Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Book and Figure Review: Images of War: Fallschirmjäger: German Paratroopers - 1937–1941 & 1942–1945, by François Cochet and Airfix 1/32 German Paratroops

In two volumes François Cochet outlines the history of the German fallschirmjäger in the Second World War, deftly combining brief chapters of text with a marvellous selection of images.


The first volume covers events leading to the formation of the fallschirmjäger* through to the beginning of Operation Barbarossa in September 1941.

*(‘useful dates for this volume’ and the text of Chapter 1 state that 29 January 1936 was the date for the establishment of the first unit of fallschirmjäger, not the 1937 of the volume’s title)
The book is ideal as an introduction to the fallschirmjäger. Every page includes interesting insights and details, beginning with the statement that the fallschirmjäger owe their origin to the collaboration between the Weimar republic and USSR, the latter which was the first to develop paratroops (the US having focussed on recreational rather than combat use).

Packed with photographs, chiefly from Cochet’s own collection, the book shows the fallschirmjäger in training, at play and in action. In addition to the photographs there are reproductions of some drawings made by German war correspondents that were published in Der Adler. In keeping with the series, the images are the key feature of the book and the number and range provided by Cochet provides the reader with a marvellous pictorial history of the fallschirmjäger and real insights into the men who served.

The photographs in the books are numerous and varied, showing the fallschirmjäger in training, relaxation and in action.

 A page of images of fallschirmjägers going into action. The faces of the men tell so much.

Another page with an image of young fallschirmjägers going into action and an example of some of the harder-hitting photographs in the book.

A page with images of Crete: one of the reproduced drawings from Der Adler and a photograph.

Cochet’s text expands on the pictorial story provided by the images and is at times surprisingly controversial. He demonstrates a clear affinity with the formation and its men, which is reasonable, but statements such as “By galvanising the Cretans (who were often armed to the teeth), the Allies broke all laws of war and many paratroopers were massacred by civilians” are ‘surprising’ in the least. This is also at odds with a statement by a former fallschirmjäger, Felix Gaerte, that “their fighting was extremely fair. I… served in other parts of the war… this fairness that existed between the Germans and the Australians at nowhere else existed”  (from ABC documentary “A Greek Tragedy”) and with extant monuments on Crete. Of course, warfare is not the clean thing of the wargaming tabletop, nor the honour and glory of war myth and history is generally written by the eventual winner. Guerrilla war is a particularly nasty version of the activity. Statements of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ seem to me a gross oversimplification.

A surprisingly strong caption, which is matched by statements in the text and at odds with extant monuments in Crete (below, still from the ABC documentary "A Greek Tragedy").

While I was ‘surprised’ to find such statements in a book of this kind, I’ll contradict myself and say that it was a pleasing to be challenge in such a manner! This is also an example of the way that Cochet fits a lot of content and detail into a few pages of text. As with other books in the series, I was also impressed with the fine way that the text and images/captions fit together and build a greater story. The translation into English is not always the best, which is detracts a little from the readability but does not affect the understanding.

The second volume picks up the story of the fallschirmjäger from 1942. Having suffered a high rate of casualties in the battle for Crete in 1941 and with further large losses in the USSR, by the spring of 1942, “the majority of paratroop units were brought back to the Reich to reform and rebuild” (p. 11).

Here again Cochet provides a set of detailed and engrossing photos, supported by his captions and descriptions in the text. We see photographs of recruitment demonstrations in Berlin, recruitment posters, recruits in training and during exercises in Normandy. We then follow them in action in Tunisia, Italy (including the bold mission to free Mussolini from his mountain-top hotel) and, increasingly as infantry, in the major battles of the Reich from the Aegean/Italy, to the USSR, France, the Netherlands, Germany and finally Berlin.

A page from volume two showing two of the more powerful images in the book, including one of those of a fallschirmjäger who was a casualty of war.

Once again the range of photographs is a particular feature of the book. This second volume includes a number of images of fallen fallschirmjäger. As the war moves towards the defeat of Nazi Germany the fallen are younger, or sometimes older. These brief vignettes of men who served and died adds greatly to the power and impact of the book, bringing the reader closer to those who were part of this famous unit in World War II.

Èlite units hold a particular interest for ‘students’ of the history of warfare, and the German fallschirmjäger of WWII are no exception. François Cochet’s two-volumes in the “Images of War” series are not only an excellent introduction to this force and its combat history in the war, but also much, much more.

The Figures

Unlike their British counterparts which featured in an earlier post, I did not own a set of the Airfix 1/32 German Paratroops as a boy. These figures came from my friend and ‘supplier of my habit’, Mark N. from whom I have bought numerous, excellent, second hand figures over the past few years (at ‘mates rates’!).

These ‘green devils’ are an early 21stC Airfix re-release and only feature 14 figures and unfortunately not all of the possible poses. It would have been good to have had some of the poses of men using their rifles or prone, but it is of no great matter.

Above, the box from the original, 1976 edition of the 1/32 Airfix German Paratroops and (below) the rear of the early 21stC re-release.

The figures are made of hard, gloss plastic which took paint well and were enjoyable to paint. I represented them in their late-war camouflage smock, electing not to try to paint eagles or shields on their helmets. I think that they will look good on the tabletop in the near future, up against the ‘red devils’.

The completed figures, ready to take on the 'red devils' or other allied troops.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Book Review: Arnhem 1944: The Human Tragedy of the Bridge Too Far, by Dilip Sarkar

This is a special book. It stands out, even on the subject of the Battle of Arnhem which has generated so much interest, particularly following Ryan’s ‘A Bridge Too Far’, the derivative film and numerous subsequent books, websites, and blogs. Like the 300 at Thermopylae, the heroic defence by the I Airborne division and Polish parachute brigade piques the interest of many a person interested in the history of warfare. Sarkar’s book is not a retelling of those events but a personal and moving account.

The book compels the reader from the very first page; the foreword from Sophie Lambrechtsen-ter Horst, who was caught up, nay directly involved in events as a five year-old girl. Her beautifully written piece tells a little of her own story during the battle and, more importantly, of the bond between the men who fought and died there and the Dutch civilians who continue remembrance to this day.

Dilip Sarkar’s introduction follows this moving foreword. He tells of his deep interest, actually labelling it an ‘obsession’ with World War II and his fascination with the Arnhem story. He lets the reader into the background of some of his detailed research, travelling to and from Holland, uncovering information, hitting dead ends, light-bulb moments, so as to try to reveal “…the ‘hidden history’ of the dead.”

He sets the scene to the Arnhem battle with a prologue that briefly describes the events from D-Day to September 1944. In this he highlights the seeming headlong retreat of the Germans following the eventual breakout of the Allies from Normandy, as well as the advance of the Russian army towards Germany. He describes the initial success but eventual failure of Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (Battle of the Bulge) leading to another headlong allied advance bringing them to the Rhine. This brings us to Montgomery’s plan to use the airborne brigades to by-pass the barrier presented by the Rhine and Siegfried line, the ambitious Operation Comet, which was cancelled on 10th September 1944. From its ‘ashes’ rose Operation Market-Garden, involving the full airborne corps, three divisions and the Polish parachute brigade, which came into being just seven days later, 17th September 1944.

The book is illustrated with numerous black and white photographs from archival sources and the author's collection.

We then move to the heart of the book, 18 chapters focussing on 33 of the allied soldiers who died in and around Oosterbeek and Arnhem between 17th and 26th September 1944.

Each chapter tells of the background of the soldier, a little of his childhood, entrance to the army and how he made his way to the unit in which he served in September ’44. The chapters are presented chronologically so that each is set against the battles of Arnhem-Oosterbeek.

Sarkar brilliantly weaves together the story of each of the fallen with the evolving tale of the battle. Combined with details of the units involved, aspects of the war and related, often humorous anecdotes this makes for an evocative and moving telling of the tale, with the added element of bringing those who did not return to life in the mind of the reader.

His approach means that there is minor repetition of information in subsequent chapters. This hardly detracts from the book nor its readability since it is minor and relates to important points. Moreovrer, it means that each chapter, the story of each man or small group of men, stands alone as a tale and tribute in its own right. He does not state it in his introduction, but I strongly suspect that this was Sarkar’s intention.

Each of the chapters concludes with what happened post-Arnhem, to the remains of the fallen and to the members of his family. While of necessity reasonably brief, Sarkar’s relating of the impact of the death of sons, husbands and/or brothers on those at home is yet another important aspect of this wonderful, powerful and moving book. As exemplified at the end of the chapter about Lance-Corporal Ronnie Boosey (p. 68), “… his younger brother, Lesley, made frequent annual pilgrimages to pay his respects at the graveside of his much-loved brother—‘until it all became too much’. Such is the price of war.”

Three important chapters round off the book. The first considers German casualties, describing the difficulty in identifying how many fought in the Arnhem-Oosterbeek sector, let alone how many fell. As with the Allied dead, these men were first interred in battlefield graves, being exhumed and moved to the German war cemetery at Ysselsteyn. Sarkar concludes the chapter with a brief description of the life and deaths of two German commanders mentioned in the main chapters of the book; General Friedrich Kussin and SS-Hauptsturmführer Viktor-Eberhard Gräbner. This is followed by ‘Flowers in the Wind’, a chapter telling the stories of some of the Dutch civilians caught up in the battle and, lastly, Sarkar’s Epilogue in which he describes his own visits to the landmarks, memorials, museums and, of course, the Airborne Cemetery and, most importantly the ‘warmth and friendship of the Dutch people’ during his research for the book.

Photographs provided by the families of the fallen add greatly to the poignancy of the book

The book is illustrated with numerous black and white photographs from the author’s collection taken during his extensive research and frequent visits to Arnhem and surrounds, archival photos chiefly from the Imperial War Museum and lastly, and most poignantly, photos provided by the families of the fallen, most commonly their children.

Maps of the plan of Operation Market-Garden, the flight paths taken for the various drop zones of the entire operation, the planned approach for 1st Parachute Brigade, location of drop zones around Arnhem and Oosterbeek, dispositions of 1 Parachute Brigade group in Arnhem, wartime map of Oosterbeek and unit dispositions in Oosterbeek are provided both in colour in the centre of the book and in black and white with the most relevant chapter.

One of several clear maps, printed in colour that help the reader to trace the movements of the units and individuals described.

This is a fabulous example of historical story-telling at its finest. Sarkar not only brings these men to life, but also the events of the Battle of Arnhem. His is a magnificent contribution to the history of WWII and Arnhem in particular, especially since most of the old soldiers have left us and the last of the eyewitness survivors are entering their old age. As well as its value now I can see that it will be a fabulous example for people to study, in 20–50 years time and beyond, to try to learn and to imagine what it was like, who the people really were and the impact of the momentous events some 75 years later. Just as memoirs and recollections of veterans can bring those people to life in one’s imagination, so too does this book, about people whose lives were cut short, for people born long after for whom the events are from the distant past.

But for the odd typographical error this one would be a perfect ten from me.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Paths of Glory: Wargaming the Futility

War is the stupidest of human endeavours. Not an effective type of diplomacy by other means at all. No conflict represents the futility of war better than the “Great War”. From its confused and illogical beginnings to the enormous, seemingly futile battles, with ‘industrial-scale’ killing and use of any means to gain an advantage.

Yet it fascinates at so many levels. Why, and to the blazes how, did an assassination in Sarajevo trigger a conflict that would last for four years, involve 32 countries, fought over four continents, producing some 40 million casualties, kill an estimated 8–9 million soldiers and some 10 million civilians (Nadège Mougel 2011)? (Even more difficult to fathom is that the Spanish flu, which began towards the war’s end, killed more people than the war). How did any soldier cope with the daily struggle, the horror and manage to function at any level? Why did people willingly and enthusiastically join up (initially at least)? How did it end so suddenly, yet inconclusively?

Rather than the ’war to end all wars, it was, of course, only the beginning of the most violent century of human existence with far greater devastation and death to follow a mere twenty years on. It completely changed the map not only of Europe, but of the Middle East, parts of Asia and Africa and shaped the world that we have today. Over one hundred years on, we are still living with its legacies; some good, most ‘problematic’ (to say the least).
Indeed it is worth keeping people mindful of the events leading up to the July crisis of ’14—which is now confined to written or recorded history—as in a *somewhat* similar fashion, the challenges of today seem to be leading to concerning responses of tribalism, chest-puffing and attribution of blame rather than cooperation and concerted effort to deal with them.

Staged for the camera. Not yet a game, but close to what will be my first WWI wargame. In a similar manner to that conflict, I'm still not quite sure how I got to this!

(Dear reader, what follows is quite self-indulgent, so you may wish to scroll down to the photos and move on!)

While I find the history intriguing, compelling and always moving, I never considered it to be a suitable period to wargame. I have seen it described elsewhere as ‘a war too far for the tabletop’. This was exactly the way I felt about it. Who wants to send wave on wave of infantry to their deaths in futile attacks, or have them sit in trenches and be bombarded for hours on end? Yet, late last year that all changed. I suddenly decided that I wanted, even needed to include it in the periods that I wargame. What changed?

In reality it has probably been a slow burn. Interest in the First World War began in my youth. Like many of my generation, WWII and to a lesser extent WWI were in the recent past. These were conflicts that our parents and grandparents were involved in as soldiers, civilians (some as children). They were a topic of conversation about ‘the olden days’. A source of numerous TV shows and films (more particularly WWII, of course). My first memory of appreciating some of the horrific reality of the First World War came from being taught about the war poets, particularly Owen and Sassoon. This was enhanced when I got a copy of the “How and Why Wonder Book of the First World War”^. Over the years I have read and seen much about the war, especially as our national day for commemorating fallen soldiers and others in war is on ANZAC Day, 25th April, marking the first day of the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915.

^As part of my recent plunge into the period, I re-read this book. It remains an excellent overview of the war.

I was, naturally, interested in the commemoration during the recent centenary of the war, but only caught snippets of some of the wonderful work that was produced and visited only one exhibition. Knowing that I’d want to catch up on them later, I saved many videos and audio files produced over that time.

I began re-exploring the war in detail last year when I ‘watched’ (more listened to since it was paintertainment) episodes of one that I had saved; the brilliant Channel Four series ‘The First World War’ based on the book by Hew Strachan. This fabulous production, in ten roughly hour-long parts, tells the story of the war. While I considered that I had a reasonable understanding of events, I learned much from this series about which I was previously unaware. For example, the fact that, having failed in the initial attempt by he and his co-assassins, Princip was ‘lucky’ to run into Archduke Franz Ferdinand after the latter’s car took an alternate route, the driver having gone the wrong way. The mass exodus of the Serbian people and army in November 1915 and January 1916. The fact that the Germans facilitated the return of Lenin to Russia in order to assist with the collapse of the government. As with anything to do with this conflict, the series moved me to tears on several occasions.

Relating this to Julian, he asked, “Does it pique your interest in wargaming the period?” “No way,” I said “the history is fascinating but I have no interest in wargaming it.”

Then, suddenly, I decided that I wanted to have a go at wargaming World War I, not only that but it had to be, or at least begin with, the Western Front in the late war.” Fittingly, in a similar manner to the outbreak of the war, it was a seemingly unrelated event that proved to be the catalyst. In a word: Bovington.

I had been watching some of the marvellous ‘Top Five Tanks’ videos on the website of the Bovington Tank Museum when I stumbled on one about the Mk IV. I knew precious little about this or any other WWI tank, so found it to be most interesting. This lead me down the rabbit-hole of further footage of this and other WWI tanks, particularly in their Tankfest videos but also those produced by others on YouTube. I was hooked.

Well, not quite hooked yet as the important topic of suitable rules came to mind. Could I find something to suit me? I began searching reviews on blogs and websites and found “H.M.G.” They sounded promising. Finding a copy on Wargame Vault lead me to other sets: “Halt The Hun”, “Tanks & Yanks” and “Westfront”. After looking through them all, it was “Westfront” that stood out as the first set to try. I liked that the rules involve ‘units’ (representing 12 to 25 men), they are designed for games up to a battalion, or perhaps a regiment, and seem to cover most of the aspects of arms and technology (with the exception of aircraft). I still like the look of “H.M.G.” and will likely give them a go later, although with the representation of units à la “Westfront”, rather than the single figures suggested in “H.M.G.”.

The next decision was the scale of figures to use. I pondered 1/32, but the ranges of weapons would make them unsuitable for anything larger than a skirmish. Added to this, there is a wider selection of figures available in 1/72. Thus settled, I purchased a few sets of figures to get me started.

I also began accumulating films. I re-watched “A Very Long Engagement”, such a strong, at times funny and in the end beautiful film. It’s similar in some respects to “'Testament Of Youth”, the story of Vera Brittain” which I saw via on-demand TV last year. I finally saw Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old” which I had wanted to watch last year, but it had only run for a short season. In a word, brilliant. Some other recent films that I found and watched for the first time were “The Trench”, which is up there with some of the best, as is “Journey’s End”. “Beneath Hill 60” is okay, but “Forbidden Ground” and “Poziers” were both quite disappointing. I also picked up copies of “War Horse and “The Water Diviner”, both of which I have seen previously and I definitely think that they are worth viewing again.

Like so many genres of film, the older ones are amongst the best. The original “All Quiet on the Western Front” is so powerful and poignant. I saw Kubric’s “Paths of Glory” for the first time—amazingly I was not previously aware of it.

I purchased a copy and watched it (which will be the first of many times, for sure) and can see why it has stood the test of time as a portrayal of the war, is rated highly amongst films about the war and that the wonderful Terry Gillam (R.I.P) referred to it as “The film that changed my life”. It has powerful performances, great cinematography, strong anti-war statements and a magnificent, hopeful ending—I won’t spoil it for others who have not yet seen it—making it one of those films that stays with you for years afterwards. This will be doubly so for me as the film will feature in my first wargame in this period.

“Westfront” are designed for scenarios where players select units, vehicles and the like from a list for a nation in the early-, mid- or late-war to a total number of points that is equal for both sides. I’ll use this basic approach, but prefer my games to be based on a section of an historical battle or action. For my first I have selected to do a game based on the attack on the ant hill from “Paths of Glory”. Not strictly historical, of course, unless one considers the history of cinema, but it will allow me to begin with a game that involves only a few of the possible troops/guns/vehicles.

[An aside: I have seen the trailer for the current ‘blockbuster’ “1917” and it looks like one to avoid to me. Great if you want plenty of things blowing up, lots of running and shouting, but not a patch on those that I have listed above. Of course, I should see it before making a final judgement for myself, so I guess that I will, at some stage…]

Having watched the films that I had purchased, my paintetertainment switched to listening to some podcasts. I finally caught up on “The Great War: memory, perceptions and ten contested questions”, first broadcast in 2014 on our Radio National (RN)—another that I had saved for later listening. These ten, one-hour episodes are excellent. Each deals with a different aspect of the war, such as the causes and outbreak, the performance of generals, the war in literature and medical services. Two or three guests, who had studied and written about the particular aspect under discussion join an RN presenter who leads the discussion. Edifying to the max!

As I only have two of the ten episodes to go, I searched for other, similar material and found the lectures of the National WWI Museum as well as the complete BBC series “The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century” produced in 1996 (also as a PBS version) on YouTube. These will form the basis of my paintertainment in the near future.

My first WWI wargame will be a pseudo-historical affair based on the attack on the ant hill from "Paths of Glory". Ant hill at top-centre of photograph.

These Strelets French infantry in gas masks are close to being finished, needing only a wash, highlights and basing.
This Saint-Chamond tank will not feature in my first game. It is a paper model that I found on the marvellous landships website. It could probably do with a brown wash to dull it down a bit.

This MkI tank is the recent re-release of the Airfix classic. It has been brown-washed to give a muddied effect. It won't get a run on the battlefield for a while.

I’m now close to trying my first game of a World War I battle. The terrain is done, the French infantry need ‘only’ their finishing touches, while the Germans are merely undercoated. I’ll post a report here once I have played a game.
In the meantime, here’s our theme song.

Click on the link and turn the speakers up to 11!