Thursday, 19 November 2020

Book Review: The Ghettos of Nazi-Occupied Poland, Ian Baxter (Images of War)



As someone who literally loves the uniforms, equipment, materiel, and quite often even the combatants and their stories, the whole racist/fascist aspects of the Nazi regime are anathema to me. It would be beyond churlish, in my view, to even attempt to downplay, ignore or worse still deny or support those aspects of what was an appalling ideology.

Having said that, for the most part I do separate the two aspects: the fascinating military machine/history, and the contemptible visions it was employed in furthering. In the same way I could happily assemble both sides of American Civil War forces, or, for that matter, English Civil War armies, without declaring allegiance to any of the views espoused (or not) by the combatants.*

With those thoughts in mind, what of this book? Well, thus far I haven't read much of the textual content. Instead I've just studied the many interesting images and read the captions for them, and occasional parts of the text, like the short intro/aftermath segments. In some ways, whilst the underlying segregationist concept is, to me, awful - if not as unusual historically as some might suggest - what strikes one most, at first glance, is the ordinary everyday banality of much of it, street scenes and people milling about, even markets, policemen, firemen, postal workers, people working in factories, etc.


Ghetto residents working in a shoe-factory, Lodz.

But this disguises, now as it did for the Germans back then, including perhaps those who took most of these photos, who might've look at some of these images and fooled themselves they weren't being all that bad, several key things: first and foremost these weren't ghettos 'naturally' formed, so to speak, by ethnic groups choosing to congregate, as many around the world to this day remain. They were government enforced relocations, and part of the more sinister so called 'cleansing', i.e. institutionalised genocide. Aka the infamous 'final solution' to 'the Jewish problem'. 

And whilst the Germans, lovers of bureaucracy and form filling, list-making and so on, did create the semblance of normal institutions within ghettos, these were token gestures, beneath which racist contempt saw them utilise the Jewish population as a disposable low-maintenance workforce. Those who weren't dying of starvation, or diseases like cholera, typhus, and so on, would be working in German industries, mostly towards the war effort

This photographic study concentrates mainly on the ghettos as photographed, on the whole, by a number of German servicemen. Some of these collections of photos only surfaced in fairly recent years.  And, unusually for a WWII Images of war title they include a segment of colour photographs. 

One of a number of colour images. Biebow visits Lodz.

The main chapter headings convey the content:

Ghettoisation - Jews** are removed from their homes and relocated, mostly by train, but also on foot. This section also has numerous pictures of german 'brass' and functionaries, like Hans Biebow, a businessman turned Ghetto administrator.

Life in the Ghettos - This is, at first glance, the most apparently humdrum chapter. But the banality belies the underlying brutality, as the casual littering of corpses occasionally reminds the viewer

Liquidation of the Ghettos - as ominous as it sounds; this is the segment that, inevitably, depicts - even if only in a few shocking images - the most brutal part of the Nazi war crimes process, the wholesale butchery of unarmed non-combatants.

The Warsaw Uprising - Another brutally bleak chapter in this sad story sees the largest of the ghettos rise up, only to be mercilessly crushed.

The book ends with The Aftermath and two appendices. The first lists major Polish ghettos (but by no means all of them), many illustrated by single photos, and the second and last says a brief word on the infamous Reserve Police Battalion 101, who were instrumental in facilitating Nazi policy in these tragic times.

Personally I think it's very salutory to remind oneself of the reality and the enormity of these crimes against humanity. Their scale beggars belief, and their proximity in time should be a warning against complacency. On a European tour with a band I was once in, our Dutch tour bus driver took us to a transit camp in, I think, Belgium. To stand in a place of that type - not even an extermination camp - and think how whole categories of humans were treated as disposable trash, was a very powerful experience.


Note on photos: the two colour photos I've used here - so washed out they almost look black and white - are, like a number in the book, from the USHMM, or United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.


* It's worth remembering that many soldiers are not primarily fighting for the causes their leaders say they stand for. Many just fight for their nation, homes and families, each other, or simply to stay alive.

** And, let's not forget, other so called 'undesirables', such as leftists, gypsys, homosexuals, and so on. But obviously, as per the title, this book concentrates on the Jewish aspect of Nazi persecution, it being the largest and primary 'out group'.


Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Book Reviews: The French at Waterloo; Eyewitness Accounts, vols I & II, Andrew Field


One might be forgiven for wondering why, instead of two fairly slim volumes, at £20 each, these two books weren't instead published as a single fatter book, at say £25-30. But setting aside that brief attack of penny-pinching cynicism, the actual content of these two books, both reviewed here, is superb. 


Vol I - Napoleon, Imperial HQ & Ist Corps

"I cannot get over our defeat. We were manoeuvred like so many pumpkins." Col. Marbot.

After an opening chapter on the usage/reliability of eyewitness accounts, volume one begins with three descriptions from Napoleon: the official post battle report, as dictated to Fleury de Chabalon, which appeared soon after the battle in le Moniteur, then Gorgaud's and Bertrand's accounts. All three are widely accepted as being Napoleon's own versions of events, and each one is a successively larger and more detailed reiteration of the same basic themes.

The accounts that follow, from Napleon's Household and then the Imperial HQ, unsurprisingly perhaps, largely follow their leaders' version of events. Except that is where his subordinates have incurred his blame, and then they might seek to excuse of justify themselves. All of this makes the first half or two thirds of this first volume somewhat repetitive, especially as the numerous accounts frequently recapitulate the same lists of unit dispositions and the major sequences of events.

Marcellin Marbot, in his 7th Hussar togs, c. 1815.*

Where volume one really comes to life, for me at any rate - and what makes it five bicornes, not four, or four and a half - is in the Ist Corps accounts. Especially so in those from the middling and lower ranks, whose colourful and lively narratives generally focus more closely on events the individuals concerned actually witnessed or took part in. The 'big hats', with eyes on posterity (and higher social standing to fall from) tend to give overviews coloured by hindsight, later/wider reading, and post-war politicking. 

Napoleon's own influence on the French readings of events, unsurprisingly, casts a long shadow. And yet despite this, the natural 'fog of war', and the blame games - around Ney and Grouchy in particular, but also bearing on the actions of others, like d'Erlon, Marcognet, etc. - reveal how widely the same events can be perceived or understood, not just by the antagonist nations, but within the same nation's own armies.

An excellent and fascinating collection. Essential reading for the Napoleonic/Waterloo enthusiast.

* Acc. to Wikipedia!



Vol II - IInd & VIth Corps, Cavalry, Artillery, Imperial Guard & Medical Services

"(T)his immortal slaughter." Larreguy de Civrieux.

The same standard of excellence is observed here as elsewhere in Field's terrific work on the whole French experience of the Waterloo campaign. 

A brief introduction recapitulates things he said in volume one, in particular addressing the reliability of the types of material that make up these fascinating books. He then moves through the various military bodies already listed above, citing numerous extracts from the memoirs of participants, mostly from the upper echelons - i.e. officers - with, as per volume one, brief biographical notes about the person concerned followed by their recollections of these momentous events and their parts in them.

First of all it's terrific that we are gradually getting access to more of this French material, after two centuries in which the English tradition of Waterloo historiography has been pretty one sided. There is something of an irony in this respect, re the fate of Capt. Siborne and his researches, which occurred so soon after the battle, and which sought to include accounts from all sides. There are several interesting books on Siborne, his dioramas, and the research he undertook in order to build them, as well as Siborne's own writings (which I have, but as yet haven't read; they're reputedly rather tough going!). [1]

Sylvain Larreguy, c. 1828.

But returning to the accounts in hand themselves, they are great, adding a lot of colour and interest to this much written about (most written about?) of epoch-ending/making battles. I won't go into great detail about any specific accounts contained herein. But it is interesting to note how they differ from traditional Anglo-centric accounts, on things ranging from relatively minor actions that don't appear in English histories, to more controversial claims, such as the frequently repeated claim that the French took and even held Hougoumont for a while at some point.

But in the end, whatever the veracity of some of these interesting claims/differences, it all adds up to more interesting and useful reference on this most compelling of battles. I'd even go so far as to say that Field's entire oeuvre on this subject is all essential to the genuine Napoleonic/Waterloo buff. In a word, brilliant.

The author (found this pic in an online Wilts news article!).

[1] In both volumes Siborne is, if my memory serves, only mentioned the once: on p. 106 of vol II Field laments how the French Guard officers, unlike Siborne's English correspondents, only told of their own local experiences. I think the mention he gets in volume I is on a similar theme, re sources and their limitations, but I can't pinpoint it (no indexes!?).

Book Review: Dark Valley, Piers Brendon



NB: This is one of my occasional archival posts, regarding a book I read and reviewed years ago, but haven't posted here, that I thought might be of interest.

A small departure here in that this not strictly a book about WWII, as such, but the dark decade of the 1930s, that prepared the way. I won't go into any detail regarding the contents. There are lots of decent reviews and synopses to be found online. I simply want to add my voice to the general chorus of acclaim this book has deservedly garnered.  

Like William Shirer's Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich this is sweeping, compelling history that really draws you in. The kind of thing that'll threaten to end your fiction reading. Why read fiction when real world events are so massively interesting? The 1930s are a particularly fascinating decade, with totalitarian regimes, be they fascist or communist, gaining a worldwide foothold unparalleled before or since.

As others elsewhere have observed, Brendon has an excellent writing style, and is truly masterful at weaving together complex narrative and small anecdotal details. What a period the first half of the C20th was, and - leaving aside WWI - what a period the 1930s were. With Stalin, Franco, Hitler, Mussolini, the Hawkish Japanese military, the latter already at war in China, and more besides, all sandwiched between the cataclysms of two world wars! 

I borrowed this from a friend many years ago, and liked it so much I had to get my own copy after reading his, in a repeat of what had already happened with the aforementioned Shirer book.

The material relating to Japan is, I find, particularly fascinating, as so much historical literature on this period and the two world wars is so Euro-centric. Also the militarism of Japan differed markedly from that of Russia, Germany and Italy, in that it was much more broad based, rather than focussing on a charismatic figurehead. Indeed, the Japanese emperor seems to have been carried along on a martial current that flowed through a whole class (primarily the officer class), ultimately more or less saturating the whole culture.

One specific episode amongst the many in this brilliant book that really struck me - haunted me even, for a little while after reading it - was the horror of Magnitogorsk, in Stalinist Russia. The name of the city alone sounds both awesome and terrifying! A hint of what was happening can be inferred from the fact it was declared a closed city, i.e. off limits to foreigners, in 1937. But I won't say why here. Buy this superb book and read about it yourself.

Book Review: Wellington in 100 Objects, Gareth Glover


In the venerable tradition started - as far as I know? - by the British Museum's exemplary History of the World in 100 Objects, the book I'm reviewing here today joins an ever growing assortment of similarly themed books on numerous historical subjects. Prolific Napoleonic author Gareth Glover notches up yet more titles, annexing ever more shelf-space, authoring several such books on Napoleonic matters himself, including this one. And there are also titles by other authors, on the Third Reich, and all sorts.

In this book the objects themselves range from the tiny - a looted silver fork - to the massive - castles, stately homes, even whole villages, towns or cities, that Arthur Wellesley had some connection with. From the obvious, like his boots or campaign cape, to the more obscure, like dentures, or the saw used to amputate Lord Uxbridge's leg. 


From the humourous... [1]

And in the process of examining this wealth of material, which is frequently supplemented by other related stuff, we learn masses about not just the famed and celebrated victor of Waterloo, but his family, the times in which he lived, and the many and varied places his life story connects together. From the Congress of Vienna, to Napoleon's lonely and remote exile on St. Helena. From ancestral roots in Ireland, to nepotistic postings in India. And with his activities and interests connecting him with everywhere from the far-flung, such as to the Americas, to such near neighbours as Portugal, Spain and Northwest Europe.


Wellington doesn't have quite the same the mercurial mythological magnetism that Boney had, and continues to have. At the time of posting this review this book is listed as 'currently unavailable' on Amazon's UK website, unlike the pendant title, also by Glover, on Napoleon in 100 Objects. But, and especially so for the English, he is, and ought to be, someone we want to know more about. And this book does an admirable job of facilitating that.


... to the more macabre. [2]

NOTES:

[1] Wellington infamously duelled Lord Winchelsea, in 1829, whilst he (the former) was P.M!

[2] The saw and a bloodied surgeon's glove, from National Army Museum's collections, allegedly used to remove Uxbridge's shattered leg, at or just after Waterloo.


Monday, 16 November 2020

Book Review: Artillery Warfare, '39-'45, Simon & Jonathan Forty



This excellent single volume packs an awful lot into a pretty small space. 

Over 400 black and white photos illustrate the massive range of materiel covered, taking in all the main (and many minor) combatant nations and theatres*. As well as the plentiful imagery, extracts from wartime records are used to show how the various artillery branches of the armed forces operated. 

A remarkable range of artillery is covered, even if - give the enormity of the subject - only in relatively quick or short form; from the brief mention of hand-held anti-tank weapons, to individual entries on such weaponry as the Long Tom, or those crazily huge Nazi rail-super-guns, including towed artillery, SP guns, rockets, AA and fixed batteries (like the Maginot and Westwall), and so on. 

From pocket-sized pea shooters, like the Pak 37...

The roots of modern artillery developments in WWI, their rapid evolution during WWII, and even hints of the postwar legacy - many guns of WWII remained in use long after '45, and many technologies evolved by quantum leaps during the Second World War, to create a new era (guided missiles/rocketry) - are all here. 

Appendices add info on observation and gun siting, etc. All in all a very impressive work, covering exactly what the title suggests. I'd say this is a pretty essential reference work for the seriously interested WWII history buff. But obviously being a brief and wide ranging picture based survey, more in depth detail is to be sought/found in more specialist publications.

... to huge monsters like this, there's a lot here.

Further to this last point, this book might also, as it has for me, stimulate a desire to delve further into certain sub-categories; for example, I recently got into the famed German 88mm gun, and I'm prompted now, having read this, to pick up a book from my pending pile about Germany's West Wall...

* The only notable omission theatre/combatant wise that struck me being China.

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Film Review: 1917, 2019



Finally got around to watching this film, having originally intended to do so, pretty much, from when it first came out, some time last year. But despite seeing trailers at the pictures that whetted the appetite, we never actually got round to it. At the time of writing this, however, we'd started out watching The Devil's Own, with Brad Pitt and Harrison Fjord, on Amazon Prime. But didn't get along with that at all.

1917 was much more enjoyable and entertaining. Far from perfect, but at least engaging enough we watched it all, and mercifully nowhere near as annoying as Americans getting dewy-eyed about all things Oirish, even 'Da Troubles'. 

Lance Corporals Tom and Will set out through the wire. [1]

I won't synopsise the plot beyond the barest sketch: two men are sent to take a message across no man's land to a nearby unit, cancelling the latter's planned attack, scheduled for 6am the following day, which intelligence suggests is a trap. One of the two lance-corporals given this fool's errand has an older brother who's an officer in the potentially doomed attacking force, as extra motivation.

It's a strange movie, mixing modern views on The Great War - over representing certain ethnic groups ahistorically, and foisting modern values on to characters (and ignoring class hierarchies, etc.) in a not entirely convincing manner - with an obvious desire to render aspects of WWI believably. 

Van Halen's 'Jump' comes to mind ... 'Go ahead, and  Jump!' [2]

Cameos from a number of famous British luvvies include brief turns from Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Benedictus Cucumberpatch, whose performances sit a little oddly in contrast with the two main protagonists, who are - to me at least - unknown. I found them, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, rather lacking in charisma, which lessened any emotional investment.

During the longish trip through no-man's land they prattle away in a manner that I found pretty odd, for two soldiers in fear of their lives in potentially enemy occupied territory. This is followed by an aerial-combat interlude that seems both a bit far-fetched in its ultimate outcome and somewhat heavy-handed. Given what the movie depicts, I found it all strangely flat and uninvolving. I still enjoyed it enough to watch the whole thing. But it's far from being a classic.

Mark Strong, one of the better known faces in the cast. [3]

Reading a bit about it online after seeing it, I discovered that there was something of a fuss being made over the entire film being shot in such a way that it was, or appeared to be, just two continuous takes. I have to say I didn't notice this at all. Nor was the film as a whole particularly groundbreaking in any way, technically or otherwise. At least not in ways that I found notable. Indeed, whenever I became aware of the artifice of the movie, it was usually mostly for looking or sounding somewhat derivative, as is so much modern culture. Or else seeming a bit contrived, such as the aeroplane crash, or the hand-to-hand fight in a barn/warehouse.

Hitchcock is famed for the kind of directorial sleights of hand some seem to be lauding 1917 for, and when he does it - as overly stylised as it very often is (as in the movie Rope, for example) - it's both noticeable, impressive and very beguiling. Here it's more workmanlike, to my mind. And occasionally the balance tips rather too much towards form over content, as during the 'lit by flares' townscape sequence.

Very visually striking... seductively so, even? [4]

All in all, I'd say this is a rather odd and unbalanced film. One minute looking like a shoestring buddy movie - esp. during one segment of their amiably chatty cross-country ramble though no-man's land -  the next like a military epic. And, whilst eminently watchable, it's both patchy and a bit incoherent. And it certainly overlays an overly heavy dose of 'our times/views' over the historic elements, rather weakening its appeal for me.

Learning a bit about the story's roots in Sam Mendes grandfather's WWI experiences was interesting. But, alas, the film itself didn't really get any of that personal aspect across, for me. So, in conclusion... worth watching, perhaps. But I'm certainly not raving about it! And I'm kind of glad we didn't fork out the exorbitant sums cinemas charge these days to see it.



NOTES:

[1] One of the best things about this film are the mise-en-scene; this one, as they go across no man's land, is very well realised, visually.

[2] At least it does for me. But there are reasons: Eddie Van Halen, the guitarist, recently passed away, and I've been studying Jump and other Van Halen songs with many of my drum pupils since then, in tribute. Eddie's brother Alex Van Halen is/was their drummer, and a very, very good one. A great camera angle, for this shot, by the way. Technically it's a well-made movie.

[3] Sadly not even Strong, Firth or Cucumber-patch can save this film from its own 3rd Millenium failings, chief of which is to treat history to PC Bowdlerisation, and foist local/contemporary sensibilities on other times and places. Indeed, their cult of personality film-star presence might even contribute to such problems, as good as they undeniably are as actors. The particular scene in which Strong's character first appears is, to me, a pretty bizarre and implausible one. Yet it's essential in the overall development of the film.

[4] But looking more like a scene from a pop video than real WWI. The whole scene, despite the mud and ruins, is way too pristine. Where's all the detritus of war: materiel, clothes, dead bodies, etc?

Thursday, 22 October 2020

Film Review: Enemy at the Gates, 2001



The first time I watched this I quite enjoyed it. The second time, I couldn't even finish it. It irritated the feck out of me! My major issue with it is the Hollywood himbos/bimbos casting: Jude Law, Joe Fiennes and Rachel Weisz are all just too g'damn pretty for Russian proles. And the whole thing winds up being, despite the dirtiness and blitzed settings, too clean and soft.

The production is pretty impressive, and I love war movies set on the Ostfront, just for their subject alone. They have to annoy me quite badly, as this has wound up doing, to put me off multiple viewings. Ed Harris is better and more believable as ruggedly Aryan German sniper, Major König. And there are several cameos from actors I sometimes dig, like Ron Perlman and Bob Hoskins. But neither shines here.

Pretty boys, er... I mean comrades... at war.

The real Vasili Zaitsev.

I think what's worst about this film is the foisting onto it of the whole romantic schtick, with the love triangle 'twixt peasant sharpshooter Vasily Zaytsev (Law), bespectacled intellectual Commisar Danilov (Fiennes) and Tania Chernova* (Weisz). It kind of spoils a film that perhaps should've concentrated on the military side of things, as Shaving Ryan's Privates did. It's a real pity, as there are a number of great scenes/set-pieces. On that topic, this link is interesting, as it shows a few images pertinent to the production side.

* I like it better that way... (titter)

The basic setting of this movie, amidst the ruins of the siege of Stalingrad, and how we meet Law's Zaytsev character (based, albeit very loosely, on a real Red Army sniper), and the duelling snipers element, are all good. But the movie fails to deliver on its grittier promises, descending into a schmaltzy romance, and seriously turning me off. Don't get me wrong; I find Weisz attractive, just not in this context. 

I'll probably give it another try some time. But the last viewing put me of so strongly I don't see it being any time soon. Very disappointing.

Action man Ed Harris... now that's better!

Amazingly Harris like 1/6 action 'doll' of Major König!




Misc: Current Armour, on the go...

Oldies and newbies.

With a nice kind of symmetry, here's a bunch of older models, and my current crop. Amongst the older ones, the first WWII mini-military model I made on returning to these ol' hobbies, the 1/76 Airfix Panther, in late-war 'ambush' type camo'. This remains one of very few completed models, thus far. The vast bulk of my kits require varying degrees of painting/finishing.

The latest bits of building, today and yesterday, were the rear bins on the newer Airfix Panther, and a second go at the mortar crane/winch, on the B&P Sturmtiger. Whilst I was at it, I also changed the Sturmtiger's upper casemate access hatch handles to wire ones. Looks nicer, methinks.

Rear stowage bins on ye olde Panther, one open.

I really took my time and had a look at a load of ref for the second attempt at the winch. And I think it's come out okay. Nicer, indeed, than the one on the ACM Sturmtiger. I also roughed up the 'fenders' a little, and added some dings and hits to give the ol' beast a more worn in look. I'm looking forward to painting the Sturmtigers. I think I'll go for one of those late war funky three colour disc camo' patterns.

Winch deployed inboard this time.

Suitably chunky for this rather oversize model.

From behind...