5 February 2018

Frankforce and the Defence of Arras 1940

There is no other city in France that has the same associations in time of conflict that the British have with Arras. Since the campaigns of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, in the early 18th century, British soldiers have fought in and around Arras, occasionally as an enemy but, more often, as defenders of French and Allied democracy. Battlefield visitors to the area will immediately recognize the names of towns and villages that were as significant to the men of Marlborough’s army as they were to those who fought in the First and Second World Wars.

This book serves both as guide to the Second World War battlefields that surround the city and its environs as well as detailing the actions of the British armoured attack of 21 May 1940. The book looks at the strategic situation that led up to the famous Arras counter-stroke and, using material that has not been published before, examines the British and German actions between 20 and 23 May. The only Victoria Cross action that took place during this time is looked at in detail; as is the fighting that took place in Arras and during the breakout.

Despite its shortcomings, the counter-stroke achieved the essential element of surprise and caused widespread alarm amongst the German command and hit Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division at precisely the moment when his armoured units were ahead of the infantry and gunners. The British infantry fought well and both the Durham battalions were fortunate that their commanding officers and senior NCOs were men who had already fought in one conflict and possessed the determination to rally their less experienced junior ranks and fight on regardless. Such was the case with the two tank battalions, although sadly they lost both their commanding officers and over half the tanks that went into the engagement. The attack did enable the British to tighten their hold on Arras – albeit temporarily – and, as is often cited, built doubts in the minds of German High Command as to the speed of their advance and contributed to the subsequent Hitler halt order of 24-27 May.

The author has gone to some lengths to track down accounts from those individuals who served in the area during May 1940 and fought the enveloping tide of the German advance.

The book is supported by three car tours, one of which takes the visitor along the tragic path taken by the Tyneside Scottish on 20 May and two walking routes, which concentrate on Arras.

137 black and white photographs and a number of maps derived from regimental histories, and six tour maps provide the battlefield visitor with illustrations of the battlefields as they were in 1940 and as they are today.

This is an excellent addition to the Pen & Sword series 'Battleground Dunkirk', providing a comprehensive record of a less well known aspect of the campaign in France in 1940. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the period, and whose relatives fought with the BEF.

Available from:
Pen & Sword

21 January 2018

Air War Varsity

In Air War Varsity, Martin Bowman brings us the first book on Operation Varsity to include both British and US air and ground operations, as well as the US, British and Canadian paratroop and resupply missions, all presented together in one ambitious volume.

Operation Varsity-Plunder, the last large-scale Allied airborne operation of World War II, was certainly no walk-over. Varsity was the airborne part, whilst Plunder represented the British amphibious operations by the British Second Army. The airlift consisted of 541 transport aircraft containing airborne troops and a further 1,050 troop-carriers towing 1,350 gliders. The American 17th Airborne Division s C-46 Commando transports and Waco gliders joined the British 6th Airborne Division C-54s, C-47 transport aircraft, Horsas and Hamilcar gliders to form an immense armada that stretched for more than 200 miles across the sky.

The successful air attack involved more than 10,000 Allied aircraft and was concentrated primarily on Luftwaffe airfields and the German transportation system. The combination of the two divisions in one lift made this the largest single day airborne drop in history. In this account, Martin Bowman weaves first-hand testimony and a compelling historical narrative together with a variety of photographic illustrations, many of which have never been published before, in order to create a complete record of events as they played out in March 1945.

Available from:
Pen & Sword

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