Titanic – new evidence

I was fascinated to watch the Channel 4 documentary yesterday, Titanic – The New Evidence.  Too many documentaries seem intent on putting forward someone’s pet theory without backing it up with convincing evidence.  But this programme used recently-discovered photographs which – according to the experts interviewed – contain plausible evidence of the serious fire in the coal bunkers on board.  This suggestion was backed up by documentary evidence, mostly testimony from the official enquiry.

One of the worst faults of all in so-called documentaries is the practice of putting forward a theory – however far-fetched – and then claiming to have proved that it’s correct, when in fact they have done nothing of the sort.  So we hear the likes of: ‘We know the castle burnt down, we know that Henry VIII visited the town that year, so we can safely say that he’s the one who did it”.  (I exaggerate, of course, but not much).

Back to the Titanic documentary: the technique of blending archive still photographs with moving reconstructions is impressive.  But I worry a little that this technique, in the wrong hands, could be used to “prove” pet theories by “recreating” events that never happened, or at least didn’t happen quite like that.  But then I’m a natural worrier, especially when it comes to historical accuracy.

Further investigations …

Most of the research for The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo took place in the summer of 2014, when I visited Paris, Marseille, Nice and Monte Carlo to follow in the footsteps of the man himself – Charles Deville Wells.  I followed up almost a year later with a second trip, this time to Le Havre, where Wells arrived in 1892 on his huge yacht, the Palais Royal.

It was while he was here, in company with his beautiful French mistress, that he was arrested by French police – a story that’s related in full within the pages of the book.

Today the Quai de la Seine is one of the smaller docks and appears to be virtually unused – or perhaps it was just a quiet day when I visited.  The larger vessels using the port now use the more extensive facilities elsewhere, but this was probably a place of some considerable importance in the 1890s when Wells was here.  The Palais Royal, almost 300 feet long, was one of the largest pleasure craft in the world at that time, and would have occupied half the length of the basin.

While on the same trip I spotted a boat used for river cruises which was just slightly larger than the Palais Royal.  It gives some impression of the scale of Wells’ yacht.

 

River cruiser
At about 100 metres in length, this present day river cruiser is roughly the same length as Palais Royal, giving at least some impression of the size of Charles Wells’ yacht
Le Havre dock Palais Royal
Author Robin Quinn points out the dock at Le Havre where Charles Deville Wells moored his yacht, Palais Royal
Charles Wells' yacht, Palais Royal
Charles Wells’ yacht, Palais Royal (formerly the cargo ship Tycho Brahe).

Dornier 17 – ‘The Old Plane and the Sea’

I enjoyed watching the repeat of The Old Plane and the Sea on BBC-TV over the Christmas period, having missed it when first shown.  This was a documentary about the crashed Dornier 17 bomber recovered from the sea-bed in the English Channel in June 2013.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer

It was intriguing to see history come together, as shots of the recovery were followed by interviews with the daughter and grandson of one of the crew members, bomb-aimer Hermann Ritzel.  Referring back to my earlier post about locating POW ancestors, the crash of the aircraft in August 1940 is recorded in The Battle of Britain Then and Now, (After the Battle Publications).  The entry, doubtless sourced from records of the time, states that crew member Huhn was killed;  Reinhard and Ritzel were missing; and “Essmert” was taken prisoner [the actual spelling was Effmert].  Ritzel was later found and was also taken prisoner.  Details such as these could be helpful to anyone researching their ancestor.  I noticed, in particular, that Ritzel’s daughter said he had never talked with her about his wartime experiences.  This can be typical of former members of the German armed forces, and makes it especially difficult to trace that person’s history.

 

Christmas in a British POW camp for Germans

In December 1944, an eighteen-year-old German soldier, captured in Normandy earlier that year, spent Christmas in a British prisoner of war camp.  Along with his fellow POWs he was desperately homesick and missed his family.  In his diary he wrote:

CHRISTMAS 1944 – BEHIND BARBED WIRE

On 24 December 1944 we celebrated German Christmas, the festival of joy, behind barbed wire. Everyone looked forward to the festival and the preparations were in full swing. We had the most beautiful Christmas tree in the camp and we had decorated our hut with pictures and fir-twigs. When the Holy Eve arrived the preparations were complete. Outside on the camp square the Christmas tree lights were lit, the choir sang carols and the camp leader spoke some appropriate words. Then we all went into the huts, each to celebrate the Christmas feast.

Assembled under the glow of the Christmas tree we sang the most beautiful songs about Christmas and about home. One of the comrades spoke about home and about our fate, and brought us so near to home that all of us had tears in our eyes, and thus many went out silently into the holy night. At every bedside the candles burned and every one of us dreamed of home, and in our thoughts we were at home in the midst of our loved ones.

When the Commandant went around the huts to pick out the three best ones, ours got the second prize out of 25 huts. He was very pleased with the cleanliness and tidiness of the huts with their Christmas decorations. We had shown him a real German Christmas.

Tracing a German POW Ancestor

A very common difficulty is caused by the fact that lists of POWs at various camps in Britain were not generally retained in the country after the war.  However, one resource that’s well worth looking at – if only for background information on the camps – is the excellent series of After the Battle magazines and books: www.afterthebattle.com

If you go to the above website, click on the tab “Index of Issues” and you’ll discover a downloadable, searchable index of every After the Battle issue (dating from the early 1970s).  If you’re very lucky you just might find your ancestor mentioned by name!  For example, Hans Teske is to be found in Edition 17, page 53.  Back numbers of past issues are available through the website.  (Teske was, officially, Britain’s last POW of WW2, since a clerical error prevented him being discharged from prisoner status after the war and, technically, he was therefore still a prisoner until his death in the year 2000.)  While you would be very lucky to find the very person you’re searching for in this way, remember that it’s a bit like the lottery … you might just win!  Search under the name of a camp where your ancestor was detained and you have a good chance of finding some details of the camp itself at least .

If your ancestor was in the Luftwaffe you should look at the excellent After the Battle volumes: The Blitz Then and Now (3 volumes), and The Battle of Britain Then and Now.  These record virtually all German aircrew who were taken prisoner, wounded or killed during these air campaigns: they can also be purchased from the website, and are available in some libraries.

In the future I’ll be adding more info about tracing German POW ancestors, so do try again soon if you don’t see what you are looking for today.

The making of Hitler’s Last Army

An acquaintance of mine who lived on a farm during the Second World War once told me how German prisoners of war had been sent to carry out agricultural tasks, and how they had impressed the locals with their capacity for hard work.  After the war one of these POWs, whose home was in the eastern zone, had been reluctant to go back to Germany and had remained on the farm until the mid-1950s.

Something about the incongruity of it all – the idea of prisoners staying in what had recently been for them an enemy country – appealed to my curiosity.  I started looking into the subject more deeply in late 2011 and my idea for a book on the subject – Hitler’s Last Army – was taken up by The History Press.  Incidentally, the title was inspired by one German prisoner’s recollection of being marched, with hundreds of other POWs, along a street in Britain on their way to a prisoner of war camp.  ‘The English civilians didn’t pelt us with stones like in Belgium,’ he recalled.  ‘The English stood at the side of the road, and just said, “Hitler’s last army!”  No stones – just “Hitler’s last army!”’