Archive for Europe

Oct
22

The Battle of Britain

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The summer of 1940 saw World War II reach the English skies as the Royal Air Force bravely stand up to the onslaught of Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Immediately following a period of time identified as the ‘Phoney War’, Hitler had ordered his army to invade some other European nations and there was little resistance in Belgium, Netherlands and France.

Operation Dynamo had seen close to 300,000 men of the BEF brought to safety by a flotilla of ships that made crossing between England to Dunkirk over a period of days. Now Hitler had his sights on England. The white cliffs of Dover were clearly in sight as the German High Command gazed across the English Channel from Calais.

However, until such time as the skies of England were under German command, Hitler would not authorise Operation Sealion – the invasion of Great Britain. With America being unwilling to participate in the war at this time and her Allies overcome, UK would need to face the Germans alone.

Would Britian hold on until the autumn when the weather would not allow the Germans from crossing the Channel? British hopes lay in the hands of the fearless pilots of the RAF, “The Few” as Churchill later referred to them. It had not been only British airmen in the RAF, the Commonwealth was represented with pilots from quite a few colonial outposts such as South Africa and Rhodesia also with Poles and even a handful of Americans.

Hitler directed the Luftwaffe over to blast United Kingdom into submission but yet crucially, their fighter escorts only had the fuel for a few minutes battle before they would have to go back home leaving the bombers unprotected. For the very first time, the Luftwaffe were up against stiff resistance and there was to be no repeat of their swift victories on the Continent. The British airfields in the south east were taking a hammering till one night in August 1940, a German plane got lost and dumped its bombs over London before heading home. In retaliation, the Royal Air Force launched a raid on Berlin.

Hitler was furious and directed the Luftwaffe to attack London rather than the Royal Air Force airfields. This was a major turning point as it afforded the Royal Air Force some much called for respite. The German Air Force was not able to get the initiative at any point and in mid September, Hitler indefinitely postponed Operation Sealion. The threat of invasion was over and Churchill spoke of the contribution of Fighter Command in a widely recognized speech “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few”.

The foremost fighter ace was Sgt Frantisek from the Czech Republic with a score of 17 kills. He piloted a Hawker Hurricane which was the true workhorse of Fighter Command but everyone remembers the iconic Spitfire. Sgt Frantisek was killed in October 1940.

The Battle of Britain was the first occasion the Germans had experienced a miltary defeat in World War II.

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Despite the fact that it was technically formed in July 1940, the SOE (Special Operations Executive) had been created in 1938 with the merger of 3 existing, key sections just after Germany annexed Austria. Churchill’s Secret Army was told to “Set Europe Ablaze”.

SOE agents were directed to many different Nazi occupied countries to both cause havoc behind German lines and at the same time make an effort to come across local resistance groups they would quite possibly work with as the occasion for invasion was here. Theatres of Operation included France, Belgium, Poland, Germany, Yugoslavia, Greece, Hungary, Albania, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Denmark, Romania, Abyssinia and the Far East.

As agents had to operate deep in Nazi held nations and they were chosen from a range of social class and background. The primary criteria was that the probable operative had exhaustive understanding of the region they would operate in and would pass as a native of that country. That is why, operatives in possession of dual nationality were highly sought-after.

The renowned airplane utilised by the Special Operations Executives in France was the Westland Lysander. It was a small airplane which meant it was so much more tough to see and was strong enough to land on makeshift landing strips. It was used to transport operatives to and from the United Kingdom together with lifting individuals who had to be debriefed in London. Airmen who had been shot down were also at times brought back to the Britain by Lysander.

Amid the Special Operations Executive group were a number of female agents and around 30% of the female agents routed into France from Section F, did not come back. The types of missions in each region were wide ranging. For example, in Poland, there was little need to encourage the local population as there was already general hate of the Germans. This was in contrast to areas such as Vichy France which worked with with the occupying forces and the possibility of SOE agents being betrayed was greatly increased.

For the duration of World War II, the SOE had utilised around 13,000 people who directly backed or provided somewhere in the region of 1 million agents.

At 1:23am on 26th April 1986, an explosion at the number 4 reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant blew the roof open and sent a cloud of radioactive dust into the sky.

In recent times, organizations began leading excursions to the area surrounding Chernobyl. The full day tours leave Kiev at 9am and these have to be reserved in advance. Names of individuals on the excursion have to be submitted and you are required to take your passport. If your name is not on the list or you don’t have your passports, the guards at the edge of the exclusion zone will not let you in as some folks on our bus found to their horror and had to jump off the bus. The checkpoint is roughly 78km (49 miles) from Kiev and there is absolutely nothing to do there. From this point the bus makes its way into the exclusion zone and doesn’t return for several hours.

At the moment of the disaster, Chernobyl was home to 14,000 folk and nowadays, a few hundred people still live inside the exclusion area and quite a few people building work in the town for around 4 days a week. The excursion began in Chernobyl for a conventional Ukraine lunch. First stop is the fire station where there is a monument to the fearless fireman who battled to contain the radiation numerous of whom died of radiation sickness.

Next stop is the Chernobyl power plant where you have your first sight of the deserted buildings. There are two or three visits in and around the plant and you get to within 200-300 metres of the reactor. Today, it is hard to believe what transpired here but the guides Geiger counter leaves you under no illusions that there is still a substantial amount of background radiation in the area.

The last stop is at the ghost town of Pripyat which is situated less than two miles from the power plant. On the day of the disaster it was a larger urban centre than Chernobyl with a population of around 50,000. Having said that, police evacuated the populace with very little notice and it is an eerie place to visit. Books lie all surrounding the class rooms, the fun fair which was due to be opened on 1st May 1986, is slowly rusting away and nature has started to reclaim the roads, town square and architectural structures.

The excursion departs Pripyat and returns to the edge of the exclusion zone where everyone need to pass through a scanner to confirm they haven’t been exposed to abnormal quantities of radiation. After everyone is back on the bus has been given the all clear, it travels back to Kiev.

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A few years ago, I was lucky enough to live close enough to the city of Copenhagen to spend time there. Although most visitors fly into Copenhagen, it is also easily accessible by train from the Swedish cities of Malmo and Gothenburg. The train crosses the Oresund Bridge from Sweden into Denmark where it stops at Kastrup airport. From there, its a short trip straight to the centre of Copenhagen.

Once in the centre, there are plenty of hotels to choose from with a number of cheaper options located close to the station as well as a good selection of higher grade hotels too. The Marriott was always a place I enjoyed staying. However, the best of Copenhagen is not in the hotels, its around this fascinating city.

One of the most popular places to visit is Tivoli Gardens. It is mainly a summer attraction as it isn’t open all year round but I’ve been there just before Christmas and its a magical place at this time of year too. If you reverse the letters Tivoli, you get “I Lov It” and its a place you simply have to see.

The Nyhavn is one of Copenhagen’s most recognisable places. The multicoloured buildings are the back drop to a small dock. There are some lovely bars and restaurants here and its a wonderful place to sit and watch the world go by in the long summer evenings.

Not far from Nyhavn is the Royal Winter Palace of Amalienborg. The Royal family stay here during the winter and visitors can wander around outside and in the past, I’ve watch the changing of the guard here.

Heading further north out of the city, you will find the famous Little Mermaid at Langelinie. It is one of the most photographed statues in the world and has been the subject of a number of thefts. The Little Mermaid was the subject of a fairytale written by Hans Christian Andersen, one of the most famous people to come from the city.

Back in the centre, you will find the Stroget. This pedestrianised street is the main shopping area in Copenhagen. In addition to the many world class shops, there are plenty of bars, cafes, restaurants along the way. The Stroget links the Radhuspladsen near Tivoli with the Kongens Nytorv next Nyhavn.

Of course, there is much more to see in Copenhagen not least the Carlsberg brewery where tours are available all year round. As with many cities, a Copenhagen Card is available giving free entry and discounts to many of the cities attractions.

Categories : Copenhagen, Denmark, Europe
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Kiev is the capital of Ukraine and will host the Euro 2012 Finals final. All through the competition, 1000s of people will descend on the urban centre from all parts of Europe to be part of the action.

Kiev is a wonderful city and a great tourist choice but it does suffer from a lack of accommodation rooms. There are two or three extremely good 5* hotels such as the Hyatt Regency, Radisson and Premier Palace not to mention many 3* and 4* places, some dating back to Soviet times.

Nonetheless, in total, they are probably not going to present a sufficient amount of rooms for all the officals, media and supporters who will descend upon Kiev in the summer of 2012. This will obviously be a predicament but there is a pretty good solution on the market.

All through the urban centre are lots of flats which are available to rent. There are a variety of rental agents offering places to stay of many different sizes and areas all over the city. There are sufficient advantages for choosing an apartment as an alternative to a Kiev hotel.

Firstly, the service will be far more personal with a rental agent than with a hotel. They are able to assist you with all sorts of things such as airport transfers and excursions. Even the smallest flats will have a lot more space than a hotel room. Most have internet connection which is very useful for the people travelling with a laptop.

The flats also have brilliant areas near the Kiev urban centre centre. The city’s underground system also makes it possible for you to get around quite easily. There are plenty of small shops and supermarkets which means that meals are much cheaper than eating out each day as you’re able to prepare food in your apartments kitchen.

Apartment costs will also be considerably better value than hotels consequently all in all, apartments should really be considered when planning your stay in Kiev in 2012.

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Sep
27

Xmas Ceasefire of December 1914

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Following the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, a good number of people imagined it would be settled by Christmas. Loyal teenage men were anxious to join the army as soon as possible as they feared they would lose out on the action. Of course, history has highlighted that their optimism was misguided as the war would not conclude right up until 1918. The German advance was stopped at the 1st Battle of Marne and the race for the sea began as the Allies and Germans both dug in. It was the beginning of the trench warfare of the Western Front.

The end result was lines of trenches winding down from the North Sea to Switzerland along a 440 mile front. The battle lines moved hardly at all as a struggle of attrition broke out. Original trenches weren’t well built and were prone to cave in. Even by trench warfare standards, 1914 was pretty horrific. As winter neared, the men on the front line realised that the war would not be over by Xmas after all.

The Western Front ran through both Belgium and France with soldiers from France, Belgium and Great Britain manning a range of sectors. In some parts, the German trenches were no more than 30 yards away. Being in such close proximity allowed the infantry to call to their opponents or even hold up signs. On the German belt buckles was the inscription “Gott Mitt Uns” (God is with us). The British reply was “We’ve got mittens too”. Some of the shouting matches were a bit more black humour. A volley of shots would get the shout “Missed” or “Left a bit”.

Nevertheless, it was these exchanges that laid the foundations of a few astonishing scenes along the Western Front on 24th December 1914. The Germans celebrate Christmas on the 24th as opposed to United Kingdom and France who celebrate on the 25th). The weather had improved and on the 24th, the sounds from the German trenches were different. They began singing carols and placed Xmas Trees on their trenches. Men began calling to each other and after a while, some ventured into no mans land where they talked and exchanged cigarettes, food and souvenirs. Stories of the truce varies as there were actually a handful of truces up and down the lines. They were mostly in the sectors manned by the British as the Germans were occupying Belgium and French land so the Christmas spirit was less in evidence amongst these men.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was unofficial but as many as 100,000 men were thought to have been involved. As well as fraternisation, the chance was also taken to reclaim and bury the dead. One of the most widely known parts of the truce was the football match between the British and Germans. There are a number of inconsistant reports in relation to the game with a number of finals scores. This would suggest there were several games at various locations.

The duration the ceasefire lasted also varied but generally, it was over on Christmas Day. More often than not, hostilities started again by mutual arrangement. In one case, on the morning of the 26th December 1914, Captain Stockwell of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers fired into the air and stood above the parapet. His opposite number in the German trench also stood up, they saluted and stepped down. Captain Stockwell heard the German fire a couple of shots into the air and World War I started again. Never the less, the Christmas Truce was very much against the wishes of British commanders and in the following years, artillery barrages were ordered for Xmas Eve.

In 2008, a plaque to the Christmas Truce on the Western Front was unveiled at the village on Frelinghen and was the 1st memorial to the events of Christmas 1914. The legacy the truce left behind is appreciable with several books being written and published and it was also the inspiration for quite a few songs.

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1st July 1916 saw the Allies launched an extensive offensive along a 25 mile section of the Western Front. The attack took place to the north of the River Somme in rural France. Little villages are littered throughout the region along with the town of Albert. It was to be the battle that for plenty of people, characterized the horrors of the trench warfare of The Great War.

The Battle of the Somme lasted nearly 4 months with very little reward for Britain and her Allies. The casualties endured by each side were horrific; the British Army sustained 420,000 killed and wounded, the French 200,000 and the Germans roughly half a million.

The German soldiers were dug in deep and strategically held the more favourable ground hence it was obvious an enormous effort would be essential to make inroads into their lines. The plan was to lay down an artillery bombardment for seven days leading up to the attack. Furthermore, plenty of mines were laid beneath the German lines. It was predicted that the mines and artillery would bring about such destruction, Britain and her Allies would only need to advance over no mans land and occupy the trenches. Disastrously, this was definitely not the case.

For 7 days just before the assault, a thunderous barrage was laid down by the Alllies firing 1.7m shells. Bear in mind, the German trenches were dug deep into the earth delivering them with relative safety from the barrage. The mines did lead to deaths and injuries as intended but generally, the Germans had enough time to gear up their defences after the artillery ceased and the Allies went over the top.

All along the line, the story was the same. Brave men went over the top and were mown down before getting anywhere close to their objectives. At Beaumont Hamel, only 68 of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, ended the day unharmed out of around 800 men. At La Boisselle, the Tyneside Irish was almost destroyed as it tried to move forward more than 1 mile over open ground in full sight of German machine guns.

Nevertheless, there were some successes. The French soliders had made progress in the north and south of the lines. The 36th Ulster advanced on and took the Schwaben Redoubt consequently becoming undoubtedly one of the few to get to their objective. However, running short on ammunition, German counter attacks made the Ulstermen to withdraw later that night.

The 1st day of the Somme had cost the British almost 54,000 casualties, 21,000 of those being killed. Today, the site of the Schwaben Redoubt is marked by the Ulster Tower and not far away at Thiepval, the Memorial to the Missing commemorates the names of about 70,000 soldiers who fought at the Battle of the Somme.

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Sep
25

The Disaster of Exercise Tiger

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Throughout the build up to the Allied landings in Normandy in 1944, a terrific deal of groundwork and organizing was required. Information was consistently being gathered by a community of agents while products and machines were being ferried to England. These would be essential during and after what was and still is the largest invasion force of all time.

Preparation and proper training was a necessary part of the plans. Rangers who were to attack Point du Hoc trained by climbing cliffs and troops made practice beach landings. A big component of the operation of secrecy and the people of Britain were counted upon to play their part. In Devon, an area called Slapton Sands was picked as an ideal practice area on account of the similarities with the Utah landing beach in Normandy.

Exercises for the landings began in late 1943 with the main invasion plotted for June 1944. Over 3,000 residents were relocated from the region around Slapton Sands. A number of exercises were organised and undoubtedly one of the most significant was Operation Tiger involving close to 30,000 men (approximately a 3rd of the existing strength of the British Army) were to be involved.

Exercise Tiger took place in late April 1944. The initial practice landings were executed without any troubles but throughout the exercise scheduled for the early hours of 28th April 1944, disaster hit. German E-Boats operating from Cherbourg came across a convoy of 8 LST (Landing ships). They aimed torpedoes at the LSTs and desperate men jumped into the frozen waters to get away the sinking ships. A number of hadn’t been told how to put on their life preservers and drowned.

Additionally to the E-Boat attacks, more men died on the shores themselves. Using live ammunition had been authorised and together with the fatalities in the sea, there were further casualties by friendly fire after they strayed into the wrong sections of the beaches.

In total well over nine hundred men died all through Exercise Tiger and it was nearly 40 years before the facts were made public. Ironically, only about 200 men died on Utah Beach throughout the real landings in Normandy on 6th June 1944. These days, a Sherman Tank is on show at Slapton Sands as a memorial to the men who perished all through Exercise Tiger.

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Just after 1am on 26th April 1986 about 100km north of Kiev, the number four reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded sending a blanket of radioactive dust into the air. Only one person was killed in the initial explosion but with time, it is regarded nearly 500,000 persons have perished because of the effects of radiation following the explosion.

The storyline of that terrible chain of events is portrayed at the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev which not merely have an affect on people in Ukraine but additionally Belarus, sections of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Coupled with presenting the explanation for the explosion as well as its horrendous effects, the Chernobyl museum has many individual items from individuals who worked in the plant as well as pilots and firemen that assisted contain the radiation and seal the reactor. You will find images of the power plant and the people involved in the containment and clean up operation.

The museum is somewhat tricky to find. The easiest way is to take the metro (blue line) to Kontraktova Ploshchad and it is a few streets away. The address is 1 Kharyvyj Pereulok and this road runs in between Khoryva Street and Spaska Street. Left of the entrance is a commemorative statue and on the right are two or three rescue vehicles. Entry to the museum was 2UAH and the rent of the audio commentary was an additional 5UAH. Languages available were English and German.

The tour around the museum needs around one hour and is really worth a visit whether you are preparing a tour to Chernobyl or not. With a street map of Kiev and a spot of preparation, a visit to the museum can quite simply be a part of a day’s sightseeing around the metropolis.

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The TV mini series Band of Brothers is regarded as one of the recommended war motion pictures ever created. Based upon the book by Stephen Ambrose, the 10 parts follow the history from the soldiers of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Regiment of the American 101st Airborne. Episode one starts off with Easy Companies basic training at Toccoa, Georgia before being transferred to the United Kingdom while they prepare for a part with the D-Day Assault in Northern France.

Each episode gets going by filming original soldiers of Easy. The veterans discuss their war time ordeals that the episode relates to however at this stage, the men are not revealed. While the veterans aren’t identified, the episodes familiarizes you with the people early on and the actors are superbly cast making it uncomplicated to connect with them from the very start.

Even if the action scenes are filmed brilliantly, why Band of Brothers stand out from various different war movies is the fact that it brings forth the individual stories so effectively. As an example, in episode two simply prior to Easy Company are set to leap into Northern France, without doubt one of the soldiers, Bill Guarnere, learns his brother was killed at Montecassino.

The 10 episodes show the stories of Easy Company beginning with their basic training just before heading into battle in Northern France and to the village of Carentan. Episode four sees the introduction of replacement men into Easy and illustrates the difficulty they have being accepted by the Normandy veterans as Easy Company take part in Operation Market Garden.

The following two episodes cover the run up along with the fighting at Bastogne for the duration of the Battle of the Bulge. By now several of Easy Company are at breaking point and this is actually the topic of episode 7. While the war in Europe nears the conclusion, there is a final patrol for Easy Company. The horrors of war are brought to the forefront the moment the men locate a concentration camp. The final episode sees Easy Company head into Austria where they capture the Eagle’s Nest high in the mountains at Berchtesgaden.

The series finishes with interviews with the men of Easy Company and eventually identifies the men that audiences have learned to know throughout the 10 episodes of Band of Brothers.

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