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Spain’s Nazi volunteers defend their right to recognition – and German pensions

November 30th, 2015

In total, Germany is still funding more €100,000 (£70,000) a year in pensions to the Blue Division. The payments, which typically run to around €400 per month, go mostly to men who were injured in the course of duty, and in some cases to their relatives. MP Andrej Hunko, the Left-wing MP whose parliamentary question brought about the revelation from Angela Merkel’s administration, now wants the arrangement halted.

But volunteers at a museum in Madrid that commemorates the 47,000 Spaniards who fought on the Eastern Front insist that however history may now interpret events, the payments are entirely legitimate.

“It’s a pension for maimed soldiers, a normal humane thing,” said Ignacio Martín, whose late father, Carlos Martín Monasterios, was unable to use his right arm properly due a shrapnel wound suffered while fighting for the Germans between 1942 and 1943.

Alfonso Ruiz (centre) and Juan Serrano (right) in a recent reunion

The pensions stem from a 1962 agreement between the Federal Republic of Germany and Franco’s Spain, under which Spain also agreed to pay money widows of Germany’s Condor Legion, the unit sent by Hitler to assist Franco’s side in Spain’s 1936-1939 civil war.

A source from Spain’s labour ministry told The Telegraph that, unlike Germany, Spain no longer honoured the 1962 deal and had not paid these pensions since Franco’s death in 1975. “Some applications have been received but they were rejected,” the source said.

‘People were really hungry, especially in the cities. If Franco hadn’t sent the division, Hitler would have invaded Spain’

For Alfonso Ruiz, vice president of the Blue Division Foundation which runs the museum, the criticism of Blue Division pensions is disrespectful to men who showed bravery in fighting for a cause they believed in. “It’s a disgrace that they want to take away pensions of no more than €400 a month from these men when immigrants just turn up in this country and get more.”

Mr Ruiz, whose father is among the estimated 200 volunteers who remain alive, said that since he took over day-to-day control of the foundation in 2011, he had taken care to sever any remaining links to far-Right organisations.

This included the remnants of the fascist Falange, whose blue shirts gave the name to the division. “People come in here expecting to see skinheads but it’s nothing like that,” he said.

Survivors meet on February 10 each year to mark the date in 1943 of the Battle of Krasny-Bor, when 70 per cent of the men in service were lost trying to halt the Soviet offensive around Leningrad. “I tell the younger people not to sing [the Falangist anthem] ‘Cara al sol’ and not to stiff-arm salute. But if some of the veterans do so, what can I say to men who are more than 90 years old?” said Mr Ruiz.

With Spain on its knees after the civil war, many Blue Division volunteers felt that they were helping General Franco to keep it out of the Second World War.

‘We were not Nazis, but we were Germanophiles’

“If Franco hadn’t sent the division, Hitler would have invaded Spain,” said Mr Serrano, who has not personally received a pension, but who is sympathetic to the cause of those who do. “Everyone in my house was with the Falange; I had grown up drinking that in.”

Historians have suggested that the Spanish soldiers, though guilty of a share of atrocities in the harsh conditions of the Eastern Front, conducted themselves better than their Nazi allies.

But when fortune began to turn against Hitler’s forces, however, Mr Serrano noted a change in attitudes towards him and his comrades. “The second time I was injured, a Madrid military hospital refused to even treat me. Our efforts were only ever recognised by Germany.”


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Voices of Remembrance: Veterans of World War Two describe their experiences

November 7th, 2015

Ammunition was limited though and pilots like Mr Farnes could only fire for around fifteen seconds in total before they ran out of bullets. “You would come down (on an enemy plane) have a quick burst of four or five seconds and then possibly break away and have a look round,” said Mr Farnes, “and if it was clear you’d go back and have another go.”

Laurie Weeden was also a pilot but his plane was a glider, flown into occupied France on D-Day. In the back of his Horsa glider he carried a jeep and an anti tank gun to be used by the Allies to recapture Northern France. “Ahead of us we could see the bombing of the Merville Battery,” he says, describing the coastal fortifications the Germans had set up to defend the coast, “ a line of tracer went up in front of us and as it hadn’t hit me I presumed it was (aimed for) the chap ahead of me. Or perhaps it was a German aiming at me and was not a very good shot.”

David Burke

Having trained with the Post Office before the war, David Burke arrived in Normandy as a signals sergeant on ‘D-Day + 2’, attached to Canadian forces.

In the subsequent advance through northern Germany, he witnessed Bergen-Belsen.

‘I’ll tell you about concentration camps: if you’re downwind of it, it can sicken you. You never forget the smell.’

Servicemen and women from the two World Wars and later conflicts will be remembered on Sunday at memorial services across the country, with the main service taking place at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London.


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VJ Day veterans remember their war: ‘We knew what we were doing was vital’

August 16th, 2015

But following the Japanese surrender, Mr Giddings was dispatched to assist the Dutch colonial government in Indonesia, then facing a nationalist insurgency for independence.

Back in 1940, at the start of it all, he had lied in order to do his bit. Aged 17, Mr Giddings headed to his nearest RAF recruitment station, in Gloucester, and told them he was 18 – allowing him to sign up. He said: “ After the Battle of Britain I thought ‘I’ve got to get in there, the Air Force needs me.’”

Following basic training in Skegness the teenager was among the first to put his name down when the call came for volunteers for overseas duty and in December 1941 he was posted to Air Headquarters Singapore.

He was lucky not to be captured before his war had even begun. On its way to Singapore his ship fortuitously broke down and when the rest of the convoy – which had sailed ahead to the British colony – was captured by the Japanese, it managed to make its way to Burma instead.

Here Mr Giddings fought with 17 Squadron, flying a Hawker Hurricane fighter. Overwhelmed by the Japanese in 1942, British forces retreated to India, where Mr Giddings took part in the four-month long defence of Agatala.

But his most dangerous mission was yet to come. In 1944 he signed up for “volunteers for hazardous duty” and found himself pitched into the battle of Kohima, north east India, where the Japanese were attempting to capture a key ridge held by British and Indian troops.

It was the task of Mr Giddings and his fellow volunteers to keep the defenders supplied, something they managed to do until the Japanese retreated on June 22 that year.

He rejoined 17 Squadron, this time flying Spitfires, and took part in the battle of Mandalay, which saw the Japanese overwhelmed by Allied forces – thanks in part to British supremacy in the air.

The battle, which raged from January to March 1945, proved a turning point in the war in the Far East and Mr Giddings and his squadron were subsequently ordered to take part in the recapture of Singapore, which had fallen to the Japanese in ignominious circumstances three years earlier.

By the time the men got to Singapore however, the Americans had dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Shortly after the Japanese surrendered, bringing the war to an end, and Mr Giddings and his comrades were met with no opposition.

With the war over Mr Giddings was given two weeks leave and hitchhiked back to Britain, only to be sent back to the far east to help Dutch forces fight what was ultimately a losing battle against Indonesian independence. It was, the 92-year-old now says, “almost as bad as Burma”.

After leaving the RAF in 1947 Mr Giddings, who joined fellow veterans in Saturday’s VJ parade along Whitehall, worked in engineering and insurance, while also serving as a civilian volunteer in the Royal Observer Corps as part of Britain’s Cold War defences. He went on to become Mayor of Banbury and is now the chairman of the Burma Star Association. In 2003 he was made an MBE for his services to the association.

THE SOLDIER

Dan Chapman, 92

Dan Chapman, aged 21 and in Wivenhoe on Friday (Martin Rose)

Dan Chapman was among thousands of British troops at sea preparing to invade Malaysia when he heard it was all over.

As the men of his 26th Indian Division braced themselves for the bitter fighting that would follow Operation Zipper’s imminent seaborne assault on Port Swettenham, south west of Kuala Lumpur, word spread that Japan had surrendered.

Mr Chapman, now 92, said: “This time 70 years ago we were waiting on board ship to land against the Japanese in Malaya. We were about to do the landing when the atom bomb was dropped and Japan surrendered. We were saved from invading at the critical last minute, saving many Japanese and Indian Army lives. I felt somewhat relived, to put it mildly. I think we were all pleased that it was over.”

With the planned invasion averted, the 26th Indian Division was diverted to Indonesia to take the surrender of the Japanese in Sumatra.

“We weren’t sure whether we were going to be met by bullets or surrender, so we were a bit apprehensive,” said Mr Chapman. “But it went off all right and eventually all the Japanese surrendered and were sent back to Japan.”

But Mr Chapman’s war continued for another 12 months, as the 26th Indian Division took part in anti-insurgency operations on behalf of the Dutch colonial government. “My war just carried on,” he said.

Born and bred in Barking, east London, he had joined the British Army in September 1941, just before his 18th birthday, having already experienced the terror of the Blitz and served in the Local Defence Volunteers and Home Guard.

After a year in the Royal Corps of Signals and the Royal Army Service Corps he was transferred to the South Staffordshire Infantry Regiment and posted to Bangalore, where he was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Garhwal Rifles, reaching the rank of Captain.

Mr Chapman, who was awarded the Burma Star and left the Army in 1947, went on to have three children and six grandchildren with Eileen, his wife of 65 years.

Seventy years on the retired bank manager joined other veterans at the Wivenhoe Branch of The Royal British Legion in remembering those who did not survive the war,

“I will mostly be thinking about lost comrades and some of the good times,” he said. “And just being alive.”

THE RADIO OPERATOR

Gladys Wilkins, 92

Gladys Wilkins as a young woman and at her home in Redbridge on Friday (Julian Simmonds)

Women like Gladys Wilkins played a key role in the war – a role only recognised in recent years for its true worth alongside the exploits and bravery of the front line troops.

A Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) radio operator, first at Flowerdown, near Winchester, then in Columbo, Ceylon – now Sri Lanka – it was her job to intercept enemy massages and relay them back to Bletchley Park for decoding.

The Flowerdown intercepts allowed the RAF to bomb German U-boats whose signals had been overheard by operators such as Mrs Wilkins. When she was transferred to Columbo, in January 1944, the coded messages she intercepted from Japanese forces again provided priceless intelligence for the allies.

“We were able to pin point a lot of the things they were doing,” said Mrs Wilkins, now 92. “We knew that what we were doing in helping defeat the enemy was vital.”

Just how vital became only too clear when the war ended and freed allied prisoners of war began to arrive in Ceylon en route to their home countries. Mrs Wilkins and her colleagues were there to meet them at the quayside to try and help the men, emaciated from their pitiless ordeal, become acclimatised to liberty once again.

To this day the thought of the men’s skeletal features still reduces Mrs Wilkins to tears.

“We’d meet the POW ships coming back to Columbo and take the men for a coffee, just to try and make them feel normal again. Seeing them come down the gangway in the state they were in was terrible. I shall never forget that,” she said. “We didn’t want to upset them, so we didn’t mention things like the Blitz or what had happened at home.”

While returning to Britain by boat, in 1948, Mrs Wilkins met her future husband, Stanley, who had fought behind enemy lines with the Royal Marines Special Operations (385 Detachment), carrying out sabotage raids after being dropped by submarine or boat near Japanese occupied territory.

The couple, who went on to have three children, moved to south west England, where Mr Wilkins worked as a vet before joining Dorset police and rising to the rank of Chief Inspector. He died eight years ago.

Before joining Saturday’s VJ commemoration parade, organised with help of Royal British Legion, Mrs Wilkins, who now lives in Redbridge, east London, said: “I’m very proud of what my husband did, but I’m also proud of all the people who never came back. And I shall be wearing my medals with pride.”


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Bletchley Park codebreakers 'dried their knickers on Hitler's Enigma machine'

November 13th, 2014

“It used to be festooned with bras and pants all through our night duty. Back then it must have looked a real sight.”

Mrs Balfour’s father had to give his permission for her join the Wrens in 1944 because she was under 18.

She spent six weeks training in London before being assigned to “Special Duties X” and posted to the secret facility near Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire.

She spent up to 10 hours a day sifting through reams of code and said they were never told where their work had actually succeeded.

The women were even forbidden from talking to each other about their individuals parts of the puzzle.

Mrs Balfour said: “We were given long strips of paper tape made by the Enigma machine and told to divide everything into fives.

“We used to get codes for the day, one I can remember is YO-SE-RO, a Japanese code for man.

“There were so many of them I can’t remember, but I’ve always remembered that one.

Wrens operating the world’s first electronic programmable computer, the Colossus (Bletchley Park Trust)

“None of us knew everything that we were working on. We each knew a bit, our own part of the puzzle, so if you were caught, you couldn’t tell them everything, even if they tortured you.

“We were told never to discuss with anyone else what we were doing.

“We never knew anything. We never knew what we had done, or if we had helped to actually crack the codes.

“I never even told my parents because we signed the Official Secrets Act, so they died without ever finding out what I was doing.”

Mrs Balfour, from Helensburgh, Scotland, said she and her fellow Wrens would see Turing walking about the grounds – often backwards as he read a book.

She said: “We used to see Alan Turing from time to time, and back then we used to giggle and laugh.

“We used to watch him walk backwards sometimes while reading a book, and we couldn’t help but giggle at him for how he acted.

“We thought he was queer for how he behaved.

“But I feel the government should formally recognise him for his work during the war. He did so much and his name has not yet appeared anywhere really.

“It’s too late for him now, but people should know what he did.

“I think because he was queer, he was pushed into the background, but all these people with these brilliant minds were a bit different in their own way.”


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Respect those who fight for their country – and for our freedom

November 9th, 2014

Fittingly, the online canadian pharmacy last of 888,246 poppies to complete the display will be planted on Armistice Day. That final poppy recalls the life of Pte George Edwin Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers. He was one of the first to be involved in the fighting at the outbreak of war, having participated in one of the British Expeditionary Force’s earliest campaigns at Mons, in 1914. He survived being gassed and the harrowing experience of the Somme, and is believed to have been the last British soldier to fall.

It is to the soldiers of the trenches, such as Pte Ellison, that our thoughts will inevitably turn today on Remembrance Sunday. Yet we must not forget that the attritional battle in the trenches was just part of a vast war effort by men and women, Service and civilian, from across the globe. It was a war fought over a sprawling canvas, both on land and at sea, defeating the U-boat blockade and winning the battle of the Atlantic.

But the poppies at the Tower don’t just remind us of the sacrifice of the soldiers, sailors and airmen of the First World War, but also of those who followed them in later conflicts – those who stepped on to the beaches of Normandy 30 years later, those who fought in Korea, and those who, more recently, have fought in the heat of Iraq and on the dusty plains of Helmand.

Particularly this year, as we conclude our combat operations in Afghanistan, we remember those who have died and who have suffered life-changing injuries. And we particularly think of their families.

Yet, at the same time as we remember their sacrifice, we should also remember their service. The thousands of personnel who served in Afghanistan from all three Services have achieved an enormous amount. Through their efforts, they have made that country more secure and ensured that millions more Afghans can receive an education and experience a better quality of life. They have put that country on a road to recovery.

Above all, they have succeeded in our principal strategic purpose: stopping terrorists from using Afghanistan to mount attacks on British people on British streets.

And already, our forces have turned their service to new threats – policing Baltic airspace to deter Russian aggression; targeting the Isil menace in Iraq; helping to combat the spread of Ebola in West Africa.

Reflecting on the service of our Armed Forces over the years has another powerful effect. By recalling their fortitude, we come to a greater appreciation of what service itself means.

We appreciate that those soldiers, sailors and airmen were not just fighting for their country, they were fighting for our freedom and our future. It is service that connects all our Armed Forces past, present and future.

So today, as we come together as a nation, either standing at the Cenotaph or conducting acts of remembrance, let there be pride for the service, as well as sorrow for the sacrifice.

We will remember the fallen not just with sadness, but also with eternal respect and gratitude, in the knowledge that we are living the future they fought for.


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