It was with sadness that I heard that Alexander Uhlig, a legendary name in the annals of the history of the Fallschirmjäger and of the Normandy campaign in 1944, had died on 1st November in Essen at the age of 89. My own encounter with the name, as no doubt with most who recognise it, was most notably reading of his conduct with FJR.6 in Normandy in the weeks following Operation Overlord, and an action in late July 1944 which Uhlig described in his own words (courtesy of The Guardian’s “D-Day: 60 Years On”):
“Our company commander ordered us to drive the Americans back across the river and, if I could, he ordered me to bring back a couple of prisoners for questioning. So our group mounted a surprise attack, picking up some more men and tanks on the way, at the end of which we managed to capture 250 Americans and took them back [to St Germain-sur-Seves].
But a lot of Americans were killed and even more were wounded [in the marshy ground around Seves]. And many of our men died, too. I lost several comrades, good men.”
Those familiar with the story will recognise that Uhlig was being modest: His company had in fact annihilated a battalion of the US 90th Infantry Division, and among the prisoners was the battalion commander. It was for this success that Oberfeldwebel Uhlig was awarded the Knight’s Cross. A previous veteran of Narvik, Crete and Italy, he was captured later in 1944 – only to escape from captivity and go down as one of the few German PoWs to return to Germany without recapture.
Uhlig’s postwar life involved heavy involvement with veterans’ associations, including those of the 90th Infantry Division – who had, in the aftermath of FJR.6′s assault, been allowed to gather up their wounded from the battlefield after Uhlig himself persuaded his superiors to hold fire and observe a brief truce for the Americans to go about unhindered. This led to five-yearly gatherings between the veterans of FJR.6 and 90th Infantry Division. He became head of FJR.6′s own veterans’ association in 1994, after the death of its wartime commander, Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte.
Mike Shilton, of the Luftwaffe Airfield Re-Enactment Association, recalled the following:
“I was very honoured to have met him and spend some time with him in Kreta in 2001. He took Bubi, Ron and I to the Samaria Gorge in the SW of the island, we all started the walk, but after some considerable distance, Alexander let the three of us carry on further down the gorge, on our return to Alexander we all went back to the car for the drive down the mountain. It was a long, very winding road to the bottom, Bubi was in the front, I was behind Alexander and Ron behind Bubi, on the first stretch down the mountain we encountered a coach coming up, instead of waiting for the coach to go by, Alexander overtook it on the outside, very close to the edge and at high speed, Ron and I just looked at each other. At the end of some of the hairpin bends were drop offs of probably a 1000ft or more, as we sped down the mountain and approached one of these hairpins, Alexander lost control and the car skidded sideways towards the edge, fortunately, it was one of the very few bends with a road running off it , I looked in the mirror to see Alexander quietly smiling to himself with a wicked glint in his eye, Ron however had buried his finger nails in the back of Bubi’s seat, I haven’t got a clue what I did. Needless to say the rest of the journey down the mountain was hair raising. You could tell Alexander had faced death many times in his life and nothing scared him, even when we got back on to level ground he still drove at speed, the return journey to Maleme went by very quickly. My other abiding memory, was at the memorial service at Maleme cemetery , there were government ministers, high ranking officers, soldiers, civil dignitaries and us wandering around waiting for the memorial service to begin, when Alexander arrived, not only was he wearing a Ritterkreutz, but it was the original, not the 1957 re-issue, we thought that absolutely brilliant, sticking two fingers up at the establishment, a true gentleman, may he rest in peace and share many happy times with his fallen comrades.”
My respect and recognition go to a man whom I had not the fortune to meet, yet whose exploits and character left an admirable and unforgettable impression.
Ruhe in Frieden.
(I wish to thank Mike Shilton, David Simon of the Luftwaffe Historical Group, and Peter Hilde of the Ritterkreuzträgerbund for their help in producing this article.)
Footage by American combat photographer Albert Fagler from the time of Operation Overlord and the Battle of Normandy has been discovered and put into the hands of the Library of Congress. Three reels of film (which can be viewed here) include footage of American troops in the Normandy countryside and some stunning gun-camera coverage of a dogfight between US and German fighters. Take a look for yourself: It’s about fifteen minutes of non-soundtracked film, and the air-combat section is astounding.
Although The Devil’s Whore is neither that much of a military-history programme nor within my area of expertise, I feel an obligation to give some commentary for three reasons:
1) I watched it, and I rarely watch television so that’s an event in itself.
2) I know for a fact that Rich at Chronologi Cogitationes refuses to even watch the show, so I feel a need to provide something where a superior authority on the period won’t. And mock him gently for not doing so.
3) I managed to catch, once again, the Harris/Guinness epic Cromwell on ITV3 a few nights ago, which provided even more food for analytical thought and eventually made my mind up for me about writing about the show.
But anyway, I did watch it. I wasn’t expecting a lot, given my corroborating evidence for such a low outcome was a knowledge (and subsequent distrust) of what sex-and-swordplay ‘historical dramas’ do in the way of shunting history out of the way and plonking a few dubious facts in its place for the cast to congregate around, not to mention the closest thing I have to a 17th-Century authority point-blank refusing to even watch the thing. The hallmarks of TV historical drama are there: Underlying contemporary concepts pared down brutally for elucidation in a single scene; historical figures who have their name declared in full after several minutes on-screen to fully identify them to the viewer as Someone What Was Real; very important historical figures playing second-fiddle to characters important to the actual plot, forcing them to pop in and out of scenes like a bad episode of Happy Days; and, of course, a minimum of three sex scenes per every 45 minutes of script.
The cast was solid enough and featured a few faces I recognised, including Peter Capaldi (Local Hero and one episode of Peep Show), Michael Fassbander (Band of Brothers and the upcoming IRA film Hunger) and John Simm (from popular-show-I-never-actually-watched Life On Mars) – the latter playing Edward Sexby, portrayed as a crazy-eyed veteran soldier-of-fortune who undoubtedly has been set as the One That Just Won’t Die And So Will Last Until The FInal Episode that all historical dramas with a bit of killing seems to have to have (given that TDW spans a timeframe upto 1660, and that Sexby died in 1658, I really hope this isn’t the case). The most striking characterisation was that of Oliver Cromwell, who is played with an accuracy-befitting East Anglian accent, giving him more of that potato-farmer air that Richard Harris raved upon in his famous “Oliver the First, King of England!” speech at the end of the aforementioned film – you come to expect not so much “I tell you we will cut off his head with the crown upon it”, rather a straightforward “GERROF MOI LAND!” in later episodes.
The battle scenes, though impressively shot in my opinion, are a let-down. The recreation of Edgehill appears to have soaked up most of the project’s budget for outdoor shots, meaning that later battle sequences are carried out by only about half-a-dozen extras – you’d think, rather than try and get away with what I call ‘the Sharpe Effect’ (making big battles seem big while only actually employing about fifteen extras), you’d expect them to have at least paid some more people to be in the day’s filming and do it properly – because, unlike Sharpe, you really do notice the lack of volume to the forces involved (I draw the four-man ‘pike block’ as my first piece of evidence to this…)
I reckon the real cause is in fact the titular gimmick (no, not the sex): the CGI devil that turns up now and again to the protagonist, to hammer home the point of her pre-credits renouncing of God. It’s pitiful, it really is – they don’t even seem to have blown the battle-scene budget on a good graphic-designer either. I kept expecting the protracted tongue-flailing trademark to be followed by a husky ‘Yarrrrrr!’ like the pirate-ghost out of Scooby-Doo. Needless to say, I provided that sound-effect myself in order to make the drawn-out ‘Oooh no it’s the Devil again‘ shots seem less like theme-hammering filler.
I don’t want to sound nasty about this show, not just because it’s only been one episode of a four-part story so far; I just have an ingrained hatred of television Doing History Wrong and Doing Drama Wrong. It might turn out good but for the fact that it’s already proven itself to be taking major liberties with such ‘trivial’ matters as Viewers’ Intelligence and Historical Fact. For that, I’m afraid I will hold a prejudice throughout the run that I fear the remaining three episodes won’t be able to dissuade me of. The Beatles said that ‘Living is easy with eyes closed’ – but I think in order for me to live through this show, I’ll have to close my ears and mind and keep my eyes fully open, as I’m a sucker for good cinematography and that might be the only carrot the show has to coax me forward to the conclusion. Try it for yourself, and come to your own decisions.
I have this morbid fear that this post will descend into outright porn. As bizarre as that may sound, it really is a genuine fear: Silent Hunter III is, dare I say it to the blank stranger that is the Intarweb, the only wargame to have ever got to me to the point of obsession – and we’re talking far beyond 12-hour-binges obsession.
Long story short: It’s (as the title suggests) the third in the Silent Hunter series, which started Back In The Day pitting US boats against the Japanese, then in the sequel it was U-Boats fighting it out in the ETO. SH3 went back to the U-Boat theme, this time with a graphics system that was far richer than the promo material was letting on (the tease), a new dynamic-campaign structure, and overhauled the interface and control systems so that suddenly you found yourself with, in hindsight, only a few more additions to what was there in SH2 but now so intuitive and fluid that it all seemed brand-new. The campaign starts with you selecting a starting-year and a Flotilla (all historically accurate to availability and base-of-ops), and you have at your disposal individual crew members to be boosted with trade qualifications and awards that increase their efficiency and use aboard your boat – which can be one of a few dozen variants through the war, from the dinky Type-IIs, the ubiquitous Type-VIIs and IXs, right up (if you’re lucky) to the Type-XXI, which is as much as a beast in-game as it could have been in reality. The man/machine ‘upgrading’ takes place via the accumulation and spending of ‘Renown’ – a straightforward points-system based on tonnage sunk and not getting shot at in turn, the points from which are then spent on more experienced crew and certain (factually accurate) torpedo types, through to U-Boat equipment and the boats themselves. It sounds a bit arcadey but in practice it does work out quite well; I like to see it as High Command seeing fit to entrust the Gucci gear to someone who knows what they’re doing – symbolised by a big wodge of Renown points – and not the clot who blew off his own rudder with an acoustic torpedo (that’s a true gaming story, and I’m certain he will read this…)
In SH2 (and I assume the original, as I haven’t played it) the main campaign was about three-dozen pre-set missions in a fairly action-packed storyline, cramming in as many historical actions as was possible. For instance, I remember the first mission was to prevent the flight of several Polish capital ships to safety in British anchourage, and later on you’d recreate Prien’s raid into Scapa Flow, take part in Operation Drumbeat, and so on. In SH3 you are given a grid-square to patrol, and that’s it – you have free rein to go as far and as full-on as fuel and torpedoes allow; actually patrolling the grid-square will net you some Renown, but you lose nothing by buggering off on your own little adventure if you know a good convoy-route to prey upon. And convoys are all accurately charted, so by setting off into the Barents in ’42-’43 you can actually find yourself in a true-to-life – and entirely unscripted by the game – assault upon the Arctic Convoys, or your own Scapa Flow raid… or Loch Ewe, or Gibraltar, or New York…
So, it’s a game of seemingly endless inadvertant set-pieces to fall into: I’ve been chased almost Benny Hill-style around the Solent by destroyers; have mauled a convoy in a surface attack and then evaded its escort by crash-diving right under the stricken hull of a sinking tanker, popping up on the other side to slam a salvo into another brace of ships; have duelled with MTBs in the Thames Estuary while shore batteries threw heavy ordnance overhead – and, most astonishingly, have never got bored of the game. In addition, there are additional single-mission scenarios enabling the player to recreate famous set-pieces such as the actual Scapa Flow infiltration, change history and sink HMS Warspite in the Norway campaign, and re-enact the destruction of HMS Barham. There’s also a strong mod community (even after almost four years) that has provided countless additions from Das Boot-themed icons to full-on overhauls of graphics, physics and options.
I’d continue, but I feel that I’ve given enough meat for any naval-warfare enthusiasts with a PC to inquire further. Plus, I’ve worked myself up into a bit of a stir – I’m off to prowl the Azores.
I’ve decided to kick off my Book Reviews section (let’s be honest, the other ‘review’ was just me trying to cover up for my own idiocy) with this title – German Sniper on the Eastern Front by Albrecht Wacker – for two reasons: the first is that I’ve only just come into contact with this book and so it’s the most recent ‘new’ book I’ve read – in between re-reading a load of sci-fi I probably shouldn’t be – and secondly because, frankly, I thought it was so good that I had to have a book that left such a mark on me to have the dubious honour of being my first reviewed work.
The book places us at the point of Allerberger’s enlistment in the Gebirgsjäger in 1943, and the narrative rushes into his first taste of battle as quickly as Allerberger himself felt suddenly thrown into the war. Straightaway it is established that the depiction of the carnage of the Eastern Front is to be, from my experience with the genre, unusually brusque; I mean that in the sense that, while the blood-and-guts detail pulls no punches (and this book is unrelenting with its capture of the witnessed horror), the narrative never seems to dwell upon any of it or attempt to slam any inferences into the reader. Here’s what happened, in all the ghastly detail, but let’s move on. To me, it’s as though it does capture the train-of-thought of Allerberger in these situations, viewing something of utter repulsion and terror for a brief moment before the images being lost in the continuing flurry of combat. It augments the placing of the reader into situations excellently.
Albrecht Wacker, the editor/biographer, does point out that he has had to reconstruct the story using secondary research, owing to Allerberger’s natural memory-loss on certain points or simply a lack of knowledge of certain contextual matters relevant to the ‘narrative whole’ (in Wacker’s words). I felt that the extent to which the narrative was based on Wacker’s work was undetectable, the patching-up work added seamlessly into Allerberger’s input. The whole piece reads as one coherent account, and in addition to this it manages to feel like the sniper himself is personally sitting you down and letting you into his own personal Hell – the long journey of bullets, shells, chaos, fear and death that formed his long journey from the edge of the Crimea back into the Reich itself, with the Red Army behind them every step of the way.
The book provides a wealth of information for enthusiasts on several topics, most notably of the trade of the German sniper and to a lesser extent on the mountain-troop units’ taste of battle on the Eastern Front. Allerberger dismisses some of the popularly-perceived craftsmanship of the sniper such as camouflage technique and the more elaborate mechanisms showcased in newsreels (some of which can be found on Google Video) – his straightforward methods of clever cover and sternly self-imposed professionalism are his personal trade tools; not to mention devising a safe place to hide his sniper’s rifle if need be, for snipers were killed out of hand (and often tortured before that, as Allerberger himself describes in horrendous – but yet sparing – detail).
This book came very close in terms of first-read enjoyment to being comparable to Heinz Knocke’s I Flew For The Führer (a book I must definitely must review for this site in the near future), for I simply could not stop reading for trivial matters such as work, sustenence or meeting friends (one of whom found me at the train station when they arrived, sat under a lamppost desperately trying to finish the last chapter) – it’s graphic and it’s grim, but as you finish the epilogue that remains as to-the-point as the brutalities you will find yourself feeling – alongside that “Thank f**k it wasn’t me” thought – that emotion that all great war memoirs should evoke: Respect.
Some of you may have been following this recent story, namely – as with a few people who I know have – because it’s a story that has had barely little popular coverage; the eviction of around 2,000 people from the island of Diego Garcia in the 1970s to enable the building of a US air base there. This little corner of the Indian Ocean might seem irrelevant to the topic of military history, but I was determined to put some effort into what would serve as both my first ‘essay’ (although what I’m likely to produce for this page is barely worthy of the term, both literally and academically) and give a bit of a plug to a good book in my collection – The Beachhead Commandos by A. Cecil Hampshire, a rigidly academic yet tremendously enjoyable history of the Royal Navy Commandos during the Second World War. From this book, I was going to recreate a particular raid launched on Diego Garcia, Operation Ironclad – but no.
No, because I ballsed-up royally on this. I got my placenames so utterly mixed up that I had been reading the BBC article and linking the place with Diego Suarez, which is in Madagascar… But hell, I may as well do the article anyway…
Operation Ironclad revolved around one particular aspect: the possibility of the newly-combatant Japanese utilising the Madagascan ports (controlled by Vichy France) in order to conduct operations across the entire span of the Indian Ocean, more specifically to assault the Middle Eastern convoy routes. To prevent a potential hand-over of the facilities by Vichy France to the Japanese Navy, the wisest course of action was to deny the French the facilities outright. Diego Suarez, “which can be compared with Scapa Flow as a fleet anchorage”, was to be reached by a naval landing party in force by a series of bays 10-12 miles west of the installation (a tactic considered unfeasible by the French, and as a result this route was the least defended).
In the pre-dawn of 5th May 1942, Royal Navy assault forces landed without incident while, ahead of them at the objective, aircraft from the two carriers attached to the taskforce (including HMS Indomitable)bombed an airfield and several ships alongside in the harbour itself. This achieved near-total neutralisation of enemy air cover and harried the harbour defences in advance of the ground assault. However, efforts were made consistantly throughout the landings to allow the Vichy defenders an opportunity to cede without bloodshed; leaflets were dropped and Allied officers carried letters to be handed to senior enemy commanders to explain that surrender was available (although Hampshire notes that only once did such a transaction take place, when a detachment of the Royal Scots Fusiliers came upon a French naval officer and staff – the French officer was handed the note and actually allowed to drive off on his way to arrange the surrender of his men. No one heard from him again…).
Diego Suarez was taken with the aid of a detachment of Royal Marines of HMS Ramillies, who were dispatched via an accompanying destroyer into the harbour itself after an erroneous report that the landing party enroute from the west had ground to a halt. Marines and ground forces linked up after this dramatic dispatch, and by the 8th all French forces at Diego Suarez had surrendered. Operation Ironclad, however, would continue until September, for the smaller ports on the western coast of Madagascar continued to resist. Hampshire, his book detailing the Royal Navy Commandos, goes into detail on the Commandos’ role after the first phase of fighting had ended – ‘general protection of the beaches’ was the term given to their supervision and safeguarding of the secondary landings, of men and equipment deployed ashore in order to facilitate the neutralisation of Vichy forces on the island as a whole. This role was taken up again in September, when new landings were necessary to the west and east in order to put down Vichy resistance where it remained. To elaborate a little more, and to provide a small taste of what this entailed, I shall quote en bloc from the chapter:
“At one point during the attack on Majunga, one of the ports on the west coast, where the assault troops had met with little opposition on the beaches or in the town, the naval follow-up personnel came under heavy sniper fire which delayed boarding and anti-sabotage operations. This was eventually ended by the beach party who went into action with their Lewis guns and grenades. Along with crews of the landing craft the party successfully coped with a break in communications with the advancing British troops by bridging a 300-yard wide river with a rope ferry.”
And, to quote Forrest Gump, “that’s all I have to say about that.” As I said at the start, I originally wanted to just throw in a bit of associated history with that deportation thing – all of this is superfluous given that I got the places mixed up, but I’ll try to salvage something from this: The aforementioned book, which is part of a number of titles in The Vault that I refer to as ‘The Hitler-Mask Section’ (I’ll probably tell that story sometime; it involves a hyperactive teenage girl, a dead man’s private library, and is absolutely free of any sordid or unsavoury details that this description may infer…), is a book I’m glad to have picked up by chance because in a way it forced the topic into my sphere of awareness. For those of a nautical ilk and/or have a penchant for the Special Forces genre, I’d recommend this as something you – as with myself – will most likely be surprised to have encountered, because Hampshire has compiled a book that takes you through a more obscure topic of the Second World War with enough clarity and substance to enable you to soak up every last detail he manages to almost nonchalently include alongside the anecdotes and the contextual material.
(NB: all quotes and data taken from ‘Chapter Four: Operation Ironclad’ pp. 37-45)
‘This Is War!’ Robert Capa At Work has just opened at The Barbican Art Gallery in London, and is one more addition to the list of things currently fueling my hatred of my present jobless state. I’ve been an awestruck admirer of Capa’s work ever since the man’s story was touched upon inD-Day, part of the BBC’s 60th anniversary commemorations. It was around that time also that I began to read properly into the history of the Spanish Civil War, so to find that treasure-trove-like part of Capa’s professional history was at the time an even greater surprise.
While ruing the fact that I don’t have the money to go over and see this collection, I began to compare in my mind the sort of working conditions that the likes of Capa and Hemingway (not to mention, of course, countless others) experienced, compared to the modern-day men and women who bring war and all that entails to the public knowledge. It reminded me of a phrase: ‘Embedded Journalist’. I’m not certain whether this is a recent term or not, but it’s certainly only come into my vocabulary in the past 3-4 years – and I abhor it. Parasites are embedded, arrowheads or extraterrestrial post-abduction tracking devices are embedded – not only does the term sound derogatory towards these men and women, making them sound like something that shouldn’t be there, but it kind of conjures an image (this is, no doubt, probably just me with this one) of a bloke swaddled in body-armour and weighed down with about twenty pounds of camera equipment, running up to squaddies during firefights and shoving cameras in their faces, or someone on hand, on-demand, to capture that special Kodak moment for the regimental scrapbook.
I’m probably reading too much into it, I know, but… Dunno.
There was a piece on BBC News 24 about the exhibition, and a bit that got me thinking quite a bit. It was (to paraphrase terribly as it was on at 3am, and it’s now 10am, and I’ve not even been to bed between that): “Has the still photo been rendered obsolete by the sort of total coverage we have today?” There was no real answer proffered, but mine is: No.
My reasons are as follows: First of all, each night of the week you will almost always find a segment from Some Reporter in the middle of Some Place that’s currently involved in Some War – even before 2001 (SATIRE!) this was true, if you include things such as armed uprisings, rebellions, etc. And they’re almost always the same basic format: Voice-over on some bleak/frantic scene recorded earlier on, then some reportage in which there is perhaps the SOUND of conflict, but rarely do you see anything while there’s a reporter in-shot (and not because he’s standing in the way… I didn’t mean… oh sod off).
My complaint is not that TV coverage isn’t beaming second-by-second, shell-by-shell, casualty-after-casualty WAR!!!!!!!! into our homes – Gods no. Nor am I having a go at television reporters out on the front-lines, because contrary to what I may be inferring, they really are at the sharp end in some cases. The problem is that you have – for one of these segments to be created – your reporter, your cameraman, your sound-guy, and probably at least the same number doing other odd jobs beyond my knowledge that constitute the production of a news report, even one from a ditch in Grozny or up a tree in Gaza or whatever. Having them follow a reporter all over the place as he got close to the fighting would be a shambles – a full TV crew used to have trouble keeping up with Jeremy Beadle as he bounded up a garden path towards his latest victim, for Gods’ sakes. Additionally, the cacophony of battle would wreck any chance of the sound-guy picking up a word of what the reporter would be saying, if he even managed to string a sentence together while simultaneously taking in the sensory effects of the moment and trying not to get his head blown off.
A photograph, however… Capa was in the thick of it in every theatre of war he worked in – he even coined the immortal words: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” – and you only need to look at what survived of his D-Day photos, or the set from which we get The Falling Soldier, to realise this. I feel that with still photography one comes closer to ‘being’ there because although, admittedly, a photograph will be composed (to a degree) and one has time to take in the details and the setting, film such as from television coverage never seems to imprint an image into my mind of the scene, in the same way a photograph does. While TV is perspective-wise closer to ‘being’ there, in my opinion a lot is blocked out, excluded or diverted from.
Although I wish that no reporter or journalist ever has to go through this, imagine if you will a photographer knocked down and about to be bayoneted by the enemy – he brings up his hands in self-defence and, panicking, sets off his camera. Now imagine the same scenario with a video-camera. Which would be the more horrific, the more encapsulating? I say the photograph, because to my mind that would be – if retrieved and identified properly – the ultimate war photo ever. It would have captured the one image that only someone about to die will ever see – the face of the man about to kill you. And I will reiterate that this is one photo I can happily do without seeing, because no man or woman should have to lay down their life for the sake of reporting the news.
On perhaps a much-needed lighter note to end on, while writing the previous point I was reminded of how in Dog Soldiers they used cameras in self-defence because of the flashbulbs. I realised that the safest war in which to be a war correspondent, therefore, is the one waged against werewolves…