Antony Beevor: ‘I deserved to fail history. I was bolshie…’

October 20th, 2014

Surely even Putin wouldn’t be so reckless as to lock up one of Britain’s leading historians? His brow furrows. “Perhaps – but frankly, Russia is so unpredictable these days.”

Now is the moment to explain why Beevor thinks his success was down to good timing. In the chaos that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union, he was given unprecedented access to the Red Army archives. “They didn’t know how to handle a foreign historian. Didn’t know what was and wasn’t important.” By the time the Russians realised that keeping the archives open might not be such a great idea, it was too late. Beevor had the material he needed both for Stalingrad and his follow-up book, Berlin.

The Russians loved Stalingrad, hated Berlin. “The Russian ambassador here condemned me for lies, slander and blasphemy against the Red Army. Even one of the Russian professors who had helped me was so shocked by the Berlin book he accused me of spouting Goebbels’s propaganda. It was rather unsettling.”

The reason? Beevor’s revelation that as many as two million German women may have been raped by Red Army soldiers at the end of the war. “It was far worse than I had imagined. My translator had a typically dismissive Russian reaction at first, but then, when we came across documents that revealed that the Red Army had even raped their own women, the ones who had been sent to Germany for forced labour, she was shaken.”

I ask him what he thinks of the comparisons world leaders have been making lately between Putin and Hitler. Fair? Unfair? “Dangerous. You couldn’t insult a Russian more. There are some scary but superficial parallels — the German annexation of the Sudetenland and the echoes of Danzig, with the Russians wanting a corridor to Odessa.

“But Putin is not Hitler. Where there is a similarity is in the way you have a national resentment combined with a national self-centredness: Russians declaring that only their requirements are worth listening to.”

Not all of his research comes from archives. He also likes to interview eyewitnesses. I ask him what it felt like to meet German officers who had been in the Führerbunker at the end. “Shaking the hand that shook Hitler’s, you mean? It does get to you a little. The one I won’t forget is the young Panzer captain sent to try to change Hitler’s mind. Hitler pretended to take his side against the generals — he was brilliant on the psychology of weakness, which is why Chamberlain was such a pushover for him.”

Ah yes, as Duff Cooper, who resigned from the Cabinet over Munich in 1938, said of Chamberlain: he lacked the imagination to deal with Hitler. I invoke the name because Beevor’s wife is Cooper’s granddaughter. Given this, and the fact that Beevor’s father served with the SOE, was a career as a historian of the Second World War inevitable for him, a little unimaginative, even?

“Far from it. I was planning to stay in the Army all my life, but I ended up being posted to a training camp in Wales and was so bored there I wrote a novel. Thankfully, it was never published, but in my arrogance and naivety it made me think I could be a writer, even though I had failed my English and history A-levels.”

Our leading military historian failed history A-level? “I deserved to, because I was bolshie. Didn’t do any work. Terrible waste. My father, who had a double First from Oxford in Mods and Greats, was absolutely furious. The good thing is, it meant Nella and Adam [his son] never felt under any pressure academically, and as a consequence did well.”

Does he ever feel like an imposter when he is with other historians, because he went to Sandhurst instead of university? “No, I don’t feel vulnerable in that sense. But I would sometimes go to a conference and they would ask, ‘Do we address you as doctor or professor?’, and I would say, ‘Actually I’m neither, I’m Two A-levels Failed Beevor’. They were embarrassed.”

There is psychological texture here, then, it seems, as well as a pleasing line in self-deprecation. According to his daughter, indeed, Beevor has a great ability to laugh at himself. He also seems more vulnerable than his robust public image would allow. As a child he suffered from Perthes disease, which meant he was on crutches, and was bullied — and he only joined the 11th Hussars (better known as the Light Brigade) because he had a “physical inferiority complex”.

And he tells me he had a nervous breakdown after writing Berlin. “It was partly from the strain of the deadline, partly from the horror at the material. I couldn’t face doing another big battle book straight after, so I did one about Chekov’s niece instead.”

How his publishers must have fainted when he told them that… Luckily for them he is back “on brand” with his latest book, about two-thirds of which is devoted to the Eastern Front, which Beevor believes redresses the balance of previous histories of the Second World War. “Ninety per cent of all Wehrmacht losses were on the Eastern Front. As far as the Germans were concerned, we were a sideshow. But each country sees the war from its own perspective and memories.”

Montgomery’s ill-conceived battle of Arnhem, the 70th anniversary of which fell last month, seems to be a case in point. It is dealt with fairly briskly in Beevor’s book, yet it represents one of our greatest military disasters. Was it simply a matter of Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, pandering to Monty’s ego? “Well, Monty was desperate to get across the Rhine before the Americans, it’s true, because he felt Eisenhower would then have no option but to give him all the supplies and troops. That was his way of becoming land commander. Vanity played a large part in it.”

He thinks Monty — who, lest we forget, is still considered a national hero — behaved even more badly during the Ardennes campaign (the Battle of the Bulge), the subject of his next book. “Thanks to Monty, it became the biggest disaster in Anglo-American relations. The ill- feeling created by him continued for years afterwards, tragically so. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m even wondering whether Monty was high-functioning Asperger’s. He had no way of understanding how other people reacted to him. It is sheer speculation on my part, and I am probably going to get hammered for saying it.”

But not, hopefully, a prison sentence — we British being rather thicker-skinned than those oversensitive Russians.

‘The Second World War’, by Antony Beevor (Phoenix), is available to order from Telegraph Books at £9.89 + £1.95 p&p. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk


World War Two

Hitler’s Hidden Drug Habit, review, Channel 4: bull sperm and crystal meth

October 20th, 2014

Does it matter if Hitler was ill, or addicted to drugs? It’s a morally fraught question, and one handled with relative aplomb by Channel 4’s documentary, Hitler’s Hidden Drug Habit. For the first time on British television, we peered into the detailed medical diaries of Dr Theodor Morell, Hitler’s personal physician and a man nicknamed the “Reichsspritzenmeister” – loosely, the needle master of the Third Reich. He plied his needy patient with everything from sugar jabs to a potent daily cycle of stimulants and sedatives.

Anything that seeks to diminish Hitler’s responsibility for his actions should ring alarm bells – tellingly, the Holocaust denier David Irving likes to claim that medical mistakes sent Hitler into trances. While the documentary never tackled these ethical questions directly, the tone was sensitive, seeking insights rather than excuses for the “moral vacuum” at the heart of the Third Reich.

Pieced together from the diary, medical records and interviews, these insights included the rather enjoyable image of Hitler as a cranky, flatulent hypochondriac; paranoid putty in the hands of an opportunistic quack. Morell’s treatments ranged from Pervitin, a pick-me-up based on crystal meth, to a supposed aphrodisiac containing bull’s semen. The picture darkened as the war turned against Hitler. “The Führer didn’t sleep last night because of his anxieties,” Morell wrote in his diary on July 6, 1943. While hardly surprising that sending millions of men to die in vain might keep a man awake, there was a frisson to seeing it noted as medical fact.

By the end of the war, the “needle master” was administering 20 jabs a day, while his patient may have had Parkinson’s. We saw footage from 1945, originally suppressed by German censors, which showed Hitler’s hand shaking uncontrollably behind his back. At the time, he was preparing to defend Berlin from 2.5 million Soviet troops with an army of 45,000. His trembling hand was a potent image of ruined power in every sense.

There were no neat conclusions to be drawn on Hitler’s unravelling, but this was an evocative seat at the tyrant’s bedside. Where the film fell short was on explaining the medical context: it wasn’t clear how Morell’s treatments varied from conventional medicine. Whether quack and addict, or doctor and patient, one thing we know for certain about their relationship was how it ended: Morell abandoning Hitler in his bunker to the ultimate self-medication – a suicide pill.


World War Two

‘Ideals are peaceful, history is violent’ – that was Brad Pitt’s ad lib

October 19th, 2014

In the latest in our series of interviews with leading film directors, the Telegraph’s Chief Film Critic Robbie Collin speaks to David Ayer, the man behind a raw and powerful new war drama, Fury.

Fury, which stars Brad Pitt as a Second World War tank commander, has been selected to close the London Film Festival on October 19. You can watch Pitt and his co-stars arriving on the red carpet with our exclusive live stream of the gala premiere from 6pm tonight.

Fury is on general release in UK cinemas from October 22


World War Two

RAF veteran takes to the skies again at 91

October 18th, 2014

Trevor Watkins, a 91-year-old former RAF pilot who flew during World War Two, has returned to the skies once more.

Mr Watkins was part of a bomber squadron based in Italy.

The veteran pilot from Surrey, who still works, took off in a vintage Tiger Moth.

Describing his flight, Mr Watkins said: “It’s a pretty incredible feeling, or as they say, amazing.”


World War Two

Fury: all you need to know about life in a tank

October 18th, 2014

As da Vinci explained to his sceptical patron Ludovico Sforza at the time, “I can build armoured cars, safe and unassailable, which will enter the closed ranks of the enemy with their artillery and no company of soldiers is so great that it will not break through them. And behind these our infantry will be able to follow quite unharmed and without any opposition.”

Sforza remained unconvinced, and it would be more than 400 years before anyone else gave it a try. Then, in 1911, a design for a tracked, armoured vehicle was submitted to the British War Office by an Australian civil engineer named Lancelot de Mole. And instantly rejected – until the Royal Navy, in the shape of the First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, Winston Churchill, formed the Landships Committee to investigate whether these newfangled machines could break the deadlock of the First World War.

And the result was the British Mark I – an odd-looking rhomboidal monster designed to repel machine-gun fire and crush German defences ahead of the infantry. It first saw battle at the Somme, on September 15 1916.

But while the tank’s impact was arguably minimal in the Great War, its influence would last decades, instilling a new doctrine of armoured warfare that broke the static nature of the First World War’s fighting, and instead advocated 19th-century-style military strategies such as manoeuvring, bold incursions and “decisive battle” outcomes.

As a consequence, the Second World War would be dominated in part by names such as Sherman, A9 Cruiser or the German Tiger I. In 1942, these hulking, unwieldy metal chariots of Montgomery and Rommel would clash at El Alamein in North Africa, in a battle around which, arguably, the entire Second World War hinged (as Churchill himself said: “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.”). The tank’s importance was further driven home after the invasion of Normandy in 1944, when the American General George S Patton pushed the armoured convoy of his Third Army through France and into Nazi Germany itself.


Dominant: a Sherman tank at City Hall in Paris during The Liberation of Paris, August 1944 Photo: Rex

And it’s this final push by the Allied tanks that now forms the basis of new film Fury. Out this week, it stars Brad Pitt as “Wardaddy”, a battle-hardened US Army sergeant in the 2nd Armored Division who commands a Sherman tank called “Fury”. As the Allies make their final push into Nazi Germany in April 1945, Wardaddy must lead his Fury and its crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines.

The film claims meticulous technical accuracy; the screenwriter-director David Ayer took advice from the Tank Museum, and even borrowed two of its functioning tanks (the Sherman that features as “Fury”, plus the world’s last operational German Tiger I) for filming in the Oxfordshire countryside. Thus, with perhaps more authenticity than ever before, audiences can see what life was like inside a Second World War Sherman tank – with all the noise, heat, grinding metal, and proximity to danger that involved.

But now, almost 70 years later, how do these experiences relate to modern tank warfare, and what is different?

“The life of a tank crew hasn’t really changed,” says Major? Simon Worth, commander of CYCLOPS Squadron at the Royal Tank Regiment. “We are fortunate that there are technological advances that make certain tasks easier but what we do, and how we do it, has endured, really. And the aspects that made our job difficult in the Second World War still make it tricky now.”

The UK’s current main battle tank is the FV4034 Challenger 2 – a £4.2?million behemoth originally designed and built by Vickers Defence Systems (now known as BAE Systems) in 1998. Weighing more than 70 tons when fully laden with armaments, it’s more than double the Sherman’s 30.3 tons – but that doesn’t mean it has any room for creature comforts.

“The crew compartment where we sit is better designed,” says Major Worth, “but it’s still four fully grown men sharing a space barely 15?ft x 10?ft and only about 6?ft high.” Inside this space the men have to stow rations, equipment and clothes, with every spare bit of space crammed with ammunition. “Although there’s one important design improvement in the turret – a boiling vessel,” says Major Worth. “So we can make a cup of tea in the middle of a battle. What could be more British than that?”

Indeed, as Wardaddy explains to a young recruit who joins his crew, “This is home.” And this is perhaps where tank warfare was, and is, unique among the different creeds of military service, as duty often requires small crews to spend days – even weeks – isolated from support in enemy territory.

The tank Major Worth fought in was part of tours in Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2008-9. “When they invaded Iraq, the tank crews were in theatre for a long time,” he says. “They spent a lot of time living off the vehicles in exactly the same way as they would have done in the Second World War and the Cold War.

“And you do ‘live off’ the vehicle – it’s almost like we’re organic to the platform. We’re completely reliant on it. We live in it, on it, from it; it supplies the water we drink and the means to heat that water, which is essential in terms of food preparation. So we take care of it, so it can take care of us.” This emotional attachment to one’s vehicle is important, says Major Nick Ridgway.

Meticulous technical accuracy: a still from Fury

Now second in command of the Royal Tank Regiment, he was originally a troop leader commanding three tanks during Operation Telic – the code name for the build-up and invasion of Iraq in 2003. “I remember we met some Americans just before we crossed the border into Iraq,” he says, “and the Americans were in tanks that hadn’t actually been on land in 10 years. They just picked them up from a boat that had been sailing around the Arabian Sea. And they found it almost impossible to comprehend that my tank, Flanders, was the tank I’d had in Germany, and trained in on ranges, for three years.

“They just couldn’t understand the emotional connection that my crew and I had with the tank. She really is the fifth member of the crew.”

From a technical point of view, that kind of intimate knowledge is hugely important. In the Second World War, German Tiger tanks were thought of as mechanically superior, but still averaged 10 hours of maintenance for just one hour of driving. And while modern tanks are built to a higher standard, knowing your vehicle’s idiosyncrasies inside out is essential.

“We know our tank’s weaknesses, quirks, all the faults it’s going to have and how to solve them,” says Major Ridgway. “Sometimes all from a different engine noise.” This level of familiarity is also essential for what the military calls “small unit cohesion” – the mental and physical codependency that improves not just morale but efficiency and quick understanding in combat situations.

Hence, crews stay together for far longer than in other branches of the military, often training together for years on the same vehicle. The result – as with Brad Pitt’s paternal relationship with his crew in the film Fury – is an often familial dynamic inside the turret.

James Jeffries was a senior captain and tank commander in the Prince of Wales’ Royal Regiment during the second Gulf War in 2004. “It was an incredibly hard job,” he recalls, “and you’d go down without your crew. I made the big decisions, but the smaller and arguably more important decisions are made by the Operator – as well as the guy who loads the weapon, he’s really like the mum of the tank. He also made you food; he looked after you. And he’s the guy who’ll take the younger guys – the gunner and the driver – under his wing and make sure they’re looking after themselves.

“Everyone chipped in,” he remembers. “Only by sharing jobs could all of you survive doing this amazingly taxing job. You relied on these people.” Major Worth agrees. “There’s an informal formality, if that makes sense.”

Cosy: the interior of a Challenger 2 battle tank Photo: Corporal Si Longworth RLC

It also means that normal military etiquette isn’t always adhered to. “My gunner Turkish used to pin up pictures of his wife in lingerie all over the inside of the turret,” recalls James. “So when we engaged the insurgents in Iraq, it was from inside a turret covered in obscene polaroids of Turkish’s half naked wife. Which, no doubt, would have inflamed their fundamentalist ire even more.”

“There’s still hierarchy that is well understood by everyone, but there’s also a degree of familiarity and a relaxed approach that makes the whole thing crank,” Major Worth says. “Because you cannot operate in a box that size, that closely confined, with the kind of formality that, say, the infantry might use. There’s not much space for parade-ground formality.”

Former tank commander Chris Yates can attest to this. Before his tour in Basra in 2004, he was with his crew training on the vast prairies of Alberta, Canada, at the British Army Training Unit at Suffield (known as BATUS) – whose sub-zero temperatures all crews have to face. “One day my loader got out to change a filter on the engine,” he recalls. “He asked me to move the turret, and I did it too quickly – trapping his leg underneath and breaking it.

“After some morphine he recovered well, with a marked lack of bitterness towards me. Even when he lost the same leg some years later, to a Taliban IED, he remarked: ‘At least they got the leg you f—ed up, Sir.’?”

That tale aside, however, safety standards have improved since the Second World War. In making the Sherman tank so easy to manufacture (almost 50,000 were built between 1941 and 1945), sacrifices were made to the efficacy of its armour.

In his 1966 novel Flesh Wounds, the author and former tank commander David Holbrook recalled that the Sherman tank’s propensity to burn when hit by enemy shells led German troops to refer to them as “Tommy cookers”, while British and Canadian soldiers nicknamed it the “Ronson”, after the popular brand of cigarette lighter at the time with the advertising slogan “Lights up the first time, every time!”

In comparison, modern tanks are far safer. In one incident in 2003, a Challenger 2 of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards came under fire just outside of Basra, and lost its tracks when falling in a ditch. While the crew sheltered inside, waiting for recovery, the tank was hit directly by 14 rocket-propelled grenades from close range and a MILAN anti-tank missile. They left barely a dent; upon recovery, only the tank’s driver’s sight required repair, and the tank was back “running and gunning” just six hours later.

And it’s this mythical imperviousness that means tanks have had a formidable psychological effect on the battlefield for decades. In Fury, a young recruit fears the tank itself to begin with. And they summon the same residual apprehension in the modern era. Take, for example, when tanks arrived in Basra in March 2003.

“We’d managed this quite audacious punch into the heart of the city,” recalls Major Ridgway, “and ended up next to Shatt al-Arab river right by one of Saddam’s palaces. There, we had to wait for the infantry to catch up. And wait. And wait. It was 50C heat outside, and hotter inside the tank. And we were completely soaking wet – the sweat running down into your boots.

“Eventually, we’d been closed down inside the tank for about eight hours when the infantry caught up. I remember opening the turret, and these people came up to the tank. They’d been watching us, and said, ‘We didn’t realise there was anyone in here! We thought you were robots!’ They genuinely thought it was an organism in its own right, not powered by human beings.”

And the same has been true throughout the tank’s history, says the Tank Museum’s David Willey. “In one sense you’re omnipotent and powerful,” he says. “You can see this psychological impact of this thing – it has a fear factor that is over and above its weapons systems. And that’s been true since the very first tanks.”

As such a potent symbol of might, it is unsurprising just how numerous tanks became post-Second World War. Over 84,000 Soviet T-34 tanks were built between 1940 and 1946, for example – and a figure only surpassed by its successor, the T-54/55, whose numbers passed over 100,000 in the Cold War years following – as thousands of tanks amassed on the north European plain in both West and East Germany, lined up for possible battle. When the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956 they did it by sending hundreds of tanks into Budapest. While in 1973, when Egypt and Syria attacked Israeli forces during the Yom Kippur War, over 3,000 tanks were involved.

Future tank warfare: DARPA’s concept image for the Ground-X tank

Yet wars in more geographically diverse locations – such as Vietnam and Afghanistan – have led to military experts questioning the tank’s future suitability on the battlefield. During the Eighties, the Ministry of Defence commissioned a paper considering whether the UK should replace its tanks with helicopters. In the end their use in supporting infantry in seizing territory was deemed too important but, since the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, Britain’s tank arsenal has fallen to 334 tanks across three brigades, including just 168 Challenger 2s.

And since the end of the Cold War, Nato has followed suit – where Germany was once host to 4,000 tanks, for example, the numbers are now a quarter of that. Now, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies there are 60,000 tanks in active service worldwide, with China boasting the most (about 7,450) and North Korea (3,500), Russia (3,300) and India (3,250) bringing up the rear.

“The death of the tank has been predicted really ever since they were invented,” says Willey. “At the end of the First World War, they were chopping up tanks down here in Bovington because they thought we’d never need to fight a war like that again. At the end of the Second World War they had a fear that tanks could be knocked out by one guy with a rocket-propelled grenade, so tank warfare was too risky. In the Eighties it was attack helicopters.”

Increasingly, however, it seems the nature of tank warfare itself is changing. Once, heavily armoured military vehicles would trundle into the very heart of battle and absorb enemy fire. However, in the future, the object wouldn’t be to avoid being hit, or avoid being penetrated by the shots that do hit – the objective would be to avoid detection in the first place.

Hence, perhaps, Britain’s recent £3.5?billion order for 589 Scout Specialist Vehicles. These lightly armoured, fast-moving tanks will be the Army’s “eyes and ears” on the battlefields of the future, according to the MoD – typifying a wider change in attitude among Western forces that tanks need to become less “heavy metal”, and more agile and flexible.

The new American Ground-X Vehicle is a case in point. Unveiled in August by DARPA, the US Department of Defence’s “mad science” division, the Ground-X tank is its vision of tank warfare in the future – a low-cost, four-wheeled, low-armoured vehicle designed to be lighter and faster than any previous tank, with a crew of just one or two soldiers who can operate the vehicle using touch screens after minimal training.

And then there’s Russia’s Platform M – developed by the Progress Scientific Research Technological Institute of Izhevsk, these are “ground drones” equipped with an AK-47 and four grenade launchers that can be used for gathering intelligence, eliminating targets, firepower support, and patrolling and guarding important sites. Russia plans to have them operational by 2018.

But if this is the future, then arguably the lifeblood of tanks across the past century – the crew themselves, and the intense relationships that develop inside the turret – could soon be a thing of the past.

“Which would be a shame,” says Willey. “There’s a lovely quote we have painted on the wall of the museum just as you’re leaving,” he says. “It’s from an elderly tank veteran, and it reads simply this: ‘I can’t remember many things these days, but I still remember the names of my tank crew.’”

Fury is released on October 22 and closes the BFI London Film Festival on October 19. Click here to watch exclusive live coverage of Fury’s red carpet premiere


World War Two

Scars of the Burma railway trauma that never healed

October 17th, 2014

This week, the railway made the headlines after The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a moving novel by Richard Flanagan, the son of a Burma PoW, won the Man Booker Prize. Today marks the 71st anniversary of the line’s completion, in 1943, but every day is a milestone for Mr Seiker.

“It never leaves me,” says Mr Seiker, still remarkably lucid at 98. “In the early days, I had terrible nightmares – and I still have them.” The exhibits he has laid out on the dining table of his home in Worcester catalogue man’s inhumanity to man: his sketches that speak of brutality no words could capture, an iron spike from the original line to remind him of all the friends he lost.

At the end of the table lies the latest addition: a copy of his book about his wartime experience – in Mandarin. The book, Lest We Forget, which he first published in 1995, had sold well locally and online, and many readers have been moved to write to Mr Seiker. But it could hardly have been described as a publishing sensation. Until now.

The story began in January, when Mr Seiker saw a comment piece in this newspaper by the Chinese ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming. He agreed with the argument – that Japan’s refusal to face up to its aggressive past posed a serious threat to world peace – and wrote to tell the ambassador so, expecting no reply.

Yet, within a week, the embassy’s press attaché was dispatched to Worcester. Not only did he bring a lengthy response from the ambassador, but he wanted permission to publish the correspondence in the Chinese media. By the end of the fortnight, Mr Seiker had been interviewed by two Chinese newspapers and a film crew was preparing a documentary about his experiences.

“There were taxis turning up all the time and camera wires all over the place,” says Mr Seiker, showing me a photograph of the attaché presenting his wife Liz with a bouquet of flowers.

Despite this flurry of interest, Mr Seiker was alive to the danger that he could be exploited by the Chinese regime. “I made it quite clear that the moment I even suspected that, I would kill it. I put that in writing.” He was careful not to endorse China’s leaders in any of his appearances, but was happy to share his fears that Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is risking conflict by flirting with militarism.

One of the sketches from Fred Seiker’s book, showing his condition before and after the PoW camp

Most of all, he was content that his memories of the war were reaching a wider audience. It is wider still now that the Mandarin translation of his book has been published by the People’s Publishing House. It was launched to great fanfare at the Beijing International Book Fair in August, when 3,000 copies were sold on the first day. A Chinese studio has even mooted a film.

“The whole thing is too ridiculous for words,” insists Mr Seiker. “I am just an ordinary bloke living in Worcester.”

Hardly. Born in Rotterdam in 1915, he followed his father, Frederick, into engineering, and was serving in the Dutch Merchant Navy when the war broke out. He was on the Indonesian island of Java when the Japanese invaded in 1942. Taken prisoner along with 18,000 other Dutchmen, he was forced to spend the next year building the railway, and almost two years after that never knowing when he would be free again.

Conditions were a kind of “hell on wheels”, he says. In one terrifying passage of his book, he remembers how Japanese guards left the men to die when cholera broke out in camp. Those who were not afflicted were forced to burn the remains of their fallen comrades. “Death becomes acceptable as a routine,” he wrote. “Words cannot describe the horror of the dying – and the living.”

And yet, incredibly, he claims the experience was a “privilege”. He has, he agrees, “experienced the most degrading behaviour by one human being to another”. But he has also felt the power of the “unconquerable spirit of civilised man”.

“I have seen humanity at its very best and at the same time at its nadir. You were in a situation where you would die for your mates and they would die for you. Some statement, isn’t it? But, believe me, at the time, it was true.”

Fred Seiker now, at his home in Worcester

His ordeal eventually ended when the men realised their guards had left, a few days after American airmen dropped the first of the two atom bombs that forced Japan to surrender. “I just stood there, tears running down my face, being free again.”

He moved to Grays, in Essex, to marry Edna, whom he had met before the war. The marriage gave him a daughter, but it was not happy. Like many Burma veterans, he struggled to reconcile his memories with civilian life. After one bad experience, when he felt his stories of the war were not believed by friends, he never spoke of his time in Burma. Trying to cope with such awful memories alone affected him badly, and he now says he became a “bastard”, “snarling at the slightest thing”.

His marriage fell apart, but when he met Liz, she slowly “got me out of a terrible state”. It took decades, but by 1995, the 50th anniversary of the war’s conclusion, he was ready to speak of his experiences. “I know what life means, so small things mean a lot,” he explains. “You never live until you have almost died.”


World War Two

Saving Private Ryan, review

October 16th, 2014

Saving Private Ryan (1998) was directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Robert Rodat. It stars Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Adam Goldberg, Jeremy Davies and Matt Damon. Certificate 15; running time: 169 minutes.

The opening 27-minute sequence is unforgettable, depicting the Omaha Beach assault of June 6, 1944 in a way that is as graphic as any war footage. You are forced to confront the chaos that faced the poor troops on the beach, as when a soldier has his arm blown off. He staggers, dazed, open to further fire, and then he bends and picks up his arm, as if he will need it later. Few film-makers have ever plunged the audience into the nowhere-to-hide horror of battle as Spielberg does in that opening. It’s a genuinely terrifying spectacle, and a moving tribute to the men who did it for real.

When the initial fighting is over, John Williams’s moving score accompanies a view of the carnage and we see the name ‘Ryan S’ on a corpse’s equipment. He is the third son of Mrs Ryan of Iowa to have been killed in the Second World War. There is a haunting scene when the news is broken to her at an idyllic hilltop farm.

Saving Private Ryan was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning five, including Best Director for Steven Spielberg

General George C Marshall decides that the fourth brother, Private James Francis Ryan, lost in Normandy with the scattered 101st Airborne, must be brought home alive and Captain John H Miller (Tom Hanks) is assigned to lead a small band of men through enemy lines to find and save Private Ryan, who is well played by Matt Damon.

Saving Private Ryan becomes a mission movie and although the bookish, decent intellectual facing up to the horrors of war for the first time is nothing new, it is a role played to perfection by Hanks.

Spielberg opens the film with three generations of an American family visiting a military graveyard in Nineties France, the grandfather clearly on an emotional pilgrimage. Spielberg is an admirer of British wartime filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and the elderly veteran’s wife is played by Kathleen Byron, who appeared in several of their films.

The climactic stand in the town of Ramelle still packs a fearsome punch and although it is a tough film to watch, there is a message of hope. “Earn it,” Miller says to Ryan in one key scene. It is the audience Spielberg is addressing.


World War Two

The day Churchill saved Britain from the Nazis

October 16th, 2014

The question before the meeting was very simple. Should Britain fight? Was it reasonable for young British troops to die in a war that showed every sign of being lost? Or should the British do some kind of deal that might well save hundreds of thousands of lives?

I don’t think many people of my generation are fully conscious of how close we came to such a deal. There were serious and influential voices who wanted to begin “negotiations”.

It is not hard to see why they thought as they did. The War Cabinet was staring at the biggest humiliation for British armed forces since the loss of the American colonies, and there seemed no way back.

Everyone in that room could imagine the consequences of fighting on. They knew all about war; some of them had fought in the Great War, and the hideous memory of that slaughter was only 22 years old. There was scarcely a family in Britain that had not been touched by sorrow. Was it right – was it fair – to ask the people to go through all that again? And to what end?

It seems from the Cabinet minutes that the meeting more or less kicked off with Halifax. He went straight to the point.

The Italian embassy had sent a message, he said: that this was Britain’s moment to seek mediation via Italy. This was not just a simple overture from Mussolini: it was surely a signal from his senior partner. Coiling itself round Whitehall and penetrating the heart of the House of Commons, it was a feeler from Hitler.

Churchill knew exactly what was going on. He told Halifax to forget it. Britain had been at war with Germany, and had been since September 1 the previous year. It was a war for freedom and for principle. The minute Britain accepted some Italian offer of mediation, Churchill knew that the sinews of resistance would relax. A white flag would be raised over Britain.

So he said no to Halifax. In another country, the debate might therefore have been at an end. But that is not how the British constitution works: the prime minister is primus inter pares – first among equals; he must to some extent carry his colleagues with him; and to understand the dynamics of that conversation, we must remember the fragility of Churchill’s position.

He had been prime minister for less than three weeks, and it was far from clear who were his real allies round the table. Attlee and Greenwood, the Labour contingent, were broadly supportive; and the same can be said for Sinclair the Liberal. But it was the Tories on whom he depended for his mandate – and the Tories were far from sure about Winston Churchill.

Neville Chamberlain, second left, meeting Mussolini in Rome

From his very emergence as a young Tory MP he had bashed and satirised his own party; he had then deserted them for the Liberals, and though he had eventually returned to the fold, there were too many Tories who thought of him as an unprincipled opportunist.

Halifax had been over to see Hitler in 1937 – and he had an embarrassing familiarity with Goering. But in his own way, Halifax was a patriot as much as Churchill.

He thought he could see a way to protect Britain and to safeguard the Empire, and to save lives; and it is not as if he was alone. The British ruling class was riddled with appeasers and pro-Nazis. It wasn’t just the Mitfords, or the followers of Sir Oswald Mosley.

In 1936 Lady Nelly Cecil noted that nearly all of her relatives were “tender to the Nazis”, and the reason was simple. In the Thirties, your average toff was much more fearful of Bolshevism, and communisms’ alarming ideology of redistribution, than they were fearful of Hitler. Indeed, they saw fascism as a bulwark against the reds, and they had high-level political backing.

David Lloyd George had been so dazzled by the Führer that he compared him to George Washington. Hitler was a “born leader”, declared the befuddled former British prime minister. He wished that Britain had “a man of his supreme quality at the head of affairs in our country today”. This from the hero of the First World War!

The Daily Mail had long been campaigning for Hitler to be given a free hand in eastern Europe, the better to beat up the bolshies. “If Hitler did not exist,” said the Mail, “all western Europe might now be clamouring for such a champion.”

The Times had been so pro-appeasement that the editor, Geoffrey Dawson, described how he used to go through the proofs taking out anything that might offend the Germans. The press baron Beaverbrook himself had sacked Churchill from his Evening Standard column on the grounds that he was too hard on the Nazis. Respectable liberal opinion – theatre types like John Gielgud, Sybil Thorndike, GB Shaw – was lobbying for the government to “give consideration” to talks.

Of course, the mood had changed in the last year; feelings against Germany had hardened. All I am saying – in mitigation of Halifax – is that, in seeking peace, he had the support of many British people, at all levels of society. And so the argument went on, between Halifax and the prime minister, for that crucial hour.

It was a stalemate; and it was now – according to most historians – that Churchill played his masterstroke. He announced that the meeting would be adjourned, and would begin again at 7pm. He then convened the Cabinet of 25, ministers from every department – many of whom were to hear him as prime minister for the first time.

The bigger the audience, the more fervid the atmosphere; and now he made an appeal to the emotions. Before the full Cabinet he made a quite astonishing speech – without any hint of the intellectual restraint he had been obliged to display in the smaller meeting.

He began calmly enough: “I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man.”

And he ended with this almost Shakespearean climax: “And I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

At this the men in that room were so moved that they cheered and shouted, and some of them ran round and clapped him on the back.

Churchill had ruthlessly dramatised and personalised the debate. By the time the War Cabinet resumed at 7pm, the debate was over; Halifax abandoned his cause. Churchill had the clear and noisy backing of the Cabinet.

Within a year of that decision – to fight and not to negotiate – 30,000 British men, women and children had been killed, almost all of them at German hands. Weighing up those alternatives – a humiliating peace, or a slaughter of the innocents – it is hard to imagine any modern British politician having the guts to take Churchill’s line.

He had the vast and almost reckless moral courage to see that fighting on would be appalling, but that surrender would be even worse. He was right.

‘The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History’ (Hodder & Stoughton, £25) can be ordered for £22 plus £1.95 p&p from books.telegraph.co.uk. Boris Johnson will be taking part in a Q&A with Gaby Wood on October 23 at Imperial College London


World War Two

What Hitler’s sex life was really like

October 15th, 2014

Yet inevitably it is their sex life that has filled tomes, because in sex, we believe, a person’s deepest essence is revealed. Rumours of homosexuality had dogged Hitler since the early Twenties, repeated in Munich newspapers and bolstered by his close relationship with Ernst Röhm, the homosexual head of the Sturmabteilung, the Nazi Party militia.

There is good reason to believe that he did have repressed homosexual tendencies, yet the dictator’s interest in women is also well-attested. He would invite actresses back to his apartment for “private performances”. One actress, Renata Müller, spread rumours about Hitler’s alleged proclivity for self-abasement, with suggestions that he knelt at her feet and asked her to kick him. When she fell to her death from a window in 1937, many questioned the verdict of suicide.

Even more eye-catching was the secret 1943 report from America’s Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA) which labelled Hitler an “impotent coprophile”. Based on claims from Otto Strasser, one of Hitler’s opponents in the Party, it alleged that the dictator forced his niece Geli to urinate and defecate on him. While it is hard to separate reality from politically inspired propaganda, Hitler’s obsession with the unfortunate Geli was probably the deepest of his life, and her suicide in his apartment brought him close to breakdown. Geli, like Eva, did not threaten him intellectually. “There is surely nothing finer than to educate a young thing for oneself,” he opined. “A lass of 18 or 20 years old is as pliable as wax.”

It is impossible to peer behind the bedroom door, but Amis’s speculation that Hitler was “sexually a void”, because of his obsession with hygiene, is contradicted by observers at the time, who suggest that Hitler and Eva did share a bed as a couple. They had interconnecting bedrooms at the Berghof and Hitler’s valet, Heinz Linge, attests that they would go to bed together.


Evidence suggests that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun did share a bed as a couple

While Hitler’s maid, Pauline Kohler, wrote that “Hitler is not strongly sexed”, Eva Braun’s correspondence reveals nothing unusual – certainly not along the lines of fully clothed sex – except that once war had broken out, Hitler was unable to get interested. She used to show her friends a 1938 photograph of Neville Chamberlain on a sofa in Hitler’s Munich flat, saying: “If only he knew what goings-on that sofa has seen!”

It would be surprising, as Amis says, that such a warped psychology as Hitler’s could ever be “a considerate and energetic lover”. Yet, once I began to write about the Nazi wives, I realised that the ability of mass murderers to compartmentalise their lives is one of their most disturbing aspects.

A new documentary about Himmler’s home life, called The Decent One, by the acclaimed filmmaker Vanessa Lapa, focuses on the tender personal letters between Himmler and his wife Marga, largely about their daughter Puppi, even as he perpetrated daily atrocities. It raises the same questions as Thomas Harding’s book Hanns and Rudolf, about the private life of Rudolf Höss, the Auschwitz commandant, whose children played just yards away from the camp, oblivious of the horrors occurring there.

Looking at the women who loved the Nazis is not prurient. It matters because viewing the Nazi leaders on the human scale – as fathers, lovers and husbands – is what makes their activities more repellent than ever.

Jane Thynne’s new novel A War of Flowers is published by Simon & Schuster on November 20


World War Two

Book claiming Vichy regime is ‘misunderstood’ and ‘tried to save Jews’ is France’s bestseller

October 14th, 2014

The work is the latest in a long line of books by French authors charting the alleged decline of a once great nation.

It argues that economic stagnation and immigration have damaged France’s national identity, but it stands out from its peers with its radical assertion that the Vichy regime is the victim of a historical orthodoxy that is blind to the realities of wartime France.

Mr Zemmour, the son of Jewish Berbers who emigrated from Algeria in the 1950s, argues that three quarters of France’s Jews were “saved by the strategy of [Vichy leader] Philippe Pétain and [wartime Prime Minister] Pierre Laval in the face of German demands”.

He claims in his 544-page book that the two leaders “sacrificed foreign Jews [living in France] in order to save French Jews” but that political correctness prevents this from being acknowledged.

Around 75,000 Jews – both French nationals and refugees – were sent from France to death camps. Only a handful survived.

Mr Zemmour in particular blames the US historian Robert Paxton – whose 1972 book “Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order” is credited with making the French aware of the complicity of the Vichy regime in the Holocaust – for distorting what he sees as the reality of wartime France.


World War Two