Posts Tagged ‘LIFE’

Inside the real life Dad’s Army training camp

February 3rd, 2016

Faced with all these leaderless recruits, the newly launched news magazine Picture Post decided to take matters into its own hands. Along with the rest of the media, it was forbidden by the Ministry of Information from reporting on almost anything directly related to the war. So, in the spirit of trailblazing tabloid journalism, the Post decided to make the news itself. In the process, it showed the War Ministry what it really ought to be doing – and set up an amateur training school for the eager volunteers and, years later, provided Jimmy Perry and David Croft, co-writers of Dad’s Army, with the storyline for the “Battle Camp” episode.

The Post set up its battle camp in the grounds of Osterley Park, a large Georgian estate to the west of London, funded by proprietor Edward Hulton, where volunteers could be trained in what editor Tom Hopkinson described as “’do-it-yourself’ war”.

As de facto guests of the estate owner, the Earl of Jersey, and unattached to the official war effort, they could be easily – and exclusively – photographed for the magazine. Hopkinson later recalled: “Hulton phoned the Earl and he came round at once. Yes, of course we could have his grounds for a training course; he hoped we wouldn’t blow the house up as it was one of the country’s showplaces and had been in the family for some time.’’

Trainees, or “first-class irregulars”, were instructed in the use of guns and grenades, camouflage, scouting, stalking and patrolling, self-defence and “ungentlemanly warfare”, such as attacking people from behind. The structure of the school was deliberately democratic. It provided a few hours of training a week for anyone prepared to learn the essentials of street fighting and guerilla warfare. There was to be no compulsory uniform, rank, parades or drill, no bayonet practice – and no living in.

The teaching staff were equally irregular. Camouflage techniques were taught by Roland Penrose, the surrealist painter, while Stanley White, leader of the Boy Scout’s Association – who had himself been taught fieldcraft by Robert Baden-Powell – gave instruction in “confidence and cunning, the use of shadow and of cover”. Bert ‘Yank’ Levy taught knife-fighting, while Hugh Slater, the man responsible for shooting practice, “when not fighting wars, is a painter and journalist”. Future Labour MP Wilfred Vernon was, “a mixer of Molotov cocktails, inventor of new bombs and rather mad”, according to Slater’s wife Janelia.

And, for three months, it really worked.

“The response was instant and fantastic,” wrote Hopkinson. “Our school could have been filled three times over.”

Naturally, Osterley also provided the Post with plentiful copy. Interspersed with photos, staff profiles and passionate op-eds were instructions on “Making Your Own Mortar for 38/6”, and the advice that “since powder taken from fireworks is not reliable”, they wrote, “we made our own gunpowder”.

As for weaponry, the Post again took matters into its own hands and arranged for a consignment of arms to be sent from the United States. “A shipload of assorted guns, revolvers and ammunition arrived for us in Liverpool,” said Hopkinson, “varying from gangsters’ tommy-guns to ancient buffalo guns and long rifles from the Louisiana Civil War of 1873. They even included ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt’s favourite hunting rifle.”

Captain Mainwaring will be played by Toby Jones

As a Quaker, Roland Penrose was a pacifist, but when he was approached by Hopkinson to teach disguise and camouflage techniques, he was happy to agree. “For two years, I was occupied playing boy-scout games with the Home Guard, giving lectures and demonstrations all over England and Wales in preparation for the invasion that never came,” Penrose wrote later. He put his experience to good use, writing the Home Guard Manual of Camouflage pamphlet which was later handed out to all army trainees on enlistment and contributed to the eventual redesign of military dress.

One of his best-known camouflague experiments involved his wife, the photographer Lee Miller. On a warm summer’s day, Miller and Penrose went to see their friends, the Gorers, in Highgate, north London, taking with them a large tub of olive-green ointment.

As he later wrote: “Lee, as a willing volunteer, stripped and covered herself with the paste. My theory was that if it could cover such eye-catching attractions as hers from the invading Hun, smaller and less seductive areas of skin would stand an even better chance of becoming invisible.” A photograph shows four characters splayed on a hot summer lawn, Penrose bare-chested, the Gorers uncomfortable, and Lee, naked, olive green and covered in shrubbery.

“Osterley’s greatest legacy was not the skills it taught, but the material it provided for British comedy”

The school was headed by Tom Wintringham, a veteran of the International Brigade who like many of the staff had direct combat experience from the Spanish Civil War and who was practiced in guerilla warfare techniques. He was also a bona fide Marxist, whose explicit aim was the overthrow of democratic government and its replacement with a Communist state.

In the end, the War Office solved the ‘Wintringham problem’ by taking over the school itself and building on its early successes. After three months of prominent coverage in the Post, and having trained several thousand volunteers, Osterley had done its job.

And that might have been that, if the strange history of the Picture Post battle school had not been spotted by a couple of foraging scriptwriters a few decades after the end of the war. As it turned out, Osterley’s greatest legacy was not the skills it taught, but the material it provided for British comedy. Those few vital months gave the Home Guard a kick-start – and Dad’s Army its inspiration.

• Bella Bathhurst is author of The Long Shot: The Story of the Picture Post. Dad’s Army is released on February 5


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UK’s biggest Second World War air raid shelter reveals life on Home Front

April 10th, 2015

Howard Green, the museum’s duty officer, said: “Chestergate, the street outside was busiest east-west routet the town; even at the levels of 1930s traffic it was too narrow. The long term was to cover over the River Mersey, which is where the M62 is.

“But in the interim, they decided to buy properties there and demolish them for widening and straightening.

“A lot of the older properties backing into the cliff had cellars and it seemed a pity to seal them up. There were things to be done, so there was talk of joining them together as an underground car park.

“The other thing was that in the lead up to the Second World War, local authorities had to establish public air raid shelters in towns.

“So they decided to join cellars together, get the grant for the air raid shelters, then they could get the money back twice by letting out the parking spaces.”

The biggest purpose built air raid shelter in the UK attracted terrified victims of the blitz from across Cheshire and Lancashire at the height of the war. The tunnels, dug into the sandstone cliffs running alongside the river Mersey in Stockport were state of the art in 1930s Britain, with electric lighting and flush toilets, and could hold up to 6,500 people.

Unfortunately for the council at the time, the car park proved impossible after the engineering survey.

Mr Green said: “The official capacity was 3,850, so outside they painted 4,000, but what they didn’t advertise was that they thought they could squeeze twice as many in if needs be.

“They were used extensively by people from Manchester and Salford, and even as far as Eccles.

“Stockport was less of a target, and the underground shelters were a particularly safe place, so they came on a regular basis, what they did was introduce season tickets, they were issued to locals, although you could write in if you had difficult circumstances. We still have some letters from people in Manchester who’d been bombed out several times.

The biggest purpose built air raid shelter in the UK attracted terrified victims of the blitz from across Cheshire and Lancashire at the height of the war. The tunnels, dug into the sandstone cliffs running alongside the river Mersey in Stockport were state of the art in 1930s Britain, with electric lighting and flush toilets, and could hold up to 6,500 people.

“It was really only a way of damping down demand, nobody was denied entrance in an alert.

“In the winter of 1940 and 41, it went up to 6,500, with another four sets of tunnel shelters. Once they had the format right, it was something that could be done elsewhere in the town, where they could get into red sandstone.

“If you know where to look you can see the blocked up tunnels of one set of shelters on the other side, where the M62 goes through Stockport; further back into hillside, you can see the tunnel cut short and bricked off.

“People are always surprised by is the extent of them, and just how much thought and planning went into them, we’ve had German visitors saying our government did nothing as elaborate.

“There were first aid posts, electric lighting and flush toilets, which people living in back to back cottages of town centres wouldn’t have had at home.”


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Watch: Holocaust survivor recalls life after Auschwitz

January 26th, 2015

70 years later, as the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Radil is among the dwindling population of survivors who was actually at Auschwitz, the most vivid symbol of Nazi cruelty, when the terror finally ended.

He said that he got through the nightmare thanks to a tremendous will to survive and an intense focus on returning home.

“Everyone wanted to survive and those who did asked themselves, ‘what do we do now?’ Your main and only goal was survival, so you had to look for another one,” he said.

“For me, it was to go home. But I didn’t know what or who I would find there. I knew that most of the people were murdered.

“So what really is home? It’s not a city, it is a family, but I knew the family would not be complete.”

In fact, only his father was still alive.

Radil, who has written a book about his life called “All Alone in Auschwitz at 14,” has also warned of a repetition of the kind of horror the Holocaust brought.

“It might be somewhere else, it may not concern Jews,” he said.

“It might be some different type of holocaust but when you have people that are unsatisfied, frustrated, who lack a lot and have no goal, and someone comes and provides them with a goal, some sort of goal, they can unite in hatred.”


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Catching rats and earning £1.85 a week: my brilliant life as a Land Girl

October 22nd, 2014

Ruth rented a room from a landlady in the village and spent every day working on the farm. She’d only had one month of training with several other Land Girls, as they were known, but was expected to help milk cows, gather crops, catch rats and carry out hard farm maintenance work.

“The only time I had off was Sunday morning between milking and I’d go to bed for a couple of hours,” she tells me. “Otherwise it was 6.30am till 5.30pm every day. It was constant hard physical work. If I’d been three months older, I might have joined the Wrens and married an admiral.”

The statue. Photo: RUTH DOWNING

For a former schoolgirl – whose father imported silks from Italy and France into Wales – it was not the lifestyle she was used to. The work was intense, and she was either working alone with ‘Pop’ on the farm, or eating meals with her landlady. It was only during threshing or other big events that outside work was brought in, and she’d have a chance to spend time with the other Land Girls.

“That was a busy time – it was quite fun, especially chasing the rats that came out,” she laughs. “It was very hard work but I enjoyed it – I was always pretty tough anyway. A lot of the jobs I think we did better than some men. They haven’t got the attention to detail that women have. I was accepted as a very hard-working farm labourer I suppose.

Ruth in her Land Girls uniform for the first time

“Other than work, there wasn’t really much to do at all, and we were always so tired. There was no television. I think mostly I went to bed quite early. We were working so hard there wasn’t time to be lonely.”

Even so, like most Land Girls, Ruth was often homesick. The only time she ever had off was a long weekend every three months, which she would use to visit her family. “My boss used to take me to Bristol and I’d do to the aerodrome and get on a funny bi plane with just one man and we’d fly over the Channel. These young men had just come out of the army and were bored to tears. They’d do the most horrendous loop-de-loops.”

She carried on working as a Land Girl for almost four years, spending almost every day in her dungarees. She earned around £1.85 for a minimum of 50 hours a week, which later increased to £2.85, but most of it went on her rent. “There was nothing to spend it on anyway,” she says.

For all the hard work, Ruth tells me she was happy. It’s why she has stayed in England ever since, and didn’t return to Wales after the war. Instead she stayed in Somerset, managing a farm, and went on to work as a dairy maid for Earl Waldegrave. When she was 26, she started selling calf food.

Ruth, 88, wading in a pond to get rid of pond weed

“These farmers all made passes at me,” she laughs. “I suppose it was quite unusual for a woman to be selling calf food. But that was when I met my husband.”

Her husband, who passed away 25 years ago, worked as a builder’s merchant, and once they were married, Ruth stopped her farm work. “He didn’t like that sort of thing. In those days men liked their wives to be wives. But the house and garden were so big that I was never out of a job.”

She also completed a Masters degree in local history – “it’s nice to have all those letters after your name” – and had three children, now in their 50s and 60s.

Now Ruth is glad that women aren’t expected to give up their careers anymore when they become wives, and jokingly whispers: “I think we’re superior to men really.” But she does believe in equality and says that she is a feminist: “I think we’re all pretty equal and in a lot of ways we’re better at some things than men and they’re better than us at others. We even out really.”

Almost 71 years have passed since Ruth became a Land Girl, and she tells me that it shaped her life: “Ever since then, right till now, I do a lot of physical work. I think it keeps you young.”

It’s why she thinks that young people today can learn from her experience, and she leaves me with some advice “I think a lot of [young people today] spend too long sitting around watching complicated things on the box that I don’t understand. Physical work is very good for everyone and I think everyone should become a bit more active. I’m 88 and I’m still gardening.”


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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


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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


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Life in pictures of the secret agent seductress

September 21st, 2014

Fifi’s job involved testing would-be British agents from the SOE’s “finishing school” at Beaulieu by turning up unannounced while they were engaged on 96-hour training missions in towns and cities around the country.

The rendezvous point was usually a hotel bar. Over drinks, the lonely agents – often from the Continent and suffering from homesickness – would blow their cover and confide in the sympathetic woman claiming to be a French journalist.

One official report noted that her looks were perhaps “too striking and foreign for English tastes” but suitable for Beaulieu students, who were mostly from the Continent. London-born Chilver was half-British and half-Latvian, and her education – first at a German school in Riga, then at the Sorbonne – gave her a distinctly European air.

After leaving the service, Chilver lived with her companion, Jean ‘Alex’ Felgate, a fellow SEO agent, from the 1950s until her death in 2007 aged 86. They bought a converted cider barn in the Forest of Dean and devoted their lives to tending its many acres, which they turned into an animal sanctuary.

Chilver let few people into her life. In her will, she asked to be cremated “without ceremony” and Felgate was the only mourner.

One of her few friends was Janice Cutmore, who cared for the couple in their final years. When Felgate died in 2011, she left part of her estate and all her wartime mementoes to Mrs Cutmore.

“It was an isolated house and they liked to be away from everybody. All their photographs were in an album, and the only ones on show were of their animals,” Mrs Cutmore said.

“Christine knew her mind and nothing would change it. But she was fair and when you got to know her she was lovely. I started off as their cleaner, but when Christine came out of hospital after a hip operation they gave her a carer and, Christine being Christine, she was not having any of it. So I asked if she would like me to look after her and she said yes.

“Alex told us a bit about Christine’s work after she died. She said Christine would go to a pub all dressed up and see which one of the new recruits would say, ‘Guess what I do for a living’.”

Jonathan Cole of the National Archives said Fifi became “a legend of SOE, a symbol of seduction – not surprising, since she’s said to have bedded trainee agents to find out whether they talked in their sleep”.

Chilver’s reports detail nothing of the sort, and appear to show that flirtation over drinks or dinner was enough to get the agents spilling their secrets.

As part of her cover as a supposed journalist she wrote an article for Housewife magazine about the differences between British and European men.

European men like a woman to be a woman, she wrote. “So make a routine of the little things. Keeping your smile fresh and the seams of your stockings straight. Sitting down with poise. Always walking, instead of striding along with swinging arms.”

Beneath the strong exterior, Chilver had family difficulties. She sent all earnings from her “very slender bank balance” to her deaf elder sister and ailing mother in Sweden, where they had fled when the Russian army invaded Latvia.

She published a book about her love for animals, which included oblique references to the war years. “Animals are magnificent teachers; they try so hard to make us behave in a manner of which we need not be ashamed,” she wrote.

“As a child I used to listen to our animals just as I listened to adult conversation. The little girl is now an old woman. She has lived to see some of the greatest horrors of all time.”


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‘If the sniper’s bullet had been just two feet to one side, my father’s life would have been over’

May 31st, 2014

Of course, I have no monopoly on being proud of a close relative’s part in the war effort: there are many people up and down the country whose fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers and cousins also played courageous roles in the fight against Nazi Germany.

However, my father was, unwittingly, largely responsible for my boyhood interest in bravery: something that quickly developed into a passion and one that has played a significant part in my life for more than half a century.

Eric Ashcroft, a gentle, kind, popular man with a wicked sense of humour, was always modest about his wartime exploits, but eventually, with much prompting from his persistent son, he told me of his terrifying experience on D-Day.

I was about 10 at the time and the conversation took place at our family home in Diss, Norfolk. I sat wide-eyed as he conjured up the metaphorical smell of fear and the physical smell of vomit as his landing craft crashed through the waves and approached Sword Beach. As part of Operation Overlord, more than 155,000 men came across the Channel in some 5,000 vessels to land on five beach areas, each given a codeword.

Lord Ashcroft with his father after the war

Decades after my father filled me with pride over his exploits, he gave a recorded interview to the Imperial War Museums (IWM) that remains in their archives.

As he landed on an area of Sword Beach designated for the assault by his Battalion of The South Lancashire Regiment, he and his comrades were greeted by anti-tank, mortar, machine-gun and rifle fire, most of it from the main German defence strongpoint, codenamed “Cod”.

My father, the battalion signals’ officer, described his run up the beach: “About two-thirds to high watermark, I was knocked sideways when, so it would appear now, an 88mm splinter struck my right arm as I was moving across the beach… I just kept moving until the party got cleared of the beach and took stock of our position some 200 yards inland.”

When my father paused beneath a bank with the enemy beach wire just ahead, he applied a field dressing to his bloodied wound and crouched besides his CO. “Colonel [Richard] Burbury was about two feet away from me and the next thing I knew he rolled to his side and was shot in the chest,” my father said. His CO had been killed by a sniper.

Eric Ashcroft during the war

Lieutenant Colonel Burbury’s life was over, aged 38, and, soon afterwards, my father’s war was effectively over, too: but not before his battalion had moved on later the same day to seize the village of Hermanville less than a mile away. My father was eventually ordered from the battlefield and received treatment, first, at the regimental aid post and, later, on the hospital ship returning to Britain.

As I reached my teens, the initial interest in bravery that my father had generated grew and grew. I became the schoolboy geek who knew more about the Normandy landings than any of my contemporaries.

Courage is a truly wonderful quality, yet it is so difficult to understand. You can’t accurately measure it, you can’t bottle it and you can’t buy it, yet those who display it are, quite rightly, looked up to by others and are admired by society. Wiser men than me have struggled to comprehend gallantry and what makes some individuals risk the greatest gift of all – life itself – for a comrade, for Queen and country or sometimes even for a stranger.

Yet, perhaps, ultimately we do not have need fully to understand why individuals display courage; all we need do is admire it. Over the years, my passion for bravery, in general, transformed itself into one for gallantry medals, in particular.

Such medals are the tangible record of an individual’s service and courage. When I was in my early twenties, I hoped one day to own a Victoria Cross, the ultimate decoration in Britain and the Commonwealth for bravery in the face of the enemy.

Shortly after my 40th birthday and by then fortunate enough to have made a little money as an entrepreneur, I bought at auction my first VC: a decoration that had been awarded to Leading Seaman James Magennis during the final year of the Second World War.

Today, from that modest start, the collection is comfortably the largest in the world. In 2008, I made a sizeable donation so that the VCs could go on display in a new, purpose-built gallery at IWM, London, along with decorations already in the care of the museum. The gallery was opened in November 2010 by the Princess Royal, and today I am the proud owner of 183 VCs and 14 George Crosses, the latter being Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious award for gallantry not in the face of the enemy.

I have written four books on bravery, I have a monthly column in Britain at War magazine and I write widely for national and regional newspapers about courage. Furthermore, I regularly lecture on gallantry up and down the country.

My continuing aim is simple: to highlight great acts of courage and to ensure that those brave men who carried them out, whether they lived or died following their actions, are not forgotten.

On a personal level, I credit the conversation I had with my father nearly 60 years ago for leading to my passion for gallantry. Indeed, when the VC and GC gallery bearing my name was unveiled four years ago, I publicly dedicated it to him.

My father was one of the fortunate wartime servicemen: he made a full recovery from his injuries, was promoted to captain, survived the war, had a satisfying career as a colonial officer and, eventually, died in February 2002, a month before his 85th birthday.

As the 70th anniversary of D-Day approaches, I am glad that I travelled to Sword Beach and stood, for the first time, where my father was wounded and where so many of his comrades fell. Matt Limb, my enthusiastic and knowledgeable battlefield guide, was able to pinpoint, to within a few yards, the exact spot where my father had landed.

I also visited Hermanville War Cemetery to lay a poppy cross at the grave of Lieutenant Colonel Burbury. Incidentally, his gravestone wrongly gives his date of death as June 7 1944 – rather than June 6 – and, for the sake of accuracy, I am going to investigate how it might be corrected.

In an area of more than 1,000 war graves and with birdsong as the only sound, I contemplated the thin margin between life and death. If the sniper’s bullet had been just two feet to one side, my father’s life would have been over, aged just 27, and I would never have been born.

Lord Ashcroft at Hermanville War Cemetery at the grave of his father’s CO, Lt Colonel Richard Burbury (JULIAN SIMMONDS FOR THE TELEGRAPH)

At Pegasus Bridge Café Gondrée, the first house liberated by the Allies at the dawn of D-Day, I was given a warm welcome for lunch by the charming Arlette Gondrée, whose parents lived in the property during the German occupation with their three young daughters. It is the sort of welcome she and her family have generously extended to the British veterans for seven decades.

On Friday, as the veterans gather in Normandy for their “swan song”, I will join the rest of the nation in paying my respects to all the courageous individuals who turned the course of the war in the Allies’ favour with the greatest sea invasion in history.

However, given all that he did for me, I hope I will be forgiven if just one of those brave young men remains at the forefront of my thoughts for much of the day: Eric Ashcroft, my father, my inspiration, my hero.

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a Tory peer, international businessman, philanthropist and author. For more information on his life and work, visit www.lordashcroft.com. For more information on his VC collection, visit www.lordashcroftmedals.com. Follow him on Twitter @LordAshcroft


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Britain’s Schindler saved my life

May 20th, 2014

One of the children evactuated, Lord Dubs, said he was in no doubt that Sir Nicholas had saved his life.

Lord Dubs said the founder of the Czech Kindertransport was “one of the most incredibly wonderful human beings of the present age. I owe my life to him, so do many others owe our lives to him.”

“I can remember some of it extremely vividly. It’s quite astonishing – people are surprised. I can still see my mother standing in Prague station. A German soldiers with a swastika nearby. Mother looking very anxious to say goodbye. All the mothers and parents looking very anxious to say goodbye to their children, in some cases for the last time,” he said.

Barbara Winton, Sir Nicholas’ daughter, said her father, who turned 105 on 19 May, “doesn’t like looking back into history.”

“People say to him ‘you’ve done a wonderful thing, you’re a hero. What you did was fantastic, you’re a superman. And he says no, I was an ordinary human being. I understood what was going on in the world, and I acted in an ethical way based on my knowledge and my compassion,’” she said.

To honour Sir Nicholas’ achievement, the government of the Czech Republic has informed him he is to be bestowed with the Order of the White Lion, its highest state honour.


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Survivor of WW2 crew who fought in Antarctica reveals life in ‘alien’ waters

April 13th, 2014

For 70 years, little has been known about this most peculiar episode of the Second World War. Even the men involved never quite knew what they were doing there, improbably told that their secret mission, codenamed Operation Tabarin, was designed to deter German U-boats from lurking in Antarctic waters.

Now, for the first time, Mr James, the last surviving member of the Scoresby’s crew, has spoken to the Telegraph about the expedition. Mr James, the youngest on board the ship, discloses the harsh conditions endured by the crew as they spent two years in the Southern Ocean.

He has broken his silence as a new book, Operation Tabarin: Britain’s Secret Wartime Expedition to Antarctica, argues that the operation’s true objective was to assert Britain’s claim to the continent and defend whaling revenues against incursions by Argentina.

A copy of George James’ book, Operation Tabarin (Dimitris Legakis/ Athena)

Foreshadowing the Falklands conflict four decades later, the book charts how a rumbling territorial dispute between the two nations erupted at the height of the war as Argentina claimed the South Shetland and South Orkney islands, 800 miles south of the Falklands.

The heroic age of exploration, of course, had seen British missions to the Antarctic long before Tabarin. In the early 20th century, explorers including Scott and Shackleton regularly explored the islands. But Britain saw no value in the territory and did little to formalise or entrench its claim, letting Argentina take over one of its meteorological stations in 1904.

All this changed when overfishing depleted Arctic waters and the lucrative whaling industry largely transferred to the Antarctic. It soon took off, and the Treasury began charging for whaling licenses, swelling Britain’s coffers.

Argentina was appalled, but did little besides sending a few furious diplomatic notes asserting their territorial claim. Then, when war broke out in 1939, the neutral country seized the chance to reinforce its claim while the Colonial Office had rather more pressing occupations.

“By 1941, Argentina quite rightly thought the war was going the way of the Axis powers,” said Stephen Haddelsey, the book’s author. “Would Britain have either the will or the resources to challenge them if they staked a physical claim to the territories? They thought not.”

So, in early 1942, the Argentines sent a ship to Deception Island, a tiny volcanic whaling station in the South Shetlands, where they flew the Argentine flag and buried a cylinder with a formal note proclaiming their territorial rights.

When the Colonial Office heard of this, however, our mandarins’ response was not at all what Argentina had predicted. The War Cabinet was determined to respond, to protect vital revenues in the region and prevent a precedent being set that might encourage incursions elsewhere in the Empire.

The war was still at too delicate a point to provoke outright conflict with Argentina, however, especially as Britain was dependent on substantial cargoes of beef from South America. So the U-boat myth was put about to provide cover for the operation.

“They used the war as a front for aims that had nothing to do with the conflict,” said Haddelsey. “They were trying to avoid an escalation on the ground, but at the same time achieve an unambiguous statement of British intentions.”

To the crew of the Scoresby, however, those intentions could hardly have been more ambiguous. As the trawler set sail from the Falklands on 29 January 1944, few of the men on board knew why the Antarctic had suddenly become so crucial. When Captain Andrew Taylor assumed command of the operation from its original leader, James Marr, a year later, Marr left him with no instructions.

George James (R) with other crew members on HMS William Scoresby circa 1944 (Dimitris Legakis/ Athena)

“A few reasons were put out. We were told it was to do with the Germans but when it came to it, the first party to go down were mainly scientists,” said Mr James. “Now that’s not going down to fight off Germans, is it?”

The crew’s first months in the Antarctic, where the average temperature is minus 10 degrees centigrade, were tough. They moved from island to island constructing rudimentary bases from timber and depositing a handful of scientists at each. But they spent most of their time adjusting to the conditions.

“It was completely alien to all of us,” said Mr James. “Life was in the raw. It was hard going at times but it was a bit of a thrill to think you were there. It was a magical place – we’d be breaking through the ice with ice cliffs on either side.”

As the Scoresby charted new territory, Mr James took photographs on a Box Brownie he had smuggled aboard. Last week, he dug them out again. In one, a colony of penguins climbs up the ice from the ocean, huddling together for warmth. In another, a young Mr James shivers, despite wearing several pairs of gloves and a windcheater.

Mr James – known to the crew as “Sparks” – would rewire lights and send messages as the ship sailed. The war was at its height but there was no conflict here. There were no Argentines to be seen, and Mr James had to face another enemy entirely. “I was once chased along a beach by a sea leopard, with its mouth wide open,” he said. “The penguins would get a bit shirty, too, and have a nip at your legs.” On one occasion, a colony of 10,000 penguins took over one of their bases, entirely surrounding it. Rather than face them down, the crew built another hut.

At last, a year into the mission, the Scorseby spotted its first – and only – Argentines, defending their meteorological station on Laurie Island, part of the South Orkneys. Yet the crew could not have had a more hospitable reception. Six of the original Argentine party of 10 men had died, and were buried by their fellow men with wooden stakes behind the hut. After being cut off with no supplies for 18 months, they were delighted to meet the advancing Brits.

“They were lovely to us,” explained Mr James. “They came down to the beach to meet us, crying. We gave them cigarettes and edam cheese. The wireless operator got so excited that he put his arms round me. He took all the badges off his uniform and gave them to me.”

In fact, boredom was a much more persistent danger. “It upset some people a lot. One man got quite scary about it and tried to influence the skipper to turn back. But that didn’t happen, of course.”

To buoy morale, the men amused themselves. Sparks had his knitting; others took up drawing or draughts. In the evenings, they would play records on an old gramophone.

Food was tinned – but there was one exception, which was strictly forbidden and which Mr James is still reluctant to disclose seven decades later. “We weren’t supposed to take them but we used to get penguin eggs. We made omelettes out of them, which were bloody awful. The yoke was blood red and the ‘white’ was grey.”

They kept track of the war back home over the wireless, and soon learnt of the Allied breakthrough. On VE day, the engineer was disciplined for blowing the ship’s whistle in celebration without permission.

In 1946, Mr James returned to Cardiff, where he still lives. He was finally able to tell his mother, Annie, who thought her son had served in the Falklands, about the expedition. But he quickly resumed his old job at the builders’ merchants, and has only now thought to tell anyone else his story.

This was not, however, the end of Operation Tabarin. With Germany defeated, Whitehall could no longer rely on the excuse of U-boats to justify its Antarctic presence. At the end of 1945, Tabarin was rebranded the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey, using the same bases and many of the same personnel. In 1962, it became known as the British Antarctic Survey.

Over the years, the survey has been responsible for some of the most important breakthroughs in modern science, including the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer – which plays a crucial role in explaining climate change – in the Eighties.

Today, the survey employs 400 staff, studying rises in sea level and biodiversity. “This is the legacy from Operation Tabarin,” said Linda Capper, the survey’s head of communications. “They opened up the continent for science. It is a unique laboratory that tells us so much about how our world works.”

The Argentines are still there, too. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1961, named the continent as an international region of science, but it suspended rather than annulled territorial claims over the islands, which both Britain and Argentina still assert.

“I don’t think that failure to scotch the Argentinean claims can be said to make Operation Tabarin a failure,” said Haddelsey.

“The important thing was it re-established Britain in competition with Argentina. Seventy years later, I think the men would be amazed at the legacy they have left. It is one continuous thread.”

As for George James, he still gets a Christmas card from the scientists at the base every year. “All is well and the ship visits have been numerous even in November,” read the latest one. “It is going to be a long season.”

He regrets never having returned to the islands. But, a few years ago, his grandson, Rhys, served as second officer on the first cruise liner to tour Deception Island. Mr James has spent many happy hours with Rhys swapping notes.

All these years later, Mr James is fiercely proud of our continuing commitment to the continent. “If Tabarin was really to do with ambition, it seems the ambition has come to fruition,” he said. “It was the start of something big.”

Operation Tabarin: Britain’s Secret Wartime Expedition to Antarctica 1944-46 (The History Press, RRP £18.99) is available to order from Telegraph Books at £16.99 + £1.35 p&p. Call 0844 8711514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk


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