Posts Tagged ‘D-Day’
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.
‘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…