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.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Winston Churchill and the Armoured Train (1899)

Receipt of 'The Churchill Factor' by Boris Johnson as a Christmas present has prompted me to update my blog with a brief report on the Armoured Train incident near Estcourt in Natal, South Africa. I visited the site a couple of months ago with a group of friends including Boer War expert Major Paul Naish.
Fort Durnford at Estcourt, Natal
In 1899 at the start of the 2nd Boer War, Estcourt was a small town of about 300 houses some 25 miles South of the main Tegula River crossing. It's importance lay in the fact that the town was still on the main Durban to Johannesburg railway line. In November the nearby town of Ladysmith was successfully invested by the Boers and Estcourt became something of a front line staging post with a mandate to maintain communications with the British garrisons at Colenso and Frere further up the line.
The Railway Line near Frere, Natal
As the Boer's consolidated their hold on Ladysmith, so the need for intelligence on their movements increased. To this end an armoured train was sent out from Estcourt daily with the intention of spotting the Boers. This was becoming a dangerous exercise. Indeed in his book 'Thank God we kept the flag flying', Kenneth Griffith recalls soldiers referring to the train as 'Wilson's Death Trap'.

Armoured Train Incident - Location Marker
At this time Winston Churchill was operating as a journalist and on the 15th Nov 1899 he managed to secure a place on the train. In his book 'Buller's Campaign', Julian Symons describes the train as an ordinary engine with roofless trucks which had been reinforced with boiler plates with loopholes cut in them for rifles. On the 15th the train was manned by a company each of the Dublin Fusiliers and the Durban Light Infantry. In addition there were a few sailors (required to man the onboard artillery piece) and some plate layers for repairs.
Paul Naish explains the Armoured Train incident
On the day of the incident the train got as far as Chieveley to the North of Frere before being ordered to turn back by Colonel Long. On the way back the train hit an ambush. Part of the train was derailed and the men came under fire from Boers armed with a Maxim and supporting Mausers. After forthright action including engineering work whilst under fire, the engine and tender were able to get back to Estcourt. Even Griffith (a stalwart admirer of the Boers) commends Churchill for his leadership during this heated skirmish.
The excat spot where Churchill was captured
Four British soldiers lie buried by the track and 70 men were taken prisoner. Churchill and Captain Aylmer Haldane were amongst this number. The spot where Churchill was actually taken is a little way from the crash location and the local landscape has been altered over the years because of groundwork undertaken by a local farmer. The line of the railway has been altered slightly too. 

Footnote: Churchill was taken to Pretoria as a POW but escaped after only four weeks. He rejoined the British forces for the rest of the War. Churchill recalled the incident in his memoirs: "Nothing was so thrilling as this: to wait and struggle amongst those clanging, rending iron boxes, with the repeated explosions of shells and the artillery, the noise of projectiles hitting the cars, the hiss as they passed in the air ... all this for 70 minutes by the clock with only four inches of twisted iron work to make the difference between danger, captivity, and shame on the one hand ... safety, freedom and triumph on the other".