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Killing Yamamoto: How the U.S. assassinated the Japanese admiral who planned Pearl Harbor: Operation Vengeance

On December 7th, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service launched their surprise military strike on Pearl Harbor. The United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed that this date “will live in infamy,” mainly due to there not being a formal declaration of war and the attack happening without an explicit warning from the Japanese. In fact, negotiations with Japanese diplomats in Washington were still ongoing. The United States was, quite literally, caught by surprise. 

Although Japan reasoned the attack was preemptive, the entire attack was classified as a war crime by the end of the war during the Tokyo Trials. And even today, any American will know what you mean when you mention Pearl Harbor. Now, the commander-in-chief of the Imperial Japanese Combined Fleet, Isoroku Yamamoto, is generally seen as the primary person responsible for the attack. He was integral to the planning and execution of the surprise military strike. You could say Yamamoto was the mastermind behind the Pearl Harbor Attack. 

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto 1884-1943

The Americans certainly saw it that way. Nearly a year and a half after the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States Office for Naval Intelligence intercepted and deciphered a coded message from the Japanese. The Americans realised they had struck gold. The message contained the detailed travel schedule of Yamamoto, who was planning to visit troops on the Solomon Islands in an attempt to boost morale. What followed was preparing an incredibly daring and risky secret operation: Operation Vengeance, the mission to assassinate the mastermind behind the Pearl Harbor Attack.

Deciphering the Itinerary

By February 1943 the tide of the war in the Pacific was decisively shifting in favour of the United States. The Japanese had retreated from Guadalcanal, lost many warships, aircraft carriers and aircraft, and the morale of Imperial troops was plummeting. From his base in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, Yamamoto decided to visit troops on the frontlines on Bougainville, part of the Solomon Islands Archipelago. The visit’s goal was to increase soldiers’ dwindling morale. They often complained about the lack of senior commanders ascertaining the frontlines’ situation. 

Now, over the years American, British, French and Dutch codebreakers cooperated in order to break the Japanese naval codes and cyphers. Japan’s main, and most secure communication scheme used by the Imperial Japanese Navy was referred to as JN-25. Intercepting dozens of coded Japanese diplomatic and military messages, slowly but surely the grasp on JN-25 strengthened. One of the critical methods was the so-called known-plaintext attack, abbreviated to KPA, and commonly known as exploiting “Cribs.” Basically, the process of cribbing meant cryptographers inferred coded messages with the partial knowledge of plaintext they expected. Japanese military orders often contained sentences such as “I have the honor to inform your excellency…”.  Knowing this helped cryptographers to decipher intercepted coded messages.

And although the Japanese Navy adopted improved variants, namely JN-25b, c and eventually d, Allied codebreakers managed to decipher large parts of the messages that were transmitted by the Japanese, albeit without their knowledge. 

When on April 13, a coded message from Yamamoto’s command bunker in Rabaul was sent to several command posts in the area, the Allied codebreaker gears began grinding. Although it used the newly adopted JN-25d cypher, they deciphered it within a day. Much to the codebreakers’ surprise, the message not only contained Yamamoto’s intention to visit troops on the frontline in the Solomon Archipelago but in fact included the time and date of his planned travel, the number of fighter planes as part of his escorting squadron, a detailed route and his destination: the airfield at Balalae Island. 

According to sources describing Operation Vengeance from the American perspective, upon learning of the contents of the message, U.S. Commander in the Pacific, Admiral Chester Nimitz is said to have sent his own message to the Pacific Fleet commander William Halsey. It read no less than: “TALLY HO X LET’S GET THE BASTARD.”

Operation Vengeance

Because Yamamoto planned on visiting Balalae Island five days after the message was intercepted, time was of the essence. Yet having all this information did not necessarily mean an operation to take out one of Japan’s most senior commanders was a cut and dry case. The closest American airbase near Balalae was on the recently conquered Guadalcanal. That was over four hundred miles away, and the Navy and Marine fighter planes such as the F4F Wildcat and F4U Corsairs did not have enough fuel, and thus not enough range, to be able to reach Yamamoto’s squadron on their way. 

The only aircraft that would be able to reach the squadron was the single-seated, twin-engined Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter aircraft, outfitted with additional fuel tanks. Eighteen P-38s were assigned to the mission. In order to avoid Japanese radar detection, the aircraft had to fly at an altitude of no more than 15 metres, at least 80 kilometres offshore of islands, for a distance over 600 kilometres. Of the eighteen, four P-38s were designated the so-called ‘Killer Group.’ These were tasked with taking out Yamamoto’s G4M, while the other fourteen P-38s covered the group against potential counter-attacks. After all, the operation took place close to Japanese airbases.

Now, the Airborne Early Warning and Control System, or AWACS for short, is an airborne radar picket system that detected aircraft, ships and vehicles. Yet, the P-38s were not outfitted with it. They weren’t even equipped with a land-based radar to guide them or detect the squadron escorting Yamamoto. This was a problem for two reasons. Firstly, if Yamamoto changed his schedule at the last minute, the squadron of P-38s would be flying around, not knowing what to do or where he was. So they had to count on him not diverting a single minute from the travel schedule, betting on Yamamoto being punctual, something he was known for. Because they were aware of the average speed and probable route of the squadron escort, consisting of Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” and Mitsubishi Zero’s, together with the assumed wind speed, they could more or less calculate the position of the squadron at all times. 

P-38 Lightning

That brings us to the second problem, which to be fair builds forth upon the first problem: there was no wiggling room for getting lost or being early. If they beat Yamamoto’s squadron by ten minutes, they could hardly fly in circles in territory that was crowded with Japanese airbases and most likely had swarms of patrols both in the sky and on the water. 

Planning the mission in detail, the Office calculated that the P-38s would intercept the squadron at 9:35 AM. On the morning of April 18 it was go-time. The squadron flew at an altitude of 15 meters at most for hundreds of kilometers. They reached the point where they would intercept Yamamoto’s squadron one minute early, at 9:34 AM. And the Japanese arrived right on time. The Americans had calculated it correctly, and Yamamoto, unwittingly, honoured his reputation for punctuality. 

Flying at around 1.4 kilometres height were the two Mitshubsihi G4M “Betty”. Onboard of one was Admiral Yamamoto. The other one carried his right-hand-man, Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki. Six Mitsubishi A6M Zeros escorted them. When the Americans realised the Japanese were on time, the four P-38s part of the Killer group shed their additional fuel tanks and began climbing to attack the Bettys. Due to technical difficulties, one of the P-38s had to abandon its climb early on. The other twelve of the protective squadron climbed even further to prevent any reinforcements from Japanese airbases interfering. 

The sudden appearance of P-38s must have been a surprise to the Japanese pilots. After all, they were merely 15 minutes away from the Balalae landing strip. As soon as pilots of the Zeros saw them, they engaged in a dogfight. One P-38, piloted by Thomas Lanphier, fought the Zeros while the other two chased the G4M, one of them containing Yamamoto. Lieutenant Rex T. Barber shot down one of the G4Ms and narrowly avoided collision mid-air. The G4M crashed in the Bougainville jungle. 

Yamamoto hours before his death

Lieutenant Besby F. Holmes damaged the other G4M, but the job was eventually finished by Barber who shot the aircraft out of the sky. This one crash-landed in the water. One of the P-38s was shot down by a Zero. Now, both G4Ms crashed, but the commander of one of them survived. Aboard the G4M that crashed in the water was Vice-Admiral Matome Ugaki, who in fact survived the crash and was picked up by the Japanese Navy. Yamamoto wasn’t as fortunate, however. 

Yamamoto’s ashes return to Japan

The wreckage of his plane still lies amidst the Solomon jungle. It is accessible, but only by trekking through thick vegetation and swampy grounds. A Japanese search-and-rescue party recovered Yamamoto’s remains the next day. His remains were cremated, and he was given a state funeral on June 5, 1943, over a month after his death. It is said over a million mourners attended the funeral.

The Controversy

Up until May 21st, so nearly a month, the Japanese kept Yamamoto’s death a secret. When the broadcast finally aired in Japan, it stated Yamamoto was “killed in aerial combat and met his gallant death in his war plane.” When news of the success of the mission, and Yamamoto’s demise reached the U.S. military, it was an incredible morale boost. 

But the story had an unfortunate twist thanks to the pilots that flew the P-38s as part of the Killer Group. They became embroiled about the question of who actually shot down Yamamoto’s G4M. This rather public fight overshadowed the success of the mission.

Yamamoto’s aircraft in the jungle

In October that same year, Time magazine published a detailed article. In it, Captain Thomas Lanphier received credit for downing the G4M. This was disputed by other pilots, among whom Barber. He claimed he was responsible for shooting down the G4M. But that wasn’t the only problem: the Time article contained many sensitive details. Navy command considered Major John Mitchell responsible for his pilots, and because he didn’t keep them in check, he’d suffer the consequences. Instead of the Medal of Honor, which he would most likely have received for the mission, he was awarded the Navy Cross. This military decoration was considered less prestigious than the Medal of Honor.

Until his death in 1987, Lanphier kept up the claim he downed the G4M, something Barber contested until his death in 2001. Now, as for Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki who survived the crash. He is fascinating in his own right for he survived the end of the war, only to become Japan’s final kamikaze pilot. I’ve created a video about his final kamikaze attack, it should appear on-screen shortly. I’ve also created a video about Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s life, which was incredibly fascinating to research. The Admiral studied at Harvard University and knew the United States from the inside, actually opposing the war initially. He was even put under 24/7 protection during the 1930s because the army feared he would be assassinated for being deemed too “Pro-American.” If you’d like to know that story, consider checking out that article.

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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 Enigmatic Colonel Tsuji Masanobu: Japan’s Fanatical Ideologue, Staff Officer and Cannibal

One of my patrons, Dan, recently asked me if I could write an article about Colonel Tsuji Masanobu. Professor John Dower describes him as a “fanatical ideologue and pathological brutal staff officer”. Others give him the dubious honour of being “rightly described as a maverick and a fanatic.” The ultranationalist officer indeed was a zealot, which gave him a near-perverted sense of courage. 

Col. Tsuji Masanobu (1901? – disappeared 1961?)

At the same time, he was referred to as the ‘God of Strategy’ for playing a vital role in the planning of Japan’s Malay campaign. He also authorised the offensive against Port Moresby along the Kokoda Trail. He didn’t just fight against opposing military, though – he was responsible for tens of thousands of civilian and prisoner casualties. Some historians write that if any Japanese officer should have been tried for war crimes, it was Tsuji. Yet he never stood trial. His entire wartime experience was tarnished and riddled with extreme excesses. 

And just when you think the mind-boggling activities came to an end after Japan’s defeat, Tsuji’s life arguably became even more hectic. The U.S. Military Intelligence Service recruited him as an asset, and he took part in organising a coup by the Chinese Nationalists against the Communists. Meanwhile, he played the role of a double-agent towards his U.S. handlers, having the rearmament of Japan as his concealed priority. Within this capacity, he was instrumental in organising an attempted coup and assassination of the Japanese Prime Minister in 1952, all the while becoming a best-selling author writing about his war experience.  

Oh, and to top it all off, in 1952, he was elected to Japan’s parliament, launching a dazzling political career. That was, until 1961, when he mysteriously disappeared. The circumstances around his vanishing are to this day unclear. Still, declassified CIA files reveal he might have died in the Laotian civil war, was executed by Chinese communists after illegally crossing the border, or continued his life under the radar in the employment of North Vietnam’s People’s Army. 

Now, because of certain restrictions on YouTube historical content, I will have to choose my words carefully when discussing some of Tsuji’s acts. Even then, videos such as this one are prone to be demonetised, occasionally happening to my channel. Not exactly ideal, since working on this channel is my full-time occupation. Frankly, a lot of time and work has gone into this video in terms of research. So if you enjoy House of History and want to support my work, consider supporting me via Patreon. For just one dollar a month, you will already receive access to one additional Patreon-exclusive video every month, including the entire Patreon-exclusive series so far.

Early Life (1900-1939)

Although the entire personality of Colonel Tsuji is an enigma, we’re already starting off with ambiguity looking at his birth and childhood. Tsuji was born somewhere between 1900 and 1903. In his own writings, Tsuji claims his date of birth was October 11, 1900, and on other occasions 1901. Other sources vary and dispute each other, some putting his date of birth as late as 1903. At any rate, born in the Ishikawa Prefecture located in the centre of Japan’s main island, he was a charcoal maker’s third son. 

He received education at a local preparatory military school. After graduating first of his class, he transferred to the Rikugun Shikan Gakko, Japan’s Military Academy. Here too he graduated top of his class. In 1931 he graduated third of his year from the Rikugun Daigakko, the Army War College in Tokyo. His own writings reveal he established somewhat of a core crew of friends and loyalists around him during his time in Tokyo. I suppose you could say an ‘old boys network’ developed, which would serve him nicely for the next three decades.

Being top of his class in the War College meant Tsuji became part of the Guntogumi, the “Military Sword Clique.” This clique, reserved for only a select few officers who excelled, meant fast-track promotions and recognition among all Japanese troops. Senior officers who had not attended the college even had to make way for these subordinates because of the prestige attached to their education. Minister of War in the late 1930s, Itagaki Seishiro, considered Tsuji his protégé, leading to the young officer gaining much influence early on. 

From 1937 onwards, he served as a staff officer in Japan’s Kwantung Army. This was the first time sources refer to his actions as Gekokujo. This concept became known in Japan around the 13th century. Without delving too much into it, it basically refers to lower-ranking officers, lords or soldiers overthrowing, disobeying or undermining their higher-ups. Other sources define it as ‘leading from below’ or ‘loyal insubordination.’ Tsuji was a leading proponent of it, but he certainly wasn’t alone in propagating it. 

As a staff officer, he saw his first action in Manchuria, northern China and the Mongolian border. There were several border clashes with the Soviets because Japanese officers like Tsuji refused higher-ups’ orders to withdraw. During one such incident, Tsuji led 40 Japanese officers into disputed territory guarded by Soviets, only to undo their trousers, urinate in plain sight, and retreat again.

At other times Tsuji issued orders which were the complete opposite to Tokyo’s policy regarding the Soviet border. In his own words, he wanted his troops to “annihilate the enemy if they crush the border.” He also told his soldiers they could cross into Soviet territory. Well, this policy directly led to the bloody Nomonhan incident, also known as the Battles of Khalkhin Gol, and the subsequent defeat of Japanese forces. When the Soviets repatriated Japanese POWs, Tsuji personally ordered them to take their own lives because of the dishonour capture brought them.

Tsuji replied with a near-treacherous reply upon a reprimand from the General Staff for a raid deep into Soviet territory. Speaking in the name of the Kwantung Army, he replied: “There appear to be certain differences between Army General Staff and this Army in evaluating the battlefield situation and measures to be adopted. It is requested that the handling of trivial matters in border areas be entrusted to this Army.” The only reason Tsuji wasn’t fired was thanks to his patron, Minister of War Seishiro. 

Already during this time, Tsuji was considered a fanatical ideologue and unorthodox, even among Japanese ultra-nationalist circles. Ryukichi Tanaka, a major general, said Tsuji was the “most determined single protagonist of war with the United States.” He held beliefs in line with asceticism derived from Zen Buddhism, basically living in abstinence. He didn’t permit himself any luxuries, living a sober existence, withdrawn from his fellow officers.

Japanese politics during the 1930s are a bit hectic; a lot was happening in a short period. One of Tsuji’s main events must have been his role in averting a coup by a rivalling faction. Future wartime premier Tojo Hideki had to thank Tsuji, in-part, for creating the circumstances in which he could rise to power. 

As the war in the Pacific began escalating and Tsuji saw more battle, these beliefs simmered through in his actions. He upheld the same extreme standards for others as he did for himself. 

The War (1937-1945)

One element remained a constant in his career and even after the war: insubordination and being somewhat of a maverick. I use that word without any positive connotation. Although Gekokujo was relatively common within the Japanese military, Tsuji was an extreme example. He was transferred on more than one occasion because Generals simply could not put up with his insubordination. According to military historian Max Hastings, in his 2007 book Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45, besides being repeatedly transferred, even his often ultranationalist superiors considered him a fanatic and zealot. An anecdote reveals he once burned down a “geisha house to highlight his disgust at the moral frailty of the officers inside it.” 

Tsuji took part in the Malayan campaign, serving under Tomoyuki Yamashita, the Tiger of Malaya, a nickname thanks to his successful campaign. Japanese commanders credit Tsuji with planning much of the campaign, leading to some officers referring to him as the ‘God of Strategy.’ By 1941 he was one of the most influential officers of Japan’s Taiwanese Army Research Department. Malaya served as a blueprint for changes and tweaks that improved Japan’s campaigns in a tropical climate. 

Yet on the campaign Tsuji’s temper showed, with him resigning in a fit of rage because Yamashita’s Chief of Staff ignored some of his recommendations. Within a week Tsuji returned to the headquarters and continued his duties as if he had never left. Besides military targets, Tsuji was responsible for the Alexandra Hospital massacre, one of his many atrocities. 

Thanks to the reputation he earned in this campaign, he was dispatched to many Japanese frontlines as a problem solver and a pair of fresh eyes. He was instrumental in organising the campaign against the British in Singapore, emerging victorious within ten weeks. At every front Tsuji served, his superiors attributed extreme excesses and brutalities against civilians and prisoners. 

After the British surrendered Singapore, CIA documents revealed Tsuji ordered and expanded the systemic purge of potentially hostile elements. The Sook Ching Massacre cost over 5000 Chinese and Chinese Malayans their lives, although some historians estimate the death toll to be up to 50.000.

In April 1942, Tsuji visited the Philippines. His superiors later attested he ordered the Bataan Death March, costing tens of thousands of Allied prisoners their lives. He also personally ordered the execution of the Philippines Supreme Court’s Chief Justice and acting President, José Santos. 

Next, he sailed to the Southern Pacific Area to assist the 17th Army in conquering Fiji and Samoa to break-off Allied supply lines. Disregarding their severe defeat at Midway, the Japanese continued to plan to conquer the islands and whether they could dispatch an infantry campaign on Port Moresby along the Kokoda Track. 

Arriving at 17th Army headquarters in Davao in July, Tsujii met a commander sceptical of his aggressive plans. Major General Horii Tomitaro didn’t think it would be possible to supply the Japanese infantry when pushing through all the way to Port Moresby. Outranking Tsuji, he contacted the Imperial Headquarters. They relayed they awaited an assessment by the commander of a reconnaissance mission before giving a final order. 

But Tsuji, in his insubordinate fashion, wanted to seize the initiative. He personally ordered the infantry to launch their trek and assault on Port Moresby, declaring Headquarters gave the green light. In reality, Headquarters had not decided, but after Tsuji launched the assault, the Imperial Command retroactively gave the order. The poor preparation and less than ideal circumstances led to a disastrous campaign. Within half a year, over 15.000 Japanese and 3.000 Allied soldiers met their end in the fighting. Without much success for the Japanese.

Tsuji wasn’t there to see the results, though. Together with other officers, he sailed aboard the destroyer Asangi to Cape Killerton to prepare the campaign. En-route, the Asangi was attacked by a squadron of Allied B-17 and B-26 aircraft. They bombed the Asangi, and Tsuji suffered critical throat injuries due to shrapnel and was urgently evacuated to Tokyo to recuperate. Some Japanese generals later said the injuries weren’t that severe, but they ordered him away from the frontline anyway before he could cause any more trouble.

Just three months later, he travelled to Guadalcanal. Hastings writes that Tsuji was personally responsible for some of Japan’s most severe strategic blunders in Guadalcanal. They suffered an obliterating defeat attempting to capture Henderson airfield, with over 20 Japanese casualties for every American. Tsuji once again offered his resignation, which once again didn’t lead to anything. He was subsequently transferred to Burma to coordinate the battle against the British.

Sources vary whether it was in Burma or Singapore, but at one point Tsuji consumed the liver of a dead Allied pilot, denouncing troops that refused to join him. It shows that Tsuji crossed any acceptable boundary of human behaviour and morality. Some accounts dispute it taking place, but even if it didn’t, the fact Tsuji dining on the liver of a dead pilot is plausible is rather telling already. 

In October 1944 the Battle of Leyte commenced with an amphibious invasion of the island by the United States. Besides Yamashita as commanding officer, General Sosaku Suzuki too commanded Japanese troops. And Suzuki did not just have direct contact with Tsuji, but he wrote about his conduct in a very revealing way. According to him, it was the “Ishiwara-Tsuji clique – the personification of Gekokujo – that has brought the Japanese army to its present deplorable situation. So long as they exert influence, it can only lead to ruin.” Besides Tsuji, he referred to Kanji Ishiwara, a general of the Imperial Army. This goes to show the extent of influence superiors considered Tsuji, a Lieutenant Colonel, to have. Tanaka Shinichi, himself known for a brutal attitude, criticised Tsuji for the treatment of troops under his command

There are other accounts as well. Remember Major General Horii, who opposed Tsuji’s aggressive campaign against Port Moresby. Even though he was Tsuji’s superior, Tsuji was able to influence and dominate his campaign. In part, this was thanks to his insubordinate personality and Gekokujo. But also because Tsuji was part of the Guntogumi, the Military Sword Clique. Horii wasn’t part of it. In the eyes of many, his orders carried less weight than that of Tsuji, even though he outranked the Lieutenant Colonel.  

Post-war (1945-1950)

In late summer 1945, Japan surrendered. At the time, Tsuji served on the staff of the 18th Area Army in Thailand. He was aware he’d probably end up standing trial for war crimes if he returned to Japan. Not too wrong an assumption, as mainly the British considered him a person of interest. Instead, he took on the role of a Japanese monk in a Bangkok Buddhist temple, together with seven comrades. 

During the Tokyo trials, Japan’s Chief of Intelligence, Seizo Arisue, implicated Tsuji with instigating the infamous Bataan Death March. Yet thanks to his unknown whereabouts, perhaps still surprisingly, he avoided being indicted in absentia. Still, the United States marked him as an alleged war criminal. After Tsuji’s stay in Bangkok, he travelled through Laos and Vietnam to reach the Chinese nationalist forces fighting their civil war against the communists. Here, he briefly served as a military advisor to China’s Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. 

Around late 1948 he quietly returned to Japan under the radar. He briefly lived a withdrawn life in residences owned by his wartime friend, crime lord and ultranationalist Yoshio Kodama. One of his friends from the war, Hattori Takushiro, made sure Tsuji wouldn’t pop up on any lists until in 1950 the United States revoked his status as an alleged war criminal. He became one of many that got away with heinous crimes committed during the war. 

During this time, Tsuji wrote his memoirs: ‘Senko sanzenri.’ With Kodama’s instrumental help publishing and promoting his book, it became a bestseller. Soon after, Tsuji published his second book about how he managed to evade capture after the war, becoming his second bestseller. 

The American Asset (1950-1952)

So why were war crime charges against Tsuji dropped? Well, declassified CIA Name Files reveal how Tsuji Masanobu and the aforementioned crime lord Kodama Yoshio were employed as agents by the U.S. Military Intelligence Service under Charles A. Willoughby. There were multiple occasions where the Americans funded operations carried out by men with tarnished records, if not outright war criminals such as Tsuji. 

Documents indicate Tsuji was employed by U.S. authorities even before the U.S. rescinded his status as a war criminal. One such covert operation was recruiting Japanese soldiers to serve in Taiwan against a possible Communist invasion from China. CIA documents reveal Tsuji dispatched former Japanese Army troops to the island to serve in the Kuomintang, China’s nationalist army. Hattori too served the Americans, although both he and Tsuji often embezzled funds they received from the CIA for their own hidden agenda: rearming the Japanese Army. 

Through Hattori and other former officer friends, Tsuji took part in one of Willoughby’s most ambitious secret operations. He was planning an invasion of mainland China by the Kuomintang, exiled to Taiwan. Together with Takushiro Hattori, Tsuji received permission to take charge of the planning. It commenced in January 1951. The CIA sent multiple serious warnings to Willoughby that both men were not to be trusted. One such warning read “In either politics or intelligence work, [Tsuji] is hopelessly lost both by reason of personality and lack of experience… Tsuji is the type of man who, given the chance, would start World War III without any misgivings.” Still, Tsuji couldn’t do much harm because within three months, the plans were leaked to the Chinese communists, and the plan was abandoned. 

And although Seizo Arisue implicated Tsuji during the Tokyo Trials, in the 1950s, he recruited him to expand Japanese intelligence operations in Southeast Asia. He figured Tsuji had connections there thanks to his brief exile. What Arisue didn’t count on was that most of those connections despised Tsuji. After many complaints, he replaced him with a former chief of Japanese Military Police, the Kempeitai. That didn’t stop Tsuji’s endeavour within Japan’s military and political history, however. 

The Final Sensational Years (1952-1961/68)

Tsuji’s writings from this time show his primary objective was to rearm Japan and establish a military junta if possible. He eagerly worked with the Americans, because, in his words, he wanted to “deceive the ally before the enemy.” Still, Tsuji, together with Hattori and crime lord Kodama, became increasingly upset with Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru. He adhered to a policy of relying on the United States for military protection, refusing to rearm the military and openly denouncing nationalism and purges. 

Hattori was the first to begin hatching a plot to assassinate Shigeru to control the government by replacing him with the more receptive senior politicians Hatoyama Ichiro or Ogata Tektora. But Tsuji prevented the assassination from coming through, reasoning it would provoke the Americans and be counterproductive in the long run. Hopefully, the irony of a Japanese ultranationalist and war criminal preventing the assassination of a U.S.-friendly PM isn’t lost on many. 

Writing two best-sellers skyrocketed Tsuji to fame, especially among reactionaries. That same year he was elected to Japan’s Parliament as an independent, kickstarting his extravagant political career. He used his newly found influence to criticise the US-Japan security alliance and propagate Japan’s rearmament. His past and misdeeds stuck to him throughout his entire career, with former rivals of the army implicating him in more war crimes. This didn’t prevent him from being re-elected in 1956. 

The enigma, Tsuji, died the way he lived. Or, well, rather, disappeared. In the wake of multiple political controversies, he left Japan to repeat his travels in Southeast Asia at the end of the Second World War, even choosing a Buddhist monk gown as his attire. First, he travelled to Laos in 1961 to meet the communist Pathet Lao rebels. And that’s the last any credible source reported seeing him: he simply vanished, killed in the conflict waging on in Laos.

But there are other theories out there. Some sources indicate that Vo Nguyen Giap, commander-in-chief of Vietnam’s People’s Army, covertly employed him until 1968. CIA documents indicate he indeed travelled to North Vietnam in April 1961, and some place him in Hanoi seven years later. 

A third theory goes that he crossed the border from Laos to China, where the Chinese Communists arrested him in January 1963. Upon realisation they captured the infamous Tsuji, they executed him right away. Unfortunately, much of the CIA documents are based on hearsay, and his actual fate will probably remain a mystery forever. 

Now, I briefly mentioned the Battle of Khalkhin Gol earlier. During that battle, a Korean soldier, like so many others, was captured by the Soviet Union. What makes his story so special is that he ended up not in the Soviet Union, but fighting in a Wehrmacht Ost Battalion on Normandy’s beaches during D-Day. His name was Yang Kyoungjong, and he is the only soldier known for fighting for three sides during the Second World War. Here is a video I created about him.

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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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Simo Häyhä – The Greatest and Deadliest Sniper in Military History

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

Early Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simo’s Tactics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simo’s Combat

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

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

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

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

Life after the Winter War


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Czechoslovakia during Wartime

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

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

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

Organising Anthropoid

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

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

Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík

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

Operation Anthropoid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mystery surrounding Heydrich’s death

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

The car after the attack

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

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

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

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

Reprisals and Heroic Deaths

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

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

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

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

Bullets in the wall

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

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

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

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

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

Arthur Tien Chin 1913-1997

Road to China

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

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

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

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

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

Curtiss F11C Goshawk (Hawk II)

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

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

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

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

War in China

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

Hawk II

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

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

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

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

Mitsubishi A5M

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

New Equipment

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

Gloster Gladiator

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

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

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

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

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

The Crash

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

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

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

Arthur and Eva

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

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

Arthur (on the right)

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

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

Art’s Final Flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jürgen Wattenberg (1900-1995)

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

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

Preparing the Escape

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrance of the tunnel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Manhunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Wattenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Swingjugend: Pacifistic Youth Resistance in Nazi Germany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DD Tank

Gen. Percy Hobart

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

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

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

General Percy “Hobo” Hobart (1885-1957)

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

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

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

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

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

The Duplex Drive Tank

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

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

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

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

DD Tanks on Utah beach

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

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

Hobart’s other Funnies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AVRE with a “bobbin”

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

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

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

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

Crossing the Rhine

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