Tag Archives: WW2

How a symbol of good fortune came to symbolize hate…

There is no symbol in history which has such diametrically opposed meanings as the swastika. Many people know it only as a symbol of Nazi Germany, but its origins lie much further back in history – it has been used for millennia, and is older even than the well known ancient Egyptian symbol of the ankh. The symbol’s history can be traced back to the early Indus Valley Civilization some 5,000 years ago, the word swastika itself comes from the Sanskrit ‘svastika’ meaning ‘good fortune’.

Ankh

No one knows the true origins of this cross with its arms at right angles (sometimes with a dot in each of the four quadrants), but many historians believe it represents the movement of the sun across the sky.

The swastika was also used in many other cultures beside that which emerged in the Indus Valley. It appears frequently on coins from ancient Mesopotamia, and was known in pre-Christian European cultures where archaeologists have found the symbol on a number of artifacts.

Later in history, the swastika was called the ‘gammadion’ in Byzantine and early Christian art; in Scandinavia it was the symbol of Thor’s hammer.

Thor’s hammer

By the Middle Ages, although it was not frequently used, the swastika was well known throughout the world. In England it was called the ‘fylfot’, in Germany the ‘hakenkreuz’, the Greeks called it ‘tetraskelion’, the Chinese named it ‘wan’; it also appears in artifacts from the Mayan peoples in Central and South America, and was used by native American peoples, particularly the Navajo.

Navajo use of the swastika

For 5,000 years the swastika symbolized power, the sun, life, good luck and strength; even as late as the early 20th century it was used throughout the world as a decoration on buildings, coins, and even cigarette cases; during its early days the Finnish Air Force used the symbol, and the US 45th Infantry Division wore a swastika on their shoulder patches during the First World War.

US 45th Infantry Division shoulder patch

So, what happened to change of meaning of such an ancient and benign symbol?

Europeans in the 19th century were fascinated by the ancient civilizations of India and the Near East. One of the great archaeologists of the time was Heinrich Schliemann, who spent years searching for the historical site of the city of Troy; when he found it he also found ancient carvings of the swastika. Historians were surprised to find the symbol was very similar to others which had been found on German pottery and began to speculate that there was once a vast Aryan culture which spanned Europe and Asia. It was not long, however, before nationalists began to claim that Aryanism was not about a common culture but that the Aryans were a superior race, and that Germans were their descendants. After German unification in 1841 German nationalists began to see themselves as the descendants of this ancient master race – the Aryans – and adopted the swastika as their symbol. By the early 20th century the majority of nationalistic societies in Germany were using it, so when Hitler decided that his fledgling Nazi Party needed a symbol of its own he adopted the swastika, and it became the official emblem of the party in the form we now know in 1920 – a red flag with a white circle, and the black swastika in its centre. Hitler described his new flag in his book ‘Mein Kampf’ as “In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalistic idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man, and, by the same token, the victory of the idea of creative work, which as such always has been and always will be anti-Semitic.” Hitler’s words were the first time that this ancient symbol of good luck was linked with anti-Semitism and death. In September 1935 Hitler went one step further and made the swastika the national flag of Germany. It was a powerful symbol utilizing the colours of Imperial Germany with an identification as ‘the master race’ intended to instill pride in the German people, and fear into Jews and other enemies of Nazi Germany.

At a rally, members of the Hitler Youth parade in the formation of a swastika to honor the Unknown Soldier. Germany, August 27, 1933.

At the same time that the swastika became Germany’s national flag the German government passed the Nuremberg Race Laws, including the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour, which further discriminated against Jews. Part of the reason for the enacting of these laws was the way in which the Nazi party, and the swastika, were being seen abroad. On 26th July 1935 the SS Bremen, a German passenger liner which was docked in New York, was the focus of a protest against increasing anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin, and the swastika was taken from the ship and thrown into the river. Although the police arrested a number of the demonstrators Germany issued a formal protest to the Americans, and when the courts freed the majority of the defendants Hitler passed the Reich Flag Law. In these laws, sexual relations and marriage were forbidden between Germans ‘or those of kindred blood’ and Jews, and Jews were banned from using the new national flag or even displaying the nation colours.

The use of the swastika as the national flag of Germany ended in May 1945 with the nation’s surrender at the end of the war. The Allied governments, who controlled the defeated nation, banned all Nazi organisations and their symbols – to use the swastika became a criminal act. Today the public display of Nazi symbols, including the swastika, is banned in Germany and many other European countries. It is not, however, against the law to display Nazi symbols and propaganda in the United States which has a strong tradition protecting the freedom of speech. In neo-Nazi groups throughout the world the swastika is still the most popular symbol.

National Socialist Movement USA (from Southern Poverty Law Centre website)

So, what does the swastika mean to people today? If you are Buddhist or Hindu you will still use it as a religious symbol of good luck, but the majority of the world is unaware of this and only see it as a symbol of hate. How can one differentiate between the two? Well, if you look closely you will see that the arms of the cross in the Nazi symbol radiate clockwise, whilst the symbol of eastern religions usually radiates anti-clockwise, although both are known in Hinduism – the left-hand/anti-clockwise is more technically known as the sauvastika and has always meant the opposite to the swastika – the right-handed standing for the good whilst the left-handed symbolises night, magical practices and Kali, the terrifying Hindu goddess; it is probably not surprising that Hitler chose the sauvastika version to represent the Nazi party.

Buddha with swastika

The right-hand/clock-wise symbol is the one you will see whilst travelling in the Far East. It must be a great sadness to Hindus to hear people calling the swastika a symbol of hate when, for them, it is the most widely used auspicious symbol in their religion, as it also is for Jains and Buddhists. For Jains it is the emblem of their Seventh Saint, as well as the four arms of the swastika symbolizing the four possibilities for re-birth, depending on how you live this life – birth in the animal or plant world, on Earth, in hell, or in the world of spirits. For Buddhists, the swastika symbolizes the footprints or feet of the Buddha; it is often found at the beginning and end of religious inscriptions, and it was via Buddhism that the swastika found its way to Japan and China where it symbolizes long life and prosperity.

Ganesh with swastika on palm

If you travel in India you will see the swastika, which is one of the 108 symbols of Vishnu, wherever you look – they are used on the opening pages of account books, during marriage services, on cars and lorries, on the walls of temples houses and other buildings, and even on clothing. In many pictures and statues gods and goddesses are shown with a swastika on the palm of the hand, and it is considered to be a very auspicious sign if a person has the shape of a swastika in the lines of their palm, the swastika might be worn as jewellery. It is even used as a girl’s name.

So, whenever you see a swastika take a moment to look closely at it and its context. Is it being used as a sign of hate? Or as an ancient symbol of good fortune?

Hitler’s biggest mistake – Operation Barbarossa

Eighty years ago, on 22nd June 1941, Germany launched a massive attack against the Soviet Union, code named Operation Barbarossa. Hitler believed that this attack would play a key part in the eventual outcome of the war. He was right, but not in the way he thought…

In Mein Kampf, published in 1925, Hitler said that if Germany was to be secure for future generations she needed Lebensraum (living space), and that he intended to provide this by invading the Soviet Union. Racial policies developed by Nazi Germany described the population of the Soviet Union (along with the rest of Eastern Europe) as non-Aryan untermenschen (sub-humans) ruled by Jewish Bolsheviks, it was therefore Hitler’s plan to kill, enslave, or deport the Slavic and Russian populations and replace them with Germanic peoples. Despite this plan for the east, Hitler wanted the early aggressive focus of his war to be on western Europe and so, in August 1939, he signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in which the countries agreed that they would not take military action against each other for ten years and, secretly, also agreed to divide eastern Europe between themselves including the partition of Poland. Stalin was willing to sign the Pact because he had conducted a number of purges in the army in the late 1930’s in which three-quarters of his senior officers had been shot or imprisoned leading to a drop in efficiency and morale in what had been the largest and one of the most technologically advanced armies in the world. The Pact would give him time to reorganise. The world was stunned to hear of the agreement between the Soviet Union and Germany. How could two such diametrically opposed countries reach such an agreement? And what did it mean for the rest of the world? The answer to that was swift in coming when Germany invaded Poland on 1st September 1939.

After Hitler’s swift victory in Poland the USSR annexed the eastern part of the country and, reassured by this, Stalin entered into a trade deal with Hitler in which the Soviets would provide raw materials (oil, wheat etc.) to Germany in return for military equipment and trade goods. Stalin was convinced that his military strength was far superior to Germany’s and so felt secure in the Pact, particularly as Hitler appeared to have his attention firmly focussed on the west.

The geopolitical disposition of Europe in 1941, immediately before the start of Operation Barbarossa. The grey area represents Nazi Germany, its allies, and countries under its firm control.

By the middle of 1940, with tensions between Germany and the USSR rising in the Balkans, Hitler decided that once his victories in the west were complete, he would turn east to defeat bolshevism. He couldn’t invade Russian with pro-British Yugoslavia and Greece presenting a threat to his south so, on April 6th 1941, Germany invaded the Balkans. Victory was swift with Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia, falling on 12th April, and Athens also captured in less than three weeks. With his southern flank now safe the way was clear for Hitler to initiate Operation Barbarossa – his attack on Russia. Hitler believed that pushing into Russia along a line from Archangel in the north to Astrakhan in the south would create a buffer to protect Germany from Soviet bombers whilst also providing forced labour as there was a shortage of workers in agriculture and industry in Germany. Hitler believed that victory against the USSR would be swift and that Britain would then seek peace; if Churchill did not, then Hitler would be able to call on the vast resources of the Soviet Union to defeat the British Empire.

(© IWM HU 5086) German horse-drawn transport crossing a pontoon bridge over the river Dnieper at Smolensk. The infantry divisions were dependent on horses to pull their artillery and supplies, and some 700,000 were used in Operation ‘Barbarossa’. 

Hitler did not like the first plan drawn up for the push eastward so a new plan, named Operation Barbarossa, was put together. Many high-ranking Germans thought that an invasion of the USSR would create an economic burden on the Reich rather than being a benefit, but Hitler would not listen and the attack was launched on 22nd June 1941. At that time Russia had military strength in the region of 5.5 million men with a reserve force of 14 million in the process of being mobilized. This was a vast number, but units were dispersed and transportation lacking; on the positive side, the Soviets had 33,000 artillery pieces which far outnumbered the German resources. With 20,000 tanks Russia also outnumbered Germany’s 6,000; though not as modern or powerful as the German panzers they were still a formidable force. Yet Hitler was convinced that his superior weaponry and speed would defeat the Russians before their massive numbers could overwhelm his troops.

©IWM German PZKPFW 38(T) TANK Many of these Czech-built light tanks were used by the Germans during Barbarossa. The armoured divisions were well trained and led, but lacked the resources and reserves for a sustained campaign.

Hitler believed that victory over the USSR would be swift, as had been his victory over western mainland Europe. At 3.15 am 22nd June 1941 more than 3 million German and Axis troops swarmed across a 1,800-mile-long front. The Luftwaffe had total domination of the air and targeted Soviet airfields as the ground attack began. The Germans crossed the River Bug on the border between Russia and Poland and their panzers made rapid progress, reaching more than fifty miles into enemy territory in just two days. The Russian counter-attacks were badly organised and easily defeated, with tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers taken prisoner – Stalin had been caught off guard as he still did not believe that Hitler would invade. With a three-pronged attack – north towards Leningrad, south towards Ukraine, and towards Moscow in the centre – German panzers gained a quick advantage; in the first three days the Soviets lost 3,922 aircraft whilst the Luftwaffe lost only 78, and millions of Soviet soldiers were taken prisoner. Following the army came the Einsatzgruppen (SS death squads) who began to wipe out civilians, particularly Jews, as well as execute captured enemy officers and many prisoners of war. The ‘Hunger Plan’ was also put into place – creating a food surplus to be sent back to Germany by deliberately starving the conquered populations.

(© IWM HU 8925) Weary German troops of Army Group North, their faces caked in dust, cross a bridge near Jonava in Lithuania. The infantry were expected to cover at least 20 miles per day. However, they still lagged many miles behind the panzer spearheads. 

The vast distances involved in the Soviet Union combined with the difficult terrain meant that the initial swift advance by the Germany forces began to slow; Hitler had also underestimated Soviet troop numbers for, even with the terrible losses they had already suffered, the Russian will to fight a patriotic war of defence was strong. Meanwhile in Britain, Churchill was relieved that the country was no longer standing alone against Hitler’s Reich, and said that any enemy of Nazi Germany was a friend of Britain’s no matter what their political differences in the past. He sent a mission to Moscow to sign a treaty of mutual assistance, although there was little Britain could do to help Russia apart from sending aid by sea.

(© IWM HU 111380) A burning T-34 and other vehicles destroyed in the encirclement battles between Bialystok and Minsk. Soviet tank units were badly handled during ‘Barbarossa’, and the standard of crew training was poor. The first T-34s were also prone to mechanical breakdowns.

It might have been possible for Germany to push on to victory – the Centre Army Group was only 200 miles from Moscow – but Hitler made his first big mistake by delaying the push on the capital in order to reinforce his troops in Ukraine to the south, where Kiev was eventually taken by the end of September. In the north the Germans surrounded Leningrad, although their forces were not strong enough to take the city which was then besieged for 872 days. Conditions in Leningrad were horriffic with very little food getting into the city – over 11,000 people died in November and more than 3,700 died of starvation in a single day in December – but the city refused to surrender.

Hitler’s diversion of troops to the south and failure to continue the push towards Moscow in August meant that rather than completing Operation Barbarossa by the autumn there was still a long way to go when the Russian winter set in.  The Soviets had had time to re-enforce the capital with the civilian population digging defences around the city, but it was the weather, not these defences, which were to lead to disaster for the Germans. On 8th October it began to rain, bogging down the enemy advance in a sea of mud.  A combination of the stiffening of Russian resolve and the rain meant that by the end of October German Army Group Centre was still 50 miles from Moscow.

(© IWM HU 5031) The graves of German dead are marked with a simple cross and their steel helmets. The Germans suffered over 750,000 casualties during Operation ‘Barbarossa’, with some 200,000 men killed. By comparison, 30,000 died during the campaign in the west in 1940.

Because he had been expecting a swift victory Hitler had not equipped his troops for winter weather and the advance slowed. By 4th December the leading units of the Central Army Group were just nine miles from Red Square, but temperatures plunged overnight meaning that weapons froze, tanks would not start, and soldiers suffered from frostbite. Things were so bad that the attack had to be halted on the morning of 5th December with the Germans confident that they would have the final victory in the spring.

Meanwhile Stalin had been anticipating an attack by Japan which had tied up troops in the east of the Soviet Union; when he was assured that no attack was forthcoming more than 30 Divisions began moving west towards the attacking Germans. Half a million soldiers well-equipped and well-trained in winter fighting were soon in the area around Moscow. As the Germans halted their advance on 5th December the Russians launched a savage attack against them and the Germans were forced to fall back before a force they had believed were on the point of defeat. The Russians continued their counter-attack for the next seven days. The German push towards Moscow became a war of attrition on the part of the Soviets, and Hitler’s first defeat of the war.

RIA Novosti archive, image #2564 / Samaryi Guraryi / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, Soviet Ilyushin il-2s flying over German positions near Moscow

Operation Barbarossa inflicted huge casualties on the Soviet Army and there were great territorial gains, but it failed to achieve Hitler’s primary objective – to force the capitulation of the Soviet Union. Hitler blamed the winter weather for this, but the key reason for defeat was that he had assumed Germany would win a quick victory so there was no long-term strategic planning, no preparations for a winter war, and inadequate supply lines. On a more fundamental level, Hitler underestimated the strength of the Russian will to resist when called upon to defend ‘Mother Russia’, in fact his own actions increased the Soviet determination when the treatment of POW’s and the civilian population became known. The failure of Operation Barbarossa was not the end of the fighting in the east, another massive German offensive took place in June 1942, but this met with similar obstacles and similar failure – the prolonged Battle of Stalingrad being a decisive factor.

(© IWM HU 111371) German motorcyclists pass one of the seemingly endless columns of Russian prisoners. Approximately 2.8 million Soviet POWs were killed by the German armed forces and other special units between June 1941 and February 1942, mainly through deliberate starvation and exposure to the elements. It was one of the most shocking acts of human atrocity in history.

During Operation Barbarossa about three million personnel of the Axis powers invaded Russia (in comparison only around 400,000 Allied troops took part on D Day – 156,000 troops landed on the beaches of Normandy with a further 250,000 in air and sea support), with 600,000 motor vehicles, and 600,000 horses for transport. Not only did the operation open up a new front geographically, but it was also responsible for the Soviet Union joining Britain as an ally. The eastern Front saw some of the world’s largest battles, highest casualties, and most horrific atrocities perpetrated against a civilian population. Approximately 5 million soviet combatants were taken prisoner during the years of Germany’s Russian campaigns, 3.3 million of whom were either shot or starved to death. The civilian population was systematically starved, whilst mass shootings and gassing operations murdered over a million soviet Jews.

© IWM HU 111384  German troops occupy a burning Russian village during Operation Barbarossa, summer 1941.

Far from giving German people the Lebensraum that he had promised, Hitler’s pre-emptive and possibly unnecessary attack on the Soviet Union played a significant part in his losing the war four long years later.

Recommended Read – The Slaves Of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Measuring out the wartime days in a small town on the Thames, Miss Roach is not unattractive but no longer quite young. The Rosamund Tea Rooms boarding house, where she lives with half a dozen others, is as grey and lonely as its residents. For Miss Roach, ‘slave of her task-master, solitude’, a shaft of not altogether welcome light is suddenly beamed upon her, with the appearance of a charismatic and emotional American Lieutenant. With him comes change – tipping the precariously balanced society of the house and presenting Miss Roach herself with a dilemma.

Published just after the war (1947) The Slaves Of Solitude is set in 1943 and is a book about war from which war is remarkably absent. Set in the fictional town of Thames Lockdon (based on Henley-on-Thames) the novel reflects a provincial tranquillity where everything is touched by the conflict – from blackouts to food shortages, lack of small comforts to the arrival of the ubiquitous GI’s. Patrick Hamilton beautifully captures the narrow world and pettiness of middle England during the Second World War, portraying ordinary lives lived in extraordinary circumstance.

The central character of this novel, Miss Roach, left London after being bombed-out, and now resides at the Rosamund Tea Rooms with an eclectic mix of characters. In her mid-thirties, her prim timidity makes her the butt of the bullying Mr Thwaites, and she spends much of her time re-playing her conversations with him (and others) in her head. That is something which we all do, and Miss Roach finds herself with the same dilemma – does this re-playing of conversation clear up what was said or cloud matters even further! As the novel progresses, life brightens for Miss Roach (who hates to be referred to by her Christian name) when she meets a charming though somewhat enigmatic American soldier, and also befriends a German émigré – a woman not too far from her own age.

Building on the relationship between these three people and Mr Thwaites the story unfolds with gentle humour, quiet action and circuitous conversations. On the periphery of these interactions, we find Mr Prest who is seen as an oddity and ignored be his fellow residents at the Rosamund Tea Rooms, yet he pursues a secret life in London. As the book reaches its conclusion it is Mr Prest who is the instigator of Miss Roach’s ‘purification’.

The Slaves Of Solitude is a brilliantly written tragicomedy carefully detailed to evoke a specific time and place in which Miss Roach’s silent observations of her fellow guests tellingly reveal that this could be any time and any place. The characters are superbly drawn and the author has used his masterful knowledge of language to bring them to life with all their foibles; he handles the full range of human emotions with a light and deft touch which cannot but resonate with the reader.

For a gentle and humorous read you would find it hard to better The Slaves Of Solitude.

The Slaves Of Solitude can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Patrick Hamilton here

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