Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Heiligenbeil Pocket (1945)

The Russian oblast of Kaliningrad is not the easiest place to access. To visit the main areas of military history interest a special permit is required in addition to the usual Russian Visa. I enlisted the help of a couple of Russian friends and we decided to use the land crossing at Bagrationovsk. My arrival at the 1st checkpoint was greeted with incredulity by the Polish border guards; "Why do you want to go to Kaliningrad - there is nothing there?" Then onto the Russian side where the line of enquiry was similiar; "Why do you want to enter Kaliningrad - there is nothing here?" Anyway, the long wait was worth it as Kaliningrad is a fascinating place.
Bridge blown in 1945 & still in place in 2013
I will be writing four or five entries to cover the trip but I'm starting with an account of our battlefield walk at Kornewo. Kornewo in German times was known as Zinten and prior to WWII it had been established as a training ground for armoured troops. Most German tank crews would have spent time in the town and in February 1945 it was the scene of a savage battle as the Russian 3rd Belorussian Front reduced the Heiligenbeil Pocket. The pocket had been formed in January 1945 when 24 German Divisions (4th Army) were encircled on a coastal strip just west of the city of Kaliningrad.
The battle damaged water tower at Zinten
Like so many old East Prussian towns, the fine old German houses in Kornewo are mostly derelict and the red brick church is a battle scarred ruin. The Russian locals prefer squat bungalows and it wasn't until I actually stayed in one that I appreciated why. They may not look pretty but they are incredibly well designed for the harsh Russian winters. The house I stayed at in Krasnoles'e later in the trip had a ducting system which directed a flow of heat right around the house. My host (a jovial ex Russian pilot) directed the flow by opening and closing shutters.
Derelict prussian house in Kornewo
I did ask a local why the Russians don't use the old German buildings. I got the impression that they still feel that the owners will come back and reclaim their old properties. The background to this is that during the period 1945 to 1947 the entire German speaking population of what was East Prussia was driven Westward - firstly in anticipation of the advancing Red Army and latterly by Stalin's policy of de-Germanification.
Russian memorial at Kornewo (Zinten)
Our walk took us from the destroyed Prussian church (which you can just see to the left in the picture above) past the water tower and down to the site of the old barracks - now a sea of derelict greenhouses. In February 1945 the 26th Panzer Grenadier Regiment fought hard to hold the line around Zinten but the town fell in bloody fighting.  The dismounted tankers of Battlegroup Einem (24th Panzer Division) counter attacked taking ground either side of the town. The Russian 5th Army held Zinten but at a heavy price - as can be seen on the Roll of Honour in the photograph above.
Chicken and Hammer & Sickle at Zinten
The Pocket was filled with civilians many of whom in desperation crossed the frozen water between the beaches North of Heiligenbeil and an isthmus of land called the Frische Nehrung. A German visitor told me how, in Jan 1945, her desperate Grandparents had traversed the melting ice at night - knee deep in freezing water and listening to the flows cracking in the cold night air. Unlike other Pockets on the Eastern Front the surrounded divisions had no easy access to port facilities or major towns. It was therefore inevitable that the fight would not be prolonged once the final Russian blow fell on 13th March 1945. 
Prussian farmhouse in Kornewo, Russia
The two weeks that followed, saw misery and destruction on a vast scale for Russians and Germans alike. German casualties topped 93,000 (5,600 for Grossdeutschland alone). The Russian casualties were on a similiar scale. Many civilians and soldiers were evacuated by sea - this included 60,826 wounded combatants. At the end some 46, 000 men of the German 4th Army faced an uncertain future in captivity.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

The First Shots of the Second World War

A month ago I took a road trip through Poland and Kaliningrad with a group of friends. This post concerns our jumping off point in the fascinating city of Gdansk in Poland. Prior to the start of WWII Gdansk was known as Danzig. In the inter war period the city held the designation of 'Free' on the basis that it was nominally a demilitarised trading port situated in Poland (sandwiched between Germany to the West and Prussia to the East).
Flats built on the site of the old dockyard in Gdansk
In 1939 the Nazi propaganda machine had attempted to convince the German people that Danzig was a German city. It was a 'goodwill' visit by the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein on the 25th of August which heralded the opening of hostilities. At 4:47 the guns of the battleship opened up on the military installations located on the Westerplatte. The Westerplatte is a thin isthmus of land with striking views of the harbour area. In the 1930s the League of Nations sanctioned the deployment of 88 Polish soldiers on this strategically important ground.
Start of Seaward Westerplatte Defence Line
At the time of the attack on the 1st September 1939 the garrison had been secretly increased to 176 men and 6 officers. They were armed with one 75mm gun, two 37mm Bofors antitank gun, four mortars and a number of machine guns. Their brief was to hold on for 12 hours until the Polish Army arrived. The Westerplatte came under concentrated attack by marines from the Schhleswig-Holstein and Wehrmacht Pioneers. The garrison did not succumb for seven days.
Southern Wing of Polish Barrack Block on the Westerplatte
Nowadays the site has been turned into a commemorative site. There is a huge memorial at the highest point on the peninsular with a wide roadway cutting right through the site of the old barracks. The remaining military structures are now preserved with explanatory panels providing every detail of the events of that first week in September 1939. Sadly the T34 which used to sit on the foundations of the old Westerplatte Guardhouse has been removed. I don't know why.
Bomb Crater in Gdansk (Danzig)
The city itself has plenty of other sites associated with WWII. There are bomb craters still evident in most areas. One of the more interesting structures is a massive Naval command bunker. Photographs taken in 1945 show this bunker as the only remaining structure after repeated bombing raids. Now the bunker is a night club. Internal features such as pipework and signage have been incorporated into the internal design.
The Bunker Nightclub, Gdansk
Some readers will know that there is a new WWII museum being built in Gdansk. It is a massive undertaking which will draw many tourists into the city. Near the site of the museum is a particularly evocative spot where the first shots of the war were fired in the city itself. This is Danzig Post Office where 52 workers put up a stubborn defence until artillery was brought to bear on the building. 38 survivors surrendered and were subsequently sentenced to death as franc-tireurs. Four escaped and survived.
Then & Now - Gdansk (Danzig) Post Office
Memorial to the Defence of Danzig Post Office
The road in front of the Post Office has been redirected and the area is dominated by a very impressive steel monument. Inside thePost Office (which is still operational) there is a fascinating little museum which contains a detailed exposition covering the defence of the city. Behind the building there is a separate memorial marking the execution of the defenders albeit not in the spot where this atrocity happened.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Joe Parish - A Tragedy on the 11th November 1918

On the 11th November 2018 it will be 100 years since the armistice was signed.This date will also be the 100th anniversary of the death of Joe Parish from Swavesey. Joe died on the last day of the war having only been in France for 32 short days.

The Parish butchers shop in Swavesey, Cambridgeshire has now been converted into a house but in the first couple of decades of the 20th century this business had been run by Joe’s parents, Zachariah and Martha. The family who lived next door to the shop at Aylesford house were part of the local Strict and Particular Baptist congregation and like many in that community they were not closely touched by the war until the introduction of the Derby scheme and subsequently, conscription. As each young Parish came of age so he would start work in the shop displacing an elder brother who would seek work elsewhere. The job of butcher was one of a number of protected occupations.

Nellie, Murial & Joe
The first member of the family to join up was Arthur, one of Joe’s brothers. Arthur who was a carpenter by trade joined the Royal Engineers on 17th March 1916. The Cambridge Independent Press had no time for families who were not eager to send their sons to face the guns :

“The name of Parish is borne by more than one household in Swavesey, and Sapper Parish has the distinction of being the first of the name to join the countries forces.”

Joe had four brothers. Bernard was too young to enlist but John and Isaac both served, the latter having been conscripted into the Royal Sussex Regiment during 1917. Both survived the war and John (along with Arthur who had survived albeit with a shrapnel wound) took over the family butchers business whilst Isaac farmed at Fen Drayton.

Joe and Arthur Parish
 Norcot house which Joe rented still sits in Station Road on the village side of the Frere cottages overlooking Swan Pond. At the age of 24 on 21st October 1914 he had married Nellie (25), a boot sellers daughter from Manchester and in 1916 the couple had a daughter, Muriel. Muriel presently lives in Needingworth and was two years old when her father was killed.

Joe was a fruit farmer by trade and had an orchard down “The Hale” which is the roadway at the bottom of Taylors Lane. I recently spoke with a Swavesey man who remembers Joe sitting on his cart taking fruit to Swavesey station on a weekly basis.

Joe was conscripted into the 1st East Kent Regiment (The Buffs) on 12th June 1918 having previously served in the UK as a Sergeant in the Cambridge Volunteer Regiment. When Joe left to begin training Nellie and their daughter moved out of the family home in Swavesey and in with Joe’s mother in law back in Manchester.Joe left England on 9th October by which time the tide had turned and the Allied armies were in the ascendancy.

The Battalion war diary in the Public Records Office (PRO) shows 1 “other rank” joining the Regiment in France on the 9th with a further 10 on the 12th. Major Lord Teynham had assumed command and the Regiment was billeted in the Bohain area of France.

During the following few weeks the Battalion moved forward taking its turn in the front line trenches until by the 30th October Battalion HQ was on the outskirts of Pommereuil. It was on this day that Joe Parish received his fatal injury during an attack on the village of Happergarbes.

Grave Registration Card
A hand-written account or this action at Bois D’Eveque can be found at the PRO:

“The Buffs were ordered to seize the farm and the high ground. The operation was entrusted to Lieut. L.W.Barber M.B.E. who had at his disposal B & C co’s (and later a platoon of D co.), A section of 6th Machine Gun Battalion and two light TM guns.

Zero was 6.00 a.m. at which time a creeping barrage opened with heavy artillery bombarding the railway.The attack was made on a two platoon frontage. Two other platoons operating on each flank so as to protect the advance and 3 platoons were retained in support.

The attack on the farm was at first frustrated by our own barrage which fell so short that all but 6 men in the leading platoon became casualties in the forming up line.

When the barrage lifted, which it did in stages, the 18” pdrs at 6.10 and the 4.5” at 6.22 another platoon was moved up but the advance was held up by enemy machine gun fire. It was not until 10 a.m. that, aided by the right flank platoon using rifle grenades and smoke the farm with another beyond were taken.

Meanwhile the platoon attacking the high ground had also reached its objective and captured the enemy machine gun. Our barrage from here was correctly aligned. Later the platoon was forced to withdraw somewhat owing to the flanks being exposed.We were then forced to withdraw from the farm following a heavy bombardment and an attack in strength by the enemy.

The last reserves were then brought up under a well directed barrage by our light TM on the farm. We again attacked and captured at the point of the bayonet 2 heavy and 3 light machine guns were captured and heavy casualties inflicted. By evening the village of Happergarbes had been virtually cleared.”

Following the action Joe was taken back to a Casualty Clearing Station at Premont, some 20 miles to the rear. There is a Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery on the site of this old field hospital and it is in this tranquil spot that Joe now lies.

Joe' Grave at Premont
A final cruel twist was that having experienced the immense relief of the armistice and having, no doubt thanked god for the new found peace, on 23rd November Joe's wife received notification that Joe had been killed. Nellie always suspected that Joe had been killed by his own side since the fatal wound was in the small of his back.

The news of Joe’s death reached Swavesey on the day that Ethel Hepher got married and took some of the shine off the subsequent celebrations. Joe’s daughter Murial remembers her mother throwing her husband’s victory medal, war medal and commemorative death plaque in the family dustbin. The accompanying note from the king went on the fire.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Sir Briggs - The Original Warhorse

A few weeks ago my wife and I signed up to the National Trust during a weekend break in Northern Ireland. Keen to make the most of our membership we are in the process of visiting all of the the Trust properties in proximity to our home. Yesterday we travelled across the new Severn Bridge to the wonderful Tredegar House in Newport, Wales. Always on the look out for all things related to military history, my interest was pricked immediately by the field gun (originally belonging to the Glamorgan Yeomanry) which is situated close to the entrance.

Field Gun - Glamorgan Yeomanry

Tredegar House is described by the Trust as one of the most significant 17th Century houses in the British Isles. It was used by the Morgan family (later known by the title 'Tredegar') for more than 500 years. The Morgan family owned more than 40,000 acres in Monmouthshire, Brecon and Glamorgan. One member of the family I was particularly interested in was Godfrey Charles Morgan, 1st Viscount Tredegar (1831 - 1913). At the age of 22, Tredegar was a Captain in the 17th Lancers and was heavily involved in the fighting around Sevastopol in the Crimean War. He was in action at the Battle of the Alma (as was my Great, Great Grandfather - but that's another story) and was in command of a section of the Light Brigade that rode into the 'Valley of Death' during the Battle of Balaclava.

1st Viscount Tredegar at Balaclava

There is a fabulous painting of Morgan and Sir Briggs in what is now known as 'The study' in Tredegar House (above). The Viscount survived the charge as did his horse 'Sir Briggs'. The horse had been transported to Russia from the Morgan estate in 1853. Sir Briggs saw action on the Alma, at Balaclava & Inkerman before spending a brief period of time afterwards as Frederick Morgan's staff horse (Frederick was Godfrey's elder brother). Having survived the charge Sir Briggs was eventually returned to Wales and is buried in the Cedar Garden at Tredegar House. As you can see from the photographs below it is still there.

Monument to Sir Briggs 
Detail from the monument

The monument reads "In memory of Sir Briggs. A favourite charger: He carried his master, The Honourable Godfrey Morgan Captain 17th Lancers boldly and well at the Battle of the Alma, in the first line in the Light Cavalry Charge of Balaclava and at the Battle of Inkerman 1854. He died at Tredegar Park 9th February 1874 aged 28 years."

The house at Tredegar passed into the ownership of the National Trust last year and the fabulous contents are now accessible by the public. One of the treasures on view is the superb ceiling in the Gilt Room (through the front entrance and turn right). the mural on the ceiling has been restored to its former glory.

Mural in the Gilt Room, Tredegar House

The restoration was necessary because on 2nd August 1980, during an air display, a Vulcan bomber flew low over the house and caused so much vibration that a number of ceilings cracked. The South Wales Argus quoted a local council official as saying that "in the rehearsal the bomber flew much higher than on the day". The emergency repairs cost the Ministry of Defence £5,000.

For details of my battlefield walks in the Crimea click here.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Normandy-Niemen Squadron

Update: A few years ago I posted a piece about the Normandie-Niemen squadron having stumbled across a museum at their old air base in Les Andelys a few years ago. Last month I visited Kaliningrad in Russia and found a memorial to the squadron in the centre of town. I've added a picture of the memorial to my original posting (top picture).

A day trip to Les Andelys brought an unexpected surprise last week. The town is home to the Normandie-Niemen Squadron Museum. Marcel Leferve, one of the pilots came from the town and when he died a few years ago, the museum was set up to commemorate his memory and that of the other brave Frenchmen who flew with the Russians on the Eastern Front. The squadron flew 5,240 missions and achieved 273 confirmed victories. Of the 96 pilots who fought, 42 never returned and are commemorated on the photo panel below. The Squadron still exists.

For the full photo set, click here.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

The 67th Regiment of Foot (South Hampshire) in China - 1860

Following on from my description of the Taku Forts, I thought I would follow up with a few additional images concerning the whereabouts of my Great, Great Grandfather's regiment (67th Foot) in China during 1860. In that year an Anglo French military expedition aimed to enforce the 1858 Tientsin Trade Agreement. 

The first picture below shows the only remaining fort at Taku on the southern bank of the Pei Ho river. Now ‘restored’ with a massive museum complex in close proximity. For the full story of the military action at Taku please scroll to the bottom of the page and click the link.

Taku Fort - South

One of the best first hand accounts of the campaign was written by J.H.Dunne an officer in the 99th Regiment. Dunne offers a day by day narrative which is rich in detail. Dunne records that on Oct 6th 1860 having followed the Pei Ho river, the 1st and 2nd Divisions arrived at the North East Gate of Peking. In those days the city was surrounded by a massive city wall with huge, multi-story watchtowers. The picture below shows part of the city wall.

Pekin City Wall

Sadly, most of the remaining watchtowers and virtually all of the wall have been systematically destroyed from 1911 onwards. Most recently to make way for modern roads. More recently the Chinese government has changed it's policy and parts that remain have now been sympathetically restored.

From my research at the Public Records Office in London I knew that the 67th had been billeted in what is now known as the Lama Temple in the Dongcheng District of Beijing.

Lama Temple, Pekin 

The pictures above show the Lama Temple as it is now. Luckily it is on the tourist trail so my wife was very happy to join me on a detour to this quiet corner of the bustling city. One of the things I enjoy about walking the battlefields is that when 'on the ground' it is often immediately evident why particular locations were important. In the Lama Temple it is immediately obvious that the stout surrounding walk, individual sleeping quarters, expansive squares and large communal rooms made this an ideal spot for billeting a regiment of soldiers.

Lama Temple, Pekin

The history of the Anglo French visitation on Pekin is not an honourable one. Amongst other things, the combined Army sacked the Emperor's Summer Palace - stripping away everything of value and destroying many of the buildings and gardens. Dunne's narrative provides intriguing detail of how the British contingent joined in following early acts of vandalism by the French. Dunne records the final act in his diary under the date of October 19th 1860. "The whole sky, on the Summer Palace side of the horizon, is black with the volumes of smoke from it and the smaller palaces nearby. We hope the old Emperor, in his hunting box in the hills, may see it".

Wen Maio Temple, Shanghai
Wen Maio Temple, Shanghai

With Pekin stabilized and the trade agreement reinforced, the 67th Regiment moved onto Shanghai where they were billeted in the Confucian Temple (called Wen Maio). My wife and I had a fascinating walk through the bustline hutongs of old Shanghai and again, on seeing the temple, it was obvious why Wen Maio was chosen given the close resemblance to an army barracks or fort.

For my blog on the Taku Forts click here. For my photographs of China more generally then click here.

Friday, 21 June 2013

The mystery of Thomas Strong at the Taku Forts

Whilst visiting the Taku Forts museum recently I came across a British tombstone. I've been unable to identify anything about the individual concerned - 'Thomas Strong'. Since then I've been in contact with the Director of the museum - Ma Wenyan. This is what she has to say;
"The ‘Thomas’ tomb stone was excavated from flat ground ten meters away from the south side of the ‘Hai’ character on the southern shore of the river in the Dagu area. The exterior of the tombstone is made of cement and rubble. It is certain that Chinese people did not erect this tombstone. Chinese burial consists of standing stones.
Earlier, Dagu area was salt swamp. We speculate that this tombstone might be transferred to Dagu Fort by ship or through land. In 1858 when Anglo-French Allied Force attacked Dagu Fort, there were a large number of casualties. Historic pictures from abroad show that French troops once held cemetery for the dead soldiers in the northern fort.
Whether the southern forts or the northern ones, it is beyond question that soldiers killed in the battle were buried there. At that time, except for the forts there were no good sites for burial apart from the high ground occupied by the forts. The lower ground was muddy and swampy.
As to the sources of cement of the tombstone, we speculate that Thomas died in a battle or of a disease on a ship during the Second Opium War, and that the cement used in his cemetery surely came from the ship. Since China of that day had not capability of cement production, and the earlier production of cement can be dated back to 1882 when Westernization Movement introduced it into China. In 1824,”Portland Cement” of Britain obtained the patent certificate. If Thomas died in 1900 when the Eight-Power Allied Forces intruded China, the cement that made the base of the tombstone might be produced in China and probably came from Tangshan, Hebei Province.
Because the stone is worn it is impossible to make out birth or death dates. Usually one stone is solid enough for a tombstone to last many years. But actually this one was imbedded in cement and surrounded by strips of stone. It is inexplicable to waste time and effort on such work in war time."
If anyone can help solve this mystery Ma Wenyan and I will be very grateful.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The Taku Forts, China

Ever since I first heard the stirring stories about my Great Great Grandfather, Alfred Baker, I have harboured an ambition to visit the Taku Forts (known in China as the Dagu Forts). Alfred was a career soldier who travelled to China in 1860 whilst serving with the 67th (Hampshire) Regiment.

A joint French / British expedition of some 14,000 men had been mobilised in order to force the extension of Western trading interests in Shanghai and Canton. The immediate objective was Pekin but access to the city was restricted because control of river traffic on the Pei-Ho river was exercised by the garrisons of the Taku Forts which had been constructed at the mouth of the river.

Constructing the Dagu Forts

This grip was broken on the 30th July 1860 when one of the forts on the North bank was taken at some cost to the attacking force and much greater cost for the defenders. On that day the South Hampshire Regiment were in the vanguard of the attack and were awarded four VCs as a result. Following the successful assault the second fort on the North bank and the two forts on the South side surrendered.

Newly constructed tower blocks - Dagu Port, China

In planning my visit to the scene of the battle I had no illusions about the extent to which the landscape had changed.  The small town of Pehtang where the force had come ashore had long since been subsumed in the urban sprawl of modern day Tianjin. Likewise the fields and causeways around what was Taku village had been drained and incorporated into one of the busiest cargo terminals in China.

 I knew that the Chinese had turned one remaining fort into a museum but with a one star rating on Trip Advisor it seemed to me that to get the most from my visit I would need to rely heavily on my imagination. The reality proved to be different - and truly spectacular.

The Taku Forts Museum, Tianjin, China

The trip down to Tianjin is an easy affair nowadays. The majority of the journey is on a pristine motorway through a flat landscape of paddy fields and grids of earth embankments. Nearer Tianjin the fields are replaced by endless construction sites with new skyscrapers standing toe to toe into the middle distance.

The Entrance to the Taku Forts Museum, China

The site of the battle on the Northern bank is no longer traceable. The whole topography has been changed by urban development and the re-channeling of the river. However on the Southern bank the remaining Taku Fort has been incorporated into a brand new 'world class' museum complex.

The Fort has been sensitively 'tidied up'. The causeway ramp provides access to the parapet which is marked out by a mix of authentic and replica guns of the 1860 period. From the top there is a fantastic view of the estuary and the modern docks across the water on the outskirts of Tianjin.

The South Fort at Dagu Port - Then & Now

The museum itself is housed in a building which reminded me of the Imperial War Museum (North) in the UK. An angular black edifice carefully configured to provide great views of the fort and enough space to show off an eclectic mix of exhibits.

Artillery facing the River Pei-ho, Taku, China

Upon my return to the UK I was delighted to read this Chinese media report of my visit. I've since been contacted by the Museum Director and I hope to be able to provide further insight to into the battles at the Taku Forts from a Western viewpoint as a contribution to the development of the excellent archive in Tianjin.

A full set of photographs from my visit can be accessed here.

For more detail on the 1860 action at the Taku Forts and the role played by Alfred Baker please click here.