Friday, 22 July 2016

Krivtsovo - Russia's 'Death Valley' (1942 - 43)

In the late winter of 1942 / 43 the Soviet Army had partly recovered from the shock of Barbarossa. Army Group North had stalled in front of Moscow and in many places, for the Wehrmacht, retreat had turned into static defence as naturally strong rearward positions were consolidated. One such defence line was the River Oka and its tributary the Zusha, in the expansive wetlands area 60/70 kms north of Orel. The Rzhev-Vyazma strategic Soviet offensive which sought to break this line was completely ineffective and during the period 16th Feb to 18th March 1942 the low hills near the village of Krivtsovo were the epicentre of fruitless attacks.

Recognition for Soviet soldiers killed in unsuccessful attacks was often slow in coming in the post war period and it wasn't until September 1970 that the first memorial was placed in what local Russian's still call the Valley of Death. In May of this year myself and a small group of friends held a short remembrance ceremony in the centre of the complex. With brilliant timing we were joined by a local Russian motorcycle club and the speeches and wreath laying were given an extra poignancy by such a large and respectful group of people.

The memorial is built on the site of a number of grave pits originally hewn out of the ground during the incredibly cold winter of 1941/2. Some say that there are as many as 100,000 fatal casualties interred in the area. In recent times there have been additional burials - 641 in 2007 and almost 100 this year (2016). The temporary grave and excavated trench which yielded this year's grim harvest was still evident when we visited.
Amongst the soldiers who died, at least one stands out. Yuri Kondratyuk was a pioneer of spaceflight. His work on take off and landing so as to allow the return of an astronaut from the moon was a key enabler for the landing of men on the moon.

Originally born as Aleksander Shargei, it is fitting that a monument now stands on Krivtsovo Fen where the great man died.

When American astronaut Neil Armstrong visited the Soviet Union after his historic flight to the Moon, he collected a handful of soil from outside Kondratyuk's house in Novosibirsk to acknowledge his contribution to spaceflight, reportedly urging Soviet authorities to start commemorating Kondratyuk. Later, a science centre and college in Novosibirsk, streets in PoltavaKiev and Moscow were named after Kondratyuk, as well as the Kondratyuk crater on the Moon and the 3084 Kondratyuk minor planet discovered in 1977.
The day at Krivtsovo was one of the highlights of a 'Walking the Battlefields' road and rail trip from Belgorod to Kursk, then onto Orel and finally Bolchov. All key points in the epic 1943 battles fought during the Citadel and Kutosov campaigns.

Further pictures of the Kritvsovo area can be seen here.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Colditz Castle (1939 - 1945)

“An iconic tourist location let down by poor customer service and unnecessary access controls.”
1 of 5 starsReviewed on Trip Advisor 26 July 2015
The Colditz legend has become an enduring part of British popular culture. The escaper Pat Reid and his thwarted nemesis Reinhard Eggers have enthralled a couple of generations with their epic stories of escape from the German PoW camp Oflag 4B based in the wonderfully imposing Colditz Castle. On reaching the town of Colditz with a party of four I was anticipating a thrilling day of exploration and adventure.
Colditz Castle from the Town Square
Instead I found that the authorities running the castle to be inept, ill informed and indifferent to the needs of visitors. The major problem is that virtually all of the areas of interest are closed to the general public except by 'special arrangement'. The reconstructed glider in the loft of the castle is locked away from view as are the prisoners' quarters and the old theatre. The famous chapel tunnel which has been recently rediscovered and plated with glass for easy viewing sits unseen behind a locked door - a door which leads straight off the main courtyard.There is no reason other than petty bureaucracy and local mismanagement to deny visitors the thrill of seeing these wonderful vestiges of the war years.
The Prisoner's Courtyard at Colditz
We were told that there is one 'special guide' who offers extended tours which access these areas. These tours are available at 'special' times for 'special' visitors. When I offered to pay for access to some of the more interesting areas I was told that the 'special' guide had the only key and that she kept it at home! "Yeah, right". It was like the Monty Python cheese shop sketch - every answer was "no" or "it's to difficult" or "it was open last week" or "we've lost the Key" or "the Saxony Regional authority won't cover the lighting cost" or "we open it every alternative Wednesday but only when the North Star is in polarity with Venus" ... (alright the last one I made up but you will get the gist).
Ramp to the Exercise Meadow at Colditz
The standard tour is conducted with a degree of scripted enthusiasm but mainly covers the external areas of the castle. You can see the prisoners' courtyard, access the cellar where Pat Reid made his escape and see the start of the French tunnel in an underground vault adjacent to the locked chapel. In one of the tiny number of rooms open to the public one can see an interesting collection of drawings donated by the Anderson family. There are cut out figures of some of the escapers in the courtyard which makes me think that the persons in control of the museum budget has made some very odd priority calls.
The Entrance to the Chapel at Colditz Castle
The museum houses a small collection of items and is worth a cursory look. There is little accompanying narrative so the experience dies not provide much insight. We were subsequently told that the biggest collection of Colditz artefacts in Saxony is privately owned and can be viewed at certain times in a location about 3 KMs from Colditz. It beggars belief that this collection is not properly incorporated into the Colditz visitor experience. 
Furthermore, after our visit I was also told that there is an excellent WW2 Polish museum exhibit in the castle. This is not signposted - nor did any of the complacent officials I dealt with mention it.
Entrance to a French Tunnel adjacent to the Chapel
Blacksmith Shop used by Bader in Colditz Town
I find it so ironic that the the custodians of Colditz in 2015 are operating a stricter regime that the one operating during the early 1940s! I hope for the sake of posterity and for the local townspeople that they change their ways very soon. Meanwhile manage down your expectations and don't bother with the standard guides - most of what they show you can be accessed without paying the entrance fee.