Thursday, 13 June 2019

Film Review: Everyman's War, 2010



I bought this on DVD and watched it today. I could tell from the cover that this belongs to the growing Indie-WWII movie scene. The cover of my DVD isn't the same as the image above, which is both a better cover and has a better strap-line - 'one man's hope, one man's courage... everyman's war'.

Some marketing schmucks, as so often happens with war-themed films, especially when being marketed in places other than their country of origin, have gotten hold of the design process, and designed a more generic montage. And, bizarrely, substituted Churchill's 'never have so many...' Battle of Britain quote for the original tagline. Why does this happen!?

My DVD sports this generic style cover.

After watching the film, I thought I'd check the Amazon UK reviews for it. One of the many very critical reviews there compared it unfavourably with Band of Brothers. But that's pretty dumb, in my opinion, seeing as Band of Brothers cost $125 million, whereas Everyman's War cost about $500,000 [1]. Or in other words less than half of one per cent the budget of the star-studded Spielberg/Hanks HBO blockbuster.

It tells the story of a group of young men from various places and backgrounds in the U.S, who wind up in the same unit, eventually fighting in The Battle of The Bulge. Mostly we follow Don Smith, who's falling in love with girl called Dorrine, just as he gets called up. An unfinished letter to her becomes his talisman of hope, keeping him going as the war gets ever grimmer.

Don Smith (Cole Carson) and Cpl. Sparks (Mike Prosser).

None of the actors are famous faces (none even have wiki entries), and the whole thing does have the feel of a movie made on a tight budget. The pacing of the narrative wouldn't pass muster on a Hollywood blockbuster. But they've done remarkably well, using appropriate looking locations, with the Germans speaking German, etc. And frankly I get sick of the formulaic way blockbusters are done. This sort of thing can't compete with the big bucks boys on stars, explosions and effects. But it can with a bit of refreshingly humble humanity. Something often notably lacking in star-driven movies.

The stories are all based on real people and real events, and the film had an unusual genesis: 'It started out as a short film and a labor of love, for my father's 85th birthday (he's 94 now) and quickly became a feature that I shot over a year.' [2] It's a movie about ordinary men in war. And a heartfelt one, at that. I found it engaging and moving. And whilst it's not as 'epic', production wise, as for example the old 1960s Battle Of The Bulge film, it's a lot more realistic. [3]

Not a classic, perhaps. But worth watching. 

Thad Smith directing.


NOTES:

[1] I got in touch with the director and asked what the budget was.

[2] Quoting from an email the film's maker, Thad Smith, sent me, when I inquired about the budget.

[2] At one point there's a very interesting scene with a prisoner being rescued from abuse by Don Smith. I won't say more here, as I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't seen it. But what I will say is that the German's who fought the 94th Infantry, Smith's unit, nicknamed them 'Roosevelt's Butchers'.


Shoulder patch of the 94th Infantry Division.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Book Reviews: Hitler's Defeat on the Western Front, Seidler & Hitler's Defeat on the Eastern Front, Baxter



This has reached me in a timely fashion, right after reading a series of books such as Operation Totalize and The Germans in Normandy, which cover the same period and territory. Being an Images of War title, this is naturally a more pictorial treatment, which nicely complements the aforementioned text based books.

In this title, the text is largely confined to four brief 'chapters': Defending Northern France; Battles in Holland and Belgium; Defending the Rhine; Last Battles in the West. Each of these is followed by big chunks of captioned photographs. Some of these images will be familiar to hardened veterans of WWII studies, but there are also a good number that live up better to the 'rare photographs from wartime archives' tagline.

This view of an SdKfz 251 from atop a tank is great.

As is quite common in series such as this, there are a few editorial gaffes, such as when the same image appears twice, as does a Panther passing wrecked buildings, appearing on both p.11 and p.66. At least the captions differ! Speaking of the captions, they're okay. But given that they form the bulk of the text, they could've been better, i.e. more informative and/or interesting. Once again there's some redundant repetition.

Still, overall the pictures are great, and having them at ones' fingertips as reference in book form is fab. There are also some additional appendices, giving unit compositions and OOBs. So, all in all, a useful and enjoyable addition to the Images of War series.

Rommel inspects SPGs and crews. Note natty sackcloth tank tops!





This title sounds like it should be the perfect complement to Siedler's book, as reviewed above. And in some respects it is. Certainly it's a complement. But, alas, it's far from perfect. As usual with Ian Baxter's work, in my experience of it thus far, the prose is occasionally very clumsy, and some captions are either boringly obvious, redundantly repetitious, or just plain wrong.

In this particular addition to the highly useful but quality-wise fairly variable Images of War series, Baxter seems peculiarly obsessed with the SS. The SS are, I would say - and I perhaps share the fascination many, Baxter quite obviously included, have with this darkly fascinating branch of the Nazi war machine - very over-represented here. And a lot of the references to them seem almost gushingly admiring.

A nicely dramatic shot. SS? Yes!

The only real acknowledgement of their complicity in war crimes comes in reference to the crushing of the Warsaw uprising. The rest of the time Baxter continually sings their praises. As much as I'm fascinated by the SS myself, I found this irksome. And in a book purporting to cover the Eastern Front as a whole, this SS-focus just seemed a bit odd.

One possible explanation might be the sourcing of the photos, perhaps? In his acknowledgments Baxter refers to his gratitude re the use of photographs from several private sources. Maybe those sources are mainly SS related? If so, some kind of mention of that fact ought to have been made. 

More SS...

... and more.

On the positive side, this is one of the few Images of War titles wherein I haven't recognised lots of the images from other sources, such as the Bundesarchiv. Structurally it's akin to Seidler's Western Front book, with five brief chapters - Kursk; Fighting Withdrawal; Winter Warfare; Bagration & Aftermath; Last Battles - supported by the captioned photographs. But there's more text here than in Siedler's Western counterpart. This means more detail. However, it also means more lumpen prose and repetition. So, a mixed blessing!

The photos themselves are useful and interesting, if of quite varied quality. The over-representation of the SS may or may not irritate others. As I like their funky camo' gear, I can live with it. But it's not as broadly representative visually as Siedler's Western Front counterpart. Several appendices cover info on organisation, equipment and uniforms. I only glanced at the latter, so won't pass judgement on them here, they may be useful additions. Then again, they may not.

Can it be! Is this possibly not an SS unit?

Not the best of the Images of War offerings. But still interesting and useful for reference.

And lest ye forget... yet more SS!*

* I will confess that SS camo' gear is something I never tire of seeing.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Book Review: The Germans In Normandy, Richard Hargreaves



Whilst this isn't 100% perfect - very little in life is! - it's bloody good. And I use the word bloody deliberately. This is very much in the (combat ruptured) vein of Anthony Beevor's WWII writings, in its expert deployment of firsthand testimony from all levels, revelling in mud and blood.

The book starts with pre-invasion preparations, and the odd mixture of ennui and anxiety, as the occupiers wait for the inevitable but long time coming opening of the 'second front' [1]. Once the invasion gets underway we move around, from the German reactions to initial Allied paratroop drops, to the lethargic response of the fractured chain of command, so familiar from other accounts and the depiction in the classic Longest Day movie. Yep, Hitler really was left to slumber!

Hitler demanded the impossible of von Kluge, at left. [2]

We frequently encounter characters such as Rommel, and Von Kluge, and it's interesting to note how their outward actions relate to their own inner personal feelings, the former apparent from their orders and their relations with both subordinates and superiors, the latter coming via less guarded comments to colleagues, or letters home. It's very clear that for all the vaunted fighting spirit, cutting edge materiel, and the dynamism and flexibility of auftragstaktik, the fragmented nature of the German armed forces and the complicated chain of command worked against decisive action.

But as the book proceeds, the air of inevitability builds: the Luftwaffe was by this point a spent force, the Kriegsmarine never became the equal of the Royal Navy, let alone the combined might of the UK/US maritime coalition, and the ground forces - split between the Wehrmacht, the SS, and diluted with Ostruppen, the young and the old Volksturm, etc. - were simply overwhelmed by the weight of Allied materiel.

Rommel on a tour of inspection of the Atlantikwall.

When the fighting is near the coast and the Allied position on land is still tenuous - Rommel's idea that Germany could only win if they prevented the Allies gaining a foothold was almost certainly the best hope they had [3] - the Allies could still bring to bear not only their airborne superiority, a decisive factor on the Western Front from hereon in, but also the incredible weight of their naval flotilla's firepower.

As the fighting moved inland the combination of total Allied airborne dominance and the scraping-bottom dribs and drabs situation for the German's, combined with Hitler's by now totally unrealstic and detrimental 'power of the will' philosophy, which would countenance no retreats, was a certain recipe for disaster. What's most amazing is how the Germans continued to believe and obey. I suppose sheer desperation and having been locked into a victorious mindset for so long may have enabled this.

It's not just top brass, this book is a paean to the trials of the 'Landser'.

As I say, this isn't perfect: there's no glossary, and the maps could've been more plentiful and informative. The photos aren't the best selection on the subject I've seen [4], and occasionally the text repeats itself somewhat. But this is not a dry recitation of unit names and troop movements, as so many military history books are, and is instead a very well put together patchwork or collage of firsthand testimony, which really brings the events to life.

I found this terrifically informative exciting and compelling, and would highly recommend it.


NOTES:

Funk, poster-boy got the German war effort.

The main dustjacket photo is a colourised version of a very famous image of 18 year-old Hitlerjugend panzergrenadier Otto Funk, right after a small unit action in Rots, Normandy, 1944. Here's an interesting link to a webpage where you can learn more about the series of photos this came from, Otto Funk, and the location 'then and now'. The above image, cover of a German photo-feature magazine, is from the same series

[1] Really a third front, with the Ostfront (and Balkans) as the first, and the north-Africa then Italian/Med as the second.

[2] Kluge typifies the German generals: honour bound to obey, but ultimately unable to deliver, vacillating between belief and despair. His relation to the Stauffenberg plot and the fallout from that is a fascinating and tragic sub-plot. And it's a story echoed in the actions and fate of Rommel and others as well.

[3] Albeit still a forlornly unrealistic one.

[4] Apart from the Funk cover pic, all my picture selections for this post are not in this book.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Misc: D-Day 75th Anniversary!


75 years ago, today, the world's greatest military armada landed Allied troops and materiel on the shores of Normandy. I though I'd remember and celebrate this with a post on the subject.

The first thing I'd like to note is how, growing up in the village of Comberton, five miles west of Cambridge, my family would frequently pass the American Cemetery (read more on the latter here), at Madingley. My dad would never fail to mention it, as we passed, on our way in to or out of town. But even in the ensuing years in which I grew to be fascinated by military history, models and wargaming, etc, I never took a real interest in the place.

The American Cemetery at Madingley, Cambridgeshire.

Indeed, it wasn't until my return to both my old 'neck of the woods', having moved back to Cambridgeshire after about a decade in London, and my eventual return to the hobbies and interests of my youth, which came later, that I finally started to visit the Cemetery, and comprehend its significance. I've been there three or four times now. It's well worth a visit. I was surprised they aren't holding a D-Day memorial service today. But I found out they did so earlier this year. In fact I only just missed it; May 27th.

Rather than me going into it, and why there's an American Cemetery here in the first place, interested parties should read the previously mentioned link, or this post, the latter of which has plenty of interesting info' from a local perspective.

I'll be watching this with a drop of vin rouge, to celebrate.

I had hoped that perhaps my Canadian grandfather, Bert Palmer, had taken part in the D-Day landings, or the Normandy Campaign. And he might have, even if only indirectly. Based on some sketchy information from my father I believe he remained in the U.K, due to a traffic accident/injury (sustained under wartime blackout conditions), working as a mechanic and chauffeur.

I'd love to take the afternoon off, and watch The Longest Day. And indeed, I might well do so! But numerous chores need to be attended to first. Speaking of The Longest Day, a phrase I believe Cornelius Ryan got from (or at least attributes to) Rommel - and The Desert Fox was on TV yesterday! - I'm currently reading an excellent book entitled The Germans In Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves. This superb book does for Normandy what Andrew Field's Waterloo, The French Perspective, did for that momentous clash, giving views from 'the other side of the hill'.

An excellent exciting read.

---------------
I tried to buy a bottle of red wine from Normandy, but couldn't find any in my local Sainsbury. I know the region is more famed for cider and Calvados. But I fancied a decent French red. It wasn't until the day after (i.e. now, on the 7th, when I'm typing this!) that I 'googled' the subject. And as the map below shows, nowadays Normandy isn't really considered a wine region.

French wine regions.

Nevertheless, I did find this producer. No English options on their website, alas. And I haven't tried to see if they sell any wines here, in Blighty. Anyway, the wine I bought yesterday - and I departed from my usual tightwad budget of £5-8, and sploshed out (Flyodian pun) on a £12 bottle - whose name/region escapes me now, was terrifically good; soft and smooth as a velvet slipper! Teresa, who won't usually imbibe during the week, took a slug or two when I told her the occasion.

Ok, I'll admit I haven't said a huge amount here about either D-Day itself, or the Normandy campaign, or the contemporary events held on June 6th, 2019. But that's not really the point of this post. This is simply a moment of celebration and remembrance of those seismic events of 75 years ago. So, here's to all those who stopped Hitler's rot!


And, to conclude, shown above is a very interesting video I found on YouTube, which is a film of D-Day to D+3 footage, as shown to the Allied leaders - Churchill, Eisenhower, etc. - very shortly after the events.

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Book Review: Operation Totalize, Tim Saunders



This follows on nicely from Charles More's Arromanches to the Elbe, which I read and reviewed recently. That book follows 144 RAC from Normandy to Germany, and includes coverage of their part in Operation Totalize [1]. It's great to be able to zoom in on a more detailed view of one component of the larger picture.

The Kangaroo, a 'de-frocked' Priest, was a product of Totalize. [2]

It's also of interest to me as my grandfather served in WWII, in the Canadian armed forces, and Totalize was a joint Anglo-Canadian affair. I had hoped Bert might've been involved in these events. But a chat with my dad at the weekend suggests that he probably spent the duration based in the southern U.K. (due to an injury sustained in a military traffic accident). Still, my Canadian connection remains!

I initially found the level of detail pretty hard going; there's an awful lot of unit names/numbers, and movements, and many, many maps, of very varied quality. But at the time I started this review I'd just finished chapter seven, which deals with Kurt Meyer's German counter-attack. The combination of maps and firsthand testimony, as well as regimental histories, etc, is superb. This is the battle during which Tiger ace Michael Wittman was put out of action by radio-op turned gunner Joe Ekins. [3] It's very vividly portrayed, making for an exciting and compelling read.

Tiger ace Michael Wittman, of Villers Bocage fame.

Wittman's tank after Ekins was done with it.

It's now some time later, and I've finished the book. Rather like Totalize itself, it kind of fizzles out, with the Allied forces partially achieving their objectives, and their German adversaries partially succeeding in containing them. But I found Saunder's account, overall, to be very interesting. It's amazing just how much material there is on WWII, and within that there's so much again, from broad perspectives (I have a book called The Second World War Explained on my 'to read' pile) to super-detailed blow-by-blow accounts of specific operations, such as this.

We're spoiled, really, aren't we!?

------------
NOTES:

[1] The 'z' in the spelling of Totalise is deliberate, U.S./Canadian style.

[2] M7 Priests on loan to British and Canadian forces had their armament temporarily removed, and armour-plates added to fill the resulting voids, so as to create APCs to deliver troops into battle alongside armour.

[3] Rather surprisingly, given how effective he proved as a gunner - he knocked out several other German tanks in this engagement - Ekins was returned to his radio duties, never to fire a gun again!

Book Review: Small Scale Armour Modelling, Alex Clark



N.B: This is another of my occasional archival posts. In this case of a book I bought ages ago, and reviewed over on the Amazon U.K. website.

First of all I'd like to say that the information in this book is, for my purposes, five-star material. I'm docking one star in this review because the pictures in the Kindle edition I bought via Amazon aren't up to snuff, in my view.

This was both the first book on model-making I've ever bought (prior to this I relied on my prior knowledge/experience and stuff I've gleaned from the ever-useful interweb), and my first ever Kindle purchase, for use on the Kindle app on an iPad. A friend has this book in its spiral-bound book form, and it seemed to me his modelling has clearly benefitted from Alex Clark's expert input. So I thought I'd give it a punt.

The content is great, moving from basics, such as the tools you ought to have, through mid level stuff on how best to paint and assemble your models, to more advanced stuff on conversions and suchlike, even getting into stuff like casting your own resin parts! I benefitted from the advice immediately, starting with a series of tool purchases. And I know I'll continue to return to the book, which can be read cover to cover or just dipped into as needed.

Clark writes very well, in clear, concise but inspiring prose. And the text displays well in the Kindle app. My only gripe is that the pictures aren't always next to their captions, and, worse, they aren't sufficiently clear/high quality. Zooming in on them doesn't make the visual info clearer, but reveals the images to be pixelated low-res affairs.

Still, the information content is first rate, and the saving getting this on Kindle was so large I feel the loss of image quality is tolerable, just. If the images could be improved I'd give this five stars. But even as it is I'd highly recommend it to the budding Panzer nut, or any small scale AFV (or similar) builder.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Book Review: Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front, Hans Rehfeldt



Volume one of a two-part Ostfront memoir, subtitled From the Moscow Winter Offensive to Operation Zitadelle. Hans Rehfeldt is just 18 when he sets off on a nine day train odyssey to the Eastern Front. Personally I love firsthand accounts such as these. Even the trip to the Front is interesting in itself.

The author gives almost continual daily entries - and that's exactly how the narrative is presented - that track the progress he and his comrades, of the elite Grossdeutschland unit, make. There's a lot of detailed frontline action. I was hoping to say it probably helped his chances of survival that he was in a mortar unit, as you might imagine that they would be slightly behind the sharp end, but I've been somewhat disabused of this notion, inasmuch as mortar positions were as often as not on or forward of the front line. Not during attacks, necessarily, but very much so during the longer periods between attacks.

The rather cool looking GD shoulder boards.

Mortar ammunition runners, and such was Rehfeldt's lot, also had the risky job of to-ing and fro-ing between the mortar pits and rearward supply areas, fetching fresh ammo. Indeed, it was running this dangerous gauntlet during an attack that would earn the author an Iron Cross, second class. This book (and doubtless its companion second volume) are terrific for learning about grunt-level tactical warfare on the Ostfront.

One striking thing is that it's very early on in the book, and Barbarossa itself, that the German's reach their farthest east, with the author and his fellows southeast of Moscow, around Tula, at which point the tide turns and retreat begins. Temperatures reach -52°, and Rehfeldt is invalided out of the line twice, due to severe frostbite which, along with near ubiquitous diarrhoea and vermin, reminds one of the horrors of Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia.

A typical five man mortar crew in action.

The written content is well supported by plentiful photographs, and not just generic images, but photos of Rehfeldt and his fellow Grossdeutschland soldiers. Also, in addition to his diary and these photographs, there's a further interesting graphic element, in the form of a good number of Rehfeldt's sketch-maps. I think it's great that these are reproduced as drawn, as opposed to having been redrawn professionally. Their very naïveté adds to their authenticity and interest.

Grossdeutschland, with its famous stahlhelm unit insignia, was way more than decimated. Losses were nigh on - indeed it's suggested here they exceeded - 100%! In other words more men were killed, injured or otherwise lost (captured, missing, etc.) than made up the full-strength of the unit pre-combat. As a result they are amalgamated into other units during the campaign, before being withdrawn for rest and refitting, and restored at greater strength, ready for Operation Zitadelle, the Kursk offensive.

A 2.8cm Panzerbüchse like this one knocks out at T-34 outside Schachty. [1]

I'm posting this review as I near the end of volume one. It's been brilliant, and continues to be exciting, informative and highly compelling. I'm really looking forward to the second instalment! To conclude, I'll do something I don't usually do in my reviews, and quote an extended extract, to give a flavour of Rehfeldt's writing [2].

'We heard by radio that Stukas had been called up. Now we searched the skies waiting for them to appear. Meanwhile our armoured cars had rounded up about twenty-five Ivans from the fields of wheat and sunflowers. The [Russian] cavalry troop was on the point of making an attack when the Stukas arrived, twelve of them. At this the cavalry, some mounted, others on foot, turned tail and ran for cover. The Russian fear of the Stuka appeared to be enormous. Our prisoners standing near us threw themselves down and looked up fearfully at the aircraft. We have noted this behaviour amongst the Russians so often that we consider that the Stuka dominates the battlefield. First they circle the target like vultures, then one machine after another tilts over one wing in steep downward flight at fantastic speed. The bombs are released almost directly onto the target. The howl of the 'Jericho sirens' is an additional psychological factor. The walls break and the howl gets on your nerves. It all makes Ivan deadly quiet, but for us brings – relief! The circles become tighter, the target has been identified and the nose tilts – towards us! Crippling horror! They are diving on us! Smoke signals, quick, quick! The flares hiss upwards and orange–yellow smoke is born on the wind. Our position is marked and the tank destroyer shows the swastika flag. At the last moment, already in the dive, the Stukas realise their mistake and, with a bloodcurdling wail of sirens close overhead, turn and climb in a steep curve upwards... They circled again and this time bombed the Russians; total chaos ensued, the bombs exploding in the midst of wildly zig-zagging tractors, tanks and fleeing soldiers. An ammunition truck exploded – some tanks zig-zagged off the road, bombs dropping between them: Ivan made no reply. In conclusion the Stukas strafed any vehicle in the open, and soldiers fleeing in panic. We watched the scene wordless and spellbound. Whenever a Stuka bomb exploded, we felt the shockwave a kilometre away. Thick clouds from the explosions hovered over the battlefield. Finally the Stukas made a pass over us at low-level waggling their wings, a sign of greeting and victory, and then they roared off without climbing.'


----------
NOTES:

[1] This is one of several weapons I'd not been aware of before reading this account. N.B. the pic is not from this book.

[2] I think it's worth noting that the translation is excellent. One hears the Germanic turn of phrase, the rhythm, sentence construction, etc. But English vernacular is also well deployed, where appropriate, using such phrases as 'hell for leather' and 'hit the sack'.

A good view of the cuff-band.

The above Bundesarchiv photo, not from the book, shows the Grossdeutschland armband quite clearly. I'd expected it to look more like the top of the two examples below. But it's more like the bottom one, i.e. harder to decipher! Can anyone decipher and explain exactly what the GD cuff thing says, and why it differs from what one  might expect?



Saturday, 25 May 2019

Misc: La Bête est Morte, WWII bande-dessinée.

This morning I got an email from Bovington Tank Museum, under their 'Tank Times' banner, which had an interesting link regarding a recent book donation (read more here). This is something I'd definitely like to know more about; a bit of 'googling' lead me to unearth the following images:

Cover of the first in the two-part edition.

A scene depicting French liberation.

The German war machine invades France.

Here we see the two editions.


The artist who's supplied the illustrations, Calvo, is obviously superb. He's clearly influenced in these artworks by Disney's contemporary style. But despite this obvious indebtedness, the artworks remain fabulous in their own right. 

The British Bulldog bites Hitler's arse!

Some spreads are a series of frames...

... whilst others are fantastic double-page spreads.


At the time of posting these are in a random order, as I found them online. I'll probably return to edit this into a more sequential order at some future juncture. I've captioned the most obvious content. But there are numerous images I need to study more. I've seen originals online for crazy prices. I'm hoping that there are affordable English editions!? Perhaps it's even still in print? Does anyone know?

Churchill's Bulldog vs. Hitler the crazed Wolf!


It looks like all theatres are addressed; here we see North Africa.

Hitler, Goering and Goebbels.


As this shows, the comic doesn't pull any punches.



A small detail from a larger and superb pastiche of Delacroix.


Nazi training.


The global view.

I'll definitely be looking to acquire this. Probably in an English language version, to be honest. It looks utterly fantastic.