Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Movie review - The Blue Max by John Guillermin (1966)

The Blue Max, 1966, John Guillermin
(based on the novel by Jack D. Hunter)

It's hard to write about this movie as a strictly WW1 movie, so I had to divide my review into two parts:


A romance put into the reality of the Great War. We have there an old general with a beautiful wife, a young pilot angry for glory and this is enough to make the things complicated. Certainly she is a femme fatale and this means you cannot refuse her wishes. If you did so, your hours are counted. No one wins, in the end.

There is a suitor you have to compete with. And a bottle of champagne to be opened each 15 minutes.

The background of this story is a desire of young, poor German soldier (starting from the mere infantry corporal) to achieve the status of the hero. He wants to be famous, to be admired, and - as this is his goal with the highest priority - to get "the Blue Max" (Pour le Merite - the highest German decoration for bravery). He is ready to do everything to achieve his goal - including cheating, throwing his friends to the wolves, and killing with no mercy... There is nothing more important that this small blue cross.

The World War I in the movie vs the reality:

I could write a story about it, but just briefly the main comments.

What is this stupid lever used by the German pilots to fire the machine guns? None of the German planes had something alike - the guns were fired by the controls mounted at the main control stick.

The second half of the movie is based on "the last German offensive" on the Western Front, meaning the Ludendorff Offensive that was released in March 1918. The problem is that the countryside looks like in the middle of the summer (or even autumn - look at the trees during the scene with passing below the bridge).

The main character - Stachel - saves Richthofen's life, and then he was shot down and landed in the ripe crop. Richthofen was shot down and died in April 1918, so he couldn't fly in the summer/autumn of 1918.

After saving Richthofen's life, the main character was asked to join Richthofen's Flying Circus - this was Jasta 11. But in the movie Stachel is in Jasta 11 from the very beginning. It's crazy.

All-lozenge Fokker Dreidecker. Have you seen something like this before?

At the end of the movie Stachel comes to Berlin. The buildings showed in those scenes are typical English style ones - so probably the scene was filmed in GB or Ireland. Not a German city, for sure.

There is a ground attack of Spring Offensive 1918 shown in the movie. It could be anything but not the infantry attack of German Sturmtruppen in 1918. The real fighting in the trenches was far away from the scenes shown in the movie.

Fokker D. VII and Pfaltz D.III carrying bombs and bombing the trenches.

In the final scene - "the new German plane" is a Morane-Saulnier from 30s. Much too advanced to be produced at the end of the Great War.

"Deutschland, Deutschland ueber alles" became the German anthem in 1922.

And many, many more... It's a pity that again the director and his staff didn't care about the reality at all. Just a little effort was enough to make this movie much better. Following the reality of the Great War would make the plot more interesting.


I'm not sure if I should recommend this movie. The romancing plot is weak, there is no WW1 reality in it. And the main, however interesting, story about the man desiring to get the Blue Max is not enough to blot the defects out.
And it is definitely too long - 2,5 hrs. is a long time. This story could be told in more interesting way in 1 - 1,5 hr.

And if you think you can enjoy Ursula Andress acting in this movie you'd be disappointed - she was dubbed by Nikki Van der Zyl.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Book review - Thomas Weber - Hitler's First War

Thomas Weber - Hitler's First War: Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment, and the First World War 
„Hitler’s First War“ is a unique study on Hitler’s life, the study that wasn’t here before. Many of his biographers were telling the Hitler’s story, focusing on his rise to power and the Nazi era. 

The only Hitler's photo that appeared in the official history of the List Regiment, published in 1932.

The book written by Thomas Weber is much different than the works we knew. First of all, the book is a result of a hard work inside the archives, analyzing the documents that no one has seen before. Secondly, Weber is trying to find the answer on the one of the most important questions of the modern history – what did „create“ Hitler as a politician and a leader?
It seems this question was already answered many times, as most Hitler’s biographers said that it was his military service during the Great War that turned him into a politician and the leader. The result of Weber’s work shows us a different picture. 

The book is divided into two parts; the first one is focused on the details of Hitler’s military service and the history of his regiment. Thomas Weber painted a picture of List Regiment and this picture was based on the deep study of the archive documents. The average German regiment, consisted largely of conscripts, not enthusiastic volunteers – on the contrary to the popular myth. What is worth to note, there were many Jews in the List Regiment including the artist Albert Weisberger. 

 Hitler (x) and other runners from his regiment in Fournes, 1915.

Hitler’s military career was much different from the widely known stories and rumors – as Weber points in the book, many of them were created after the Great War by German propaganda. Adolf Hitler started his career as the mere private and finally was promoted to a corporal. That’s true, certainly. Not so known fact is that he was promoted just after the very first battle of List Regiment (during the first Ypres, 28-31 October 1914 – Hitler was promoted on 3rd November), and the reason were the heavy casualties in the battle – almost all survived soldiers were promoted. And this was the end of his service at the front line and the end of his military career: he was not promoted again until the end of the war. One of the reasons was that Hitler didn’t want to be promoted, as it could cost him the loosing of relatively safe post of the regiment’s runner.

Weber is analyzing his post as the runner, comparing it to the other posts among the regiment’s non-commissioned officers. The conclusion is as expected – what Hitler considered as „the front line“, was a safe post in the opinion of the soldiers from the real first line.
The second part of Weber’s book is telling us the story of the post-war years. With Hitler’s rise to the power in the background, Weber is showing us how Nazi propaganda (and Hitler himself) worked on creating the image we know now – a heroic soldier of the Great War who became a leader of powerful Third Reich. Weber describes this as „Hitler’s second war“ – the war against his former brothers in arms from the List Regiment, who could tell the world the real story of corporal Adolf Hitler.
 One of Hitler's paintings - The priory in Messines, December 1914.

Weber’s work is really a masterpiece, as most of his conclusions are based on the documents found in the archives. There is no point of re-writing his book here, this book is a real „must-read“ for anyone interesting in the Great War. You can find many interesting facts in there, including the story of Hitler’s Iron Cross, his wounds, the ways he spent the time on leave, how the famous photo (taken in the day the war was declared) was created and his relationship with other soldiers in the regiment.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The story of the airships - part one.

The story of the airships - part one.

Zeppelin! The legend of the Great War. Giant, slow airships that taken their name from German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin - the man who, after his resignation from the army in 1891, devoted his full attention to airships. In his opinion the airships were the perfect weapon that might counteract the British naval superiority and strike at Britain itself, without being afraid of Royal Navy ships.

 Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin

Today the words „airship / dirigible“ and „zeppelin“ are often considered synonyms and other airship designs are almost forgotten. Certainly there were some other designs in German service, as Parsevals and Schütte-Lanz. Those designs are forgotten today mainly because of the British and French propaganda and newspapers, who called all the German airships as „zeppelins“. Well, we have to admit that „zeppelin“ is much better name to use in the headlines than Schütte-Lanz. And this is worth mentioning here that the very first German name for the airship was Lenkbarer Luftfahrzug – a controlled air train. 

Naval airship L.15, about to land. 

The zeppelin’s road to the active service was not easy – there were many opponents of airships among the German staff officers. Considered slow and vulnerable the airships had to prove their abilities and versatility. 

Today, the same opinion prevails – the airships were just the waste of money, effort and primarily the lives of their crews. But is this a reasoned opinion?

The British had a real problem with the zeppelins and their air raids. There were no effective ways to protect the British from the bombs dropped by airships. The newspapers and propaganda posters were full of the pictures showing the burning zeppelin falling from the sky. Those pictures were very suggestive and they could be a morale-booster, but the British air defense was not as effective as in the propaganda materials. 

 Zeppelin air raid over London - German propaganda postcard.

January 19th, 1915 was the day the idea of strategic air raids was born. On this day four German airships were sent on a mission over England - deep into the enemy territory. There were 4 people killed, 16 wounded and the damages were worth of ca. 1,5 million pounds (in today’s value). 

Certainly we cannot compare this to the German air raids over Britain in the World War II,  but the airships (and later the heavy bombarders) made the British land a part of the battlefield. We cannot overlook how the British morale was influenced by the fact that the German airships were dropping the bombs on London, while the Germans in Berlin were safe and far away from any direct danger.

Air-raid damage to houses in Baytree Road caused by a Zeppelin L31

It was 1915 when the British (and some of the French) newspapers started the propaganda campaign against the airships. The air raids were really effective and still more and more airships were sent over London and the countryside. The press turned „the Zeppelins“ into „the Baby killers“ and the newspapers‘ pages were full of suggestive photographs showing the children with the dud bombs or near the damaged houses. 

No one cared that the reality was a bit different – Wilhelm II, as British royal family relative, was against the air raids on London. This was the reason that during the first air raids the airships were dropping the bombs only around the British capital. Later on, he allowed the bombing of military targets in London, but dropping the bombs on important historical, royal and cultural buildings was strictly forbidden (certainly the airships were dropping bomb from the 10.000 feet, so it was rather impossible to hit only the military targets, but it was still far away from being the real „Baby killers“). (see the note below)

 "The End of the 'Baby-Killer'" - British poster.
The air raids over Britain are widely known, but they were just a part of everyday routine for German airships. Reconnaissance missions and long range patrols were also very important, especially on the Eastern Front and over the North Sea. The German Imperial Navy owes most of its successful operations to the airship reconnaissance missions. The airships were active on most theatres of the Great War: Western Front, Eastern Front, North Sea, Balkans and even Africa. 

The rumour is that the service of the airship was not a long one and after a short time they were shot down or destroyed. Well, it’s true that for some of them the very first mission was also the last one – but some zeppelins had a very impressive record, for example L 9 – with 74 reconnaissance missions, 4 air raids, 5683 kgs of bombs dropped or L 13 – with 45 reconnaissance missions, 15 air raids, 20667 kgs of bombs dropped.

Zeppelin attack on Yarmouth - German propaganda postcard.

And were the airship bomb raids effective? There are many opinions that they couldn‘t change anything, but the statistics are proving them wrong:

  • There were 118 airships in German military service during the Great War, 40 of them were shot down or destroyed.
  • 14 – 15 thousand soldiers were taking care of British air defense, with search lights, cannons, and aircrafts. All those men and that equipment couldn’t be used on the front line just because of the airships. This means that one man from the airship crew required thirty-three British soldiers engaged against him – one of the highest ratios in the Great War.
  • The casualties’ ratio of Zeppelin crews was 11% (79 men) in the Army, 26,3% (389 men) in the Navy.
  • The newspapers were full of photos and drawings showing the shot down airships. The pilots who managed to shot down the zeppelin were national heroes. However it was not so easy to shot down the airships: there were nine zeppelins shot down by airplanes in 1916, six in 1917 and only three in 1918!

 British propaganda poster.

The final statistics for German airships were: 231 bomb air raids, 1189 air reconnaissance missions, 197 tons of bombs dropped, 557 people killed and 1358 wounded. We may compare this to the German airplane raids over Britain: 22 raids with Gotha airplanes (85 tons of bombs dropped, 61 airplanes shot down), 11 raids with Zeppelin R V (27 tons of bombs dropped, 2 airplanes shot down).

A curious detail is that Manfred von Richthofen wasn’t the only „flying baron“ of the Great War.  There was another one among the airship crews - Horst Julius Ludwig Otto freiherr Treusch von Buttlar-Brandenfels, „the Zeppelin baron“, one of the two airship commanders awarded with the „Blue Max“. He started his military career as wachoffizier on board of L3 and then, as a 25-years-old Lieutenant, he became a commander of L6 in November 1914. Then he was a commander of two giant airships L30 and L54. Zeppelin baron’s skills made him very famous - Buttlar-Brandenfels always managed to fly back home with his airship, even if it was damaged by the storm or AA fire. 

 Horst Julius Ludwig Otto freiherr Treusch von Buttlar-Brandenfels

Note: Paradoxically the French airplanes that dropped their bombs on Karlsruhe (15th and 22nd June 1915) deserved this nickname much more than the German airships. During the first air raid on Karlsruhe – the city proclaimed as the „open town“ – the bombs were dropped during one of the church holidays, when the streets were full of worshippers (the casualties were 112 dead and 300 wounded). The second air raid was even worse – one of the main targets was the former railway station, the place where the circus was playing. The direct hit caused the death of 120 people, mostly the children...(JD)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Book review - Simon Jones - Underground Warfare 1914 1918

Simon Jones - Underground Warfare 1914-1918

Underground mine and explosion - this was one of the most feared words in the trenches of the Great War. The troops were more or less aware of the dangers they met – enemy bullets, artillery fire, bayonet, weather and disasters. All this was a daily routine on the front  - but being buried alive by the underground explosion that came without any warning? This was something really horrible, especially that soldiers were trying to hide in their dug-outs, looking for some moments of quiet and relaxation from the hell above. Underground warfare made those shelters as dangerous as staying out of the trenches during the artillery fire.

A tunnel, leading to the Christchurch cavern beneath Arras, France

This is not surprising that the information „there are the miners underground“ was one of the most feared ones – as most of the troops could only imagine how close the enemy miners were and they could only guess if the explosives were ready to detonate.

Sometimes they could see the spectaculars explosions made by their own miners – like the volcanos they were erupting along the enemy lines, spreading death and destruction.

One of the preserved tunnels (Wikipedia)

„Underground Warfare 1914-1918“ is a detailed study about the underground warfare in the Great War. The book is full of personal memoirs and reminiscences, which help him to tell us the story of this not so known part of the conflict. The war is not divided in two parts – the troops „over the top“ and the miners „underground“. Jones managed to describe the connections between both of them; he shows us how the development of the underground warfare was depending on the general situation on the front. As an addition, we can often read what the troops were thinking about the miners and their works.

The book takes us through the evolution of the underground warfare, starting with old concepts from the 18th century and the necessary change of those ideas in the face of the new type of the conflicts. The chapters are:

1 - Military Mining before 1914
2 - Mining Operations 1914 - early 1915
3 - French Mining Sectors: Carency, Oise, Les Eparges and Vauquois
4 - British Mining Operations 1915 - early 1916
5 - Hohenzollern and St Eloi 1916
6 - The Somme 1916
7 - Vimy, Arras and Messines 1917
8 - Miners and Technology
9 - Tunnels and the Infantry Attack
10 - Underground Accommodation and Communications
11 – Conclusion

 One of the British tunnels (Guardian)

Jones is trying to answer some important questions – were there any attempts to move the troops under the enemy lines? Were the underground dug-outs the best solution to survive the hard times at the front line? Why underground warfare was not as effective as it was expected to be?

 One of the drawings from the book.

Just the few examples but I hope you would learn from this book as I did. The book is also full of diagrams, maps and instructions helping us to understand the underground warfare, the conditions the miners met underground and their equipment and techniques. There are also a few photographs in the book.

This book is really worth reading, highly recommended.