AP History Notes

Posts Tagged ‘germany’

Review of Ostfront: Barbarossa to Berlin-Wargaming World War II on the Eastern Front and Beyond

Chambers, Andy. Bolt Action. Vol. 10, Ostfront: Barbarossa to Berlin. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2015. 112pp. Illustrations, Photographs. $29.95 (Paperback), $15.95 (e-book and PDF).

Wargaming is a growing hobby, coupled with a resurgence in tabletop gaming, that is popular across the world, but particularly in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and in the U.S. There are many periods represented in both historical and fantasy, and even more options for rules and miniatures, allowing players to dream of elaborate tables, with flocked terrain and immaculate buildings, as well as beautifully painted miniature soldiers and vehicles.

One such game, Bolt Action, allows players to simulate squad-level combat in World War II. Created by Warlord Games and authored by Rick Priestley, of Warhammer fame, Bolt Action offers players a multitude of options for recreating World War II fights in miniature. In addition to the main rulebook, one option for Bolt Action players seeking to take on the Eastern Front is the book Ostfront: Barbarossa to Berlin, written by Andy Chambers.

Ostfront takes players from the Far East conflict between the Soviets and Japanese to the Winter War, the various operations that revolved around Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet counter-attack that led to the capture of Berlin. Available armies include German forces, Finnish, Soviet, and Japanese, while theater-specific rules provide interesting opportunities for varying scenarios, including night fighting, mud, ice, and snow.

The book does an excellent job of discussing the intricacies of the individual scenarios, including objectives and various vehicle options. It covered the background history of the broad campaigns and the specific battles.  Featuring exquisite artwork that is customary for Osprey-published works, this book is a must for those who seek to game with German and Soviet forces. It is important to note that it is not a stand-alone set of rules, but a supplement to the main Bolt Action rules.

Having played Bolt Action, I’ve enjoyed the mechanics of the game and the smaller, squad-based, scale. This book is one of several theater-specific supplements that allow players to customize their gaming experiences even more than with the main rules. A well-organized, beautifully-illustrated book, Ostfront will delight gamers seeking to either take on the Soviet Union, or defend the Motherland at all costs. For experienced players seeking to expand their Bolt Action offerings and go in a different direction by fighting the Soviets versus Japan, or Soviets versus Finland, Ostfront should be on your shelf next to the main rulebook.

For more information on the game, please visit their webstore and check out this video.

You can also watch a demo game here.

The Failure of Appeasement

Appeasement is the policy of giving smiles, kisses and gifts to neighbours to prevent war. In some moments of history it has worked (Dane-geld and Roman bribery beyond the frontiers); in some periods it has failed. A conspicuous example of a failure is the attempt by Britain to stroke its European friends and enemies into […]

Death by Joke

The historical practical joke tag has now reached almost a dozen posts and Beach thought that he would celebrate with a brief survey of a particularly unusual form of practical joke: jokes that ended in the joker or jokee dying. Beach limited himself to British newspapers from 1 Jan 1880 to Dec 31 1899 and […]

The Lie of the Lie of Christian’s Yellow Star

One of the most attractive stories to come out of the Second World is that of Christian X of Denmark and the yellow star. When told that Jewish Danes would have to wear said star the elderly king threatened to wear one himself. The King, adored by his people and a symbol of Danish nationhood, […]

Paying Respects to USS Houston (CA 30) Crew and the Navy Family

WASHINGTON (Aug. 29, 2014) Vice Adm. Scott Swift, Director of the Navy Staff, poses for a photo during a meeting with family members of the USS Houston Survivors Association. Pictured are, from left to right: -Dr. Jay Thomas - Mr. Joel Earl Snyder, Ms. Davidson’s father; the son of a Houston survivor - Ms. Stacey Davidson, an Military Sealift Command employee who is a Houston survivor’s granddaughter - Vice Adm. Swift - Ms. Sue Kruetzer, President, USS Houston CA-30 Survivors Association and Next Generations - Mr. John Schwarz, Executive Director, USS Houston CA-30 Survivors Association and Next Generations - Dr. Alexis Catsambis(U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Gabrielle Blake)

WASHINGTON (Aug. 29, 2014) Vice Adm. Scott Swift, Director of the Navy Staff, poses for a photo during a meeting with family members of the USS Houston Survivors Association. Pictured are, from left to right: Jay Thomas, Ph.D., Naval History and Heritage Command’s assistant director for collections management; Joel Earl Snyder, the son of a Houston survivor; Stacey Davidson, a Military Sealift Command employee and granddaughter of a surivivor; Vice Adm. Swift; Sue Kruetzer, president, USS Houston CA-30 Survivors Association and Next Generations; John Schwarz, executive director, USS Houston CA-30 Survivors Association and Next Generations, and Alexis Catsambis, Ph.D., of NHHC’s Underwater Archaeology Branch. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Gabrielle Blake)

By Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division

Officers of the USS Houston CA 30 Survivors Association and Next Generations, and descendants of the crew from the World War II cruiser USS HOUSTON (CA 30) spent the day with naval leadership at the Pentagon and the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC). The Houston went down fighting during the Battle of Sunda Strait on March 1, 1942, with approximately 700 Sailors and Marines on board.

The visitors were:

- John Schwarz, Executive Director, USS Houston CA 30 Survivors Association and Next Generations

- Sue Kruetzer, President, USS Houston CA-30 Survivors Association and Next Generations

- Joel Earl Snyder, Ms. Davidson’s father; the son of a Houston survivor

- Stacey Davidson, a Military Sealift Command employee who is a Houston survivor’s granddaughter

As part of the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) 2014 exercise in June, U.S. Navy divers from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) One Company 1-5, along with personnel from the Indonesian navy, surveyed the wreck during a joint training evolution.  Earlier this month the Navy released its findings from the interim assessment and is working with Indonesia to preserve and protect the site from further disturbance. While there the joint team paid their respects to the crew by laying a wreath at the site.

140829-N-GE301-002 WASHINGTON (Aug. 29, 2014) Vice Adm. Scott Swift, Director of the Navy Staff meets with family members of the USS Houston Survivors Association. (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Gabrielle Blake)

WASHINGTON (Aug. 29, 2014) Vice Adm. Scott Swift, Director of the Navy Staff briefs family members of the USS Houston Survivors Association and Next Generation. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Gabrielle Blake)

During their visit, they met in the Pentagon with the Director of Navy Staff Vice Adm. Scott Swift. At NHHC headquarters at the Washington Navy Yard they met with the Acting Director Jim Kuhn. They were hosted throughout the tour by Jay Thomas, PhD, NHHC assistant director for Collections Management, and Alexis Catsambis, PhD, the Navy’s underwater archaeologist who both supported the joint survey off Indonesia in June and authored the interim assessment report.

WASHINGTON (Aug. 29, 2014) - Kate Morand (left-right), Archaeologist from Naval History and Heritage Command's (NHHC) Underwater Archaeology (UA) Division, shows Johnathan Schwarz, executive director, USS Houston CA-30 Survivors Association and Next Generations, as well as association member, Joel Snyder, a trumpet that was taken from the wreck of the WWII-era cruiser USS Houston and is undergoing preservation at the UA conservation lab, as her coworker Alexis Catsambis, Ph.D., listens. The association members were escorted on their tour of NHHC by the command's Collections Management Division Director, Jay Thomas, Ph.D., and Underwater Archeology Archeologist, Alexis Catsambis, Ph.D. USS Houston was sunk during WWII's Battle of Sunda Strait, with only about 1/3 of the 1,061 crew surviving. The U.S. Navy uses NHHC's UA Division professionals to help keep track of and protect all seaborne and airborne craft that lie below the waterline. (Photo by Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford / Released)

WASHINGTON (Aug. 29, 2014) – Kate Morrand (left to right), archaeologist from Naval History and Heritage Command’s Underwater Archaeology Branch, shows Johnathan Schwarz, executive director, USS Houston CA 30 Survivors Association and Next Generations, as well as association member, Joel Snyder, a trumpet that was taken from the wreck of World War II-era cruiser USS Houston, as her coworker Alexis Catsambis, Ph.D., an underwater archaeologist, listens. The U.S. Navy uses NHHC’s UA Division professionals to help keep track of and protect all seaborne and airborne craft that lie below the waterline. (Photo by Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford / Released)

In addition to received briefs on the assessment and the opportunity to speak face-to-face with leadership, the guests had a chance to view a trumpet from USS Houston currently being treated by NHHC’s Underwater Archaeology & Conservation Laboratory. The crumpled copper and steel instrument with its mother-of-pearl keys and felt stoppers had been removed without authorization from the wreck site but was returned to the United States last year. The trumpet is soaking in a special solution to mitigate the damage on being removed from its salt water gravesite.

WASHINGTON (Aug. 29, 2014) - James Bruns, director of the National Museum of the United States Navy (NMUSN), talks to (right - left) Susan Kruetzer, president, USS Houston CA-30 Survivors Association and Next Generations, Stacey Davidson and Joel Snyder , association members, and Johnathan Schwarz, executive director, USS Houston CA-30 Survivors Association and Next Generations about the model of the Houston that the association donated to the museum. The association members were escorted on their tour of the museum and Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) by the command's Collections Management Division Director, Jay Thomas, Ph.D., and Underwater Archeology Archeologist and Cultural Resource Manager, Alexis Catsambis, Ph.D. USS Houston was sunk during WWII's Battle of Sunda Strait, with only about 1/3 of the 1,061 crew surviving. The survivors Association and Next Generations members include survivors of the cruiser, as well as family members and friends of those who served aboard and seek to perpetuate the memory of the ship and her courageous crewmen. (Photo by Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford / Released)

WASHINGTON (Aug. 29, 2014) – James Bruns, director of the National Museum of the United States Navy, talks to (right – left) Susan Kruetzer, president, USS Houston CA 30 Survivors Association and Next Generations, Stacey Davidson and Joel Snyder, association members, and John Schwarz, the association’s executive director, about the model of the Houston displayed at the museum. The association members were escorted on their tour of the museum and Naval History and Heritage Command by the command’s Collections Management Division Director, Jay Thomas, Ph.D., and Underwater Archaeology and Cultural Resource Manager, Alexis Catsambis, Ph.D. USS Houston was sunk during WWII’s Battle of Sunda Strait, with only about 1/3 of the 1,061 crew surviving. The association includes survivors of the cruiser, as well as family members and friends of those who served aboard and seek to perpetuate the memory of the ship and her courageous crewmen. (Photo by Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford / Released)

Afterward, the visitors were taken to the USS Houston (CA-30) model on display at the National Museum of the United States Navy located at the WNY. The 1929 vintage 1/48-scale model of the Northampton-class cruiser reflects the Houston in its original 1920s configuration. It is displayed in a wood and glass case donated by the USS Houston (CA 30) Survivors and Next Generations Association.

The USS Houston CA-30 Survivors Association and Next Generations group has worked tirelessly to ensure the Navy and the American public recognize the valor, contributions, and ultimately the sacrifice paid by the Houston crew, in hopes of ensuring the nation never forgets.

NHHC is grateful for their commitment to the crew’s storied legacy and our Navy heritage. It was both an honor and a privilege to host them today, and we’re looking forward to continuing the partnership on this most important matter.

The Most Exciting School Trip in History: 21 June 1919

School trips are often fairly maudlin affairs: go to a local zoo, don’t pet the lions; walk through a city park, buddy up as you pass the homeless people; polish the sun-washed floors of the local museum with fifty infant feet… But one school trip that any of us would have wanted to be on […]

Interview: Invasion Scares (Harry Wood)

I am very happy today to be able to invite Harry Wood of the University of Liverpool, historian and blogger, to talk about his speciality, British invasion scares, something we looked at last month. Harry, thanks so much for joining us for this brief discussion. You run a very enjoyable blog, Island Mentalities, and you […]

Lou Hoover and the Girl Scouts

Lou Hoover was an active Girl Scout leader and helped coordinate one of their first cookie drives in 1935. Juliette Gordon Low personally recruited Mrs. Hoover to their cause:
In 1917, Lou was personally recruited by Juliette Gordon Low and for the rest of her life; Mrs. Hoover served continuously as a Girl Scout National board member or officer. Through her involvement in the organization, she adopted more than a million girls in green and brown uniforms, eager to introduce them to the outdoor world she had encountered as a 10-year-old tomboy on the Cedar River.

In 1929, she raised over half a million dollars to help realize a five-year plan of organizational development. She is also credited with facilitating the first national sale of Girl Scout cookies during her second term as president.
Lou Henry Hoover was a highly effective spokesperson and role model for young women. Said one observer: “Mrs. Hoover is just the type of person one would expect young girls to adore. She has a charm of manner that immediately attracts one.” She certainly attracted many young women to Girl Scouting. In 1927, there were some 168,000 Girl Scouts in America. By the time of her death in 1944, their ranks had swelled to 1,035,000.

‘The Mystery of the Ghent Altarpiece’

If you like mysteries, art and ideally mysteries about art, you’ll love this article on the Ghent Altarpiece, which is dubbed the “most stolen artwork of all time.” The article focuses on a panel which was stolen in 1934 (after a long history of being harassed and stolen), a panel which had never been found and which still fascinates – dare I say obsesses? – a group of people. I hope to read the book when I get a window.

Alan Turing Finally Pardoned

It’s one of the many tragedies of World War 2 that code breaker and computing pioneer Alan Turing did so much to bring the war against a homophobic Nazi regime to a victorious close, but was driven to suicide by his own British regime. Now, sixty years after he killed himself having been convicted of “gross indecency” for a sex act with a man and accepted chemical castration, the British Queen will be issuing a full pardon. Sadly, the many other men found guilty under this law, since repealed, remain convicted.

“Top 10 Archaeology Finds in Bulgaria for 2013″

This article from the Sofia News Agency does what it says on the tin: their selection of the best archaeology headlines they ran about Bulgaria. I’d be very interested in any articles like this from other news agencies in Europe (albeit in English), so if you’ve spotted one please let me know.

Germany using signs to stop Baltic shipwreck looters

Diver observes World War II U-boat off the coast of BoltenhagenThe low salinity and cold temperatures of the Baltic Sea provide ideal conditions for the preservation of shipwrecks and their contents. There are an estimated 100,000 shipwrecks resting on the floor of the Baltic Sea, with perhaps 6,000 of them deemed of particular archaeological and historical significance. Although Swedish Baltic archaeological finds have made much of the news lately, there are approximately 1,500 protected marine monuments (mostly shipwrecks, but also some downed aircraft and submerged archaeological remains that were once on dry land) in German Baltic waters.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, these were mainly left alone. Much of the coastal Baltic was restricted territory. Except for a few select people, divers weren’t allowed to explore the vast historical wealth under water. Since reunification, areas that were once off limits are now open, and advances in diving technology have greatly increased the numbers of sports divers hoping to see the Baltic sights. They can also go further offshore to reach shipwrecks that 20 years ago wouldn’t have been accessible. Add to that a wider range of available tools for the sports diver, and now stealing objects of historical value from Baltic wrecks becomes a lucrative proposition.

Steel plate sealing gap in U-boat turret hatchOnly 350 of the marine monuments have been officially explored and mapped, which makes it hard to know exactly how bad the undersea looting situation has gotten. The evidence on the sites that have been documented, however, is extremely disturbing. For example, one World War II U-boat, a small two-man vessel discovered 60 feet under Baltic waters off the coast of Boltenhagen in 2000, was found with its turret hatch closed and undamaged. It was therefore designated a war grave, since its crew remained sealed within. In 2002, divers broke into the hatch. Regional government officials sealed the hole with a steel plate which is still in place today, but shows clear signs of having been tampered with in an attempt to break into the U-boat.

“It’s one of our big worries, over the years people keep trying to get into it and that is of course utterly disrespectful,” says Detlef Jantzen, an archaeologist at the regional agency for monument protection in the northeastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

It’s possible that these divers don’t realize the U-boat is a war grave, or at least aren’t consciously thinking about the fact that they’re desecrating a grave by messing with the hatch. Some of the other wreck sites that are regularly visited by hobby divers may be damaged because the tourists with good intentions don’t understand how their interactions with the artifacts can cause harm. In an attempt to appeal to better natures, and maybe to enlist conditioned reactions to museum signs, Germany’s Society of Maritime Archaeology has started a project to add underwater signs to historic shipwrecks.

The first sign, next to 100-year-old tugboatLast week the first sign was added to a 100-year-old tugboat thought to have been sunk during or just after World War II. At only 30 feet deep, it’s a popular site for sport divers to visit. The wreck was discovered three years ago and is already showing the ill-effects of diver interference. The sign informs divers that the wreck is a protected historical monument and provides additional information about the site’s layout and history.

The group will start by signposting nine monuments. One particularly valuable wreck is that of the “Darsser Kogge,” a 14th century ship that is a rare example of medieval shipbuilding. “It’s lying on its side and the remains provide valuable information on construction and manufacturing techniques of the time,” said [Society of Maritime Archaeology chairman Martin] Siegel. “These preserved vessels are often the only source of research into traditional shipbuilding.”

The Darsser Kogge has enough to worry about as it is without divers making things worse. The Baltic Sea is increasingly subject to the depredations of the dreaded Teredo navalis, naval shipworm, which used to stick to saltier waters leaving Baltic wooden wrecks free of its destructive devouring. As the waters of the Baltic have gotten warmer and their salinity has increased, particularly over the past decade, the wood boring creatures have spread from the coast of Denmark east into German Baltic territory and north into Swedish waters.

Spread of Teredo navalis surface larvae in Baltic, 1980-1989 (l), 1990-1999 (m), 2000-2008 (r)

The EU has funded a study of the presence of shipworm in the Baltic, the Wreck Protect Project, to determine how far Teredo navalis has spread, whether, as researchers suspect, climate change is the underlying cause of the Baltic’s environmental changes, and how best to preserve archaeological and historical sites in situ, since logistics and funding make it impossible to contemplate raising every wreck for conservation on dry land.

Darsser Kogge wreckThe EU’s MoSS (Monitoring Safeguarding and Visualizing North European Shipwreck Sites) Project worked to document and protect four wreck sites in the Baltic and elsewhere in Northern Europe, including the Darsser Kogge. There are some good pictures and information about the history of the ship and its conservation challenges on its website.


Book Review of A Duel of Nations: Germany, France, and the Diplomacy of the War of 1870-1871

Reblogged from International History:

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David Wetzel. A Duel of Nations: Germany, France, and the Diplomacy of the War of 1870-1871. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-299-29134-1. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliographical Essay. Index. Pp. xvi, 310. $26.95.

The German Wars of Unification (1864-1871) have received attention by military historians in the last decade or so.  Moreover, the origins of the conflicts are well served by diplomatic historians. 

Read more… 957 more words

Germany returns skull from genocide to Namibia

In 1904, the Nama and Herero tribes of what was then the colony of German South West Africa revolted against their imperial oppressors. Herero killed between 123 and 150 German soldiers in a surprise attack in January. Governor Theodor Leutwein requested reinforcements which arrived in May under the command of Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha. Trotha was not interested in surrender or negotiation. His experience of slaughtering other African tribes circularly confirmed that the only way to deal with this set of African tribes was by slaughtering them too.

After General Trotha defeated 5,000 Herero soldiers at the Battle of Waterberg in August of 1904, he ordered his troops to chase the fleeing tribespeople into the Kalahari Desert (called the Omaheke by the Herero) and kill them all, combatant or civilian, armed or unarmed, men, women and children. What rifle and bayonet did not accomplish, the desert would.

On October 2, Trotha read a proclamation to his officers:

I, the great general of the German soldiers, send this letter to the Hereros. The Hereros are German subjects no longer. They have killed, stolen, cut off the ears and other parts of the body of wounded soldiers, and now are too cowardly to want to fight any longer. [...] The Herero nation must now leave the country. If it refuses, I shall compel it to do so with the Groot Rohr [literally "long tube" meaning cannon]. Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.
The great General of the mighty German Kaiser.

The German command was aware of and approved the plan, describing it in Der Kampf, the official newsletter of the general staff, as a “bold enterprise [that] shows in the most brilliant light the ruthless energy of the German command in pursuing their beaten enemy. No pains, no sacrifices were spared in eliminating the last remnants of enemy resistance. Like a wounded beast the enemy was tracked down from one water-hole to the next, until finally he became the victim of his own environment. The arid Omaheke was to complete what the German army had begun: the extermination of the Herero nation.”

It worked. Between 1904 and 1907, the Herero population plummeted from 80,000 to 15,000. Half of the Nama (about 10,000 people) were killed during the uprising, many of the rest imprisoned. According to a 1985 United Nations report, the Namibian genocide bears the dubious distinction of being the first genocide of the 20th century and the first organized state-run genocide ever.

Although by the end of 1904 the official policy towards the Herero changed from kill-on-sight to capture and imprisonment in concentration camps, the mortality rate in the camps was astronomical. As in later German camps, prisoners were systematically raped, starved, beaten, shot, hanged, worked to death, and subject to medical experimentation including deliberate infection with smallpox and typhus.

Eugen Fischer, the scientist who performed these experiments, also used prisoners to pursue his racial theories, studying them when they were alive and decapitating them once they were dead so their skulls could be sent back to Germany for further study. Contemporary reports describe women prisoners being made to prepare the skulls for shipment, boiling the flesh and stripping it off with glass shards. Fischer would later teach medicine at the University of Berlin where at least one of his students, a certain Josef Mengele, would take his teachings very much to heart.

Those skulls remained in German hospital and university archives for a century until three years ago when a German reporter discovered a number of them at the Berlin Medical History Museum of the Charité Hospital and at Freiburg University. The discovery made international news, spurring the Namibian government to officially request repatriation of any Herero and Nama skulls. Identifying which skulls came from which area was a challenge. Finally 20 skulls from Charité were identified. Eleven of them are Nama and nine Herero, four of them from women, 15 from men and one from a boy.

On Friday, the 20 skulls were returned to a delegation of 55 Namibian Herero and Nama dignitaries in a formal ceremony at the Charité Hospital. This is probably just the first of many such ceremonies to follow. There are thousands of skulls from the colonial period and other times in German collections still to go through.


The Underwear of Dictators’ Lovers

Beachcombing is still reeling from his recent medical misfortunes and, to make matters worse, he has to catch a bus in about twenty five minutes. So yet again today he will be brief. But he had to share this brilliant catch sent in by Invisible, an important ally in the fight for the historically bizarre. [...]

The Underwear of Dictators’ Lovers

Beachcombing is still reeling from his recent medical misfortunes and, to make matters worse, he has to catch a bus in about twenty five minutes. So yet again today he will be brief. But he had to share this brilliant catch sent in by Invisible, an important ally in the fight for the historically bizarre.

Invisible came across (via a friend) Mantiques in Elmore, Ohio, an antique shop that claims to sell ‘almost everything a man could want’.

Beachcombing was sceptical until he saw this extraordinary picture of their prize exhibit: a silken pair of Eva Braun’s underwear (pictured above). Yes, that’s right, forget Mantiques other offers: the Gilbert’s Erector from 1928, an Auto Ordinance model 1927A1 Thompson Sub Machine Gun (aka ‘the ChicagoTypewriter’), Beachcombing is even going to ignore the various historical electric fans (!!!), what he wants are the unmentionables.

Quite how a shop in Elmore stumbled upon such a treasure is beyond Beachcombing’s ken. He’s done all the calculations and he just can’t work it out.

Clearly, this wasn’t the pair that Eva Braun was wearing when death came knocking. There is not a burn mark on them… Did a looting Russian soldier somehow find them in the bunker, get them home and then – thanks to an unusually pliant Stalin – emigrate to the US? It seems so unlikely and yet Mantiques claim to have documentation: but can you even document ownership of underwear?

Beachcombing will be contacting Mantiques today in the hope that the documentation does not depend on purchase: this particular pair of underpants cost 7,500 dollars that would keep Beachcombing in books for a couple of years. In any case, Beachcombing wouldn’t dare try and ‘slip’ this one past the ever vigilant Mrs B.

Beachcombing is still on his gore embargo – twenty six more days to go – but he can’t resist noting that undergarments also figured on the final day of the life of Mussolini’s beaux, the star-crossed and simpatica Clara Pettaci. When Mussolini and Clara were rushed out of bed by communist partisans for what was to be their last morning Clara was not given time to dress properly and put only her skirt and shirt on. Later she and Mussolini’s dead bodies were exposed, hung upside down before the crowds and her skirt fell down scandalizing the Milanese, who had, though, no problem in pelting the corpses with fruit. The partisans in charge of the spectacle prudishly taped her skirt up to her leg so the desecration could continue. This was Catholic Italy after all.

Any other historically significant underwear stories out there? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

The Death Dealer of Kovno

Call it the month of the massacres: Beachcombing in the past four weeks has gone knee deep in blood ‘that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er’. Even he gets a little queasy thinking about it. There was Queen Victoria drinking blood; then killer ice-cream; followed up by a horrific photo of a Soviet death factory; questions about prehistoric burial mounds and decapitation; Lancashire purring; the difficulty of running around without your head in medieval Germany; and, just two days ago, a massacre of Vikings in peace-loving Dorset. Today, to round off the series Beachcombing will bring in the Death Dealer of Kovno in Lithuania. Then enough with death and killing for at least a month…

Beachcombing came across the Death Dealer in an important new book by British author Chris Hale, Hitler’s Foreign Executioners. This work is due to come out on 1 May, but Beach had the very great honour of reading it some months ago in manuscript form. Chris looks in his work at the collaborators, anti-semites and psychotics who joined in Hitler’s killing spree in eastern and central Europe from 1941 onwards; and each chapter is a revelation as, often for the first time in English, details of a holocaust within a holocaust are laid horrifically bare.

Six months on, for Beach the most memorable description from this most memorable book is that of the Death Dealer alluded to above. The following report comes from a German army photographer Wilhelm Gunsilius, though a German colonel also left an eye-witness report, which agrees with what follows. Gunsilius had arrived in Kovno in Lithuania.  

Close to my quarters I noticed a crowd of people in the forecourt of a petrol station, which was surrounded by a wall on three sides. The way to the road was completely blocked by a wall of people. I was confronted by the following scene: in the left corner of the yard there was a group of men aged between thirty and fifty. There must have been forty to fifty of them. They were herded together and kept under guard by some civilians. The civilians were armed with rifles and wore armbands, as can be seen in the pictures I took.

The pictures are out there, but they are too horrific for Beachcombing to post: he got a little antsy about putting up a shot of the Death Dealer himself given what is in the background.

A young man – he must have been a Lithuanian – with rolled-up sleeves was armed with an iron crowbar. He dragged out one man at a time from the group and struck him with the crowbar with one or more blows on the back of his head. Within three quarters of an hour he had beaten to death the entire group of forty-five to fifty people in this way. I took a series of photographs of the victims.

Then after this bloodletting – that is almost Rwandan in method and intensity, the most searing detail of the slaughter: the young man put the crowbar to one side, fetched an accordion and went and stood on the mountain of corpses and played the Lithuanian national anthem. I recognised the tune and was informed by bystanders that this was the national anthem.

WG was shocked by the behaviour of the local population, calling it ‘unbelievable’.

After each man had been killed they began to clap and when the national anthem started up they joined in singing and clapping. In the front row there were women with small children in their arms who stayed there right until the end of the whole proceedings. I found out from some people who knew German what was happening here. They explained to me that the parents of the young man who had killed the other people had been taken from their beds two days earlier and immediately shot, because they were suspected of being nationalists, and this was the young man’s revenge. Not far away there was a large number of dead people who according to the civilians had been killed by the withdrawing Commissars and Communists.

Chris Hale takes up the story from here (111): We now know that the death dealer was Algirdą Antaną Pavalkįs, some of whose family had indeed been deported by the Soviets, as had many thousands of Lithuanian Jews. Later, Pavalkįs served in the Gestapo, but changed sides at the end of the war and became a Soviet agent. We have a photograph of him taken in 1950 when he was working as a rather well-paid doctor – 2,000 roubles a month.

This needs no comment…

For obvious reasons there has long been a tendency to concentrate on the rescuers of persecuted groups in occupied Europe during the war: and rightly so, we need our heroes. Think of Denmark’s successful attempts to evacuate its Jewish population or even ‘paradoxical Italy’, where many thousands of Jews – despite harsh racial laws – found relative safety in 1943 and 1944. The very great value of Hitler’s Foreign Executioners is that it takes us to another Europe where local populations were all too happy to jump in and do the Nazi’s dirty work for them. How Beachcombing wishes that he had had the courage, the industry and the ability to write Chris’s book.   

Beachcombing is always on the look out for unusual or groundbreaking works on the Second World War: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

Headless Races

After all those head lice (see previous posts) Beachcombing gets back to some decapitation stories, not least because it would be the most efficient way to solve his family’s present problems. In any case, before anyone makes contact with the social workers…

In response to an earlier beheading post RR wrote in with the following appealing story. ‘I recall reading about a man in Britain or France who was beheaded, but made a request of the executioner to pardon his half-dozen comrades if he could run past them as they stood in a row.  After losing his head.  I recall he did this.’ With the help of fellow bizarrists – Jason from Executed Today and Mathias B. – Beachcombing has now tracked the tale down to a certain Klaus Stortebeker (obit c. 1400).

Klaus was the leader of a bunch of thugs known as the Victual Brothers. The Victual Brothers were essentially a group of mercenary seamen who turned – as mercenaries invariably do – against their own masters and began causing havoc in the Baltic and North Sea in the late fourteenth century.

However, by that strange perversion of human nature that makes heroes out of villains, folk songs and legends gathered around KS and his men: think of modern t-shirts of the Manson ‘family’…

Did the Victual Brothers deserve their Robin Hood reputation? Beachcombing doubts it. But their celebrity might explain how such an unlikely and biologically impossible legend attached itself to Klaus’ head.  He was the focus of popular story.

There are different versions of the story and it would, naturally, be interesting to track down the earliest: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com However, the gist is precisely as RR had it. Klaus makes a deal with the mayor that as many men as he can run past once beheaded will be pardoned. He manages some eleven of the seventy plus with whom he was captured c. 1400. But – and RR didn’t include this - the eleven are killed anyway.

The moral?

You can’t trust the ruling classes, whereas homicidal mariners are just dandy.   

Beachcombing doesn’t believe this story for a second, but it is attractive enough that he has been wondering if it didn’t predate Klaus. Well, this week another correspondent, Luis – to whom many thanks! – wrote in with this tale:

‘I contact you because last weekend I saw a documentary about Reichenstein’s castle whose warden was telling the story of Dietrich von Hohenfels [obit 1282], a knight who was beheaded in gruesome conditions. He was the owner of the castle and part of group called the robber knights. They taxed all the boats passing along the Rhine river and eventually turned rogue… and got captured after a long siege by Rudolf von Habsburg. Dietrich begged the king Rudolf to spare his sons. The king agreed but said ‘Look you murderer, here are all your sons. In a moment your head will roll into the sand, but should you manage to walk past your brood I will keep everyone of them alive whom you manage to pass’. Which Dietrich managed to do, once he had his head off he passed along his 9 sons who were standing in a row before falling to the ground.’

Luis kindly sent links to Dietrich’s headless billy-goating.

The story again is pleasing. Perhaps more pleasing still is the way that it attaches in both cases to Germanic outlaw figures connected with boats. Was there simply a mix up in an eighteenth-century tourist guide, which was then passed down to us? Or are we dealing with an ancient metropolitan legend that was told in previous ages about, say, Loki? Attentive readers will have noticed that RR got the country wrong in his original email ‘Britain or France’: or are there other cross channel or Latin versions? Beachcombing is going to put a small wager that this tale will have been told across Europe about a half dozen dodgy heroes ‘of the people’. He’ll offer an almost valueless first edition of Somerset Maugham if anyone feels like calling him on it.  

For any poor innocent being sucked in by Google, Beachcombing feels it his duty to point them in the way of a previous post on Viking speculations about headless trunks: Mathias was ‘responsible’ for that too.

To his more regular readers Beachcombing must signal the fact that Klaus’ skull has recently been stolen from its home in Hamburg History Museum for which thanks, yet again, to Mathias.

It wasn’t Beachcombing, though if anyone is selling…

Playing Solitaire in Hitler’s Bunker

Crisis in the Beachcombing household tonight. Yesterday it was discovered that every member of the family save Beachcombing himself had been stricken with head lice. And so Beachcombing has spent most of the last six hours combing what look like wood ants from his darling wife’s and elder daughter’s fair locks.

By way of diversion Beachcombing decided that he would, tonight, cross time and space to visit Hitler’s bunker. It is the 1 May 1945 and Hitler and Eva killed themselves only yesterday after a rushed marriage ceremony.

Today it is the turn, instead, of the Goebbels – king and queen of the Reich for a day – and Magda Goebbels is sitting at a table playing patience.

Her face is heavy with tears. She has just killed her five children by dropping cyanide into their mouths – breaking her elder daughter’s jaw in the process. She knows too that in a matter of minutes she and her husband, Joseph Goebbels will climb up to the world above and end their lives with bullets and/or poison. She looks up, Joseph is coming and stumbles to her feet to meet him… They move towards the daylight and death, the screams of Russian infantry just a hundred metres away.

Beachcombing certainly doesn’t want to follow the unhappiest couple in the world up to the terrace and he is particularly glad he did not have to watch Lady Macbeth put an end to the life of Helga, Holde, Hilde, Hedda and Helmut (5-12): snuff movies are not his thing.

(Helmut, by the way, gives one of the most memorable lines of the last days, shouting ‘bull’s eye!’ when he hears Hitler’s suicide shot.)

However, Beachcombing would give an awful lot to have seen Magda slapping out the cards on the table. For some reason this comes, in Beachcombing’s mind, much closer to doing justice to the end of the thousand year Reich than Hitler’s marriage vows or those last moments in the moustached one’s private quarters.

Was she smoking?

Did ice clink in her drink?

Beachcombing prefers to see her without accoutrements. The end is nigh and she keeps dealing hearts and diamonds…

The murder of five children was Joseph’s try at melodrama with Magda drafted in to do the deed. If Goebbels had done the decent thing and got his heirs out a month before they would be of pensionable age today, most likely spread across South America and meeting on a ranch in the Pampas for Christmas. Beachcombing is always looking out for vivid historic moments: drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com

29 March 2011: JCE writes in with a point that had completely escaped Beachcombing, surely he is right? ‘for the first time as I looked at the pic of the Goebbels family you put up on March 24, I was struck that Magda’s son Harald (by her first husband) does not appear to have been present in the studio when the photo was taken. Rather it appears some other Luftwaffe officer stood in, and Harald’s head was later pasted over the substitute’s. It seems to me obvious that Harald’s head is itself a photo, unlike the body it sits atop. This would not be surprising as I recall Harald was away on active service a good deal during the war. Am I wrong, or just hopelessly slow on the uptake?’ Thanks JCE!

Capital Punishment and Prehistoric Burials







**Beachcombing dedicates this post to JKM who brought up this fascinating subject in an email**

You are a member of the minor nobility in some part of northern Europe found guilty of murder in the fifteenth century. After the capital sentence is passed you are thrown in the back of a cart and driven out to the local place of reckoning.  However, as you are also interested in history you can’t help but wonder at the spot that has been chosen: for curiously, you are pulled to the top of a local tumulus where a nice-looking gentleman in a black mask is nursing something metallic and shining. You are just thinking about the possibility of a paper on ‘Prehistoric Barrows as Execution Sites’ (naturally in Latin) and imagining loud hurrahs from antiquarian circles, perhaps a knighthood and a place in the royal academy, when the priest,  begins to mutter the offices of the dead and you remember why you are there…

Incredible as it may seem, there is a serious point behind this fantasy, which has been haunting Beachcombing all morning (the fantasy that is not the ‘point’). Many Europeans dispatched by the axe or the gallows in the Middle Ages and, indeed, in more recent times were executed on prehistoric barrows out beyond the village or the town where they had been sentenced or, in more baroque justice systems, near where the crime had been committed.

Research into this peculiar phenomenon has been fragmented geographically: because establishing where executions took place depends on a lot of spade work involving maps, placenames, archaeology (real spades) and textual references. But it would be, by now, uncontroversial to say that the custom was followed throughout Northern Europe from Scandinavia, to Germany, in the Lowlands and in England (think of the Walkington Wold Burials). Indeed, the whole ‘Germanic’ portion of Europe seems to have subscribed: though not apparently the Celtic fringes?

So why did our ancestors choose Prehistoric barrows to kill and display felons?

It is a nice question and a number of solutions have been dreamt up: Beachcombing enumerates them here from the least dramatic (1) to the most extraordinary (3).

(1) Prehistoric barrows typically stand in visible locations, often near routes or even crossroads, and, of course, are elevated. Executioners also demanded visibility, especially for the display of the body, and so the barrows were pragmatically reused.

(2) The prehistoric barrows that survived often lay on boundaries between settlements. The boundary place was a natural location for killing partly for reasons of visibility – two communities could enjoy the ‘lesson’, but also because these were liminal areas away from community life: the criminal had not only been killed by his neighbours but cast out of human society into the twilight where the fairies and demons dwelt.

(3) Prehistoric barrows sometimes included sacrifices and therefore the custom of medieval execution was an updated Christian form of sacrifice.     

Beachcombing is reminded of similar debates about medieval meeting places outside settlements, meeting places that were often close to boundaries and likewise on elevated ground. Here too there have been arguments about whether the reasoning was purely pragmatic or whether there were ancestral memories of earlier customs, though  all that jazz about liminal zones is a bit less convincing in the context of Dark Age talk shops.

Much as Beachcombing loves examples of bizarre continuity through the centuries – and the idea of  bodies being displayed in the nineteenth century mimicking Neolithic killings is splendid, he personally would go no further than (2) and then only with reservations; the landscape and the barrows being  reinterpreted by those who dwelt around them.

Any striking records of sacrifice or killing being associated with barrows? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


19 March 2011: KMH makes an important point about the hollow nature of barrows. And, of course, many medieval executed bodies have been found in these hollows, often overlaying the original Neolithic body. ‘I favor the notion that barrows were a place where death was meted out, either for sacrifice or as a penalty for breaking the law. It is efficient to centralize the bloodletting around a publicly visible location such as a barrow.  If the barrows had some hollow space in the interior and  were used in ancient times as tombs then there might be an additional reason for ancient killing activities at the top – the bod(ies) might be entombed directly below, thus eliminating any need for further transportation. Continuing the custom would present no problem for Christianity other than the grounds for taking a life.’ Thanks KMH!

Transvestite Knights in the Thirteenth Century

Ulrich von Liechtenstein (obit 1278) was a standard thirteenth-century knight. He had castles (three of them). He fought – above all, in Eastern Germany. And he also dressed up as a woman and rode from Maestre (Venice) up to Vienna.

Yes, yes, Beachcombing stopped too when he first read this many years ago. But now he no longer even notices. This is what comes of spending half your life in the Middle Ages…

The root of Ulrich’s unlikely transvestism was courtly love. In his poetical ‘autobiography’ – a word Beachcombing will return to – Ulrich describes how he decided to undertake his quest as an act of homage to one lady, but also, by extension to all women. Indeed, his autobiographical work – ich comes up frequently – is entitled Frauendienst (Lady Service).

As Ulrich rode through the hinterland of hellish medieval Europe – spending half your life in the Middle Ages also makes Beachcombing all too honest about what kind of world theirs was – he challenged the knights he met to jousts and gave gifts to ladies.

By the end of his little jaunt Queen Venus (i.e. Ulrich in drag) had broken 307 spears, donated 271 rings and unhorsed four knights. Included among his honoured opponents was a knight dressed as a monk that Beachcombing will let pass without any comments. But also interestingly another knight dressed as a woman. How Beachcombing would have liked to have seen that joust.

Ulrich also suffers for his lady: courtly love often reminds Beachcombing of the black charcoally bits of a casserole that has been badly burnt in a pan.

So Ulrich lives with lepers, he loses a finger (that he naturally sends HER) and his joints crack as SHE rejects him yet again.  

The million-dollar question is though whether this journey through the hinterlands of Europe really happened.

In the nineteenth century most scholars believed that it did happen: in fact, many took Ulrich’s voyage of discovery for granted.

In the twentieth century most scholars hurried embarassedly over the incident and assumed that it was a literary conceit. Think Dante and the Divine Comedy, unless, of course,…

Then, today, there are some slight, slight signs that the nineteenth-century view is returning: though now it is not world-weariness with the Middle Ages, but rather an interest in transvestisism, a magic word that will open doors and have grants showered on you across the west’s humanity’s departments: ‘Transvestisism in the lives of the Armenian saints? Come on in!’

Ulrich may be a hero for our times… But what would his lady have said?

Beachcombing wants the autobiographical poem to be, well, autobiographical. But, of course, that is not quite the same as believing that it really was a statement of events as they happened. Still he can hope… and in Beachcombing’s experience the opinions of the nineteenth century are often closer to the truth than those of the twentieth.

Other views: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

PS For a cross-dressing Irish abbot

Silly sieg heils

The Nazi and ‘Roman’ Salute have been traditional signs of the extra-parliamentary right since the 1920s. Claims have been made that these salutations are more hygenic, more beautiful and also of shorter duration than the handshake. Well, Beachcombing is certainly no fan of palming… However, he finds – memories of the Great Dictator? – the various straight arm salutes about as majestic as a dying birch tree.

In this spirit he thought that he would set himself the task of find the most bizarre sieg heil in history: bizarre either because of the individuals sieg heiling (perhaps someone who you would not expect to see making this kind of gesture) or because of the expressions or situation involved. Only two rules. First, the salute has to date from before the end of the Second World War, rather than all the post-war skinhead offshoots of Nazidom. Second, the salute has to be totalitarian: the Bellamy Salute, for example, whereby generations of young Americans pledged allegiance to the flag with what looks like a Nazi salute does not count.

Though Beachcombing would be the first to admit that it makes for some striking photographs…

One that Beachcombing particularly likes is a picture of the young Benedict XVI making the salute, admittedly not with much conviction. Ratzinger was born within the Reich at the wrong time and so such a picture is hardly surprising. But it is one that the good pontiff would likely do everything in his power to dispose of, especially given what he was wearing. [this is a 'fake' see below]

Beachcombing’s personal favourite is this remarkable photo from May 1938 of the English soccer team saluting their German opponents before a friendly match: didn’t even one of them refuse?

Perhaps you have to be English and to have sweated out various penatly shootouts with Germany in more recent decades to feel the full horror. Apologies then to those who couldn’t give a hoot about the Lions or the beautiful game.

Beachcombing has failed to track a few down: a reason for some bitterness. He had particularly wanted to find a photograph – that he is almost sure exists – of a bête noire of his, Lloyd George giving the Nazi salute on his visit to Germany in 1936. It is the sort of damn fool thing that the Welsh Goat would have tried, probably just to make a pretty fräulein smile.

Then there are the legends. The old fascist chestnut that Mussolini’s life was saved by the Roman salute when Violet Gibson struck in 1926 is pure cobblers: Italian fascists claim that Mussolini made the salute, lifting his face back, when Violet shot. He was, instead, chatting to the crowd and turned his head as she pulled the trigger.

Then, finally, there are the stories where – unfortunately – no photo exists. Bletchley, in the anecdote that follows, was a British centre for decryption in WW2.

One of the most remarkable men at Bletchley was universally known as ‘Josh’. An outstanding cryptographer, he had built up a reputation for absentmindedness that even by the standard of his academic colleagues was unique… he took part in the first interrogation of a prisoner of war from the German Air Force. This was a Lieutenant who had been shot down during the attack on our warships in the Firth of Forth on 16th October 1939. The party that was assembled to conduct the interrogation numbered four… They had a preliminary meeting together, and decided that the first thing that they had to do was to establish a moral superiority over the prisoner.

When Beachcombing read this he thought: ‘Here we go…’. The British always make fools of themselves when they are playing on their ‘moral superiority’.

They were to sit on one side of a long table, and the prisoner was to be marched in and stood to attention between two guards as members of the interrogation panel fired questions at him.

When they had settled themselves down, the door was thrown open and the prisoner marched in. He was a typical product of Nazi success. His uniform was smart, his jackboots were gleaming, and his movements executed with German precision. As he came to the centre of the room he was halted and turned to face the panel. No sooner had he executed his turn than he clicked his heels together and gave a very smart Nazi salute. For this the panel were unprepared, and none more so than Josh, who stood up as smartly, gave the Nazi salute and repeated the prisoner’s ‘Heil Hitler!’ Then, realising that he had done the wrong thing, he looked in embarassment at his colleagues and sat down with such speed that he missed his chair and, to the prisoner’s astonishment, disappeared completely under the table.

Beachcombing is sure that the German pilot was putty in their hands after that…

Any more silly, bizarre or memorable h-s images gratefully received: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


19, Jan, 2010: Invisible has been heroic sending some other funnies in. She has not respected the rules with the Paris Hilton photo – post WW2 – but surely Paris  is worth breaking them for – at least in this pose.

Then there is still no Lloyd George but here is a clue that it really happened.

Then Disney got in on the Nazi act in their 1943 propaganda film Der Fuehrer’s Face.

Then finally, not that bizarre really, but certainly worth showing, the Mitford Girls making fools of themselves

Thanks a million Invisible!


21 Oct 2010: What an idiot, Beachcombing knew that something didn’t add up with the Pope pic above – Benedict XVI was too young to be ordained when the Nazis were in power. It fell to Rico F to point out that this is a cropped picture. Take a look:

The end of the werewolf faith in Strasburg

Beachcombing recently examined the death of the fairy faith in the Yorkshire town of Ilkley and sold it to his readers as a melancholy moment in that community’s history. Today he thought, instead, that he would give evidence for the beginning of the end of faith in were-wolves in the area around Strasburg (‘Germany’ or France depending on the century). In 1508 a priest, Johann Geiler von Keysersperg (obit 1510) gave a sermon there on that magical creature. His words show belief in  the wooly ones was in sad retreat on the cusp of the modern age.

Johann begins with a rhetorical question. What shall we say about were-wolves? for there are were-wolves which run about the villages devouring men and children. As men say about them, they run about full gallop, injuring men, and are called ber-wölff, or wer-wölff. Do you ask me if I know aught about them? I answer, Yes. They are apparently wolves which eat men and children, and that happens on seven accounts: 1. Esuriem (Hunger); 2. Rabiem (Savageness); 3. Senectutem (Old age); 4. Experientiam (Experience); 5. Insaniem (Madness); 6. Diabolum (The Devil); and 7. Deum (God).’

So far almost  good. But if you read these sentences again carefully, you will find that Johann is not describing man turning into wolf: there is no Neil Jordan film hiding away here. In fact, reading Johann’s text we learn that for him a were-wolf is a wolf that attacks humans rather than a human shape-shifter. For example, under the third heading he writes:  ‘the wolves do injury on account of their age. When a wolf is old, it is weak and feeble in its legs, so it can’t run fast enough to catch stags, and therefore it rends a man, whom it can catch easier than a wild animal. It also tears children and men easier than wild animals, because of its teeth, for its teeth break off when it is very old; you see it well in old women: how the last teeth wobble, and they have scarcely a tooth left in their heads, and they open their mouths for men to feed them with mash and stewed substances.’

The only passage in fact in the sermon that gives us any hope of the old belief in the were-wolf as something more than just a wolf comes in, of course, the sixth diabolum: ‘the injury comes of the Devil, who transforms himself, and takes on him the form of a wolf. So writes Vincentius in his Speculum Historiale. And he has taken it from Valerius Maximus in the Punic war. When the Romans fought against the men of Africa, when the captain lay asleep, there came a wolf and drew his sword, and carried it off. That was the Devil in a wolf’s form. The like writes William of Paris, that a wolf will kill and devour children, and do the greatest mischief. There was a man who had the fantasy that he himself was a wolf. And afterwards he was found lying in the wood, and he was dead out of sheer hunger.’

But even here  it is the devil, not a man, who becomes a wolf, while the man who believes himself capable of becoming a wolf is living a ‘fantasy’.

Of course, belief in werewolves will carry on for many more centuries – Beachcombing is particularly interested at present in twentieth-century examples: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com – but scoundrels like Johann marked the beginning of the end for Europe’s favourite bogeyman.

Beachcombing has opened today a page of sources for texts relating to particularly bizzare areas and thought that he would start with werewolves. As with his bizarre bibliography he will start slow… If anyone has the original German then Beachcombing would be particularly grateful.

Image: Cow sheds and massacres

Beachcombing has had the novel experience, in these days of premature babies, of watching lots of history documentaries. It is one of the few things that you can do while syringe feeding a fifteen-day-old tot and hoping that she will sleep. After years of staying away from television, he’s been treated to a lot of sub-standard stuff, but one that did stick in the mind was the BBC’s Dunkirk (2004) and particularly their coverage of the Wormhoudt Massacre of 1940.

For those who don’t know on the 28 May of that year British troops – from the Royal Warwicks, the Royal Artillery and the Cheshires –  were holding the approach to Dunkirk against some charming Teutonic sorts in the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. When their lines were overrun by the enemy, the British troops surrendered and a group of about a hundred (including a handful of French POWs) were jammed into a tiny cow shed – see picture - near Wormhoudt. Their captors then threw grenades into the shed and subsequently dragged out several of the survivors who they shot. Luckily, not all the prisoners were killed – in fact, fifteen were to make it through the war that, make no mistake, reflected SS incompetence rather than SS humanity.

Beachcombing should note that all the normal prejudices of the BBC are on hand in this documentary. So those from the upper middle classes and the aristocracy – with the predictable exception of Churchill – are treated as twerps, including a decent if ineffectual British officer at Wormhoudt. There is also a lot of stamping on ‘the guilty men’ of appeasement: the portrayal of Halifax, for example, would be actionable if that good lord was still alive.

The impressions are all the more vivid because the BBC documentary is essentially a re-enactment with actors taking the viewer through various key moments in the campaign: we have a porcine chap who is supposed to be the PM, a moustached man who is Alexander etc etc.

Beachcombing usually objects to renactments, but they just about pull it off though this is no Band of Brothers. The BBC is forever cursed to play Dr Who to the US’s Star Trek, doomed by limited funding and Masterclass Theatre

As far as Wormhoudt is concerned the viewer is treated to a foul re-enactment of the massacre: Beachcombing surged up from his seat in fury, Tiny Miss B almost falling from his lap in the process. Once his blood pressure had come back down Beachcombing was intrigued though by two decisions on the part of the BBC.

First, the massacre was not shown as it happened. Men were marched out to be shot and then the grenades were thrown in: a reversal of the actual order of events. Beachcombing couldn’t make any sense of this, either in historical or dramatic terms.

Second, Beachcombing wondered vaguely whether it was sensible to even show the killings. Of thirty thousand captured Britons in May 1940, only, to the best of our knowledge, about two hundred were slaughtered in this heinous fashion: Le Paradis Massacre is the other sad name from those days. The Germans treated Slav and later the Greek and Italian POWs appallingly. But British and French soldiers in 1940 were, for the most part, treated well on their surrender, perhaps because of crooked racial views, perhaps because these were the first months of the war. This was true, for example, of the survivors of the Wormhoudt Massacre, once they fell into German hands for the second time.

A plaque on the cow-shed refers to the ‘slain’: that seems an overly eumphimistic way to describe what happened on that day. The cow-shed has been patched back together and its story is told on this outstanding internet page from which Beach borrowed the image posted above.

Beachcombing is going to take a while to get the photo above out of his mind: a twentieth-century icon of cruelty and horror all dressed in verdant colours of the French spring. The shed is empty here, but the ghosts of the hundred terrified men are there, jammed in, listening to the German outside and trying to breathe, getting ready, praying, hoping… The evil of what happened hardly needs to be emphasised: it stands with Katyn, Malmedy and Biscari. But the failure of the British govenment to ever bring anyone to justice for what was done that day beggars belief, especially given the fact that more than a dozen witnesses survived.

Beachcombing is always on the look out for striking historical photographs: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com .