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The Deadly Cowra Mass-Breakout (1944): Largest Prison Break of World War 2

During the Second World War, a PoW camp in southeast Australia nearby the township Cowra housed mainly Japanese and Italian prisoners. During the night of August 5th 1944, a bugle sounded in the dead-quiet night. As the camp’s guards would soon find out, this sound was the signal for hundreds of Japanese prisoners to storm the outer-fences and six guard towers, brandishing nothing but makeshift weaponry. That night, the largest and single-most bloody POW prison break of the entire Second World War commenced. All of it happening nearby that middle-sized quiet township of Cowra, Australia. 

Cowra PoW Camp

Background

By August 1944, Australia housed a bit over 12000 POWs. On Australia’s mainland, a significant POW camp was located near the middle-sized town of Cowra, situated in the central west of New South Wales, inhabited by around 3000 Australians. Its location is a bit over 300 kilometres to the southwest of Sydney. 

As for the prisoners, the camp housed approximately 2200. A little over half of them were Japanese, captured during the brutal fighting in the Pacific. A significant number were Italians, either captured in the Middle East or merchant sailors, picked up by the Royal Australian Navy patrolling the Pacific. 

The prison complex was a relatively large near-circular compound. It covered an area of over thirty hectares, which is the equivalent of around 56 football fields. Encompassing the compound were three barbed-wire perimeter fences, and in between these fences lay more barbed wire. As the map shows, it was subdivided into four different compounds: A, B, C and D. They were divided by two roads, the so-called No Man’s Land moving from west-to-east, and Broadway moving from north-to-south. On the northern point of Broadway was the main gate, and lights brightly illuminated the entire road during night-time, hence the name. Six guard towers and Vickers machine guns surrounded the entire camp. Surely, if there would be an outbreak, it would have to occur in secret by digging a tunnel, the much-preferred method of Allied and German escapees. Storming the fences would be no more than a suicidal mission.

Cowra Camp Map (courtesy of the Australian War Memorial)

Compound A and C housed Italians. According to some personal testimonies, besides Japanese officers, Compound D housed Formosans, but even some Koreans and Chinese prisoners. Presumably, the Japanese Kwantung army drafted these men from occupied territories. Compound B was reserved for Japanese non-commissioned officers and junior ranks. 

Australia’s 22nd Garrison Battalion guarded them. The 22nd was mainly composed of old or disabled veterans of the First World War, or younger men considered unfit for frontline service. An interpreter, working in Compound D, later reminisced that he didn’t feel safe because most of the prisoners comprised young men, while most armed guards were old and could easily be overpowered. 

During the day, Italian prisoners were allowed to work outside of the compound on the neighbouring farms. There are many stories of Italians returning with heavy containers, and guards and other staff soon realised they smuggled vegetables into the camp. As such, Italians tended to have a better diet than the guards themselves. According to historian Charlotte Carr-Gregg, Italians didn’t necessarily see an inherent problem with being captured in terms of dishonour or personal failure. It was a part of waging war, and they even somewhat appreciated the Australians closely adhering to the Geneva Convention. They were fed, clothed, and treated with dignity.

The Japanese perceived this in a wildly different fashion, though. Carr-Gregg collected statements of both prisoners and people schooled in Japan right before the Second World War broke out. Without going too much into depth, it is safe to say Japanese prisoners generally interpreted their capture as a personal failure. They should have instead taken their own lives. Accounts of Australian guardsmen reiterate this sentiment. Japanese prisoners often gave a fake name when they were arrested in the hope their families would think they died during battle. The fact the Australians adhered closely to the Geneva Convention was perceived as laughable and seen as weakness on the Australian’s part. Undoubtedly, they must have feared the might of the Japanese Empire. Why else would they treat their prisoners with dignity?

In another study by Carr-Gregg, she claimed that the Japanese prisoners were likely aware of Japan losing the war. Cowra camp had newspapers readily available to prisoners and a few prisoners would often read and translate them to the rest. 

Still, a breakout seemed unlikely. After all, Australian guards treated their prisoners well, and at most the prisoners had cutlery but no real weapons. Due to the three barbed wire fences, guard towers and the Vickers guns the guards weren’t too worried. In fact, in June 1944 after guards learned of a mass breakout in the making, Army Officials upped Cowra’s security. Two more Vickers machine guns, additional Owen and Bren guns, and more rifles were distributed among the guards. 

The Breakout

The breakout wasn’t necessarily planned far in advance. It was hastily orchestrated after Camp B prisoners learned of relocating junior ranks to a different POW camp on August 4. According to the Anzac Day Commemoration Committee, Sergeant Major Kanazawa called a meeting of twenty hut leaders. Each hut leader had to test the waters among their men for the willingness for a mass escape. Although not all hut leaders agreed, eventually, the decision was made to launch the mass breakout, no matter the cost.

Other Japanese prisoners that were either too sick or too weak to escape, were ordered to take their own lives to ‘regain their honour.’

In the middle of the night on August 5 1944, at least 545 Japanese Prisoners of War launched their breakout of the camp. At around 2 AM that night, amidst utter darkness and quiet, a Japanese bugle sounded. Another prisoner ran towards a guard tower and started shouting at the well-defended machine gun emplacements. And if some guards weren’t aware of what was happening yet, the subsequent loud shouting of ‘Banzai’, and general screaming of over 1000 prisoners storming out of their huts certainly alerted them. Armed with baseball bats, iron pipes, improvised clubs and sharpened kitchen knives, they stormed the outer perimeter fences and attacked guards.

This map shows what happened next. Two mobs of prisoners stormed the north and eastern fences, attempting to cut the wire. Another group stormed the main gate and guard posts which had machine guns installed on them. They used improvised weaponry and launched suicidal charges at the Australian camp guards, in line with the suicidal charges G.I.s saw all around the Pacific. 

A fourth group crossed Broadway and attempted to link up with Compound D, where the Japanese officers, Formosans, Koreans and Chinese were housed. 

Guards and sentries at first fired warning shots, accidentally cutting the main electricity cable. The rest of the escape occurred in utter darkness. The first sentry to be overrun was manned by privates Benjamin Hardy and Ralph Jones. Realising the mob was too large, they began firing into it as it was coming right at them. But the prisoners were with too many, and they were overrun . Private Jones’ final act was to hide the Vickers machine gun’s lock, so that it was rendered useless to the Japanese. This most likely prevented them from killing many more guards. Private Shepherd too was slain near the main entrance of Broadway. Four other Australian guards suffered injuries. 

Meanwhile, the two groups storming the outer perimeter fences managed to break through. Using blankets, prisoners climbed over the barbed wire fence. The groups that entered Broadway were taken under fire from Australians on both ends, pinning the escapees down. None of the escapees attempting to link up with Compound D where the Japanese officers resided managed to get out. Yet 334 prisoners managed to break through the fences and disappear into the night. It wasn’t until the next morning that the Australians could assess the absolute bloodbath that had taken place here during those short moments after 2 AM.

Aftermath

Immediately, the Australians called in every military branch’s help to recapture the escapees. The Royal Australian Air Force, Military Force trainees, the Women’s Battalion and regular police officers all joined the manhunt. But often, when escapees were about to be arrested, they decided to go out on their own terms. 

Examples are two escapees that jumped in front of a train. Others hanged themselves when they realised there was no escape, and others that failed to finish the job begged their captors to kill them. Yet official records reveal local civilians shot only two prisoners. The military shot around a dozen.

The final death toll on the Australian side was four. Three guards died during the escape attempt, and Lieutenant Harry Doncaster was killed during the manhunt. Details are a bit vague, but it is assumed he was ambushed by escapees a bit over 10 kilometres north of Cowra. No civilians appear to have been harmed during the breakout, something the Japanese leaders ordered. 

It took the Australian military nine days to rearrest all escapees. The furthest away was an escapee captured at Eugowra, over 50 kilometres away from the camp. In total, Australian troops rearrested 334 escapees. Either 231 or 234 Japanese prisoners died, and 108 were wounded. At least 31 among the dead took their own lives.

After the events, Australian premier John Curtin described the breakout and Japanese POWs conduct as showcasing ‘suicidal contempt for life.’ In 1950, Privates Benjamin Hardy and Ralph Jones were awarded the George Cross posthumously. 

The Japanese troops that died in the escape attempt were buried in a specially designated Japanese War Cemetery, opened in 1963. It is the only one in Australia. Besides Japanese escapees, several casualties of the Darwin bombings are buried there as well. In 1979 Australia’s government established the Japanese Gardens, emphasising the good relationship between Japan and Cowra. 

Graves at the Japanese War Cemetery

After the war the Cowra escape wasn’t that well-known to the outside world. Historian and journalist Harry Gordon popularised the breakout when he published Voyage of Shame, a detailed study into the escape. With over 200 deaths, this deadliest escape attempt ever by Japanese POWs was quite different from German POWs’ escape attempts in the United Kingdom and United States. I’ve created videos of those events and several other escapes if you’re interested. One of them should appear on-screen shortly, and otherwise, have a look at my channel. 

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The Forgotten (and Flawed) British Invasion of Iceland: Operation Fork (1940)

In early 1940, the Second World War truly began taking shape in the European theatre. On April 9, 1940, Denmark capitulated to invading German forces. One month later, the Phoney War ended as Germany successfully launched its invasion of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France. 

However, on that fateful day, May 10 1940, Germany wasn’t the only country to cross nearby borders and invade other countries. Because Great Britain did just that, on that same morning the Phoney War ended. They invaded the tiny island of Iceland, situated in the North Atlantic Ocean.

British soldiers in Reykjavík

Preparations

Now, the invasion of Iceland was curious for multiple reasons. We’ll have to briefly gloss over its recent history to understand why – but there was one main reason: the island did not have an army, nor did it have a navy. In fact, Iceland was very dependent on Denmark for its defences. Sure, Denmark recognised their former colony as a sovereign state since December 1918, but the island still entirely relied on Denmark in terms of military power. 

The island itself housed a little under 360.000 civilians. With an area a bit over 100 square kilometres, making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. 

Although Iceland is sparsely populated, it is exceptional for not having a military even among small countries. For example, Luxembourg has a population just a tad larger at 626.000 inhabitants but has a fully equipped and trained infantry battalion. Well, the census of December 2018 reveals they employ 414 soldiers in active service. Perhaps not enough to win any type of war, considering its neighbours, but still. Even the Vatican, with just over 800 inhabitants, has its own personal halberd-wielding army. 

So why didn’t Iceland have an army? There certainly is enough lore talking of the wars and battles among the Vikings, the civil war between clans fighting over control, and the eventual development of Iceland’s rulers as vassals of Kings of Norway and later Denmark. In the 16th century, the island was still a Danish colony. The Danish king didn’t expect other colonial powers to wage war over Iceland’s territory. Because deploying soldiers at a remote base such as that did get costly, he decided to completely disarm the northern colony.

And frankly, disarming the entire island didn’t lead to that many problems. Most of Iceland’s modern military history can be characterised by pacifism. Denmark took care of its protection, even after the aforementioned Act of Union of December 1918, wherein Denmark recognised the island as a fully sovereign state. Because of its remote location there simply weren’t any proper threats to the island. 

Although there were financial impacts, the island did not experience any bloodshed during the First World War. Yet during the interbellum already the island was seen as an ideal strategic military base for expeditions and operations in the northern seas—both to the Germans and British. After the successful invasion of Poland and the subsequent overpowering of the neutral countries of Denmark and Norway in April, the British began to realise they may be the only ones left in Europe to fight the rapidly advancing Germans. Rapid action was required to do so.

The very same day news reached England of Germany’s invasion of Denmark and Norway, they sent out telegrams to several countries, pleading to declare war on Germany. Among these countries was tiny, neutral Iceland. The British proposed Iceland an alliance that would guarantee the countries’ neutrality. In turn, the Royal Navy and army wanted access to all airfields and harbours. Hermann Jónasson, Iceland’s prime minister, rejected the offer, disregarding that he knew Iceland didn’t have an army to withstand an invasion from whichever side.

Invasion of Iceland

Upon receiving news of the rejection, British prime minister Winston Churchill was livid. After what happened with Norway and Denmark, there was no way he could allow Iceland to fall into German hands uncontested. Nearly a month later, on May 6, the British began planning so-called Operation Fork, the invasion of Iceland. 

The 2nd Marine Squadron under the command of Colonel Robert Sturges was the force chosen for this invasion. 746 British marines participated. Many of these marines hadn’t yet completed their training, and all of them were poorly equipped. The lack of training can be understood because the squadron had only existed for just one month. Many recruits were still in basic training, rarely having shot a rifle if they even had a rifle at all. Also, all maps of Iceland that were available to the army and Royal Navy were outdated. Not to mention the fact there was not a single marine able to speak Icelandic.

HMS Berwick

So these logistical parts of the mission weren’t exactly… up to standards. It shouldn’t be a surprise the initial stages of the mission were an embarrassing but in hindsight, pretty amusing failure. To begin with, the invasion had to take place on May 9 but was postponed to the following day because the marines ran late to reach their point of departure. Because of the time constraints, they left a lot of ammunition and supplies in the British harbour. 

The vessels brining the marines to Iceland were HMS Berwick and HMS Glasgow. Yet, these vessels did not have enough capacity to house all marines comfortably, and during the transit, many marines became seasick due to their inexperience. According to eyewitness accounts, several marines that were fortunate enough not to get seasick decided to use the journey for some rifle practice.

So on the night of May 9 to 10, two stacked vessels sailed towards Iceland. HMS Berwick decided to launch a Supermarine Walrus reconnaissance aircraft. The thing is, it was not even 2 AM by this point – dead quiet. Not to mention Iceland didn’t have an airforce. As such, the noise of the plane’s motors woke up the entire island. 

It took a few more hours for the British to finally sail into the ports of Reykjavik. When they finally ‘invaded’ the country, a delegation of 76 policemen stood at the ready, waiting for them. When the Icelandic policemen realised they were dealing with a considerable invasion force, they understood they stood no chance. In the harbour, the British consul was waiting with the police officers. When he requested them to push back the ever-growing crowd so the soldiers could more easily disembark the boat, the policemen willingly obliged. 

Supermarine Walrus

Once disembarked, the marines began putting up flyers in Icelandic, containing several grammatical errors. The flyers informed the local populations of the occupation. During those initial hours, the British didn’t face any resistance and were able to disable all communication networks on the island. They occupied the harbour and other strategic positions in town. 

They preemptively arrested any German citizen they came across. The German Consul, Werner Gerlach, had been aware of the impending invasion thanks to the Supermarine Walrus reconnaissance aircraft circling over the city during night time. He spent the entire morning burning sensitive documents. When marines came by, Gerlach pointed out they had just invaded a neutral country. The argument was swiftly parried by stating Denmark and Norway had been just as neutral. 

Once Reykjavik was occupied, the marines began building an air defence system within the capital, and several units went on their way to secure the rest of the island. By claiming local transportation means, troops moved north to capture cities such as Hvalfjörour, only to push forward during the next several days and capture the northern town of Akureyri. 

Taking control of the northern part of the island was crucial to prevent any German naval counteroffensive from happening. Subsequently, the cities of Kaldaoarnes, Sandskeioi and Akranes were taken to avoid an aerial assault with Fallschirmjäger from overpowering the British forces. Those same Fallschirmjäger had wreaked havoc behind Allied lines. For example, Eben-Emael was once deemed Belgium’s impenetrable fortress, but quickly overtaken by a German paratrooper force.

So how did Iceland’s government and population respond to this sudden act of aggression from the British? Well, on the evening of May 10, Iceland’s government formally protested. They noted how Britain violated Iceland’s neutrality and sovereignty. They realised they weren’t in an actual position to resist, though. As this article from a Texan newspaper shows, the country had neither army nor navy. They demanded the British compensate them for all damages led during the invasion, to which the British government agreed.

The British government also agreed they would withdraw all forces once the “conclusion of all hostilities” was reached. To their allies, they communicated they took “protective custody” of the tiny island. It was quite a bloodless invasion. However, there was one casualty… albeit not on the island. As the marines were sailing to Iceland preceding the invasion, one of the men decided to take his own life. Details about the why and how are entirely unclear, but it is noted that the only victim of Operation Fork was just that poor marine. 

As for the subsequent events, the initial invasion force wasn’t at strength to safeguard the island against a potential German counterattack. Seven days after the first boots on the ground, 4000 British soldiers relieved the marines. Over time the British military increased this to 25.000 soldiers until the Americans relieved all British troops one year later. 

US Troops arrive in Iceland

In that sense, the Second World War in Iceland was pretty uneventful. Up until the Germans’ surrender in 1945, the Americans simply held the island to prevent any lost German weather units from sailing onshore and taking over control. After all, there were quite a few German weather stations nearby in the arctic.

Iceland’s final “war”

But with Germany’s surrender in 1945, the American presence in Iceland didn’t end. They never left. During the subsequent ‘Cold War’, Iceland only increased in strategic importance. The island literally lay on the Soviet-navy sailing route from the ice-free harbours of Murmansk to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1946 the Icelandic government granted the United States the right to establish the Keflavík airbase, located approximately 40km north of the capital Reykjavík. Having Americans stationed there didn’t prevent Iceland from getting in fights with its Allied neighbours. 

Now, already before and after the Second World War, most of Iceland’s economy depended on its fishermen. When the availability of fish declined, it was a direct threat to the Icelandic economy. It is the primary reason why Iceland vehemently opposed over-fishing by other nations in or nearby their waters. 

This self-preserving ‘hostile’ stance led to four maritime conflicts, which became known as the Cod Wars. In 1952 Iceland expanded its fishery limits from 3 to 5 nautical miles, repeating this step in 1958, 1972. In 1975 they reached their limit of 200 nautical miles. Due to Britain, in return, declaring a similar zone around its own waters and other nations following suit, the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone has been the international standard under the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea since 1982.

Iceland and its exclusive economic zone

These expansions of Iceland’s fishery limits led to multiple altercations with mainly Britain and West-German governments. Icelandic coastal guards chased away foreign fishing ships, cutting their nets and even ramming the vessels if they reached them. If not, the Icelandic Coast Guard would shoot at the fleeing ships. Because Britain obviously couldn’t accept this, battleships began escorting the British fishing trawlers. 

The Cod War reached one of its curious climaxes when in 1958, a British and Icelandic fishing boat captain got in an altercation on the sea. They used megaphones to shout bible verses, condemning each other. According to journalists present on one of the vessels, the Icelandic captain won the battle of words. 

The Cod Wars came to an end in 1976 when the European countries recognised Iceland’s 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone. 

I’ve briefly mentioned German weather stations in the arctic. One unit was under the command of Wilhelm Dege, who held out for quite a while on Svalbard. After the Second World War came to an end, the Germans forgot Wilhelm Dege and his unit. After the end of the war, with Europe in turmoil, it took months before someone finally rescued them. They became the last German Wehrmacht unit to surrender, and I’ve made a video about their story.

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America’s Last Defector in North Korea: James Dresnok

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

Early Life

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

James Joseph Desnok (1941-2016)

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

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

The Defection

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

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

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

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

Escape Attempt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-education

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

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

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

Jenkins and Dresnok

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

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

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

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

Dresnok’s Final Years

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

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

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

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

Dresnok’s sons

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

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

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North Korea’s “Largest” Export Product

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

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

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

North Korean Statues


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heroes’ Acre

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

Mansudae Art Studio

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

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

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The Largest Self-Built Castles in the World

The Bory Castle

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

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

Jenő Bory and his family

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bishop Castle, Colorado

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

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

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

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

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

Guédelon Castle, France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hobart’s Funnies: World War 2 Specialist Armoured Fighting Vehicles and Allied “Secret Weapons”

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

DD Tank

Gen. Percy Hobart

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

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

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

General Percy “Hobo” Hobart (1885-1957)

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

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

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

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

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

The Duplex Drive Tank

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

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

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

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

DD Tanks on Utah beach

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

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

Hobart’s other Funnies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AVRE with a “bobbin”

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

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

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

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

Crossing the Rhine

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

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The Chinese Soldier Serving in the German Wehrmacht: Chiang Kai-shek’s Son

The military histories of Germany and China in the years preceding the Second World War are inextricably linked. One of the more curious testimonies of their close ties must have been when in March 1938 the German Wehrmacht crossed the border into Austria. The Austrian military didn’t oppose them, and the event subsequently became known as the Anschluss, sometimes referred to as the Blumenkrieg, or war of flowers. 

Among those Wehrmacht soldiers was the 21-year-old sergeant officer-candidate. Now, sources vary, with some indicating he served in the 98th Gebirgsjäger Regiment, the Wehrmacht’s specialised mountain troops. Others state he commanded a Panzer regiment driving across the border. All that is for sure is that this cadet stood out from the rest of his men. He wasn’t German, and well, he wasn’t even European. Chiang Wei-kuo was the son of Generalissimo Chiang-Kai Shek, President of the Republic of China and head of the Kuomintang, China’s nationalist party. Wei-kuo’s presence in Germany is curious for multiple reasons, especially considering that within two years, China’s adversary during the Second Sino-Japanese war, Japan, would ally with Germany. 

Chiang Wei-kuo with his father Chiang Kai-shek

So how did Chiang end up invading Austria with his Wehrmacht unit? Well, to begin with, Chiang Kai-shek adopted him when he was three years old. Officially, his father was Tai Jitao, an intimate of Chiang Kai-shek. Tai had an affair with a Japanese woman, who gave birth to Wei-kuo in 1916. Wei-kuo was born in Tokyo, Japan. Tai, fearing his illegitimate child could end his career and marriage, requested Chiang Kai-shek to adopt Wei-kuo. The plan was that Chiang could claim Wei-kuo was a child of Yao Yecheng, one of his concubine’s children. Having one of his concubines raise him as one of her own, Chiang did adopt Wei Kuo as his second son. His oldest, biological son, was Chiang Chin-kuo who would result in quite a bit of diplomatic troubles throughout Chiang’s career. Thanks to this, Tai was able to remain involved in the Kuomintang. For most of Wei-kuo’s life, up until the 1980s, he held up the claim he was Chiang Kai-shek’s biological son. Although rumours certainly persisted throughout his life and career. 

As for Wei-kuo, he studied physics in eastern China, at the Dongwu University. Meanwhile, he enrolled as a reserve officer in the Kuomintang army. During this time his brother, Chiang Ching-kuo, left for Moscow to study there. Ching-kuo remained in Moscow for over a decade, and after his father purged leftist elements from the Kuomintang in 1927, Ching-kuo was detained in the Soviet Union, albeit as a… “guest”. We all know what that means. Chiang Kai-shek refused to negotiate a prisoner swap for his son, reasoning that China’s fate was not worth his son’s fate. In 1937 Ching-kuo, together with his Belarusian wife he met there, returned to China. 

With one of his sons just returning from virtual imprisonment in the Soviet Union, in late 1937 Chiang decided to send Wei-kuo to Germany to receive a military education there. After all, the Second Sino-Japanese war broke out in July that year. Chiang had great contacts among the German military. For example, Hans von Seeckt, the Chief of the German Army Command during the Weimar Republic, served as Chiang’s military consultant from 1933 to 1935. Alexander von Falkenhausen, another German general, also served as Chiang’s military advisor, playing a vital role during the early stages of the Second Sino-Japanese war. As for Wei-kuo, German military education, renowned for its efficiency and innovation, would be a great asset to him in both the war against the Japanese, but also in the subsequent inevitable war against the Chinese communists. 

Chiang Wei-kuo as a Fahnenjunker

Wei Kuo enrolled in the Kriegsakademie, or War Academy, in Munich, Bavaria. While he was there, many impactful political developments rapidly followed each other up in Germany. Hitler had been Germany’s dictator for nearly five years and had been planning to incorporate Austria into his German Reich. After blackmailing the Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, he forced him to abdicate. Subsequently, Austria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nazi-party member Arthur Seyss-Inquart was named Chancellor of Austria. His first act in office on March 12 was to send the Germans a telegram requesting the Wehrmacht to ‘bring peace and security, and prevent bloodshed.’

And that’s how 21-year-old Wei-kuo crossed the Austrian border together with the Wehrmacht. By this time he recently completed his initial training earning him the rank of Fahnenjunker, an Officer Candidate. According to some sources during the Anschluss Wei-kuo, a sergeant officer-candidate by this point, commanded a Panzer unit. After the successful Anschluss, the Wehrmacht began integrating Austrian army units into their own ranks. This led to Wei-kuo and other officer candidates to command Austrian army units. Wei-kuo was assigned as Lieutenant to a Panzer unit. So basically, a Chinese man in German service commanded an Austrian Wehrmacht Panzer unit following the Anschluss. 

Following the Anschluss, Hitler set his eyes on Czechoslovakian Sudetenland, arguing there was a significant German-speaking minority there. It led to the historical, and rather ironic speech by British prime minister Neville Chamberlain who claimed he brokered ‘peace for our times’ after allowing Germany to demand Sudetenland. Wei-kuo didn’t participate in the annexation of Sudetenland, nor in the subsequent German military campaigns. Although according to Jay Taylor, biographer of Wei-kuo’s brother, he claimed he would have liked to.

Weeks before the German invasion of Poland and the outbreak of the Second World War, Wei-kuo graduated. It isn’t exactly clear how, but either upon instructions from Chinese authorities or simply by the Wehrmacht command, he was assigned as Lieutenant to a Panzer division lined up along the Oder River, near the Polish border. Yet on his way to his destination, he travelled through Berlin. Over there, he visited the Chinese embassy, where he received new orders. Due to shifting alliances, he was ordered to travel to the United States to receive military training there. Much to his own disappointment later on, when it became clear he missed the German invasion of Poland because of this. So in the days preceding the outbreak of the full-fledged war against Poland, Wei-kuo sailed to the United States for his new mission.

When he arrived in the United States, Wei-kuo enrolled in the Army Air Corps School in Alabama. Yet within too long, he was moved to the Armored Force Center at Fort Knox since it became clear to his commanders that he commanded a Panzer regiment in Germany and had received extensive training there already. In fact, Wei-kuo was specialised in Alpine warfare, and his Wehrmacht uniform sported the Gebirgsjäger Edelweiss sleeve insignia as a testament of his skill and experience.

After a little over a year, in late 1940, Wei-kuo returned to China. By this point, war had already broken out in the European theatre, but it would take another year before the United States entered the war against Japan. But Wei-kuo arrived in a war-torn China. Since 1937 they faced Japanese offensives, leading to extreme bloodshed. He was stationed in Xi’an, central China, where he commanded a Kuomintang garrison. 

For the next five years, Wei-kuo assisted his father Chiang Kai-shek in commanding Chinese efforts against the Japanese. When they emerged victorious in 1945, they faced a new threat: the communists. The subsequent Chinese civil war, pitting the Kuomintang against Mao Zedong’s communist armies, lasted for four years. It again resulted in extreme bloodshed. Wei-kuo commanded an M4 Sherman tank battalion, initially claiming several victories over Mao’s communists. 

But it was no use. In 1949 the communists defeated the Kuomintang and Wei-kuo, together with Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan, together with the majority of Kuomintang soldiers and his tank battalion. As for Tai, Wei-kuo’s biological father, he took his own life following China’s Communist takeover in 1949. In the immediate aftermath of his arrival, Wei-kuo became a divisional strength regiment commander of the armoured corps outside Taiwan’s capital, Taipei. He continued to play a role in Taiwanese politics up until the 1990s. Yet after one of his subordinates, General Chao Chih-hwa attempted a coup in 1964, the so-called Hukou Incident, Wei-kou only played a marginal role in the military. But in name, he remained present and was promoted to the rank of general and president of the Armed Forces University. 

Chiang Wei-kuo in Taiwan, 1950

And Wei-kuo never forgot his time served in the Wehrmacht. Some online archives and articles reveal Wei-kuo’s affinity with the German military in his later life. In November 1970 he sent a letter to Erich Stoelzner, a German military adviser during the 1930s who retired as a major general of the Kuomintang army. Wei-kuo reiterated Chiang Kai-shek’s gratitude for the “faithful assistance and friendship Stoelzner’s team rendered [the Chinese] during those difficult times.” Not to mention the fact he was the founder of the Chinese Institute of Strategy and Sino-German Cultural and Economic Association. 

And Wei-kuo certainly wasn’t the last Chinese soldier to receive training in Germany. From 1964 to 1972, 18 high-ranking Taiwanese officers spent a year training at the General Staff College of the Bundeswehr, the West-German armed forces. 

As for Wei-kuo, he retired from the army in 1986 and served as Secretary-General of the National Security Council, advisor of the president of the Republic of China. Eleven years later, in 1997 at the age of 80, Chiang Wei-kuo passed away from kidney failure. His last wish was to be buried in Suzhou on mainland China, but he was buried in a Taiwanese military cemetery due to politics.

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The Brownout Strangler and Battle of Brisbane: Americans in Australia during World War 2

Often, the Allied powers during the Second World War are seen as a united front. And obviously, they were, leaving out many caveats and nuances. One example is Australia, a country that allowed American servicemen to set up base in their cities to prepare for the Pacific theatre campaign. There were some fundamental cultural differences between the Americans and Australians, and oddly enough this even led to the infamous Battle of Brisbane between American and Australian service troops. But aside from this battle, an even weirder event led to… well I’d say horrible PR for the Americans. Among their troops stationed in Australia was a serial killer. In contrast to his fellow soldiers preparing an attack on the Japanese Empire, this soldier waged attacks on Australian women. Dubbed the ‘Singing Strangler’, Eddie Leonski was an American serial killer, stationed in Australia during the Second World War. 

American-Australian Relations

Australia formally entered what would become the Second World War on September 3rd, 1939. Its government accepted the United Kingdom’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany. And that isn’t too surprising. To many Australians, servicemen and civilians alike, their primary loyalty aside from that to Australia itself, was to Britain. It was part of the Commonwealth and had obvious historical and cultural ties. 

Yet, due to how the war progressed in the European Theatre, namely not too good for the allies, Churchill had to make a difficult decision. Australians were, with right, worried about Japanese offensives and perhaps even an attempted invasion. Yet British prime minister Winston Churchill declared that if he had to, he would use British troops to protect Britain, rather than help the Australians against the Japanese. Due to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, the United States entered the war. It led to Australian Prime Minister John Curtin to call on the United States’ President Roosevelt for help, a turn of events that surprised many older Australians.

Before the month of December ended, over 4000 American servicemen entered Brisbane, preparing for the Pacific Theatre campaign. Within one year over 250.000 American troops were stationed in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. In total it is estimated that nearly one million soldiers passed through Australia, of whom 80.000 were stationed in Brisbane. By this time, most Australians didn’t travel, let alone to the United States, so Hollywood films mostly shaped their perception of these new servicemen. 

American military historian Ian W. Toll writes about the surprise among many Australians. As soon as the curiosity about the waves of Americans subsided, the limits of Australian hospitality were explored. Bribane had around 335.000 inhabitants, so the influx of so many American troops certainly had an impact. 

Due to American spending, since they were paid twice as much as Australians, the Australian economy boomed. Unfortunately, it led to pubs selling beer under the counter, overcharging Americans, while telling their Australian customers there wasn’t any left. There were several deadly incidents on the road due to drunk Americans driving on the wrong side. And the smooth-talking, slick Americans were much more popular with Australian women. Newspapers even published articles about Australian women not getting their hopes up once marrying an American soldier, because the country itself wasn’t what it was made out to be in Hollywood films. The fact Americans had sharper uniforms and could afford chocolate and cigarettes, goods Australian servicemen couldn’t easily lay their hands on, and the wooing of Australian girls, inevitably led to conflict. 

In addition to these issues on lower levels, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur was stationed in Australia as commander of all Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific. He never hid the fact he thought Australian troops weren’t up to the American standard. There were competent Australian commanders, such as General Sir Sydney Rowell. Rowell was respected among his forces and the public, and he bravely fought, and eventually halted the Japanese advance towards Port Moresby. Yet MacArthur ended up relieving Rowell of his command because, as mentioned earlier, he didn’t think he was up to the task. This inspired a widespread grudge against his person among Australian troops. All these irritations resulted in a powder keg, although a relatively small one.

Eddie Leonski

Considering all this you’d not be surprised American commanders were anxious for bad PR surrounding the U.S. army. Well, what certainly didn’t help was the fact that one of the strangest cases perhaps any nation at war has seen, walked around in Melbourne. 24-year-old American soldier, Eddie Leonski, wasn’t there to protect Australia. At least, not on an individual level. In fact, he preyed on Australian women – he was a serial killer during wartime. Dubbed the Singing Strangler and the Brownout Strangler he killed three women during his service. 

Eddie Leonski

Leonski was born in December 1917 at Kenvil, New Jersey, in the United States. He was the sixth child of a Russian émigre family. In 1933 Leonski left highschool, taking a secretarial course which he excelled at. It was surprising that the boy excelled considering his home circumstances: his mother was known to have serious mental health issues. One of his brothers was locked away in a psychiatric ward, and two other brothers had prison records. He worked multiple clerical jobs before he was called up for military service in February 1941. 

Initially stationed with the 52nd Signal Battalion at San Antonio, Texas, Leonski developed an unhealthy alcohol habit. According to court proceedings, during this time Leonski attempted to strangle a woman for the first time, yet this wasn’t known until after his final arrest. Because it wasn’t known, Leonski was deployed to Australia in January 1942. He arrived at Camp Pell in Melbourne, where he continued his alcohol habit. Again, according to court proceedings he allegedly raped a woman in her apartment, but the army didn’t find out about it.

Due to his drinking habit, he was locked up thirty days early on during his deployment, but he simply continued his habit upon release. There weren’t any established psychiatric issues known about Leonski, but it’s safe to assume they simply went undetected. One important aspect of his subsequent crimes was that Australia’s wartime reduction of streetlight allowed him to use the cover of darkness. 

On May 3rd 1940, 40-year-old Ivy Violet McLeod’s lifeless body was discovered in a doorway near Albert Park, Melbourne. She was throttled and her valuables and purse were left untouched. Detectives quickly established theft wasn’t the motivation. Press dubbed the murder the ‘Brownout Murder’, leading to Leonski’s eventual nickname of the Brownout Strangler. 

But he didn’t just take a break. Six days later the 31-year-old Pauline Thompson was strangled after leaving a pub. Upon interviewing witnesses that had been with her the night before, she was accompanied by a man that stood out due to his American accent. 

Another week later the body of 40-year-old Gladys Hosking was found. She had been murdered, in the same way the previous two women had, walking home from work. A witness told detectives an American man, covered in mud, asked for directions in the area. 

Eddie Leonski

Now, Leonski wasn’t exactly the brightest bulb in the shed. He confided his crimes to another soldier, and in combination with Australian detectives questioning many Americans, eventually, Leonski’s name turned up. In combination with several other witness statements, 24-year-old Leonski was arrested and during a police, lineup witnesses picked him out. He was subsequently charged with the murders of three women. Leonski had a boyish appearance, big smile, was powerfully built and of average height. The only statement he gave about why he murdered the women was that he “wanted their voices.” When newspapers got a hold of this piece of information, Leonski was dubbed the ‘Singing Strangler.’

Due to the case obviously being rather controversial, and Americans standing not being ideal in Australia either, there was much discussion about whether the Australian government or the U.S army should try Leonski. Eventually, the Curtin government decided a United States court-martial should try him. The investigation declared him sane and on July 17 Leonski himself pleaded guilty to the charges. 

During his last few months on death row, Leonski corresponded with a woman and became a Catholic Church communicant. On November 9, 1942, he was hanged. His remains are buried in a cemetery for prisoners that died in military custody in Hawaii.

The Battle of Brisbane

Later that same month, another event truly put to the test the Australian-American relations. The general dissatisfaction among Australian troops, who felt disadvantaged to the Americans, in combination with the Leonski case and several smaller riots where American military police singled out Australians made the powder keg explode. All of this led to the infamous Battle of Brisbane. Australian war correspondent John Hinde remarked that the battle of Brisbane was the most furious battle he ever saw during the war. It was like a civil war. Because it wasn’t a fight with the Japanese, but a two-day battle between American military police and G.I.s against Australian soldiers.

On the night of November 26, Thanksgiving Day in the United States, a scuffle unfolded on Brisbane’s streets. Ironically a group of Australian soldiers defended an American serviceman they befriended against the American military police. Private James R. Stein, intoxicated after a night of drinking, was halted by MPS while on his way to the Post Exchange. After exchanging words, things got heated, and surrounding Australian servicemen and civilians jumped in to help Stein against the MPs. Heavily outnumbered and facing an increasingly aggressive crowd, the MPs retreated into the Post Exchange, while the crowd outside grew to hundreds of Australians throwing bottles and bricks at the building. 

U.S. Servicemen in Brisbane

More MPs arrived and they were pelted with rocks. When one of the MPs sported a shotgun, the crowd turned against him and a fight for control of the weapon ensued. During the scuffle it discharged, striking Australian gunner Edward Webster, killing him. Several more Australians were injured during the riot, and the mob was not controlled until late that night. The main floor of the post exchange had been destroyed, and there were injuries on both sides. The censor’s office immediately began preventing any press publishing about the deadly clash between the Allied groups.

The thing is, army command on both sides figured the major chaos had passed. As such, troops from either side weren’t confined to their barracks. The following night, this became an issue when groups of intoxicated Australian servicemen gathered in the area and moved through the streets pelting any American servicemen they found. Reports state several hundred Australians made their way through town. Americans, together with Australian women, were especially mercilessly beaten. Provosts, the Australian military police, barely intervened, and that night over 20 American troops were injured by mobs. Hostilities finally ended when provosts received the order to act much more aggressive towards misbehaving Australians. The censor’s office censored the events of the Battle of Brisbane to prevent more conflict between Allied soldiers, but the events certainly put a dent in cooperation. Just six Australians were convicted, serving several months in jail. The MP that shot Gunner Webster was court-martialed but acquitted on the grounds of self-defence.

Sources:

http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/australia-wwii/home-wii/americans-australia
http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/leonski-edward-joseph-10814
The Battle of Brisbane by Raymond Evans and Jacqui Donegan
Toll, Ian W. The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 (Vol. 2)(Pacific War Trilogy): War in the Pacific Islands, 1942–1944. Vol. 2. WW Norton & Company, 2015.
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The Sad Life and Crazy Anatomy of Charles II, King of Spain

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

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

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

Charles II, 1661-1700

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

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

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

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

Mother and Regent Mariana of Austria

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

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

Marie Louise D’Orléans, Charles’ first wife

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

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

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

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

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

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What Happened to the Ghost Ship SS Ourang Medan?

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

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

The Incident

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

The letter the CIA received, page 1

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

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

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

The letter the CIA received, page 2

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

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

Theories

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

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

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

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

Missing details

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Article in De Locomotief

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

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

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

Sources:

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