Featured Article / WORLDWIDE

George Duncan’s lesser known facts of WWII

MONASTERY BLUNDER

 

On February 15, 1944, US bombers dropped 427 tons of bombs on the mountain top monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy. The operation was planned by the US General Ira Eaker at the request of the Allied ground forces, believing the monastery to be a German stronghold. Very few enemy troops were there at the time but over 300 women and children from the town of Cassino, who had fled the fighting and taken refuge in the monastery, were killed. By the time that the Polish 12th Podolski Lancers, under General Anders, raised their regimental flag on the ruins of Monte Cassino at 9.30am their casualty rates were 3,779 killed or wounded. The flag was hastily sewn together from pieces of a Red Cross flag and soldiers’ handkerchiefs. The Monastery was rebuilt after the war and reconsecrated by Pope Paul VI in 1964. (General Wladyslaw Anders lies buried in the Polish Cemetery at Monte Cassino.)

 

The ruins of the Saint Benedict Monastery on Monte Cassino.

 

OPERATION ‘JERICHO’ (February 18, 1944)

 

Code name for the bombing of Amiens prison in northern France. Precision-attacked by thirteen Mosquito aircraft, the bombs blasted a hole 3.5 metres wide in the high wall of the prison. Of the 717 inmates a total of 258 escaped. Sadly, 87 prisoners were killed and 182 were recaptured. Many were due to be executed next day, mostly members of the French resistance, which was why the daring attack had to be made exactly when and as it was.

 

The necessary repairs made to the prison wall can still clearly be seen today.

INCREDIBLE ESCAPES (1944)

 

On the night of 3/4 May, 1944, Sgt. Jack Worsfold, aged 19, was a tail-gunner on a Lancaster of 101 Squadron.  Its mission was the bombing of German tank concentrations in France prior to D-Day. A total of 300 Lancasters took part and  Worsfolds plane was hit by flak and set on fire. The plane then blew up killing the rest of the crew. The tail section, with Worsfold inside, was seen by civilians on the ground to fall some 7,500 feet, hit some high-tension wires then bounce on to a fir tree before hitting the ground near the village of Aubeterre. Jack Worsfold crawled out with a broken thigh and rib fractures. Captured by German soldiers he spent the rest of the war in prison camps.

 

In a bombing raid against Stuttgart a Lancaster was hit by an 88 mm ack-ack shell which tore through the fuel tank engulfing the fuselage in flaming petrol. The tail-gunner, Sergeant N. Alkamade reached for his parachute only to find it a mass of flames. He had no other option but to jump and threw himself into the night at 18,000 feet. The next thing he remembered was opening his eyes to find himself lying in deep snow in a pine forest. Looking up he noticed broken branches on the trees that had reduced his speed, the snow did the rest. Soon he was taken prisoner by the locals who refused to believe his story. An investigation was carried out and he was released. When he eventually arrived home he carried in his pocket a certificate signed by a German colonel attesting to the fact that he had fallen three and a half miles without a parachute.

 

FIRST GERMAN GENERAL EXECUTED March 22/23, 1944

 

The first German General executed to be executed after the war was General der Infanterie Anton Dostler. On  during a small scale operation behind enemy lines in northern Italy, a group of 15 Italian-Americans of the US 2677th Headquarters Company were on a mission to blow up an important railway tunnel but were captured and taken prisoner before the mission (Operation ‘Ginny’) was completed. They were summarily shot on the instructions of 55 year old General Dostler who had simply passed on the order from higher authority (Hitler’s Füfrerbefehl of October 18, 1942) which stated that all enemy encountered in Commando actions were to be executed. The plea of “following superior orders” did not save Dostler from the firing squad. After a five day trial he was found guilty of a War Crime and sentenced to death. On November 27, 1944, the Mediterranean Theatre Commander, Lieutenant General Matthew B. Ridgeway, confirmed the sentence. At 8 a.m. on the morning of December 1, 1944, General Dostler was tied to a stake on the firing range of the 803rd Military Police Battalion located near Aversa, Italy. A black hood was placed over his head, a white marker pinned to his chest and the order to fire was given to the 12 enlisted men of the US Army who composed the firing squad. (General Anton Dostler lies buried in the German War Cemetery at Pomezia some miles south of Rome.)

 

General Dostler receives the Last Sacrament.

 

HUNGARIAN JEWS

 

After Hitler’s armies occupied Hungary on March 27, 1944, (Operation Margarethe) its government actively supported the Nazis in the deportation of its Jews. Up till 1944, the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Horthy, had steadfastly refused Hitler’s offer to resettle the Hungarian Jews. But after the occupation, and after Eichmann and his SS units moved in, the deportations began on May 15, 1944, the first train reaching Auschwitz on the 17th. The pro-German Government co-operated by ordering its policemen to escort their deportees to Auschwitz. When their uniforms were seen by the Hungarian prisoners already in the camp, scenes of “unbelievable jubilation were witnessed as the prisoners ran to the wire cheering and sobbing in the belief that their policemen had come to rescue them.” Around 365,000 Hungarian Jews were transported to their deaths after the occupation of their country. The majority of women and children were murdered within hours of their arrival. Fit and healthy men were spared for a while for slave labour. Over 300,000 were still in Hungary awaiting their doom. This included just over 70,000 in the Budapest ghetto (fortunately all these survived the war). French Vichy police also collaborated in the rounding up of Jews. Starting on August 27, 1942, they arrested 9,872 Jews in Vichy-controlled Lyon and transported them to Drancy, near Paris, prior to deportation to Auschwitz.

 

In an effort to negotiate with the Allies the SS offered to exchange Jews for 1,000 trucks. This offer was rejected and as a gesture of good faith the SS allowed a train, containing 1,684 Hungarian Jews to leave Budapest for the safety of Switzerland. The train eventually ended up at the Belsen Concentration Camp near Hanover. There, the Jews were kept for about six months before being allowed to proceed to Switzerland. This must be the only recorded case where the SS actually saved Jews.

 

(Between 1933 and 1938 a total of 453,721 Jewish refugees from Europe were settled in 27 different countries. The Jewish population of Europe in 1939 was 7,870,700.)

 

LITTLE BROTHER

 

Although not generally known, Albert Göring, the younger brother of Reich Marshal Hermann Göring, was an outspoken anti-Nazi. Arrested several times by the Gestapo, each time being released by the intervention of the Reich Marshal. Albert was born near Mauterndorf in 1900 and became a successful businessman and in later life the Export Director at the Skoda Armament Works in Czechoslovakia. During his work there he helped many Jews escape the horrors of the Holocaust by forging his brother’s signature on their travel documents. The Jewish wife of composer Franz Lehar was one of those helped by Albert. Returning to Germany after the war he was everywhere shunned just because of his name. Living on a government pension he married his housekeeper as a sign of gratitude so she could receive his pension after he died. One week later, in 1966, he died,

 

SWISS NEUTRALITY

 

On a bombing raid on German military installations near the German/Swiss border on April 1, 1944, a force of 23 B-24 bombers from the USAF 392nd Bombardment Group, on its 59th mission, inadvertently entered Swiss air-space and owing to a navigational error mistakenly bombed the Swiss town of Schaffhausen. Fifty Swiss civilians were killed. The real target was to have been the chemical works at Ludwigshafen, 120 miles away. In 1949, the US agreed to pay $64 million in compensation. This was an attempt to secure Switzerland as an ally in the ‘Cold War’. The greedy Swiss demanded that interest be paid on the $64 million, claiming that the damaged property had not been able to earn any money since the bombing. This demand was rejected.

 

The British Royal Air Force also flouted Swiss neutrality a couple of times and attempted to bomb a ball-bearing factory in Basel suspected of producing ball bearings for the German Army but both times the bombs missed the target. During the war a total of 167 American bombers and 12 British bombers made emergency landings in Switzerland. Severely damaged in combat over Germany and unable to return to their bases in England their only alternative was to head for neutral Switzerland. In one day, on March 18, 1944, no less than eleven American bombers made emergency landings at the Dubendorf airfield. The crews were interned by the Swiss authorities in camps at Adelboden, Grippen, Les Diablerets and in the notorious punishment camp at Wauwilermoos (for escapees). They were supposed to be treated like P.O.W.s under the rules of war but in many cases living conditions were little better than German concentration camps.

 

In all, around 1,500 American servicemen were interned in neutral Switzerland.

 

HIGHEST NIGHT PHOTO

 

The highest night photograph of the war was taken on April 18, 1944, over Osnabruck. The RAF Mosquito crew used a target indicator flash and took the picture from 36,000 feet.

 

An RAF Mosquito, the most versatile plane of WWII, flying at great altitude.

 

AIR TRAGEDY

 

An old B24 Liberator bomber, stripped of all equipment and fitted with a radio control system to be operated from a ‘mother’ plane after the B24 crew had baled out, blew up in mid-air during a trial flight in preparation for ‘Operation Aphrodite’ the code name for the bombing of the flying bomb sites on the Continent. An electrical malfunction triggered the explosion killing the pilot and co-pilot. The pilot was Lieutenant Joseph Kennedy, the older brother of John F Kennedy the future President of the USA.

 

INACCURATE BOMBING

 

December 6, 1942.  Operation ‘Oyster’ The RAF daylight bombing raid on the Philips  Radio Works at Eindoven, Holland, now under Nazi control. Fourteen planes were lost but sadly 148 Dutch civilians lost their lives.

 

March 13, 1944. In a raid on Le Mans, France, by RAF Bomber Command, some of the bombs were dropped short of the mark, killing some 100 civilians. Fifteen locomotives and around 800 railway freight cars were destroyed. The killing of innocent civilians during raids on specific targets became an increasingly severe problem for bomber crews.

 

April 9/10, 1944. The attack by 186 RAF bombers on the rail yards at Lille-Deliverance, France, killed 456 civilians and destroyed over a thousand homes. At the rail yards around 2,000 freight cars were destroyed.

 

April 10/11, 1944. One hundred and twenty-two Royal Canadian Air force Halifax’s dropped 600 tons of bombs on the Merelbeke-Melle rail yards at Ghent, Belgium. Unfortunately, the rail yards being located in a built-up area, 438 Belgian civilians were killed.

 

April 19/20, 1944. Around 200 bombers, mostly Canadian Halifaxes from 46 Group, attacked the rail yards at Noisy-le-sec near Paris. Many bombs fell on a built-up area of the town destroying over 700 houses and killing 464 civilians. Some 370 were injured.

 

March 3, 1945.  Over 500 inhabitants of the suburb of Bezuidenhout, a suburb of The Hague, Holland, were killed when Allied bombers missed their intended target, the V-2 launching sites in the Hague Forest and dropped their bombs on Bezuidenhout.

 

vital officers: BIGOTS

 

As D-day approached a special security procedure was put in place to protect all documents concerning the time and place of the invasion (D-Day). It was the highest security classification of all. General Eisenhower had ordered that no one with any knowledge of D-Day be sent on operations where there was the slightest danger of being captured. Those with such information were called ‘Bigots‘. The word is derived from the two words ‘To Gib‘ which was stamped on papers and baggage of all officers being sent to Gibraltar prior the invasion of North Africa in November, 1942. The letters were reversed to form the code-word ‘Bigot’ and used to list all persons with the secret information about D-Day. During ‘Operation Tiger’ ten officers were known to be Bigots. Top priority was given to find and identify the bodies. Fortunately all bodies were recovered and the secrets of D-Day were safe.

 

JEDBURGHS

 

The code name given to the teams of specially trained men who were parachuted into France before and after D-Day. Their mission was to link up and co-ordinate the resistance groups in sabotage and guerrilla warfare against the German occupying forces prior to and during the Normandy invasion. Men were selected from the British SOE, the American OSS and the Free French, Belgian and Dutch armies. The name Jedburgh comes from the southern Scottish town of Jedburgh where most members did their initial training before moving on to Milton Hall in Cambridgeshire, England. In all, around 280 ‘Jeds’ were formed into teams of three men, one British, one American and one French. After a punishing period of physical training they were dropped behind enemy lines from planes of 38 Group squadrons to begin work with the Maquis. (The story of the Jedburghs only became public after records became de-classified in 1985.)

 

 DISASTER DURING ‘OPERATION TIGER’ (April 23-30, 1944)

 

In preparation for the D-Day landings on Utah beach, the US Forces were conducting a series of exercises on a stretch of beach called Slapton Sands, near Plymouth. In an area comprising around 30,000 acres a total of 3,000 people (750 families) 180 farms with livestock were evacuated. This enormous task had to be completed in six weeks.

 

During the actual exercise, while manoeuvring for position in Lyme Bay on the night of April 27 the landing ships were attacked by nine German motor torpedo boats, E-boats, from Cherbourg in France. Two of the landing craft, LST 507 and LST 531 were sunk and others damaged. On board the two landing ships the casualties were severe, 638 men killed (197 sailors and 441 soldiers) and hundreds injured. This was more than ten times greater than the casualties sustained in the real assault on Utah Beach on June 6 (43 Americans killed, 63 wounded). Altogether, including casualties from other ships and those killed by friendly fire on shore, a total of 946 Americans gave their lives during Operation Tiger.

 

CARELESS TALK

 

In spite of all precautions taken to protect the secrets of D-day, some officers still engaged in ‘Careless Talk‘. One such case was that of US Major General Henry Miller, chief supply officer of the US 9th Air Force, who, during a cocktail party at London’s elegant Coleridge’s Hotel, talked freely about the difficulties he was having in obtaining supplies. He added that things would ease after D-day declaring that would be before June 15. (When Eisenhower learned of this indiscretion he ordered that Miller be reduced to the rank of colonel and sent back to the US where shortly after, he retired from the service.)

 

MILLION-TO-ONE

 

Around midnight on June 5, 1944, Private C. Hillman, of Manchester, Connecticut, serving with the US 101st Airborne Division, was winging his way to Normandy in a C-47 transport plane. Just before the jump, Private Hillman carried out a final inspection of his parachute. He was surprised to see that the chute had been packed by the Pioneer Parachute Company of Connecticut where his mother worked part time as an inspector. He was further surprised when he saw on the inspection tag, the initials of his own mother!

 

D-DAY

 

D-Day stands for Designated Day, the actual day on which an operation would begin. H-Hour, the starting time for the attack to begin. This expression was first used on September 20, 1918, during World War I. The US First Army issued Field Order No 8 which read, “The First Army will attack at H-Hour on D-Day with the object of forcing the evacuation of the St. Michael Salient.”  After the landings on June 6, 1944, many believed that the D stood for ‘Deliverance.’

 

On June 28, 1943, a conference, code named ‘Rattle’, was held in a hotel in Largs, Scotland. It was attended by around 20 Generals, 11 Air Marshals, 8 Admirals, 15 high ranking Americans and 5 equally high ranking Canadians. Presided over by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. It was at this conference that the uppermost question of where the Allied armies would land in Europe, was settled.

 

D-DAY LANDINGS (June 6, 1944)

 

  • Utah Beach – 23,250 American troops were landed. US 1st Army and 5th and 7th US Corps.
  • Omaha Beach – 34,250 American troops were landed. 29th and 1st US Div.
  • Gold Beach – 24,970 British troops were landed. 50th Division, British 2nd Army.
  • Juno Beach – 21,400 Canadian troops were landed. 3rd Canadian Div.
  • Sword Beach – 28,845 British troops were landed. 3rd British Div.

 

By June 12, 326,000 troops were on the beaches, plus 54,000 vehicles. By July 2, another 929,000 men and 177,000 vehicles were put ashore. The ship armada at Normandy totalled 6,939 vessels of all kinds. In the 10 days after D-day (June 6 to June 16) a total of 5,287 Allied soldiers were killed. The number of French civilians killed during the landings has never been established but must number in the hundreds. From D-Day till the end of the war, British casualties were 30,280 dead and 96,670 wounded.

 

The only American General to land with the initial seaborne assault at Utah Beach was Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr, assistant commander of the US 4th Division. At age 57 he was also the oldest soldier to come ashore. Sadly he died in France a month later of a heart attack.

 

The German surrender was signed 337 days after the D-Day landings.

 

PIGEONS AT WAR

Thousands of carrier pigeons accompanied the troops to Normandy on D-day and brought back essential details to Allied Headquarters in a capsule tied to their legs. A special loft was erected at the secret code deciphering centre at Bletchley Park. Considered vermin by many, these pigeons, were first used as early as  the year 1150 AD and played an important part in both world wars. News of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo first came by pigeon post. Many of these birds were specially bred in Belgium prior to 1939. Often used as a distress signal from downed aircraft, a pigeon named ‘Winkie’ escaped from  a bomber after coming down in the English Channel in 1943. It flew back 120 miles to its base at…

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Operation Market Garden

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