Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The Demjansk Pocket (1942)

I covered the history of this pivotal WWII battle in an earlier entry (see link at the bottom of this narrative). So, I'm assuming that if you are reading this you have some familiarity with the monumental struggle that took place in and around Demjansk from Feb to April 1942.

German Cemetery - Korpova, Demjansk

Nowadays Demjansk is something of a back water. Located as it is, on the only piece of high ground in an area where the topography is one of swampy waterlogged forest crossed by the odd causeway - now metalled roads, in 1941/2 mainly tracks constructed out of lumber by military engineers. We travelled through what in 1942 was known as the Rumeshevo corridor hitting the high ground at Tsemenia which is 20 km North of Demjansk town. It is on this road that one can find the newly built Korpova German cemetery along with a much smaller original battlefield cemetery containing a handful of early casualties.

Memorial to the 1st Shock Army - Tsemena, Demjansk

We stayed at the only hotel in town - called, rather unimaginatively, 'the hotel'. I managed to secure the penthouse suite - a glorious cacophony of kitch furnishings and faulty utilities. Meals were available - one choice no matter whether breakfast, lunch or supper. There is no bar so myself and a couple of mates ventured into the only liquor store in town - the owner who had evidently only dealt with locals before was astonished.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Texan T6 and Focke Wulf FW 190 (Florida)

You might think that a two week holiday in Orlando, Florida is an unlikely scenario for discovering military history. But, as with so many other holiday destinations, there are rich pickings to be found with a little bit of imagination. It just takes a little research to find something to see and then find a way of dovetailing the excursion into an itinerary designed for family pleasures. The family had discerned that we would be visiting the Epcot Centre in Orlando but probably hadn't anticipated that I would be flying over this attraction in a 1943 T-6 trainer whilst they waited in a hanger for me to return!

Epcot, Orlando from the Air
Actually, we all had a fabulous time visiting the sites around Orlando. My guilty secret though is that the highlights included flying the T-6 and taking the controls for two 'loop the loops' in the clear blue Floridian sky. The T-6 was used as a trainer in WWII and is probably the nearest I will get to flying a Spitfire. And it was a fantastic experience.

The Author at the controls of a North American T-6

The old Kissimmee airfield is home to a few other fabulous vintage aircraft. For example the Mustang P-51 shown below. It is possible to fly the Mustang but the price was a little rich for me.

Mustang P51 ready for take off at Kissimmee

In the main hanger there is a WWII Focke Wulf FW190 undergoing restoration. The example in question was recovered from Norway where it was shot down on the 9th Feb 1945. A local group of enthusiasts intend to get it flying again. The sourcing of parts is proving to be a challenge but the team are confident that they will complete the project.

This half day out was a thrill and made a superb family holiday in Orlando just that little bit more special.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Marston Moor (1644)

As far as battlefield walking is concerned I take my opportunities when I can. One such opportunity arose last month during a weeks' holiday with my wife in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales. Mo's thoughts turned to shopping in Harrogate whilst mine turned to nearby Marston Moor, the place where the North of England was lost to the Royalist cause during the English Civil War. We managed to cover both but I'm guessing that my readership is going to be more interested in the latter than the former!

The battle was fought on the 2nd July 1644. Prince Rupert and the Earl of Newcastle had reinstated the kings' authority over the city of York the previous day. Both the Royalists and the opposing Parliamentarians gathered their forces at Marston Moor. The former force was outnumbered - the Royalist army consisting of 6,000 cavalry, 17,000 foot soldiers and 14 artillery pieces. The Parliamentarian force under the Earl of Leven, Lord Fairfax and the Earl of Manchester fielded a total of 22, 500 men, with material advantages across all arms.

The Monument at Marston Moor
The monument in the picture is situated in the middle of the battlefield. The Royalist lines were a couple of hundred yards beyond the pillar. The Parliamentary lines were the other side of the modern day road on the forward slope of a low ridge. My walk took me down Atterworth Lane and then left along the tree line through the heart of the battlefield and into the area where Cromwell's cavalry had been so decisive in rampaging through Byron's wing and, with the help of the Scots, routing Prince Rupert's elite troops. The final act of the battle was the last stand of the Earl of Newcastle's 'whitecoats' where a plucky last stand took the Royalist casualties to over 4,000.

So, back to our Yorkshire holiday where a later trip to the lovely town of Skipton presented me with a chance to visit the the Norman Castle which still stands at the top of the High Street. Following the Royalist defeat at Marston Moor, Skipton held out against the Parliamentarians until December 1645.

Skipton Castle, Yorkshire
The castle at Skipton was given up to Cromwell after a lengthy siege. Legend has it that sheepskins were hung from the walls to provide reinforcement against cannon fire. To this day sheep skins feature on the town coat of arms. The castle is a splendid place to visit nowadays. It's empty rooms echo with the voices of history though a substantial part of the building remains a private residence. Some years after the civil War, the owner, Lady Ann Clifford, sought Cromwell's permission to reinstate the roof which had been demolished after the siege to prevent the building being used for military purposes. Permission was granted and the castle is now topped with an ornamental parapet and a rather fragile roof - deliberately so, in order to ensure that this highpoint could not be used as a firing platform for artillery.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Volkhov Front - Novgorod Sector (1941 - 1944)

The lower reaches of the Volkhov River marked the South Eastern flank of the German 'Army Group North' for the duration of the siege of Leningrad. Behind the German lines on the West bank crucial supply lines snaked down from the Gatchina area to Lake Ilmen and beyond. German strongpoints at Demyansk and Staraya Russa were reliant on the 16th Army - entrenched on the Volkhov with its' Southern flank anchored in the Novgorod area.

We visited Novgorod in May - upon arrival there was snow on the ground but just one week later the weather was uncomfortably hot. Such is the climate of Russia. The picture above shows the spectacular War Memorial in the centre of town.From October 1941 to August 1942 the city was held by the Spanish Blue Division (Division Azul). The Division held a 50 km front from the shores of Lake Ilmen running North through the city. We were surprised to find a War Memorial dedicated to the Blue Division in the Novgorod German cemetery a couple of kilometres South of the city centre. The picture below shows the Memorial which lists the names of about 2,000 Spaniards buried in the cemetery.

When the Blue Division moved North in the summer of 1942 the Spanish engineers took the cross from the top of Saint Sophia cathedral in the city. The cross resided at the Spanish Engineers Academy in Hoyo de Manzaneras, Madrid for 60 years. It has recently been returned and can be seen in the cathedral.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Battle Group Scherer - 105 days in Cholm, Russia (1942)

Or as the Russian's call it, 'Kholm'. During the first week of December 1941 Marshall Zhukov launched Operation Typhoon and, in combination with appalling weather, pushed the invading German army back from the gates of Moscow. In the North on the Southern Flank of Heeresgruppe Nord the German 16th Army reeled under the blow, conceding ground but not the two primary routes through the swamps covering the area between the lakes of Seeliger and Ilmen. These routes ran through the towns of Demjansk and Kholm. At Kholm a force of just 5,500 men under the command of Major General Theodor Scherer, though completely surrounded, held out for 105 days withstanding 100 infantry attacks (42 of which were supported by tanks). When the garrison was relieved, only 1,200 survivors remained. Throughout the ordeal the besieged men were supplied by air, and in the absence of heavy weapons, were supported by artillery 10 miles away in the main German lines. Following this epic battle Scherer was awarded a Knight's Cross and his men were feted as heroes all over Germany.

Kholm War Memorial
Nowadays Kholm is a sleepy provincial Russian town. The road down from Demjansk is pitted with potholes and bordered on both sides by swampy ground - dark, wet and inhospitable. The few villages on patches of higher ground still show the scars of WWII - particularly churches which, damaged in the war years, remained uncared for during the Soviet era.

Our small group walked the line of the final 'kessel' perimeter. It rained all day long but that didn't dampen our spirits - for, with a little imagination, it was easy to project back to the time of the siege Dec 1941 to May 1942. The huge Soviet War Memorial lies close to the site of the original GPU (during the siege a hugely important  German strongpoint). I found myself reflecting on the appalling fate of the local Jewish population noting that the site of their destroyed synagogue was nearby.

The Soviet war memorial is sited on the eastern bank of the River Lovat and walking north, one can quickly discern some of the features apparent in contemporary photographs and first hand accounts; the 'Rote Ruine', 'Lausepelz', the site of the original church and the depths of the 'Policeman's Ravine'. Standing on the cliff top one can gaze across the Lovat to the eastern bank and reflect on the epic 105 day siege. it is relatively easy to scramble down to the river bank and see where the 1941/42 bailey bridge was sited.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Sherman at Slapton Sands, Devon (1944)

A Bank Holiday in the UK (courtesy of William and Katherine) provided the time for a family day out on the South Devon coast. It's a beautiful area with picturesque towns, meandering waterways and rolling hills. There are stretches where the beaches take on a different character however. One such beach is the six mile strip at Slapton Sands. 

In December, 1943 this area began to be used for trial landings in preparation for D-Day. Slapton Beach was selected because of its similarity with Utah Beach. Those of you who have visited the latter will recall a long gravel beach fronting a strip of land with a lake beyond.

Today, next to a cluster of holiday homes and a couple of popular pubs, the horizon is marked out by the familiar profile of a Sherman Tank (below). Closer examination shows that the tank was recovered from the sea in 1984 by a local hotelier called Ken Small. The Sherman had been 6o metres underwater, 1km out to sea since it was lost during 'Exercise Tiger' in April, 1944.

The story is a tragic one. A full practise assault was scheduled for the 29th April, 1944. Eight LSTs carrying vehicles and combat engineers were intercepted by marauding German E-boats out of Cherbourg. The result was catastrophic for the American troops. Two LSTs were sunk (LST-531 and LST-289) and a further craft was badly damaged. In total 946 lives were lost - most at sea but some on shore later - a result of friendly fire.