Tuesday, July 25, 2017
Being a tanker, well at least a former one, it is hard not to be extra amazed by the most insane tank project ever, as it involved a 1,000 metric tonne vehicle and the project was actually approved by Hitler.
This beast was so big that the Germans did not officially call it a tank but a Landkreuzer, a "land cruiser". So, you can imagine how keen I was to with my own eyes examine a physical trace of the Landkreuzer "Ratte" ("Rat") project. Yes, the project was cancelled in 1943 by Albert Speer, but there exists a very large piece of a "Ratte" one can say, in Norway, north of Trondheim. The primary weapon of the "Ratte" would have been a 280 mm gun turret, the same turret that was used on the German battleship Gneisenau, modified by removing one of the guns. Where to find such a preserved turret then? The place is called Austrått and the area Örlandet. More info on e.g. this Norwegian tourism website but let me add that you really should make your visit known well in advance if you want to be sure to see the interior of the turret and also the “Fosen Krigshistoriske Samlinger”, an exhibition about the years of occupation in the area. If you can time your visit in such a manner that you get to see both the exterior and interior of the turret, with its many still functional mechanisms, as well as the occupation exhibition - then it will have been very well worth all your expenses to get to this place.
As for the expenses of the Third Reich to build this massive bunker complex - the story is similar to many other German projects along the Atlantic Wall - the ultimate price was payed by other states. To build this particular complex about 120 prisoners from Yugoslavia were worked to their deaths. Of course, many more suffered - directly and indirectly. I will return to this and other enormous northern Hitler projects in a coming book.
Now, if you are going to travel by car to Austrått, do not miss the opportunity to vist Hegra Fortress, where i.a. three Swedish volunteers (see our book Swedes at War 1914-1945) held out for several weeks against the German attackers. The onslaught of the German forces, not least the Luftwaffe, can be better understood by examining the fortress roof.
When in beautiful Trondheim, you should make sure you visit three WWII-related sights. First, The Norwegian National Museum of Justice, with several artifacts from the SS, Quisling police forces and an Enigma machine that was actually saved from a scrap heap in the 1980s. This museum also has the WWI German "anthrax sugar cubes" used by a Swedish volunteer, Otto von Rosen, that you can read more about in Swedes at War 1914-1945. Then there is the army & home front museum Rustekammeret beside the amazing cathedral of Nidaros. Rustekammeret deals with the complete military history of the area, thus not only WWII.
Finally, do not miss to check out the enormous German submarine bunkers in the Trondheim harbour, just too big to miss. They are not that open to the public but you might still find a way to be allowed inside, if you find someone nice and understanding working in them. Even if you are not able to talk yourself inside, their exterior is well worth seeing up close. To prepare yourself for seeing these bunkers and many other German sites in the region, you should get this new and very well illustrated Norwegian book, Bunkeren.
Monday, July 24, 2017
For the first time, remains from all three Soviet bombings of northernmost Sweden are on public display. Soviet shrapnel from the Övertorneå bombing 1944 has never been displayed in a museum before.
The Soviet bombing of the northern Swedish town of Pajala on February 21 1940 meant about 150 dropped bombs. It may have occurred due to an actual navigational error, Pajala is located on the Finnish border. The Pajala bombing caused rather great damage but no person was killed. It is the northern Soviet bombing that has made it into many Swedish history books.
However, the first ever Soviet bombing of Swedish territory was that of Kallaxön outside Luleå on January 14 1940. Three DB-3 bombers entered the Luleå area from the south east and were well over Swedish ground flying in the direction of the fortress town of Boden when they turned, probably due to the weather conditions, and then bombed Kallaxön with at least ten bombs. Amazingly, only one house was really damaged. There is the possibility that the Soviets had intended to bomb Boden and when this was no longer possible, they instead opted for damaging the air base being constructed on Kallax. The possible intention may have been to send a strong signal (protest) to the Swedish government, not to support Finland during the Soviet Winter War against Finland. The Kallaxön bombing is mentioned in only a few books, but forms a rather large part of the bonus chapter in the paperback version of my book Germans and Allies in Sweden.
Now, since last week, bomb parts from the Kallaxön and Pajala bombings have been joined by two Soviet bomb fragments from Övertorneå, that was bombed on February 12 1944. Although there is little that speaks for Soviet intent (Övertorneå also being a border town) this incident too is of some interest, as it has eluded historians. But, thanks to the discovery of an original map from 1944 with bomb craters clearly marked, and evidence from locals and local newspapers, shrapnel has been found and it has been concluded that the bombs had Cyrillic script. Remains of nine were found and one did not go off. The bomb parts constitute just a small part of the museum Flygmuseet F 21 Luleå.
Did other states bomb northernmost Sweden during WWII? A couple of British bombs were dropped, in connection with the battle of Narvik 1940, but they were dropped by the Norwegian border and landed in the wilderness, not harming anyone or anything except the ground.
The above text constitutes an English summary of three articles in Swedish I have written, that were published in Soldat & Teknik 3/2014, 1/2017 and 4/2017.
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Only in October last year (2016) the Swedish Tax Agency declared Raoul Wallenberg officially dead. But when did he breathe his last breath? The Swedish Tax Agency recorded the date of his death as July 31, 1952. However, July 17, 1947 is the most presumed date for his execution by the MGB (which in 1954 became the KGB). In other words, 70 years ago.
The Swedish Tax Agency´s date of July 31, 1952 does not directly point out Wallenberg´s death day, it is just in line with the tax agency´s approach in cases where the circumstances of death are unclear. The agency has a general rule of five years after someone goes missing. Why then July 31 and not July 17? Well, again this is according to policy - which is to not mark a certain day but the last day of the month during which the person was known to be alive.
How was Raoul Wallenberg "liquidated", i.e. murdered? Poison or a bullet are the methods mentioned by different Soviet/Russian sources.
I am no Raoul Wallenberg expert but my co-author Lennart Westberg and I have followed developments around Raoul Wallenberg research and summarize these in the English translation of our book, Swedes at War 1914-1945. The latest book about Raoul Wallenberg recently landed on my desk and it is written by Lars Brink, an accomplished author and also veteran of the same voluntary defence organization that Raoul Wallenberg worked for, the Swedish Home Guard. Prior to his world famous work in Hungary, Wallenberg had been a very active Home Guard instructor - the above photo shows him in his Swedish Army uniform.
Brink´s new book includes a summary in English and is thus not only of interest for Swedish readers. The book´s title may sound academic, Raoul Wallenberg in Swedish Daily Press During the Cold War, but this is a book that should appeal not only to researchers at universities and institutions, but also to journalists and others. Brink´s book contains a credible and important analysis of how the press in Sweden, including Swedish communist papers, covered Raoul Wallenberg during the classic Cold War years. Previously, Lars Brink has written an amazing history of the Swedish Home Guard, including a very readable section about the young Wallenberg and his defence work. Brink´s books can be found in some Swedish book shops and also ordered from his own website.
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
OK, you have watched the TV series ”The Americans” and are curious about the reality behind the story. Well, I have a suggestion – read the book that shows, again, that fact beats fiction.
My view of ”The Americans” in a nutshell: an entertaining drama series with some really good actors, but also rather far from the very real Soviet agents masquerading as non-Soviet citizens in the West under assumed or created identities, also known as ”illegals”. While the basic idea of the TV series, of two Soviet KGB officers posing as an American married couple living in the suburbs with their children, is factual enough, most of the action in the series is pure fiction. The KGB did not plant agents in other countries to have them shoot people just about every working week. Sure, KGB agents did kill folks abroad, but only rarely, and only very rarely by using their very expensive illegals. So, like the TV series ”Manhattan”, too many important scenes in ”The Americans” simply did not happen in real life.
Also, ”The Americans” has some flaws in the way things look. Sure, the people who have procured the 1970´s and 80´s clothes, music and cars for the series have – I think – done a good job. I reckon that few recent TV series have gotten the look of the eighties as right as ”The Americans”. However, the 1980´s Soviet Embassy in Washington hardly was decorated with those really old Soviet propaganda posters. Then there are the KGB uniform mistakes in the episode ”Covert War” (season 1 episode 11). And the name Zhukov. OK, not an uncommon Soviet (Russian) name. But considering Georgy Zhukov, the Red Army´s WWII top military commander, couldn´t they have come up with another name?
Now, if you are keen to get to know the reality behind ”The Americans” I can recommend the real story of Jack Barsky, ”Deep Undercover”. Barsky was born in the GDR, better known as East Germany, in 1949 as Albrecht Dittrich. While his life and autobiography does not have the action of ”The Americans” it is still an exciting read. It is also a deeply personal and amazing story, that really should please not just espionage buffs.
”Deep Undercover” provides testimony about the preparations and purpose of the Soviet illegals after Stalin´s death. To summarize Barsky´s purpose: to become succesful and enter into the highest American circles and be ”…a rich undercover revolutionary in the United States” (quote from the book). Why all this effort then? Well, to ultimately influence US policy and promote revolutionary change in the West. But aside from this long range aim Barsky also gets to do some more immediate, practical tasks in the US.
The main objective of subversion explains Barsky´s interest in e.g. secessionist initiatives in Canada and a search for radical political leaning in the West. Left or right – equally interesting. Main thing to fan those flames, hasten revolution.
As I mentioned, Albrecht Dittrich/Jack Barsky was originally not a Soviet citizen but an East German one. Being Swedish, I think this makes him a bit extra interesting, as the KGB could outsource some of its work with Swedes to East Germans. For example, the more than twenty Swedish volunteers in Soviet special operation forces (spetsnaz and the ”Bernhard” sabotage group) were led by two Germans who both became top leaders within the KGB´s East German version, the Stasi (I have written about these Swedes and Germans in two books). Now, Barsky had no KGB tasks in Sweden, he only used Stockholm as an east-west transportation hub, but his relationship to the KGB provides insights into the larger KGB-GDR system.
A key term in Barsky´s book is value system. When the very expensively trained subversion agent´s own value system changes, everything changes. In this lies a huge lesson for the future. Actually, this makes the book a story of so much more than one KGB spy.
Wednesday, May 31, 2017
Liberty Lady is a highly personal yet also credible and important history of both US airmen and the men and women of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Sweden during WWII.
The book title was natural, as it was also the name of the author´s father´s B-17 Flying Fortress, that crashed on the Swedish island of Gotland. The author, Pat DiGeorge, would simply not be around, had ”Liberty Lady” not landed safely in Sweden. One of the men aboard, Herman Allen, became one of the 1,218 (!) USAAF crew members interned in Sweden. These Americans are part of my own book Germans & Allies in Sweden. But Pat DiGeorge provides so much more colour and detail to their lives. For example she relates that the jitterbug was introduced to Sweden by a group of American aviators. As DiGeorge correctly states, ”The German internees were never given the freedom allowed to the British and the Americans.”
When Herman met «Hedy», a Swedish-American lady working for the OSS in Stockholm, he found the love of his life and among their children is Pat DiGeorge. Her book provides an amazing insight into the rich lives of both Herman and Hedvig «Hedy» Johnson Allen. On the road from their cradles to their graves one also gets fascinating peeks into the lives of personalities like Count Folke Bernadotte, highest responsible for all interned airmen in Sweden, and Arctic aviation pioneer Colonel Bernt Balchen, who like Herman Allen had one leg in the USAAF and one in the OSS.
Swedes of course also are a big part of Liberty Lady, and not only pro-Allied ones. It is amazing to follow the strange friendship between Herman and one of the Swedes who worked for the Germans.
It is pretty amazing that so few previous books in English have focused on wartime Stockholm, thick with espionage. German and Allied spies not seldom stayed in the same Stockholm hotels and sometimes ate side by side in the restaurants. As DiGeorge writes, the WWII American embassy in Stockholm ”sat at the centre of one of the most important listening posts of the war”. Liberty Lady solves several puzzles, providing valuable insights not only into the OSS in Stockholm but also the wartime visit by USAAF General Curtis.
DiGeorge´s book is also about the B-17 «Liberty Lady» aircraft itself, it is fascinating to read and see how parts of it to this day remain «all over the island of Gotland». Now a personal revelation, I have a rather strange family connection to the place where «Liberty Lady» went down, Mästermyr on Gotland. You see, I inherited a photograph from a relative of mine who was at Mästermyr. The photograph depicts a bomber that he himself photographed. But it is not a B-17, but a German Heinkel He 111. Yes, Mästermyr was the place where a He 111 went down in 1940, after having been hit by Swedish anti-aircraft fire. My photo of the He 111 on Mästermyr is in my book Germans & Allies in Sweden.
Finally, it was great to learn from Liberty Lady that Pat DiGeorge too had the privilege of working with the late Swedish-American historian Carl Finstrom.
In short, Liberty Lady is THE English language book about espionage and love in WWII Sweden, especially in Stockholm, the Casablanca of the north.
Monday, May 22, 2017
The wear evident on my 1977 Star Wars publication is a testimony of my special interest in how Star Wars came about. The two records released the same year have also never ceased to inspire me.
The Movie Spectacular pictured above was published by Marvel Comics already in 1977 and features sources of inspiration like Amazing Stories magazine and Flash Gordon comic strips (that became movies from 1936), wonderful photos from both the filming and actual film as well as some background about the people behind the movie.
You can, of course, listen to the soundtrack on Spotify or a CD. But IMHO nothing beats listening to the 1977 record on a gramophone. Well, OK, a live performance by an orchestra might be better. But then I am also fortunate to have a 1977 record with the actual dialogue and sound effects. Although/because it is sound only it adds a dimension of imagination. So, in spite of 3D technology and what have you, listening to "The Story of Star Wars" still is a wonderful pleasure.
Interested in Star Wars behind the scenes and the history of Star Wars? In that case I am certain you will want to read about my top three Star Wars books.
Sunday, May 07, 2017
With the 40th anniversary of the release of the very first "Star Wars" (later retitled "Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope"), fast approaching (this May 25) these are the Star Wars books you're looking for...
Now, if you are expecting me to include Star Wars novels in my list I will have to somewhat disappoint you, although I will say that some of the Boba Fett quotes in The Bounty Hunter Wars: The Mandalorian Armor (1998) by K.W. Jeter are magnificent. The are two reasons the following list is not about the novels, or the comics: I have not read that many of them and my main interest is the movies themselves.
So, the following is "just" a list of the three books about Star Wars that I have come to value most, after almost 40 years of being a Star Wars fan. Yes, I saw Star Wars on the big screen in 1977, at least twice and it might have been thrice.
1. I find it hard to even imagine a more complete book about how it all started than The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler. But understand that it is not about the episodes that followed.
2. To get what I believe is a strong idea what it was like making and especially designing the first Star Wars movie, turn to Cinema Alchemist by Roger Christian. Mr. Christian being the gentleman who i.a. built THE lightsaber.
3. To begin to understand the whole galaxy of films, books, comics", conventions etc that Star Wars today constitutes - go to How Star Wars Conquered The Universe by Chris Taylor.