Category Archives: military history

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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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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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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