There were several youth movements that resisted the ever-increasing totalitarian nature of Nazi Germany during the 1930s. One of the most significant groups were the so-called Edelweiss Pirates. These working-class youths had no distinctive political ideology. Still, they simply opposed the dogmas and lack of freedom in Nazi Germany and especially the Hitlerjugend, the official youth organisation of the Nazi Party. They dabbled in crime and as the Second World War progressed, individual branches of the gangs began showing more dangerous subversive behaviour. Some began sabotaging railway lines and weapon depots, hiding crashed Allied pilots and occasionally even killing Nazis.
Another nonconformist youth group didn’t engage in sabotage or subversive activities. These teenagers banded together over their mutual love for banned music, British and American culture and in protest against the totalitarian nature of Nazi Germany. Yet these teenagers certainly suffered the brunt of the iron fist of the Nazi regime.
Swingjugend, as they were called, were groups of young jazz- and swing lovers during the 1930s in Germany. They mainly existed in large cities such as Hamburg, Stuttgart, Kiel, Dresden and Berlin and consisted of teenagers and people in their early 20s. In contrast to the Edelweiss pirates, members of the Swingjugend came from affluent upper-middle-class families.
Their name refers to their longing to a British or American lifestyle, listening to banned jazz- and swing music. Illegal dance parties were organised where they played music from big bands such as the Glenn Miller Orchestra and American jazz by Louis Armstrong. These parties attracted large crowds. One group referred to as the Flottbeck Group, mentioned in a 1944 report by the Reich Ministry of Justice, organised an illegal party attended by 6000 teenagers. Gestapo reports described the dancing of the teenagers attending as ‘an uninhibited indulgence in swing.’
As benign as it sounds, organising and attending these parties was incredibly dangerous. In the words of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, anyone that listened to banned jazz music should “be beaten, given the severest exercise, and then put to hard labour.”
Besides their love for American and British music, Swingjugend distinguished themselves by way of clothing as well. They often grew long hair, in contrast to the neatly cut hair that was customary. They wore hats and carried umbrellas with them. They used slang, using many anglicisms as an addition to their German. A Gestapo officer describes them as ‘having long hair, down to the collar, engaging in an energetic dance known as the jitterbug.’ Thanks to their middle-class families Swingjugend generally were able to buy fancy clothing, gramophones to play their music, and actually afford the illegal jazz music smuggled into Germany.
Although the Swingjugend was considered to be apolitical, a stern opposition against the Nazi party and its customs and organisations were prevalent. The Nazi party, Hitlerjugend and their cultures were mocked and ridiculed. For example, Swing youths greeted each other with “Swing Heil!” instead of “Sieg Heil”. In another instance, sources mention that the entrance of an illegal swing clubs used an official Nazi sign that said: “Swing Verboten”, meaning Swing is prohibited, but they changed the wording to “Swing Erbitten” meaning as much as Swing requested.
Just like the Edelweiss Pirates, Swingjugend opposed the ever-increasing militarism of Nazi Germany and the Hitlerjugend. Once Hitler came into power, German teenagers were encouraged to join the Hitlerjugend, where a strict separation between boys and girls (the girls had their own youth wing, the Bund Deutscher Mädel) and German folk music, dancing and culture was promoted. There was no place for, in the words of Himmler, “degenerate” music from America.
Membership of the Hitlerjugend became compulsory by December 1936. When the Jugenddienstpflicht or Youth Service Duty was issued in March 1939, all German youths were conscripted in the Hitlerjugend. Yet illegal swing parties continued to be promoted. Swingjugend opened illegal jazz clubs and formed their own jazz bands. One Gestapo report mentions the closing down of the so-called Harlem Club in Frankfurt, where illegal parties were hosted attended by hundreds of teenagers. There’s near astonishment in descriptions about the hedonistic pleasure of the Swingjugend, who drank heavily, danced energetically and didn’t adhere to the strict expectations of contact between boys and girls.
From 1939 onwards, after the start of the Second World War, the suppression of the Swingjugend increased dramatically. In response, the organisers moved meetings and festivals to secret locations such as basements and living rooms away from the street. There’s a grim twist to the story as well. On August 18 1941, 300 Swingjugend were arrested. Most were released and put under strict observation by the Gestapo, Germany’s secret police. But its leaders were sent off to various concentration camps, where several met their end.
Yet the Swingjugend never had any coherent political ideology. Not even after the Gestapo started actively hunting them. After the war, one of the Swingjugend’s members gave an interview in which he mentioned: “We were not against the Nazis, they were against us.” And that sums up their struggle quite nicely. They simply wanted to have a good time and explore boundaries, as we all wanted when we were teenagers. Yet when you put teenage curiosity and wantonness into a totalitarian regime such as Nazi Germany, well, only bad things can come from that really. As historian McDonough mentions, the Nazis interpreted the Swingjugend’s love for British and American culture as subversive, dangerous for the morale and as indicating a lack of love for the nation. But instead, the Swingjugend simply appreciated a certain degree of cultural freedom, which was completely absent in Nazi Germany.
Even in popular culture, the Swingjugend makes an occasional appearance. In 1993 a film by Thomas Carter was released: Swing Kids. The story, set in pre-war Germany, is about two teenage boys that participate in the Hitlerjugend during the day but visit Swingjugend parties at night. Although it is a work of fiction, it indeed represents a moral dilemma’s many people faced under the iron fist of the totalitarian Nazi rule.
McDonough, F. (2001). Opposition and resistance in Nazi Germany (p. 5). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
The Allies used them for the first time during the landings in Normandy: the Duplex Drive Tanks. Duplex drives weren’t traditional armoured fighting vehicles. This particular kind of tank was a Sherman tank, tweaked to float on water thanks to a canvas flotation screen around the vehicle. Thanks to two propellers the tank engine was able to drive in the water. Because of its peculiar… characteristics and abilities, the DD tank was nicknamed the “Donald Duck.” It’s pretty spectacular, to be honest. The amphibious tank played a crucial role in the landings on the beaches of Normandy. Soldiers basically built their Sherman tank into a floating craft, making it much easier to land on shores and to cover infantry landing among the vehicles. There was one man that stood at the helm of developing these Donald Ducks. And they certainly weren’t his only inventions eagerly utilised by the Allies during the Second World War.
Gen. Percy Hobart
General Percy Hobart specifically designed these floating tanks for Operation Overlord, the landings on Normandy in June 1944. They supported the troops storming the beaches of Normandy, vulnerable to German machine-gun fire and artillery shelling.
During the landings on the beaches of Normandy, the most curious vehicles saw the light of day. Together with his specialist 79th Armoured Division, General Hobart took part in the preparations for D-Day. Hobart developed more unusual-looking specialist armoured fighting vehicles. The Duplex Drive Tank was just a part of a much larger contingent of special vehicles. Because of their looks, these vehicles were referred to as “Hobart’s Funnies.”
Before we get to about a dozen of Hobart’s “Funnies”, I’ll explain a bit about the man behind these curious vehicles. Hobart, nicknamed Hobo, was a British Major General and brother-in-law of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. He married Hobart’s sister, Elizabeth. Born in Naini Tal, India, he studied at Clifton College and at the age of 19 graduated from the Woolwich Royal Military Academy. Following his graduation, he joined the Corps of Royal Engineers, commonly known as the Sappers, and was stationed in India. Their task was to provide military engineering and other technical support to the British Armed Forces. And, well, Hobart certainly had some unique and creative ideas. But as we’ll see that certainly didn’t always serve him well and his superiors weren’t too impressed with his imagination.
During the First World War, he fought both in France with the 1st Bengal Sappers and the Middle East, current-day Iraq. He held multiple positions after the war ended, steadily rising through the ranks. He ended the war as a temporary Major, and by December 1937 he was a Major General. Within this capacity, he was tasked with reforming and training the newly established Mobile Force. Consisting of four armoured regiments, the Force was redesignated the 7th Armoured Division during the Second World War, also known as the Desert Rats.
But initially, Hobart wasn’t even present, or even in service when the Division saw action in North Africa for the first time. The Army forced him to retire in 1940; sources indicate this was because of his unusual convictions about mechanised warfare and its potential and possibilities. Basically, Hobart’s superiors considered him a bit of a nuisance and antagonistic character. Ironically, Hart’s pre-war writings greatly influenced German strategies regarding mechanised warfare. Yet as the war continued, Hobart’s unusual ideas began to seem like a genuine necessity to some British commanders.
A wake-up call to the British command that an amphibious landing on the French coast would be a meat grinder without adequate armoured support came in August 1942. It followed the disastrous Dieppe Raid. Basically, the raid was an amphibious landing with massive Allied casualties. In retrospect, the British commanders concluded that, among other things, due to the lack of reliable armoured support, within ten hours of the beginning of the raid, over sixty percent of all soldiers that landed near the German-occupied French port of Dieppe, were either killed, wounded or captured. As such, the British decided to develop tanks that could reach the coast shore by themselves, instead of having them dropped off by landing vessels. After the British military historian and theorist B.H. Lidell-Hart advocated for Hobart’s cause to Winston Churchill, he, in turn, reinstated him.
Reentering service, Hobart became the commander of an Armoured Division. Now, it wasn’t like Hobart suddenly started designing a dozen of his funnies in the remaining years of the war. Instead, most of his Funnies’ plans already existed thanks to developments during, or right after the First World War. Concept plans for amphibian tanks, or tanks with ploughs or rake-like structures to neutralise mines already existed. When he rejoined service, Hobart simply began collecting, expanding and integrating these curious vehicles in order for them to become operational properly… and effective.
The Duplex Drive Tank
We’ve already had a look at the Donald Duck, or Duplex Drive Tank. The Hungarian-born Miklós Straussler created the initial designs, which eventually allowed for the creation of the DD-tank. It is undoubtedly the most famous Funnie, and perhaps you recognised it when I introduced the swimming vehicle in this video. Basically, an American Sherman M4 Tank rotated its turret 180 degrees upon which the tank’s crew inflated the foldable floatation screen surrounding the tank. The rotating of the turret was necessary to maintain balance in the water.
As the footage shows after inflating the canvas, the four ‘walls’, if you will, remained above the surface of the water. Thirty-six vertical inflatable rubber ribs held it up. Thanks to its two propellers, its top speed was around seven kilometres per hour, so approximately the same as a marching soldier. Except it was in the water. And it was a heavy floating tank.
The Allies occasionally used the British Mark III Valentine tank as a DD-tank as well. However, the tank was much less fitted for it in comparison to the Sherman. Aside from landings on the Italian beaches, the Valentine tank was mainly used during training missions.
And its counterpart, the Sherman, certainly landed on Normandy. To be more specific: the DD-tanks were destined for Omaha Beach, and received the brunt of the fire. In total, 32 DD-tanks were supposed to sail onto the shores from approximately five kilometres off the coast. For these improvised sailing vessels, each weighing between 30 and 38 tonnes… well, it was quite the distance. Waves reached close to two metres in height, and of course, the tanks suffered heavy artillery and anti-tank gun attacks.
Precisely because of the expected resistance, the DD-tanks’ crews were outfitted with Davis Submerged Escape Apparatus, which was initially invented as an emergency escape apparatus for submarine crews. Thirty of the 32 tank crews ended up using the apparatus, not always successfully. Merely two DD-tanks managed to reach Omaha beach.
Elsewhere in October 1944, during the Battle of the Schelde in northern Belgium and the Netherlands, aside from the Buffalo amphibious vehicles, several DD-tanks actually managed to get to shore after travelling over double the distance at Omaha Beach, 11 kilometres, with relative ease. Multiple other funnies saw action during D-Day though, many of them looking like a stroke of genius had devised them… Or a stroke of madness.
Hobart’s other Funnies
A so-called Double Onion was a tank with a steel fence able to position explosives onto a bunker. As you can see on the photograph, the Double Onion placed explosives at a decent height, up to twelve meters. It made the vehicle great for putting a dent in the outer defences of bunkers or chipping away at the strength of walls.
Crabs were M4 Sherman Tanks fitted with a rotating flail consisting of a heavy metal chain, able to clear paths straight through minefields. The first time Crabs were used, they were put on Matilda tanks during the Battle of El Alamein in North Africa. But soon the Sherman M4 became the tank of choice. An unforeseen, but very welcome effect was that the flails could also easily cut through barbed wire. This was a crucial asset as after the Atlantikwall was breached Allied soldiers often ran into massive barbed wire obstacles put up by the Germans.
During the Battle of Overloon in the Netherlands, the British used Crabs to make their way through rivers and minefields. Meanwhile, the Crabs were happy with Churchill tanks equipped with fascines, allowing them to cross the muddy landscape.
Fascines were used during the First World War as well. Fascines were bundles of wood or other material with the purpose to allow vehicles to cross through rugged territory. It could merely be wet, muddy or uneven territory. But fascines also were very welcome against anti-tank ditches. Especially during rainy autumn, turning lands into marshes, these were very useful. In the photograph you’re seeing, taken in 1943, a Churchill tank carrying a fascine crosses a ditch using one in the process. It basically shows the entire way fascines were utilised.
The Canal Defence Light generally was a modified British Matilda or American M3 Grant Lee Tank with a tower fitted with an intense stroboscopic carbon-arc light. It could send out blinding laser beams with such strength that the CDL was even effective during the daytime. Still, it rarely saw action during the war and even among Hobart’s funnies it was a bit of the odd one out. This is one of the Funnies that did not see action during D-Day, although it was used in November that year during Operation Clipper.
One of the most spectacular vehicles must have been the tanks outfitted with a flamethrower. These so-called Crocodiles had their machinegun exchanged for a flamethrower situated in the operator’s cabin. An armoured container located within the tank contained between 500 and 1800 litres of fuel. Using strong pressure, the flamethrower could emit 90 bursts of fire a second, reaching up to 130 metres in the distance.
AVRE’s , short for Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers, were a series of armoured military engineering vehicles. They were modified to be able to launch heavy mortars, ‘flying dustbins’, 18 kilo heavy mortars, onto enemy positions such as bunkers. The turret of a Churchill tank was removed and in its place came a 290 mm petard spigot mortar. These vehicles were ideal for the carrying of equipment as well, and were a welcome way to transport the aforementioned fascines. Another purpose for it was the so-called Churchill AVRE Bobbin. This vehicle carried a bit more of an advanced fascine, carrying a canvas roll that it was able to roll out over soggy ground so that itself, and other vehicles could safely cross the difficult terrain.
Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicles, or… Well BARV for short, were vehicles used for amphibious landings. During the landings in Normandy, about five dozen of these modified M4A2 Sherman tanks saw action. Thanks to the bottom side of the vehicle being made waterproof, it served as a rescuer of other vehicles in the sea or on the beach. It was also able to push stranded vehicles back in the sea. The vehicles used during D-Day were able to operate in up to over 2.5 metres deep water. Among its crew was a professional diver whose task was to secure the tow rope to a stranded vehicle to recover it.
A bit more forgotten and perhaps worthy of its own video entirely is the Allied Operation Dragoon. Hobart’s Funnies played a crucial role during that operation. In August 1944 there was a landing operation in Provence, southern France. The already weakened German forces were swiftly pushed back and important French port cities were rapidly captured.
Hobart’s Funnies ended up playing a crucial role in the European battle theatre until after the Allies crossed the Rhine river. Now, during that crossing of the Rhine river, the Allies ran into quite some trouble as the retreating Germans blew up every bridge they used. There was one bridge at Remagen, however, that they were too late to blow up. The Battle of Remagen was daring and spectacular, crucial in securing a passage for Allied Armoured Divisions into the German heartlands. If you want to know more about it, there should be an end-card for you to click on-screen any minute now.
Isoroku Yamamoto was the commander-in-chief of the Japanese Imperial Navy during the Second World War. He was a veteran of the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 and commanded the attacking fleet during the, for the Japanese disastrous, Battle of Midway and the Guadalcanal Campaign. But that’s not necessarily what he’s remembered for. Yamamoto was the mastermind behind the Pearl Harbor Attack on that fateful day, December 7th 1941. The infamous attack is engraved in the collective mind of Americans, and frankly large parts of the world. It directly led to the United States’ involvement in the bloodiest conflict the world has ever seen.
Following the Pearl Harbor attack, the American press described Yamamoto as the ‘personification of the Japanese warlords’ eager to wage war against the United States. He was inherently anti-American, right? Well… no it is a bit more complicated than that in fact.
Yamamoto did not just study at Harvard University, but one of his roles during his career was as the Japanese naval attaché in Washington. He knew the United States, its culture, military and economic power. In fact, he was one of the highest-ranking commanders advocating against war, quite literally going against the Japanese Warhawks. In fact, during the late 1930s, the Japanese military issued 24/7 protection to Yamamoto, because they considered an assassination attempt from the pro-war nationalist camp a likely course of events, due to him being known as “Pro-American”. Yeah, this is the man that was literally the mastermind behind Pearl Harbor. That raises some questions: how did this come to be?
But perhaps just as interesting as asking this question, is looking at Yamamoto’s eventual demise. Because in February 1943, the U.S. Office for Naval Intelligence managed to decode Yamamoto’s travel schedule. They realised they struck gold and arranged a secret operation with a killer squadron of Lockheed P-38 Lightning twin-engined fighter aircraft, tasked with intercepting his flight squadron. This secret mission became known as the aptly named “Operation Vengeance”: the mission to kill Admiral Yamamoto.
Isoroku Yamamoto was born on April 4, 1884, as the sixth son of Samurai Sadayoshi Takano. He received education at the Imperial Japanese Naval Acadamy. He served on the cruiser Nisshin during the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, losing two fingers on his left hand during the decisive battle of Tsushima. It led to his rather funny nickname, ‘80-sen’ because a manicure cost ten sen per finger at the time. His superiors recognised him as a capable, ambitious and keen navy officer, sending him to the Imperial Naval Staff College.
By 1916 he was a lieutenant commander when his parents passed away. Subsequently, the Yamamoto family adopted him, an adoption process which was customary at the time. In 1918, he married Reiko Mihashi and the couple had four children. Merely one year later, he left for the United States to attend Harvard University and study the oil industry. After graduation in 1923, he returned to Japan. He was promoted to Captain and began advocating the expansion of the Japanese Armoured Fleet, which the army disapproved of. Up until then, the military saw the Navy mainly as a transport branch for infantry. Yamamoto became fascinated by aviation after taking courses at the Kasumigaura Training Center. He soon became its director and became known for supplying the Navy with elite, well-trained pilots.
He didn’t stay in Japan for long, though. In 1926 he was assigned as the official Japanese Naval attaché in Washington. This post gave Yamamoto the freedom to travel through the country and gain insights into their economic and military power and potential. During this time, the experiences he enjoyed greatly influenced his opposition to a German-Japanese alliance and war with the United States right before the war did break out.
The Brink of War
Yamamoto returned home from the United States in 1928. He briefly assumed command of the light cruiser Isuzu, before being appointed as commander of the aircraft carrier Akagi. In 1930 he was promoted to Vice-Admiral. He served as a special assistant to the Japanese delegation during the second London Naval Conference. Thanks to his diplomatic tact, or, according to a 1941 article in the San Bernardino Sun, his willingness to ‘torpedo’ the conference, he was one of the main factors in assuring Japan could expand its fleet according to the London Naval Treaty.
During subsequent years Yamamoto kept advocating for expanding the number of aircraft carriers, producing elite pilots, and ensuring a robust combined air and sea force for Japan. Although he still received scorn from the army for his ideas, slowly but surely they became a bit more widely accepted among other Naval officers.
Now, within this capacity, in 1933 he commanded the so-called Dai Ichi Koku sentai; or the First Carrier Division. This was an aircraft carrier unit of the Imperial Japanese Navy, consisting of two fleet carriers: Akagi and Kaga. Because of his previous successes in negotiating an expansion of the Japanese fleet, he became the Tokyo Naval Command spokesman at the London Naval Conference of 1934. Two years later he became vice-minister of the Navy, once again tirelessly advocating for a potent combined air and sea force, as he saw that as crucial for the Navy’s success.
Meanwhile, within Japan, the Warhawk party grew, steering towards an all-out war against Japan’s neighbours and the United States to establish the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Yamamoto was not part of this camp though. Because he tended to propagate a neutral stance and avoid war, the Japanese Warhawks attempted to eliminate him because they saw him as a pro-American traitor. Already in 1931 he vocally opposed the Japanese invasion of Chinese Manchuria and subsequent Second Sino-Japanese War. Another telling example was his response to the USS Panay Incident. In 1937, after Japanese aircraft bombed and sunk a U.S. gunboat, the USS Panay, on the Yangtze River, Yamamoto personally apologised to the U.S. Ambassador.
The army ordered him to be under protection 24/7 to prevent potential assassinations, which shows how controversial his stance was. Still, in August 1939 Minister of the Navy Mitsumasa Yonai promoted Yamamoto to the Combined Fleet commander-in-chief. Sources indicate one of Yonai’s motivations to do so was to save Yamamoto’s life, which, in his words, “could only be achieved by sending him out to sea.”
In September 1940 Japan, Italy and Germany signed the Tripartite Pact. It was Japan’s response to U.S. Congress voting to begin building new military ships, planes and the export embargo of some American goods to Japan. Yet joining the pact led to the United States placing an embargo on oil, steel, and iron exports to Japan. Sources indicate Yamamoto warned Japanese prime minister Fumimaro Konoe to not start a war with the United States, as Japan would not be able to compete with its economic and military power. During this time he was promoted to Lieutenant-Admiral.
As time progressed, Yamamoto began considering war against the United States inevitable. He concluded that protecting the logistical transport routes such as the Dutch East Indies’ oil supply would invariably lead to conflict. Against better judgment, Yamamoto had to begin planning a strategic offensive against the United States. He was the commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet after all. He ordered the construction of two new aircraft carriers, convinced that in his words: “A swarm of ants will defeat the strongest snake.” An intercepted personal letter of him from late 1940 indicates that he resigned himself to war by this point. Although he personally may not have been in favour, he now did everything he could to ensure a Japanese victory. Realising time was of the essence as the empire could not sustain a prolonged war against the United States.
Outbreak of War
Yamamoto figured that Japan’s only chance to win a war was to paralyse the U.S. Navy, mainly its aircraft carriers, in their own base before they had an opportunity to attack Japan. Having intricate knowledge of the U.S. economy and their military, he realised that if this failed Japan could, at most, hold out for a year before the tide of war turned. It led to him devising and planning the infamous surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, launching Japan into the global conflict costing countless lives. The entire strategy of the Pearl Harbor attack was contrary to traditional Japanese warfare. This time, the goal was to launch a surprise attack, paralyse the fleet and subsequently force a decisive battle. Once the battle was won, he hoped the American morale would be low enough to begin peace negotiations.
And we all know what happened during that fateful day of December 7th 1941. Taking some caveats into account, the Japanese generally considered the attack to be a success. For the next six months, they rapidly expanded their territory in the Pacific Ocean. The Japanese commanders were surprised by the rapid advancement of their troops and the ability to conquer territories.
Instead of forcing a decisive battle, as Yamamoto advocated, the Imperial General Staff decided to invade Birma, giving the United States a bit of breathing room. On April 18th 1942 the Americans launched the Doolittle raid on Tokyo. It proved the Japanese mainland wasn’t safe against U.S. aerial power. This swayed the Imperial General Staff to agree to Yamamoto’s plan to fight a decisive battle: the Battle of Midway. Commanding the entire Imperial Japanese Naval Fleet, Yamamoto figured Midway was the key to Hawaii’s defence. He hoped to lure the American fleet into a trap and to deal it a decisive blow.
The Akagi and Kaga aircraft carriers he commanded years ago, were part of the fleet he deployed to Midway. Together with the Soryu and Hiryu, Japan’s vital aircraft carriers were all put in the ‘Midway basket’, if you will. Yamamoto sent a smaller fleet to the Aleutian Islands as a diversion. What he didn’t know was that instead of baiting the American fleet, they were baiting him. The Americans had broken Japan’s codes and received intel about his planned attack early on.
During the battle, the Americans under the command of Admirals Frank J. Fletcher and Raymond Spruance managed to sink all four Japanese aircraft carriers. The battle resulted in an American victory, and a devastating Japanese defeat. From then on the Japanese operated on the defensive, with the momentum decisively shifting in the American favour.
Yamamoto continued attempting to conquer Samoa and Fiji. In order to set up a reliable base in the vicinity of these objectives, Japanese troops landed on Guadalcanal and constructed an airstrip. In August 1942 the Americans landed on the island, in what became known as the Guadalcanal campaign. Forced to fight for the island, Yamamoto could do nothing but endure the war of attrition that followed, losing face at the homefront, and losing many soldiers on the actual frontlines.
Now, a lot has happened since the attack on Pearl Harbor, by this point well over a year ago. But the Americans hadn’t forgotten. In order to understand what happened next, we have to take a look at Yamamoto’s base from where he operated. Rabaul, located on New Guinea, was one of the most important, if not the most important Japanese military base at that point in time. With well over 100.000 soldiers and navy personnel garrisoned, Yamamoto coordinated the Imperial Japanese Navy’s campaign from his headquarters there. It was basically a fortress. In addition to the military personnel, the island housed many anti-aircraft defences and an underground tunnels network.
In late February 1943, the Office of Naval Intelligence of the United States intercepted coded messages indicating Yamamoto would visit the Solomon Islands in April. Not just that – but as they decoded more messages, they realised they acquired Yamamoto’s detailed travel schedule. He was going to fly from Rabaul to Balalae Airfield. Knowing he valued punctuality, the Office could estimate where he would be at all times, knowing the speed of Japanese transport aircraft and the fact he’d adhere to the schedule.
Yamamoto’s trip commenced on April 18th. It was the perfect opportunity to take revenge for the Pearl Harbor attack and take out the man responsible for it. Under the command of Major John Mitchell, the Office began planning their operation.
As for Yamamoto, his visit was planned just after the Japanese suffered their defeat during the Guadalcanal campaign. The idea behind Yamamoto’s visit was that it would boost the morale of the Japanese sailors and officers holding the Solomon Islands. Little did the Japanese know this trip would end up having the opposite effect.
That fateful day, April 18th, Yamamoto travelled from Rabaul, Papua New Guinea to Balalae Airfield on the Solomon Islands. Two twin-engined Mitsubishi G4M Betty aircraft carried both the Admiral and his crew. Six long-range fighter aircraft Mitsubishi Zeros escorted them.
Meanwhile, on the American side, the Office of Naval Intelligence decided against using aircraft carriers. Positioning them in the area might have deterred the Japanese from continuing their trip as scheduled. And if it didn’t deter them, the Japanese would indeed have sent their Naval fleet to destroy the carriers upon noticing. Because the operation required a bit more stealth, the Office decided upon using eighteen single-seated, twin-engined Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter aircraft.
The P-38s were outfitted with two extra fuel tanks, giving them a much-increased range compared to Wildcats and Corsairs. Of the eighteen, four P-38s were designated the so-called ‘Killer Group.’ These were tasked with taking out Yamamoto’s G4M, while the other fourteen P-38s covered the group against potential counter-attacks. After all, the operation took place close to Japanese air bases. The squadron did not exceed an altitude of fifteen metres above sea-level, in order to evade Japanese radar detection.
On April 18th, 7:25 AM, the eighteen P-38s took off from Fighter 2 Airfield, on Guadalcanal. Two of them suffered technical difficulties not too long after take-off. Meanwhile, the Japanese squadron had taken off from Rabaul. They climbed to an altitude of around two kilometres. Thanks to the Japanese’s punctuality, the P-38s ran into the squadron at the exact right time: 9:35 AM. The four P-38s, part of the Killer Group, dropped their additional fuel tank and began climbing to the Zeros and G4M squadron’s height. Due to technical difficulties, one of the P-38s had to abandon its climb early on. With twelve P-38s acting as a cover squadron, the three P-38s continued climbing to take out the G4M.
The sudden appearance of P-38s must have been a surprise to the Japanese pilots. After all, they were merely 15 minutes away from the Balalae landing strip. As soon as the Zero’s pilots saw them, they engaged in a dogfight. One P-38, piloted by Thomas Lanphier, fought the Zeros while the other two chased the G4M, one of them containing Yamamoto. Lieutenant Rex T. Barber shot down one of the G4Ms and narrowly avoided collision mid-air. The G4M crashed in the Bougainville jungle.
Lieutenant Besby F. Holmes damaged the other G4M, but the job was eventually finished by Barber who shot the aircraft out of the sky. This one crash-landed in the water. One of the P-38s was shot down by a Zero. Now, both G4Ms crashed, but the commander of one of them survived. Aboard the G4M that crashed in the water was Vice-Admiral Matome Ugaki, who in fact survived the crash and was picked up by the Japanese Navy. Ugaki is fascinating in his own right for he survived the end of the war for Japan, only to become Japan’s final kamikaze pilot. I’ve created a video about Japan’s last kamikaze attack which I will link to at the end of this video.
But Yamamoto, well, he was aboard the first G4M that crashed into the jungle. And he did not survive the crash. Japanese films depict Yamamoto as stoically meeting his end, although he was more likely struck by a P-38 Lightning’s ammunition, striking his aircraft’s right-wing, causing it to crash. As such, it is generally assumed he died before the plane crashed, being directly hit in the head. If you would like to see a film about Yamamoto’s life, consider watching the 2011 Japanese war drama film Isoroku, depicting his career and actions during the war.
Operation Vengeance was a definitive success, although if Yamamoto had been in the other plane, he would have survived the attack. Thanks to this mission, Pearl Harbor’s mastermind met his end due to a well-executed secret operation by the Office of Navy Intelligence.
The killing of Admiral Yamamoto was poetic justice from the American perspective. Precisely a year previous the Americans bombed Japan during the Doolittle Raid, proving the Japanese mainland was within reach. And exactly one year later they again struck a decisive blow against the Japanese.
The wreckage of Yamamoto’s plane still lies amidst the Solomon jungle. It is accessible, but only by trekking through thick vegetation and swampy grounds. A Japanese search-and-rescue party recovered Yamamoto’s remains the next day. His remains were cremated, and he was given a state funeral on June 5, 1943, over a month after his death. When studied, Yamamoto lived a life that appeared to be full of contradictions during an incredibly challenging time in history. As for Japan, it would take a little over two more years before they finally surrendered after the dropping of two atomic bombs by the United States.
One of Japan’s last offensives during the Second World War was Operation U-Go. In March 1944, over 80.000 Japanese soldiers under the extremely aggressive general Renya Mutaguchi crossed the border with India. It really says something when you’re considered to be extremely aggressive as a Japanese general during the Second World War, to be fair. The Japanese rapidly advanced on the British strongholds of Imphal and Kohima. What followed was nearly three months of besiegement and deplorable living conditions for both the Allied and Japanese troops. The battle of Kohima and the simultaneous Battle of Imphal saw troops from both sides suffer horrid inhumane conditions. It earned the Battle of Kohima the nickname: “Stalingrad of the East”. Others have referred to it as Britain’s greatest battle. Eventually, an Allied breakthrough was forced with a curious tactic involving the slope of a hill, a tank, and a hail mary of crashing through the Japanese lines of defence.
Japan’s Operation U-Go
On March 6th, 1944, the Japanese army launched Operation U-Go. It was one of the last offensives by the Japanese during the Second World War. The objective of the offensive was two-fold: firstly, they wanted to prevent the Allied powers, mainly the British Empire, from retaking Burma. Secondly, the Japanese wanted to break into India via Kohima and Imphal, two cities near the Burman border. Once captured, the Japanese wanted to establish a power base there, to keep up the fight against the Allied powers.
Even though by spring 1944 the war had progressed to a point where the Axis power’s loss in the European theatre was more or less inevitable, and Japan’s position didn’t allow for much optimism either, the Japanese command still figured this offensive had a chance of success. Reason for that was the fact multiple British offensives in the Arakan, the coastal region of Burma, had failed. The Japanese military command figured the British were inept jungle fighters and pushed for Operation U-Go to be realised. Victory was undoubtedly awaiting them.
Okay, so Geographically, Imphal was the border town that was crucial in accessing India from Burma. Located in the district Manipur, Imphal was an isolated border town. Very isolated. A road that spanned 210 kilometres to the north linked Imphal to the remote hill town of Kohima. For Kohima, this road was the only available route to the outside world. As these two towns were extremely strategically located, they became the Japanese targets. And this isolated road and the two remote border towns would suffer some of the most brutal scenes of warfare of the Second World War.
General Renya Mutaguchi, known for his temper and brutality, led two divisions of the Japanese 15th Army into India in March 1944. The divisions crossed the Chindwin River, advancing rapidly on Imphal. A third division advanced onto Kohima. In total, 80.000 battle-hardened Japanese troops crossed into India, rapidly advancing on British held strongholds. The thing is, both the British and Japanese operated under unfavourable conditions. Mutaguchi’s supply lines from Japan were extended to the degree that his divisions could rely on a month’s worth of supplies, at most. And two months from his offensive, he was very well aware, monsoon season arrived and the planned offensives would become impossible to carry out due to the heavy rains and mudslides.
On the other hand, the British armed forces under 14th Army general William Slim had been preparing for an attack on the Japanese. The fact they had been preparing an offensive, basically meant the British army was anything but prepared to carry out a defensive battle. Communications were obviously subpar due to the isolated locations and long distances, and housing a large number of troops was near impossible in an area devoid of any proper settlements. There was a crucial advantage General Slim enjoyed, however. His British 14th army had been driven out of Burma back in 1942. The past two years, he spent moulding this ragtag bunch into a professional, disciplined army with a high morale. Yet, they had never fought a large scale battle. The Japanese on the other hand were experienced and hardened soldiers, veterans from jungle-fighting in some of the worst conditions imaginable, especially under their commander Mutaguchi who had told his troops they were expected to fight to the death.
British aerial reconnaissance provided General Slim with enough intelligence that his fears were confirmed: the Japanese were on the offensive. He ordered his 14th Army to prepare for a Japanese attack. Over several days the troops were establishing their positions, yet General Slim and his troops were surprised by the sudden rapid advancement of the Japanese. The mountain roads many Allied soldiers had dug in were crucial strategic positions: if the Japanese managed to overtake them, the Indian plain was wide open for them to invade. The Japanese would be virtually unopposed and able to cut the communications from large parts of Allied forces. Both Imphal and Kohima now became British strongholds, preparing for a deadly and desperate last stand against a Japanese assault.
Soon to be isolated from the outside world, the commander of British forces in Dimapur, north of Kohima, Lieutenant-General Montagu Stopford, rushed last-minute reinforcements into Kohima. Two artillery battalions were positioned several kilometres west of Kohima and a third, the 4th West Kents, were situated inside Kohima on the highest hill. This hill would become known as Garrison Hill, for the Allied forces would make a desperate last stand on it. All the while the Japanese were swarming the area surrounding both Kohima and Imphal, cutting the villages off from the outside world, digging themselves in and preparing their artillery positions and assault.
The Heroes of Kohima
On March 30th, the first fighting between the Japanese and British commenced. The roads and entries leading to Kohima were defended by Indian regiments among which the Assam Rifles, India’s oldest paramilitary organisation. Colonel Hugh Richards, commander of the Kohima troops, about 1200 of them, attempted to hold back the full-fledged assault by hardened Japanese soldiers. General Kotoku Sato, lead the attack on Kohima and with relative ease, pushed back the Assam Rifles and other units. Outnumbering the British by 10 to 1, the Japanese now besieged Kohima. All Colonel Richards could do was hope they managed to stand their ground until a relief force, the British 2nd division, arrived to push back the Japanese. When this 2nd division would arrive… well, Colonel Richards didn’t know.
By April 5th, another crucial development happened. General Mutaguchi’s troops had cut the road between Imphal and Kohima. Both settlements were now isolated from each other and the outside world. General Slim’s reaction was to order his officers to resist retreating unless they were ordered to do so by higher-ups. The Japanese, unable to advance into Kohima due to the fervent resistance by the British and Indian forces, overtook cliffs, hilltops and strongholds surrounding the settlement. Soldiers from both sides would often be stuck in trenches, sometimes just several yards away from each other. The situation was incredibly chaotic; soldiers didn’t know whether the men in trenches closeby were enemies or not. According to a West Kents officer, reminiscing about the battle, a grenade being fired would only take several seconds to reach British defence lines.
The Japanese made eager use of their artillery, mortars and snipers. With significant volume, the British were shelled. The men were pinned down, movement was near impossible as a fraction of a second without cover meant near-certain death. The majority of British forces engaged in the fighting around Kohima only knew what the situation was like within their own trench and line of defence. They simply couldn’t reach the rest, nor communicate with them.
Aside from the mortars and artillery, the Japanese used loud broadcasts in English urging the British and Indian troops to surrender. General Sato personally ordered these calls, in an attempt to demoralise the troops who were defiantly resisting the constant barrage of Japanese shelling. Both at dawn and sunset, Sato had ordered for increased shelling to take place. The defending Allied troops barely enjoyed sleep, as during the night the rustling of plants and grass kept most defenders awake. It could very well be Japanese troops infiltrating behind their lines, ready to stab or shoot them in a suicidal attack once they managed to get close enough. Slowly but surely the Allied forces were pushed back all the way onto Garrison Hill. Shortage of water made the situation even worse. Sleep-deprived, in horrible mud-caked conditions with the smell of war, constant shelling and rotting corpses lying around the Allied defence lines, it was unsure if they could hold out much longer.
On April 11th, nearly a week after the Japanese assault and shelling started, General Stopford sent the 5th British Infantry Brigade towards Kohima from Dimapur. Now, I mentioned the 161st brigade previously with their artillery was stationed several kilometres west of Kohima. This division provided cover to the small pocket of allied defenders with their artillery fire. When Stopford’s 5th British Infantry Brigade reached the 161st, they overtook their defensive position. The 161st was now in a position to launch a full-fledged counter-attack on the Japanese. It was during this time a message was sent from inside Kohima: the situation was desperate. The shelling and shortage of water meant that if help didn’t arrive within 48 hours, Kohima would fall. The message read, “while the men’s spirits are all right, there aren’t many of us left…”.
On April 17th, the Japanese launched their most brutal offensive yet. The slopes of Garrison Hill were under constant attack. Artillery and mortar barrages were supplemented with suicidal infantry assaults, machine gun fire and the occasional grenade. The Allied forces used their howitzers to fend off the assault as well as they could. The night after, April 18th, after over a day of intense fighting, it looked as if Kohima would fall.
Although Japanese forces surrounded Kohima and swarmed all over its surroundings, they seemed unable to coordinate a proper assault that would have indeed meant the end of Kohima. The Allied troops were confined to a 320 square metre perimeter around Garrison Hill, awaiting the rescue mission that would hopefully soon arrive.
The men of the West Kents managed to keep the Japanese out of Garrison Hill when, on the dawn of the 20th, the troops of the Royal Berkshires and 1st Punjab Regiment arrived. These quickly broke through the scattered Japanese and relieved the West Kents. Under heavy fire, the wounded were evacuated. Personal testimonies state that the stench of rotting corpses was so overwhelming many of the fresh soldiers arriving got sick. Nevertheless, they dug in on the battered hillside. Ready to face the ever so determined Japanese.
Now as this was transpiring, the first monsoon hit the area. If the situation wasn’t bad enough already, I mean, the area looked like a grim first world war meatgrinder with blasted trees, mutilated corpses and shreds of parachutes that were used to air supply the Koshima regiment. Now rain poured down on this heap of suffering, bringing with it mud, malaria and dysentery. The Japanese occupied most of the area around Koshima and it was priority these jungle fighters be pushed out of the area as soon as possible.
The Allied Powers push back
The Japanese under Major General Shigesaburo Miyazaki attempted to break through the refreshed defences on Garrison Hill, to no avail and suffering heavy casualties. The Japanese were now forced to reorganise their troops on the defensive, as the Allied powers were granted a bit of breathing space by their latest success. In the middle of May, the heaviest and most savage fighting of the entire battle took place. And that really says something. At stake was the British Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow, with its adjacent tennis court. The Japanese had seized this area within a week of its initial assault in early April. Now, a month later, the British were preparing to retake it. In the meantime, the Japanese had erected bunkers and fortifications, not to mention weapon pits on the hillsides surrounding the Bungalow. The 2nd Battalion Dorsetshire Regiment was tasked with ejecting the Japanese from this location. The terrain deprived the Dorsetshire Regiment of any armoured support and, according to observers, the conditions the Japanese had lived in were ‘indescribable’. The Regiment was getting ready for a dirty and savage business.
The Royal Engineers found a solution that allowed for a pathway to be established behind the bungalow. If they winched a Grant Tank towards this and pushed it down the slope, it would immediately crash onto the tennis court and stand amidst the Japanese line of defence. Sergeant Waterhouse, in command of the 149 Royal Tank Regiment, was given this task, and so they did. As the Lee tank rolled onto the tennis court is was welcomed with a barrage of fire from the Japanese. In return, the tank fired at the Japanese bunkers from close range, no more than 20 metres away. Now the Dorset infantry started firing at the Japanese positions and advanced onto their fortifications. The Japanese, in a panic, fled from the tank that was firing at them from close range, running straight into the Dorsets rifles.
The Dorsets were quick to capture the hillside where only the chimney stack of the bungalow remained. The surrounding area was battle-scarred, with craters from the shelling, dead bodies everywhere and rats running around the place. General Stopford is said to have remarked that it reminded him of the battlefield of the Somme from the First World War, stating “one could tell how desperate the fighting had been.”
The breaking point for the Japanese was the lack of supplies and ammunition. On May 31st, after several more counter-offensives by the Allied powers which weren’t all successful, the Japanese finally retreated. The Japanese supply lines had been cut, and their resupply missions brought ammunition rather than food. They had been in combat for well over two months, while their initial food supply had only lasted them for three weeks.
General Sato ordered his men to withdraw to Imphal. Demoralised, exhausted, wounded, riddled with disease and under constant allied attack, they retreated. To top it all off, the British 2nd division and 7th Indian division pursued the Japanese and used their momentum to relieve Imphal, which had been under Japanese siege for 80 days as well. On June 22nd, Imphal was relieved and General Mutaguchi now too abandoned his offensive. In early July he ordered his Japanese 15th Army to retreat. Severely impeded by the mud and chaos monsoon season brought with it, the Japanese crossed the border with Burma via the Chindwin river. Of the 80.000 Japanese troops tasked with invading India, merely 20.000 were left standing as they retreated.
The allied powers suffered well over 17.000 British and Indian casualties. Those that fell at Kohima have their monument bearing the epitaph: “When you go home, tell them of us, and say: For your tomorrow, we gave our today.” And that’s how one of Japan’s last offensives in India during the Second World War started very promising, but soon turned into an absolute hellhole.
After Prussia’s crushing defeat at Jena during the Napoleonic wars, its King issued some drastic military reforms. One of the most crucial reforms was the fact that individual merit was valued much more than social status and whether someone was of noble descent or not. An order by the Prussian King from 1806 encapsulated this sentiment by stating that ‘All social preference is terminated in the military – everyone, whatever his background, has the same duties and same rights.’ One of the ways this sentiment was invigorated was by issuing new military decorations. These decorations were meant for men who distinguished themselves in bravery during wartime, whether a prince, an officer or a soldier. Today we’ll have a look at Prussia’s, and honestly, I’d say one of history’s most popular decorations, namely the Iron Cross and another lesser-known similar decoration: the Order of Louise.
The Iron Cross
As we have seen in the previous video, after Napoleon defeated the Kingdom of Prussia in 1807, the Prussian King was forced into an alliance with France. When Napoleon’s troops retreated after the terrible Moscow-campaign in 1812, the Prussians saw their chance and switched sides. The Iron Cross was thus issued during the German Wars of Liberation against Napoleon in 1813. The idea behind this new decoration may seem pretty simple but was somewhat unheard of for that time.
In order to recognise soldiers for their bravery and service to the fatherland, the Iron Cross was the first decoration that was to be awarded to soldiers of every rank. Generals and soldiers could earn the same award, something pretty revolutionary for that time. After all, it encouraged men of whatever class they were from to perform and excel. On March 10th 1813, this small Maltese cross-like medal was introduced. The King’s initials are engraved around the iron, and in the centre, it is adorned with oak leaves. It is said the King designed it himself, although other sources point to the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. All crosses ever issued don engravings of both the year of the campaign and the then-ruling Prussian King’s initials. As such, it became a sort-of self-renewing medal. Different campaigns bore different years in its engraving, and an Iron Cross earned during the Napoleonic Wars bore other initials than an Iron Cross awarded during the First World War. Soldiers wore the cross in the second buttonhole of their tunics. Up until 1838, the undecorated side of the cross faced forward, but after that, it became more acceptable for the engraved side to do so.
Now, the design of the cross wasn’t completely random. As we have seen, the Teutonic Order colonised Eastern Prussia back in the 11th and 12th century – and the Hohenzollerns had to thank their ancestor Grand Master Albrecht for the hereditary possession of these territories. The Iron Cross was more or less a copy of the cross Teutonic Knights bore back then. Decorations of cast iron were something new during the early 19th century, but it wasn’t purely limited to military decorations. During this period women exchanged their silver and gold jewellery for the so-called Eisenschmuck, or Berlin Iron. The King put it fittingly in 1813 – while the Napoleonic wars were waging on: “It was a “time of iron” where only “iron and determination” would ensure Prussia’s victory.”
The King went so far that awarding any other military decorations during the Napoleonic wars were halted. The iron cross thus became a symbol for the era and the German campaign. Following the defeat of Napoleon, the Iron Cross was incorporated into all Prussian flags and ensigns. It truly became a Prussian symbol, or rather, it was reemphasised as a symbol. There were three grades of the cross: the Grosskreuz for commanders, and the first and second class for personal courage during battle. The first class could be sewn onto a uniform while the second class could be worn with a black ribbon bar with silver lines.
The history of the Iron Cross saw three great hiatuses. Following the battle of Waterloo where Napoleon suffered his final defeat, the Iron Cross was not to be awarded until after the Franco-Prussian war that unified Germany in 1871. Interestingly enough the Iron Cross was redesigned in 1870 – the backside was unaltered but a crown was added to the side facing forward, including the initial “W”, after the Prussian King (and soon to be German emperor) Wilhelm I. Following the German unification, the cross ended up more or less forgotten again. After all, it was one of the longest periods of peace on the European continent. It was not until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 that the decoration was revitalized.
On August 5th 1914, the new Iron Cross design was made public. It was more or less similar to the 1870 design, aside from the apparent change in date to 1914. An interesting detail is that later during the First World War the materials, iron and silver, used for the cross were often supplemented because of the iron- and silver shortages. Ingredients such as aluminium and silver-paint were used. As the Iron Cross’s popularity pattern isn’t too difficult to follow, following the First World War, the decoration faded to the background. But when it was revamped in 1939 some substantial changes were made.
In 1939 Hitler had risen to power in Germany, and by September that year, Germany invaded Poland, signalling the beginning of the Second World War in the European theatre. As for the Iron Cross, that same month it was expanded to having four grades. The traditional first and second class and Grosskreutz still existed, but another variant was added. This was the Ritterkreuz, or Knight’s Cross variant. This military decoration had a swastika and the corresponding year engraved on it. Throughout the Second World War, multiple additions to the Ritterkreuz were issued.
First, the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross, the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords, and the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. The Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds was awarded 27 times during the Second World War.
During the final years of the Second World War, the prospects of Germany winning were close to non-existent – and in a desperate last attempt to up the morale, Hitler ordered the issuing of the Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. This last award, issued in 1944, was meant for the twelve most distinguished German servicemen once the war had ended. Eventually, just six were manufactured, and only one was awarded; to Hans-Ulrich Rudel, Germany’s legendary ground-attack pilot. Before the others could be manufactured and issued the war had already ended, and the Nazis had lost the war. There’s a photograph online of Hans-Ulrich Rudel displaying his Ritterkreuz with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds in later life. The United States army seized the remaining five sets of rare Knight’s Crosses.
Alright, so earlier this video I mentioned women and the early 19th-century trend to exchange silver- and gold jewellery to Eisenschmuck, which was basically iron jewellery. Well, in line with this development, in August 1814 the Prussian King introduced a decoration for women, of any background, that had contributed to the Prussian war effort. It was named the Louisen-Orden, or Order of Louise, named after the King’s late wife, greatly loved by the Prussian population and the King himself.
The King’s wife, Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz had passed away in 1810, four years before the order was issued. She was incredibly well-loved in Prussia, and although the royal couple had only been married for 13 years before she passed away, the couple had nine children. The love of the Prussians was, among other things, caused by her brave attitude towards Napoleon when he negotiated the cutting-up of Prussia with Tsar Alexander during the Peace of Tilsit in 1807. Perhaps you’ll remember her meeting Napoleon and attempting to convince him to reconsider his treatment of Prussia.
And it was in her honour the order of Louise was issued, an award in iron-cross shape but with a medallion bearing the “L” in the centre, surrounded by Prussian Blue. Here too the King made sure the decoration could be given to any woman, whatever status she had, as long as she contributed to the Prussian war effort. So both the military decorations issued during the Napoleonic Wars were relatively progressive for their time, since no social classes enlisted in the army were excluded.
After Napoleon was defeated in 1815, the Order of Louise too was more or less forgotten. It was not until 1865 that King Wilhelm I reinstated it, although there are sources that state the order was handed out after the violent revolutions of 1848 by King Frederick Wilhelm IV. I cannot emphasise this enough, but both the Iron Cross and Order of Luisa were testament of the integral importance of civilians of Prussia contributing to their state’s success. Whether you were a nobleman or not mattered less than it did during Medieval times – in essence, these decorations were the symbol of recognition that any man, rich or poor, noble or peasant, could significantly contribute to the state. That is not to say Prussia itself was an egalitarian society, however. After all, Junkers still dominated large rural parts of the state. There was a sharp distinction between nobility and commoners, but perhaps an even more considerable distinction between the military and civilians in terms of social status.
By the beginning of March 1945 the Western Allies, advancing on a broad front, were closing up on the River Rhine, the last great natural barrier between them and Germany’s heartland. Up until that point, the Germans had destroyed all the River’s bridges the Americans came across. Yet on March 7, at the small German town of Remagen, the American 9th Armored Division came across an intact bridge over the Rhine, the Ludendorff bridge. They needed to capture it to ensure the Rhine crossing by Armored Units, something that had only been possible in dribs and drabs using small infantry patrols and rafts. In turn, the Germans realised the bridge’s strategic importance and went all out to try and destroy the Ludendorff bridge.
On March 7 the VII Corps of the US First Army had reached the Rhine at Cologne. But the Germans had destroyed all the bridges across the river. About 72 kilometres to the south lay the town of Remagen, overlooking the Ludendorff railway bridge spanning the Rhine.
At 12:56 PM that day, the men of A Company, 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, reached the top of a gorge on the Rhine’s west bank to find themselves staring down an intact bridge over the river. The men were somewhat surprised. Until then, the Germans had blown up all bridges they came across. The unit, commanded by 22-year-old Lieutenant Karl Timmermann, travelled in the half-track military vehicle, accompanied by four Pershing M-26 tanks.
They were part of Task Force Engeman, named after Lieutenant-Colonel Leonard Engeman. The task force was part of Brigadier-General William Hogue’s Combat Command B of 9th Armored Division. Its orders were to capture the town of Remagen before turning south to link up with other units of their division.
Once they arrived at Remagen, Timmermann and his men saw the Germans’ exodus’ remnants, often with horse-drawn carriages and battered vehicles rolling over the bridge in a disorganised manner. Timmermann radioed Engeman, and informed him it appeared the Ludendorff Bridge was intact. Engeman, in turn, quickly made his way to the bridge. The men did quick reconnaissance, and Engeman decided he didn’t want to risk a drive down the narrow, steep-sided road running below the vantage point into town. It was the ideal setting for an ambush, and Germans were still roaming on their side of the river. Instead, Timmermann’s company was ordered to move down a wooded track to clear Remagen’s outskirts. After this, the four Pershings, under the command of Lieutenant John Grimball, would join them.
Before too long three platoons were skirmishing through the streets of Remagen, moving from building-to-building, dispersing a German patrol and capturing the railway station in town. By 2:20 PM Grimball’s tanks joined, slowly rolling down the town-path by the river. Here they began to lay down suppressive fire across the bridge to prevent any sudden enemy movement. Although the Allied troops could see Germans on the east bank, the Germans managed to shelter themselves off in the tunnel into which the rail line ran at the basalt cliff base.
40-odd minutes later, Timmermann and his number 3 Platoon, under Sergeant Joseph Delisio’s command, arrived at the town’s cemetery, close to the two granite towers at the western end of the Ludendorff Bridge. So far, the Americans had encountered barely any resistance. Meanwhile, on the German side, Remagen’s defence had not really been a priority of Field Marshal Walther Model. He was the German Army Group B commander and was looking to the north and south of Remagen for American assault crossings of the Rhine.
So when the Americans tried to take over the bridge without damaging it too much, they only faced weak and relatively uncoordinated resistance. A squad of engineers, 60 members of the Volkssturm, and some Luftwaffe anti-aircraft gunners operating a battery of 20mm flak guns which started firing at the Americans. To be fair, they were far from an intimidating bunch. The Germans fell under Major Willi Brage’s command, who higher-ups authorised to start preparing the bridge’s demolition. However, the bridge master, a local man, could only gather around 590kg of low-grade industrial explosive. Still, he attached the explosives to the girders of the bridge’s central span.
The commander of the engineer squad, Captain Karl Friesenhahn, also used some of the scarcely available explosives. He booby-trapped the approach ramp to the bridge on the west bank. He had built the ramp earlier to enable vehicles to drive up on the bridge and cross on the wooden planks laid over the rails. If the bridge wasn’t blown up, it would make crossing the bridge much easier for the Americans.
Battle for the bridge
Accompanying Bratge was Hans Scheller, the representative of Major-General Hitzfeld, the senior officer responsible for the Ludendorff Bridge. Hitzfeld had ordered Scheller to keep the bridge open for as long as possible, so the troops under his command had an escape route. Now, while Scheller agonised about blowing the bridge up, the American tanks began nosing down the town path. Twenty minutes later, Engeman realised this was the time to strike. He issued a precise command to seize the Ludendorff Bridge.
Timmermann and his men now faced the daunting prospect of taking an objective which at any moment might explode beneath their feet. Within two minutes, their nervous deliberations were interrupted by a heavy explosion as Friesenhahn detonated the approach ramp’s charges. When the smoke cleared, the bridge was still standing, albeit a bit damaged. The explosives didn’t manage to destroy the bridge. Timmermann immediately ordered his company to seize the bridge.
Soldiers scrambled through the craters to the bridge when there was a second explosion. The Ludendorff Bridge now flew in the air and settled again. The main charges too had been blown up, but part of the electrical firing mechanism had failed. The American tanks on the west bank continued their firing while Task Force Engeman positioned their assault guns and launched a barrage of fire against the Americans. One of Friesenhahn’s engineers, Sergeant Faust, ran through the firing from both sides to ignite the fuse in the manual firing box on the bridge.
Managing to light the fuse, Faust only returned to the tunnel’s shelter when the charges went off. Huge chunks of debris crashed into the Rhine, but still, after the smoke cleared, the bridge stood tall. Although the central span was twisted at this point and there was a gaping hole in the flooring.
Under heavy fire by the Germans, the Americans now zig-zagged their way across the bridge. The machine-guns in the eastern tower were quickly silenced, and the first Allied soldier set foot on the east bank of the Rhine. It was Sergeant Alex Drabik, Squad leader in No.3 platoon. Considering he ran near 400 meters over the bridge, taking fire from the Germans, while the charges under the bridge could blow up at any minute, this was quite the feat. For his bravery, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
By 4 PM about 75 American troops had passed safely across the bridge, taking their first surrendering German prisoners. Behind the soldiers, Allied engineers were cutting cables and hurling undetonated charges into the Rhine. There was still an explosion hazard, and the bridge was vital to the transport of armoured divisions.
As the bridgehead at Remagen expanded, the Germans threw some desperate counter-attacks to destroy the bridge. All of them failed. Over a week after the Allies had secured the bridge, the Luftwaffe was still trying to bomb it, together with the three tactical bridges the US engineers erected alongside it. They even sent V-2 guided long-range missiles. All of these missed their targets but did kill German civilians living in the vicinity of the bridge. Ten days after the bridge was secured, on March 17, the Ludendorff bridge finally toppled into the Rhine. Not without casualties though, 28 Allied troops died during the collapse. In terms of logistics, the destruction wasn’t too worrying. The Americans already established a bridgehead and two emergency bridges, ensuring Germany’s penetration by Allied armoured units.
The German defenders of the bridge were charged in absentia. Friesenhahn was acquitted and Bratge was sentenced to death. The crossing of the Rhine by the Americans had done a lot of good for the Allied troops invading Germany and was a crucial blow, albeit one of many, to the German morale.
The Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo Da Vinci, could easily be the most famous painting ever. Nowadays, almost everyone knows the famous smile of the mysterious women dressed in her day’s Florentine fashion. Enormous quantities of ink and effort have been spent over the decades to unravel the mysteries behind this painting. The painting’s history is a little obscure, but it is believed that Leonardo painted it in his residence in Florence between 1503 and 1506. When in 1516 Leonardo was invited at court in France by King Francis I, he brought the, still unfinished, painting with him. When he died in 1519, his assistant inherited his precious painting.
In 1530 the assistant sold the painting to the king for 4000 gold coins, which would roughly be around the sum of 100.000 dollars in today’s money—an enormous amount. The painting went on display in his palace of Fontainebleau, where it stayed until Louis XIV moved it to his grand palace of Versailles. It remained there until Louis XVI’s execution. Afterwards, the Mona Lisa left the possession of the Kings of France forever. It became the property of France’s people, and it was decided that it would be displayed at the newly appointed museum of the Louvre.
But when the Louvre opened in August 1793 with an exhibition of more than 500 paintings, the Mona Lisa was not among them. When Napoleon saw the Mona Lisa in 1800, he became enchanted by her, describing her as the “Sphinx of the Occident” and politely referred to her as “Madame Lisa”. It was love at first sight, and for the next few years, she hung in his bedroom. After this love affair, she returned to the Louvre to lead a calm and uneventful life for nearly a century until that fateful Monday morning in the summer of 1911.
Although the Mona Lisa already had many famous owners, she was not as renowned as she is now. It wasn’t until 1911 when the world really got to know her. In was an early morning on the 21st of August and the Louvre was closed, like it always was on Monday. Nevertheless, more than 800 people were in the massive 49-acre building, which housed half a million artworks.
Sometime between 7.00 and 8.30 in the morning, someone walked into the Salon Carré, where the Mona Lisa was hanging at the time. He subsequently and took her off the wall and walked out of the building, only to disappear, just like that. It took an hour before someone noticed that the painting was missing. Yet, it was assumed it had been taken away to be photographed. More hours passed, and the question “has anyone seen the Mona Lisa?” trumpeted through the Louvre.
Curiosity turned into anxiousness. It turned out the Mona Lisa wasn’t being photographed. There were no plans to reframe it, or to hang into another room. There was no reason for the painting not to be there. The lady simply vanished. Between Correggio’s Mystical Marriage and Titian’s Allegory of Alfonso d’Avaolos sat only four iron pegs. The next day sixty police officers were dispatched. Visitors coming out of the Louvre were searched and railway stations were patrolled. But it was too late. It had taken too long before those responsible realised the Mona Lisa had been stolen. The thief was long gone. In later reports it became clear that it had taken 26 hours from the point of theft, before the theft was officially reported.
In retrospect, this was not at all surprising the theft wasn’t immediately noticed. The museum was enormous. There were 400 rooms and only around 150 guards. Security at the Louvre was lax – as in many museums at the time -, objects disappeared with such a frequency that it can be said that it was surprising there was any art left at all. Illegal art was a profitable market.
So… Where did she go? Who took her? It didn’t take long for the press to be on top of the sensational story. Both the story of the theft and the image of the Mona Lisa travelled the world. It was as if it was a case of an abduction or kidnapping rather than a robbery. It didn’t take long for rumours to float about.
The only evidence that was found was the frame and the protective glass lying in a staircase. And the one clue they had was that it must have been an inside job since it had to be done quickly and the portrait had been mounted on the wall with four iron pegs. If you knew how to do it, the painting could come off in seconds. But if you had no experience and did not know the trick, it could take a while. Thus, it made sense to interview those who had access and expertise. Police subsequently began questioning guards and workers and even the Director and chief attendant. But without any results.
The painting must have been stolen to blackmail the government. Perhaps it was a gang that had stolen it. Or, it were the modernists – the enemies of traditional art wishing to overthrow the established order. It didn’t take long for the avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire to appear on the police’s radar. It was because of his outspoken idea that all museums should be destroyed, making room for a new way of imagining. It didn’t take long for the police to raid his flat. His friend, the famous painter Pablo Picasso held similar views. Earlier he had bought statuettes that had been stolen from the Louvre. Knowing what the police had done at his friend’s flat, he feared the statues were incriminating and he decided he should get rid of them.
That night Picasso went to the Seine, making sure he wasn’t followed, to get rid of the damning evidence. But he couldn’t bring himself to destroy the works and returned home. 19 days later he was interviewed by the police in his flat and summoned by the court on the charge of owning stolen goods from the Louvre. But the police didn’t bother to investigate his house and he was released due to lack of evidence. He could return home but was banned from leaving Paris. His friend Apollinaire spent two days in jail before he was released. He was at that point the only person in France ever arrested for the Mona Lisa’s theft. While La Bande à Picasso or the Wild Men of Paris as they were known, were perfect suspects, they were not the thieves and the Mona Lisa remained lost.
Some blamed the Germans. Others thought it was a cover-up for the museum saying the painting accidentally got destroyed. And some believed the whole thing was a joke and that the painting would find its way home shortly. Though detectives kept searching for the precious painting, the Mona Lisa did not turn up. It was a dead end. The Paris police chief even retired, following the leads going cold. Then, after two years, the thief made contact.
The criminal mastermind
It was November 29th, 1913 when the well-known Italian art dealer from Florence named Alfredo Geri received a letter signed as “Leonardo” after placing an ad in several Italian newspapers. In these ads, he stated that he was “looking to buy art objects of every sort for a good price”. In the letter, the writer offered the stolen Mona Lisa for sale for 100.000 francs. He suggested Geri should come to Paris to have a viewing of the painting. The mysterious writer that referred to himself as Leonard was the Italian Vincenzo Peruggia. Employed as a picture framer, he was responsible for the Mona Lisa’s re-hanging a few years earlier.
Funnily enough, Peruggia had been interviewed. Twice. But since everyone thought the thief must have been a criminal mastermind, they didn’t bother taking fingerprints. The police never considered him as a serious suspect. He walked into the gallery, dismounted the painting, removed the frame, hid it under the white smock every museum staff wore, and walked out of the museum. Easy as that. He claimed he had taken the painting as a patriotic act: he finally returned the Mona Lisa to her Italian home, after being taken by Napoleon.
Art dealers often received obscure letters from people trying to sell their art. And most of the time they would throw it away. But this time Geri wasn’t sure if ‘Leonardo’ was a fraud. He trust his gut – after all, at that point, the painting was still missing – and wrote back that he would come to check the painting out.
He brought the renowned Uffizi art gallery director – Giovanni Poggi – who would check the painting’s authenticity. On Wednesday November 17th, they went to “Leonardo’s” hotel room to meet the Italian. Once inside, Peruggia retrieved an old trunk from under his bed. Both men were waiting anxiously. Would it really be the lost Mona Lisa? Peruggia took out an object wrapped in red silk from the false bottom of the trunk. There it was, intact and well preserved: the divine Mona Lisa. There was no doubt about its authenticity. The painting still bore the identifying seal from the Louvre. It was apparent: they found the Mona Lisa.
Upon this realisation, they told Peruggia to leave the artwork with them. They would smuggle it back to Italy and make sure that he’d receive his money in a timely fashion. Peruggia returned home, awaiting his reward. Yet instead of cash, the police stood on his doorstep a few hours later. Poggi and Geri informed Paris police as soon as Peruggia left the building.
A hero was born
Caught red-handed, there was no denying Peruggia was the culprit. Yet even at the trial that followed, he continued claiming his innocence. He reasoned he simply attempted to return the Mona Lisa home. He acted on altruistic and patriotic motives. Nothing more, nothing less.
The 100.000 francs were only to cover his expensive, according to himself. Obviously the judge disagreed with his reasoning. He was sentenced to seven months in jail. But perhaps those seven months were a reasonable price to pay for the Italian public’s reception. Their response to Peruggia’s motives was enthusiastic. He was truly seen as a hero!
He received so many gifts during his sentence, such as chocolates, cheques, flowers, food and coffee, that he had to be placed in a bigger jail.
Following the theft, the Mona Lisa became world-famous. Her face became the most recognizable face in the world. When she returned to the Louvre, people travelled from afar in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the lady herself.
According to the Uffizi Gallery director, the Mona Lisa had never been stolen, nor kidnapped. She had eloped, trying to come home. As she has always been a devious lady: surely that mysterious smile tells you that. In one of his many contradictory accounts Peruggia had claimed that he didn’t plan the heist. Instead, when he passed her he was seduced by her smile. As if she was asking him to take her. In any case: after this incident the smile of the Mona Lisa will never be forgotten.
During the 1960s the Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union reached an all-time high. Events that come to mind are the Cuban Missile Crisis and the erecting of the Berlin Wall. On the other side of the world, the division between North- and South Korea had just begun settling in as a permanent reality, after the bloody Korean War was concluded with an armistice the decade before. Dictator Kim Il-sung, the founder of Communist North Korea, still ruled his Hermit Kingdom, closed off from most of the world.
Perhaps seemingly unrelated but crucial to know for this story, elsewhere in Asia the Vietnam Conflict was rapidly escalating. To many American servicemen at the time, Vietnam seemed like an inevitable destination. It was the same for 24-year-old Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins. He joined the army in 1958 and was deployed to Korea for a year in 1960. In late 1964 he was redeployed for his second tour. It’s how on that fateful night in January 1965 he found himself stationed at the border between North- and South Korea, tasked with regular patrols in the demilitarised zone. However, Charles was afraid of the certain death that awaited him in Vietnam. As the possibility of him being sent there got closer, he began getting more anxious and depressed. In turn, he began planning radical action to dodge potential deployment to Vietnam. Although admittedly, it’s doubtful his alternative was a better idea.
During one of his nightly patrols, he decided to leap into the unknown. Some reports state he drank ten beers that night. Together with his platoon, he patrolled through a wooded area in the demilitarised zone. Charles then ordered his men to wait for him while checking a supposed noise out in the dark. His men waited for him to return… and they waited. But Charles didn’t turn up. According to reports, his men sounded the alarm when he failed to return. Immediately, a massive search around the southern side of the demilitarised zone was set up. North Korea was known for its rogue tactics and abduction of a U.S. serviceman from the demilitarised zone didn’t seem unlikely. Regardless of the extensive search, his comrades never found Charles.
It wasn’t until decades later the world found out what exactly transpired during those minutes Charles supposedly went to investigate something in the dark. It wasn’t a pre-planned abduction by the North Korean military. Instead, Charles simply rushed through the wooded area, onto North Korean territory. When he ran into dumbfounded North Korean border guards, he gave up his weapon and surrendered. Charles Jenkins had officially defected to North Korea, a country that would hold him for nearly forty years. After the extensive search didn’t turn up anything, and they investigated Charles’ recent mail, the U.S. Army considered defection the most likely reason for Charles’ disappearance.
Yet the world didn’t know what happened to Charles after his defection – there was a near-complete media silence coming from North Korea during the following decades. It does the state’s moniker, the Hermit Kingdom, justice. Several weeks after his defection an internal radiobroadcast from Pyongyang made clear a U.S. serviceman defected. The reason given was because of the awful conditions of South Korea, leading the serviceman to believe the quality of life in North Korea was much better. But that’s about it.
The immediate aftermath of how the American side perceived his defection can be pieced together from newspaper articles during that time. It goes without saying that it was heavily frowned upon. The press didn’t have any sympathy for Charles, and many articles really did a number on him. Newspaper editors also got a hold of the note Charles left for his mother before his defection, in which he apologised for the “trouble he will cause her.” The letter stated: “I know what I’ll have to do, I’m going to North Korea. Tell the family I love them very much. Love, Charles.”
Charles friends and family continued to believe he was abducted from the border. His mother, Pattie Casper, conveyed that Charles would not have willingly defected, even though he left a letter stating his intentions. Breadcrumbs of information about Charles’s life and situation were occasionally released from the Hermit Kingdom, but much of the case was shrouded in mystery. Only thanks to a curious turn of events in 2002, nowadays we know a lot about Charles’ life within North Korea… and about North Korea itself.
Time in Captivity
What makes Charles’ story even more interesting is that he was able to escape North Korea. As one of the few people ever to do so. We’ll get to how he managed to escape the prison-state in a bit. But upon his release, Charles gave interviews recounting his defection and subsequent life. So we can actually get a glimpse from his perspective of what happened after that fateful night.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Charles reminisced how, looking back, he thought of himself as incredibly naive. He defected during the Cold War era, and the gameplan of the young sergeant was to be extradited to the Soviet Union through Pyongyang. And the Soviets would hopefully grant him asylum. Well, things didn’t even remotely turn out like that. Instead, for decades Charles remained, in what he described as a ‘gigantic, crazy prison nobody gets out of.’
That is not to say he was stuck behind bars for most of his life though. He might have been a Pyongyang prisoner but wasn’t stuck in a traditional prison as we know it. As one of the few Western prisoners in North Korea, he initially lived in a small room together with three other U.S. deserters. The North Koreans forced them to study Kim Il-sung’s works for ten hours per day, beating them regularly. They endured malnourishment and deplorable living conditions. According to his testimonies, he was forced to dig his own grave several times, as a form of extreme psychological torture.
Seven years later Charles finally received his own home and a North Korean passport. Yet he was still under constant surveillance and scrutiny. His house was unheated, which caused harsh winters, and thanks to the widespread famine in North Korea malnourishment was still a daily reality.
The lack of Western prisoners in the country might have been a blessing in disguise, though. It allowed Charles to play the archetypical ‘evil American spy’ in over twenty propaganda films. He also appeared on propaganda leaflets. When he wasn’t acting, he taught English at a military school. He wasn’t useless to the regime, and as such was allowed to continue living… albeit in hardship.
In his autobiography “The Reluctant Communist”, published after his release, he describes how he went to teach English at a military school during one summer. Due to the hot weather, he had his sleeves rolled up, exposing his U.S. Army tattoo. Several doctors were immediately summoned to the school. They grabbed Charles and used a scalpel and scissors to remove his tattoo without any anaesthesia.
Now, although Charles willingly defected in 1965, North Korea actually has an infamous abduction program. They mainly abduct Japanese citizens. These are then employed as cultural trainers for their spies. Yeah, really. Shockingly enough there is a considerable list of Japanese people that are assumed to have been abducted by the North Korean secret service. Among these abductees was Hitomi Soga. This Japanese woman, a nurse, was kidnapped together with her mother in 1978 at the age of 19.
As it turned out, two years after her abduction, she was forced to live with Charles. She had been teaching Japanese to North Korean spies. The couple was forced to marry, and Charles was encouraged to take advantage of her. North Korea’s idea behind these forced marriages was to receive offspring with western characteristics that could be used as spies. The other three American deserters too were forced into marriages with abductees. Although not necessarily a recipe for love, Charles treated Hitomi with respect and the couple actually developed a loving relationship. They married, lived together for over two decades and even had two daughters.
It was through his wife that Charles eventually was released from his decades-long captivity in North Korea. In 1994 Kim Jong-il, son of Kim Il-sung succeeded him. As a gesture for diplomatic rapprochement, Jong-il admitted that North Korea abducted thirteen Japanese citizens during the previous decades. By this point, eight of them already died, but he considered allowing the other five to travel to Japan to visit their family briefly.
After the Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang in the fall of 2002, Hitomi and four others were allowed to return home for ten days. Although their visit to Japan was intended to be brief, the Japanese government did not return their citizens. Instead, it opened negotiations to have the abductees’ family members repatriated in addition to the initial group.
Many of these families eventually were allowed to return. North Korea hoped to earn some diplomatic goodwill. But Charles stayed behind with their two daughters because he feared Japan would extradite him to the United States. Over there he would be prosecuted for desertion. Other sources mention that Charles was brainwashed to the degree that he thought the entire ploy was an attempt by Pyongyang to test his loyalty.
Two years later, in May 2004 Japanese PM Koizumi again travelled to Pyongyang, where he met with Charles. Charles reiterated his conviction that he was unwilling to leave North Korea. But in July that year, Charles and their two daughters flew to Indonesia. For Charles, one of the reasons besides seeing his wife, who he hadn’t seen for two years, was to receive urgent medical treatment. Indonesia was chosen as the destination because it didn’t have an extradition treaty with the United States. Initially, Charles was only allowed to leave North Korea temporarily, receive medical treatment, and subsequently return to Pyongyang.
Yet Koizumi and others managed to convince him to take the gamble, face a court-martial and be reunited with his family. Risking a life sentence, he travelled to Japan. In turn, Japan’s government requested a formal pardon from the U.S. government, which they declined to grant. After arriving in Japan in July, Charles reported to the U.S. Army Post Camp Zama, nearby Tokyo.
In November that same year, his trial commenced. Charles pled guilty to desertion and aiding the enemy, was sentenced to thirty days in prison and received a dishonourable discharge. Due to good behaviour, he was released after 24 days. At 64 years of age, for the first time in 40 years, it appeared Charles was finally a free man again.
Upon his release, the entire family moved to Sado, Hitomi’s place of residence before she was abducted. There, Hitomi became a nurse again, and Charles took up a job as a greeter at an attraction park. As far as I could find, his daughters managed to attain steady employment in Japan and ended up doing well for themselves. Up until his last moments, Charles hailed his wife as the heroine that saved his life. He passed away in December 2017, at the age of 77 in Sado.
San Bernardino Sun, Volume 71, 28 January 1965
The Dutch city of Breda is located in the southern Brabant province. Aside from its cultural riches, a pretty well-known prison named de Koepel, or ‘the Dome’, is situated there. In the wake of the Second World War, the prison housed all Dutch war-criminals serving life sentences. Some of them had their death sentence commuted. Others simply served life. 111 Dutchmen and 63 Germans. Among them were ‘Breda’s Seven’; seven Dutch former Waffen-SS war-criminals serving life sentences.
Yet seven years after the Second World War came to an end and the Dutch court sentenced these men to life, they managed to escape the prison and flee the country. This event dominated the national headlines, and there was an enormous public backlash. Not so much because of the escape itself, but because of the aftermath… Although it was known where the escapees fled and where they resided, it appeared that all of them managed to get away with it. In 2018 the Dutch National Archives released confidential ministerial letters, memos and reports regarding the escape. These provide a candid look at the subsequent diplomatic fallout.
On December 26, 1952, Boxing Day, the prison hosted a movie night for its inmates. The 1935 black-and-white Austrian comedy Der Himmel auf Erden was played in the common room. But seven former Waffen-SS members and war-criminals serving life sentences weren’t watching the film. Herbertus Bikker, Sander Borgers, Klaas Carel Faber, Jacob de Jonge, Willem van der Neut, Willem Polak and Antoine Touseul were planning their escape. With help from sympathisers on the outside.
Letters and documents reveal these men were serving their sentences for a long list of crimes against humanity. During the Second World War, they committed murder, abuse and reprisals against unarmed civilians. They aided and abetted the deportation of Jews, some being camp-guards themselves.
As soon as the common room lights extinguished, the seven prisoners snuck to the prison’s boiler room. They pick locked the door that led them to the courtyard. One of the men worked in the boiler room and hid a ladder under piles of coal there earlier that day. Using both the ladder and a firehose, all seven managed to climb over the five-meter high outer perimeter wall, unnoticed by any guard.
Outside two cars stood at the ready, a Plymouth and Chevrolet. It appeared the men received help from outside and that this escape wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing. It had been thoroughly planned. After the men jumped into the cars, they drove to Germany. Within two hours, at around 10 PM that night, they crossed the border. Upon arrival in Germany, they reported themselves to the local police. Some sources indicate the local police officer that happened to be on duty that night was a former SS officer himself, instantly sharing the department’s Christmas stollen and brewing the prisoners a pot of coffee.
Meanwhile, in prison, halfway through the film, the lights suddenly turned on. Someone tipped the guards an escape had taken place, although the guards were unsure who, and how many escapees there were. After a rollcall they counted 167 prisoners: seven were missing. But it was too late, and most of the prisoners would never return to the Netherlands.
During the subsequent proceedings of German authorities against the fugitives, a German district judge, Dyckman, convicted all men… for illegally crossing the border. They were fined 10 Marks each. The fact the men only had Dutch guilders to pay the fine didn’t really matter. It appeared they quite literally escaped justice.
Now, you’d expect the men to be extradited to the Netherlands as the German authorities found out they resided in the country. Because, well, they were Dutch citizens. Yet that wasn’t the case. Since 1943 any person of a ‘Germanic nation’ such as the Flemish or Dutchmen that joined up with the Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS automatically received German citizenship. This was thanks to the so-called Führer-Erlass, directives issued by Adolf Hitler himself.
Post-war German law prohibited extradition of its own citizens. So German courts used this argument to obstruct any way shape or form, leading to these Dutch fugitives’ extradition. In turn, all of them began new lives in Germany.
It’s fascinating to read letters from the Dutch ambassador Pim van Boetzelaer, complaining about this “ridiculous argumentation, because all these men are as Dutch as can be.” Three years after the escape, in October 1955, the German ambassador to the Hague received a firm reprimand from the Dutch government. In a letter, the government complained about the deterioration of confidence in the German rule of law. Mainly because the German courts used the Führer-Erlass as an argumentation not to extradite the men. After all, the decree was a thoroughly national-socialist decree, issued by Hitler himself. How could Germany, after all the crimes committed by the Nazi regime, uphold such an order?
Writing about the case in private letters, the Dutch Justice Minister Leendert Donker complained about it being “highly unsatisfactory and completely untenable.” He also criticised the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joseph Luns. Apparently, Luns promised to ensure that he’d reach an agreement with the Germans regarding the issue. But three years down the line there was no word about it yet.
Coded telegrams sent by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reveal a painfully obvious absence of Allied countries’ support. In one such telegram from February 1955, they write that extradition of ‘bandits’ isn’t a priority to Washington, London or Paris. They had bigger fish to fry. To be fair, due to the Cold War, there was ever-increasing tension between the Soviet Union and the Western nations. It was a priority to ensure support from West Germany, and agitating them by twisting their arm into extraditing the men could work counterproductive. Dutch interest was secondary to these massive geopolitical interests forming a block against the Soviet Union and its satellite states.
This too became painfully obvious to the Dutch government. On October 27, 1955, Minister Donker wrote that “any chance of extradition of these men is close to zero. It is a lost cause.” And Donker wasn’t too wrong. All men got away with it. Well, except for Jacob de Jonge, a former camp guard who ended up not being eligible for German citizenship. He was extradited to the Netherlands and served part of his sentence. I couldn’t for the life of me find out how long he did serve, although it is near certain he did not serve a life sentence anymore.
As for the prison itself, in the immediate aftermath of the escape, the prison, housing dozens of war criminals, increased the height of the walls and erected multiple guard towers.
Curiously enough the three men driving the cars and helping the escapees were arrested and put on trial in the Netherlands. All three were native Dutchmen from Amsterdam. It turned out they served prison sentences in the aftermath of the war for assisting the Germans during their occupation of the Netherlands.
Dutch newspapers publicised their names and their defence. The interrogation reports are included in the secret archives of the Dutch Justice Ministry. It was quite laughable: they stated they were simply driving around, looking at Dutch meadows, when they ran into the group of escaped prisoners. On a whim, they decided to give the men a ride. They supposedly didn’t know they were helping war-criminals escape. At any rate, all four were sentenced to six months imprisonment for aiding the escapees.
Herbertus Bikker, nicknamed the Hangman of Camp Ommen, ended up standing trial in Germany in 2003 – 51 years after his escape. The Germans charged him with the murder of a member of the Dutch resistance, Jan Houtman. Yet psychiatrists advised the court that Bikker wasn’t mentally capable of understanding the charges brought against him anymore. As such, the German courts decided to halt prosecuting him. Bikker was never convicted for any of his crimes, just like the others, except de Jonge.