30 May 2017

Send More Shrouds - The V1 Attack on the Guards' Chapel 1944

On Sunday 18 June 1944 the congregation assembled for morning service in the Guards’ Chapel in Wellington Barracks, St James’s Park, central London. The service started at 11 am. Lord Hay had read the first lesson, and the ‘Te Deum’ was about to begin, when the noise of a V1 was heard. The engine cut out. There was a brief silence, ‘an intensive blue flash’ and an explosion – and the roof collapsed, burying the congregation in ten feet of rubble.

This was the most deadly V1 attack of the Second World War, and Jan Gore’s painstakingly researched, graphic and moving account of the bombing and the aftermath tells the whole story. In vivid detail she describes the rescue effort which went on, day and night, for two days, and she records the names, circumstances and lives of each of the victims, and explains why they happened to be there.

Her minutely detailed reconstruction of this tragic episode in the V1 campaign against London commemorates the dead and wounded, and it gives us today an absorbing insight into the wartime experience of all those whose lives were affected by it.

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Pen & Sword

15 May 2017

Blood in the Forest - The End of the Second World War in the Courland Pocket

Blood in the Forest tells the brutal story of the forgotten battles of the final months of the Second World War. While the eyes of the world were on Hitler's bunker, more than half a million men fought six cataclysmic battles along a front line of fields and forests in Western Latvia known as the Courland Pocket. Just an hour from the capital Riga, German forces bolstered by Latvian Legionnaires were cut off and trapped with their backs to the Baltic. The only way out was by sea: the only chance of survival to hold back the Red Army. Forced into uniform by Nazi and Soviet occupiers, Latvian fought Latvian - sometimes brother against brother. Hundreds of thousands of men died for little territorial gain in unimaginable slaughter. When the Germans capitulated, thousands of Latvians continued a war against Soviet rule from the forests for years afterwards.

An award-winning documentary journalist, the author travels through the modern landscape gathering eye-witness accounts from seventy years before piecing together for the first time in English the stories of those who survived. He meets veterans who fought in the Latvian Legion, former partisans and a refugee who fled the Soviet advance to later become President, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, A survivor of the little-known concentration camp at Popervale and founder of Riga's Jewish Museum, Margers Vestermanis has never spoken about his personal experiences. Here he gives details of the SS new world order planned in Kurzeme, his escape from a death march and subsequent survival in the forests with a Soviet partisan group - and a German deserter.

With eyewitness accounts, detailed maps and expert contributions alongside rare newspaper archive, photographs from private collections and extracts from diaries translated into English from Latvian, German and Russian, the author assembles a ghastly picture of death and desperation in a tough, uncomfortable story of a nation both gripped by war and at war with itself.

This book provides a fascinating perspective on the little known battles of the Courland Pocket. The author's skilled use of interviews combined with his personal travelogue makes it one of the best books I have read in a number of years, as it successfully brings the long lasting impact of war on the Latvian people into stark focus. I look forward to reading more titles from Vincent Hunt in the future.

Author's website - www.vincenthunt.co.uk/author.html

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12 May 2017

Dartmoor Air Crashes - Aircraft Lost in World War Two

This is a book about the consequences of the air war over Devon. Describing Dartmoor as the last wilderness in southern England, it gives details about the aircraft that crashed there during World War Two. What is surprising is the total comes to more than forty. Illustrated with photographs, it has accounts of more than two dozen accidents involving the aircraft that came down on the slopes of Dartmoor. Despite involving British, American and German forces, all cases are treated in the same ‘matter of fact’ manner. Although it was a time of war, only a few of the crashes came about because of enemy action, but with many it seems the weather played a large part.

The first chapter, ‘The Day the Battle of Britain came to Tavistock’, tells how in 1940 a top secret installation at the village of Wotter led to a German bomber being forced to crash land at Tavistock. The following chapters deal with a variety of aircraft that came to grief on the moor during the war; from one of the oldest fighters then in the RAF, a Gloster Gladiator biplane, to the loss of two of the very latest twin engine Westland Whirlwinds that crashed ‘somewhere near Princetown’. There is an account of what caused a high flying German reconnaissance plane to come swooping down to earth at Scorriton. But one of the saddest tales is about a Liberator bomber of Coastal Command returning from a long patrol over the Bay of Biscay. There is a full explanation as to why it should have come down in a field by Plasterdown as the crew struggled to make an emergency landing.

Undoubtedly some of the stories are tragic, but they are nonetheless fascinating. They show how fate can play a part in the outcome – sometimes for the better, but not always. There are tales of amazing escapes, like the one about the crew of an American Flying Fortress returning heavily damaged from a bombing raid on Lorient. Then there is the piece about what happened to Basil Browne, a nineteen year old RAF sergeant and how he happened to be on an American weather plane that crashed above Bridestowe on Christmas Day 1943. There is also an epic account of how the quarrymen at Meldon ventured out in appalling weather to look for the crew of a Wellington bomber that had crashed ‘somewhere up on the high moor’.

There is a whole chapter devoted to Harrowbeer, the only operational air station on Dartmoor. Built early in the war, the airfield was home to a number of fighter squadrons. There are details about the aircraft and pilots who came down on the moor whilst flying from the airfield. It concludes with an explanation as to why the President of the United States should have paid a flying visit to Yelverton.

At the end of the book there is a list of the casualties. Some of them survived to fly again, but sadly many did not. What is amazing were their ages, the oldest was only 27. They came from all walks of life and from all over the globe. The majority of RAF crews were volunteers coming from as far away as New Zealand and Canada.

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