Men of the 4th Royal Fusileers in the town of Mons the day before the battle (Source- Wikipedia)
The august sun began to rise, slowly burning off the early morning mist and drizzle that had had plagued the British troops. The 4th Battalion Royal Fusileers had spent most of the night trying to dig in, scraping shallow trenches along the banks of the Conde Canal, outside the small Belgium village of Nimy. It was the 23rd August 1914 and the British Expeditionary Force was about to fight it’s first major engagement of the First World War.
The 4th RF (9th Brigade, 3rd Division) were commanded by Lt. Colonel McMahon and consisted of twenty-six officers and nine hundred and eighty three other ranks, of these seven hundred and thirty four were reservists, recalled from civilian life in the last few weeks. These were the “Old contemptibles”who despite their small numbers had a level of training and cohesion that other armies envied. There motto was, “We’ll do it, what is it?”
They had been given a tough assignment. The battalion was to defend the “loop” position which is where the canal curved northwards and then back again, creating a salient that would make life difficult for the defenders. There were two bridges in their sector, a road bridge (which was a swing bridge) and a metal railway bridge to it’s left, that dominated the battlefield. The canal was sixty foot wide, covered in black slime and reeking of chemicals. Smoking black slag heaps dotted the landscape, too hot and dangerous to use as observation posts.
Map showing disposition of troops at the battle of Mons. Approximate scale 2 miles to an inch. (Source: THE FIRST SEVEN DIVISIONS – McCLELLAND, GOODCHILD & STEWART, Ltd.)
At nine am the first German shells began to land amongst the British defenders. They pounded the canal for an hour with no reply from the british artillery which had handicapped itself with a poor choice of firing position. As the bombardment ceased the grey clad ranks of six German infantry battalions emerged from cover (lead by the 84th Regt.), advancing slowly. The British used their Short Magazine Lee Enfield Rifle’s and their excellent marksmanship and rapid firing ability to decimate the German ranks, forcing them to fall back. At the time the German’s believed that the British defenders had many Machine-gun’s, in fact they had just two water-cooled Vickers, which were dug in around the Railway bridge under the command of Lieutenant Maurice James Dease.
As the morning wore on the incoming artillery and machine-gun fire from the German’s began to take a terrible toll amongst the defenders. The civilian villagers who had stayed behind in Nimy now began to run for their lives, escaping with the few possessions they could carry. It was clearly only a matter of time before the thin British line was broken.
By 13.00 the 4th RF were in a desperate situation. C (also known as Y) Company had suffered almost eighty casualties and both machine-guns had ceased firing. Lt. Dease, who had already been wounded twice (including a round in the neck) crawled forward to discover nobody alive to operate the right hand Vickers. In spite of his severe injuries he began to fire the weapon himself keeping the German’s at bay. He quickly attracted a murderous amount of gunfire until eventually he was hit again. Lieutenant Steele ran forward and carried him back to the rear but he died from his wounds around 15.30 (he was subsequently awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the first of the war). Dease lies in St Symphorien cemetery outside Mons, along with many men of his comrades.
The sun was now high and blisteringly hot. At 13.40 Lt.Colonel McMahon received the order to withdraw his battalion. Utilising years of training and parade ground discipline the troops began to retire as best they could.
Sidney Godley VC, source: Wikipedia
On the Railways bridge Private Sidney Frank Godley took over the Machine-gun that Dease had been firing. He was also wounded but managed to single-handedly keep the German’s at bay for two hours while the rest of the battalion got away. Eventually, after running out of ammunition he dismantled the Vickers and tossed the pieces into the canal. Struggling to walk, he crawled back to the main road and was helped to hospital by two Belgian civilians. Soon after he arrived it was taken over by the German’s and he was taken prisoner. He was later awarded the Victoria Cross and received the good news from the senior German Officer at his POW camp at Doberitz.
The battle of Nimy was over but it marked the start of a gruelling retreat that saw the Old contemptibles battered and virtually wiped out over the following weeks. The British had suffered a defeat, but had inflicted a bloody nose on the Germans and done themselves proud against a vast, determined and well trained foe.
Over the last eighteen months I have become increasingly intrigued by the Battle of Berlin, Hitler’s last days and the collapse of the thousand year Reich. I am fascinated by the chaos and brutality of those final moments and by the men of all sides who fought and died for what they believed in, right up until the end.
Below is a short clip from the excellent German film “Downfall” that gives a sense of the battle.
Although the battle was fought in April/May 1945 its lessons are still valuable for students of modern war. American soldiers fighting in Baghdad at the height of the troubles would be able to empathize with the highly mechanized Soviet troops who found themselves engaging in close quarter urban combat with young, fanatical irregulars armed with Panzerfausts (a German hand held anti-tank weapon similar to the Rocket Propelled Grenade). The similarity does not stop there, Baghdad is a major city criss-crossed with waterways and crammed with people. Like Berlin it was an environment that favoured small, lightly armed groups willing to attack the invader and then disappear into the alleys before reappearing elsewhere minimizing the numerical and technological advantages of the enemy. (Source: Bloody Streets: The Soviet assault on Berlin. Hamilton. P. v)
I began my research by reading the excellent Anthony Beevor book, Berlin: The Downfall. Beevor is a former army Officer and his account is well written and easy to follow. The book examines the battle from all sides including the hardships suffered by the German civilians before, during and after the battle. After reading the book I was inspired to find out more and began to study the works of Tony Le Tissier and A Stephen Hamilton. This blog post is the culmination of my research. I hope you find it as fascinating as I have.
The Battle: A brief overview
The fighting for Berlin began with the Battle of Seelow Heights. At 3am, German time, on the 16th April the Soviet offensive kicked off with a massive bombardment. It was the largest seen in mainland Europe during the course of the war. “As far as the eye could see were burning farms, villages, smoke and clouds of fumes” (Gerd Wagner, quoted in Hamilton, P.97) Expecting such an onslaught the Germans had pulled back to their second line thus minimizing the impact. The Soviets also turned their massive searchlights on the Germans hoping to blind them, but in fact all they achieved was to blind themselves as the light was reflected back at them by the smoke and fog. This tactic also had the effect of marking their main avenues of approach, allowing the German artillery to target them easier. The 1st Belorussian Front (inc. Some of the 1st Polish Army) Commanded by Georgi Zhukov attacked with 77 rifle divisions, 2 cavalry divisions, five tank and two Mechanized corps – a total of over 3000 tanks and 18000 artillery pieces and mortars. Marshall Zhukov wrote in his memoirs:
“On the whole the work to prepare the Berlin Operation had no parallel in scale of intensity…We were quite sure that with these capacities our forces would smash the enemy within the shortest possible span of time.” (The Memoirs of Marshal Zhukov, P.599.)
The German forces numbered approximately 110,000 men of 9th Army under General Theodor Busse. They had 587 tanks of which a number were out of service and 2625 artillery pieces. The Germans were heavily outnumbered and watched in awe as a wall of Soviet tanks followed by waves of running infantry advanced towards them. Despite the Germans being heavily outnumbered their defense was ferocious and by mid afternoon it was clear that a combination of Swampy ground and effective counter battery fire had slowed the soviets substantially. The German 9th Parachute Division was hit especially hard and earned a lot of kudos for its continued counter attacks against the Soviets.
The Soviets were now desperate to breach the German lines, Zhukov wanted no more delays. Under intense pressure General Weidling, Commander of the German LVI Panzer Corp, ordered a general retreat of his forces. The Soviets had paid a heavy price for limited advances, losing 317 tanks in the process.
This was a critical day. Zhukov’s forces advanced recklessly running head on into German defensive positions. The Red army had lost cohesion and in many cases its tanks were attacking without infantry support or a decent reconnaissance of the area. The 11th SS Division Nordland tried to counter attack but ran out of fuel. Huge traffic jams were also hampering the Soviets who on this day managed just a 3-6km gain.
In the early morning Weidling held a conference with his Officers. There was a discussion that Berlin should become an open city and that there was no point taking their tanks into an urban environment. During the morning and afternoon there were massive Soviet armoured assaults – in one incident they lost seventy tanks in a shootout with German Tigers of SS Heavy Panzer Battalion 503. The town of Muncheberg fell to the Red Army in the afternoon and soon the German LVI Panzer Corps left flank had become exposed. Weidling decided to withdraw his forces south hoping to avoid fighting in Berlin.
This was Hitler’s birthday. The Soviets began to push through the weakened German positions. NCO’s of the Nordland division struggled to manage an orderly retreat as they headed for Alt Landsberg. On this day their Commander General Zeigler told some of his men to burn their paybooks and make for the west. The Soviets were now using incendiary shells in the woods to burn out the defenders. By the end of the day they had broken the German defense and the artillery of 79th Rifle Corps was shelling Berlin.
Meanwhile Marshall Koniev, Commander of the Soviet 1st Ukrainian Front, attacked across the Niesse at 0610 Moscow time. They reached the Spree within twenty four hours and began heading toward Berlin from the South, creating a race with Zhukovs 1st Belorussian Front. The Germans scrambled together a number of scratch units but were barely able to slow Koniev’s advance. The road to Berlin was now open.
With the fall of town of Muncheberg Zhukov now ordered his troops to surround Berlin from the north and the south. That afternoon there was a conference in the Fuhrerbunker and Hitler decreed that Berlin could be saved if General Steiner and his III SS Panzer Corps would launch an immediate attack into Zhukov’s right flank. It was blatant wishful thinking and Steiner knew that it was impossible. Throughout the day units of the LVI Corps fought desperate rear guard actions as they fell back towards the city.
On 23rd April Helmut Weidling was called to the Fuhrer bunker, he arrived expecting to be shot but left having been appointed commander of Berlin sector – this was yet another twist in the merry go round of commanders instigated by Hitler.
By 24th April the 1st Belorussian front and 1st Ukrainian front had completed the encirclement of the city. – Advance units probed the S-bahn defensive ring and by the end of the day it was clear the Germans could do little more than delay the eventual soviet victory. The German Panzer strength in the pocket was around 40 tanks and 80 Self propelled guns (Source: Hamilton, P.160) – this meant that they had lost nearly 80 percent of their tanks in the last nine days.
The principal German Divisions tasked with defending the city itself were mainly from the LVI Panzer Corps of the 9th Army. This Corp was positioned along the Seelowe Heights directly across the main line of Soviet advance along Reichsbahn 1. As they were pushed back some other formations joined them.
German order of battle:
– 20th Panzer Grenadier division. Initially an infantry division which had been recruited from the Hamburg area. In autumn 1942 it was redesignated a PG division. Battered in the Soviet Summer Offensives of 1944, it found itself fighting in southern Poland before being ordered to Berlin in March 1945. By this time it numbered around 5000 men and thirteen Panzer Mark IV tanks.
– 18th Panzer Grenadier division. This unit had also originally been an Infantry division and had began its career in 1935/6. It was badly mauled in the Soviet Winter Offensives of 1941/2 and had eventually been withdrawn with a strength of just 741 combat effectives. By March 1942 was back at the front fighting around the town of Demyansk. The division was again virtually destroyed during the Russian Summer Offensive in 1944. Only a tiny number survived to fight in Berlin.
– 9th Parachute Division – This unit was mainly formed from Luftwaffe ground crew and the remnants of a Special Forces unit that had served alongside Skorzeny in the Ardennes Offensive (Source: Hamilton, P.68) Unusually for this stage of the war it was generally well equipped inc. a battalion of Hetzer Self propelled guns. Some of this division fought in the siege of Breslau, the rest were in Berlin. They were battered by artillery at Seelowe and unable to recover.
– 11th SS Division “Nordland”. Formed in 1943 by the merger of three Germanic Legions. This unit was principally made up of Foreign Waffen SS volounteers from Scandinavia and Volksdeutsche from the Balkans. It was considered an elite unit and had fought well during the fighting around Narva and in the Courland pocket. Also attached to this division was a number of French troops from the 33rd SS Division “Charlamagne”.
– Muncheberg Panzer division – Formed in the last weeks of the war and commanded by Major General Mummert who was a highly decorated veteran. This Division was well equipped with heavy Tigers, Panthers and infrared systems. They had cut their teeth at Kustrin and had launched a successful night attack on Soviets using their new IR capability. By 15th April this unit consisted of around 1800 men, twenty-one Panther Tanks and 10 Tiger I’s. They were defending the north east sector of Berlin, north of the Spree.
As well as these divisions were numerous smaller groups including Heavy SS Panzer Battalion 503 – an armoured unit commanded by SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Friedrich Herzig that during its short existence managed to score more hits per day than any other Tiger Battalion during the war (source: Hamilton P.73). There were also two Regiments made up of the SS troops based in the city, i.e Hitler’s bodyguard from the Liebstandarte SS and numerous Allgemine SS personnel that were working as administrative staff in the capital. Approximately 30,000 Volksturm troops were also on hand and up to nine thousand Hitler Youth. (Source: Hamilton, P-48-50.)
Movement of German divisions, battle of Berlin. Source: Tragedy of the Faithfull, Wilhelm Tieke.
By the 25th April the Soviets were struggling to advance along rubble strewn roads that were well defended. Their tanks were being battered by Panzerfaust wielding defenders and the fighting was exposing the limits of their tactical know how. As Lieutenant General Vasily Chuikov of the 8th Guards Tank Army noted: “In a city a tank Regiment or battalion. . .Is obliged to move in column along the street, and becomes a vulnerable target. . .The leading tank is set on fire – and there is nowhere for the others to go.” (Source: Hamilton, P.179)
On this day Weidling sacked General Zeigler as Commander of the Nordland division and replaced him with General Krukenberg. Zeigler had been showing weak leadership for some time and his division was scattered and lacking purpose.
The morning of the 26th April saw a Counter-attack by units of the Muncheberg Division and French SS troops in Neukolln alongside Tempelhof Airport. Later that morning the Russians launched their own offensive in the area pushing the German’s back and bypassing any strong points. The tactical situation was changing minute by minute. Weidling suggested a break out plan to Hitler who rejected it. General Krukenberg ordered his units to fall back to Hermannplatz – Two divisions now faced five Soviet armies in a pocket 25km long from west to east and 3km wide at its narrowest.
There was intense rivalry between the soviet commanders to be the first to reach the Reichstag. On 27th April the Soviet 1st Guards Tank army penetrated the Landwehr canal which was the last obstacle before Hitler’s Chancellery. The German troops were now beginning to exhibit signs of defeatism under the strain of non stop combat and lack of ammunition. That evening though there was cause for hope as word spread that the Twelth Army under General Wenck was on its way to relieve them.
At dawn on 28th Wenck’s four “youth” divisions (young military trainees) attacked from the south west of Berlin but after an initial thrust the German attack was blunted and turned back at the tip of Lake Schwielow. Berlin’s last hope had been crushed.
By this point the Muncheberg Div was now defending Anhalter station, just half a mile south of Fuhrerbunker.
On the same day the 1st Ukrainian front was pulled out of action to concentrate on the upcoming Prague offensive, leaving Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian front to capture the centre of Berlin alone. At Dusk his infantry established a bridgehead over the Spree at the Moltke bridge – just 600 metres from Reichstag.
The battle for the Reichstag
In the early hours of 29th April the 150th and 171st Soviet rifle divisions fanned out from their bridgehead over the Spree – there was a hard fight for the ministry of interior building. The 150th also attacked across Konigsplatz towards the Reichstag. They were desperate to capture this symbol of Nazism before May day. Trenches and a moat surrounded the building and cross fire from Kroll Opera house meant an infantry attack was very difficult. Fire from the Zoo flak tower was also a massive hindrance for the attackers.
By now about 10,000 German soldiers were crammed into the centre of Berlin and being assaulted from all sides.
The windows of Reichstag were bricked up and thick smoke was everywhere. The Main hall became a killing field. Combat raged throughout the night as Germans held onto the basement and the Soviets tried desperately to dislodge them.
At 15.30 on the 30th April Hitler shot himself. By late that night, after bitter fighting the Hammer and sickle flew over the Reichstag. One of the men who fought to the very end was Frenchman Henri Fenet. On the morning of the 2nd May he and some of his men were still fighting in the Air Ministry when Russians accompanied by German Officers approached. . .
“The Soviet soldiers came and invited us to surrender. A Major in the Luftwaffe said to me, ‘It’s over, the capitulation has been signed.There is no choice but to surrender.'”
Fenet and his men tried to escape via the U-bahn tunnels but were caught and captured, as he said: “We felt crushed, broken. It was an absolute catastrophe, the feeling of being wiped out, the fall into nothingness, into the blackest night.” (Source: Armor battles of the Waffen SS, Will Fey. P. 323)
On the night of 1st/2nd May a number of Germans had attempted to break out and make for the West where they hoped to surrender to the British or Americans. Some were successful, most weren’t. At 0400 hours on the 2nd May the surviving German troops in the basement of the Reichstag surrendered, there were around 120 of them still alive.
Video of the German surrender:
If you have the time I also highly recommend the final part of this excellent German Documentary about the Wehrmacht in World War two:
The battle tactics:
The Wehrmacht made the Red army pay a high price for the capture of Germany’s capital. According to Grigoriy Krivosheev’s work based on declassified archival data, Soviet forces sustained 81,116 dead for the entire operation, which included the Battles of Seelow Heights and the Halbe; Another 280,251 were reported wounded or sick during the operational period. The battle also cost the Soviets about 2,000 armoured vehicles (Source: Wikipedia).
This high price was not due to elaborately constructed defensive works within Berlin itself. Hitler had only decreed Berlin to be “Fortress” on the 3rd February 1945 – by this time the Soviets were just fifty kilometers from Berlin. Due to a lack of manpower and engineering skills and the regimes labyrinthine bureaucracy, only the bare minimum had actually been achieved by the time the Red Army launched their offensive at Seelowe. Makeshift barricades were erected and some trenches were dug but nothing capable of stalling the Soviets was constructed. Even Defensive District “Z” – the very centre of Berlin – had no field defences prepared. Brigadefuhrer Krukenberg, Commander of the 11th SS Division Nordland was greatly concerned when his troops took up positions there on the 26th April and reported that the promised defences existed only on paper. (Source: Charlamagne’s Legionnaires, Richard Landwehr. P.158)
The video below includes footage of Volksturm troops and defences being prepared in Berlin:
In the end Berlins most important defensive positions proved to be the three massive Flak towers that had been built to defend the city from the brutal allied bombing. They were 100,000 tonne steel and concrete structures that proved to be excellent at fending off Russian armour and infantry assaults with their accurate firepower. The 12.8cm guns were so powerful that their shells would practically disintegrate the Soviet tanks when they struck them. By 1945 the gun crews were mainly Hitler Youth and SS cadets from Galicia and White Russia who had a visceral hatred for the Soviets. (Source: Bloody Streets, Hamilton. P.39)
Once the street fighting began the Germans had to rely on defensive tactics based on a combination of their experience and the physical characteristics of Berlin: Wide straight roads with waterways, parks and large railway marshaling yards. Solidly built 19th century apartment blocks made up the bulk of the housing stock, they were generally five stories high without elevators and built around a courtyard that could be reached from the street through a corridor large enough to take a horse and cart or a small truck used to deliver coal. Generally the larger more expensive flats faced the street and the smaller less expensive ones could be found around the inner courtyards.
Berlin apartment blocks -Source: Wikipedia
As A Stephen Hamilton says: “Urban combat in Berlin was complex and both Soviet and German forces were forced to adapt to the changing operational environment rapidly. . .Without realizing it the Germans began employing a flexible application of force along interior lines. German soldiers came together at a particular point, forming a nexus of resistance only to quickly melt away and reform later; avoiding superior Soviet firepower in the process. All means of urban terrain were used for movement and combat.”
For an interesting look at German anti-armour tactics I highly recommend the film below and the subsequent parts that can be found on youtube – although they demonstrate how to fight armour in the open rather than in an urban environment many of the lessons are still valid:
Similarly this Luftwaffe training film for Snipers illustrates many of the lessons that would have been used by German sharpshooters in the streets of Berlin:
The experienced Waffen SS and Heer soldiers placed snipers and machine guns on the upper floors of buildings and on roofs because the Soviet tanks could not elevate their guns that high. At the same time they put men armed with panzerfausts in cellar windows to ambush tanks as they moved down the streets. These tactics were quickly adopted by the Hitler Youth as Erik Wallin, a Swedish volunteer in the Waffen SS recalls:
“These warlike children, came a rancorous frenzy and a boundless contempt of death, which we grownups could not muster. With the agility and speed of weasels they climbed and struggled their way into completely impossible positions, to knock out a Russian tank with a Panzerfaust or to finish off one or several advancing Red Army soldiers with a hand-grenade. There were quite a number of Russian tanks put out of action by small boys in their early teens during the battle of Berlin.” – Source: Twilight of the Gods, by Thorolf Hillblad, Kindle edition location 1786
Volksturm soldiers learning to use Panzerfaust Source: Bundersarchiv/Wikimedia commons
To counter these tactics A few inspired Soviet Commanders learned quickly and began to employ very effective new methods. They created combined arms battle groups that included infantry artillery and tanks working in mutual support. They Soviets mounted sub-machine gunners on the tanks who sprayed every doorway and window, but this meant the tank could not traverse its turret quickly. The other solution was to rely on heavy howitzers (152 mm and 203 mm) firing over open sights to blast defended buildings and to use anti-aircraft guns against the German gunners on the higher floors. Soviet combat groups started to move from house to house instead of directly down the streets. They moved through the apartments and cellars blasting holes through the walls of adjacent buildings (for which the Soviets found abandoned German panzerfausts were very effective) while others fought across the roof tops and through the attics. These enfilading tactics took the Germans lying in ambush for tanks in the flanks. Flamethrowers and grenades proved to be very effective, but as the Berlin civilian population had not been evacuated these tactics inevitably killed many. (Sources: Beevor, Antony (2002). Berlin: The Downfall 1945. P. 316-319 and Hamilton p.v)
The Soviets also learned how dangerous a lone enemy fanatic with a Panzerfaust could be. It was a handheld anti-tank weapon that was capable of knocking out Soviet armoured vehicles. Many crews decided to add bed springs, hanging chain link or even metal shields around tank turrets in an effort to force the Panzerfaust’s hollow shaped charge to detonate prematurely. (Editor: It is interesting to note that in 2006 I was embedded with the British army in Iraq and was forbidden from filming a Warrior armoured vehicle that had “slat” armour attached because it was a new development and they didn’t want the insurgents to see it on TV – I would argue that the Russians had beaten them to this development by about fifty years!)
Slat armour on an M-113 light armoured vehicle in Iraq Source http://www.dodmedia.osd.mil/JCCC/2007/Army/070319-A-5144A-002.JPEG
Another problem faced by the German defenders was lack of supplies. Everything within the city was in short supply. Lack of fuel resulted in military vehicles becoming immobilized and hampering their effectiveness – No stockpiles existed within the city and defenders could only count on what they had brought with them from outside. (Source: Hamilton, P44.)
A shortage of ammunition was a particularly difficult issue. Little could be produced locally due to a shortage of skilled labour and most stockpiles were either weapons and ammunition of foreign manufacture or badly made steel cartridges (the scarcity of brass meant that the Germans were forced to make cartridges out of steel and then lacquer them to prevent rusting). When the barrels of their weapons became hot they would jam – some Machine-guns had to change barrels after every belt of ammo fired. (Source: Berlin Dance of death, Helmut Altner. P.107) Gunther Labes of the “Muncheberg” division explains – “The 98 Carbine then in general issue as an infantry weapon was meant to be used as a repeater, but as a result of the lacquering of cartridges, the ejection of empty cartridges after firing by means of lifting and pulling back the bolt was only seldom possible, and even then only within half a second of having fired. Usually the short time it took to reach for the knob of the bolt was sufficient to enable the cartridge to burn fast in the breech. When this occurred regularly, it was not very clever to present oneself as a target to the enemy while trying to clear the breech under cover. The rifleman therefore had to go back into the trench with his unusable weapon each time after firing and by hammering the knob of the bolt with either a hefty kick or a blow from his bayonet, pull back the bolt and force the empty cartridge out of the breech with his ramrod, providing it was long enough. Sometimes a hard bang of the stock on the bottom of the trench sufficed. . .Looking back, I cannot help thinking that the musketeers of the Thirty Years War with their 17th Century weapons had a faster rate of fire on average and consequently greater firepower than we infantryman of the 20th Century with our modern automatic weapons, but supplied with lacquered ammunition!” (Source: http://www.dererstezug.com/LateWarGermanAmmunition.htm)
The outcome of the battle of Berlin was inevitable. Strategically the Germans had already lost the war but their defensive spirit and ability to hinder the Soviet advance proved that they remained a tough and determined foe until the very end. Their tactics of stinging the Soviets with Machine-guns and Panzerfausts and then deploying to new positions were dictated by the environment and strength of the enemy but proved very effective in the rubble strewn streets. The Soviets also deserve credit, initially they were guilty of sending columns of Tanks into the streets without infantry support but they learned a heavy lesson and by the end of the battle were employing combined arms groups that were able to flush out and defeat the German defenders.
I’ve just finished watching the first episode of the “Forgotten Soldiers” – the BBC’s new documentary series examining the stories of non-europeans who fought and died in the Great war.
I’m from a family that includes West Indians, my Wife is South African and my soon to be born son will be mixed race. Therefore I am always keen to learn more about the part played by non-white soldiers in the first and second world wars.
This episode opened in west Africa with a beautifully shot sequence of the Presenter, David Olusoga, explaining that the first shots fired by the British during the war were by Alhaji Grunshi an NCO of the Gold Coast Regiment.
Alhaji Grunshi who fired the first British shots of WW! Source – Wikipedia
What I hadn’t realised was that the French had a similar set of theories regarding their West African troops. Olusoga travelled to Verdun and explained how France’s black colonies were heavily leant upon for manpower. In the same way that the British relied on the Punjabis and Pathans the French military focused on recruiting from the Wolof tribe of Senegal, Mali and Mauritania. What disturbed me to learn was that many of these soldiers were recruited by local middlemen who had quotas to meet and would often raid villages and force men to join the army, bringing them for training in chains.
In conclusion I was pleasantly surprised by the depth, detail and nuance explored by David and the production team. Olusoga is a remarkably good presenter who clearly knows his stuff (not bad for a guy who is a producer by profession). I would highly recommend the programme to both the first world war specialist and the casual viewer with an eye for a well told tale.
Last week I reported to Sir John Moore Barracks in Winchester for a fascinating assignment. Along with colleague Robert Hall we were tasked with putting together a film showing the type of kit a soldier would have marched to war in in 1914 and comparing it with todays infantrymen.
The Army were incredibly welcoming, a couple of willing “volunteers” were found from amongst the NCO’s and with the help of historian Andy Robertshaw we got to play dress-up.
What struck me was that despite all the tech developments essentially the type of kit an infantryman carries hasn’t fundamentally changed that much: ammunition, water, food, entrenching tool, spare clothes and a personal weapon. As the first world war developed soldiers were issued with steel helmets and gas masks that made them even more similar to their modern day equivalents.
Me with our volunteers
This assignment was one of my most enjoyable and I hope that you find our films informative and fun.
The Abbey of Royaumont is a charming, peaceful and beautiful thirteenth century building thirty kilometers north of Paris. Now it serves as a museum, a hotel and a cultural centre but during the first world war it was transformed into a hospital for wounded soldiers.
Royaumont abbey, north of Paris
I came here to film a story about the women of world war 1 and whether their services and sacrifices helped or hindered them in the post war years. What makes the story of the hospital here particularly interesting is that it was staffed entirely by women.
At the start of the war the Scottish women’s hospital had offered their services to the British war office but had been turned down. Undaunted they made the same offer to the French who accepted. After taking over the Abbey they found it to be filthy, bitterly cold and short of every amenity. Through sheer hard work the women eventually got it up and running.
A sense of the difficulty they experienced can be gained from this description of conditions by Dr I. Hutton:
“It was bitterly cold. The patients who were not in a raging fever shivered and tried vainly to adjust their tattered uniforms to gain a little warmth. Their clothing crawled with maggots and bugs and their bodies with lice. Dying men lay huddled so closely together on the floor that they touched each other. Others sat up gasping and blue in the throes of pneumonia. Blood and pus oozed from the wounds. A few of the patients feebly extended their hands but most of them were too ill to care what happened. Seventy-odd soldiers, in the last stages of dysentery lay crouched along the walls, emaciated, dying. They crawled outside from time to time. There were no sanitary arrangements and the grass plot was foul.”
Travelling with the team and I to the abbey was the great great niece of Frances Ivens, one of the surgeons. Evelyn Benson, herself a nurse, said of her relative: “She wanted to use her skills to help the war effort as well as using her personality and that force to push women to the front and show that they had an important role to play.”
Etaples military cemetery, France.
After filming at the abbey we visited Etaples military cemetery. It is a vast place that contains 10,771 Commonwealth burials of the First World War, the earliest dating from May 1915. 35 of these burials are unidentified. There are also a number of women. Like Betty Stevenson – Betty was killed by an air raid and was given a military funeral she was also posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palme by General Petain, for courage and devotion to duty. The personal inscription on her headstone reads simply, ‘The Happy Warrior’.
This trip was eye opening for me. I had been vaguely aware that some women had served as nurses in the first world war but I had underestimated the tough conditions they experienced and the sacrifices that they had made. I hope our film helps to tell their tales and bring to life the story of women on the western front.
The next four years promise to be very exciting. For those of us fascinated, dare I say obsessed, with the first world war there should be a plethora of films, documentaries and news reports to fuel our passion.
As a BBC journalist and cameraman I am lucky enough to be at the forefront of the coverage. My first assignment of the centenary was to travel to Sarajevo. It was here that a young Serbian called Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863 – 1914) and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg (1868 – 1914).
The spot where the assasination took place in Sarajevo
The spot where it happened is on the corner of Appel quay and Franz Josef Street next to the Miljacka river which runs through the heart of the city. What struck me is how little the site has changed over the decades. It is still possible to stand exactly where Princip would have stood. The only difference is the bullet holes that pock mark the buildings near by – a legacy of another, later war.
The team (Allan Little, Jim Bucahanan, Ruth Levis) and I had two tasks. Firstly we had to shoot a series of Pieces to camera in a such a way that they felt like breaking news – To make it appear that the Archduke was visiting Sarajevo and his assassination was happening now, in our time. It was a great way of trying to make history feel fresh and to bring it to life. As Jim says in his BBC Editor blog:
“BBC News is used to reporting breaking news around the world. It’s what we do, part of the reason for our very existence. So if there were to be an assassination of a prominent European leader today, we would want to be there, reporting live. And audiences expect to consume breaking news in a live blog environment which is why we wanted to experiment with revealing history in this way. This was the idea behind 1914 Live as the BBC’s First World War season reaches the first significant anniversary. We would use all the techniques of breaking news in 2014 to report on events from Sarajevo 100 years ago, particularly the BBC’s Live format used to great effect during the World Cup and Queen’s Baton Relay. And we would do it by using BBC correspondents in their familiar role.”
Secondly we wanted to examine how modern Bosnia has been shaped by the event and how Princip’s legacy is remembered very differently depending on a person’s ethnicity. To the Serbs he is a hero who was doing his patriotic duty, to the Bosnian Muslims he was a terrorist guilty of plunging the world into war. The film we made is below. . .
It was fascinating for me to make this film and to try and understand a little of the history of Sarajevo. A place that is still haunted and shaped by its past.
My book packed with advice about working as a cameraman and video journalist is finally out and available to buy via the Rory Peck Trust website. All proceeds are going to them to help freelancers with training in sub-saharan Africa.
I’ve written Camera confidential to help people who shoot. It’s the book I wish somebody had handed me as a fresh faced twenty five year old jumping on a plane for my first foreign assignment. Sections include: Breaking into the industry, how to pack your kit, fill out customs paperwork, what to carry in a warzone, how to operate in extreme weather, how to shoot interviews and pieces to camera and advice on writing scripts and story-telling. It’s the accumulated knowledge of my years on the road as well as the product of numerous interviews with the likes of four times Royal Television Society cameraman of the year Darren “DC” Conway, well known filmmaker Phillip Bloom, numerous freelance cameramen from around the world, experienced reporters and security advisors.
The cover of my new book Camera confidential
For those who don’t know, my own background is as a cameraman, editor and video-journalist for the BBC. I started out as a trainee at ITN news and then joined the Beeb twelve years ago. I’ve covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Ivory Coast, Libya, DRC and Gaza. I spent four years with the BBC Africa bureau and have been lucky enough to work with some of the best correspondents and producers in the world.
I wanted this book to do some good. I never set out to make any money from it and so I jumped at the chance to publish it in partnership with the Rory Peck trust. I am full time staff with the BBC and often see freelancers producing amazing work, but also taking massive risks. Therefore I think it is more important than ever for the Rory Peck Trust to be able to help with training bursaries and to offer grants and support to freelancers in crisis or who have been injured. All proceeds of this book will be going to the trust.
June 6th 2014 marked 70 years since the allied landings in Normandy. It’s a campaign about which I know very little, therefore you can imagine my excitement when I was called upon to be one of the cameramen covering the event for BBC News.
with Tony Colgan of the 9th DLI
I was tasked with making a number of films with veterans recalling their experiences and revealing their emotions about returning. The news films that I made were short, too short. Two minutes isn’t enough time for a piece to really capture the stories and feelings that these ageing warriors had. Therefore I decided to make longer versions of the films utilising unused footage and lots of extra interview clips. I’ve posted them below and I hope you think that they were worth the extra effort.
Tony Colgan was with the 9th Durham Light Infantry and drove a Bren gun carrier ashore with the second wave on D-Day. He’s now ninety years old but still sharp and good company. He was accompanied to the commemorations by his grandson and the two shared some wonderful stories.
After filming with Tony, my team and I crossed the channel and joined up with two more veterans making the journey across to the beaches on HMS Bulwark, the flagship of the British navy. They were Admiral O’Brien and Bill Bryant of the Royal Marines who had been a Coxswain on a landing craft ferrying men and material to the beaches.
Having joined the Royal Marines in 1943, he underwent his seamanship training in Wales before joining Landing Craft Mechanised Flotilla 609 in 1944.