Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Wolfe & Montcalm in Quebec (1759)

It is 250 years (almost to the day) since Wolfe led a 5,300 strong force into Quebec City and claimed Canada for the British Crown. The assault had been made via the Abraham Heights after a prolonged artillery barrage from across the St Lawrence river. Montcalm's French army along with a large French Canadian contingent had been routed within 30 minutes after receiving the full force of British volley fire. 250 years later - in 2009 - the planned re-enactment has been cancelled following pressure from local French Canadian activists but nevertheless my brother in law and I had a great day walking the Heights of Abraham battlefield. The battlefield is now a national heritage site containing a number of military artifacts.

The pictures above were taken in the citadel (a later construction). The top image shows 'Rachel' an 1870 British cannon pointing over the old city. Several generations ago my father's Great Grandfather (Arthur Taylor) served in Quebec (in the 1860s/70s). It may be a coincidence but his daughter was called Rachel too! The other picture shows a WWII veteran posing beside a bren gun carrier in the Quebec Citadel which is now the headquarters of the Canadian 22nd regiment.

Monday, 10 August 2009

The Bridge at Remagen (March 1945)

Back in 2005 - "Christmas on the Rhine?" says my wife, Mo. "Good idea" I replied. Actually the idea was not a great one but there was one big compensating factor. A one day stop at the town of Remagen.

So off I went to find the remains of the Ludendorff Railway Bridge - an icon of WWII military history.

Remagen Railway Bridge - West Bank
Just after 4pm on the 7th March 1945, American GIs of Company A, U.S. 27th Armoured Battalion took this key Rhine crossing under fire. The demolition charges set by the defenders failed to go off and so it was that Sergeant Jo DeLizio and Lieutenant Karl Timmerman led their men over to the East Bank of the river.

Remagen Railway Bridge - East Bank
The bridge towers on the West Bank have been preserved as a monument and the immediate vicinity has been left untouched. Sadly the towers on the East Bank, and the railway tunnel beyond, were not readily accessible since the bridge was never rebuilt and, being winter, there was no boat available for a crossing.

Remagen Military Cemetery
In the town itself there is a small military cemetery containing German casualties from both world wars. outside of town one can walk through the river side meadows which were once the site of vast POW pens. There are still signs of this sad period in the form of barbed wire strands littering the ground.

PoW Memorial, Remagen
And the cruise? - actually the whole 'cruising' experience was so bad it was funny. We had a great time.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Market Garden - A Trip to Arnhem - May 2003

It's best to start a tour of the Arnhem battlefield from the clearly defined landing zones in the Heelsum/Wolfheze area. One quickly realizes how far the glider and parachute borne troops were from their principal target - the Arnhem Road Bridge. Follow the 'Leopard Route' and one quickly comes to the point where Krafft's hastily imrovised battle group stopped 1st Para. The site of the second lift is even further out. Have a drink at the Zuid Ginkel cafe which was a German billet on the 19th September 1944 when the second lift arrived.

The 'Tiger Route' takes the visitor through the area of the final defensive parameter. Past the lovingly restored Hartenstein Hotel (now the excellent Airbourne Museum) and Oosterbeek old church (look out for the Airbourne Font [picture below])Then to the area of the Elizabeth Hospital where the allied forces tried unsuccessfully to get throught to the men of Frost's Company from 2nd Para who, having got through to the bridge, fought their famous heroic action. Take the 'Lion Route' to see how Frost outflanked the German blocking line.

The existing Arnhem Bridge is not the original one but  an exact copy. You can see a 75mm gun recently excavated from a field near the Bridge at Deelen airfield (just north of Arnhem). It's worth the trip because the huge German night fighter control bunker at Diogenes Schaarsbergen is accessible to anyone with a little imagination.

General Urquhart and Brigadier Lathbury took refuge in the loft of 14, Zwarteweg [above right] having run down an alley [middle picture] from 135, Alexanderstraat [left]. Whilst sheltering in the first house, the General shot a German infantryman through the ground floor window. The pair were trapped inside the last house for 24 hours because a German self propelled gun was parked up outside.

To travel the route of  XXX Corps and see the landing zones for the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airbourne one needs to find the old Nijmegen Road (Hells Highway). Not easy amongst the modern motorways and reconfigured road systems. The pill box at Grave [picture on left] is pitted with shell holes and the bridge at Nijmegen (which is original) is massive. The artillery piece shown in my picture on the right is decaying fast and will soon have to be removed because it is unstable. It's a German 5cm PAK 38 L60.

Don't forget to drop south of the river at Arnhem and visit Driel to pay homage to the Poles who, delayed by bad weather strove so hard to relieve 1st Airbourne. The picture above right is from Driel and shows Oosterbeek Old Church on the northern bank of the Rhine.

Isandlwana & Rorke's Drift - A Trip to the Zulu War Battlefields - August 2004

Back in 1964 when I was an impressionable six year old boy my parents took my sister and I to Skegness for the day. The sun was shining and the beach was beckoning. But on entering the town my father spotted something that just couldn't be resisted - the film 'Zulu' was showing. So he and I changed our plans and saw the film.

Thirty years later in 2004 I was on a family holiday in Durban, South Africa. The sun was shining and the beach was beckoning. But I'd looked at a map and I knew Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana were close. So I enlisted the help of Paul Naish, a guide who I can't speak highly enough, and off I went. 

We took the old wagon track down from Helpmekaar and crossed the Buffalo River. Like those before me I felt drawn towards the odd shaped mountain in the distance.I could almost hear the wheels of the wagons turning and the shouted orders of NCOs as we crossed the river. The Isandlwana battlefield is vast and remains much as it was back in 1879. Brown grass, rocky outcrops and lots of water underfoot. and everywhere, white cairns marking the last resting places of Chelmsford's shattered army.

The picture above on the left shows the spot where the two British 7 pounders were positioned prior to their withdrawal and loss on the track down to Fugitives Drift. In the distance is the conical hill to the left of which Major Russell and the Rocket Battery were lost early in the action. Durnford's first contact with the enemy was four miles away, beyond the hill. The middle picture shows British graves and Memorials. The picture on the right shows a large cairn on the slope of the Isandlwana 'mountain'. This where Younghusband's company fought until they ran out of ammunition. The cluster of white in the bottom left of the picture are around the site where Colonel Durnford made his last stand.

Many men fleeing from the battlefield found their way down to Fugitive's Drift. Two such men were Lieutenants Melville and Coghill who died trying to save the Queen's colours. The picture on the left shows their graves. Durnford was originally interred on the Battlefield at Isandlwana but was subsequently reburied in Pietermaritzburg (see picture on the right).

Rorke's Drift is a busy little place now. There is a school, a museum and a cluster of buildings on the site of those that were destroyed. The area held by the defenders is delinated on the ground. The pictures above were taken in the area occupied by Zulu snipers.

The picture on the left shows the site of the final redoubt marked by a circle. The British memorial (centre picture) is in the centre of a small cemetery. There are two Zulu mass graves nearby, both marked by simple memorials. The picture on the right shows the building which has been erected on the site of the hospital - the scene of so much bravery.

Monday, 25 May 2009

The Battle of Lansdown Hill

This battlefield is a little closer to home than others that I've visited recently. On the 5th July 1643 Sir Ralph Hopton's 6,300 strong Royalist Army from the South West of England attempted to seize the city of Bath which was being defended by Waller's parliamentarians (some 4,000 strong). The monument shown in my picture commemorates Sir Bevill Grenville, a Cornish Royalist Commander. It stands on the ridge held by Waller's troops - a position which was taken at great loss of life by the Royalist attackers. The battlefield can be walked in an hour or so. There are markers showing the main defensive positions and helpful explanatory storyboards. Apart from the historic context, this site is a spectacular location affording fantastic views of Bath and beyond.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

The Narva Bridgehead (1944)

I have just returned from a few days of field walking on the Estonian: Russian border. The town of Narva is the gateway from Russia into the Baltic States. In the Spring of 1944 Army Group North was forced back from forward positions around Leningrad and, in Estonia, a new defence line was established along the banks of the River Narva. Despite Russian incursions, 18th Army including Steiner's 111 Panzer Corps held the line (including a bridgehead encompassing Invorogod on the East bank) for six months. Following an orderly withdrawal in July, a second defence line called 'Tannenburg' was set up with the Blue Mountains of Eastern Estonia forming the primary strongpoint. Nobody knows more about this battle than an old friend of mine, Paul Errington. Armed with Paul's local contacts and his extensive knowledge of the battle a group of us explored the Narva Defence Line and the killing ground of Sinimaed (Grenadier Hill, Kinderheim and Hill 69.9). The pictures show a T34 at Silvertsi (Top), the German Cemetery at Narva (Middle) and the memorials on Grenadier Hill (Bottom). The battle is primarily remembered for the Dutch, Norwegian, Belgian and Estonian volunteers serving with the Axis forces.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

German Occupation of Jersey (1940 to 1945)

Have just returned from a walking holiday in Jersey. Early April is a lovely time of year to visit the island. Few tourists, spring flowers and cheap prices. My wife and I walked most of the cliff tops on the North coast. As usual I had a secret agenda.......Festung Jersey! The Channel Islands were occupied by the Germans through WW2 and Hitler ordered Jersey, Guernsey, Stark and Alderney to be fortified. 20% of Todt's Atlantic Wall budget was originally earmarked for the islands. The evidence is everywhere. The pictures above show: (1) A panel from the Occupation Tapestry at St Helier (2) A range finder at the Lothringen Battery, Noirmont Point and (3) One of the four gun emplacements at the Moltke Battery, Les Landes. [The Moltke gun 1s a 15.5cm French piece. After the war tons of material was thrown off the cliff at Rouge Nez by the Royal Engineers. Recently, a group of local enthusiasts have recovered and restored a number of artifacts].

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Operation Mercury (1941)

Crete, whilst in Allied hands was a valuable air base for raids on Axis targets in Southern Europe, or to support the Balkan Front. The Allied forces consisted of 30,000 British troops, 11,000 Greek troops encumbered by 15,000 Italian prisoners of war.  Hardware was scarce with only 16 light tanks and 49 field guns. The core of the force was made up of the 6th Australian Division and the 2nd NZ Division. 

Operation Mercury - May 1941
Crete in Axis hands meant that the Allied bases in the eastern Mediterranean, and the use of the Suez Canal, could be exposed to greater pressure from the Luftwaffe. The attack by Fliegerkorps X1 and V111 would be the biggest German paratrooper assault of the war. The two corps had at their disposal about 500 transport aircrafts, 150-dive bombers, 180 fighters and 40 reconnaissance planes. There were 22,750 men - 75 by glider, 10.000 by parachute, 5,000 by transport aircraft and 7,000 by sea. The first attack was Maleme with a second at Rethimo and Heraklion respectively.

Axis War Cemetery at Maleme
The key to the success of the German "Operation Mercury" was the strategically important airfield at Maleme "Point 107" which overlooked it.

On May 21st, the day after the initial assault the airfield fell and a British counter attack was repulsed by the defending German paratroopers. Maleme Airfield is now used by the Greek Airforce but it is possible to get a panoramic view from the German cemetery which is located on top of a hill known asPoint 107. The cemetery contains 4,466 fallen German servicemen.
Commonwealth War Graves at Suada Bay
On May 24th, General Ringel organised his forces for the main German attack. Withdrawal of the Allied 5th Brigade allowed the completion of a defensive line from Staliana to Khania. After an unsuccesful attack on the 25th May, the Germans eventually entered Perivolia and Galaria. General Freyburg ordered the final withdrawal to Sfakia. The Germans learnt of the proposed Allied evacuation and entered Chania on May 27th, gaining control of Suada Bay where there is now a stunningly situated CWGC cemetery. 
Youngest Casualty
Trench Picket
Oldest Casualty
The British / Commonweath troops fought a last rearguard action north of the White Mountains during the final week of May and on the 28th the British evacuated Heraklion. Overnight on May 29th/30th the Allied rearguard maintained the Stafkia beach-head. The Rethimo garrison was obliged to surrender to the Germans and the last evacuations were made on the 31st May.

Battlefield walking in the sun can be hard work. For a more comfortable look at a WWII relic it is possible to hire a boat from Chania and snorkel over the decaying remnants of a ME110 which is 'belly up' on the sea floor a few hundred metres from land.

An ME110 'in the drink'
This particular trip had a particular poignancy as the day we arrived, '9/11' unfolded. We were in a public bus and people started receiving texts. The first as I recall was that the "Pentagon has been bombed".  The bus driver was listening to the commentary on a local football game. He wouldn't be persuaded to switch channels and so it wasn't until we got to a bar with TV that the awful scale of this disaster became apparent.

The Battle of Verdun (1916)

From 1998 - Our trip to Verdun coincided with the French Victory in the World Cup. Having re-read Alistair Horne's 'The Price of Glory' recently my wife and I subsequently spent a few days exploring the Verdun battlefield staying in the town the night of the world cup final.

It was fascinating exploring Douaumont, Vaux, etc with the aid of a torch and Horne's account of specific actions. We were less successful in finding the German heavy artillery positions deep in the woods to the east of Gremilly although I did stagger out of the sodden undergrowth with a standard issue French army water bottle.

Anyway in the evening we joined several thousand french locals in the local sports hall watching the final on a big screen. I had intended to spend the evening walking around the Verdun citadel and then visiting the massive memorial which dominates the town centre.

We did get to the memorial, with six french kids standing in the back of the convertible I was driving, two of whom were waving huge national flags. The centre of the town was chaos - flares,flags,singing,traffic at a standstill and car horns sounding.

The monument had become the centrepiece of all of the festivities and the 100 or so steps leading up to the top were covered in patriots waving flags and setting off flares. The square below was a sea of ecstatic faces. Looking back I would have expected the whole thing to have seemed incongruous but at the time this display of national fervour in this place seemed very appropriate.

Viva La France ! Viva Zidane ! But oh, what a headache in the morning!