Thursday, 16 April 2015

The 46th Division at Gommecourt (1916)

Amongst the points raised by Sir Douglas Haig in his War Diary on the 1st July 1916 there is a highly critical reference to the 46th Division at Gommecourt. In recording the failure of this Division to break into the German third line and meet up with the 56th Division coming up from the South, Haig notes "the right Brigade of 46th Division did not press on". One can envisage the conversation with Plumer that left Haig with this impression and it was, of course, Major General Stuart-Wortley who was obliged to fall on his sword 'in penance'. Interestingly later editions of the diary toned down this passage to read "did not progress further" - a less critical form of words.
German Front Line on Left Flank of 46th Division Attack
Last weekend, armed with digitised trench maps and a GPS tracker a couple of us set out to explore this neglected part of the Somme battlefield. The Gommecourt attack was conceived as a diversionary effort. Two divisions converging from North and South would pinch out a German strongpoint called Gommecourt Park, take the village and meet up behind the German third line.

The 46th Division attack area was to the North of what is now the site of Gommecourt Wood Cemetery. Standing in the cemetery looking across the fields one can see Gommecourt Wood quite clearly. This was the second line. 100 yards to the front was the German front line. Because of a fold in the ground, the 46th Division would not have received enfilade fire from the Gommecourt Park machine gunners.
46th Division Memorial at Gommecourt Park Cemetery
Walking left from the Cemetery one can make out a rough hedge which marks the boundary between two fields. This hedge peters out and there is a 100 yard gap before one reaches a belt of trees in a zig zag pattern. The GPS showed that the frontline dog-legged forward to include this area which was termed the 'Little Z' and 'Big Z'. These were German strongpoints and the GPS enabled us to identify their exact location.
GPS showing Little and Big Z
The 7th (Robin Hood) Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters was on the right hand side of the attacking force and their flank would be vulnerable to machine gun fire in the event of the preliminary artillery barrage not neutralising the Zs. The trenches in the belt of trees marking the site of Little Z are remarkably well preserved. The main front line trench zig-zags through the trees and there are remains of dugouts and communication trenches.
Trenches at Little Z
It's only when you stand on the German positions in this area that you see how cleverly the German front line is positioned. The machine guns in the Little Z had a clear field of fire over the whole attack area. The guns in Big Z were positioned to cover the approaches to the strongpoint i.e. protecting the front line down to the area in front of the wood.
Ordnance at Gommecourt Wood
The Little Z from the German Line near Gommecourt Wood
 The 46th Division War Diary paints a picture of poorly constructed trenches and appalling conditions underfoot. We visited on a dry day but evidently at the time of attack the area was a sea of mud. Furthermore, in the War Diary, mention is made of lethal German artillery fire and ineffective smoke screens. In walking the ground I couldn't help thinking that the positions at Little Z and Big Z would have been very  difficult to crack. It's difficult to draw a conclusion on the events of the 1st July from walking this battlefield but it is evident that Gommecourt was a difficult objective - certainly as difficult as those which were targeted on the 1st July further south.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The July Bomb Plot (1944)

The site of the FHQu 'Wolfsschanze' is located about eight kilometres from the town of Ketryzn in Poland. Previously part of East Prussia, the town was formerly known as Rastenburg. The Wolf's Lair served as Hitler's Eastern command centre in the early days of Barbarossa and then for various periods through until January 1945 when the buildings and bunkers on the site were destroyed in anticipation of Russian occupation.
Fuhrer Bunker at the Wolfsschanze (Wolf's Lair)
Our small party visited the site en-route from Gdansk to Kaliningrad. We were surprised to find that the derelict complex is now a popular tourist destination. The modern day car park is situated close to the ruined Reich Press Bunker and SS Escort Detachment Barracks. On the day of our visit the site was hosting several coach parties as well as a large number of bikers from various Baltic States. There are guides hawking for business but the trail around the site is well signposted so they aren't really needed.
Signboard with index to main sites at the Wolfsschanze
We made for the site of the attempted assassination of Hitler on the 20th July 1944. Many of the buildings were subsequently reinforced later that year but the site of Von Stauffenberg's heroic deed is marked by a memorial so it is easy to find. At the time of the attempt, the daily conferences were held in a barracks building known as the Lagezimmer. Only the foundations remain nowadays and their small scale footprint contrasts sharply with several monolithic bunkers elsewhere on the site.
Site of the 20th July 1944 bomb detonation
The complex is huge in scale and most of it is available to the public. The most important buildings were (and are) situated North of the railway line. The modern road runs West / East parallel to this line. The best preserved bunker is Goring's and it is possible to get inside and to access the roof. The building next door was Goring's house.
Between the two outer walls of Goring's Bunker
Access point to the roof of Goring's Bunker
The impact of the demolition can be seen everywhere as all the building are severely damaged. The picture below shows a flak tower on its' side revealing the roof top gun cupola. Apart from the personal bunkers of most of Hitler's inner circle there are numerous other buildings to be explored. Some, like the Garages and Jodl's Bunker are in use by local farmers. Others are totally inaccessible.
Flak tower partially destroyed in Jan 1945
The original entrance to the site can be found with a little patience. It is about 200 metres past the modern entrance and can be identified by the railway crossing and the remnants of a guard post. It was through this exit that Von Stauffenberg made his escape. In the picture below I have my hand on the mount for the beam which would have needed to be lifted to let anyone in or out.
The original Western Entrance to the Wolfsschanze
Despite its' popularity with tourists this is an interesting site to visit. With a little imagination and some contemporary photographs it is easy to visualise how this important site functioned as the primary Axis control and command hub during many of the epic battles on the Eastern Front. It is also sobering to think about the bravery of Von Stauffenberg and the lives that would have been saved had his bravery been rewarded.
Command bunker in Rastenberg (now Ketrzyn).
There is part of the site that is not accessible. This consists of the area to the South of the railway line. At some point we will go back to this area and seek out the remains of Von Ribbentrop's Liason Office, the Fuhrer Escort Barracks and the Military Cemetery (originally sited behind what was then the OKL Liason Office).

For the rest of our Tour of East Prussia click the links below:

The First Shots of WW2 (1939). Here.
The Battle of Tannenberg (1914). Here.
Kaliningrad Road Trip Part I. Here.
Kaliningrad Road Trip Part II. Here.
The Battle for Konigsberg (1945). Here.
The Heiligenbeil Pocket (1945). Here.
The Evacuation from Pillau (1945). Here.