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Japanese Snipers during World War 2

One of my subscribers recently left a comment talking about Japanese snipers on Guam and other Pacific islands. And I’ve received multiple questions about the history of Japanese snipers and how they were utilised during the Second World War. And those are very fair questions because Japanese snipers have a very surprising history. Both their strategy and conduct during the war, but their origin story as well.

As for their origin story, the Japanese imperial army was perhaps one of the most recent armies to adopt snipers as a tactic. Even more recent than the Chinese. Well, especially more recent than the Chinese. During the Second Sino-Japanese war the Japanese faced German-trained Chinese Kuomintang troops. Military ties between China and Germany were strong before the Axis alliance uprooted it. For example, in 1933 Hans von Seeckt, former chief of the German Army Command, spent two years advising generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in military matters to combat the communists. In fact, Chaing Kai-shek’s son served in the German Wehrmacht and commanded a Panzer unit before the outbreak of the war. These close connections translated to, among many other things, a more intricate understanding of the profession of snipers. In turn, the Japanese troops faced relatively well-trained Chinese troops using modern military tactics. Already facing trouble early on, by the time the Japanese waged war against the Americans, they had adopted several best practices from their war against the Chinese. Although they added some curious own ingredients to the mix. 

Most Japanese snipers were commissioned and non-commissioned officers. This became a widespread realisation due to it being easy to identify them by their rank insignia. As the war progressed, Japanese officers began concealing their insignia and on the frontlines, Japanese troops were instructed not to salute their officers. Reason for this was that it was easy for hostile snipers to identify and pick off Japanese officers. Often, snipers trained together with the infantry and every rifle platoon had at least one sniper on hand. 

Yet there are some severe contradictory statements by military historians about the usefulness and effectiveness of Japanese snipers. For one, John N. Rentz mentions that he uses the term “sniper”, when referring to Japanese, simply as individual soldiers firing without a unit fire plan. So a sniper was not specifically trained as a sniper. And he could be located anywhere, from a tree to hole in the ground, bushes, or in buildings. As such, any man that fires at another combatant, be it a soldier or unit, immediately becomes a sniper. 

That’s a very broad definition, but perhaps for a good reason. Because according to Rentz, many Japanese ‘snipers’ were actually outpost guards or members of small patrols. We’ll get to the tactics these snipers adopted in a minute. But first, the most distinctive and iconic equipment of snipers obviously is their rifle. There were multiple rifles the Japanese army, and in turn, its snipers used. Osprey’s Military Snipers Since 1914 says about this:

“The Japanese were equipped with a number of different types of rifles, the earliest, a 6.5mm Type 38 dating back to 1905. Under the guidance of Colonel Namio Tatsumi, later the 6.5mm Type 97 and 7.7mm Type 99 rifles were developed, being equipped with 2.5 or 4x power telescopic sights. One advantage of the smaller 6.5mm cartridge was that there was almost no smoke from the discharge, and the sound of the rifle – a distinctive high-pitched ‘crack’ – made it very difficult to locate.

Although the Japanese had adequate supplies of sniping rifles, much of their shooting was done at comparatively close range using a wide variety of weapons and open sights. Well equipped and suicidally determined, the Japanese frequently fought the Allies to a standstill, earning the grudging admiration of those who faced them.”

Tactics

There were common tactics Japanese snipers used. They were outfitted with camouflage helmets adorned with palm fronds and foliage, nets and clothing and were expected to blend in with their surroundings. In addition, the ‘sniper kit’, so to say, consisted of binoculars, map cases and other distinctive equipment. For the most part, they utilised the same tactics as snipers of other armies during that same period, including targeting high-ranking enemy combatants and making sure to wreak havoc in their ranks. 

A Japanese Sniper in a tree

As for real tactics, there was one notable difference. Due to its effectiveness, and the number of casualties it inflicted, it became notorious among the G.Is in Asia. The Japanese prolifically sat high in trees, waiting to take out their targets. This was such a widespread tactic that snipers sometimes even had a specifically fitted chair to make hiding among the branches and leaves more comfortable. Most marksmen were outfitted with primitive pole climbers in order to get into position more easily. An even more primitive method, described by author Adrian Gilbert in Sniper, says that snipers sometimes were tied into position. This was done to prevent the sniper from falling out if he was hit by enemy fire, leaving the counter-sniper guessing if he scored a hit.

There certainly were issues with hiding in tree-tops. For one, historian John Miller claims that “anyone who has ever climbed a tree in the jungle can testify to the difficulties a man with a rifle would encounter – lack of visibility, tree limbs in the way and the innumerable little red ants whose bite is like the prick of needles.” Still, there are plenty of sources that support the notion Japanese snipers actually prolifically used this tactic, which made sense since the conditions Japanese soldiers were exposed to by their commanders were notoriously awful. Climbing a tree would not make the list of worst things to happen there. Japanese soldiers were tenacious and dedicated, willing to take significant risks, and were often seasoned veterans of jungle warfare. Most of them considered giving their life for the emperor one of the noblest sacrifices.

As mentioned, thanks to their rifle and its lack of smoke, muzzle flash and hard to locate sound, Japanese snipers could pick off several targets and go undetected. But there’s a very obvious problem with hiding in trees as a sniper. And it’s exactly the reason why instructors of their Soviet, German, British and U.S. counterparts dissuaded them from utilising trees. In the unfortunate, but often inevitable event that you were detected… well, palm trees, or any trees for that matter, literally became a death trap. And that’s exactly what made the Japanese snipers so dangerous: it seemed they didn’t really care about the fact if they were discovered they would die. They simply wanted to take as many as possible enemy combatants with them .

In action

Among the U.S. troops news rapidly spread Japanese hid in trees. In fact, it slowed down the Guadalcanal campaign because infantry soldiers were convinced snipers hid in near every palm tree and entire divisions were held back by one sniper taking them under fire. And the danger of looming snipers influenced most campaigns, from the coral atolls to New Guinea’s forests. 

The divisional historian of the US 41st Infantry Division described how the division was plagued by snipers hiding in treetops around nearly their entire perimeter. The sniper’s range often was between 200 and 400 yards, so between around 180 and 365 metres. And of course, thanks to their relatively small powder charge, there was no telltale smoke revealing the sniper. Indiscriminate firing into treetops was the often-preferred method to try and make a breakthrough. But as the war progressed, more structured strategy was required. 

The task to eliminate Japanese snipers was a difficult one, and the Americans developed a thorough strategy. Towards the end of the war it was truly taking a toll on the Japanese. The Allies found that teams using a sniper, light machine-gun and spotter did the trick. If an area was suspected of sniper activity, the machine gunner sprayed the tops of trees, which if it didn’t hit the sniper certainly would cause him to move. At the point of moving the Allied sniper most often would pick him off. 

Other sources indicate the Allies also employed two-man counter-sniper teams manning forward defences, while another team climbed from tree to tree using climb poles. This way, they meticulously combed out areas with trees, picking off Japanese snipers one by one. If an area was suspected to have a considerable presence of snipers, 37mm anti-tank guns made sure to blast the entire area. The fact Japanese snipers were incredibly immobile in tree-tops led to their ranks rapidly thinning out as the war progressed. 

In August 1942 the US’s first major ground offensive, the Guadalcanal Campaign, began. In the famous Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis, he describes close calls with Japanese snipers:

“More Jap 6.5mm rifles opened up ahead; a storm of fire broke and filled the jungle. I dived for the nearest tree, which unfortunately stood somewhat alone and was not surrounded by deep foliage. While the firing continued and I could hear the occasional impact of a bullet hitting a nearby tree or snapping off a twig, I debated whether it would be wiser to stay in my exposed spot or to run for a better hole and risk being hit by a sniper en route.

The sniper who had fired at me was still on my track. He had evidently spotted my field-glasses and taken me for a regular officer. I searched the nearby trees, but could see nothing moving, no smoke, no signs of any sniper. Then another 6.5mm cracked again and I heard the bullet pass. I jumped for better cover, behind two trees. Here I began to wish I had a rifle. I had made an ignominious retreat. My dignity had been offended.”

The Japanese army mainly used their snipers to control enemy movement and pick them off at unexpected times. Thomas E. Price, in his Brief History of the 6th Infantry Division, recounts the landings at Milne Bay, New Guinea, that proves just this. 

“The division set up camp near the Australian forces in a place that was a palm tree plantation owned by the Palmolive Palm Oil Company. The men were told they would be fined if they cut down the trees. The first Japanese shot was wearing an American uniform. He was assumed to have been a scout or spy. A 6th Division Medic shot him. There were problems with Japanese snipers in the trees. As the trees’ tops and crowns were cropped and pruned with machine guns, there was no more talk of fines for trees.”

When in September 1944 the Battle of Peleliu commenced, a small island in the Pacific, the American commanders expected a quick and easy victory. In reality, over 10.000 Japanese soldiers resigned to their fate, defending the island until their deaths. The battle lasted into November. With its many caves, hills, and scarred ridges and ravines, the island was an ideal setup for a Japanese sniper. I’ve written an entire article about that and created a video of the battle if you’re interested in that.

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The Forgotten Ni’ihau Incident Overshadowed by Pearl Harbor

None of the Hawaiian shorelines are as untouched as those of Ni’ihau, a small island on the most western side of the Hawaiian Islands. The island is privately owned and often called the ‘forbidden island’. The time has stood still here, and the inhabitants live in seclusion, keeping the traditions of their ancestors alive. When in 1864 Elizabeth Sinclair bought the island for $10.000 from king Kamehameha, she promised to protect the island from influences from outside – a promise still kept to this day by her descendants: the Robinson family. Since 1864 not much has changed – there are no roads, no cars, no shops, no plumbing and no internet. It is not possible to enter or leave the island without the permission of the family, which is seldom given. The only way to explore the island now is with a helicopter tour that goes from a neighbouring island and allows tourists to get a glimpse of the untouched island. However, a strange drama occurred on this forbidden island starting on December 7, 1941. A gruesome story often overshadowed by the enormity of the Pearl Harbor attack, but happening at the exact same time, only a few islands away… 

The Ni’ihau island

The crash

It was a bright Sunday morning like many other quiet Sunday mornings on the island. The inhabitants were heading to church when they noticed two aircraft flying very low. Smoke was coming out of the planes. It was the first sign that this day would not be like any other. The two planes, along with six others had left that morning from the Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu and were part of the second wave of the squadron participating in the Pearl Harbor attack. They had been attacking targets in the south-eastern O’ahu and were now returning to the carrier. 

One of them, the 21-year old Airman First Class Shigenori Nishikaichi flying his Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter, had come under heavy fire. The bullets had punctured his fuel tank, and he was leaking gas fast. Nishikaichi had to make a decision: he was not going to be able to return to the carrier with the speed in which he was losing gas. While the other plane was disappearing on the horizon flying back to the carrier, Nishikaichi had to make a crash landing. The pilots had been told that if something would happen with their aircraft, they should attempt to emergency land on the barren island of Ni’ihau. There, they would have to wait along the coastline where they would be picked up by an I-class submarine. They were told that there would be no problems with locals because the island was uninhabited. 

Well, the Japanese were wrong. The island was in fact inhabited and at this moment in time around 182 Hawaiians called this island their home. After circling above the village, the plane made a crash landing not far from the home of Hawila Kaleohano. It was this man who was the first one to approach the plane and recognise it as Japanese. He was aware of the tensions between the United States and Japan, but having no direct contact with the outside world, no one yet knew what had happened at Pearl Harbor a few hours earlier. He found the wreck with a stunned pilot in it and was able to grab the pilot’s pistol and papers. The curious and slightly startled inhabitants gathered around the pilot and barraged him with questions. But, in broken English, he said he did not speak or understand it. Later it turned out he did not only understand English but also spoke it fluently.

Shigenori Nishikaichi (1919-1941)

Kaleohano called for two Japanese-speaking residents to translate. Among the native Hawaiians lived three adults with Japanese descent: Mr. Ishimatsu Shintani who was married to a native Ni’ihauan woman and worked as head-beekeeper and Mr. and Mrs. Yoshio Harada who had moved to the island in 1938. Mr. Harada worked as Shintani’s assistant, and Mrs. Harada worked for the Robinson family as a housekeeper at their ranch house. When Shintani arrived on the site, he exchanged a few words with the pilot but promptly left. The baffled natives sent for Harada and his wife. When they arrived, Nishikaichi informed the couple of the attack, and made it clear he needed his papers back which contained confidential information and could not fall in American hands. Harada did not share this information with the natives, who still were none the wiser.

The prisoner

While at first Nishikaichi was more or less treated like a guest, his status changed when during the night the Hawaiians learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor via a battery-powered radio. They decided to wait until the next day when Aylmer Robinson – the then-owner of the island – was expected to arrive on the island for his weekly visit. He could bring Nishikaichi with him to the neighbouring island Kauai, where he lived. In the meantime, they kept the Japanese pilot under loose guard in a carriage awaiting the arrival. But the next day Robinson did not arrive. Little did the Hawaiians know that after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States had instituted a ban on all boat traffic between the islands. At this time Robinson tried his best to persuade the Kaua’i Army District Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Eugene Fitzgerald, to permit his weekly supply run to the island. However, Fitzgerald didn’t budge and Robinson could not leave. 

Remains of Nishikaichi’s Zero

Keeping the pilot near the village turned out to be very disruptive since he continued to ask for his papers. He desperately wanted them destroyed. After four days of waiting for Robinson to arrive, the islanders decided to move him near the ranch of the Robinson family. Harada was also residing nearby, and thus, as his translator, had easy access to the prisoner. Some reports state that it was actually Harada himself who requested this change of venue, but this is not completely clear. At this point, however, it does become clear that Harada is helping the pilot. He wanted Shintani, as a fellow Japanese, to also become an accomplice. He tries to convince him to help as an interpreter and to stay with the pilot. Shintani refuses, fearing the consequences of this treacherous collaboration. But when they met again later that day Harada was able to convince Shintani to help, sending him to Kaleohano with 200 dollars – an enormous amount of money for the Hawaiians – to bribe him in giving back the pilot his papers. It is most likely that both the pilot and Harada make him fear the invincibility of Japan and the severe consequences of treason against the Emperor when Japan would rule the world. When Kaleohano refuses to give the papers to Shintani, he starts to plead that Nishikaichi threatened to kill him and Kaleohano if he does not return with the documents. At that moment Kaleohano snapped and is said to have told Shintani that he would “rather die an honest American than as a disgraced traitor”. It became apparent to Shintani that he would not get the papers. With Kaleohano now knowing he collaborated, he fled the house and went into hiding.

The battle 

When it became apparent that Shintani might not return at all, the situation became tenser. Harada now feared that Shintani had implicated him as a cohort of Nishikaichi. They needed a new plan. Earlier Harada had stolen a revolver and shotgun from the Robinson ranch house. Nishikaichi and Harada decided to attack the guard – a big three-hundred-pound guy named Hanaike Nihue – who had no weapon to defend himself. Harada’s wife, helping her husband, is said to have played music on a phonograph to cover up the sounds of a fight. 

Their plot was successful: Hanaike now was their prisoner as they locked him up in a shed. Both armed, they headed to Kaleohano’s house to retrieve the pilot’s papers. While walking to the village, they came upon a carriage that was heading that way. In the carriage sat Hanaike’s wife and six children. The two Japanese stopped the carriage and ordered everyone at gunpoint to get out except Laika, Hanaike’s cousin, who was sitting on the horse driving the carriage. She became their second hostage. Luckily, when they stopped to open the gate to the village, Laika was able to run away. 

The two Japanese first approached the wrecked plane, where a young man named Kalihihili Niau was standing guard. Having two guns, it was easy for them to take this young man hostage and Nishikaichi forced him to show them the way to Kaleohano’s house where the papers were supposed to be. In the meantime, however, Kaleohana was no longer at home. He had joined Hanaike and the other Hawaiians who were preparing the distress signal fires on the cliffs. Since Robinson’s arrival was now five days overdue, and the situation on the island became more critical, it became clear something needed to be done. Kaleohana and the others decided to sail to the neighbouring island to see what happened with Robinson and to get help. It would be a 14-hour journey of rough-water rowing. Before the group left, Kaleohana hid the papers in a secure place. 

And, well, at this point both Harada and Nishikaichi were unable to find the papers in the house and had decided to dismantle the two machine-guns on the aircraft. They were able to capture two more villagers. One they tied to a carriage, the other they forced to help with putting the machine-guns along with the ammunition on the carriage. They rode into the village, with their guns at the ready, and then they opened fire. While the villagers were hiding in the bushes, down at the beach and in the caves the two Japanese took over the entire village. 

They were calling for Kaleohano to surrender and give them the papers. Their rampage through the village lasted for hours, well into the early morning of Saturday. The two Japanese got more frustrated by the hour and at dawn they set fire to both the plane and Kaleohano’s house. However, the fire they had set in the cockpit didn’t spread. Even that did not work out for them. While one of their hostages had been able to run away from them, the other was forced to go out in the village and get Kaleohano and the papers. This made him able to get away as well. Now the Hawaiians had enough of the terror the two Japanese men had brought upon them. When Nishikaichi and Harada had gone to find more tools to attach the machine-gun to the carriage better, a Hawaiian man named Ben Kanahele – a 6-foot sheep rancher notorious for his strength – and the earlier released hostage, decided to steal the ammunition of the machine-gun. When Nishikaichi returned and found out the ammunition was missing, he was furious. 

Remains of the Niihau Zero

Now the deadliest and most confusing part of the story occurred. Both men were furious, and unfortunately, they managed to capture Kanahele and his wife, Ella. Under the threat of severe violence, they forced them to their house. There, the pilot threatened to kill everyone in the village starting with the captured couple. What happened within the house isn’t completely certain, but a scuffle took place between the strong Kanahele and Nishikaichi. Kanahele was shot three times: in his stomach, groin and thigh. Yet after being shot, he still managed to pick up the pilot like he was a sheep and he threw him against a stone wall. Ella subsequently beat him over the head with a rock, and Kanahele finished the job by slitting his throat. Realising the consequences of his actions, Harada took his own life with his own shotgun. It was a bit of an awkward situation, since it took him two tries. And even after the second attempt he didn’t die instantly. Yet within a few hours on that same spot both the pilot and Harada met their end.

The aftermath

Although I recounted one perspective on how Nishikaichi died, who actually killed him has never become clear. Some accounts say it was actually Kanahele’s wife, while other sources say the pilot died by the force of the blow against the wall. As all this was transpiring the party that went out to seek Robinson managed to set up a rescue party.

The next day on December 14th Aylmer Robinson, the party of Ni’ihauans, and 13 men from the 299th Infantry Regiment arrived on the island. However, by then the peace and silence the island was used to, had already returned. Both Harada’s wife and Shintani were then taken into custody. Shintani was sent to an internment camp on the U.S. mainland throughout the war. He didn’t become a naturalised U.S. citizen for twenty years.  Harada’s wife not only lost her husband that day, but also her freedom as she was imprisoned for 31 months. She was never charged with any crime and in 1944 she returned home to Niihau. Ben Kanahele recovered from his wounds and was awarded two presidential citations: The Medal of Merit and the Purple Heart. In the hometown of the young pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi a stone column was erected in his honour. On the granite column stands the engraving: “his meritorious deed will live forever”. The Niihau incident, or the battle of Niihau as it was often called, was only a small episode that stood on the beginning of a long and bloody war. But nevertheless it left a big impact. 

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The Red Baron: Manfred von Richthofen’s Legendary Life

Manfred von Richthofen (1892-1918)

On April 23rd 1918, the French newspaper Le Matin published an article. Its headline read “Manfred von Richthofen has been shot down in the vicinity of Amiens. There is no certainty yet as to what exactly happened, though it is certain this will be a huge blow for the German morale. We see this as righteous vengeance.” This French newspaper wasn’t too wrong: von Richthofen’s death indeed was a massive blow to German morale. Because over 100 years after his death, many still know him by his alias: the Red Baron. He was the ace of aces, with eighty aerial victories during the First World War credited to his name. During his life, the Red Baron was already a living legend. Yet he didn’t see the end of the First World War, but after his death, the legend around him only expanded. 

Early Life and War

Born on May 2nd 1892 in Breslau, Manfred was born as the oldest son in a prominent Prussian aristocratic family. His father, Major Albrecht von Richthofen and his mother, Kunigunde, had four children in total: a girl and three boys. Every son of the family bore the aristocratic title of ‘Freiherr’. Manfred’s youngest brother, Lothar, was to have a career as a fighter pilot himself, a rather successful one at that. 

Richthofen coat of arms

Already from a young age, Manfred loved to hunt and ride horses. Both passions were eagerly stimulated by his father. To his father’s joy, Manfred took a keen interest in military matters and at the age of 11, he was already sent to a military school. This basically determined the culture Manfred grew up in: a disciplined and militarised one. But he loved it, and he definitely thrived in it. Funnily enough, it wasn’t Manfred, who would grow up to become a legend, that was famous with the ladies though. His other brother, Lothar, was known as a charmer, whereas Manfred was more withdrawn. 

He didn’t excel in military school but wasn’t below average by any means. What he lacked in grades he made up for in excelling in physical activity and sports. In 1911 he joined a cavalry regiment, the Uhlan regiment. The Imperial German Army had 26 Uhlan regiments in total, these were light cavalry units, wearing Polish style caps, tunics and a steel-plated lance. 

When the First World War broke Manfred, like so many men his age, served in the German Imperial Army. Because the First World War saw trench warfare and modern weaponry, the majority of German Uhlan regiments were already dismounted during the early stages of the war. Initially, Manfred was stationed at the Russian front but later moved to fight in France. He was an intelligence officer and described this role as ‘boring’ because he wasn’t deployed for actual action. At his own request in May 1915, he was moved to Die Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches, which one year later was renamed to the Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte, the German air force. In late 1915 he served as an observer-gunner to other pilots, learning the trade of flying a two-seater armed solely with a rear gun, and improving his machine-gunning skills.

Manfred von Richthofen

The stories from this time are pretty adventurous already, even though Manfred himself wasn’t in control of the aircraft. For example, flying over the Russian front, there was an instance where the plane nearly crashed into a city occupied by the enemy. Another time they had to crash-land near enemy-held territory due to a defective engine. Above Belgium on another flight, the machine broke down as well, and the aeroplane nearly crashed into the sea. And Manfred’s first kill, although it wasn’t officially recognised, was during aerial combat above Champagne, France, where he shot down a French reconnaissance plane.

After serving as an observer-gunner for six months, Manfred met Oswald Boelcke by accident on a train ride to a military base. Now, Boelcke is still considered the ‘father of the German fighter air force.’ By that time Boelcke was already somewhat famous due to four aerial victories. Following the meeting, Manfred decided he too wanted to fly a Fokker, instead of just being the gunner.

Contrary to popular belief Manfred wasn’t a natural talent at being a pilot. He failed his first two flying exams, crash-landing and flipping over his Fokker during the first attempt. But in his memoirs, he vividly describes how free he felt when flying, and how he could love nothing else. Often, Manfred referred to the battle in the skies as an… elevated form of hunting, which he loved when he was young. His flying style was rather conservative, refraining from aerial acrobatics, loopings and crazy maneuvers. He relied on his hunting instinct and his qualities as a gunner. 

When he finally passed his third exam, he was initially moved to the Western front. On this front, Manfred attained his second aerial victory, although it again wasn’t acknowledged. But the victory was published in a German newspaper, albeit without mentioning his name. He assembled a foster mount in front of his two-seater, which was primitive but it got the job done. He soon tried out this new setup, shooting down a Nieuport 21 fighter. Still, this too was not recognised. 

And when Manfred was sent to the Russian front for the third time by this point, he too would not receive any recognition for aerial victories. Although to be fair, there weren’t any to be had: the Russians didn’t use aircraft. Manfred spent some time flying as a bomber, not meeting any resistance in the sky. That was until Boelcke returned from time off in Turkey and swung by Manfred at the Russian front. By this time Boelcke was incredibly famous as a fighter ace. The man, only 24 by this point, enjoyed real celebrity status. He told Manfred about his plans to establish his own squadron, the Jagdstaffel 2, with young, talented pilots. Manfred happily accepts Boelcke’s invitation and starts his learning from one of the best German fighter pilots. 

In September 1916 the squadron flew over France when they came across a squadron of British bombers. A firefight ensued and Manfred managed to shoot down a bomber, killing the two men inside it. During this mission, all members of Boelcke’s squadron enjoy their first recognised aerial victory. Manfred did so as well, and 79 more would follow, making him the most successful fighter ace of the First World War.

Boelcke’s squadron was incredibly successful and thanks to diary entries by French and British pilots we know that the names Boelcke, and later von Richthofen, instilled fear in their pilots. Yet on October 28th 1916 Boelcke, the living legend died in a plane crash. Ironically, he wasn’t defeated in combat, but crashed into another German aircraft mid-flight. He was just 25 years old, and his entire squadron combined had attained as many aerial victories as Boelcke had on his own: forty. 

After Boelcke’s death, Manfred continued attaining victories and making a name for himself. One of his most famous moments was when he engaged in a dogfight with the Victoria Cross recipient, the British Lanoe George Hawker, the best British fighter ace at that moment. Manfred described him as the ‘British Boelcke’. Manfred flew an Albatros D.II and Hawker the older DH.2. He shot down his plane, not realising he just shot down the most feared British ace until he read it in the news. Manfred later wrote about it in his autobiography, describing their dogfight as a near theatrical piece, with Hawker and him making eye-contact at a certain point, and the British pilot smiling and waving at him briefly.

The Flying Circus

Manfred and members of Jasta 11

After 16 aerial victories, Manfred was awarded the Pour le Mérite, one of the highest military orders of the German Empire. That same month, it was January 1917, he was given the command of Jagdstaffel 11, the so-called “Red Pirates.” Under Manfred’s command, the squadron grew out to be one of the most feared German fighter squadrons. His men described him as an inspiring leader that motivated the men. It surely showed: all members of Jasta 11, as the squadron was called, became aces. Manfred was quite able to navigate the German bureaucracy and managed to get all his men new aircraft within a few weeks. This photograph shows the Jasta 11 with their Albatros D.III biplane fighter aircraft. 

Manfred’s red Fokker Dr. I

Around this time Manfred decided to paint his Albatros red, simply stating that one day he had the urge to paint it red and decided to follow through. It is where he got the name the ‘Red Baron.’ Half a year later Manfred received command of the Jagdgeschwader 1, composed of four Jastas, squadrons. Manfred commanded fifty planes and the other fighter pilots now too painted their aircraft in bright colours. Jagdgeschwader 1 became known as von Richthofen’s “Flying Circus.” In it many elite fighter aces served, among whom Manfred’s brother, Lothar. 

Before his last flight, Manfred was shot out of the sky twice. Both times he managed to crash-land and survive, however. He nearly died in the summer of 1917 after a battle in the skies of Flanders. After this, he had to recuperate for a while due to a pretty severe injury to his head. His tally, by this point, was 57. He wasn’t just going to wait out the war, and as soon as he could, he once again was flying above the battlefield, engaging in battle with enemy planes. Probably because he was back in the field (or sky), his head injury hadn’t healed and he eventually was forced to take leave, which he used to write his autobiography: Der rote Kampfflieger. It contains lots of detailed and personal accounts of aerial combat and his opinion of both allied and adversary pilots. 

On April 20th 1918, he attained his eightieth and last victory. He managed to down a Sopwith Camel of the Royal Flying Corps. One day later he was shot down himself, two months before his 26th birthday. That fateful day he chased another Sopwith Camel, flown by the inexperienced pilot Wilfred May. Canadian Captain Arthur Roy Brown commanded the squadron and too flew with May. When Manfred started to chase May, Brown, in turn, chased Manfred. The planes went incredibly low, nearly flying at the height of treetops. It is a hotly debated subject what happened during that chase. What is known is that besides Captain Brown, soldiers on the ground shot at Manfred’s aircraft as well and that he crashed down. 

The Royal Flying Corps credited Arthur Roy Brown for downing Manfred, but there is historical debate about where the fatal shot was fired from. There have been multiple investigations about who killed the Red Baron, but none proved conclusive. An autopsy concluded he died from a bullet through the chest. So although Brown received official credit, machine-gun fire from the ground is very likely to be the direct culprit. According to modern historians, it is very likely that the Red Baron was, in fact, killed by Australian anti-aircraft gunner Sergeant Cedric Popkin. 

Red Baron’s Funeral

Okay, so something that’s incredibly interesting is a neuropsychological analysis of the Red Baron, mostly surrounding his death. Because Manfred was known as a rational pilot, never taking unnecessary risks. It’s what made him so successful. Yet several studies claim that his last flight was incredibly risky, flying low and chasing someone while being chased himself. Some neuropsychologists claim that when Manfred sustained a head injury earlier, it actually affected his brain more than initially expected, and he changed as a person because of it. An injury to the frontal lobe of the brain is “often noticed by impulsive, antisocial behaviour and impeded judgement calls.” It’s something interesting to think about and consider. 

Ironically, on the day that von Richthofen’s remains were found, the German radio announced his 79th and 80th victory. The command over the Jagdgeschwader 1, or the Flying Circus, was taken over by Hauptmann Wilhelm Reinhard, who died in a flying incident. The last commander of the unit was Oberleutnant Hermann Göring… Yeah, that one. But… that’s a story for another time because that definitely deserves a video of its own.

Cultural significance

Von Richthofen still plays an important role in today’s culture. Nearly everyone has at least heard of the Red Baron. Legends and myths formed around him and his story, but even popular culture still embraces him. For example, Snoopy, the dog in the comic strip Peanuts, often imagines himself that he’s a pilot and fighting against the Red Baron. The American Rock Band, the Royal Guardsmen, even wrote a song about it: Snoopy vs the Red Baron, a song that peaked as number two on the Hot 100 in December 1966. 

In 2008 a movie about his life, named Der rote Baron was released. Although the film is fascinating and I certainly recommend you watch it, there are several historical inaccuracies. The Canadian captain Brown, for example, played an important role in his death but in the film, he is shot and taken prisoner. Another thing is Manfred having pacifist tendencies near the end of his life, which isn’t based on any credible evidence. Lastly, he supposedly had a fling with Käte Oltersdorf, his nurse when he was hospitalised, but aside from her caring for him as a nurse, nothing is known about the relationship. 

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The Dam Busters flooding Germany’s Ruhr Area: Operation Chastise (1943)

In 1943 the RAF Bomber Command, led by Air Marshal Arthur Harris, brought together pilots and aircrew to form 617 Squadron. This squadron was tasked with a single, crucial and daring attack, which had the potential to become a very spectacular success. Their task was to attack the heart of the German war industry, using a new, untested weapon: the so-called ‘bouncing bomb.’ With 19 Lancaster bombers, the squadron was sent on its way to put a considerable dent in the German industrial Ruhr area and its surrounding infrastructure.

The Dam Busters

By early 1943, Bomber Command’s strategic night offensive against Germany was stepping up a gear. One factor was the increase in production of four-engined Lancaster bombers equipped with increasingly sophisticated radio-navigation aids. Still, most of Bomber Command’s effort went into the ‘area bombing’ of Germany’s industrial cities rather than attacks on pinpoint targets.

However, there was a set of precise targets which Bomber Command had identified as vital to the German war effort. These were the water reservoirs supplying the Ruhr area, Germany’s main industrial region, with much of its water and electricity. Two dams were especially vital: those of the rivers Eder and Möhne. The surrounding German war industry relied on these dams and the hydroelectricity they generated. Bombing the industry itself had proven unsuccessful time and time again. Yet regular bombings of the dams didn’t damage them enough for it to make a significant impact.  

Wing Commander Guy Gibson (2nd from left) and King George VI (3rd) discussing the Dambuster Raid in May 1943

Initially, Air Marshal Harris didn’t have too much fate in the Lancaster bombers’ ability to destroy the German dams. The special squadron, designated 617, was formed in mid-March 1943 to carry out the attacks. This squadron was commanded by the 24-year-old Wing Commander Guy Gibson. Although relatively young, Gibson had already been prolifically decorated. He was one of the Bomber Command’s most experienced pilots, a meticulous planner and natural leader of men. In total the Squadron consisted of 133 men. And as mentioned it was quite the pioneering mission, because they were to use a new, untested weapon: the ‘bouncing bomb’, designed by Barnes Wallis. 

Wallis was one of Britain’s greatest aero-engineers. He designed the R100 airship and the Wellington bomber, both with geodetic airframes. He developed the bouncing bomb, initially to destroy the Ruhr dams. These bombs skipped over the water like a pebble can be made to skim over a pond. He tested the concept by catapulting marbles over water in a tin bath, firing projectiles across a lake and shooting small spheres along an indoor tank at his laboratory.

Practicing

Basically, the bomb – codenamed ‘Upkeep’ – was a massive depth charge armed with 3000 kg of Torpex. It was designed to hit the retaining wall of a dam and then sink nearly 10 metres below the surface before it exploded. In late 1942 a Wellington bomber, fitted with special rotating and release gear, carried out a series of tests with the prototype on the south coast near Weymouth. Five months later the RAF finally issued it. They modified it again because its initial wooden casing cracked when it made contact with the water. 

The 133 men of the 617 Squadron gathered at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire. They were a bit of a mixed bunch, ranging from veterans like the Australian low-flying expert Mickey Martin to relatively new pilots that flew just a few operations. Aside from British pilots, there were 29 Canadians, 12 Australians, two New Zealanders and one American, the Flight Lieutenant Joe McCarthy. All of them had been hand-picked by Gibson for the secret operation. When they arrived at the airbase, they realised their Lancaster’s bomb bays were heavily modified, the first big giveaway that they weren’t recruited for an ordinary mission.

The bomb mounted under Gibson’s Lancaster B III

The subsequent training of the Squadron involved a punishing routine of low-level flying and bombing exercises. There was a lot of focus on precision bombing. Wallis had informed Gibson that the attack would occur at no more than 45 metres above water – which later during the training was lowered to just 20 metres, with the bombs having to be precisely released 389 metres away from their target. Two angled spotlights were fitted to the Lancaster’s nose and rear fuselage to judge the height over water. The beams were designed so that they coincided with the surface of the reservoir when the aircraft flew at the right altitude. The pilot had a V-shaped wooden device, with two nails at the ends of its arms to coincide with the towers and the end of the dam, to judge when to release the bombs. It all seemed a little primitive, but it might have just been crazy enough to work.

Meanwhile, Wallis and his team were still working hard to perfect the design of the bomb. In May the Squadron used full-sized practice bombs to attack canvas towers, and then suddenly things progressed very rapidly. The last exercise happened on May 14th, and the next day Gibson received orders that the mission, Operation Chastise, would commence the next afternoon, May 16th.

The Mission

Bomber Command picked its targets: six dams. Gibson was to lead the main contingent, consisting of three formations of three aircraft to attack both the Eder and Möhne dams. If the mission went well and there were bombs leftover, these would be dropped at the Sorpe. The second wave consisted of five aircraft, attacking the Sorpe. And the third wave, another five aircraft, flew as a reserve, taking off two hours after the first wave, to be directed against any of the main targets or three other dams: the Lister, Diemel and Ennepe. To evade German air defences, the Lancasters had to fly below 150 metres throughout the entire mission.

At 8:30 pm on May 16th, the first contingent took off from Scampton, led by Gibson. They flew into the Ruhr at tree-top height. Before they dropped their first bomb, the pilots already encountered their initial difficulties. The Lancaster flown by Flight Lieutenant Bill Astell flew into a high voltage cable and crashed into a field. Gibson’s Lancaster was the first to attack the Möhne dam shortly after midnight. Flying through heavy anti-aircraft fire, he dropped his bomb slightly off target. It burst on the reservoir bank just to the left of the huge dam. Gibson was followed by the second Lancaster, flown by Flight Lieutenant Hopgood. He dropped his bomb too late. The bomb bounced over the dam and wrecked the power station behind it. Hopgood’s Lancaster was severely damaged by anti-aircraft fire and after another five kilometres it exploded mid-air and went down in flames. Before the mission, Hopgood predicted he wouldn’t survive the assault, a prophecy that eerily enough came true.

Eder Dam

The third bomb missed the Möhne dam altogether, but the fourth and fifth hit their target the way they were supposed to. The explosions blasted an opening in the dam and water immediately started pouring through the gap. Upon realising the target was hit Gibson transmitted the codeword for success, the name of his black labrador which so happened to have been killed earlier that day. He guided the three remaining aircraft with bombs to the Eder, while the others headed home.

The first two planes that were meant to bomb the Eder dam missed. The third bouncing bomb, however, managed to create a massive hole in it. Water immediately started pouring through. The flood ended up killing 1294 people, including a lot of Allied prisoners of war held in the area. Having lost two planes and punching two holes in the dams, the pilots considered the initial part of their mission a success.

The Möhne Dam following the attacks

The second wave attacking the Sorpe, bumped into early trouble. Soon after they embarked on their mission, two Lancasters already had to return. Anti-aircraft guns shot down another and a fourth crashed after hitting a power cable. Only one Lancaster, the T for Tommy, piloted by the American McCarthy, reached the Sorpe dam. This dam had sloping earth sides, in contrast to the easier bombable other dams. McCarthy had to fly lengthways across the crest of the dam to drop his bomb directly on top of it.

The approach to the Sorpe, sliding over a hillside village, was so complicated that it took McCarthy ten tries before he finally released his bomb. It hit the top of the dam but didn’t breach it – and there were no other Lancasters to follow up anymore. This meant the reserve group, who had lost two Lancasters already due to anti-aircraft fire and a third that had to return, to try and bomb the Sorpe. The first bomb dropped on it, similar to that of McCarthy, didn’t crack open the top of the dam. The second Lancaster didn’t even try it and attacked one of the secondary targets, the Ennepe. This attack too failed. This Lancaster was the last one to return to base at 6:15 AM, over nine hours after the initial wave of Lancasters took off.

Another angle of the Möhne dam

Upon return there was a debriefing with Air Marshal Harris and Barnes Wallis. In all, eight of the 19 Lancasters had been lost during the operation. It led to 56 casualties, and by the end of the war it became clear only three survived as POWs. Immediately following the mission, Gibson was awarded a Victoria Cross, and many men that participated too received medals. The Dam Busters’ Raid has assumed legendary status, and at the time gave an enormous morale boost to the British and Allied powers as a whole.

So it begs the question, since the mission is perhaps one of the most well-known missions of the Second World War: how successful was it? In the Ruhr area, water output was restored within five weeks, and the Germans had offset the loss of electricity generating power by diverting supplies from elsewhere. But, the destruction of farmland, mines, bridges and machinery, so basically the destruction of the surrounding infrastructure due to the dams busting, diverted a considerable amount of Germany’s already overstretched manpower resources to the clean-up operation. 

After this baptism of fire Gibson’s 617 Squadron went on to perform many more precision-bombing operations. This included the attack which sank the battleship Tirpitz in November 1944. The squadron lived on after the war and, in the 1980s, 617 became the RAF’s first Tornado squadron, referring to the twelve Panavia Tornado GR1s the squadron was re-equipped with. 

After this operation, Wallis’s bouncing bomb was never used again. Yet he did go on to design the Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs. These were used by 617 Squadron to destroy German railway viaducts and concrete-roofed U-boat pens. Following the Second World War, Wallis pioneered swing wings for supersonic aircraft. He passed away in 1977 at the age of 92, working on a revolutionary new airliner which could supposedly fly halfway around the world in just four hours.

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The Sad Life and Crazy Anatomy of Charles II, King of Spain

Nowadays people, at least in the Western world, tend to marry when they are in love and do so on an unpressured basis. Throughout history it hasn’t always been like that and although marriage was seen as a tool to increase, or preserve wealth and power, it was often brought to extremes by powerful dynasties. One of the most powerful and influential families of European history was the House of Habsburg. As a matter of fact, the House is the embodiment of what can happen if you properly play your marriage politics. The house’s power expansion started with a Swiss count, only to end up ruling over seven countries as monarchs. This was achieved by practicing cunning and practical marriage politics and always marrying up the ‘power-ladder’.

But this is also where we get to the issue of the whole situation. Perhaps some of you have already thought of this – but within a few generations of upward-mobility-marriage… well… who are you going to marry? If your family is the embodiment of power in Europe and no other family can even compete, then any marriage with other royal families will only net you losing control. And if, for example, your children marry into another family, why would the other family not practice the same marriage-politics that you practised to get on top and erode your power-base? And, well, yeah. You guessed it. The Habsburgs did what other royal families had figured out as well: they decided to marry each other to maintain their power base. And for multiple generations Habsburgs married their first- or second cousins. The thing is, nature has a system to prevent this type of inbreeding. And within several generations, the Habsburgs started to experience the effects of marrying within their bloodline.

Inbreeding tends to have some very disturbing genetic effects on offspring, and multiple generations of Habsburgs already suffered from this. But the man that really got the worst end of the stick and was more or less the embodiment of the effects was Charles II, King of Spain. Now as for Habsburg influence in Spain, due to a fortunate chain of events since the early 16th century, the Swiss Habsburgs provided its king. And the Spanish Habsburg line was notorious for their inbreeding. They frequently married close relatives such as uncle-niece, first cousins and if you look at their family tree, you will see that it often loops back into itself. Charles’ father, Philip IV and his mother, Marianna were uncle and niece, and their grandparents, Charles’ great-grandparents, were all descendants of the same 2 people: Joanna and Philip of Castille. 

Charles II, 1661-1700

So, well, it is quite the understatement to say Charles had some inferior genes. This section of a biography sums it up quite well: 

The Habsburg King Carlos II of Spain was sadly degenerated with an enormous misshapen head. His Habsburg jaw stood so much out that his two rows of teeth could not meet; he was unable to chew. His tongue was so large that he was barely able to speak. His intellect was similarly disabled. His brief life consisted chiefly of a passage from prolonged infancy to premature senility. Carlos’ family was anxious only to prolong his days and thought little about his education, so that he could barely read or write. He had been fed by wet nurses until the age of 5 or 6 and was not allowed to walk until almost fully grown. Even then, he was unable to walk properly, because his legs would not support him and he fell several times. His body remained that of an invalid child. The nature of his upbringing, the inadequacy of his education, the stiff etiquette of his court, his dependence upon his mother and his superstition helped to create a mentally retarded and hypersensitive monarch.

It’s an incredibly sad description but the paintings of Charles really do show a man that isn’t entirely… 100%. He had the traditional Habsburg features such as the long jaw, flattened face and turned-down nose, but all these features were brought to the extreme in his being.

When Charles was 4 years old his father passed away and he became King. Obviously he couldn’t rule himself, certainly not at that age, so his mother became his regent. Due to his weak body and mind his tutors thought it irresponsible to educate him, so the boy wasn’t properly educated at all. It was terrible to the degree that he wasn’t even taught to keep himself clean, and he became notorious for his lack of hygiene. Contemporary descriptions state his stench was unbearable and his hair was unwashed. He walked around in a state of permanent filth. And as he grew older his underbite got worse, and he couldn’t even chew any food, not to mention the drooling.

Mother and Regent Mariana of Austria

As Charles turned 14 he could now legally rule the Kingdom by himself, but obviously he was in no capacity to do so. His mother, the queen-regent, continued her regency, something that didn’t sit well with the only son out of wedlock Charles’ father had recognised, John of Austria the Younger. With ever-increasing tensions at court and rising debt of the Habsburg crown, John launched a palace coup against the queen-regent in 1677. He now took control of the country, but ‘setting things straight’ proved much more complicated than he had probably expected.

To begin with, Spain had many overseas colonies, but the gold and silver flowing in from the new world led to reckless spending and thus rapid inflation, rendering Spanish currency devalued. Furthermore, the domestic political infrastructure was chaotic. Spain was nothing more than a patchwork of barons and counts, a bit like the Holy Roman Empire. Now, perhaps John could have made progress in this department, was it not for him dying two years after taking power. Charles wasn’t up to the task to rule so a marriage was arranged for him. He married the French Marie Louise D’Orléans. Now, the girl was appalled at the thought of marrying him and is said to have spent most of the time weeping. A very long sad story short: the marriage remained childless and due to strict Spanish court customs and the mental infirmity of Charles, Marie remained a very lonely and depressed woman. That is not to say Charles didn’t love her, because he certainly did and throughout the entire marriage he would. 10 years after the wedding, in 1689, the depressed Marie fell off a horse and passed away.

Marie Louise D’Orléans, Charles’ first wife

Charles and Marie’s marriage remained childless, however, so another wedding was arranged. After all, a successor to the throne was necessary. Charles now married the pro-Austrian Maria Anna of Neuburg. Still, this marriage too remained childless with many concluding that Charles must be infertile. The last decades of Charles’ life were subject to constant war with France over Spanish possessions in the Netherlands and court intrigues between pro-Austrian and pro-French factions. And over the years Charles’ health deteriorated. Contemporaries had expected Charles to die very young, but to many surprise he managed to survive his 20s. Yet by 35 it was apparent his already minimal physical and mental capabilities were deteriorating.

The last years of his life were marked by ‘acts of madness’. He died at the age of 39. Following his death, a doctor performed an autopsy on him and he found the following:

the king’s body, “Did not contain a single drop of blood; his heart was the size of a peppercorn; his lungs corroded; his intestines rotten and gangrenous; he had a single testicle, black as coal, and his head was full of water.”

It is the incredibly sad life story of Charles II, the unfortunate product of the Habsburg mission to try and keep power within their family. Ironically, because of Charles’ disabilities, following his death the War of the Spanish Succession broke out. Charles had named Philip, the grandson of the French King, as his successor. This would establish a massive power base for the French in south-western Europe, leading to the Netherlands, England and the Holy Roman Empire to wage war against Bourbon Spain and France. In essence, Charles’ death led to the decline and removal of Habsburgs ruling over Spain. 

Oh and as for Charles second wife, Maria Anna, she was exiled to Toledo after his death. She was deported to France in 1706 and lived there until 1739. She died in 1740, one year after returning to, and living quietly in Spain. Basically the life story of Charles is a sombre one and only has losing sides for those directly involved. Not to mention the shocking anatomy of the man.

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The Spectacular Capture of Fort Eben-Emael (Belgium, 1940)

On May 10th, 1940, Adolf Hitler launched Fall Gelb, the invasion of the Low Countries and France. This Blitzkrieg was meant to overpower the Netherlands, Belgium and France in a surprise attack, preventing their military from properly responding. The Belgian village Eben-Emael lies in the province of Luik, not far away from the Dutch border. Nearby this village lies the similarly named fortress. Completed in 1935, its goal was to guard the vital bridges at the junction of two crucial waterways: the Albert Canal and Maas River. Fortress Eben Emael was the stronghold that both the Germans targeted for capture, and the Belgians and French counted on to resist a German assault… The thing is, the German plan to capture the fortress relied on the use of Fallschirmjäger, or paratroopers. This new elite unit of soldiers dropped from gliders and had to wreak havoc behind enemy lines.

Map of Fort Eben-Emael

Yet when the unit that was meant to capture the fortress, Sturmgruppe Granit, started training, nobody had any idea what their mission or target was… for months. And the unit itself consisted of just 85 Fallschirmjäger, so any rumours that they were to capture the best-defended fortress of Belgium, manned by 1200 Belgian soldiers… well, it would be quite rich if that really was the case, considering they would be outnumbered 14:1… Yet that was the case, and the battle of Fort Eben Emael was one of the most spectacular missions of that fateful day Germany launched its offensive towards its Western neighbours.

Fort Eben Emael

The Maginot-line was a line of concrete fortifications, obstacles and weapon installations with the goal to prevent and fight off a German invasion into France. And Eben Emael, part of this line, was considered the pinnacle of an impregnable fortress ready to fend off the Germans. Now, this wasn’t just the opinion of the general public. The Belgian high command several times stated, confidently, nobody would be able to capture the fortress. 

Construction of the fort started in 1932 following the disastrous experience of Belgium during the First World War, unable to repel the Germans that used the region to invade. The fort was located on a hill, with a triangular shape and a surface of around 800 by 900 metres. On its northeast was a slope that went down 37 steep meters into the Albert Canal. If troops were to try and climb this, two mounted 120mm guns and six 75mm guns were sure to deter any such actions. In addition, the road leading up to the fortress was protected by multiple anti-tank and machine-guns and a large anti-tank ditch. And honestly, the opinion of the Belgian high command that the fortress was impenetrable can be understood very well. In total, the entire fortress had 64 strongpoints, all situated on different layers of height and known to be able to sustain prolonged artillery barrages. Multiple domes on top of the fort housed machine gun nests. 

A retractable dome

The outside of the fortress was protected by barbed wire fences and obstacles, making an assault by soldiers on foot near impossible. If somehow special forces would manage to protrude the barbed wire, they were sure to be halted by the extensive minefields around the fortress, or the machine gun fire picking them off on the killing fields. The Albert Canal itself was defended by the Belgian 7th infantry division, around 16.500 men commanded by General Eugène van Trooyen. 

The inside of the fortress housed a garrison of 1200-odd men, two groups of 500 artillerymen and 200 military personnel. Belgian Major Jean Jottrand commanded the garrison and the defences of the fortress. The barracks of these men were located 45 metres underground, to be able to sustain aerial assaults and artillery bombardments. Yet these aerial assaults the underground location of the barracks was built for, was the known weakness of the fortress as well. Because a shortage of anti-aircraft guns manned the fortress, and once the initial layer of defence would be broken there were no boobytraps or mines to prevent a hostile takeover. But then again, the command figured, nobody would be able to get through the defences to reach the inner layers of the fortress.

Preparing the Assault

Well. After the Second World War broke out and Germany was planning the invasion of France and the low countries, Major-General of the Luftwaffe, Kurt Student, noticed exactly this weakness of the fortress. Memos written to Adolf Hitler about the assault show that he considered the top of the fortress a near-ideal landing ground. If the machine-gun fire was to be survived, gliders could simply land inside the fortress. Hitler agreed, and the planning of the capture of Eben Emael, the impenetrable Belgian fortress, was set in motion. The reason why the fort was so important for the Germans was that they wanted to capture the bridges over the Albert Canal intact, in order to ensure a rapid advance of their Panzer divisions.

Albert Canal seen from a machine-gun position

The group tasked with the capture of the fortress was Sturmgruppe Granit, or Assault Group Granite, part of Sturmabteilung Koch of the 7th Fliegerdivision. Other units of Sturmabteilung Koch received different names and objectives for the mission. Sturmgruppe Stahl, with 92 men, had to capture the Veldwezelt bridge and Sturmgruppe Beton, consisting of 134 men (among them Captain Koch) had to capture the Vroenhoven bridge. In order to secure the bridges the 6th army under command of General Walter von Reichenau launched an assault to capture them at the same time as the capture of Eben Emael and the Fallschirmjäger assault. 

As for Sturmgruppe Granit, tasked with capturing the fort, it consisted of 85 highly trained soldiers. And although it was decided in late 1939 they would take over the fortress, the men themselves didn’t know it. When they were shipped off for training in secret at Hildesheim, a city in Lower Saxony, nobody knew exactly what they were to train for. In addition the commanders of the Sturmgruppe forbid any social interaction with other German soldiers or even leave. From November 1939 to late April 1940 the men trained with scale models and field exercises in Sudetenland. They realised it must be a fortress of sorts to be captured, but still, they were kept in the dark. Until early May 1940. Walter Koch, commander of the Fallschirmjäger, briefed the elite unit of paratroopers about their mission and the vital importance of it. 

On May 10th 1940, at 3:30 am, surrounded in complete darkness, the Sturmgruppe Granit embarked on their mission. They took off from the airfield at Cologne-Ostheim, with 11 DFS-230 transport gliders carrying the paratroopers. DFS gliders were capable of carrying nearly 300 kilos of freight in addition to up to nine paratroopers. These gliders were towed by Junkers Ju52, transport aircraft. When released at a height of two kilometres, the gliders could float for another twenty kilometres, although during this floating stage it remained vulnerable to ground fire. 

A German DFS-230 glider

Now, I want to emphasize that this mission was a groundbreaking mission. Elsewhere, that same day paratroopers also dropped into The Hague and elsewhere in the Netherlands as the Germans launched their invasion of the low countries. Paratroopers were a new phenomenon and had been used earlier, during the German invasion of both Poland and Norway, but never to this extent, and never with a role this crucial. This mission quite literally was cutting-edge and carefully planned.  

And a lot was counting on these men. There were only 85 paratroopers, which had to take the heavily fortified fortress manned by 1200 Belgian soldiers. The paratroopers were armed to the teeth but it wasn’t their rifles or guns that were the weapons they counted on. With them they carried 48 shaped charges, an explosive charge shaped to focus the energy of the blast in a certain direction. These types of explosives were ideal to penetrate the defences of the fortress and blast holes in its armour. After all, the defenders had to be neutralised before full-scale combat could break out and before the Belgians could blow up the bridges over the Albert Canal. 

Although there were 11 gliders, two were lost due to the tows of the Junkers Ju52’s snapping, before they even reached the fortress. And to make matters worse for the Germans: in one of the gliders was Sturmgruppe’s Granit commander, Lieutenant Rudolf Witzig. One of the Junkers made an evasive manoeuvre which led to the cable breaking and Witzig’s glider floating off-course. He landed in a meadow nearby the River Rhine and had to call for another Junkers Ju52 to tow him back up. The second-in-command, Oberfeldwebel Helmut Wenzel, now led the attack on the fortress. Eventually, Witzig did arrive at Eben Emael, but two hours later, after the fighting had already begun.

Assault on Eben Emael

During the night of May 10th, 1940, the moon dimly illuminated the sky. The nine gliders flew on. When they were above Aachen, the Junkers removed the cables at a bit over two kilometres in altitude, and let the DFS-230s silently glide towards Eben Emael. Even though they were silent, the gliders were detected by anti-aircraft artillery. Now, sources vary on whether the gliders responded, but several writings state that as a distraction tactic, the first batch of paratroopers that were dropped… well… they weren’t exactly paratroopers. The Germans made dummy-paratroopers, sacks filled with hay wearing military clothes and stuffed with firecrackers. They let them loose above the Belgian artillery positions, with the firecrackers exploding. It caused quite some confusion among the Belgian defenders. 

Remains of a casemate of the fortress

Either way, even if this didn’t happen, at around 5:20 AM the gliders arrived at the fortress. Two of the nine gliders missed their target, but seven landed onto the fortress. Although the Belgian artillery had alerted the defenders in the surrounding area, the defenders of the fortress were completely taken by surprise. The seven remaining gliders dropped 55 paratroopers of Sturmgruppe Granit, under command of Wenzel, that were now to take on the much, much larger defending force of the fortress. According to witness accounts, Major Jean Jottrand, the Belgian commander, initially screamed orders at his troops. But when only a fraction of the machine gun domes started firing, because the Germans had already neutralised a considerable bunch, he became paralysed. He was isolated in his command post underground. And unable to properly coordinate his forces, suddenly he heard the loud bangs and vibration of explosives going off above ground.

Because above ground the German engineers were already using their shaped charges to blow up the steel domes that shielded the machine- and anti-tank guns. As the steel domes were blown up, the Belgian soldiers manning them were forced to flee into the underground labyrinth, away from the rapidly advancing German paratroopers. One of the weapons shaped charges were put on was the Canon de 120mm L mle 1931, an incredibly heavy field gun. It proved to be able to resist the shaped charges. Instead of blowing up the outer hull the paratroopers simply stuffed the barrel with explosives, which blew the artillery pieces out of service. Using flamethrowers and grenades, the Germans neutralised the bunkers and domes. It took less than twenty minutes, but the surface of the impenetrable fort Eben Emael was already in German hands.

Beneath the surface, Major Jottrand was frantically trying to contact field artillery in the vicinity of the fortress, in a last-ditch attempt to repel the Germans. But none of it proved fruitful, and nearly every minute he received unpleasant surprises, in the form of news that more strongpoints of the fortress had fallen. I think that the damage you’re seeing on this photograph conveys the damage shaped charges inflict pretty well. The tunnels started to fill with smoke and as the fighting progressed the lights went out. 

Bullet damage

Well over two hours after the battle had begun, Lieutenant Witzig finally arrived at Eben Emael. His glider landed on the fortress and he took over command, although admittedly all he could do was order his men to finish the job. The Belgian defenders of the fortress were demoralised and had been suffering brutal attacks for three hours, with their pillboxes and domes exploding and rendered inoperable. They were forced to hide far underground. In the nearby area the other groups, Stahl and Beton, landed around certain vital targets and by this point had nearly overtaken the bridges. 

That afternoon the nearby fortresses of Pontisse and Barchon started launching assaults on Eben Emael to attempt and repel the Germans. These had already taken over the bunkers and domes of the fortress, and weren’t too phased from the artillery shelling. The Belgian equipment wasn’t good enough to properly dent the fortresses defences anyway. There were several poorly executed infantry counter-attacks, such as the Belgian 2nd Grenadiers under command of Lieutenant Wagemans. It was a brave but pointless action, as both German Stukas and Germans within the fortress easily picked off the Belgian infantry. Reinforcements that arrived near the evening didn’t help one bit and by 8 PM the Belgian infantry had to retreat altogether.

Belgian soldiers surrendering

The German Lieutenant Witzig recalled that after night fell “after the hard fighting of the day, the detachment lay exhausted and parched, under scattered fire from the Belgian artillery and infantry outside the fortification; every burst of fire might have signalled the beginning of the counter-attack we expected and our nerves were tense. For the most part, however, the enemy lacked the will to fight.” During the night the Germans planted heavy explosives in northern shafts, rendering a counter-attack from inside the fortress near impossible. 

The enemy indeed did lack the will to fight. Yet it wasn’t until afternoon the next day that the Belgian commander Jottrand came out with a white flag hoisted. By that time Sturmgruppe Granit had been relieved by a detachment of the Sixth Army, specifically tasked with linking up with paratroopers behind enemy lines. The Sixth Army played a central role in the destruction of fortifications of several key strongholds, among which Eben Emael, but Liège and Namur as well. 

At any rate, the last Belgian defenders surrendered that afternoon. The impregnable, heavily fortified fortress Eben Emael had fallen. The propaganda value for the Germans was incredible: merely 55 paratroopers managed to force a 1200-strong garrison to surrender. In total Sturmgruppe Granit lost six men, with twenty wounded, whereas the Belgians lost around sixty. It proved the value of highly trained elite paratroopers, when deployed in situations they were equipped for. 

And to add to that: the capture of Eben Emael had not been possible if it wasn’t for using revolutionary methods of war by the Germans, in combination with the element of surprise and a tiny bit of luck. If Eben Emael was to be captured in a traditional way, with infantry assaults, the Germans would have suffered an immense amount of casualties. 

For his exploits Witzig was awarded the Knight’s Cross and promoted to the rank of Captain. Within thirty hours the Albert Canal line had been breached, the Allied plans of defence were in shambles and it would not take long for the Germans to capture Paris. In short, from a military perspective, it is perhaps one of the most spectacular airborne operations of the war. Although the Bruneval Raid by the Allies in February 1942 too is a fantastic example of the great use of paratroopers. If you’d like to know about that secret mission, Operation Biting, and how the Allies managed to raid and steal German radar technology, make sure you check that video out. It should be on-screen on an end-card shortly.

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German Submarines in the Pacific Ocean? The Forgotten Monsun Gruppe Wolfpack

On October 14th, 1939, during a raid on Scapa Flow by the U-47, a German submarine, the HMS Royal Oak was torpedoed and sunk. The captain of the German submarine, Günther Prien, was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Due to the success of this secret raid, the German Kriegsmarine realised the potential of U-boats and would eventually ramp up their production. Now, the Battle of the Atlantic is incredibly well-documented. For a good reason, by the way, as it is the most extended uninterrupted military campaign of the war. In total, between September 1939 and May 1945, the Germans lost 783 submarines, and the Italians lost 17. 

Something that is covered far less extensively, and isn’t necessarily as bloody, but is interesting nonetheless, is the special flotilla of U-boats the Kriegsmarine sent to the Indian Ocean and Pacific war theatre. This squadron, the so-called Monsun Gruppe, had to disrupt Allied shipping transports and maintain contact with the Japanese, the German allies on the other side of the world. Their base was located in Penang, on the Northwest Coast of Peninsular Malaya. Perhaps most interesting of all: although Japan and Germany were officially allied during the war, this was the only time both powers intensively collaborated.

Early Maritime Connections

During the initial stages of the war, there was some talk among Kriegsmarine admirals to send a flotilla of U-boats to the Indian Ocean. Although it would be an addition to have manpower there and disrupt Allied supply lines, nobody considered it a feasible mission. U-boats were challenging to resupply, the Germans didn’t exactly have an abundance of them, and there was an intensifying war waging in the North Atlantic Ocean. Because sending a squadron of U-boats to the Indian Ocean suffered so many logistical issues, commanders decided to hold off from doing so.

Erich Raeder (1876-1960)

Although there wasn’t very intensive contact between Japan and Germany, the communication they did have consisted of cargo boats transporting goods between the two powers. Japan suffered from notorious resource problems and a technological disadvantage compared to their main adversary, the United States. Meanwhile, the German war machine required resources available to Japan, such as tungsten, quinine and rubber. Regardless of the occasional cargo shipments, Germany and Japan never managed to establish a stable logistical naval connection. 

Of the 37 cargo ships that started the journey from German ports to Japan, 20 did not return. There was a tremendous risk on the route through the Atlantic Ocean, past the South African Cape of Good Hope, the Indian coastline and the war theatres over there. Following excessive losses, the German Admiral Erich Raeder decided to put to a stop any attempts to establish a naval connection with Japan.

This changed when on January 30th 1943, Admiral Karl Dönitz was appointed as Supreme Commander of the Navy, replacing Erich Raeder. Previously Dönitz was the senior submarine officer of the Kriegsmarine. His appointment could not have come at a better time regarding the plan to send a submarine squadron east and intensify naval relations with the Japanese, which by this point hadn’t really been considered seriously anymore. 

There were several upsides a base near the Pacific theatre would have for the Germans. Due to the losses both on land and sea Germany could benefit from an overseas port and supply line. Not to mention that due to Operation Barbarossa contact with their Japanese allies was hindered even further. And the Pacific theatre wasn’t too hindered by submarine warfare so that the Allied cargo convoys wouldn’t be protected to the degree they were in the Atlantic Ocean. Some surprise strikes by weaponised transport submarines could very well help the German war effort and would undoubtedly do more damage than it would in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Maritime Route (source)

Dönitz considered using submarines for transport to and from Japan, using their stealth to evade Allied squadrons on their way. Initially, this idea was given the green light, but due to heavy losses of submarines in subsequent battles in the North Atlantic Ocean, the plan was put on hold. By this point, the tide of war turned against Germany, both on land as the Germans lost the Battle of Stalingrad by February 1943, but also on the sea, with the Kriegsmarine losing dozens of submarines every month. In turn, German commanders decided it would be foolish to use their valuable submarines for transport. But that is not to say they gave up the plan of using submarines for transport. Instead, they appealed to their Allies, the Italians. According to Dönitz Italian submarines weren’t made for modern warfare anyway. A pretty telling statement about the German-Italian alliance during the war. 

It was during that time Japan requested two German submarines so they could study them and use their design to improve their own submarines. Toying with the idea of using Italian submarines for transport and German submarines to hinder Allied convoys in, and near the Pacific, the Kriegsmarine decided to send two submarines: the U-511 and U-178.

The crew of these submarines were tasked with establishing an operational submarine base on Penang, an island northwest of the Malay Peninsula. Previously the island was used as a seaplane base by the British, but early on in the war the Japanese captured the area and established an operational base for their fleet. 

The RO-500 with Japanese flag

As for the U-511, it set sail to Penang in May 1943. It arrived earlier at Penang than its counterpart, the U-178. It was given to the Japanese to study and inspect its design. It was renamed to RO-500, the photograp above is of the submarine with a Japanese flag on it. As for its crew, it remained in Penang to replenish the ranks of the submarines that would undoubtedly arrive at any time. And they would. Three weeks later, the U-178 arrived. This U-boat had initially been patrolling the Mozambique Channel between Gibraltar and Mozambique. During this mission its commander, Wilhelm Dommes, received orders to sail to Penang, to establish a base there. Once the base was established, Dommes would become the commander of the entire Asian squadron of German U-boats. It was on August 27th they arrived at Penang. And several more U-boats were already on their way. 

The Monsun Gruppe

Although the two U-boats didn’t arrive until August 1943, by June the command of the Kriegsmarine already decided upon increasing the presence of U-boats in Asia. The first batch of 11 U-boats would form the core of the so-called Monsun Gruppe. Its name refers to the Monsoon season, during which the U-boat campaign should start in the region. Yet it was a maritime route full of dangers and hardships for the U-boats. And although all 11 were Type IX submarines, designed for operations far from home, even for them a voyage past the tip of Africa and through the Indian Ocean was a challenge. Among these subs was the U-200, a Type IX D2. Among its crew were several soldiers of the famous Brandenburger division, special sabotage units I have created a separate video about. Their mission was to land in South Africa and sway the Boers to pick up arms against the British. Yet the submarine didn’t come that far, and near the coast of Iceland, it was sunk by depth charges from a British Liberator plane. Eventually, of the 11, only five U-boats ended up reaching the peninsula. The rest were sunk during their voyage.

Mid-ocean replenishment

A pretty telling example of how difficult it was to reach the peninsula and traverse the hostile areas in the ocean, is the example of the replenishment submarines that accompanied the wolfpack. Initially, the U-462, fitted to transport cargo, had a tough time in its attempt to reach the peninsula. It was severely damaged by Mosquito aircraft in the Bay of Biscay. Following repairs, it was attacked near the Spanish coast by a British B-24 Liberator. The repairs from this attack took a month and the submarine wasn’t able to rejoin the wolfpack sailing to the Malayan peninsula. Once repaired in late July, it didn’t have any more luck. A British Halifax bomber definitively sank it. In response to the U-462 not being able to join the wolfpack, the Kriegsmarine sent the replenishment U-boat U-487. In early July this submarine was sunk, by chance, in the central Atlantic by U.S. Avengers and Wildcats before ever reaching the group. 

Right, so only five boats reached the Penang base in November, where the U-178 welcomed them. These five remaining U-boats formed the core of the Monsun Gruppe, but weren’t operational yet. All of them had to be repaired following the nightmarish journey. That brings us to the central problem the Monsun Gruppe faced once they arrived: repairs. The total average downtime of a U-boat upon arrival was 50 days. The German crew weren’t well-versed in Japanese culture, and cooperation wasn’t exactly easy. The Japanese refused to work for white men, for example, so in practice the German crew had to fix their U-boats on their own. The language barrier caused problems as well. One of the funniest anecdotes I came across was when the Germans showed Japanese locals a broken copper screw which they required for a pump. The Japanese started the production of a batch of screws, but once finished they delivered an entire batch of broken-off screws. They had simply recreated the faulty one. 

When the U-boats finally were made operational, their success in combat wasn’t great either. In total they managed to sink six Allied cargo ships and six dhows, a more traditional sailing vessel. Meanwhile, of these subs only two would see the end of the war. All in all, their deployment was insanely costly and barely yielded results.

Sinking of the U-848 on its way to join the Monsun Gruppe

During late 1943 five more submarines started their journey to Penang as an addition to the Monsun Gruppe. Of these five, just one, the U-510 arrived in April 1944. The other four were sunk. Due to limited capacity, as this map perfectly shows, the German U-boats that eventually arrived often used other bases in the region. There were small bases around Jakarta and Surabaya. These too were mainly operated by Japanese shipyard workers, in turn producing the same problems. Of 23 subsequent U-boats that set sail to Penang from the European theatre, only nine made it. As for the Italian submarines, the story isn’t much better. Seven submarines were sent in total. One of them, the Ammiraglio Cagni, learned of the Italian armistice and surrendered at South Africa. Two others disappeared into the ocean, the Bagnolini sunk off the Cape of Good Hope and another managed to reach Penang, but upon its return, it was torpedoed and sunk. The Commandante Cappellini and Torelli did arrive at Penang and served the Germans for as long as the war continued. 

The Comandante Cappellini

End of the War

From early 1944 onwards the Germans focused more on transporting materials from Asia to Germany than missions against Allied cargo convoys. Actually, the only real combat victory in the Pacific theatre of the entire mission was by the U-862, commanded by captain Heinrich Timm. This submarine torpedoed and sank the American SS Robert J Walker. This was the only German U-boat that sank an Allied ship in the Pacific Ocean. There were other successes around the Indian Ocean, however. Aside from the six vessels and six dhows sunk by the initial submarines, in total the submarines that did make it to the Asian bases and were redeployed on a mission, sunk 33 ships. Still, considering the losses, this wasn’t a great victory ratio. As for the transport submarines, it was even worse. Of the 24 merely two safely returned to Europe to deliver quinine and rubber. Four others didn’t turn up until Germany had already surrendered. So you could say the entire endeavour was insanely costly and barely effective for the Germans.

There were several reasons why the Monsun Wolfpack wasn’t a success. The Allies had cracked the enigma code, rendering U-boats far less useless. And the Allies became aware of German submarines in Asia, so they naturally upped the protection of cargo convoys. I already touched upon the problematic repairs and there was a severe shortage of materials which became increasingly worse as the war progressed. And the fact Germany was losing ground in the European theatre rendered a large chunk of the commanders of the Wolfpack guessing what their next action should be. Towards the end of the war the U-boats received the order to return to the Atlantic Ocean and join the war effort there. During their return journey, many of them were picked off by Allied torpedo boats and Allied warplanes. 

When Germany surrendered on May 8th 1945, only six submarines, including crew, were leftover in Asia. The Japanese Imperial Navy took over command, and their war would last for several more months. The German crew that stayed behind and continued training Japanese submarine crews, as they had done for the past months. The Japanese navy now integrated the remaining submarines into their navy. Two Italian-turned-German submarines and four actual U-boats were designated with the I-suffix. Of these, the I-506 wasn’t even used during these months due to a shortage of Japanese crewmen. Two other submarines merely went on short training missions, but saw no combat. The Italian submarines were never used either – so as you can tell, they met a pretty uneventful fate. 

When Japan officially surrendered following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese scuttled the Italian submarines which at this point were stationed at Kobe. In total, 41 German submarines left for Asia, and only six ended up safely returning to Europe. Even those that safely returned were scuttled following the war because they weren’t deemed seaworthy anymore.  After Japan’s surrender, British soldiers captured and arrested the Germans remaining in Penang. Captain Dommes was released two years later in 1947 and lived until 1990. That goes for most of the crew: most of them didn’t receive any severe punishment. Well, except for one man. 

In early 1944 the Captain of the U-852, Captain Heinz-Wilhelm Eck ran into the Greek ship Peleus. Reasoning he was on a secret mission, he torpedoed the ship and had all merchantmen killed. Following the war he was put on trial, convicted of war crimes and executed. His case was the only case of U-boat personnel convicted of such acts, only to be executed thereafter.

 To summarise I think it’s safe to say that the Monsun Gruppe and German attempts to

establish a submarine base in Malaya was an utter failure. Partly because they were victims of circumstance, but also because it was a mission that faced so many logistical difficulties before it had even started that it’s odd the Kriegsmarine continued with it anyway. 

Sources:

Worthen, Dennis B. "The national quinine pool: when quinine went to war." Pharmacy in history 38, no. 3 (1996): 143-147.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/336512319_Gruppe_Monsun_-_The_U-Boat_operations_in_the_Indian_and_Pacific_Oceans_during_World_War_II
http://www.uboataces.com/articles-fareast-boats4.shtml
https://uboat.net/ops/monsun.htm
https://uboat.net/allies/merchants/ship/3400.html
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What Happened to the Ghost Ship SS Ourang Medan?

In early February 1948, a strange and urgent Morse-code SOS, three dots, three dashes and three dots again, came from a Dutch cargo ship, the S.S. Ourang Medan that sailed through the Strait of Malacca. This strait was a much-used passage between the island of Dutch-governed Sumatra, Indonesia and British Malaya. Allegedly, in its vicinity Dutch and British listening posts and the U.S. vessel, Silver Star received the distress messages. The timing of the distress signal was curious, for the “sea was calm and the weather clear.” 

The Morse-code distress call came in once again. But, as a report about the event recalls, after a brief pause, a string of dots and lines were sent that shocked the stations receiving them. When deciphered, they spelt: “… All officers, including Captain dead, lying in the chartroom and on Bridge ….  Probably whole crew dead…” A series of frenzied gibberish dots and lines followed, before the closing message came in, simply stating “I die.” And then nothing more. Upon investigation of the ship, indeed, the entire crew was found deceased, supposedly with shocked expressions on their face. But the rescue parties could not identify anything that could have caused it. The mystery of the S.S. Ourang Medan became one of the greatest mysteries in nautical history, and to this day there has been no conclusive answer to what happened… or if it even happened.

The Incident

Now, I want to preface that this mystery and its documentation are shrouded in mysteries itself. But official CIA files declassified under the Freedom of Information Act show that even if the event didn’t happen, the CIA did acknowledge its rumours by replying, instead of dismissing letters asking about it. Okay, so what supposedly did happen? I’m going to go with one of the declassified letters sent to the CIA on December 5th, 1959, which was declassified by the CIA in 2003. 

The letter the CIA received, page 1

So, listening posts and nearby ships received the distress calls from the S.S. Ourang Medan. Following the strange distress calls a rescue mission was set up. Rescue ships from Dutch Sumatra and British Malaya quickly embarked on their search for the troubled vessel. One of the ships found the vessel, about 80 kilometres away from where they pinpointed it from the messages. Some sources stated the U.S. Ship Silver Star was closest, and reached the Ourang Medan as it lay motionless in the water. Other sources make a note of an unnamed ship investigating. The vessel circled the Ourang Medan multiple times, but could find no movement on-board and establishing contact seemed impossible. Its crew decided to board the ship. Using smaller boats, sailors went over to investigate the ship, laying still in the water. 

When the boarding party entered the Ourang Medan they stumbled upon a frightful scene. It was dead-silent, with the emphasis on the dead. The captain lay dead on the bridge, bodies of officers and sailors alike lay sprawled on deck and in the wheelhouse, chartroom and wardroom. Perhaps more shocking was what they found in the radio-shack. The party found the sailor that sent out the distress message. He was still sitting in his chair, slumped over the keys he used to send the distress signal. The men explored the rest of the ship and found bodies of the crew everywhere, from their cabins to the passageways and the engine compartment. Even the ship’s dog lay on board lifeless. Some reports state that although the weather was pleasantly warm and calm that day, the party that boarded the boat, reported it was considerably colder on deck.

A 1952 copy of the “Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council”, published by the United States Coast Guard, written four years after the incident, describes the state the dead sailors on the ship were in: “Their frozen faces were upturned to the sun, the mouths were gaping open and the eyes staring… the dead bodies resembled horrible caricatures. Yet the bodies seemed to bear no sign of injury or wounds.” And that is quite weird, because, well, other reports reiterate that there was no damage found on the ship nor any injuries on the crew. Due to the absence of superficial damage to the ship, it excluded a rogue submarine attack or a collision with something as a cause.

The letter the CIA received, page 2

The boarding party returned to their ship and decided the logical course of action was to tow the vessel to the nearest port and investigate the matter. But there wasn’t an extensive investigation. Upon assembling the tow, smoke emerged from a compartment of the ship below deck. Suddenly fire rapidly spread through the entire ship, making it impossible to extinguish.

The boarding party managed to escape the fire, but as they sailed away to a safe distance, an incredibly loud explosion occurred on the Ourang Medan. Following this, the ship rapidly sank with its crew and potential evidence of their deaths. Nobody has been able to retrieve the remains of the vessel or its crew to this day.

Theories

Because of the strange nature of the case surrounding the Ourang Medan, people have suggested some mysterious ‘secret’ caused it. Theories range from carbon monoxide poisoning, to the illegal shipping of poisonous material that started leaking, to a supernatural force. For example, the letter sent to the CIA in 1959 suggests that “the tragedy holds the answer to many aeroplane accidents and unsolved mysteries of the sea.” The writer, C.H. Marck writes about fiery spheres noticed by ships crews and captains, disappearing into, or rising up from the sea during the 18th and 19th centuries.

He remarks how old English chronicles and ancient books mention these fiery spheres, such as Roman soldiers reporting these sights. It’s a bit of a large jump from the Ourang Medan and the general hypothesis to some mysterious fiery spheres. That’s probably what the assistant to Allen Dulles, Director of the CIA, thought when he sent a reply simply stating “they acknowledge and thank” Marck for his letter and “although unable to answer” his questions, they think it’s “interesting and appreciate the concern in these matters.” In other words, they dismiss him in a profoundly polite way.

At first sight, a more likely course of events was that of the Ourang Medan smuggling illegal contraband, such as the explosive liquid nitroglycerine or sulphuric acid. It would also be somewhat of an explanation why the Ourang Medan didn’t appear in any shipping registers, or perhaps was removed from there. If it was a poisonous cargo-load that leaked during transit, perhaps the fumes killed off the entire crew. It could potentially explain the explosion as well, if the nitroglycerine leaked and had contact with its surroundings leading to an exothermic process. But if this was the case then the rescue party certainly didn’t notice any of it. 

Right, so carbon monoxide poisoning is another explanation. A simmering fire below deck could have emitted the poisonous gas slowly killing everyone on board. While this could also explain the fire and explosion, it is very unlikely for several reasons. To begin with, how is it possible the crew didn’t notice any smoke coming from below deck? It doesn’t explain the facial expressions or paleness of the bodies either. Generally, carbon monoxide poisoning is painless and causes a flushed face and red eyes. Not to mention that the crew above deck could not be poisoned by the carbon monoxide, as the gas flows away with enough ventilation. All in all none of the rational explanations seem satisfying… and perhaps that is because a very strong case can be made for the Ourang Medan tragedy never happening at all.

Missing details

Okay, so there are several details concerning the case that make it rather difficult to properly explain how the story reached the public and what might have happened to the ship and its crew. To begin at the beginning: the Dutch Cargo Vessel S.S. Ourang Medan wasn’t registered anywhere. I suppose you could say the S.S. Ourang Medan was a ghost ship before it became an actual ghost ship. 

There are some articles that claim the ship was registered in Sumatra, although none offer any credible registers. Not to mention that the Silver Star, although it did exist in 1948, was renamed the year before to SS Santa Cecilia and sailed mainly around Brazil, not the Pacific. Yet I suppose this could be explained if the Ourang Medan was used to smuggle contraband. If that was the case perhaps someone with influence simply ensured the ship was removed from registers to prevent a real investigation.

But another curious inconsistency in the story is about the date the Ourang Medan was discovered, but also about the date that it was published about. The letter to the CIA said it happened in February 1948. And Estelle, an author from the Skittish Library, really did the research on this one. She dug up every news article she could find, in various languages, documenting the dates the Ourang Medan popped up in articles. And that’s where the timeline gets very weird. So the Marine report I cited to describe the state of the crew on deck was published in 1952. Yet a British newspaper, the Yorkshire Evening Post, published about the Ourang Medan on November 21st 1940. That’s eight years before it supposedly happened. It’s the article on-screen right now. It detailed an eyewitness account by a merchant marine officer that supposedly was on the ship receiving the distress calls and was among the boarding party. The content of the distress call is different, but it’s certainly about the Ourang Medan. The location doesn’t exactly match up either: it reports that the ship was discovered to the south-east of the Solomon islands… way to the east of the Strait of Malacca.

Yorkshire Evening Post, November 21st, 1940.
The Daily Mirror, November 22nd, 1940.

The next day the Daily Mirror published their article about it. They write that the fire lasted for a day, before it finally sank the vessel. It published the firsthand account of this merchant marine officer just like the Yorkshire Evening Post. 

It took seven or eight years for the story to surface again. Between February 3rd and 28th 1948 the Dutch-Indonesian newspaper De Locomotief: Handels- en advertentieblad published multiple articles about the case. This story recollected the story of a U.S. ship receiving the distress message about the deceased crew, somewhere in June 1947 and locating the ship quite a bit to the south-east of the Marshall Islands. Now, the Marshall Islands are quite a long distance away from the Strait of Malacca, not to mention that there now are three different dates that the incident supposedly occurred on. 

But De Locomotief published another interesting detail: the source of the story. Because they didn’t have the 1952 Marine Report, obviously. The newspaper managed to interview a man that claimed he knew a missionary that spoke with a surviving German sailor of the Ourang Medan. After the tragedy, the sailor swam ashore on the Bokak atoll, where he told his story to a missionary on the island. This missionary reproduced the story to an Italian from Trieste, Silvio Scherli. According to Scherli, the ship was indeed smuggling sulphuric acid. When the fumes got out it overwhelmed the crew killing all of them. 

Article in De Locomotief

Two problems with this story, aside from the obvious reproduction of a story told to someone else. Firstly, the Bokak Atoll is uninhabited due to its lack of fresh water, so it is highly unlikely a missionary was present on the island. And secondly, although the 1948 article mentions Scherli by name, the 1940 English newspaper articles we discussed note that the story was written in Trieste, which happened to be Scherli’s hometown. And, well, Trieste is a beautiful city but it is on the other side of the world. It is nearly impossible two different witnesses reported it in that exact city. It is much more likely Scherli was behind both the 1940 and 1948 publications. There are some other inconsistencies between both stories of 1940 and 48. In 1940 a marine officer recalled the story, yet in 1948 it supposedly was recalled by a surviving crew member of the Ourang Medan.

The article in De Locomotief even emphasizes in closing that “they don’t have any other data on this mystery of the sea. The author, Silvio Scherli, assures them of the authenticity of the story.” In short, although it has been well over 80 years ago since this story was initially published in the newspaper, and over 60 years since the CIA acknowledged the case with a dismissive reply, any real credible answers are still missing. But it certainly makes for an interesting story, I’m sure you’ll agree. Thanks to the research on Skittish Library the earlier news articles surfaced. These support the notion that it is doubtful the Ourang Medan disaster happened. There are just too many inconsistencies that don’t add up. I’ll link the article in the description if you want to read some further about the event. 

But it wasn’t completely coincidental this happened around the Pacific area, because it definitely was an area for mysteries. Because to the south-east of the Marshall Islands lies Gardner Island. And this coral atoll supposedly is the final resting place of Amelia Earhart, who tragically disappeared in July 1937, as she was attempting to make a circumnavigational flight over the globe. I’ve created an entire video about that, if you’re interested.

Sources:

http://skittishlibrary.co.uk/the-myth-of-the-ourang-medan-ghost-ship-1940/
https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/cia-rdp80r01731r000300010043-5
https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP80B01676R003800130059-5.pdf
https://www.dulcet.nl/2017/01/23/ourang-medan-mysterie/
https://www.de173.com/the-ss-ourang-medan/
https://www.delpher.nl/nl/kranten/view?query=ourang+medan&coll=ddd&identifier=ddd:010862872:mpeg21:a0050&resultsidentifier=ddd:010862872:mpeg21:a0050

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The Origins of Santa Claus: A Christmas Special

When you think of Christmas, most think of Santa Claus. Although the legendary character Santa is part of Christmas, it hasn’t always been like that. In fact, Santa Claus is the product of the merging of European folklore, Christian, and pagan traditions. And even nowadays there is discussion whether he lives in Finland, Greenland, or somewhere on the Northpole. Yet to find out about the origins of Santa Claus, we must go much farther south, and much further back in time. 

So when, and how, did Santa become integral to the Christmas celebrations? And how is he portrayed in different cultures?

History of Santa Claus

Although Santa Claus originated in the United States during the late 18th century, he didn’t suddenly appear. In fact, the jolly white-bearded old man that we have come to know Santa as was inspired by several European folklore characters that were sometimes centuries older. 

One of these legendary characters is Sinterklaas and the eponymous celebration that is still ingrained in Dutch culture to this day. With the colonisation of the American continent, many Dutchmen reached the New World to build up a new life. These Dutchmen took with them their traditions, and one of the most iconic traditions in the Netherlands is Sinterklaas. That doesn’t mean Dutch people don’t celebrate Christmas, in fact, they celebrate both during December. It makes for a quite cosy, but expensive month. 

Sinterklaas

So what are the origin stories of Sinterklaas, and how did he become the inspiration for Santa Claus? Well, Sinterklaas originated in Medieval Northern Europe. The celebrations were based on Saint Nicholas, a Greek Bishop of Myra, present-day Turkey, that mainly lived during the 4th century. The name day of Saint Nicholas was on December 6, with annual celebrations occurring on the evening of December 5, with family get-togethers and exchanges of gifts. Saint Nicholas was known for his, often anonymous, charity, such as giving money to the poor. Over time this changed to parents giving gifts to children that “had behaved well” throughout the year. After centuries of celebrating this tradition, many things changed and were added. Saint Nicholas now owns a horse, Amerigo, with whom he walks over roofs. Another is his arrival from Spain, instead of the actual place Saint Nicholas lived, namely Turkey. Yet the way he dressed and appeared remained mostly the same: to this day he still wears a red mitre, bishops robes and sports a long, white beard. So we can already distil some aspects which inspired modern-day Santa Claus.

Saint Nicholas of Myra (270-343)

Yet there was one problem with Saint Nicholas if you look at the trajectory of European history: he was a Catholic saint. During the reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, Catholic celebrations were banned from large parts of northern Europe that embraced the reformation, including the Dutch Republic. Although Sinterklaas was, in theory, prohibited, private celebrations continued. A perfect example is Jan Steen’s late 17th-century painting ‘The Feast of Saint Nicholas’, clearly indicating at that time it was still celebrated in household circles. Yet sources also suggest that in Calvinist territories of the Holy Roman Empire, the celebrations were simply moved to Christmas Eve instead of December 5. As such, these celebrations slowly started to merge with Christmas celebrations already.

Jan Steen’s ‘the Feast of Saint Nicholas’

Subsequently, during the 17th century in England, the mythical figure of Father Christmas came to be. Just like Sinterklaas, Father Christmas was an old man with a long white beard, handing out presents to children that had behaved well. Yet in contrast to Sinterklaas, he resided on the North Pole, and wasn’t a stern old man but a jolly one. The next couple of decades this character spread to France as Père Noël and Spain as Papá Noel. 

Having looked at the traditions of Sinterklaas and Father Christmas, it is relatively easy to see how Santa Claus came to be in the United States. When the migration of British and Dutch colonists gained traction to the New World, both traditions started to mix over centuries. The first official record of Santa Claus, which is the Americanization of Sinterklaas, was in December 1773 in the Rivington’s Gazette. This Santa Claus too delivered presents via chimneys, yet his outward appearance, a jolly old man in a red snowsuit, was based on Father Christmas. 

And as time progressed, Santa Claus developed his own traditions. 1821 was the first time Santa Claus was described as having reindeer, in the anonymous poem “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight”. The anonymous publication of “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, better known as “The Night Before Christmas” two years later did not just reiterate Santa having reindeer, but became the primary source of how Santa has been portrayed from then on up until today. Yet Rudolph, the most famous reindeer of Santa Claus, has only existed since 1939. Robert L. May wrote the story featuring Rudolph and his bright red nose. The 1949 song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer hit number 1 on the Billboard pop singles chart that same year. Until the 1980s it remained the best-selling record of all time. 

Thomas Nast’s 1881 illustration

It is theorised Santa’s eight flying reindeer were inspired by Norse mythology. Specifically, by Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. This too is a similarity with Sinterklaas and his horse, travelling over roofs from chimney to chimney. As for Odin himself, he is often portrayed with a long white beard, broad hat and red cloak. 

Funnily enough it was the 1930s Coca Cola campaign that popularised Santa Claus even more. Up until then, Santa was still occasionally depicted as a normal-built man like Saint Nicholas. In 1863 the cartoonist Thomas Nast portrayed him as a heavier man for the first time, in his drawing “A Christmas Furlough”. It resembled the English Father Christmas’s usual depiction, and it became rather popular. Yet Nast’s most famous drawing was his ‘Merry Old Santa Claus’ from Harper Weekly’s January 1881 edition. To this day this drawing resembles Santa Claus as we know him.

So, over time Santa was increasingly portrayed as a “chubby and plump” man, until the 1930s Coca Cola campaign cemented the image of a jolly, bearded, red-suit wearing older man. This drawing by Haddon Sundblom of 1931 was the first of many, and ever since Coca Cola and Santa Claus have been inextricably connected. Then again, Santa Claus is a very welcome icon for advertising. I honestly was very surprised to find out that Santa is a chain-smoker and there are more vintage advertising posters of Santa smoking a cigarette than I can even sum up. And I have to emphasise, just in case, these vintage posters are shown in a historical context and not as an advertisement. 

Ded Moroz

Now, although I’ve mainly focused on Sinterklaas and Father Christmas, Santa Claus is similar to its Russian counterpart as well. Ded Moroz, as he’s called, is the Slavic Pagan version of Santa Claus and Father Christmas. His name translates to as much as Grandfather Frost. Instead of Christmas Eve of December 5, Ded Moroz brings presents to children on New Year’s Eve. Instead of a carriage with flying reindeer, Ded Moroz rides a troika, a traditional Russian sleigh with three horses. When he’s out delivering presents he’s accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka, or The Snow Maiden. In Denmark, Santa’s equivalent is the Julemand or Yule-man. He too has a large sack of presents and travels in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. His little helpers, Julenisser, are akin to elves that work in a workshop, crafting and packaging presents for children.

Finland has the claim that Santa lives in Finnish Lapland. According to newspaper articles from 1925, Santa’s reindeer couldn’t graze on the Northpole, so he moved to Lapland. Yet his name isn’t Santa Claus but Joulupukki. This name, just like his Danish equivalent, refers to the old Germanic Yulefest, a tradition that has slowly been overtaken by Christmas. 

Italy must have one of the more curious traditions. Over there La Befana hands out presents to children on January 5. And, well, La Befana isn’t a jolly old man but a kind of benign witch. According to legend, she didn’t want to accompany the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus, as she was cleaning her house. She changed her mind too late, and to this day she hands out candy to children in an attempt to find the baby.