Category Archives: World War II

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…

1 Comment

Filed under Germans, military history, Netherlands, Photography, Travel, World War II, Writing

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 …

1 Comment

Filed under Denmark, Europe, Germans, History, Military, military history, Netherlands, Travel, World War II, Writing

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Africa, Anthropology, Germans, History, humor, Namibia, Photography, Travel, World War I, World War II, Writing

I Have Become What I Despise – The Misanthrope Does a Package Tour, Part I

I must start by confessing that I already did a package tour once before (strictly for investigative purposes – okay, I had a Germanic girlfriend then who knew nothing else … and I was a broke student), which makes it that much worse that I voluntarily did a package tour again.

It was as bad as I imagined: planeloads of self-centered families with screaming children travelling three hours by plane to a foreign country only to remain within 200 yards of the buffet table and the swimming pool.  A European package tour for most families means being transported like cattle, waiting in one line after another to finally arrive at a hotel which is nothing short of self-imposed apartheid.  The typical package tour hotel is usually miles away from the rest of the country – normally behind high walls and barbed wire (not the case in Malta, of course); the infrastructure of said hotel will already detiorating rapidly, even though it was only constructed four years ago.  Most European families do it because it’s self-contained with buffet lunches, shows for the kids, and a crappy strip of beach (if you’re lucky).  Sounds great, yes?  Of course not, but it’s cheeep, and the weather is better than whatever Northern European hell-hole they’re coming from anyway.

So why did I do it a second time?  Sheer laziness.  Even though I don’t have kids, the weather has indeed been lousy, work has particularly sucked, and I only wanted to lie on a beach and recharge.  Without thinking too hard about it, my girlfriend and I booked four days in Malta.   I’m ashamed to say I went against nearly every travelling principal I stand for when I undertook this four-day weekend:

1.) I didn’t have a clue where the hotel was in relation to anything else on the island. (Who cares? They were transporting me there and back to the airport, which means I don’t have to think/worry about it!)

2.) I knew f*ck-all about Maltese history apart from what vaguely remembered about their role in World War II – the entire island received a medal for valor from the King of England due to the prolonged bombing the island suffered at the hands of the Axis. (Who cares? I was just going for some beach time to relax…)

3.) I knew f*ck-all about the Maltese people apart from three people I’ve met – one who is technically Maltese, but actually grew up in London. (He only uses the “I come from Malta” line when picking up women.) The other two Maltese I know are his cousin and his cousin’s wife. Based on meeting them twice, I guessed the Maltese were pretty much second-hand Sicilians. (Who cares? I won’t be leaving the hotel, right?)

4.) I knew zilch about what to see in Malta. I didn’t even buy a guide book beforehand! (So what? There’s a tour guide at every package tour hotel – usually a girl between 20 -24 years of age – who can explain everything I need to know.)

I kept telling myself “don’t worry, you’re just going there for some sun and relaxation, that’s it. You’ll probably never even leave the hotel.”

Boy, was I wrong.

First of all – the hotel was really in the middle of nowhere (and I knew in my gut this would be the case).  We arrived in the middle of the night, so my only clue that we were in the middle of nowhere was that it took 45 minutes to get there from the airport.  Malta is in most places bare rock.  It was only the next morning when I looked out the window and saw only craggy rock punctuated by skinny scrub brush, and decrepit, sunbleached stone walls that I realized we truly were in BFE.

Second – the hotel sucked.  I mean really sucked.  This was supposed to be a four star Barceló chain beauty.  Either the star rating system is slipping, or “four stars” in the Med nowadays means “giant cockroaches and ant infestations”, “powdered eggs in the breakfast buffet”, and “week-old wharf scrapings for dinner”.  Oh, and did I mention the hotel was overrun with middle-age Germans and Dutchies?  The repercussions of this might not be apparant to you now, but they will be soon.

Third – the Maltese still have their own currency!  Can you believe it?  How can a nation of 400,000 people have their own currency and how can it have any reasonable degree of stability when it’s not backed by oil?  What’s up with that?  I assumed that when they joined the EU, that the currency thing came with it, but I was wrong – this won’t happen until 2008.  In the meantime, they are content to continue using their own ya-ya beans, which they call a “pound”, but is actually written as “LM” (go figure). These “pounds” look just like you’d expect the money for a nation of 400,000 people to look like: pretty colors with all sorts of gibberish written on them and coins featuring fish and sailboats and the like (usually more prevalent with worthless Eastern Europen currencies, but I digress). Here’s the catch: A Maltese Pound is worth more than a dollar or a euro – a lot more.

Finally – Malta is actually a beautiful place, with an unique civilization pre-dating the Great Pyramids of Egypt by 1,000 years.  None of which I was aware of before I got there.

What a tool I was.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cuisine, Europe, Germany, Italy, Malta, Mediterranean, Netherlands, Package Tours, Travel, World War II

Liberation Day – The Netherlands

I was in the Netherlands over the weekend of May 5-6, 2007. May 5 is bevrijdingsdag (“Liberation Day”) for the Dutch, commemorating when Allied troops finally freed the whole of the country. Nearly half the country was liberated on September 5, 1944, but the north of the Netherlands was occupied by the Germans right up until May 1945. As the Allies advanced, North Holland was liberated by Canadian forces, and it was pretty moving to see the outpouring of affection shown for the aging Canucks. I didn’t snap any photos this year, but I did attend three different victory parades in 2005, the 60th anniversary of the liberation.

A trio of WW II-era Aircraft in “V” formation

A trio of WW II-era aircraft in “V” formation during Bevrijdingsdag celebrations in Apeldoorn

To commemorate this, the Dutch have 2 minutes of silence at 8pm on May 4th. On May 5th, there are concerts all over the country, and a veteran’s parade in Wageningen, where the German surrender was signed. In 2005, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation, they had huge celebrations and parades throughout the country – an emotional “last hurrah” for a lot of aging veterans (most of whom are Canadian). This year, my girlfriend and I went to the parade in Wageningen. It is incredibly emotional seeing these aged, beret-wearing veterans receiving the kind of adulation normally given to pop stars. I guess it’s also sad, because there are simply fewer and fewer vets each year to receive this praise.

Hard As NailsHard As Nails

That being said, there’s still a company’s worth of vets who march the whole damn parade route – in step – every year.

adoorn007.jpg

The gentleman in this jeep is a veteran of the British 1st Airborne, and probably fought in Operation: Market-Garden.

There were a large number of youth there – heavy metal kids mostly – who had come only to drink beer, enjoy the weather, and catch the music. All fine and well, but I wonder if they even knew what the parade was all about. (I also had to wonder what goes through a Canadian vets mind when he sees a couple of kids wearing the classic Slayer “Slaytanic Wehrmacht” t-shirts…)

Caught a comedy gig in Amsterdam that evening featuring fellow countryman Lewis Black. Of course we missed his gig, but we caught a bunch of Dutch guys who were pretty hilarious – including a Dutch “celebrity” (in ” ” because no American would know who he is) named Javier Guzman. (Yeah, his dad was a Spaniard, okay?) The emcee singled me out as the token American. He was great, as he riffed in English, alternately ribbing me, and thanking me for “liberating his country”. At the end he finally said aloud “why am I thanking you? Your just some IT guy.” I met Lewis Black as well. Very nice guy, and of course nothing like his high-strung act on the Daily Show.

3 Comments

Filed under Canada, Europe, Lewis Black, Netherlands, Travel, World War II