Remnants Of World War II In The UK Countryside

World War Two, pillbox
During World War II, the British were sure they were about to be invaded. The English Channel seemed like nothing more than a narrow creek against the might of Nazi Germany. As the British army fought in North Africa and Southeast Asia, the Home Guard and teams of civilians prepared for the worst.

One elderly English woman told me that when she was a teenager she helped lay electric wire below the water line of the southern beaches. The idea was that if the Germans launched an amphibious invasion, sort of a D-Day in reverse, they could flip a switch and electrocute the Germans. While the idea disturbed her at the time, the thought of an occupied England disturbed her even more.

Another defensive measure was the construction of more than 18,000 small bunkers called “pillboxes” at strategic sites. Thousands still stand along the rivers, estuaries, ports and main roads. If you hike for any length of time in England, Scotland or Wales you’re bound to come across some. The one shown above guards the road leading into Faringdon, Oxfordshire. Jump the cut to see another view of the same installation.

%Gallery-166587%World War Two, pillbox
As you can see it’s not very big, barely room enough for a couple of men and a machine gun. Still, it would have slowed down the enemy and given the British time to organize a counterattack. Many installations were strung out in long lines called “stop-lines” across the countryside with the idea that the German invasion could be halted along those lines.

Pillboxes came in numerous types. They were built of concrete, stone or brick reinforced with concrete and had various shapes. The Pillbox Study Group is dedicated to the study and preservation of these defenses. Anyone who knows the British will not be the least bit surprised that such a group exists. They’re big on all sorts of societies and associations. These groups allow a rather introverted people an excuse to gather without (or sometimes with) the social lubricant of alcohol. Sometimes this is rewarded with a major discovery. The Richard III Society must be having their best year ever.

I’ve clambered over plenty of these little forts and each one is a little different. In Orkney, I even came across one built atop a prehistoric Pictish broch. Some have been incorporated into later buildings and one has even been used to create a habitat for bats. Most, however, are quietly decaying, visited only by local teens as a private place to drink and screw. Only a few are preserved as historic buildings. The Pillbox Study Group is trying to change that.

If you come across a pillbox while hiking, be careful. Despite once being bullet proof many are now in rather poor shape. Watch your step and admire these remnants of the nation’s Proudest Hour.

Exhibition Examines Role Of Scientists And Doctors In Holocaust

Holocaust, eugenics
This is a poster for the Nazi eugenics program. Printed in 1936, it proclaims, “We are not alone.” The column on the left shows the countries that already had forced sterilization for certain “social undesirables.” The columns on the bottom and right show countries considering eugenics programs.

Note the American flag on the left. Various U.S. states practiced compulsory sterilization as early as 1907, when Indiana instituted sterilization of “confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists.” The law was overturned in 1921, only to be replaced in 1927 with a law requiring sterilization of the “Insane, feeble minded or epileptic.” That law stayed on the books until 1974. Many states had similar laws and this “social cleansing” program heavily influenced the Nazis.

The Nazis instituted their Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring in 1933, the same year Hitler came to power. Many scientists and doctors were quick to jump onto the Nazi bandwagon and began “studies” to prove how the Germanic peoples were superior to all other races. This gave a scholarly stamp of approval to the forced sterilization, and eventual killing, of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and physically and mentally disabled.

This unseemly link between science and the Holocaust is being examined in a new exhibition at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. “Deadly Medicine: Creating The Master Race” brings together posters, leaflets and photos of scientific examinations to show how the scientific community became complicit in the greatest crime of the 20th century.

It also shows how these ideas were sold to the German people. One picture in a high school textbook shows a German man bent under the weight of an alcoholic and a brutish-looking man, perhaps meant to portray a mentally disabled person, with the caption, “You are sharing the load! A hereditarily ill person costs 50,000 Reichsmarks on average up to the age of sixty.”

“Deadly Medicine: Creating The Master Race” runs until October 15, 2012.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Beauty In Wartime: The Italian Chapel In Orkney

Orkney, Italian Chapel
The remote Orkney Islands north of Scotland became important during both world wars. With German U-boats prowling the Atlantic, shipping between the United Kingdom and North America was diverted as far north as possible and passed by Orkney. The islands were protected by a series of bunkers and forts that can still be seen today.

The remote islands also proved to be a good place to put prisoners of war. Camp 60, on Lambholm, housed some 500 Italian soldiers captured during the North Africa campaign of World War II. They had a pretty good life considering the circumstances. By day they worked on building barriers between the islands to inhibit U-boat traffic, and in their spare time they built themselves a bowling alley and printed their own newspaper.

They were far from home, however, and still prisoners, so they needed some spiritual inspiration. Thus they got permission to convert two Nissen huts into a Catholic chapel. The prisoners quickly organized. Former artisans volunteered to decorate and paint the chapel, or devise candlesticks and a rood screen out of scrap metal and wood. Less skilled prisoners did the heavy work.

%Gallery-161322%One Italian POW described why the prisoners rallied around the project: “It was the wish to show oneself first, and to the world then, that in spite of being trapped in a barbed wire camp, down in spirit, physically and morally deprived of many things, one could still find something inside that could be set free.”

Check out the gallery to see this amazing little chapel – all that remains of Camp 60. It’s been lovingly preserved by the people of Orkney and regularly visited by the former prisoners and their families.

The above photo was taken by Gregory J. Kingsley, who obviously went on a nicer day than we did.

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “A Look Inside at a Scotch Whisky Distillery!”

Assassination Of The Romanovs Subject Of New Exhibition

Romanovs
In 1918, the emerging Communist government of Russia shocked the world when it assassinated Tsar Nicholas II, his family and members of his staff.

The Tsar had been blamed for a series of national setbacks. First, there was the humiliating defeat of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, followed quickly by a popular rebellion that was brutally suppressed, the pervasive influence of the unpopular Rasputin and finally, disaster at the front and starvation at home during World War I.

Nicholas abdicated in 1917, but that didn’t stop the anger against him. The Bolsheviks were gaining ground in the fight to take over Russia and turn it into a Communist country. They captured the former Tsar and his retinue and moved them to a secret location. On July 17, 1918, the prisoners were led to the basement of the house where they were being held and put before a firing squad.

Now the assassination of the Romanovs is the subject of a new exhibition at the Russian State Archives in Moscow. The BBC reports large numbers of Russians visiting the exhibit, curious about an important piece of history that was glossed over in Soviet times.

Several items from the family and their executioners are on display, including the Tsar’s letter of abdication, some of the weapons and bullets used in the killing, and numerous photographs of them in captivity. One especially poignant artifact is an unfinished embroidery by the Empress Alexandra.

The event has created an enduring interest to later generations. Numerous movies have been made about the family’s last days. Several women claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, weaving elaborate tales of surviving the firing squad, but their claims were later refuted by DNA evidence. The Russian Orthodox Church proclaimed Tsar Nicholas II and his family saints in 2000.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Historic Battleship USS Texas Taking In Water, Leaking Oil


The USS Texas is America’s oldest battleship. Commissioned in 1914, it fought in both World War I and World War II. Since 1948 it’s been utilized as a museum at La Porte, Texas, on the outskirts of Houston.

Now the vessel is in peril. It’s sprung a leak and is taking on water. So much water entered the ship that it started noticeably listing to port. The old oil tanks got flooded. While the tanks had been emptied decades ago, they’d never been cleaned, so oily water spread out into the bay.

The oil is being cleaned and the water pumped out. While problems continue, the ship doesn’t appear to be in danger of sinking. The Houston Chronicle reports the ship is taking less water now, from a high of 850 gallons a minute down to 100. Repairs will hopefully start Monday and the ship will be closed for the foreseeable future.

Despite its current troubles, the future may be bright for this floating bit of history. In 2007 a state bond issue raised $25 million to dry berth the ship. This would help preserve it for future generations. Now it’s estimated the project may cost twice that. Getting the money will be difficult in this economic climate, but the project would create jobs and preserve a major tourist attraction.

Check out the video to learn more about this amazing vessel.