During the 1960s the Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union reached an all-time high. Events that come to mind are the Cuban Missile Crisis and the erecting of the Berlin Wall. On the other side of the world, the division between North- and South Korea had just begun settling in as a permanent reality, after the bloody Korean War was concluded with an armistice the decade before. Dictator Kim Il-sung, the founder of Communist North Korea, still ruled his Hermit Kingdom, closed off from most of the world.
Perhaps seemingly unrelated but crucial to know for this story, elsewhere in Asia the Vietnam Conflict was rapidly escalating. To many American servicemen at the time, Vietnam seemed like an inevitable destination. It was the same for 24-year-old Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins. He joined the army in 1958 and was deployed to Korea for a year in 1960. In late 1964 he was redeployed for his second tour. It’s how on that fateful night in January 1965 he found himself stationed at the border between North- and South Korea, tasked with regular patrols in the demilitarised zone. However, Charles was afraid of the certain death that awaited him in Vietnam. As the possibility of him being sent there got closer, he began getting more anxious and depressed. In turn, he began planning radical action to dodge potential deployment to Vietnam. Although admittedly, it’s doubtful his alternative was a better idea.
During one of his nightly patrols, he decided to leap into the unknown. Some reports state he drank ten beers that night. Together with his platoon, he patrolled through a wooded area in the demilitarised zone. Charles then ordered his men to wait for him while checking a supposed noise out in the dark. His men waited for him to return… and they waited. But Charles didn’t turn up. According to reports, his men sounded the alarm when he failed to return. Immediately, a massive search around the southern side of the demilitarised zone was set up. North Korea was known for its rogue tactics and abduction of a U.S. serviceman from the demilitarised zone didn’t seem unlikely. Regardless of the extensive search, his comrades never found Charles.
It wasn’t until decades later the world found out what exactly transpired during those minutes Charles supposedly went to investigate something in the dark. It wasn’t a pre-planned abduction by the North Korean military. Instead, Charles simply rushed through the wooded area, onto North Korean territory. When he ran into dumbfounded North Korean border guards, he gave up his weapon and surrendered. Charles Jenkins had officially defected to North Korea, a country that would hold him for nearly forty years. After the extensive search didn’t turn up anything, and they investigated Charles’ recent mail, the U.S. Army considered defection the most likely reason for Charles’ disappearance.
Yet the world didn’t know what happened to Charles after his defection – there was a near-complete media silence coming from North Korea during the following decades. It does the state’s moniker, the Hermit Kingdom, justice. Several weeks after his defection an internal radiobroadcast from Pyongyang made clear a U.S. serviceman defected. The reason given was because of the awful conditions of South Korea, leading the serviceman to believe the quality of life in North Korea was much better. But that’s about it.
The immediate aftermath of how the American side perceived his defection can be pieced together from newspaper articles during that time. It goes without saying that it was heavily frowned upon. The press didn’t have any sympathy for Charles, and many articles really did a number on him. Newspaper editors also got a hold of the note Charles left for his mother before his defection, in which he apologised for the “trouble he will cause her.” The letter stated: “I know what I’ll have to do, I’m going to North Korea. Tell the family I love them very much. Love, Charles.”
Charles friends and family continued to believe he was abducted from the border. His mother, Pattie Casper, conveyed that Charles would not have willingly defected, even though he left a letter stating his intentions. Breadcrumbs of information about Charles’s life and situation were occasionally released from the Hermit Kingdom, but much of the case was shrouded in mystery. Only thanks to a curious turn of events in 2002, nowadays we know a lot about Charles’ life within North Korea… and about North Korea itself.
Time in Captivity
What makes Charles’ story even more interesting is that he was able to escape North Korea. As one of the few people ever to do so. We’ll get to how he managed to escape the prison-state in a bit. But upon his release, Charles gave interviews recounting his defection and subsequent life. So we can actually get a glimpse from his perspective of what happened after that fateful night.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Charles reminisced how, looking back, he thought of himself as incredibly naive. He defected during the Cold War era, and the gameplan of the young sergeant was to be extradited to the Soviet Union through Pyongyang. And the Soviets would hopefully grant him asylum. Well, things didn’t even remotely turn out like that. Instead, for decades Charles remained, in what he described as a ‘gigantic, crazy prison nobody gets out of.’
That is not to say he was stuck behind bars for most of his life though. He might have been a Pyongyang prisoner but wasn’t stuck in a traditional prison as we know it. As one of the few Western prisoners in North Korea, he initially lived in a small room together with three other U.S. deserters. The North Koreans forced them to study Kim Il-sung’s works for ten hours per day, beating them regularly. They endured malnourishment and deplorable living conditions. According to his testimonies, he was forced to dig his own grave several times, as a form of extreme psychological torture.
Seven years later Charles finally received his own home and a North Korean passport. Yet he was still under constant surveillance and scrutiny. His house was unheated, which caused harsh winters, and thanks to the widespread famine in North Korea malnourishment was still a daily reality.
The lack of Western prisoners in the country might have been a blessing in disguise, though. It allowed Charles to play the archetypical ‘evil American spy’ in over twenty propaganda films. He also appeared on propaganda leaflets. When he wasn’t acting, he taught English at a military school. He wasn’t useless to the regime, and as such was allowed to continue living… albeit in hardship.
In his autobiography “The Reluctant Communist”, published after his release, he describes how he went to teach English at a military school during one summer. Due to the hot weather, he had his sleeves rolled up, exposing his U.S. Army tattoo. Several doctors were immediately summoned to the school. They grabbed Charles and used a scalpel and scissors to remove his tattoo without any anaesthesia.
Now, although Charles willingly defected in 1965, North Korea actually has an infamous abduction program. They mainly abduct Japanese citizens. These are then employed as cultural trainers for their spies. Yeah, really. Shockingly enough there is a considerable list of Japanese people that are assumed to have been abducted by the North Korean secret service. Among these abductees was Hitomi Soga. This Japanese woman, a nurse, was kidnapped together with her mother in 1978 at the age of 19.
As it turned out, two years after her abduction, she was forced to live with Charles. She had been teaching Japanese to North Korean spies. The couple was forced to marry, and Charles was encouraged to take advantage of her. North Korea’s idea behind these forced marriages was to receive offspring with western characteristics that could be used as spies. The other three American deserters too were forced into marriages with abductees. Although not necessarily a recipe for love, Charles treated Hitomi with respect and the couple actually developed a loving relationship. They married, lived together for over two decades and even had two daughters.
It was through his wife that Charles eventually was released from his decades-long captivity in North Korea. In 1994 Kim Jong-il, son of Kim Il-sung succeeded him. As a gesture for diplomatic rapprochement, Jong-il admitted that North Korea abducted thirteen Japanese citizens during the previous decades. By this point, eight of them already died, but he considered allowing the other five to travel to Japan to visit their family briefly.
After the Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang in the fall of 2002, Hitomi and four others were allowed to return home for ten days. Although their visit to Japan was intended to be brief, the Japanese government did not return their citizens. Instead, it opened negotiations to have the abductees’ family members repatriated in addition to the initial group.
Many of these families eventually were allowed to return. North Korea hoped to earn some diplomatic goodwill. But Charles stayed behind with their two daughters because he feared Japan would extradite him to the United States. Over there he would be prosecuted for desertion. Other sources mention that Charles was brainwashed to the degree that he thought the entire ploy was an attempt by Pyongyang to test his loyalty.
Two years later, in May 2004 Japanese PM Koizumi again travelled to Pyongyang, where he met with Charles. Charles reiterated his conviction that he was unwilling to leave North Korea. But in July that year, Charles and their two daughters flew to Indonesia. For Charles, one of the reasons besides seeing his wife, who he hadn’t seen for two years, was to receive urgent medical treatment. Indonesia was chosen as the destination because it didn’t have an extradition treaty with the United States. Initially, Charles was only allowed to leave North Korea temporarily, receive medical treatment, and subsequently return to Pyongyang.
Yet Koizumi and others managed to convince him to take the gamble, face a court-martial and be reunited with his family. Risking a life sentence, he travelled to Japan. In turn, Japan’s government requested a formal pardon from the U.S. government, which they declined to grant. After arriving in Japan in July, Charles reported to the U.S. Army Post Camp Zama, nearby Tokyo.
In November that same year, his trial commenced. Charles pled guilty to desertion and aiding the enemy, was sentenced to thirty days in prison and received a dishonourable discharge. Due to good behaviour, he was released after 24 days. At 64 years of age, for the first time in 40 years, it appeared Charles was finally a free man again.
Upon his release, the entire family moved to Sado, Hitomi’s place of residence before she was abducted. There, Hitomi became a nurse again, and Charles took up a job as a greeter at an attraction park. As far as I could find, his daughters managed to attain steady employment in Japan and ended up doing well for themselves. Up until his last moments, Charles hailed his wife as the heroine that saved his life. He passed away in December 2017, at the age of 77 in Sado.
San Bernardino Sun, Volume 71, 28 January 1965 https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2017/12/9c4a3e2c7f90-update1-jenkins-husband-of-japanese-ex-abductee-to-n-korea-dies-at-77.html
The Dutch city of Breda is located in the southern Brabant province. Aside from its cultural riches, a pretty well-known prison named de Koepel, or ‘the Dome’, is situated there. In the wake of the Second World War, the prison housed all Dutch war-criminals serving life sentences. Some of them had their death sentence commuted. Others simply served life. 111 Dutchmen and 63 Germans. Among them were ‘Breda’s Seven’; seven Dutch former Waffen-SS war-criminals serving life sentences.
Yet seven years after the Second World War came to an end and the Dutch court sentenced these men to life, they managed to escape the prison and flee the country. This event dominated the national headlines, and there was an enormous public backlash. Not so much because of the escape itself, but because of the aftermath… Although it was known where the escapees fled and where they resided, it appeared that all of them managed to get away with it. In 2018 the Dutch National Archives released confidential ministerial letters, memos and reports regarding the escape. These provide a candid look at the subsequent diplomatic fallout.
On December 26, 1952, Boxing Day, the prison hosted a movie night for its inmates. The 1935 black-and-white Austrian comedy Der Himmel auf Erden was played in the common room. But seven former Waffen-SS members and war-criminals serving life sentences weren’t watching the film. Herbertus Bikker, Sander Borgers, Klaas Carel Faber, Jacob de Jonge, Willem van der Neut, Willem Polak and Antoine Touseul were planning their escape. With help from sympathisers on the outside.
Letters and documents reveal these men were serving their sentences for a long list of crimes against humanity. During the Second World War, they committed murder, abuse and reprisals against unarmed civilians. They aided and abetted the deportation of Jews, some being camp-guards themselves.
As soon as the common room lights extinguished, the seven prisoners snuck to the prison’s boiler room. They pick locked the door that led them to the courtyard. One of the men worked in the boiler room and hid a ladder under piles of coal there earlier that day. Using both the ladder and a firehose, all seven managed to climb over the five-meter high outer perimeter wall, unnoticed by any guard.
Outside two cars stood at the ready, a Plymouth and Chevrolet. It appeared the men received help from outside and that this escape wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing. It had been thoroughly planned. After the men jumped into the cars, they drove to Germany. Within two hours, at around 10 PM that night, they crossed the border. Upon arrival in Germany, they reported themselves to the local police. Some sources indicate the local police officer that happened to be on duty that night was a former SS officer himself, instantly sharing the department’s Christmas stollen and brewing the prisoners a pot of coffee.
Meanwhile, in prison, halfway through the film, the lights suddenly turned on. Someone tipped the guards an escape had taken place, although the guards were unsure who, and how many escapees there were. After a rollcall they counted 167 prisoners: seven were missing. But it was too late, and most of the prisoners would never return to the Netherlands.
During the subsequent proceedings of German authorities against the fugitives, a German district judge, Dyckman, convicted all men… for illegally crossing the border. They were fined 10 Marks each. The fact the men only had Dutch guilders to pay the fine didn’t really matter. It appeared they quite literally escaped justice.
Now, you’d expect the men to be extradited to the Netherlands as the German authorities found out they resided in the country. Because, well, they were Dutch citizens. Yet that wasn’t the case. Since 1943 any person of a ‘Germanic nation’ such as the Flemish or Dutchmen that joined up with the Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS automatically received German citizenship. This was thanks to the so-called Führer-Erlass, directives issued by Adolf Hitler himself.
Post-war German law prohibited extradition of its own citizens. So German courts used this argument to obstruct any way shape or form, leading to these Dutch fugitives’ extradition. In turn, all of them began new lives in Germany.
It’s fascinating to read letters from the Dutch ambassador Pim van Boetzelaer, complaining about this “ridiculous argumentation, because all these men are as Dutch as can be.” Three years after the escape, in October 1955, the German ambassador to the Hague received a firm reprimand from the Dutch government. In a letter, the government complained about the deterioration of confidence in the German rule of law. Mainly because the German courts used the Führer-Erlass as an argumentation not to extradite the men. After all, the decree was a thoroughly national-socialist decree, issued by Hitler himself. How could Germany, after all the crimes committed by the Nazi regime, uphold such an order?
Writing about the case in private letters, the Dutch Justice Minister Leendert Donker complained about it being “highly unsatisfactory and completely untenable.” He also criticised the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joseph Luns. Apparently, Luns promised to ensure that he’d reach an agreement with the Germans regarding the issue. But three years down the line there was no word about it yet.
Coded telegrams sent by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reveal a painfully obvious absence of Allied countries’ support. In one such telegram from February 1955, they write that extradition of ‘bandits’ isn’t a priority to Washington, London or Paris. They had bigger fish to fry. To be fair, due to the Cold War, there was ever-increasing tension between the Soviet Union and the Western nations. It was a priority to ensure support from West Germany, and agitating them by twisting their arm into extraditing the men could work counterproductive. Dutch interest was secondary to these massive geopolitical interests forming a block against the Soviet Union and its satellite states.
This too became painfully obvious to the Dutch government. On October 27, 1955, Minister Donker wrote that “any chance of extradition of these men is close to zero. It is a lost cause.” And Donker wasn’t too wrong. All men got away with it. Well, except for Jacob de Jonge, a former camp guard who ended up not being eligible for German citizenship. He was extradited to the Netherlands and served part of his sentence. I couldn’t for the life of me find out how long he did serve, although it is near certain he did not serve a life sentence anymore.
As for the prison itself, in the immediate aftermath of the escape, the prison, housing dozens of war criminals, increased the height of the walls and erected multiple guard towers.
Curiously enough the three men driving the cars and helping the escapees were arrested and put on trial in the Netherlands. All three were native Dutchmen from Amsterdam. It turned out they served prison sentences in the aftermath of the war for assisting the Germans during their occupation of the Netherlands.
Dutch newspapers publicised their names and their defence. The interrogation reports are included in the secret archives of the Dutch Justice Ministry. It was quite laughable: they stated they were simply driving around, looking at Dutch meadows, when they ran into the group of escaped prisoners. On a whim, they decided to give the men a ride. They supposedly didn’t know they were helping war-criminals escape. At any rate, all four were sentenced to six months imprisonment for aiding the escapees.
Herbertus Bikker, nicknamed the Hangman of Camp Ommen, ended up standing trial in Germany in 2003 – 51 years after his escape. The Germans charged him with the murder of a member of the Dutch resistance, Jan Houtman. Yet psychiatrists advised the court that Bikker wasn’t mentally capable of understanding the charges brought against him anymore. As such, the German courts decided to halt prosecuting him. Bikker was never convicted for any of his crimes, just like the others, except de Jonge.
After the German Empire lost the First World War and the Kaiser abdicated, the newly established Weimar Republic lingered in an incredibly unstable and chaotic situation. Both the far left and far right rejected parliamentary democracy. It’s a very fascinating time period with many different parties, interests and developments rapidly following each other up. As a matter of fact, I wrote my thesis in university about the democratisation process of the Free State of Prussia, and it was very intriguing to delve into the political machinations developing within that young Weimar Republic. One of the most infamous events must have been the Kapp Putsch. During the night of March 12 1920, an elite paramilitary unit entered Berlin. It aimed to overthrow the democratically elected government and install an autocratic military regime. Surprisingly enough, these paramilitary troops enjoyed support from the actual army and a considerable number of civil servants. For a moment, it looked like the young Weimar Republic already came to an end, before it really had begun.
Prelude to the Coup
President of the new Weimar Republic was the Social-Democrat Friedrich Ebert. As interim chancellor following Kaiser Wilhelm’s abdication in November 1918, he immediately was confronted with many obstacles and hurdles to establish anything that resembled a stable democracy in the former German Empire. These early events and political developments are essential to understand how the Kapp Putsch eventually came to be.
The Social-Democratic movement, although the largest party in parliament, itself wasn’t uniform. In December 1918, the Kommunistische Partei Deutschland was established. It was a small splinter party without any mass support, since most German workers didn’t feel much for a communist revolution. Yet there was increasing radicalisation among the left-wing, such as the Independent SPD, a split-off left-wing version of the traditional social democrats. This led to more moderate social democrats such as Ebert, to drift towards the German Reich’s traditional powerhouses such as the army, known as the Reichswehr, judiciary, bureaucracy and the centre- and centre-right parties.
Now, the Spartakists were a radical split-off group from the left-wing branch of the social democratic party. Their goal was to unleash a communist revolution and establish a government system similar to that of Soviet Russia, through violent means. Ebert was a man of the centre who had an aversion to radical communism just as much as far-right extremism. So considering the fragmentation of the political left, when the communist Spartakist uprising erupted in early January 1919, Ebert resorted to requesting the help of the Reichswehr and Freikorps. Freikorps were paramilitary units consisting of soldiers and veterans that served in the First World War. These paramilitary bands often were far-right reactionary timebombs. They helped to bloodily suppress the communist Spartakist uprising, however.
Another problem that contributed to the instability of the Weimar Republic was the Treaty of Versailles. One of the Treaty’s demands was that the Reichswehr should be reduced to 100.000 men by 1920. Considering 1919 estimations of soldiers enlisted in the Reichswehr were between 350.000 and 400.000, this would lead to monumental lay-offs from the Reichswehr. And the Allies also demanded that before April 1920 all Freikorps, paramilitary units, should be disbanded. Considering it is estimated at that time Freikorps housed approximately 250.000 veterans and soldiers alike, this could lead to some real problems. The job prospects in the new, unstable republic weren’t exactly promising. As time progressed, the democratic government realised the danger, Freikorpses posed. Although they were useful in suppressing far-left revolts, many politicians started to feel the reactionary sympathies of the Freikorpses were a grave danger to the Weimar Republic as well. As such, something had to be done about them.
The Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch
When in February 1920 the Weimar Republic’s Minister of Defence, Gustav Noske, demanded the disbandment of one of the most powerful Freikorps, Marinebrigade Erhardt, trouble broke out. The elite Marinebrigade was named after its commander, Captain Hermann Erhardt. Around 6000-men strong, most of its soldiers had seen combat during the First World War, in the Baltics soon after, and many of them were officers from the former Kaiserliche Marine. Erhardt’s response to Noske’s demand for the dissolution of his Freikorps was that he would under no circumstances even consider it.
In protest, he staged a military parade through Berlin’s streets without notifying the democratic government on March 1st. The commander of the Reichswehr in Berlin, Walther von Lüttwitz, sided with Erhardt. He outright refused to disband the brigade, claiming it was imperative to combat far-left agitators. During the next week, he demanded the democratic government step down, organise new elections and have himself appointed as commander of the entire Reichswehr. Openly rejecting the democratic government’s authority could lead to nothing else but the resignation of Lüttwitz, which is precisely what president Ebert and Noske demanded.
Following a meeting between Lüttwitz, Noske and Ebert, the former was dismissed from active service. Still, the democratic government didn’t realise a coup was on its way. Because Lüttwitz, in fact, had already ordered Erhardt to prepare his troops to take over Berlin. He now lobbied for support among nationalist and monarchist parties and persons, such as war hero Erich Ludendorff and the ultra-conservative activist and high-ranking civil servant Wolfgang Kapp and the nationalist DNVP party. Although the DNVP officially did not conspire to overthrow the government, they neglected to inform them about Lüttwitz’s plans. These groups now conspired to overthrow the Weimar Republic’s democratic government and install an authoritarian military regime.
During the whole coup, Kapp’s task was to make sure that to the public it seemed most civil servants supported the coup attempt. He was designated as the Chancellor of the new, illegitimate government. It’s where the events that were about to transpire got its name.
On the evening of March 12 1920, Marinebrigade Erhardt marched into Berlin and made their way to occupy government buildings. When Noske requested the Reichswehr put down the coup attempt in the republic’s capital, General Hans von Seeckt refused. He argued that “Reichswehr doesn’t shoot at Reichswehr.” As such, Berlin was relatively easily overtaken by Lüttwitz’s combined troops. And this course of events says a lot about the dubious loyalties of many parties during those early years of the Weimar Republic.
Kapp formed a provisional government, declared himself Reich chancellor, minister-president of Prussia and appointed Lüttwitz as supreme commander-in-chief and Minister of the Army. Meanwhile, in Berlin, democratic politicians fled the city, afraid of being arrested and unable to trust the Reichswehr that was supposed to protect them. In colonnes they drove to Stuttgart, all the while communicating with commanders of the Reichswehr and trade union leaders in desperate attempts to find a way to quash the coup.
From then on negotiations between Lüttwitz, the military, and the legitimate Weimar government ensued. In addition, the legitimate government coalition supported several trade unions that opposed the coup. Soon after the government left Berlin, they issued an official proclamation calling on the German people for a general strike. As a sign of how little popular support the coup enjoyed, massive strikes broke out among not just the working class, but also among civil servants throughout the country. In total 12 million people went on strike during these days. In Berlin daily life ran to a standstill. Gas, light and electricity all cut off. Besides some slight annoyances, this resulted in the coup’s orchestrators resolving to communicate via couriers’ letters instead of telegrams. It was the single largest strike in German history.
It’s rather challenging to understand who did and who did not support the coup. Several Reichswehr and Navy commanders immediately jumped at the opportunity to proclaim their support for the usurpers. There certainly was no military resistance against the Marinebrigade parading through the streets. According to historians Dietrich Orlow and Christopher Clark, large parts of the army, police and civil servants recognised the new government and supported the coup. In East Prussia, for example, the entire bureaucracy recognised the new government. Yet in the west of the country, most commanders and high-ranking civil servants assumed a neutral position, waiting for events to unfold before they chose a side.
Whether the attempt enjoyed support among these groups or not didn’t matter eventually anyway. Because the strikes among the working class and a considerable number of civil servants led to the entire country to be paralyzed. The strikes spread throughout Germany and four days after Erhardt and his troops entered Berlin, the coup was brought to an end by the same people that initiated it. They simply were unable to govern the country. Brokering their resignation, the democratic governing parties promised new elections following the resignation of Kapp and Lüttwitz.
Both Kapp and Lüttwitz received passports to flee the country from sympathisers in the police force. Kapp fled to Sweden where he remained for two years. He returned to Germany due to his ill health and was charged with high treason. Yet before his case was brought to court, he passed away in June 1922. Lüttwitz fled to Hungary, and Erhardt went into hiding in Bavaria. Other participants of the coup fled the country.
Ironically, the Kapp Putsch nearly achieved the exact opposite of what it aimed for. Following its failure, left-wing riots broke out, orchestrated by far-left parties that tried to unleash the communist revolution in Germany. These became known as the March-uprisings. The Ruhr Uprising is the best known of these, where nearly 50.000 workers rose up against the Reichswehr and several Freikorps. It resulted in nearly 3000 deaths, a significantly higher number than that during the Kapp Putsch.
In the subsequent June 1920 German federal elections, the Social-Democratic party lost over a third of its seats. The nationalist DNVP and extreme left-wing USPD were the winners of the election. The centre coalition of the Weimar government lost its majority. Two factions emerged: an anti-democratic and pro-republican faction, neither supported by a majority in parliament.
Having his arm twisted in negotiating with the army and giving a lot of concessions, Ebert’s moderate coalition remained heavily dependent on the Reichswehr, which often had anti-democratic sympathies. Under General Hans von Seeckt, later to be appointed as commander-in-chief, the Reichswehr became a ‘state within a state.’ And, well, the Weimar Republic remained an unstable democracy. Although the democratic government received an incredible amount of support from the working classes, which resulted in a popular strike, it cannot be seen as anything but a hopeful development for German democracy.
Boterman, F. (2011). Moderne geschiedenis van Duitsland: 1800-heden. Singel Uitgeverijen. Wielenga, F. (1992). Duitsland en de democratie 1871-1990. Boom Koninklijke Uitgevers. https://www.dhm.de/lemo/kapitel/weimarer-republik/innenpolitik/luettwitz-kapp-putsch-1920.html
As the end of the Second World War was coming closer, the Allied powers made preparations for the inevitable stream of German prisoners of war that had to be housed. In total, 1026 prisoner of war camps were established in Britain. They accommodated a bit over 400.000 German PoWs that were shipped there. Among these camps was Camp 198, also known as Island Farm. The camp was situated on the outskirts of Bridgend, South Wales. The majority of the camp has been demolished in 1993, but there is one cabin, Hut 9, that has been preserved. And it has been preserved for a pretty good reason: it is the last remaining building that stood central in the plot of one of the largest escape attempt by German PoWs during the Second World War.
Island Farm was initially built for part of the 40.000 women employed by the Royal Ordnance munitions factory in Bridgend. Yet due to the poor conditions, in reality, the women preferred travel over staying there, and the camp remained empty until 1943. For a short while, it housed American troops participating in D-Day. Following the successful invasion of Europe, the Allied powers started planning around the hundreds-of-thousands Axis PoWs they would undoubtedly capture and have to house in the near future. That’s how Island Farm became a designated PoW camp.
The camp had capacity for approximately 2000 prisoners. Although German and Italian soldiers were initially housed there, by late 1944 the War Office decided it should house German officers instead. In accordance with the Geneva Convention, the prisoners could not be put to work. But not working didn’t deter the prisoners from digging, albeit not in sight of the guards. Because right after arrival, they began hatching their escape plans.
It wasn’t like the Allied authorities didn’t realise the officers would plan an escape, though. Superintendent William May, and the camp Commandant Lieutenant-Colonel Darling actually made plans early on to prevent such an escape attempt. They knew a fair bit about escapes: Darling had been captured during the First World War and managed to escape from a German PoW camp, before safely returning to England via Holland. Considering his experience he wasn’t naive. Together with May, he decided that in case of an escape the local police should observe a 3-mile parameter around the area, checking all vehicles, peoples and what not.
There were several other escape attempts preceding the main one. Already in January 1945, Darling and May discovered a near completed tunnel in Hut 16. A stove was put over it to hide its presence. Darling and May acted on a tip-off, but when they entered the hut, initially it seemed empty. Only after moving the stove, they found the near-finished tunnel, including prisoners digging in it underground. Talk about getting caught in the act. As the map on-screen shows, Hut 16 was a bit further inwards than the aforementioned Hut 9. And perhaps that’s logical: one of the key consistencies among tales of PoW-camp outbreaks is that soldiers often dug decoy-tunnels to throw the guards off the actual escape plan. Perhaps that was what happened here as well, since the inmates from Hut 16 had to dig their tunnel under another hut. In short: not the most ideal location to start digging an escape tunnel.
Aside from this tunnel that same month two other prisoners were caught attempting to escape. They ripped iron bars from window frames and turned them into crude wire cutters. Merely cutting the perimeter fence, they escaped. Their freedom lasted for a short time, however, because they were soon arrested nearby.
Now, for the final escape, German inmates again decided upon digging their way out of the camp. Hut 9 was chosen because it was closest to the perimeter fence. Fortunately for the PoWs, metal objects were standard components of Red Cross Parcels. Tins, cans and other containers could skillfully be fashioned into useful items. Using these utensils and their hands, the inmates in Hut 9 dug into the heavy clay soil. Although all of this is an estimation: it was never conclusively proven how the inmates actually dug the tunnel. Another thing that the Allied powers didn’t find out until way after the war was where the prisoners disposed the leftover clay and dirt. Usually inmates would put small amounts of dirt and soil in their pockets and dispose of them during walks outside. But this time none of that appeared to have happened.
It wasn’t until the 1980s, 35 years after the escape, when vandals kicked down a wall inside the camp that a hollow space behind it appeared. Small clay balls spilt over the floor. It turned out the inmates built a fake extension to an L-shaped bend in their Hut. They crafted a false air vent where they disposed their little clay balls in. The camp’s commanders never figured out where the soil was disposed, and nobody would have, if it wasn’t for a bunch of youths breaking things inside the remains of the camp.
According to a 2016 research paper on the matter, straight from the beginning, the German officers were highly organised. They worked as a team and had designated escape task duties such as tunnellers and lookouts. They used a system of light switches to warn if guards came closeby. The escape tunnel from Hut 9 measured approximately 90 by 90 centimetres. It ended up 13 metres in length and just 1.5 metres underground, right underneath the perimeter fence. Once inside the tunnel, it was relatively easy to move until one had to climb out again.
The prisoners used materials from huts to prevent cave-ins and even built ventilation pipes from milk tins, blowing in air with a hand-operated fan. As the photograph shows, the Germans used wood to support the tunnel. Aside from using wood from their hut, they stole oak benches from the canteen and even cut their beds’ legs. They were rather crafty, to be fair. In order to conceal the digging noise, the prisoners sang German choral songs. And I’ve already touched upon their crafted utensils, although it was never conclusively proven if they did indeed use these to dig the holes.
At any rate, four months after the first German officers entered the camp, on the night of Saturday, March 10th 1945, the escape was set in motion. Sources vary whether 70 or 83 PoWs escaped that night, but it is safe to say it was the largest prison break by German PoWs during the Second World War. At around 10 PM that night, after the final roll call, Officers went to the hut and down into the tunnel at their assigned times. You see, the escapees divided themselves into groups and each group had a map, a homemade compass and food. The way the map was devised is fascinating in its own right: during the war, all roadsigns across Great Britain had been deliberately removed in order to prevent German spies from orienting themselves if they parachuted into Britain. A PoW Officer, however, during his transport to Island Farm, noticed a map hanging on the wall of the train wagon. He traced it on the tail of a shirt. Using this as a blueprint to create multiple maps, it led to the Germans having surprisingly accurate maps.
Hans Harzheim was part of one of the first groups. He later relayed how they crept through the tunnel, into the adjacent field and then stole an Austin 10 car. It belonged to the camp’s doctor, Dr. Baird Milne. The car didn’t start, and the noise polluted the quiet night. According to Harzheim, guards from the camp walked up to figure out what the noise was all about, when they saw the four men in a barely illuminated car. Boldly, Harzheim’ asked them to give him a hand with the vehicle, which they did. Due to the darkness the men appeared as just four silhouettes in the car, and unbeknownst to the guards, they were helping prisoners start the car. It worked, though, and the men drove off.
After driving around and getting lost, the men had to abandon the car and continue on foot. It didn’t last long, and the day after they were arrested near Castle Bromwich, about 110 miles (so 177 kilometres) away from Island Farm.
As for the rest of the escape, it continued uninterrupted for several hours. As mentioned, there were designated look-outs, using lights to make sure the escapees would not get discovered. The group that stole the car was a bit of an exception because after crawling out of the tunnel, most escapees made their way to a tall tree nearby, where they gathered. By 2:15 am 65 men had escaped.
The 67th PoW to escape was Hermann Schallenberg, a Luftwaffe officer. According to his testimony as he left the tunnel he heard a shout from a guard, followed by a gunshot. Next thing he knew guards were giving chase, during which one fell down the tunnel exit. Several PoWs hiding in bushes nearby allegedly couldn’t hold their laughter, leading to the first eleven POWs being arrested right away. Realising just how many prisoners escaped, a manhunt ensued which lasted for well over a week.
The next two PoWs to be arrested were SS Officer Karl Ludwig and Heinz Hertzler. They planned on hitching a truck ride to the docks, but no trucks passed the road they chose on the night of escape. As such, hiding in bushes and hedges, they slowly made their way to the Bridgend railway station. According to testimony, as they were hiding in a hedge a drunk man decided to relieve himself. Unbeknownst to him there two German escapees were hiding in it. At any rate, the men reached the station and managed to climb into a goods wagon. And unbeknownst to the men, it travelled in the opposite direction. When they got off, they ended up in Llanharan, just 8 miles from Bridgend. Over here they encountered a police constable who subsequently arrested them.
Not too soon after the escape was first noticed, the entirety of Bridgend and its police force were informed dozens of German PoWs escaped. Newspapers across the country reported the population about them, speaking of “a manhunt at a scale never seen before” and often times curious stories of men hiding in goods wagons or woods being arrested by locals made headlines. American and British forces tracked down the Germans, aided by civilians, home guards, police and even teenagers who considered it quite the spectacle.
By Friday 5 PM the next week, two prisoners that travelled the furthest were brought into the local police station. They told police they travelled to Brynna, climbed onto a goods train, arriving near Southampton. Their plan was to sail to France on a cargo ship, but climbing out of the wagon they were spotted and subsequently arrested. According to official reports the escapees were not punished upon recapture.
Yet a few weeks after the escape, British authorities transferred all 1634 inmates to Camp 181 in Carburton, Worksop Nottinghamshire. This transfer is not necessarily a punishment, as far as I could find, but the new fate of Island Farm is yet another curious twist of this already strange story. From now on, Island Farm was renamed to Special Camp Eleven. It was the designated prison camp to receive German Officers captured in the battle for France.
Although Special Camp Eleven opened in November 1945, its first special prisoners arrived in January the next year. Among these special prisoners were generals and field marshals, awaiting their trial at Nuremberg. Some of them were close advisers of Hitler, such as Generalfeldmarschalls Gerd von Rundstedt, commander-in-chief of the German armies in the West. Feldmarschall Erich von Manstein, who was dismissed by Hitler in 1944 but before that played a vital role on the Eastern front. Generaloberst Heinrich von Vietinghoff, the Supreme Commander of the German Army in Italy, involved, although not directly, in the rescue of Mussolini and most combat in Italy. In short, after the escape attempt, Island Farm became the designated prison camp for incredibly high-ranking Wehrmacht officers. Many of them spent several years there, and the camp was only closed in 1948 when the last prisoner was returned to Germany. And as mentioned, all that remains of its high-ranking inmates and one of the greatest PoW escapes is Hut 9, where it all started.
King George VI was king of the United Kingdom from 1936 until his death in 1952. His older brother, Edward, preceded his reign. He was one of the shortest-reigning monarchs in British history, reigning just 326 days. He triggered a constitutional crisis which led him to abdicate after proposing to the American Wallis Simpson, who had been married two times already. Well, long story short, Edward abdicated in December 1936 and became Duke of Windsor. Following his abdication, the couple emigrated to France, toured through Nazi Germany and rumours persisted that the Duke had more sympathies for the new Nazi regime than for his own country and family. The Nazis were well aware of these rumours, and after war broke out with Britain, they figured the Duke could be a willing participant in controlling German-occupied Britain.
In short, the Germans wanted the Duke of Windsor to be a compliant ‘king across the water’ in case of a Germany-dominated Britain and the inevitable abdication of King George VI. Yet to secure this course of events, the Duke had to be surrounded by Germans, since they could not risk the British secret service interfering. As such, a mission was conjured up to abduct the Duke to Spain, and from there have him give a statement of his willingness to cooperate to establish peace between Germany and Britain. In order for the mission to succeed, members of the Sicherheitsdienst were permitted to have the Duke reach, and I quote: “the right decision by any means necessary.” But as the plot unfolded, the British secret service and even prime minister Winston Churchill became aware of the German plot. What ensued was a race against time, for control over the Duke of Windsor.
Preparing the Abduction in Spain
Following the invasion of France by Germany, the self-exiled Duke of Windsor and his wife Wallis fled the country to escape an arrest. They arrived safely and unscathed in Madrid, Spain on June 23. Yet they only remained in the capital for nine days before they left to yet another country: Portugal. Portugal’s dictator Dom Antonio Salazar was determined to make the Duke feel safe and welcome. To ensure there would be no issues with either the Brits or Germans, he appointed Portugal’s chief of the secret police, Dom Agostinho Lourenco with the task of protecting the couple.
The Duke rented a villa, the Boca de Inferno, near Estoril, a bit to the west of Lisbon. Owner of the villa was right-wing, upper-class playboy Dom Ricardo Espirito Santo Silva. The British SIS knew he had pro-German sentiments. Lord Halifax even described him as a crook in a memo. Immediately after the Windsors moved in, Lourenco made sure his men observed a security parameter around the villa. As such, the ducal couple was put under effective house arrest near immediately.
Meanwhile, both the Germans and Brits were informed about the new living situation of the couple. In Germany, both Hitler and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joachim von Ribbentrop, had a skewed image of the Duke’s degree of influence in British politics. Ascribing the Duke too much power and authority, they agreed that if he could be lured to Spain, he would willingly become an ally of the Germans. This idea wasn’t entirely unfounded. On July 22, the Italian Gazzetta del Popolo published that ‘The Duke of Windsor telegraphed King George to form a new British government.’ The New York Times of July 23, together with Finnish and Danish press also published that the Duke was forming a new British government in order to ensure a peaceful settlement with Germany. The British government dismissed these reports as propaganda based on false information, but still, rumours like this persisted.
At this point, a German invasion of the United Kingdom was still the Nazi high command’s main priority. They figured after they invaded the UK and dispelled of the sitting King George VI, his brother, the Duke could be a willing participant to take over the throne and become a puppet king for the Nazi regime. On July 23 Ribbentrop called the SS functionary and chief of counter-intelligence Walter Schellenberg, who had previously been instrumental in the Venlo Incident where the SS abducted two British secret agents from the Dutch border town. Ribbentrop informed Schellenberg that on ‘Hitler’s direct orders’ he was appointed as head of Operation Willi: the luring or abduction of the Duke and his wife to Spain. According to Schellenberg’s memoirs, Hitler himself approved fifty million Swiss francs to be offered to the Duke if he ‘was ready to make some official gesture dissociating himself from the manoeuvres of the British royal family.’
Schellenberg was one of the highest-ranking members of the Sicherheitsdienst under Reinhard Heydrich. This connection was precisely why he, at least according to his post-war memoirs, opposed the plan. He knew Heydrich hated Ribbentrop, who he referred to as a ‘bloody old fool.’ Knowing his superior hoped the entire operation would fail, making the foreign minister look inept, Schellenberg begrudgingly flew to Madrid to meet with his connections there.
Yet as he arrived in Spain, both the Spanish and German diplomatic forces gave him barely less than a cold shoulder. The German Ambassador Baron Eberhard von Stohrer, a career diplomat, despised the Nazis, especially the SS and Sicherheitsdienst. Realising Schellenberg, who enjoyed infamy for his Venlo incident escapade and several other high-profile abductions, came to Spain, meant those ‘criminals in Berlin’ decided to follow up on their ridiculous plan to abduct the Duke of Windsor.
And the Baron was utterly right about Schellenberg’s motives. The Baron reported to Ribbentrop that the Duke and Duchess ‘very much desired to return to Spain,’ and even received intel that they acquired a visa from the British Embassy in Lisbon to travel to Spain. In Madrid, Schellenberg began organising the plan to lure the Duke to Spain. First, he formed a team around him. Among them was the Sicherheitsdienst representative in Madrid and the Abwehr agent Alcazar “Angel” de Velasco. Velasco was a former matador, Falangist fascist and all too keen to help the Germans out. To give you an insight in the ridiculous infighting among the high echelons of Nazi Germany: although Angel was an Abwehr agent and thus formally working for Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, he had to promise Schellenberg not to breathe a word to Canaris about the mission. Because Canaris, head of the German Abwehr, was known to not be enthusiastic about the Nazi regime. What the SS didn’t know at the time was that Canaris, in fact, played a crucial role in convincing Franco not to allow German troops on his territory and to refuse to join the Axis powers. Towards the end of the war, he even engaged in more subversive activities. It would cost him his life, eventually. In return for his secrecy, Angel was promised a crucial role in the plan that could very well turn the tide decisively in Germany’s favour.
The Duke of Windsor in Portugal
On July 26, Schellenberg flew to Lisbon. Forcing the Duke to Spain with threats of violence could very well be counter-productive. As such, he decided to use his growing network of agents around the Duke. He hoped that it would spook the couple enough for them to seek refuge in Spain, more precisely among the Germans residing in Spain. An old friend, the Japanese head of intelligence in Lisbon, came in handy. He acquired maps, plans and drawings of the villa the Windsors resided in.
Another agent of Schellenberg referred to as “C” and who most likely was a deputy of Dom Lourenco, provided 18 agents of the Portuguese security agency. These began shadowing the Duke. Subtly making their presence aware, the Duke knew something was up. During this time, Velasco invited the Duke on a hunting trip, where he revealed a supposed British plot to have the Duke assassinated. He offered refuge guaranteed by the Germans in Spain. The Duke requested 48 hours to think about it. The couple must have been rather confused and frightened: previously Wallis received a bouquet of flowers with a hidden note warning them of an impending hit job by the SIS, stating a bomb would be planted on a ship if they decided to leave the European mainland. Another night a rock was thrown through their windows, and the subsequent nightly manhunt only added to the unease. In short: the couple started to genuinely consider the fact they could not trust the British government and their own royal family anymore. Schellenberg’s plan seemed to work.
Meanwhile across the English Channel during these weeks, the Brits realised there was a very real risk, or at least the belief among the Germans, that the Duke may actually go to Spain. An official memo sent by Lord Halifax from early August shows that the SIS was aware of the fact the owner of the Duke’s villa was very pro-German. Also, they were aware of the Duke manifesting extreme defeatist and pacifist sympathies. In short: they had to get him as far away from the Germans as possible before something bad happened. Churchill was informed of this, as well. Already in late June, he sent the Duke a telegram ordering him to return to Britain. He followed that one up with the announcement the Duke had been appointed as Governor of the Bahamas and to go there via New York liner, the Excalibur, leaving on August 1st. Yet the couple remained in their villa, and to the Brits it was somewhat uncertain what their plan of action was.
And then things began moving rapidly. The day after the final telegram, a flying boat arrived from Bristol. In it was Sir Walter Monckton, a confidant of Churchill and close advisor of the Windsors. In fact, when Edward was still King, Monckton was the lawyer who guided him through his abdication process. Monckton’s task was to convince the Duke to not travel to Spain. Two days earlier he had been summoned to a secret meeting with Churchill in Downing Street. There, Churchill told him to see to it that the Duke would board on the New York liner Excalibur, to his new occupation: as governor of the Bahamas. Monckton himself described the mission as the oddest job of the ‘odd jobs he has done.’
From his arrival onwards, Monckton didn’t leave the Duke’s side. Meanwhile, Ribbentrop ordered Schellenberg to use any means necessary to bring the Duke to Spain. But it was no use, according to Schellenberg’s personal logs from that time. On July 29, he realised that “Willi will nicht” which translates to as much as “Willi doesn’t want to go.” He sent a report to Berlin stating the curious Monckton who didn’t look like a spy, and didn’t even carry a gun, was more likely to ‘be a member of the personal police of the reigning King by the name of Cameron.’ They didn’t know how to perceive Monckton, all the Germans could tell was that in his presence the Duke now became more hesitant about moving to Spain. And there wasn’t much time left, merely two days before Excalibur set sail.
With Ribbentrop’s words undoubtedly in mind, Schellenberg decided it was time to resort to more coercive tactics. The first subject was the duchess’s maid, Jeanne-Marguerite Moulichon. The girl was on a mission to retrieve the duchess’s favourite linen from Paris, where they left it as they fled from the invading Germans. On her trip back, however, the maid was taken into custody by the Germans. The first bargaining chip was secured. Secondly, the Duke’s Spanish friend, Don Miguel Primo de Rivera was flown to Lisbon. With his charm and persuasiveness, he convinced the Duke it wouldn’t take much longer for Germany to force Britain to negotiate peace, leading to King George’s abdication. To add weight to his argument, he also emphasised there were impending plots by the SIS to assassinate him. The Duke now begged Monckton to delay the trip, which he refused. As such a hesitant Duke ended up being near physically forced onto the Excalibur.
On August 1st, as planned, the Duke left on the New York liner to the Bahamas, together with Monckton and a Criminal Investigation Department officer. In the last hours before their departure, Schellenberg contemplated abduction but decided against it. The Duke sent a telegram to Hitler personally, stating he was willing to cooperate at a suitable time to establish peace, and he paid tribute to Hitler’s desire for peace. And as such, the Excalibur sailed off. The Duke would sit out the war as governor of the Bahamas, and King George remained King until he died in 1952. As for the idea of an Anglo-German peace agreement, it was completely dead on the German side after this incredible failure of a mission.
By August 1944 the retreating German Heeresgruppe Mitte on the Eastern Front had lost over half a million soldiers in the wake of the Red Army’s enormous Bagration offensive. On August 19 the German Long Range Signal Intelligence Company, FAK 103 received a message from a Soviet spy, “Alexandr”, working for the Germans. Alexandr relayed to the intelligence company that a large German armed group was stuck behind enemy lines. They weren’t discovered as of yet and continued operating. During their retreat, this large German army unit, a couple of thousand men, was cut off from Heeresgruppe Mitte and sought refuge in a forest near Berezino a town in Belarus. They were in dire need of military supplies and provisions if they wanted to try to break out. Over in Germany, Wehrmacht commanders thought it vital to rescue these men. And not just any commanders. All the way up to Hitler personally, the entire chain of command became involved in the rescue of this Wehrmacht unit. Over the next couple of months, multiple intelligence officers were sent behind enemy lines to establish contact, and the Luftwaffe set up several missions to drop their scarce supplies in the army group’s supposed area.
And, well, the intelligence officers all sent encrypted messages to confirm they safely reached the thousands of men stuck in the forest, requesting more supplies and material to force a break-out. With their already overstretched manpower resources, the German command did everything they could to safely rescue the army group… until Germany was finally defeated in May 1945, and they could no more, leaving the men to their own fate in that forest. A horrible end, knowing the conditions of Soviet gulags and their treatment of POWs. Except… well, the entire army group had never existed. Operation Berezino was one of the, if not the most successful counterintelligence operations set up by the Soviet NKVD.
During the war the German army worked with several Soviet spy cells, often times soldiers in the Red Army feeding the Germans information. Sometimes these contacts ended up in so-called ‘Funkspiels’, radio-play counterintelligence operations. For example, in France the Germans used compromised Allied agent’s radios to send controlled transmissions to their parent service, rendering those instances none the wiser. Well, the Soviet spy Alexandr, who signalled the Germans, was part of a larger Soviet spy cell, Flamingo. The Germans figured Alexandr was a captain in the Red Army, adding credibility to his transmission when he told them about the lost army group.
The army group was stuck near Berezino, close to Minsk. A captured German corporal told Alexandr the group was cut-off from the main army group during their retreat. They numbered around 2500 men and were stuck in a nearby forest. Oberstleutnant Heinrich Scherhorn commanded the group, and he planned to lead his men to the German frontlines, through the Red Army units roaming around the area pushing further west. A sizeable number of wounded soldiers and a shortage in supplies prevented him from forcing an early breakout.
Okay, so when receiving a message like this during the already chaotic time, the Germans naturally considered it plausible. But they were right to be wary, for several reasons. How was it possible a German corporal knew so much about Scherhorn’s plans and whereabouts? And who was Scherhorn anyway? Even if Scherhorn existed, the Soviets could simply use his documents to create a ruse.
Head of the intelligence service of the Heeresgruppe Mitte was Hans-Heinrich Worgitzky. He suspected a Soviet deception operation intending to exhaust Germany’s already overstretched resources. Through the Long Range Intelligence Company, FAK 103, Worgitzky requested Flamingo to provide the exact whereabouts of Scherhorn’s position so he could organise an air supply and to establish radio contact.
On September 6 Flamingo reached out. They stated Alexandr managed to contact the lost army group directly. Scherhorn was adamant about breaking through Soviet lines to the Germans, but he required military material, medicine and provisions. The group’s exact position, a bit over 50 kilometres to the north of Berezino, including the location signals for an eventual dropping was included.
Meanwhile, other commanders heard about the missing Wehrmacht unit. Among them was Oberst Reinhard Gehlen, head of the Fremde Heere Ost, the military intelligence organisation for the Eastern Front. According to historian Stuart Smith, the Fremde Heere Ost was undoubtedly the most successful German intelligence organisation of the entire war and Gehlen was respected by most of the German general staff thanks to his excellent intelligence work. Gehlen received information from his men that indeed, an Oberstleutnant Heinrich Scherhorn, commanding a Landesschützen-Regiment, had been missing since June.
The regiment Scherhorn commanded was very experienced in dealing with partisan activity, and thus considered more valuable than other regular Wehrmacht regiments. In addition, Scherhorn’s father was an intimate of Hitler; he contributed significantly to the Nazi party’s finances. It gave the rescue of Scherhorn an important political dimension.
The German command requested Otto Skorzeny to lead the rescue operation. Skorzeny was a notorious SS commando that had been involved in several secret operations, often behind enemy lines. Skorzeny and his Jagdverband Ost, a unit consisting of Balts, Russians and Poles, started preparing the mission which initially was named Operation Freischütz.
Their first objective was to render the communication via Flamingo obsolete. In order to do so they had to establish direct contact with Scherhorn. On September 15 an intelligence and connection officer crossed the frontlines in an attempt to locate Scherhorn. The intelligence unit near immediately lost contact with the men and considered them lost. Until five days later, when Heeresgruppe Mitte received a detailed message from Scherhorn himself, albeit through Flamingo. In it, Scherhorn confirmed the men safely reached him and he named several other high-ranking officers that were known to be in Soviet captivity. So… well reason enough for the German command to doubt the existence and situation.
Two weeks later the Wehrmacht intelligence unit sent another intelligence officer behind enemy lines, without notifying either Flamingo or Scherhorn. This officer confirmed he safely reached his position, and to be certain two days later four men of the SS Jagdverband Ost were dropped behind enemy lines, disguised as German prisoners of war.
Official reports detailing the landing of the groups show what happened next. After a difficult landing taking heavy machine-gun fire, the first group established radio contact but then lost all contact. The second group sent a message several days later stating they successfully reached the Scherhorn group, and in early November the missing group too sent a code indicating they reached the Scherhorn group.
Considering the existence of the Scherhorn group confirmed by separate intelligence units, the German command now took on the difficult task of rescuing them. The Luftwaffe set up a regular airdrop supply and the German intelligence units maintained daily contact with Scherhorn. Doctors were dropped in addition to the supplies and the German commanders convinced Scherhorn to build a landing strip nearby their stakeout, so they could establish an air bridge to pick up the men. But a harsh winter and Soviet activities in the area made it near impossible, and by late November Scherhorn pleaded with the German command to allow a change of plans.
The German frontline at this point was around 500 kilometres away and the situation seemed hopeless. Scherhorn told the German commanders he was going to divide his men into two: a unit with wounded and weak soldiers trekking south, and a more combat-ready group to travel through Lithuania, where they would attempt to establish a new airlift. According to Skorzeny’s memoirs, he followed the group’s progress via radio reports. Their movement was slow, barely five kilometres every day, and the realisation dawned on the Germans that these men may never reach Germany again.
For months the dropping of supplies at night and sending special units across frontlines continued. All the while the Red Army was advancing closer to German borders, and the German resources ran out. The responsible Luftwaffe squadron ran out of fuel in early 1945 and was unable to supply the lost Wehrmacht unit altogether. All the while the entire German warmachine rapidly collapsed, and the Scherhorn group could expect no more than a personal letter from Hitler on March 23. In it, Scherhorn was promoted to Colonel and he received the Ritterkreuz.
One month later, in April 1945, the German radio intelligence unit received a transmission from the SS Jagdgeschwader Ost unit commander who supposedly travelled with the Wehrmacht unit. He stated the group had reached the agreed-upon meeting point, and requested the Luftwaffe to pick them up. Having no planes, fuel or any resources available, all the Germans could do was listen to his last radio transmission. Skorzeny described it as heartbreaking. Realising they could not be saved, the commander requested the minimal amount of fuel to charge their batteries to continue transmitting messages, but even that the German command could not promise. They realised the horrible fate that awaited these men, who had gave it their everything in an attempt to reach Germany. Not too long after Hitler took his own life in the Führerbunker, and the Germans surrendered, bringing the Second World War to an end. In the aftermath of the war the entire situation in Europe was very chaotic, and naturally, the whole Scherhorn affair faded to the background… only to be forgotten.
So, what happened to Scherhorn and his several-thousand strong Wehrmacht unit stuck behind enemy lines? Well, Oberstleutnant Heinrich Scherhorn certainly existed. And even the Flamingo spy cell was genuine. The agent, Alexandr, existed as well. His real name was Alexandr Petrovich Demianov, and he had worked for the NKVD counter-intelligence branch for over a decade. He reported directly to Pavel Sudopatlov, an intelligence officer. Sudopatlov was deeply involved with many secret operations, including Leon Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico and the obtaining of information about the Manhattan project.
Alexandr had been infiltrating the German Abwehr from the beginning of the war, expanding his network. He was a double agent. And using Alexandr, the NKVD set in motion the most ambitious deception operation of the war. Stalin personally ordered Sudopatlov to create a counter-intelligence operation about a fake German Wehrmacht unit surrounded behind the frontlines. Stalin’s goal was to have the Germans deplete their already exhausted resources on this non-existent unit, and that’s exactly what happened.
It appears that Alexandr’s entire family was involved in the deception. His wife’s father’s house in Moscow was used as a safehouse for Abwehr agents that agreed to defect to the Soviet Union. And Alexandr made sure to feed the Germans just enough correct information among the falsehoods, for them to continue trusting him.
Alright, so Scherhorn did exist. But in reality, his Landesschützen-Regiment had been annihilated during the initial days of their retreat. Together with 200 survivors, they surrendered in July 1944, and in the notoriously awful NKVD captivity, Scherhorn was forced to defect. There were multiple reasons for his defection. Considering he fought against partisans he realised he would be executed if he didn’t, and he figured the Germans knew many partisans controlled the area he went missing in. So to have a sizeable German army unit missing there seemed unrealistic to him. Little did he know the German commanders would buy it.
When the Soviets relayed coordinates of the supposed army group’s position, they clothed counter-intelligence officers and special operations units in tattered Wehrmacht uniforms, to meet the SS men dropped behind enemy lines to meet Scherhorn. And Scherhorn too was there, located inside a hut in the forest. When the SS men met him, they transmitted their coded message to confirm the group Scherhorn existed. Subsequently, NKVD officers revealed they weren’t Wehrmacht soldiers. They arrested the SS men and gave them a choice: join in or die. Most men defected, handing over their valuable codebooks and passwords. The entire course of events was a debacle for the German command, although they would never find out. As we’ve seen, the deception lasted until nearly the end of the war, until the Germans simply had no resources to help out the fake Wehrmacht unit.
Although this was a secret counter-intelligence operation, there’s a reason why we know so much detail about a mission such as this one: Scherhorn actually survived the war. Sudapotlov kept him under house arrest until 1949, before he was repatriated to East-Germany. He was one of the lucky ones because the vast majority of men captured during the operation were executed after the Germans surrendered. To the Soviets, the operation was an incredible success. In total 67 airlifts were intercepted and 25 paratroopers arrested, not to mention the ammunition, provisions, medicine, weapons and codebooks. Ironically enough, Reinhard Gehlen, who bought the deception, ended up becoming a spymaster of the CIA-affiliated anti-communist Gehlen Organisation. Certainly a story worth telling in another video.
Beaumont, R. (1982). Maskirovka: Soviet Camouflage, Concealment and Deception. Smith, S. (2018). Otto Skorzeny: The Devil’s Disciple. Bloomsbury Publishing.
The military histories of Germany and China in the years preceding the Second World War are inextricably linked. One of the more curious testimonies of their close ties must have been when in March 1938 the German Wehrmacht crossed the border into Austria. The Austrian military didn’t oppose them, and the event subsequently became known as the Anschluss, sometimes referred to as the Blumenkrieg, or war of flowers.
Among those Wehrmacht soldiers was the 21-year-old sergeant officer-candidate. Now, sources vary, with some indicating he served in the 98th Gebirgsjäger Regiment, the Wehrmacht’s specialised mountain troops. Others state he commanded a Panzer regiment driving across the border. All that is for sure is that this cadet stood out from the rest of his men. He wasn’t German, and well, he wasn’t even European. Chiang Wei-kuo was the son of Generalissimo Chiang-Kai Shek, President of the Republic of China and head of the Kuomintang, China’s nationalist party. Wei-kuo’s presence in Germany is curious for multiple reasons, especially considering that within two years, China’s adversary during the Second Sino-Japanese war, Japan, would ally with Germany.
So how did Chiang end up invading Austria with his Wehrmacht unit? Well, to begin with, Chiang Kai-shek adopted him when he was three years old. Officially, his father was Tai Jitao, an intimate of Chiang Kai-shek. Tai had an affair with a Japanese woman, who gave birth to Wei-kuo in 1916. Wei-kuo was born in Tokyo, Japan. Tai, fearing his illegitimate child could end his career and marriage, requested Chiang Kai-shek to adopt Wei-kuo. The plan was that Chiang could claim Wei-kuo was a child of Yao Yecheng, one of his concubine’s children. Having one of his concubines raise him as one of her own, Chiang did adopt Wei Kuo as his second son. His oldest, biological son, was Chiang Chin-kuo who would result in quite a bit of diplomatic troubles throughout Chiang’s career. Thanks to this, Tai was able to remain involved in the Kuomintang. For most of Wei-kuo’s life, up until the 1980s, he held up the claim he was Chiang Kai-shek’s biological son. Although rumours certainly persisted throughout his life and career.
As for Wei-kuo, he studied physics in eastern China, at the Dongwu University. Meanwhile, he enrolled as a reserve officer in the Kuomintang army. During this time his brother, Chiang Ching-kuo, left for Moscow to study there. Ching-kuo remained in Moscow for over a decade, and after his father purged leftist elements from the Kuomintang in 1927, Ching-kuo was detained in the Soviet Union, albeit as a… “guest”. We all know what that means. Chiang Kai-shek refused to negotiate a prisoner swap for his son, reasoning that China’s fate was not worth his son’s fate. In 1937 Ching-kuo, together with his Belarusian wife he met there, returned to China.
With one of his sons just returning from virtual imprisonment in the Soviet Union, in late 1937 Chiang decided to send Wei-kuo to Germany to receive a military education there. After all, the Second Sino-Japanese war broke out in July that year. Chiang had great contacts among the German military. For example, Hans von Seeckt, the Chief of the German Army Command during the Weimar Republic, served as Chiang’s military consultant from 1933 to 1935. Alexander von Falkenhausen, another German general, also served as Chiang’s military advisor, playing a vital role during the early stages of the Second Sino-Japanese war. As for Wei-kuo, German military education, renowned for its efficiency and innovation, would be a great asset to him in both the war against the Japanese, but also in the subsequent inevitable war against the Chinese communists.
Wei Kuo enrolled in the Kriegsakademie, or War Academy, in Munich, Bavaria. While he was there, many impactful political developments rapidly followed each other up in Germany. Hitler had been Germany’s dictator for nearly five years and had been planning to incorporate Austria into his German Reich. After blackmailing the Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, he forced him to abdicate. Subsequently, Austria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nazi-party member Arthur Seyss-Inquart was named Chancellor of Austria. His first act in office on March 12 was to send the Germans a telegram requesting the Wehrmacht to ‘bring peace and security, and prevent bloodshed.’
And that’s how 21-year-old Wei-kuo crossed the Austrian border together with the Wehrmacht. By this time he recently completed his initial training earning him the rank of Fahnenjunker, an Officer Candidate. According to some sources during the Anschluss Wei-kuo, a sergeant officer-candidate by this point, commanded a Panzer unit. After the successful Anschluss, the Wehrmacht began integrating Austrian army units into their own ranks. This led to Wei-kuo and other officer candidates to command Austrian army units. Wei-kuo was assigned as Lieutenant to a Panzer unit. So basically, a Chinese man in German service commanded an Austrian Wehrmacht Panzer unit following the Anschluss.
Following the Anschluss, Hitler set his eyes on Czechoslovakian Sudetenland, arguing there was a significant German-speaking minority there. It led to the historical, and rather ironic speech by British prime minister Neville Chamberlain who claimed he brokered ‘peace for our times’ after allowing Germany to demand Sudetenland. Wei-kuo didn’t participate in the annexation of Sudetenland, nor in the subsequent German military campaigns. Although according to Jay Taylor, biographer of Wei-kuo’s brother, he claimed he would have liked to.
Weeks before the German invasion of Poland and the outbreak of the Second World War, Wei-kuo graduated. It isn’t exactly clear how, but either upon instructions from Chinese authorities or simply by the Wehrmacht command, he was assigned as Lieutenant to a Panzer division lined up along the Oder River, near the Polish border. Yet on his way to his destination, he travelled through Berlin. Over there, he visited the Chinese embassy, where he received new orders. Due to shifting alliances, he was ordered to travel to the United States to receive military training there. Much to his own disappointment later on, when it became clear he missed the German invasion of Poland because of this. So in the days preceding the outbreak of the full-fledged war against Poland, Wei-kuo sailed to the United States for his new mission.
When he arrived in the United States, Wei-kuo enrolled in the Army Air Corps School in Alabama. Yet within too long, he was moved to the Armored Force Center at Fort Knox since it became clear to his commanders that he commanded a Panzer regiment in Germany and had received extensive training there already. In fact, Wei-kuo was specialised in Alpine warfare, and his Wehrmacht uniform sported the Gebirgsjäger Edelweiss sleeve insignia as a testament of his skill and experience.
After a little over a year, in late 1940, Wei-kuo returned to China. By this point, war had already broken out in the European theatre, but it would take another year before the United States entered the war against Japan. But Wei-kuo arrived in a war-torn China. Since 1937 they faced Japanese offensives, leading to extreme bloodshed. He was stationed in Xi’an, central China, where he commanded a Kuomintang garrison.
For the next five years, Wei-kuo assisted his father Chiang Kai-shek in commanding Chinese efforts against the Japanese. When they emerged victorious in 1945, they faced a new threat: the communists. The subsequent Chinese civil war, pitting the Kuomintang against Mao Zedong’s communist armies, lasted for four years. It again resulted in extreme bloodshed. Wei-kuo commanded an M4 Sherman tank battalion, initially claiming several victories over Mao’s communists.
But it was no use. In 1949 the communists defeated the Kuomintang and Wei-kuo, together with Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan, together with the majority of Kuomintang soldiers and his tank battalion. As for Tai, Wei-kuo’s biological father, he took his own life following China’s Communist takeover in 1949. In the immediate aftermath of his arrival, Wei-kuo became a divisional strength regiment commander of the armoured corps outside Taiwan’s capital, Taipei. He continued to play a role in Taiwanese politics up until the 1990s. Yet after one of his subordinates, General Chao Chih-hwa attempted a coup in 1964, the so-called Hukou Incident, Wei-kou only played a marginal role in the military. But in name, he remained present and was promoted to the rank of general and president of the Armed Forces University.
And Wei-kuo never forgot his time served in the Wehrmacht. Some online archives and articles reveal Wei-kuo’s affinity with the German military in his later life. In November 1970 he sent a letter to Erich Stoelzner, a German military adviser during the 1930s who retired as a major general of the Kuomintang army. Wei-kuo reiterated Chiang Kai-shek’s gratitude for the “faithful assistance and friendship Stoelzner’s team rendered [the Chinese] during those difficult times.” Not to mention the fact he was the founder of the Chinese Institute of Strategy and Sino-German Cultural and Economic Association.
And Wei-kuo certainly wasn’t the last Chinese soldier to receive training in Germany. From 1964 to 1972, 18 high-ranking Taiwanese officers spent a year training at the General Staff College of the Bundeswehr, the West-German armed forces.
As for Wei-kuo, he retired from the army in 1986 and served as Secretary-General of the National Security Council, advisor of the president of the Republic of China. Eleven years later, in 1997 at the age of 80, Chiang Wei-kuo passed away from kidney failure. His last wish was to be buried in Suzhou on mainland China, but he was buried in a Taiwanese military cemetery due to politics.
Often, the Allied powers during the Second World War are seen as a united front. And obviously, they were, leaving out many caveats and nuances. One example is Australia, a country that allowed American servicemen to set up base in their cities to prepare for the Pacific theatre campaign. There were some fundamental cultural differences between the Americans and Australians, and oddly enough this even led to the infamous Battle of Brisbane between American and Australian service troops. But aside from this battle, an even weirder event led to… well I’d say horrible PR for the Americans. Among their troops stationed in Australia was a serial killer. In contrast to his fellow soldiers preparing an attack on the Japanese Empire, this soldier waged attacks on Australian women. Dubbed the ‘Singing Strangler’, Eddie Leonski was an American serial killer, stationed in Australia during the Second World War.
Australia formally entered what would become the Second World War on September 3rd, 1939. Its government accepted the United Kingdom’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany. And that isn’t too surprising. To many Australians, servicemen and civilians alike, their primary loyalty aside from that to Australia itself, was to Britain. It was part of the Commonwealth and had obvious historical and cultural ties.
Yet, due to how the war progressed in the European Theatre, namely not too good for the allies, Churchill had to make a difficult decision. Australians were, with right, worried about Japanese offensives and perhaps even an attempted invasion. Yet British prime minister Winston Churchill declared that if he had to, he would use British troops to protect Britain, rather than help the Australians against the Japanese. Due to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, the United States entered the war. It led to Australian Prime Minister John Curtin to call on the United States’ President Roosevelt for help, a turn of events that surprised many older Australians.
Before the month of December ended, over 4000 American servicemen entered Brisbane, preparing for the Pacific Theatre campaign. Within one year over 250.000 American troops were stationed in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. In total it is estimated that nearly one million soldiers passed through Australia, of whom 80.000 were stationed in Brisbane. By this time, most Australians didn’t travel, let alone to the United States, so Hollywood films mostly shaped their perception of these new servicemen.
American military historian Ian W. Toll writes about the surprise among many Australians. As soon as the curiosity about the waves of Americans subsided, the limits of Australian hospitality were explored. Bribane had around 335.000 inhabitants, so the influx of so many American troops certainly had an impact.
Due to American spending, since they were paid twice as much as Australians, the Australian economy boomed. Unfortunately, it led to pubs selling beer under the counter, overcharging Americans, while telling their Australian customers there wasn’t any left. There were several deadly incidents on the road due to drunk Americans driving on the wrong side. And the smooth-talking, slick Americans were much more popular with Australian women. Newspapers even published articles about Australian women not getting their hopes up once marrying an American soldier, because the country itself wasn’t what it was made out to be in Hollywood films. The fact Americans had sharper uniforms and could afford chocolate and cigarettes, goods Australian servicemen couldn’t easily lay their hands on, and the wooing of Australian girls, inevitably led to conflict.
In addition to these issues on lower levels, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur was stationed in Australia as commander of all Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific. He never hid the fact he thought Australian troops weren’t up to the American standard. There were competent Australian commanders, such as General Sir Sydney Rowell. Rowell was respected among his forces and the public, and he bravely fought, and eventually halted the Japanese advance towards Port Moresby. Yet MacArthur ended up relieving Rowell of his command because, as mentioned earlier, he didn’t think he was up to the task. This inspired a widespread grudge against his person among Australian troops. All these irritations resulted in a powder keg, although a relatively small one.
Considering all this you’d not be surprised American commanders were anxious for bad PR surrounding the U.S. army. Well, what certainly didn’t help was the fact that one of the strangest cases perhaps any nation at war has seen, walked around in Melbourne. 24-year-old American soldier, Eddie Leonski, wasn’t there to protect Australia. At least, not on an individual level. In fact, he preyed on Australian women – he was a serial killer during wartime. Dubbed the Singing Strangler and the Brownout Strangler he killed three women during his service.
Leonski was born in December 1917 at Kenvil, New Jersey, in the United States. He was the sixth child of a Russian émigre family. In 1933 Leonski left highschool, taking a secretarial course which he excelled at. It was surprising that the boy excelled considering his home circumstances: his mother was known to have serious mental health issues. One of his brothers was locked away in a psychiatric ward, and two other brothers had prison records. He worked multiple clerical jobs before he was called up for military service in February 1941.
Initially stationed with the 52nd Signal Battalion at San Antonio, Texas, Leonski developed an unhealthy alcohol habit. According to court proceedings, during this time Leonski attempted to strangle a woman for the first time, yet this wasn’t known until after his final arrest. Because it wasn’t known, Leonski was deployed to Australia in January 1942. He arrived at Camp Pell in Melbourne, where he continued his alcohol habit. Again, according to court proceedings he allegedly raped a woman in her apartment, but the army didn’t find out about it.
Due to his drinking habit, he was locked up thirty days early on during his deployment, but he simply continued his habit upon release. There weren’t any established psychiatric issues known about Leonski, but it’s safe to assume they simply went undetected. One important aspect of his subsequent crimes was that Australia’s wartime reduction of streetlight allowed him to use the cover of darkness.
On May 3rd 1940, 40-year-old Ivy Violet McLeod’s lifeless body was discovered in a doorway near Albert Park, Melbourne. She was throttled and her valuables and purse were left untouched. Detectives quickly established theft wasn’t the motivation. Press dubbed the murder the ‘Brownout Murder’, leading to Leonski’s eventual nickname of the Brownout Strangler.
But he didn’t just take a break. Six days later the 31-year-old Pauline Thompson was strangled after leaving a pub. Upon interviewing witnesses that had been with her the night before, she was accompanied by a man that stood out due to his American accent.
Another week later the body of 40-year-old Gladys Hosking was found. She had been murdered, in the same way the previous two women had, walking home from work. A witness told detectives an American man, covered in mud, asked for directions in the area.
Now, Leonski wasn’t exactly the brightest bulb in the shed. He confided his crimes to another soldier, and in combination with Australian detectives questioning many Americans, eventually, Leonski’s name turned up. In combination with several other witness statements, 24-year-old Leonski was arrested and during a police, lineup witnesses picked him out. He was subsequently charged with the murders of three women. Leonski had a boyish appearance, big smile, was powerfully built and of average height. The only statement he gave about why he murdered the women was that he “wanted their voices.” When newspapers got a hold of this piece of information, Leonski was dubbed the ‘Singing Strangler.’
Due to the case obviously being rather controversial, and Americans standing not being ideal in Australia either, there was much discussion about whether the Australian government or the U.S army should try Leonski. Eventually, the Curtin government decided a United States court-martial should try him. The investigation declared him sane and on July 17 Leonski himself pleaded guilty to the charges.
During his last few months on death row, Leonski corresponded with a woman and became a Catholic Church communicant. On November 9, 1942, he was hanged. His remains are buried in a cemetery for prisoners that died in military custody in Hawaii.
The Battle of Brisbane
Later that same month, another event truly put to the test the Australian-American relations. The general dissatisfaction among Australian troops, who felt disadvantaged to the Americans, in combination with the Leonski case and several smaller riots where American military police singled out Australians made the powder keg explode. All of this led to the infamous Battle of Brisbane. Australian war correspondent John Hinde remarked that the battle of Brisbane was the most furious battle he ever saw during the war. It was like a civil war. Because it wasn’t a fight with the Japanese, but a two-day battle between American military police and G.I.s against Australian soldiers.
On the night of November 26, Thanksgiving Day in the United States, a scuffle unfolded on Brisbane’s streets. Ironically a group of Australian soldiers defended an American serviceman they befriended against the American military police. Private James R. Stein, intoxicated after a night of drinking, was halted by MPS while on his way to the Post Exchange. After exchanging words, things got heated, and surrounding Australian servicemen and civilians jumped in to help Stein against the MPs. Heavily outnumbered and facing an increasingly aggressive crowd, the MPs retreated into the Post Exchange, while the crowd outside grew to hundreds of Australians throwing bottles and bricks at the building.
More MPs arrived and they were pelted with rocks. When one of the MPs sported a shotgun, the crowd turned against him and a fight for control of the weapon ensued. During the scuffle it discharged, striking Australian gunner Edward Webster, killing him. Several more Australians were injured during the riot, and the mob was not controlled until late that night. The main floor of the post exchange had been destroyed, and there were injuries on both sides. The censor’s office immediately began preventing any press publishing about the deadly clash between the Allied groups.
The thing is, army command on both sides figured the major chaos had passed. As such, troops from either side weren’t confined to their barracks. The following night, this became an issue when groups of intoxicated Australian servicemen gathered in the area and moved through the streets pelting any American servicemen they found. Reports state several hundred Australians made their way through town. Americans, together with Australian women, were especially mercilessly beaten. Provosts, the Australian military police, barely intervened, and that night over 20 American troops were injured by mobs. Hostilities finally ended when provosts received the order to act much more aggressive towards misbehaving Australians. The censor’s office censored the events of the Battle of Brisbane to prevent more conflict between Allied soldiers, but the events certainly put a dent in cooperation. Just six Australians were convicted, serving several months in jail. The MP that shot Gunner Webster was court-martialed but acquitted on the grounds of self-defence.