Wacht Am Tyne

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Obituary: Oberfeldwebel Alexander Uhlig, RKT

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It was with sadness that I heard that Alexander Uhlig, a legendary name in the annals of the history of the Fallschirmj√§ger 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.)

Written by nikkiwilliams

6 December, 2008 at 9:00 pm

Newly-Discovered Normandy Footage Released

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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.

Written by nikkiwilliams

2 December, 2008 at 9:35 pm

Posted in All, News, TV/Film

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Mistaken Identity and a Semi-Book Review

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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)

Written by nikkiwilliams

29 October, 2008 at 8:02 pm

Robert Capa Exhibition and Capturing War

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‘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…

Written by nikkiwilliams

18 October, 2008 at 10:38 am

Commemoration For First British Aircraft Flight

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(From BBC News)

The RAF today marked the centenary of powered flight in the UK, and it’s always events connected with military aviation that bewilder me with the contrasts between modern air power and the machines that these ‘birthdays’ and anniversaries intend to commemorate, no less so in this case where even the the decade following the flight of British Aeroplane No.1 saw huge changes to military aviation.

Well, I say ‘changes’ – the whole concept of the aeroplane as a weapon of war was perfected and vindicated during those years, and at the end of the First World War (an event which we will be marking less than a month from now) the machines that made up the first, established air forces of the combatant countries (except Germany, of course, as they weren’t allowed one) were technologically leaps and bounds ahead of the first aircraft to make aviation a serious concept – they were still mostly canvas-and-wood biplanes, yes, but four years of a mass-production, mass-slaughter war created tremendous requirements to the military aircraft that led to such determined development (War being the engine of change and all that).

But anyway, I was talking about how commemorations inspire thoughts about contrast. Just look at a flypast at these events with any degree of imagination and you’ll see what I mean: The aircraft in these flypasts could probably take off, fly to ceiling height and come back down to the airfield before Biggles could even have finished his tea and tiffin. Even H.G. Wells – the prophet-eugenicist sci-fi writer who first envisaged practicable examples of air and tank warfare in his novels – would have called anyone who described a Harrier or an F-15 a drunken loon and had him ejected from the premises.

Even if we look at the birds of the next war along – ‘World War II: This Time It’s Atomical’ – there was another massive leap forward in the technology and design; monoplanes were now the established and refined norm, airspeed and maneuverability vastly increased, and the first jets had not only come off the drawing-board by the end of hostilities but were airborne, armed and already had a great many kills under their collective belts. In Britain, even the institution had changed, with the Royal Flying Corps having become the Royal Air Force (incorporating also the Royal Naval Air Service) in 1918 and, through the experiences of the Second World War, once again done much to reaffirm air power as a necessary arm.

What would really save me a lot of hot air and repeating a lot of things you all already know would be a fly-past of all the prominent designs of the past 90 years, in order to see side-by-side the gigantic strides that air technology made. Have the Sopwiths alongside the Spitfires, Hurricanes and Harriers, Tempests, Typhoons and Tornados. It would be astonishing, and beautiful.
But then that would also be a bloody disaster: the juddering biplanes would probably run out of fuel trying to keep pace with the Merlin- and Rolls-Royce-engined thoroughbreds of the second War, which would fall out of the sky if they slowed down enough to let Biggles catch up, and then when turning back to refuel (Sod’s Law stating that the airfield is on his left, which in the Camel means banking right in a 270-degree turn because of the notorious torque off that rotary engine) the little Camel would be sucked into the engine of the fast-approaching Tornado – whose pilot had only left the base five minutes before, partly due to the distance he could cover in that machine and partly because Flt-Lt. Wainwright had the new Squad Action Stamp Death Kill game for the mess PS3 – and the biplane is spewed out like canvas confetti over the assembled onlookers.

But, like those magnificent men in their flying machines 90 years ago, we can dream. In the meantime, raise a glass of your finest to British Aeroplane No.1 and Samuel Franklin Cody who, alas, was killed during a test-flight in those embryonic days of aviation.

Written by nikkiwilliams

16 October, 2008 at 9:39 pm

Posted in All, News

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