Category Archives: History

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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A Misanthrope’s Perfect Christmas Dinner

Namibia Road Trip Days # 9 – 10: Fish River Canyon

The engine of our truck protested loudly as I used second to negotiate Namibia’s steep drops and inclines. I swear that with every hill we conquered, the needle on the fuel gauge drop a few liters. (I didn’t complain though. At least the road was paved.) We hadn’t seen another car for over an hour, and following our bizarre experience at Gaogeb we were happy to get a little alone time.

Black storm clouds loomed on the horizon. We couldn’t tell if they were coming towards us or not. The asphalt ended near Seeheim, where we took a right turn on a dirt track heading due South. The black clouds were still there, but we could see the storm had already passed through the area. Huge puddles filled the road, and fast-flowing rapids carried detritus into the road or simply carried the road away, leaving ever deepening ditches for us to slam into. At one turn, we watched in amazement as a chunk of road (packed gravel and sand) at least 8-foot square broke off and was carried downstream.

The road actually traversed the railroad tracks at least three times, and wouldn’t you know it, just after our third crossing, we actually saw a train . It was the first one I’d seen after driving for days alongside the rails in Namibia. The train itself was bright red freight train with a few cars. It looked almost miniature given the scale of the landscape around it. (In fact, given the narrow gauge of the tracks, it most likely was smaller than an American locomotive.) I honked and waved, and got a toot and wave in return. Driving in Namibia can be tedious, and since the train could only crawl with so many ostriches, domestic cattle, and antelope crossing the tracks, the conductor’s eyeballs must have been bleeding with boredom.

I was getting antsy when I saw lightning in the side-view mirror. I wanted to get to our campsite by the Fish River Canyon and set up camp quickly before the heavens opened up again. It was tempting to really floor it on the straightaway, but that was an invitation for disaster. You had no visibility on the steep hills; hit a ditch or a kudu that “just appeared out of nowhere” at 60 miles per hour, and it would not end well.

Two more hairpin turns and we were on the home stretch heading West towards the Fish River Canyon. The camp was less than 20 kilometers away. And the lighting was gone, replaced by a spectacular double-rainbow:

 

Namibian Double-Rainbow

 

Things were looking up.

The Hobas Campsite was just inside the gate of Fish River Canyon park. The grounds were well kept and quite charming, but the bathrooms barely functioned and the plunge pool looked more like a swamp.An unexpected bonus was that there couldn’t have been a dozen other people on the campground.

 

The storm clouds were gone by nightfall, and the southern sky lit up at night with a brilliance I’d never seen before. Mars was a bright orange ball, part of a string of three planets across the sky. Orion’s stars were as brilliant as xenon bulbs. Clouds of stars were visible in the night sky.You could walk at night without a flashlight, as the moon and the planets illuminated everything.

Christmas dinner the next night was a bit non-traditional. We had only some sketchy frozen chicken parts I’d found in a broken down freezer at the Spar in Luderitz and some carrots and pumpkin. I spiced up the chicken with half a jar of peri-peri powder, some minced garlic, a bottle of vinaigrette, and half a block of cow feta had left over. The chicken did not look good, so I literally caked it in peri-peri , salt, and minced garlic, drowned it in vinagrette, and shoved the feta inside the skin.

Thank God for the little refrigerator in our truck. We drank a chilled a bottle of white wine from the little metal cups that came with the truck.

The chicken was brilliant. Maybe our expectations were low because it was chicken from a Luderitz Spar on a braai, but it was delicious. The pumpkin and carrots, however, totally sucked. We drowned them in butter and sugar, but they tasted like nothing more than lumps flavored with butter and sugar. I couldn’t understand why they sucked so bad. The fridge had broken down twice underway. The controls were no good (I accidentally froze everything solid) and the wiring for the fridge was loose (I had to rewire it twice underway). Maybe that was what killed the veggies. In any case, the chicken was great, the wine was great, the coffee was the best.

 

 

We had to pull on fleece tops when the wind dropped the temperature to the low 70’s. We were hundreds of miles from the nearest Internet connection, from the nearest ATM, from the nearest traffic jam. No traffic. No shopping pressure. Christmas television specials. No last-minute shopping. No driving through snow to and from the relatives. No drunken office Christmas party. No shoveling snow. No idiots crashing into me because they don’t know how to drive in the snow. And more than 12 hours of sunlight on Christmas. The wind blew out our candles around 10:00 pm. Had we been at home, we’d have left the dishes for the morning, but jackals, hyenas, leopards, etc. dictated we scrub it clean and button the truck up tight before getting into the tent.

 

 

We were in bed by 10:15 and awoke the next morning at around 5:45 am with the sun. We took our time getting ready that morning. I scratched in my notebook for hours while we nursed coffee. It would be another scorcher. At least 90 degrees. We wished a Merry Christmas to the few others that had camped out over the holiday. We all grinned knowingly in our shorts and t-shirts.

 

The perfect way to spend Christmas when you’re sick of Winter and sick of people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Wild Wild West

Namibia Road Trip – Day #9: Gaogeb

Three hours on the road from Luderitz was more than enough time to burn through two thirds of our fuel. Having learned to plan ahead, I’d studied the map and calculated we’d need to stop in the town of Gaogeb to refuel. It would be our last chance to refuel before heading into the wilderness of the Fish River Canyon.

Incomplete letters on a water tower were the only indication that we were indeed in Gaogeb. This surreal backwater was like something out of a Coen Brothers or David Lynch film. The only living things we saw on the dirt road passing as main street were five scruffy ostriches milling about behind a chain-link fence. When we arrived at the town’s only gas station, the attendant was lying on the ground in the shade flat on his back. It took him a good two minutes to struggle to his feet. He stumbled over and reluctantly began to pump our gas. At first I thought it was just heat-induced sleepiness, but I then I realized he was simply dead drunk.

There were other people milling about the gas station, and I realized they were all drunk too. People staggered about aimlessly, cradling the equivalent of 40 ounce bottles. One drunk, his overalls half-undone, simply pointed at our truck and stared. His mouth hung open and he was unable to speak.

The way to the bathroom was blocked by two bodies.

Once I was certain he was filling the tank with 95, and not diesel (or kerosene) I went into the convenience story hoping to find a red bull and a snack. Instead of a well-lit mini mart, the shop was one long counter behind cast-iron bars. The bars were in turn topped with spikes and electrified wire. Behind the bars, a jumpy white guy worked the register. My senses overloaded with warning signs. More drunks kept stumbling into the store behind me. The cashier was a flurry of activity as he jumped between the register, the counter, and the refrigerator. He didn’t blink as he sold one super-sized bottle of Tafel lager after another to the native piss heads.

I thought about it. The nearest cop shop was hours away in Aus. This guy was on his own completely. Did he have a shotgun under the counter, or what?

The clerk finally blinked in my direction expectantly. I drew a blank. What did I want? What was I there for? Two other customers clicked at each other drunkenly in their own language.

I got back to the car with a bottle of lukewarm cola.

The guy in overalls was still staring. Pointing.

“That guy hasn’t moved for at least five minutes,” my wife marveled as I locked my door.

“Yeah.”

“At least five minutes.”

“Yeah.” I started the engine.

“Can we leave, please?”

“Oh yeah.”

I floored it towards the Fish River Canyon, and didn’t look back.

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On the Trail of the Kaiser’s Soldiers in Africa

Namibia Road Trip – Day #9: Ludertiz to Aus to Seeheim

On the road to Sesriem I’d picked up a locally printed book (“Mein Lieber Andreas! Treue Seele!”) that contained diary entries, recollections, and photos donated by German soldiers who’d been stationed in German Southwest Africa from the early 1900s until 1919 .

It held an interesting collection of details of daily life, which collectively gave a very rich picture of Namibia 100 years ago. The diary of one officer, a certain Unterzahlmeister Andreas Ohlsen, recounted his 1907 deployment route from Luderitz to the inland town of Keetmanshoop.

Schutztruppe Pad

above: A German map of the Ludertiz – Keetmanshoop route circa 1912

We followed his exact route nearly 101 years to the day.

Our Pad

above: The same route today. Note the Restricted Diamond Area (“Sperrgebiet”) to the south. The Namib Naukluft is to the north.

Naturally, this book contained quite a few memory holes. The diary entries were mostly fond recollections of soldierly bonding rather than details of their genocidal campaigns against the Hottentot and the Herero. I don’t think this was for political reasons. None of the horrors of war were present in their recollections. The losses of comrades-in-arms were glossed over. Their time in the POW camp in Aus sounded more like boarding school hijinks than 36+ months of purgatory in the desert. (I had to appreciate the story of how they secretly distilled schnapps – so-called “Kraal-Schnapps” – under the noses of the British guards.)

This wistful nostalgia was also colored with tragedy of another kind, as some of the Schutztruppe veterans writing in the book in 1943-44 were living in Koenigsberg. No doubt they were killed by the Red Army or had to evacuate only a few short months after fondly recollecting balmy African nights ’round the campfire singing dirty limericks.

Reading the experiences of these tough old soldiers humbled me a bit as I prepared for the day’s drive. I had over 200 miles of driving in front of me, and only two-thirds of it was on paved roads. I wasn’t looking forward to it, to be sure, but I felt guilty about wanting to complain.

Up until 1915, German soldiers arrived in Luderitz normally via steamship from Hamburg. After the damp climate of North Germany, I suppose the desolation of the Skeleton Coast and surrounding moon rock of Luderitz must have been a shock. In Luderitz they received their orders.

Once the Schutztruppen received their movement orders, the first leg of their trip inland would be via passenger steam train to Aus. The railroad track still runs parallel to the present-day B4 highway, but passenger train service stopped years ago. The final few miles of track to Luderitz were gone, but we could see where the tracks should have been; the embankment was still there, and it looked as if new ties had been lain. Perhaps the freight service would be resumed soon? In the meantime, a gaggle of five ostriches stood guard by the precious raw material left to lie unattended in the desert sun.
Our bakkie wasn’t terribly aerodynamic, so I expected we weren’t much faster than a steam train a century ago. In 1907 though, the rail ended in Aus and they had to switch to horseback. From Aus, we would leave the Schutztruppe in the dust.

In Aus circa 1907, German soldiers would be kitted out with food, water, weapons, and horses for the long trek to Keetmanshoop. They would form into a column, with mule-pulled wagons in the middle. At that time, hostilities with the local Herero and Hottentot weren’t quite at an end, so armed escorts were a must for any convoys carrying precious supplies further inland.

It was slow going on horseback. Water breaks were essential in that brutal heat. Additionally, the tracks they traveled on were not much more than ruts. Breakdowns were frequent, and wagons carried reserve wheels for this contingency. If an axle or more wheels broke, the wagon was offloaded and left behind as firewood for the next convoy.

The route followed a series of watering holes that had been converted into proper water stations with camp sites and hitching posts. It was critical to reach the next Wasserstelle before their existing ration ran out. I suppose the urgency of reaching the next station kept them focused.

In the account of Unterzahlemeister Ohlsen’s journey, it took a mule train over two weeks to reach Keetmanshoop. That’s over two weeks of riding in extreme heat. That’s two weeks of sleeping on hard ground. Two weeks eating by campfires, nights standing watch, and keeping weapons cleaned and maintained.

We covered that same distance in a truck in less than three hours.

And I still complained about my sore ass from the springs in my cushioned seat.

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And Wild Horses…

Namibia Road Trip – Day #9: Kolmanskop to Garub

Wild Horses of the Namib ahead

Caution: Wild Horses Ahead

There’s only one road inland from Luderitz: the treacherous and tedious strip of asphalt called the B4. Along this lifeline are two fascinating pit stops.

Kolmanskop Ghost Town

The diamond rush in Namibia began in 1908. According to our tour guide at the Ghost Town of Kolmanskop, over two tons of diamonds were extracted from the desert sand in less than a decade. Diamonds were so abundant, that wildcat prospectors could lie on their bellies and simply dig around the sand. In order to ensure the government got their cut during the mass extraction of mineral wealth, the town of Kolmanskop (Kolmanskuppe) sprouted up out of the dust and rock a few miles inland from Luderitz. This camp-cum-miniature city shipped in everything – including fresh water from Cape Town and coal from Germany. Once the diamond rush ended, the townsfolk disappeared, leaving behind a ghost town that can be visited today.

Kolmanskop

The desert climate has preserved a surreal, century-old snapshot. Summoning up the endurance to hike over the encroaching sand dunes, we walked through the abandoned homes, doctor’s offices, and commissary. Many rooms and fittings still had vestiges of their original paint job. Wires dangled from electrical fixtures. Doors still rattled on creaking hinges as the wind punched through the empty window panes.

A few neighboring buildings are still used by the government for workers going in and out o the Restricted Area (“Sperrgebiet”) . I assume they’ve purchased a more modern x-ray machine for cavity searches than whatever they used back in 1908…

The Wild Horses of the Namib

About 60 miles further west on the B4 is the Garub watering hole. There’s only a small sign off the B4, and we had to follow yet another winding dirt track rigged with sharp rocks and sharprt drops. Hard to believe it, but when we came over the next rise, there they were: The wild horses of the Namib desert.

The origin of the wild horses is still debated, although they’ve definitely been there for a century now. Most believe they’re simply the descendants of horses that escaped from ranches. Other believe they were released by the German Army during World War I to avoid handing them over to the invading Commonwealth soldiery.

Whatever their origin, they now eke out an existence in an incredibly harsh desert climate. I use the incredibly annoying word “eke”, because the horses did not look like they were living large. In fact, they looked downright unhealthy; they were incredibly skinny, with ribs and hip bones jutted through patchy, dirt-clotted coats. According to the board nailed up to the wall of the observation platform, the horses suffered an astonishing 60% mortality rate amongst foals due to the scarcity of food and water, the abundance of predators, and – increasingly – vehicle collisions.

Garub is an excellent place to spot the horses, as it’s the only permanent water source in the desert. The horses depend on it, and so did the ostriches, apparently. I had to admire their ability to survive in such a life-taking environment. And despite the searing heat there was a certain romantic feeling watching these horses ambling free, with any memory of subservience to man at least five generations in the past.

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Commonwealth War Graves in Namibia

Namibia Road Trip – Day #9: Aus

Aus graves

I’m a big military history fanatic, so I leapt at the chance when I saw a sign indicating a Commonwealth Military Cemetery outside Aus, Namibia. Even my wife’s usual objections were quickly overcome, as it turned out to be an unusual monument to a catastrophic historical event.

What made this Commonwealth Grave site unusual was that:

1.) Few of the dead were killed in action.

2.) The cemetery contains both German and Allied dead together.

Unlike the United States, which either transports its war dead home, or – in special situations – lays its Fallen to rest in land donated by Allied nations (e.g., in France or the Netherlands), the British Empire always interred it’s dead where they fell. Since the they were very busy ensuring the sun never set on the British Empire, they fought in some very remote locations. This little cemetery near the mining town of Aus, Namibia certainly falls in that category.

The sign indicating the cemetery was on the paved B4 “highway”, but it lead us over the usual winding track made of jagged rocks, loose boulders, and dust. Our truck slid sideways as we negotiated our way up an arroyo that angled 45 degrees.

“Are we going the right way?” My wife fretted.

“Sure we are,” I pooh-poohed her. Actually, I had no clue if I was correct. As we fought our way up out of the arroyo, I couldn’t even see where the road continued, or even if the road continued.

Sure enough though, we came over the top and we spotted a small cemetery amongst twisted fencing and scraggly trees…

Aus Grave 2

A professor of mine in college once quipped that World War I was nothing more than a re-shuffling of the international pecking order. Apart from providing an opportunity to decimate a generation of young men, the Great War also allowed the Triple Entente (i.e., Great Britain) to relieve the Central Powers (i.e., Germany) of any valuable colonies they might have possessed. When hostilities broke out in 1914, Commonwealth troops poured into Namibia from South Africa. They were met by the Kaiser’s men. The Schutztruppen.

The Kaiser had only posted a token force in German Southwest Africa. After a few skirmishes, the Schutztruppen surrendered en masse to the South African troops in 1915. They spent nearly four years in captivity in a camp hastily erected outside Aus.

During their time as POWs, the German soldiers were industrious; they manufactured bricks – originally to build better accommodation for themselves, but later for profit (they sold the bricks to the South Africans!), they put on plays, and they even distilled schnapps. I read one first-hand account of the German’s schnapps still being discovered by a teetotaling guard who confiscated the equipment. The men didn’t wait too long before resuming production, albeit more discreetly.

Upon the cessation of hostilities, German Southwest Africa was handed over to Great Britain (who already controlled surrounding South Africa, Bechuanaland, and the two Rhodesias), and German soldiers were forcibly “repatriated” back to Germany in 1919. But, the Germans did leave around 60 men behind. They still rest here in this Commonwealth Cemetery.

Death came to Aus in 1918, but not at the end of bayonet. The Spanish flu didn’t discern between nations, and I counted roughly 60 German graves and 60 South African graves. I found a number of markers showing that the men died within days of each other in October, 1918. Friend and foe weren’t buried together out of some fraternal gesture; I doubt the authorities had much time for “proper” segregation of the dead, not with so many bodies waiting above ground in the ruinous heat.

The POW camp itself is now gone, replaced by a farm and small dwellings. I found only a few crumbling walls and nothing else. It stood on another hill facing the cemetery. The cemetery itself could have been considered “unsightly” alongside a “proper” cemetery; there was no grass, and no flowers. But there was a sense of order in there not known to the surrounding countryside, if only because someone had swept the dust prior to our arrival. A few iron crosses were crumbling, but more than a few of the Commonwealth graves had fresh flowers on them, possibly laid by descendants living in South Africa.

Seeing those flowers helped stave off the overwhelming sense of futility and loss I usually experience in a military cemetery. These men didn’t die defending their country. They fought on land that wasn’t even theirs. These men didn’t fall in battle. They died of disease. No movie or novel has been written about this sideshow to a greater conflict that was ultimately a “reshuffling of the international pecking order”, and only a preview of the horrors to come.

There had no glory save what their surviving family and concerned citizens choose to bestow upon them.

Aus graves #3

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Luderitz, Namibia: Fossilized Colonialism

Namibia Road Trip – Days #8 and 9: Luderitz

Luderitz Bucht

Luderitz Harbor – note the Germanic weather vane

Luderitz surprised almost as much as Swakopmund did, but for converse reasons. Whereas Swakopmund surprised me with its dominant German culture, Luderitz surprised me for its lack thereof.

I mean just look at the name: Luderitz. Can you get any more German than that? A look at a street map and all the names were German. I even found a Goeringstrasse! (Although I learned after we’d departed that this street fortunately referred to a former Commissioner of Southwest Africa, and not the mad Chief of Hitler’s Air Forces.) Naming a street after the prominent Nazi was such an act of defiance I simply assumed that Ludertiz would absolutely totally overshadow Swakopmund with its Teutonic swagger.

Wrong again.

The road to Luderitz was yet another strip of bulky black asphalt laid across a strip of lifeless white. To one side was the Namib Desert, to the other, the Restricted Diamond Area (“Sperrgebiet”). The only sign of life was the occasional ostrich or wild horse. The desert disappeared and the road then wound its way through a craggy, harsh terrain. The asphalt disappeared under skeins of sand slithering across the road. Strong gusts of wind beat at our truck. I could best compare the site to a harsh moon, or better yet, the lifeless planet LV-426 from my favorite flick. I know it sounds overly dramatic (or nerdy) to compare an African climate to a science fiction film, but I’m absolutely on the level when I say it was the spitting image, right down to the howling winds.

Rather than arriving at well manicured homes as in Swakopmund, we drove past a township situated on a barren hill. There were no municipal gardens, no orderly grid of streets. Unlike the Swakopmunders, the Luderitzers had never never been able to beat the grounds into a with the sense of order I’m sure they desired. Rough moon rock jutted out everywhere, reminding the locals just how tenuous a grip their civilization had there.

Luderitz slum

A not-so-Tuetonic Luderitz

Our accommodation was a German guest house. We navigated through sand streets (no paving here) and found the home ensconced behind high walls capped with cast iron fencing crowned with spikes. On all sides were “non-German” residents who didn’t bother with such extreme security measures (although they all had bars on their windows too).

Our host was a real, fifth generation Suedwester originally from Windhoek. He was a jovial chap and quite comfortable conversing in German (accent-free, of course), Afrikaans, or English. His wife greeted us in German; she spoke little English and no Afrikaans. (She was actually a German immigrant.) I couldn’t imagine how solitary her life was being unable to speak to anyone outside of their little enclave.

As if to underscore her solitude and helplessness, the neighbors across the street began to blast some awful Whitney Houston music from a parked car. I could see in her eyes the desire to whip out her Gesetzbuch and lob it across the street. But she had no power there. They had no power there.

Hard to believe that a steamship company once ran a regular route between Hamburg and Luderitz.

“Ja, it’s the end of the month,” she lamented, “and they tend to get very rowdy. You must be very careful if you plan on walking around tonight.”

They?

Our expectations of an orderly and Germanic Luderitz were further shattered when we visited the supermarket the next day. Back in Swakopmund, their Super Spar was as big as any supermarket in the US; the sparkling aisles in could easily accommodate three carts side-by-side piloted by enormously posteriored housewives – without their sweatpants even brushing. Swakopmund even featured a bakery, deli counter, butcher, and snack bar.

The Spar in downtown Luderitz was tiny. Sickly fluorescent bulbs flickered above us as I pushed my creaky cart over bumpy and ripped linoleum. The narrow aisles were crowded with shoppers. Instead of a deli counter, they had only N$ 5 heads of lettuce still covered in dirt and wormy tomatoes. Men stood idle outside.

I did meet a few German Luderitzers the next day, but never on the street. They were all like my German hostess: waiting behind their walls and watching German television on the satellite. Waiting to hand over the rest of the city to the native sons.

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