‘A powerful portrait of the fighting in the Streets, houses, gardens and woods’

Jan Loos was a 14-year-old schoolboy in Oosterbeek, the village on the outskirts of Arnhem town that saw much combat between British Airborne soldiers and their German foes in September 1944.

Like thousands of other civilians, Jan took refuge with his family, friends and neighbours in the cellar of a house that became the focus of a bitter struggle.
Shot at during forays from the cellar to get water, he was wounded in the leg.

In the immediate aftermath of the battle Jan and his family were forced to flee their ruined neighbourhood. At one point they came under attack from Allied aircraft that mistook a column of refugees for retreating enemy troops.

A soldier of the 1st Airborne Division takes aim at the enemy from the ruins of a house in Oosterbeek. (Photo: AWM)

After the war Jan became an aviator in the Royal Netherlands Navy and today furthers the cause of commemorating the Battle of Arnhem by giving tours of the streets in Oosterbeek where some of it took place. He explains what happened there during the battle, including recalling his own experiences.

Jan’s incredible story features in ‘Arnhem: Ten Days in The Cauldron’ which uses his own day-by-day recollections of the fighting as part of the narrative. Naturally, Jan was one of the first to receive a copy of the new book, by way of thanks for his help to ensure it offers a compelling read. This is his reaction to it.

“This weekend I finished reading Iain Ballantyne’s book ‘Arnhem: Ten Days in The Cauldron’ and felt as if I had relived the entire battle again,” said Jan.

“The way in which it so vividly and exactly describes how those of us caught up in the battle experienced the horrors and suffering of war reflected so well what it was really like.

“I was impressed by the way Iain managed to insert all the different stories from soldiers and civilians in an authentic setting and was pleased by how my own story intermingled with the stories of others who were there, to make a powerful portrait of the fighting in the streets, houses, gardens and woods. I congratulate the author on a job well done.”



For Britain Scapa Flow U-Boat attack was a terrible ‘feat of arms’

On 12 October 1939, a Luftwaffe reconnaissance flight confirmed the Home Fleet of the Royal Navy was in Scapa Flow and ripe for attack. The Germans had previously spotted a gap in the sea defences of the RN’s main war base and so kept a keen eye on things there.

The British war anchorage at Scapa Flow, at the end of WW1, with the interned German battle fleet enclosed. Photo: NHHC.

After sunset, however, the majority of the British vessels departed, with battleship Rodney and rest of the fleet heading for Loch Ewe on the west coast of Scotland. Yet the battleship HMS Royal Oak, which had been detached to patrol waters between the Orkneys and Shetland, remained at Scapa. Her job was also to act as anti-aircraft guardship for Kirkwall.

U-47, under the command of Kapitanleutnant Gunther Prien, had been sent to exploit Scapa’s defensive vulnerability and achieve something his forebears during WW1 had failed to do – sink a British battleship in the anchorage. As he took his boat north, Prien followed a pattern or running that aimed to ensure maximum stealth and survivability. U-boats, like all diesel-electric submarines, were much faster on the surface than dived.

The famous German submarine U-47 departing on patrol in 1939. Photo: US Naval History and Heritage (NHHC).

However, in seas where the enemy had dominant air cover – and with plenty of British patrol vessels also present – it was madness to try and cruise on the surface in daylight. Therefore, U-47 stayed submerged and rested on the seabed during the day, keeping the draw on battery power to a minimum. Most of U-47’s men got some sleep. After dark the boat surfaced and made speed towards Orkneys, her diesels driving hard – the batteries recharging and the engine fumes venting from the boat.

Prien had volunteered for the mission after being asked by Donitz, if he thought he could handle it. Had he refused, so Donitz maintained, there would be no stain on his record, but the ambitious Prien did not shirk the task. In WW1 the boats U-18 and UB-116 had been sent to penetrate Scapa, but had themselves been destroyed. Could Prien pull it off in the new war with Britain, his tiny craft delivering a devastating blow against the goliath of the seas that was the Royal Navy?

Until October 13 the crew of U-47 did not know exactly what their mission was about, though they guessed something big was imminent. When Prien gathered them in the forward torpedo room to reveal their objective, his men seemed to accept it with equanimity. The silence as they contemplated the enormity of the undertaking was broken only by ‘a soft gentle crunching sound as the boat shifted on the sea bed,’ as one account of the moment later described it.

U-47 rested on the bottom all that day, the boat surfacing at 7.15pm, when a hot meal was served – roast ribs of salt pork with cabbage. Making speed on the surface, there was a heart-stopping moment at 11.07 pm when the black mass of a ship materialised out of the night. It was only a merchant vessel, but Prien still dived U-47, to guarantee slipping by unobserved. When the U-boat again surfaced, Kirk Sound was visible ahead and Prien was presented with what he described in his patrol report as ‘a very eerie sight.’

In WW2 U-47 would penetrate Scapa Flow to attack Royal Navy warships and sink HMS Royal Oak (seen above in a floating dock between the wars). Photo: AJAX Vintage Picture Library.

He added: ‘On land everything is dark, high in the sky are the flickering Northern Lights, so that the bay, surrounded by English [sic] mountains, is directly lit up from above. The blockships lie in the sound, ghostly as the wings of a theatre.’ Deciding to squeeze past those blockships on their northern side, from the bridge of his boat Prien spotted the big, bulky silhouettes of ‘two battleships’ along with seemed to be destroyers lying beyond.

At 12.58am, with just 22ft below the boat’s keel, Prien fired one torpedo at what he referred to as ‘the northern’ ship and two at ‘the southern.’ All had impact exploders. ‘After a good three minutes, a torpedo detonates on the northern ship,’ reported Prien, ‘of the other two nothing is to be seen.’

Disappointed, but with no interference so far from the enemy, Prien swung U-47 around and launched a torpedo from the stern tube. He then turned the boat to fire three more torpedoes from the bow tubes, some with magnetic exploders. ‘There is a loud explosion, roar, and rumbling,’ recorded Prien of what happened next. ‘Then come columns of water, followed by columns of fire, and splinters fly through the air. The harbour springs to life…A battleship has been sunk, a second damaged…All the tubes are empty. I decide to withdraw…’

U-47 made off at high speed – still on the surface – exiting Scapa by Skildaenoy Point. Breaking through into the open sea, U-47 went as fast as she could, heading south-east and for home. With daylight fast approaching, Prien decided U-47 would be best advised to dive and sit on the seabed for a few hours to let the fuss die down. As he left the bridge Prien took a last look over his shoulder: ‘The glow from Scapa is still visible… Apparently they are still dropping depth charges.’

A few weeks after sinking the Royal Oak, U-47 sails back into Kiel with her crew arranged on her casing. The battle-cruiser Scharnhorst is in the background. Photo: US Navy/NHHC.

On October 15, Prien sent a signal to U-boat headquarters: ‘Operation successfully completed. “ROYAL OAK” sunk. “REPULSE” damaged.’ He was not quite accurate – Repulse was not there – but he had put three torpedoes into Royal Oak, the old British battleship turning turtle and taking 800 men with her, devastating the families and loved ones of those lost.

The Deadly DeepWinston Churchill observed: ‘This episode, which must be regarded as a feat of arms on the part of the German U-boat commander, gave a shock to public opinion.’ It would be six months before Scapa Flow’s defensive gaps were plugged and the Home Fleet could return in safety to its principal war anchorage. Meanwhile, Prien and the crew of U-47 reached Wilhelmshaven on October 17 to be acclaimed national heroes. During an audience with Adolf Hitler in Berlin, U-47’s commander was presented with the Knight’s Cross. The Fuhrer hailed Prien’s achievement as ‘a unique triumph.’

More on the pursuit of submarine warfare in WW2 and other conflicts is to be found in Iain Ballantyne’s book ‘The Deadly Trade’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) It is published in the USA as ‘The Deadly Deep’ (Pegasus Books)

What lies beneath… the weaponising of news

One of the latter-day episodes of submarine warfare – or shall we say covert operations – touched on in ‘The Deadly Trade’ (aka ‘The Deadly Deep’) was the alleged intrusion into Swedish waters of a Russian craft in 2014. Such episodes can easily spark armed confrontation, but for luck and the innate mysteries of the undersea environment (which sometimes makes it hard to say definitely what is lurking down there). This was my article from October 2014 on the Swedish episode

Similar controversies were a feature of the Cold War in the Baltic, when the Swedes were heavily taxed sometimes pursuing suspected Russian (and NATO) submarine intrusions into their waters. The most notorious episode was the grounding of a Whiskey Class diesel submarine of the Soviet Navy in October 1981. There was no doubt that Swedish forces had caught the Russians in flagrante making an illegal foray close to Karlskrona, as the boat S-363 was skewered by rocks in full view of the world.

A Soviet Navy submarine of the Whiskey Class underway during the Cold War. A diesel boat of this type ran aground in Swedish territorial waters, late 1981. Photo: US DoD.

What has sparked my return to the topic of the 2014 Swedish intrusions is a story by Elisabeth Braw of the London-based think-tank RUSI that raises some interesting issues on how the media reports such events (and whether or not it is being drawn into an info war between Russia and the West). The answer is yes, especially in the era of so-called fake news, where military operatives of the Kremlin and others states, not least China, and those of some Western powers, are weaponising it (and in some cases have been doing so for some time).

In her ‘Foreign Policy’ article Elisabeth Braw writes: ‘The military could, for example, provide training to a wide range of journalists, and not just about the latest in military equipment but about the wide spectrum of today’s national security threats and what sort of information helps the adversary.’

An image purporting to show a small, suspect object moving on the surface within Swedish waters at the time of the 2014 episode. Issued by the Swedish defence ministry.

However, as we are not officially at war with China and Russia, it’s pretty hard to persuade the free media of democratic countries that they should start censoring themselves against the ‘adversary’. Let’s face it, some of the stuff the defence ministries of Western nations pump out is also propaganda, and it is down to journalists to filter out the crap, in order to gain something close to the truth.

There are things the defence ministries of the democracies can do to foster understanding of complex issues and therefore dominate the news agenda. While journalists should strive to know their subject, report accurately, the navies/militaries of democracies must be as open as possible, establish rapport with the media (and not just the elite who inhabit a capital city). They should, for example, educate journalists in how navies work – especially technical topics that must be demystified via simple language.

The Finnish Navy guided-missile corvette FNS Naantali on patrol in the Baltic. Photo: US Navy.

In her piece Elisabeth Braw does refer to a Finnish effort to educate journalists in the face of what we in the trade used to call ‘jacked up’ stories – the sort of things that has been going on for decades, walking the razor’s edge between truth and making a good headline.

The Finnish military have their own special interest in countering what they perceive as Russian media manipulation. They obviously operate all the time in close proximity to the Kremlin’s forces in the Baltic Sea and ashore. Shortly after Sweden’s mystery submarine intrusion, they experienced their own episode. In spring 2015 Finland’s naval forces even reportedly used low power explosive charges to see off whatever was down there. Explaining the vagaries of detecting and then classifying what it actually was also presented challenges for the Finns.

I gained true understanding of how things work – including trying to pin down what lurks in the deep dark ocean – partly by going to sea (on, over and under it) with navies. I also started out reporting on defence matters in an era when people talked to people. Even serving personnel felt they could talk to journalists without fear of being disciplined for not doing it in a heavily controlled (make that censored) environment.

Often today’s naval/defence spokespersons talk in corporate/technical gibberish, trotting out dull propaganda tropes in their press releases and on social media – instead of using plain language. It makes one suspect they don’t themselves fully understand military and naval operations or their context. In that case, how can they explain anything to journalists?

The Swedish Visby Class corvette HSwMS Karlsand on patrol in the Baltic. Photo: US Navy.

Finally, if the military of the West starts off in an adversarial relationship with journalists then it is onto a loser in a democracy. Of course, that problem does not exist in nations such as Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, for example, where press/media freedom is heavily restricted or even non-existent. The way for defence ministries in the democracies to counter state-controlled ‘fake news’ garbage from so-called ‘adversaries’ is to mount a charm offensive and educate the media, presenting the facts of the case and leaving them to come to their own conclusions.

Don’t blame reporters for not fully understanding the complexities of finding and identifying a potential submarine intruder if you have never made a proper effort to educate and inform them in the first place. Putting out information is not the same as making it comprehensible…if you get what I mean…

* ‘The Deadly Trade’ is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK and as ‘The Deadly Deep’ by Pegasus Books in the USA Cold War submarine intrusions into Swedish waters, including the notorious ‘Whiskey on the Rocks’ incident are covered in ‘Undersea Warriors’, recently published by Pegasus Books in the USA It was first published in the UK as ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion)
Iain Ballantyne is also the Editor of the monthly global naval news magazine WARSHIPS IFR and has been writing on naval and military matters since 1990.

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