Just back from an amazing adventure with my friend, Ted Owens – a veteran of 41 Royal Marine Commando who landed on Sword Beach early on the morning of June 6, 1944.
Together with my children, Evan and Caoimhe, I’ve been following Ted’s wartime footsteps for a new television series. The kids have been learning not only about Ted’s service, but also about war and peace, tolerance and understanding, and about the need to respect WW2 veterans.
It has been an incredible experience, filmed by my friend and colleague Paul Roberts and supported by ITV Wales.
I’ll try to post more from the trip soon – using the tag ‘Lest We Forget’ – but here is a short clip. Along the way – as we travelled from Normandy to the Netherlands, where Ted fought at Walcheren and the Battle of the Bulge – the kids asked Ted’s questions sent by people on Twitter and email.
Finally getting a chance to round up some of the reviews and responses to Defying Hitler.
USA Today made it one of their Five Books Not To Miss, noting that Publishers Weekly says the book is “an informative counterpoint to accounts of widespread German complicity with the Holocaust.”
And the New York Post marked it as one of their Books of the Week. “A fascinating look at the everyday Germans who resisted Hitler’s rule in ways big and small (all dangerous), from helping to forge passports that helped Jews escape to those who passed secrets to Allied spies.”
Newsday described it as an “important book” and Forward magazine says it is a “powerful book” which features the “adept interweaving of diverse and complicated narrative threads” to make “a gripping read”.
On March 28, 1942 more than 600 men left Falmouth in Cornwall in a flotilla of three destroyers and 16 smaller boats.
The special fleet included HMS Campbeltown which was packed with explosives and was to be used to ram into the gates of the docks of the French port of St Nazaire.
St Nazaire was targeted because the loss of its dry dock would force any large German warship in need of repairs, such as the Tirpitz, to return to home waters rather than having a safe haven available on the Atlantic coast.
The raid put the dry dock out of commission until the end of the war – but success came at a cost. Of the 622 men of the Royal Navy and Commandos who took part in the raid, only 228 men returned to England.
One hundred and sixty-nine men were killed and another 215 became prisoners of war. The fallen British raiders were buried at the Escoublac-la-Baule cemetery, near St Nazaire, with military honours.
Five of the raiders escaped overland via Spain.
Eighty-nine awards and medals were bestowed for the raid, including five Victoria Crosses.
*A version of this article was first published on jonkilkade.com
November 11 1943 is, I understand, a well-remembered day for historians of the Resistance in Nazi-Occupied France.
It was on that day that the Maquis paraded through the town of Oyonnax in an event designed as a show of strength, a morale boost for the local population. The town was chosen because there was no German garrison nearby.
More than 200 Maquisards took part. They marched, sang the Marseillaise, and then disappeared back into the mountains. The event is described in Matthew Cobb’s excellent book The Resistance.
Sometime ago I came into possession of this small medallion. It features the date ‘XI Novembre, 1943’.
One side is the Cross of Lorraine smashing a Swastika.
On the other side is an Astrix-like warrior.
I would love to know the story behind it. I assume it relates to Oyonnax, but does it?
For those fascinated by this week’s tributes to Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans and Christoph Probst (all executed 76 years ago) this is the spot at which their fate was sealed.
Sophie threw anti-Nazi leaflets from the balcony under the clock and into the hall below at Munich university.
All these years later it is still an emotional place to be.
A university is a place for free thinking, for questioning, for youthful exuberance. The Scholls went to the guillotine for displaying these qualities, as would many more connected to their White Rose movement.
When a prison guard came to clear her cell after her execution he found that she had written a single word on the back of her indictment sheet: “Freiheit.” Freedom.
Coming soon from Dutton Caliber in the US (published April 2019):An enthralling work of popular history that vividly resurrects the web of everyday Germans who resisted Nazi rule
Nazi Germany is remembered as a nation of willing fanatics. But beneath the surface, countless ordinary, everyday Germans actively resisted Hitler. Some passed industrial secrets to Allied spies. Some forged passports to help Jews escape the Reich. For others, resistance was as simple as writing a letter denouncing the rigidity of Nazi law. No matter how small the act, the danger was the same–any display of defiance was met with arrest, interrogation, torture, and even death.
Defying Hitler follows the underground network of Germans who believed standing against the Fuhrer to be more important than their own survival. Their bravery is astonishing–a schoolgirl beheaded by the Gestapo for distributing anti-Nazi fliers; a German American teacher who smuggled military intel to Soviet agents, becoming the only American woman executed by the Nazis; a pacifist philosopher murdered for his role in a plot against Hitler; a young idealist who joined the SS to document their crimes, only to end up, to his horror, an accomplice to the Holocaust. This remarkable account illuminates their struggles, yielding an accessible narrative history with the pace and excitement of a thriller.
Praise for Defying Hitler:
“The question was often asked amid the ruins of the Third Reich: why did the Germans fight on for so long when all was lost? Those liberated from concentration camps knew the answer. Terror, mass murder, ruthless and barbaric persecution—all opposition had been mercilessly quashed. In Defying Hitler, Gordon Thomas and Greg Lewis show in chilling and vivid detail just how courageous were those who dared to defy Hitler. A terrifying and timely account of resistance in the face of the greatest of evils.”—Alex Kershaw, New York Times bestselling author of Avenue of Spies: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Paris
“This carefully researched book challenges the myth that the German people were virtually unanimous in support of Hitler… Defying Hitler is filled with almost unbearable suspense and drama.”—Booklist (starred review)
“A deeply researched work that passionately challenges the popular myth that ‘the German people followed Hitler as if as one mass, mesmerized like the children of Hamelin by the Pied Piper.'”—Kirkus
Les Spence was a remarkable man who kept an astonishing journal.
For almost four years he risked his life to keep a daily record of hardship, courage and endurance in prison camps run by the Japanese.
He and his fellow prisoners faced starvation, disease and cruelty. They kept up their spirits by playing sport, listening to an illicit radio and by trying to create their own civilised society behind barbed wire.
Throughout the suffering in Java, a perilous journey in the hold of an infamous hellship and the horrors of a forced labour camp in Japan, Les Spence kept writing.
He spent much of his time in a coal mining camp near Nagasaki. There, he was able to record one of the most momentous events in history: the dropping of the plutonium bomb on the city.
We had uneventful train journey to Nagasaki and then we saw the result of the atomic bomb. It was simply astounding, nothing left standing for miles, everything flat and burnt out.
Covering the period from January 1942 to November 1945, the diaries have been annotated to create a record of the Allied forces who many feel were sacrificed on Java.
Les Spence’s work is a first-hand account of how to hold onto hope when all seems lost.
WHAT READERS ARE SAYING:
“Moving and magnificent in its reportage, this is a war story with a difference. The very gut-wrenching rawness of Les Spence’s diary is a reminder of an area of World War Two almost forgotten: the battle for Java and the sacrifice that followed. This is one of those books that once you start you can’t forget it. These secret diaries have been lovingly edited to provide a firsthand account of the rigours of being a prisoner of a cruel enemy is superbly evoked.”
Gordon Thomas, author of ‘Voyage of the Damned’, ‘Inside British Intelligence’ and ‘Gideon’s Spies’
“A remarkable testament to courage and endurance in the face of hardship and cruelty – and a firsthand account of how to hold on to hope when all seems lost.”
“A remarkable wartime document.”
South Wales Echo
“These remarkable diaries cover the period from January 1942 to November 1945, and are a testament to one POW’s moving story.”
Britain at War magazine, September 2012
From Amazon: “My grandfather was in the same camp as Les Spence (Camp 8B @ Inatsuki). He told me stories about his time in camp, but [this] book has provided additional insight into the fear, hope, and dreams of these prisoners. Its value lies in the fact that it is a first hand account (actual diary that was retained by Les Spence throughout his imprisonment) of the day-by-day blows experienced by this POW.”