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America’s Last Defector in North Korea: James Dresnok

In 1962, 21-year-old American soldier James Dresnok was facing a court-martial. He was stationed at the Demilitarized Zone between North- and South Korea. The young soldier was caught forging his superior’s autograph to leave his army base to visit his favourite local woman of the night. Real classy. A few hours before he was scheduled to meet with his commander, Dresnok took a radical decision that would forever change his life. As his fellow soldiers were having lunch, he bolted through the Demilitarized Zone and surrendered to the dumbfounded North Korean border guards. James Dresnok had officially defected to North Korea, the giant prison-state, where he lived for fifty (!) years.

Early Life

James Joseph Dresnok was born in Norfolk, Virginia, on November 24, 1941. His parents, Lucille and Joseph had a troubled marriage, resulting in young James’ tough childhood. They had another, younger son, Joseph II. His father was a veteran of the United States Army and his mother was a housewife and appeared to be an alcoholic. James later described his parents as ‘fighting like cats and dogs.’ In 1951 the unhappy couple filed for divorce, leading to James briefly staying with his father in Pennsylvania while his younger brother was sent to his grandfather. James was dropped off at his aunt’s house while his father worked. He wasn’t welcome, and ran away multiple times.

James Joseph Desnok (1941-2016)

It didn’t take long for his father to drop him off in a foster home, abandoning him. He flunked out of high school that same year. Frankly, early on, James’ life hadn’t been taking a pleasant direction. Still, a radio interview with his foster father described him as a ‘normal boy, mischievous, but always with a tear of repentance in his eyes.’ Not having much going for him, and perhaps as a last resort to create some stability, on November 25, 1958, one day after his 17th birthday, James enlisted in the United States Army. Many disadvantaged youths saw the army as a way out. And it often provided salvation to these youths, shaping structure, providing income and the possibilities to educate oneself further.

Initially, this appeared to be the case for James as well. While on leave, he proposed to 19-year-old Kathleen Ringwood. They married not too long later. In an interview, much later, he attributed his marriage to an attempt to forget his childhood’s pain. Still, this marriage too wasn’t successful. Soon after they tied the knot, James was deployed to West-Germany for two years. When he returned in 1961, Kathleen had been unfaithful and was actively engaged in another relationship. Still, the couple didn’t immediately file for divorce, although it’s safe to assume there was no romance anymore. In later years James recounted how the only upside of it all was that Kathleen never got pregnant because he swore he would never abandon his children.

The Defection

Then again, there wasn’t much time for romance. James immediately re-enlisted as a Private First Class, to be deployed to the Korean Demilitarized Zone. He arrived there in May 1962, stating at that point he ‘didn’t care if he lived or died.’

During this time the Korean war was still freshly imprinted in the minds of many. The DMZ was the most tangible symbol of the Cold War divide, perhaps before the Berlin Wall was built. On the southern side, most of the services and goods were aimed at the U.S. servicemen and their paychecks. James spent all his income on the local ladies of the night. 

In August that year, James had been serving on the stakeout post for two weeks. While his fellow soldiers were allowed to go into the village, his company commander ordered him to remain at his post. That’s when James forged the sergeant’s signature on his slip, and went on pass regardless. Obviously recognised by his fellow servicemen, the following day, his commander summoned him and told him he’d expect James in his office by 3 PM, fully intending to court-martial him.

At noon that day, while everyone was eating lunch, James took the gamble. He walked into the minefield and then bolted through it. He reached the outpost of the North Korean army, when the border guards on duty surrounded him. James was blindfolded, tied up, and arrested. James Dresnok had officially defected to North Korea.

Escape Attempt

Dresnok enjoyed an unusual life in North Korea, although admittedly, any life of a U.S. serviceman in the Hermit Kingdom can be classified as unusual. Over the decades, to the outside world he became known as perhaps the most fervent Western supporter of the Kim-regime. 

But initially, it wasn’t necessarily like that. James was interrogated at length, but he didn’t have much valuable information because he hadn’t been in South Korea long. After that, he was put together with James Abshier, the first U.S. soldier to defect to North Korea after the Korean War. One year later, Corporal Jerry Wayne Parrish joined them when he defected during a regular patrol round. In 1965 Charles Robert Jenkins abandoned his patrol and he defected to North Korea out of fear that he’d be deployed to Vietnam. I’ve covered his life in a separate video, if you’re interested in his story after this one. 

These four men now became minor celebrities, appearing on propaganda posters, pamphlets, photos, and eventually films. James turned on the entire United States Army and recorded propaganda speeches, which the North Koreans would then play through megaphones along the DMZ towards South Korea. And the propaganda photos and posters made it look like the men ended up in utopia. Obviously, this was far from the truth. 

But as time progressed, the men began doubting if they made the right choice. Because, well, life in North Korea wasn’t anything the propaganda they produced made it out to be. There were widespread famines, the men were put under 24/7 guard and at least one of them, Jenkins, recounted how their guards regularly beat them. Not to mention the fact they were in a communist state with customs and people alien to them. Being 1,95 meters tall, James stood out of crowds and was shunned on the street, in stores and basically everywhere.

Four years after his defection, in 1966, together with the three other U.S. defectors, James took radical action. They sought help at the Soviet Union’s Embassy in Pyongyang. They hoped the Soviet Union would grant them asylum. Probably unbeknownst to the defectors, the Cuban Missile Crisis had recently ended, and the Soviets weren’t too eager to take in a group of U.S. defectors. 

As the Soviets refused them, their diplomats alerted the North Koreans, who detained the four men. Attempting to flee North Korea meant facing severe punishment, obviously. Perhaps even execution. Still, Pyongyang must have considered the defectors too valuable to simply get rid of them. Instead, as punishment, the men suffered a harsh routine of ‘re-education.’

Re-education

In a one-room apartment in Pyongyang, the four men were ‘re-educated’ and forced to study Kim Il-sung’s writings for ten hours per day. According to Dresnok, this was the moment he decided not to attempt to leave North Korea and simply adjust. Although admittedly, there weren’t that many alternatives. The regime didn’t use the men for propaganda anymore, and for years they would not be heard from again. 

James made a serious effort to learn Korean and soon became more-or-less fluent. Kim Il-sung’s writings, the ones he was forced to read ten hours per day, impressed him to the degree that he began translating them to English. He studied North Korea’s history, its culture, the laws and policies of the worker’s party.

They stayed in the tiny apartment for years, reading hours a day, receiving beatings from guards and realising they needed to make themselves valuable to the regime if they wanted to survive. During this time the deserters had a serious falling out, with the fight mainly centred around Jenkins and Dresnok. 

Jenkins and Dresnok

At any rate, by 1972, the North Koreans decided the defectors’ re-education was sufficient. James became an official North Korean citizen, received food rations, his own modest apartment in Pyongyang and a job. Throughout the rest of his life, James worked as an English teacher in Pyongyang, educating both the North Korean youth and troops at military bases. 

Besides jobs such as teaching English at military bases, most defectors received North Korean propaganda films’ roles. James enjoyed his first big break in 1978, playing the villain in a war epic. It elevated him to celebrity status in North Korea. He played the archetypical American villain that the heroic North Koreans would eventually beat. That was the premise – James starred in several more films like this. He played the same character in each of them: the ruthless American PoW camp commander ‘Arthur.’ Arthur became an endearing nickname for him to the North Koreans.

James also was forced into a marriage with an abducted woman. The other three American deserters too were forced into marriages with abductees. North Korea’s idea behind these forced marriages was to receive offspring with western characteristics that could be used as spies. Romanian Doina Bumbea, abducted from Italy by North Korean agents, married him. The couple had two sons: Ted and James.

In 1997 Doina passed away and James remarried to a woman whose name is unknown. For sure, she is the daughter of a Korean woman and a Togolese diplomat. Their son, Tony, was born in 2001. 

Dresnok’s Final Years

James’s most recent information and footage come from the 2006 documentary ‘Crossing the Line,’ which centred around him. In it, he reiterated his conviction that North Korea is the place to be for him. Even if there are a billion dollars in gold on the table, he will not leave. He considers North Korea his home. If you haven’t seen the documentary yet, it’s definitely worth watching. 

As for the allegations about bad living conditions in North Korea, James denied everything. When Jenkins returned to Japan with his wife, he revealed many abuse cases of the prison state, the malnourishment, beatings, and the program to train western-looking children to spy. James denied all these allegations against the North Korean regime, and does not appear to have had any faltering loyalty to the communist prison-state.

But already during the shooting of the documentary Bonner and the director, Daniel Gordon reported that James was in bad health due to his alcohol- and smoking habits. For example, a scene showed James being reprimanded by a doctor for drinking and smoking too much. Gordon even openly speculated James would not be able to see the final result, although that prediction turned out to be a bit too pessimistic.

It wasn’t until 2016 when North Korean state media, Uriminzokkiri, published a short clip featuring James’ two sons, that it became clear James passed away earlier that year. Interestingly enough, both men speak Korean fluently, and they wear the typical North Korean military uniform. 

Dresnok’s sons

Dresnok’s three sons and wife survived him. All of them remain in North Korea, and the oldest two sons played roles in North Korean propaganda films, just like his father. 

Thank you for watching this video. If there’s a topic or event you’d like to know more about, let me know your thoughts in a comment. You can buy merchandise such as this mug on my website, the link is in the description. I would also like to thank all my Patrons and channel members for their generous support. If you enjoy House of History and want to support my work consider checking me on Patreon or becoming a channel member. For just 1$ a month you will gain access to the exclusive Patreon series. Don’t forget to subscribe. See you next time! 

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Simo Häyhä – The Greatest and Deadliest Sniper in Military History

In November 1939, the Soviet Union invaded their much-smaller neighbour Finland. It marked the start of the so-called Winter War. This war, lasting for just a little over three months, saw many heroic Finnish soldiers stand up against the better equipped and much larger Red Army behemoth. One of those soldiers that truly distinguished himself was the sniper Simo Häyhä. In merely 98 days, he managed to kill 542 Red Army soldiers, a staggering number. It didn’t just propel him among history’s most successful snipers, no. In just 98 days, Simo Häyhä managed to shatter any sniper victory score, a record that has not been matched by anyone before or since. And what is more, Simo managed to achieve this using no other equipment than any ordinary Finnish soldier had at his disposal. Including a rudimentary iron sight instead of scope on his rifle.

Early Life

Simo was born on December 17 1905, in the small municipality of Rautjärvi, south-eastern Finland. Nowadays, close to half the territory of his place of birth is Russian territory, signalling the significant geopolitical changes that would take place during Simo’s life. He was the seventh of eight children. His parents ran a relatively modern agricultural business on a significant plot of land. 

Two of his brothers passed away young, leaving him with two brothers and three sisters. Throughout his childhood, he enjoyed working on the farm whilst attending school. He had a relatively small posture, only 5ft3, but what he lacked in height he made up for in physical strength. He was practically oriented with no serious academic interest. During his spare time he hunted, skied in the mountains close by his elderly home and essentially enjoyed nature. 

During his teenage years Finland suffered quite a bit of turmoil. Up until 1917 its administrative status was Grand Duchy of Finland, part of the Russian Empire. Yet when in 1917 the subsequent Russian revolutions ended the Romanov-rule, within Finland too left-wing mass movements began questioning the direction Finland should take. 

Without getting too much into the internal politics – from January to May 1918 a civil war waged in Finland. Three months of incredible bloodshed between the so-called Finnish Whites, consisting of liberal and conservatives, and the Finnish Reds, supported by the Russian Soviets. Long story short, the Finnish White Army under Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim’s command won the civil war. 

In 1922, at the age of 17, he joined the local Finnish civil guard. He finished middle school and intended to take over his father’s farm once he became too old to operate it. 

In the civil guard Simo’s talent was discovered: marksmanship. He practiced with the Mosin-Nagant M1891, a Russian-built five-shot bolt action internal magazine fed military rifle. And he was quite adept at it. Finnish militias distributed this Russian gun and ammunition for free among its members. From December 1925 to March 1927, Simo fulfilled his mandatory military service, completing his time at the rank of Corporal.

Still, after completing his military service he still participated in many marksmanship competitions. Throughout the 1930s he won multiple awards and medals. Anecdotes survive which state Simo once managed to shoot 16 targets per minute, at a 150-meter distance, whilst reloading his gun because a Mosin-Nagant could only holster five shots at a time. An awe-inspiring feat. The Finnish Civil Guard’s preferred gun in competitions was the so-called SAKO M28-30, a Finnish-built improved Mosin-Nagant. In 1937, 440 of them were manufactured to be used in the World Shooting Championships in Helsinki, which saw Finland earn the most medals. Its barrel was heavier than its Soviet counterpart, and according to gun enthusiasts, the Finn models 28 and 39 were generally regarded as the ‘cream of the crop.’ 

When not participating in shooting competitions, Simo mainly worked on his farmland or went out hunting with his dog Kille, hunting wildlife in the area. His farmhouse was filled with hunting and marksman competition trophies. 

With tensions within Europe and between Finland and the Soviet Union ever-growing, the government emphasised military service among the Finns. They were well aware of the danger that loomed just across the border. In the summer of 1938, Simo received special sniper training in the Utti Training centre of the Finnish Army. It was the first time he received official military sniper training, and his superiors recognised him for his skill and natural sharpshooting talent. There’s no doubt the many years of hunting and shooting competitions honed his skills. Combined with a healthy dose of talent, Simo mastered any gun in any climate, even relatively basic rifles the Finnish army used during the 1930s.

Simo’s Tactics

The sniper training came just in time, though. Because of it, Simo contributed significantly to the enormous losses the Soviet Union’s Red Army suffered during the Winter War. In November 1939, the Soviet Union launched their invasion of Finland after a false flag attack. 34-year-old corporal Simo was called to the front. Recognised as a skilled marksman thanks to his time in the Civil Guard, he was deployed as a sniper.

Before we get to his actual combat experience, I want to have a look at his equipment and his tactics. His preferred rifle was the trusty SAKO M28-30. According to the website of Mosin-Nagant, one of the main improvements of this gun was the ‘rear sight design’. This meant the marksman could more easily pick up a target and fired shots tended to be more accurate. The gun rarely jammed in the cold weather, and its stocks were made of Arctic birchwood, proving resistant to the Finnish severe winter cold. Now, scopes were scarce, especially during the initial stages of the war. If Finnish soldiers used telescopic sights at all, soldiers looted them from Red Army soldiers. 

Simo preferred to use an iron sight, even when the opportunity presented itself for him to use a scope. For one, because he was convinced the sun could reflect off of the scope. But secondly, he simply felt an open-sighted rifle worked better with his small 5ft3 frame. Furthermore, an iron sight didn’t require him to raise his head ever so slightly when aiming. Since a sniper’s subtle movement can give him away, this appeared to be a sensible approach. Other considerations were that scopes could fog up, which you wouldn’t want happening at crucial moments.

Combined with the distinctive Finnish snowy camouflage outfit with fur lining against the cold, he blended in with his surroundings. He put snow in his mouth when in hiding, preventing his cold breath from revealing his position. Considering Finnish winters could easily reach -40C, laying still for hours wasn’t a comfortable task. He mastered camouflage in the snowy Finnish mountains and landscapes, hiding in nature. It helped that the surroundings of where he was deployed, namely the Karelian Isthmus was a 70 mile-long stretch of land with few roads, many hills and vast woodlands. 

According to his biographer, Tapio Saarelainen, in his biography The White Death, Simo’s success can be attributed to the following:

“Simo Häyhä was the best sniper who ever lived because he understood everything going on around him. He was a skilled trekker and hunter who knew exactly how to stay hidden. His gun too was one he had used for years and he knew exactly how it would react in its environment, and his personality was ideally suited to sniping, with his willingness to be alone and ability to avoid the emotions many would attach to such a job.”

Simo’s tactic was quite curious. Often, he took provisions for several days to trek into the wilderness on his own. He’d pick out strategic points, dig in and wait patiently. Sometimes for hours and hours on end, in the freezing Finnish winter, hidden among the snow. He’d pour water over the snow he rested his rifle on. It would freeze, and when he’d shoot there wouldn’t be a fluff of snow giving him away. When a Soviet patrol or infantry platoon passed, they were sitting ducks for the skilled marksman.

Simo’s Combat

During the next 98 days, Simo managed to kill 542 Red Army soldiers. That’s an average of over five per day. Not to mention the fact that winters in Finland enjoy just a few hours of daylight. Perhaps his reputation is best summed up by the Soviets’ nickname; they referred to him as the ‘White Death.’ His Finnish comrades referred to him as the ‘Magic Shooter.’

He initially served in the 6th Company of the 34 Jalkaväkirykmentti, an Infantry Regiment. He participated in the battle at the Kollaa River. A much smaller Finnish force managed to fend off four significantly larger Soviet divisions for months. The Finns had several advantages; one of the most significant ones must have been the fact Red Army soldiers didn’t wear camouflage clothing, making them easy pickings. During the war Simo received the Order of the Cross of Liberty, one of Finland’s three official state orders. He received the third and fourth class crosses of liberty as well, and in February he was awarded a SAKO M28-30 rifle with his name engraved on it. 

Lieutenant General Woldemar Hägglund commanded the Finnish forces, facing the 1st and 14th Soviet Armies. Writer Paul Feist describes this campaign as the ‘Miracle of Koolla,’ with at one point a few thousand Finns facing over 160.000 Red Army soldiers. He writes about the ‘Battle of Killer Hill,’ where 32 Finns fought off 4000 advancing Red Army soldiers. I have been unable to find an account that verifies this Battle of Killer Hill took place. Yet the Finns certainly gave the Soviets a run for their money, inflicting nearly eight times the amount of casualties they themselves suffered. 

 On March 6 1940, one week before the Winter War officially came to an end, things took a turn for the worse. A Red Army soldier shot Simo through his left jaw with an explosive bullet. Initially thought to be dead, he was put on a pile of dead bodies. His comrades nearly buried him if it wasn’t for an attentive soldier noticing his twitching, and dragging him out of the pile. He was unconscious, and the bullet blew half of his face away. In a near poetic twist of fate he awoke from his coma one week later, on the day the Winter War was concluded. As testament of Finnish perseverance, by the time the war was concluded Koolla was still in Finnish hands, against all odds. Still, the Finns ended up ceding nearly 10 percent of their land to the Soviet Union. 

Life after the Winter War


Simo had to recuperate for several years because of his severe injuries. He wanted to serve in the Continuation War against the Soviet Union, lasting from June 1941 to September 1944, but was refused due to his injuries and recuperation. It took 26 surgeries but he recovered and lived for many decades after the war. 

Over the years he participated in marksmanship competitions, winning many medals and awards. He enjoyed moose hunting, reportedly even hunting with the Finnish president Urho Kekkonen and made a living from dog breeding. The facial injuries certainly did not hold him back in pursuing an active lifestyle.

Being a sniper still means killing enemy combatants. Although it’s easy to sensationalise lives and achievements such as those of Simo’s, he himself appeared to have looked at it through a stoic lens. He felt he simply performed his duty. And he did a great job at it. He gave many interviews after the war. In a 1998 interview when asked how he managed to become such a skilled marksman, he answered simply with ‘practice.’ The follow-up question was if he felt regret for killing so many people, to which he said he ‘simply did what he was told to do, and did so as well as he could.’

So if we put Simo’s record in perspective, how successful of a sniper was he? Just keep in mind: he managed to achieve it with the most rudimentary of military equipment. The Red Army’s top sniper was Ivan Sidorenko, just 21 years old when the Second World War broke out. Throughout the war, he claimed at least 500 kills. The famous Canadian First World War sniper Francis Pegahmagabow had at least 378 confirmed kills to his name, mainly Germans. During that war the greatest Australian sniper was Billy Sing, with 150 confirmed kills. Still, these numbers are pale in comparison to those of Simo. 

Simo spent his final years in the small village of Ruokolahti in south-eastern Finland. In an interview he stated he was a ‘happy and fortunate man.’ He always ‘slept well, even during battles on the front.’ The legendary sniper passed away on April 1 2002, at the age of 96. His honorary rifle is still on display in the Military Museum of Finland. He still finds recognition in popular culture. The Swedish metal band Sabaton created a song about him, and the 2016 film named the White Death is based on his life. 

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North Korea’s “Largest” Export Product

We are all too aware of the existence of North Korea, reigned by the infamous Kim dynasty. The communist dictatorship has been closed off from most of the world since the 1960s, leading to its nickname the “Hermit Kingdom.” After North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in October 2006, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1718. It imposed economic sanctions on the country, explicitly imposing a ban on “the exportation of large-scale arms-related goods, technology, services and luxury goods.” It also banned the export of North Korean heavy arms. 

Already before these sanctions, North Korea’s direct neighbours China and South Korea accounted for over half of the country’s trade. It is generally assumed that the UN’s sanctions impacted their specific area and increased the risk premium on all forms of economic engagement with the hermit kingdom. There already were many barriers in place regarding trade with the country and the sanctions probably prevented trade that would otherwise have developed. 

Even though the sanctions against the Hermit Kingdom continue and its two largest trade partners are its direct neighbours, there is one curious product that isn’t just exported worldwide but is its “largest” export product. Statues.

North Korean Statues


Exporting statues sculpted in the North Korean socialist-realism fashion is a surprising way the country has accumulated foreign currency. One of the most significant examples of this export is Le Monument de la Renaissance Africaine or the African Renaissance Monument in English. It is a colossal bronze sculpture completed in April 2010, reaching 52 meters in height, towering over the suburbs of Dakar, Senegal. The monument shows a family: a man carrying his child on his arm and holding his wife by the waist. All three are facing the sky, representing “an Africa emerging towards the light.”

The statue was constructed by Mansudae Overseas Projects, a North Korean company. It reportedly cost 27 million dollars. But Senegal didn’t pay in cash. Instead, it is said they gave the North Koreans land. They in turn immediately sold that land. 

In September 2016, North Korea conducted another illegal nuclear test, the second one that year. As a result, in December, statues unexpectedly popped up on the tightened list of trade sanctions. Banning the export of statues was a symbolic measure because in total it earned North Korea around 15 million dollars annually. On that same list were significant cutbacks in coal and minerals. North Korea’s coal exports earned the country several billion dollars annually, so a considerably more significant portion than statues. 

But still, symbolic politics or not, it was a significant blow to North Korea’s pride and visibility around the world. Mansudae Art Studio has been operating since 1959 and with its size of 22 football fields is one of the largest centres of art production around the entire globe. As of today, the studio built over 38.000 statues to be placed all around the country. Not too surprising, considering there’s quite a strong domestic cult of personality. 

The studio sculpted and built the enormous bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. You know, those famous giant statues greeting tourists that are allowed into the country on rare occasions.

Many of the studio’s artists are talents recruited from the prestigious Pyongyang University. In total, they employ approximately 4000 artists. Their Overseas Projects branch has constructed statues (and a few museums) in 18 African and Asian countries, netting them a total revenue of around 160 million USD. 

Depending on which sources you read, the firm has been exporting art since the 1970s or 1980s. Initially, it wasn’t necessarily a solid business model to the North Koreans though. It began as a way to offer diplomatic gifts to socialist or non-aligned countries. Until 2000, the Kim-regime generally gifted the statues for free, but slowly, a market began developing around them. Countries mainly made use of the services because of the incredibly low prices.

The North Korean socialist-realism style appeared to be rather fitting to the symbols of progress and advancement most African nations had been looking for. For example, in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, a giant statue of its first president, Samora Machel, watches over the cities ‘Independence Square.’ 

For his 90th birthday, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe ordered two massive bronze sculptures which cost approximately 5 million USD. After the 2017 coup ousting him from power, I highly doubt those statues will ever see the light of day. They are probably locked away somewhere in storage. 

Another example is Heroes’ Acre. It is a war memorial located in the uninhabited Namibian hills. Besides the symmetric polygon, there is also an 11-meter tall bronze statue of the Unknown Soldier, built by the North Korean studio. The soldier overlooks the hills and vast lands and is only bested in size by the giant obelisk towering over him. The memorial commemorates the country’s fight for independence. 

Heroes’ Acre

UN observers criticised the Overseas Projects branch. They claimed that the studio used the guise of an art factory but instead aided military projects within the country. In July Namibia officially terminated all contracts and cooperation with the studio. Other issues arose as well. The Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade commissioned the African Rennaisance Monument, but during its construction, he complained the statues appeared to be too Asian. He ordered them to be remodelled. Machel’s statue in Maputo too isn’t considered a realistic portrait by some, and Laurent Kabila’s statue in Kinshasha, Congo, is often critiqued because it appears the statue wears a traditionally North Korean outfit often worn by the Kim dynasty. 

Mansudae Art Studio

Even though there is an official export ban on statues, that doesn’t mean North Korea necessarily doesn’t export art anymore. On Mansudae’s website, hosted by an Italian firm, it was still possible to order oil paintings, hand-painted propaganda posters and small sculptures when I created this video. According to its service policy, all works of art should be delivered to your home address within two weeks. The official Mansudae website has been taken offline but it has relocated under a different address. The website states art is shipped within 7 days of payment, from Italy. 

After a bit of digging, it appears Pier Luigi Cecioni runs the website. The Italian is the sole representative of Mansudae to the outside world. Cecioni quite literally is North Korea’s art dealer, which he became by chance due to travelling through the country with his classical music orchestra and simply asking to look at some art. Nobody in the west had heard of Mansudae Art Studio, but as we’ve seen, it’s a top contender for the largest art studio in the world. Besides selling art from the studio, he also organises exhibitions in art gallery’s and even has North Korean artists visiting him in Italy. 

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Killing Heydrich – Operation Anthropoid and the mission to kill the Butcher of Prague (1942)

Operation Anthropoid was a mission carried out by the Czech resistance in 1942. This spectacular mission saw the killing of the high-ranking Nazi, Chief of the Reich Main Security Office, and Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich was also instrumental in the January 1942 Wannsee Conference. At this conference, the Nazis made their plans for the ‘final solution’ and the subsequent logistics to carry it out. Many historians consider Heydrich to be one of the ‘darkest figures of the Nazi regime.’ And interestingly enough, he was also the highest-ranking official to be successfully assassinated in a secret operation. 

Reinhard Heydrich
By Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1969-054-16 / Hoffmann, Heinrich / CC-BY-SA, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5482511

Czechoslovakia during Wartime

In October 1938, following the Munich Agreement, Nazi Germany incorporated the Czech Sudetenland. In March 1939, they incorporated the rest of the Czech lands, except for the first Slovak Republic’s puppet government. At any rate, most of the country was subdivided into the protectorate Bohemia and Moravia, overseen by Reichsprotektor Konstantin von Neurath.

Minutes of a January 1939 meeting with Heydrich’s subordinates survive. In it, the Reichsprotektor told them that: “The foreign policy of Germany demands that the Czechoslovak Republic be broken up and destroyed within the next few months. If necessary, by force.” This statement doesn’t leave much to the imagination in the way Heydrich dealt with the territory he would oversee two years later. 

In September 1941, Heydrich was appointed as Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia. The reason for this was that top Nazi officials considered the first Reich Protector, Konstantin von Neurath, ‘too soft.’ With Heydrich in control, things certainly took a turn for the worse. He reigned with an iron fist. It soon led to him acquiring fitting monickers such as the ‘Butcher of Prague’, the ‘Blonde Beast’, and the ‘Hangman.’ Hitler referred to him as an ‘incredibly dangerous man’ and ‘the man with the iron heart.’ Doubling as the head of the Sicherheitsdienst, he dismantled many spy cells and double agents during his short term as head of the protectorate. The fate these men and women suffered at the hands of Heydrich’s Sicherheitsdienst was incomprehensible. 

Organising Anthropoid

In October 1938, President of Czechoslovakia, Edvard Benes, fled to the United Kingdom. The British government pressured his government in exile to prepare acts of resistance to increase Czechoslovaks’ morale in Nazi-occupied territory. They raised an army-in-exile, whose soldiers were trained by the British Special Operations Executive. 

To this day, it is unclear why the Czech government-in-exile chose men like Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabčík for the mission. Sure, the British Special Operations Executive trained the men, but their paratrooper grade reports revealed mechanic Gabcik and tiler Kubis barely received a passing grade. In the section detailing dealing with explosives, one of them received the comment: ‘Slow, both in practice and response.’

Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík

Still, they weren’t the first. Throughout 1941 27 agents were parachuted into Nazi-controlled territory. Most of them ended up dropped in the wrong areas, with multiple agents ending up in the Tyrolean Alps. Some agents didn’t discard papers or addresses of contact persons in time. Others were betrayed by locals afraid of reprisals, and yet other agents themselves betrayed a significant amount of resistance members after their arrest. Czech resistance wasn’t a very well-oiled machine to begin with. 

Operation Anthropoid

On December 28, 1941, a Handley Page Halifax-bomber of the Royal Air Force dropped seven Czechoslovak soldiers above the protectorate. Their mission was to take out Heydrich, and things immediately began on the wrong foot. They were dropped in the wrong place, near Prague. The next several months they used fake documents and hid in attics and basements of resistance members’ houses.

Heydrich in Prague Castle
By Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-039-26 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5731878

Their first plans didn’t amount to much. Initially, the plan was to assassinate Heydrich onboard a train, but that didn’t seem feasible. The second attempt too failed. The men waited at a forestry road Heydrich should cross on his way to work, but he never appeared. And although the third time’s the charm, the men now decided they had to take drastic action: kill Heydrich in Prague. On his turf. A cleaning lady and clockwork repairman working in Prague Castle, Heydrich’s office, managed to slip the Czech resistance his travel plans for May 27. 

On that morning, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, the other British-trained soldiers, took their positions at a bend in the road near Troja bridge. Gabcik sat on a bench and assembled a STEN gun under his coat. Kubis, leaning against a lamp post across the street, carried two bombs and a grenade in his briefcase. They knew Heydrich passed the bend daily when driving from his home to Prague Castle. Around the corner stood another member of the resistance, ready to signal with his shaving mirror when the car drove up. 

  Most days Heydrich wasn’t accompanied by guards and even drove his Mercedes-Benz without a roof. He enjoyed showing his dominance and authority on Prague’s streets, considering it fearless to do so. Surely, the Czechs would not dare to attack him. The men had been waiting for nearly an hour and a half, when at 10:29 AM the Mercedes finally drove around the corner. 

When the car crossed the bend, driver SS-Oberscharführer Johannes Klein slowed down a bit. In that moment Gabcik stepped onto the street in front of the car and attempted to open fire on Heydrich and Klein. But his STEN gun jammed. He had hidden the disassembled parts between rabbit food, which was now blocking his rifle. Immediately realising what was happening, Heydrich rose up in the back seat of his car, pulled his Lüger pistol and aimed at Gabcik, who was still fiddling with his gun. Klein too opened fire on Gabcik but missed all of his rounds. 

Kubis now quickly moved into action. Unnoticed by both Heydrich and Klein, he threw one of the bombs towards the vehicle. It exploded at the right backside tire. Shrapnel tore through the car’s coating and hull. The shrapnel critically injured Heydrich, who was struck in his spleen. Still, he continued firing shots but was unable to aim properly due to the smoke and debris. 

Meanwhile, Gabcik threw away his STEN gun and fled towards a local butcher store, with  Klein in hot pursuit. When Klein attempted to take out Gabcik, he was shot in the shin. Gabcik managed to escape. Meanwhile, Heydrich was still attempting to shoot at Kubis, whose face was bloodied due to the bomb fragments. He used one of the bikes the men took with them to get away. Valcik, the man who used his mirror to signal the car was approaching, escaped as well. 

All these events happened in rapid succession. A few minutes at most. Yet they led to Heydrich’s end, and the end of several thousand innocent Czech lives lost in the subsequent reprisals. And although the gun jammed, and it nearly seemed like the entire mission would fail, it ended up being one of the most successful secret operations of the Allied powers during the war. 

Mystery surrounding Heydrich’s death

As the men got away, Heydrich initially attempted to chase them. But no matter the adrenaline rush, his injuries took the best of him, and he collapsed next to his car. 

The car after the attack

Because no ambulances showed up, constables tried to get civilians to take the critically injured Heydrich in their cars. Several people refused to take him upon noticing his SS uniform. Thirty minutes later, a driver finally brought him into the Bulovka hospital. Sources conflict a bit about what happened next, but what is for sure is that the doctors understood the gravity of the situation and attempted to save his life. Other sources indicate Heinrich Himmler’s personal physician treated him. 

On June 4, Heydrich passed away at the age of just 38. The official cause of death was listed as blood poisoning. Heydrich managed to become one of the most infamous and brutal officials of the Nazi regime in his short life. His body was transported to Berlin, and he received a full state funeral. Although many high-ranking officials praised his character, Heydrich arguably had more deadly enemies among the Germans than the Czechs. 

There still isn’t much clarity about how Heydrich ended up catching blood poisoning. Some claimed the car’s coating caused it. Others said the grenade shell was laced with poison. But one theory is even more thrilling, looking at the intrigues and power-struggles within the Nazi high command, and in this case, the SS.

Because claims have been floating around that Heydrich’s growing influence and ambition scared Himmler. As such, it appears to be somewhat likely that Himmler made a virtue of necessity and ordered his personal physician to poison Heydrich discretely. Other historians allude to Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, taking drastic action to get rid of Heydrich. A few days before his assassination, Canaris and Heydrich fought in the Prague Castle because Heydrich was convinced the Abwehr was filled with spies and untrustworthy elements. He demanded his Sicherheitsdienst receive more control over the espionage body. At any rate, Heydrich was gone, leaving a void in the protectorate.

Reprisals and Heroic Deaths

When news of the assassination reached Hitler in Berlin, he was furious. He too considered Heydrich to be one of the most cold-hearted and efficient Nazi officials. He just lost one of his best men. Hitler personally appointed SS officer and Gestapo agent Heinz Pannwitz to lead the investigation and manhunt.

The subsequent reprisals were precisely in line with the way Heydrich governed the protectorate up until then. During the manhunt for the assassins, the small village of Lidice was wrongly considered to be connected to the assassination. On June 10, the town was surrounded and completely destroyed. As in, completely wiped out and razed. All men over the age of 15, all 184 of them, were executed. The 184 women and 88 children that lived there were deported to concentration camps, with a few exceptions if the children were considered suitable for Germanisation. It’s incredibly dark – and after the war merely 53 women and 17 children returned. This massacre was meant to serve as a warning to other resistance groups. A small town nearby, Lezaky, suffered the same fate two weeks later. 

In total, over 13000 people were arrested. The vast majority of them had nothing to do with resistance, let alone the assassination. Approximately 3000 civilians were executed during the reprisals. 

The men responsible for killing Heydrich didn’t manage to evade capture for long. Pannwitz caught a lucky break when a Czech resistance member, Karel Curda, turned himself in. For betraying his fellow members of the resistance, Pannwitz paid him 10 million Czech Crowns (the equivalent of around 600.000 dollars). He gave up Kubis and Gabcik’s hiding location: the Saint Cyril and Methodius Cathedral’s crypt in Prague.

Bullets in the wall

In the early hours of June 18, a Waffen-SS force rolled up to the Cathedral, where Kubis, Gabcik and five other resistance fighters hid. The firefight that broke out lasted for six to eight hours. Although heavily outgunned, the seven men managed to keep approximately 700 Waffen-SS soldiers at bay. Realising they would be unable to escape the scene, they ended up fighting to the death and taking their own lives.

To this day the bullet holes remain visible in the Cathedral’s wall. The Cathedral’s bishop and other members of the congregation too were arrested and executed and the entire families of the agents that met their end there. 

As for Curda, he survived the Second World War. But, he was tracked down and arrested in 1947. His motives were largely inspired by either greed or fear for the safety of his own family. He was sentenced to be executed for collaboration with the Nazi occupiers and high treason. Operation Anthropoid remains the only successful assassination attempt of a high-ranking Nazi official, even though many such attempts took place preceding and during the Second World War. Still, the U.S. did manage to successfully assassinate the Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. I have written an article about that here.

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Arthur Tien Chin: The Heroic Story of America’s First Fighter Ace of World War 2

On August 3rd 1938, the Second Sino-Japanese War was in full swing. During an engagement between the Republic of China’s Air Force and the Japanese, one Chinese pilot, flying the Gloster Gladiator Mark I, engaged three Japanese Mitsubishi A5M carrier-based fighter aircraft. When the leading plane came in for the kill, he deliberately rammed his Gladiator against it, exploding both aircraft. Somehow, the Gladiator’s pilot suffered minor injuries and burns. All that could be recovered from the aircraft was the machine gun, and when the pilot faced his commander, he asked if he could “have another plane to go with his machine gun.” Although they were in China, they spoke English with one another. Because the Chinese pilot was a US-born Chinese-American, Arthur Tien Chin. He became America’s First Fighter Ace of the Second World War. 

Arthur Tien Chin 1913-1997

Road to China

Arthur Tien Chin was born on October 23 1913, in Portland, Oregon. He was the first of six children to a Cantonese father from China’s Guangdong province and a Peruvian mother. His grandparents on both sides emigrated to the United States.

When Japan invaded Manchuria after the Mukden Incident, Arthur felt motivated to come to China’s aid. Decades later, when a reporter asked him why he went, he simply replied: “China called me.” He wasn’t the only one, and according to the Federal Aviation Administration, it became a mission of the Chinese-American community to train promising pilots for military duty in China. Around 200 men and women received training in the United States and ended up serving in China. 

In 1932, just 18 years old, Arthur enrolled in aviation training under Allan D. Greenwood, Oregon’s aeronautics inspector. Thanks to Chinese businessmen’s generous donations ensured 34 young Chinese-Americans could take courses at Swan Island Airport in Portland.

In December that year Art was appointed as a warrant Probationary Pilot. Not in the United States, though. To provide some context about 1930s China: several Chinese provinces were still governed by warlords, often only giving token allegiance to Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government. As such, provinces often had their own air force – 16 when the Chinese-American pilots arrived. Together with between 11 and 15 other Chinese-American pilots, Arthur joined the Cantonese Air Corps of Guangdong. Their pay was no more than the equivalent of 25$/month, which stood in sharp contrast to the later-established American Volunteer Group pilots, who received the equivalent of 500$/month. 

In 1933 he was promoted to Second Lieutenant. Three years later, Canton’s Air Corps merged with the Republic of China Air Force, which mainly used the Curtiss Hawk IIs. Some sources indicate it wasn’t a merger, but Arthur and his fellow pilots defected to the Republic’s Air Force. 

Curtiss F11C Goshawk (Hawk II)

At any rate, the merger proved to be a unique opportunity for Arthur. Thanks to the deep ties between China’s nationalist government and Germany at the time, Arthur and John Wong, one of his fellow U.S.-trained pilots, were provided the opportunity to receive training in Germany. Both pilots enthusiastically accepted, and they received air-to-air gunnery training at the Luftwaffe’s Lechfeld Air Base. 

After successfully completing his training in Lechfeld, he was promoted to First Lieutenant and briefly served as a flight instructor back in Guangdong. It appeared his main handicap in his social life was that he spoke Cantonese with an American accent. Not really a handicap at all, and photographs reveal him sporting a thin pencil-shape moustache and a pipe. He became known as a ladies man. But he soon met and married Eva Wong, daughter of the Chinese diplomat Wu Tingfang. The couple had two sons, Gilbert and Steve. 

During this time, Arthur received command of the 6th Squadron, and in June 1937, he was appointed as Vice Commander of the 28th Pursuit Squadron, part of the 5th Pursuit Group. The squadrons part of the 5th Pursuit Group consisted of Chinese pilots, with the occasional Chinese-American pilot. They flew the Curtiss F11C Goshawk, known simply as the Hawk II, an American naval biplane fighter aircraft. The Chinese Nationalist Air Force purchased 52 Hawk IIs, and the squadron Arthur served in would see some real successes with the plane. Still, the plane’s design and qualities were soon outdated, having an open cockpit, a fixed landing gear and two rifle-calibre machine guns.

There was ample opportunity to achieve aerial successes because on July 7, 1937, a firefight between Chinese and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge caused irreconcilable conflict. The already abysmal relationship between Japan and China escalated into a full-fledged war. 

War in China

By August 1937, the Imperial Japanese Navy began launching a steady stream of bomber raids against China’s Chuyung airbase in Nanking. The entire 5th Pursuit Group, of which Arthur’s 28th Pursuit Squadron was part, was deployed to defend it. 

Hawk II

On August 16, the Japanese launched their first two raids against the Chuyung airbase. Six Mitsubishi G3M “Rikko” bombers reached the airbase by 10 AM that morning. Due to foggy weather, the Air Raid Warning Net didn’t warn any Pursuit Squadron in time. Both Arthur’s 28th Squadron and the 17th Squadron, stationed at Chuyung, had to prepare their aircraft in haste to fend off the Japanese.

The subsequent aerial battle is documented in relative detail. Due to the raid’s late warning, only a few pilots managed to intercept the Japanese bombers in time. Among them was Arthur. Yet by the time their Hawk II’s reached the bombers, the first few Mitsubishi’s already dropped their bombs on the airfield. The Hawk II’s weren’t really out-of-date but had difficulty keeping up with the Mitsubishi’s.

Nevertheless, Commander of the 17th Pursuit Squadron, John Wong, managed to score three victories against the Japanese bombers. Quite an impressive feat. As for Arthur, he pursued another Mitsbushi, caused significant damage, but was unable to keep up with it. Still, records state the Japanese pilot ended up crash-landing off Korea’s southern coast. His plane had been hit 58 times, but the pilot and gunner both survived. Arthur’s Hawk II didn’t survive the battle unscathed: it was hit ‘many’ times during the pursuit, although it received no irreparable damage. Interestingly enough, The Republic of China Air Force awarded Arthur a victory, even though Arthur never confirmed he saw the aircraft crash (and as we now know, the aircraft had to crash-land). 

Due to the shortage of equipment and difficulty organising China’s defence against the invading Japanese, the 28th Pursuit Squadron was split up into two after this battle. Captain Chan Kee-Wong was sent to north-eastern China, whereas Arthur received command over the remaining four Hawk IIs. They were stationed in southern China, in Guangdong, to protect the Shaokuan Aircraft Factory. 

Mitsubishi A5M

In September that same year, another Japanese air raid by Mitsubishi G3M bombers targeted the Hankou-Guangdong Railway. Arthur’s Hawk IIs, supplemented with three Hawk IIIs, flew against the raid. Arthur didn’t claim a kill during the subsequent dogfight. However, although the Hawk II’s shot none of their planes down immediately, Japanese records show one of the G3Ms crashed above sea after running out of fuel and being severely damaged. As it appeared, it was Arthur’s Hawk II that did the bulk of the damage. 

New Equipment

In October, Arthur’s 28th Pursuit Squadron received good news: China’s Nationalist government had purchased 36 Gloster Gladiator Mark Is. These British-built biplane fighters were a welcome addition to the outnumbered and outclassed Chinese air force, not to mention they were faster and more modern than the Hawk II. Gladiators had an enclosed cockpit and four machine guns. Upon the arrival of the plane’s parts, the pilots assembled the aircraft themselves and in January 1938, two dozen of them were ready. Sixteen other Gladiators arrived in January and were assigned to Arthur’s 28th and the 29th squadron serving with him.

Gloster Gladiator

Most of Arthur’s eventual victories were attained in the Gladiator, but he suffered three serious plane crashes with them as well. Before most of his victories, things soon took a turn for the worse. Early morning, February 9, eleven Gladiators were meant to be transported to Nanchang, north of Guangdong. However, a snowstorm messed up that plan. Royally. At first, the guiding Vought V-92C Corsair had to return mid-way because its engine started to falter. The Gladiators continued their journey, but two of them got lost and ended up landing completely off-route. Arthur got the worst of it, though. Flying low to see if he could spot a landmark of Nanchang, he crashed into a hill. He suffered minor injuries, but the Gladiator was written off. Only eight of the eleven Gladiators ended up making it to Nanchang.

Within three months, Arthur recovered and began flying again. Flying his trusty Gladiator, he shot down a Nakajima E8N single-engine two-seat reconnaissance seaplane. In June that year, he was promoted to Captain and officially received command of the 28th Squadron. He had been vice commander up until then. Not too long after, he downed another Mitsubishi G3M bomber. 

On August 3rd, Art saw some of his most intense action. General Claire Lee Chennault, who rose to fame as commander of the American Volunteer Corps, the Flying Tigers, but by that time still an advisor of the Chinese Air Force, gave a detailed account of what happened. According to him, during a mission, Art “engaged three Japanese Mitsubishi A5M carrier-based fighter aircraft.” When the leading plane came in for the kill, he deliberately rammed his Gladiator against it, exploding both aircraft. Somehow, Arthur suffered minor injuries and burns, but the only thing that could be salvaged from his crashed gladiator was the machine gun. When he faced Chennault after the affair, he asked him if he could “have another plane to go with his machine gun.”

The Mitsubishi A5M is an interesting plane as it was much faster than any fighter in China’s service. Two months after Art’s encounter with the A5M, his squadron was re-equipped with the Soviet-built Polikarpov I-15 biplane. Although Arthur flew multiple missions in the Polikarpov, he appears to have never claimed any victories in it. Art eagerly hopped into his old trusty aircraft when the option to return three Gladiators into service came along.

In November 1939, he nearly shot down a Japanese Mitsubishi Ki-15 light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. Later that month, he downed another G3M. In total, between 1937 and 1939, Art achieved nine aerial victories and he reached the rank of Major in December 1939.

The Crash

But that same month, things took a turn for the worse. Tasked with escorting three Tupolev SB twin-engined monoplane bombers, a Japanese squadron intercepted Art’s squadron near Kunlun pass, Guangxi. 

During a dogfight, one of the Japanese Mitsubishi’s, presumably an A5M, shot the fuel tank of Arthur’s Gladiator. They say bad things come in threes, and this was the third time Arthur suffered a plane crash. He managed to parachute out and survived the subsequent crash, but his plane went up in flames. Art suffered third-degree burns over most of his body and face. This meant his aviation career came to an abrupt end. To make matters worse, the military could not treat him for three days due to a lack of facilities. This delay worsened his already severe injuries, leading to a slow and challenging recovery over the next several years.

It would take years, and many men’s careers would have ended at this point, but Art’s wouldn’t. He had received many medals by this point. Among them were the Five Star Medal, two Orders of Renaissance and Honour 3rd Class medals, the Order of Resplendent Banner with Special Rosette, Medal of Victorious Garrison 2nd Class, Awe-Inspiring Medal 3rd Grade and the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign medal.

Arthur and Eva

Together with his wife and sons, they moved to family members near Liuchow Airfield. Over here, Art received treatment and slowly recovered from his burns. Now, Liuzhou was located close to the frontlines. Shortly after the couple settled down, a Japanese bombing raid targeted the airfield they resided nearby. What followed was one of the most grizzly scenes imaginable. 

Hearing the aircraft approach and bombs dropping, Art’s wife first took their two children to the bombing shelter. Due to his injuries, Art was immobile. His arms, body and face were wrapped in bandages, and he was unable to see. His wife was too late in getting him to the bombing shelter. Many years later, in an interview, Art recounted how Eva threw herself on him, shielding him from the shrapnel and bombing blast. She didn’t survive. Art did.

Arthur (on the right)

He and his sons fled to neutral Hong Kong, where Art received multiple surgeries in an attempt to restore his eyesight and mitigate most of the damage his burns caused. Still, when in December 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, he fled with his two boys across the front lines back into friendly territory. General Chennault, commander of the Flying Tigers, drafted a letter requesting urgent air transportation for Art and his family. They arrived in New York in summer 1942, where he again received extensive treatment in the New York hospital. 

It took nearly two more years to restore his face reasonably. Once he gained enough strength, he made numerous appearances at war bond rallies and on the radio, speaking to increase American morale and the war effort. Some sources indicate he was briefly married to a nurse, with whom he had a daughter. They amicably divorced before 1945, though.

Art’s Final Flight

By early 1945, Arthur wanted to do something more result-oriented. Although he wasn’t fully recovered yet, he applied to the Chinese National Aviation Corporation, a co-owned airline by the Chinese nationalist government and Pan American World Airways. The U.S. Army Air Forces contracted the corporation to supply U.S. forces in the Pacific and Indian war theatre. Having logged over 3000 flight hours and having ample commanders willing to write letters of recommendation, Art began his airline career there.

On March 1, Arthur was officially discharged from the Republic of China’s Air Force. Two weeks later, the Chinese National Aviation Corporation contracted him. From then on, he regularly flew planes to resupply American troops on the frontlines. By July, Arthur rose to the role of co-pilot, reapplying and regaining U.S. citizenship in the process. None of the sources I’ve read made mention of him ever losing U.S. citizenship, but I am assuming he lost it when he entered into service of the Chinese Nationalist Air Force. 

Arthur was stationed in India; he flew over the Himalayas to supply troops in China. It’s pretty notable that this flying route, which was fittingly referred to as ‘flying the hump’, was considered by some as just as dangerous as flying a combat mission over Germany. Over 300 aviators went missing in the area, never to be found again.

It wasn’t all dangerous though. In India, he met his third wife. Vivienne Yang too worked at the corporation. They married in 1948 and the couple had one child, Matthew. Around the time Matthew was born, they left their jobs and returned to Portland. There, Arthur worked in a mail sorting centre of the U.S. Postal Service. 

Interestingly, in 1993 the Chinese National Aviation Corporation’s employees received recognition for their contribution to the American war effort. All of them received a veteran’s status. Together with other former colleagues, Arthur received the Air Medal for meritorious achievement of his flights between March and August 1945. 

Arthur Chin passed away on September 7, 1997. Not even one month later, on October 4, he was inducted into the American Airpower Heritage Museum’s Hall of Fame as America’s first ace of the Second World War. Eleven years later the U.S. government renamed a Post Office in Beaverton, Oregon after him. In his lifetime, the comic book ‘China’s Warhawk’ was based on his exploits. 

Thank you for watching this video. If there’s a topic or event you’d like to know more about, let me know your thoughts in a comment. I would also like to thank all my Patrons and channel members for their generous support. If you enjoy House of History and want to support my work consider checking me on Patreon or becoming a channel member. For just 1$ a month you will gain access to the exclusive Patreon series. Don’t forget to subscribe. See you next time! 

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The Largest Self-Built Castles in the World

The Bory Castle

In August 2019, so before the entire Covid-pandemic kind of ruined any plans for travel throughout Europe, I visited the Hungarian city of Székesfehérvár. This city, beautiful as it was, really sprung out to me because of a castle that was hidden quite a bit outside the city centre. Anyway, that castle was built by a man and his wife over the course of decades which got me thinking: what are some of the most incredible self-built castles in the world, and how did they come to be?

The castle I visited is the Bory Castle. It was built by Jenö Bory, a Hungarian architect and sculptor. Together with his wife, over the course of 41 years, he built the castle up from the ground. And that isn’t a figure of speech: he literally built it up from more or less nothing. Back in 1912 Bory bought about 2.5 acres of land in Máriavölgy, Székesfehérvár. At the time there was just a small holiday-home with wine cellar between rows of grapes growing there. During the initial years, Bory expanded the initial modest house with a studio on the second floor. The Bory’s visited it during their summer holidays, living elsewhere. 

Jenő Bory and his family

The castle I visited is the Bory Castle. It was built by Jenö Bory, a Hungarian architect and sculptor. Together with his wife, over the course of 41 years, he built the castle up from the ground. And that isn’t a figure of speech: he literally built it up from more or less nothing. Back in 1912 Bory bought about 2.5 acres of land in Máriavölgy, Székesfehérvár. At the time there was just a small holiday-home with wine cellar between rows of grapes growing there. During the initial years, Bory expanded the initial modest house with a studio on the second floor. The Bory’s visited it during their summer holidays, living elsewhere. 

Now, in 1914 the First World War broke out. Bory served in the Austro-Hungarian army, and he was involved in planning and constructing the memorial of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Archduchess Sophia. They were shot in Sarajevo, marking the beginning of the war. Although the memorial was finished, authorities removed it in 1919 due to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following the war. Bory required a new challenge, and amidst the remnants of the old empire and the chaos and turmoil within Hungary, he managed to land a job at the Technical University. With this new job he was finally earning enough to realise the dreams properly, he had for his summer house building, albeit incrementally. Around 1922 Bory slowly began dedicating more time to the plot of land and its constructions. 

Yet Bory never wrote down a fully structured plan to build the castle. He simply went along as he saw fit, incrementally expanding his house with small buildings, gardens, rosebeds, a tower and shed here and there. It’s amusing that when I went there, I realised it was in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. Honestly, the entire building seemed very out of place. Over the years it became an oversized mansion and eventually a castle, with multiple towers, a courtyard and with lots of special attention to Hungarian symbolical architecture. 

Within the castle are lots of statues of prominent Hungarian figures. The walls are decorated with paintings by his wife. There is mosaic art both in- and outside and the garden is filled with fountains, flowers and steps leading to different parts of the castle. In total, the castle has seven towers and thirty rooms. There are many round anticlockwise stairs and little hidden tower rooms. On top of the castle, you have a view that spans over the entire residential neighbourhood. The castle shows a mix of architectural styles, from Scottish to Gothic to Roman. 

During the Second World War, Bory lived in the castle and near the end of the war, the front came to his doorstep, more or less. The castle was bombed multiple times and the entire structure was badly damaged. The next fourteen years Bory spent rebuilding the castle, until he passed away in December 1959 at the age of 80. His wife continued living there for another 15 years. 

And, well, the Bory Castle has earned its place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest building someone constructed on his own. It truly is a magnificent piece of architecture, and all the more imposing once you realise a man spent decades building it with his own hands. Yet Bory’s castle isn’t the only castle that started as a project and was built from the ground up. There are surprisingly many, located all over the world.

Bishop Castle, Colorado

By Hustvedt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6306856

Over in the United States, there’s another fascinating ‘one-man project’. It’s the Bishop Castle, named after Jim Bishop who built it. The castle is far from finished, but it’s a massive structure already. Its main tower is over 49 metres tall, it has three large cathedral windows and on top of the front building, there’s even an iron fire-breathing dragon. The castle accepts visitors that can climb its ladders and staircases to get around and look at the mountainside from the arched windows. The castle has a rather fairytale-like atmosphere around it, with the stones it is built out of adding to that. 

By Hustvedt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6306856

Bishop bought a plot of land for 450 dollars in 1959, near San Isabel National Forest in southern Colorado. He initially wanted to hunt and live on the land. He married his wife, Phoebe, in 1967 and two years later he started the construction of what was meant to become a family cottage on the property. However, he kept expanding the building and incrementally the cottage grew into what it is now, nearly 50 years later. Together with his family, the house was developed into a manor, until it eventually could be described as a mini-castle. 

The story isn’t entirely over roses though. Bishop has had a lot of trouble with the local government. Among issues was the way he gathered the rocks he used to build his castle. He gathered them from the nearby National Forest, which caused anger among bureaucrats that considered him to be stealing from state property. He caused another dispute when he put up his own makeshift roadsigns to guide visitors to his property, something the local government eventually solved by putting up officially issued roadsigns. All in all several reviews and articles describe Bishop as having a bit of an aversion against the government, something that is hardly a surprise if you imagine he’s the type of person that decides to build a castle on a whim. 

Guédelon Castle, France

Back in Europe, in the middle of France near the small commune of Treigny, the Guédelon castle stands. Now, construction of this castle began most recently from the other castles discussed. As a matter of fact, where the Bishop castle still required a bit of construction, the Guédelon castle is a real work-in-progress. And technically the castle isn’t built by one man, but by a team of 70 enthusiastic members, both full-time employees, interns and volunteers. I still think the story behind the castle is so fascinating and inspiring that I chose to include it in the list.

By Stéphane D – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60566449

Back in 1997, the building of Guédelon Castle started as a project by Michel Guyot. Guyot wasn’t a stranger to reconstructing and revitalising old castles. Twenty years earlier he bought the ruins of the Chateau de Saint Fargeau. Originally a hunting residence, it was destroyed and rebuilt in the 15th century and improved over the next couple of centuries. When in 1996 Guyot received the results of an archaeological study of his Chateau, it became clear the 900-year-old remains of another castle lay beneath the surface and within the red-brick walls. This study gave Guyot the idea to replicate a castle such as that one using the original, medieval methods. That means no bulldozers, electricity-powered tools or any other type of modern techniques. In addition, Guyot decided to use materials, primarily stone and wood, from the local area. 

Yet the idea to replicate Saint Fargeau was quickly abandoned, as Guyot and his enthusiastic team decided it would be much more adventurous to build a new castle, inspired by the architecture of fortresses and castles in the region. They decided to build their castle in the style of the first half of the 13th-century. Initially, the team raised funds from the European Union and French government and commercial entities.

Nearby the forest of Guédelon, to which the castle thanks its name, this massive construction project started in June 1997. The location was ideal with timber, sandstone, clay and water closeby. The next year the construction site was opened to the public. According to its website, they have over 300.000 visitors each season, which in turn, combined with gifts and sales, finances the entire construction of the castle. 

Guédelon is valuable and fascinating because it shows exactly how those giant medieval castles were erected using technologies from that time, where resources and materials were gathered, how they were transported and what tools and lifting gears were used. Art historians, archaeologists and castellologists support the team that’s building the castle. 

As for the castle itself, there’s a chapel tower which once finished will be 23 metres in height. On the ground floor, there’s a cistern with a 6-metre depth. It took two stonemasons several months to mine the rim of the cistern out of a 1.6-tonne brick. The ground floor is decorated with pointed arches made of limestone. There’s a so-called Tour Maîtresse, a tower that once finished should be the tallest, standing at 28.5 metres in height. Inside is a spiral staircase, and to adhere to realism there’s even an opening in the ceiling that allows for the dropping of projectiles on potential intruders. On the first floor are the living chambers of the feudal lord. The living space is 18 by 6.8 metres. It’s built on the inner side of the northern wall, with a kitchen, fireplace and oven on the ground floor. 

By Benoît Prieur / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32959542

I’ve already touched upon the fact all materials are gathered from the nearby area. Closeby is a quarry where masons gather their sandstone from, which once transported to the construction site are bonded together with a mixture of limestone, sand and water. Oak logs are cut from the nearby forest for crucial beams, but they create their own hoisting equipment and work floors from pine trees. The primary hoisting tool used is a so-called Tredmill, a medieval tool. Some centuries-old etchings survive of this instrument, forming the basis. Even the roof tiles are made in true 13th-century fashion. Roof-tilers craft both roof tiles and floor tiles. They use clay from nearby the site, press it into wooden moulds, dry it for several weeks and then bake it in an oven on-site. The fact Guyon and his team literally revive 13th-century castle-building methods is incredibly fascinating and makes the story worth telling all the more. 

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The Largest Axis POW Escape on American Soil: The Great Papago Escape

Captain Jürgen Wattenberg, a German submarine, U-boat commander, had quite the adventurous experience during the Second World War, even though he spent most of it interred. Well, being interred was a large part of the adventure. 

At the outbreak of the war, he was the German armoured battleship Admiral Graf Spee’s navigation officer. After the battle of the River Plate the battleship was severely damaged and its commander, Hans Langsdorff, decided to scuttle it in the Uruguayan Port of Montevideo. Although Wattenberg and his crew were interred following the scuttling, he managed to escape and find his way back to Germany in May 1940. In October that year, he served as a Kommandantenschüler, a commander-in-training, on the submarine U-103, before receiving command of the U-162. Although initially successful and sinking 14 ships of the Allies, his submarine was sunk by the British Royal Navy during its third patrol in September 1942, near Trinidad. 

Jürgen Wattenberg (1900-1995)

Instead of going under with his submarine, Wattenberg was arrested. The British were aware of his reputation and ensured his imprisonment on the U.S. mainland, realising the chances of another escape there were slim. He bounced around POW camps in Virginia and Tennessee, before finally arriving at Camp Papago Park near Phoenix Arizona in January 1944. 

Despite the camp being located in the middle of the desert, it was from here Captain Wattenberg organised and led the largest escape of German POWs on U.S. soil of the entire Second World War. And he himself was quite successful in evading capture by U.S. forces, the FBI, and Indian Scouts after the escape. 

Preparing the Escape

Camp Papago Park was initially built in 1943 for U.S. soldiers receiving desert combat training. Over time it had to be repurposed due to the significant influx of Axis POWs from the European Theatre. Initially, it housed Italian prisoners until they were moved to Californian camps. From January 1944 onwards a steady stream of German POWs began arriving at the camp.

As for the camp’s layout, there were five compounds, four for ordinary sailors and soldiers, and one for officers. Barbed wire fences encompassed the camp and guard towers stood at strategic locations. There were approximately 370 guards and officers guarding the prisoners. Roughly 3100 German prisoners were living in Papago at its peak, many of them Kriegsmarine personnel. 

Life within Papago wasn’t necessarily what you’d imagine POW camp life looked like. The camp’s commander, Army Colonel William A. Holden, trusted security so much that life was relatively comfortable for the prisoners. Security was lax, and the prisoners enjoyed many freedoms. They could choose whether they wanted to work outside the camp in the nearby cotton fields or remain in the camp. If they did decide to work, they would be reimbursed in accordance with the Geneva Convention. 

Guards simply sat in their towers, and there were no patrols within the compound. Now, it is easy to judge Holden’s misplaced confidence, but it can actually be very well understood. Camp Papago was built on decomposed granite. Not just Holden, but any official considered it impossible to dig through granite layers of varying degrees of hardness. Mainly because the prisoners didn’t have any real digging, let alone drilling tools. As such, there weren’t any guards looking for prisoners digging tunnels, because they deemed it utterly impossible.

Yet somehow the Germans managed to do just that. Right after arrival, in the officer’s compound, Wattenberg found a blind spot the guard towers couldn’t see. It was close to the camp’s eastern perimeter; ideally located because you wouldn’t have to dig too far to reach the outer fence. Wattenberg and several other German POWs began hatching the plan to dig a tunnel and escape the camp. The only tools they had at their disposal to crack the rock were fire shovels. 

The entrance of the tunnel started underneath an outdoor coal box behind the bathhouse. The men began breaking the concrete and started digging. Only one man could work in the tunnel at a time. So as you can imagine, it took months. They spent three months boring the nearly 200-foot long tunnel, that’s almost 60 metres, through thick granite. 

Entrance of the tunnel

They worked in 90-minute shifts of three men. One dug and two stood on the lookout. Debris, dirt and concrete were disposed of in gardens, during walks in the frontcourt, but even hidden in attics or flushed down toilets. Several articles mention the Germans received permission to build a faustball court, a game similar to volleyball. Building the concrete court was the ideal cover to dispose of their surplus dirt. 

Once completed, the tunnel went around 15 feet, so approximately 4.5 meters, below the ground surface. The tunnel continued underneath the outer perimeter fence, below an adjacent irrigation canal, a road, and exited nearby the banks of the Crosscut Canal. When it was finished, the tunnel was large enough just for a man to crawl through it.

After several months of planning, on the night of December 23, 1944, 25 German prisoners-of-war, both soldiers and sailors, decided to take the leap. The timing wasn’t completely random: the prisoners felt exalted earlier that week because news reached them of Gerd von Rundstedt’s momentary victories in the European theatre. Prison guards had suppressed a small uprising earlier that week, and prisoner gatherings occurred more often, leading to increased tension between guards and their prisoners. On the night of the escape, the prisoners who remained behind agreed to throw a rowdy celebration to cover the rest’s escape.

Thanks to heavy rain and what the camp commandant, Colonel William A . Holden, later described as a ‘Christmas mood’, Wattenberg and 24 other Germans could crawl through the tunnel, undetected. They emerged in the desert without any trouble, and now a vast trek lay in front of them to reach their destination: Mexico.

Fritz Guggenberger. By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B13197 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Link

Their initial aim was to cross the Mexican border. Now, that wasn’t a very crazy idea. In fact, one of the escapees, submarine Lieutenant Fritz Guggenberger, had already escaped from Papago before. In February that same year, he escaped together with another inmate. They tried to reach Mexico because it was well-known Nazi sympathisers stationed over there could get escaped POWs back to Germany. However, the men were arrested in Tucson, Arizona, not too long after.

Yet this time too, the escape and subsequent journey of most men was filled with disheartening surprises. The escapees began their outbreak at around 9 PM and by 2:30 in the morning they were all walking free in the Arizona desert. Their next step was to split up into small groups, lower the chances of getting caught, and trek southward.

The Manhunt

Newspaper articles give a vivid account of the aftermath of the escape, and the subsequent manhunt. The next day, nearly 24 hours after the escape commenced, an American guard, Captain Parshall, noticed prisoners were missing. Once the camp officers realised the escape’s extent, several hundred FBI agents and Papago Indian scouts received orders to find the men. The Phoenix Gazette, the local newspaper, dubbed it the “greatest manhunt in Arizona history.” 

Because most escapees were unfamiliar with the terrain, not to mention it was midwinter with plenty of rain, a significant amount did not get far. The first six escapees, all submarine personnel, were swiftly arrested the next evening. The other 19 prisoners still on the run consisted of 11 navy officers, many of them linguists, and of course Captain Jurgen Wattenberg. The mastermind behind the escape, and most senior ranking member of the group.

With the aim of crossing the Mexican border and returning to Germany from there, the remainder of escapees had to traverse vast deserts. Newspapers reported all escapees were trained saboteurs, although articles written long after the escape generally agree most men were ordinary sailors. To top off the media spectacle, an Italian POW escaped from a nearby camp during the same time. Hundreds of military personnel, federal agents and scouts, combed through the desert, searching for the escaped Germans.

One of the most curious tales must be that of three Germans that stuck together. Already during their imprisonment, they stole a highway map of Arizona. On the map, the Gila River was shown as a “healthy blue waterway”. During their captivity, they managed to construct a collapsible kayak without the prison guards finding out. The kayak would be ideal for sailing downwards over the Gila River to the Colorado River, which drained to the Gulf of California and in turn provided an easy route to Mexico. During the escape, they smuggled the collapsible kayak with them. 

But once the trio reached its location, all they found was a dry riverbed. There were some puddles of water, but nothing even remotely fit for sailing. According to Roger Naylor, in an article about the escape, Arizonans are “extremely open-minded when it comes to rivers. Water isn’t an essential ingredient; sometimes it’s merely the memory of water or the potential for it.” Well, that certainly was the case here. Historian Steve Hoza wrote the book PW: First-person accounts of German prisoners of war in Arizona. He interviewed one of the kayak-escapees for his book. Wilhelm Günther later recounted that although he could laugh about it after the war, at the time it was very disheartening.

The trio decided to continue on foot, but couldn’t evade the FBI and Indian scouts for much longer. Other escapees didn’t have much more luck in evading capture. On New Year’s Day, two escapees were arrested only 50 km away from the Mexican border. As for Guggenberg, together with another escapee he nearly reached the Mexican border. On January 6 1945, two weeks after the escape, both men were arrested within 16 kilometres, around 10 miles of the border, 

Two days later three more men were arrested after one of them decided to wash his clothes in a canal near the Gila River. Passing cowboys spotted the group and reported them to the army, who could easily track them down. Frankly, most of the escapees were captured soon after, and the stories weren’t that wild. 

Captain Wattenberg

But it was Captain Wattenberg who really took the cake. Together with two escapees, the men trekked north instead of south. They found shelter in a cave in the mountains north of Phoenix, near Piestewa Peak. They held themselves up here for over a month, foraging the wilderness for food, and occasionally even entered Phoenix. 

One of the men with Wattenberg, Johann Kremer, contacted German workers volunteering to work the cotton fields outside of the camp. Kremer managed to convince a worker to exchange places, and he was returned to the camp where he collected food and information about the progress of the manhunt. Meanwhile, the German worker went to the cave where Captain Wattenberg and the other German sheltered, awaiting Kremer’s return. As for Kremer, in order to get out of the camp, he simply volunteered to work the cotton fields, and together with a group of POWs, he was sent to work outside of the camp. He did this on multiple occasions, and when the volunteer crew was at capacity, he simply gave one of the men part of this group food and information to take with him. The food would be stashed inside an abandoned car, for Wattenberg and the other escapee to retrieve at a later moment.

It wasn’t until January 22 that camp guards realised Kremer, whose name was on the list of still missing escapees, in fact, resided inside the camp. During the subsequent interrogation, Kremer probably gave away part of the still missing escapees’ details because the other man still outside the camp was arrested the next day when he went to retrieve provisions from the abandoned car. 

Yet Wattenberg wasn’t caught, and it appears Kremer didn’t give up the cave location. Because four days later, on January 27, Wattenberg treated himself to a meal at a restaurant in Phoenix, slept in a hotel lobby and roamed the streets during nighttime. Later it became clear he was looking for the railway station in an attempt to get out of Arizona. Unfamiliar with the city, he asked a member of the street cleaning crew for directions. His accent gave him away, and the cleaner informed the police. The next morning, Wattenberg was arrested and became the last prisoner to be captured following the Great Papago Escape. 

Hoza, in his book, collected both the stories of many Axis prisoners and their guards and Americans that worked around the camp in Arizona. According to him, many Germans eventually returned to Arizona once the war was over because they were thankful for being treated so well. And it showed: we’re all too aware of German POWs’ horrible circumstances in the Soviet Union, whereas the American death rate of German POWs was under 1%. Instead of being executed, the U.S. camp officers simply reduced the food the prisoners received as punishment for their escape. 

Interestingly enough during the days after the escape, the media ran wild with speculation about who was among the escapees. One name that frequently turned up was that of Günther Prien, the famed U-boat, submarine commander. He led the daring secret raid on Scapa Flow where he successfully sank the British battleship HMS Royal Oak. A security officer of Papago was quoted as saying Prien was among those that had escaped but later retracted the statement. Holden too denied the report of Prien being imprisoned in Arizona. 

These reports were pretty telling about the intelligence knowledge the Allies had of Nazi Germany. Günther Prien had, in fact, been killed three years earlier after a British destroyer caught his submarine. Prien was a war hero among the Germans and his death was a significant blow to the German morale. I have covered his exploits which elevated him to German war hero status, namely the submarine raid on Scapa Flow, in a separate video. It should be on an end-card shortly if you’re interested in that. 

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The Swingjugend: Pacifistic Youth Resistance in Nazi Germany

There were several youth movements that resisted the ever-increasing totalitarian nature of Nazi Germany during the 1930s. One of the most significant groups were the so-called Edelweiss Pirates. These working-class youths had no distinctive political ideology. Still, they simply opposed the dogmas and lack of freedom in Nazi Germany and especially the Hitlerjugend, the official youth organisation of the Nazi Party. They dabbled in crime and as the Second World War progressed, individual branches of the gangs began showing more dangerous subversive behaviour. Some began sabotaging railway lines and weapon depots, hiding crashed Allied pilots and occasionally even killing Nazis. 

Another nonconformist youth group didn’t engage in sabotage or subversive activities. These teenagers banded together over their mutual love for banned music, British and American culture and in protest against the totalitarian nature of Nazi Germany. Yet these teenagers certainly suffered the brunt of the iron fist of the Nazi regime. 

Swingjugend, as they were called, were groups of young jazz- and swing lovers during the 1930s in Germany. They mainly existed in large cities such as Hamburg, Stuttgart, Kiel, Dresden and Berlin and consisted of teenagers and people in their early 20s. In contrast to the Edelweiss pirates, members of the Swingjugend came from affluent upper-middle-class families.

Their name refers to their longing to a British or American lifestyle, listening to banned jazz- and swing music. Illegal dance parties were organised where they played music from big bands such as the Glenn Miller Orchestra and American jazz by Louis Armstrong. These parties attracted large crowds. One group referred to as the Flottbeck Group, mentioned in a 1944 report by the Reich Ministry of Justice, organised an illegal party attended by 6000 teenagers. Gestapo reports described the dancing of the teenagers attending as ‘an uninhibited indulgence in swing.’

As benign as it sounds, organising and attending these parties was incredibly dangerous. In the words of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, anyone that listened to banned jazz music should “be beaten, given the severest exercise, and then put to hard labour.”

Besides their love for American and British music, Swingjugend distinguished themselves by way of clothing as well. They often grew long hair, in contrast to the neatly cut hair that was customary. They wore hats and carried umbrellas with them. They used slang, using many anglicisms as an addition to their German. A Gestapo officer describes them as ‘having long hair, down to the collar, engaging in an energetic dance known as the jitterbug.’ Thanks to their middle-class families Swingjugend generally were able to buy fancy clothing, gramophones to play their music, and actually afford the illegal jazz music smuggled into Germany. 

Although the Swingjugend was considered to be apolitical, a stern opposition against the Nazi party and its customs and organisations were prevalent. The Nazi party, Hitlerjugend and their cultures were mocked and ridiculed. For example, Swing youths greeted each other with “Swing Heil!” instead of “Sieg Heil”. In another instance, sources mention that the entrance of an illegal swing clubs used an official Nazi sign that said: “Swing Verboten”, meaning Swing is prohibited, but they changed the wording to “Swing Erbitten” meaning as much as Swing requested. 

Just like the Edelweiss Pirates, Swingjugend opposed the ever-increasing militarism of Nazi Germany and the Hitlerjugend. Once Hitler came into power, German teenagers were encouraged to join the Hitlerjugend, where a strict separation between boys and girls (the girls had their own youth wing, the Bund Deutscher Mädel) and German folk music, dancing and culture was promoted. There was no place for, in the words of Himmler, “degenerate” music from America. 

Membership of the Hitlerjugend became compulsory by December 1936. When the Jugenddienstpflicht or Youth Service Duty was issued in March 1939, all German youths were conscripted in the Hitlerjugend. Yet illegal swing parties continued to be promoted. Swingjugend opened illegal jazz clubs and formed their own jazz bands. One Gestapo report mentions the closing down of the so-called Harlem Club in Frankfurt, where illegal parties were hosted attended by hundreds of teenagers. There’s near astonishment in descriptions about the hedonistic pleasure of the Swingjugend, who drank heavily, danced energetically and didn’t adhere to the strict expectations of contact between boys and girls. 

From 1939 onwards, after the start of the Second World War, the suppression of the Swingjugend increased dramatically. In response, the organisers moved meetings and festivals to secret locations such as basements and living rooms away from the street. There’s a grim twist to the story as well. On August 18 1941, 300 Swingjugend were arrested. Most were released and put under strict observation by the Gestapo, Germany’s secret police. But its leaders were sent off to various concentration camps, where several met their end.

Yet the Swingjugend never had any coherent political ideology. Not even after the Gestapo started actively hunting them. After the war, one of the Swingjugend’s members gave an interview in which he mentioned: “We were not against the Nazis, they were against us.” And that sums up their struggle quite nicely. They simply wanted to have a good time and explore boundaries, as we all wanted when we were teenagers. Yet when you put teenage curiosity and wantonness into a totalitarian regime such as Nazi Germany, well, only bad things can come from that really. As historian McDonough mentions, the Nazis interpreted the Swingjugend’s love for British and American culture as subversive, dangerous for the morale and as indicating a lack of love for the nation. But instead, the Swingjugend simply appreciated a certain degree of cultural freedom, which was completely absent in Nazi Germany. 

Even in popular culture, the Swingjugend makes an occasional appearance. In 1993 a film by Thomas Carter was released: Swing Kids. The story, set in pre-war Germany, is about two teenage boys that participate in the Hitlerjugend during the day but visit Swingjugend parties at night. Although it is a work of fiction, it indeed represents a moral dilemma’s many people faced under the iron fist of the totalitarian Nazi rule.

McDonough, F. (2001). Opposition and resistance in Nazi Germany (p. 5). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Hobart’s Funnies: World War 2 Specialist Armoured Fighting Vehicles and Allied “Secret Weapons”

The Allies used them for the first time during the landings in Normandy: the Duplex Drive Tanks. Duplex drives weren’t traditional armoured fighting vehicles. This particular kind of tank was a Sherman tank, tweaked to float on water thanks to a canvas flotation screen around the vehicle. Thanks to two propellers the tank engine was able to drive in the water. Because of its peculiar… characteristics and abilities, the DD tank was nicknamed the “Donald Duck.” It’s pretty spectacular, to be honest. The amphibious tank played a crucial role in the landings on the beaches of Normandy. Soldiers basically built their Sherman tank into a floating craft, making it much easier to land on shores and to cover infantry landing among the vehicles. There was one man that stood at the helm of developing these Donald Ducks. And they certainly weren’t his only inventions eagerly utilised by the Allies during the Second World War.

DD Tank

Gen. Percy Hobart

General Percy Hobart specifically designed these floating tanks for Operation Overlord, the landings on Normandy in June 1944. They supported the troops storming the beaches of Normandy, vulnerable to German machine-gun fire and artillery shelling. 

During the landings on the beaches of Normandy, the most curious vehicles saw the light of day. Together with his specialist 79th Armoured Division, General Hobart took part in the preparations for D-Day. Hobart developed more unusual-looking specialist armoured fighting vehicles. The Duplex Drive Tank was just a part of a much larger contingent of special vehicles. Because of their looks, these vehicles were referred to as “Hobart’s Funnies.”

Before we get to about a dozen of Hobart’s “Funnies”, I’ll explain a bit about the man behind these curious vehicles. Hobart, nicknamed Hobo, was a British Major General and brother-in-law of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. He married Hobart’s sister, Elizabeth. Born in Naini Tal, India, he studied at Clifton College and at the age of 19 graduated from the Woolwich Royal Military Academy. Following his graduation, he joined the Corps of Royal Engineers, commonly known as the Sappers, and was stationed in India. Their task was to provide military engineering and other technical support to the British Armed Forces. And, well, Hobart certainly had some unique and creative ideas. But as we’ll see that certainly didn’t always serve him well and his superiors weren’t too impressed with his imagination. 

General Percy “Hobo” Hobart (1885-1957)

During the First World War, he fought both in France with the 1st Bengal Sappers and the Middle East, current-day Iraq. He held multiple positions after the war ended, steadily rising through the ranks. He ended the war as a temporary Major, and by December 1937 he was a Major General. Within this capacity, he was tasked with reforming and training the newly established Mobile Force. Consisting of four armoured regiments, the Force was redesignated the 7th Armoured Division during the Second World War, also known as the Desert Rats. 

But initially, Hobart wasn’t even present, or even in service when the Division saw action in North Africa for the first time. The Army forced him to retire in 1940; sources indicate this was because of his unusual convictions about mechanised warfare and its potential and possibilities. Basically, Hobart’s superiors considered him a bit of a nuisance and antagonistic character. Ironically, Hart’s pre-war writings greatly influenced German strategies regarding mechanised warfare. Yet as the war continued, Hobart’s unusual ideas began to seem like a genuine necessity to some British commanders. 

A wake-up call to the British command that an amphibious landing on the French coast would be a meat grinder without adequate armoured support came in August 1942. It followed the disastrous Dieppe Raid. Basically, the raid was an amphibious landing with massive Allied casualties. In retrospect, the British commanders concluded that, among other things, due to the lack of reliable armoured support, within ten hours of the beginning of the raid, over sixty percent of all soldiers that landed near the German-occupied French port of Dieppe, were either killed, wounded or captured. As such, the British decided to develop tanks that could reach the coast shore by themselves, instead of having them dropped off by landing vessels. After the British military historian and theorist B.H. Lidell-Hart advocated for Hobart’s cause to Winston Churchill, he, in turn, reinstated him. 

Hobart (left) with Montgomery (3rd from right)

Reentering service, Hobart became the commander of an Armoured Division. Now, it wasn’t like Hobart suddenly started designing a dozen of his funnies in the remaining years of the war. Instead, most of his Funnies’ plans already existed thanks to developments during, or right after the First World War. Concept plans for amphibian tanks, or tanks with ploughs or rake-like structures to neutralise mines already existed. When he rejoined service, Hobart simply began collecting, expanding and integrating these curious vehicles in order for them to become operational properly… and effective. 

The Duplex Drive Tank

We’ve already had a look at the Donald Duck, or Duplex Drive Tank. The Hungarian-born Miklós Straussler created the initial designs, which eventually allowed for the creation of the DD-tank. It is undoubtedly the most famous Funnie, and perhaps you recognised it when I introduced the swimming vehicle in this video. Basically, an American Sherman M4 Tank rotated its turret 180 degrees upon which the tank’s crew inflated the foldable floatation screen surrounding the tank. The rotating of the turret was necessary to maintain balance in the water.

As the footage shows after inflating the canvas, the four ‘walls’, if you will, remained above the surface of the water. Thirty-six vertical inflatable rubber ribs held it up. Thanks to its two propellers, its top speed was around seven kilometres per hour, so approximately the same as a marching soldier. Except it was in the water. And it was a heavy floating tank. 

The Allies occasionally used the British Mark III Valentine tank as a DD-tank as well. However, the tank was much less fitted for it in comparison to the Sherman. Aside from landings on the Italian beaches, the Valentine tank was mainly used during training missions. 

And its counterpart, the Sherman, certainly landed on Normandy. To be more specific: the DD-tanks were destined for Omaha Beach, and received the brunt of the fire. In total, 32 DD-tanks were supposed to sail onto the shores from approximately five kilometres off the coast. For these improvised sailing vessels, each weighing between 30 and 38 tonnes… well, it was quite the distance. Waves reached close to two metres in height, and of course, the tanks suffered heavy artillery and anti-tank gun attacks. 

DD Tanks on Utah beach

Precisely because of the expected resistance, the DD-tanks’ crews were outfitted with Davis Submerged Escape Apparatus, which was initially invented as an emergency escape apparatus for submarine crews. Thirty of the 32 tank crews ended up using the apparatus, not always successfully. Merely two DD-tanks managed to reach Omaha beach. 

Elsewhere in October 1944, during the Battle of the Schelde in northern Belgium and the Netherlands, aside from the Buffalo amphibious vehicles, several DD-tanks actually managed to get to shore after travelling over double the distance at Omaha Beach, 11 kilometres, with relative ease. Multiple other funnies saw action during D-Day though, many of them looking like a stroke of genius had devised them… Or a stroke of madness.

Hobart’s other Funnies

A so-called Double Onion was a tank with a steel fence able to position explosives onto a bunker. As you can see on the photograph, the Double Onion placed explosives at a decent height, up to twelve meters. It made the vehicle great for putting a dent in the outer defences of bunkers or chipping away at the strength of walls. 

Crabs were M4 Sherman Tanks fitted with a rotating flail consisting of a heavy metal chain, able to clear paths straight through minefields. The first time Crabs were used, they were put on Matilda tanks during the Battle of El Alamein in North Africa. But soon the Sherman M4 became the tank of choice. An unforeseen, but very welcome effect was that the flails could also easily cut through barbed wire. This was a crucial asset as after the Atlantikwall was breached Allied soldiers often ran into massive barbed wire obstacles put up by the Germans. 

During the Battle of Overloon in the Netherlands, the British used Crabs to make their way through rivers and minefields. Meanwhile, the Crabs were happy with Churchill tanks equipped with fascines, allowing them to cross the muddy landscape. 

Fascines were used during the First World War as well. Fascines were bundles of wood or other material with the purpose to allow vehicles to cross through rugged territory. It could merely be wet, muddy or uneven territory. But fascines also were very welcome against anti-tank ditches. Especially during rainy autumn, turning lands into marshes, these were very useful. In the photograph you’re seeing, taken in 1943, a Churchill tank carrying a fascine crosses a ditch using one in the process. It basically shows the entire way fascines were utilised. 

A Canal Defence Light
A Churchill AVRE, carrying a fascine, crosses a ditch using an already deployed fascine, (1943)

The Canal Defence Light generally was a modified British Matilda or American M3 Grant Lee Tank with a tower fitted with an intense stroboscopic carbon-arc light. It could send out blinding laser beams with such strength that the CDL was even effective during the daytime. Still, it rarely saw action during the war and even among Hobart’s funnies it was a bit of the odd one out. This is one of the Funnies that did not see action during D-Day, although it was used in November that year during Operation Clipper. 

One of the most spectacular vehicles must have been the tanks outfitted with a flamethrower. These so-called Crocodiles had their machinegun exchanged for a flamethrower situated in the operator’s cabin. An armoured container located within the tank contained between 500 and 1800 litres of fuel. Using strong pressure, the flamethrower could emit 90 bursts of fire a second, reaching up to 130 metres in the distance. 

AVRE with a “bobbin”

AVRE’s , short for Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers, were a series of armoured military engineering vehicles. They were modified to be able to launch heavy mortars, ‘flying dustbins’, 18 kilo heavy mortars, onto enemy positions such as bunkers. The turret of a Churchill tank was removed and in its place came a 290 mm petard spigot mortar. These vehicles were ideal for the carrying of equipment as well, and were a welcome way to transport the aforementioned fascines. Another purpose for it was the so-called Churchill AVRE Bobbin. This vehicle carried a bit more of an advanced fascine, carrying a canvas roll that it was able to roll out over soggy ground so that itself, and other vehicles could safely cross the difficult terrain. 

Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicles, or… Well BARV for short, were vehicles used for amphibious landings. During the landings in Normandy, about five dozen of these modified M4A2 Sherman tanks saw action. Thanks to the bottom side of the vehicle being made waterproof, it served as a rescuer of other vehicles in the sea or on the beach. It was also able to push stranded vehicles back in the sea. The vehicles used during D-Day were able to operate in up to over 2.5 metres deep water. Among its crew was a professional diver whose task was to secure the tow rope to a stranded vehicle to recover it. 

Sherman BARV tows a disabled truck and its load off the beach at Normandy, 14 June 1944

A bit more forgotten and perhaps worthy of its own video entirely is the Allied Operation Dragoon. Hobart’s Funnies played a crucial role during that operation. In August 1944 there was a landing operation in Provence, southern France. The already weakened German forces were swiftly pushed back and important French port cities were rapidly captured. 

Crossing the Rhine

Hobart’s Funnies ended up playing a crucial role in the European battle theatre until after the Allies crossed the Rhine river. Now, during that crossing of the Rhine river, the Allies ran into quite some trouble as the retreating Germans blew up every bridge they used. There was one bridge at Remagen, however, that they were too late to blow up. The Battle of Remagen was daring and spectacular, crucial in securing a passage for Allied Armoured Divisions into the German heartlands. If you want to know more about it, there should be an end-card for you to click on-screen any minute now.