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When Boy Scouts went to war – the Gray Ranks of Poland

What do you think of if someone mentions the Boy Scouts? Probably songs around the camp fire, working for badges, and distinctive uniforms. Yet the Boy Scouts of Poland have so much more to their history. Within two years of their founding in 1916 they were participating in the Greater Poland Uprising, but their involvement in war didn’t stop there as they were also participants in the Polish-Ukrainian war (1918), the Polish-Bolshevik War (1919-1921) and the Silesian Uprisings (1919-1921). The Nazis knew of this history of Polish Scouting and so, immediately after invading Poland in 1939, Polish Scouts and Guides were labelled criminals and the organisation banned. Rather than forestalling any action by the youth however, this simply led to Scoutmaster Florian Marciniak deciding to organize the boys to fight the invaders. Through contacts with the Polish government in exile and members of the home Army who had evaded capture by the invaders, the Scouts formed a resistance movement called the Gray Ranks (Szare Szeregi) in 1940 which actively fought against the German occupation of their homeland. Although formally independent the Grey Ranks worked closely with the official Polish Resistance movement.

Polish Boy Scouts who fought in the Warsaw Uprising

Before the war the Polish Scouting Association required an oath (Scouting promise) from the boys who joined. In this simple oath they promised ‘service to the people and country, and education and improvement of their skills’. When the Gray Ranks were formed the oath was extended to include ‘I pledge to you that I shall serve with the Gray Ranks, safeguard the secrets of the organisation, obey orders, and not hesitate to sacrifice my life.’ In addition to this code was a plan of action known as “Dziś – jutro – pojutrze” (“Today – tomorrow – the day after”) –

“Today” – struggle for Poland’s independence.

“Tomorrow” – prepare for an all-national uprising and the liberation of Poland.

“The Day After” – prepare to rebuild Poland after the war.

Scoutmaster Marciniak used the pre-war scouting structure to organise his new troops. Each member of the Gray Ranks was part of a 7-person ‘Squad’; three or four squads then formed a ‘Troop’, with the troops from a specific area (city district, town or village) coming together in a ‘District’ which was then part of a ‘Region’.

One of their first operations was to distribute propaganda leaflets amongst ethnic Germans who had been re-settled in Poland from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. By signing the leaflets SS (for Szare Szeregi) the Gray Scouts were deliberately sowing confusion amongst the Germans who thought that the information was coming from the Schutzstaffel – Hitler’s SS! During late 1939 and early 1940 the Gray Scouts also helped to smuggle people out of south-eastern Poland (which was occupied by the Russians) into Hungary. The Soviet Union captured a number of these young scouts and held them at Ostashkov prison; they were executed later in 1940.

As time went on and the children received more training their activities became more frequent, and more dangerous.

Boy Scout postmen during the Warsaw Uprising

The children within the Gray Ranks were divided into groups. Boys and girls aged 12 to 14 joined units called the Zawisza (named after a medieval Polish knight and diplomat) which were not allowed to take part in any activities such as sabotage and painting slogans on walls. Instead they were trained in secret schools to be auxiliary support once the national uprising took place, the most important role they played was the Scouting Postal Service which was organised during the Warsaw Uprising.

Members of the Zawisza (both boys and girls) couldn’t wait until they were old enough to join the Combat Schools (for ages 15 and 16) where the Scouts learnt about surveillance, communications, propaganda and reconnaissanace as well as committing small acts of sabotage to inspire local people to join the struggle against the Nazis. Amongst the actions these youths participated in were:

  • Surveillance of German military units and their movements, and passing the information to the Allies – this enabled the Allies to compile a complete list of German units stationed in Poland, their insignia and approximate complements.
  • Painting patriotic and anti-German slogans on walls.
  • Distributing leaflets and fake German newspapers to both the local population and German troops.
  • Destroying German flags.
  • Setting off fire alarms to disrupt German events.
  • Rescuing national monuments which were being removed by the Germans.
  • Letting off stink-bombs in cinemas used by German troops!
Monument to the Gray Ranks in Kaszub

When members of the Gray Ranks reached the age of 17 they joined the Assault Groups which were directly subordinate to the Home Army. The boys were trained at secret NCO schools as well as at officer schools for commanders of motorised and engineering units. As well as training for battle, members of the Assault Groups also attended underground universities to gain knowledge and skills which would be needed to rebuild Poland after the war.

The actions carried out by the Assault Groups was a step up from that on the Combat Schools with the young men taking part in acts considered to be ‘major sabotage’, and they were a key part of the Home Army’s special troops. The actions they took part in included

  • Liberating prisoners from German transports and prisons.
  • Blowing up bridges and other infrastructure.
  • Carrying out the sentences of special courts – including executions.
  • Fighting in pitched battles against the occupying forces.

There were many Assault Groups in Warsaw who were formed into a number of battalions which took part in the Uprising in that city in 1945 and were as successful, if not more so, as the adult members of the Resistance. Other units joined the partisan groups which operated in the forests covering the Swietokrzyskie Mountains.

Whilst the boys of the Gray Ranks were trained to fight the Nazis the girls formed units which worked as munitions carriers, liaison officers and nurses, as well as helping with propaganda and correspondence.

Girl Guides delivering post during the Warsaw Uprising

The Polish Scouts were so well trained that by 1943 the Gray Ranks were openly taking part in resistance operations, including playing a vital role in a raid on the Gestapo prison in Warsaw where they freed 25 prisoners, amongst them the important resistance leader Jan Bytnar. In 1943 the Gray Ranks also assassinated three SS officers who had committed atrocities against the civilian population.

After their invasion of Poland the Germans had created a ‘border’ between Polish territories annexed by Hitler and the parts of the country which were merely ‘occupied’. In the seven months from August 1943 the Gray Ranks joined with the Polish Home Army to target these border posts, thirteen were destroyed although the Scouts lost one of their best leaders – Tadeusz Zawadzki Zoska.

Tadeusz Zawadzki Zoska.

The boys of Gray Ranks played a vital role in keeping up morale amongst the civilian population, and also seeking justice. Their chief target in 1944 was SS-Brigadefuhrer Franz Kutchera who ordered the mass executions of Poles and Jews; he was assassinated by members of the Gray Ranks in February 1944.

When the Poles heard about the Allied landings in Northern Europe in June 1944 there were more 8,359 members of the Gray Ranks who had a great deal of experience in fighting the Nazis. Ready to do their bit in the final push against the Third Reich they joined with the Warsaw Uprising which began on 1st August 1944, fighting with the assault groups which attacked and liberated the Gesiowka concentration camp with the aid of a captured Panther tank. The prisoners who were freed from the camp joined in the ill-fated uprising which lasted for 63 days. The Polish Boy Scouts fought hard to the bitter end and suffered incredibly high casualties – the Zoska Battallion, for example, (named after Tadeus Zoska) lost over 70% of its boys. Those who survived the Uprising retreated to the forests and hills where they continued to fight the Germans until final victory in 1945.

Gęsiówka inmates and “Zośka”-battalion assault-group soldiers after the camp’s liberation

After the war the Polish Scouting Movement took back its pre-war name and the Gray Ranks ceased to exist. Yet the reputation of these youthful fighters was well known and they were seen as a threat by the communist authorities which now ruled Poland. The Scouting Movement was forced to become a part of the Pioneer Movement and was eventually banned in 1949 and only reinstated after the fall of communism.

Monument to Mały Powstaniec (Little Insurgent) in Warsaw, erected to commemorate all the children who fought and fell during the Warsaw Uprising

White Rose – the students who defied Hitler

April 2021 will see the issuing of a €20 sterling silver collectors coin in Germany to commemorate 100 years since the birth of Sophie Scholl. One side of the coin will feature a portrait of Sophie, and the edge of the coin will carry her words “A feeling for what is just and unjust.” Sophie Scholl was just 21 years old when she died, so why does the German government think it is so important to remember her 100th birthday?

Sophie Scholl was born in Forchtenbeerg in Germany in 1921, the fourth of six children. Her father was mayor of the town before the family moved to Ulm when Sophie was 10. The young girl was intelligent and loved learning, she was also very religious, being brought up in the Lutheran church and spending a lot of time reading about Christian philosophers and theologians.

As with the majority of young Germans in the early 1930’s Sophie joined the Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Girls) in 1932, when she was 12. She was quickly promoted in the movement but, as the years passed, she became disillusioned with the Nazi ideology this was based on. Her brother, Hans, who had been a keen member of the Hitler Youth, also realised that Nazi teachings did not sit well with their Christian upbringing and joined the German Youth Movement along with his brothers and friends. The boys were arrested for this in 1937, an event which had a profound effect on Sophie and her political thinking.

When the Second World War began with Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 Sophie’s older brothers were enlisted whilst Sophie graduated from high school in 1940. She wanted to go to university to study biology and philosophy, but a pre-requisite for university admittance was for a scholar to spend time working for the Reichsarbeitsdienst (National Labour Service). Sophie wanted to avoid this if she could and so began training as a kindergarten teacher, but the ploy did not work and she was required to do the service before she could go on to study. She hated the experience with its mind-numbing routines and military outlook but persevered in the hope of finally being able to study and to marry her boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel, who was serving on the Eastern Front.

In May 1942, after her compulsory six months on the Labour Service, Sophie finally enrolled at the University of Munich; her brother, Hans, was already studying medicine there. Hans introduced Sophie to his group of friends, all of whom enjoyed the same hobbies – walking, swimming, philosophy and theology – as well as a similar political outlook. Sophie also spent time with philosophers Carl Muth and Theodor Haecker discussing how people of conscience should act under a dictatorship, a question of great importance to her as she was forced to do war service in a metallurgical plant in Ulm in the summer vacation of 1942 whilst her father was serving time in prison after having criticised Hitler.

At the same time, Sophie’s brother Hans and his friends Christoph Probst, Kurt Huber, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf and Jurgen Wittenstein had decided to adopt a strategy of passive resistance to the Nazi regime; they formed a group which they called the White Rose and, in the summer of 1942, wrote and distributed four leaflets calling for an end to National Socialism. The young men felt forced into this action by information they received from Fritz Hartnagel (Sophie’s boyfriend) about the atrocities he had see in the east where he had witnessed the murder of Russian prisoners of war and learnt about the mass killing of Jews.

Sophie saw some of the White Rose leaflets and found that she agreed with them. When she realised that her brother was involved in their printing and distribution she insisted on joining White Rose herself. The addition of a woman amongst their number proved valuable as she was less likely to be stopped randomly by the SS. Sophie began to help writing the leaflets using many of the ideas she had gleaned from philosophy and the Bible to support her intellectual argument for resistance, she also helped to copy and distribute the leaflets. At first the group posted the leaflets to thousands of people all over Germany, often getting friends from as far away as Hamburg in the north and Vienna in the south to post things for them so that the authorities would think there was a large nationwide network of members of the White Rose.

Christoph Probst

The aim of the leaflets was to prick the conscience of ordinary citizens and encourage them to stand up for what was right. The third pamphlet reads: 

“Our current ‘state’ is the dictatorship of evil. We know that already, I hear you object, and we don’t need you to reproach us for it yet again. But, I ask you, if you know that, then why don’t you act? Why do you tolerate these rulers gradually robbing you, in public and in private, of one right after another, until one day nothing, absolutely nothing, remains but the machinery of the state, under the command of criminals and drunkards?”

By the fifth pamphlet the group was encouraging sabotage:

 “And now every convinced opponent of National Socialism must ask himself how he can fight against the present ‘state’ in the most effective way….We cannot provide each man with the blueprint for his acts, we can only suggest them in general terms, and he alone will find the way of achieving this end: Sabotage in armament plants and war industries, sabotage at all gatherings, rallies, public ceremonies, and organizations of the National Socialist Party. Obstruction of the smooth functioning of the war machine….Try to convince all your acquaintances…of the senselessness of continuing, of the hopelessness of this war; of our spiritual and economic enslavement at the hands of the National Socialists; of the destruction of all moral and religious values; and urge them to passive resistance!”

By early 1943 Sophie and Hans felt that they were making an impact as young people began to discuss their ideas and the authorities seemed to be increasingly worried by their activities. Some citizens were also changing their attitude after Germany’s disastrous defeat at Stalingrad and the members of White Rose felt emboldened enough to hand out leaflets in person to people at the university, and to write slogans such as ‘Down with Hitler’ and ‘Freedom´ on walls all around Munich. Their sixth, and final leaflet said:

 “Even the most dull-witted German has had his eyes opened by the terrible bloodbath, which, in the name of the freedom and honour of the German nation, they have unleashed upon Europe, and unleash anew each day. The German name will remain forever tarnished unless finally the German youth stands up, pursues both revenge and atonement, smites our tormentors, and founds a new intellectual Europe. Students! The German people look to us! The responsibility is ours: just as the power of the spirit broke the Napoleonic terror in 1813, so too will it break the terror of the National Socialists in 1943.”

On 18th February 1943 Hans and Sophie were distributing leaflets in person at the university when Sophie threw some down into the atrium. Unfortunately, she was seen by the caretaker who called in the SS. Hans and Sophie were arrested by the Gestapo who found the draft for the seventh pamphlet in Han’s bag, which led to the arrest of Christoph Probst later the same day.


Mug shots of Sophie and Hans Scholl after their arrest by the Gestapo on February 18, 1943.

The three were interrogated and then subjected to a show trial on 22nd February 1943 where they tried to take responsibility for all the actions of White Rose in an attempt to save their friends, but Willi Graf, Alexander Schmorell, and Kurt Huber were arrested later in February and put to death shortly after. The trial of the three White Rose members lasted for only half a day, at the end of which Sophie, Hans and Christoph were sentenced to death. When asked if she felt that her actins were a crime against the community Sophie replied ‘I am, now as before, of the opinion that I did the best that I could do for my nation. I therefore do not regret my conduct and will bear the consequences that result from my conduct.

The three students were executed by guillotine at 5pm the same day.The chief enforecement officer of the Munich district court attended the execution as a witness and was struck by the courage shown by Sophie. Her final words were “Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go… What does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

Image of Sophie’s indictment on which she wrote ‘Freedom’. Courtesy of Institute fuer Zeitgeschichte.

Although the execution of the three members of White Rose was barely mentioned in the German press it created a stir abroad. In April 1943 the New York Times published an article about the student opposition in Munich while, in June, a BBC broadcast aimed at the German population spoke of the actions of White Rose. A copy of the sixth leaflet printed by the group was smuggled to England where it was re-printed; copies were dropped over Germany by Allied planes in July.

Grave of Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst, in the Perlacher Friedhof, next to the Stadelheim prison in Munich

Remembering White Rose

The young people who formed White Rose represent the importance of following one’s beliefs, standing up for what is right, and fighting for freedom. The German  people have remembered them in many ways –

  • Since the end of the war many schools and streets in Germany have been named after Sophie and Hans Scholl, or the White Rose group.
  • The Hockbruck army base has been re-named the Christoph Probst barracks.
  • The main lecture hall at the medical academy in Munich has been named after Hans Scholl.
  • In 1961 a German stamp featured portraits of Hans and Sophie.
  • The Geschwister-Scholl Preis is a literary prize initiated by the State Association of Bavaria of the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels and the city of Munich. Since 1980, they have annually awarded this prize to the book which “shows intellectual independence and supports civil freedom, moral, intellectual and aesthetic courage and that gives an important impulse to the present awareness of responsibility”.
  • The new instutute for political science in Munich was named the Geschwister-Scholl Institut.
  • The area in front of Munich University’s main building is named Geschwister-Scholl Platz  where the last flyer of the White Rose is set in the ground.

A memorial to the Scholl siblings and other members of the White Rose can be found in the atrium of the main building at the university.

The memorial for the White Rose in front of the main building of the Ludwig Maximilians University depicts the group’s flyers.
German Democratic Republic stamp from 1961.
2,000,000 went into circulation.

Fish Oil and Dynamite – the story of Operation Claymore

Lofoten. Photo by Pascal Debrunner

Norway’s spectacular Lofoten Islands, which lie 100 miles within the Arctic Circle, resemble the Scottish Outer Hebrides in their rugged beauty. Yet, despite their peaceful appearance, these islands with their small ports and fish oil processing facilities were the scene of a dramatic Allied commando raid during the Second World War.

Norway had declared herself neutral at the outbreak of war in 1939, but the country’s strategic position meant that both Britain and Germany had an interest in what was happening there. In particular, the port of Narvik was important to the Germans as it allowed passage through the North Sea for the iron ore which the Nazis obtained from Sweden thus avoiding the Baltic Sea, parts of which regularly froze during the winter months. Almost as important for the Germans as this sea route, if not more so, was the fish oil which was produced in huge quantities in Norway. Why fish oil, you ask? Well, surprisingly, it was used to produce glycerin, which was then used to make nitroglycerin – a major component of dynamite.

Rear Admiral L H K Hamilton, DSO in command of the naval operations. © IWM (A 6822)

At the outbreak of war in 1939 Britain planned to mine Norwegian waters in an attempt to force retaliation from Germany, which would subsequently allow Britain to move in to protect Norway’s neutrality. Hitler initially wanted to focus his advances westwards and did not want to be seen as the aggressor in the Nordic sphere and so he also wanted to appear to be protecting Norway’s neutrality rather than invading the country. Britain’s actions by mining Norwegian waters gave him the perfect excuse to move northwards. Although Britain had planned for and expected Germany’s advance into Norway, the action came sooner than expected, leaving the Allies wrong-footed. They were able to hold the Germans out of Narvik for a few weeks but eventually had to send troops back to mainland Europe as the situation there became desperate with the British forces pinned down at Dunkirk. And so the German take-over of Norway began. In just two months the country capitulated, and King Haakon VII went to Britain with a large number of Norwegian troops to form the Free Norwegian Overseas Forces. Churchill was unhappy with the situation in Norway and planned that his first major offensive there should take place as soon as practically possible. And so began the planning for Operation Claymore.

The pom-poms of one of HM Ships silhouetted against the snow covered mountains as she lies in Kirke Fjord. © IWM (A 6799)

Operation Claymore was to take place at the beginning of 1941 with a force of 500 commandos and 52 Norwegian troops sailing to Norway with three main aims:

  • To attack the Lofoten Islands and destroy any shipping there which was engaged in the German war effort, regardless of whether the ships were German or Norwegian.
  • To attack the ports of Stamsund, Svolvar, Henningsvaer and Brettesnes to destroy as much of the fish oil industry as possible.
  • To take German prisoners, capture members of the Quisling regime, and take back to Britain any Norwegians who wished to join the Free Norwegian Force.

© IWM N 418

The attacking force, consisting of 2 landing ships and 5 destroyers, sailed from Scapa Flow in 1st March 1941. The North Sea crossing was rough, with heavy seas and high winds for the entirety of the three day crossing; then, to make matters worse, the flotilla was spotted by a German reconnaissance plane. For some reason the Germans did not pursue this sighting leaving the commando force to arrive at their destination on 4th March unmolested. Not only that but, to the surprise of the attacking force, the harbour lights were lit and the German occupiers seemed to have no idea that an Allied attack could take place.

RAID ON THE LOFOTEN ISLANDS, 4 MARCH 1941 (N 397) Fires burning in Stamsund as British commandos leave. © IWM.

The landings began at 06:45 and, having met no opposition, were over by 06:50! The cold was so intense that the sea-spray froze on the uniforms of the attackers as their landing craft grounded on thick ice. The surprise was total, with the only German shots being fired from the Krebs, an armed trawler, which was subsequently sunk. The attacking commandos ran towards their objectives through the early risers of the local population who said and did nothing, the surprise being so total that they thought they were witnessing a German training drill! When the Allies came into contact with their first Germans the enemy immediately laid down their weapons and surrendered.

© IWM N 419

Prisoners were taken and explosives set. Soon the air was thick with the smoke from burning fish oil and there was the sound of explosions as the ships in all four harbours were sunk. In the meantime, the local population served ersatz coffee to members of the attacking force. 60 collaborators were identified and held with the 225 German prisoners. The success of the mission was so overwhelming that the commandos even had time to send a telegraph from the office in Stamsund to Hitler reading ‘You said in your last speech German troops would meet the British wherever they landed. Where are your troops?’

Allied troops were on the Lofotens islands for less than six hours, but in that time they destroyed the Lofotens Cod Boiling Plant and ten other factories; in all around 800,000 gallons of fish oil paraffin were destroyed along with 9 ships. By 13:00 hours the raid was over, all of the landing force along with the German prisoners and Norwegian collaborators had embarked; and with them were 314 volunteers, includindg 8 women, who would travel to Britaina to join the Free Norwegian  Forces. The British also repatriated the English manager of Allen & Hanbury chemists who had been trapped on the islands at the outbreak of the war. And the cost to the commandos? One officer accidentally shot himself in the leg!

© IWM N 399

Not only was the destruction of ships and fish oil a great success, but there was an even more important outcome to the raid when it was discovered that the armed trawler, Krebs, had an Enigma cypher machine! Although the machine itself was lost to the Allies when it was thrown overboard they did manage to recover a set of rotor wheels for it, along with a number of code books.

Back in England Churchill saw the raid as a complete success, not only because of the destruction of the shipping and oil, the capture of Enigma parts (which were used at Bletchley Park for months and led to Allied shipping being able to avoid Hitler’s Atlantic Wolf Packs), and the number of prisoners for no Allied losses, but also because Hitler was now aware that the Allies would always be a threat to Norway and so many German troops were tied down there rather than being used in other theaters of the war.

Yet, perhaps above all, Operation Claymore gave a much-needed boost to the morale of Britain at a time when victories were few. It gave renewed hope, to both British and Norwegian, that the Germans were not invincible and that future victory against the Nazi regime was possible.

© IWM N 396

‘Operation Fish’ – the gold that crossed the Atlantic to keep it safe from Hitler

“Hope you won’t mind our dropping in unexpectedly like this, but we’ve brought along quite a large shipment of fish.” This was the strange comment from British banker, Alexander Craig, when he arrived at Bonaventure Station in Montreal on 2nd July 1940, yet the ‘cargo of fish’ he had brought for his Canadian counterparts contained no fish at all. The train standing at the platform was actually carrying 2,229 bullion boxes, each containing 4 bars of gold with a total value of £30 million. As well as the gold there were 500 boxes of marketable securities worth in excess of £200 million. This was a massive amount of money, yet it was only the start of Operation Fish, a wartime mission so secret that few people know of it even today.

Canada set up a Central Banking System in 1935, and within a year Britain was purchasing and holding ‘earmarked gold’ there (that is gold bought in Canada and kept there for safety or trading). By the end of 1936 the British government, with one eye on early signs of aggression from Germany, was holding 3,304 gold bars in Canada, each with a value of $US 14,000. With the prospect of war continuing to grow, Britain approached the Bank of Canada in early 1939 with a request that it would receive and hold gold reserves sent from Britain to keep them safe and to make it easier for Britain to pay America for arms and munitions if war broke out. At this point there was talk of a Lend-Lease agreement but it was still in the early stages and the Americans were demanding cash payment from Britain for all deliveries of ships, planes, tanks and munitions.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth arrive in Vancouver, 1939

The first shipment of £30 million of gold bullion from Britain was sent ‘under cover’ with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth when they made an official visit to Canada in the spring of 1939. The project was so secret that no records of the arrival of the gold in Halifax were kept, instead the cargo was unloaded at a quiet out of the way pier where 100 armed mounted police waited to transfer the gold to trains for shipping to Ottawa. Once war broke out in September of that year shipments began in earnest.

HMS Enterprise, one o f the ships used to transport Britain’s gold © IWM FL 5389

In early 1940 the British Government used its Emergency Powers Act to force civilians to register their paper securities; these were later confiscated by the Government and sent to Canada to be used in the war effort. The decision to send Britain’s wealth to the New World was not an easy one to make as the ships carrying it would be at the mercy of Hitler’s U-Boats which were then wreaking havoc in the Atlantic. Yet with the prospect of an imminant invasion of the British Isles Churchill believed he had no choice, if Britain was overrun the Government would need a base oversees from where it could direct the Empire in it’s continuing fight against Nazism. Transferring the gold was such a great risk, however, that the British War Cabinet did not inform the War Risk Insurance Office of the shipments knowing that if even just one of the ships was lost the value could never be compensated. In the month of May 1940 alone, over 100 ships were sunk whilst making the Atlantic crossing – that was more than 40% of all transatlantic travel – yet, miraculously, not a single gold transport was lost during the entire war.

Guarding the gold

When the shipments arrived in Halifax the boxes were put on sealed trains guarded by the RCMP. They travelled first to Montreal where the paper securities were unloaded and sent to the Sun Life Building to be stored in an underground vault three stories below ground level, Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers kept a 24 hour guard. The vault beneath the Sun Life Building had to be constructed in a hurry, so a rumour that the British Crown Jewels were being held there was deliberately spread as a cover for the increased activity and security.

Sun LIfe Building c.1935

After the securities had been unloaded the trains would continue their journey from Montreal and deliver the gold to the Bank Of Canada’s vaults in Ottawa. Each rail car could only hold 150 – 200 boxes as they were so heavy, and so as many as five trains were sometimes needed to ship the gold from just one transatlantic convoy. There was so much gold (in excess of 1,500 tons) that it filled the 6,000 square foot vault, and the Bank needed to hire more than 120 retired Canadian bankers, brokers and investment firm secretaries to keep records. By the end of Operation Fish, the Bank of Canada was home to more gold than anywhere in the world outside of Fort Knox in the United States. The movement of such vast amounts was a highly labour-intensive task and the cost of transport was over $CAN 1 million.

Bank of Canada building c.1942

By the end of Operation Fish Britain’s assets in Canada exceeded over 1,500 tons of gold and over $300 billion in Securities (2020 value).

Britain was not the only country to send its gold to Canada for safe keeping. In June 1940 a single carrier from France shipped a staggering 254 tons of bullion across the Atlantic with an estimated value $US 305 million. Whilst the shipment was at sea the German Blitzkrieg rolled across northern Europe and France was defeated. The French government authorised Britain to take over France’s debts and assets to continue fighting the war, leading Churchill to request that the French gold be put with the British reserves. Unfortunately, the captain of the ship decided that he would take his orders from the hastily set up Vichy Government and so he slipped out of Halifax and sailed with his cargo to Martinique whilst France’s remaining assets in Ottawa were frozen until the end of the war.

It is testament to the high levels of security surrounding the shipment and storage of Britain’s wealth that no one found out about ‘Operation Fish’. The 5,000 employees of Sun Life never suspected what was being stored beneath their feet, and even though hundreds of people were involved in transporting, counting, recording, and storing the huge amounts of gold and securities the Axis intelligence agencies never found out about the ‘golden fish’ whch travelled from Great Britain to Canada.

 

The teacher who hid children in baskets – the story of Johan van Hulst

Johan Willem van Hulst

On Holocaust Remembrance Day this year I would like to commemorate the life and work of Johan Willem van Hulst who was just an ordinary school Director in the Netherlands before the outbreak of the Second World War, but what he saw happening there led him to help in the saving of over 600 Jewish children destined for Nazi concentration camps.

In 1943 Johan was working as Director of a Calvinist teacher training college opposite the Hollandse Schouwberg theatre in Amsterdam. The theatre was the main clearing site for Jews who had received deportation notices from the Nazi government, whilst just two doors down from the college was a crèche for Jewish children.

Walter Süskind

Many of the records of those who were detained in Hollandse Schouwberg have been lost, but it is estimated that about 46,000 were deported from there to the death camps in the 18 months from mid-1942 to the end of 1943 (the majority going to Westerbork, Auschwitz and Sobibor). The deportation centre was run by a German Jew, Walter Süskind, who had links with the SS and so his Jewish heritage was overlooked; but Süskind had an ulterior motive to working at the centre. Soon after taking over as Administrator he began to falsify the number of arrivals, perhaps saying that 65 had arrived rather than 80 and so allowing 15 people to escape

In early 1943 the Nazis appropriated the crèche across the road and Süskind began to place children there to await deportation. Within days of taking over he was working with the head of the crèche, Henriëtte Pimentel, to sneak children to safety when a tram passed in front of the building, shielding their activities from the Germans in the theatre. Staff at the crèche began to smuggle out as many of the children as they could and placed them with families in Amsterdam and the nearby countryside who were willing to hide them, but it was a slow and dangerous way to save the children so Süskind approached Johan van Hulst to ask for his help.

Henriëtte Pimentel

Johan offered the use of his college as a transit point for the children who were passed over the fence which bordered the gardens of both properties and then hidden in one of the classrooms until picked up by members of the rescue organization; he also helped to find families who were willing to risk their lives to shelter these children. Süskind ensured that none of the Jewish children whose parents agreed to the subterfuge were registered at the deportation centre and so their disappearances were never noticed. It was heartbreaking for the parents who gave up their children, yet they believed it was the best chance they had to survive the war.

The college and creche

The children who were rescued varied in age from babes-in-arms to 12-year-olds. Süskind canvassed families who were willing to take them in, asking them for physical descriptions of themselves and their own children so that he could place the rescued children where they would best fit in. Once a safe house had been arranged the children were smuggled out in bags or laundry baskets, often with the help of the students from the training college, or perhaps openly on a bicycle by a member of the Resistance pretending that the child was their own.

In order to prevent suspicion only a handful of children were rescued at a time, and van Hulst later said that this was one of the most difficult parts of the work he did during the Occupation, knowing that for every child he saved many more could not be helped. “Everyone understood that if 30 children were brought, we could not save 30 children. We had to make a choice, and one of the most horrible things was to make a choice.”

As well as making difficult choices the group of rescuers also had to keep on good terms with the Nazis; Süskind and the staff at the crèche had to continue their jobs as though supporting the deportations whilst Hulst would often behave as if he was on the side of the German occupiers. He would frequently tell his students off for watching the SS guards and tell the to ‘Let these people do their jobs, it is none of your business’ whilst winking at the guards to try to gain their trust and confidence, an act of theatre which seemed to work.

van Hulst 1969

Things did not always run smoothly and there was one occasion in 1943 when a Dutch education Ministry official discovered several Jewish children hiding in the college and asked van Hulst to explain what they were doing there. After a long silence he replied ‘you don’t really expect me to answer that, do you?’ The official wrote up his report with no mention of the children. On another occasion a government inspector visited the college unexpectedly and heard babies crying; by an incredible stroke of luck the inspector was a member of the Resistance and joined in Johan’s work of saving the children. These incidents convinced van Hulst, who was married with two children of his own, that he must say nothing to his wife so that she would not have any compromising information if he was caught and arrested.

Henriëtte Pimentel

The rescue of Jewish children had been running for many months, but it all came to an abrupt end in July 1943 when Henriëtte Pimentel was arrested and sent to Auschwitz where she died that September.* 100 children from the crèche were sent with her and suffered the same fate. On the day of Henriëtte’s arrest van Hulst was able to save one last group of children which turned out to be one of the most harrowing experiences of the war for him as he tried to decide just how many he could save without the Nazis noticing. As he said many years later, ‘Now try to imagine 80, 90, perhaps 70 or 100 children standing there, and you have to decide which children to take with you… That was the most difficult day of my life… You know for a fact that the children you leave behind are going to die. I took 12 with me. Later on I asked myself: “Why not 13?”’

Walter Süskind and his daughter

In 1944 Walter Süskind was sent to Westerbork concentration camp with his wife and daughter. None of them survived the war. **

It was at this point that the creche and the deportation centre at the theatre were closed, but that did not stop Johan van Hulst who continued to help people in hiding as well as defying attempts to conscript his students into the German army. Three weeks before liberation Johan received a tip-off that the Germans were coming for him; he managed to escape just minutes before they arrived and was forced to spend the next weeks in hiding until the Allies arrived.

In his later life, Johan van Hulst spent 25 years as a Dutch senator and was a Member of the European Parliament from 1961 to 1968. His old school now houses the National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands, and the joint wall which played such a crucial part in the saving of so many lives carries a permanent exhibition in van Hulst’s honour.

In 1973, Johan van Hulst was awarded the Righteous Among the Nations, a title given by the state of Israel to Gentiles who helped Jews during the Second World War. Later on, in 2015, he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who told van Hulst that ‘We say: those who save one life saves a universe. You saved hundreds of universes.’

van Hulst and Netanyahu

Johan van Hulst died on 22 March 2018 at the age of 107. A bridge in Amsterdam close to the college where he carried out his rescue of Jewish children has been renamed The Johan van Hulstbrug. But this brave man was only one of many who risked their lives to help the Jewish population of the Netherlands at a truly horrific time – the Netherlands has 5,851 Righteous Gentiles, the world’s highest number after Poland.

“I only think about what I have not been able to do, about those few thousand children that I could not save.” Johan van Hulst.

* Henriëtte Pimentel has not been formally recognised for her role and her sacrifice by Yad Vashem

** As a Jew Süskind was not recognised as Righteous Among the Nations as this honour is reserved for Gentiles.

The Second Great Fire of London

Balham. October 1940

During the Second World War the Germans carried out a sustained bombing campaign against Great Britain and Northern Ireland which is known as The Blitz (from the German word Blitzkrieg, meaning ‘lightning war’). The attacks started in September 1940, and by the end of 1941 41,987 civilians had been killed. For many people the devastation was summed up by a photograph of St Paul’s cathedral taken by Herbert Mason and published in the Daily Mail on 31st December 1940.

The photograph was taken during one of the most destructive of all the raids which became known as the ‘Second Great Fire of London’ as it caused fires in an area greater than the original Fire of London in 1666. In just three and a half hours during the night of Sunday 29th December 1940 136 German bombers dropped more than 100,000 bombs on London. Whole streets were flattened by the blasts killing more than 160 civilians on the night with many more dying of their injuries over the following days; but the civilian population were only secondary casualties for the Germans as their main targets were train stations, communication lines, the telephone centre on Faraday Street and bridges over the Thames. The Square Mile (the part of London best known to tourists) was particularly badly hit with 19 churches (8 of which had been built by Sir Christopher Wren after the fire in 1666) and 31 guild halls being totally destroyed along with about five million books in London’s publishing district.

Air raid shelter in Aldwych underground station © IWM HU 44272

1kg incendiary bomb © IWM (MUN 3291)

Many of the buildings in the Square Mile were not covered by the Fire Watchers Order of September 1940, and as they were closed and locked on a Sunday evening this gave the incendiary bombs a chance to quickly take hold. Only 12 x 3 inches, these small bombs were filled with magnesium which started intense fires that were difficult to extinguish. The raid was deliberately planned for when the River Thames was at a low ebb causing the water hoses used to tackle the fires to become clogged with mud; this, along with a drastic fall in water pressure when the mains were ruptured, made fighting the fires incredibly difficult.

Ludgate

As well as the bombs dropped that night there were also many unexploded bombs from the previous 113 nights of raids which made the work of the firefighters even more dangerous – 14 firefighters were killed that night with another 250 injured. Artist Leonard Rosoman, who was serving with the Auxiliary Fire Service on the night of the raid, was relieved of his hose and stepped back for a moment to rest, almost immediately a wall collapsed where he had been working and the two firefighters who had just taken his place were killed. Rosoman painted A House Collapsing on Two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London, EC4 as tribute to them.

Firemen at work on Ave Maria Lane on the night of 29th December 1940.

Like Rosoman, the majority of the men who manned the pumps were volunteers; these pumps needed fuel in order to work so women carried out one of the most dangerous jobs of the night – driving vans filled with petrol through flame filled streets to keep the pumps working.

Although most of the fires were extinguished by dawn of the following day others continued to burn for days.

While most people have not heard of the Second Great Fire of London many will be familiar with the photograph taken from the roof of the Daily Mail building by Herbert Mason that night, and which has become one of the iconic photographs of the war.

The St Paul’s Watch was a multinational group first set up during the First War to protect the cathedral from German zeppelins then re-constituted when war was declared in 1939. Their job was to ensure that the cathedral was able to maintain daily services during the war, and they were on duty that night. When the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, heard that St Paul’s had been struck by incendiary bombs (28 in total) he sent a message to the volunteers of the St Paul’s Watch saying that the cathedral ‘must be saved at all costs’; and through their heroic efforts the building remained standing whilst almost everything around it was destroyed.

Bomb damage viewed from St Pauls 1940

It was at this point that Mason took his photograph of the dome of St Paul’ still standing amidst the smoke and ruin, illuminated by the fires which raged throughout the city. The picture was cleared by the censors the next day and appeared in the Daily Mail on 31st December 1940 (cropped to emphasise the dome and to omit many of the gutted buildings which had appeared in the original). Entitled ‘War’s Greatest Picture’ it soon became a symbol of the strength of the British people to stand together in the face of unimaginable odds, and survive; as the editor of the Mail said to its 1,450,000 readers, you should ‘cherish this picture as a symbol of the steadiness of London’s stand against the enemy; the firmness of Right against Wrong’. The photograph was also used by the Illustrated London News and Life magazine (in an America which had yet to declare war on Germany) as ‘a symbol of the indestructible faith of the whole civilised world.’

The cover of Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung

But, as with everything, this picture was used in Germany as a way to tell a very different story when it appeared on the cover of the photo-magazine Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung in January 1941. Far from seeing it as a symbol of hope and endurance the headline was ‘The City of London Burns’, saying that the smoke was not a symbol of London rising from the ashes but obscured the extent of the destruction wreaked by the Luftwaffe.

Whichever propaganda take you might have on Mason’s photograph, it still remains a potent symbol of the devastating attacks which London and so many other cities endured during the Blitz.

The Tomb Of The Unknown Warrior

On 11th November 1920 simultaneous acts of interment took place at Westminster Abbey in London and at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. At each location the remains of an unknown soldier who had died in the Great War were laid to rest, a representative and symbol for all those whose loved ones had no known grave. The burials of these British and French soldiers are the first examples of a Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier.

It was in 1916 that army chaplain Reverend David Railton saw a rough wooden cross marking a grave in a back garden at Armentières, on the Western Front, in pencil on the cross were the words ’An Unknown British Soldier’. In 1920 Railton suggested to the Dean of Westminster that an unidentified British soldier should be buried ‘amongst the kings’ in Westminster Abbey to represent the hundreds of thousands of men from throughout the Empire who had died during the conflict. The Dean readily agreed and the idea was supported by David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister.

The selection of bodies for the Unknown Warrior in France (© IWM Q 109517)

The remains of four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four of the battlefields, (the Aisne, the Somme, Arras, and Ypres), to be taken to a chapel near Arras where they were laid on stretchers covered by Union Flags. Brigadier General Wyatt, responsible for selecting the Unknown Warrior, did not know which battlefields they had come from and chose one of the bodies at random. The three remaining were taken away to be reburied whilst a service led by chaplains for the Church of England, Roman Catholic Church, and Non-Conformist churches was said for the fourth body which was placed in a plain coffin.

The Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey, November 1920 (©IWM Q 31492)

The next day (8th November 1920) the chosen soldier was taken to Boulogne where the French 8th Infantry Regiment kept an overnight vigil before the coffin was prepared for its return to England. The plain coffin was placed in a casket made from oak timbers from Hampton Court Palace; King George V had personally chosen a crusader sword from the royal collection to be fixed to the top of the casket along with an iron shield on which was engraved the words ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914–1918 for King and Country’. The casket was covered with the flag that Rev. Railton had used as an altar cloth during the War (known as the Ypres or Padre’s Flag, which now hangs in St George’s Chapel).

HMS VERDUN carrying the body of the Unknown Warrior to Dover at Boulogne Harbour. (© IWM Q 68248)

Six black horses then drew the coffin on an open waggon through the city of Boulogne and down to the harbour. The mile-long procession, escorted by a division of French troops, was led by 1,000 local schoolchildren who marched solemnly as all the church bells tolled and trumpets sounded Aux Champs (the French equivelant of The Last Post). Marshal Foch saluted the coffin as it was carried aboard HMS Verdun which was escorted across the English Channel by six battleships. Its arrival in Dover on 10th November was marked by a 19-gun salute, an honour normally reserved for a Field Marshall.

Unveiling of the Cenotaph and the funeral of the Unknown Warrior, Armistice Day 1920 (© IWM Q 14964)

From Dover the Unknown Warrior was taken by train to Victoria Station in London where he remained overnight before the casket was placed on a gun carriage drawn by black horses of the Royal Horse Artillery in the early morning of 11th November. Huge silent crowds lined the routed as the cortege made its way to Whitehall, the only sound another Field Marshal’s salute from guns in Hyde Park. A temporary Cenotaph had been the focus of commemorations the previous year, on 11th November 1919, and this had now been replaces with a permanent structure. The gun carriage carrying the Unknown Warrior halted at this new permanent memorial which was unveiled by King George V who placed a wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the coffin, the accompanying card read ‘In proud memory of those Warriors who died unknown in the Great War. Unknown, and yet well-known; as dying, and behold they live. George R.I. November 11th 1920’. After laying his wreath the king then followed the casket on its final journey to Westminster Abbey, accompanied by other members of the Royal Family and minister of the government.

(© IWM Q 31493) King George V following the gun carriage bearing the Unknown Warrior, Whitehall, 11 November 1920

When the Unknown Warrior arrived at the Abbey 100 recipients of the Victoria Cross provided a Guard of Honour as he was carried to the West Nave. During the burial service the King dropped a handful of French soil onto the coffin as it was lowered into the grave and Reveille was sounded by trumpeters (the Last Post had already been sounded at the Cenotaph). The Padre’s Flag was laid over the grave. Guests of honour at the ceremony included royalty and statesmen, and more than a hundred women who had lost their husband and all of their sons during the four terrible years of conflict which had taken such a toll on Europe. They watched as the coffin was interred with soil from the major battlefields, and a guard of honour formed to flank the tomb as tens of thousands of mourners filed past in silence; for many this was the only place they would ever be able to visit as their own loved ones had ‘no known grave’ somewhere in northern Europe.

The photograph shows the coffin resting on a cloth in the nave of Westminster Abbey before the ceremony at the Cenotaph and its final burial. © IWM Q31514

For the remainder of the day servicemen kept watch at each corner of the grave while thousands of mourners filed past. When night fell and the Abbey was closed the guard continued to stand, arms reversed, in the light of four flickering candles to keep watch through the night.

Special permission had been given to make a recording of the service but very little of it was of good enough quality to be included on a record which became the first electrical recording ever to be sold to the public.

On 18th November the grave was filled with 100 sandbags of earth from the battlefields; a temporary stone was placed over it with the inscription

‘A BRITISH WARRIOR WHO FELL IN THE GREAT WAR 1914-1918 FOR KING AND COUNTRY. GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN THAN THIS.’

The Tomb Of The Unknown Warrior became a focus for the grieving of a nation, and also an aid to healing for all those who had no known grave for their loved one – who was to say that he did not lie here in Westminster Abbey? On 17th October 1921 the Unknown Warrior was awarded the United State’s highest award for valour, the Medal of Honour, by General Pershing; the medal still hangs on a pillar close to the tomb.

The Tomb is now covered with a black marble stone which was unveiled during a special service on 11th November 1921 at the same time that the Padre’s Flag was dedicated, this, too, is still on display in Westminster Abbey.

When Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the future King George VI in 1923 she laid her bouquet at the Tomb in memory of her brother Fergus, who died in 1915 during the Battle of Loos and is listed amongst the missing on the memorial there. Ever since that day the bouquets of all Royal brides who have married in Westminster Abbey have been laid on the Tomb. Before she died the former Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, then Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, asked for her wreath to be laid on the Tomb Of The Unknown Warrior, this act of remembrance was carried out by Queen Elizabeth II on the day after her mother’s funeral.

The name of the serviceman intered in the Tomb is truly unknown, he could be a member of any of the three services – Army, Navy, or Air Force – and could have been from the British Isles or one of the Dominions or Colonies which, at that time made up the British Empire. As such he represents all those who died and have no known grave or memorial. In memory of the sacrifice made by so many the heads of state from over 70 countries have laid wreaths in memory of the Unknown Warrior buried in Westminster Abbey.

The Tomb Of The Unknown Warrior is the only tombstone in Westminster Abbey which people are forbidden to walk on. The words engraved on it say

Beneath this stone rests the body
Of a British warrior
Unknown by name or rank
Brought from France to lie among
The most illustrious of the land
And buried here on Armistice Day
11 Nov: 1920, in the presence of
His Majesty King George V
His Ministers of State
The Chiefs of his forces
And a vast concourse of the nation

Thus are commemorated the many
Multitudes who during the Great
War of 1914 – 1918 gave the most that
Man can give life itself
For God
For King and country
For loved ones home and empire
For the sacred cause of justice and
The freedom of the world

They buried him among the kings because he
Had done good toward God and toward
His house

Around the main inscription are four New Testament quotations:

The Lord knoweth them that are his (2 Timothy 2:19)
Unknown and yet well known, dying and behold we live (2 Corinthians 6:9)
Greater love hath no man than this (John 15:13)
In Christ shall all be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22)

The artist Frank O. Salisbury attended the burial and made a sketch of the event which was attended by leading politicians, senior military figures and members of the Royal Family led by King George V. The painting which he developed from the sketch hangs in Committee Room 10 in the Houses of Parliament.

The black Polish resistance fighter – August Browne

Buried in an unremarkable grave in Hampstead Cemetery is a remarkable man. Few people know of August Agboola Browne who, although born in Nigeria, became a hero of the Polish Resistance during the Second World War. It seems fitting that this courageous man should be remembered during black history month.

August Browne was born in Lagos, Nigeria, on 22nd July 1895; his father was a longshoreman who brought his family to England in search of work. When the family arrived in England August, who was a musician, joined a touring theatre troupe and travelled with them to Germany and then Poland. The young Nigerian arrived in Warsaw in 1922 and by the 1930’s was well known as a jazz percussionist who played in many of Warsaw’s music clubs and restaurants. August was polite and well-liked, his affinity with languages (he spoke six) meant that he was soon conversant in Polish, married and had two sons. Although the marriage failed August took care of his family and at the outbreak of war sent them to England (this was not too difficult for him to do as he was a citizen of the then British Empire). Although he could have travelled with his family August chose to stay in Poland to fight the Nazis.

August was in his mid-forties when Germany invaded Poland, and after having lived there for 17 years he felt an affinity for the country and its people. He helped to defend Warsaw when it was besieged, then later went on to distribute underground newspapers as well as shelter refugees from the ghetto. The Warsaw ghetto was a section of the city which had been sealed off by the German’s as living space for the Jewish population. Conditions inside the ghetto were terrible with 91,000 people dying from starvation and disease; a further 300,000 Jews were transported from there to their deaths in German concentration camps.

In 1944 there was an Uprising against the German occupiers of Warsaw in which August is believed to have been the only black person to fight. Code-named ‘Ali’, he served as part of the Iwo Battalion of the Polish Underground known as the Armia Krajowa (Home Army). The Uprising began when the Armia Krajowa attacked the occupying forces on 1st August 1944 and swiftly gained control of much of the city. Germany sent in reinforcements to crush the resistance whilst nearby Soviet troops, who were supposed to be allies of the Poles, sat back and did nothing to help. The Warsaw Uprising was the largest resistance action to take place during the Second World War; the Poles held out for two months without proper equipment or help but the outcome was inevitable and they were forced surrendered on 2nd October. During the 63 days of the Uprising 16,000 Polish fighters and 200,000 civilians were killed, and the city almost totally destroyed. During those heroic days Polish deaths exceeded those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

As the only black member of the resistance in Warsaw August must have been conspicuous which put him at greater risk than his companions, yet he managed to survive in a city where 94% of the population were either killed or displaced. After the war Auguste continued to live in Warsaw, where he remarried and continued his music career as well as working in the Department of Culture and Art, before emigrating to Britain in the late 1950’s. Living in London he continued to work as a jazz percussionist and gave piano lessons.

August died in 1976 and is buried in Hampstead cemetery, in what is an unremarkable grave for a very remarkable man.

On August 2nd 2019 a stone was unveiled in his memory in Warsaw: “In honor of Augustine Agboola Browne, nom de guerre “Ali”, a jazz musician and a participant in the Warsaw Uprising of Africa origin. Poland was the country he chose to live in”.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko – The most successful female sniper in history

“The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey,” Lyudmila Pavlichenko

Lyudmila Belova was born 12th July 1916 in Bila Tserkva in the Ukraine (near Kiev). Her mother was a school teacher and her father a factory worker who worked his way up to a position of responsibility. Unfortunately, that meant that he had to move to a new town every year which in turn meant that Lyudmila had to start again each year at a new school with new friends.

Lyudmila was a tomboy – preferring to play rough and tumble games with the boys rather than with girls. When she was 14 the family moved to Kiev where one boy kept bragging that he could shoot better than anyone else, this annoyed Lyudmila who thought she could do anything that a boy could do so she joined a local shooting club. She had a natural talent and was soon winning medals at competitions.

As a teenager Lyudmila worked at the Kiev arms factory as well as working so hard at her studies that she graduated from college a year earlier than other students of her age. Lyudmila married a doctor, Alexei Pavlichenko, when she was 16 and they had a son called Rostislav. Russian women were expected to marry young and start a family so this was not unusual; it was also a matter of pride for women to work full-time and also look after their young family, not like the ‘stay-at-home-mums’ of other European countries. The Russian idea was that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ so everyone helped to look after the children of the community which enabled the women to work.

Lyudmila was not satisfied with working in the armament’s factory – she wanted an education and a career, unfortunately her insistence on this led to her and Alexei getting a divorce. Lyudmila studied for a Bachelor’s degree in history at Kiev University with the aim of becoming a teacher. The young Russian was planning to do a Master’s, but then the Nazi’s invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 and her plans were put on hold after the death and destruction she witnessed during the battle of Kiev made her put aside her dreams of becoming a teacher in favour of killing Nazis.

Lyudmila was 24 when she enlisted in the Russian Army, this was a year before women were conscripted but she didn’t want to wait. The authorities felt that as a woman she should become a nurse but Lyudmila had other ideas and when she showed them her shooting medals she was allowed to join an all-male sniper school (a women’s sniper school was not set up until 1942). When she was sent to the front after her training Lyudmila was initially set to digging trenches, it wasn’t until a colleague was too wounded to continue and he handed her his gun that she had a weapon at last. The young woman had been bullied at sniper school and the other snipers still did not accept her fully so they set her a test – to shoot two of the enemy standing in a field, if she couldnd’t do it she would be sent home. Lyudmila surprised everyone by killing both Germans with two very quick headshots and she was accepted in the ranks of the snipers.

On her first day on the battlefield Lyudmila was frozen with fear and couldn’t bring herself to lift her gun and fire on the enemy. Then a young Russian soldier moved beside her but before he could settle in a shot rang out and he was killed. The shock spurred Lyudmila to action as she had liked the ‘nice, happy boy’, and from that moment on there was no stopping her.

During the Siege of Odessa which lasted from 8th August until 16th October 1941, Lyudmila killed 187 of the enemy saying that she was so successful because she hated the enemy too much to fear him. On one occasion Germans had marked her position in a tree and were firing at it. Knowing that it was only a matter of time before they killed her Lyudmila deliberately fell out of the tree and played dead until nightfall when she slipped quietly away. It was at that point that her comrades began to call her ‘Lady Death’.

Lyudmila later took part in the battle of Sevastopol where she killed 70 more Germans (taking her total to 257) and she was assigned to become a counter-sniper – in other words to target and kill enemy snipers. This took great skill and perseverance as she had to sit still and wait until the enemy sniper revealed himself before taking her shot; on average this took 15 – 20 hours. On one occasion Lyudmila had to lay still in her hiding place for 3 days without food or water waiting for the enemy sniper to reveal himself. In all she was sent against 36 enemy snipers and killed them all.

By the time she had killed 309 Germans Lyudmila had become a Lieutenant and fallen in love with Sergeant Major Leonid Kitsenko who was also a sniper; the couple were married but Leonid was killed soon after.

The Germans knew who Lyudmila was and were so afraid of her skill that they tried to persuade her to defect by offering her chocolate and the promise of an officer rank in the German army. Lyudmila was never going to agree so the Germans said that when they caught her they would tear her into 309 pieces. This pleased Lyudmila because it meant that everyone knew her tally!

Lyudmila was shot four times whilst on active service and also suffered numerous shrapnel wounds although these did not stop her and she continued to fight. After being hit in the face by shrapnel from a mortar shell the ace sniper was withdrawn from the battlefield (by submarine from Sevastopol) to spend a month in hospital. Rather than sending her back to the front the Soviet High Command posted Lyudmila to train snipers, she was also given the role of propagandist.

Stalin had been trying to encourage Roosevelt to open a Second Front in Europe without success so in 1942 Stalin sent Lyudmila to America to tell her story. The young Russian woman arrived in Washington where she became the first Soviet citizen to be welcomed at the White House. Afterwards, Eleanor Roosevelt asked Lyudmila to accompany her on a tour of the country so that she could tell Americans about her experiences as a woman in combat. Rather than being impressed with Lyudmila reporters on the tour asked why she didn’t wear make-up or style her hair, and what she thought of the military uniform which made her look fat. She replied that “I wear my uniform with honour. It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.”

Eleanor Roosevelt was very impressed with the young Russian and gave her advice on public speaking. As they travelled through 43 states Lyudmila’s confidence grew and she and the First Lady became very good friends. This boost in confidence became obvious when they reached Chicago and Lyudmila confronted the men in the audience by saying “Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?” She also addressed the subject of equality by saying “Now [in the U.S.] I am looked upon a little as a curiosity, a subject for newspaper headlines, for anecdotes. In the Soviet Union I am looked upon as a citizen, as a fighter, as a soldier for my country.”

Lyudmila also visited Canada before traveling to Coventry in England where she accepted donations of £4,516 from local workers to pay for three X-ray units for the Red Army. She also visited the ruins of Coventry Cathedral before returning to Russia and continuing to train snipers until the end of the war.

Lyudmila was a national symbol of women in the USSR, she was even featured on a ration postage stamp. After the war Lyudmila returned to Kiev University and finished her Master’s Degree in History, but instead of becoming a teacher she was given a position as a research specialist for the Soviet navy.

In 1957 Eleanor Roosevelt visited Russia and the two women were re-united for an afternoon reminiscing about their tour of America.

Lyudmila died in 1974 aged 58. Her life was commemorated with a second postage stamp.

Awards and honours

  • Hero of the Soviet Union (25 October 1943)
  • Two Order of Lenin (16 July 1942 and 25 October 1943)
  • Two Medals “For Military Merit” (26 April 1942 and 13 June 1952)
  • Campaign medals

Accident or murder? The mysterious death of Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard was a superstar actor of his day. The son of Jewish immigrants from Hungary he was born in London in 1893 and served during the First World War, he was mustered out of the army a few weeks before the Battle of the Somme began in 1916 as he was suffering from shell shock. It was actually his doctor who suggested acting as a therapy little knowing that Howard would go on to international fame, particularly for his roles in Pygmalion and Gone With The Wind. When the Second World War broke out the English actor gave up his lucrative Hollywood contract (including his share of the box-office takings for Gone With The Wind) and returned home to see what he could do to further the war effort.

Leslie Howard in Gone With The Wind

Howard was not the only Hollywood actor to join up at the first opportunity, Americans Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman and Charles Bronson also served whilst Clark Gable and James Stewart were awarded medals for their bravery; on the other side of the Atlantic British actors Richard Todd, Alec Guinness and Dirk Bogarde all served in the armed forces.

Leslie Howard, however, decided that rather than fighting he would put his acting skills to use and so offered to do whatever he could for the British government. One of the first things he was asked to do was to make broadcasts to the United States which still remained a neutral country with Churchill doing everything he could to get the Americans to join the war as Britain’s allies. Many women in America were isolationists and strongly against the war, it was recognised that their views had a not insubstantial effect on the views of American men so it was thought that a matinee idol such as Howard might go a long way towards making them change their minds. But America was only a part of his focus as Leslie Howard also made programmes for the domestic audience appearing on ‘Britain Speaks’ and making National Savings documentaries for the Ministry of Information. Many of his broadcasts focused on British values which the soldiers at the front were fighting to protect – freedom, tolerance and decency. The propaganda programmes which Howard was involved in were so successful that William Joyce (better known as Lord Haw Haw) singled out Howard as a target in his radio broadcasts from Europe (‘Germany Calling’) saying that he should ‘stick to acting’.

Howard’s work for the government also included directing, co-producing and starring in several war films including 49th Parallel, The First Of The Few (the story of RJ Mitchell, the inventor of the Spitfire) and Pimpernel Smith (based on the story of the Scarlet Pimpernel who rescued aristocrats from Paris during the French Revolution, only this time the plot revolved around an English professor rescuing refugees from the Germans). The work that Howard did was obviously propaganda but he felt that it was justified whilst the country was at war with Hitler, in one broadcast Howard even used what was considered strong language for the 1940’s when he said “To hell with whether what I say is propaganda or not, I’ve never stopped to figure it out and I don’t think it matters anymore.”

On the set of The First of the Few

Howard had met Winston Churchill in 1937 when they had several informal talks where Howard made his anti-Nazi views known. Churchill remembered this and when he became Prime Minister he used Howard and other actors, including Laurence Olivier and Noel Coward, to get access to famous or important people who might be able to help with the war effort. To this end Howard went to Spain and Portugal in May 1943 purportedly to open links between Spanish and British film-makers and present a series of lectures on his films and the role of Hamlet, but it is believed that his real purpose was to try to prevent General Franco from joining the Axis powers. The Iberian peninsula was neutral during the war and so became a magnet for spies from both sides which meant that the actor was closely watched by German agents during his visit.

Pimpernel Smith

Howard left Portugal in June 1943 on a civilian Douglas DC-3 which flew regularly across the Bay of Biscay as there was an informal agreement for both sides to respect the neutrality of civilian planes. On this day, however, the agreement was ignored and six Junkers JU88 fighters shot it down killing all seventeen passengers and crew. The news of the death of incredibly popular Leslie Howard shocked the British people, and the reason for the German action raised many questions which have not been fully answered to this day.

Why was the plane shot down? Was it an accident or deliberate? If deliberate, who was the target?

One thing we do know is that this same plane making its daily Lisbon to London run had been attacked for the first time two weeks earlier, but it was assumed that the aircraft had been hit by mistake and so the flights continued. Now the plane had been fired on again, and this time shot down with a number of people on board who could have been a possible target. There was Arthur Chenhall, Howard’s manager who was travelling with him and who looked a lot like Churchill. There was also Kenneth Stonehouse who was a reporter for Reuters, Wilfred Israel who was a Jew from Berlin whose work with the Kindertransport had been, in part, the inspiration for Pimpernel Smith, Tyrrel Shervington who was the Lisbon manager for the Shell Oil Company, and Ivan Sharp who had been negotiating tungsten and wolfram imports which were important for the British war effort and deals which the Germans would obviously like to prevent. Any one of these men could have been targeted by the Germans although many thought that the clear target was Howard as when Goebbels (the German Propaganda Minister) had seen the film Pimpernel Smith he had taken it as a personal parody of himself and wanted to kill the director and star.

Pimpernel Smith

There is, however, another possibility. On the same day that Howard’s ill-fated plane set off from Portugal Winston Churchill also took off from Gibraltar to return to Britain after a visit to North Africa. The British Prime Minister was to have flown in a similar flying boat and on a similar flight path to the plane which was shot down but, due to bad weather, he decided to take a bomber instead. The German pilots who brought down the plane took photographs of the wreckage before flying back to their base in France. So, was Leslie Howard the target of the German Junkers, or did they mistake the civilian plane for the one carrying the British Prime Minister? What a coup it would have been if they had been able to shoot down and kill the man who was the inspiration for so many of the Allies.

Three days after the plane was shot down the New York Times reported that “It was believed in London that the Nazi raiders had attacked on the outside chance that Prime Minister Winston Churchill might be among the passengers.” When secret files about Ultra (the Allies’ secret Nazi code-breaking capabilities) were finally made public decades after the Second World War it was learned that the British had known in advance that the Germans assumed Churchill was on Flight 777 and so might target the plane. It was obviously vital for the war effort that Ultra could not be compromised and so the intelligence was not passed on to the Portuguese authorities or the airline. When Churchill wrote his history of the war he fed the flames of the mistaken-identity thesis when he referred to Leslie Howard’s death as one of “the inscrutable workings of fate.”

We will never know for certain the true circumstances of the death of Leslie Howard, but JB Priestley spoke for many when he made a broadcast after the actor’s death was announced on the BBC – “The war has claimed another casualty, the stage and screen have lost an unselfish artist, and millions of us have lost a friend.