World War II’s last European Battlefield

It began at 1am on April 5, 1945. Armed only with sharpened shaving knives and their bare hands, Soviet Georgians exacted bloody revenge on their German captors. While the Georgians quickly and quietly dispatched tens of Germans, some of the Wehrmacht men got to their rifles. The gunfire alerted the German gun crews on the shore batteries … who then traversed their weapons so they could fire inland. What followed was a vicious guerrilla campaign that lasted for weeks after VE Day…

Over 60 years later, as you approach the island on the ferry boat from Den Helder, you cannot even see the concrete bunkers that formed this part of Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” . Today, Texel is a charming holiday destination better known for surf fishing and lamb wool than its grim history as the only battleground between men of the Red and German Armies on the Western Front.

Remnants of a German bunker are in the foreground

The restored Texel Lighthouse - remnants of a German bunker are visible behind the grass in the foreground

Although Texel’s sleepy villages with winding brick lanes and perfectly flat pastures with grazing sheep are occasionally interrupted by more “touristy” towns like De Koog, the island is mainly a peaceful – if windy – place.  It’s one of the only parts of the Netherlands where you can experience a sense of remoteness, so I was shocked to learn a battle was fought here in World War II.

I learned about Texel’s World War II history by accident. The island’s small airport hosts an aviation museum that advertises a special exhibition on “the Georgian Uprising”. The weather in North Holland is not always reliable, so we soon found ourselves at the museum during a spell of Dutch Summer weather (damp, windy, etc.).

German bunker at Texel airport. Bullet holes are visible around the gun ports

German bunker at Texel airport. Bullet holes are visible around the gun ports

Thousands of Soviet Georgians serving in Stalin’s Red Army were captured by the Germans in 1941 during “Operation: Barbarossa”. Starved and brutalized in German prison camps, many were eventually shanghaied into the German Army’s new Ostlegion (“Eastern Legion “). 800 of these Georgians were sent to Texel, where they improved fortifications, drilled, and made contacts with the Dutch Underground – the Orde Dienst.

Having been informed they were being sent to Berlin in a last-ditch defense against the approaching Red Army, the Georgians hastily came up with a plan. When the signal was given they would quietly kill their German comrades with sharpened shaving knives and bayonets, seize the German weapons and – with the help of the local populace – take out the gun crews of the shore batteries. Once the island was secure, they would then radio England so the Allies could land on the island.

As Murphy’s Laws of Combat state: no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Operation: Day of Birth was no exception…

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My Secret Obession: World War II Bunkers

There was an article last Summer about how some kid discovered some bunkers in Denmark that are in pristine condition. So awesome.

I don’t know what it is with me and those concrete bunkers built during World War II. When I’m driving along the French or Dutch coast, or through the Eiffel in Belgium, and I see those telltale right angles breaking through the tranquil countryside, I pull my car over and start climbing over the damn things like a little kid.

A fading memory

A fading memory - one of the German emplacements on Omaha beach

What is it about these decaying, stained and otherwise hideous concrete structures that make me so crazy? They violate an otherwise peaceful landscape. Local kids use these things to tag up, shoot up, or drink up and I reckon most locals want to forget them. Yet all I can imagine is what it must have been liked over half a century previous when these things were built. I guess it’s the knowledge that as I stand there, I’m at Ground Zero of the showdown that determined the direction of World history.

It’s like walking in the footsteps of giants.

Last Summer I found an amazing set of bunkers and gun emplacements on an island of the Dutch coast. Although a foot note in a side theater of the main conflict, the island of Texel (pronounced “Tessel”) was the scene of a vicious battle which earned it a few dubious – and grim –

distinctions …

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My First English Stag Weekend

So I’ve only now recovered from a bachelor party I attended almost a month ago. It’s taken a month to recover, as the scars needed time to heal. For this was no ordinary bachelor party, but an English stag weekend.

Anyone who’s traveled to Prague, Budapest, Amsterdam or even Dublin knows what I’m talking about. England’s finest normally pour in on the SleazyJet flight to any non-UK town (normally in Eastern Europe) with cheap booze, cheap hookers, and cheap hotels wrapped up in an Old Town they never need to leave. Main activities include: drinking, falling down, singing, shouting, turning red, vomiting, drinking more, looking for a kebab shop, and making a complete drunken ass of the groom and themselves.

Oh yeah, and English stag weekends tend to start on Thursday.

With so much going against it, I’ve still wanted to be on the inside of one of these things just once. So when an invite popped up in my Inbox to head to Split, Croatia, for an English stag weekend – I couldn’t refuse.

I figured since over half the group was 40+, somehow they’d be more refined. Boy, was I wrong. Finally being on the inside of one of these things, I have never seen grown men make such complete asses of themselves. The people of Croatia didn’t know what hit them.

I was strictly going along to observe and learn, which meant I was keeping my mouth shut. I did however, question the best man’s choice of venue. Yes, Croatia is relatively cheap, yes there’s an Old Town with loads of cafés and bars, but, Croatia is über-conservative, which means:

  1. They roll the streets up at 11 pm.
  2. They don’t like foreigners. Especially loud, obnoxious ones.
  3. The girls won’t talk to you.
  4. Strip clubs will be horrible.
  5. No kebab shops. The last Muslims in the area were run out of town on a rail during Croatia’s war for Independence.

I’d been to Croatia (and Split, specifically) a couple of times in the past, and had concluded that the nation seems to suffer schizophrenia. They desperately want to be part of Europe (I’ve seen bootleg license plates with the EU flag with the Croatian “HR” in the middle), but they also want to be Croatian – and ferociously so. I’d seen this ugly nationalism manifest itself a few times. Once in a bar, (in 2000) we were told to “shut up” and “speak Croatian” (instead of English). Another time (2001), an [American] buddy of mine who was working in Zagreb discovered he was being surveilled by one of Croatia’s many internal security/intelligence services. (An unnerving story for another blog entry).

That’s why I never would have picked Croatia for a bachelor weekend. If you want strippers on the agenda, you have to stick with winning horses like Budapest and Prague.

On the bright side: Split is actually an amazing place. The old town is actually the ancient retirement palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian. The palace has been carved up over the years into warrens that have since become individual homes. The entire old town including the flag stones on its streets are carved from marble quarried on the neighboring island of Brac (pron. “Brah-ch”. (Brac also provided the stone for the White House in Washington, DC.) Also, Summer on the Croatian coast is just off the hook. The weather is perfect, and if you’re a sailor, this is the place to be. (There’s a reason the Croats have like eight words for “wind”.) Finally, Split is in the region of Dalmatia, which the Turks never managed to conquer. Because of this, Dalmatia still produces tons of tall people, including all those NBA hoop stars like Toni Kukoc. It also produces reams and reams of hot, 6’3” women, with legs that go all the way to the ceiling.

So our stag weekend began – on Thursday. The first night, they dressed up the groom-to-be as a clown. We dragged him around on our pub crawl, to the bemusement and consternation of our Dalmatian hosts. The poor Croats were completely confused, and a number of children were left traumatized as well. The kids would run up to the groom/clown, no doubt expecting a balloon animal or something. Instead, they got a face full of cigarette smoke and were told to “piss off” in English. No doubt they didn’t realize how very scrofulous (and drunk) the clown was until they were too close and it was too late.

As I feared, the Old Town did indeed shut down at 11:30 pm, but we did find a string of clubs lining the bay. The weather was so perfect; the boardwalk itself became the club venue. Indeed, it was so warm, people were swimming all night long.

On the second night of our stag weekend, they dressed the groom in drag. The Croats simply didn’t “get” it. (The few Brit or Aussie tourists we ran into certainly did.) Some people did chuckle, but in general, we were avoided like the plague. This made for tough going when we hit the clubs.

All was not lost, though. Like Goldilocks, found that the third night was “just right”. Somehow, thing came together. The groom-to-be was dressed up like Marilyn Monroe, and the locals ate it up. Finally, here was something they could recognize. (Of course, they couldn’t understand why a guy was dressed up like Marilyn, but that was beside the point.) He was such a big hit, they had to parade him down the Riva (the boardwalk in front of Diocletan’s Palace) – much to everyone’s delight. Women ran up to have their picture taken with Marilyn, and the men wolf-whistled playfully, grinning from the windows above us.

This get-up even paid dividends at the clubs we hit. As mentioned, the region also produces tons of tall women who don’t play basketball. The club we frequented always had a string of 9s to perfect 10s who were 6-foot and taller. Always. The problem is, they won’t give you the time of day because i) you are not Croatian, and ii) even though they want out of Croatia, they won’t hook up in front of people who could report their activity back to their village.

They were – however – willing to talk to Marilyn. So I guess the English penchant for dressing in drag can be beneficial as an icebreaker.

Croatia’s conservatism did get under my nails though. What do you expect from a nation that actually looks up to the Germans? During our stag weekend, Croatia was progressing in the Euro 2008, and was set to play against Turkey. Theoretically, the city should have been going crazy, as they’d already beaten some very competitive sides. There were lots of flags and lots of scarves sporting the red and white [checkerboard pattern of the Croatian coat-of-arms], but that was it. Even though all the cafés had wide-screen televisions outside, one look at the crowd and you would have thought they were watching 1978 Cricket highlights. I think my fellow staggers’ attempts to get some football chants going weren’t too well-received either.

Only in the last few minutes did the place go off: after a scoreless 90 minutes of regulation time, Croatia scored in extra time…

Fireworks went off on along the Riva. People were going nuts, and sound systems started kicking out loud rock music. It was so loud in fact, no one notices when Turkey equalized 70 seconds later. People finally came to their senses, and the place went as quiet as a funeral home as Turkey went on to win in penalties…

Some of the guys were planning to dress up the groom as a Turkish dervish the next night (including a fez and long moustache!) but thought better of it. Definitely a wise move.

It was still a fantastic weekend, celebrating my buddy’s last few days of freedom. We even managed to find a way around the lack of kebab shops. The Croatian čevapi made a manageable substitute, and we even found a Cornish pasty shop that opened at 5 am when we were stumbling back to our hotel. An incongruity I didn’t dare question. After God knows how many shots of rakia, I couldn’t open my mouth to question coherently anyway.

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Rosenmontag and Super Tuesday

The post serves a couple of purposes:

1) To inform you that I partied like a Rockstar at Carnival in Cologne and Dusseldorf, which is why I haven’t been writing.

2) To provide a little evidence that much of the world really does seem to be following the US elections. Very closely.

The following photos were taken during the Rosenmontag (“Rose Monday”) parade through Koenigsallee in Duesseldorf (I apologize if they’re fuzzy of not framed properly but we were in a crowd and we were really really drunk):

Rosenmontagzug

 

Rosenmontagszug2

Not only is the primary process being followed closely around the world, but the above photos demonstrate that some Euro-pundits are far more astute than I thought. Keep in mind that these photos were taken 24 hours before Super Tuesday. Quite the augur when you think about how much money Obama raised shortly thereafter. (I believe it was $3 million in 48 hours.)

Funny thing is, a couple of German party animals from the Ruhrpot slapping together a grotesque parade float have a stronger grip on reality than most of the major European media outlets.

The German and British press seem to be unconditionally kissing Obama’s posterior. His encomium as the “black JFK” was a bit too much for me. As far as Hillary goes, the Dutch have been loving HRC for years. (Strong women with short hair go over well here.) My Dutch in-laws are trying to register a proxy vote for her via Yours Truly.

So you read and hear a lot about Obama and Hillary, but not too much about the Republicans. If you’re lucky, you read something on McCain. There is so little coverage of the Republicans it’s not even funny. (In all fairness, there was little coverage of any other Dem candidates besides HRC and BO anyway – even at the beginning of the campaign.)

A German friend of mine (who’s former GSG-9, actually) summed it up best; he “doesn’t care who wins, so long as it’s not a Republican”. There’s an excellent blog called David’s Medienkritik that comprehensively catalogs the German media’s choleric coverage of Bush, Republicans, and America the “Wild West” (full of gun-loving, conservative, fat people, etc.). It sheds a lot of light on where these opinions come from. I only wish someone did the same with the BBC World Service; every third item is about how Bush sucks because of Iraq. The other two items are that break up these items are usually i) the latest warnings about global warming, and ii) Israeli oppression of the Palestinians.

I must say, watching Dutch, German, and English television, I’ve been surprised by the extent of the coverage and – dare I say it – the general fascination with the presidential primary process, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire. Listening to the anchors (and my wife), no one seems to believe that such powerful people have to kiss the ass of the “lowliest” farmer or pipe-fitter in such unrefined surroundings (churches, schools, people’s living rooms, etc).

I suppose that says something about European history/culture as well.

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A Penguin? In Africa?

What’s that? You didn’t know there were penguins in Africa? Neither did I.

On the way back to Cape Town from Cape Point we saw a sign indicating a Penguin Colony in Seaforth. Seaforth is part of a chain of beach-front towns on the Cape Peninsula facing False Bay. Seal Island, and a number of rocks jut out of the water just off-shore. The waters are home to penguins, cormorants, seals, and the occasional great white shark.

It was hard enough to believe that there are penguins in Africa, but Seaforth is home to a sizable colony of them. We never even made it to the colony before we’d bumped into this guy:

African Penguin

above: a penguin in Seaforth, South Africa

He waddled across the intersection in front of our bakkie, not a bother on him. He stood by this storm drain, and turned and cocked his head to get a better look at us. He acted like he owned the place. Standing there in his little tuxedo, I thought I detected a hint of disdain in his body language. I guess he wasn’t impressed by our shorts and sandals.

I wasn’t sure why this little water fowl was more out of place: because he was wearing a dinner jacket in a beach town, or because he’s a damn penguin in Africa.

At the Two Oceans aquarium in Cape Town, they’ve got a few pairs of penguins just like the one we saw.

African Penguin at Two Oceans Aquarium

above: African Penguin in Cape Town’s Two Oceans Aquarium

They were also fascinating to see, but there’s something special about encountering such an incongruity in the “wild”.

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Land’s End: the Cape of Good Hope

Cape of Good Hope

above: Cape Point (Diaz Point) 30 miles south of Cape Town

After leaving Muizenberg, we continued further south towards the Cape of Good Hope. There highway had ended, replaced by a two lane street that took us through a series of beach front towns. Backed up with beach traffic, we slowly cruised by restaurants, book stores, and endless beach-front bars. It was tempting to pull the bakkie over and have a sundowner, but we wanted to see Cape Point.

Leaving the towns behind us, the now lonely road ascended above False Bay around the rocky cliff side. I found it tough to concentrate on the road, as the views of the water were spectacular. We passed by rocky islands populated with penguins and cormorants; my wife scanned hopefully for more seals.

There was a line of cars to get into the the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. Finally paying our entry fee, we crawled on the narrow winding road through the rich, green plant life towards Cape Point. Traffic backed up at one stage as a group of baboons had decided on a family gathering right in the middle of the road. Cars slowly drove around them, wheels on either side of the baboons griding dirt, rocks, and branches into the non-existent shoulder. Cameras clicked furiously and whirred furiously. I saw some of the most awful, hemorroidal baboon asses that I’ve ever seen. I cannot erase those nasty images.

 

Sighting the light house signified we’d arrived at Cape Point (also known as Diaz Point). Even though it was the end of the day it was still packed with buses, cars, and wandering tourists. Children screeched in delight seemingly from every direction.

The old light house stood at the top of a cliff, and the hike was a zig-zagging path interspersed with stairs. We met crowds of people coming down the steps. The tourists were a mix of Europeans, Asians, Africans, and Americans. It seemed like I had to stop every three minutes to take a picture for a Russian, Coloured, German, Afrikaans or African-American family. Fine with me, as each “interruption” allowed me to catch my breath.

Who could blame them for wanting photos? The scenery was spectacular: the greens of the park and the blues of the water enriched by the setting sun; the incredible distances playing tricks on our eyes, as the grand scale of the landscape reduced the cliffs and mountains in the distance to miniature.

Standing in front of the light house at the tip of that cliff meant the ocean (and the sheer drop to it) was on three sides of us. We were so high up that the water seemed placid. The breakers looked like an unmoving ridge of white snow or ice. You had to squint in concentration to see that it was actually movin, and actually quite rough.
Another trail wound around the cliff below the light house. From there, we could see a huge colony of cormorants. Leaning over the edge, we were blasted by an unrelenting wind. The cormorants expended little effort to ride these updrafts around and above us.

The path was devoid of people when we began walking back to the parking lot. The temperature was dropping a notch with each new gust of wind. When we got back to the car park, ours was the last vehicle remaining.

It was time for that sundowner.

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Cape Town: Surfing Near the Top of the Food Chain

I was desperate to try a bit of surfing in Cape Town. Naturally, there are loads of places trying to sell you package tours, but we simply jumped in our bakkie and headed south towards the Cape of Good Hope.

South of Cape Town is a peninsula made up primarily of two national parks (Table Mountain National Park and Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve) and a chain of resort towns on the eastern coast. We pulled into Muizenberg, a town on False Bay known for its surf schools. After parking and dutifully paying the guard to watch our vehicle, I walked into one of the surf schools to suss things out.

The shop was bustling with activity. There were at least two groups suiting up and another group peeling off their wet suits and hitting the showers. Loads of rental boards were stacked up against the walls. A row of wet suits stood stiffly at attention on their hangars next to me. I asked if I could jump in on one of the lessons.

“I dunno,” the little surfer girl behind the register wondered. “They’re kind of young kids in both groups? Let’s see if I can sort you out.” And off she went out of the shop.

After a minute, she walked back in the shop with a guy I’d seen sleeping on his board in front of the surf shop.

“This is Jonno,” the girl indicated. “He’ll be your instructor for the next 90 minutes.”

Jonno rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and then offered his hand. He was the typical “surfer dude” right down to the sun-bleached, unkempt hair, and shark tooth necklace. He had his wet suit half peeled off, and I guess we’d interrupted his attempt to remedy his wet suit tan.

“How’s it, broo,” he muttered. “We gotta wait a while, yeah?”

“Sure,” I replied. “But why?”

“There’s a great white shark in the water? Shouldn’t be long though? Maybe 20 minutes, yeah?”

I’m not sure if it was a surfer thing, or an Afrikaner thing, but everything he said came out as a question.

“Oookay. How do you know there’s a shark in the water?”

“Just watch the flagpole, yeah? When the big white flag with the big shark on it comes down, it’s safe, yeah?”

Muizenberg

above: a white flag keeps swimmers and surfers out of the waters of False Bay in Muizenberg

“Gotcha,” I replied, plunking down my 150 Rand. “See you in 20.”

We walked outside.

“You want to come surfing too?” I asked my wife.

“With a shark in the water? Are you nuts?”

“You don’t have to swim faster than the shark, only faster than one or two other kids in the water,” I argued.

“No thanks. I prefer to stay at the top of the food chain.”

“But we’re still near the top out there. Just not at the top.”

She was already walking off. “I’ll see you back here in two hours.”

Muizenberg’s boardwalk had a respectable number of cafés and restaurants, so I didn’t have to worry about her.

The Cape Town area is well known for its great white shark population and for some spectacular shark attacks. The Saffers have a pretty elaborate shark detection system made up of aircraft, look-out towers, and the flag system to warn swimmers and surfers.

“The sharks love the seals, yeah?” Jonno explained. “Seal island is just offshore, which is why they cruise by here as well looking for a meal.”

“Have you ever seen a shark?” I asked.

“Ya ya. Plenty. Not too close, though, yeah? My dad’s board got bumped once though. Bumped once, and then it took out another surf board right next to him.”

“Close call.”

“Ya ya.”

The Afrikaner accent is so cool.

Summer holidays had just begun, and the beaches were packed. (In fact that very day, standard testing grades were released for South African high school students (“matrics”) across the nation. How one did on this testing determined one’s future. Amazingly, those who test highest are honored on the front page, and even more incredible, those who did crappy were shamed – their names also appeared in the papers with their miserable test scores!) It looked like everyone had come to Muizenberg to blow off steam – no matter what their results had been.

We found a little patch of sand to call our own so I could get some instruction on how to stand up on the board once in the water. After 10 minutes or so, the white flag with the shark profile on it came down and was replaced by a red one.

“What does a red flag mean?”

“It means that there was a shark in the water, but he’s not around here now.”

“Oookay.”

“But it safe now, yeah?”

We hit the water…

To say the water was cold is an understatement. It was freezing. A few people were simply taking brief dips in swimming trunks, but anyone on a board was in a wet suit. The water was choppy, but with very few pronounced waves worth riding.

“There’s on off-shore breeze, yeah? That’s why the water is so sloppy?”

“Wind coming from land makes for better waves?”

“Ya ya. There’s an excellent on-shore breeze on the Atlantic side of the peninsula right now. Eight-foot waves, mate. Imagine that, yeah?” His eyes became dreamy.

Despite the sloppy waves, I did get up on the deck after one attempt. (Years of snowboarding helps.) I got up a few more times after that, but I was really plodding through the water. We waited, in hopes that conditions would improve, and killed time talking about music. He was impressed when I told I’d seen Rage Against the Machine when their first album came out.

“When was that?” He marveled.

“Must have been around 1993,” I re[;ied.

“Whoah.”

He gave me God-like status when I told him I’d seen Metallica with Guns ‘n Roses and Faith No More in a stadium gig.

“Whoah. When was that?”

“Must have been ’91? 1992?”

“Whoah. I didn’t now Metallica was so old, yeah?”

I blinked in surprise. Old? Well, that was 15 years ago I suppose, but still.

Then I realized he was giving me that look. It was that look I used to give guys who’d seen Led Zeppelin live. It was a type of admiration, but kind of mixed with a “way to go, old dude” mentality.

Damn.

Conditions in the water only got worse. We were getting drubbed by small waves, none of which were worth riding. The red flag came down, replaced now by a black one.

“What does that one mean?”

“That means that they can’t see anything, yeah? There’s a lot of sand in the water? Decreases visibility.”

“So, is that bad?” I struggled.

“No. S’alright, yeah? See that over there?” He pointed out to sea. Through the waves, I saw a few shaped bobbing in the water. “Any shark out here will go after the seals before they come after us, yeah?”

I tried my best to catch a few more waves before I ran out of gas. 90 minutes of up-and-down on the deck and I was beat.

We walked past the red flag back to the surf shop.

I shook hands with Jonno before parting. “You should come back, yeah? Now that I got my test results, I’m here every day. Should be better conditions tomorrow. And Metallica’s coming here soon, yeah? Keep an eye out for that.”

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