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

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

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

Early Maritime Connections

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

Erich Raeder (1876-1960)

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

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

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

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

The Maritime Route (source)

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

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

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

The RO-500 with Japanese flag

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

The Monsun Gruppe

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

Mid-ocean replenishment

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

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

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

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

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

The Comandante Cappellini

End of the War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/336512319_Gruppe_Monsun_-_The_U-Boat_operations_in_the_Indian_and_Pacific_Oceans_during_World_War_II
http://www.uboataces.com/articles-fareast-boats4.shtml
https://uboat.net/ops/monsun.htm
https://uboat.net/allies/merchants/ship/3400.html
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“Pappy” Boyington’s Black Sheep Squadron and the Pacific Theatre

The 1976 American TV-series Baa Baa Black Sheep was a military drama, sprinkled with bits of comedy. The series is loosely based on Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, an American combat pilot who was a U.S. Marine Corps fighter ace, and his squadron, during the Second World War. In late summer 1942, Boyington took over command over the Marine fighter squadron 214, nicknamed the Black Sheep. Boyington’s Black Sheep rose to fame for their exploits in the Pacific war theatre. He became one of the top aces of the marines, with 26 confirmed victories, although he himself claimed 28 which would make him the top-scoring Marine ace of all time. Yet during his final record-breaking mission, he disappeared and was presumed dead for twenty months, until he turned up in a Japanese POW camp. 

Gregory “Pappy” Boyington (1912-1988)

Boyington’s Black Sheep became a highly successful fighter squadron in the Pacific, and not in the least thanks to their eccentric commander. 

Boyington’s Rocky Road

On August 7th, 1942, U.S. Marines stormed ashore at Guadalcanal in the Solomons chain. It was the beginning of the Guadalcanal campaign, codenamed Operation Watchtower, with the aim to isolate and subdue the vital Japanese base at Rabaul, on the island of New Britain in New Guinea. Yet it took three months of heavy fighting and Japanese counterattacks until the decisive Naval Battle of Guadalcanal sealed the fate of the Japanese. 

Nevertheless, within the region, the Japanese still engaged in dogfighting and bombing raids with their Mitsubishi Zeros. There were around 400 Japanese aircraft operating by this point. The U.S. Major-General Ralph J. Mitchell, commanding a mixed force of fighters, bombers and support aircraft, was tasked with destroying the last Japanese resistance in the area.

And among the squadrons that Mitchell commanded was the Marine Fighter Squadron, or VMF 214. This squadron was under the command of Major Gregory Boyington. Boyington, born in Idaho in 1912,  joined the US Marine Corps in 1935, and was known for his ‘irreverence and high jinks that did not go down well with his superiors’. Due to friction with superiors, financial debts and a hunger for adventure, Boyington ended up resigning from the Marines. He travelled to China during the late 1930s and signed up for the American Volunteer Group, serving under General Claire Chenault. 

Some of my viewers may recognise that name, for a good reason. Over a year ago I published a video recounting the establishment and operational history of the AVG, better known as the Flying Tigers. The Flying Tigers consisted of American volunteers that operated in China against the invading Japanese. 

As part of the Flying Tigers, Boyington was credited with six confirmed aerial victories. But the Flying Tigers met many logistical difficulties, including the poor keeping of records. In addition, the Flying Tigers’ kills were not recognised by the United States, even though they were eventually integrated into the Fourteenth Air Force of the U.S. Army Air Forces.  Following the induction, Boyington returned to the US mainland and proudly claimed to be one of the U.S.’s first aces of the war. He figured that as he had already flown against the Japanese, the Marines would welcome him back, but instead, his reputation was well known and no service wanted him.

Eventually, it was Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, that accepted Boyington as a Reserve major of the Marine Corps after Boyington sent him a telegram pleading for an appointment. He was deployed as part of the VMF-122, commanded by Major Elmer Brackett, to the Solomon Islands in the Pacific. His initial occupation was to instruct pilots and train flying squadrons, staying away from combat. From July 1943 onwards he became the commander of the VMF-112, yet he broke his leg while wrestling not soon after. Yeah, it didn’t exactly go smoothly for Boyington. He was hospitalised and had to give up his position, and only after his recuperation by September he was given another chance. 

Because that month he was appointed as commander of the Marine Fighter Squadron 214.  The squadron had previously fought around the Solomon Islands during the similarly named campaign. Still, after its second tour of operations, it lost its commander, Major William Pace, and its manpower was spread to other squadrons. For a short while it only existed in name, until it was decided to reorganise the squadron with Boyington at its head.

Boyington, 31 years old by this point, was a highly experienced fighter pilot. Although there were men that were older than he was in the squadron, his men nicknamed him “Gramps” and “Pappy” since he was around a decade older than most of his lieutenants, which were in their early 20s. Initially they wanted to name their squadron “Boyington’s Bastards,” but ended up with the less suggestive “Black Sheep.”

Several men recruited for the squadron were veterans that had served with Boyington in the Flying Tigers. Others were relatively fresh meat. The 27 initial pilots now took up the task to fly missions against the Japanese. And one of the reasons that this squadron turned into a much-feared one, was because of the gull-winged Vought F4U Corsair. 

Vought F4U Corsair

There’s a fascinating history behind the aircraft because it was initially rejected as a carrier-based aircraft by the US Navy. The fact the Black Sheep flew in these types of planes also shows the difficulty the squadron was in: they flew in borrowed planes that other commanders had written off. As for this model, its nose was deemed too long, which hindered its visibility, and its undercarriage was unreliable. Yet during the Solomon Campaign, when the plane entered combat, it showed clear superiority to Japanese fighter planes. The Marines, as such, weren’t too worried about adopting this type of aircraft. During the entire war, it achieved an 11:1 kill ratio, accounting for 2140 defeated enemy aircraft. 

Boyington’s new squadron operated in incredibly harsh conditions. They were initially stationed on the Russell Islands, a bit northwest of Guadalcanal. The pilot’s tents were surrounded by mud, swarms of mosquitoes pestered the area, and if it wasn’t the mosquitos keeping them awake, it was the Japanese night bombers flying over. Besides, the food was of such low quality that men suffered more hospital visits from food poisoning, dysentery and malaria than from enemy fire. The circumstances weren’t ideal, but “Pappy” did inspire his men and made sure they were ready for when they first entered combat.

First Combat

It was on September 16th 1943, New Georgia Island, at Munda, the Black Sheep first came into action. They flew a bomber escort to Balalae Island, an island on the west of the Solomon Islands. During this flight, 40 Japanese Mistubishi Zeros attacked the squadron. 

Following a dogfight in the sky, 11 Zeros were shot down, five of which were shot personally by Boyington. One of the Zeros he downed was in an attempt to save his friend, Captain Robert T. Ewing. Captain Ewing did not make it to Balalae Island and was the first loss of the squadron. 

Now, after this mission, the Black Sheep truly showed their worth in the Bougainville area.  Bougainville is a region in Papua New Guinea and was invaded in March 1942 by the Japanese. Admittedly, the 24 Australian soldiers that were stationed on the island did not really put up any resistance when the overwhelming Japanese forces overtook both the Buka and Bougainville Islands. The Allies launched a counter-offensive in late 1943 against the Japanese that established a naval- and airbase on the island.

 The Black Sheep Squadron took part in the allied counteroffensive against the Japanese in the area. The squadron saw weeks of continuous fighting here. During their first month they shot down 47 aircraft. In early October, the Japanese nearly outsmarted Boyington and his men, however. The Black Sheep flew over the airfield at Kahili, still held by the Japanese with several air fleets, with Mitsubishi Zeros stationed on them. Boyington received a radio-signal in perfect English, requesting him to report his squadron’s exact whereabouts and the direction they were flying.

Boyington reported where they were flying and where they were going. Several minutes later, one of the other pilots noticed 30 Zeros climbing beneath the squadron. The zeros, in a nasty spot, were easily ambushed by Boyington’s men and Boyington shot down at least three. It turned out that while Boyington communicated his direction and whereabouts, he suspected a deception. He transmitted a height nearly two kilometres lower than they actually were flying at. In the book Boyington later published, Baa Baa Black Sheep, he recounts the battle: 

‘You could see the planes going around in circles, half-circles, you could see Zeros, Corsairs, Zeros, all firing at each other, you could see the red balls from the tracers, just like Roman candles going every which way in the sky.’

Following the battles of the Bougainville area, the Black Sheep were stationed at the forward base at the island of Vella Lavella, an island in the western Solomon Islands. Their mission was to launch an assault on Rabaul, in order to cut off the Japanese base located there. 

Last campaigns

Yet the first mission over the base wasn’t exactly a success. 76 fighters were drawn from the Marine Corps, Navy Squadrons and Royal New Zealand Air Force by General Mitchell. The problem was both the size of the group, 76 was quite generous, and the fact all pilots flew in different planes. The formation consisted of Corsairs, Hellcats and Kittyhawks and it was a nightmare to coordinate and communicate mid-air with all pilots with so many different aircraft. Also, it intimidated the Japanese who simply didn’t engage in fights, which rendered missions ineffective.

To deal with this,  Boyington divided the group into smaller formations. No more than 48 fighters could take part in future operations, and generally only one type of aircraft could. Five days later 48 Corsairs followed up on a bombing raid on Rabaul when they flew into a responding 40-strong group of Japanese Zero fighters. Thanks to the cunning and agile performance, thirty Zeros were shot down. Boyington himself claimed five victories that day. It was another incredible victory and the Black Sheep were truly making a name for themselves. 

As for the total amount of Japanese aircraft shot down over Rabaul, sources are a bit contradictory. I mean, overclaiming already happened during the Battle of Britain, and while U.S. pilots claim 147 aircraft to be shot down, official Japanese records suggest 70. Either way, the reign of Japanese air power in the region was quickly coming to an end and the Americans now reigned supreme in the sky.

Yet pressure on Boyington was mounting. His… difficult personality I’d say, and the pressure that his total victory tally was getting awfully close to becoming the U.S. top ace started to get to him. 

During the First World War, the top-scoring U.S. fighter ace was Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, with 26 confirmed victories. During the Second World War Joe Foss, lead pilot of Foss’s Flying Circus, matched this record. But Foss returned from his wartime operations and by this time contracted malaria, meaning Boyington could in fact better his score. 

In late December 1943, Boyington scored several kills bringing his victory tally to 24. According to his intelligence officer, as time progressed, Boyington became more aggressive, took more risk and had a short fuse. Then again, people kept bugging him, asking him when he’d break the record. It was only several days before the squadron’s tour of duty ended, and Boyington started to get nervous he wouldn’t get the chance to break the record. On December 27th he got another kill during a dogfight with the Black Sheep against 60 Zeros, but engine trouble during a subsequent mission prevented him from adding another one to his tally. The day after, according to Black Sheep pilots returning from a mission Boyington led, he matched the all-time record by scoring another kill and was in hot pursuit of another Zero. Preparations were made to celebrate Boyington breaking the 25-year-old record. Yet Boyington didn’t return, and as the day progressed, his pilots realised: Boyington was missing. 

When he didn’t return that evening or during the next couple of days, and patrols couldn’t find him either, it became clear he was most liokely shot down together with his wingman, Captain Ashmun. What wasn’t known was that although Ashmun didn’t make it, Boyington survived the crash and was taken as a prisoner-of-war by the Japanese. Twenty months he spent in a camp, suffering from malnourishment and torture, and was presumed dead by his squadron and government. He was awarded the medal of honour in March 1944, posthumously.

But after the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it became clear Boyington lived. When Japanese POW camps were liberated in August 1945, Boyington suddenly turned up among the captured men. Following his return, Boyington was physically awarded his medal of honour. Quite strange was that this was the first military award Boyington received during his entire career. Soon after the Navy Cross and other decorations followed.

Upon his return Boyington claimed he shot down three more Zeros, although the last two were unconfirmed. If he indeed did shoot down three, that would bring his tally to 28, and he would be the top-scoring Marine ace of all time. Yet officially his victory tally stands on 26. 

Boyington’s Black Sheep Squadron was the seventh-highest scoring Marine squadron, tallying 127 confirmed victories in total. The majority of these victories were attained when Boyington was not yet made a prisoner-of-war. The VMF-214 went on to serve during the Korean war, swapping their Corsairs for A-4 Skyhawks. By the end of the war, Boyington was officially noted as the top-scoring Marine ace and after his retirement in 1947, he was promoted to colonel. In his absence, several other young ambitious men became known to the greater public. Among them was 23-year-old First Lieutenant Robert M. Hanson, part of the VMF-215. He participated in missions with the Black Sheep and ended up shooting down 25 aircraft, 20 of which were shot down in just six missions spread over 13 days. One day before his 24th birthday, on February 3rd, he was shot down by anti-aircraft artillery. He was the highest-scoring Corsair ace and this young man had one of the greatest, and sadly one of the shortest careers as a talented fighter pilot.

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The Battle of Bir Hakeim

Bir Hakeim is an oasis in north-east Libya. During the Second World War, the eponymous fortress served as one of the most important strongholds of the Free French Army against General Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika. In May 1942 around 3700 soldiers of the 1st Free French Brigade faced over ten times the amount of German and Italian troops, besieging the fortress. It was crucial that the French hold the fort long enough to slow down the advance of the Panzer Korps, whose goal was to capture British-held Tobruk, the strategic port to the northeast.

What followed was a real David versus Goliath battle, with the Free French desperately holding out against the Axis troops. Eventually they saw no other option but to break out of the fortress during night-time and quite literally making an incredibly dangerous dash for it. 

Background

By the early summer of 1940, the French had suffered a humiliating defeat as the battle of France had lasted for a mere six weeks before the Germans marched into Paris. As the war progressed, French operations in theatres outside of Europe continued. A brigade from the Free French Legion was deployed to the British 8th Army in North Africa. 

Erwin Rommel near Bir Hakeim

 Two years after the taking of France, the war theatre in North Africa reached a critical point. The 13th First Free French Demi-Brigade, under the command of General Marie-Pierre Koenig, held themselves up in the fortress of Bir Hakeim, in the Libyan desert. Now, a German and Italian offensive against the British army in the area led to the Battle of Gazala. The so-called Gazala Line consisted of a series of dense minefields linking a number of fortresses that were designed to withstand massive enemy attacks for multiple days.

The goal of the Axis powers was to capture the strategically located port of Tobruk. General Erwin Rommel figured that instead of doing the obvious, namely attacking the northern line of defence, he would launch a decoy attack in the north and instead concentrate his main attack on the southern line, against the Fortress of Bir Hakeim, manned by Koenig’s troops. 

The 3700 men stationed in the fortress were going to have to fight off the much larger Afrika Korps. The defenders of the fort weren’t all native Frenchmen by the way. There were many soldiers from French Equatorial Africa, a battalion from Tahiti and Syria, and even some German political refugees that decided to join the French Foreign Legion in the wake of the Nazi party overtaking Germany. Besides Koenig, another noteworthy commander was the emigré Russian prince, Lieutenant-Colonel Amilakvari. He was a Georgian that had fled the Russian Revolution of 1917, eventually joining the French Foreign Legion in 1924. A truly mixed bunch. 

Manning the ruined fortress, located at the southernmost point of the British 8th Army’s defensive line in the Western Desert, the Legion was facing a force nearly ten times the size of their own.

As you can see on this map, the fortress of Bir Hakeim was surrounded by minefields, forcing the Germans to attack the fort at certain positions. The French positioned their heaviest artillery and most robust defences in these pockets. Furthermore, Koenig, a veteran of the First World War, had ordered his troops to dig a network of shelters and trenches. These were large enough to house all 3700 men manning the fort. 

Now, in the grander scheme of things, the French and British weren’t sure where Rommel would concentrate his main attack. But if Rommel did decide to take his Afrika Korps to attack the Gazala Line from the south, Bir Hakeim would become the centre of defending Tobruk from the Axis powers.

On May 26th Rommel launched his attack, a bit east to Bir Hakeim. The Axis powers overran the Indian Motor Brigade that manned a box several miles to the east without too much trouble. The Axis now rapidly advanced towards the east. It seemed that Bir Hakeim would in fact become the main battleground against Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

The First Battles

As the Legion was manning the fortress, Koenig sent out several patrols in order to keep an eye on possible advancing German troops. On May 26th he received word from one of those patrols that a large German force, consisting of both Panzers and Infantry, was approaching the fort. It would turn out to be the Italian 102nd Ariete and part of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, manoeuvring themselves in preparation of the imminent attack against the French.

The Italian division consisted of 220 light and 50 medium tanks. On the early morning of the 27th a small part of this division attacked, unsupported by any infantry. Evading the minefields, they charged into the corridors in between them, exactly as the French had hoped. They charged directly into the 50-odd 75mm anti-tank guns positioned there. Now, the French allowed the Italian tanks to come as close as 350 metres to the fortress. Then, they unleashed a barrage of fire onto them until every last tank was forced to a standstill.

French anti-tank 75 mm gun at Bir Hakeim

 Nevertheless, ten Italian tanks managed to break through the defences. Legionnaires now jumped onto the tank hulls as soon as they could, firing into the sight slits at point-blank range. That day, the Italians lost 32 tanks and over 100 men. The legionnaires now dashed forward to capture the crew of Italian tanks. However, barely any were alive – most died from the impact of the anti-tank guns, exploding mines, or the inferno on the battlefield. 

Over the next four days, heavy fighting concentrated itself to the northeast of Bir Hakeim against the British. The French defenders enjoyed relative quiet. The British 8th Army seemed to have gained the upper hand, and General Koenig was ordered to send a motorised column to the west – across the desert – in order to besiege and seize Ronda Segnali, a position held by the Italians. Unfortunately for the French, Rommel anticipated on their actions. As the more significant battle for the Gazala Line was continuing, Rommel himself began to direct his attention towards the small French unit holding Bir Hakeim.

From their perspective, it was clear: if they didn’t capture this small thorn in their side, they were prone to have their supply lines cut off, or even worse: suffer an attack from behind. A massive artillery and aerial bombardment should quickly solve the issue of this slight annoyance, Rommel figured. The German 90th Light Division and Italian Trieste Division were ordered south, in order to surround Bir Hakeim. As they were moving into their positions, the French were subject to the immense noise of dozens of Stuka bombers approaching. Fortunately, the underground shelters of the fort could house the entire garrison – it really did save their life: the Stuka’s bombed the Fort, wave after wave, chipping away at its defences. The Stuka bombing raid was only the beginning of a much larger offensive, however.

Besieged

On the morning of June 2, the men in Bir Hakeim were surprised that instead of a Stuka raid, two Italian officers approached the battered fortress with a white flag hoisted. Koenig went to meet them, and the Italians requested he’d surrender with all his troops. Koenig refused to do so – and the day after it wasn’t the Italians but Erwin Rommel himself that came to visit the fort. He didn’t impress Koenig, who once again refused to surrender. As a response to the refusal of surrender, Bir Hakeim once again became the target of German and Italian artillery shelling. The aerial bombardments stagnated, however: in the air the Stukas were surprised to meet Hawker Hurricanes of the Desert Air Force. They were quickly routed, leaving Bir Hakeim relatively unscathed from aerial assault. Fortunately for the French Legion in the fort, the British managed to resupply them with water and ammunition during the night: they weren’t completely isolated. 

A German 20 mm anti-aircraft gun in the foreground and a Luftwaffe air raid on Bir Hakeim in the background

Four days after the initial request for surrender, Bir Hakeim was once again subjected to an extensive artillery bombardment. Following the barrage, an infantry attack was launched against the southernmost strong point of the fort. The infantry had to traverse over open ground, however and was rapidly mowed down by machine-gun fire from the fortress. Attempting to launch the second wave of an infantry assault, these men too were mowed down with relative ease.

The situation inside the fort started to deteriorate, regardless of the fact they managed to fend off the attackers. On June 8 the last convoy smuggling water into the fortress managed to get through – but from now on the water was rationed. Considering the heat, combined with the continuous shelling, it certainly was taking its toll. 

The next waves of infantry attacks were supported by heavy tanks. Bir Hakeim’s defences were being chipped away at. An observation post was overrun, and in some areas where Axis forces managed to break through the lines of fortifications, hand-to-hand combat broke out. All the french could do was counterattack as best as they could.

During the night of June 9, Koenig did something radical: he started planning for a breakout. He saw that as the only viable option for survival. The next day, the fort was once again subject to infantry charges and enemy tanks that tried to strong-arm their way into the fort. The French did receive aerial support from Hurricanes, picking off Axis infantry. The situation became more desperate by the hour, however. Heavy fighting continued far into dusk and Koenig decided that this night was the night they’d attempt to break out of the fortress.

The Break-out

That night, small scouting troops were sent out in close proximity of the fortress to clear out the minefields. There wasn’t much time, so only the mines that could pose a problem for the colonne about to leave were swiftly dug up. Now, initially, to safeguard them from the Stuka bombings, trucks had been stored underground inside the fort. These were now dug out and placed in position. The French climbed into the trucks, which formed a long row of silent silhouettes in the night. And then, the defenders launched a series of machine-gun fire at the Axis positions. It masked the sound of the engines that started roaring, ready for the break-out.

The legionnaires of the 13th Demi-brigade led the breakout. The trucks had to follow them in a line, as the sappers had only been able to clear a narrow corridor of mines. The Axis powers, realising what was going on, shot flares in the air, illuminating the Allied convoy trying to get through their own minefield. Machine gun fire opened against the column. In turn, the drivers of the truck panicked. The trucks, all neatly lined up, ended up in a traffic jam, making them ideal targets for the Axis machine guns. Quite literally sitting ducks to the Axis machine gun assault, the line of trucks was stranded in the middle of their own minefield. Several trucks tried to leave the column and drive to safety, only to trigger the mines that detonated and blew several trucks to pieces. Some men charged at the Axis machine gun nests, many of them mowed down as a result. It was a nightmarish spectacle. 

In a last-ditch attempt, Koenig ordered the Bren gun carriers to give the Axis powers hell. They managed to blow a hole in the Axis lines, upon which Koenig now ordered his trucks to speed through it. His own car was riddled with bullets, yet he made it into the open desert without being wounded. Together with the trucks that managed to get out of that hell-hole, they now drove to the west of Bir Hakeim, linking up with the 8th Army.  

In the end, a bit over 2500 French had managed to escape the siege of Bir Hakeim in an incredibly daring breakout. Around 140 had lost their lives. The breakout had a big impact on the French morale, with Churchill and de Gaulle praising the operation. Even Hitler had to admit that “After the Germans, the French are the best fighters”. 

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Stalingrad of the East: the Japanese 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. 

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.

Garrison Hill

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.

General Montagu Stopford (1892-1971)

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.”

Allied soldiers linking up after the battles

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

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

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

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The Only (Secret) Recording with Hitler’s Normal Voice

During his lifetime, but also in studies afterwards, Hitler has been revered for his ability to enchant crowds with his voice. The dictator realised, more than anyone at the time, the power of a well-staged speech, both to excite and intimidate. 

Because over 500 speeches, of which audio- and video footage has been preserved, we really only know the way of speaking of Hitler in its most dramatic form. It may come as a surprise because it’s not something you’d generally think of when talking about the rise of Hitler or the Second World War in general, but we only have recordings of Hitler giving speeches to massive crowds. And, sure, he managed to captivate and enchant those crowds with his signature raspy voice and dramatic way of speaking. I mean, he basically perfected demagoguery, and from photographs and documentation, we know he prepared his speeches into their minute detail. He didn’t just rehearse the content of his speeches, but actually practised and prepared the intonation of every word he uttered. 

Photographs were commissioned, in fact, to examine certain poses and body language, and to see if they were imposing enough to present to crowds. He even took acting lessons. Everything, to perfect his charisma and rhetoric. Hitler himself was aware of his rhetorical skill as, stating that he was “conscious that he had no equal in the art of swaying the masses.”

And Hitler’s rise to power was made possible, in part, by an unprecedented propaganda campaign. Although admittedly there has been some academic debate that disputes the effects of Hitler’s speeches on the electoral success of the Nazi party. At any rate, the speeches made by Hitler were a sight to behold and engrained in the minds of anyone that witnessed it, even today. 

But what’s so odd is that not one recording of Hitler’s natural voice has been preserved. We don’t know what Hitler sounded like when speaking with another person, with his fellow party members, with his generals or even with Eva Braun. This secrecy isn’t too odd though if you imagine his desire to control everything, and fear for having candid statements leaked. Hitler never allowed to be photographed if it wasn’t in an official setting, let alone be recorded off-guard. And as such, no official recording of Hitler’s private voice exists, and we will never know what he sounded like. Well, we wouldn’t know, if it wasn’t for the 75th birthday of Finnish commander-in-chief, Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim and a somewhat nosy, snooping Finnish sound engineer.

Because in June 1942 Hitler visited Mannerheim, a surprise visit for his birthday. In order to prevent Hitler’s visit from seeming like an official state visit the meeting was held in a train, at Imatra, in Southern Finland. 

During Hitler’s visit, Thor Damen the radio engineer of the Finnish Yleisradio, or YLE, the national broadcast station of Finland, was supposed to record the official proceedings of the birthday speeches by Hitler and Mannerheim’s response in the train wagon.

Hitler and Mannerheim Recording

The Secret Recording

But after the official speeches were over, Hitler, Mannerheim and their entourage went to the adjacent wagon to have lunch. Unbeknownst to everyone present, Damen kept the recording running. It led to a unique historical record. According to the head of the Yleisradio archives, Lasse Vihonen, Damen “placed the microphone on the hat rack.” The cords dwindled from the window, and the recorder was in the other wagon. This so-called Mannerheim recording contains five minutes of the official speech, followed by 11 minutes of a, more or less monologue by Hitler, in a private, candid, unguarded conversation with Mannerheim. 

The conversation was mainly about the Axis war effort. 

[“Had I finished off France in ’39, then world history would have taken another course,” Hitler says in German, alternating between rapid and slow speech and pausing frequently. “But then I had to wait until 1940. Then a two-front war, that was bad luck. After that, even we were broken,”]

For several minutes he spoke of the enormous amount of tanks and military planes of the Soviet Union, that Germany desperately tried to destroy. After all, the tide of Operation Barbarossa was by this point slowly turning against Germany. Hitler tried to persuade the Finns to launch more military offensives against the Soviet Union. He explained that German Panzers and the Wehrmacht weren’t prepared to fight during the harsh Russian winter. 

[“Unsere ganzen Waffen sind natürlich auf den Westen zugeschnitten. Und wir alle waren der Überzeugung, das war bisher, das war unsere Meinung eben, seit der ältesten Zeit. Im Winter kann man nicht Krieg führen. Und wir haben auch die deutschen Panzer, die sind nicht erprobt worden, um sie etwa für einen Winterkrieg herzurichten. Sondern man hat Probefahrten gemacht, um zu beweisen, dass man im Winter nicht Krieg führen kann.”]

Other topics included the defeats Axis-ally Italy suffered in Africa, Yugoslavia and Albania. But people that studied the tape have also noted that Hitler uses, for lack of a better word, working-class language, revealing his lack of academic or formal background. Also, he mispronounces the capital of Finland, Helsinki, as Helsinski. 

According to legend, Mannerheim lit a cigar during the conversation to test the waters. Now a broad disclaimer with this claim is that virtually every prominent statesmen supposedly has done it when testing the waters. Another famous anecdote is about Bismarck lighting a cigar near the Austrian ambassador. So this may not be true. Hitler was known to hate smoking and didn’t allow anyone to do so in his presence, yet when Mannerheim lit the cigar he didn’t say anything. Supposedly, this confirmed to Mannerheim the Germans were in a terrible place. This wasn’t too wrong, just half a year after this conversation was recorded General Paulus surrendered at Stalingrad; an incredible loss for the Germans.

Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim and Adolf Hitler

Hitler’s voice is low-pitched, a little bit hoarse. But if I’d have to judge the tape completely unbiased, I’d say it’s actually pretty nice to listen to. His voice, in an odd way, is pretty calming. It is certainly quite the contrast to his dramatic, intense public speeches, where both Hitler and his public seem to fall into a trance.

It wasn’t until 11 minutes of a private conversation that SS bodyguards realised he was being recorded. They signalled Damen to end the recording, which explains the abrupt ending, in the middle of a sentence where Hitler describes why it’s so difficult for Germany to help Finland with their front against the Soviet Union.

[“We didn’t know ourselves just how monstrous this powerful beast was,” Hitler says. “Had I known, I would have been more reluctant, but I had already made the decision then, and there would be no other possibility,”]

The SS guards ordered YLE to destroy the tape, which they promised they would do. Apparently, Damen was threatened to be killed by the guards, because many sources state the guards made a cutthroat-gesture when they realised he was recording. But that’s probably the most internationally recognised gesture to get someone to quit, so I personally feel this is a bit out of context. It’s highly unlikely SS guards would instantly threaten someone’s life. 

Anyway, YLE promised to destroy the reel. Yet in 1957 a reel resurfaced. The head of Finland’s censors’ office, Kustaa Vilkuna, owned it according to Vihonen. He returned the reel to YLE, which subsequently released to it the public. Unbeknownst to many, a second copy existed, in the possession of Damen. It wasn’t found until 1992, by his son Henrik, in his father’s garage. One tape currently resides in the Yleisradio archive and the other in the Radio and TV Museum in Lahti, somewhere I’d absolutely love to visit. 

It is an extraordinary tape, and although the contents of what was said are interesting, it is interesting because it is the only known recording of Adolf Hitler speaking without raising his voice, in a private conversation. As for the visit itself, in total, Hitler’s visit to Finland that day lasted no more than six hours. 

After its rediscovery, the tape caught the interest not just of historians. Actors used the tape to rehearse for their roles. Tobias Moretti, an Austrian actor, used it to portray Hitler in a film about his friendship with Albert Speer. And nearly everyone knows of Bruno Ganz’s performance in Der Untergang. It is a legendary performance and Ganz mentioned he used the tape to mimic Hitler’s ‘speaking and diction’ in a completely relaxed manner. The entire recording is available online and I’ll link it in the description if you want to listen to the whole thing!

Sources:

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2004/oct/15/radio.internationalnews
https://web.archive.org/web/20060719085119/http://www.hs.fi/english/article/1076153999513
http://kops.uni-konstanz.de/bitstream/handle/123456789/43220/Selb_2-6zfm8zop8fhu2.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=n

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Hanns Scharff: Nazi Germany’s Master Interrogator

Imagine that you’re in the middle of the Second World War and a prisoner of war is brought to you. You know he has knowledge of an imminent bombing raid, and your superiors task you with the interrogation and making sure that the prisoner spills the beans. How do you ensure the prisoner gives up the most amount of information?

Do you torture them and rile up the pressure to an inhumane level in order to force someone to tell you everything he knows, even if he doesn’t? I mean you’re in the middle of a war after all. So, according to the United States Army manual, you remain business-like. Ask direct questions, and supplement those with open-ended questions and fact-checking. But according to two academic articles I happened to come across there’s a technique that works even better. It’s called the Scharff-technique. This technique basically means you, as the interrogator, empathise and put yourself in the place of your prisoner, who is your source of information. You remain friendly, don’t force any questions or confessions and create the illusion that you already know more-or-less everything the prisoner knows.

This so-called Scharff-technique thanks its name to Nazi Germany’s master interrogator Hanns Joachim Scharff. During the war, he worked as an interrogator for the Luftwaffe’s Intelligence and Evaluation Center. Because Scharff was fluent in English, he interrogated he questioned allied pilots that had crashed and were captured alive. He interrogated well over 500 captured pilots throughout the war. Even though Scharff was on ‘the wrong side of history’, even today the intelligence community considers him an iconic role model for interrogators. So what made him so special?

Hanns Scharff

Well, a captured United States Air Force Fighter Pilot later reminisced about his interrogation, and his account tells us a lot about Scharff’s methods. In October 1944 Hubert Zemke was shot down over Germany and parachuted out of his aircraft. After several days of being on the run, he was captured and sent to Scharff for interrogation. Scharff made friendly conversation with him and wasn’t too interested in military intelligence. During a stroll through the woods, Scharff mistakenly mentioned that a chemical shortage was responsible for tracer bullets from American planes leaving white rather than red smoke. Zemke corrected him – there was no chemical shortage, the change in colour was to signal an aircraft was running out of ammunition. Scharff didn’t bat an eye, and the conversation continued. Zemke survived the war and only when he returned to the US he relayed his capture and interrogation to US army personnel, he realised what happened. When asked what Scharff got out of him he said “What did he get out of me? There is no doubt in my mind that he did extract something, but I haven’t the slightest idea what.”

And he wasn’t the only one. One former prisoner said that Scharff ‘could get a confession of infidelity from a nun.’

Hanns Scharff

Scharff’s unparalleled success came from the core belief that interrogating prisoners of war benefited from a friendly approach instead of torture. Basically, prisoners were unwilling to give up any information that the interrogator didn’t know. Still, they would think it useless to deny or withhold information that the interrogator pretended to know. It’s why Scharff always pretended to know more than he actually did during interrogations. He would provide a careful statement about a situation to which the prisoner would most likely reply yes or no, slowly coaxing the interrogator into the right direction and providing more information, even though the prisoner would just think he confirmed what the interrogator already knew. 

Now one of the most ironic things about Scharff being the most successful interrogator in Nazi Germany is that he was not just never meant to be an interrogator, but he was never meant to join the German Luftwaffe at all. During the decade preceding the Second World War, Scharff worked for the Adler automobile manufacturer in Johannesburg, South Africa. There he met his British wife, with whom he had two children. Due to his work in South Africa, Scharff quickly became fluent in English and was promoted to director overseas. Fate had it that Scharff and his family were vacationing in Germany as the Second World War broke out. Because of hostilities he was unable to leave Germany and was eventually drafted into the Wehrmacht. 

His unit was destined to be sent to the Eastern Front to invade the Soviet Union. But because of his fluency in English and the general awareness that the Eastern Front was a literal meat grinder, Scharff’s wife managed to talk herself into a general’s office and convince him to use her husband’s qualities as an interpreter. During the initial stages of the war, Scharff became an assistant-interrogator and saw the appalling treatment of Prisoners of War during interrogation sessions. He vowed to do things differently if he was ever in a position of influence. Thanks to a string of coincidences and an aeroplane crash with two of his superiors, over time Scharff actually became in charge of the Luftwaffe’s interrogation department, tasked with extracting information from captured Allied pilots. Throughout the war, he was tasked with not just interrogating fighter pilots, but also assisting other Luftwaffe interrogators with their interrogation, if the captured pilot did not want to give up any information. Furthermore, other departments of the Nazi military apparatus such as the Wehrmacht made ample use of him interrogating captured officers and spies. One of his most famous prisoners was Lt. Colonel Francis “Gabby” Gabreski, the US top fighter ace during the Second World War. He was notorious in Nazi Germany and when he crashed his aircraft in German territory, he was subsequently arrested and brought to Scharff. Although Scharff said, Gabreski was one of the few men he didn’t manage to extract new information out of, the two men remained friends until Scharff’s death nearly 50 years later. 

Hanns Scharff in later life

Most articles and historiography about Scharff puts the emphasis on his charismatic personality and cultivated people-skills. Only recently, there has been an interest in explaining the actual effectiveness of Scharff’s tactics and the methodology behind it. In a 2016 study published in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence researchers set up an experiment with several participants in order to test the effectiveness of the Scharff technique against the so-called ‘direct approach’, the business-like way of interrogating. Now, one of the findings was that the Scharff technique managed to elicit more information than the direct approach and that this information was more valuable and specific. But, what’s an even more interesting find is that people interrogated by the Scharff-technique tended to underestimate how much information they revealed. In contrast, the people questioned using the direct approach overestimated how much information they revealed. And these findings correspond with the saying of Zemke, who said he had no idea how much information he divulged because he simply never had the feeling he was being interrogated. And, well, that basically sums up the effectiveness of Scharff’s technique: pilots he interrogated simply didn’t realise they were giving up information the Nazis did not yet know, and Scharff didn’t have to torture a single soul for it. 

Scharff’s mosaic

And as for Scharff after the war? Well, although his wife left him, he did manage to remarry an American woman. He emigrated there and contributed significantly to the United States post-war interrogation techniques. In 1948 he gave lectures to US air force personnel and Scharff’s first-hand experience accounts became part of the core curriculum.

But Scharff didn’t stick to lecturing about interrogation: he became a mosaic artist and a pretty successful one at that. In another funny course of history, one of his works hangs on the wall in the Magic Kingdom Castle at Disney World. It is the Cinderella Castle Mosaic Mural and after this entire story about Scharff interrogating over 500 captured Allied pilots perhaps this is the most bewildering fact of the whole story. Nazi Germany’s Master Interrogator became a mosaic artist, with his art still exposed in Disney Land. But his work also hangs in the California State Capitol building, Los Angeles Hall and many other public buildings in the United States. He passed away in 1992, at the age of 85.

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The Korean soldier that fought in the Japanese Imperial Army, the Soviet Union’s Red Army and Germany’s Wehrmacht

Following D-Day, the Allied powers captured a lot of Axis soldiers. One of the most interesting soldiers they captured in the immediate aftermath wasn’t necessarily a high-ranking officer or notorious German war criminal. No, it was a Korean soldier that had ended up on the beaches of Normandy fighting in a German Wehrmacht Unit. But what is more, this soldier had only recently arrived in Europe, after having fought in the Imperial Japanese army in Mongolia… and the Soviet Union’s Red Army in Ukraine. Yang Kyoungjong is the only soldier we know of that fought on three different sides during the Second World War, which makes his story all the more interesting.

Yang Kyoungjong

Born in Korea in March 1920, when he turned 18 Yang was drafted for the Kwantung-army of the Japanese imperial army. Japan annexed Korea in 1910, treating the peninsula as a colony. The Kwantung-army was one of the most prestigious armies of Japan and after its reorganisation in 1919 around 10.000 soldiers served in it. The Kwantung-army was a semi-autonomous organ and was involved in several important political events between China and Japan during the 1920s, such as the assassination of Chinese warlord Zhang Zuolin in 1928 and the invasion of Manchuria 3 years later. Following the invasion and the establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo Japan freed up many resources to increase the size of the Kwantung army. As such, at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the army consisted of close to 700.000 soldiers. 

Already in 1937, the Second Sino-Japanese war broke out following the Marco Polo-bridge incident which was followed by a full-scale Japanese invasion of China. This meant that Yang Kyoungjong was drafted during the ongoing war and was sent to the front after his basic military training. In 1939 he was involved at the battles of Halhin Gol, on the Mongolian border. In short, even though the Soviet Union did not formally declare war on Japan until the last days of the second world war in 1945, there certainly were border disputes. The battles of Halhin Gol are part of the forgotten war between Japan and the Soviet Union, about the supposed border of Manchukuo. 

Japan claimed the border was near the river Halha, but the Soviet Union and Mongols claimed it was about 15 kilometres to the east of the river. When a Mongolian cavalry unit entered the disputed territory to let their horses graze, a Japanese Kwantung-unit chased them back over the border. When the Mongols returned, a Japanese expeditionary force set out to fight them off again. Two weeks later a Japanese unit was surrounded by a much larger Soviet- and Mongol army. 105 Japanese soldiers were killed in action, and the rest was arrested. Among those arrested was the young Korean soldier Yang Kyoungjong. Although, admittedly, Yang could also have been detained during the subsequent battle between Soviet and Japanese forces, where over 100.000 troops and 1000 tanks and aircraft clashed resulting in over 40.000 casualties and the enforcement of border claims in accordance with the Soviet and Mongolian interpretation. Either way, what is for sure that Yang was arrested following these battles.

German soldiers during the Third Battle of Kharkov

After his arrest, Yang was transported to the Soviet Union and imprisoned in a Prisoner of War camp, a Gulag. Two years after his imprisonment Operation Barbarossa commenced on the western front, and the Germans invaded the Soviet Union from the west. Because of a shortage of men, the Soviets decided to use prisoners of war to fight for them. In 1942 Yang was forced to serve in the Red Army, and one year later, in March 1943, he fought at the third battle of Kharkov. It was a massive confrontation between nearly half a million Red Army and Wehrmacht soldiers near Kharkov, Ukraine. The battle ended with the Germans suffering a bit over 11000 casualties, whereas the Red Army suffered over 85000. So, as you can probably tell, the battle ended in a German victory, albeit their last great success on the eastern front. 

The victorious Germans took plenty of Red Army prisoners… among whom a Korean man that made clear he had been a Soviet prisoner of war forced to fight. It was Yang. Because the Germans suffered a shortage of men as well, they decided to enlist Yang in an Ost-bataillon. Ost-battalions were Wehrmacht units that consisted of non-Russian minorities of the Soviet Union. He served in the 709th infantry division under Wehrmacht General Karl Wilhelm von Schlieben. Yang’s division was sent to Normandy because of the structural lack of manpower defending the coastline. And, well, on the 6th of June 1944 D-Day commenced. Yang and his division defended Utah beach but were overran, and US troops subsequently captured Yang. 

Yang Kyoungjong after his capture

Although Yang has never given an interview about his ordeal, this photograph of Yang’s arrest providing his details to an American Army Captain is incredibly sad and telling one. Its caption on the United States military government archives say that ‘dismay and loneliness are written on his face’.

Now, Yang was unable to speak English or German and initially was identified as a Japanese soldier. He was transported to a POW camp in the United Kingdom, where he was interrogated in Korean. Following the end of the Second World War he emigrated to the United States, where he lived in Illinois for another 47 years until his death in 1992. His unusual story captured the attention of a South Korean filmmaker that adapted Yang’s life into the film ‘My Way’. And additionally, and this is the way I learned about Yang, Anthony Beevor’s introduction of his book The Second World War starts with the story of Yang. He wrote about Yang that he “remains perhaps the most striking illustration of the helplessness of most ordinary mortals in the face of what appeared to be overwhelming historical forces.” Something that we can clearly see in the photograph taken of him following his surrender. 

As far as the historiography goes, it seems that Yang Kyoungjong is the only soldier we know of that served in 3 different armies during the second world war. Although a close contender surely must be Lauri Törni, a Finnish soldier that enlisted in the German SS following Finland’s demobilisation, only to emigrate to the United States after the war and served in the US special forces during the Vietnam war.

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The Venlo Incident: the Abduction of British Secret Agents on Dutch Territory

The Venlo Incident is, in my opinion, one of the more bizarre events in the build-up to the Second World War. While officially Germany and Britain were at war, no severe fighting had taken place yet. The Netherlands, in true Dutch fashion, was neutral and decided to attempt to stay neutral, just as they had during the First World War. So imagine the surprise when two senior British secret agents of the SIS, were abducted by a squad of German Sicherheitsdienst soldiers… on neutral Dutch territory.

Background

The Germans abducting two British SIS agents in the Netherlands requires some background information before we get to the abduction. What were those SIS agents doing in a neutral country in the first place? Well, Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the German Abwehr looked at the SIS as an organization the Germans should imitate if they wanted to be successful in their intelligence operations. Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Sicherheitsdienst, the intelligence service of the Schutzstaffel, went even further. It is said he looked up to Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the man that founded the SIS, signing his documents with green ink, just as Cumming is rumoured to have done. This practice was quickly ceased once the real war broke out, however.

Sigismund P. Best (1885-1978)

As for the politics, the British side and its appeasement policies were very hopeful for German officers and generals to take a stand against Hitler. Keep him in check, if you will. The Germans, on the other hand, figured that Britain would broker for European peace once Poland had been invaded by the Germans and Soviet Union. These views, from both sides, reveal a structural problem within the mentality of both countries’ political leadership, to put it mildly. Now, obviously many other factors come into play, but a German officer committing treason by overthrowing Hitler was unthinkable, and the Brits weren’t going to give an inch, especially not under Churchill. If one reads Churchill’s biography that is one thing that becomes evident throughout his entire political career. The Brits were eager to recruit Germans that wanted to rise up against the Nazi regime, and they tried to get informants within the new totalitarian state in order to gather intelligence about the plans and operations the German high command wanted to embark upon. And that’s where our major intelligence debacle in Venlo, the Netherlands, comes into play.

Preparing the Abduction

The Netherlands, still being neutral on a continent that was gliding towards all-out war, hoped to maintain its neutral status just as it had in the First World War. This made it ideal for Britain and its intelligence service: they could easily reach the coast of the Netherlands via the sea, it was next to Germany and the infrastructure was among the best infrastructures of Europe. While these were the upsides, the Germans had a strong presence in the Netherlands as well. The SIS chief in the Netherlands, major Richard Stevens and his deputy, Captain Sigismund Payne Best were approached by a Dutch agent working for the SIS. This Dutch agent, agent F-479, was in touch with a German military resistance network, that could, with appropriate aid of the British, stage a coup and get rid of Hitler. Stevens and Payne Best were thrilled – these contacts were exactly the kind of contacts they needed in order to weaken Germany. Thing is, this Dutch agent was working for Walter Schellenberg, and these men were quite the opposite of what the SIS thought they were getting in touch with. 

Walter Schellenberg (1910-1952)

Schellenberg and another SS officer contacted Stevens and Best and let them set up a meeting in Venlo, close by the German border. The SIS men were to meet members of the German resistance there. Stevens and Best did not only set up a meeting but even offered Schellenberg the opportunity to escape to England. While Schellenberg did communicate this to his superiors, Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler, but these weren’t too keen on him going across the sea. Eventually, Schellenberg was given the order to arrest and bring in both SIS officers. The plan used to abduct these men wasn’t too cunning, the Germans planned a meeting near the Dutch-German border in Venlo, and during the meeting twelve SD men would rush over the barrier in a truck, abduct the two men, and be gone before anyone realized what had happened.

The Venlo Incident

On the ninth of November nineteen-thirty-nine, Walter Schellenberg entered the Café Backus near the border in the town of Venlo and ordered a coffee. It took over an hour and a half for the men he was supposed to meet, Stevens and Best, to show up. The amount of Dutch police and border security was increased. The British really did not want to take any risks. The SIS officers arrived in their Buick and were accompanied by a Dutch driver, J.F. Lemmens and the Dutch lieutenant Dirk Klop. Schellenberg walked outside to greet them, and it was exactly at that moment when a German truck carrying SD troops, under the command of Alfred Naujocks, full-speed, crashed through the Dutch border post. 

The SD truck sped towards the car of the men. Lieutenant Klop got out and fired several shots at the truck.  He missed and was subsequently shot by a German SS soldier. Chaos ensued and Schellenberg, surprisingly not bearing an arm, rushed to his own car. He was nearly shot by the SD as they thought he was Best. Yeah. Naujocks intervened, however, and Stevens, Best and Lemmens were, forced into the truck and abducted. The truck sped back across the border with high-speed, but not before two SD men carried the unconscious body of lieutenant Klop into the truck as well. He would not survive the day. The whole ordeal, in total, took only a few minutes, if that.

The British agents were transported to Berlin, where they were properly “debriefed” by the Sicherheitsdienst. They provided plenty of crucial and damaging information about British activities in Germany, the occupied territories and other countries in Europe. The infrastructure of the SIS itself, the way it operated and its staff was explained as well. Oh yeah and to top it all off, Stevens was actually carrying a list with covert SIS agents with him. All of these men were compromised. As for the Germans, the SS men that had carried out the mission were received personal gratitude by Hitler and were awarded Iron Crosses, not to mention the gigantic propaganda campaign the Germans built around the Venlo incident. The SIS on the other hand became very wary of communicating with the German resistance, and its entire network that was run more or less from the Netherlands was compromised. All in all, the Germans had won this one. Both Stevens and Best were interned in Dachau concentration camp, but did survive the war. They were liberated nearly 6 years later, in May 1945. Best eventually wrote his memoirs, which he titled the Venlo Incident, and on release, it became a bestseller. Now, besides this debacle, the SIS did have several successful missions during the Second World War, but that’s a story for another time.

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Hunting Bormann: the Most Senior Nazi to Vanish after the Second World War

During those final days of the German front of the Second World War in May 1945, rumours often were rife about the disappearance, vanishing and fleeing of high-ranking officials of the Nazi regime that was about to be overthrown. One of the most curious and well-known cases is about the man that is described by some as the most influential man behind Hitler himself. His name was Martin Bormann, and during the war, he assumed a position of significant influence among the highest ranks of the regime. 

Yet in the aftermath of the war, when most of his peers were arrested and stood trial for their crimes, he was tried and sentenced to death in absentia. Because although some people said he died during those last days, most likely by taking his own life, nobody knew for sure what happened to him. No body was found, all that was sure is that he disappeared in the Ruins of Berlin during those last days. Over the years, occasionally, information would arise that cast doubt on his fate. A persistent myth started to form around his disappearance, with books, films and articles written about it, and an exhaustive search conducted by the Israeli Mossad and CIA. It wasn’t until 50 years after the war ended that it was conclusively proven what happened to Bormann, making him one of the highest-ranking Nazi officials to vanish after the Second World War.

Martin Bormann in 1934

Bormann’s career

Martin Bormann was born in June 1900, in Halberstadt, a town in Saxony. Although he served in an Artillery Unit during the First World War, he didn’t see any action, and it was mostly uneventful. Already in the immediate aftermath of the war, Bormann was known to have far-right sympathies. When the French and Belgians occupied the German industrial Ruhr Area because the Germans couldn’t pay their war reparations, German nationalists often sabotaged the resource transports to France. Now, Bormann wasn’t necessarily known to participate in undermining. Instead, it is near-certain he was directly involved in the murder of Walther Kadow. Kadow was thought to have betrayed Albert Leo Schlageter, a saboteur, that was subsequently executed by the French. Bormann served a little under two years in prison for the murder. In 1927 he joined the National-Socialist German Worker’s Party. He was both a member of the Sturmabteilung, the paramilitary wing of the party, and controlled the party’s finances. 

In October 1933 Bormann became secretary to the Deputy Führer of the Nazi Party, Rudolf Hess. As the secretary to Hess, he was quickly appointed as one of the 16 Reichsleiter. This rank was the second-highest political rank of the Nazi Party, with only Hitler himself above it. Following the success of the Nazi party in the March 1933 elections, where the party gained 288 seats, he was appointed as a Deputy to the Reichstag, the German parliament. 

Throughout the years, Bormann rapidly rose in importance among Hitler’s inner circle. However, to the public, he mainly remained in the shadows, unlike the extravagant Hermann Göring and the cunning Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS.

Among the tasks delegated to him was the administration of Hitler’s personal finances, which included managing the royalties received for Mein Kampf and his portrait on post stamps. Furthermore, together with the wealthy German industrialist Gustav von Krupp, Bormann set up the Adolf Hitler Fund of German Trade and Industry – or the Adolf-Hitler-Spende der Deutschen Wirtschaft. This fund started out as a voluntary donation by German businesses, entrepreneurs and industrialists as a sign of appreciation for the economic boom thanks to Hitler’s policies. However, as the years progressed, it became a compulsory fee the private sector had to pay to the Nazi party. 

Furthermore, in 1934 Bormann was trusted with arranging the logistics and overseeing the construction of a Führersperrgebiet on the Obersalzberg. Now, the initial owners of the land didn’t want to sell their territory, but Bormann threatened to send them off to a concentration camp if they didn’t. And as such, the domain was acquired. A sperrgebiet was a sort of exclusion zone. This zone did not just house private mansions of many prominent Nazi politicians, but the area also contained Hitler’s Berghof. The Berghof was Hitler’s residence, where he spent more time than anywhere else during the war. Many famous photographs were taken of prominent officials during the war that came here for meetings. On the mountain top above the Berghof, the so-called Kehlsteinhaus was built. It was nicknamed the Eagle’s Nest and built three years after the construction of the Berghof was finished.

Bormann was 39 when the Second World War broke out. He kept competently fulfilling his duties and took on any administrative task to be carried out behind the scenes, rapidly developing himself to one of Hitler’s most trusted and loyal advisors. He did so until 1941 when something radically changed. Not so much because of Bormann, though. His boss, Rudolf Hess, embarked on perhaps one of the strangest journeys of the war. The man was known for his instability and had slowly been pushed out of power by Bormann already. Hess, convinced he still held considerable influence, decided to fly to the United Kingdom to try and negotiate a peace with the Nazis. Now this action is strange in itself and will be explored in another video. But it’s safe to say that once he landed in Scotland, Hess was promptly arrested by the Home Guard Militia and would not be released for the rest of the war… or his entire life for that matter.

Bormann (third from left) directly next to Hitler

But although Hess royally screwed up, it was a blessing to Bormann. Although, to be fair, by this point Bormann had sidelined the slow-witted Hess considerably. In May 1941 he assumed all tasks of his former boss. The position of Deputy Führer was abolished, and Bormann was named Head of the Parteikanzlei. This meant so much as that Bormann was the administrative entity behind the scenes, making sure what information got fed to Hitler, who Hitler met and how Hitler was briefed. But also which party members were shortlisted for promotion. His influence wasn’t lost on many of Hitler’s inner circle, with Hitler’s chief of intelligence, Walter Schellenberg, referring to Bormann as a ‘pig in a potato field.’ Bormann now was one of the most influential men of the Nazi regime. 

And as the war progressed, his influence kept increasing. Settling in his new position he became more comfortable filtering telegrams and briefings of Hitler. In April 1943 he officially became the Secretary of Hitler, although in practice he had been performing those tasks for a while. Because of his membership to the inner circle, he also started to influence Göring, Himmler, and Albert Speer actively. Yet he was notorious for remaining in the background, never taking the spotlight. Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, author of “The Last Days of Hitler” described Bormann as “a mole-like creature, who seemed to avoid the glare of daylight and publicity.” He kept running things behind the scenes, as the war went on and the tide severely turned against the Germans.

It got so bad that by the final days Bormann was locked with Adolf Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis in the Führerbunker in Berlin, as the Soviets rapidly advanced. Bormann was the best man at the marriage between Hitler and Eva Braun, during those final days in the Führerbunker. One day after their marriage, Hitler and Braun took their own lives together. In his testament Hitler left behind he described Bormann as the ‘most loyal of any party member’. 

The Disappearance

Now, the last days of the Second World War in Berlin were rather chaotic to put it mildly. That counts for the documentation of Bormann’s whereabouts as well, which is where all the myths surrounding his disappearance stem from. It is for certain that he was present when Hitler and Braun took their own lives, which was on April 30th.

One of Hitler’s last acts was to allow a group of men to try and break out of Berlin. The story goes that Bormann, together with Ludwig Stumpfegger, Hitler’s personal physician, and several other SS soldiers, tried to break out of the city centre. The centre was the grizzly scene of heavy fighting to the last man against the advancing Soviet forces. Initially, the leader of the Hitler youth, Artur Axmann, fled with Bormann and Stumpfegger. The group made their way through Berlin in a colonne, accompanied by several tanks, until they came under fire and scattered due to an explosion near them. 

Bormann in 1939

Supposedly, Bormann and Stumpfegger decided to take their own lives upon the realisation they weren’t going to escape, somewhere between one and three AM on May 2nd. When Axmann, together with his adjutant Weltzin, tried to find a way out the next morning, they discovered the bodies lying next to each other. They recognised Bormann and Stumpfegger, both still wearing their uniforms but without their medals. They went on their way, leaving the bodies, and Axmann actually managed to escape initially. 

And that’s the story. But several complications arose in the aftermath of the war. Axmann evaded capture by the Red Army and managed to stay underground for several months. It wasn’t until December that year he was arrested by the U.S. Army following a counterintelligence operation. During his interrogation, he basically laid out the details the way they were just described – so everything I just told is from Axmann’s perspective. That’s all logical and fine considering it was credible that he was the last person to see Bormann and Stumpfegger alive… except that their bodies weren’t found following the war. And, just like the case with Heinrich “Gestapo” Müller which I made a separate video about, that’s when a real legend started to form surrounding Bormann’s disappearance.

During the Nuremberg Trials, in October 1946 Bormann was convicted, in absentia, for his part in the war crimes of the Nazi regime and crimes against humanity. Yet uncertainty about his fate dominated the trial. The authorities occupying Germany issued an arrest warrant for him, which didn’t lead to any information. 

Right, so there were multiple theories about Bormann’s eventual fate. One rumour goes that the Red Army arrested Bormann on May 2nd, 1945. They transferred him to the Soviet Union, according to a witness. Although initially, this might be a likely turn of events, it wouldn’t explain why no documentation about this was ever released, not even after the fall of the Soviet Union and its declassification of secret archives. Not to mention that his body was never found, which is strange if he stood trial in the Soviet Union. It would have been a propaganda dream to execute the number two of the Nazi regime. 

So perhaps Bormann managed to flee or evade capture just like Axmann. Since the heavy fighting in the city centre of Berlin prevented a breakout during those last days, he might have escaped via the sewer system. Rumour spread that Bormann assumed an alias and lived as a Polish priest in a remote village somewhere in rural Poland. Or that he lived in an abbey in Spain, indicating that he did, in fact, manage to escape. Yet investigations yielded no results, and for decades the United States, Germany and even Israel continued searching for him.

Searching for Bormann

So although his body wasn’t found for decades, a German court declared him officially deceased in March 1954, following Axmann’s narrative that he died on the night of the 2nd of May. It was an attempt to put a stop to the rumours. 

During the 1960s the public prosecutor’s office of Frankfurt am Main started to excavate parts in the vicinity of Lehrter Bahnhof in Berlin, the place Axmann and other witnesses pointed towards where Bormann was last seen. Yet these excavations yielded no result. In 1968 the newspaper der Spiegel published an interview with one of  Bormann’s confidants that survived the war. This man, who was once a Scharführer of the Waffen-SS, claimed he managed to get Bormann out of Germany following the last days of the war. He smuggled him, via submarine, to the so-called Colony Waldner 555, a colony of former Nazis living on the Brazilian-Paraguayan border. He revealed how in 1947, doctors messed up Bormann’s facial surgery, in order to hide a scar on his forehead. 

There were other rumours about Latin America as well, namely an escape to Argentina. Bormann certainly wouldn’t be the first Nazi to escape to the country, for Adolf Eichmann lived in a suburb of Buenos Aires before his capture by the Mossad, and Erich Priebke, a SS commander, lived in the country for 50 years. Among them were hundreds of other Nazi war criminals that escaped justice by fleeing there. An Italian journalist added credibility to this theory when in 1960 he stumbled upon a gravestone with the name “M. Bormann” on it in Bariloche, Argentina. Yet when the CIA investigated it the grave had been cleared, and no gravestone was found. 

That same year, the Jewish Telegraph Agency reported that the former Argentinian ambassador to Israel, Gregorio Topelevsky, confirmed Dr Josef Mengele and Martin Bormann had been living on the Brazilian side of the Argentinian border until earlier that year. Bormann supposedly was even employed by Juan Perón, president of Argentina. The abduction of Adolf Eichmann by the Israeli Mossad spooked Bormann in the early 1960s Bormann, and he subsequently went into hiding, according to this diplomat. It only added to the rumours that during Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Israel, Eichmann stated Bormann was alive and managed to flee Germany in the wake of the war. 

Bormann’s hiding place was even pinpointed to the small village in the jungle near the village San Ignacio in the Misiones province. Archaeologists came up with this theory because of items found in the now-overgrown ruins. Their location in the middle of the jungle and archaeological structure simply didn’t match the surroundings. Coins from the 1930s and 1940s and fragments of Meissen porcelain made in Germany were found there. After investigation they rejected the theory that Bormann lived there, however. Another potential hiding place was the little village Ita, in Paraguay. It seemed likely because Paraguay was governed by the dictator Alfredo Strössner, of German descent himself. Historian Ladislas Farago published the book ‘The Search for Martin Bormann’ investigating many Latin American countries and basing his claims on government documents. He claimed Bormann lived in at least six Latin American countries after hiding in Austria for three years. Yet every investigation by the CIA and Mossad proved fruitless, and no remains were ever found.

That is, until 1972, when construction work near Lehrter Bahnhof in Berlin took place. Two remains were found, with their dental features relatively intact. Because it was near the location where Axmann stated he saw the remains of Bormann and Stumpfegger, authorities set up a thorough investigation of their identity. They were examined by a coroner, doctors hired by the court, dentists and anthropologists. All of them identified the two remains as those of Bormann and Stumpfegger, thanks to dental documentation that matched the remains. They found splinters of cyanide capsules between their teeth. The most likely turn of events was that the men ran into a group of roaming Red Army soldiers. When the soldiers tried to arrest both men, they probably decided to take their own lives at that moment. Because the soldiers didn’t know they were dealing with two of the most wanted Nazis, they simply buried the bodies and continued on their way. Yet it wasn’t until 1998 that the identity of Bormann’s remains was conclusively confirmed with DNA-analysis. The DNA of Bormann’s, at the time 83-year-old niece, matched that of one of the remains. One year later his remains were cremated and scattered above the Baltic Sea. 

So although the rumours about Bormann’s whereabouts were rife, 53 years after the war ended it was conclusively proven he didn’t flee to Latin America or assumed an alias in Poland or Germany. He simply died during those last days of the war, like so many others.

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The Tragic Tale of Kamikaze Pilot Fujii and the Sinking of the USS Drexler

We’ve already talked about the first Japanese kamikaze pilots that Japan utilised during the Second World War. These, often young men, of course, had to be trained. One of their instructors was First Lieutenant Hajime Fujii. Now, throughout the war, Fujii requested the army high command for permission several times to join his students in kamikaze attacks. But he was refused time and time again because he was more useful as an instructor. Fujii could not help but feel that he was ‘betraying’ his students by sending them off to die while he remained on the mainland. Eventually, it led to Fujii’s family to take drastic action in order for him to be allowed to fulfil his perceived duty. The story of First Lieutenant Fujii’s is incredibly tragic and shows how rampant nationalism and total war leads to individuals taking radical action.

Hajime Fujii

Hajime Fujii was born on August 30th 1915. He grew up with six siblings on a farm in Eastern Japan. Although his parents wanted him to take over the family farm, Fujii volunteered for the army, joining as an infantryman and manning a machine-gun.  As a machine-gunner, he fought in China at the beginning of the Sino-Japanese war. During combat, a mortar shell blew his left hand to pieces and he was subsequently transported to a field hospital. In the field hospital, he met Fukuko, a Japanese nurse that treated him. They fell in love with each other and decided to marry. Against the wishes of both their families, after all, arranged marriages were the norm in Japan back then. The couple had two daughters, Kazuko and Chieko.

Fukuko and Kazuko

Now, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, war broke out between Japan and the United States. As Japanese men were sent to the frontlines, Fujii was actually in training. Regardless of his loss of hand, the army sent him to the Army Air Corps Academy. He graduated in the spring of 1943 and became a company commander at the Kumagaya Army Aviation School. Fujii was tasked with training character and mental fortitude among the pilots-in-training. Pilots in training were taught a sense of moral duty to the emperor and their fatherland. There are multiple anecdotes of students of Fujii that confirmed he would often state that if he could, he would die with them on the frontlines of battle. One of the grim realities of warfare was that pilots were trained to crash their aircraft into enemy ships or positions if they saw no other way out, even before kamikaze was officially adopted as a strategy. Still, during this time Fujii was convinced he too would eventually be called to battle, telling his students he “will not let only them die, but he as their company commander will also surely go.”

Another conviction of Fujii that returns in many sources is that he was convinced ‘words and deeds should be consistent.’ Now in October 1944 kamikaze pilots became an official strategy of the Japanese army in so-called tokkotai units. Fujii immediately volunteered for these kamikaze-squads, even though his rank was much higher than pilots that were in those squads, not to mention the fact he had a wife and 2 children. It goes to show, perhaps, how much Fujii either had a sense of duty or a sense of guilt about sending so many pilots to certain death while staying behind. Fujii submitted 2 or 3 written appeals to the army command for him to join a tokkotai squadron. All of them were rejected, however. His rank, his importance as a commander and instructor and his family were the causes listed as the reason for the army to reject him.

Hajime Fujii

There isn’t any direct information about how Fujii and Fukuko’s marriage functioned during this time. Still, it’s safe to say that the fact Fujii submitted three petitions to join a kamikaze squad made an impact on Fukuko. All that is known is that after the last rejection by the army command, on the morning of December 14th 1944, Fukuko dressed up in her most beautiful kimono, and dressed up their children Kazuko and Chieko as well. She then wrote a  letter to her husband, in which she wrote the following:  “Since you probably would be worried about us and not be able to carry out your duties because we are here freely, we go-ahead before you and will wait for you. Please fight without reserve.” She then walked to the Arakawa river near the aviation school Fujii taught at and jumped into the freezing water, with one daughter tied to her wrist and the other girl in a backpack strapped to her back.

It took a day for the bodies of the 24-year-old mother and her two small children to be found. After Fujii was informed and went to the harrowing scene, he went home to find the letter his wife had left him. Due to it being wartime the funeral was the next day, and that evening Fujii wrote a letter to his oldest daughter, the photograph you’re seeing is the original letter:

Fujii’s letter

A cold, blustery December day

Your life disappeared as dew on Arakawa River’s bank. It is painfully sad that together with your mother you sacrificed yourself ahead of your father because of his fervent desire to lay down his life for his country. However, I hope that you, who as a young girl vanished together with your mother, will be gladly smiling. Father also will soon be able to follow after you. At that time I’ll gladly hold you close to me as you sleep. If Chieko cries, please take good care of her. Well, goodbye for a short time. Daddy will perform a great feat on the battlefield and bring it as a present for you. Both you and Chieko, please wait for me until then.

Because the Japanese government didn’t want to bring any other families on any ideas the press was forbidden to publicize about the case. As if this entire case isn’t sad enough Fujii decided that his next petition had to be accepted by army command, so he cut off his pinky finger and signed his appeal with blood. Due to the exceptional circumstances, he was finally allowed to join a kamikaze squadron. On the 8th of February 1945 the 45th Shinbu Squadron, under the command of Fujii, was formed. Fujii’s squadron, nicknamed Kaishin which means cheerful spirit, consisted of 12 men with 9 Ki-45 type 2 Toryu fighters.


The squadron trained together until late May, when they were scheduled to be sent to Okinawa. Correspondence from that time shows that Fujii wrote his mother, whom he told he was happy to carry out his duties, and Fukuko’s father, who he told he was looking forward to seeing his family again in the afterlife.


The mission commenced at 5 am on May 28th. On their way to Okinawa one aircraft crashed in the sea. The 8 other planes reached the US destroyers USS Drexler and USS Lowry. Although 6 aircraft were shot out of the air, 2 planes crashed into the USS Drexler. Following multiple explosions, within minutes the USS Drexler had sunk, and 158 of its officers and crew died due to the kamikaze attack. As such the incredibly sad story of Fujii and his last act in life came to an end. It provides a very good idea of the war mentality of many Japanese, where dying whilst performing your duty was seen as the highest form of honour one could achieve. There is a family grave in Fujii’s hometown, where former students of Fujii used to come once a year to pay their respects. Now if you’re interested in more stories about Kamikaze pilots, there will be some end-cards on-screen about the story of both the last and the first Japanese kamikaze attacks during the Second World War.

Sources

https://www.warhistoryonline.com/world-war-ii/the-tragic-tale-of-hajime-fujii-a-kamikaze-fighter.html
https://wgordon.web.wesleyan.edu/kamikaze/stories/fujii/index.htm