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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. 

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

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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. 

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Isoroku Yamamoto: Japan’s Admiral and Mastermind behind the Pearl Harbor Attack

Isoroku Yamamoto was the commander-in-chief of the Japanese Imperial Navy during the Second World War. He was a veteran of the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 and commanded the attacking fleet during the, for the Japanese disastrous, Battle of Midway and the Guadalcanal Campaign. But that’s not necessarily what he’s remembered for. Yamamoto was the mastermind behind the Pearl Harbor Attack on that fateful day, December 7th 1941. The infamous attack is engraved in the collective mind of Americans, and frankly large parts of the world. It directly led to the United States’ involvement in the bloodiest conflict the world has ever seen.

Isoroku Yamamoto (1884-1943)

Following the Pearl Harbor attack, the American press described Yamamoto as the ‘personification of the Japanese warlords’ eager to wage war against the United States. He was inherently anti-American, right? Well… no it is a bit more complicated than that in fact. 

  Yamamoto did not just study at Harvard University, but one of his roles during his career was as the Japanese naval attaché in Washington. He knew the United States, its culture, military and economic power. In fact, he was one of the highest-ranking commanders advocating against war, quite literally going against the Japanese Warhawks. In fact, during the late 1930s, the Japanese military issued 24/7 protection to Yamamoto, because they considered an assassination attempt from the pro-war nationalist camp a likely course of events, due to him being known as “Pro-American”. Yeah, this is the man that was literally the mastermind behind Pearl Harbor. That raises some questions: how did this come to be? 

But perhaps just as interesting as asking this question, is looking at Yamamoto’s eventual demise. Because in February 1943, the U.S. Office for Naval Intelligence managed to decode Yamamoto’s travel schedule. They realised they struck gold and arranged a secret operation with a killer squadron of Lockheed P-38 Lightning twin-engined fighter aircraft, tasked with intercepting his flight squadron. This secret mission became known as the aptly named “Operation Vengeance”: the mission to kill Admiral Yamamoto.

Early life 

Isoroku Yamamoto was born on April 4, 1884, as the sixth son of Samurai Sadayoshi Takano. He received education at the Imperial Japanese Naval Acadamy. He served on the cruiser Nisshin during the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, losing two fingers on his left hand during the decisive battle of Tsushima. It led to his rather funny nickname, ‘80-sen’ because a manicure cost ten sen per finger at the time. His superiors recognised him as a capable, ambitious and keen navy officer, sending him to the Imperial Naval Staff College. 

By 1916 he was a lieutenant commander when his parents passed away. Subsequently, the Yamamoto family adopted him, an adoption process which was customary at the time. In 1918, he married Reiko Mihashi and the couple had four children. Merely one year later, he left for the United States to attend Harvard University and study the oil industry. After graduation in 1923, he returned to Japan. He was promoted to Captain and began advocating the expansion of the Japanese Armoured Fleet, which the army disapproved of. Up until then, the military saw the Navy mainly as a transport branch for infantry. Yamamoto became fascinated by aviation after taking courses at the Kasumigaura Training Center. He soon became its director and became known for supplying the Navy with elite, well-trained pilots.

Yamamoto (1925)

He didn’t stay in Japan for long, though. In 1926 he was assigned as the official Japanese Naval attaché in Washington. This post gave Yamamoto the freedom to travel through the country and gain insights into their economic and military power and potential. During this time, the experiences he enjoyed greatly influenced his opposition to a German-Japanese alliance and war with the United States right before the war did break out.

The Brink of War

Yamamoto returned home from the United States in 1928. He briefly assumed command of the light cruiser Isuzu, before being appointed as commander of the aircraft carrier Akagi. In 1930 he was promoted to Vice-Admiral. He served as a special assistant to the Japanese delegation during the second London Naval Conference. Thanks to his diplomatic tact, or, according to a 1941 article in the San Bernardino Sun, his willingness to ‘torpedo’ the conference, he was one of the main factors in assuring Japan could expand its fleet according to the London Naval Treaty.

During subsequent years Yamamoto kept advocating for expanding the number of aircraft carriers, producing elite pilots, and ensuring a robust combined air and sea force for Japan. Although he still received scorn from the army for his ideas, slowly but surely they became a bit more widely accepted among other Naval officers.

Now, within this capacity, in 1933 he commanded the so-called Dai Ichi Koku sentai; or the First Carrier Division. This was an aircraft carrier unit of the Imperial Japanese Navy, consisting of two fleet carriers: Akagi and Kaga. Because of his previous successes in negotiating an expansion of the Japanese fleet, he became the Tokyo Naval Command spokesman at the London Naval Conference of 1934. Two years later he became vice-minister of the Navy, once again tirelessly advocating for a potent combined air and sea force, as he saw that as crucial for the Navy’s success. 

Meanwhile, within Japan, the Warhawk party grew, steering towards an all-out war against Japan’s neighbours and the United States to establish the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Yamamoto was not part of this camp though. Because he tended to propagate a neutral stance and avoid war, the Japanese Warhawks attempted to eliminate him because they saw him as a pro-American traitor. Already in 1931 he vocally opposed the Japanese invasion of Chinese Manchuria and subsequent Second Sino-Japanese War. Another telling example was his response to the USS Panay Incident. In 1937, after Japanese aircraft bombed and sunk a U.S. gunboat, the USS Panay, on the Yangtze River, Yamamoto personally apologised to the U.S. Ambassador.

The army ordered him to be under protection 24/7 to prevent potential assassinations, which shows how controversial his stance was. Still, in August 1939 Minister of the Navy Mitsumasa Yonai promoted Yamamoto to the Combined Fleet commander-in-chief. Sources indicate one of Yonai’s motivations to do so was to save Yamamoto’s life, which, in his words, “could only be achieved by sending him out to sea.”

In September 1940 Japan, Italy and Germany signed the Tripartite Pact. It was Japan’s response to U.S. Congress voting to begin building new military ships, planes and the export embargo of some American goods to Japan. Yet joining the pact led to the United States placing an embargo on oil, steel, and iron exports to Japan. Sources indicate Yamamoto warned Japanese prime minister Fumimaro Konoe to not start a war with the United States, as Japan would not be able to compete with its economic and military power. During this time he was promoted to Lieutenant-Admiral. 

Yamamoto with staff of the combined fleet

As time progressed, Yamamoto began considering war against the United States inevitable. He concluded that protecting the logistical transport routes such as the Dutch East Indies’ oil supply would invariably lead to conflict. Against better judgment, Yamamoto had to begin planning a strategic offensive against the United States. He was the commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet after all. He ordered the construction of two new aircraft carriers, convinced that in his words: “A swarm of ants will defeat the strongest snake.” An intercepted personal letter of him from late 1940 indicates that he resigned himself to war by this point. Although he personally may not have been in favour, he now did everything he could to ensure a Japanese victory. Realising time was of the essence as the empire could not sustain a prolonged war against the United States. 

Outbreak of War

Yamamoto figured that Japan’s only chance to win a war was to paralyse the U.S. Navy, mainly its aircraft carriers, in their own base before they had an opportunity to attack Japan. Having intricate knowledge of the U.S. economy and their military, he realised that if this failed Japan could, at most, hold out for a year before the tide of war turned. It led to him devising and planning the infamous surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, launching Japan into the global conflict costing countless lives. The entire strategy of the Pearl Harbor attack was contrary to traditional Japanese warfare. This time, the goal was to launch a surprise attack, paralyse the fleet and subsequently force a decisive battle. Once the battle was won, he hoped the American morale would be low enough to begin peace negotiations.

Yamamoto (1942)

And we all know what happened during that fateful day of December 7th 1941. Taking some caveats into account, the Japanese generally considered the attack to be a success. For the next six months, they rapidly expanded their territory in the Pacific Ocean. The Japanese commanders were surprised by the rapid advancement of their troops and the ability to conquer territories. 

Instead of forcing a decisive battle, as Yamamoto advocated, the Imperial General Staff decided to invade Birma, giving the United States a bit of breathing room. On April 18th 1942 the Americans launched the Doolittle raid on Tokyo. It proved the Japanese mainland wasn’t safe against U.S. aerial power. This swayed the Imperial General Staff to agree to Yamamoto’s plan to fight a decisive battle: the Battle of Midway. Commanding the entire Imperial Japanese Naval Fleet, Yamamoto figured Midway was the key to Hawaii’s defence. He hoped to lure the American fleet into a trap and to deal it a decisive blow. 

The Akagi and Kaga aircraft carriers he commanded years ago, were part of the fleet he deployed to Midway. Together with the Soryu and Hiryu, Japan’s vital aircraft carriers were all put in the ‘Midway basket’, if you will. Yamamoto sent a smaller fleet to the Aleutian Islands as a diversion. What he didn’t know was that instead of baiting the American fleet, they were baiting him. The Americans had broken Japan’s codes and received intel about his planned attack early on. 

During the battle, the Americans under the command of Admirals Frank J. Fletcher and Raymond Spruance managed to sink all four Japanese aircraft carriers. The battle resulted in an American victory, and a devastating Japanese defeat. From then on the Japanese operated on the defensive, with the momentum decisively shifting in the American favour.

Yamamoto continued attempting to conquer Samoa and Fiji. In order to set up a reliable base in the vicinity of these objectives, Japanese troops landed on Guadalcanal and constructed an airstrip. In August 1942 the Americans landed on the island, in what became known as the Guadalcanal campaign. Forced to fight for the island, Yamamoto could do nothing but endure the war of attrition that followed, losing face at the homefront, and losing many soldiers on the actual frontlines. 

Operation Vengeance

Now, a lot has happened since the attack on Pearl Harbor, by this point well over a year ago. But the Americans hadn’t forgotten. In order to understand what happened next, we have to take a look at Yamamoto’s base from where he operated. Rabaul, located on New Guinea, was one of the most important, if not the most important Japanese military base at that point in time. With well over 100.000 soldiers and navy personnel garrisoned, Yamamoto coordinated the Imperial Japanese Navy’s campaign from his headquarters there. It was basically a fortress. In addition to the military personnel, the island housed many anti-aircraft defences and an underground tunnels network. 

P-38 Lightning

In late February 1943, the Office of Naval Intelligence of the United States intercepted coded messages indicating Yamamoto would visit the Solomon Islands in April.  Not just that – but as they decoded more messages, they realised they acquired Yamamoto’s detailed travel schedule. He was going to fly from Rabaul to Balalae Airfield. Knowing he valued punctuality, the Office could estimate where he would be at all times, knowing the speed of Japanese transport aircraft and the fact he’d adhere to the schedule. 

Yamamoto’s trip commenced on April 18th. It was the perfect opportunity to take revenge for the Pearl Harbor attack and take out the man responsible for it. Under the command of Major John Mitchell, the Office began planning their operation. 

As for Yamamoto, his visit was planned just after the Japanese suffered their defeat during the Guadalcanal campaign. The idea behind Yamamoto’s visit was that it would boost the morale of the Japanese sailors and officers holding the Solomon Islands. Little did the Japanese know this trip would end up having the opposite effect.

That fateful day, April 18th, Yamamoto travelled from Rabaul, Papua New Guinea to Balalae Airfield on the Solomon Islands. Two twin-engined Mitsubishi G4M Betty aircraft carried both the Admiral and his crew. Six long-range fighter aircraft Mitsubishi Zeros escorted them. 

Meanwhile, on the American side, the Office of Naval Intelligence decided against using aircraft carriers. Positioning them in the area might have deterred the Japanese from continuing their trip as scheduled.  And if it didn’t deter them, the Japanese would indeed have sent their Naval fleet to destroy the carriers upon noticing. Because the operation required a bit more stealth, the Office decided upon using eighteen single-seated, twin-engined Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter aircraft. 

Yamamoto a few hours before his death

The P-38s were outfitted with two extra fuel tanks, giving them a much-increased range compared to Wildcats and Corsairs. Of the eighteen, four P-38s were designated the so-called ‘Killer Group.’ These were tasked with taking out Yamamoto’s G4M, while the other fourteen P-38s covered the group against potential counter-attacks. After all, the operation took place close to Japanese air bases. The squadron did not exceed an altitude of fifteen metres above sea-level, in order to evade Japanese radar detection. 

On April 18th, 7:25 AM, the eighteen P-38s took off from Fighter 2 Airfield, on Guadalcanal. Two of them suffered technical difficulties not too long after take-off. Meanwhile, the Japanese squadron had taken off from Rabaul. They climbed to an altitude of around two kilometres. Thanks to the Japanese’s punctuality, the P-38s ran into the squadron at the exact right time: 9:35 AM. The four P-38s, part of the Killer Group, dropped their additional fuel tank and began climbing to the Zeros and G4M squadron’s height. Due to technical difficulties, one of the P-38s had to abandon its climb early on. With twelve P-38s acting as a cover squadron, the three P-38s continued climbing to take out the G4M. 

The sudden appearance of P-38s must have been a surprise to the Japanese pilots. After all, they were merely 15 minutes away from the Balalae landing strip. As soon as the Zero’s pilots saw them, they engaged in a dogfight. One P-38, piloted by Thomas Lanphier, fought the Zeros while the other two chased the G4M, one of them containing Yamamoto. Lieutenant Rex T. Barber shot down one of the G4Ms and narrowly avoided collision mid-air. The G4M crashed in the Bougainville jungle. 

Lieutenant Besby F. Holmes damaged the other G4M, but the job was eventually finished by Barber who shot the aircraft out of the sky. This one crash-landed in the water. One of the P-38s was shot down by a Zero. Now, both G4Ms crashed, but the commander of one of them survived. Aboard the G4M that crashed in the water was Vice-Admiral Matome Ugaki, who in fact survived the crash and was picked up by the Japanese Navy. Ugaki is fascinating in his own right for he survived the end of the war for Japan, only to become Japan’s final kamikaze pilot. I’ve created a video about Japan’s last kamikaze attack which I will link to at the end of this video.

But Yamamoto, well, he was aboard the first G4M that crashed into the jungle. And he did not survive the crash. Japanese films depict Yamamoto as stoically meeting his end, although he was more likely struck by a P-38 Lightning’s ammunition, striking his aircraft’s right-wing, causing it to crash. As such, it is generally assumed he died before the plane crashed, being directly hit in the head. If you would like to see a film about Yamamoto’s life, consider watching the 2011 Japanese war drama film Isoroku, depicting his career and actions during the war.

Yamamoto’s funeral

Operation Vengeance was a definitive success, although if Yamamoto had been in the other plane, he would have survived the attack. Thanks to this mission, Pearl Harbor’s mastermind met his end due to a well-executed secret operation by the Office of Navy Intelligence.

The killing of Admiral Yamamoto was poetic justice from the American perspective. Precisely a year previous the Americans bombed Japan during the Doolittle Raid, proving the Japanese mainland was within reach. And exactly one year later they again struck a decisive blow against the Japanese.

The wreckage of Yamamoto’s plane still lies amidst the Solomon jungle. It is accessible, but only by trekking through thick vegetation and swampy grounds. A Japanese search-and-rescue party recovered Yamamoto’s remains the next day. His remains were cremated, and he was given a state funeral on June 5, 1943, over a month after his death. When studied, Yamamoto lived a life that appeared to be full of contradictions during an incredibly challenging time in history. As for Japan, it would take a little over two more years before they finally surrendered after the dropping of two atomic bombs by the United States. 

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Asia’s Stalingrad and Britain’s Greatest Battle: the Siege of Kohima

One of Japan’s last offensives during the Second World War was Operation U-Go. In March 1944, over 80.000 Japanese soldiers under the extremely aggressive general Renya Mutaguchi crossed the border with India. It really says something when you’re considered to be extremely aggressive as a Japanese general during the Second World War, to be fair. The Japanese rapidly advanced on the British strongholds of Imphal and Kohima. What followed was nearly three months of besiegement and deplorable living conditions for both the Allied and Japanese troops. The battle of Kohima and the simultaneous Battle of Imphal saw troops from both sides suffer horrid inhumane conditions. It earned the Battle of Kohima the nickname:  “Stalingrad of the East”. Others have referred to it as Britain’s greatest battle. Eventually, an Allied breakthrough was forced with a curious tactic involving the slope of a hill, a tank, and a hail mary of crashing through the Japanese lines of defence. 

Japan’s Operation U-Go

On March 6th, 1944, the Japanese army launched Operation U-Go. It was one of the last offensives by the Japanese during the Second World War. The objective of the offensive was two-fold: firstly, they wanted to prevent the Allied powers, mainly the British Empire, from retaking Burma. Secondly, the Japanese wanted to break into India via Kohima and Imphal, two cities near the Burman border. Once captured, the Japanese wanted to establish a power base there, to keep up the fight against the Allied powers. 

Even though by spring 1944 the war had progressed to a point where the Axis power’s loss in the European theatre was more or less inevitable, and Japan’s position didn’t allow for much optimism either, the Japanese command still figured this offensive had a chance of success. Reason for that was the fact multiple British offensives in the Arakan, the coastal region of Burma, had failed. The Japanese military command figured the British were inept jungle fighters and pushed for Operation U-Go to be realised. Victory was undoubtedly awaiting them.

Okay, so Geographically, Imphal was the border town that was crucial in accessing India from Burma. Located in the district Manipur, Imphal was an isolated border town. Very isolated. A road that spanned 210 kilometres to the north linked Imphal to the remote hill town of Kohima. For Kohima, this road was the only available route to the outside world. As these two towns were extremely strategically located, they became the Japanese targets. And this isolated road and the two remote border towns would suffer some of the most brutal scenes of warfare of the Second World War. 

General Renya Mutaguchi, known for his temper and brutality, led two divisions of the Japanese 15th Army into India in March 1944. The divisions crossed the Chindwin River, advancing rapidly on Imphal. A third division advanced onto Kohima. In total, 80.000 battle-hardened Japanese troops crossed into India, rapidly advancing on British held strongholds. The thing is, both the British and Japanese operated under unfavourable conditions. Mutaguchi’s supply lines from Japan were extended to the degree that his divisions could rely on a month’s worth of supplies, at most. And two months from his offensive, he was very well aware, monsoon season arrived and the planned offensives would become impossible to carry out due to the heavy rains and mudslides.

On the other hand, the British armed forces under 14th Army general William Slim had been preparing for an attack on the Japanese. The fact they had been preparing an offensive, basically meant the British army was anything but prepared to carry out a defensive battle. Communications were obviously subpar due to the isolated locations and long distances, and housing a large number of troops was near impossible in an area devoid of any proper settlements. There was a crucial advantage General Slim enjoyed, however. His British 14th army had been driven out of Burma back in 1942. The past two years, he spent moulding this ragtag bunch into a professional, disciplined army with a high morale. Yet, they had never fought a large scale battle. The Japanese on the other hand were experienced and hardened soldiers, veterans from jungle-fighting in some of the worst conditions imaginable, especially under their commander Mutaguchi who had told his troops they were expected to fight to the death. 

View of the Garrison Hill battlefield

British aerial reconnaissance provided General Slim with enough intelligence that his fears were confirmed: the Japanese were on the offensive. He ordered his 14th Army to prepare for a Japanese attack. Over several days the troops were establishing their positions, yet General Slim and his troops were surprised by the sudden rapid advancement of the Japanese. The mountain roads many Allied soldiers had dug in were crucial strategic positions: if the Japanese managed to overtake them, the Indian plain was wide open for them to invade. The Japanese would be virtually unopposed and able to cut the communications from large parts of Allied forces. Both Imphal and Kohima now became British strongholds, preparing for a deadly and desperate last stand against a Japanese assault.

Soon to be isolated from the outside world, the commander of British forces in Dimapur, north of Kohima, Lieutenant-General Montagu Stopford, rushed last-minute reinforcements into Kohima. Two artillery battalions were positioned several kilometres west of Kohima and a third, the 4th West Kents, were situated inside Kohima on the highest hill. This hill would become known as Garrison Hill, for the Allied forces would make a desperate last stand on it. All the while the Japanese were swarming the area surrounding both Kohima and Imphal, cutting the villages off from the outside world, digging themselves in and preparing their artillery positions and assault.

The Heroes of Kohima

On March 30th, the first fighting between the Japanese and British commenced. The roads and entries leading to Kohima were defended by Indian regiments among which the Assam Rifles, India’s oldest paramilitary organisation. Colonel Hugh Richards, commander of the Kohima troops, about 1200 of them, attempted to hold back the full-fledged assault by hardened Japanese soldiers. General Kotoku Sato, lead the attack on Kohima and with relative ease, pushed back the Assam Rifles and other units. Outnumbering the British by 10 to 1, the Japanese now besieged Kohima. All Colonel Richards could do was hope they managed to stand their ground until a relief force, the British 2nd division, arrived to push back the Japanese. When this 2nd division would arrive… well, Colonel Richards didn’t know.

By April 5th, another crucial development happened. General Mutaguchi’s troops had cut the road between Imphal and Kohima. Both settlements were now isolated from each other and the outside world. General Slim’s reaction was to order his officers to resist retreating unless they were ordered to do so by higher-ups. The Japanese, unable to advance into Kohima due to the fervent resistance by the British and Indian forces, overtook cliffs, hilltops and strongholds surrounding the settlement. Soldiers from both sides would often be stuck in trenches, sometimes just several yards away from each other. The situation was incredibly chaotic; soldiers didn’t know whether the men in trenches closeby were enemies or not. According to a West Kents officer, reminiscing about the battle, a grenade being fired would only take several seconds to reach British defence lines. 

The Japanese made eager use of their artillery, mortars and snipers. With significant volume, the British were shelled. The men were pinned down, movement was near impossible as a fraction of a second without cover meant near-certain death. The majority of British forces engaged in the fighting around Kohima only knew what the situation was like within their own trench and line of defence. They simply couldn’t reach the rest, nor communicate with them.

Aside from the mortars and artillery, the Japanese used loud broadcasts in English urging the British and Indian troops to surrender. General Sato personally ordered these calls, in an attempt to demoralise the troops who were defiantly resisting the constant barrage of Japanese shelling. Both at dawn and sunset, Sato had ordered for increased shelling to take place. The defending Allied troops barely enjoyed sleep, as during the night the rustling of plants and grass kept most defenders awake. It could very well be Japanese troops infiltrating behind their lines, ready to stab or shoot them in a suicidal attack once they managed to get close enough. Slowly but surely the Allied forces were pushed back all the way onto Garrison Hill. Shortage of water made the situation even worse. Sleep-deprived, in horrible mud-caked conditions with the smell of war, constant shelling and rotting corpses lying around the Allied defence lines, it was unsure if they could hold out much longer.

On April 11th, nearly a week after the Japanese assault and shelling started, General Stopford sent the 5th British Infantry Brigade towards Kohima from Dimapur. Now, I mentioned the 161st brigade previously with their artillery was stationed several kilometres west of Kohima. This division provided cover to the small pocket of allied defenders with their artillery fire. When Stopford’s 5th British Infantry Brigade reached the 161st, they overtook their defensive position. The 161st was now in a position to launch a full-fledged counter-attack on the Japanese. It was during this time a message was sent from inside Kohima: the situation was desperate. The shelling and shortage of water meant that if help didn’t arrive within 48 hours, Kohima would fall. The message read, “while the men’s spirits are all right, there aren’t many of us left…”. 

On April 17th, the Japanese launched their most brutal offensive yet. The slopes of Garrison Hill were under constant attack. Artillery and mortar barrages were supplemented with suicidal infantry assaults, machine gun fire and the occasional grenade. The Allied forces used their howitzers to fend off the assault as well as they could. The night after, April 18th, after over a day of intense fighting, it looked as if Kohima would fall. 

Although Japanese forces surrounded Kohima and swarmed all over its surroundings, they seemed unable to coordinate a proper assault that would have indeed meant the end of Kohima. The Allied troops were confined to a 320 square metre perimeter around Garrison Hill, awaiting the rescue mission that would hopefully soon arrive.

The men of the West Kents managed to keep the Japanese out of Garrison Hill when, on the dawn of the 20th, the troops of the Royal Berkshires and 1st Punjab Regiment arrived. These quickly broke through the scattered Japanese and relieved the West Kents. Under heavy fire, the wounded were evacuated. Personal testimonies state that the stench of rotting corpses was so overwhelming many of the fresh soldiers arriving got sick. Nevertheless, they dug in on the battered hillside. Ready to face the ever so determined Japanese. 

Now as this was transpiring, the first monsoon hit the area. If the situation wasn’t bad enough already, I mean, the area looked like a grim first world war meatgrinder with blasted trees, mutilated corpses and shreds of parachutes that were used to air supply the Koshima regiment. Now rain poured down on this heap of suffering, bringing with it mud, malaria and dysentery. The Japanese occupied most of the area around Koshima and it was priority these jungle fighters be pushed out of the area as soon as possible.

The Allied Powers push back

The Japanese under Major General Shigesaburo Miyazaki attempted to break through the refreshed defences on Garrison Hill, to no avail and suffering heavy casualties. The Japanese were now forced to reorganise their troops on the defensive, as the Allied powers were granted a bit of breathing space by their latest success. In the middle of May, the heaviest and most savage fighting of the entire battle took place. And that really says something. At stake was the British Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow, with its adjacent tennis court. The Japanese had seized this area within a week of its initial assault in early April. Now, a month later, the British were preparing to retake it. In the meantime, the Japanese had erected bunkers and fortifications, not to mention weapon pits on the hillsides surrounding the Bungalow. The 2nd Battalion Dorsetshire Regiment was tasked with ejecting the Japanese from this location. The terrain deprived the Dorsetshire Regiment of any armoured support and, according to observers, the conditions the Japanese had lived in were ‘indescribable’. The Regiment was getting ready for a dirty and savage business. 

The tennis court

The Royal Engineers found a solution that allowed for a pathway to be established behind the bungalow. If they winched a Grant Tank towards this and pushed it down the slope, it would immediately crash onto the tennis court and stand amidst the Japanese line of defence. Sergeant Waterhouse, in command of the 149 Royal Tank Regiment, was given this task, and so they did. As the Lee tank rolled onto the tennis court is was welcomed with a barrage of fire from the Japanese. In return, the tank fired at the Japanese bunkers from close range, no more than 20 metres away.  Now the Dorset infantry started firing at the Japanese positions and advanced onto their fortifications. The Japanese, in a panic, fled from the tank that was firing at them from close range, running straight into the Dorsets rifles. 

The Dorsets were quick to capture the hillside where only the chimney stack of the bungalow remained. The surrounding area was battle-scarred, with craters from the shelling, dead bodies everywhere and rats running around the place. General Stopford is said to have remarked that it reminded him of the battlefield of the Somme from the First World War, stating “one could tell how desperate the fighting had been.”

The Imphal-Kohima road

The breaking point for the Japanese was the lack of supplies and ammunition. On May 31st, after several more counter-offensives by the Allied powers which weren’t all successful, the Japanese finally retreated. The Japanese supply lines had been cut, and their resupply missions brought ammunition rather than food. They had been in combat for well over two months, while their initial food supply had only lasted them for three weeks.

The memorial

General Sato ordered his men to withdraw to Imphal. Demoralised, exhausted, wounded, riddled with disease and under constant allied attack, they retreated. To top it all off, the British 2nd division and 7th Indian division pursued the Japanese and used their momentum to relieve Imphal, which had been under Japanese siege for 80 days as well. On June 22nd, Imphal was relieved and General Mutaguchi now too abandoned his offensive. In early July he ordered his Japanese 15th Army to retreat. Severely impeded by the mud and chaos monsoon season brought with it, the Japanese crossed the border with Burma via the Chindwin river. Of the 80.000 Japanese troops tasked with invading India, merely 20.000 were left standing as they retreated. 

The allied powers suffered well over 17.000 British and Indian casualties. Those that fell at Kohima have their monument bearing the epitaph: “When you go home, tell them of us, and say: For your tomorrow, we gave our today.” And that’s how one of Japan’s last offensives in India during the Second World War started very promising, but soon turned into an absolute hellhole.

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The Battle for Remagen Bridge (March, 1945)

By the beginning of March 1945 the Western Allies, advancing on a broad front, were closing up on the River Rhine, the last great natural barrier between them and Germany’s heartland. Up until that point, the Germans had destroyed all the River’s bridges the Americans came across. Yet on March 7, at the small German town of Remagen, the American 9th Armored Division came across an intact bridge over the Rhine, the Ludendorff bridge. They needed to capture it to ensure the Rhine crossing by Armored Units, something that had only been possible in dribs and drabs using small infantry patrols and rafts. In turn, the Germans realised the bridge’s strategic importance and went all out to try and destroy the Ludendorff bridge.  

Background

On March 7 the VII Corps of the US First Army had reached the Rhine at Cologne. But the Germans had destroyed all the bridges across the river. About 72 kilometres to the south lay the town of Remagen, overlooking the Ludendorff railway bridge spanning the Rhine. 

At 12:56 PM that day, the men of A Company, 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, reached the top of a gorge on the Rhine’s west bank to find themselves staring down an intact bridge over the river. The men were somewhat surprised. Until then, the Germans had blown up all bridges they came across. The unit, commanded by 22-year-old Lieutenant Karl Timmermann, travelled in the half-track military vehicle, accompanied by four Pershing M-26 tanks. 

Demolished bridges in Köln

They were part of Task Force Engeman, named after Lieutenant-Colonel Leonard Engeman. The task force was part of Brigadier-General William Hogue’s Combat Command B of 9th Armored Division. Its orders were to capture the town of Remagen before turning south to link up with other units of their division. 

Once they arrived at Remagen, Timmermann and his men saw the Germans’ exodus’ remnants, often with horse-drawn carriages and battered vehicles rolling over the bridge in a disorganised manner. Timmermann radioed Engeman, and informed him it appeared the Ludendorff Bridge was intact. Engeman, in turn, quickly made his way to the bridge. The men did quick reconnaissance, and Engeman decided he didn’t want to risk a drive down the narrow, steep-sided road running below the vantage point into town. It was the ideal setting for an ambush, and Germans were still roaming on their side of the river. Instead, Timmermann’s company was ordered to move down a wooded track to clear Remagen’s outskirts. After this, the four Pershings, under the command of Lieutenant John Grimball, would join them.

Before too long three platoons were skirmishing through the streets of Remagen, moving from building-to-building, dispersing a German patrol and capturing the railway station in town. By 2:20 PM Grimball’s tanks joined, slowly rolling down the town-path by the river. Here they began to lay down suppressive fire across the bridge to prevent any sudden enemy movement. Although the Allied troops could see Germans on the east bank, the Germans managed to shelter themselves off in the tunnel into which the rail line ran at the basalt cliff base.

The Ludendorff Bridge after its capture

40-odd minutes later, Timmermann and his number 3 Platoon, under Sergeant Joseph Delisio’s command, arrived at the town’s cemetery, close to the two granite towers at the western end of the Ludendorff Bridge. So far, the Americans had encountered barely any resistance. Meanwhile, on the German side, Remagen’s defence had not really been a priority of Field Marshal Walther Model. He was the German Army Group B commander and was looking to the north and south of Remagen for American assault crossings of the Rhine.

So when the Americans tried to take over the bridge without damaging it too much, they only faced weak and relatively uncoordinated resistance. A squad of engineers, 60 members of the Volkssturm, and some Luftwaffe anti-aircraft gunners operating a battery of 20mm flak guns which started firing at the Americans. To be fair, they were far from an intimidating bunch. The Germans fell under Major Willi Brage’s command, who higher-ups authorised to start preparing the bridge’s demolition. However, the bridge master, a local man, could only gather around 590kg of low-grade industrial explosive. Still, he attached the explosives to the girders of the bridge’s central span. 

The commander of the engineer squad, Captain Karl Friesenhahn, also used some of the scarcely available explosives. He booby-trapped the approach ramp to the bridge on the west bank. He had built the ramp earlier to enable vehicles to drive up on the bridge and cross on the wooden planks laid over the rails. If the bridge wasn’t blown up, it would make crossing the bridge much easier for the Americans.

Battle for the bridge 

Accompanying Bratge was Hans Scheller, the representative of Major-General Hitzfeld, the senior officer responsible for the Ludendorff Bridge. Hitzfeld had ordered Scheller to keep the bridge open for as long as possible, so the troops under his command had an escape route. Now, while Scheller agonised about blowing the bridge up, the American tanks began nosing down the town path. Twenty minutes later, Engeman realised this was the time to strike. He issued a precise command to seize the Ludendorff Bridge.

The Ludendorff Bridge after its attempted demolition

Timmermann and his men now faced the daunting prospect of taking an objective which at any moment might explode beneath their feet. Within two minutes, their nervous deliberations were interrupted by a heavy explosion as Friesenhahn detonated the approach ramp’s charges. When the smoke cleared, the bridge was still standing, albeit a bit damaged. The explosives didn’t manage to destroy the bridge. Timmermann immediately ordered his company to seize the bridge.

Soldiers scrambled through the craters to the bridge when there was a second explosion. The Ludendorff Bridge now flew in the air and settled again. The main charges too had been blown up, but part of the electrical firing mechanism had failed. The American tanks on the west bank continued their firing while Task Force Engeman positioned their assault guns and launched a barrage of fire against the Americans. One of Friesenhahn’s engineers, Sergeant Faust, ran through the firing from both sides to ignite the fuse in the manual firing box on the bridge. 

Managing to light the fuse, Faust only returned to the tunnel’s shelter when the charges went off. Huge chunks of debris crashed into the Rhine, but still, after the smoke cleared, the bridge stood tall. Although the central span was twisted at this point and there was a gaping hole in the flooring. 

Under heavy fire by the Germans, the Americans now zig-zagged their way across the bridge. The machine-guns in the eastern tower were quickly silenced, and the first Allied soldier set foot on the east bank of the Rhine. It was Sergeant Alex Drabik, Squad leader in No.3 platoon. Considering he ran near 400 meters over the bridge, taking fire from the Germans, while the charges under the bridge could blow up at any minute, this was quite the feat. For his bravery, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

American forces crossing the bridge

By 4 PM about 75 American troops had passed safely across the bridge, taking their first surrendering German prisoners. Behind the soldiers, Allied engineers were cutting cables and hurling undetonated charges into the Rhine. There was still an explosion hazard, and the bridge was vital to the transport of armoured divisions.

As the bridgehead at Remagen expanded, the Germans threw some desperate counter-attacks to destroy the bridge. All of them failed. Over a week after the Allies had secured the bridge, the Luftwaffe was still trying to bomb it, together with the three tactical bridges the US engineers erected alongside it. They even sent V-2 guided long-range missiles. All of these missed their targets but did kill German civilians living in the vicinity of the bridge. Ten days after the bridge was secured, on March 17, the Ludendorff bridge finally toppled into the Rhine. Not without casualties though, 28 Allied troops died during the collapse. In terms of logistics, the destruction wasn’t too worrying. The Americans already established a bridgehead and two emergency bridges, ensuring Germany’s penetration by Allied armoured units.

The German defenders of the bridge were charged in absentia. Friesenhahn was acquitted and Bratge was sentenced to death. The crossing of the Rhine by the Americans had done a lot of good for the Allied troops invading Germany and was a crucial blow, albeit one of many, to the German morale. 

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The 1952 Escape of 7 Former Waffen-SS Soldiers… and they got away with it

 The Dutch city of Breda is located in the southern Brabant province. Aside from its cultural riches, a pretty well-known prison named de Koepel, or ‘the Dome’, is situated there. In the wake of the Second World War, the prison housed all Dutch war-criminals serving life sentences. Some of them had their death sentence commuted. Others simply served life. 111 Dutchmen and 63 Germans. Among them were ‘Breda’s Seven’; seven Dutch former Waffen-SS war-criminals serving life sentences. 

De Koepel (‘the Dome) prison
By G.Lanting – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5313286

Yet seven years after the Second World War came to an end and the Dutch court sentenced these men to life, they managed to escape the prison and flee the country. This event dominated the national headlines, and there was an enormous public backlash. Not so much because of the escape itself, but because of the aftermath… Although it was known where the escapees fled and where they resided, it appeared that all of them managed to get away with it. In 2018 the Dutch National Archives released confidential ministerial letters, memos and reports regarding the escape. These provide a candid look at the subsequent diplomatic fallout. 

The Escape

On December 26, 1952, Boxing Day, the prison hosted a movie night for its inmates. The 1935 black-and-white Austrian comedy Der Himmel auf Erden was played in the common room. But seven former Waffen-SS members and war-criminals serving life sentences weren’t watching the film. Herbertus Bikker, Sander Borgers, Klaas Carel Faber, Jacob de Jonge, Willem van der Neut, Willem Polak and Antoine Touseul were planning their escape. With help from sympathisers on the outside. 

Letters and documents reveal these men were serving their sentences for a long list of crimes against humanity. During the Second World War, they committed murder, abuse and reprisals against unarmed civilians. They aided and abetted the deportation of Jews, some being camp-guards themselves. 

As soon as the common room lights extinguished, the seven prisoners snuck to the prison’s boiler room. They pick locked the door that led them to the courtyard. One of the men worked in the boiler room and hid a ladder under piles of coal there earlier that day. Using both the ladder and a firehose, all seven managed to climb over the five-meter high outer perimeter wall, unnoticed by any guard.

The escapees

Outside two cars stood at the ready, a Plymouth and Chevrolet. It appeared the men received help from outside and that this escape wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing. It had been thoroughly planned. After the men jumped into the cars, they drove to Germany. Within two hours, at around 10 PM that night, they crossed the border. Upon arrival in Germany, they reported themselves to the local police. Some sources indicate the local police officer that happened to be on duty that night was a former SS officer himself, instantly sharing the department’s Christmas stollen and brewing the prisoners a pot of coffee. 

Meanwhile, in prison, halfway through the film, the lights suddenly turned on. Someone tipped the guards an escape had taken place, although the guards were unsure who, and how many escapees there were. After a rollcall they counted 167 prisoners: seven were missing. But it was too late, and most of the prisoners would never return to the Netherlands.

During the subsequent proceedings of German authorities against the fugitives, a German district judge, Dyckman, convicted all men… for illegally crossing the border. They were fined 10 Marks each. The fact the men only had Dutch guilders to pay the fine didn’t really matter. It appeared they quite literally escaped justice.

Backlash

Now, you’d expect the men to be extradited to the Netherlands as the German authorities found out they resided in the country. Because, well, they were Dutch citizens. Yet that wasn’t the case. Since 1943 any person of a ‘Germanic nation’ such as the Flemish or Dutchmen that joined up with the Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS automatically received German citizenship. This was thanks to the so-called Führer-Erlass, directives issued by Adolf Hitler himself. 

Post-war German law prohibited extradition of its own citizens. So German courts used this argument to obstruct any way shape or form, leading to these Dutch fugitives’ extradition. In turn, all of them began new lives in Germany.  

It’s fascinating to read letters from the Dutch ambassador Pim van Boetzelaer, complaining about this “ridiculous argumentation, because all these men are as Dutch as can be.” Three years after the escape, in October 1955, the German ambassador to the Hague received a firm reprimand from the Dutch government. In a letter, the government complained about the deterioration of confidence in the German rule of law. Mainly because the German courts used the Führer-Erlass as an argumentation not to extradite the men. After all, the decree was a thoroughly national-socialist decree, issued by Hitler himself. How could Germany, after all the crimes committed by the Nazi regime, uphold such an order?

Writing about the case in private letters, the Dutch Justice Minister Leendert Donker complained about it being “highly unsatisfactory and completely untenable.” He also criticised the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joseph Luns. Apparently, Luns promised to ensure that he’d reach an agreement with the Germans regarding the issue. But three years down the line there was no word about it yet.

Coded telegrams sent by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reveal a painfully obvious absence of Allied countries’ support. In one such telegram from February 1955, they write that extradition of ‘bandits’ isn’t a priority to Washington, London or Paris. They had bigger fish to fry. To be fair, due to the Cold War, there was ever-increasing tension between the Soviet Union and the Western nations. It was a priority to ensure support from West Germany, and agitating them by twisting their arm into extraditing the men could work counterproductive. Dutch interest was secondary to these massive geopolitical interests forming a block against the Soviet Union and its satellite states. 

This too became painfully obvious to the Dutch government. On October 27, 1955, Minister Donker wrote that “any chance of extradition of these men is close to zero. It is a lost cause.” And Donker wasn’t too wrong. All men got away with it. Well, except for Jacob de Jonge, a former camp guard who ended up not being eligible for German citizenship. He was extradited to the Netherlands and served part of his sentence. I couldn’t for the life of me find out how long he did serve, although it is near certain he did not serve a life sentence anymore. 

As for the prison itself, in the immediate aftermath of the escape, the prison, housing dozens of war criminals, increased the height of the walls and erected multiple guard towers.

Curiously enough the three men driving the cars and helping the escapees were arrested and put on trial in the Netherlands. All three were native Dutchmen from Amsterdam. It turned out they served prison sentences in the aftermath of the war for assisting the Germans during their occupation of the Netherlands.

Dutch newspapers publicised their names and their defence. The interrogation reports are included in the secret archives of the Dutch Justice Ministry. It was quite laughable: they stated they were simply driving around, looking at Dutch meadows, when they ran into the group of escaped prisoners. On a whim, they decided to give the men a ride. They supposedly didn’t know they were helping war-criminals escape. At any rate, all four were sentenced to six months imprisonment for aiding the escapees.

Herbertus Bikker, nicknamed the Hangman of Camp Ommen, ended up standing trial in Germany in 2003 – 51 years after his escape. The Germans charged him with the murder of a member of the Dutch resistance, Jan Houtman. Yet psychiatrists advised the court that Bikker wasn’t mentally capable of understanding the charges brought against him anymore. As such, the German courts decided to halt prosecuting him. Bikker was never convicted for any of his crimes, just like the others, except de Jonge.