Tag Archives: Second World War

The Hillman Bunker Complex

As today is the anniversary of D-Day, I thought I’d put up a few photos of my recent trip to Normandy, specifically looking at the Hillman Bunker complex.

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The Hillman bunker complex is a 24 hectare site made up of 18 concrete bunkers crisscrossed by trenches. The site was a defensive command post on the Côte de Nacre, but was unfinished when the Allies arrived on D-Day. Originally it was surrounded by  barbed wires and a mine field, and designed to provide an observation platform

It was captured by the 1st Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment who overran the position after landing at Sword Beach that morning. It saw considerable heroism and acts of tenacious attack on defence – on both sides. There was J Hunter’s charge which singlehandedly led to the capture of one of the outlying bunkers, and the stubborn defence of Colonel Krug and his men from the 736 Grenadier Regiment, who held out overnight with two other officers and 70 men – only surrendering the following day.

The Hillman complex is now a memorial to the Suffolk Regiment, and is a great site to explore, with much of it still open to visitors. There are three main bunkers with Tobruk pits that you can climb up inside (complete with range indicators based on church steeples), observation cupolas, trenches, a water reservoir, a cook house, a guard post… even the old water tank – all of which you can see in the pictures below.

 

 

Hillman is easy to find, and definitely worth a visit. It is on the Rue Suffolk Regiment, just south of Colleville-Montgomery. It can be reached by following the D60 north out of Caen, then turning north-east onto the D60 into Colleville-Montgomery.

Hillman may be off the beaten track, and is not often featured on the regular tourist trail, but I would highly recommend going. From it you can look down to the coast and Sword Beach, past another former German gun emplacement, and really get a sense of how far in land the British were trying to push on D-Day.

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New Military Museum!

I’ve just seen that a new military museum has opened in Mons in Belgium, which looks like a fantastic site!

A redevelopment of an older site, the Mons Memorial Museum has been (re)open since April 2015, and looks to cover the military history of the region from the Middle Ages to the end of the Second World War. I imagine their displays on the First World War, in particular, will be popular given the significance of the Mons region. It was the site of the BEFs first pitched battle in the First World War where on 23 August the first two VCs of the war were won by Sidney Godley and Maurice Dease of the Royal Fusiliers. It is also where the first and last British Commonwealth casualties of the First World War are buried (as I’ve previously blogged about) However, it is interesting to note that they also deal with the social history of Mons under occupation – an increasing trend amongst military museums that are looking to branch out from “traditional” military narratives and engage a wider audience.

Their philosophy is:

The history museum has therefore been transformed into a place where questions are asked and where new technologies (e.g. 3D projectors, “serious games”, interactive tables) are utilised to give form and depth to the historical content. The use of testimonies such as interviews and letters is also at the heart of the concept, which emphasises the notion of passing on the baton, of conveying history.

You can visit it’s website here. It certainly looks as if it will be an important place to visit on the heritage trail, and will no doubt become a mainstay in World War I battlefield tours. They have even put a special exhibition on about Napoleon, so clearly going for a broad remit. Certainly I’ll try and get a visit in soon!

A screen shot of the museum's website

A screen shot of the museum’s website

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In the Footsteps of Easy Company in the Battle of the Bulge

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Recently I was able to spend a day in Bastogne in Belgium tracing some of the history of the Battle of the Bulge.

Unsurprisingly, much of the town is given over to the tourist trade, and in particular the story of the 101st Airborne. This was further immortalised in Stephen E Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, which focused on the story of Easy Company, 506th PIR, 101st Airborne, and the subsequent HBO TV mini-series that was a global success.

The town itself remains one large museum to the Battle of the Bulge, 16 December 1944 – 25 January 1945, which is otherwise known as Le Bataille des Ardennes. Bastogne was central to the fighting, it’s network of 11 hard-topped roads providing essential routes for tanks through otherwise heavy countryside. It was defended throughout by the 101st Airborne, along with Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division who became encircled in the town. For a the visitor, this therefore makes it a great place to explore, but one that needs more than one day (which regrettably I didn’t have!).

The main square is now named Place General McAuliffe, and there is a statue to honour the acting commanding officer of the 101st throughout the siege.

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Alongside this statue is the most photographed monument in Bastogne, a M4A3 Sherman tank that had served in the 41st Tank Battalion, Company B of the 11th Armored Division. The tank, called “Barracuda”, was under command of Staff Sgt. Wallace Alexander, was put out of action near Renaumont, a few kilometres west of Bastogne, on 30th December 1944. It still shows some battle scars, including a hole where a German shell penetrated the armour on the left hand side, with another at the rear of the tank.

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However, the major attraction of a visit to Bastogne, much because of Ambrose’s book and the subsequent TV series, is the opportunity to walk the same ground as Easy Company. While there are no direct signs, I found that this is actually fairly easy to do. For starters, there’s the Airborne Museum inside the old officer’s mess near Place General McAuliffe.

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However, I was keen to get out in the field, so headed away from the town centre. The first stop was on the Bizory-Foy road, for the specific Easy Company memorial. This is actually located closer to the hamlet of Bizory, which is to the North-East of the centre of Bastogne. It commemorates the 14 men killed during the Battle of the Bulge, and was dedicated on 10th June 2005.

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Following the road onwards towards Foy, I began to pass through the Bois Jacques. It was here that Easy Company took up positions and were extensively shelled before attacking the town of Foy on 13th January 1945. I was keen to see if I could find any of the old positions, but was a little sceptical given that the forest is logged commercially, and so has been subject to substantial change. Pulling over on the side of the road I was able to wonder between the pines.

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It’s a very peaceful place today.

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I was also extremely lucky that I was able to find the remnants of fox holes:

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From here, you could see out across a broad front and down into the town of Foy, which in 1945 housed a German force. The town is just beyond the electricity pylon behind the tree in the foreground.

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As you can see, there was a lot of open country to cross before reaching what remains a tiny town.

We passed through on our way to rejoin the main road to Bastogne. On the other side of Foy there is another poignant memorial, though unrelated to Easy Company, marking the site of the original US cemetery at Foy, one of several containing the casualties, and which held 2,701 US troops killed during the Battle of the Bulge until 1948.

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There was also this rather moving inscription on the monument:

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I would certainly recommend a trip to Bastogne to anyone who’s in the area. I only had a few hours but was able to cram in a lot, as the battlefield is quite small. The town of Bastogne itself is also really nice, and would be a good base from which to spend a few days exploring the site more fully!

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Revolution and Reform: Problems with British Infantry Training in the Second World War

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Please forgive the length of this post but there are some fairly complicated issues at work. As always comments are welcome!

When the Wehrmacht had thrown the BEF off the continent in 1940 with seemingly comparative ease, senior British commanders began to realise that perhaps, unthinkably, their troops were simply not as good as their German enemies. Training in the British Army remained ad hoc, and combat training was barely adequate. As often occurs in war, crises at the Front resulted in reinforcements being despatched with less and less training. According to Field Marshal Montgomery, the Eighth Army had in 1942 ‘suffered some 80,000 casualties since it was formed, and little time had been spent in training the replacements.’[1] For example, in September 1942, of 860 reinforcements posted to the 50th Division, Eighth Army, only one quarter had done any field firing at all, seven had never previously fired a rifle, nine had never fired a Bren gun, 131 had never thrown a live grenade and 138 had never fired a Thompson submachine gun![2] It was a similar case elsewhere within the army, Brigadier Money recognising that ‘the individual skill-at-arms of the average soldier is low and must be improved.’[3]

As part of the drive to improve training, and from 1941 new recruits still stationed in England were taught the new battle drill. The main aim of this was ‘infusing some of the realities of the modern battlefield into what many discerning commanders call the outworn pageantry of the parade ground.’[4] Officers and men embarked upon several exercises, including an assault course in full kit with loaded weapons. According to the desires for realism, live ammunition was fired at and around recruits as they went through manoeuvres for the first time. Firing live ammunition over the heads of trainees encouraged them to keep their heads down, and to keep themselves concealed. Another exercise was the ‘haunted-house’, designed to teach house-to-house fighting. A party of recruits was despatched with loaded weapons and live ammunition into a building filled with smoke as to reduce visibility. Figure targets of Germans popped up at the small squads of men as they made their way through the dim interior of the building, the object being to test reactions and fire-control, as it would be more than possible to hit an accompanying squad-mate in the confusion. These exercises were effectively drill under fire and duress, the exact conditions the soldiers would face in combat, and tested their skill and endurance levels, as well as creating a greater sense of comradeship.

The desire for realism also gave rise to the Divisional Battle Schools, set up by Lieutenant General Paget, Commander-in-Chief of Home Forces, in early 1942. However, rather than the individual soldiers who learnt the new battle drill, it was regimental leaders who went to divisional battle schools. They would then instruct those under their command with what they had learned, ‘for it is for the students to return to their units and spread the gospel.’[5] While this was the same, previously maligned, method as had been in place during the inter-war period, it was believed that now the students were being taught the correct message, it was an appropriate form of ensuring that the Army adopted that message at all levels. However, there was the potential for serious problems as no two schools were alike in their ‘personality and methods’[6] for teaching battle drill.

However, the new battle drill and Battle Schools obviously failed to revolutionise the Army immediately. When Brigadier Money attended a Battle School with several, though significantly not all, companies of his brigade, he found that ‘throughout the first camp and at the commencement of the second… an atmosphere of urgency, determination and reality was absent.’[7] Furthermore, the lessons of the Battle Schools were available only for those divisions fortunate enough to still be in Britain. Those on active service overseas persevered in their outdated, and inferior, training techniques. For Neil McCullum, fighting with the Eighth Army in North Africa, his training between combat comprised of re-learning petty drill such as correct posture when talking to superiors, or the correct way to fold a blanket, and ultimately surrendering the individuality the soldiers had lost at basic training but regained in combat.[8] Similarly, the War Diary of the 6th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, contains the ‘Training Programme for Week Ending 10th January 1942’ when it was stationed in Palestine, which reveals the predominance of ‘digging.’ For all four rifle companies, miscellaneous, unspecified digging was the primary training activity, interspersed with a few live action exercises, such as field firing for the mortar platoon and ‘mountain warfare’ for the rifle companies.[9] That the ‘Training Programme for Week Ending 18th January 1942’ was exactly the same suggests this was the normal course of events. While it would no doubt have been difficult to impart the lessons of the new battle drill to troops already overseas, the contrast between the lessons learnt at Battle Schools and those in Palestine with the 6th DLI demonstrates a marked change in how the Army approached infantry training in 1941-2.

There were also criticisms surrounding the sense of realism incorporated in the new battle drill. For example, when bayoneting dummies students were spattered in sheep’s blood. Recruits were also shown images of German atrocities, or attended lectures on such atrocities committed in conquered countries, such as Poland, by a member of that country’s embassy.[10] But most sinister of all, when carrying out exercises, students were actively encouraged to hate their enemy. One group completed an assault course, complete with bayoneting dummies and shooting targets while ‘a chant of “hate” superimposed on the sound track of the German film War in the West blared out.’[11] At another school, whilst on a march, a group of students were followed by ‘a burly subaltern of the London Irish who, his shirt torn to ribbons and brandishing a fighting knife at the heels of the pack, conducted a private hate campaign. “Hate! Hate!” he yelled – once in the faces of two solitary cows; and there was no doubting from their curses that the students’ blood was up.’[12] Recruits were, effectively, being whipped into a frenzy of blood lust. The sinister, and rather ludicrous nature, of such hate training was recognised by Montgomery, who severely disapproved. In an official memorandum, circulated to all senior officers, and therefore trainers, under his command, Montgomery stated that ‘any attempts to create an artificial blood-lust or hate training is worse than futile. Such an attitude of hate is foreign to the British temperament and attempts to produce it by artificial stimulus during training are bound to fail.’[13] In future, ‘officers and N.C.O.s must be made to realise the difference between this artificial hate, and the building of a true offensive spirit combined with the will-power which will not recognise defeat.’[14]

While hate training was eliminated from the infantry’s programme of training, one place it remained, and indeed intensified, was the Home Guard. Some members of the Home Guard, particularly those who had served in the Great War, but whose services were no longer required by the Government, took training the Home Guard very seriously. While the popular view today of the Home Guard is that espoused by the television show Dad’s Army, the Home Guard of the early 1940s was very different. In the case of invasion, the Home Guard would, its more vocal supporters argued, become a guerrilla force capable of terrorising the invader. Major Armour was one such supporter. He argued that ‘the Home Guard at night should be a terror to the enemy’[15] He also asserted that there were men in the force ‘who get a “kick” out of crawling up on sentries in the dark and “pig-sticking” them.’[16] Armour’s guerrilla force would operate by the simple rule of ‘get your enemy by any means but – GET HIM.’[17] For Armour, suitable training for such ruthless methods should include men of the Home Guard visiting the local slaughterhouse ‘and practice sticking their knives into carcasses to get used to the resistance which meets the knife: to rub blood on their hands and faces and get used to this, and to generally harden themselves.’[18]

It would be easy to dismiss Armour as an over-eager and bloodthirsty armchair general, but he was not alone. Indeed, Edward Hulton, owner of the Picture Post founded his own Home Guard School at Osterley Park, with the co-operation of the landowner Lord Jersey, as early as July 1940 in order to train the Home Guard in irregular warfare. It was early September 1940 when the War Office recognised the value of such a school and took over its running. In defence of Osterley and the philosophy of warfare it taught, Tom Wintringham, one of its ‘instructors’, wrote, shortly before the War Office took over the school, that ‘any weapon is good enough to kill Germans with, if you know its value and limitations,’ and called for the Home Guard to be enlarged to four million men by 1941.[19] It is easy to understand the extreme views put across by both Armour and Wintringham; when they wrote, Britain faced the threat of invasion, where any man who could would be called upon to try and repel the Nazi invader. The extreme consequences of a successful Nazi landing in Britain called forth extreme means to repel them, something Armour and Wintringham advocated teaching from an early stage.

Thus, the British Army struggled enormously with how best to prepare their men for combat. But was blood and hate training truly ridiculous? It ‘surely sprang from the fear that troops were being given no real preparation for the horrors of the battlefield.’[20] It was an extreme reaction to the under prepared and inadequate nature of pre-war training. The desire to create realism provided an image of war so distasteful, so accurate, that Whitehall superiors felt seriously threatened that the men of the British Army were becoming similar to their German enemy in more than one way; they were at risk of taking on the ‘cold, diagrammatic, pedantic, unimaginative, and thoroughly sinister’ nature with which the German soldier was described; he was human, whereas the Japanese were ‘animals of an especially dwarfish but vicious species’, but a perverse type of humanity.[21]


[1] Bernard Law Montgomery of Alamein, The Memoirs of Field Marshal Montgomery (London, 1958), p. 119.

[2] PRO WO 201/2590 Major-General J. S. Nicols, ‘State of Training of Reinforcements’, 21 September 1942.

[3] IWM 72/14/1 Papers of Brigadier H. D. K. Money, ‘Lessons from Training Camps and Advance Guard Exercises – 2 October 1942’, p. 4.

[4] ‘The New Battle Drill: A Conquest of Tradition in Training’, The Times (Tuesday, November 25, 1941), p. 5.

[5] ‘Realism in Training: New Methods at a Battle School’, The Times (Monday, April 27, 1942), p. 2.

[6] Ibid., p. 2.

[7] IWM 72/14/1 Papers of Brigadier H. D. K. Money, ‘Lessons from Training Camps and Advance Guard Exercises – 2 October 1942’, p. 1.

[8] McCullum, Journey, p. 117.

[9] PRO WO 169/5007 War Diary, 6th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, January – April 1942.

[10] ‘Realism in Training’, p. 2.

[11] Ibid., p. 2.

[12] ‘The New Battle Drill’, p. 5.

[13] IWM 72/14/1 Papers of Brigadier H. D. K. Money, ‘Memorandum on Battle Drill.’

[14] Ibid.

[15] Armour, Total War Training, p. 36.

[16] Ibid., p. 44.

[17] Ibid., p. 46.

[18] Ibid., p. 46.

[19] Tom Wintringham, ‘The Home Guard Can Fight’, Picture Post, Vol. 8, No. 12 (September 21, 1940).

[20] Timothy Harrison Place, Military Training in the British Army, 1940 – 44: From Dunkirk to D-Day (London, 2000), p. 57.

[21] Paul Fussell, Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War (New York, 1989), p. 120.

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