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

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

Isoroku Yamamoto (1884-1943)

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

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

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

Early life 

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

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

Yamamoto (1925)

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

The Brink of War

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yamamoto with staff of the combined fleet

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

Outbreak of War

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

Yamamoto (1942)

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

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

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

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

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

Operation Vengeance

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

P-38 Lightning

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

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

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

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

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

Yamamoto a few hours before his death

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

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

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

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

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

Yamamoto’s funeral

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

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

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

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

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

Japan’s Operation U-Go

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

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

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

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

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

View of the Garrison Hill battlefield

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

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

The Heroes of Kohima

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Allied Powers push back

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

The tennis court

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

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

The Imphal-Kohima road

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

The memorial

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

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

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The Battle for Remagen Bridge (March, 1945)

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


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

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

Demolished bridges in Köln

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

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

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

The Ludendorff Bridge after its capture

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

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

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

Battle for the bridge 

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

The Ludendorff Bridge after its attempted demolition

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

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

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

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

American forces crossing the bridge

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

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

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

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

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

De Koepel (‘the Dome) prison
By G.Lanting – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

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

The Escape

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

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

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

The escapees

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Greatest Escape of German PoWs during the Second World War: the Island Farm Breakout

As the end of the Second World War was coming closer, the Allied powers made preparations for the inevitable stream of German prisoners of war that had to be housed. In total, 1026 prisoner of war camps were established in Britain. They accommodated a bit over 400.000 German PoWs that were shipped there. Among these camps was Camp 198, also known as Island Farm. The camp was situated on the outskirts of Bridgend, South Wales. The majority of the camp has been demolished in 1993, but there is one cabin, Hut 9, that has been preserved. And it has been preserved for a pretty good reason: it is the last remaining building that stood central in the plot of one of the largest escape attempt by German PoWs during the Second World War.

Island Farm was initially built for part of the 40.000 women employed by the Royal Ordnance munitions factory in Bridgend. Yet due to the poor conditions, in reality, the women preferred travel over staying there, and the camp remained empty until 1943. For a short while, it housed American troops participating in D-Day. Following the successful invasion of Europe, the Allied powers started planning around the hundreds-of-thousands Axis PoWs they would undoubtedly capture and have to house in the near future. That’s how Island Farm became a designated PoW camp. 

Location of Island Farm

The camp had capacity for approximately 2000 prisoners. Although German and Italian soldiers were initially housed there, by late 1944 the War Office decided it should house German officers instead. In accordance with the Geneva Convention, the prisoners could not be put to work. But not working didn’t deter the prisoners from digging, albeit not in sight of the guards. Because right after arrival, they began hatching their escape plans. 

It wasn’t like the Allied authorities didn’t realise the officers would plan an escape, though. Superintendent William May, and the camp Commandant Lieutenant-Colonel Darling actually made plans early on to prevent such an escape attempt. They knew a fair bit about escapes: Darling had been captured during the First World War and managed to escape from a German PoW camp, before safely returning to England via Holland. Considering his experience he wasn’t naive. Together with May, he decided that in case of an escape the local police should observe a 3-mile parameter around the area, checking all vehicles, peoples and what not. 

Hut 9 on Island Farm

There were several other escape attempts preceding the main one. Already in January 1945, Darling and May discovered a near completed tunnel in Hut 16. A stove was put over it to hide its presence. Darling and May acted on a tip-off, but when they entered the hut, initially it seemed empty. Only after moving the stove, they found the near-finished tunnel, including prisoners digging in it underground. Talk about getting caught in the act. As the map on-screen shows, Hut 16 was a bit further inwards than the aforementioned Hut 9. And perhaps that’s logical: one of the key consistencies among tales of PoW-camp outbreaks is that soldiers often dug decoy-tunnels to throw the guards off the actual escape plan. Perhaps that was what happened here as well, since the inmates from Hut 16 had to dig their tunnel under another hut. In short: not the most ideal location to start digging an escape tunnel.

Aside from this tunnel that same month two other prisoners were caught attempting to escape. They ripped iron bars from window frames and turned them into crude wire cutters. Merely cutting the perimeter fence, they escaped. Their freedom lasted for a short time, however, because they were soon arrested nearby.

Now, for the final escape, German inmates again decided upon digging their way out of the camp. Hut 9 was chosen because it was closest to the perimeter fence. Fortunately for the PoWs, metal objects were standard components of Red Cross Parcels. Tins, cans and other containers could skillfully be fashioned into useful items. Using these utensils and their hands, the inmates in Hut 9 dug into the heavy clay soil. Although all of this is an estimation: it was never conclusively proven how the inmates actually dug the tunnel. Another thing that the Allied powers didn’t find out until way after the war was where the prisoners disposed the leftover clay and dirt. Usually inmates would put small amounts of dirt and soil in their pockets and dispose of them during walks outside. But this time none of that appeared to have happened.

German PoWs arriving in the United Kingdom

It wasn’t until the 1980s, 35 years after the escape, when vandals kicked down a wall inside the camp that a hollow space behind it appeared. Small clay balls spilt over the floor. It turned out the inmates built a fake extension to an L-shaped bend in their Hut. They crafted a false air vent where they disposed their little clay balls in. The camp’s commanders never figured out where the soil was disposed, and nobody would have, if it wasn’t for a bunch of youths breaking things inside the remains of the camp. 

According to a 2016 research paper on the matter, straight from the beginning, the German officers were highly organised. They worked as a team and had designated escape task duties such as tunnellers and lookouts. They used a system of light switches to warn if guards came closeby. The escape tunnel from Hut 9 measured approximately 90 by 90 centimetres. It ended up 13 metres in length and just 1.5 metres underground, right underneath the perimeter fence. Once inside the tunnel, it was relatively easy to move until one had to climb out again. 

The prisoners used materials from huts to prevent cave-ins and even built ventilation pipes from milk tins, blowing in air with a hand-operated fan. As the photograph shows, the Germans used wood to support the tunnel. Aside from using wood from their hut, they stole oak benches from the canteen and even cut their beds’ legs. They were rather crafty, to be fair. In order to conceal the digging noise, the prisoners sang German choral songs. And I’ve already touched upon their crafted utensils, although it was never conclusively proven if they did indeed use these to dig the holes. 

At any rate, four months after the first German officers entered the camp, on the night of Saturday, March 10th 1945, the escape was set in motion. Sources vary whether 70 or 83 PoWs escaped that night, but it is safe to say it was the largest prison break by German PoWs during the Second World War. At around 10 PM that night, after the final roll call, Officers went to the hut and down into the tunnel at their assigned times. You see, the escapees divided themselves into groups and each group had a map, a homemade compass and food. The way the map was devised is fascinating in its own right: during the war, all roadsigns across Great Britain had been deliberately removed in order to prevent German spies from orienting themselves if they parachuted into Britain. A PoW Officer, however, during his transport to Island Farm, noticed a map hanging on the wall of the train wagon. He traced it on the tail of a shirt. Using this as a blueprint to create multiple maps, it led to the Germans having surprisingly accurate maps.

Hans Harzheim was part of one of the first groups. He later relayed how they crept through the tunnel, into the adjacent field and then stole an Austin 10 car. It belonged to the camp’s doctor, Dr. Baird Milne. The car didn’t start, and the noise polluted the quiet night. According to Harzheim, guards from the camp walked up to figure out what the noise was all about, when they saw the four men in a barely illuminated car. Boldly, Harzheim’ asked them to give him a hand with the vehicle, which they did. Due to the darkness the men appeared as just four silhouettes in the car, and unbeknownst to the guards, they were helping prisoners start the car. It worked, though, and the men drove off. 

After driving around and getting lost, the men had to abandon the car and continue on foot. It didn’t last long, and the day after they were arrested near Castle Bromwich, about 110 miles (so 177 kilometres) away from Island Farm. 

The tunnel under Hut 9

As for the rest of the escape, it continued uninterrupted for several hours. As mentioned, there were designated look-outs, using lights to make sure the escapees would not get discovered. The group that stole the car was a bit of an exception because after crawling out of the tunnel, most escapees made their way to a tall tree nearby, where they gathered. By 2:15 am 65 men had escaped. 

The 67th PoW to escape was Hermann Schallenberg, a Luftwaffe officer. According to his testimony as he left the tunnel he heard a shout from a guard, followed by a gunshot. Next thing he knew guards were giving chase, during which one fell down the tunnel exit. Several PoWs hiding in bushes nearby allegedly couldn’t hold their laughter, leading to the first eleven POWs being arrested right away. Realising just how many prisoners escaped, a manhunt ensued which lasted for well over a week.

The next two PoWs to be arrested were SS Officer Karl Ludwig and Heinz Hertzler. They planned on hitching a truck ride to the docks, but no trucks passed the road they chose on the night of escape. As such, hiding in bushes and hedges, they slowly made their way to the Bridgend railway station. According to testimony, as they were hiding in a hedge a drunk man decided to relieve himself. Unbeknownst to him there two German escapees were hiding in it. At any rate, the men reached the station and managed to climb into a goods wagon. And unbeknownst to the men, it travelled in the opposite direction. When they got off, they ended up in Llanharan, just 8 miles from Bridgend. Over here they encountered a police constable who subsequently arrested them.

A traced map

Not too soon after the escape was first noticed, the entirety of Bridgend and its police force were informed dozens of German PoWs escaped. Newspapers across the country reported the population about them, speaking of  “a manhunt at a scale never seen before” and often times curious stories of men hiding in goods wagons or woods being arrested by locals made headlines. American and British forces tracked down the Germans, aided by civilians, home guards, police and even teenagers who considered it quite the spectacle.

By Friday 5 PM the next week, two prisoners that travelled the furthest were brought into the local police station. They told police they travelled to Brynna, climbed onto a goods train, arriving near Southampton. Their plan was to sail to France on a cargo ship, but climbing out of the wagon they were spotted and subsequently arrested. According to official reports the escapees were not punished upon recapture.

Yet a few weeks after the escape, British authorities transferred all 1634 inmates to Camp 181 in Carburton, Worksop Nottinghamshire. This transfer is not necessarily a punishment, as far as I could find, but the new fate of Island Farm is yet another curious twist of this already strange story. From now on, Island Farm was renamed to Special Camp Eleven. It was the designated prison camp to receive German Officers captured in the battle for France. 

Although Special Camp Eleven opened in November 1945, its first special prisoners arrived in January the next year. Among these special prisoners were generals and field marshals, awaiting their trial at Nuremberg. Some of them were close advisers of Hitler, such as Generalfeldmarschalls Gerd von Rundstedt, commander-in-chief of the German armies in the West. Feldmarschall Erich von Manstein, who was dismissed by Hitler in 1944 but before that played a vital role on the Eastern front. Generaloberst Heinrich von Vietinghoff, the Supreme Commander of the German Army in Italy, involved, although not directly, in the rescue of Mussolini and most combat in Italy. In short, after the escape attempt, Island Farm became the designated prison camp for incredibly high-ranking Wehrmacht officers. Many of them spent several years there, and the camp was only closed in 1948 when the last prisoner was returned to Germany. And as mentioned, all that remains of its high-ranking inmates and one of the greatest PoW escapes is Hut 9, where it all started. 

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The SS-Plot to Abduct the Duke of Windsor: Operation Willi (Spain, 1940)

King George VI was king of the United Kingdom from 1936 until his death in 1952. His older brother, Edward, preceded his reign. He was one of the shortest-reigning monarchs in British history, reigning just 326 days. He triggered a constitutional crisis which led him to abdicate after proposing to the American Wallis Simpson, who had been married two times already. Well, long story short, Edward abdicated in December 1936 and became Duke of Windsor. Following his abdication, the couple emigrated to France, toured through Nazi Germany and rumours persisted that the Duke had more sympathies for the new Nazi regime than for his own country and family. The Nazis were well aware of these rumours, and after war broke out with Britain, they figured the Duke could be a willing participant in controlling German-occupied Britain. 

Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson

In short, the Germans wanted the Duke of Windsor to be a compliant ‘king across the water’ in case of a Germany-dominated Britain and the inevitable abdication of King George VI. Yet to secure this course of events, the Duke had to be surrounded by Germans, since they could not risk the British secret service interfering. As such, a mission was conjured up to abduct the Duke to Spain, and from there have him give a statement of his willingness to cooperate to establish peace between Germany and Britain. In order for the mission to succeed, members of the Sicherheitsdienst were permitted to have the Duke reach, and I quote: “the right decision by any means necessary.” But as the plot unfolded, the British secret service and even prime minister Winston Churchill became aware of the German plot. What ensued was a race against time, for control over the Duke of Windsor.

Preparing the Abduction in Spain

Following the invasion of France by Germany, the self-exiled Duke of Windsor and his wife Wallis fled the country to escape an arrest. They arrived safely and unscathed in Madrid, Spain on June 23. Yet they only remained in the capital for nine days before they left to yet another country: Portugal. Portugal’s dictator Dom Antonio Salazar was determined to make the Duke feel safe and welcome. To ensure there would be no issues with either the Brits or Germans, he appointed Portugal’s chief of the secret police, Dom Agostinho Lourenco with the task of protecting the couple.

The Duke rented a villa, the Boca de Inferno, near Estoril, a bit to the west of Lisbon. Owner of the villa was right-wing, upper-class playboy Dom Ricardo Espirito Santo Silva. The British SIS knew he had pro-German sentiments. Lord Halifax even described him as a crook in a memo. Immediately after the Windsors moved in, Lourenco made sure his men observed a security parameter around the villa. As such, the ducal couple was put under effective house arrest near immediately.

Meanwhile, both the Germans and Brits were informed about the new living situation of the couple. In Germany, both Hitler and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joachim von Ribbentrop, had a skewed image of the Duke’s degree of influence in British politics. Ascribing the Duke too much power and authority, they agreed that if he could be lured to Spain, he would willingly become an ally of the Germans. This idea wasn’t entirely unfounded. On July 22, the Italian Gazzetta del Popolo published that ‘The Duke of Windsor telegraphed King George to form a new British government.’ The New York Times of July 23, together with Finnish and Danish press also published that the Duke was forming a new British government in order to ensure a peaceful settlement with Germany. The British government dismissed these reports as propaganda based on false information, but still, rumours like this persisted. 

At this point, a German invasion of the United Kingdom was still the Nazi high command’s main priority. They figured after they invaded the UK and dispelled of the sitting King George VI, his brother, the Duke could be a willing participant to take over the throne and become a puppet king for the Nazi regime. On July 23 Ribbentrop called the SS functionary and chief of counter-intelligence Walter Schellenberg, who had previously been instrumental in the Venlo Incident where the SS abducted two British secret agents from the Dutch border town. Ribbentrop informed Schellenberg that on ‘Hitler’s direct orders’ he was appointed as head of Operation Willi: the luring or abduction of the Duke and his wife to Spain. According to Schellenberg’s memoirs, Hitler himself approved fifty million Swiss francs to be offered to the Duke if he ‘was ready to make some official gesture dissociating himself from the manoeuvres of the British royal family.’

Walter Schellenberg
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Alber-178-04A / Alber, Kurt / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0

Schellenberg was one of the highest-ranking members of the Sicherheitsdienst under Reinhard Heydrich. This connection was precisely why he, at least according to his post-war memoirs, opposed the plan. He knew Heydrich hated Ribbentrop, who he referred to as a ‘bloody old fool.’ Knowing his superior hoped the entire operation would fail, making the foreign minister look inept, Schellenberg begrudgingly flew to Madrid to meet with his connections there. 

Yet as he arrived in Spain, both the Spanish and German diplomatic forces gave him barely less than a cold shoulder. The German Ambassador Baron Eberhard von Stohrer, a career diplomat, despised the Nazis, especially the SS and Sicherheitsdienst. Realising Schellenberg, who enjoyed infamy for his Venlo incident escapade and several other high-profile abductions, came to Spain, meant those ‘criminals in Berlin’ decided to follow up on their ridiculous plan to abduct the Duke of Windsor. 

And the Baron was utterly right about Schellenberg’s motives. The Baron reported to Ribbentrop that the Duke and Duchess ‘very much desired to return to Spain,’ and even received intel that they acquired a visa from the British Embassy in Lisbon to travel to Spain. In Madrid, Schellenberg began organising the plan to lure the Duke to Spain. First, he formed a team around him. Among them was the Sicherheitsdienst representative in Madrid and the Abwehr agent Alcazar “Angel” de Velasco. Velasco was a former matador, Falangist fascist and all too keen to help the Germans out. To give you an insight in the ridiculous infighting among the high echelons of Nazi Germany: although Angel was an Abwehr agent and thus formally working for Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, he had to promise Schellenberg not to breathe a word to Canaris about the mission. Because Canaris, head of the German Abwehr, was known to not be enthusiastic about the Nazi regime. What the SS didn’t know at the time was that Canaris, in fact, played a crucial role in convincing Franco not to allow German troops on his territory and to refuse to join the Axis powers. Towards the end of the war, he even engaged in more subversive activities. It would cost him his life, eventually. In return for his secrecy, Angel was promised a crucial role in the plan that could very well turn the tide decisively in Germany’s favour. 

The Duke of Windsor in Portugal

On July 26, Schellenberg flew to Lisbon. Forcing the Duke to Spain with threats of violence could very well be counter-productive. As such, he decided to use his growing network of agents around the Duke. He hoped that it would spook the couple enough for them to seek refuge in Spain, more precisely among the Germans residing in Spain. An old friend, the Japanese head of intelligence in Lisbon, came in handy. He acquired maps, plans and drawings of the villa the Windsors resided in. 

Another agent of Schellenberg referred to as “C” and who most likely was a deputy of Dom Lourenco, provided 18 agents of the Portuguese security agency. These began shadowing the Duke. Subtly making their presence aware, the Duke knew something was up. During this time, Velasco invited the Duke on a hunting trip, where he revealed a supposed British plot to have the Duke assassinated. He offered refuge guaranteed by the Germans in Spain. The Duke requested 48 hours to think about it. The couple must have been rather confused and frightened: previously Wallis received a bouquet of flowers with a hidden note warning them of an impending hit job by the SIS, stating a bomb would be planted on a ship if they decided to leave the European mainland. Another night a rock was thrown through their windows, and the subsequent nightly manhunt only added to the unease. In short: the couple started to genuinely consider the fact they could not trust the British government and their own royal family anymore. Schellenberg’s plan seemed to work.

Meanwhile across the English Channel during these weeks, the Brits realised there was a very real risk, or at least the belief among the Germans, that the Duke may actually go to Spain. An official memo sent by Lord Halifax from early August shows that the SIS was aware of the fact the owner of the Duke’s villa was very pro-German. Also, they were aware of the Duke manifesting extreme defeatist and pacifist sympathies. In short: they had to get him as far away from the Germans as possible before something bad happened. Churchill was informed of this, as well. Already in late June, he sent the Duke a telegram ordering him to return to Britain. He followed that one up with the announcement the Duke had been appointed as Governor of the Bahamas and to go there via New York liner, the Excalibur, leaving on August 1st. Yet the couple remained in their villa, and to the Brits it was somewhat uncertain what their plan of action was.

And then things began moving rapidly. The day after the final telegram, a flying boat arrived from Bristol. In it was Sir Walter Monckton, a confidant of Churchill and close advisor of the Windsors. In fact, when Edward was still King, Monckton was the lawyer who guided him through his abdication process. Monckton’s task was to convince the Duke to not travel to Spain. Two days earlier he had been summoned to a secret meeting with Churchill in Downing Street. There, Churchill told him to see to it that the Duke would board on the New York liner Excalibur, to his new occupation: as governor of the Bahamas. Monckton himself described the mission as the oddest job of the ‘odd jobs he has done.’ 

From his arrival onwards, Monckton didn’t leave the Duke’s side. Meanwhile, Ribbentrop ordered Schellenberg to use any means necessary to bring the Duke to Spain. But it was no use, according to Schellenberg’s personal logs from that time. On July 29, he realised that “Willi will nicht” which translates to as much as “Willi doesn’t want to go.” He sent a report to Berlin stating the curious Monckton who didn’t look like a spy, and didn’t even carry a gun, was more likely to ‘be a member of the personal police of the reigning King by the name of Cameron.’ They didn’t know how to perceive Monckton, all the Germans could tell was that in his presence the Duke now became more hesitant about moving to Spain. And there wasn’t much time left, merely two days before Excalibur set sail.

Walter Monckton
Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use

With Ribbentrop’s words undoubtedly in mind, Schellenberg decided it was time to resort to more coercive tactics. The first subject was the duchess’s maid, Jeanne-Marguerite Moulichon. The girl was on a mission to retrieve the duchess’s favourite linen from Paris, where they left it as they fled from the invading Germans. On her trip back, however, the maid was taken into custody by the Germans. The first bargaining chip was secured. Secondly, the Duke’s Spanish friend, Don Miguel Primo de Rivera was flown to Lisbon. With his charm and persuasiveness, he convinced the Duke it wouldn’t take much longer for Germany to force Britain to negotiate peace, leading to King George’s abdication. To add weight to his argument, he also emphasised there were impending plots by the SIS to assassinate him. The Duke now begged Monckton to delay the trip, which he refused. As such a hesitant Duke ended up being near physically forced onto the Excalibur.

On August 1st, as planned, the Duke left on the New York liner to the Bahamas, together with Monckton and a Criminal Investigation Department officer. In the last hours before their departure, Schellenberg contemplated abduction but decided against it. The Duke sent a telegram to Hitler personally, stating he was willing to cooperate at a suitable time to establish peace, and he paid tribute to Hitler’s desire for peace. And as such, the Excalibur sailed off. The Duke would sit out the war as governor of the Bahamas, and King George remained King until he died in 1952. As for the idea of an Anglo-German peace agreement, it was completely dead on the German side after this incredible failure of a mission.

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Greatest Counter-Espionage Operation in World War 2: The Lost Wehrmacht Unit

Heinrich Scherhorn

By August 1944 the retreating German Heeresgruppe Mitte on the Eastern Front had lost over half a million soldiers in the wake of the Red Army’s enormous Bagration offensive. On August 19 the German Long Range Signal Intelligence Company, FAK 103 received a message from a Soviet spy, “Alexandr”, working for the Germans. Alexandr relayed to the intelligence company that a large German armed group was stuck behind enemy lines. They weren’t discovered as of yet and continued operating. During their retreat, this large German army unit, a couple of thousand men, was cut off from Heeresgruppe Mitte and sought refuge in a forest near Berezino a town in Belarus. They were in dire need of military supplies and provisions if they wanted to try to break out. Over in Germany, Wehrmacht commanders thought it vital to rescue these men. And not just any commanders. All the way up to Hitler personally, the entire chain of command became involved in the rescue of this Wehrmacht unit. Over the next couple of months, multiple intelligence officers were sent behind enemy lines to establish contact, and the Luftwaffe set up several missions to drop their scarce supplies in the army group’s supposed area. 

And, well, the intelligence officers all sent encrypted messages to confirm they safely reached the thousands of men stuck in the forest, requesting more supplies and material to force a break-out. With their already overstretched manpower resources, the German command did everything they could to safely rescue the army group… until Germany was finally defeated in May 1945, and they could no more, leaving the men to their own fate in that forest. A horrible end, knowing the conditions of Soviet gulags and their treatment of POWs. Except… well, the entire army group had never existed. Operation Berezino was one of the, if not the most successful counterintelligence operations set up by the Soviet NKVD. 


During the war the German army worked with several Soviet spy cells, often times soldiers in the Red Army feeding the Germans information. Sometimes these contacts ended up in so-called ‘Funkspiels’, radio-play counterintelligence operations. For example, in France the Germans used compromised Allied agent’s radios to send controlled transmissions to their parent service, rendering those instances none the wiser. Well, the Soviet spy Alexandr, who signalled the Germans, was part of a larger Soviet spy cell, Flamingo. The Germans figured Alexandr was a captain in the Red Army, adding credibility to his transmission when he told them about the lost army group.

Location of Berezino

The army group was stuck near Berezino, close to Minsk. A captured German corporal told Alexandr the group was cut-off from the main army group during their retreat. They numbered around 2500 men and were stuck in a nearby forest. Oberstleutnant Heinrich Scherhorn commanded the group, and he planned to lead his men to the German frontlines, through the Red Army units roaming around the area pushing further west. A sizeable number of wounded soldiers and a shortage in supplies prevented him from forcing an early breakout. 

Okay, so when receiving a message like this during the already chaotic time, the Germans naturally considered it plausible. But they were right to be wary, for several reasons. How was it possible a German corporal knew so much about Scherhorn’s plans and whereabouts? And who was Scherhorn anyway? Even if Scherhorn existed, the Soviets could simply use his documents to create a ruse. 

Head of the intelligence service of the Heeresgruppe Mitte was Hans-Heinrich Worgitzky. He suspected a Soviet deception operation intending to exhaust Germany’s already overstretched resources. Through the Long Range Intelligence Company, FAK 103, Worgitzky requested Flamingo to provide the exact whereabouts of Scherhorn’s position so he could organise an air supply and to establish radio contact. 

On September 6 Flamingo reached out. They stated Alexandr managed to contact the lost army group directly. Scherhorn was adamant about breaking through Soviet lines to the Germans, but he required military material, medicine and provisions. The group’s exact position, a bit over 50 kilometres to the north of Berezino, including the location signals for an eventual dropping was included.

Meanwhile, other commanders heard about the missing Wehrmacht unit. Among them was Oberst Reinhard Gehlen, head of the Fremde Heere Ost, the military intelligence organisation for the Eastern Front. According to historian Stuart Smith, the Fremde Heere Ost was undoubtedly the most successful German intelligence organisation of the entire war and Gehlen was respected by most of the German general staff thanks to his excellent intelligence work. Gehlen received information from his men that indeed, an Oberstleutnant Heinrich Scherhorn, commanding a Landesschützen-Regiment, had been missing since June.

The regiment Scherhorn commanded was very experienced in dealing with partisan activity, and thus considered more valuable than other regular Wehrmacht regiments. In addition, Scherhorn’s father was an intimate of Hitler; he contributed significantly to the Nazi party’s finances. It gave the rescue of Scherhorn an important political dimension. 

Rescuing Scherhorn

The German command requested Otto Skorzeny to lead the rescue operation. Skorzeny was a notorious SS commando that had been involved in several secret operations, often behind enemy lines. Skorzeny and his Jagdverband Ost, a unit consisting of Balts, Russians and Poles, started preparing the mission which initially was named Operation Freischütz. 

Otto Skorzeny

Their first objective was to render the communication via Flamingo obsolete. In order to do so they had to establish direct contact with Scherhorn. On September 15 an intelligence and connection officer crossed the frontlines in an attempt to locate Scherhorn. The intelligence unit near immediately lost contact with the men and considered them lost. Until five days later, when Heeresgruppe Mitte received a detailed message from Scherhorn himself, albeit through Flamingo. In it, Scherhorn confirmed the men safely reached him and he named several other high-ranking officers that were known to be in Soviet captivity. So… well reason enough for the German command to doubt the existence and situation.

Two weeks later the Wehrmacht intelligence unit sent another intelligence officer behind enemy lines, without notifying either Flamingo or Scherhorn. This officer confirmed he safely reached his position, and to be certain two days later four men of the SS Jagdverband Ost were dropped behind enemy lines, disguised as German prisoners of war. 

Official reports detailing the landing of the groups show what happened next. After a difficult landing taking heavy machine-gun fire, the first group established radio contact but then lost all contact. The second group sent a message several days later stating they successfully reached the Scherhorn group, and in early November the missing group too sent a code indicating they reached the Scherhorn group. 

Considering the existence of the Scherhorn group confirmed by separate intelligence units, the German command now took on the difficult task of rescuing them. The Luftwaffe set up a regular airdrop supply and the German intelligence units maintained daily contact with Scherhorn. Doctors were dropped in addition to the supplies and the German commanders convinced Scherhorn to build a landing strip nearby their stakeout, so they could establish an air bridge to pick up the men. But a harsh winter and Soviet activities in the area made it near impossible, and by late November Scherhorn pleaded with the German command to allow a change of plans. 

The German frontline at this point was around 500 kilometres away and the situation seemed hopeless. Scherhorn told the German commanders he was going to divide his men into two: a unit with wounded and weak soldiers trekking south, and a more combat-ready group to travel through Lithuania, where they would attempt to establish a new airlift. According to Skorzeny’s memoirs, he followed the group’s progress via radio reports. Their movement was slow, barely five kilometres every day, and the realisation dawned on the Germans that these men may never reach Germany again. 

For months the dropping of supplies at night and sending special units across frontlines continued. All the while the Red Army was advancing closer to German borders, and the German resources ran out. The responsible Luftwaffe squadron ran out of fuel in early 1945 and was unable to supply the lost Wehrmacht unit altogether. All the while the entire German warmachine rapidly collapsed, and the Scherhorn group could expect no more than a personal letter from Hitler on March 23. In it, Scherhorn was promoted to Colonel and he received the Ritterkreuz. 

One month later, in April 1945, the German radio intelligence unit received a transmission from the SS Jagdgeschwader Ost unit commander who supposedly travelled with the Wehrmacht unit. He stated the group had reached the agreed-upon meeting point, and requested the Luftwaffe to pick them up. Having no planes, fuel or any resources available, all the Germans could do was listen to his last radio transmission. Skorzeny described it as heartbreaking. Realising they could not be saved, the commander requested the minimal amount of fuel to charge their batteries to continue transmitting messages, but even that the German command could not promise. They realised the horrible fate that awaited these men, who had gave it their everything in an attempt to reach Germany. Not too long after Hitler took his own life in the Führerbunker, and the Germans surrendered, bringing the Second World War to an end. In the aftermath of the war the entire situation in Europe was very chaotic, and naturally, the whole Scherhorn affair faded to the background… only to be forgotten.


So, what happened to Scherhorn and his several-thousand strong Wehrmacht unit stuck behind enemy lines? Well, Oberstleutnant Heinrich Scherhorn certainly existed. And even the Flamingo spy cell was genuine. The agent, Alexandr, existed as well. His real name was Alexandr Petrovich Demianov, and he had worked for the NKVD counter-intelligence branch for over a decade. He reported directly to Pavel Sudopatlov, an intelligence officer. Sudopatlov was deeply involved with many secret operations, including Leon Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico and the obtaining of information about the Manhattan project. 

Alexandr had been infiltrating the German Abwehr from the beginning of the war, expanding his network. He was a double agent. And using Alexandr, the NKVD set in motion the most ambitious deception operation of the war. Stalin personally ordered Sudopatlov to create a counter-intelligence operation about a fake German Wehrmacht unit surrounded behind the frontlines. Stalin’s goal was to have the Germans deplete their already exhausted resources on this non-existent unit, and that’s exactly what happened. 

It appears that Alexandr’s entire family was involved in the deception. His wife’s father’s house in Moscow was used as a safehouse for Abwehr agents that agreed to defect to the Soviet Union. And Alexandr made sure to feed the Germans just enough correct information among the falsehoods, for them to continue trusting him. 

Alright, so Scherhorn did exist. But in reality, his Landesschützen-Regiment had been annihilated during the initial days of their retreat. Together with 200 survivors, they surrendered in July 1944, and in the notoriously awful NKVD captivity, Scherhorn was forced to defect. There were multiple reasons for his defection. Considering he fought against partisans he realised he would be executed if he didn’t, and he figured the Germans knew many partisans controlled the area he went missing in. So to have a sizeable German army unit missing there seemed unrealistic to him. Little did he know the German commanders would buy it.

When the Soviets relayed coordinates of the supposed army group’s position, they clothed counter-intelligence officers and special operations units in tattered Wehrmacht uniforms, to meet the SS men dropped behind enemy lines to meet Scherhorn. And Scherhorn too was there, located inside a hut in the forest. When the SS men met him, they transmitted their coded message to confirm the group Scherhorn existed. Subsequently, NKVD officers revealed they weren’t Wehrmacht soldiers. They arrested the SS men and gave them a choice: join in or die. Most men defected, handing over their valuable codebooks and passwords. The entire course of events was a debacle for the German command, although they would never find out. As we’ve seen, the deception lasted until nearly the end of the war, until the Germans simply had no resources to help out the fake Wehrmacht unit.

Although this was a secret counter-intelligence operation, there’s a reason why we know so much detail about a mission such as this one: Scherhorn actually survived the war. Sudapotlov kept him under house arrest until 1949, before he was repatriated to East-Germany. He was one of the lucky ones because the vast majority of men captured during the operation were executed after the Germans surrendered. To the Soviets, the operation was an incredible success. In total 67 airlifts were intercepted and 25 paratroopers arrested, not to mention the ammunition, provisions, medicine, weapons and codebooks. Ironically enough, Reinhard Gehlen, who bought the deception, ended up becoming a spymaster of the CIA-affiliated anti-communist Gehlen Organisation. Certainly a story worth telling in another video.


Beaumont, R. (1982). Maskirovka: Soviet Camouflage, Concealment and Deception. 
Smith, S. (2018). Otto Skorzeny: The Devil’s Disciple. Bloomsbury Publishing.
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The Chinese Soldier Serving in the German Wehrmacht: Chiang Kai-shek’s Son

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

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

Chiang Wei-kuo with his father Chiang Kai-shek

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

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

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

Chiang Wei-kuo as a Fahnenjunker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chiang Wei-kuo in Taiwan, 1950

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

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

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

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

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

American-Australian Relations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eddie Leonski

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

Eddie Leonski

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eddie Leonski

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

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

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

The Battle of Brisbane

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

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

U.S. Servicemen in Brisbane

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

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

The Battle of Brisbane by Raymond Evans and Jacqui Donegan
Toll, Ian W. The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 (Vol. 2)(Pacific War Trilogy): War in the Pacific Islands, 1942–1944. Vol. 2. WW Norton & Company, 2015.
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Japanese Snipers during World War 2

One of my subscribers recently left a comment talking about Japanese snipers on Guam and other Pacific islands. And I’ve received multiple questions about the history of Japanese snipers and how they were utilised during the Second World War. And those are very fair questions because Japanese snipers have a very surprising history. Both their strategy and conduct during the war, but their origin story as well.

As for their origin story, the Japanese imperial army was perhaps one of the most recent armies to adopt snipers as a tactic. Even more recent than the Chinese. Well, especially more recent than the Chinese. During the Second Sino-Japanese war the Japanese faced German-trained Chinese Kuomintang troops. Military ties between China and Germany were strong before the Axis alliance uprooted it. For example, in 1933 Hans von Seeckt, former chief of the German Army Command, spent two years advising generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in military matters to combat the communists. In fact, Chaing Kai-shek’s son served in the German Wehrmacht and commanded a Panzer unit before the outbreak of the war. These close connections translated to, among many other things, a more intricate understanding of the profession of snipers. In turn, the Japanese troops faced relatively well-trained Chinese troops using modern military tactics. Already facing trouble early on, by the time the Japanese waged war against the Americans, they had adopted several best practices from their war against the Chinese. Although they added some curious own ingredients to the mix. 

Most Japanese snipers were commissioned and non-commissioned officers. This became a widespread realisation due to it being easy to identify them by their rank insignia. As the war progressed, Japanese officers began concealing their insignia and on the frontlines, Japanese troops were instructed not to salute their officers. Reason for this was that it was easy for hostile snipers to identify and pick off Japanese officers. Often, snipers trained together with the infantry and every rifle platoon had at least one sniper on hand. 

Yet there are some severe contradictory statements by military historians about the usefulness and effectiveness of Japanese snipers. For one, John N. Rentz mentions that he uses the term “sniper”, when referring to Japanese, simply as individual soldiers firing without a unit fire plan. So a sniper was not specifically trained as a sniper. And he could be located anywhere, from a tree to hole in the ground, bushes, or in buildings. As such, any man that fires at another combatant, be it a soldier or unit, immediately becomes a sniper. 

That’s a very broad definition, but perhaps for a good reason. Because according to Rentz, many Japanese ‘snipers’ were actually outpost guards or members of small patrols. We’ll get to the tactics these snipers adopted in a minute. But first, the most distinctive and iconic equipment of snipers obviously is their rifle. There were multiple rifles the Japanese army, and in turn, its snipers used. Osprey’s Military Snipers Since 1914 says about this:

“The Japanese were equipped with a number of different types of rifles, the earliest, a 6.5mm Type 38 dating back to 1905. Under the guidance of Colonel Namio Tatsumi, later the 6.5mm Type 97 and 7.7mm Type 99 rifles were developed, being equipped with 2.5 or 4x power telescopic sights. One advantage of the smaller 6.5mm cartridge was that there was almost no smoke from the discharge, and the sound of the rifle – a distinctive high-pitched ‘crack’ – made it very difficult to locate.

Although the Japanese had adequate supplies of sniping rifles, much of their shooting was done at comparatively close range using a wide variety of weapons and open sights. Well equipped and suicidally determined, the Japanese frequently fought the Allies to a standstill, earning the grudging admiration of those who faced them.”


There were common tactics Japanese snipers used. They were outfitted with camouflage helmets adorned with palm fronds and foliage, nets and clothing and were expected to blend in with their surroundings. In addition, the ‘sniper kit’, so to say, consisted of binoculars, map cases and other distinctive equipment. For the most part, they utilised the same tactics as snipers of other armies during that same period, including targeting high-ranking enemy combatants and making sure to wreak havoc in their ranks. 

A Japanese Sniper in a tree

As for real tactics, there was one notable difference. Due to its effectiveness, and the number of casualties it inflicted, it became notorious among the G.Is in Asia. The Japanese prolifically sat high in trees, waiting to take out their targets. This was such a widespread tactic that snipers sometimes even had a specifically fitted chair to make hiding among the branches and leaves more comfortable. Most marksmen were outfitted with primitive pole climbers in order to get into position more easily. An even more primitive method, described by author Adrian Gilbert in Sniper, says that snipers sometimes were tied into position. This was done to prevent the sniper from falling out if he was hit by enemy fire, leaving the counter-sniper guessing if he scored a hit.

There certainly were issues with hiding in tree-tops. For one, historian John Miller claims that “anyone who has ever climbed a tree in the jungle can testify to the difficulties a man with a rifle would encounter – lack of visibility, tree limbs in the way and the innumerable little red ants whose bite is like the prick of needles.” Still, there are plenty of sources that support the notion Japanese snipers actually prolifically used this tactic, which made sense since the conditions Japanese soldiers were exposed to by their commanders were notoriously awful. Climbing a tree would not make the list of worst things to happen there. Japanese soldiers were tenacious and dedicated, willing to take significant risks, and were often seasoned veterans of jungle warfare. Most of them considered giving their life for the emperor one of the noblest sacrifices.

As mentioned, thanks to their rifle and its lack of smoke, muzzle flash and hard to locate sound, Japanese snipers could pick off several targets and go undetected. But there’s a very obvious problem with hiding in trees as a sniper. And it’s exactly the reason why instructors of their Soviet, German, British and U.S. counterparts dissuaded them from utilising trees. In the unfortunate, but often inevitable event that you were detected… well, palm trees, or any trees for that matter, literally became a death trap. And that’s exactly what made the Japanese snipers so dangerous: it seemed they didn’t really care about the fact if they were discovered they would die. They simply wanted to take as many as possible enemy combatants with them .

In action

Among the U.S. troops news rapidly spread Japanese hid in trees. In fact, it slowed down the Guadalcanal campaign because infantry soldiers were convinced snipers hid in near every palm tree and entire divisions were held back by one sniper taking them under fire. And the danger of looming snipers influenced most campaigns, from the coral atolls to New Guinea’s forests. 

The divisional historian of the US 41st Infantry Division described how the division was plagued by snipers hiding in treetops around nearly their entire perimeter. The sniper’s range often was between 200 and 400 yards, so between around 180 and 365 metres. And of course, thanks to their relatively small powder charge, there was no telltale smoke revealing the sniper. Indiscriminate firing into treetops was the often-preferred method to try and make a breakthrough. But as the war progressed, more structured strategy was required. 

The task to eliminate Japanese snipers was a difficult one, and the Americans developed a thorough strategy. Towards the end of the war it was truly taking a toll on the Japanese. The Allies found that teams using a sniper, light machine-gun and spotter did the trick. If an area was suspected of sniper activity, the machine gunner sprayed the tops of trees, which if it didn’t hit the sniper certainly would cause him to move. At the point of moving the Allied sniper most often would pick him off. 

Other sources indicate the Allies also employed two-man counter-sniper teams manning forward defences, while another team climbed from tree to tree using climb poles. This way, they meticulously combed out areas with trees, picking off Japanese snipers one by one. If an area was suspected to have a considerable presence of snipers, 37mm anti-tank guns made sure to blast the entire area. The fact Japanese snipers were incredibly immobile in tree-tops led to their ranks rapidly thinning out as the war progressed. 

In August 1942 the US’s first major ground offensive, the Guadalcanal Campaign, began. In the famous Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis, he describes close calls with Japanese snipers:

“More Jap 6.5mm rifles opened up ahead; a storm of fire broke and filled the jungle. I dived for the nearest tree, which unfortunately stood somewhat alone and was not surrounded by deep foliage. While the firing continued and I could hear the occasional impact of a bullet hitting a nearby tree or snapping off a twig, I debated whether it would be wiser to stay in my exposed spot or to run for a better hole and risk being hit by a sniper en route.

The sniper who had fired at me was still on my track. He had evidently spotted my field-glasses and taken me for a regular officer. I searched the nearby trees, but could see nothing moving, no smoke, no signs of any sniper. Then another 6.5mm cracked again and I heard the bullet pass. I jumped for better cover, behind two trees. Here I began to wish I had a rifle. I had made an ignominious retreat. My dignity had been offended.”

The Japanese army mainly used their snipers to control enemy movement and pick them off at unexpected times. Thomas E. Price, in his Brief History of the 6th Infantry Division, recounts the landings at Milne Bay, New Guinea, that proves just this. 

“The division set up camp near the Australian forces in a place that was a palm tree plantation owned by the Palmolive Palm Oil Company. The men were told they would be fined if they cut down the trees. The first Japanese shot was wearing an American uniform. He was assumed to have been a scout or spy. A 6th Division Medic shot him. There were problems with Japanese snipers in the trees. As the trees’ tops and crowns were cropped and pruned with machine guns, there was no more talk of fines for trees.”

When in September 1944 the Battle of Peleliu commenced, a small island in the Pacific, the American commanders expected a quick and easy victory. In reality, over 10.000 Japanese soldiers resigned to their fate, defending the island until their deaths. The battle lasted into November. With its many caves, hills, and scarred ridges and ravines, the island was an ideal setup for a Japanese sniper. I’ve written an entire article about that and created a video of the battle if you’re interested in that.