An Alarming Time with an Antique Air-Raid Siren!

Anyone who has been wondering why this blog has not been updated In a whole month will be glad to know that I have not just simply vanished off the face of the earth. For the last three weeks, I have been on holiday in the Peoples’ Republic of China. I visited three cities, Peking, Xi’an, and Shanghai. More of that in a future posting. This posting is to share the prize souvenir which I brought back home with me to Australia from my trip to the heart of the Orient!

A hand-cranked, handheld air-raid siren! Most likely dating back to the time of the Second Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945), this is the first military antique (or piece of ‘militaria’) that I have ever purchased, and at a fair bargain, too!

It was purchased at the Panjiayuan (‘Pan Ji’ya Yuan’) antiques and flea market in Peking. Anyone wanting to buy antiques in Peking is strongly advised to go here! I did, and I had a wonderful time – just remember to wear your poker face and haggle hard!

Is this siren rare? Not particularly. In all likelihood, hundreds, if not thousands of these things were produced by all sides during the Second World War. And it may well be a reproduction. But is it cool? You bet! Fold down the handles, lock in the crank, open the slide and let ‘er rip! Soon, that classic siren wail will be filling the air, sending people diving for cover! It is completely mechanical and is totally capable of sounding the alarm now, as it was nearly eighty years ago!

The siren comes complete with its original military green canvas carry-pouch, which, like the siren itself, certainly shows it’s age.

The History of the Air-Raid and it’s Siren

The first air-raids ever took place on London during the First World War. Carried out by the German Air Force, these first aerial attacks on a civilian population were done using zeppelin airships, the only craft large enough at the time to carry out practical, cross-channel raids.

British preparations for air-raids in the first war were nonexistent, and the strategies for coping with this new kind of attack were hastily thrown together in response to the threat hovering in the skies over London and other British towns and cities. A typical air-raid warning consisted of little more than London’s Special Constabulary (a volunteer force of citizen-policemen) walking or cycling around London, the familiar, discordant shriek of their ‘Metroplitan’-style police whistles providing the only form of rudimentary alarm. Considering that the screech of a police whistle was as common then as a police siren is today, not everyone paid attention, and probably paid with their lives.

Air-Raid Precautions (1924)

Fearing that thousands of Londoners might be killed in future European wars, an organization called Air-Raid Precautions was created in 1924, he aim of which was to develop strategies for the protection of London, other British cities, and their civilian populations, in the event of future air-attacks.

ARP was responsible for protecting and calming the civilian population of Great Britain during air-attacks, by providing warnings of raids and supervising safe evacuations, and by helping to maintain a citywide blackout that would confuse enemy aircraft flying overhead. Wardens were appointed whose job it was to enforce the blackout, and to assist the population during a raid, guiding them to air-raid shelters before the bombs started to fall.

The Wartime Air-Raid Siren

Air-raid sirens were developed in the late 1930s to warn people of the danger of upcoming aerial attacks or ‘air raids’ during the Second World War. A typical air-raid siren is comprised of a pair of cylinders or wheels, one spinning inside the other. The sound of the airflow constantly being interrupted is what gives the siren it’s distinctive droning wail. The faster a siren’s wheel spins, the louder the sound, and the higher the pitch, due to the more frequent interruption of airflow.

These sirens typically came in three general sizes:

Handheld, crank-operated ones, which could be operated by one man standing up (such as the one featured in this article)…

…medium-sized, manually operated sirens that were placed on portable stands…

…and finally, large, electrically powered sirens, typically mounted to large poles, or to the tops of large buildings.

Sirens normally produced two different types of alarms:

Red Alert”, or “Red Warning” – a continuous, up-down rolling wail – this is the classic wartime siren sound that we all know from movies, TV shows, and computer games. Hearing this meant that an attack was imminent and ongoing. Civilians were to make their ways to air-raid shelters immediately. Such alerts came in two forms: one was a general alarm. The other was the signal to seek immediate shelter.

In England during the Second World War, factories engaged in wartime manufacturing were expected to keep running after the first siren had gone, and to instruct their staff to seek shelter only upon hearing the second siren which signaled an imminent attack. If the first siren was a false alarm (and they did happen), then the factory would have stopped work for no reason, and precious time would have been lost.

“White Alert”, or “All Clear” – a long, continuous, rising note that sounded for a preset period of time, indicating that an attack was over. It would now be safe to come out of shelters, and continue with ones lives.

Air-Raid Sirens After the War

The drone of an air-raid siren is most commonly associated with the Second World War and the conflicts of the 1930s and ’40s. However, they continued to be used well after the end of the Second World War.

The onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s meant that these sirens, now also called ‘civil defense sirens’, were redeployed to warn of impending nuclear attacks. The two old wartime signals of ‘Red Alert’ and ‘White Alert’ were still used, but we’re now supplemented with other warnings which indicated the likelihood of an attack, to give civilians more time to evacuate to their fallout shelters. The new medium of television was also used, along with the old standby of radio.

With the ending of the Cold War in the late 1980s, these venerable sirens were given yet another lease of life. They are still used in the United States to warn of impending natural disasters, such as tornadoes, giving people an audible signal of the approach of danger, allowing them to escape to their storm-cellars and bunkers before the big one hits.

 

Wierd World Wars – Things You Probably Never Knew about the two World Wars

Did you know that…

During the First World War…

Soldiers used urine for almost anything! They pissed on their boots to soften the leather. They pissed on their handkerchieves to make gas-masks. They even pissed on their machine-guns to stop them warping from overheating! Urine was ideal for several applications in the trenches. It was easily accessed and in plentiful supply. Any duties where water was not absolutely required, or where urine was an acceptable substitute, this freely available fluid was utilised. Pee for victory!

Australia had the only 100% volunteer army. While other nations that participated in WWI had standing armies, the newly-federated (1901) nation of Australia did not have an army of its own. All its troops and officers sent to fight in the Great War were volunteers drawn up from ranks of civilians. Most of them had no prior combat-experience, and received only the most basic of outdated infantry training!

The first air-raids on a large population center were carried out. In 1915, the first-ever air-raids over a major city were carried out by the German ‘Zeppelin’ airships. Although highly inaccurate, these raids brought war to a civilian population that was previously untouchable. But for the first time, the people of Britain realised that the Channel was no guarantee of safety. The raids were carried out on London and other major British cities, starting in January 1915, and lasting until August of 1918.

The Underwood Typewriter Company manufactured a gigantic, working typewriter as a marketing gimmick in 1915!…It was later melted down for the war-effort. 

Despite the fact that the war started in Europe, the first allied shot was fired from Fort Nepean in Victoria, Australia!

Just two and a half hours after the declaration of war, Australia, a country on the other side of the world, fired the first allied shot of the war, using the coastal artillery cannon at Fort Nepean.

During the Second World War…

Despite the fact that the war started in Europe, the first allied shot was fired from Fort Nepean in Victoria, Australia!…Again! 

Just as in July of 1914, on the 3rd of September, 1939, the first allied shot was fired by the coastal artillery cannon at Fort Nepean, in Victoria, Australia, on the other side of the world! By the same gun, from the same fort…and the shot was even ordered by the same man! In both instances, gun-captain, Commander Veale, ordered shots fired across the bows of two ships which refused to heave-to. In both instances, just hours after the official declarations of war.  And before any other allied nation had fired so much as a flare gun.

Cities were bombed with pianos! Okay, not really. But…Starting in 1944, pianos were parachuted into bombed out, but liberated cities across Europe, as the Allies advanced eastwards towards Berlin. Manufactured by Steinway & Sons, and called “Victory Verticals“, these lightweight, cheap, upright pianos were designed to provide a form of entertainment for troops and liberated civilians, whose own instruments were damaged by air-raids and artillery-barrages during the earlier years of the war. 2,436 Victory Vertical Steinways were manufactured.

A Steinway ‘Victory Vertical’ piano, sourced from pianoworld.com

The British tried making aircraft carriers out of ice! Those crafty Limeys. They tried concealing convoy ships as icebergs, and tried to make aircraft-carriers out of ice, to save up on precious steel.

No such ships ever made it off the drawing-board.

American psychologists produced a Freudian-style profile of Adolf Hitler. As part of trying to understand their enemy, the Americans drew up a psychological profile of Adolf Hitler. Theories about Hitler’s personality and possible future actions were built up from known facts about the Fuhreur. These were gleamed from his published works, body-language in films, and from the few people who knew him intimately and had escaped to America. One of them was Dr. Eduard Bloch!

Dr. Eduard Bloch in his medical office in Austria, 1938. Two years before he fled to America with his family

Bloch (1872-1945) was the Hitler family doctor…and a Jew. For Bloch’s attempts at treating Hitler’s mother for breast-cancer (from which she subsequently died), Hitler gave Bloch special protection from Nazi antisemitic persecution. Despite this, Bloch felt unsafe, and fled from Austria to America in 1940.

Over a three year period, from 1941-1943, he was interviewed extensively by the Office of Strategic Services or “O.S.S.”, the precursor to the CIA. He provided the Americans with valuable insight into Hitler’s personality and early life, which helped them produce their psychological profile. He told them about such things as the death of Hitler’s mother, how Hitler reacted to the news, and details about Hitler’s childhood and upbringing.

Bloch settled in New York City. He lived long enough to see the defeat of Germany, and Nazism in Europe. He died on the 1st of June, 1945, at the age of 73.

The profile drawn up by the Americans was surprisingly accurate. It correctly predicted the July 20 bomb-plot of 1944, Hitler’s increasing withdrawal from public life, and even Hitler’s suicide in 1945!

During the war, many companies ceased production of their peacetime consumer-goods, and started manufacturing materials for the war-effort. Where possible, companies were asked to build things using materials or techniques and qualities which they already had. It wasn’t always a great success.

Steinway & Sons, the piano-manufacturers, produced lightweight wooden gliders for the Allies. These were used during D-Day, for the invasion of Normandy.

The Singer Manufacturing Company, world-famous producers of sewing-machines, was tasked by the Americans to produce sidearms for the army. They were given a contract to produce 500 Colt .45 automatic pistols. The pistols did not all pass muster, and Singer did not produce any more guns for the duration of the war. It produced bomb-sights instead!

Singer lost the pistol contract to Remington-Rand, the famous typewriter manufacturer! Remington was producing M-1911 pistols from 1942 until the war ended in 1945. In total, it cranked out 877, 751 firearms for the U.S. Armed Forces!

The Royal Typewriter Company ceased all production of civilian typewriters during WWII. From 1942 until the war ended in 1945, it cranked out rifles, bullets, machine-guns, and spare parts for airplane engines! It didn’t start making typewriters again until the war had been over for two months!

The Underwood Typewriter Company produced M1 carbines for the war-effort. In the late 1930s, it manufactured a gigantic, working typewriter as a marketing stunt for the World’s Fair:

Just like in 1915…this too, was melted down for the war-effort! This typewriter was a giant version of the Underwood Master standard typewriter:

Rationing on the British Home-Front was so severe, some people came up with interesting substitutes for some rare, rationed foodstuffs and goods…

Makeup for women was in short supply. Beetroot-juice was used for lipstick, gravy and pencil-marks were used to create the illusion of stockings.

Eggs were almost nonexistent. And if you wanted them, you had to open a can of egg-powder, instead! (Eugh…) Egg-powder was mixed with water, and the resultant slurry was fried on the pan.

Restaurants continued to operate throughout the War, but were not allowed to charge more than 5s (five shillings) per dish. Vegetables were not rationed in any way at all.

Fish and Chips were not rationed. But getting plaice, cod and other regular varieties of fish was almost impossible. Instead, Britons had to eat Snoek, (“Snook”), imported from South Africa.

Winston Churchill was an impossible workaholic. He worked day and night. He worked on the toilet. He worked in the bathroom. He worked in bed. He would stay up for hours and hours at a time, working. By comparison, Hitler enjoyed his shut-eye.

The British Army had its own magician! No, I’m serious. It really did.

His name was Jasper Maskelyne (1902-1973). Born into the famous Maskelyne stage family, Jasper was originally a magician performing in London’s West End theaterland. When war broke out, Maskelyne was recruited by the British Army to provide morale-boosting performances to allied troops. He soon grew bored of this, feeling that he was not doing enough for the war-effort. He offered his services to the army as an expert in camouflage and deception. The Army was not exactly taken by the idea. They thought Maskelyne was mad!

Maskelyne’s argument was that as a stage magician, he had a lifetime of experience in deception, trickery and illusion, which could surely be handy for the Army! But they weren’t interested. To this, Maskelyne famously retorted:

“If I could fool an audience only twenty feet away, I could certainly fool the enemy, a mile away, or more!” 

Maskelyne supposedly convinced the army that he had something to offer, when he successfully created the illusion of a German battleship. He was employed as a camouflage expert, and together with his team of men (the “Magic Gang” as they were called), Maskelyne set to work putting on his greatest show ever.

Among other things, Maskelyne disguised tanks as trucks, to make military-buildups look like harmless goods-deliveries. He set up blackouts, and fake lights at night, to shift the position of Alexandria Harbour (a key attack-point for the German air-force), and most amazingly, shrouded the Suez Canal (a vital link between Britain and its Empire) beneath ‘dazzle-lights’.

Dazzle-lights were powerful searchlights aimed at the sky. Twenty-one massive search-lights would have revolving heads, each head with two dozen smaller lights. Aimed at the sky and constantly spinning, the hundreds of lights created a glittering, dazzling effect. It was very pretty, but its purpose was to disorientate German pilots. Blinded by the dazzle, they wouldn’t be able to look down from their aircraft to spot the canal, and therefore wouldn’t be able to bomb it.

The canal is still here, so it obviously worked.

So there you have it. These are just a few of the weird, whacky little facts about the two World Wars which you probably won’t find in your history books.

 

The Bombing of Darwin – Australia’s First Taste of War

Countries considered virtually untouched by the ravages of the Second World War include the United States, the Dominion of Canada, New Zealand, and the Commonwealth of Australia, even though this was not entirely true. About all that most people know about the bombing of Darwin is what’s featured in the film “Australia“, starring Hugh Jackman.

The United States naval-base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was hit hard in 1941 by a surprise Japanese air-raid which killed thousands of American servicemen, planes and ships. But while the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor has gone down in history as one of the most famous surprise-attacks of all time, most people have completely forgotten about another, similar, and even more devastating attack, which took place in northern Australia, in the early months of 1942.

This posting will look at the famous Darwin air-raids, the two Japanese airborne attacks on the town of Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory during the Second World War, and the effects that these raids had on the city and its inhabitants, and the rest of Australia.

Darwin, 1942

Darwin, named after the famous naturalist, Charles Darwin, is the capital city of the Northern Territory of Australia. It was founded in 1869, and was originally named “Palmerston”. It gained the name “Darwin” in 1911. Darwin was a small-fry among Australia’s bigger and more prominent cities. Population-centers such as Melbourne and Sydney were famous around the world, they were major ports and trading-centers. Darwin, by contrast, was a sleepy backwater town that most people had never even heard of!

In the 1940s, Darwin was little more than an isolated country town at the top end of Australia. Its population in 1940 was a minuscule 5,800 people. By comparison, Melbourne at the same time had a population of over a million. This, when the population of Australia numbered some 6,900,000 people in 1939.

Darwin and the Second World War

Darwin in 1939 was an isolated country town, at the top of the nation, but at the bottom of the population-ladder. War seemed far away, and any notion that Australia might be threatened by enemy action were laughable. Germany was on the other side of the world! Who cared what happened? If anything did happen, it wasn’t going to happen in Australia, anyway! Apart from the blackout, rationing and military service, life went on more or less as it had always done.

It’s widely believed that Australia was largely untouched by the War, which is more or less true. Air-raid sirens never wailed across the city center of Melbourne, and Sydney was never rocked by Japanese bomb-blasts, but the threat, real or not, hung in the air.

In the early years of the war, the idea that Australia might be threatened were passed off as sensational and unfounded. The main aggressor, Germany, was on the other side of the world. And Japan was more interested in China than Alice Springs. But in 1941, everything changed.

With the attack against Pearl Harbor, Australia realised that its safety was threatened…probably. The Japs were never going to reach this far south! They’d be stopped at Singapore, and blasted into the sea! End of story. Roll over and go back to sleep.

Posters like this one from 1942 are believed to exaggerate the Japanese threat to Australia. However, they were probably closer to the truth than most people knew, or were willing to admit

However, the swiftness of Japanese advances struck terror into the hearts of Darwinians. Since 1937, Japan had taken Peking and Nanking. It had bombed Hawaii, invaded Shanghai, in less than a month, it had invaded and captured British Hong Kong. It invaded American possessions in the South Pacific, and was making sweeping advances down the Malay Peninsula.

In February, 1942, the island nation of Singapore, the “Gibraltar of the East”, Australia’s first, last, and only line of defense against Japanese aggression, collapsed and surrendered in just one week!

Suddenly, Darwin felt very exposed.

The Threat Against Darwin

To protect against Japanese aggression, Darwin was to be Australia’s first mainland line of defense. To this end, it had been equipped with anti-aircraft guns, an airbase with fighter-planes of the Royal Australian Air Force, and there was even a small naval-base run by the Royal Australian Navy. These were to be the two main fighting forces which would meet the Japanese threat if they ever came south to Australia.

With the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Japanese advances through Southeast Asia being swift and brutal, Australia began to feel increasingly threatened. In the days and weeks after the Japanese December-1941 offensive in the South Pacific, the vast majority of Darwin’s civilian population had been evacuated, and the town’s already small population shrank from 5,800 in 1939, to just 2,000 people in 1942. Most of the 2,000 people were essential civilians, government and military officials, and servicemen. The majority of the women and children had been evacuated from town by railway, or else, had boarded specially-charted evacuation-ships, which would steam them south, to Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne, well out of harm’s way.

Darwin’s location at the top of Australia, its harbour, and its proximity to Japan made it a natural target for the Japanese. But as with many defense-plans in the South Pacific at this time, Darwin was not prepared for any kind of substantial and sustained attack.

British colonial bastions such as Hong Kong and Singapore had been overrun in days and weeks. The very might of the United States Navy had been challenged! What chance did a tiny, sparrow-fart town in the middle of nowhere have, against such a superior enemy?

Why the Japanese Attacked Darwin

If Darwin was such a tiny, insignificant town, with barely any armed forces or defenses to speak of, why did the Japanese see it as such a threat and target?

As with any real-estate…location, location, location.

Darwin’s location and its large harbour made it a natural base for the Allies. Any British, American or Australian forces in the area would surely gather there. They would use the harbour for their warships, and the flat ground around the town for its flak-guns and airforce bases. At the time, the Japanese wanted to destroy any and ALL competition in the area, no matter how large or small. Their next target, after China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya and the islands of the South Pacific, was the Dutch East Indies (what is today, Indonesia).

To take Indonesia without any opposition, the Japanese had to attack Darwin, to knock out any chance of the Allies to mount some sort of counterattack. And this is why Darwin became a target.

Darwin’s Defenses

Despite the threat against Darwin, the town’s defense was ridiculously small. Darwin Harbour had 45 ships, and the surrounding airfields had only 30 airplanes. Of the 45 vessels in Darwin Harbour, 21 were merchant-ships. Of the other 24 ships, five were destroyers (one of these was the U.S.S. Peary), and another ship was the U.S.S. Langley, a primitive vessel launched in 1912! This was the U.S. Navy’s first aircraft-carrier, a role into which it had been converted in the 1920s.

To protect against the threat of a Japanese air-attack, Darwin was more than capably defended by 18 anti-aircraft cannons, and a smattering of WWI-era Lewis-style machine-guns.

But they had hardly any ammunition between them. And hadn’t for weeks. As a result, the guns had never been fired, and the crews to operate the guns had never been trained!

On top of everything else, Darwin had almost no air-raid precautions. It had only one operational air-raid siren, barely any shelters, no radar, and barely any lookout posts.

At any rate, even if everything was working, they still wouldn’t have been able to mount any sort of serious defense. It was estimated that to defend Darwin effectively, the town would require at least three dozen anti-aircraft cannons or guns, and at least 250 aircraft.

Instead, it had barely twenty guns, and only thirty aircraft.

In the event of an enemy air-attack on Darwin, civilian aircraft-spotters on nearby Bathurst Island (namely the local priest, Father John McGrath), were to sight the aircraft, identify them, count their numbers, and then relay this information via radio, to the authorities in Darwin. Radio-operators in Darwin would then sound Red Danger over the air-raid sirens (the famous, classic high-low wail of an air-raid siren), signalling for the population to seek cover.

The warning would only give people a few minutes to duck and cover, but it gave them a fighting chance to seek shelter before the Japanese reached Darwin. At the sound of the sirens, the flak-cannons would be manned and loaded, and the aircraft on the ground would be readied for take-off, to engage the incoming enemy.

That was how it was supposed to happen.

The Darwin Raid: 19th February, 1942

Less than a week after the fall of Singapore, on the 15th of February, Australia was about to  find out how vulnerable it really was. With a flimsy northern defense, and nearly all its soldiers fighting in Africa or the Middle East, or captured in the South Pacific, and hardly any air-power and hardly two ships to race together, Australia was ripe for the taking.

On the 19th of February, Japanese aircraft carriers sailed south towards Australia. They parked themselves a few miles off the coast, and sent in over 200 fighter and bomber aircraft. 242, to be precise.

242 aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Air Force, against just 30 aircraft belonging to the Royal Australian Air Force.

As the planes flew south towards Australia, they passed over Bathurst Island. Father McGrath, the mission priest on the island, spotted the aircraft, and radioed his warning to land-stations near Darwin, that a large concentration of aircraft were headed their way. Another aircraft-spotter on Melville Island also spotted the aircraft, and he too, sent a radio-warning to Darwin.

However, much like at Pearl Harbor, the authorities believed the aircraft to be returning American fighter-planes, which had been out on practice-runs and recon-missions. So, no heed was taken of these radio-warnings. The sirens remained silent and no guns were manned in preparation. Darwin was a sitting duck.

The First Raid

The first raid against Darwin was at 10:00am that morning. Even though the town had been warned well in advance by its aircraft spotters, no action was taken in the time between about 9:15, when the first radio-warning was sent out, and 10:00am, a period of forty-five minutes. Then, the bombs began to fall.

With no warning at all, the remaining civilian population of Darwin was bombed relentlessly by the Japanese. After the first explosions, the town’s single operational air-raid siren went off, sounding out the alarm, but it was already too late.

The ships in the harbour were bombed and strafed, and among the casualties were the U.S.S. Peary, which was hit, and sunk. It was just one of eight ships destroyed. In the town, bombs rained down, destroying vital structures as the docks (where 21 longshoremen were killed when the quays received a direct hit), and Government House. The Darwin Post Office was obliterated in a direct hit. The postmaster and his family, sheltering in the nearby air-raid shelter, were killed instantly.


The town post office after the raid

The anti-aircraft defenses of Darwin were woefully unprepared for the raid. For nearly all the soldiers there, this was the first time they’d fired any sort of gun at all! Most of the ground units had no rifles. And if they had rifles, they had no ammunition. And if they had ammunition, they had no training, so most of the shots went wild. Nevertheless, of the 188 aircraft that struck Darwin in the first raid of the day, seven were shot down by Allied flak-guns. A paltry number. The 188 planes in the first wave decimated much of the town, and destroyed the two airbases nearby, as well as wreaking havoc on the harbour and ships therein.

The Second Raid

At 10:40am, the first raid ended. But another one came at a few minutes before midday. This raid, consisting of the remaining 54 of the full force of 242 Japanese airplanes, attacked  the airbases  and town yet again, in a smaller raid lasting just 20 minutes.

At the end of the second raid, the All Clear sounded and the damage was examined. 23 of the 30 airplanes had been destroyed, and in all, 10 ships had been sunk, and another 25 were damaged. 320 people had been killed, either from drowning, burns or bombing, and another 400 people had been injured.

The Aftermath

The air-raids on Darwin were devastating on many levels. Although the majority of the population had been evacuated before the raids, poor preparations and management meant that even with a reduced population, the town suffered high casualty-rates and significant damage. Electrical power was cut, water and gas-mains destroyed and telecommunications disrupted.

The town post-office was blown to oblivion, along with the town postmaster and his family.

What followed after the raids was a complete breakdown of civil and military leadership. Soldiers raided empty houses, and evacuation-marches were bungled up. This last with the result that soldiers and airmen were scattered all over the Northern Territory with no definite rallying point.

The damage and disaster was on such a huge scale that for days, weeks, months, years and even decades after the bombings, the full extent of the catastrophe was hidden from the public.

A Dog Named Gunner

Out of the raids on Darwin came one remarkable story about a dog. An Australian Kelpie puppy called ‘Gunner’. Gunner’s claim to fame was being the canine radar for Allied military forces in the Darwin area during the Second World War.

Gunner possessed remarkably sharp hearing, and was able to detect the sound of incoming aircraft from miles away. Furthermore, he was able to differentiate between friendly Australian and American airplanes, and enemy airplanes flown by the Japanese, based on the sounds of their engines.

Gunner was injured during the raid on Darwin and was taken to the nearby hospital for treatment. The doctor on duty insisted that he couldn’t treat the dog without knowing its name, rank and serial-number! Gunner’s owner, Percy Westcott, fired off that the dog’s name and rank was that of Gunner, and that he held serial No. 0000 in the Royal Australian Air Force!

Gunner’s remarkable ability for accurately alerting ground-crews to incoming enemy attacks was soon noticed. And his success-rate at accurately picking up on enemy aircraft was so high that Westcott’s commanding officer gave him permission to operate a portable air-raid siren whenever Gunner started whining and whimpering, to alert his comrades of an incoming Japanese raid.

Gunner’s extremely sharp hearing meant that he was literally better than radar and on more than one occasion, accurately picked up on the presence of an incoming raid up to twenty minutes in advance, far outside the capabilities of radar-equipment at the time!

During the later stages of the war, Gunner’s owner, Westcott, was posted to Melbourne, and had to leave Gunner behind in Darwin. What happened to the dog remains unknown.

The Affect of the Raids

Australia had previously considered itself untouchable by the hand of war. The war was happening in Europe, anyway! And in Asia, the might of the British Empire would protect Australia from harm.

After these first raids, Australia realised its own vulnerability, and made moves towards securing its own defence. One of the most significant moves was to recall thousands of Australian troops (then fighting in the Middle East and Africa) back to their homeland, a decision made by prime minister John Curtin.

Curtin’s decision was a popular one…but only with Australians. He encountered fierce resistance from both the American and British governments, especially from Winston Churchill, who wanted to send the Australian troops to Burma to fight against the Japanese. However, Curtin was so worried about Australia’s position in the war that he insisted on overruling Churchill and to have the troops steamed home as soon as possible, something which did happen, after many lengthy exchanges through letters and telegrams.

Future Raids on Darwin

Darwin, along with other cities and town in northern Australia, were bombed repeatedly throughout the war during 1942-43. By the time the war ended, the Australian mainland had been hit by no fewer than 62 separate air-raids in the space of two years.

More Information?

Looking for more information? I strongly suggest watching the documentary: “The Bombing of Darwin: An Awkward Truth”, about the air-raids, and the cover-up which followed.

Anzacday.org website-entry.

 

Infernal Luck – The Sinking of the S.S. Athenia

Prologue

On the last day of September, 1938, British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew into Heston Aerodrome, alighted from his aircraft and proclaimed to the crowd around him, that thanks to the Munich Agreement signed with Herr Hitler, he had secured “peace for our time!”

Less than a year later, the world would be plunged further and further into the greatest military conflict ever seen in the history of mankind.

The Sinking of the S.S. Athenia

This posting looks at one of the most infamous, and yet possibly, one of the most forgettable war crimes of the Second World War. Within hours of war being declared, a passenger-liner with over a thousand lives onboard was torpedoed and sunk. It sparked fury and outrage, condemnation and denial throughout the world, and spurred Europe on into the bloody contest of war for the second time in a generation.

The Background

On the 1st of September, 1939, the German Army invaded Polish territory, claiming that the Poles had attacked guard-posts along the German-Polish border. The world held its breath to see what would happen next. For forty-eight hours, the Wehrmacht and the Wojsko Polskie, the German and Polish armies respectively, duked it out on the borderlands.

It was by no means certain that the Polish would lose, or that the Germans might win. Poland had fought, and won, a war against Russia back in the 1920s, so Polish confidence in their armed forces was not without foundation.

For two and a half days, the world held its breath, keeping tuned into the wireless, their eyes on newspaper-headlines, their ears out for the postman’s whistle or the knock of the telegraph-boy, wondering whether or not France and Britain would honor their alliances with Poland to come to her aid if she was ever under attack.

The Athenia Sets Sail – September 1st, 1939

12:05pm. The S.S. Athenia steams towards her dock at Glasgow, Scotland, ready to start taking on passengers. Onboard already are the crew, and some early-boarding passengers.

The S.S. Athenia is a British steamship; a passenger-carrying vessel that plied the transatlantic trade for the Anchor-Donaldson Line, running regular services between two halves of the great British Empire! The United Kingdom at one end, and the Dominion of Canada at the other. It did regular service between Liverpool or Glasgow, in England and Scotland, to Quebec, or Montreal in Canada.

The Athenia is a modest ship – nowhere near the size, or grandeur of the great floating palaces of the world – She cannot compete with the world-famous ocean-liners such as the Aquitania, the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth, or the Normandie, pride of the French Line. She doesn’t have the old-world charm of the Olympic or the Berengaria, but she will get you to where you want to go in comfort and style. Her weight is a mere 13,580 tons, compared to a heavyweight such as the Titanic, tipping the scales at over 46,000!

The rumblings of war have been in the paper for weeks. Months, even. Fears of a second Great War had been in the air ever since the German annexation of Austria in 1938.

Some people see war as being inevitable. Others think that 1939 will close as a year of peace. Either way, she leaves Glasgow, Scotland, for Montreal in Canada on the 1st of September. She carries 1,418 passengers and crew.

The S.S. Athenia, Montreal Harbour, Canada; 1935

Passengers on the Athenia range from the moderately famous, to regular families, to single persons heading to the United States and Canada; returning from holidays, from business-journeys, or escaping from the potential powder-keg of Europe before it gets too late.

10:00pm – The Athenia takes on the last of her passengers at Glasgow. She weighs anchor and sets a course for the English port city of Liverpool.

As the ship pulls away from the dock at Belfast, dock-workers scream at the passengers on the deck that they’re cowards, for running away from a war, instead of staying to stand and fight with the rest of them. As yet, no formal declaration of war exists between Britain and Germany. The Athenia sails off into a peaceful Irish Sea.

September 2nd, 1939

3:30pm. The Athenia departs from Liverpool, England. She is bound for the open ocean. She will not stop until she reaches the Canadian port of Montreal.

7:30pm. Under advisement that a state of war is soon likely to exist between Britain and Germany, the ship’s master, Capt. James Cook, orders a blackout onboard, to protect against possible U-boat attacks. All the curtains are drawn. All the portholes are shut, the navigation-lights, mast-lights, port and starboard navigation-lamps and wheelhouse lights are all shut off. Passengers are not even allowed to smoke on deck, in case the glows of their cigarettes should give away the ship’s presence.

On the ship, the war seems far away and distant. But the crew is already taking precautions. Apart from the blackout, the ship now sails up the western Irish coast. It must stay close to land to deter submarines, which can only maneuver effectively in deeper waters.

September 3rd, 1939

3:40am. Having altered her course for safety reasons, the Athenia now sails away from Ireland and out into the open sea. She is heading across the Atlantic Ocean for Canada. As she sails off into deeper waters, there is the ever-present danger of German U-boats. U-boats have been patrolling these waters for several days now, in preparation for the official declaration of war.

Seeking to protect his ship, Capt. Cook adopts traditional wartime tactics against u-boats. The ship sails as fast as it can (15kt), and maintains a zig-zag course, steaming forwards always, but at the same time, changing her heading every couple of minutes. First a few degrees port, then starboard, then port, then starboard again. This is to prevent any submarines from getting an accurate fix on her, and therefore, hinder a u-boat’s ability to fire an accurate shot at her hull.

The Athenia is only doing what any other ship in the British merchant navy would do. But she is hampered in this by her speed and size. Big ships such as the Queen Mary can move much faster, and are less of a target to u-boats as a result, despite their much larger sizes. The Athenia may be smaller, but her slower speed makes her more vulnerable to attack.

While protected by treaties and conventions, the crew of the Athenia don’t expect the Germans to play nice. Although legally, the Germans cannot attack the Athenia due to her status as a noncombatant vessel, Capt. Cook and his men take no chances.

Unknown to Cook and his crew, the one man who is actually on their side is Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler sees the British, as a great and powerful nation of intelligent, white, Aryan people, as brothers and friends of the German people. He is eager to find a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the problem of war.

So as not to antagonise the British, he orders the u-boats of the German Navy to adhere tightly to the 1936 Prize Regulations. The Regulations are a series of rules (to which Germany was a signatory) which lay out the kinds of ships which may, and may not be sunk during maritime warfare.

Unarmed merchant ships, such as the Athenia, could not be sunk without just cause. If a German u-boat found such a ship, it was obliged to make its presence known. The ship in question was expected to heave-to (stop dead in the water). German sailors were then allowed to search the ship for illegal contraband (such as munitions or firearms).

If no such contraband was found, the ship was to be allowed to continue on its way. If contraband was found, the ship could be sunk. But only AFTER the crew and passengers had been offloaded into lifeboats.

A ship clearly marked as an armed merchant-ship, or a ship of the Royal Navy, could be fired upon without a u-boat making its presence known first.

11:00am. The Athenia is steaming towards Canada. The seas are heavy and rough. This hampers the Athenia’s speed and her ability to maintain an effective anti-submarine, zig-zag course.

11:15am. In the Athenia’s wireless-room, 2nd Radio Officer, Donald McRae, picks up a signal. It’s a radio-broadcast from the tiny island of Valentia, off the west coast of Ireland.

It is nothing less than Neville Chamberlain’s famous speech that informs the entire world that “consequently, this country is at war with Germany”.

The message is hardly unexpected. But it’s a bit of a shock, anyway. McRae makes sure that the entire ship knows the news before very many more minutes have elapsed.

The official declaration of war by Britain means that as of this time onwards, the Athenia is sailing through wartime waters. German submarines will be on the lookout for ships that are of importance to the British war-effort, and if they find them, they will sink them.

The Athenia is safe, however. As an unarmed passenger-ship without the facilities for being converted to an armed merchant-cruiser, troopship or munitions-transport, she is protected by international treaties. A ship such as the Athenia, which does not, and which is unable to contribute to the British war-effort, is an illegal target in marine warfare. This should prevent her from being sunk by German submarines or battleships.

12:00 NOON. Capt. Cook orders a notice to be drawn up. It is to inform the passengers of what has happened back in Europe. Under no circumstances are the officers onboard to cause undue panic or alarm. They are instructed to reassure passengers and tell them that the current activities onboard the ship are precautionary, and for their own safety.

1:00pm. The ship’s lifeboats are uncovered and prepared for an emergency. Two boats are swung out on their davits. Should there be an real emergency, these two may be lowered and loaded with passengers at once. It will give the ship a head-start in rescuing survivors, and provide the crew with valuable minutes with which to evacuate the passengers.

2:00pm. Fritz-Julius Lemp is 26 years old. He is commander of the German U-boat, U-30. Already at sea, he receives orders to proceed to his assigned patrol-area in the Atlantic Ocean. Germany is at war with Great Britain.

7:00pm. The Athenia is steaming full-ahead towards Canada. With U-boats about and war declared, she doesn’t want to linger in hostile waters for any longer than she has to. She is moving at top speed steering a wartime course, with her lights doused. But unknown to her crew, Capt. Lemp of U-30 has already spotted her.

Lemp orders the submarine to dive. He tails the ship, spying at her through his periscope. He finds the ship’s behavior odd. It is moving at top speed, it is steering a zig-zag course and has all its lights off to prevent detection. Lemp is well aware that Hitler does not want civilian shipping destroyed. But this ship is acting like an armed merchant-ship, or even a battleship of the Royal Navy!

Onboard the Athenia, Capt. Cook is taking NO chances. He well remembers the unrestricted submarine warfare of the 1910s and how great ships such as the Lusitania were torpedoed and sunk for no other reason than that they could be. Although he shouldn’t have to do so in this war, Capt. Cook adopts all the traditional tactics for eluding submarines. He lived through an era of unrestricted submarine warfare and knows what might happen to his ship.

7:30pm. Capt. Cook, confident in the security and safety of his ship, joins the first class passengers for dinner. The Athenia continues to steam westwards, zigzagging all the way.

7:38pm. Capt. Lemp on U-30 is finally satisfied that the ship he has been tailing is a British armed cruiser or a military vessel of some description, and therefore a legitimate target of war under the terms of international treaties and regulations. He orders the submarine to fire two torpedoes.

7:39pm. The Athenia is rocked as something slams into the side of the ship! The whole ship is rocked by the impact and the electrical power goes out, plunging the entire vessel into darkness! Crew on deck spot the disappearing periscope of a submarine, confirming that it is indeed a torpedo-strike.

7:40pm. The first torpedo has hit the Athenia square-on and blown a hole in her side. The other torpedoes have missed, or have not fired at all due to malfunctions in the torpedo-tubes.

7:45pm. 1st R/O Don is ordered to send out an immediate distress-message, in case another torpedo knocks out the Athenia’s power-supply altogether. He sends out a coded distress-message, but also sends out a message in plain English. Automatically, an electronic cry for help is sparked off across the airwaves…

“ATHENIA TORPEDOED – 5/42 NORTH, 14/5 WEST”

At once, the ship receives welcome news. Norwegian cargo-ship, the Knute Nelson, just 40 miles away, has received her loud and clear. The Nelson’s radio-operator appears to be in shock. He telegraphs back to the Athenia:

“THE OLD MAN* DOESN’T BELIEVE YOU’VE BEEN TORPEDOED, BUT HE’S COMING TO YOUR ASSISTANCE ANYWAY”

(*’Old Man’ is the ship’s captain).

One of the ships that receives the SOS call is the German ship the S.S. Bremen. Unsurprisingly, it ignores the radio-message and continues to its destination, the Russian port of Murmansk.

8:15pm. The Athenia has been sinking for a little over half an hour, settling heavily by the stern. The submarine, U-30, has surfaced to watch the effects of the torpedo. Radio-officer Georg Hoegel intercepts the Athenia’s plain English radio-transmission. He is shocked by what he hears. He writes it down and hands it to Capt. Lemp. Lemp too, is horrified and guilt-ridden by what he reads. Instead of torpedoing a prize of war, he has attacked and sunk an unarmed civilian passenger-ship, carrying women and children! He swears his crew to silence and secrecy. They will not speak of this to anyone, ever. Lemp feels so horrible about what he has done that he refuses even to enter it into the logbook.

The distress-messages sent out by the Athenia echo around the Atlantic Ocean. Allied shipping receive the calls, and telegraph the unspeakable information to the Admiralty in London.

9:15pm. The Athenia is in no immediate danger. She is sinking, but the damage is limited and there is time to spare. For the 1,400-odd people onboard, the Athenia is amply equipped with 26 lifeboats. All those not killed in the torpedo-attack are offloaded onto the boats and lowered into the water. By now, there are only two lifeboats left. Radio Officer Don continues to send out distress-messages over the radio. So far, four ships have responded and are steaming towards the disaster-site.

9:30pm. The S.S. City of Flint is an American steamship making her way across the Atlantic Ocean. It picks up the Athenia’s distress-messages and alters course towards her. The captain, navy-veteran Joseph Gainard, informs his passengers (mostly students and academics) that the unthinkable has happened – a British civilian passenger-ship has been fired upon by a German submarine, is sinking, and is in need of immediate assistance. Passengers aid the crew in preparing the ship to take on survivors as it steams towards the disaster-site.

10:00pm. With rescue just a few hours away and all surviving passengers and crew put off in the boats, Capt. Cook, and the remaining crew and officers abandon ship. Radio Officer Don sends off one last communication to the rescue ships, that their vessel is being abandoned and to come as fast as they can. Officer Don joins the captain and remaining crew in the last lifeboat, reserved for their use, and lower it into the water.

Onboard lifeboat No. 6, Sir Richard Lake, a former Canadian politician, and his wife, watch the ship sinking. As on the Titanic, passengers row the lifeboats around and into clusters and clumps, to remain secure, and to keep warm in the open air. Despite his age (Sir Richard is eighty years old!), he insists on taking an oar and helping with the movement of the boat.

10:30pm. Now that the fuss has died down, an urgent telegram is sent to the Admiralty in London. It reads:

“IMPORTANT – IMPORTANT – ADMIRAL ROSYTH INTERCEPT 2059 JAMMING NEAR SSS SSS* ATHENIA GFDM*, TORPEDOED, POSITION 54.44/14.05”

The signal “SSS” is similar to the signal “SOS”, but is specifically used by ships who were the victims of submarine-attacks. The letters “GFDM” is the Athenia’s radio callsign.

11:00pm. Onboard the last lifeboat to leave the Athenia, Capt. James Cook removes his uniform and dons civilian clothes instead, to make it appear that the captain has gone down with the ship. He knows that in the last war, German submariners would shoot the commanding officer of an enemy ship.

12:00 MIDNIGHT. Another telegram reaches the Admiralty in London, confirming that the steamship Athenia has indeed been hit by a German torpedo. The Admiralty sends out urgent radio-messages to all Royal Navy ships within broadcasting range.

September 4th, 1939.

12:05am. Royal Navy ship, H.M.S. Vanquisher receives an urgent communication:

“IMMEDIATE PROCEED TO SS ATHENIA SINKING IN POSITION 56.42 NORTH, 14.05 WEST”. 

12:56am. Royal Navy ship, H.M.S. Vivacious receives an urgent communication:

“IMMEDIATE HMS VANQUISHER PROCEEDING TO BRITISH SHIP ATHENIA SINKING IN POSITION 56.42 NORTH, 14.05 WEST. DETAIL ONE OF YOUR DIVISIONS TO ACCOMPANY HER. ACKNOWLEDGE”.

2:30pm. The impact of the torpedo-attack on the Athenia goes much further than other ships, the Royal Navy or even the Admiralty or the German Navy. In London, at the American Embassy, American Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Patrick Kennedy…as in the father of future American president John F. Kennedy…is awoken to the news of the sinking of the Athenia. Americans are onboard the ship, and he makes it his duty to find out how many, and who they are. He sends a telegram to the State Department in Washington D.C.:

“REPORT: STEAMSHIP ATHENIA OF DONALDSON LINE TORPEDOED 200 MILES OFF MALIN HEAD WITH 1400 PASSENGERS ONBOARD. SOS RECEIVED. SHIP SINKING FAST”. 

At the same time out at sea, the first rescue-ships arrive. Passengers and crew from the Athenia are offloaded from the lifeboats onto the vessels which come to the sinking ship’s aid. The ships sail off to the town of Galway, in Ireland, the nearest land to the sinking vessel.

4:30am. The Athenia continues to sink. Despite the damage, the ingress of water is slow. She will not go under for another six hours. She will finally founder at 10:30am. More ships arrive to rescue more passengers and take them to Ireland. British naval ships have come to pick up more survivors.

The S.S. Athenia sinking; Sept. 4th, 1939

The City of Flint, one of the first ships to pick up the Athenia’s distress call, sails for Halifax, Nova Scotia, with over 400 survivors onboard.

The Impact of the Sinking

The sinking of the Athenia sent shockwaves around the world. Newspapers in Great Britain, the colonies, Australia, Canada and the United States flashed the despicable and cowardly act of the Germans, to attack an unarmed passenger-ship without warning, over their front pages in big letters, complete with photographs. Here is the New York Times for the morning of September 4th, 1939:

In Kansas, the Topeka Daily Capital flashed the following headlines:

If you haven’t spotted it yet, it’s under the heading: “BRITISH STEAMSHIP SINKS IN 18 HOURS”. 

Almost at once, the finger-pointing began. The British knew the Germans did it. The Germans knew that the Germans did it. But the Germans insisted that the British did it, as a way to discredit the honourable German Navy, which would NEVER attack an unarmed civilian ship! The truth was that the German Navy knew what had happened. By listening to English radio and reading English newspapers, and by plotting out the locations of all their u-boats, the Germans knew that it was U-30 that had done the deed.

The truth about what really happened to the Athenia did not come out until 1946, during the famous Nuremberg Trials.

The sinking of the Athenia destroyed any hopes that the Germans, or the British had, of finding a quick, peaceful and diplomatic end to what they hoped would be a false war. Instead, it horrified the British people and resolved them to despise the Germans. It shocked the Germans and dragged them into a war which they were still trying to get out of…get out of with Britain, at least. The sinking of one ship had so polarised the European community that by 1940, the whole continent was at war.

More Information?

“OUTBREAK 1939 – The World Goes to War”, by Terry Charman (Virgin Books, London, 2009).

Sinking of S.S. Athenia

The Sinking of the Athenia

 

Operation Mincemeat – The Amazing Tale of ‘Billy Martin’

The Andalusian Coastline, Spain.

April 30th, 1943. 9:30am.

A local fisherman  walking along the surf, spots something in the waves. It’s waterlogged, soaked through, and is being steadily washed up onto the beach by the breaking waves. Once the fisherman gets close enough to the water, he recognises this bit of ‘driftwood’, as a human body.

The body is dressed in British military attire. There is a life-vest around the body, and handcuffed to its wrist, an official-looking briefcase, locked, and no-doubt, crammed full of all kinds of military intelligence!

Officially, Spain is neutral during the Second World War. But that doesn’t stop them from passing on intelligence to the Nazis when the situation suited them. And right now, it seemed to suit them very well.

The dead body of the English seaman was brought ashore and the contents of the pockets scrutinized. According to his identification papers, the corpse was that of the late Maj. William Martin, of the Royal Marines. He had apparently drowned, or frozen to death in the cold Atlantic waters and his body had been washed ashore. With a wealth of British military intelligence literally chained to his wrist.

The Germans had struck on a bonanza of information! Now, they knew that the Allies planned to invade Italy! They knew how many people there would be, how many tanks, air-planes, troops, and even where the landing-beaches would be! It was a gold-mine, a jackpot! A triumph!

…and it was all FAKE.

This is the true story of “Operation Mincemeat”, an audacious and ludicrous plan dreamt up British espionage and propaganda men in London during the middle of the Second World War. A plan to deceive the Germans so utterly that they would never know their true intentions! It was a plan that seemed insane and impossible! A plan that went off without a hitch…

What was Mincemeat?

In 1943, the tide of the Second World War is beginning to turn in the Allies’ favour. It’s turning alright, but it’s taking its sweet time about it.

To hurry things along, the Allies plan an invasion of Italy, to destroy Mussolini and the Italian fascists, and render the Italians a negligible force, and a useless ally to the Germans. Or better yet, to get the Italians to join the Allies in their struggle against German and Japanese tyranny!

But to invade Italy, the Allies need to keep the German code-breakers and spies busy and distracted, by feeding them nice, fat, juicy chunks of misinformation. Lies and deceits that would keep them guessing and uncertain, right up until the very day of the invasion!

With the North African theater of the war going so well throughout 1942, the Allies were planning their next step in the war: The invasion of Europe. To go through France was foolhardy, impossible, and stupid. For the time-being, at least, that would have to wait. But Italy, on the other hand, might be an easier, and more viable option.

Critical to the invasion of Italy was the invasion of Sicily, the island famous for its long connections to the Italian Mafia. Whoever controlled the island of Sicily would have a naval base in the region, and would therefore be able to control the rest of (or a vast majority of) the Mediterranean Sea.

The problem with invading Sicily was that the Germans knew that the English knew that invading Sicily was the wise thing to do. So to throw the Germans off the scent, the English began one of the biggest and most outlandish deception-plots in the history of the Second World War: Operation Mincemeat.

How did ‘Mincemeat’ work?

The best way to get the Germans to think that the Allies were going to invade Italy via every other possible part of the Italian coastline, apart from the island of Sicily, was to do it in writing. But obviously, para-dropping a letter over the Reichstag in Berlin wasn’t going to work. This deception had to be more dramatic than that. The British had to make the Germans think that they’d stumbled across a huge gold-mine of information, purely by chance. Something that would look like such a huge blunder to the British, and such a huge intelligence win to the Germans, that it couldn’t possibly just be a set-up, could it?

The idea for ‘Mincemeat’ was dreamed up by two men: Lt. Commander Ewen Montagu, and Flight Lt. Charles Cholmondeley. For those trying to untangle their tongues after that, it’s spelt: “Cholmondeley”…but is actually pronounced: “Chumley”.

Originally, Cholmondeley had suggested dropping a dead body over France with a radio-set and a busted parachute. The Germans would pick up the radio-set, and the British could transmit lies to them, live over the airwaves. This idea was shelved for being too unworkable. How would the radio-set survive a drop from an airplane which was supposed to kill a man, with a parachute that didn’t work properly? It sounded interesting, but was far too impractical. But Cholmondeley wasn’t going to give up. He was sure the idea could work…it just needed a bit of tweaking.

He’d gotten the idea for the dead-body ruse from a man who would eventually become one of the greatest writers in the history of British literature…Ian Fleming. Yes, that Ian Fleming. James Bond Ian Fleming. Fleming supposedly, got the idea from another author…strange how no idea can ever be truly considered original, is it?

Regardless of who dreamt up the idea in the first place, Cholmondeley kept it in his brain until he could figure out how he could use it effectively in the war-effort.

The problem was that planting documents on dead bodies had been used for years. It happened in the Great War, it happened twice in 1942 alone! The British were perhaps fearful that if they used this trick too often, the Germans might get wise to their schemes. So it had to be deployed with delicacy.

And the upcoming invasion of Sicily was just such an event where this scheme might work.

Preparing the Bait

For Operation Mincemeat to work, Cholmondeley and Montagu required the following ingredients:

– One dead body. Male. Average size and appearance.
– British field battle dress.
– A background and biography of the dead body.
– Delicious, juicy papers and intelligence documents that would make the Germans drool with delight.

The first step was the hardest: Finding the body.

This being the middle of WWII, you’d think that finding a dead body would be easy. Dead soldiers, sailors, airmen, civilians, government types, and so-forth, must be all over London. But not just any body would do. For the plan to work, it had to look as if the body had died by drowning or exposure. As such, the actual cause of death of the body had to be hard to detect. It couldn’t be something obvious like a heart-attack, a gunshot, a stroke, or from some sort of infectious disease.

And on top of that, they had to find the body, never mind what it died of! The days of body-snatchers were long-gone, and everything had to be done through official channels, full of white paper and red tape. The body, when found and selected, couldn’t be one after which relations or friends were likely to come calling. There had to be no next-of-kin wondering what happened to Uncle Bertie or Cousin Jonathan, there had to be no living relations, no friends, no family, nothing whatever. The body had to be completely unattached.

As tricky as this was, they did eventually find a body.

To aid the duo in their scheme, they enlisted the help of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, a renowned pathologist. He explained how a body decomposes, and what kinds of traces various manners of death leave behind. This allowed Montagu and Cholmondeley to narrow their field of search.

The body that they finally selected was that of Glyndwr Michael. Mr. Michael, a Welshman, was a derelict, a drifter, a homeless illiterate and a man with a sad past. His father had committed suicide, and his mother was dead. He had, so far as the research uncovered, no living relations. And he’d committed suicide by swallowing rat-poison. His body had been found in the streets in London and taken to the mortuary. Because evidence of the poison was miniscule, post mortem, it was almost impossible to tell what the man had died of. So he could have died of almost anything!…

…such as drowning at sea.

Mr. Michael was perfect! The body was bought and paid for, and the plan was in action!

You Only Die Twice

The body was found. It was suitable in every respect. Size, weight, age, gender, manner of death and general overall appearance. Now, it had to be kitted out as a dead naval officer.

To do this, Mr. Michael was renamed Major William Martin, Royal Marines. And to enforce this falsehood to anyone who dared to ask, a library of phoney documents were run off the printing-press to certify this.

The body was outfitted with standard brown British Battle-Dress. An actual naval uniform was considered too hard to obtain in wartime…they were all handmade by Gieves and Hawkes of Savile Row! They wanted to give the fictitious ‘Maj. Martin’ a sendoff to support his king and country, but they didn’t want the funeral to be that expensive!

Besides, could you imagine asking a Savile Row tailor to measure up a corpse for a naval dress-uniform? He’d probably kick you out of his shop.

With the attire sorted, now came the documentation.

‘Maj. Martin’ was given I.D. papers that said he was born in Cardiff, Wales, in 1907. His surname was ‘Martin’ because it seemed to be a really common surname in the Royal Marines in the 1940s, a convenient coincidence. Nobody was likely to ask questions.

Along with stuff like a wallet with his I.D. cards in it, his pockets were stuffed with everything from train-tickets, theater-stubs, love-letters from his phoney fiancee, a receipt from an exclusive London jeweler for an engagement-ring that cost and arm, a leg and his right nut, a photograph of his fiancee (in reality, a photograph of an office-secretary, who posed for the shot), bank-papers, cards, business-letters, money…even a letter from the London tailor Gieves and Hawkes…Not to say that his naval dress-uniform was ready, but to say that they were waiting for payment for a shirt he’d supposedly asked them to make for him!

With the personal papers complete, it was now necessary to prepare the false military documents. Among other things, letters and maps were planted inside the official briefcase. These papers would ensure that the Germans thought the British would invade Greece before invading Italy. This was fake, of course. It was a ruse to get the Germans to position their troops where they would be completely useless, while the Allies invaded Sicily. All the documents were printed or typed on official War Office stationery, with all the right stamps, seals and signatures.

But it wasn’t just necessary to deceive the Germans…but the British as well! Just in case anyone who wasn’t in on the plot should come asking questions, more fake documents were prepared, to protect the mission. As Churchill said: The truth must always be protected by a bodyguard of lies. And they lied alright! Even the coroner who had secured the body for the operation typed up fake documents. He claimed that permission had been given by the corpse’s next of kin (in this case, parents) that the body might be used for military purposes.

Again, this was fake. Mr. Michael, the corpse, had no parents! They’d died years ago! But it was all part of the deception…

Preparing the Drop

The body was prepared, dresed, kitted, fitted and stuffed with papers. Now all that remained was to cast the bait into the sea, and wait for the Germans to bite.

The only problem with this was that the bait was a dead body. And bodies rot.

to combat this unsightly issue, the men in charge of ‘Mincemeat’ engaged the services of the original ‘Q’…Charles Fraser-Smith. A genius scientist, who was literally the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s ‘Q’ character in the James Bond series, Fraser-Smith devised a metal canister in which the corpse could be stored. To prevent decomposition, the canister was filled with dry ice, and then sealed shut. Dry ice is carbon-dioxide in solid form. Once the ice melted and vaporised, the entire inside of the canister would be filled with Co2, driving out the oxygen and preventing further decay of the corpse.

This canister, along with all the other necessary bits and pieces for the deception, were loaded onboard a submarine, H.M.S. Seraph. The Seraph and its crew sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Once the Seraph had reached the waters off the coast of Spain, it’s C.O., Capt. Norman Jewell, ordered the submarine to surface. The canister with the corpse inside was brought up on deck, and opened. The briefcase with the papers were shackled to its wrist and a life-jacket strapped around its torso. Now, the operation could begin.

The body was prepared for burial at sea. Capt. Jewell read out the 39th Psalm, although this wasn’t specified in his orders, and then the corpse was lowered into the sea.

To make the deception just that little bit more realistic, the crew of the Seraph even launched an inflatable life-raft, to drift off with the body. Then, they sailed off, letting the currents take the body away towards Spain. The specially-designed canister that carried the corpse was dumped into the sea and riddled with machine-gun fire to make it sink. The Seraph sent a radio message back to London to say that the mission had been a success.

After the Drop

Just dropping the corpse into the ocean and sailing off was not enough to ensure ‘Mincemeat’s success. Once the corpse was found by the Spanish and its contents were passed onto the Germans, the British carried on with their ruse. Maj. Martin’s name appeared in a list of the dead and missing, which was published in the New York Times a week later. You can read it here:

You can see Martin’s name at the bottom of the list of officers. He’s mentioned as “ROYAL MARINES. – T/Capt (A/Major) W. Martin“.

To further impress on the Germans and their Spanish collaborators the ‘importance’ of these phoney documents, the British started making inquiries about what had happened to the ficticious Maj. Martin and his precious cargo. After a while, the Spanish Government, still pretending to be ‘neutral’ during the War, sent the papers contained in the locked briefcase back to England. Although the Spanish had assured the British Government that the contents of the case had been untouched, the British could see that the Spanish and Germans had gone over the documents in minute detail, and they must’ve believed their contents, because they went to extraordinary pains to make it look like they hadn’t been tampered with, to prove how ‘uninterested’ they had been. But there were telltale signs, such as envelopes being re-sealed and papers being replaced into their packets in the incorrect order and so-forth.

The message sent to the War Office and to the United States Government, was “Mincemeat Swallowed Whole”, to indicate that the ruse had been a success.

And boy, was it ever!

The Effect and Importance of Mincemeat

Mincemeat was an intelligence success because through this deception, the Germans relocated their troops from Italy, to Greece, where the British wanted them to think the Allies would make their invasion of southern Europe. Greece was one of the last Allied strongholds in Europe to fall to the Germans, so it must’ve seen reasonable to the Germans that it would be the first place that the Allies would want to reclaim.

This relocation of troops to Greece meant that only a skeleton force was left in Sicily to defend the island. Even after the invasion of Sicily, German agents working in England, who worked with the British Government against the Nazis, in the famous Double Cross System (usually just marked as “XX”), would feed the German Government false information, saying that their ‘spying’ in Britain revealed that the invasion of Sicily was a blind, a distraction for the Germans, while the Allies prepared for their main invasion of the Greek islands.

This falsehood also paid off. The Germans, convinced that Greece was to be invaded, refused to move their troops. By the time they realised how they’d been tricked, and relocated their men to Italy, the Allies had attained a firm hold on the island of Sicily and was preparing for the big push to the Italian mainland.

Less than a year later, in September, 1943, with the Italian fascists under Benito Mussolini beginning to wane in power (and with Mussolini himself becoming increasingly unpopular in the eyes of the Italian population for failing to defend Italy and allying himself with Hitler), the Italian Royalists, under King Victor Emmanuel III, signed an armistice with the Allies, and switched sides, from Axis to Allied.

The Italian Royalists and most regular Italians, now free from the scourge of Mussolini, fought against the Germans and the remaining fascists elements in Italy. Despite allying himself with with the winning side, King Victor, a once popular and respected monarch, was suffering from increasingly waning popularity. When the Italian capital of Rome was bombed by Allied planes, his popularity took a real nosedive.

Operation Mincemeat secured several wins for the Allies and changed the course of the war in many ways…Although it did little to secure the Italian king’s popularity, and in 1946, the monarchy was abolished.

More Info?

“Operation Mincemeat” – BBC History

“Operation Mincemeat” – BBC Documentary

 

The Great Crossword Panic of 1944

This posting will chronicle one of those little, forgotten stories of the Second World War. It is one of the greatest examples that I can think of, where the old saying that ‘Truth is stranger than Fiction’, was never more true in the history of the world.

What Happened?

It is Mid-1944. The Second World War is reaching the beginning of the end. In just weeks, the Allies will make their great push towards France, blasting through Hitler’s famous line of defenses known as the “Atlantic Wall”. Spearheading the way is their mighty invasion force and their grand battle-plans, collectively known as “Operation Overlord”.

Joseph Stalin had been begging the Western allies to open up a Western front on the German war for years now, as the Red Army was being decimated by the rapidly advancing Germans. Although the Soviets had held off the Germans and forced them back from the city of Stalingrad in 1943, the Russians could not hope to take on the full force of the German war-machine on their own. To aid them, the Western powers had to divide and conquer the Germans, by splitting their forces. To do this, they had to force them to fight on two fronts at once: The Eastern Front, against the Russians, and the Western Front, against the British, American, French, Commonwealth and various free forces and resistance-groups in Europe.

Hence the necessity for Operation Overlord and all that it entailed.

The invasion was of course, a closely guarded secret. People who didn’t need to know about it were kept strictly in the dark. People who were working on it were never told what it was. And the people who knew what was going on were never allowed to tell anybody anything about it. As they say: “Loose lips sink ships”.

So…onto the Panic of 1944.

Across and Down

So closely guarded were all the aspects of the Invasion of Normandy, that it was inconceivable that anyone apart from the king, the prime minister and top military officials would know anything more about it than what the king, the prime minister and top military officials were want to tell them.

So, imagine their horror when the following chain of events took place…

May, 1944. Counter-espionage agents working for the British Security Service (more commonly known as ‘MI-5′, not, please, to be confused with the British Secret Intelligence Service…’MI-6’) could get incredibly bored on the job. Sometimes there just wasn’t anything to do around the office! So…what do you do when there’s nothing else to do? You read the newspaper.

By chance, some of the MI-5 chaps decided to have a shot at a few crosswords. After all, it was important to keep their minds sharp, and what better way than to test themselves with a few puzzles from the local papers? The papers which they had close to hand were those of the Daily Telegraph, a prominent London newspaper. Picking out the crosswords page, they started to solve the clues…

To their great alarm, the agents found that the answers to many of the clues were the codenames given to vital D-Day operations! Names such as…

‘Utah’ (Landing beach).

‘Juno’ (Landing beach).

‘Gold’ (Landing beach).

‘Sword’ (Landing beach).

‘Utah’ (Landing beach)

‘Omaha’ (Landing beach)…appeared in Daily Telegraph, 22nd May, 1944.

‘Overlord’ (Codename for the Invasion)…appeared in Daily Telegraph, 27th May, 1944.

‘Mulberry’ (Floating harbour)…appeared in Daily Telegraph, 30th May, 1944.

‘Neptune’ (Naval support for the invasion)…appeared in Daily Telegraph, 1st June, 1944.

Unsurprisingly, these results set off alarm-bells throughout MI-5! It now seemed that a German spy was using the newspaper crosswords to send vital information back to his masters in Berlin! Or possibly to other enemy agents working in Britain! If the enemy put two-and-two together, they could piece together the entire invasion-plan!

The Crossword Culprit

Acting swiftly, but most importantly, discreetly, MI-5 agents launched an investigation. The Daily Telegraph accepted crosswords sent into it by its readers. The agents tracked down the contributor who had sent in all the crosswords with the offending answers, and traced him to the quiet (just under 10,000 inhabitants as of 2012) town of Leatherhead, in Surrey.

The man they were seeking turned out to be Leonard Dawe. Dawe was a schoolmaster. In his spare time, he kept his mind active by writing up crossword puzzles and sending them to the Daily Telegraph as a way to earn a bit of extra money. He was interrogated relentlessly by the agents who captured him, and when they asked him why he chose those particular answers for his crosswords, he indignantly asked why he shouldn’t! There wasn’t a law against words…was there?

Well alright then…The agents then asked him who had supplied him with those words! Dawe had no idea what was going on, but told the truth anyway…his students from the local schoolhouse had suggested them!

As to where they heard them from, if they did at all…that’s anybody’s guess!

Dawe was found not guilty of any charges that the agents could try to pin on him and lived out the rest of the war. He died in January, 1963 at the age of seventy-three.

An amazing case of truth really being stranger than fiction…

 

All Aboard – The Kindertransports

You’re being chased out of town. There are riots in the streets. You’re not allowed to go to the cinema, the theatre, to public swimming-pools, restaurants or libraries. You can’t use public transport. Your movements are restricted by a nightly curfew. Every single day brings more challenges, more uncertainty, and even more danger.

But then you hear of this scheme, this program, this initiative. If you take part in it, in a few days’ time, you can escape all this unhappiness. You can be safe and happy and welcomed, in a land where nobody can hurt you. And you can leave right now.

But only you.

Your parents can’t come. Your grandparents have to stay behind. Your uncle and aunt won’t be there to see you leave.

You’re five…six…seven years old. You’re going to a country that you’ve probably never been to before. In all likelihood, you don’t even speak the language. Once in this new country, you cannot leave. You stay there for nearly ten years before you can return to a home that might not exist anymore, to find a family that has been wiped off the face of the earth.

This is the story of the Kindertransports.

What were the Kindertransports?

The Kindertransports was a refugee program established by the British Government in November, 1938. It was designed to evacuate persecuted Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechslovakia in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War Two, and to give them shelter and refuge in the relative safety of the British Isles. The program lasted from shortly after Kristallnacht in Germany, to shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War in early September, 1939. About 10,000 Jewish German, Austrian and Czech boys and girls were evacuated from their homelands to England, to protect them from rising Nazi antisemitism on the European continent. It is one of the forgotten stories of the Second World War.

What was Kristallnacht?

“Kristallnacht”, a German phrase commonly translated into English as ‘The Night of Broken Glass’, was a nationwide pogrom (essentially a race-riot) of Germany’s Jewish population in November of 1938. In the space of a few hours, thousands of Jewish shops were smashed, burned and ransacked. Windows were broken, shops looted and over two hundred synagogues were burnt down. Many Jews were either shot or arrested and thrown in jail. More were tortured or sent to concentration-camps. It was the most extreme anti-Jewish measure taken by the German Nazi-Party before the outbreak of the Second World War.

The Effect of Kristallnacht

Jews had been fleeing from Germany ever since 1933. In 1935, various ‘Nuremberg Laws’ (a collection of anti-Jewish laws) made life increasingly more intolerable for Germany’s Jewish population. It was during this time that many forward-thinking Jews tried to escape from Germany. A few lucky thousand managed to get ships to England or the United States. Some went to the Dominican Republic. About 30,000 Jews fled to the International Settlement of Shanghai between 1933-1941.

But life for Jews who were stuck in Germany, and who weren’t able to escape, became more and more desperate and difficult with each passing day. Kristallnacht terrified the Jews and appalled the British Government. More than ever, letters pleading for the British Government to issue visas to Jews desperate to escape Germany, came flooding in.

The problem was that the British Government was unwilling to act. The year is 1938. The Depression is only just beginning to ease. The British Government did not want to allow Jews into the British Isles, who might steal jobs that were badly needed for British workers. Above all, the British Government did not see the situation in Germany as being one of refuge, but rather as one of immigration. To the eyes of the British Government, the German Jews wanted to come to Britain to work, not to escape the persecution of the Nazis. On top of this, fears of war with Germany have been growing for months now. British families are evacuating their own children to the countryside, or to towns and villages out of the expected operational radius of German fighter and bomber-planes. How could the government also take in thousands of German Jewish refugees? There wouldn’t be anywhere to house them! Orphanages, schools and foster-families were having enough issues coping with British children, let alone all these continental refugees!

But public pressure forced the government’s hand. In the end, a compromise was reached – Jewish children, unaccompanied by their parents, would be allowed passage from Germany to England. The British Government could be seen to be doing its part in trying to help Jews evacuate from Germany, but at the same time, British jobs wouldn’t be threatened since the refugees wouldn’t be old enough to work. It wouldn’t be easy, what with British children also being evacuated from all the big cities in southern England, but the government was determined to make some sort of effort.

How did the Kindertransports Work?

You are a Jewish child living in Germany in 1939. You want to be a part of these ‘Kindertransports’ that you’ve heard about. How do you join in?

Jewish children were rounded up. They were assembled in places like schools or orphanages, and then taken to the nearest train-station. Entire classes or orphanages of Jewish children, would be packed up and sent by train from Berlin, Vienna or Prague, to cities in Holland and Belgium (if you didn’t live in Berlin, Vienna or Prague, then you would have to travel there to get on the trains). Once in Holland or Belgium, you would be loaded onto a ship bound for England. Once the ship docked on the coast of England, you would be sent by train to cities or towns in southern England where you would be placed with a foster family, or housed in an orphanage. Perhaps, if you were exceptionally lucky, you might get to stay with relatives already living in England.

But once you reached England, there you had to stay. The outbreak of war meant that you wouldn’t be able to go back to Germany, or German-occupied Europe until May, 1945.

The British government was pressured by Jewish aid agencies, humanitarian groups and refugee advocates for weeks. It eventually set into motion a scheme for evacuating children from Europe.

How Long did the Transports Last?

The kindertransports lasted for approximately a year. The first transport docked in England on the 2nd of December, 1938. The ship left Europe and sailed for the coastal town of Harwich, carrying 196 German Jewish children, who had been evacuated from their orphanage in Berlin (which had been destroyed by the Nazis).


Some of the children in the first Kindertransport, photographed here in Holland, awaiting their ship to England. December 1st, 1938

Every child that was evacuated from Europe was given a bond of fifty pounds sterling, and was issued with a temporary travel permit or visa, that allowed him or her to leave Europe and travel to England. But this was only available to children who were below the age of 17. The expectation of the British government was that once the crisis and anti-Jewish fervor had died down, all the children would be sent back to Germany to be reunited with their families. If they’d know what would happen in just a few months, they might’ve tried even harder with their evacuation-plans…

In Europe, the kindertransports were handled by religious leaders and humanitarian workers who sent trainloads of children from schools and orphanages to the Belgian and Dutch coastlines where they could be sent to England. In groups of a thousand, or a few hundred each time, it’s estimated that about 10,000 children in total, were evacuated before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Life in England

You have escaped Germany. You reached Berlin, you got on a train, you arrived in Belgium and got safely across the English Channel to a British port.

Now what?

As I said earlier, most children were taken in by foster-families or private sponsers. If you were one of these children, then it meant a further train-ride from your port of arrival to the British capital, London, where you would be collected at the station, or at a designated collection-point, by your sponser or foster-family. Other children were taken in by local families living near the arrival port. Leftover children were kept in transit-camps until such a time when they could be sent to specially-prepared orphanages. About half the transported children were taken in by foster families or sponsers, while the rest ended up in boarding schools, orphanages, youth hostels or on farms as farmhands.


Monument to the Kindertransports, Liverpool Street Station, London, England

For most children, life was pretty good. They received gifts and they were mostly well-treated by their host-families, although of course, there were a few which weren’t. Most of the older children found work as farmhands, general labourers or as domestic servants. The oldest of the older children even signed up to join the British Army when they reached the age of 18, determined to fight the people who had driven them out of their homeland in the first place.

The Effect of War on the Kindertransports

The start of the Second World War effectively ended the Kindertransports. In England, a wave of anti-German feeling swept through the country. Thousands of Germans and Austrians were rounded up, arrested and thrown in prison. Among these were abut a thousand kindertransport refugees who looked old enough to be young adults. It was feared by the British Government that these “enemy aliens” might try and sabotage the British war-effort. To try and render them a negligable force, they were packed onto ships and sent to Canada and Australia.

The purpose of the internments was to seperate legitimate refugees of Nazism, from German and Austrian expatriates, who the British government saw as a threat. But in the chaos following the fall of France, everything got mixed up.

The most famous case was that of the HMT Dunera. HMT stands for “His Majesty’s Transport”; the Dunera was a military troopship. Crammed onto it were 2,542 prisoners, double the ship’s actual capacity. They included a smattering of German and Italian P.O.Ws, Nazi-sympathisers, and in one of the biggest blunders ever – about two thousand mostly German or Austrian Jewish refugees, including kindertransport children. The inclusion of the Jewish refugees on the prison-ship was a shameful disaster, one which Churchill himself called a deplorable and regrettable incident.

Where was the ship going?

It left Liverpool on the 10th of July, 1940. It sailed without incident, all the way to the other side of the world! It docked in Sydney, Australia, two months later. The desperately overcrowded ship (which was only supposed to hold 1,600 people) bcame notorious for the cramped, crowded and unsanitary conditions onboard. Australian customs and medical officials, who boarded the ship when it docked in Sydney, were appalled by the conditions in which two thousand Jewish refugees, and about 540 P.O.Ws, were forced to spend two months at sea in!


The Dunera docked in Port Melbourne, Australia, 1940

The prisoners onboard ship, including the Jewish refugees, were herded into prisoner-of-war camps in Australia. Eventually, letters sent to England by the refugees made the government realise that they’d made a horrific mistake! Changes were implemented and the Jews were automatically segregated from the German and Italian P.O.Ws and Nazi-sympathisers, and given their own camp. Here, they received medical treatment and whatever food and water the Australian government could spare. They were classified as “friendly aliens”, who posed no threat to the war-effort of the British Empire.

Of the Jewish refugees who somehow ended up in Australia on the Dunera, about a thousand of them stayed in Australia where they were offered permanent residency by the Australian government. Several hundred of the younger refugees enlisted in the Australian Army to fight the Japanese and the Germans. The remainder of the refugees booked passages back to England on the next available ship.

The Last Transports

The Kindertransports ended officially on the 1st of September, 1939, the day that Germany invaded Poland. On this day, the borders were closed and trains were no-longer allowed to pass freely between the countries of Europe.

The Winton Trains

The Winton trains were a small number of trains that ran from Czechslovakia to safe ports in Western Europe, transporting Czech Jewish children to safety in England. They are named after Sir Nicholas Winton, the young British businessman who initiated the scheme. Sir Nicholas and his trains managed to save nearly 700 Jewish children from death.

The number would’ve been 950 children, but the start of the war ended Sir Nicholas’s humanitarian efforts. When war broke out in early September of 1939, the ninth (and final) Winton train was stopped at the Czech border. Nearly all the 250 Jewish children onboard were eventually killed.

In 2009, a commemorative “Winton Train” ran from Czechslovakia to England to commemorate Sir Nicholas’s efforts. Onboard the train were Jewish survivors who escaped the Holocaust on the original Winton trains back in 1939, and their descendants. The commemoration was also a celebration of Sir Nicholas’s 100th birthday! As of the time of this post, Sir Nicholas is 102 years old.

The very last Kindertransport left Europe on the 14th of May, 1940. It was the steamship Bodegraven, which left the Dutch port city of Ijmuiden (“Ei-mouden”) during the fall of Holland. It carried eighty incredibly lucky children to safety in England.

Of the 10,000 Jewish children and teenagers who escaped the Nazis during the Holocaust thanks to the kindertransports, nearly none of them ever saw their parents ever again.

More Information?

The Kindertransport Association

“The Kindertransports: A Childhood in Hamburg”, by Paul M. Cohn, a Kindertransport survivor.

 

The Good Germans: Having a Nazi in the Family

The names Hitler, Goering and Heydrich will forever be drenched in blood. Forever mocked. Teased. Spat on. Have songs sung about them regarding various states of testicular development…or underdevelopment.

The actions and inactions carried or not carried out by three of the most reviled men in history have been condemned an infinity of times by survivors, soldiers, historians, ordinary people, politicians, students, teachers, professors, freedom-fighters…and even…their own families.

This is the story of the members of the Families Hitler, Himmler and Goering, who turned their back on the black sheep of their name, who would forever tarnish whatever good reputation they might once have had, or might possibly have had in the future. This is the story of how members from the families of the three most hated men in history worked against their relatives’ revolting actions to try and attone for the sins and misdeeds that would forever be linked to their names.

Just in case you don’t know who these men are (unlikely), here’s a brief rundown:

Adolf Hitler – Chancellor or ‘Fuehrer’ of Germany. Leader of the Nazi Party which ruled Germany from 1933-1945.

Hermann Goering – One of Hitler’s right-hand men. Head of the German ‘Luftwaffe’ (airforce).

Reinhard Heydrich – Senior S.S. general. He chaired the infamous “Wannsee Conference” where high-ranking German officials gathered to discuss the details of the “Final Solution”.

The Good Germans

This is a legitimate article about actual historical events and persons. All the people mentioned in this posting are real and they really did what they did. None of this is made up. Members from the families of Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goering and Reinhard Heydrich, really did conspire against them and worked against the Nazi war-machine during the Second World War. Their stories have been drowned by nearly seven decades of blood, but they are remarkable…and true.

So, let us begin.

William Patrick Hitler (1911-1987)

Related to: Adolf Hitler

Familial Connection: Nephew

William Patrick Hitler was born in Liverpool, England, in 1911. His father was Alois Hitler, half-brother to Adolf Hitler. His mother was an Irishwoman named Bridget Dowling.

The Hitler family is hardly conventional. It’s full of failed marriages, deaths, half-siblings and bastards (literally and figuratively).

William Patrick Hitler grew up in England. His father abandoned him at a young age and went back to Germany; William was raised by his mother, and he wouldn’t see his father again for nearly twenty years. When the First World War ended, William went to the new German ‘Weimar Republic’, the new Germany that had sprung up out of the dust and smoke of the end of the Great War. By now, it was 1929. In a few years, William’s uncle Adolf would seize power, in 1933.

William initially tried to take advantage of ‘Uncle Adolf’s new and powerful position as the new leader of Germany, but he became more and more dissatisfied with what he saw. He wanted Uncle Adolf to give him more to do, perhaps feeling that someone as influential as Adolf Hitler would have more influence. William even tried to blackmail his uncle. When this backfired on him, William fled to the United Kingdom in January of 1939. It was during this time that he wrote an article for a popular magazine, entitled “Why I Hate My Uncle”. Shortly afterwards, William and his mother moved to the United States of America.

When the Second World War started a few months later, William and his mother were trapped in the U.S.A. With German U-boats prowling the Atlantic Ocean looking to attack Allied shipping, it was too dangerous to sail back to England. Eventually (and understandably, after quite a bit of fuss), William managed to join the U.S. Navy, where he worked as a hospital corpsman.

After the War, William changed his name from the German ‘Hitler’ to the more English-sounding ‘Stuart-Houston’. He married and had four sons.

He died in the United States in 1987. He was 76 years old.

William P. Hitler had a sibling – A half-brother named Heinz Hitler (born to his father’s second wife, in Germany). Unlike William, Heinz joined the Nazis. He was captured by the Russians and tortured to death in 1942. He was 21 years old.

Albert Goering (1895-1966)

Related to: Hermann Goering (Nazi officer)

Familial Connection: Brother

Unlike his older brother Hermann, Albert Goering was a rather quiet, gentle sort of fellow. He hated the Nazis and the brutal tactics that they employed. He wanted to live the quiet life of a wealthy, German aristocratic gentleman, living somewhere in the countryside. Of course, having someone like Hermann Goering for a brother made these beautiful dreams rather harder to attain than usual.

Albert was so upset by what the Nazis were doing that he began to actively defy them…probably one of the few people who could do so, and get away with it. He helped Jews and political prisoners escape from Germany to countries of safety by getting them out of jail or by getting them essential travel-documents and money. He used to forge his brother’s signature regularly on important papers to help Jews escape.

So as not to be seen doing things that were suspicious, Albert would occasionally “help” the Nazis…in quite possibly the most unhelpful ways possible! He might sometimes be put in charge of Jewish transports. Only, trucks transporting Jews might never reach their work-assignments, prisons or labour-camps. Instead, they’d drive off a side-road, park in some quiet spot, and then Albert would turn a blind eye while all the prisoners hopped off the trucks and ran away into hiding, or tried to escape.

On occasions when Albert was arrested, he always managed to use his brother’s position as a top Nazi to get himself off the hook.

When the war ended, Albert was picked up by the Allies and interrogated extensively. But when all his supporters (mostly Jews) came to his defence, charges of Nazism were finally dropped.

Albert made a modest living as a writer after the war. He died in Germany in 1966. He was 71 years old.

Heinz Heydrich (1905-1944)

Related to: Reinhard Heydrich (S.S. General)

Familial Connection: Brother

Heinz Heydrich was the younger brother of Reinhard Heydrich, a respected general in the German S.S., the paramilitary organisation that was so heavily involved in the carrying out of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”; nothing less than the complete anihilation of the entire Jewish population of Europe.

Heinz Heydrich was a lieutenant in the S.S. Originally, he was very proud of his Nazi association and his older brother’s position within this unique organisation. He was a journalist by trade, and published the party newspaper. He continued his active association with the S.S. until June of 1942.

Early in June, Heinz’s older brother Reinhard died, asassinated by resistence-members in Czechosolvakia. His car was ambushed at a blind corner in a road and he was mortally wounded, dying a few days later in hospital.

It was this event that changed everything. Almost overnight, Heinz received a bundle of Reinhard’s personal papers and files…included in these were detailed plans about the “Final Solution”, in which Reinhard had been heavily involved.

Realising fully for the first time what he’d signed up for when he joined the S.S., Heinz was horrified. He burnt most of the papers in disgust.

Soon after this event, Heinz began to realise that he was in a truly unique position. Being the brother of a prominent S.S. general (albeit, a dead one), and being the editor of the party newspaper meant that he had a lot of influence. He used this to help as many Jews as possible escape from Germany. As a writer and editor of the party newspaper, Heinz had access to a commercial printing-press. He used this to print fake travel-documents which he signed and forged and stamped, and gave to Jewish families, so that they could escape from occupied Europe to countries of safety.

Heinz continued this work for two years, and might have lived out the war and be acquitted at the Nuremberg trials, if not for an event in November of 1944.

An investigation was launched into the goings-on at the S.S.’s newspaper offices. It was a pretty mundane thing – They just wanted to know why there was such a shortage of paper (in 1944 Germany, a lot of things were in short supply). Heinz, terrified that he’d be found out, committed suicide, shooting himself in the head.

He was 39 years old, and left a wife and five children behind.

Want to know more? Or perhaps you don’t believe me that all this is possible?

“Why I Hate My Uncle” – by William Patrick Hitler

“The Good Brother: Albert Goering”

 

 

Raining Hell: Surviving the Blitz

Back in December of 2009, I wrote a two-part article about the British home-front of the Second World War. Although I covered a lot of things, upon reviewing that posting, it’s become apparent to me that I didn’t really write that much about the Blitz, the concentrated aerial bombardment of British cities by the German Luftwaffe from 1940-1941.

This posting will concentrate on the purpose, aims and effects of the Blitz on London during the Second World War.

What was the Blitz?

The Blitz is probably the most famous event of the Second World War. Although it was by no means the first time that civilians were exposed to aerial attacks, it is certainly the most memorable.

The Blitz was the deliberate and concentrated bombing of British cities and towns (although the main target was London), by the German Luftwaffe in the period between the 7th of September, 1940 to the 10th of May, 1941.

The Blitz gets its name from the German word “Blitzkrieg“, ‘Lightning War’. This new, mobile form of warfare brought the war to the enemy, instead of waiting for the enemy to make the first move. The whole point was to strike first and strike fast. Just like lightning does, hence the name.

The Purpose of the Blitz

After the fall of France in mid-1940, the German war machine turned its attention to the British Isles. It was the German intention to invade Britain, but they realised that an invasion would be impossible if they didn’t manage to knock out at least one of the Britain’s two most formidable fighting forces.

Great Britain was defended by the Royal Air Force (the RAF), and the Royal Navy, then the most powerful blue-water navy in the world (and had been for the past 200 years).

The Germans knew that they couldn’t hope to fight and win against the Royal Navy, but they hoped that they would be able to attack and destroy the Royal Air Force. So began the Battle of Britain.

The Battle of Britain was supposed to knock out British air-superiority and allow the Germans to launch their invasion of Britain with unchallenged air-support. Unfortunately for the Germans, the British were made of tougher stuff than they’d supposed, and after several weeks of vicious aerial combat, the Germans were forced to surrender. It was the first battle in the war that the Germans had lost.

Unable to beat the RAF, the Luftwaffe decided instead to try and destroy British cities and towns to demoralise the British people. The Nazis thought that, by doing this, they could force the British to surrender to the might of the Aryans and cease their hopeless and useless attempts to struggle onwards in vain. So began the Blitz.

Preparing for the Blitz

The British Government planned for months for the coming of the Blitz. They never expected the Germans to play nice, so they had plans for every eventuality and scenario, including large-scale aerial bombardment of heavily populated cities.

Amongst these preparations were…

– Evacuation of children, babies, toddlers, expectant mothers, the ill and the elderly from towns along the south coast and major cities, to country towns further north, out of the effective range of German bomber-planes. This mass evacuation, which started on the 1st of September, 1939, was called Operation Pied Piper. It was the first of several evacuations from large British cities throughout the war.

– Issuing everyone, man, woman, child and even babies, with gas-masks. The British fully expected the Germans to bomb them with mustard gas, chlorine gas and other nasty and potentially deadly gases. No such gas-bombings ever took place, but nevertheless, civilians were urged to carry their gas-masks with them everywhere they went, and were reminded to keep them in a place at night where they would be instantly accessible.

– Enforcing a blackout throughout England. Street-lights were turned off. Car-lights were covered. Bicycle-lamps shielded. Thick, heavy blackout curtains were distributed to every single home and business and every night, these curtains had to be put up over a building’s windows so that not a single streak of light could be seen. The blackout was enforced with amazing strictness. You could be fined for showing even the smallest amount of light!…Even the glowing tip of a cigarette!

– Issuing the public with personal air-raid shelters. Anderson Shelters and Morrison Shelters (more about those later).

– Inflating enormous barrage-balloons. Barrage-balloons were huge, gas-filled floating balloons that were shaped like blimps. They floated above the cities and towns of England (and other allied countries) to protect people from low-flying enemy aircraft. If a low-flying German plane appeared, it would have to fly around, or over the barrage balloon, or risk crashing into it and having the balloon’s tethering-cables wrap around its propellers, causing it to stall and crash. Some balloons had explosive charges on them, so that any plane that crashed into them set off the charges and the balloon exploded, taking the plane down with it.


Barrage balloons floating over central London during the War. The building at the bottom of the photograph is Buckingham Palace

Surviving the Blitz

So…what happened during an air-raid?

Fortunately for the British, they were equipped with a new wonder-technology. It was called Radar. Or correctly, R.A.D.A.R, which stands for “RAdio Detection And Ranging”. Although it was in its relative infancy at the start of the war, RADAR allowed the British to monitor enemy airplanes. Where they were, how many there were, how high they were and where they were going. The Germans never figured out what RADAR was until after the war. They never equated the huge radio towers on the south coast of England with aircraft detection.

RADAR allowed the British to keep an eye on enemy planes. And most importantly, it allowed the British to warn large cities of incoming enemy air-raids. RADAR posts would be contacted by radio and telephone and then the warnings went out in the form of air-raid sirens.

There were two types of air-raid sirens in the war. The smaller, hand-cranked ones which could be operated by one man, or larger, electromechanical ones which were powered by electricity. There were a number of warnings that these sirens could give out, but the two most common ones were “Red Danger” or “Red Alert” (continuous high-low tone), and “All Clear”, (continuous high-pitched tone).

Even with radar. Even with sirens. Even moving as fast as you could, the chances of being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time during a raid could be pretty high. From the moment that the sirens went off, you had between 10-15 minutes to make it to an air-raid shelter before the bombs started to fall.

To give you an idea of just how terrifying a raid was, imagine the following scenario:

You finish work early and go home. During the war, businesses closed shop early so that people could get home in time for air-raid preparations. Perhaps you have to walk, tripping over rubble, broken glass, wood, masonary, blown up cars, around cordoned off streets…in the dark, because there’s no street-lights burning…and the Underground is out of action from power-shortages and bombing.

Imagine getting home to a small, rationed dinner, putting up the blackout curtains and going upstairs to bed in your cold bedroom. It’s cold because like everything else, coal is rationed, so you can’t keep your furnace burning all the time like you used to.

You fall asleep. Exhausted. You’re woken up at one o’clock in the morning by the steady, wailing, high-low tones of the nearest air-raid siren. You’re groggy, dizzy, tired. You can’t see straight in the half-light, and you’re only dressed in your night-clothes…and you have ten minutes to run out of your house with all the things you hold dear…and make it to a bomb-shelter before your house is blown to pieces and you become another statistic. If you live with your family, imagine having to round up the kids…your wife, your husband, your brothers, sisters, your parents, grandparents…and getting them all up and moving and out of the house in the middle of the night when they’re all asleep..in ten minutes. In fact make that five minutes. Because after ten minutes, you’re dead.

Imagine staying in your shelter during the raid. You can’t sleep because of the sirens, the fires, the explosions, the rattling of the flak-guns and the reports of anti-aircraft cannons going off, mixing with the sound of aircraft engines overhead.

You stay up all night, wondering if the next bomb has your name on it. When the raid is over, you leave the shelter and wonder if your house is still standing. Whether your friends are still alive, whether that one person who didn’t make it into the shelter on time is dead or not, or whether they managed to hide somewhere and survive. Imagine having to clear away rubble and pick through the remains of your destroyed house. Imagine not being allowed to go back home because there was an unexploded bomb in the middle of your street.


Newsreel footage of the Blitz

Imagine having to do this for seven months. That was how long the Blitz lasted.

Imagine having to do this every single night, after night, after night, after night, for two and a half months without pause. That was how long the Blitz concentrated on London alone.

That was the reality of the Blitz.

Air Raid Precautions

Now that you have a mental picture of the panic of an air-raid, you can imagine the sheer terror that gripped people when those sirens went off every single night.

So how did they cope with it?

Well, enter the A.R.P.

A.R.P. stands for “Air Raid Precautions”.

The ARP was responsible for the safety of civilians during air-raids in Britain during the Second World War. They evacuated people from their houses, they did head-counts, they directed people to shelters, they assisted with raid-related emergencies such as fires, rescues, unexploded bombs (or UXBs as they were called) and collapsed buildings.

The men on the ground doing the work for the ARP were the ARP wardens, with their metal Bodie-style helmets and dark blue uniforms.

Apart from the above-mentioned duties, ARP wardens also enforced the blackout. “Put that light out!” was a common thing to say if a light was visible from the street. Wardens also issued gas-masks, personal air-raid shelters, patrolling the streets at night, and handling bomb-damage. ARP wardens and fire-watchers would carry buckets of sand with them during an air-raid to put out incendiary bombs that had exploded and set things on fire. Incendiary bombs were firebombs filled with nasty liquids that would fizzle, burn and explode if you tried to put the bomb out with water, so sand was thrown on them instead to prevent the fire from spreading. ARP wardens also gave raid-victims first-aid and would help the police and firemen recover dead bodies from destroyed buildings and shelters. Apart from their helmets, ARP wardens were also given handbells and specially-manufactured Metropolitan police-whistles with “A.R.P” stamped onto them, to use as alarm and attention-attracting devices during a raid.


An ARP helmet, bell and metropolitan-style ‘ARP’ police whistle

Amazingly, the ARP existed long before the War ever started. It was formed back in 1924!

Why?

Well, during the First World War, London was bombed by German zepplins and bomber-planes. During these early raids, there was no prescribed way of handling the situation, since it was completely new in the history of warfare. Determined to be prepared if it happened again, the ARP was established to assist people during an air-raid if London was ever bombed again in the future.

The ARP wardens had among the most dangerous jobs in England during the War. Imagine having to run from your house in a raid to find a shelter in the pitch black when the sirens went off. Imagine having to roam around the streets directing human traffic, having to order people around, having to calm hysterical women, screaming children and panicking men while sirens scream and bombs explode around you, knowing that at any second, a bomb could go off, a building could collapse or catch fire, and you’d be dead. Imagine having to try and herd dozens, hundreds, of panicking people into an air-raid shelter in the height of the chaos, with only your hands and your police-whistle to direct people and get attention – Don’t bother shouting out orders – nobody would hear you over the sound of the explosions and sirens.

Such was the reality of being an air-raid warden.

Air-Raid Shelters

So what exactly were you supposed to do when the air-raid sirens went off?

Well, in the five or ten precious minutes of warning that RADAR and sirens were able to give you, you had to snatch all your worldly belongings, gather the people of your household, get your gas-mask (you HAD to take it. No exceptions. Even the Queen Mum carried hers with her everywhere she went) and run for the nearest shelter.

What kinds of shelters were available to people during the War?

In Britain, air-raid shelters varied significantly. They might be railroad bridges, church crypts, the cellars and basements of big buildings, or most famously – Underground Tube stations. Seventy nine of them were converted into air-raid shelters and underground workshops during the War.

But what if you couldn’t make it to a public air-raid shelter or gathering-point in time? What did you do then? Perhaps the nearest shelter was four blocks away.

Can you run four blocks in two minutes?

If you couldn’t, then you had to rely on the government-issued air-raid shelters. They came in two styles. The Anderson Shelter and the Morrison Shelter.

Anderson Shelter

Designed in 1938, a year before the war even started, this crude air-raid shelter was named for Sir John Anderson, the chap in charge of air-raid precuations.

The Anderson Shelter was a cheap, D.I.Y. shelter. It came delivered to your house (or you could go out and buy one) in fourteen prefabricated parts: Six roof-panels, six side panels, and two end-panels (one with a door, to create an entrance).

When properly assembled, the Anderson shelter was designed to hold six people. The shelters were six feet high, four and a half feet wide, and six and a half feet long. And it wasn’t just a matter of bolting them together in the garden as a children’s cubbyhouse. You had to dig a hole in the back yard! Six and a half feet long, four and a half feet wide (for the length and breadth of the shelter), and four feet deep! You assembled the shelter in the hole, with additional space for the door, and then you covered the entire thing with earth to provide shock-protection.

Despite how flimsy the whole construction sounded…these things did save lives.

But what if you didn’t have a garden, and you lived miles from the nearest public shelter?

Then you used the…

Morrison Shelter

The Morrison Shelter was named for Herbert Morrison, then Minister of Home Security. The Morrison shelter was a heavy, steel table with wire sides between the legs and base. It was designed to hold two to three people and protect them in the event of a raid. Because of their design, Morrison shelters often doubled as coffee-tables or dining-tables in people’s living-rooms during the War. In a pinch, you could open the side of the shelter, crawl in and slam it shut behind you.

The Purpose of the Shelters

Duuuh. To protect you against bombs!

Ehm…no.

Anderson Shelters and Morrison Shelters were not, and never were, designed to protect you against bombs.

Be serious. Is a metal table or a few sheets of corrugated steel, going to protect you against a bomb weighing thounds of pounds?

Of course not.

Well then what was the point of having them?

The point of these shelters was not to protect you from bombs. They were never designed to take a direct hit. Instead, they were designed to protect you from shrapnel.

When a bomb drops and explodes, it sends out heaps of shrapnel. The metal shell-casing, bricks, glass, wood, mortar, chunks of concrete and all other kinds of flying debris. Every single one of these things is a potentially lethal missile. If they hit the sides of the Anderson Shelter, you would be safe. This was why the shelters were dug into the ground and covered with soil. To protect against shrapnel.

Morrison shelters protected you from above. They were designed to withstand the force of the house collapsing on top of you if it was bombed. The table-shelter would give you a ‘safe-zone’ in which to hide, protected from the rubble, until ARP wardens and fire-watchers could extinguish the flames and get you out alive.

Public Shelters

If you didn’t have a garden or space for a Morrison Shelter in your apartment, then in an air-raid, you could use a public air-raid shelter. The most famous public air-raid shelters were the seventy nine Tube stations that were converted into bomb-shelters and underground workshops during the War. Some stations which were no-longer used might be converted into storage-areas or workshops. But other stations which still received regular traffic were used as air-raid shelters.

Ducking down in the Tube was hardly pleasant. How would you like to spend the night in a cold, draughty, piss-soaked subway station with dozens of other people, with blankets and cold food and no toilets and rats and water and the wailing of the sirens, the blasting of anti-aircraft cannons and the explosions of bombs up above you all night?

The British Government initially dissuaded people from using the Tube as an air-raid shelter. They were scared that, once everyone went underground, they’d never want to come out again.

When these fears were proved groundless, the government picked out the nearly eighty stations across London that could be used to house people in air-raids. They were fitted with extra toilets, lights, running water, bunk-beds and even special trains that came by with hot food! At night, Tube workers would cut the power so that Londoners could sleep on the railway tracks without getting electrocuted by the current that ran along the third rail which powered the subway trains.

Of course…you had to be able to wake up on time in the morning, otherwise you might get run over by the morning rush-hour!

People kept their spirits up down in the Tube with songs and games. Many people would actually arrive early! They’d show up in the station after work with their wives and husbands and kids, tea and sandwiches, blankets, coats and pillows, and pick out the best spots in the station to bunk down for the night.

Other public air-raid gathering points included basements, cellars, church-crypts and bridges. While none of these provided complete safety from aerial attack (almost nothing could protect you from a direct hit), they were made available for those people who had nowhere else to run.

Despite the provision of private shelters and the setting-up of public ones, a significant number of Londoners actually chose to sleep in their own homes during the air-raids. Since sleeping in the shelters didn’t guarantee safety, some Londoners decided that if they were going to die anyway, they’d prefer to die in their own homes.

The Baedeker Blitz

The main body of the Blitz on the United Kingdom was over by mid-1941. However, that didn’t mean that the danger had completely passed, and throughout the war, the Germans continued to conduct air-raids on British cities and towns. The next most famous set of raids were collectively called the Baedeker Blitz.

These air-raids were named after the famous Baedeker (pronounced ‘Bay-Decker’) guidebooks. The Baedeker Co. (ironically, a German company!), was famous for printing in-depth guidebooks of famous countries and cities for the travelling public, covering everything from England to France, Italy to China. They were the Lonely Planet of their day.

These raids, which took place between April-June of 1942, targeted the famous tourist and cultural centers of the British Isles, such places as would be mentioned in the famous Baedeker Guidebooks (hence the name).

Cities targeted included York, Bath, Norwich, Exeter and Canterbury. The famous Canterbury Cathedral was one of the targets during the Baedeker Blitz. Fortunately for the British, the bomber missed the Cathedral (although not by much). Unfortunately for the British, the bomb struck the cathedral’s archives building, destroying it in a direct hit.

V1s and V2s

By the last year or so of the war, the Germans were in deep trouble. The Allies were closing in from the East and West. From France, British, Canadian, French, Polish and American forces were charging towards Berlin. In the East, the Russians were steamrolling the Germans back, taking bloody revenge for their fallen comrades, whom the Germans had previously captured…and killed…in their hundreds of thousands.

But that didn’t stop the Germans from trying to strike at England. In 1944 and 1945, they developed and launched first the V1, and then the V2 rockets. These crude weapons were the predecessors to today’s guided missiles.

Launched starting shortly after D-Day, the V1s were nicknamed ‘Doodlebugs’ because of the buzzing noise they made when they flew overhead. Although probably a powerful psychological weapon, in reality they were not as effective as the Germans had hoped. Doodlebugs were slow and cumbersome. British anti-aircraft cannons could take them out with relative ease. And even when the Germans launched doodlebugs en-masse, only one in four ever made it past the anti-aircraft guns.


The V-1 ‘Doodlebug’

The V2s, much faster and more accurate, were so advanced for the day that they were beyond the capabilities of anti-aircraft gunners to shoot down. Deciding that it was impossible to destroy the rockets once they were in the air, and unable to destroy the launching areas (hidden and well-protected), the British instead relied on disinformation and espionage to defeat the Germans and their fearsome new Weapon of Mass Destruction.

For the duration of the war, the British had been training a large number of spies. Some spies were British. Other spies were Germans who spied for Germany, but who were captured by the British and turned into double-agents, spying for both countries, but only supplying useful information to the British. Some German spies actually hated the Nazis. They would sign up for spy-duties, get sent to England, and the moment they could, they would hand themselves into British authorities, divulge their mission-details and any handy bits of information, and then switch sides and spy for the British.

This complex network of spies and misinformation was called the Double Cross System. And the British used their extensive network of agents and spies to screw up the Germans and their V1s and V2s.

Because of the crudeness of these early missiles, the Germans had to rely on their agents in England to tell them how successful the weapons were. Egged on the British, the German double-agents would send back misleading reports.

If a missile missed London (or another prominent target), information sent back to Berlin was that the missile was on target and that nothing should be changed.

If a missile hit its target, then a message sent back to Berlin would say that the missile had been ranged too long (or short) and that corrections would have to be made. These ‘corrections’ would in fact result in the previously-accurate missiles going off-target and striking smaller communities or exploding harmlessly in the countryside.

Using these tactics, the British were able to redirect the majority of German V-2 rockets into less-populated (or completely unpopulated) parts of the country, where a bomb-explosion was less likely to kill someone.

By early 1945, with the Allies closing in on Germany on all fronts, and the Germans running short on everything from food, to water, fuel, ammunition and more essential things like lederhosen, their campaigns of terror against Britain finally ceased.

Cities all over the British Isles were devasted by the bombing. Streets were cordoned off, buildings were demolished, entire families might be wiped out. Apart from London, probably the hardest-hit city was that of Coventry, where almost the entire city was flattened by German bombing in one night. So intense was the bombing that the Germans invented a new word to describe the sheer level of destruction – Koventrieren – to Coventrate – or to destroy something completely.

Few people today can imagine the terror of exploding bombs, the scream of air-raid sirens and living in constant, daily fear. For many people, it’s something they read about in history-books, see in movies or in episodes of ‘Foyle’s War’…But it did happen.

 

Dad’s Army: The Home Guard

Who do you think you are kidding, Mr. Hitler?
If you think we’re on the run?
We are the boys who will stop your little game,
We are the boys who will make you think again!

‘Cause who do you think you are kidding Mr. Hitler?
If you think old England’s done?

Mr. Brown goes off to town on the 8:21,
But he comes home each evenin’ and he’s ready with his gun!

So watch out Mr Hitler, you have met your match in us,
If you think you can crush us,
We’re afraid you’ve missed the bus

‘Cause who do you think you are kidding Mr. Hitler?
If you think we’re on the run,
We are the boys who will stop your little game,
We are the boys who will make you think again,

‘Cause who do you think are kidding Mr. Hitler?
If you think old England’s done!

Behold the original 1940s theme-song of the British Home Guard!

Okay, no, not really.

Who Do You Think You are Kidding Mr. Hitler‘ was the theme-song to the popular 1970s TV show “Dad’s Army”, that chronicled the activities of a fictional Home Guard unit during the Second World War. The song was actually written in 1968 and sung by famous music-hall veteran Bud Flanagan. Flanagan came out of retirement to record the theme-song as a special favour to the show’s creators, who were avid fans. They wanted the show’s theme-song to be sung by a real wartime singer (which Flanagan was), and they got lucky when he agreed. Really lucky! Flanagan died less than a year later!

“Dad’s Army” was one of the great television comedies of the 70s. But it’s scary to think that fiction mirrored reality in so many ways! A lot of the jokes in the show (weapons-shortages, no uniforms, poor training, old codgers thinking they could fight off the Luftwaffe) were actually real problems faced by the real Home Guard back in the 1940s! This is the true story of Britain’s citizen army – The Home Guard.

Local Defence Volunteers

With the fall of France, the British were terrified that the Germans might turn their sights on England and attempt to invade them sometime in 1940 or 1941. Fearing that they might not have enough fulltime soldiers to defend the British Isles, on the 14th of May, 1940, the British Government established the Local Defence Volunteers, a ‘citizen army’ who could fight off the Germans and secure the Isles until soldiers from other parts of the Empire could arrive to provide backup.

The L.D.V was expected to be made up of about 150,000 carefully-chosen men who would be Britain’s first line of defence against a German invasion. Within 24 hours of the original radio broadcast made by Anthony Eden, 250,000 men had signed up! To give you an idea of how many that is, the entire British Army was 250,000 men before the war started! By 1943, the Local Defence Volunteers numbered nearly two million (1.8 mil, precisely), and never fell below 1,000,000 for the rest of the war.

Dad’s Army – The Home Guard

The L.D.V. was renamed the “Home Guard” by order of Winston Churchill in August of 1940. It sounded better and was easier to write down. This proud fighting force of patriotic British men would stave off impending doom from a Nazi invasion of their treasured homeland!…or not. We’ll never know, because Britain was never invaded, but the British Government and Army were determined to be ready for any eventuality.

Signing up for Duty

The Home Guard officially recruited men and boys ranging from 17-65 years in age. Recruits were men who were too young to fight in the regular army, too old to fight in the regular army, who were excused from regular combat due to medical issues or who were excused from enlistment due to being in a ‘reserved occupation’ (having a job that was essential to the war-effort…like baking bread…and no, I’m not kidding. Bakers were exempt from joining the army).

In the flurry of activity to join the newly formed Home Guard, the rules were only loosely followed. Children as young as fifteen and sixteen joined the Home Guard and grown men as old as seventy joined up! The oldest guardsman was Alexander Taylor. He first bore arms for king and country back during the Mahdist War of 1881! When he signed up for the Home Guard, he was well over eighty years old!

Approximately 40% of the Home Guard were made up of former soldiers, most of them veterans of the Great War of 1914 (ahem, the First World War to you and me).

Because the majority of the guardsmen were of advanced age, the Home Guard was given the popular nickname: “Dad’s Army”.

Training the Guard

Training for the Home Guard was rudimentary. Because such a sizeable number of the men (as well as their commanding officers), were all veterans of former wars (the Great War, the Boer War, the Second Afghan War of the 1880s and so-on), they felt that they didn’t need any training. They were soldiers already! Or they were…once upon a time…and they were ready to do it again!

As noble and patriotic and romantic and well-meaning as all these sentiments were, they all overlooked the fact that many of these men fought back in the days of cannons, horse-cavalry charges, bayonets and single-shot rifles! Their training didn’t prepare them for a modern, 20th century war! So like it or not, they all had to be trained from the ground up…all over again. Some officers were allowed to keep the ranks that they’d earned during previous conflicts, however.

Arming the Guards! (The Bullet is not for firing!)

It’s just as well for the people of Britain that their homeland was never invaded. The Home Guard had nothing to fight with!

See, during the war, all the best weapons were required by the regular army. They got all the up-to-date machine-guns, mortars, knives, daggers, small-arms and rifles. The Home Guard had to make-do with whatever crap they could find that was left over! The wartime mantra of “Make do and Mend” was never more true!

The Home Guard was woefully under-equipped. They didn’t even have proper uniforms until halfway through the war! Just armbands that they wore on their sleeves. And weapons…oh boy.

To give you an idea of how ill-equipped the guardsmen were, they used to do rifle-drills with almost anything BUT a rifle. They used billiard-cues, broomsticks, walking-sticks, crutches, umbrellas, cricket-bats, pitchforks, hoes…anything!

What firearms they could find were usually what they brought from home. Their revolvers, their heirloom duelling-pistols, Uncle Jack’s hunting-rifle, double-barreled sawn-off shotguns, break-open long-barrel shotguns, handguns…they didn’t have a single rifle between them!

The shortage of arms for the Home Guard was so severe that they even broke into museums to find them! Cannons, muskets, blunderbusses, musketoons…even old cavalry swords! Everything was requisitioned by the Home Guard for the defence of the realm. And I don’t mean that they knocked on a museum door, spoke the curator, got him to sign a piece of paper and then helped themselves to the guns…I mean they literally broke in! Smashing glass display-cases and making off with the guns!

Winston Churchill recognised this shortage of firearms and he wrote a letter to the War Office in June of 1941 which read:

Every man must have a weapon of some kind, be it only a mace or a pike!

You can guess what happened next.

What Churchill REALLY meant was that the Home Guard should be equipped with whatever weapons were available and that every effort should be made to give them the best firearms that the British Army could spare!

Unfortunately for Churchill, the War Office took his message a little too literally. In 1942, they finally finished producing 250,000 pikes.

Yes.

Pikes.

Long, pointy sticks that go stabby-poke.

Exactly what Churchill said when the War Office told him that his order of pikes was ready for dispersement, isn’t recorded. But it was probably an impressive array of profanities.

Needless to say, the ludicrous pikes were never used. Most of them were never even unpacked and removed from storage! The guardsmen refused to use them, anyway.

Eventually, the Home Guard did get proper rifles. They were the old Lee-Enfield rifles used during the Great War. This was probably beneficial to a certain extent. Nearly half the guardsmen were Great War veterans and would’ve been familiar with the rifles. The only problem was, these rifles were now over twenty years old!

Americans and Canadians tried to help out their British friends. They collected and donated all their old rifles that they didn’t use anymore, and sent them to England. So at least the Home Guard had proper rifles now…even if they were outdated vintage ones!

While they might have had rifles (and might have also had ammunition), the guardsmen didn’t have much else. They had to improvise most of their weapons, such as grenades. They learned how to make rudimentary firebomb-grenades out of old bottles, flammable liquids and old rags. These homemade grenades were copied from the originals invented by the Finnish in 1939. They were called “Molotov Cocktails”, and were named for Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister.

Grenades weren’t the only things that the guardsmen had to make for themselves. They even produced their own mortars! A particular model (called the Northover Projector) was essentially a rudimentary grenade-launcher/mortar that fired grenades into the air. Blackpowder (not used since the American Civil War of the 1860s!) was poured down the barrel, then a grenade was forced down the barrel after it.

The powder was ignited using a toy precussion-cap (those little things that you stick in children’s play-guns that go ‘Bang!’) and was operated by a two-man crew. The Northover Projector was cheap, easy to use…but hardly effective. Half the time it could misfire, or even worse, explode in the breech, blowing the thing apart and injuring the crew.

Although the Northover Projector was manufactured commercially, many people made their own, homemade versions. It was often called the “Drainpipe Mortar” because of its long, slim shape.

The Duties of the Guard

Because Britain was never invaded, it’s widely believed that the Home Guard didn’t do anything. This wasn’t exactly true.

The Guard was employed in various activities throughout the war. They patrolled harbours and ports, they guarded ammo-dumps and important military installations and storage facilities, and they manned anti-aircraft cannons during the Blitz. Over a thousand guardsmen died in combat during the war.

The guardsmen also arrested and rounded up downed German pilots, they helped the wounded, cleared rubble from air-raids and rescued the trapped who were stuck in their collapsed houses. In 1941, the Guard was even allowed to guard Buckingham Palace! Churchill proudly declared that if London was invaded, the Home Guard would fight a bloody war with the Germans for every single city block.

The End of the Home Guard

The Home Guard was stood down in late 1944, when it was pretty certain that the Germans wouldn’t be doing any fighting against the British on their home soil anytime soon. It was formally disbanded on the 31st of December, 1945.

Dad’s Army

70th Anniversary of the Home Guard

Home-Guard.org.uk