Tag Archives: WW2

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

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

Polish Boy Scouts who fought in the Warsaw Uprising

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

“Today” – struggle for Poland’s independence.

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

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

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

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

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

Boy Scout postmen during the Warsaw Uprising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Girl Guides delivering post during the Warsaw Uprising

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

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

Tadeusz Zawadzki Zoska.

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

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

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

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

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

White Rose – the students who defied Hitler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christoph Probst

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

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

By the fifth pamphlet the group was encouraging sabotage:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering White Rose

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

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

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

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

Fish Oil and Dynamite – the story of Operation Claymore

Lofoten. Photo by Pascal Debrunner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© IWM N 418

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

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

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

© IWM N 419

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

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

© IWM N 399

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

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

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

© IWM N 396

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

Johan Willem van Hulst

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

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

Walter Süskind

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

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

Henriëtte Pimentel

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

The college and creche

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

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

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

van Hulst 1969

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

Henriëtte Pimentel

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

Walter Süskind and his daughter

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

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

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

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

van Hulst and Netanyahu

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

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

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

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

The Second Great Fire of London

Balham. October 1940

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

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

Air raid shelter in Aldwych underground station © IWM HU 44272

1kg incendiary bomb © IWM (MUN 3291)

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

Ludgate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bomb damage viewed from St Pauls 1940

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

The cover of Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung

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

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

The black Polish resistance fighter – August Browne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lyudmila Pavlichenko – The most successful female sniper in history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awards and honours

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

Malta – the brave island which was awarded the George Cross

At the beginning of the Second World War Malta was a part of the British Commonwealth and had been at the centre of Britain’s strategic naval planning in the Mediterranean since the early 19th century. In early 1940, it was thought that the island could no longer be the main base for the Mediterranean Fleet because of the threat created by the close proximity of the Italian Air Force. Britain therefore moved their focus to Alexandria in  Egypt and left the defence of the western Mediterranean to the French. This worked well until France surrendered to the Germans at which point Britain set up Force H in Gibraltar to maintain a presence there, and to help with the defence of the island of Malta. With the French out of the war Malta was now the only British held harbour between Gibraltar and Alexandria and as such was needed to play a vital role as a base for air and submarine attacks on convoys supplying the Axis forces in North Africa as well as protecting supply convoys to the British forces in Egypt.

THE BRITISH ARMY ON MALTA 1942 @IWM GM946
THE BRITISH ARMY ON MALTA 1942 @IWM GM946

Germany recognised the strategic importance of Malta and subjected the island to relentless bombing attacks beginning in earnest in January 1941 with great success. The German plan was to starve the island’s military and civilian populations into submission. By early summer more than 1,500 civilians had been killed and the situation was critical with supply ships regularly being sunk and stocks of food, fuel and anti-aircraft ammunition diminishing rapidly. The situation was becoming critical when the Luftwaffe was re-deployed to Russia in the summer and Malta had a brief respite. British aircraft and submarines based on the island were able to go on the offensive against the Axis supply lines with Malta’s submarines sinking 300,000 tons of Axis shipping in less than three months. In November of 1941 63% of all Axis cargo destined for North Africa was lost which had a huge impact on Rommel’s plans for pushing the British out of North Africa.

Italian_bombing_of_the_Grand_Harbor,_Malta
Italian bombing of the Grand Harbor, Malta

In support of the forces based in Malta Churchill set up Force K with a number of cruisers and destroyers which arrived in Valetta on 21st October 1941. Force K had a huge impact in November when they sank an entire convoy of 7 German merchant ships and one of the escorting destroyers as well as damaging 3 others, in that one action Force K cut the Axis supply line by 50% and Tripoli was virtually blockaded. Things were difficult for the German troops in North Africa as Operation Crusader pushed their troops back, regular supply was essential and so replacement merchant ships were sent but these, too, fell prey to Force K with Germany losing over 60% of it’s shipping in the Mediterranean in November. The Axis forces in North Africa were in danger of running out of fuel and their planes could only fly one sortie a day as Rommel was forced to retreat in order to shorten his supply lines.

Bomb Damage Valletta Malta @© IWM A 8701
Bomb Damage Valletta Malta @© IWM A 8701

With_a_strong_anti-aircraft_defence,_RAF_fighters_and_rock-hewn_shelters,_the_islanders_of_Malta_do_not_fear_air_raidsThe British success was, however, short lived as the German aircraft returned to Sicily in December and a second siege of Malta began. As 1941 turned to 1942 the convoys carrying supplies to Malta suffered huge losses of ships and crews – between February and June less than 8% of British ships reached port and unloaded their cargo. The bombing of the island was so intense that civilians were forced to seek shelter in caves and tunnels which they dug into the limestone rock despite the lack of suitable equipment or any skilled miners. The demand for shelters was huge and those that were available were frequently overcrowded.  The insanitary conditions inside the shelters led to epidemics of dysentery, typhoid and tuberculosis among an already malnourished population.

In March 1942 a convoy of supply ships made the perilous journey from Alexandria to Malta to try to help the island but only 7,500 tons of the 26,000 tons of supplies which set out actually arrived. During this time Allied air forces were constantly in combat with the Germans losing most of their aircraft – many of them whilst still on the ground. The Germans flew bombing raids against Malta almost every day from 1st January to 24th July (there was only one 24 hour period during that time in which bombs did not fall).

Hoisting_the_red_flag_which,_with_a_siren,_warns_everyone_in_Malta_that_an_air_raid_is_imminent
Hoisting the red flag which, with a siren, warns everyone in Malta that an air raid is imminent

Things were looking bleak for the embattled island until the Luftwaffe was diverted to support Rommel which allowed Malta some breathing space. From a peak of 8,788 sorties flown against the island in April the attacks dropped to 956 in June – in March and April 1942 Axis forces dropped 6,728 tons of bombs on Malta (more than had been dropped on London during the whole of the Blitz), killing 1,493 and wounding 3,764. In recognition of the incredible fight and stoicism of the Maltese people King George VI wrote to the Governor of the island on 15th April 1942 to inform him that he was awarding the George Cross to the island and its people ‘To bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.’

 

© IWM (GM 1480)
© IWM (GM 1480)

Things began to look up in early 1942 with the arrival of Air Vice Marshall Sir Keith Park who ordered fighter planes to fly out and intercept incoming raids rather than defending over the island and then chasing the raiders away, but supply convoys continued to be at risk. With the supply situation on Malta becoming critical in August the Royal Navy put together one of the major convoys of the war – Pedestal. The convoy left Gibraltar on the night of 9th August and was under almost constant attack for most of the journey – only 5 of the 14 ships which set out arrived in Valletta, the last being an oil tanker, the SS Ohio which although badly damaged limped into port on 15th August. Although the losses were heavy 55,000 tons of supplies were landed. Thanks to Allied victories, including El Alamein, the enemy threat to shipping was reduced and convoys were also able to sail from Alexandria to Malta, this was a turning point with the Allies regaining control of the sea and air, with the arrival of more convoys in November and December the island had enough supplies to last into the new year and the siege was broken. Yet no one knew if convoys could continue, and an island of more than a quarter of a million people needed constant re-supply so starvation rationing continued into the new year.

With the siege lifted the Allies were able to use Malta as a base to launch landings in North Africa in November 1942, Sicily in July 1943 and mainland Italy in September 1943.

King George VI greets Malta servicemen.
King George VI greets Malta servicemen.

The people of Malta had suffered incredibly during the siege which is why George VI awarded the George Cross* to the island in April 1942 and visited the island himself on 20th June 1943. For security reasons no one was informed that he was coming until 5am on the 20th but that was enough time for crowds to gather to meet his ship. Three hours later the King was standing on a specially built platform so that everyone could see him as the church bells rang out to welcome him.

Guardig the cross one year after it was awarded
Maltese ratings of the Royal Navy mounting guard over the George Cross as it is ceremoniously displayed in Palace Square, Valletta, on the first anniversary of the award

255px-George_Cross_Malta_P1440218

 

 

*The George Cross, which is the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross, was instituted by King George VI, on 24 September 1940 to replace the Empire Gallantry Medal. It is intended mainly for civilians but is also awarded to certain fighting services for which purely military honours are not normally given.

 

The day that Churchill sank the French Fleet

On July 3rd 1940 the British Fleet fired on the French Fleet which was at anchor in the North African port of Mers el Kebir, near Oran in Algeria. The attack lasted for only 10 minutes but in that time hundreds of French sailors were killed and their ships crippled. Yet only days before France and Britain had been Allies fighting against Hitler’s Germany, so what went wrong?

The German Blitzkrieg was unexpected and totally devastating in its speed and France fell to the Germans which left the British in a difficult position. Many of the ships in the French Fleet were still at sea or in port and Churchill realised that it was vital to keep these resources out of enemy hands by any means possible.

Many French ships were already in British ports but there was also a large squadron of battleships in the port of Mers el Kebir. The Admiralty were worried that if these ships were to join with the Italian navy in the Mediterranean it would give the Axis powers naval superiority there and possibly make Britain’s position in North Africa untenable. On 23rd June 1940 an armistice was signed between France and Germany, and when the details were announced they confirmed the worst fears of the Admiralty. The agreement said that ‘The French war fleet is to collect in ports…under German and/or Italian control to demobilize.’ The declaration went on to say that ‘The German Government solemnly declares to the French Government that it does not intend to use the French War Fleet which is in harbours under German control for the purposes of the war.’

Germany and France sign an armisgtice © IWM HU 75914

However, the British government did not trust Hitler as he had broken many promises before, which left Churchill afraid that the French Fleet might be used to help an invasion of Britain. He had to make a decision about what to do next and so announced that ‘At all costs, at all risks, in one way or another we must make sure that the navy of France does not fall into the wrong hands.’

Churchill ordered the immediate setting up of Operation Grasp whose aim was to simultaneously seize

  1. all French ships in the UK ports of Plymouth and Portsmouth
  2. all French ships in the port of Alexandria in Egypt

Admiral Somerville. © IWM A 20772

At the same time Operation Catapult under Rear Admiral Somerville was to give an ultimatum to the ships in Mers el Kebir. Somerville had command of a force consisting of Ark Royal, Hood, Valiant, Resolution, 2 cruisers, and 11 destroyers. At Gibraltar Somerville met with Admiral North who was Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet, and Captain Holland who spoke fluent French. The three officers had been ordered to present French Admiral Gensoul with 3 options

  1. Join the Royal Navy to fight the Germans
  2. Sail to a British Port where the ships would be taken over and the crews repatriated
  3. Sail to an island in the French Caribbean, disarm, and stay there for the remainder of the war

Churchill had ordered that if Gensoul refused to make a decision he would be told to scuttle his ships. If he refused to do that the last resort would be for the British to fire on the French Fleet and sink it.

Somerville and North both felt that these orders went against what was honourable as the French had so recently been an ally; the Prime Minister understood this but explained his decision by saying that ‘you are charged with one of the most disagreeable and difficult tasks that a British Admiral has ever been faced with.’ But, despite that, he was still convinced that this confrontation with Admiral Gensoul was the only way forward.

On the morning of 3rd July the British Fleet arrived off Mers el Kebir and Holland was ferried in by the destroyer HMS Foxhound to conduct negotiations. Gensoul initially refused to allow Holland on board his flagship because he felt insulted that the British had sent a mere Captain to speak with him, as he was an admiral he insisted that talks had to be conducted by an intermediary. Gensoul eventually rejected the British proposals saying that he would scuttle his ships if the Germans tried to take them but would not do so on the orders of the British.

French Fleet at Mersel Kebir

Somerville recalled Holland and gave Gensoul until 3pm to reconsider his decision. Whilst waiting Swordfish aircraft were sent in and dropped magnetic mines across the harbour entrance to prevent the French leaving. At 2.15pm, probably in an attempt to buy more time, Gensoul said that he would finally speak directly to Holland. In acknowledgment of this Somerville extended the deadline to 5.30pm because he did not want to fire and hoped that further talks would lead to a resolution of the situation. However, Gensoul continued to insist that he was not prepared to relocate to the Caribbean or scuttle his ships unless they faced a direct threat from the Germans.

The Admiralty notified Somerville that French re-inforcements were on the way and so his time was up. Holland left the French admiral at 5.25pm whilst Gensoul still thought that the British would not open fire and that they were simply bluffing to put pressure on him to scuttle.

French Cruiser the Strasbourg

At 5.54pm the British battleships Resolution and Valient opened fire on the French Fleet, closely followed by Hood. The French tried to leave anchor to escape but it was too late and the Dunkerque, Gensoul’s flagship, was hit four times killing 181 men and causing a great deal of damage. When the Bretagne was also hit one of her main magazines exploded and the ship capsized, taking 1,079 of her crew with her.

Admiral Gensoul

At this point Somerville ordered a halt to attack to give the French time to abandon their ships so that the British could scuttle them, but the French had no intention of letting the British sink their ships so two destroyers and a battleship broke out of the harbour and returned fire on the British. Gensoul hoped to gain some time to allow these ships to escape so he sent a signal to Somerville to say that he now agreed to the British terms. Somerville, however, knew what was happening and told Gensoul that ‘Unless I see your ships sinking I shall open fire again.’

The French ships which had broken out managed to escape their British pursuers, but there was no hope for those left in Mers el Kebir. A final bombing run was made on the ships a few days later to make sure that none were seaworthy but the battle had, in effect, ended late in the afternoon of the 3rd July.

During the Battle of Mers el Kebir the French lost 1,297 sailors with over 350 wounded. They saw the British attack as an act of treachery, and at the funerals of those who died Gensoul told the remaining French sailors that ‘If there is a stain on a flag today it is certainly not on yours.’

Somerville himself felt that the action he had been ordered to lead was dishonourable and called himself ‘the unskilled butcher of Oran’. He wrote home to his wife and said ‘I just felt so damned angry being called on to do such a lousy job. We all feel dirty and ashamed that the first time we have been in action was an affair like this.’

Churchill however was unrepentant. He had felt that he could not give more time for the negotiators to seek a peaceful solution and believed that ‘Mers el Kebir showed that the British War Cabinet feared nothing and would stop at nothing.’

There are a number of theories as to why Churchill ordered his fleet to fire on the French. Some argue that the British Prime Minister was simply ruthless and took this action to show the world, particularly the Americans, that Britain was not beaten and that under his leadership there would be no surrender to the Germans.

Others argue that keeping the peace between Britain and a France which had already been defeated by the Germans was not as important to Churchill as ensuring that the French ships could not be used against the British.

For Churchill making a public statement of British resolve was a major factor in ordering the operation against the French.

So, was the sinking of the French Fleet at Mers el Kabir an unpleasant necessity (Churchill’s view), a dishonourable act (Somerville’s view) or a murderous atrocity (Gensoul’s view)? Or does the answer, as is so often the case during a time of war, lie somewhere in between?

Accident or murder? The mysterious death of Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard

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

Leslie Howard in Gone With The Wind

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

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

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

On the set of The First of the Few

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

Pimpernel Smith

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

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

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

Pimpernel Smith

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

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

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