Battlefield Netherlands by Jonathan Ball

In the autumn of 1944, the Allied forces found themselves advancing on a wide front across the Netherlands. The famous Operation Market Garden, leading to Arnhem, took place but there were many forgotten battles along the eastern corridor of Holland. Find out first hand about our brand new tour, Battlefield Netherlands, from our specialist guide Jonathan Ball.


Operation Blackcock was a large scale methodical mopping up operation. It was not planned to make any deep thrust into the enemy defences or capture large numbers of Prisoners of War. It proceeded from stage to stage almost entirely as planned and was successfully completed with minimum casualties.

That was the official 21st Army Group take on the events of February 1945. Lt-Col Frank Coutts of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers held a slightly different point of view…

I would very much like to meet that staff officer from 21st Army Group sitting in his caravan or chateau outside Brussels with a large whisky and soda on his table. He had the cheek to add ‘with minimal casualties’. What in Heaven’s name is minimal? One mans life is precious and XII Corps suffered over a thousand killed and wounded.

For our BRAND NEW four-day tour, Battlefield Netherlands, we aim to take our guests very much off the beaten track in the Netherlands which to most British minds ends on the banks of the Neder Rijn at Arnhem. On the recent recce, we looked at the Battle for the towns of Overloon and Venray as the Allies pushed eastwards from Nijmegen towards the River Maas and beyond to the borders of the German Reich. First attacked by the US 7th Armored Division, the Americans found Overloon too tough a nut to crack. In 7 days they advanced little more than 2 kilometres suffering 452 casualties and having 35 Tanks destroyed, 13 of them in quick succession in just one day by a solitary German 88mm Anti Tank Gun. Following the withdrawal of the ‘Lucky 7th’ the task of taking Overloon was given to the British in the shape of the veteran 3rd Divisions’ 8th Infantry Brigade. The Battalions involved lead the British assault on D-Day in Normandy landing at 0730 hours on Sword beach and it’s their fortunes we followed. Firstly with the Suffolks on their start line north of Overloon. We looked at the story of Nelson Brown, a Dunkirk veteran and a bit of a character. The night before the attack on Overloon he shaved a swastika in his hair. By the next morning, he was dead. Scythed down by German machine gun fire literally yards from where he emerged from the trees at the beginning of the attack.

Overloon Cemetery
Overloon

We followed the Suffolks to the site of a windmill, destroyed during the fighting on the Oploo road. All around the fire-swept, flat terrain gives the visitor a first-hand impression of what it must have been like on that October day to advance under heavy fire with so little cover. George Rayson, a Suffolks veteran was later to remark of the fighting around the Windmill “It was bad enough on D-Day but this was one of the worst days of my life, why I’m still here today I don’t know”

After the Suffolks, we followed the story of the East Yorkshire Regiment from the perspective of the defending German Paratroopers. In a wood, there is what a colleague of mine described as some of the best-preserved trenches of the Second World War he’d ever seen. Amongst these trees took place bloody, hand to hand combat as the East Yorks battled through to their objective.

Suffolks start line - CWGC Cemetery in Overloon
Suffolks start line – CWGC Cemetery in Overloon

Then it was on to the beautifully maintained CWGC Cemetery in Overloon before lunch and a visit to the superb museum in the town. There’s lots of original battle damaged kit recovered from the Battlefield in there that again illustrates the ferocity of the fighting.

After lunch, we walked in the footsteps of George Eardley. A Sergeant whose actions in destroying 3 German Machine Gun Posts was to culminate in the awarding of the Victoria Cross. After that, we travelled to the crossing of what is today the peaceful Loobeek River. It was no easy objective in 1944 and for good reason did the locals later know the river as the ‘Bloodbeek’.

Loobeek River
Loobeek River

Venray CWGC cemetery visited on the Battlefields Netherlands tour

Later, after paying our respects to the boys in Venray CWGC cemetery who fell liberating the town we moved on to end the day at Ysselsteyn German Cemetery. The only statistic you really need to know here is the number of men buried, 31,598. Everything else pales into insignificance after that.

The following day took us around what was known as the Roer Triangle with Operation Blackcock, arguably one of the most interesting series of battles you’ve probably never heard of?

We started at Brunssum CWGC cemetery with Brigadier Gerald Mole, killed when 700 mines that had been lifted detonated next to his Headquarters. When Mole was buried the British guns fired in salute using live ammunition on carefully selected targets across the border in Germany, an act that Gerald Mole would no doubt of approved of and incidentally our next destination on the tour.

Brunssum CWGC cemetery with Brigadier Gerald Mole

We crossed the border to look at the Battle for Geilenkirchen and in particular the fight for the woods west of the village of Tripsrath. What took place in these woods was described by one senior officer as being akin to scenes from the First World War. The assault was made by 5/Dorsets and the wood with the trenches and dugouts which remain to this day was named in their honour as Dorset Wood.

Following our brief foray into Germany it was back across the border and to the Dutch town of Sittard for lunch. We took time at the towns CWGC cemetery to look at the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to its youngest recipient of WW2, Fusilier Dennis Donnini, just 19 years old. Think about what you were doing at 19?

After lunch, we moved along the eastern bank of the River Maas to the town of Susteren. A superb and very original German 88mm Anti Tank gun awaited us there plus the scene of the bitter street fight for control of the town.

Leaving Susteren, we headed on to take in the site of another VC action, the only VC of WW2 awarded to a man of the Royal Army Medical Corps, Eric Harden, the Commando Medic. When men from 45 RM Commando were pinned down Eric Harden went out unarmed on at least three separate occasions to bring in the wounded. On that fateful third trip out he was shot and killed. As Derek-Mills Roberts was to write to his widow later, “it’s easier to be brave with a rifle in your hand than a stretcher”.

Eyewitness WW2 Museum visited on the Battlefield Netherlands tour
Eyewitness WW2 Museum

WW2 Museum visited on the Battlefield Netherlands tour

So those are some of the less explored Battlefields of the Netherlands. We finished with a flourish though at the simply staggering Eyewitness WW2 Museum in Beek. It’s a private collection, beautifully presented which tells the story of the war in the Netherlands and doesn’t shy away from some uncomfortable truths from those years of the German occupation.

Jonathan Ball – Specialist Battlefield Guide for Leger Holidays

If you’d like to join us on this tour, click here for more information.

Stalingrad: Turning Point of the Eastern Front by Paul Errington

Growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s I was brought up on the World at war TV series and Purnell’s History of the Second World War magazine series leading to a lifelong interest in Military history the Western European Theatre but also the Eastern Front, the scale of which fascinated me.

Great Battles in the Cities of Soviet Russia and on the expanses of the Russian Steppes where huge armies clashed in what was the most Titanic struggle of WW2. One place held my interest more than any other, a City where arguably the most destructive and costliest Battle of World War 2, and in fact History, took place and where the momentum of the campaign in the east turned against the Germans: Stalingrad.
Battle of World War 2 - Stalingrad

The Battle symbolizes many things including the clash of the ideologies of Fascism and Communism both of which were brutal regimes which led to the suppression of hundreds of millions, the personal struggle between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, but most of all the savagery of a modern Industrial war fought in an Urban environment where the loss of life was numbered in the 100’s of thousands; a final death figure will probably never be known.

But Stalingrad has also been held as a turning point of the second World War in the east, a place where the German Wehrmacht suffered its greatest
ever disaster in the field and its largest formation the 6
th Army was almost completely wiped out.

After researching the Battle for several years in 2001, I was fortunate to visit for the first time the City now called Volgograd and the surrounding Steppe Battlefields to the west and south of the City where so much remains to be seen. The battle can be viewed and Toured from the first crossing of the Don River to the final surrender by Field Marshall Friedrich Paulus at the Univermag Store in the City Centre, visiting locations relevant to all the phases of the Battle where memorials and original Battle-scarred buildings still stand bearing witness to the ferocious fighting and courage and sacrifice of those from both sides who took part.

One of the places I found the most emotive was the location to the North of the City in the suburbs of Rynok and Lataschinka where the first elements of the 16th Panzer Division, Armoured cars of Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 16 reached the Volga river in the late afternoon of the 23rd August 1942 having made their famous dash across the land bridge between the Don and the Volga. The German troops involved referred to it as overwhelming, or Ein Historisches Augenblick, an Historic moment.

From here high on the west bank of the Volga they could see the mighty river itself, the Asiatic steppe shimmering in the heat haze and extending far into the distance to the east plus the Northern part of the City and the Industrial district where they would soon be involved in brutal fighting. In the distance huge clouds of smoke and fire hung over the
City where over 600 German Bombers had begun their saturation bombing of the City itself, Soviet archives estimate that over 40,000 civilians were killed on that day alone
by the bombing. Looking at the same view you can envisage their feelings of success and exhilaration that now the Volga had been reached the Russian campaign may be
nearing its triumphant conclusion.

Volga Crossing
Volga Crossing

At that moment of Triumph I’m sure not many of them were aware of the scale of battle that was waiting to engulf them and what the fate of themselves and hundreds of thousands of other human beings would be. But the moment and feelings were only fleeting as they began to be engaged by Soviet Anti-Aircraft Guns crewed by young female crews who began firing over open sights at the German Spearhead. As the famous Russian writer Vasily Grossman wrote “This was the first page of the Stalingrad defense”:
the Battle for the City of Stalingrad had begun.

Urban warfare, or Rattenkrieg, in the sewers and underground shops of the factories, the cult of the sniper, the evolution of street fighting tactics, extremes of weather conditions, attack and counter attack, encirclement, starvation and surrender and the final victory of the people of Soviet Russia and the Red Army. This was a turning point in History.

Even in subsequent visits that first sight of the Volga in that historical location left an overwhelming feeling of a moment in history and the beginning of infamous battle that
was to follow.

First view of the Volga
First view of the Volga

The Mamayev Kurgan, the Factory District, Lyudnikovs Island, Pavlovs House, Tsaritsa Gorge, the Railway Station and the Grain Silo etc are all names that will be familiar to those who have studied the fighting to capture the City. But out on the Steppe west of the City are the Airfields of Gumrak and Pitomnik the reconciliation Cemetery complex at Rossoschka including the memorials to the over 100,000 Germans soldiers still missing in action. Soldiers Field, Bald Hill – Memorials to the heroic Soviet defenders, Kalach and the Don River crossing and the area of the German defense lines around the so called Marinovka Nose.

Mamayev Kurgan
Mamayev Kurgan

Grudinin Mill
Grudinin Mill

The Tour we have put together is one that will allow the visitor to understand all the major phases of the Battle , looking at the whole picture from the point of view of both the Axis and Soviet Armies , the senior Commanders and the ordinary soldier, the Civilian experience and the famed resilience of the Red Army soldiers.

The Tour will be led by myself and one of the most knowledgeable and experienced Russian Historians and Guides of the Battle, who first took me to Stalingrad all those years ago: Evgeny Kulichenko. No-one knows the Battle and it’s history as intimately as Zhenya, who is a lifelong resident of the City and who has studied the Battle since being a small boy growing up with the stories and first-hand accounts of the surviving veterans. We look forward to welcoming you on an amazing tour of an incredible battlefield.

Barnsley Pals: Following in the Footsteps of Local Heroes

Our Head Battlefield Guide, Paul Reed has lived in the South Yorkshire former mining village of Elsecar for the past couple of years. In this blog he documents his experience of guiding a dedicated group tour, taking patrons of his local to the battlefields to discover the stories of the Barnsley Pals.


Elsecar is situated on the edge of Barnsley, close to the countryside, and near the impressive Wentworth Woodhouse stately home, whose owners built the local colliery and many of the houses here.

The Milton Arms pub, in the heart of Elsecar, is my local and I was delighted when the landlord, Phil, approached me to organise a tour to the battlefields. Having travelled with a few friends on a battlefield tour on one of our Luxuria coaches, he wanted to return and do his own thing with a group from the pub.

Leger Battlefields Tour Group

One of the great advantages of bringing a group booking to Leger is that you don’t have to book a brochure tour. With our help and advice you can discuss what you’d like to do and we offer our expertise and make it possible. Phil wanted to remember some local heroes from both World Wars, so it was decided that we would travel direct from Elsecar to the Somme, have a night in Northern France, and then move on to Normandy to look at D-Day and the battles of 1944.

We started early from Elsecar with a good supply of pork pies and plenty of drinks stock on the Luxuria coach, with drivers, Adam and Paul looking after us. Getting across to France early, we made our way down to the Somme and made our first stop at the Thiepval Memorial where several members of the group had relatives commemorated on the panels dedicated to the Missing of the Somme. From here we went on to Serre and had a gentle stroll up onto the battlefield where the Northern Pals battalions were all but wiped out on 1st July 1916: the First Day of the Somme.

Leger Holidays Luxuria Coach

Our own village had many men from the Barnsley Pals who were here that day and the group assembled around the memorial to the Barnsley lads, which was rededicated on the centenary of the battle in 2016. Elsecar to Serre in a day – so simple now, but a centenary ago, the gulf between those at home and those at the front was immeasurable.

After an excellent night staying in Arras, with its amazing main square and great restaurants and bars, we headed down to Normandy to look at the story of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. Over the course of the next few days we visited all five D-Day beaches, saw where American and British Airborne dropped in, and for many, the highlights were seeing ‘Bloody Omaha’ where so many GIs were killed on 6th June 1944, and walking across the original Pegasus Bridge. You can see these on the screen, but there is nothing like being there and seeing it for yourself.

Pegasus Bridge

As part of the D-Day tour we made a special visit to two Elsecar men killed in Normandy: one at Ranville, who was killed as a tank crewman and another at Ryes, who was an Assault Engineer. Again, it was great to have that local connection, and we were probably the first people from the village to ever stand at their graves and remember. The highlight of the week, for many, was at Hill 112 where Phil, and Chaplain Andy, led a Service of Remembrance. A veteran of the battle here had visited Phil in the pub and asked if we could remember his mates when we came, and it was a special pleasure and honour for us all to do this.

Group tours like this are unique: from planning to visiting the battlefields, those who organise are in total control over what they do and where they go, and have our years of knowledge to fall back on to make it a tour to remember.

Enquire today about taking your own group on a visit to the battlefields of WW1 or WW2 by visiting our website or by calling our team on 01709 787 403

The story of the Schindler Factory Memorial Aircrew Plaque by David McCormack

Many visitors to the Schindler Factory Museum in Krakow stop for a moment to read the inscription on a plaque commemorating the crew of a B24 Liberator which crashed onto the barrack area in the factory compound (other parts of the aircraft landed on the far side of the River Vistula).

The aircraft from 178 Squadron (KG933) was involved in a large-scale operation to supply Polish Home Army forces involved in the Warsaw Uprising. Very few of the visitors who stop to look at the plaque are aware of the circumstances which led to the aircraft crashing, even less the fate of the surviving crew members.

Aircrew Memorial Plaque at the Schindler Factory Museum
Aircrew Memorial Plaque

At 17.00hrs on 1 August 1944, a bomb exploded in the headquarters of the Krakow Gestapo. This explosion signalled the beginning of the uprising. Within hours, an urgent appeal for supplies was sent out to London by the Poles.
Whilst this appeal received a sympathetic hearing, the practicalities of ferrying supplies by aircraft presented serious difficulties. Warsaw lay approximately 1,500 km from London, a long and perilous journey across flak-infested skies. An additional hazard was that the aircraft involved would have to expose themselves by flying in at low speed and low altitude over the designated drop zones.
There was no other alternative as it was imperative that the precious supplies didn’t fall into German hands. Whilst the problem of distance could be solved to some degree by flying from Italy, the remaining imponderable was the vulnerability of these slow lumbering aircraft as they made their approach to the drop zones.
At approximately 19.55 hrs on 17 August, KG933 took off from Foggia in southern Italy. The designated drop zone (Nida 504) was near the city of Piotrkow (120 km north of Krakow).
There were no incidents on the outbound leg and the drop went as planned. However, as the plane was heading homewards via Krakow it was picked up by a German night fighter (Bf 110 of 1/NJG-100) piloted by Oberfeldwebel Helmut Dahms. In his subsequent report, he claimed two Lancasters shot down (one over Ratibor, the other over Krakow).
It can be said with a high degree of certainty that the Lancaster which he claimed to have shot down over Krakow was in fact KG933.
The burning aircraft was picked up by searchlights in Krakow’s factory district. It was then hit by flak which caused it to disintegrate in mid-air.
The tail section landed over on the far side of the Vistula on the old abattoir, whilst the main fuselage crashed onto the abandoned barrack area of the Schindler Factory. Three crew members were killed outright (Squadron Leader Liversidge, Flight Lieutenant Wright and Flight Sergeant Clarke). Miraculously, three others survived. Sergeant Blunt and Sergeant Helme became prisoners of war in Stalag Luft VII, their war effectively over.
B24 Liberator
B24 Liberator

As for the other survivor, landing in a field approximately twenty-four km east of Krakow was the start of an incredible six-month odyssey. Despite being wounded in his arms and legs, Flight Lieutenant Hammett managed to evade capture for two days.
Then, by a stroke of luck, he was able to make contact with a local partisan group. By late September he had fully recovered from his wounds. He then took an active part in partisan operations from a base in the woods near Slaboszov.
The following month, his group shot down a German scout plane. The German authorities then sent out a force of 100 Ukrainian auxiliaries to hunt down and destroy the partisan group. A fierce firefight ensued with heavy casualties being inflicted by both sides. Hammett survived and later took part in an attack on a barn where several of the Ukrainians were hiding out.
In November, Hammett was moved to a safe-house near to the partisan’s base. Here, he was later joined by two former British POWs. The area was finally liberated by the Red Army in mid-January.
On 23 February, the Soviet authorities placed him in charge of a large group of POWs who were to be transported by train to the port city of Odessa. On arrival, Hammett and the group boarded the SS Moreton Bay for their repatriation to England.
The plaque commemorating the three crewmen killed can be seen on the Understanding the Holocaust and Story of Anne Frank and Oscar Schindler tours at the Schindler Factory Museum.

10 Facts You Did Not Know About Dunkirk


Here are 10 facts you did not know about Dunkirk…
1. The BEF were a Mix of Regulars and Territorials
Most of those who were in the Army in WW2 were conscripts, but the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in 1939/40 was unusual in that it was largely a volunteer army. Regular soldiers were predominantly volunteers, and some had served for many years. A large proportion of the BEF were Territorial Army (TA) units and these were all volunteers: often referred to as ‘Saturday Night Soldiers’ as their role in the armed forces during peacetime was part-time. The size of the BEF in 1940 was estimated at over 300,000 men.
2. The Dunkirk Perimeter was Massive and Covered Two Countries
As the Allies pulled back across Northern France, a decision was made to defend the Dunkirk area to allow men to be evacuated. The defensive perimeter set up, largely along the lines of canals and waterways, which offered a natural barrier, extended more than 10 miles inland from the beaches and across 25 miles from Dunkirk town to Nieuport, in Belgium. The thousands of men defending these were therefore spread across both French and Belgian soil, in an area as big as the Ypres Salient battlefields of WW1.
3. It Was Not All About The Beaches
Of the 338,000 Allied soldiers evacuated at Dunkirk only a third of them were taken off the famous Dunkirk Beaches. While the popular myth remembers the beaches, most men were evacuated via the less glamorous ‘Mole’. This was a stone jetty that extended along the harbour mouth. The far end was wooden. The water either side of The Mole was deep so it meant that large vessels could come in, moor up and load very quickly. Ships were sunk here by bombs from German dive bombers, but it was a very effective method in getting the majority away. The Mole survived WW2 but was lost in a storm in the 1970s, although the stone sections remain.

4. Not All the Little Ships were Little
More than 700 private vessels were requisitioned as part of Operation Dynamo. Many people believe that they were all small boats but the fleet of so-called ‘Little Ships’ included some quite large vessels. For example, the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company provided 10 of its 16 ships, which included substantial steam powered ones like the Mona’s Queen which weighed in at over 2,700 tons. This company’s ships alone rescued more than 26,000 men from Dunkirk, giving an insight into the importance of their role. Many Little Ships were lost and the wrecks of some can be seen on the Dunkirk Beaches to this day.
5. Lorry Piers Were Used to Get Men to the Boats
For the men who were evacuated off the beaches there were problems in that very few could swim. How to get them through deep water and onto a ship? An idea was developed to line up Lorries across the beach at the low tide, side by side, and put planking over the top. This turned the line of Lorries into an improvised pier at high tide, enabling those unable to swim to walk over the Lorries and board a ship out to sea. Many of the more than 100,000 men taken off the beaches used this method.
6. The Indian Army Was at Dunkirk
Britain relied heavily on the Commonwealth in WW2 but few Commonwealth troops took part in the 1940 campaign. However, several Indian Mule Companies were in France at this time, being used to re-supply the British Army. These men were evacuated via Dunkirk, but en-route passed the old Indian Army memorial at Neuve-Chapelle, from the First World War. Several Indian soldiers were killed making the sacrifice at Dunkirk truly multi-national.
7. The RAF were in the Skies Above the Beaches
Many of the soldiers at Dunkirk believed that the RAF had been pulled back to Britain to defend the mainland, and they had been ‘abandoned’ to their fate at the hands of the Luftwaffe. Recent research has shown that RAF squadrons were very active over the Dunkirk Perimeter, giving vital cover to the men on the ground. They were also flying sorties inland to attack the German’s Lines of Communication and troop movements.
8. The Medics Could Not Leave
There were many thousands of wounded at Dunkirk, some from defending the perimeter, some wounded in the evacuation, and many brought in having been wounded earlier in the Battle of France. A significant number were evacuated out via The Mole, where they could be more easily taken aboard ships on stretchers. However, some were so badly wounded that they could not be moved at all and a large number of personnel from the Royal Army Medical Corps volunteered to stay behind to care for them. This meant they were subsequently taken prisoner; most were not released until 1945, so spent five years as a prisoner of the Germans.
9. Many French Stayed Behind
One of the wartime myths of Dunkirk in occupied France was that British soldiers refused to evacuate their French Allies. This was used by the Nazi backed Vichy Government to demonise Britain. The reality was that nearly 140,000 French, Belgian and Polish troops were evacuated in Operation Dynamo. In addition over 40,000 French soldiers stayed behind at Dunkirk to keep the perimeter intact to the very last moment that the final evacuation took place. Their sacrifice helped save the British Army and should never be forgotten.

10. We Are Not Sure How Many British Soldiers Died at Dunkirk
As the British Army Retreated in May 1940, operational War Diaries and military papers were lost and destroyed. In the confusion of the retreat many soldiers got separated from their units, and when the final reckoning of casualties was made the War Office stated that 2,972 officers and 66,008 men were killed, wounded or missing from 10th May 1940 until the last day of evacuation in June 1940. This equated to about 1 in 3 of the BEF. The problem was that it was not known when many of these men died, or how many had actually died at Dunkirk. The cemeteries there have over 1,000 burials from the Dunkirk period, but many graves show dates of death as 10th May 1940 to a date in mid-June.  So we will probably never know what the true cost of the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’ was.
Find out more about the real Dunkirk and visit the beaches yourself alongside an expert guide on our Dunkirk and Fortress Europe tour.

Paul Reed: Exploring the Secret Wehrmacht Bunker

Getting prepared for new battlefield experiences is all part of the work Battlefield Guides carry out in readiness for the tours we do for Leger Holidays.

When there are new tours we always go out on a Battlefield Recce to check the fine details and make sure it all runs smoothly for when we have the groups with us. It’s all part of the professionalism with which we all approach how we operate Leger Battlefield Tours.
I was recently in Germany on such a Battlefield Recce with fellow Battlefield Guides David McCormack and Bill McQuade for the new Peenemunde, Baltic Coast and Berlin tour, which has its first departures this summer. This promises to be an excellent tour looking at different aspects of Third Reich history from the ‘Strength through Joy’ site at Prora to the development of secret weapons at Peenemunde, which will include for the first time having access to the actual rocket test stands and launch sites.

Zossen-Wünsdorf

However, one of the highlights of this Recce was our visit to Zossen-Wünsdorf to the site of Oberkommando der Wehrmacht: the Headquarters of the German Wehrmacht. The Wehrmacht wasn’t just the German Army: it was the overall governing body of the Army (Heer), Airforce (Luftwaffe) and Navy (Kriegsmarine). All of these had personnel at Zossen in a massive series of underground bunkers and tunnels.
While some wartime planning was done here, it was in essence the wartime communications hub of the Wehrmacht, a site once buzzing with the orders, commands and information relating to every key battle in the war from Poland to Stalingrad to the final battles.
Zossen-Wünsdorf

Zossen-Wünsdorf is a ‘book village’ where there are a large number of second-hand bookshops, and we started our tour there with the group that runs the bunker site. Our guide took us in through the main gate, dating from Cold War days, but which immediately put us into the heart of the above ground bunkers.
These all resemble houses as they were used to disguise the site as a residential area; in reality they were the way into the underground structures used by the various branches of the Wehrmacht. Some had been damaged in bombing but most had been blown by the Russians. They stand as decaying monuments to the failure of the Thousand Year Reich.
Cold War entrance door at Zossen-Wünsdorf

From here we went through the woods to the entrance of the main underground section. Initially we went through some Cold War period doors, which were amazing in their own right, and then into what was the entrance area during WW2.
It was very wide and when we questioned this, it was so that small vehicles such as Kubelwagens could drive in and enter the lift to take them to the lower levels. It was at this point we began to get an idea as to how big this site was!
From here we made our way through the tunnels, rooms and corridors. Because of occupation as a Soviet Airmobile Headquarters during the Cold War, the site is in very good condition and easy to access: it is fully lit and there are easily manageable stairs. No crawling through tunnels or roping down holes! Health and safety on these visits is something we do have to think about as Battlefield Guides!
Cold War remains at Zossen-Wünsdorf

As we made our way through the bunker site we got some sense of the importance of it and also the scale, and just how modern it was. Having an integrated internal messaging system, it had the WW2 equivalent of email whereby everyone in the complex could message others through a message pod system powered by compressed air! Anyone in the complex could speak to any headquarters on any battlefield.
As you walk the corridors you just wonder what it must have been like when the surrender at Stalingrad came through or when it was clear the fronts in both East and West were collapsing.
Message pod system at Zossen-Wünsdorf

Coming back outside from the Wehrmacht Bunker we realised we had been underground for well over an hour, seeing a site not normally open to the public because of the safety issues and which we know will fascinate those who travel with us on this new tour that focuses on many areas of WW2 history we have not been able to discuss in such depth before.


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Beer and Battlefields: The Man Behind the Concept

Looking ahead into 2017, we’ve got big events coming up. From the Centenary of Passchendaele to the 75th anniversary of Dieppe, there’s an interesting year ahead on our Battlefield tours. Yet, there’s one itinerary that really stands out. New for 2017, this tour isn’t focused on a big anniversary, neither is it visiting new ground, it’s just a whole new concept that has really got people talking. Beer and Battlefields.

Mark Hope: Beer and Battlefield creator
Marc Hope

Designed by our very own Battlefield Guide Marc Hope, our Beer and Battlefields tour combines battlefield sites from both World Wars with visits to a selection of the best breweries in Belgium. And, who better to give us the inside scoop than Marc himself? In this exclusive interview, find out just why this tour is going to take 2017 by storm.
Q: Beer and Battlefields, it’s certainly an interesting concept. How did it first come about?
A: It came about several years ago when I used to do Brewery Tours around Belgium and France. Originally we concentrated on the Trappist Breweries and then onto various other establishments which took us over the Battlefields of WW1 &WW2. People then started to look at the Battlefield side of things as I used to give a running commentary as we passed through these sites. It snowballed from there with us doing the Battlefields in the morning and Breweries in the afternoon as; believe it or not, people didn’t want to spend all day in Breweries. It’s a more relaxed kind of Battlefield tour where we can digest the Battlefields over a great beer.
Q: What significance does beer have to the stories of World War I and World War II? Is it something that is often overlooked?
A:  A Medical Officer once said “Had it not been for the rum ration, I do not think we should have won the War.” Winston Churchill would acknowledge alcohol by saying “It saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the Doctors in the Empire.” Therefore alcohol and the role it played are very much overlooked, as it played a significant part in Soldiers and Civilian lives during both Wars.
Alcohol, particularly Rum was administered as a treatment for everything from Shellshock, wounds, hypothermia, flu right through to exhaustion! Most commanders issued double rations when men were going ‘over the top.’ Alcohol was also used as a motivational tool, a reward and a cure. It was a great way for men to unwind behind the lines in the local Estaminets and cafe’s.
On the downside it led men to be Court Martialed and imprisoned for drunkenness. It could also lead to forfeit of pay up to 28 days. Officers could also be forced to give up their commission or ‘Cashiering’ as it’s known.
The British Government became very concerned that drunkenness was affecting War production back at home so they introduced the Defence of the Realm Act. This meant that licensed premises could only open between certain hours and this wasn’t overturned until 2005, so affected us up until quite recently.
Q: How did you choose the breweries that are featured in the tour? Are there any that really stand out?
A: I picked these Breweries as they represent the Battles of WW1, WW2 and what the troops, and civilians, got up to behind the Lines. These Breweries are all establishments I’ve visited in the past. They are connected to the War by either producing alcohol for the troops or being associated on the Battlefield themselves.  For instance the Kazematten Brewery in Ypres is housed in the old Ramparts where once upon a time they used to produce the ‘trench gazette’ for the troops. It still produces the Wipers Times, but now in a form of a beer. It still retains the medicinal Saint Mary’s Thistle (blessed thistle) on the label of the beer which was originally found on the front page of the newspaper. They all have something unique.
Q: Compared to the other Leger Holidays Battlefield tours you have guided, how will Beer and Battlefields stand out to you?
A: It gives a different concept to the Battlefields themselves. It gives an insight as to how alcohol, food and tobacco influenced and shaped these soldiers in their everyday lives. It’s not all about Battles but rather what the troops did to relax and how they integrated with the civilians behind the lines. It’s also a look into how alcohol got a lot of Soldiers into trouble and also how many won Bravery Awards whilst under the influence.
Q: Whilst researching the tour, did you come across any interesting stories that you can give us as a sneak peek into?
A: As with Alcohol in general, it leads to some very bizarre stories and circumstances. All I can say it led to one particular soldier nearly marrying a cow to another nearly winning the Victoria Cross! These and many more stories will be told on the tour.
Q: Do you think the premise of the tour will attract people to the battlefields, who may not have considered it previously?
A: Yes indeed as not everyone wants to do a full day Battlefield Touring. We’ve had it many a time on tours where ‘the other half’s’ have bought a Battlefield Tour, as a present, and they feel obliged to come along. This way they get the best of both worlds. Supporting their partner’s and then going for drinks and guided brewery tours after. They can even chuck in a bit of shopping! It’s far more relaxed. It will also, hopefully, attract people who like their beer but would like a bit of culture and history to go alongside it. They complement each other very nicely.
Q: What is your favourite beer sampled on the tour?
A: I can’t remember! That’s a very tough question. As Belgium alone has over a 1000 beers it’s hard to narrow it down to one particular beer. Can I just say it’s still ongoing research?
Q: You’re quite active on social media, have you had any interesting comments or questions regarding the Beer and Battlefields tour?
A: It certainly seems to be going down very well, just like beers I expect! It’s very much straight forward as the title does what it says on the tin, or bottle in this case. I think a few people were concerned how this itinerary was going to pan out. Once I told them it’s going to be Battlefields in the morning, followed by the Brewery tours in the afternoon, it seemed to put their minds at ease. We didn’t want it getting too messy doing it the other way round! You can’t go wrong with Battlefields and then beer after.
Q: What are you most looking forward to when the tour gets on the road?
A: Meeting old and new faces. It’s great to be going to new places and the Hop Museum is a fantastic place to visit. All the Breweries offer something different with their own regional beers. It certainly gives a very different aspect to the two Great Wars from both sides.
Q: What three words would you use to describe this tour?
A: ‘Hoppy’ times ahead.
Our Beer and Battlefields tour will be hitting the road from June 2017 on either a 4 or 5 day break with executive and Silver Service travel Available. Staying at the 3* Novotel in the heart of Ypres, join us from just £399pp.
Follow Marc on Twitter: @Thegr8war
 

Paul Reed: Being a Battlefield Guide

In my capacity as Head Battlefield Guide for Leger, every year I get dozens of letters and emails from people asking how they can become battlefield guides, or could they come to work for us.

However, what is clear is that often few of these prospective guides have any real idea of what is involved, or what we really do. So what is a battlefield guide, and what do we do?!
I did my first paid job as a battlefield guide in April 1987 when I took members of the Henry Williamson Society around the WW1 battlefields, and I am lucky to have been working pretty much continuously ever since.

early-days-with-leger-on-the-somme
Early Days with Leger on the Somme

How did I get into it?

It was simple, living in the south-east I had been in a good position to visit battlefields since the late 1970s and I had a good knowledge of the ground. First friends asked me to take them, then groups like this.
How I guided then was very different to how I do it now but certain things never change: it is not all about baffling groups with military terminology, rattling off lists of units, dates and commander’s names… it’s about people – and as I often say, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
Most groups want to hear about the experience of war: what it was like, what people went through, how long they were there, what the conditions were like, what did they eat, where did they go to the toilet?
In that respect battlefield guiding is like story-telling, and that is not a bad analogy. I find that the most successful tours are ones that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Groups like to see a logical and understandable sequence to their visits, they like to understand how they are connected, they enjoy big themes, with some micro-detail to lighten the dark corners or blurred edges.
What they generally don’t want are ‘stands’ – a military style of battlefield tour that is fine for staff-rides but not for civilians, especially when discussing World Wars when the average British soldier was a civvie in Khaki themselves.

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Paul Reed Talking to WW2 Veteran in Italy

Reading, Talking and Knowing your Roads

Reading, reading and more reading is always the best approach for battlefield guides. Read everything, read the new books because people will ask about them, read the old books, the ones by those who were there – those are very important, because they give the ground-up viewpoint. But don’t ignore the historians: battlefield tours can be a way of educating a wider public, so being aware of recent historiography, new thoughts on your period: that is very important too. It also means you can never have enough books, which is a bonus as well.
Talking, talking and more talking is also the best approach too. If you are shy, or not good at public speaking, this is not a job for you. Don’t just talk when you are on the ground, either. That is what the microphone on your vehicle is for: tell people what they are seeing as you travel, link these places with stories from the books you have read. Which means you have to know your ground: perhaps the thing new guides invest the least in, is knowledge of the battlefield as it is today.
You need to know the roads, the tracks, the best routes and the worst ones too: and more importantly how this terrain fits into the picture of the conflict you are guiding. Without that, you could just be driving around in circles and no-one would really be the wiser. And with the technology we have now, there is no excuse: a far cry from the days when I poured over paper maps and tried to re-imagine the places I had been on the last trip over.

guides-recces-at-waterloo
Guide’s Recce at Waterloo

In the end, your work as a battlefield guide should always be an evolving process. Never be afraid to change, or listen to advice from others. Most working guides are happy to share knowledge and contacts, and help people out. As guides we should have a common bond, and we have a duty to share what we have learned not just with groups but with fellow guides, too.
I often get asked do I get fed up with it: doing the same thing, visiting the same places? But how could I, when you consider what these places are and what they stand for. I consider myself blessed being able to be among them so often. Fortunate to have spent so many days in the company of veterans of both World Wars on the ground where they fought as young men. Honoured to have helped relatives visit a family grave, and shed a few tears with them over it.
taking-a-family-back-to-a-wargave-in-flanders
Taking a Family Back to a Wargrave in Flanders

And lucky, so lucky, that what has driven me for most of my life is also my job: a job where I have watched the ashes of a last veteran scattered across a Somme field, seen an old man weep over the grave of the man who saved his life, and experienced the comradeship of common experience as I’ve walked the ground with groups where so much took place: a landscape which in itself is a last witness that speaks to us if we care to listen.
Because, finally, the joy of battlefield guiding is not what the guide gets from it, but what the group experiences, sees and understands. None of us are bigger than the subject; perhaps one of the best mantras any perspective guide should always bear in mind. Be true to your passion, and never forget the debt we owe the men and women we discuss: with that approach, you can never go wrong.
leger-coach-on-the-battlefields
Leger Coach on the Battlefields

 
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Paul Reed: Arnhem and Its Forgotten Battles

This month marks the annual commemoration of Operation Market Garden, a battle fought in Holland in September 1944.

And, normally associated in most people’s mind with the Dutch city of Arnhem, where the Airborne forces battled on bravely for nine days until it was clear the ground troops would never reach them, and just over 2,000 out of 10,000 men who were dropped on Arnhem got away over the Lower Rhine, either swimming through the rapid currents or evacuated in assault boats.
But what is the Battle of Arnhem? What is it about this aspect of Operation Market Garden we should remember and are there some forgotten battles of Arnhem during the Second World War?

Veterans at Arnhem70 in 2014
Veterans at Arnhem70 in 2014

Anyone of my generation, born in the 1960s, grew up on a diet of Airfix kits, battle action comics and war movies. One of the defining war films for me was always A Bridge Too Far and I went to see it countless times at our local cinema.
From an Arnhem point of view the focus is on the bridge, the final of the road bridges that need to be reached by the ground troops of XXX Corps to allow Operation Market Garden to be a success.
Arnhem Bridge 1944
Arnhem Bridge in 1944

But, is Arnhem just about the bridge? John Frost and his party of Airborne troops, which defended the bridge, went beyond the call of duty in holding on. But, the bigger battle, and the often forgotten one was that to the west of Arnhem, in Oosterbeek.
Walking round Oosterbeek today, it is a quiet suburb just as it was on the eve of WW2. There are some nice houses and clearly some wealthy people live here.
Go back more than 70 years, and this was the real Arnhem battleground. Bitter hand-to-hand fighting took place in gardens where children play, grenades tore apart front rooms now full of books and music, but you don’t have to look far to find railings bent by shrapnel or bullet nicks in the brickwork.
Battle damaged railings Oosterbeek
Battle damaged railings Oosterbeek

Here, in some respects, was the real Battle of Arnhem: urban warfare in and around the Oosterbeek perimeter, the place where most Arnhem veterans fought and where most of the casualties in the battle occurred.
Walking just beyond the Oosterbeek Perimeter you cross a railway bridge and follow a tree lined road to what many call the Airborne Cemetery.
Airborne graves at Arnhem
Airborne graves at Arnhem

More than 1,700 British and Commonwealth soldiers lie here, in a quiet glade, the majority of them the ‘Airborne carpet’, men of 1st Airborne Division who guard the dropzones for ever more. But, to the rear are other graves, from the final and perhaps most forgotten Battle of Arnhem: the one from April 1945 when Canadians supported by British troops liberated this part of the Netherlands.
This was the moment of victory and among the blood and sacrifice of Arnhem Bridge, it should never be forgotten and no trip to the battlefields here is really complete without following in the footsteps of all those men of Arnhem who passed this way in the last year of the war.
Arnhem Drop Zone
Arnhem Drop Zone

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Will and Pat Nicol take on our Highlights of Eastern Europe Tour

Will and Pat Nichol recently travelled with Leger on our Highlights of Eastern Europe tour, after sending some great photos to Leger HQ, they have kindly taken the time to answer a few questions for our blog.

So, if you’re looking to head off with Leger shortly, here’s what they have to say about their experience:

What was it about the tour that made us want to book? We had planned to visit these cities on a backpacking trip booking as we went, until, your brochure dropped onto our mat. It was going to every city we wanted to visit. Now, having reached a mature age, we decided to let you take the strain.
Which day were we most looking forward too from the itinerary? The day we were looking forward too, was the trip to Auschwitz and Krakow. Both places have been high on our list, due to the fact we have always been interested in WW 2 history. Auschwitz, what can we say, the impact  was exactly as we had imagined. Krakow, we had been told the old town was stunning, yes it was, both by day and by night.

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“Thanks for laying on a flypast of a Lancaster at the Mohne Dam. Surprised everyone one on the coach. Took a model of a Lancaster with a loop of fishing line and my wife held it in a suitable position near the dam – looks brill.”

How did we find the travelling aspect of the holiday? It was easy, sit back and relax, comfortable seats, excellent drivers, plenty of refreshments, good choice of DVD’s to pass the time on the long days, what more could you ask.
Which city that you visited, was the most memorable? Prague, without a doubt, so much to see, so much to do. A city to re-visit, finished off with a boozy ride around the city in a vintage tram – brill.
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“Mike and Keiran try to recruit a new Leger driver”

Did we find any hidden or unexpected delights on our tour? Yes, we did. Being aircraft enthusiasts we found a hidden aircraft museum in the middle of Warsaw.  Amongst all the hidden gems were four WW2 Russian aircraft, which we never dreamt of seeing, they are as rare as hens teeth!
What was the best part of the trip? the evening tour of Budapest. A fantastic champagne organ recital followed by a stunning tour of floodlight Budapest. We took hundreds of photographs!
"Keiran and Mike present the Budapest guide with two cuddly sheep for her children"
“Keiran and Mike present the Budapest guide with two cuddly sheep for her children”

What would we say to someone who was thinking of booking this tour? Don’t think about it, just do it, you will not be disappointed.
What was our favourite part of the whole experience? Spending a whole day wandering around Prague, its bridges, its squares and shops… and a pint of beer (or two!), watching people and the river activities. Ending the day with the vintage tram ride as already mentioned
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Do we have any funny stories from the tour? Yes, I spent twenty minutes riding the lift. Having forgotten my room key card in haste to collect my suitcase from the lobby. The keycard was designated to the floor we were on, so it took considerable time  to find a guest staying on the same floor. I thought I would be spending the night in the lift and without dinner too.(Moral, always carry your door key when leaving the room).  Four fellow travellers after hearing about my dilemma decided to take the stairs to breakfast the following morning. Not realising they were using the fire exits, once the door had closed behind them, they were trapped. After shouting and banging on the doors to no avail for over half an hour, they thought to call Mike Brannon on their mobile phone to come and release them. They made breakfast, just (Moral to this one, don’t use fire escapes except in an emergency).
Finally, would you head off on  tour with Leger again? Yes, already thinking about taking the Bavarian Castle’s tour.
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“My wife Pat really appreciated the coach named after her, seeing as it was her 60th birthday, she thought I had arranged it, I haven’t said I didn’t.”

One of the most rewarding things from a travel company’s perspective is to hear that customers have had great experiences on their holidays and we’d love to hear from you too!

If you fancy becoming a Leger Blog Star, get in touch at blog@legerblog.co.uk