Posted by: sommecourt | 19/03/2013

Crumbling History: The Nuremberg Stadium

A couple of weeks ago I visited the Nuremberg stadium for the first time; it’s sheer size is overwhelming and when you consider what it symbolised and who once stood there, on a cold March day it was chilling in every way to walk around the site.

Nuremberg 1945

But one thing I noticed was this landmark of the ‘Thousand Year Reich’ is crumbling, and in places falling down. It took battle damage in 1945 and much of the original structure has been removed over the years; as such it appears to have damaged the integrity of much of the stonework. A main road runs close by with heavy traffic and the site is regularly used for public events, although not the type it was originally built for. While scrubbed out, graffiti and vandalism are obviously commonplace.

Crumbling Nuremberg

What to do with such a structure? Given what it once represented should it perhaps be left to turn to dust?

Some damage was done during the fighting in 1945.

I can hardly be called an apologist for the Nazi regime, as this post will show, but as an historian I view any form of history crumbling away as this is as a bad thing. Buildings are as important as documents in a dusty archive and to let such a structure fall to pieces is a crime; to understand what the Third Reich was and what its aims were we have to able to show future generations places like this. Sadly it seems locally there is little desire to do anything; but it was once like that in Berlin and now there is active interest in preserving Nazi period buildings. One can only hope it will change and as we move towards the 70th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War there might be a  local initiative to ensure important locations like the Nuremberg Stadium are preserved.

Posted by: sommecourt | 18/03/2013

On The Trail of the Holocaust

I have just returned from a fascinating and moving two weeks following the trail of the Holocaust across Europe from Holland into Germany, and then on into Poland and the Czech Republic. The Holocaust was one of the darkest chapters of European history in the Twentieth Century and I have long had an interest in it as my grandmother’s French family, Jews who lived just outside of Paris, all died at Auschwitz having been deported there in 1944.

We began our journey in Holland with a visit the Anne Frank House. Now a museum, this is the original building the Franks sheltered in before they were betrayed in August 1944. The tiny, cramped space they lived in is evident as you make your way round this building but at times the whole experience felt a little soul-less as there is very little belonging to them left inside; it is pretty much a hollow shell of a building, albeit a very important one in the history of the Holocaust. Moving into Germany we continued with the Anne Frank theme at Bergen-Belsen, where she tragically died in 1945. The massive Interpretation Centre at Belsen retells the story of not just the site but the whole Holocaust and was a sobering introduction to what we were doing on this trip.

Sachsenhausen

In Berlin we toured the city from a Holocaust perspective; it was amazing to see how busy such places were, even on a cold March day. Aside from the obvious locations like the Holocaust Memorial and the Anhalter Bahnhof, thanks to one of the group we went to visit Gleis 17, a platform on a suburban station in west Berlin where thousands of Jews were deported from Berlin during WW2.

In Poland we had a detailed look at the Schindler Factory and the Krakow Ghetto. This was truly fascinating wandering round the buildings where the Ghetto had been, seeing original signage and finding buildings where even young children were killed when the Ghetto was cleared in 1943.

Auschwitz II

Auschwitz was a difficult visit for me as this is where my grandmother’s French family died in 1944. I found one of them listed in an exhibition in the French section of the displays in Auschwitz camp. The number of visitors was a little overwhelming at times but when we moved on to the truly massive Auschwitz II – Birkenau, I found that I really couldn’t hack it after a couple of hours, especially after seeing all the ashes in a pond near one of the gas chambers. Were my distant ancestors in there somewhere? We returned to the hotel both physically and emotionally exhausted that evening.

In the Czech Republic we traced the locations connected with the Reinhard Heydrich assassination in 1942 and was able to find the slip road where he was killed by the Czech SOE team, although it did not seem possible to stop for a proper look; although we could see information panels there now. Next day we visited Terezin – or Theresienstadt as it was once known. I especially wanted to see this as I had researched a family who were held here for Channel 5’s War Hero In My Family last year. Pretty much left in its wartime state, I found this a fascinating site with a truly haunting Holocaust memorial.

Terezin Memorial

Back in Germany we visited Nuremberg and it was a fitting place to end two weeks following the Holocaust to make our last stop the Nuremberg courtrooms where many of those guilty of the crimes connected to the Holocaust were tried after the war.

The research on this trip was for the Holocaust Tour myself and my team of specialist guides organise and guide for Leger Holidays and whether you join us on this journey or do it yourself, it is something I would recommend to everyone; as tragic, sad and horrific as it often is, the Holocaust is certainly something that should not be forgotten.

Posted by: sommecourt | 24/02/2013

Cyril Haworth RIP: The Passing Of A WW2 Veteran

For quite some time I have had the honour and pleasure of accompanying the York Branch of the Normandy Veterans Association back to the places where they fought in 1944 and 1945. Over the years we have travelled from Normandy to Belgium to Holland and on to Germany. The branch was ably led and organised by Cyril Haworth, and it is with much regret that I have to announce he passed away this week at the age of 91.

Cyril was originally from Bolton and in 1940 joined the Home Guard as an eighteen year old volunteer. The following year he enlisted in the Royal Artillery as a Gunner and was commissioned in March 1943. He was posted to 69th Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery, part of the 49th (West Riding) Division, otherwise known as the ‘Polar Bears’. After extensive training, the Normandy operations and D-Day approached and Cyril found himself in the vanguard on 6th June 1944, moving forward to survey location for his artillery unit. He fought throughout the Normandy campaign and later in Belgium where he was captured for a short while but managed to escape. His longest period of service was in Holland where he took part in Operation Market Garden and spent the winter of 1944/45 on ‘The Island’. At one point he had an Observation Post at the top of Driel church tower, which he remembered when we visited the area in 2011:

Cyril’s war concluded with the liberation of Northern Holland and the advance into Germany. Post-war he worked on the manual of aerial photographic interpretation; he remembered that by the time he had finished writing it, it was so secret he no longer had a high enough rank to read it!

Cyril Haworth at Gold Beach 2012, where he landed on D-Day.

I met Cyril in his capacity as Branch chairman of the York NVA and I like to think we became good friends. He would often telephone and I always enjoyed chatting with him; any conversation would soon end up on a WW2 subject. On the trips to the battlefields Cyril was always in his element and he was very generous recounting many experiences, often on the spot where they had actually happened. Cyril and his team of fellow veterans remain an inspiration; when I looked at them as old men, to the modern world that is what they were. But these were survivors of some of the toughest battles of the Second World War and we only have an inkling of what we owe to men like Cyril.

I shall miss Cyril, especially the next time I am in Normandy, but as with all those men I’ve known who once knew the sharp-end, I hope that in some small way a debt can be repaid by making their names, their lives and their experiences live on.

Posted by: sommecourt | 08/11/2012

Book Review: Pour La France

Pour La France: A Guide to the Formations and Units of the Land Forces of France 1914-18 (Helion & Company Ltd 2012, ISBN 978 1 907677 14 4), 539 PP, £45.00

In many respects the French Army of the Great War is little known in Britain outside of battles like Verdun and the Chemin des Dames, but for the whole war it was the major partner on the Western Front, holding over 300 miles of the 450 miles of trenches on the Allied side. It’s casualties were enormous with 300,000 dead in 1914 alone and 1.4 million by the end of the conflict. Language difficulties have meant that the role of French troops has often been left out of recent accounts of the Great War and what English language publications there have been are largely disappointing.

Not so with Pour La France. This mammoth tome gives us an in-depth guide to the French Army of the Great War starting with an analysis of the French forces in 1914 and following on with detailed information on the composition and Orders of Battle of French formations. For the divisions the units serving with them are shown with summaries of their war history. For units like Infantry Regiments each one is mentioned showing what larger formation they were with so more details can be ascertained.

The book is low on analysis – that is not its purpose – but is big on detail and will certainly become the standard reference work on the French Army in WW1. The structure of the book is well thought out and easy to access. Required reference material for any serious scholar of the Great War.

The book can be ordered via the Helion website.

Posted by: sommecourt | 10/10/2012

Review: The Final Whistle

The Final Whistle by Stephen Cooper (Spellmount 2012, ISBN 978 0 7524 7935 4), 288pp, illustrated. £14.99

Although I have never been a sports fan, there is an inextricable link between sport and the Great War. Sportsmans and Footballers battalions were created in the New Army and a clear link was established in propaganda between heroism and success on the sportsfield to the same virtues on the battlefield. Sporting heroes were used as examples to encourage others to enlist and the press made much of footballers, rugby players and cricketers who had joined up.

While books on sportsmen in the Great War have been published before, this new title by Stephen Cooper takes a slightly different angle. He focuses on one sport, Rugby, and one club, Rosslyn Park in south-west London. While their Roll of Honour was a long one, he takes fifteen members of the club and retells the story of the Great War through them. The book then follows a chronological approach and takes each player in turn, putting their life and war service into context. The men in these tales take us not only to battles like Ypres and the Somme, but above the Western Front with the Flying Corps and on board ship in the Zeebrugge Raid. The stories are very well written and well constructed and in no way become repetitious.  In fact they can easily be dipped in and out of, and even the most well read of Great War enthusiast will get something from them all.

I found this a fascinating book and far from the usual ‘Roll of Honour’ publication that come out in their droves each year. Here is the context, here is the depth and humanity often so lacking in long lists of names. Stephen Cooper brings alive these long dead players and takes us with them from the touch line to the battlefield on a fascinating and moving journey. Highly recommended.

The book is available from The History Press.

Posted by: sommecourt | 16/08/2012

Review: Home Before The Leaves Fall

Home Before The Leaves Fall by Ian Senior (Osprey 2012, ISBN 978 1 84908 843 5) 392pp, illustrated, maps.

For the majority of those who read this review the Great War began with the opening shots of the British Army at Mons on 23rd August 1914. But for France and Germany the war by then was almost three weeks old and both sides had suffered casualties that completely dwarfed the losses of the BEF at Mons. Those real opening shots of the Great War fought on the borders of Alsace-Lorraine in Eastern France are a forgotten episode of the war to an English speaking audience.

This new book by Ian Senior is one of a growing number in English bringing into sharp focus the fighting in areas outside the British and Commonwealth experience of WW1. Using a wide variety of sources in both French and German, including the French Official History, Senior weaves a fascinating tale of a costly period for both nations. German was a modern army prepared for a European war of movement. France stepped into the field of battle with men wearing red trousers, cavalry with gleaming breast plates and an officer class whose spirit of elan had little changed since the Franco-Prussian War. It cost them dear – by the close of the year the French alone had lost three quarters of a million men killed, wounded and missing.

The book begins with a look at pre-war plans and the importance of the Schlieffen Plan for Germany and Plan XVII for France; the latter probably less familiar to most readers. It then takes a chronological approach to the early battles on the frontiers in August, to the continued bitter fighting in the autumn leading to stalemate and the start of trench warfare by the early winter. There are many first-hand accounts quoted, which often offer a chilling insight into warfare in 1914 and throughout the book is well sourced with extensive endnotes.

Home Before The Leaves Fall is a very readable book, and the excellent maps help to understand the sequence of events, rather than just window dress. This move by Osprey into hardback serious history is to be welcomed; Senior’s book is an important addition to our understanding of the Great War and the role of combatants aside from Great Britain. My hope is that the upcoming centenary will encourage more books like this, peeking into the dark corners of a war that still resonates a hundred years later.

The book can be ordered in various formats from the Osprey website: Home Before The Leaves Fall.

Posted by: sommecourt | 15/08/2012

Review: Lost At Nijmegen

Lost At Nijmegen by R.G.Poulussen (By the Author 2011); 72pp, illustrated, maps.

One of the more memorable sequences in ‘A Bridge Too Far’ is when the bridge is Nijmegen is taken by US Airborne troops, at high cost. The bridge secure at both ends, British armour rolls across and then stops on the road to Arnhem. The British break out their Tommy cookers and brew up, much to the frustration of the Americans who begin to feel their sacrifice was for nothing. For many the episode highlighted not only the often strained relationship between the Allies, but also pointed to a fundamental point in Operation Market Garden where it finally went wrong and the chance of reaching Arnhem was at an end. But was this really the turning point?

A new book on the battle by Dutch author R.G. Poulussen indicates that the real battle for the Nijmegen Bridge over the river Waal was lost long before the Guards Armoured Shermans even arrived. Poulussen lives locally and is one of the many Dutch historians who have added much to our understanding of the battle, the research they do often leaving many English speaking scholars behind. The essential premise of the book is that General Gavin, commanding 82nd Airborne, wasted an opportunity to take the Waal Bridge when his troops first dropped into the area on 17th September 1944, right at the beginning of the battle. Instead of sending men to secure the vital route to Arnhem, he became concerned about counter-attacks across the nearby Groesbeek Heights and sent troops there; it would be three days before his men returned to Nijmegen by which time taking the bridge was a much more complex proposition.

Poulussen has researched the topic well and used a variety of sources to support his thesis, including those from both American and Dutch archives. He shows clearly that key units of 82nd Airborne jumped into Holland without a true awareness of how key the Waal Bridge was in the whole operation and their commanders seemingly had little chance to use their initiative. At one point his demonstrates that a company of one Parachute Infantry Regiment was less than a mile from the Bridge on the first day, but the caution preached to their commander stopped them from taking the chance to make an assault.

The book is a fascinating insight into a rarely considered aspect of the battle, which many no doubt think is well covered in official histories. It shows that nearly seventy years after Arnhem we are still learning more about the operation, despite the huge numbers of books that have been published down the decades.

This highly recommended book can be purchased online via the author’s website at www.lostatnijmegen.pre-jump.nl.

Posted by: sommecourt | 25/07/2012

The New In Flanders Fields Museum

Since the new version of the internationally renewed  First World War museum, In Flanders Fields, opened in early June, I have been fortunate to be there on three occasions. The first two were for work, as we ended up filming a piece in the museum with one of the curators for the new WW1 series I have been working on. But those early trips gave me a chance to have a quick look around and see what was new, and what had changed.

I had read much about the new version of the museum, much of it speculation. I was expecting, however, a considerable ‘wow’ when I visited it, but must say on those first two brief stops that ‘wow’ was not there. It was impressive, there was more space, less of a ‘message’ but much of the material on show was not new; it was either from the old versions of the museum or from some of it’s temporary exhibitions such as ‘The Last Witness’ (which by the way was the best museum exhibition I have ever visited).

The biggest change that was apparent was the space; there is much more space to move around. The museum also more comfortably fits into the structure of the Cloth Hall, with some very fine wooden staircases at the entrance and exit, along with good facilities and a very nice cafe. One doesn’t feel confined, as before – even when the museum is busy. The exhibits follow a logical semi-chronological approach, with the background to the war, the first shots in Belgium (a most welcome display as few British visitors will know about this), and then the formation of the Ypres Salient following the First Battle of Ypres. After that it follows subjects rather than a time-frame; trench warfare, tunnelling, propaganda plus the cost of war and the aftermath.

Some features of the displays are worth mentioning: the dramatised recordings of personal testimony where a modern actor speaks a diary, a letter or an account, a very good and quite moving. The film about Passchendaele focuses on the view of the battle from medical personnel – a novel approach, which works. Uniforms are displayed traditionally but also in a  very different way – ‘Airfix’ style (as keen be seen by the photo above) is the best way I can describe it. I was also pleased to see Battlefield Archaeology feature very heavily, with a permanent display about the work of the Diggers at Yorkshire Trench and Dugout: indicating as to how important this mode of studying the Great War has become.

Two completely new features were my favourites; in the final area of the museum are a series of touch-screens (like big iPads) where you can view modern aerial photograph of the Flanders battlefields and switch into wartime aerials of the same place and follow ‘hot spots’ which contain extra info and photos about specific places around Ypres. This system still has a few teething problems but it is unique in any WW1 museum, and something easy to get lost in!

The other new feature which I liked most of all was the soundtrack that plays all the time you are in the museum. It is a specially commissioned piece by British indie band Tindersticks. Many might fear that this music would be distracting, perhaps even annoying after a while; in fact, I found it hugely complimentary to the whole visitor experience and also incredibly moving. I wish they would put it on the IFF website!

Modern museums about the Great War often leave me cold, but this new version of In Flanders Fields is a worthwhile experience for visitors old and new; on my last trip when I did the museum ‘properly’ I easily spent three hours inside; that in itself speaks volumes. Make sure it is on your list of things to do next time you are in Ypres.

Posted by: sommecourt | 15/07/2012

WW2 Unearthed – Dig WW2 on BBC1

I spent most of 2011 working on Dig WW2 for BBC Northern Ireland and 360Production. The series, devised by producer/director John Hayes-Fisher and presented by Dan Snow, was made especially for BBC Northern Ireland and aimed to look at ‘what was left behind’ from WW2 and tackle the subject from a Northern Irish point of view. As historical consultant I worked with John and the team and in Northern Ireland we had historian Johnny McNnee to build on the stories there. It was an amazing year that took the team from Normandy to Arnhem, all over Northern Ireland and off to Italy, too. Digs on aircraft in Ireland resulted in much media interest; a news story on the Spitfire dig in Eire had nearly a million hits on the BBC News site. The series was shown on BBC NI earlier this year and tonight a BBC1 version will be shown at 17.30 UK time.

The series has been re-branded ‘WW2 Unearthed’ and the main overseas dig featured in it will be the one we filmed on the Hitler Line at Cassino, in Italy. The Hitler Line was the last line of defence at Cassino, and it was assaulted in May 1944 by British and Canadian troops, supported at one point by tanks from the North Irish Horse. We worked in Italy with the Gustav Line Group, a team of Italian battlefield archaeologists. They carried out an amazing dig on two different types of bunkers on the Hitler Line; one which in 1944 mounted a Panther tank turret and another which was a machine-gun position. At the MG bunker we had traced in the archives the story of the assault on the bunker by Canadian troops, and during the course of the dig the team unearthed the whole archaeology of the skirmish; cartridges ejected from the Canadians weapons on one side, remains of Canadian kit and a helmet from one of the casualties, and discarded German cartridges from the bunker. As with many of these digs it captured a moment in time, all the more moving as we knew that there were men still alive who had taken part in the battle here.

In many ways Dig WW2 and WW2 Unearthed are way ahead of the game – this is the first time on national television that a wide range of WW2 battlefield digs have been filmed, and while many consider the Second World War as perhaps too recent for archaeology there is a certain fascination with seeing just what the series set out to do – to discover what is left from those key events of seventy years ago.

Posted by: sommecourt | 13/07/2012

Review: A War To End All Wars

This documentary is in fact two separate films and takes a narrative approach in following the story of the British experience of the First World War. It is presented by Robin Thompson, described as a broadcaster, but someone I am not familiar with personally. It includes contributions from others, variously described as military historians, although they do not appear to be published or have a high profile online. That aside, it is not a bad little tale, following the story of fighting at Arras and the Somme, and also in Flanders. It includes some well shot material of the ground today along with relevant archive and will certainly be of interest to those who travel to the battlefields today. In places it’s history is a bit questionable, using phrases like “lambs to the slaughter” and taking an often rhetorical approach to the conduct of the war. I am also not so sure about the presenter and contributors suddenly being transformed into actors in a sepia filmed sequence in a WW1 trench; that came across as a bit odd and the way it was ‘acted’ was a little wooden. However, the films highlight some areas not normally seen in the average documentary and the films present an interesting couple of hours viewing.

The DVD is available from Wiener Films online at:

www.wienerworld.com/index.php

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