been a POW and didn't qualify for any POW benefits or medical or mental treatment for his many physical and emotional wounds. His struggle to make his peace with his past forms the final part of the story. Rob Morris’s introduction and notes provide historical background and context, including recent efforts to recognise the suffering of those incarcerated in Switzerland and afford them full POW status.


Read an interview with the author, Rob Morris.

Available from:
Casemate

31 December 2017

The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in WWII

The long-awaited translation of the classic oral history of Soviet women's experiences in the Second World War - from the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In the late 1970s, Svetlana Alexievich set out to write her first book, The Unwomanly Face of War, when she realized that she grew up surrounded by women who had fought in the Second World War but whose stories were absent from official narratives. Travelling thousands of miles, she spent years interviewing hundreds of Soviet women - captains, tank drivers, snipers, pilots, nurses and doctors - who had experienced the war on the front lines, on the home front and in occupied territories. As it brings to light their most harrowing memories, this symphony of voices reveals a different side of war, a new range of feelings, smells and colours.

After completing the manuscript in 1983, Alexievich was not allowed to publish it because it went against the state-sanctioned history of the war. With the dawn of Perestroika, a heavily censored edition came out in 1985 and it became a huge bestseller in the Soviet Union.

I picked up a copy of this title by chance in a local bookshop. I found it provides a fascinating insight into the stories of the Soviet women who served - and in some cases their husbands and relatives too - but also into the author's process of finding, meeting and recording of these stories. I found there are a number of similarities to Stud Terkel's The Good War, so if you found that title interesting, I would highly recommend The Unwomanly Face of War.

Available from:
Penguin

5 December 2017

The Third Reich in 100 Objects - A Material History of Nazi Germany

The Third Reich is a continued subject of fascination. Numerous documentaries, of widely varying quality, can be found on television every day; newspaper articles and stories feature stories relating to the Nazis on a weekly basis, and publishers are producing new books on the subject which appear on the shelves of the high street booksellers.

However, most of these do not represent the personal angle of the period that Roger Moorhouse has cast light upon in The Third Reich in 100 Objects. Moorhouse has complied a widely diverse collection of items from Nazi Germany. Each item is pictured, and has a detailed description of its relevance to the German citizen, or indeed the German leadership in some cases.

The items included vary widely, from the 'celebrity items' which were presumably souvenirs taken by enthusiastic Allied soldiers - and then probably shown to friends and relatives, before eventually ending up in private collections or museums (Hitler's moustache brush, Eva Braun's lipstick case, Goring's cyanide capsule); to equipment and weapons used by the German military (the stick grenade, MP 40 submachine gun, the V-2 missile); items familiar to the German citizen (Nazi eagle, ration cards, Elastolin toy figures, Nazi Party Haustafel); to the shocking range of items linked with the Holocaust (Der Ewige Jude film poster, Treblinka brooch, Zyklon-B canister, and the Stolperstein - Stumbling Stone memorial - for Georg Elser, who attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1939, and who was executed at Dachau in 1945).

This is not an easy read but it is digestible and provides a fascinating insight, and therefore it is a valuable addition to the literature on this subject. For the reader, each object can be examined in isolation, which is probably the only way the book can be read. However, it is often uncomfortable to see how the Nazi regime implanted itself in every aspect of life, and how its impact on the world can continue to be felt even today.

Available from:
Greenhill Books

5 November 2017

Dunkirk: From Disaster to Deliverance - Testimonies of the Last Survivors

When Churchill made one of the most inspiring speeches of the 20th century - 'we will fight them on the beaches' – some thought that it was his way of preparing the public for the fall of France. Others heard it as a direct appeal to the Americans. The Prime Minister was speaking in the Commons in June 4 1940, giving thanks for the miracle of deliverance, the harrowing and breathless evacuation of over 338,000 troops - British and French and Belgian - from the beaches and harbour at Dunkirk in the teeth of nightmarish German onslaught. Churchill was determined it shouldn’t be labelled a victory. He was already too late. Hours later, broadcaster JB Priestley was to call it ‘an absurd English epic’.

The last of the boatloads had returned to Dover in the small hours of June 4th. And the mythologizing had already begun – from euphoric American journalists to the thousands of women who lined up on railway platforms, crowding round exhausted soldiers as if they were movie stars. But was Churchill privately convinced that the Germans were about to successfully invade England?

Those days of Dunkirk, and the spirit, and the image of the indefatigable little ships, are still invoked now whenever the nation finds itself in any kind of crisis. But there is a wider story too that involves a very large number of civilians - from nurses to racing enthusiasts, trades union leaders to dance hall managers, novelists to seaside café owners.

And even wider yet, a story that starts in September 1939: of young civilian men being trained for a war that was already 25 years out of date; and the increasing suspense – and occasional surrealism - of the Phoney War. The ‘absurd epic’ of Dunkirk – told here through fresh interviews with veterans, plus unseen letters and archival material – is the story of how an old-fashioned island was brutally forced into the modernity of World War Two.

Available from:
Aurum Press

The Sailors Behind the Medals - Waging War At Sea 1939 - 1945

The story of the Royal Navy in the Second World War is an epic, consisting both of dramatic battles such as the River Plate and Matapan, and drawn-out campaigns such as the escort of convoys to Malta and northern Russia. The author examines the careers of twenty-three sailors who took part in these actions which resulted in the award of their medals. Each man's story is presented in context, including details of the ships that he served on, and the reason for the awarding of the medal under consideration. He illustrates a cross-section of the war-time Navy long-service regulars, volunteers, recalled veterans of the Great War, Hostilities Only ratings. They served in nearly every kind of warship and in all the main theatres of the war and their individual acts of gallantry under extreme conditions make for inspiring reading. The author also examines the medals that were awarded for gallantry.

Table of contents: 

Chapter 1 - Death of a Pocket Battleship
Chapter 2 - 'The Navy's Here!'
Chapter 3 - Sole Survivor
Chapter 4 - Dunkirk
Chapter 5 - A Forlorn Hope
Chapter 6 - Rescue in the North Atlantic
Chapter 7 - Massacre at Matapan
Chapter 8 - Kiwi at Crete
Chapter 9 - Orion under the Stukas
Chapter 10 - One of Ark Royal's Engineers
Chapter 11 - Born Survivor
Chapter 12 - Dido in the Med
Chapter 13 - Operation Mincemeat
Chapter 14 - Operation Pedestal
Chapter 15 - Desert Water Rats
Chapter 16 - The Ship that Torpedoed Herself
Chapter 17 - Russian Gold
Chapter 18 - Convoy Rescue Ship Commander
Chapter 19 - Arctic Convoys
Chapter 20 - The Battle of the North Cape
Chapter 21 - Landing Craft Assault
Chapter 22 - The Divine Wind
Chapter 23 - The Fighting Schoolmaster

Available from:
Pen and Sword

Last of the Kriegies: The Extraordinary True Life Experiences of Five Bomber Command Prisoners of War

‘Last of the Kriegies' tells the extraordinary stories of five of the last remaining Second World War RAF Bomber Command Prisoners-of-War: pilot Reg Barker, bomb aimer Charles Clarke, air gunner David Fraser, air gunner Albert Gunn and navigator Henry Wagner. Each veteran shares the journey they went through joining up with the Royal Air Force, their training and crewing up, and operational duties with RAF Bomber Command. We accompany them on raids over enemy territory as they fight to survive against the relentless flak, searchlights, and deadly enemy nightfighters. Eventually each airmen's next of kin receives a knock on the door and the dreaded ‘regret to inform' you telegram.

Reg, Charles, David, Albert and Henry describe the circumstances in which they are shot from the sky, descending by parachute in to hostile territory, and their subsequent failed attempt to avoid capture. Interrogation follows and we hear how the downed airmen negotiate the aggressive and devious tactics employed by their captors as they try and extract secret information. Our ‘Kriegsgefangener' soon find themselves behind the barb wire of a German prison camp facing the trials and tribulations of daily life as a ‘kriegie'; the battle with hunger and frustration, the baiting and harassing of prison guards, friendships made, and attempts to break out and escape their captivity. In the final months of the war some of our POWs endure the gruelling and harsh conditions of the forced ‘Long March'. Despite frustrating delays, as the Nazi regime enters its final death throes, our airmen eventually taste the sweetness of liberation and journey home to loved ones and family.

Fighting High Publishing and Bomber Command historian Steve Darlow present the extraordinary testimony of five veterans who endured and survived being shot down, captivity, degradation, and suffering. Illustrated with previously unpublished photographs and with a foreword from former Gulf War POW Squadron Leader Bob Ankerson RAF (Ret'd) ‘Last of the Kriegie's' reveals the extraordinary strength and resilience of the human spirit struggling with incarceration and the loss of freedom.

Available from:
Fighting High Publishing
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