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10 Unusual Events in World War II
In school, we’re given the bare bones facts about WWII, which tend to concentrate on the important stories: major battles and turning points like Pearl Harbor or D-Day. For those of us with a casual familiarity of the Big One, here are ten lesser known events which occurred during the war (aficionados will be familiar, we’re sure). Some of these entries may seem stranger than fiction, but all of them are true.
Event: The Nazi Spy in Manhattan Who Got Away – October 1935
At Pier 86 in New York City, an Abwehr (German military intelligence) agent with the alias William Lonkowski attempted to pass to his contact a violin case containing airplane blueprints and specifications, film negatives, photographs of a top secret US bomber and fighter plane, and written evidence that more secrets were being stolen by Nazi spies at Langley Field in Virginia and other places. However, he acted a little too suspiciously during the exchange and caught the attention of a US Customs official, Morris Josephs.
Suspecting Lonkowski might be smuggling merchandise with intent not to pay the proper duty, Josephs stopped him and searched the case. When the documents were discovered, Lonkowski was detained at the port by Customs supervisor John Roberts, who called in a US military intelligence officer, Major Stanley Grogan.
After examining the case’s contents, Grogan and Roberts discussed what to do with Lonkowski. They ultimately chose to let him go because they couldn’t decide what, if anything, to charge him with since America wasn’t at war with Germany at that point. Lonkowski was set free and returned to his native country a hero.
Event: A Diamond Heist by the Good Guys – May 1940
Lt. Colonel Montagu “Monty” Reaney Chidson, officially a military attaché during the war, was actually an operative for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as MI-6 (you know, like James Bond, except without gadgets or gals). He was stationed in Den Hague—The Hague—when Germany invaded the country. Fortunately, the well informed Chidson had been expecting Hitler’s move. He immediately put his top secret operation in motion: to prevent the Nazis from getting their hands on the huge, valuable cache of diamonds held in Amsterdam, he’d have to steal them himself.
Several weeks prior, he’d acquired a key to the main entrance of the Amsterdam diamond market. Now he traveled to the city wearing civilian clothes—which would have gotten him shot as a spy if caught by the enemy—and entered the empty, unguarded building. Although he didn’t have the vault combination, his intelligence gathering had netted a few clues so he set to work. Twenty-four hours later, the door still wasn’t open. Worse, he heard German soldiers in the building, very likely coming to take the diamonds themselves.
Chidson persisted despite the danger. Finally, when it seemed capture was imminent, the vault yielded. He grabbed the entire stock of diamonds and escaped. Despite the invading German army, he managed to flee to England, where he turned the diamonds over to the exiled Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch government.
Event: Bat-Man Paratroopers – 1942
On the United States home front, particularly on the Pacific coast where the threat of a Japanese invasion seemed imminent, even a military expert’s creative juices could take a curious turn. Such was the case for the California State Guard and Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, who dreamed up the idea of “bat-man” paratroopers.
The major’s concept of paratroopers using jump suits modified with bat-like “diving wings” was inspired by the trick parachuting stunts of American entertainers. Nicholson had observed that in free fall, sky divers using these wings were able to better control their speed and descent as well as their maneuverability before opening the their parachutes.
Nicholson envisioned winged paratroopers evading enemy fire by swooping through the air like their namesakes. In 1942, the California State Guard found the notion so intriguing, they asked famed jumper Mickey Morgan—whose career often included testing wingsuits—to head a bat-man paratrooper unit of their own.
Event: Assault with a Deadly Streetcar – May 1940
In Rotterdam, early in the morning on the first day of the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands, without warning twelve pontoon planes landed on the New Maas River near the Willemsbrug (now known as the Maas Brug or Maas Bridge) at the city’s center. These planes carried a group of German engineers and infantry soldiers, who paddled across the river using inflatable rubber boats. Their objective? Seize and control the bridge.
Once Dutch forces arrived from the nearby garrison, a firefight began. Soon the German infantrymen were pinned down at the bridge and surrounding structures awaiting rescue or death. In what seemed like a stroke of good luck, a company of Fallschirmjaeger—paratroopers—which had landed earlier south of the river now came to their aid.
The fighting was so fierce, the heavily armed paratroopers couldn’t come near their comrades. The commander’s audacious idea was to load his men into and on top of a streetcar hooked to other cars, which was sent rolling at speed through the Dutch line and toward the bridge’s south end. Clang, clang, clang went the trolley. Bang, bang, bang went the guns (with apologies to everyone, including Judy Garland). The paratroopers reached the trapped infantrymen and helped them hold their position. Five days later, the Dutch capitulated in the face of the overwhelming German force.
Event: It’s Raining Sheep – 1936
During Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) when Italian troops desperately needed supplies during their march across the Danakil desert, a unique solution saved them from death in a region considered the “cruelest place on earth”—a flying supply column that provided the men with everything they needed, including fresh meat.
The need for speed meant the troops carried minimal baggage, so water, ammunition, and other supplies were dropped by the Italian Air Force utilizing twenty-five planes. Army issue meat rations, however, would have spoiled in the deadly heat. Some genius at military headquarters came up with the idea of strapping sheep and a few bulls into modified harnesses and parachuting them to the soldiers, who could do their own butchering.
The plan worked like a charm.
Perhaps the Italians were inspired by Soviet Army experiments in 1935 with dogs strapped into “cylindrical coops”—basically metal tubes—sporting an automatic parachutes that deployed when the coops were dropped from planes..
Event: Parachute Drop Inside a Boat – July or August 1945
During the war, the Italians came up with clever ideas such as the “human” or manned torpedo and the EMB, or explosive motorboat. Essentially a boat filled with high explosives, the Italian weapon would be driven at high speed toward a target and the pilot bail out shortly before impact. The British developed their own version, but decided to up the ante: they’d drop their “boom patrol boat” from an aircraft—pilot, explosive payload, and all—to parachute into an enemy harbor. But first, someone had to test the new device.
That intrepid volunteer was Captain David Cox. While the test boat wasn’t filled with explosives, just the equivalent weight of the intended load, the mission was still dangerous. No one had ever done such a thing before. When the time came, Cox was strapped into the device, which was loaded into an RAF Lancaster. The plane flew over Devon to the testing area, the bomb bay doors opened, and the prototype launched successfully.
The parachutes deployed. Cox became the only man during the war to splash down from an airplane while inside a boat. Ultimately, the British War Department decided not to employ the device in battle, but they did capture the test on film.
Event: The Dump That Sunk a U-Boat – April 1945
Relieving oneself aboard a submerged submarine doesn’t differ from the usual dry land procedure, but getting rid of the resulting waste is much, much more complicated, requiring advanced technology and the training of personnel to operate the equipment. Unfortunately for the crew of German U-1206, a systems failure was the beginning of unlucky events that would lead to four deaths.
The original toilet or “head” developed for U-boats was a two-valve system that only worked during shallow dives. The newest VIIC U-boats like U-1206 were outfitted with new toilets with a high pressure valve rigged for deep water dives.
On April 14, 1945, while patrolling at 200 feet, 10 miles off Scotland’s coast under the command of Karl-Adolph Schlitt, an improperly flushed toilet aboard U-1206 malfunctioned and began flooding the compartment with sewage and salt water. The water leaked into the batteries, creating deadly chlorine gas. The captain was forced to surface the submarine.
While repairs were being made, U-1206 was spotted by British patrols and fired upon. The captain burned his orders and scuttled the boat. One crewman died in the attack, and three others drowned. Forty-six other crewmen were captured. While it’s not known exactly whose “movement” caused the initial problem, some have speculated the captain himself was responsible. The lost submarine was rediscovered in 2012.
Event: Adolph Hitler’s Free Love Program – 1933-1945
Germany’s Nazi regime was focused primarily on conquest through its policy of Lebensraum—“living space.” But in order to populate the newly invaded lands with loyal Aryan citizens, Hitler knew his country’s birthrate needed to dramatically increase. To that end, he ordered propaganda and programs to encourage German women to become mothers.
Not just married German woman, either. Before Hitler’s rise to power, unwed mothers were socially stigmatized. Under the Third Reich, women (and girls as young as fifteen and sixteen years old) were told it was their duty to give birth to as many children as possible, whether a guy put a ring on it or not. All contraception was verboten. Free love was the order of the day. Mother’s Cross medals and incentives were handed out. Laws were passed levying penalties on childless couples. Joseph Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister, produced magazines, posters, and nudie flicks promoting “healthy eroticism.”
The policy worked to a degree, but in the end, began to backfire. As the fighting dragged on and more resources went into war production, fewer doctors and medical supplies and less food were available, leading to increased infant and mother mortality. More Germen women, worn out from factory work and too many children at home, sought illegal abortions. In his haste to increase the German population, Hitler virtually destroyed the German family.
Event: Mr. Guess Who, Traitor of the Airwaves – April-July 1942
With our modern emphasis on television and the Internet, it can be difficult for us to envision a world where one of the most important factors in obtaining news and entertainment inside the home was the radio, which became a new tool utilized by the Allied and Axis powers to demoralize citizens and soldiers alike.
As the Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels used the airwaves and a specially selected group of foreign broadcasters to sow doubt and confusion among Allied forces and in enemy countries. For example, Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce) encouraged British soldiers to desert. Tokyo Rose tried to One of the American recruits for German State Radio was Mr. Guess Who, the on-air alias of journalist Robert Henry Best, who called himself the “self appointed correspondent for the New World Order.”
He didn’t keep his alias long. His program, Best’s Berlin Broadcasts sent Nazi socialist propaganda from Berlin to the United States and to American soldiers in the field twice a day. Though he didn’t consider himself a Nazi, he was viciously anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, anti-government, and hated President Roosevelt. He attempted to incite class hatred. Best’s broadcasts were so abusive and vitriolic (he coined the phrase, the “Jewnited States”) that even his Nazi supervisors couldn’t stomach him, and he was taken off the air.
In the United States, Best was convicted of treason in absentia. After the war in 1948, he was arrested and sentenced to life in prison. He served only four years before suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in 1951 and dying in 1952.
Event: That’s Why the Lady Is a Sniper – 1944
Some of the deadliest snipers of WWII included Russian women like Lyudmila Pavlichenko. This item on the list doesn’t include them as they’re quite well known.
In Normandy, France, Allied troops found themselves under fire on several fronts—the most notable being hidden snipers. However, not all the snipers were men. Surprisingly for the time and place, some of the shooters were German and pro-Axis French women. It’s reported that British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery saw fit to issue warnings to his troops regarding these troublesome and dangerous female snipers.
In one case, a French widow known as a collaborator to the locals sat in her bedroom window, sniping at Allied forces who occupied her village. Ignorant of the sniper’s sex, a Canadian assault team attacked the barricaded house. The woman continued firing with her German made gun, inflicting several casualties. Finally, she was shot and wounded.
In another case in northern France, a young woman identified only as “Myra” used a different technique. She lured Allied soldiers close with a friendly smile, then shot them. After being captured by American troops, she claimed she’d been coerced by the Germans. Reports suggested that rather than be executed as a spy—she wore civilian clothes—she was sent to an enemy internment camp on the Isle of Man.