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.'


[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.

Book Review: From Arromanches to the Elbe, Charles More

This fascinating book follows the 144th Regt, RAC (Royal Armoured Corps) from landing, on D-Day +8, through the Normandy campaign, into Belgium/Holland, and ultimately across the Rhine. It does so in part through the memoirs of several who served in the regiment, leaning particularly heavily on the writings of Marcus Cunliffe. [1]

Churchill tanks act as Battle taxis, ferrying troops over the Elbe.

Initially equipped with Churchills, which were replaced with Shermans, the unit would eventually be reborn as the 4th RTR (Royal Tank Regiment), and was then furnished with Buffalo LVTs, in which capacity it had the honour of being the first British unit across the Rhine, ferrying troops over. [2]

One of many things I really enjoyed about this book was the way it covered both very well known actions - so for example we hear about how the regiment was embroiled in the famous Ardennes/Bulge actions - and also those frequently glossed over, such as their first real action, at Noyers, or when they helped in the reduction and capture of le Havre.

The photographic segment isn't the most exciting of it's type, but it does illustrate some of the people and places depicted. The several simple maps are better than average. And there's also a glossary, which is always a good thing. The book itself is well written, albeit in a rather plain way. At first I was worried it'd be one of those dry recitations of unit numbers and movements, and might be too obscure/specialised to keep me interested. But it proved otherwise, thanks in no small part to the extracts from the writings of Cunliffe and others, like Alan Jolly and Hilary Phillips.

Sherman's of the 144th Regt.

In the end, once I'd gotten really stuck in, More's account turns out to be a model of clarity and balance. Rather interestingly he addresses several well-worn clichés concerning the allegedly poor training, morale, equipment and performance of British troops and Allied materiel, giving a much more positive view than one is sometimes accustomed to hearing.

A number of familiar themes emerge, during combat or 'action' (not always the same, as when a recce in force advances unopposed), such as how tank numbers rapidly dwindle due to bogging down or mechanical failure. And the confusion or muddle, as when a barrage causes advancing troops to lose their way in the dust that's raised, or two units are given the same task. But such things are commonplaces of war, and More shows that these weren't necessarily purely Britush failings.

One clear thing that emerges is the imbalance of materiel. At one point the Shermans of the regt. - sixty or so - are temporarily mothballed, while the unit is issued with the Buffalo LVT. Whatever failings the Sherman may have had, often overstated anyway, they were available in numbers that meant, no matter how good the Panthers or Tigers opposing them were, there simply weren't enough of them.

'Buffalo' LVTs of the 4th RTR are readied for crossing the Rhine.

Structurally the first six chapters, after an initial introduction, follow the unit as it campaigns across Western Europe in 1944-45, the following chapter headings give a good overview: Arromanches to Noyers; Operation Totalize; Advance to the Seine; Holland and the Ardennes; The Rhine to the Elbe. For those of us who like potential wargaming scenarios, there are numerous terrifically exciting vignettes, such as first blood at Noyers, or the delivery of troops over the Rhine to take Sees.

The final chapters, The Experience of War and Regimental Ins and Outs are also very good, adding some very welcome supplementary dimensions to the book. Indeed, some of the most poignant personal revollections, as when the tanks force passage through a distraught elderly French woman's home, when crossing the Calonne at La Vallette, are tnot be found here.

All in all, an excellent book. Well worth reading.

[1] Cunliffe was a successful academic and writer. An interesting footnote is that his first wife, Mitzi Solomon, was an American Modernist sculptor, whose chief claim to fame may well be that she designed the BAFTA Awards mask.

[2] Much to Monty's chagrin, the Americans were already across at Remagen.

Wednesday 22 May 2019

Book Review: With Napoleon in Russia, 1812, Lt. Vossler

I bought this book at Partizan, on Sunday, and began reading it the very next day. It's Wednesday lunchtime, and I've just finished it. Hopefully that conveys how much I've enjoyed it? Whilst it's not quite as exciting or colourful as the very best Napoleonic/1812 memoirs, it is nevertheless a solidly readable account.

Vossler was an officer in the Duke Louis Chasseurs, a Würtemberg cavalry unit. Separated from his compatriots, under the command of Montbrun he served alongside French and other 'allied' troops. Although he got as far as Borodino, taking part in the southern portion of the battle, he didn't get to Moscow itself.

I believe this image depicts Vossler's regt.

His account is very down to earth, and mixes observations of the lands he moved through, their towns and peoples, with his own wartime experiences, a great deal of which are concerned with movement and billeting. Wounded at Borodino, his part in the retreat cannot have been much fun, as he also had typhus/dysentery and the accompanying diarrhoea, conditions which would contribute directly to the deaths of many on the advance as well as the retreat.

I like this memoir because it doesn't end once he gets home, one of the few lucky survivors of the Russia 1812 debacle, but continues as he returns to service in the 1813 campaign. However, not yet fully recovered, he's captured when a reconnaissance mission goes wrong, and spends the rest of the hostilities being shepherded around Poland and Russia along with other prisoners of war.

This isn't amazing if you want great detail on any of the battles, even those he took part in. He was at Smolensk, for example, as well as a Borodino. But he doesn't even attempt the grand overview - and I'm thankful, frankly, as plenty of others do (and not always very well) - instead sticking to the localised stuff he was involved in. But it's great for conveying day to day life as a Napoleonic soldier.

Of the officer class, he seems as concerned with food and lodgings, and the usually deploarable state (or indeed absence) of both, as he is with war and soldiering. I love these sorts of books, as they really bring the era and the conflicts to life very vividly. His writing style has been very well rendered in Walter Wallich's translation, avoiding the stodgy style that mires some similar accounts of the same vintage.

Monday 20 May 2019

Kit Build/Review: Fujimi Kübelwagen & BMW R75

This kit was my first purchase at On Track, earlier this year. A fun little old school kit, in which the BMW R75 motorcycle and sidecar combo is probably the best element. The figures are a bit clunky, and are the weakest ekelment, with the Kübelwagen somewhere in between. The latter has separate black rubber tires. I always think that these types of wheels are better as an idea than a reality.

Preparing to build the motorcycle/sidecar, etc.

Somehow I managed to build the Kubelwagen without snapping any 'under construction' pics. Dang nab it! I'm confused as to how to paint it, mainly in account of the question do I paint it tyres on or tyres off? I left the roof off, and also the MG. I'm pondering how I might work on the interior a little. I've also yet to glaze the windscreen.

Everything assembled... ready for painting.

And bongo... all assembled, inc. driver and officer stood up doing the 'Roman' salute. The MC and sidecar combo figures have strangely malformed helmets (snicker). So, as with so much of my WWII stuff, all that remains is painting/basing.

Show Report: Partizan, 2019.

I went to this year's Partizan with my pal Paul. As usual books are a primary draw. This year I knew I didn't really want to buy any model kits, as I've already accumulated so many. Nor any (or perhaps many is better?) wargames figures, as I have my fairly vast Napoleonic armies already. They just need painting and basing. Just!? Such a small word, such a large task...

I did think about buying scenery and basing stuff. But I still don't know how I'll be going about all that. So nothing doing there either. Most of the traders are in larger scales than those I'm currently into, and there weren't as many selling WWII 20mm stuff as there sometimes are. But it was in this latter category that I did wind up making a few small purchases.

One thing I ought to note is that I didn't take any means of photographing anything, so I can't, as I normally would, illustrate this with the eye-candy of the better looking games (compare this with my previous visit/report, to Partizan, 2017). As ever, it was fun to wander around marvelling at all the creativity and work people have put into some pretty stunning tables. That said, I wasn't quite as blown away as I have been on some other occasions. Indeed, I'd say - and no offence intended - that this year most of the games were simply at the better end of 'run of the mill'.

WWII German Panzer crew purchases.

I'm a bit old fashioned as well, when it comes to what interests me most, which is WWII (quite well represented, mostly in larger scales), and Napoleonics (less well represented than I'd like). My favourite Napoleonics game, in terms of beautiful figures and well realised scenery, depicted action in my least favourite of Napoleonic theatres, in what appeared to be North Africa, so probably Egypt (I didn't check what the battle was; could've been the 'Holy Land'!?).

Perhaps one of the best looking games was a WWI trench warfare jobbie. That looked amazing. There was a pretty steaming verdant tropical game as well. I'm less keen on the myriad obscurer eras, and even less so the fantasy or sci-fi stuff, including steampunk, which seems to merge those two previously separate genres. I can admire the creativity and imagination involved, but it just doesn't connect to the 'real history' buzz that is possibly the chief dynamo of my interest in all things mini-military.

Starting the clean-up prep at home, inc. removing bases from Orions.

In the end I did buy a few 20mm figures, pictured above, as I need crews for various vehicles. The Caesar German Panzer crews I bought (dark grey) are wearing winter gear, but many of them might well pass in other theatres/climates, once painted. They're made from a nice harder plastic, very much like that used for a set of Preiser figures I acquired some while ago. The Orions (in an unusual brick red!) - which I first saw as expensive resin products - are made from that horrible soft bendy plastic that so many 1/72 figures are available as. Hard to clean up, and tricky to paint.

What I love about the Caesar and Orion figures is the realism of pose and uniform rendering. Many of the standard 'for kids' style plastic toy soldiers I grew up wth, from makers like Airfix and Revell, etc, favoured 'action' poses that are both unrealistic in themselves, and then doubly so in how they are constrained by the moulding processes. These more recent makers seem to take the trouble to create figures in naturalistic poses such as you see in wartime photographs, making them infinitely better and more usable.

Some of Adler's 20mm Jeep crew, from Adler's own publicity images.

Also very well posed and sculpted, I bought my first Adler 20mm WWII figures; German tankers and US Jeep drivers/passengers. I'm looking forward to painting all of these figures and populating some of my vehicles. The Adler German tankers are actually DAK. But I'll be using them for Europe, from Italy and Russia, where their apparel should fit anyway, to the Western Front, where I'll be using a little licence.

Chausseurs a Cheval of the Guard, by Rousselot.

Book wise, I bought a large and very nice hardback called Napoleon's Elite Cavalry, which celebrates the Cavalry of the Imperial Guard, 1804-1815, as depicted in the paintings of Lucien Rousselot, with an accompanying text in English by Edward Ryan. I also got Military Uniforms in Colour, an old Blandford title written and illustrated by Preben Kannik, which is a book I used to get out of my village library as a kid. A real hit of nostalgia!

Ah, the memories this evokes!

Although I'm not currently reading as much as I once was on the subject, I'm still deeply into the Russia 1812 campaign, and hoping to start making inroads into painting my mountains of 6mm and 10mm figures for these campaigns. And in relation to this I still seek out books on the subject. On this occasion I bought With Napoleon In Russia, 1812, by Lt. Vossler, a Würtemberger. (I have so many books on Russia 1812 I'm a little worried I might already have it!)

As mentioned above, usually I'd have my iPhone or iPad on me, and take a bunch of pics. But this time I had neither, as both are suffering with recharging issues. On the one hand I wasn't as impressed with the games this year as in some previous years, but on the other, a show report with no pictures of the many games seems like a failure on my part! Never mind. I enjoyed the show and came home with some fab swag.

Chausseurs a Cheval of the Guard...

the kind of stuff that got me so excited about this era...

I mean, come on... talk about martial splendour epitomised!

Perusing the Rousselot paintings once home in the evening - and I only managed the Chausseurs a Cheval before exhaustion did for me - I realised that this purchase alone made the whole trip worthwhile!