Battlefield Archaeology: Interview with author and researcher Jonny Bay, the “History Hunter”, on the untold stories of WW2

Interviews, Then and Now, WW2, WW2 Wrecks

By Pierre Kosmidis

Photos by Jonny Bay, used by permission

It is estimated, according to various sources, that 50 to 80 million people died as a result of World War 2, be it on the battlefield, or from war-related diseases and famine. The numbers by themselves are faceless, just statistics that demonstrate the monstrosity of warfare.

A few weeks ago I worked with “the Patriots” and a few other groups from Russia on a large exhumation of Soviet Soldiers in Kurland (Latvia). They now will be buried with dignity and respect in their respective war cemeteries and any possible living relatives informed.
A few weeks ago I worked with “the Patriots” and a few other groups from Russia on a large exhumation of Soviet Soldiers in Kurland (Latvia). They now will be buried with dignity and respect in their respective war cemeteries and any possible living relatives informed.

But behind each number, a human story lays hidden, a story of loss, a personal tragedy that affected millions of families for decades, the death of a human being, be it a soldier, or a civilian who fell victim to the turmoil of warfare and got caught in the maelstrom of destruction.

When you connect the dots and put a face on each of those numbers, a human story emerges, which makes History quite personal. This is exactly what Jonny Bay, 29 years old, an author and researcher from Northern Ireland does, bringing to light long forgotten personal stories of young men who perished during the war.

I found a missing Soldier. Working closely with the Volksbund, Legenda are mandated with finding the missing from both wars. The moment this photo was taken, I just confirmed the name and unit of the soldier at my feet. His “dog-tag” I am putting in his personal effects bag. He was a German Soldier, missing since 1944 in Latvia. Now his family can be informed, a grave stone ordered and his remains can be finally laid to rest all these years later with dignity and respect. ZDF History followed us into the forest on our mission to find the missing, they will release a documentary this winter. The Volksbund: from youth work camps, to supporting NGOs like Legenda and the maintenance of war graves, thus preserving the memory of those lost... by far some of the most important work in Europe. Their motto #arbeitfürdenfrieden #workforpeace
I found a missing Soldier. Working closely with the Volksbund, Legenda are mandated with finding the missing from both wars. The moment this photo was taken, I just confirmed the name and unit of the soldier at my feet. His “dog-tag” I am putting in his personal effects bag. He was a German Soldier, missing since 1944 in Latvia. Now his family can be informed, a grave stone ordered and his remains can be finally laid to rest all these years later with dignity and respect. ZDF History followed us into the forest on our mission to find the missing, they will release a documentary this winter. The Volksbund: from youth work camps, to supporting NGOs like Legenda and the maintenance of war graves, thus preserving the memory of those lost… by far some of the most important work in Europe. Their motto #arbeitfürdenfrieden #workforpeace

www.ww2wrecks.com contacted Jonny Bay, who grew up in Omagh and now lives in Berlin , to learn more about the projects he is involved with, such as Legenda, shed light to some of the initiatives he has underway and discuss some of the startling discoveries made, which demonstrate the horrors of war.

 I spent one whole day walking these long forgotten positions on the Oder Front. In early 1945 it was the scene of absolute carnage, the biggest artillery salvos in history were unleashed by the Red Army before they sent their soldiers and tanks in. All to clear the way to Berlin and to end the war. For the German soldiers that fought here, with Berlin on their backs, it must have been a crushing feeling knowing that their actions were in vain, the war was already lost. The killing and dying would continue for another while, Hitler made them fight senselessly to defend the already fast crumbling Reich. Even after all these years the forests remain silent witnesses to what really happened. Positions deserted deep in the forests. The relics of war poking out reminded me constantly of that horror that happened here once. The sun shined through the trees as they danced with a gentle breeze, I took a pause in a hastily made German soldiers dug out facing the Oder River. No guns or explosions shaking the death filled air here anymore, just the pleasant sound of birds singing... In the picture: German soldiers canteen cup (top left), late war and made of steel laying at the foot of a tree where the soldier discarded it. Large steel 88mm shells laying around a clear sign of heavy fighting. The amount of steel items another sign the war was going badly for the Germans for some time, no more large stocks of brass or aluminum, everything was made in poor quality, the Wehrmacht was only a shadow of its former self. Third Reich coins and a German Soldiers Wound Badge lay facing the sunlight too... The lessons of World War Two are far from over...
I spent one whole day walking these long forgotten positions on the Oder Front. In early 1945 it was the scene of absolute carnage, the biggest artillery salvos in history were unleashed by the Red Army before they sent their soldiers and tanks in. All to clear the way to Berlin and to end the war. For the German soldiers that fought here, with Berlin on their backs, it must have been a crushing feeling knowing that their actions were in vain, the war was already lost. The killing and dying would continue for another while, Hitler made them fight senselessly to defend the already fast crumbling Reich. Even after all these years the forests remain silent witnesses to what really happened. Positions deserted deep in the forests. The relics of war poking out reminded me constantly of that horror that happened here once. The sun shined through the trees as they danced with a gentle breeze, I took a pause in a hastily made German soldier’s dug out facing the Oder River. No guns or explosions shaking the death filled air here anymore, just the pleasant sound of birds singing… In the picture: German soldiers canteen cup (top left), late war and made of steel laying at the foot of a tree where the soldier discarded it. Large steel 88mm shells laying around a clear sign of heavy fighting. The amount of steel items another sign the war was going badly for the Germans for some time, no more large stocks of brass or aluminum, everything was made in poor quality, the Wehrmacht was only a shadow of its former self. Third Reich coins and a German Soldier’s Wound Badge lay facing the sunlight too… The lessons of World War Two are far from over…

How did it all start for you, the interest in WW2 and what has been your inspiration?

k98 Mauser Ammo the rubbish of the forests - left behind...
k98 Mauser Ammo the rubbish of the forests – left behind…

My interest in the Second World War started on a family holiday to New York City when I was 8 years old. I remember going into a thrift shop with my parents, and seeing a German Helmet.

Well after that it all started, I guess we all find something or see something that takes our imagination. I collected Militaria until recently, my main focus was on 22 days in early 1945, the Battle of Berlin. Mainly ID Papers/books and photos or numbered medals with stories for Berlin. I collected both sides of the conflict.

You recently returned some personal items, a Soldbuch, to the family of a deceased soldier. Tell us a bit more on this, the human story behind it and what were your feelings when you found out the family of this man?

Russian Mass Graves - We found 118 Russian Soldiers all will be buried next year in May with full military honors in Riga. I will be carrying some of the remains to the grave site... RIP Photo Credit Inka.
Russian Mass Graves – We found 118 Russian Soldiers all will be buried next year in May with full military honors in Riga. I will be carrying some of the remains to the grave site… Photo Credit Inka.

Yes, they were incredibly lucky, as the family happened to search online for their great grandfather’s name, and it came up on my Instagram account! They were quick to reach out to me, and of course they had other pictures, and even pictures of when they visited his grave a few years ago.

The Soldbuch of the German soldier was finally reunited with his family.
The Soldbuch of the German soldier was finally reunited with his family.

He died of his wounds in 1945 in Denmark, after arriving by boat badly wounded, his wound tag that was around his neck was also inside the Soldbuch. They are really happy to have these items back in their family. I was really happy to be able to return it.

How relevant are the lessons of WW2 today? Do you see any similarities and what is your key message?

German 8.8cm KwK King Tiger Shell. Laying on the surface after 70 years. Kurland -2016
German 8.8cm KwK King Tiger Shell. Laying on the surface after 70 years. Kurland -2016

Interesting question, today it is common to see posts or comments that are clearly fascist or revisionist in nature, this saddens me it has not even been 75 years since the end of WW2 and the same rhetoric and nationalist jargon is used again.

For many WW2 is something distant, it should not be. The lessons we can learn from this time should guide us, but that is far from what is happening in reality.

We recovered 62 Russian/Latvian Soldiers on the famous Machine Gun Hill. A place of National importance in Latvia. Known as the Christmas battles of 1916: the whistles blew signaling to the Latvian Rifle Men to attack the German Fortified positions, in minus 35 Degrees these men pushed forward in a snow blizzard, cutting the barbed wire under heavy fire and without artillery support. With enormous losses they managed to take the Hill and hold it. The story of the Latvian Rifle Men of WW1 is one of the most interesting stories of WW1, overseen and understudied by western historians. We managed to recover 62 of these brave men, they will all be buried with full honors in a proper cemetery, not left out on the battlefield were they fell over 100 years ago. National TV followed us to the forest to document our work.
We recovered 62 Russian/Latvian Soldiers on the famous Machine Gun Hill. A place of National importance in Latvia. Known as the Christmas battles of 1916: The whistles blew signaling to the Latvian Rifle Men to attack the German Fortified positions, in minus 35 degrees these men pushed forward in a snow blizzard, cutting the barbed wire under heavy fire and without artillery support. With enormous losses they managed to take the Hill and hold it. The story of the Latvian Rifle Men of WW1 is one of the most interesting stories of WW1, overseen and understudied by western historians. We managed to recover 62 of these brave men, they will all be buried with full honors in a proper cemetery, not left out on the battlefield were they fell over 100 years ago. National TV followed us to the forest to document our work.

My key message for anyone wanting to sympathise with extreme views: I have seen the bodies in the positions they fell in from both sides Axis and Allied and the tragic part is they are all the same. Some mother’s son, far away from home and killed for nothing, war is the downfall of man, so are the extreme views that create such hate.

Paybook and ID Book. This young German Soldier was killed in Normandy in 1944. In the 'Falaise Pocket' - sadly he looks to have been struck with a splinter from a grenade. Passing right through his ID Book - rear is bloodstained. This is real history...
Paybook and ID Book. This young German Soldier was killed in Normandy in 1944. In the ‘Falaise Pocket’ – sadly he looks to have been struck with a splinter from a grenade. Passing right through his ID Book – rear is bloodstained. This is real history…

Making the connection between a WW2 object and the human story behind it, is quite fascinating. War is not just about numbers and inanimate objects, but mostly about the human stories behind them. What is the most striking personal story you managed to decipher?

I tend to agree, I am one of many who started to collect stories of soldiers, as time goes on people have seen the importance of collecting these stories and not just nameless items like medals, helmets and daggers.

Were gearing up for another summer expedition. Legenda is mandated with finding/identification/reburial of fallen soldiers from both world wars. It’s a humbling and deeply thought provoking process, many big men shed tears... Finding missing soldiers regardless of what side or time frame has given me a much deeper look into the reality of war.... Lessons can still be learnt from the stories of the men and woman we find.
Legenda is mandated with finding/identification/reburial of fallen soldiers from both world wars. It’s a humbling and deeply thought provoking process, many big men shed tears… Finding missing soldiers regardless of what side or time frame has given me a much deeper look into the reality of war…. Lessons can still be learned from the stories of the men and women we find.

The most interesting item has to be the bloodstained SS Soldbuch (SS ID Book) for a 17 year old who was killed in the Battle of Berlin, one of the last SS ‘soldiers’. He died in his first battle which just so happened to be the last battle major battle of the war in Europe.

His SS Soldbuch found on his body was sent to his father along with a letter that confirmed the death of his young son. His story is tragic, he went through 7 years of indoctrination and a few months of training to be flung into battle with essentially little or no hope of coming out alive.

April 29th 1945, Paul Pellens a 17 year old from Munich is killed fighting the Red Army. He survived a horrific few days before, being encircled in a forest at night. Fighting on the Teltow Canal and Westend the unit was wiped out, only few from his unit survived by getting out through Spandau. His bloodstained Documents including his Wartime ID (SS Soldbuch) and note book sent to his family in 1952... With the „dreaded letter“... finally they knew what happened their son... This is a tragic grouping, and many lessons can be learned from it. The evil of war, the evil of Third Reich, but most importantly the true human cost of war... He never seen his 18th Birthday, and was sent to fight against a far superior force with little or no chance of surviving in one of the bloodiest battles ever seen in Europe
April 29th 1945, Paul Pellens a 17 year old from Munich is killed fighting the Red Army. He survived a horrific few days before, being encircled in a forest at night. Fighting on the Teltow Canal and Westend the unit was wiped out, only few from his unit survived by getting out through Spandau. His bloodstained Documents including his Wartime ID (SS Soldbuch) and note book sent to his family in 1952… With the „dreaded letter“… finally they knew what happened their son… This is a tragic grouping, and many lessons can be learned from it. The evil of war, the evil of Third Reich, but most importantly the true human cost of war… He never seen his 18th Birthday, and was sent to fight against a far superior force with little or no chance of surviving in one of the bloodiest battles ever seen in Europe

When showing it to people I often pose the question, ‘for what?’ I think his story epitomises the fanatic desperation of the Third Reich, right to the end they sent their young boys to die in battles that were long decided. It is the most poignant item I have, I have led historians and TV crews to the foot of his grave in Berlin. If that doesn’t get interesting enough, I have a Soviet Soldier’s ID who was fighting in the same area…

The gravestone of Paul Pellens
The gravestone of Paul Pellens

Even today, WW2 can be seen on different locations, be it a bullet-ridden building, a flea market with WW2 items on sale, a battlefield archaeology project. Which is the best way to remember and pay respect to the countless souls lost during WW2?

Berlin especially, I am glad we have these silent reminders along the streets, and I am happy people like Peter Graham from Berlin Battle Damage have started to record these places before they are cleaned up!

The best way to pay respect to fallen soldiers of all nations is not to fall victim of glorifying war or extreme views. I own many soldiers stories, and they will remain very much ‘their stories’ – I just am there to tell the story in a fitting context.

I think many collectors need to understand the items we may own today are just being held by us for future generations to learn from. The greatest thing we can do to respect the fallen of all sides, is to remember the humans behind these stories and make sure to teach future generations of the horrors of war.

Which is the most important project you have undertaken and why? What are your next plans, your book etc.?

This German Spoon/Fork was found on a Russian Soldier. He was likely killed from this bullet. Moments in histroy that not many will get too see - it was put in the box with the soldier after.
This German Spoon/Fork was found on a Russian Soldier. He was likely killed from this bullet. Moments in history that not many will get to see – it was put in the box with the soldier’s remains afterwards. Credit: Inka

The most important project for me is my book project called: The Battle of Berlin 1945: Over 100 untold stories. I have collected around 110 items that all relate to an individual who took part in the Battle of Berlin. These untold stories derive from items such as IDs or medals to specific individuals from both sides of the conflict.

A German Radio troop in big wooden bunkers deep in the Latvian forests were quickly over run in December 1944 and they left loads of large items scattered around as they fled their positions. Today I found this Iron Cross, a special find...since I know what unit was there and the scenario those soldiers went through in the cold snowy winter of 1944... the hell of the six Kurland battles.
A German Radio troop in big wooden bunkers deep in the Latvian forests were quickly overrun in December 1944 and they left loads of large items scattered around as they fled their positions. I found this Iron Cross, a special find, since I know what unit was there and the scenario those soldiers went through in the cold snowy winter of 1944… the hell of the six Kurland battles.

The stories range from the simple soldier to the General. I know of no such book for any battle, that looks essentially at the item, then gleans the story of the item and its owner. I have featured items from the young and old, the simple soldier to the battle hardened General, I hope to finish this project early next year.

It is a fascinating project, I hope that by sharing the collection of items and stories from both sides that the human element of the Battle of Berlin is shown, this is important for me as many books nowadays focus only on the maps, units and movements and figures which for many is too abstract. I hope that by showing their items and faces that people will find their stories and experiences as interesting as I do.

Reburial of Russian Soldiers we found last spring. Kurland -2016
Reburial of Russian Soldiers we found last spring. Kurland -2016

Tell us about the Legenda projects, the importance of a respectful approach to battlefield archaeology and the proper treatment of remains.
I have been a member of Legenda for quite some time now, I have taken part in the exhumation of hundreds of soldiers from both world wars. Legenda are a non governmental organisation of around 60 volunteers from all over the world, we are responsible for finding the victims of war still missing in Latvia.

He lay for 70 years lost in the Forests of Kurland. He will now get a headstone in the German War Cemetery thanks to our search... Photo Credit Inka
He lay for 70 years lost in the Forests of Kurland. He will now get a headstone in the German War Cemetery thanks to our search… Photo Credit Inka

The items found on the soldiers are buried with the soldiers, the personal items are used to help to identify the victims. Many people ask me what is it like, and what it means to me.

Both I find hard to explain but here is the best answer I can give. Firstly, no words will describe what it is like to find a soldier, to see the remains, how he died and to be that person entrusted to exhume the remains, it must be done with the utmost respect, patience and understanding.

Excavations are done in a scientific way, with archaeologists and other forensic experts on site, with the permission of all relevant authorities
Excavations are done in a scientific way, with archaeologists and other forensic experts on site, with the permission of all relevant authorities

One moment I will never forget I found a pocket watch beside the remains of a Czarist Soldier who fell in battle in 1917, I opened his pocket watch and seen when the time stopped 100 years ago, his body had not moved since the day he fell in the trench, a profound moment that I will never forget.

What it means to me, well to stand at the foot of a grave stone in a military cemetery and see the fresh grass growing below your feet and to know you were a direct result in giving the soldier his name back is a feeling I can’t explain, but it has become my personal mission to find more missing soldiers.

#berlin1945 - with the passing of time people forget the hell of war. Especially the younger generations... It’s all too common that I ask questions about people’s family history, for some it’s emotional. For some it takes more than a few questions to realize how forgetful people are: the pain and human sacrifice felt by their relatives is as good as forgotten. From our collective history we could all learn.
#berlin1945 – with the passing of time people forget the hell of war. Especially the younger generations… It’s all too common that I ask questions about people’s family history, for some it’s emotional. For some it takes more than a few questions to realize how forgetful people are: the pain and human sacrifice felt by their relatives is as good as forgotten. From our collective history we could all learn.

Legenda essentially gives back the soldiers identity, the missing are found, taken out of the forests and trenches and buried in a proper military cemetery and hopefully we can trace relatives if they are still alive.

It is hard work, but it needs to be done, all victims of war deserve to be buried with dignity and respect, regardless of who they were or what they fought for.

This is very important work, and Legenda deserve all the help they can get. If you want to help, please think to make a donation to go towards the expenses we face, from getting permits to paying for body bags/personal effects bags, to even paying for the use of heavy equipment.

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