Tag Archives: Second World War

‘Britain’s Baby Blitz’ – the world’s first jet propelled missiles

It was 75 years ago today that the world awoke to a new age as the first V1 rocket fell on the city of London.

We are all used to the term ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’, and prior to the Second World War the only weapon which could have been called that was the gas used in the trenches during the First World War. The shells used to deliver the gas were of a conventional nature, but what the Germans later developed was something completely different so that when Hitler’s new weapons rained down on London for the first time in 1944 they were almost incomprehensible in their sophistication and power. What were they? And where did they come from?

In 1939 the Oslo Report alerted London to the development of new and very advanced weapons in Germany, but the report wasn’t taken seriously – if Britain couldn’t build such weapons then obviously Germany would be incapable of it too – and it was a number of years before the threat of missile weapons aimed at Britain from the continent was recognised by the Allied powers. It was on 29th September 1943 that Albert Speer publicly promised retribution against the mass bombing of German cities, saying that the Nazis now had a new ‘secret weapon’; Hitler intended to deploy thousands of these weapons, and if he had succeeded he would almost certainly have destroyed the city of London.

Wernher von Braun at Peenemunde Army Research Centre

Research and development of the ‘secret weapon’ was carried out in a purpose-built facility at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast, which was the biggest research centre in the world between 1936 and 1945 and the first ever missile test site. With brilliant scientists like Wernher von Braun Germany was way ahead of the Allies in missile technology, and by 1942 they were making good progress with the test launch of the first V1 missile. Then, on 3rd October 1942, the Germans launched the first V2 rocket into the stratosphere at supersonic speed, changing the face of warfare for ever. The ‘V’ in their name stood for Vergeltungswaffen meaning‚ ‘revenge weapon‘, and Hitler hoped that they would be in place in time to punish Britain for the destruction of German cites and turn the tide of the war in his favour.

V2 launch Peenemunde

Allied spy planes had already identified Peenemunde as a key site in Hitler’s weapons development programme, and on 17th and 18th August 1943 more than 500 bombers set off from Britain to destroy the facility. The raid was very successful, causing severe damage at the site and putting back the missile programme by 8-12 weeks, but more importantly from the Allied point of view some of the most important scientists involved in the project were killed during the raid, a loss which could not be replaced. As well as Peenemunde, the Allied spy planes had also identified a huge concrete bunker at St Pol in northern France, and an even bigger one in a quarry at Wizernes, 40km from the English Channel. They were not sure what these structures were for but knew that they must be vitally important to the Germans (they were actually intended launch sites for the V-weapons). These missile sites in northern France were bombed following the raid on Peenemunde, and although the huge thick concrete domes were effectively bomb proof the foundations were damaged by ‘near misses’ which made some of the sites inoperable. The only bomb that could touch the massive concrete structures was the 12,000lb ‘Tall Boy’ and the even bigger ‘Grand Slam’ bombs designed by Barnes Wallis, the mastermind behind the ‘Bouncing Bomb’.

Nordhaousen V2 faclity © IWM (OWIL 64335)

The Germans could not afford the losses caused by the Allied bombings and so the V-weapons programme was relocated to the forests of Blizna in Poland and the Hertz mountains of Germany. A mountainside just outside the small town of Nordhausen was turned into an underground factory to make V-weapons, the tunnels were so long and deep that it was hard for the allies to bomb them, and impossible for them to know what was happening inside. The SS were put in charge of the V-weapons programme at this critical stage and they conscripted 60,000 slave labourers to work there, housing them in the concentration camp at Dora. The tunnels stretched for 21km, and the conditions for the workers were terrible. Until the spring of 1944, prisoners were mostly kept underground in unstable tunnels, deprived of daylight and fresh air. The mortality rate was higher than at most other concentration camps with prisoners who were too weak or ill to work were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau or Mauthausen camps to be killed. In 1944, a compound to house forced laborers was finally built above ground level south of the main factory area, giving the workers some relief from the atrocious conditions underground. Once full production of the missiles began towards the end of 1944, the Dora-Mittelbau concentration/work camp had a prisoner population of at least 12,000.

As the final elements of the V-weapons were put together work went ahead to create launch sites in northern France with many hidden ramps being created in woods. These were V1 storerooms and launch sites aimed at Southampton, Portsmouth and London; the Germans planned to use these sites to launch up to 2,000 V1’s every day.

V1 ready for launch

The V1 was a small pilotless winged bomb which carried 1 ton of high explosives and was powered by a jet engine which enabled it to travel at a maximum speed of 400 mph with a maximum reach of 200 miles (this distance decreased in poor weather conditions). A pre-set magnetic compass together with a gyroscopic auto-pilot helped it to find and maintain its course, while at the front of the flying bomb was a small propeller which measured the distance covered and shut the power to the engine when the pre-set distance had been reached, hopefully over its target. The first V1 landed on London on 13th June 1944, a week after the D Day landings. After 15th June around 100 V1’s were being launched against Britain every day, and the ‘Doodlebug’ or ‘Buzzbomb’ as they were called (named after the sinister sound they made) brought terror to the streets of London. When the sound of its engine stopped people ran for cover as the flying bomb fell from the sky. This new terror became known as ‘Britain’s Baby Blitz’.

Rescue after the first V1 13th June 1944 © IWM (HU 44273)
40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun watching for V1 rockets © IWM (H 39407)

Thousands were killed in the V1 attacks and the British fought back with everything they could. There were massed anti-aircraft guns on the south-east coast of England, and RAF pilots would either shoot down or tip over the flying bombs to force them off course. V1’s flew straight and level so they were relatively easy to take out once sighted and many were shot down before they reached their target. Of the estimated 8,000 or 9,000 launched anti-aircraft guns shot down over 1,800, a similar number were brought down by the RAF, and 200 were destroyed by barrage balloons. The greatest single loss of life caused by a V1 killed 121 people when a flying bomb landed on the Guards Chapel at Wellington Barracks during a service.

D Day had started just days before the launch of the first V1, and as the Allies advanced through northern Europe they soon overran the V1 emplacements in northern France and Holland. The launch sites were steadily pushed further and further back until England was no longer within their reach and the last doodlebug fell on London 7th September 1944.

V2 labelled nach England, to England © IWM (BU 3238)

The Baby Blitz was not, however, over. The following day, 8th September 1944, the first V2 crashed into Chiswick in London with devastating effect. At 14m high it was a streamlined rocket as tall as a four-storey building. Its engine burned a mix of liquid oxygen and alcohol-water, and it was the first missile to reach the edge of space before falling at supersonic speed, ensuring that it came out of nowhere with no warning, delivering its payload of 1 ton of high explosive at a terminal speed of 2,386 mph. The first V2 took an estimated 5 minutes to fly the 200 miles from its launch site in the Hague to London, and there was no defence against it. As the V2 explosions came without warning, the government initially attempted to conceal their cause by blaming them on defective gas pipes which had been damaged by earlier bombing. But as more and more of the missiles landed on London the public were not fooled and soon began referring to the V-2s as “flying gas pipes”.

V2 damage 8th September 1944 © IWM (HU 88803)

By October the offensive was relentless. A particularly devastating strike was on 25 November 1944 when a V-2 exploded at the Woolworth’s store in New Cross Road, killing 168 people and seriously injuring 121 more. It was difficult for Military Intelligence and the RAF to take out these missiles at source as launch sites were not fixed. The Germans would pour an innocent looking concrete slab then, just before launch a truck would arrive with the rocket, set up, fuel it, launch it and drive off. The continued Allied advance through Europe allowed them to overrun these sites, and this is what saved London with the last V2 falling on the city on 27th March 1945. The final death toll of Hitler’s Vergeltungswaffen project was discovered when Dora camp was liberated and thousands of dead slave workers were found stacked outside the underground tunnels, the SS had not even bothered to bury them.

Liberation of Dora, a surviving prisoner lying amongst the corpses

Germany’s V-weapons caused over 30,000 casualties in England (9,000 deaths, the rest wounded) and left hundreds of thousands homeless. Yet despite this, the overall destruction they caused was less than the Blitz of 1940-1941. In fact, more slave labourers died making the V-weapons (an estimated 20,000) than civilians were killed during the offensive.

But the successful creation of the V-weapons had ushered in a new type of warfare. The Americans and Russians rushed to grab this new technology and the scientists who had created it with Werner von Braun eventually going on to be one of the lead scientists on the American Saturn 5 project which took man to the moon.

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Jim Radford ‘The Shores Of Normandy’

Jim Radford

Thursday 6th June marks 75 years since the Allies invade northern Europe on the beaches of Normandy. The largest seaborne invasion in history was supported by the Mulberry Harbours, and the most moving memorial to those who built the harbours and stormed the beaches is made by Jim Radford, who was just a boy sailor aged 15 when he sailed to Normandy.

Jim has written a song about his experiences; it has been re-recorded for this anniversary and is racing up the charts towards number one.

Please take the time to read this article, and to listen to him singing of the day this boy became a man. I can think of no more fitting tribute to those who gave so much on 6th June 1944. https://www.heart.co.uk/news/who-is-d-day-veteran-jim-radford-and-whats-his-son/

The Hollywood actress who could have shortened the war.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, a Jew born in Vienna on 9th November 1914, is better known to the world as the Hollywood actress Hedy Lamar. As a child she was interested in acting and theatre, but she also had a passion for inventing things and at the age of 5 she was able to take apart and rebuild her old-fashioned music box. Her father was a banker who loved Hedy’s intellectual curiosity and interest in technology and would happily spend time explaining to her how things worked. Hedy grew up to be one of the most beautiful women in the world and began her acting career in Europe where at the age 16 she went to a film studio and got a walk on part. The young actress became world famous when she appeared naked in a film called Ecstacy which was banned by Hitler and denounced by the Pope. When she was 19 Hedy married a munitions tycoon, Fritz Mandl, who was allied with the Nazis even though he was Jewish; it was not a happy marriage. By 1937 it was clear that war would be inevitable; Jews were being systematically denied their rights which led to the death of Hedy’s father from stress and worry. Hedy left her husband and escaped to England with her mother where Hedy met the film director Louis B Mayer and went to Hollywood to work for him.

Hedy’s life in America was not easy; she made a range of films from the excellent Algiers to others which are best forgotten, she also struggled to find happiness in her private life. The one constant was her love of inventions, and after filming all day she would work on her latest invention at night. Hedy met and became friend with Howard Hughes who helped here with some of her equipment and offered his scientists to help her with anything she needed. Hedy actually helped Hughes to design the wings for his fastest planes.

Life was hard for Hedy knowing that her country was at war and the US was neutral. Her mother was still in London and planning to go to America which worried Hedy as the Atlantic crossing was incredible dangerous with German U-boats causing havoc amongst

George Antheil

the shipping. Hedy’s creative mind came up with the idea to help those making the Atlantic crossing by improving how radio-controlled torpedos worked. These new torpedos were not particularly effective as the enemy were able to jam their signals and send them off course, Hedy thought that if the launch boat could communicate with the torpedo once it was on its way and make it change direction to follow the target then the German U-boats would no longer have such a great advantage. The problem was how to prevent the enemy from jamming the signals. With a leap of creativity Hedy decided that the ships should constantly change the frequency of the signal to the torpedo in order to confuse the enemy, something she called frequency-hopping. With such a system the enemy would only be able to jam a split second at a single frequency and so the signal would get through. In 1939 a new remote-controlled music radio had been invented by Philco and Hedy realised that this could be the answer she was looking for. Why not hop around frequencies in the same way that you could hop between radio stations, constantly sending the changing signal to the torpedo in a way which would be totally secret. It was a perfect solution but Hedy didn’t know how to put it together.

This is where her friend the composer George Anthiel came in. George came up with the idea which would make Hedy’s concept work using the same system as that used by pianos which play themselves – the rolls activate piano keys so why couldn’t they activate radio frequencies in both the torpedo and the ship? The idea was for two rolls of card with holes in them (similar to those used by the pianos) to start at the same time and run at the same speed so the ship and torpedo could secretly communicate on the same pattern of frequencies; there were 88 frequencies, the number of keys on a piano, and it would be impossible for the enemy to jam these all at the same time as it would require too much power; it would also be almost impossible to crack the system as each pair of rolls could be uniquely created using a random pattern. George and Hedy took their idea to the National Inventors Council in 1941, and the Council put them in touch with a physicist at Cal Tech called Sam Mackeown, who was an expert on electronics. On 11th August 1942, U.S. Patent 2,292,387 was granted to Antheil and “Hedy Kiesler Markey”, Lamarr’s married name at the time. George and Hedy took the invention to the navy but they rejected it, and the US government seized her patent in 1942 as the ‘property of an enemy alien’.

Hedy selling war bonds

Unable to contribute to the war effort through her invention Hedy, the ‘enemy alien’, worked for the government selling war bonds and sold around $25 million worth (equivalent to around $343 million in todays money), she also spent time entertaining the troops.

After the war Hedy’s acting career was varied, and she never found happiness in her love life. In 1969 she wrote to a friend asking if he could find out what happened to her patent. By this time her idea of frequency hopping had been put into use in military communications – all the US ships used during the Cuban crisis of 1962 used frequency hopping radios. Hedy realised she should have been making money from this but was told that the patent had expired in 1959 before the navy began to use the idea, however there is evidence that they gave the idea to a contractor and it was used long before the expiry date. In about 1955 frequency hopping was used to develop a sonobuoy used by the US navy to detect submarines – once a submarine was detected signals from the sonobuoy were passed to a naval airplane and back to the ship – the system was totally secure, and the developer has even paid tribute to Lamarr’s invention which he used for the sonobuoy, and also for surveillance drones which were developed to be used over Vietnam.

Sonobouy

It was not until May 1990 that Forbes magazine became the first member of the mainstream press to write about Hedy’s invention.  In 1997 Hedy and George received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award given to individuals whose creative lifetime achievements in the fields of arts, sciences, business, or invention have significantly contributed to society.

Hedy Lamarr died on 19th January 2000, and never lived to see herself and George inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

The Hollywood actress with a love of inventing had come up with an idea which could have given the Allied navies the upper-hand over enemy U-boats and, perhaps, helped to shorten the war. Now, more than 70 years later, Hedy’s invention is used in satellite technology including US nuclear command and control; and you carry it in your pocket too, for GPS, wifi and Bluetooth all owe their origins to the Hollywood actress who often bemoaned the fact that the world knew her for her beauty whilst she believed that brains were always more important than looks.

Sonobouy used in the search for Flight MH370

 

V For Victory – the sign which Churchill appropriated from the Belgians

victor de laveleyeWe have all seen photos of Winston Churchill giving his famous ‘V for Victory’ sign during the Second World War, but we actually have Belgian tennis star Victor de Laveleye to thank for this iconic sign. de Laveleye competed in the 1920 and 1924 Olympic Games for Belgium, but he was also a politician who served as Minister of Justice in 1937. As the Germans pushed west in 1940 de Laveleye fled to Britain where he was put in charge of the BBC’s broadcasts to occupied Belgium and soon became the symbol of free Belgians everywhere. On 14th January 1941 Laveleye asked all Belgians to use the letter ‘V’ as a symbol of resistance and a rallying cry to fight the invaders because, he said, ‘V is the first letter of Victoire (victory) in French and Vrijheid (freedom) in Flemish, like the Walloons and the Flemish who today walk hand in hand, two things that are consequences of each other, Victory will give you Freedom’. He went on to say that “the occupier, by seeing this sign, always the same, infinitely repeated, [will] understand that he is surrounded, encircled by an immense crowd of citizens eagerly awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure.” The Belgian people willingly adopted the sign and the letter immediately began to appear daubed on walls in Belgium, the Netherlands, Northern France, and other parts of Europe, a symbolic act of defiance against the Nazis.

håkon_7._malt_i_veien
Resistance graffiti on a road in Norway the V sign cradeling the initials of King Haakon VII

churchill v signWinston Churchill realised how successful this symbol was in uniting people against Hitler’s regime and decided to use it during a speech in July 1941 when he said that ‘The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories and a portent of the fate awaiting Nazi tyranny. So long as the people continue to refuse all collaboration with the invader it is sure that his cause will perish and that Europe will be liberated.” Churchill continued to use the sign as his ‘signature gesture’ for the remainder of the war.

Soon after Churchill’s broadcast Douglas Ritchie at the BBC noticed that the Morse code for V was three dots and a dash ( …_ ) which was the same as the rhythm for the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and the BBC used it in its foreign language programmes directed at occupied Europe for the rest of the war. It was not long before the rhythm was used as a symbol of defiance in Europe, one which people could tap out almost anywhere.

In Germany Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, was infuriated by the ‘V campaign’, but there was nothing he could do to stop it. He tried to argue that because ‘V’ was the first letter of the German word ‘viktoria’ and the musical representation was from a symphony written by a German composer then it was really a symbol in support of the Nazi’s final victory and was a sign of the conquered population’s support of Hitler, but of course no one believed him. To try to bury the use of the symbol by the resistance the Germans started using the ‘V’ themselves, even the Eiffel tower had a ‘V’ with the slogan ‘Germany is Victorious on All Fronts’ underneath.

the eiffel tower during the nazi occupation, 1940
TheEeiffel Tower during the German occupation of France

churchill reverse v sign

 

When Churchill first used the ‘V’ sign he sometimes did it with palm facing in until it was pointed out to him that this had a rather rude meaning for the working classes; from then on Churchill made a point of holding his hand palm outwards. Of course, the sign appealed to many people precisely because of its ‘double entendre’ meaning – with a simple movement of the wrist they could indicate a belief in victory and also tell Hitler where to go!

poster

 

 

 

 

America also took the ‘V’ sign to heart and it appeared in numerous places, including on this poster from the War Production Board.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four years after de Laveleye first urged the use of the ‘V’ sign the Allies finally achieved Victory in Europe, and months later came Victory against Japan, but by that time the iconic Second World War symbol of defiance had become so embedded in the minds of the people that it is still used today.

ve day
The ground crew of a Lancaster bomber return the ‘V for Victory’ sign projected into the sky by a neighbouring searchlight crew on VE Day.

There are some interesting pictures of the use of the ’V’ sign during the Second World War in this video

Alexander Wilson – the puzzling story of a Second World War spy

Alexander-Wilson.jpg
Alexander Wilson

Not all battles during a war are fought between armies in the open field. There have always been the men and women who work in intelligence and whose stories can often be very complex and difficult to understand, if we can unravel the truth of them at all. One such example was brought to our TV screens in December 2018 when many people in the UK were enthralled by the BBC drama ‘Mrs Wilson’ which told the story of Alexander Wilson, author, spy and bigamist. What most people found fascinating was that almost eighty years after some of the events took place we still don’t know the truth about Alexander Wilson as the government has still not released all the papers relating to his work. Who was Alexander Wilson? What role did he play in the murky world of espionage before and during the Second World War? Was he a patriot or an inveterate liar? Is it possible that a look at the situation in Egypt, and specifically Cairo, during that period may lead to some answers, or will it simply lead to more questions?

Alison Wilson
Alison Wilson

One thing that we do know about Alexander Wilson is that he was a bigamist. After serving in the First World War (with wounds which meant that he could not go on active service in World War 2) he left his first wife Gladys and son Dennis to go to India as a Professor of English Literature, and it was there that he began to write spy novels. Whilst in India he also married his second wife, Dorothy, without getting a divorce from Gladys. There is no evidence that Wilson worked for MI6 at the time, although that claim has been made by some.

When Wilson returned to England in 1933 he left Dorothy and their young son, Michael, and returned to his first wife, Gladys. About eighteen months later (in 1935) he moved to London, leaving his legitimate wife behind yet again. We do know that Wilson was working for MI6 at this time as he met his third wife, Alison, when she was his secretary there (again, no divorce); Alexander and Alison had two sons, Gordon and Nigel. In 1942 Wilson told Alison that the authorities were about to say that he had been dismissed from MI6 but it was all part of an elaborate cover story which would enable him to work as a spy in the field – specifically enabling him to get close to fascists and other targets in prison. The reason MI6 gave for his dismissal was that he had embellished a story about alleged Egyptian espionage and could not be trusted; he was also later accused of burglary and declared bankrupt.

Nahas Pasha
Nahas Pasha

The key reason for Wilsons ‘dismissal’ by MI6 was that they said his reports that the Egyptian Ambassador in London was spying for the Nazi’s were pure fabrication. Yet it was well known by the authorities at the time that a number of factions in Egypt were actively helping the Nazis in the hope that they would gain independence if Britain was defeated. And the Egyptian Ambassador in London was none other than Nahas Pasha, a key nationalist who had already plotted to overthrow the pro-British Egyptian government. To understand Wilson’s story we may need to understand more about Egypt during the Second World War.

Egypt had become part of the Ottoman Empire in 1517 but western countries, including France, German, Italy, and Britain began to have more influence in the 19th century. In the 1850’s Ferdinand de Lesseps was given permission to build the Suez Canal which was underwritten by the Egyptians who were more or less forced to give the Suez Canal Company generous concessions, so much so that Egypt had to borrow large amounts of money to keep her economy going. Egypt was soon over £100 million in debt and had to allow the British Prime Minister, Disraeli, to buy up many of their shares in the Canal. France and Britain understood the importance of the Canal for trade and took over the Egyptian economy in 1876, declaring that they would maintain this role until the debts had been paid. When influential Egyptians tried to take back more control of their country British forces moved in and the British occupation of Egypt began in 1882 with the country becoming a Protectorate in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War. Many Egyptians felt cheated at the end of the war when the independence they thought they had been promised was not forthcoming, in fact they were not even allowed at the conference to decide the fate of their country. This led to riots in Cairo which spread throughout Egypt. Political instability continued until the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 which required Britain to withdraw troops from all parts of Egypt except at the Suez Canal by 1949.

King Farouk
King Farouk

Nahas Pasha served as Prime Minister of Egypt before the war but was pushed out because of his nationalistic and ant-British feelings. When young King Farouk came to the throne in 1936 things changed – he wanted an end to British occupation of his country and was very friendly with the Italians. When war broke out many (but not all) Italians and Germans were interned at the insistence of the British, but Egypt refused to declare war on Germany and remained technically neutral until 1945. At the end of May 1940 Cairo was declared an ‘open city’ which meant that as the war in North Africa ebbed and flowed through the desert British troops rubbed shoulders with Italians and Germans on the streets of Egypt’s capital city. King Farouk refused to dismiss his Italian servants who kept lines of communication open with Rome, there were rumours of a powerful transmitter at the king’s Inchasse Palace, and he kept the lights burning at his palace in Alexandria despite the black-out imposed because of the Italian bombing of British facilities. It didn’t take a member of the intelligence community to see that although nominally British those in power in Egypt were firmly on the side of the Axis.

In Cairo itself there was a vocal if ineffectual contingent of Axis spies who frequented nightspots looking for information useful to Rommel, and it was believed by many that the barman at Shepheard’s Hotel (which was frequented by British  officers) was a German spy who listened in on conversations and reported back to his superiors. Hekmet, the most famous belly-dancer in the city was later arrested and accused of being a German spy. Ex-chief of staff of the Egyptian army Aziz el Masri formed a secret anti-British organisation in the Egyptian armed forces, and students held rallies in support of German advances chanting ‘press on Rommel’; at one point Anwar Sadat was imprisoned by the British for trying to get help from the Axis powers to throw the British out of Egypt and Sudan.

One of the novels written by Alexander Wilson
A novel by Alexander Wilson

It is almost impossible to separate truth from fiction when looking at Alexander Wilson so we have little hope of understanding his motives, yet nobody disputes that Wilson was a fervent patriot who clearly wanted to serve his country in any capacity. One wonders why with all of the knowledge they had of the nationalists anti-British activities in Cairo Wilson’s superiors at MI6 said that his reports on Egyptian espionage were wrong and he could not be trusted. Was this and the later accusation of burglary and declaring him bankrupt all part of an elaborate cover as Wilson claimed? Why else would MI6 continue to meet with him until his death in 1963? He said he was still working for them while they said they had him under surveillance, but if he was so disgraced and no longer had access to sensitive information why would they feel the need to keep him under surveillance for more than twenty years?

After the war, Wilson entered yet another bigamous marriage with Elizabeth although he continued to live with Alison who knew nothing of the intricacies of his private life. Everyone accepts that he was dishonest in his relationships, but that did not necessarily transfer to his work for the intelligence services. Was Alexander Wilson simply an inveterate liar or did he work under deep cover during the war and for many years after? One thing is certain, until the British government finally releases their files on Alexander Wilson we will never know the answer.

The longest five days…Operation Compass, 9th December 1940

When we think of the early months of the Second World War we often focus on the setbacks suffered by the Allies in Europe including the disastrous fall of France and the heroic rescue of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk. We also think of the losses we suffered in North Africa against Rommel and his Afrika Korps; but what is often forgotten is that our first adversary in Africa was not the Germans but the Italians and, for a time, things there were very different.

Both Britain and Italy were intent on protecting their colonies in Africa. There were skirmished between the two sides but the Italian commander, Graziani, was doubtful that his largely un-mechanized force would be capable of defeating the smaller but motorised forces of the British. The first major movement of troops began on 13th September 1940 when the Italian 10th Army advanced into Egypt and the British retreated before them to shorten their long supply lines from Alexandria, finally setting up defensive positions east of Mersa Matruh. The Italians had advanced 60 miles in 3 days before facing similar supply problems and halting at Maktila where they set up 5 fortified camps whilst they waited for supplies and reinforcements (one reason that supplies were running short for the Italians was that vital supplies had been diverted from North Africa for the invasion of Yugoslavia). In their initial push into Egypt the Italians lost almost 3,000 men with another 700 taken prisoner as well as 150 vehicles being destroyed, resources which the Italians could ill afford to lose so reconsolidation was vital if they were to defeat the British.

Mersa Matruh
Mersah Matruh

General Wavell was in command of the British troops and ordered a limited operation to push the Italians back. This push was planned to last for five days although he insisted that Lieutenant-General Maitland Wilson should be ready to exploit any advantage that Operation Compass might give saying, ‘I do not entertain extravagant hopes of this operation but I do wish to make certain that if a big opportunity occurs we are prepared morally, mentally and administratively to use it to the fullest.’

map

Wavell’s plan was to take Sidi Barrani on the Mediterranean coast, but the Italians had not been idle during their 3 months setting up camps – they had an estimated 75,000 men in the area with around 120 tanks and 200 big guns. In opposition the British had around 25,000 men and 275 light tanks. The plan was for part of the British troops to take advantage of a 20 mile wide gap in the Italian ring of fortified camps and move west where they would then be able to turn north and south to outflank the enemy. The attacking troops rehearsed these moves on 25th – 26th November 1940 although they didn’t know that the ‘training grounds’ marked out in the desert were exact replicas of their targets at Nibeiwa and Tummar. Orders came for a second exercise and it wasn’t until the troops arrived at the proposed site that they found this was no exercise but the jumping off point for a major Operation. On the night of 7th December the Western Desert Force advanced 70 miles west to their designated start line whilst the RAF attacked Italian airfields and dummy tanks were set up at strategic points to confuse the enemy.

aroured cars
Armoured cars in North Africa

The attack proper began at 5am on 9th December with British artillery firing on the Italian camp at Nibeiwa. By 8.30am the camp had fallen with over 800 Italian and Libyan soldiers dead, 1,300 wounded and 2,000 captured as well as large quantities of supplies being taken by the British forces who only had 56 casualties. With spirits high British troops moved on from Nibeiwa towards the camps at East and West Tummar. A huge sandstorm during the day slowed the British advance but as the weather cleared Indian and New Zealand forces pushed on with the attack just before 2pm. By 4pm most of the camp at Tummar West was in British hands with East Tummar falling by dark. As the Allies continued to push west enemy positions continued to fall like dominoes. The 2nd Libyan Division lost 26 officers and 1,327 men killed, 32 officers and 804 men wounded and all survivors being taken prisoner.

At Maktila the enemy were forced into sand dunes where they were overrun by British Cruiser tanks. The remaining Italians regrouped at Sidi Barrani where the British attacked in the late afternoon of 10th with the position falling by nightfall. Wavell’s forces continued to push west causing mass surrenders of the defending troops, so much so that the number of prisoners began to slow the advance of the British who were totally unprepared for such high numbers.

matildas
British ‘Matilda’ tanks

The shocked Italian army was in full retreat with the British harrying them every step of the way. By the time the Italians had been pushed out of Egypt on 15th December (less than a week into Operation Compass) 38,300 of their men had been taken prisoner and huge amounts of equipment had been abandoned including 237 pieces of artillery and 73 tanks while the British losses consisted of 133 killed, 387 wounded and 8 missing. The British halted for a time to bring up supplies and await Australian reinforcements before attacking the enemy at Bardia (on the Egyptian coast about half way between Sid Barrini and Tobruk) which was garrisoned by 45,000 men and over 400 guns and tanks; Bardia was also surrounded by 18 miles of double barbed wire fencing with a four foot anti-tank ditch, minefields and machine gun positions. Whilst forces were amassing the British continued to attack in other sectors – Sidi Omar was taken on 16th December in a battle which lasted just 10 minutes leaving 50 Italians dead and 900 taken prisoner!

Italian_soldiers_taken_prisoner_during_Operation_Compass
Italian and Libyan Prisoners Of War

With new supplies and a new year the British resumed the attack again on 3rd January 1941 after a night of heavy bombing and bombardment of Bardia. The 6th Australian Division had air and naval support as they began the attack, blowing gaps in the barbed wire and filling in the anti-tank ditches by hand. Once they had breached the outer defences other Australian forces pushed through the gap, broke through the secondary defences and cut the city in two. Bardia finally fell after 3 days of fighting. The Italian forces were in such disarray that the commander of one British tank found himself in charge of 1,500 Italian prisoners! In all more than 25,000 Italians were captured whilst the Australians lost 130 killed and 326 wounded. The disheartened Italians regrouped at Tobruk with its vital harbour and garrison of over 25,000 within the two rings of defences (the inner 19 miles long, the outer 30 miles). The British halted their push to bring up supplies and carry out maintenance on the tanks which had covered too many miles without any repair or replacement of tracks.

australian tanks
Australian tanks

The attack on Tobruk began at 5.40am on 21st January 1941 with the British advancing an impressive 1 mile during the first hour. The Italians put up a fierce fight but by early evening the British had taken half of the port with the help of air support from the RAF. Sensing inevitable defeat the Italians began to destroy the port before finally surrendering the following morning. Within 36 hours of the initial attack the British had taken 27,000 prisoners, 230 guns and 200 vehicles with the loss of only 400 men, 355 of whom were Australians. Although they had destroyed many stores the Italians had not had enough time to destroy all of the port facilities and the British were soon able to use it for their own re-supply. Two captured water distilleries also helped to reduce the problems of supply for the attacking army which continued to push steadily westward.

Australian troops at Tobruk
Men of the Australian 2nd/11th Battalion, 6th Division pictured during the Battle of Tobruk, 22 January 1941.

The Italian reserve forces were not ready for battle but feared that they might be surrounded by the British and so began a counter-attack on 23rd January. Their push was initially successful before they were caught against the skyline on the top of a ridge and their tanks destroyed. The Italians were now desperate and slowed the British advance with mines, booby-traps and ambushes, but the British still took Derna on 29th January before pursuing the enemy along the coast road as well as moving through the mountains in order to cut of their retreat from behind. The encircling forces arrived just 30 minutes before the fleeing Italians on the 5th February. The Italians attacked the next day and fought for over 24 hours, but with more British troops arriving to surround them they surrendered on 7th February with 25,000 taken prisoner and the loss of 107 tanks and 93 guns.

This surrender of the fleeing Italians marked the end of Operation Compass, a holding exercise originally planned to last for just five days but in which two Divisions (one new to the dessert and one short on tanks) decimated an army more than 10 times its size. Wavell was able to garrison Tobruk with the aim of continuing to push the Italians westwards and out of North Africa for good. Operation Compass was a massive victory for the British and it looked as though the whole of North Africa would soon be in their hands.

The British had yet to hear of Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps.

Czech pilots of the RAF

In my last article I explained how the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, reached an agreement with Hitler in September 1938, an agreement which resulted in Germany annexing the Sudetenland and eventually taking over the whole of Czechoslovakia. There were many brave Czechs who wanted to fight against the Nazis but could not do so once their country had fallen; this article explains what happened to some of them.

In the weeks after Germany occupied Czechoslovakia thousands of soldiers and airmen managed to escape the county and joined the French Foreign Legion until the Second World War finally began in September 1939. Czech airmen then transferred to the Armée de l’Air and fought in the Battle of France. After the German Blitzkrieg and the rapid defeat of France around 4,000 Czech military personnel sailed to Britain and offered their services to the besieged island kingdom.

Blitzkrieg

On 2nd July 1940 Benes, the Czech Prime Minister in exile, asked the British Government to allow Czech airmen to help defend Britain; within a month a Czech fighter squadron and a Czech bomber squadron had been formed. The Czech pilots were an asset as they already had combat experience and nurtured a deep hatred of the Germans, whilst the British needed every pilot they could get to fight off the expected invasion by Hitler. By the end of August a second Czech fighter squadron was operating in the skies above south-east England. Many people are unaware that almost 20% of the pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain were not British. The foreign forces consisted of 147 Poles, 101 New Zealanders, 94 Canadians, 88 Czechoslovaks, 29 Belgians, 14 French, 10 Irish, 7 Americans, and 1 Palestinian. The Czech pilots soon gained a reputation for aggressive combat, no doubt fuelled by the loss of their homeland. One of these – Jacob Frantisek – was the third most successful pilot during the Battle of Britain with 17 ‘kills’, and was one of just a few ‘Triple Ace’ pilots (to qualify as an Ace you must have brought down 5 enemy planes). It is interesting to note that out of the top ten fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain (all whom shot down at least 14 enemy planes) 50% were not British and included one Czech, one Polish, one Australian and two New Zealanders.

The foreign squadrons had an impressive record against the Luftwaffe and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, head of RAF Fighter Command, said that he was not sure that Britain would have won the aerial battle without them. In recognition of their contribution the foreign pilots were visited at their base by King George VI, whilst the Polish and Czech airmen and their exploits were a common feature in the media. One of these pilots was the aforementioned Josef Frantisek who has been credited with shooting down 17 enemy aircraft in September 1940 alone, and is considered to be one of the top ‘scorers’ of the entire war even though his career as a fighter pilot was short.

Jossef Frantisek

Frantisek was born just before the outbreak of the First World War with a spirit of adventure which led to him joining the Czechoslovak Air Force, and which made it hard for him to obey orders when the armed forces were told not to resist the German invasion in 1939. He fled to Poland and served with the air force there, flying low to drop hand grenades on the attacking Germans. When Poland was defeated three weeks later Josef fled to Romania where he was interned before escaping; he travelled through the Balkans until he eventually reached Syria where he embarked for France. Once there he flew against the Germans until France was defeated and he made his way to Britain where he joined the RAF, his fourth air force in little more than a year.

Frantisek was a bit of a ‘Lone Wolf’ who would break away from the rest of his squadron to fight alone, often flying incredibly close to the enemy before opening fire or pursuing them back across the English Channel, and this is what ensured his high number of kills. Many British pilots thought that he was reckless, but it may simply have been that Josef Frantisek felt that he had nothing to lose, he had watched the German war machine roll over Europe and believed that winning the battle in the skies over Britain was the last hope of defeating Hitler. In one of his own reports Frantisek described how swarms of Messerschmitt 109s attacked so he played hide and seek with them in the clouds, during the engagement he almost collided with a German bomber and then shot down two enemy planes in a few minutes before he was hit, he ended the sortie in a cabbage field north of Brighton where he said he ‘made an excellent landing’. Josef’s short but highly successful career with the RAF ended on 8th October 1940, the day after his 27th birthday, when he crash-landed in a field in Surrey; his plane flipped over and he died instantly. No one is quite sure what happened – whether it was a lack of fuel or perhaps just sheer exhaustion – but the Allies lost a truly great pilot that day. Not long after Frantisek’s death Hitler felt that his Luftwaffe could not gain control of the skies above Britain and his invasion was postponed.

Karel Kuttelwascher

With the Battle of Britain won the foreign pilots continued to fly with the RAF against the Germans. Another Czech hero was Karel Kuttelwascher who joined the Czechoslovak Air Force when he was 18 and had already done 2,200 flying hours before the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia. Three months after the invasion he escaped to Poland hidden in a coal train, then to France where he helped the fight against the Germans before escaping to Morocco where he got a ship to England and joined the RAF. He flew for two years with No. 1 Squadron in which time he shot down enemy planes and took part in attacks against the German battle cruisers ‘Scharnhorst’ and ‘Gneisenau’. From mid-1942 Kuttelwascher flew night intrusion missions in which he flew a long-range Hurricane over enemy bases to take out German bombers as they were taking off or landing, a time when they were low and slow so vulnerable to his cannon. His ‘Night Reaper’ plane was very successful as he destroyed 15 bombers and badly damaged 5 more in just three months. On one memorable sortie he shot down three Heinkel bombers in just four minutes; Kuttelwascher was so successful that he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross twice in just 42 days. The media idolised successful pilots like Kuttelwascher and they began to call him ‘The Czech Night Hawk’; with18 kills he was the top-scoring Czech pilot of the Second World War.

Josef Koukal

Czechoslovak airmen did not only serve as pilots, they were also involved in Transport Command, Ferry Command, photo reconnaissance, air-sea rescue, and in dropping agents into enemy territory, including their homeland. 480 Czechs paid the ultimate price and did not live to see the peace – 273 of these deaths came from the bomber crews of 311 Squadron which suffered incredible losses. There were 1,500 Czechs still serving in the RAF at the end of the war, but these heroes did not receive the welcome they deserved when they returned home.

The Communists took control of Czechoslovakia in February 1948, and it was the belief of the new authorities that anyone who had fought for the western allies was suspect, probably a traitor; many of the former pilots were arrested, and Karel Janoušek, who had been head of the RAF Czech Inspectorate during the war, was imprisoned for 15 years. Many other airmen were dismissed from the forces and all of them were victimised, their wartime heroics forgotten. One example of how these Czech heroes were treated is Josef Koukal who, like Frantisek and Kuttelwascher, had made his way to the RAF via the air forces of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and France. In September 1940 he was shot down over the Isle of Sheppey, and although he was thrown clear of his plane in an explosion his clothes caught fire and he suffered burns to 72% of his body. Over the next two years Koukal underwent 22 operations at ‘The Guinea Pig Club’, the specialist burns unit at The Queen Victoria Hospital. Despite his extensive burns and two pieces of shrapnel in his right eye (which remained there for the rest of his life) Koukal was determined to fly again, his doctors could not dissuade him and he resumed operational flying in May 1943. Koukal returned to his homeland after the war, but after the Communist takeover in 1948 he was persecuted by the State Security Police. Koukal refused to be provoked so they could not arrest him but he, his wife, and their two sons were restricted to living in a single room without running water or a toilet for the next 14 years. Koukal died of a heart attack in 1980 and it was not until November 1989, after the Czech ‘Velvet Revolution’, that he finally received recognition from his homeland for the part he played in fighting to free Czechoslovakia from Nazi German control. Koukal was ‘politically and morally rehabilitated’ by the new non-Communist regime and posthumously promoted to the rank of Colonel in the Czechoslovak Air Force; at the same time the other men who had flown with the RAF were finally officially recognised. Many had already died but those who still survived and were now in their 70’s and 80’s were overnight celebrities who were finally able to show their uniforms and medals with pride, and spent as much time as possible visiting schools and clubs so that their story could finally be told.

You can find out more about these brave Czech pilots on the Free Czechoslovak Air Force webpage

Josef Koukal