The Courland Pocket covered six battles between October 1944 and May 1945 in western Latvia, but my journey through its battlefields explains its context. The Pocket was a bloody endgame to the struggle between Fascism and Communism on Latvian soil in which both sides occupied the country and brutalized its population.
What motivated you to write about your chosen subject?
As a journalist interested in history, I felt there was a lack of a personal human account of that time, which reflected the twists and turns and agonizing episodes of Latvian history. My wife is Latvian and I found that through friends and family, I had access to stories I wasn’t hearing anywhere else. Once I began actively researching the Courland Pocket I discovered that virtually the whole nation had been affected by that period.
What research did you have to undertake, what sources did you utilise and over what time-frame?
It took me about two-and-a-half years and several trips across the region. I interviewed historians and archivists in all the towns and cities caught up in the Courland Pocket conflict and read and researched many books about the military movements – all the while looking for survivors who had been there. I found them through word of mouth and with the help of museum directors and history enthusiasts in the country towns and villages. It is a sensitive topic and memories are still very raw. Many families had parents or grandparents deported and most people I spoke to had family members who fought on one side or another.
Of all the military engagements in history, what is it about this particular one that excited your interest?
What happened in the Courland Pocket was on the same level and at the same intensity as what happened on the Western Front. The military onslaught and scale of force used is absolutely mind-blowing, yet there are very few books about this time. The casualty figures for the Red Army are breathtaking – and heart-breaking. So many died for so little gain. Perhaps because Latvia was occupied by the Soviets for 50 years, the Courland Pocket itself has had little detailed research conducted into it on the ground. There are accounts of the military movements but all too often the overview is of ‘the Baltics’, whereas this is specifically a Latvian story, told by Latvians. There are still shell casings on the ground in some areas.
What is the biggest misconception your book challenges?
The biggest misconception about the Courland Pocket is that it didn’t matter. It very much mattered. An independent country was abandoned by Western politicians who didn’t want to stand up to Stalin.
What do you think will surprise people in Blood in the Forest?
That ‘Crocodile Dundee’ was actually one of three brothers who fought in these battles, from a village called Dundaga. He survived the war and escaped to Germany. Then he went to Australia where he started a new life hunting crocodiles. When that was banned, he opened a shop in an opal mine and turned it into a tourist attraction. His two brothers weren’t so lucky. One was killed and the other ended up in Siberia.
What will the casually interested reader take from it and what is there to excite academics?
For the casual reader, this is a travelogue through a country they may have never thought of visiting. It’s a journey in chronological order through beautiful countryside and charming villages that hide secrets from 70 years ago. The carnage that happened here was unbelievable, but the passing traveller would never know. There is much here for those interested in the final months of the war and for those interested in the heroes and specific engagements of this slight hiccup in the Red Army’s assault on Berlin.
For academics, there is much that is new here including accounts from survivors from these battles that have never been told before in English; archive material that was translated from Latvian into English for this book; and research into the stories of the dead in the Soviet cemeteries. There is an account of the Popervale Jewish concentration camp in Courland by Holocaust survivor Margers Vestermanis that has never been told before in English; also the story of his escape and survival in the forests as a partisan, which is new too.
What are your plans for the launch of your book?
I am planning to have a book launch in Latvia and to celebrate the men and women who told their stories for this book, as some will now be quite elderly. These are their stories. I would be happy to talk about my book and my research in the UK and elsewhere.
Tell us about previous books and papers you have written, or lectures you have given.
My first book Fire and Ice was a journalistic travelogue/eye witness account of the scorched earth destruction of Arctic Norway by the Nazis as they retreated from the Red Army in October 1944. I spoke at several literary festivals in the UK and to Norwegian and history groups, and also did a series of author talks along the East coast of the USA.
What are your longer-term plans going forward? Do you have another book in the pipeline or any other research projects?
Once the post-war partisan resistance was smashed by the Soviet regime, this period in Latvian history was followed by 50 years of occupation and the surveillance of the population by the KGB. I’m currently researching the significant role the KGB and its predecessors played in Latvian society and history.
Tell us about your academic background (where you studied and any qualifications gained).
I have been a journalist for many years and had a 25-year career with BBC Radio, making many award-winning programmes. I apply my journalistic story-telling, interviewing and research techniques to my writing – seeking to explain events but also to describe the process of story-telling, to bring the landscapes and the process of discovery to life for readers.
Blood in the Forest. The End of the Second World War in the Courland Pocket is available to pre-order here.