My new novel, The Road of Death, is out on 1st December. If you have missed out on Book 1 why not take advantage of my pre-publication offer – No Job for a Woman is free on kindle from 28th to 30th November. Enjoy!
‘You do not leave a sick child alone to face the dark and you do not leave a child at a time like this.’
Warsaw, 1940. The Jewish ghetto is under the Nazis’ brutal control. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children slowly starve within the walls.
But while all around is darkness, one man brings hope, caring for the ever-increasing number of destitute orphans in the face of unimaginable conditions.
And, torn apart as the noose tightens around the ghetto, how will one young couple’s love survive the terrible tests of wartime?
Half a million people lived in the Warsaw ghetto. Less than one percent survived to tell their story. This novel is based on the true accounts of Misha and Sophia, and on the life of one of Poland’s greatest men, Dr Janusz Korczak.
Some of the best historical novels are based on true stories, and this is one of them. I knew the facts about Janusz Korczak and have admired both his teaching and his actions, but what I knew was the bare bones. Ms Gifford has conducted intensive research over a number of years to bring Korczak to life for me, and introduce me to other people I knew nothing about. A huge number of the characters in The Good Doctor were real people whose stories told here will touch the heart, a reminder of what is best about humanity; often exhibited in the worst of times.
This novel is well-plotted as it charts the falling fortunes of the Jews in Warsaw and surrounding areas, from wealthy families to inhabitants of an ever-shrinking ghetto. The sights and sounds and smells of their experiences put the reader squarely in this terrible story of hatred, fear and death. The descriptions of starving children, of shootings, round-up’s, and trains to the death camps cannot fail to move you. The Good Doctor Of Warsaw is a window into the darkest soul of man, and as such a reminder of what we can become if we allow ourselves to build our lives on discrimination and hatred.
But the novel is also full of hope as we follow the true stories of Janusz Korczak, Sophia and Misha as they try to provide the love and security so essential to the children in Korczak’s orphanage. These real people were prepared to put their lives on the line for others, as were many non-Jews who could not allow themselves to be a part of Hitler’s Final Solution. Following these characters through the clearing of the ghetto and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is not easy reading, but it is a book which should be read as both a lesson from the past and a guide for a better future.
Above all The Good Doctor should be read as a memorial to all those who stood up for what was right in the face of so much wrong.
(You can find out a little more about some of the children of the Warsaw Ghetto in my article When Boy Scouts Went To War
The Good Doctor Of Warsaw can be found on Amazon
You can find out more about Elizabeth Gifford here
You can find more of my Recommended Reads here
Eighty years ago, the last ever British cavalry charge took place just outside the town of Toungoo. Toungoo is an important crossroads city midway between Rangoon and Mandalay in Myanmar (known as Burma during the Second World War). In 1940, the British Royal Air Force built an airfield to the north of Toungoo, and for six months from late 1941 to early 1942, this was used as a support base and training facility for the Flying Tigers (the 1st American Volunteer Group). After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 the Japanese invaded Burma in an effort to push out the British, seize the natural resources of the country, and try to open a back door route into India. Toungoo was on their main route, and it was vital for British success that this position should be held.
The city was defended by the Chinese 200th Division, who were allies of the British. Also in the area was an element of cavalry with the British Frontier Force, a unit popular with the less well-off Indian Army cavalry officers. The unit was made up of 100 Burmese conscripts from the Pyawbwe Reserver Battalion, which was normally stationed near their home town in the centre of Burma. They were led by Indian Sikh officers under the command of Captain Arthur Sandeman, who had been seconded to the BFF from the Central India Horse.
On 18th March 1942, Sandeman’s unit were conducting reconnaissance in the area when he saw some Asian soldiers building a fortification on a nearby hill. He knew that the Chinese were busy setting up their defences around Toungoo and so initially took little notice of this group. Unfortunately, they were part of the Japanese 55th Division, and immediately opened fire on the cavalry with their machine-guns. Sandeman was out in the open and many of his men were killed in this initial attack. As they were out in the open, with no cover, there appeared to be only one course of action available to him – he ordered the bugler to sound the ‘charge’, drew his sabre, and led the remainder of his men in a direct attack on the gun emplacements. The horses had no chance against machine guns, and every one of Sandeman’s men died before reaching the Japanese lines. Sandeman died with them, sabre in hand.
The Battle of Toungoo began in earnest a few days later with almost constant bombing raids by the Japanese. The Chinese put up a heroic defence, with slow and brutal fighting house-by-house, but were eventually forced to withdraw.
Horses continued to be used by the British to transport supplies during the Burma campaign, and in other theatres of war, but never again took part in an action against the enemy. Sandeman had led what was the last cavalry charge by British forces during a war.
Captain Arthur Sandeman is remembered in the Royal Memorial Chapel at Sandhurst. His name also appears on the Rangoon Memorial, along with the names of the men who died with him. The Memorial stands in the centre of the largest war cemetery in Myanmar. It is surrounded by the graves of more than 6,000 men, the names of many more are carved on the memorial itself.
1939 – 1945
HERE ARE RECORDED THE NAMES OF TWENTY-SEVEN THOUSAND
SOLDIERS OF MANY RACES UNITED IN SERVICE TO THE BRITISH CROWN
WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN BURMA AND ASSAM BUT TO WHOM THE
FORTUNE OF WAR DENIED THE CUSTOMARY RITES ACCORDED
TO THEIR COMRADES IN DEATH
Also engraved on the rotunda in English, Burmese, Hindi, Urdu and Gurmukhi is the additional inscription
THEY DIED FOR ALL FREE MEN
You can find out more about cavalry during the Second World War here
War is not only about the men on the battlefield, it also has a profound effect on people at home. It is always important to use resources wisely, so during the Second World War civilian populations were not able to have many of the luxuries they were used to. In America the government restricted the use of iron, copper, and brass, which meant that a number of companies had to change their focus. Steinway & Sons, for example, were no longer allowed to build pianos; instead they produced coffins, as well as parts for troop transport gliders. The situation only changed when Steinway was given permission to make specially designed pianos for the troops.
Towards the end of 1941 the War Production Board asked Steinway & Sons to make heavy-duty pianos for the military. Theodore Steinway, the company president, knew that music had the potential to boost troop morale and was happy to oblige, particularly as he had four sons serving in the military. The new pianos needed to be rugged and durable enough to stand up to conditions in the field, and to be safely dropped by parachute in a crate from a B-17. They also needed to be able to survive in a variety of different environments, from deserts to jungles, and everything in between.
The first prototype instruments were ready in June 1942. As the use of materials was restricted the ‘Victory Verticals’, as the pianos were called, were built without the legs found on most upright pianos; the manufacturers used water-resistant glue and anti-insect treatments on the wood; the keys were covered with celluloid instead of ivory; the base strings used iron instead of copper binding. By clever design the instruments used only one tenth of the metal used in a conventional piano. Weighing 455 pounds, and with four handles included in the design, the Victory Vertical could be carried by four men. Each piano came with its own set of tuning tools, spare parts, instructions, and a variety of sheet music from light classics and hymns to sing-along tunes and boogi-woogie. The pianos were painted in a variety of colours – olive green, blue, and grey.
About 2,500 of these pianos were sent to every theatre of war, including Europe, Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific. They were incredibly popular with everyone, from a special service unit in Alaska to a dance band in the Philippines; and famous performers such as Yehudi Menuhin and Bob Hope (who took part in tours to entertain the troops) loved them. Another 2,500 of these pianos were produced for approved essential users such as religious organisations, schools and hotels.
It is hard to quantify how important music was for troops stationed so far from home. In May 1943, Private Kranes wrote to his mother from North Africa… “Two nights past we received welcome entertainment when a jeep pulling a small wagon came to camp. The wagon contained a light system and a Steinway pianna [sic]. Mom, you would laugh if you were to have seen it, because the Steinway is not at all like Uncle Jake’s. It is smaller and painted olive green, just like the jeep. We all got a kick out of it and sure had fun after meals when we gathered around the pianna to sing. I slept smiling and even today am humming a few of the songs we sang.” Private Kranes was killed by tank fire one week later.
The Victory Verticals continued to be used by the US military after the end of the Second World War, including in the mess of the nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Thomas A. Edison!; this piano was in use until the submarine was decommissioned in 1983. However, not all of the pianos survived the post-war years so well. Three Victory Verticals were still in use in the Philippines in 1950 and were describes as being constantly out of tune, waterlogged, with sticky keys (and quite a few missing!), squeaky pedals, and looking very much the worse for wear.
Yet those pianos had served their purpose. For men far from home in stressful situations and often in fear for their lives the Victory Verticals and the music they provided lifted the spirits and bolstered camaraderie. For men who were perhaps away from home for the first time in their lives, Steinway brought a little slice of home to them.
In 1940, Helene, young, naive, and recently married, waves goodbye to her husband, who has enlisted in the British army. Her home, Guernsey, is soon invaded by the Germans, leaving her exposed to the hardships of occupation. Forty years later, her daughter, Roz, begins a search for the truth about her father, and stumbles into the secret history of her mother’s life.
Written with emotional acuity and passionate intensity, Island Song speaks of the moral complexities of war-time allegiances, the psychological toll of living with the enemy and the messy reality of human relationships in a tightly knit community. As Roz discovers, truth is hard to pin down, and so are the rights and wrongs of those struggling to survive in the most difficult of circumstances.
Ms Bunting has created an interesting blend of the past and present which shines a light on just how difficult it was for the residents of the Channel Islands to live under German occupation, the only part of the British Isles to fall into German hands. Roz’s search for the truth about her father is interwoven with the search for art treasure plundered by the Nazi’s, therefore creating a mystery to be unravelled at the same time as a quest for identity.
The author has clearly researched life on the islands during the Second World War – the hunger and fear, the plight of the Russian deportees sent to work on the island’s defences, the feeling of isolation. Alongside this the reader is reminded that nothing is ever black and white, especially not in wartime. Some women had relationships with the occupiers – maybe because they were truly in love, maybe to receive extra rations, maybe to save a loved one from deportation – but whatever the reason they were all vilified at the end of the war. Island Song brings this dichotomy clearly into the light; when reading the experiences of Helene, Roz’s mother, it is easy to see that people often had few choices, that they made the best they could out of a very difficult situation, and the ramifications of those experiences coloured and shaped the rest of their lives. It was not only those who fought the enemy face to face who had to deal with trauma and psychological problems as they moved from war to peace.
The descriptions of the island of Guernsey in Island Song are fascinating, giving the reader a real feeling of the place and its central role in the lives of the islanders. The sounds and scents of the island are brought to life and become a counter-point for the pain and hardship of occupation. Alongside this we meet a German whose background and motivations are not made clear until the final chapter of the book, leading the reader to questions their own views and prejudices of ‘the enemy’, who may well be just another person doing their best to survive.
Is you enjoy historical fiction rooted in fact, or an unconventional love story, then you will probably enjoy Island Song.
Island Song can be found on Amazon
You can find out more about Madeleine Bunting here
You can find more of my Recommended Reads here
As well as being a time of terrible destruction, wars are also a time of rapid innovation. An example of this occurred on 13th January 1942.
The ejector seat is designed to enable a pilot or aircrew to exit a plane in an emergency – an explosive charge propels the seat out of the aircraft, and the pilot with it. Everyone knows about ejector seats and how they work, but do you know how long they have been in use?
The first attempt to create an ‘assisted escape’ for a pilot happened as early as 1910 when Everard Calthrop, who also invented an early version of the parachute, patented a bungee-assisted seat which used compressed air to eject the pilot, but not his seat. The first design with a detachable seat was invented in the late 1920’s by Romanian Anastase Dragomir. It was first tested successfully at Paris-Orly airport on 25th August 1929.
But none of these systems was in use by the military at the beginning of the Second World War, and the pilot’s only means of escape was to jump clear of a plane (bail out). Sometimes this was difficult because the pilot was injured, or the escape route wasn’t clear; and with the advent of the jet engine the g-forces were too great for a bail out. Clearly a better way of escape from an incapacitated aircraft was needed.
Heinkel and SAAB both worked independently on the project, using compressed air to eject the seat and pilot. The first system was used in a prototype jet-engined fighter – the Heinkel He 280 – in 1940, but it was not actually used in action until 1942. On 13th January of that year a German test pilot, Helmut Schenk, found the controls of his plane had iced up and were inoperable. He was flying a He 280 which was being used to test new jets for the Fieseler Fi 103, so the original jets had been removed and his He 280 was towed aloft during a heavy snow storm. When Schenk realised at 2,400m that he had no control over the aircraft, he made history when he jettisoned the towline and pressed the ejection button.
After Schenk’s emergency use of the system the first operational ejector seats were installed into the Heinkel He 219 Uhn night fighter later that same year. The system was crude, with the seat sliding along rails as it was ejected, but it worked. The innovation saved the lives of many German pilots; at the same time, the pilots of Allied jet planes were either unable to exit the plane or were likely to be killed while trying to escape. By 1944 bizarre reports were being received by the British Air Ministry of sightings of the pilots of German jets being fired into the sky as their planes crashed. It was the capture and investigation of seats from crashed Heinkels which led the Allies to develop their own ejector seats.
On 30th November 2021 France honoured the US-born 20th Century singer and activist Josephine Baker with a place in the Pantheon, the memorial to France’s national heroes, the first black woman to receive such an honour. So, who was Josephine Baker, and why is she such a hero to the French?
Josephine McDonald, the daughter of Carrie McDonald, was born in St Louis on 3rd June 1906. Her official biography states that her father was a vaudeville drummer, Eddie Carson, but it’s believed that she was actually the daughter of a member of a wealthy German family whom her mother was working for at the time. Carrie and Eddie often took Josephine onto the stage with them during their act but, unfortunately, their stage careers weren’t a success and the couple eventually split up.
Josephine grew up in a poor part of St Louis where she helped with the family finances by doing laundry, waiting on tables and babysitting; when she couldn’t find work she would dance in the streets collecting money from passers-by. By the age of 13, Josephine had left home and was touring with a vaudeville troupe, the Jones Family Band and Dixie Steppers, before joining the first African-American musical, Shuffle Along. In the show she was placed on the end of the chorus-line but drew attention to herself by exaggerating the dance routines in a comical way and soon became popular with audiences, the start of an illustrious career.
Josephine married four times over the years. Her first marriage was to Willie Wells when she was just 13 years old; the marriage was very short-lived. She married for a second time in 1921, to Willie Baker. This marriage didn’t last long either, but she kept Willie’s surname for the rest of her life as it was her name when she first became famous.
In 1925 Josephine travelled to Paris where she took part in a new show, La Revue Negre’ (The Negro Review). Her ‘Danse sauvage’ where she worn nothing but a feather skirt was seen as wild, sensual and charismatic, and she became an overnight sensation, becoming a symbol of the jazz age. She then moved on to perform at the Folies Bergère with her iconic costume – a skirt of artificial bananas and very little else. Although her audience was predominantly white Josephine’s performances followed African themes and styles. She became a French citizen in 1937 after her third marriage, to French industrialist Jean Lion. Her pet cheetah, Chiquita, often appeared on stage with her – it wasn’t uncommon for the animal to leap into the orchestra pit and terrify the musicians!
Josephine became the most successful American entertainer working in France – a level of success she could never have achieved in racially divided America. She was earning more than any other entertainer in Europe and was introduced to the elite of the time – Ernest Hemingway, Georges Simenon, Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein amongst others.
In 1927 Giuseppe Abantino became Josephine’s manager and lover. In the same year she took etiquette and singing lessons and embarked on a world tour. By the time Josephine returned to Paris she had re-invented herself and set the foundations for an enduring career. Yet despite her popularity in Europe Josephine received mixed reviews in America, often with racial undertones. TIME magazine said “Josephine Baker is a St. Louis washer-woman’s daughter who stepped out of a Negro burlesque into a life of adulation and luxury in Paris… In sex appeal to jaded Europeans of the jazz-loving type, a Negro wench always has had a headstart… But to Manhattan theatre-goers last week she was just a slightly buck-toothed young Negro woman whose figure might be matched in any night-club show, and whose dancing and singing might be topped almost anywhere outside of Paris.” An unhappy Josephine returned to France.
When France declared war on Germany in September 1939 Josephine was recruited by French Military Intelligence – the Deuxieme Bureau – to collect information about troop movements etc. from German officials she met at parties in ministries and embassies. Josephine’s undercover work was successful because of her fame which allowed her to mix with everyone from Italian bureaucrats to Japanese officials. When Germany finally invaded France Josephine left Paris for her home, Chateau des Milandes in the Dordogne, where she helped the Free French arrange visas to escape the country; Josephine also used her work as an entertainer to travel around Europe visiting neutral countries such as Spain and Portugal. She smuggled intelligence about airfields, harbours and German troop concentrations to the Spanish resistance written in invisible ink in her sheet music, from there it was sent on to England. She also carried notes pinned to her underwear, hoping that her celebrity status meant she wouldn’t be searched. As well as her work with the Resistance Josephine was a member of the Free French Forces and Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, she also served in the Red Cros, and performed for troops in North Africa and the Middle East. After the war Josephine was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’Honneur by de Gaulle. She was also awarded the Rosette of the Resistance.
Josephine had divorced Lion in 1940, she married for the fourth and last time in 1947, to conductor Jo Bouillon. This was a period in which she re-invented herself as a more serious singer, returning to the Folies Bergères in 1949. In 1951 she returned to perform in the US, initially a very successful run in which she refused to perform to segregated audiences and was named NAACP’s ‘Woman of the Year’. But her stance against discrimination and segregation ruffled too many feathers. Josephine was accused of being a communist, her work visa was cancelled, and she returned to France from where she continued to champion the American Civil Rights Movement.
Josephine returned to perform in the US where she continued to refuse to play to segregated audiences; her work for the Civil Rights Movement led to her being invited to speak at the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King gave his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. Dressed in her Free French uniform and wearing her medals Josephine described how a segregated America was so different from France – “You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”
After Martin Luther King’s assassination, his widow Coretta Scott King approached Josephine and asked if she would take her husband’s place as leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Josephine saw this as a great honour but eventually declined, saying that her children were “too young to lose their mother”.
In an effort to show that all people can live together in harmony if they are not brought up with ideas of discrimination Josephine adopted 12 babies from countries all around the world; she called them her ‘rainbow tribe’, part of what she described as her ‘experiment in brotherhood’. She continued to fight racial injustices for the rest of her life.
On 8th April 1975 Baker starred in a revue marking 50 years in show business, the audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli. Four days later Josephine was found in a coma in her bed, surrounded by newspapers with their rave reviews – she had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. She died later that day, aged 68.
Like so many people, the war years were only a small part of Josephine’s life, yet her actions during that time showed a courage which and dedication to her adopted country which means that she has always been a popular figure. That popularity, and the gratitude of the people of France, has now been recognised by an honour given to only a few.
You can see a short BBC video about Josephine here
Even before the United States entered the Second World War the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was constantly in touch with President Roosevelt. These communications were often sent via text message over a secure teletype system, by courier, or by diplomatic cable; but another, less safe, means of communication was also used – the telephone.
As well as censors monitoring all important transatlantic phone calls (including Churchill’s) an A-3 scrambling system was used in the early years of the war, but it was well known that these telephone calls could be intercepted and codes broken by an ordinary oscilloscope, (after the war it was found that a German listening post on the Dutch coast had complete transcripts of some phone calls, including ones between the Prime Minister and President). The Allied powers knew that a new and much more secure method of vocal communication was needed to help maintain communications secrets.
In the early years of the Twentieth Century, digital technology was in its infancy, being more theoretical than practical, and so Bell Laboratories began work on turning voice signals into digital data as early as 1936; research into a viable system, code-named ‘Project X’, began in 1940. This was cutting-edge technology and many patents were filed secretly – some only being disclosed in the late 1970’s. The pace of research increased when America entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Britain sent Alan Turing from Bletchley Park to evaluate the prototype before six terminals were built. The project was code-named SIGSALY (SIG indicating its link to the Army Signal Corps), although those who operated them called the prototypes ‘Green Hornets’ because anyone trying to intercept the call would only hear a buzzing sound.
The US Army formed the 805th Signal Service Company to operate SIGSALY, many of the technicians had worked for Bell Systems before the war. The system was operated for around eight hours every day, the other sixteen hours were needed for the complex testing and maintenance of the new technology.
The first transatlantic test took place in November 1942 using a One-Time Pad encryption. This meant that the voice was broken-down, digitally coded and mixed with an element from a random key-stream held on a record (the same as a music disc), this mixed sound was transmitted then re-assembled into speech at the other end, although it was difficult to recognise the voice of the speaker. Identical discs were held and used at each end so that the random sound could be matched-up and cancelled out; as each disc could only hold twelve minutes of data there were always two set up ready for use to allow for long conversations. Keeping the discs running at each end meant that if there was a short interruption in transmission the conversation could be picked up again immediately contact was restored. These discs were only used once before being destroyed so each phone call had a unique pattern which made it impossible for the enemy to de-code. The initial vinyl discs were replaced by acetate-coated aluminium records in 1943.
Each SIGSALY machine was huge, it needed 30,000watts to power the equipment which took up about 2,500 square feet and weighed 55 tons. These colossuses produced a huge amount of heat and had to be air-conditioned. Each terminal cost US$ 1 million in 1943, with twelve set up in various parts of the world this was a massive investment.
The first SIGSALY machine was set up in the Pentagon with a second in a basement of Selfridges department store on Oxford Street, London; these locations were chosen as they had space for the massive installations, and the deep Selfridges basement was safe from bombing. The US SIGSALY was linked via an extension line to the White House, while the British end was linked to 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s Cabinet War Rooms, and the US Embassy. The first discussions between the two nations took place on 15th July 1943 and are believed to have been about the Allied invasion of Sicily earlier that week; it is likely that the forthcoming invasion of Italy, planned for a few months later, was also discussed.
Security measures were needed to protect the confidentiality of calls so the cables between SIGSALY and its extensions were enclosed in pipes which were further protected by gas pressure and microswitches. Any tampering would cause the gas pressure to drop and an alarm would automatically be sounded. The whole system was Top Secret, with fewer than twenty-five of Britain’s most senior leaders knowing of its existence. As the war progressed and the Allies moved eastwards through Europe, SIGSALY terminals followed; one was set up in Paris, another in Frankfurt, and finally one in Berlin after Germany surrendered. The system was also used in the Pacific theatre, one was even on board a ship which was part of MacArthur’s Pacific Fleet. All in all, the twelve sites transmitted more than three thousand teleconferences during the latter years of the war, the majority of them amongst military commanders for planning purposes. Churchill also used SIGSALY in April 1945 to call President Truman after Roosevelt’s death; the two leaders then held a conference two weeks later in which they discussed tentative German surrender offers – that call was the longest ever made via SIGSALY at a little over two hours in length.
Any SIGSALY terminal could contact any of the other eleven; if distances were too great they could also be used to relay conversations, for example Washington was used to relay messages between London and Brisbane. The twelve locations were:
- The Pentagon in Washington
- Selfridges in London
- A second in Washington for dedicated use in the Pacific
- Pacific, on-board ship with the Pacific Fleet
- Oakland in California
- Fort Shafter in Hawaii
- Paris after the liberation of France
- Frankfurt after VE Day
- Berlin after VE Day
- Tokyo after VJ Day
After the war the SIGSALY system was removed from service, it remained secret for another thirty years and was only disclosed two years after the codebreaking work at Bletchley Park in England was de-classified. Despite the secrecy Bell Laboratories won several awards, including Best Signal Processing Technology in 1946. Of course, as the work was still classified guests at the ceremony had to accept on trust that the award was justified!
SIGSALY was a vital part of the communication system during the Second World War, and a key part of the development of technologies we use today. So, next time you rely on digital encryption to protect your messages and data on social media don’t forget that, as the United States National Security Agency has said, “Today digital technology is the backbone of the information industry…. But the pioneering work for many of these capabilities was performed early in World War II.”
Operation Eiche – the mission Winston Churchill described as “one of great daring“.
1943 was a bad year for the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini. His hopes of holding North Africa had been dashed, his decision to send Italian troops to help Hitler fight the Russians on the Easter Front was a disaster, and the Allies had landed in Sicily leaving Italy vulnerable in the south. To cap it all, the Allies bombed Rome on 19th July, damaging two of Rome’s airports as well as reducing parts of the ancient Basilica of Saint Lawrence to rubble.
Although Mussolini was a dictator he did not hold the supreme power that his friend, Adolf Hitler, had in Germany. Italy still had a king and a council with the power to remove Mussolini, and by July 1943 they had had enough. On 24th July the Grand Council passed a vote of no-confidence in their leader; Il Duce was summoned to the palace the next day, where King Victor Emmanuel told him that he was to be replaced by Marshal Badoglio. Mussolini must have been stunned when the king told him that ‘Italy has gone to bits. The soldiers don’t want to fight any more. At this moment you are the most hated man in Italy.’ The dictator, who had been in power since 1922, was further stunned to find himself immediately arrested on the orders of the monarch.
The fall of Mussolini was also a shock to Hitler, who was afraid that Italy would now change sides and support the Allies against him. The only solution was to annex Italian territory and rescue Mussolini. This would not prove as easy as he might have thought as the Italians constantly kept their prisoner on the move, so Hitler appointed Kurt Student to plan a rescue attempt – codenamed Operation Eiche – whilst Hauptsurmfuhrer Otto Skorzeny was sent to Italy to find out where Mussolini was being held. Hitler made the importance of the mission very clear when he told Skorzeny ‘Mussolini, my friend and our loyal comrade in arms, was betrayed yesterday by his king and arrested by his own countrymen. I cannot and will not leave Italy’s greatest son in the lurch. To me the Duce is the incarnation of the ancient grandeur of Rome. Italy under the new government will desert us! I will keep faith with my old ally and dear friend; he must be rescued promptly or he will be handed over to the Allies.’
Skorzeny had been wounded by shrapnel in the back of the head in 1942; when he recovered from his injury he was assigned a job on Hitler’s staff where he was developing commando warfare. In early September, with the use of intercepted radio transmissions, he finally discovered that the deposed dictator was being held in the Hotel Campo, a ski resort in the Apennine Mountains of southern Italy. Unfortunately for Skorzeny, any rescue attempt had to be briefly put on hold as Italy capitulated to the Allies on 8th September and German focus was on taking control of parts of Italy; but the mission could not be delayed for too long in case Mussolini was handed over to the enemy by the Italian government, so planning went ahead, and the rescue attempt took place on 12th September, led by Major Mors.
Mors’s plan was for 12 gliders transporting 3 platoons of Luftwaffe airborne troops and 1 platoon of SS men to land in an open area close to the hotel; at the same time, troops in 20 vehicles would take on the 100 guards at the lower cable-car station and so completely cut off the hotel higher up the mountain. The lower operation went smoothly, and was completed at 14.00 as the gliders (reduced from 12 to 10) came in to land 5 minutes later. To their dismay, the ‘open field’ which had been observed in reconnaissance photographs turned out to be a stretch of steep and rocky ground, causing one of the gliders to crash.
But this crash did not hold up the operation and, within minutes of landing, the Italians’ radio equipment had been put out of action; the guards (100 men at the hotel) appeared confused and did nothing to oppose the attacking Germans – after all, the commando forces had recently been their allies, and the prisoner they were holding was their former commander-in-chief. Skorzeny quickly took advantage of their confusion and raced to Mussolini’s room where he declared “Duce, the Führer sent me to free you”, to which Mussolini replied “I knew that my friend Adolf Hitler would not have abandoned me!”
Whilst there had been a short fire-fight when the Germans took the lower cable-car station, the entire operation at the Hotel Campo itself was conducted without a shot being fired. Photographs were taken of a smiling Mussolini with his rescuers, and even some of the Italians who should have been guarding him grinneded happily as they had their photographs taken with their attackers. Il Duce was now the guest of the Germans, and his extraction was imminent.
A Fieseler Fi 156 Short-Take-Off-and-Landing plane survived a tricky landing on the rocky strip to pick up its passenger. On take-off there was a frightening moment as the nose of the overloaded Fieseler dipped and the plane plunged down towards the valley floor, but the pilot was finally able to regain control and the deposed dictator began his flight to freedom, changing planes at Pratica di Mare before continuing on to Germany via Vienna. As the plane disappeared into the distance, the gliders which had been used in the raid were destroyed and the German troops took the cable-car down the mountain where they made good their escape.
Mussolini arrived at Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair headquarters, near Rastenburg, on 15th September. The Fuhrer was shocked to see how much weight his old friend had lost since their last meeting, but was glad that his fellow fascist leader was safe. Eleven days later Hitler set up Mussolini as leader of the Salo Republic in northern Italy, but the writing was on the wall for the man who was now hated by the people he once led. On 27th April 1945 Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, were captured by Italian partisans as they tried to escape from the advancing Allies. The following day he was executed by a firing squad and his body, with that of his mistress and their supporters, was hung by the feet from the roof of an Esso petrol station in Milan.
The popular leader who had led Italy to war, and later been rescued in what Churchill described as a mission of “great daring”, had finally received what the majority of Italian people felt were his just deserts.
In the United States 14th August is National Code Talkers Day. The Code Talkers were Native Americans who used their tribal languages to send coded communications on the battlefield during the Second World War. Many people have heard of the Diné (Navajo) Code Talkers and their contribution in the Pacific Theatre during World War 2, but they were not the only ones. Men from the Cherokee and Comanche nations also utilised their native languages in Europe and the Pacific; but what will surprise many is that the Choctaw Telephone Squad and other native units had already been used to send messages during the First World War.
These early Code Talkers were few in number, and it wasn’t until the Second World War that the US military initiated a specific policy to recruit and train Native American speakers to work in communications. I am sure that the irony of this situation was not lost on the men who were now seen as so important, yet the vital skill they possessed – to speak in their own native language – was something that had been frowned on in the past; indeed many of the men who were recruited had been forced to attend religious or government-run boarding schools set up to try to assimilate the Native peoples, and they would have been severely punished for using their traditional languages when attending those schools.
Despite requests from Winston Churchill that America should come into the war on the side of Britain and her Allies, the United States remained aloof until 7th December 1941 when the Japanese attacked the American Fleet as it lay at anchor in Pearl Harbor. The following day President Roosevelt said that 7th December 1941 was “a date which will live in infamy”, and America declared war on Japan. Britain also declared war on Japan, but it was not until Germany declared war on America on the 11th that Churchill finally had his wish and the United States came into the European war in support of the Allies.
During the early part of the war in the Pacific, Japan was able to break every military code in use by the Americans. This could not be allowed to continue and so the search was on for an unbreakable code. Philip Johnston, a veteran of the First World War who had grown up on the Navajo Nation where his father was a missionary, suggested to Major Jones at Camp Elliott in San Diego that as the Navajo language was unknown among other tribes and the wider American population there would be no chance of the Japanese breaking a code which utilised it. Major Jones was sceptical – until Johnston spoke a few words of Navajo and the go ahead was given for a trial. On 28th February 1942 four Navajo speakers sent and received coded messages; on 6th March Major General Vogel ordered the recruiting of 200 Navajo speakers to the Marines. On May 5 1942, the first 29 Navajo recruits began their basic training, unaware that there was an ulterior motive to their recruitment; once this basic training had been completed they underwent an intensive course in message transmission, and began (in a locked and guarded room) to develop a code which it was hoped the Japanese could not break.
Two types of code were developed by this first group of Code Talkers. The first, Type 1, was made up of 26 Navajo words which could be used to represent letters of the English alphabet and would allow them to spell out words e.g. the Navajo for ‘ant’ is wo-la-chee, and this was used for the letter ‘a’ in the English alphabet. By the end of the war this alphabet had been expanded to 44 so that the most frequently used letters could be represented by more than one word and so make the code even more difficult to break. Type 2 code was made up of words which could be directly translated from English to Navajo; this Type 2 code also had an initial list of 211 military terms which did not exist in Navajo (the list was later increased to 411). For example, there is no word for ‘submarine’ in Navajo and so the term besh-lo (iron fish) was created, as was Toh-Dineh-ih (sea force) for ships. This system made it possible for Code Talkers to translate three lines of English in 20 seconds, a task which would have taken around 30 minutes using existing code-breaking machines. This meant that help could be asked for and received in real time without any delays; when they were eventually deployed on the front line the fast, secure and error-free communication which Code Talkers were able to send by telephone and radio undoubtedly went on to save countless lives.
Most Code Talkers were assigned to a military unit in pairs; during battle one would operate the radio whilst the other sent in Navajo, and translated received messages into English. They took part in every major operation conducted by the Marines in the Pacific, which gave the US forces a distinct advantage over the Japanese.
The first test of the code in battle was on 7th August 1942 when 15 Navajo Code Talkers landed at Guadalcanal with the First Marine Division; Commander General Vandegrift sent a report back to the US saying that the Navajo code was an amazing success – “The enemy never understood it. We don’t understand it either, but it works. Send us some more Navajos.”
During the month-long battle for Iwo Jima, the Code Talkers sent and received more than 800 error-free messages. 5th Marine Division signal officer Major Connor said that, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
By the end of the war approximately 400 Navajo Code Talkers had been sent to the front line, 13 were killed in action; (this was higher than in other units as approximately 3.25% Code Talkers were killed in action as opposed to approximately 2.54% of US forces as a whole). The actions which Code Talkers took part in included Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Peleliu; they were also present on Utah Beach during the D Day invasion of Europe; their code remained unbroken to the end of the war.
The use of Native American languages by the US military was seen as so vital that it was not de-classified until 1968 which meant that Code Talkers were not able to tell their families and communities about the contribution of their native language to the ultimate Allied victory. Even when the work of the Code Talkers was de-classified and President Reagan declared 14th August as National Code Talkers Day in 1982, very few people were aware of this and little recognition was given. It was not until 2000 that the Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers Act was signed into law, and in 2001 that the first group of 29 Navajo Code Talkers were finally awarded Congressional Gold Medals, all other Code Talkers received Congressional Silver Medals.
If you have not seen Windtalkers – a movie about the Navajo Code Talkers staring Adam Beach, Roger Willie, Nicholas Cage and Peter Stormare – it is certainly worth watching to gain an understanding of what it was like for the Native Americans recruited to this task.