Archive for World War 2

Operation Market Garden – 75 Years On

Posted in History with tags , , , on September 17, 2019 by telescoper

Seventy-five years ago today, on 17th September 1944, the largest airborne operation in military history began. Operation Market Garden (as it was called) saw about 35,000 Allied troops dropped by parachute or landed in gliders behind German lines in Holland, with the aim of seizing key bridges in order to allow infantry and armoured divisions to advance, eventually into Germany. Of more immediate tactical importance was that capture of the Northernmost bridges over the Rhine at Arnhem would prevent German reinforcements from moving South to confront the advancing troops, tanks and armoured vehicles of XXX Corps whose job was to punch a hole in the German defences and link up with the airborne troops.

Operation_MARKET-GARDEN_-_82.Airborne_near_Grave

Motivated by the belief that German armies in the West were exhausted and on the brink of collapse as well as the desire if possible to finish the war before Christmas, Operation Market Garden was daring and imaginative, but began to unravel right from the outset and ended as a disastrous failure, with the loss of many lives.

I’m not a military historian, so am not competent to add anything significant to the huge amount that has been written about what went wrong, but I will add a personal note. A cousin of my Grandfather flew to Arnhem with the 1st British Airborne division whose job was to take and hold the bridges over the Rhine that would open the door to an invasion of Germany. Sadly, he was one of those many troops who never even made it to their objective. In fact he was dead before he even hit the ground; his unit was dropped virtually on top of heavily armed German forces and had no chance of defending themselves. I had always been told that he had been dropped by parachute, but the records at the cemetery revealed that was wrong; he was on a glider which was badly shot up during its approach and crash-landed with no survivors.

The action at Arnhem actually involved two bridges, one a railway bridge at Oosterbeek, and the other a road bridge in Arnhem itself. British paratroopers did manage to capture one end of the road bridge, but never succeeded in securing both ends of the structure. Cut off from the much larger force pinned down near their landing zones they were eventually forced to surrender simply because they had run out of ammunition. The other units that landed near Arnhem never made their objectives and had to dig in and hope for reinforcements that never came. They fought a brave but desperate defensive action until 25th September when some were successfully evacuated across the Rhine. The original battle orders had specified they were to hold their ground for 48 hours until relieved by armour and infantry advancing rapidly from the South, but 30 Corps was heavily delayed by fighting, poor tactical decisions and congestion on the single road.

Some years ago, after attending a conference in Leiden, I took time out to visit Oosterbeek cemetery, where  1437 soldiers lie buried. Such was the chaos at Arnhem that bodies of fallen soldiers are still being discovered in gardens and woods; as there were so many dead that there was only time to bury them in shallow graves where they had fallen. As remains are discovered they are removed and reburied in Oosterbeek. When I visited the cemetery about 25 years ago, there were several brand new graves.

At the time of Market Garden the local people looked on in horror as their potential liberators were cut down. It must have been deeply traumatizing for them. I think it is telling that when, in 1969, the British Army proposed bringing to an end the annual ceremonies in commemoration of these events, local Dutch civilians insisted that they continue.

As I stood by the grave I couldn’t help thinking of how lucky members of my generation are that we have not been called on to make such a sacrifice. Now I fear deeply that the rise of nationalism and xenophobia, not least in Britain, threatens to the peace in Europe that has held for almost 75 years.

The failure of Operation Market Garden had other terrible consequences. The winter of 1944/45 was a terrible time one for Dutch civilians in the part of their country that had not been liberated, with many thousands dying from hunger and the bitter cold.

And of course had the Allies succeeded in penetrating into Germany in 1944, the post-war map of Europe would probably have been very different. This is how the front lines were drawn in mid-September 1944, with the Western Front and Eastern Front roughly equidistant from Berlin.

(By Army Map Service – Document “Atlas of the World Battle Fronts in Semimonthly Phases to August 15th 1945: Supplement to The Biennial report of the Chief of Staff of the United States Army July 1, 1943 to June 30 1945 To the Secretary of War”, Public Domain, Link.)

Had Market Garden been successful would there have been 45 years of Cold War?

D-Day 75 Years On

Posted in Art, History with tags , , , , on June 6, 2019 by telescoper

Today is the 75th anniversary D-Day, the start of the Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy. I thought I’d mark the occasion by posting a slightly edited version of a piece I wrote about 9 years ago about this very famous picture:

This remarkable photograph was taken at 8.32am on 6th June 1944 on “Queen Red” beach, a sector in the centre-left of Sword Area, during the early stages of the D-Day invasion. The precise location is near La Brèche, Hermanville-sur-Mer, Normandy. The shutter clicked just as the beach came under heavy artillery and mortar fire from powerful German divisions inland.

Some time ago I came across a discussion of this image in the Observer. As the article describes, it consists of “a series of tableaux that look like quotations from religious art”. The piece goes on

In the foreground and on the right are sappers of 84 Field Company Royal Engineers. Behind them, heavily laden medical orderlies of 8 Field Ambulance Royal Army Medical Corps (some of whom are treating wounded men) prepare to move off the beach. In the background, men of the 1st Battalion, the Suffolk Regiment and No 4 Army Commando swarm ashore from landing craft.

The sapper in the bottom left, looking directly into the camera, is Jimmy Leisk who was born in Shetland. His strained expression gives the impression that he’s trying to escape from the photograph; through his eyes we get a glimpse of the grim reality of armed conflict. His colleague, turning away from the lens, seems to be calling to the men behind, but the image of his head and upper body links with the more distant figures forming a dramatic arc that pulls you into the centre of the picture before veering off to the right. Each element of this image tells its own story, but apart from one person in the foreground, all the faces are all hidden from view. I’m sure these anonymous figures were all just as frightened as the man in the foreground, but their individual identities are lost as they blend into graphic depiction of the monumental scale of the invasion. It’s a truly wonderful work of art, and a brilliant piece of storytelling, at the same level as an Old Master, but this is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the photographer was risking his life to take this picture.

This photograph, which was taken by Sergeant Jim Mapham of the Army Film and Photography Unit, was described by the US Press as “the greatest picture of the war”.

Jim Mapham was one of seven cameramen of the AFPU who went in on D-Day: Sgt Ian Grant, Sgt Christie, Sgt Norman Clague (killed), Sgt Desmond O’Neill (wounded), Sgt Billie Greenhalgh (wounded) and Sgt George Laws. Their work forms an extraordinary record of the invasion and is still widely used by the media – but rarely credited.

Robert Capa, the famous Hungarian photographer, was also on the beaches that morning, pinned down in the waves by enemy fire. But while he clambered on to a landing craft to get his pictures back to London, Sgt Mapham moved inland with the invasion force…

Jim Mapham survived the D-Day campaign and entered Germany with the army to document the fall of the Third Reich and the horrors of the Belsen concentration camp. He died in 1968. Until today I’d never heard of him. His name should be much more widely celebrated. I understand that the complete set of photographs he took on D-Day can be found in the Imperial War Museum‘s photographic archive.

As a final comment let me add that, contrary to popular myth, the landings at the Sword beaches were by no means a pushover. It’s true that the American forces, especially at Omaha beach, suffered heavier casualties on the actual landings – primarily because they failed to get their tanks and heavy artillery pieces ashore. However, the British troops at Sword were the only ones at any of the five landing areas to encounter strong German Panzer divisions on D-Day.

The main assault force at Sword beach was the British 3rd Infantry Division and its primary objective on the day of the invasion was to capture the city of Caen. As it turned out, the fighting was so heavy that they didn’t manage to take Caen until over a month after D-Day.

In fact it is worth remembering that the Allies failed to achieve any of their goals for D-Day itself: as well as Caen, Carentan, St. Lô, and Bayeux all remained in German hands. Only two of the beaches (Juno and Gold) were linked on the first day, and it wasn’t until 12 June that all five beachheads were connected. The battle to secure and expand the foothold took far longer than anticipated and the success of the operation was by no means the foregone conclusion that some would have you believe.

The Immortal Regiment in Cardiff

Posted in Cardiff with tags , , on May 10, 2017 by telescoper

I was walking along Queen Street in Cardiff last night when I encountered a group of people – mainly women and children – singing and marching in front of me with flags, banners and photographs of men in uniform decorated with medals, all escorted by a couple of police officers. I couldn’t figure out who they were from behind so I caught up with them and asked one of their number what it was all about.

It turned out to be a local (Cardiff) version of the Immortal Regiment March, part of Russian celebrations of victory in World War Two (`The Great Patriotic War’) which take place on 10th May, one day later than our own VE Day. This is a huge event in Russia, involving many millions of people. The Cardiff event was, of course, relatively small but many of those marching were direct relatives of people who gave their lives during the Second World War. Those were the photographs they were carrying.

There has been a sizable Russian community in Cardiff for many years, large enough to sustain a Russian Orthodox Church and various community organizations throughout the city. More than a few of the academic staff of Cardiff University are of Russian origin. Yesterday’s march was a timely reminder not only of the horrors endured by so many on the Eastern front but also of the fact that Cardiff is a wonderfully cosmopolitan city.

Brighton Seafront in Wartime

Posted in Brighton, History with tags , , , on February 15, 2015 by telescoper

Yesterday I stumbled across a collection of old photographs of Brighton seafront. Most of the pictures are charming images of everyday life Brighton, made all the more fascinating by the fact that the city has changed relatively little and all the locations are immediately recognizable. However, in the middle of a sequence of such photographs I saw this:

Brighton_lawns_east

The view is from the Hove side of the city, with Hove lawns to the left and the West Pier in the distance. Notice that there’s a gap in the Pier. All piers along the south coast of England were cut during the Second World War to prevent them being used as landing  jetties by the enemy. I didn’t know that until I saw the gap in this picture and found out more.

There’s no date on the original, so I initially guessed that it must have been taken in 1940 when the threat of invasion during World War 2 was at its height. However, as Bryn Jones pointed out to me on Twitter, the presence of the white star on the vehicle in the foreground marks it out belonging to the US military. I did a little bit of research (via Google) and discovered that the plain white cross was only used by US troops exercising in Britain in 1942. The symbol was subsequently replaced by a white cross surrounded by a white circle, which is the marking used on all US vehicles in Normandy from 1944 onwards. The photograph must therefore have been taken some time in 1942, although the static defences were presumably put in place much earlier in the war. At a guess I’d say that it seems quite likely that US troops stationed in this area may well have used Brighton beach to train for the eventual Normandy landings

As it turns out, Brighton would have been in the front line had the Germans tried to invade England, as the following plan of Operation Sealion makes clear:

1024px-OperationSealion.svg

The shore defences in the photograph look pretty fierce, but the planned amphibious assault would have been preceded by parachute landings, so they  may have been seized and rendered ineffective by the time the landings began.

Here is a picture of the same general area looking to the West with Hove Lawns on the right:

Brighton_lawns_west

The beaches were out of bounds to the general public for most of the war, primarily because they were covered in mines, but in any case they would have been pretty inaccessible through all the barbed wire and other obstacles.

Although the immediate threat of invasion had receded by 1942, Brighton remained on high alert. Here is a picture I found elsewhere on the net, taken in 1943, showing a 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun stationed on the seafront not far from the Grand Hotel seen clearly in the background:

Brighton_bofors

The juxtaposition of the comfortingly familiar with the shockingly unfamiliar gives these images tremendous power. It’s hard to imagine what life must have been like under the constant threat of invasion and air raids, but these pictures at least give an idea of how grim it must have been to those of us who are fortunate enough to have never been forced to experience anything like it.

 

 

Market Garden

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , , on September 17, 2014 by telescoper

I’m just back to Brighton after a meeting in London so I hope you will excuse me for my brevity on this occasion. On the other hand I feel obliged to note an important anniversary.

Seventy years ago today, on 17th September 1944, the largest airborne operation in military history began. Operation Market Garden (as it was called) saw about 35,000 Allied troops dropped by parachute or landed in gliders behind German lines in Holland, with the aim of seizing key bridges in order to allow infantry and armoured divisions to advance, eventually into Germany. Of more immediate tactical importance was that capture of the Northernmost bridges over the Rhine at Arnhem would prevent German reinforcements from moving South to confront the advancing troops and armoured vehicles of XXX Corps whose job was to punch a hole in the German defences and link up with the airborne troops.

 

Operation_MARKET-GARDEN_-_82.Airborne_near_Grave

Motivated by the belief that German armies in the West were exhausted and on the brink of collapse as well as the desire if possible to finish the war before Christmas, Operation Market Garden was daring and imaginative, but began to unravel right from the outset and ended as a disastrous failure, with the loss of many lives.

I’m not a military historian, so am not competent to add anything significant to the huge amount that has been written about what went wrong, but I will add a personal note. A cousin of my Grandfather flew to Arnhem with the 1st British Airborne division whose job was to take and hold the bridges over the Rhine that would open the door to an invasion of Germany. Sadly, he was one of those many troops who never even made it to their objective. In fact he was dead before he even hit the ground; his unit was dropped virtually on top of heavily armed German forces and had no chance of defending themselves. I had always been told that he had been dropped by parachute, but the records at the cemetery revealed that was wrong; he was on a glider which was badly shot up during its approach.

In fact the action at Arnhem involved two bridges, one a railway bridge at Oosterbeek and the other a road bridge in Arnhem itself. British paratroopers did manage to capture one end of the road bridge, but never succeeded in securing both ends of the structure. Cut off from the much larger force pinned down near their landing zones they were eventually forced to surrender simply because they had run out of ammunition. The other units that landed near Arnhem never made their objectives and had to dig in and hope for reinforcements that never came. They fought a brave but desperate defensive action until 25th September when some were successfully evacuated across the Rhine. The original battle orders had specified they were to hold their ground for 48 hours until relieved by armour and infantry advancing from the South.

Some years ago, after attending a conference in Leiden, I took time out to visit Oosterbeek cemetery, where  1437 soldiers lie buried. Such was the chaos at Arnhem that bodies of fallen soldiers are still being discovered in gardens and woods; as there were so many dead that there was only time to bury them in shallow graves where they had fallen. As remains are discovered they are removed and reburied in Oosterbeek. When I visited the cemetery about 20 years ago, there were several brand new graves.

The local people looked on in horror as their potential liberators were cut down. It must have been deeply traumatizing for them. I think it is telling that when, in 1969, the British Army proposed bringing to an end the annual ceremonies in commemoration of these events, local Dutch civilians insisted that they continue.

As I stood by the grave I couldn’t help thinking of how lucky members of my generation are that we have not been called on to make such a sacrifice. The failure of Operation Market Garden had other terrible consequences. The winter of 1944/45 was a bitter one for Dutch civilians in the part of their country that had not been liberated, with many thousands dying from hunger and cold.

And of course had the Allies succeeded in penetrating into Germany in 1944 the post-war map of Europe would probably have been very different. Had Market Garden been successful would there have been 45 years of Cold War?

 

Doodlebug Summer

Posted in History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2014 by telescoper

Yesterday’s post reminded me of another aspect of World War 2 that is worth mentioning. There’s a general impression that the defeat of Nazi Germany was more-or-less inevitable after the Normandy invasion of June 1944. However, as I mentioned yesterday, the Allied advance was much slower than expected and it was not until mid-August that the British, Canadian and American divisions really broke through. Morale back home wasn’t helped by this slow progress, but the most significant factor for the civilian population, especially in London, for the period June to August 1944 was the arrival of a new form of weapon; for many, the summer 1944 was “Doodlebug Summer”.

First came the V1 “Flying Bomb” (or “doodlebug”). The first of these to fall on London hit the railway bridge at Grove Road in Bow, East London, on 13th June 1944. This is just a few hundred yards North of Mile End tube station, and close to where I used to work at Queen Mary College, University of London. I don’t think people realize the scale of the threat these terror weapons posed. For a start they were launched in considerable numbers, usually over a hundred a day and over 8000 in total during the course of the summer. These weapons caused 22,892 (mainly civilian) casualties and causing widespread damage to the city’s infrastructure. Looking through the War Office minutes for the week corresponding to this one, seventy years ago, yields a typical statistic: 768 Flying Bombs were launched, 158 landed over London, 462 were destroyed.

These numbers however, convey only part of the picture. The doodlebug was primarily a terror weapon; it struck fear into the hearts of the population though the distinctive sound of its primitive jet engine – fear would immediately transform into alarm when the engine cut out, for that was when the device would fall to Earth and detonate. On the one hand, this did at least give some warning to those in its path but, on the other, it made it impossible for the authorities to disguise the nature of the threat. The V1 was relatively slow (640 km/h, i.e. about 400 mph) and flew at quite a low altitude, which meant that many were downed by ground-based anti-aircraft guns or fighter aircraft fast enough to intercept them, but sufficient numbers still got through to cause considerable panic. The onslaught was only halted in September 1944 when the advancing Allies overran the launch sites in France. Although attacks resumed in due course from other launch sites, the scale of the threat was greatly diminished.

Later on, from September 1944 onwards, the V2 rocket was introduced; this travelled on a ballistic trajectory and gave no warning whatsoever; no gun or aircraft could possibly shoot it down. To begin with the authorities attempted to explain the succession of mysterious explosions as being due to fault gas mains, etc. There never was an effective defence against the V2, but fortunately they were rather unreliable and the number of casualties they caused, though considerable, was not on the same scale as the V1.

Another interesting aspect of the doodlebug attacks was the deception campaign run by British Intelligence, which involved a famous double-agent code-named Garbo. This was the agent behind the audacious deception plan that led the Nazi High Command to believe that the Normandy landings were a decoy to draw attention away from the main landings which would happen in the Pas de Calais. As part of this ruse, Garbo (whom the Germans believed was working for them) actually sent news of the Normandy landings to his handlers by radio. This staggeringly risky gambit could have ended in disaster, but the Germans swallowed the bait: an entire division was kept away from Normandy, waiting for the expected assault in Pas de Calais, which of course never came.

In mid-June 1944 Garbo was asked by his handlers to report on the locations of V1 impacts. The guidance system on the doodlebug was very crude and the Germans had no real idea whether they were systematically overshooting or falling short of London. Could some form of deception plan be concocted that could work in this case? The obvious strategy would be to report that V1s falling on London were falling too far North; if the Germans believed this then they would adjust the settings so they fell further South, and would then miss London. However, some doodlebugs hit high-profile targets so there was little point lying about them – Garbo would immediately be exposed. Moreover, some V1s were fitted with radio transmitters and the Germans knew exactly where they were landing. In the end it was decided that Garbo would simply report (accurately) only those V1 impacts that happened to the North West of London, hoping that the selection bias in these reports would be misinterpreted as a systematic error in the aiming of the V1s. From Ultra decrypts from the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, the Allies knew what was believed by the Germans and what was not and adjusted the flow of information accordingly.

If 1944 seems sufficiently remote for this all just to be a fascinating piece of history, it is worth remembering that the V1 “Terror Weapon” was the forerunner of the modern US combat drones that have killed many hundreds of civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in covert attacks as part of the so-called “War on Terror”. Think about the irony of that for a moment.

Solly’s Story

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, History, LGBT with tags , , , on August 9, 2014 by telescoper

I don’t know why I suddenly remembered a long-forgotten character I knew when I was in Brighton as a research student, but I thought I’d write a blog post so I don’t forget him again.

I moved to Brighton in late September 1985 to start my DPhil. I’d left it quite late looking for accommodation because I’d been working in Newcastle through the summer after my graduation. In the end I had to settle for a bedsit in Hove, quite a long way from central Brighton in a road called Goldstone Villas, not far from Brighton & Hove Albion’s old stadium, the Goldstone Ground.

Round the corner from my place was a pub – I’ve forgotten the name – which became my local. After a few visits there I became friendly with one of the regulars there, a man in his sixties who was known to everyone as Solly, short for Solomon. He was, as I soon came to realise, something of a local celebrity.

Solly was a tall man, always immaculately dressed, and (I would say) handsome for his years. He was also (quite obviously) gay and (also quite obviously) Jewish. He had a great sense of humour and was a wonderful raconteur, but at the same time very kindly and self-effacing; he was liked by everyone in the pub (which wasn’t a gay pub, by the way).

Like everyone else I took an immediate liking to Solly; I greatly enjoyed his company and we had dinner together quite a few times in addition to conversations in the pub. On one of these occasions he told me his life story, or at least some of it. It turns out he was of Anglo-Austrian extraction, with an English mother and an Austrian father, although he had no trace of an accent. He was born in Austria, but his parents sent him to live with relatives in England during the 1930s because they could see what was going to happen there as the power of Nazi Germany grew; he never saw either of them again.

Solly arrived in Brighton when he was about 11 and he was 17 when World War 2 broke out. He immediately tried to join up, but was refused because he was too young. When he reached 18 he tried again but was still refused. He went to London (at the height of the Blitz) to try enlisting there, but was also refused, possibly because of his German-sounding name (and also possibly because of his sexuality).

Having failed to join up he returned to Brighton in late summer 1940 and joined the Local Defence Volunteers (the “Home Guard”). Given his appearance in later life I imagine he would have looked at this time rather a lot like Private Pike from Dad’s Army.

I remember many of his hilarious stories of how shambolic the Home Guard actually was, as well as how they were largely engaged in helping the Police deal with crimes such as racketeering and looting, but there was one particular striking incident that has stuck in my memory.

On 7th September 1940 the War Office issued the following communique:

Message to all UK units: codeword CROMWELL. Home Defence forces to highest degree of readiness. Invasion of mainland UK expected at any time.

After being informed of this signal Solly and his comrades turned up to be issued with the equipment with which they were expected to stop the invasion. In his case it was an ancient pre-WW1 vintage rifle, three rounds of ammunition, and two improvised grenades. With these meagre supplies, they were supposed to hold their positions until reinforced, possibly for up to 7 days.

As they walked to their posts all the volunteers were certain that they had no chance and that none of them would survive the night. The talk was exclusively of the need to make all their shots count. If each man could kill at least one German before he himself was killed then the invasion might be thwarted. Solly certainly had no intention of allowing himself to be taken prisoner, as he knew all too well how he would be treated by the Nazis.
After an agonizing wait, and several false alarms, dawn broke. The Germans never came.

As it turns out, if they had come, Solly’s platoon would have been right in the front line: Operation Sealion (the planned invasion of England) involved the landing of paratroopers on the Downs just behind Brighton with the intention of securing the high ground behind the landings and the main road to London ahead of the invasion:

1024px-OperationSealion.svg

Solly did finally succeed in enlisting, but his good knowledge of the German language meant that he was given a desk job, translating documents and such, until the Normandy invasion when he finally got to fire a weapon in action, although he landed some weeks after the initial assault, when his unit was attacked south of Caen. He didn’t hit anyone.

Incidentally, the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings passed in June 1944 but it’s worth noting that the German defensive lines were not really broken until August. In fact, on this day in 1944, British and Canadian forces were engaged in heavy fighting about 6 miles from Falaise, while the Americans were executing a wide encircling manoeuvre designed to surround and trap the German army.

Anyway, back to the 1980s. I didn’t stay long in the Hove bedsit and moved out early in 1986. About six months later I happened to be in the area so popped into the pub to see Solly. He wasn’t there; he had passed away suddenly of a heart attack in the Spring.