ABERFAN: A SURVIVOR’S JOURNEY
Gaynor Madgwick lost her brother and sister in the Aberfan disaster and was herself pulled from the wreck of the school. She meets survivors, rescuers and members of the community tell her story and Aberfan’s using the voices of the villagers themselves.
This programme hasn’t been heard since the 50th anniversary in 2016. I thought it would be appropriate to share it with you today.
D-Day veteran wins New York TV & Film award
D-Day veteran Ted Owens is celebrating winning a Gold award at the New York Festival of TV and Film.
The series LEST WE FORGET in which two schoolchildren travelled to France, the Netherlands and Germany with Ted was given the special prize in a documentary category.
The Royal Marine Commando was hit by a shell on D-Day and almost died – but returned to France to fight on. He later fought in major battles in the Netherlands.
The friendship between the two schoolchildren and Ted – who is 95 – is at the heart of the series, which you can still view online for free.
You can watch ‘Lest We Forget’ for free online here:
The B-17 saved by a “miracle”
In the summer of 1978 two former members of a B-17 crew met to discuss their escape from death in a raid on Kassel in Germany in 1943.
Sitting on a porch in Tarrytown, New York, co-pilot Bohn Fawkes turned to his navigator Elmer “Benny” Bendiner and said: “You remember that we were hit with 20-mm shells?”
Benny said that of course he did but that was not unusual. It happened whenever they got jumped by a German fighter.
Bohn leaned forward and Bendiner could see that a “revelation was on the verge”.
Yes, but remember the shell that hit the gas tank? Bohn said.
Benny said he did. All the crew had talked about it like it was a miracle. And to them it was, because somehow their plane – Tondelayo – had not been blown out of the sky by an explosion. Just unbelievable luck, they assumed, and carried on with their duties.
That’s not quite the full story, Bohn told him now, 35 years later. He said the morning after the raid he’d checked with the ground crew and was told there had been not one but 11 unexploded shells in the gas tank.
Eleven unexploded shells in the fuel when just one should have been enough to blow the B-17 apart.
Bohn said the shells had been sent to the armorers to be defused but had then been rushed away by an intelligence officer.
Bohn had tracked down the officer and had hounded him until eventually he had told Bohn the full story – before swearing him to secrecy.
Bohn wanted to tell his old friend now.
He said that as the armourers had opened each shell they had found no explosive charge. Each shell was empty, harmless.
Except one. Inside that one was a carefully rolled piece of paper with a note written in Czech by a labourer forced to make the shells for the Luftwaffe.
The note said: “This is all we can do for you now.”
The crews’ lives had been saved by someone they would never know. And the worker would never know that he/she had saved ten lives.
I came across this story in Elmer Bendiner’s marvellous 1980 memoir, The Fall of the Fortresses, while researching the lives of USAAF crews flying out of England during WW2.
It stopped me in my tracks but nothing prepared me for the reaction it would get when I shared it on Twitter (1.25m people have read it so far). The actions of a hero risking their lives to help someone they would never know struck a chord.
For some people it found a new relevance in these days of the Covid-19 pandemic when we are all being asked to stay inside to save the lives of others – perhaps strangers – across society. But it also set me thinking about other instances where sabotage might have helped aircrew – sabotage not by trained agents of the OSS or SOE but by foreign labourers forced to work for the Nazis. It’s an immensely difficult area to research. Such sabotage was naturally secretive, and many would not survive to tell the tale.
It was also possible for myth to develop. For instance, it has been claimed the note in Bendiner’s story also included the words: “Using Jewish slave labour is never a good idea.” But these words are not in Bendiner’s original account in his book.
The Nazis put the use of forced labour at the heart of its war industries. They gathered up huge numbers from territories over-run in eastern Europe and Russia, but also from the Netherlands, Belgium and France, where round-ups would encourage many young men to join resistance groups.
According to Nicolas Stargardt in The German War, there were just under 8 million foreign workers in Germany by the summer of 1944. Huge numbers worked in agriculture and on the railways but it was factories which would become the focus of resistance and sabotage.
In Defying Hitler I wrote about some of the 500 Jewish people of Berlin who were forced to work at Siemens-Schuckertwerke, an aircraft parts factory which spread across a two-hundred-acre site in the northwest of the city. The workforce contained at least two groups of anti-fascists, led by the inspirational Herbert Baum, the jazz musician Heinz Joachim, and a young toolmaker named Heinz Birnbaum. All had actively opposed the Nazis since before they even came to power and would coalesce as a single resistance group under Baum.
Baum and Joachim spread anti-Nazi feeling and encouraged dissent, while as a sub-foreman Birnbaum worked out which of the workers might help him carry out small acts of sabotage: pouring sugar into a machine’s transmission to make it seize up and change the measurements on a job ensuring it had to be done again. These things could only be done sparingly and not repeated by the same person so Birnbaum took care to recruit as many helpers as he could.
Baum and his French Catholic friend, Suzanne Wesse, also wrote pamphlets encouraging sabotage and such was their success that Baum teamed up with Robert Uhrig, a thirty-eight-year-old toolmaker who controlled a large factory-based resistance network of his own, carrying out small acts of sabotage at factories in a number of cities, including Hamburg and Essen. He concentrated on infiltrating workers – mostly non-Jews – into armaments and aircraft factories.
Both the Baum and Uhrig groups were eventually uncovered and huge numbers were executed. With the urgent need for fighters to defend the Reich, German aircraft factories demanded full commitment from the forced labourers it treated badly and fed poorly. And so one of the most basic forms of resistance a worker could do was to slow down the pace of work.
According to Detlev J.K Peukert’s Inside Nazi Germany this may have become widespread and, while it was usually punished as ‘idling’, it often became viewed as sabotage. Every month the Reich compiled statistics for the numbers of arrests and foreign workers made up the largest category.
Peukart uses just one month of the war – December 1941 – to highlight the situation inside Germany, at a time when the number of foreign workers was about a third what it would be by the time of D-Day.
During that single month the Gestapo recorded 7,408 arrests for refusal to work and another 2,043 for ‘opposition’.
These are nameless people now, who downed tools in a state which allowed no opposition, and who through their own principled dissent carried out an act of resistance. The Czech worker who sabotaged the shells which struck Bendiner’s aircraft might have hoped and prayed that their failure to fill the 20mm shells would save an Allied airman but they probably never imagined their note would be discovered.
If it was a miracle that the B-17 survived, it was also a miracle that this wonderful act of humanity was revealed. And so we are left to wonder if this brave and nameless individual also became a statistic in a Gestapo report? For arrest, deportation to a concentration camp, death? We are allowed to hope they survived but we will never know. Either way, they are a symbol of all those who show courage without expecting reward or recognition.
D-Day veteran interview – What was it like saying goodbye to your parents to go to war?
Two children interview a D-Day veteran.
His name is Ted Owens. He was a commando and a sniper. He almost died on D-Day and was wounded twice more in the Netherlands.
I’ll be posting some of their clips over the next fortnight.
Question one: What was it like saying goodbye to your parents to go to war?
The Black Chair and the Blackbird (Two deaths in WWI)
Two military graves lying only feet apart in a Belgian cemetery commemorate the lives of two iconic literary figures: the greatest Welsh and the greatest Irish poets of the Great War.
They died on the same day (102 years ago today) in the same battle, but the paths that led them into British Army uniform could not have been more different.
Elis Humphrey Evans – “Hedd Wyn” – was born into a farming family in Trawsfynydd. The war had torn open a split in Welsh non-conformism, causing a major clash between those who opposed and those who supported the conflict.
His poetry, which was inspired by the Romantic work of Shelley, quickly began to tackle the subject of the war. He wrote his war poetry before he enlisted.
Hedd Wyn was a Christian pacifist, but he joined the British Army so that his younger brother would not have to fight.
Francis Ledwidge is known in Ireland as the “poet of the blackbirds”. Born into a poverty-stricken family, he became a political activist and union leader while still a teenager. His poetry earned him the patronage of Lord Dunsany, who introduced him to WB Yeats.
A keen patriot and nationalist, he joined the Irish Volunteers, a pro-Home Rule force. On the outbreak of war the Irish Volunteers became split between those who supported the British cause and those who did not.
Ledwidge initially opposed the war but changed his mind, believing that if Britain won the war Ireland would get its Home Rule. He said he could not stand by while others fought for Irish freedom.
The stories of these two men’s “paths to glory” and violent death are set against the backdrop of the history of the Edwardian and First World War Wales and Ireland: the 1904-05 religious revival, the power of the Chapel to oppose and support war, Irish Catholicism and Nationalism, the Easter Rising and the promotion of the war as a Christian fight against paganism.
In Wales, whilst poet T Gwynn Jones and Socialist preacher TE Nicholas were campaigning against the war, the chapels with the help of ministers like John Williams, Brynsiecyn, ensured the youth of Wales enlisted in their thousands.
In Ireland, Nationalism developed into a failed revolution. But Ledwidge now considered himself a soldier and wondered in his poetry if he would have a soldier’s death.
On July 31, 1917, on the opening day of the Third Battle of Ypres, a shell landed in the trench where Ledwidge was drinking tea. His chaplain recorded: “Ledwidge killed, blown to bits”.
Nearby, as Hedd Wyn – who had only recently arrived at the front – advanced with his comrades on Pilckem Ridge, the Welshman was struck down. He died soon after at a first-aid post.
The Birkenhead National Eisteddfod of 1917 became known as “Eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu” (Eisteddfod of the Black Chair) in recognition of Hedd Wyn’s being posthumously awarded the Chair for his long poem, Yr Arwr. He is regarded as the iconic Welsh poet of the First World War.
In Ireland, the thousands who had died for the British Army – people like Francis Ledwidge – were forgotten. It was said by leaders of the new Republic of Ireland that although their sacrifice was great but they “did not die for this State”.
*First published at https://jonkilkade.com/
“How did you go to the toilet on the battlefield?”
If you have a tough question, ask a commando:
Defying Hitler in USA Today & New York Post book lists
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”.
Cross of Lorraine crushes the Swastika
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?
When was it created? How many issued?
Please help and share this post if you can.
*First published on jonkilkade.com