2 – Killing Uncle Adolf
Hitler has become a byword for evil. Many of those unfortunate enough to share the dictator’s surname ditched it. Willy Hitler did, but not until after the war, in which he fought against the Germans in an American uniform. In fact, he fought against his uncle, because Willy was Adolf Hitler’s nephew.
Hitler had an illegitimate half-brother called Alois. There’s no suggestion that he had anything like the poisonous character of his elder sibling, but he wasn’t a great father. Alois and his father didn’t get on, and the presence of a living, breathing reminder of her husband’s infidelity didn’t exactly go down well with Mrs Hitler either.
He went on the run to Dublin, where he fell in love with Bridget Dowling. They married in London and moved to Liverpool where they had a son, William. Alois left his family just before the start of World War I and was separated from them for years. According to Dowling, Uncle Adolf came to Liverpool in 1912 trying to get out of Austrian army service.
Alois found a new wife in Germany and started another family. This son, Heinz, was to die under Soviet torture after fighting for the Nazis.
Willy visited his father in the 1920s, and when Uncle Adolf rose to power he thought he’d cash in. A job as a car salesman wasn’t exactly what he had in mind and he started to put pressure on Adolf, threatening to reveal embarrassing family secrets. When he was promised a bit of power if he relinquished his British citizenship, he smelled a rat and ran back to London. He may have spied for the British, but that is by no means certain.
He was in America on a publicity tour – an article called Why I Hate My Uncle had been a hit in London – when war broke out, trapping him in the States.
Five years later, he was granted special permission by the president to join the navy, and was wounded in action.
After the war he lived an unremarkable family life. He finally changed his name, to Stuart-Houston, although rather oddly named one of his sons Alexander Adolf, another worked for the American tax office and the third was a social worker of all things. None of them had children, although the family have denied this was to end the Hitler bloodline.
3 – The bravest regiment fighting against their forefathers
The Germans made a speciality of enlisting foreigners in their most ideologically-pure unites, the Waffen SS, setting up brigades that represented almost every nation in Europe. It went the other way too. The bravest regiment, the most decorated unit in entire American military history was the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a collection of soldiers almost all of Japanese descent.
When the Japanese wreaked havoc on the American fleet at Pearl Harbour, the United States immediately classified all Japanese-Americans as potentially dangerous ‘enemy aliens’. They were exempt from military service and more than 100,000 Nisei – as Japanese-Americans were called – were locked up in camps. Hawaii had such a high Japanese population that the islands were put under martial law.
But some Nisei wanted to fight, and volunteered. The result was the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Their motto was taken from a Hawaiian gambling phrase, but entered common usage in the States, they were called the “Go for Broke” brigade.
The lists of their engagement is too long to repeat here, but they served in Europe from 1944, seeing fierce fighting from the off. Their medal count is as follows: 21 Medals of Honor (the USA’s highest military honour); 52 Distinguished Service Crosses; one Distinguished Service Medal; 560 Silver Stars; 22 Legion of Merit Medals; 15 Soldiers Medals and 4,000 Bronze Stars. The regiment received 9,486 Purple Hearts and had a campaign casualty rate of 93%. Wounded men were notorious for escaping from hospitals to return to their comrades.
Sadly, there is controversy over one action they were involved in, when it was believed by some members of the unit that they were being used as expendable, foreign cannon fodder by an officer. Many years later, one of their officers – himself white – refused to shake the hand of the general who had ordered his men into suicidal attacks.
After the war, they faced another battle as they returned to a nation they called home, but which was rife with anti-Japanese feeling.
But they were also celebrated, in the 1951 film Go For Broke, in a memorial in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles and in 2010, the unit was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
4 – The soldier who never gave up… until 1974
You may have thought that the stories of soldiers continuing to believe the war was on were a joke. They’re not. There really was a Japanese soldier who emerged from the jungles unaware that the war had been over for decades – Hiroo Onoda was discovered in 1974. He wasn’t alone either, but simply the best known of the three Imperial troopers discovered in the 1970s.
Onoda’s story is particularly well known because of the way it ended, with his former commander travelling all the way from Japan to give him the order to give up.
Onoda had joined up as a 20-year-old and became an intelligence officer whose assignment to Lubang in the Philippines in 1944 was to become the longest tour of duty of the whole war. He was just following orders, which included the express instruction not to surrender or end his own life.
Most of Onoda’s comrades were captured or killed by the invading Americans in 1945, but he and three comrades headed for the hills, where they killed around 30 locals in what they believed were guerrilla raids.
A leaflet telling them that the war was over was disregarded as Allied propaganda, and even when Japanese officers sent messages they believed them to be a trick.
One of the Onoda party gave in in 1950, forcing his comrades to become ever more isolated. A second was shot and killed in 1954, and Onoda was left alone when his final buddy was shot in 1972 – at the time the pair had been burning rice as part of what they believed was their military duty to disrupt local life.
He was eventually talked out of the jungle by a Japanese hippy. Norio Suzuki was on a world trip looking for, “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order,” and found his man. Still Onoda wouldn’t give in until he received the proper order which arrived on March 9, 1974.
He was pardoned for the killings he had carried out and returned to Japan where he was something of a celebrity. Tiring of the attention, he left to Brazil to farm cattle.
5 – The canine heroes of the Soviet Union
Cavalry had largely been superseded by motorised transport by World War II, but animals were still enlisted in the war effort, usually with tragic results for the poor creatures concerned.
Faced with the terrible onslaught of Operation Barbarossa, the German assault of 1941 that involved 4 million troops, the Soviet Union was desperate to throw everything at the invaders, whose murderous intent towards the civilian population soon became clear.
Among the saddest stories of this great human tragedy are the sacrifice of the Soviet ‘bomb dogs’. They were the result of a training programme that dated back to 1930, and 40,000 dogs were enlisted in the Red Army during World War II.
They were originally trained to release a bomb under a tank and run for cover, but in real life it didn’t work out that way. Many returned to their own side with their bombs still intact and killed their human comrades, those that were captured were used in anti-Soviet propaganda.
The Soviet Union – a renowned fount of disinformation – claimed that 300 tanks were blown up by their dogs. The best neutral estimate is that 12 tanks were destroyed at the Battle of Kursk. As soon as the Germans learned about the dogs a new target was added to their destruction behind the front line – every dog was shot.
6 – Music while you kill
We all know that a good tune can help an unpleasant task seem that little bit easier, and it’s a thought that isn’t lost on even the sickest military mind. The Nazis took this to its logical conclusion by having a theme tune for each of their invasions.
Propaganda was one way that a tune could be turned to military use. Almost all combatant nations had musicians working for the war effort. Perhaps the best known of all the war songs was the German song Lilli Marlene, which became a hit with both British and German troops.
Troops were entertained by travelling bands. The great American dance band leader, Glenn Miller was on his way to play for American soldiers in France when his plane was lost, depriving the world of a great musical talent.
Some songs were crude attacks on the enemy, but the war also inspired more tender emotions. Vera Lynn became a great British star with her hits (There’ll be Bluebirds Over) the White Cliffs of Dover and We’ll Meet Again, which was also a smash in America.
The Nazis had outlawed much modern music as degenerate and insufficiently racially pure, but propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels had his own swing band (jazz, with its African American roots was particularly despised), Charlie and His Orchestra, who featured in propaganda broadcasts.
Perhaps most striking of all was the German practice of assigning a theme to each invasion, which was to be played on radio broadcasts. Many of these are now lost to history, but for the invasion of Russia, Operation Barbarossa was Les Preludes by Franz Liszt.
7 – Our war in America
Britain’s ‘finest hour’ was when the fall of France left it standing alone against Nazi Germany, and the men of the RAF won the Battle of Britain against tremendous odds. However, without help even Winston Churchill knew that the UK couldn’t stand along for long. To support that end he set up a secret intelligence operation in New York to help bring the Americans into the war.
American and British secret services stopped co-operating when war broke out, to protect America’s neutrality. America became an important front in the war. German and Italian immigrants to the States were a fertile ground for Nazi and Fascist propaganda, and winning the war of minds was considered an important battle.
There was straight ahead intelligence work, of course. Britain relied on supplies crossing the Atlantic, and spies were needed to help keep them safe and counter Nazi agents’ efforts to sabotage them.
The British Security Coordination went beyond that, however, and was a completely covert operation to support British interests in the States.
They even set up a radio station to get their message out. Hundreds of anti-German and pro-British stories were planted in newspapers with no-one any the wiser. A German agent was outed via the columns of the New York Herald Tribune.
The British promised the Americans – who, although neutral, were very much against the Nazis – not to recruit American agents, but went ahead and did so, as many as 3,000 of them.
To shut down a Brazil-to-Italy air connection the BSC forged a letter to the Brazilian side of the equation making the Italian airline appear to mock Brazil’s president.
Once America entered the war, the British handed over or opened up many of their operations.
8 – Do pass Go
The Prisoner of War has a special place in the hearts of the film maker. It was the duty of POWs to escape, and many made incredibly daring attempts that provided compelling post-war films – it helps that the action is usually confined to a very limited space that helps with budgets. Many Allied POWs made it over the wire, and around a third owed their freedom to Monopoly.
Waddington’s, who made the game, were commissioned by the British intelligence services to prepare special versions of the game. The sets were passed to the Red Cross, who sent them in parcels to the prisoner of war camps.
The sign that signalled that this was more than just a game, was a small red dot in the Free Parking space on the board. On spotting this, the interned soldier would know that he had a gem – inside the box was real German money among the play stuff, a file inside the board, a compass in the dog piece and silk maps inside the hotel pieces.
That was to help them once captured, but many RAF personnel went into action armed with a useful game. They were given packs of cards that could be soaked in water to unfold into a handy map to help them find their way home.
9 – The man who took on the Nazis with a long bow
The bow is a great British weapon. Welsh archers using it at Agincourt wreaked havoc on their high-born French opponents, who considered it a terrible insult to be asked to fight commoners. The advent of effective personal firearms put an end to the bow, but for one man it lived on. The appropriately-named Mad Jack Churchill went into battle with a bow and a Scottish broadsword, and amazingly survived intact.
Jack had already served in the army in the 1930s, but had been out of action for a while when he was called back to the colours. In his first action, in 1940, he became the only British soldier to take out an enemy with an arrow.
He joined the commandos and on his first raid brought an even more terrifying weapon into play – the bagpipes. He kept his pipes with him, carrying them and his sword and bow into some insanely courageous actions.
Finally, he was injured and captured – playing his pipes as the Germans closed in – but soon escaped. He was captured, and then escaped again, as Germany crumbled. He was sent to the Far East, but arrived too late to unsling his beloved bow. He is reported to have said: “If it wasn’t for those damn Yanks, we could have kept the war going another 10 years.”
When he was finally denied military action, he designed his own surfboard and became the first man to ever ride the Severn Bore – one of the world’s great tidal surges – before dying peacefully at home in 1996.
9 – The deadly island
The American operations in the Pacific – the island hopping campaign – has given us some enduring images. The raising of the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima is one of the most iconic images of the entire war.
The relief of the island of Kiska is not so celebrated. Nearly 35,000 troops stormed ashore in 1943, to face an occupying Japanese force of… no-one. Despite the walk-over, 21 troops were killed in the operation. Some were shot by their own side, others were killed by booby traps.
Kiska had little military importance, but it was American soil, and when 500 Japanese marines overwhelmed the 10-strong party of US Navy Weather forecasters (and their dog, let’s not forget their dog) it was a symbolic act.
The Americans were determined to get it back, and so, in August 1943, the massive force, backed by 95 ships was put aside. They were about a fortnight late.
To complete the unhappy story, the Japanese sent warships to tackle the American and Canadian troops and only succeeded in bombing their own soldiers on a neighbouring island.
10 – The luckiest soldier of them all
Surviving the War after fighting in it, made you lucky. Surviving capture by the Japanese made you luckier. Surviving days drifting at sea makes you very lucky. Surviving the atomic bombs makes you incredibly fortunate. Alistair Urquhart survived them all.
Alistair Urquhart was a conscripted Gordon Highlander, and was unlucky in his first posting. He was sent to Singapore, which in one of the most famous examples of military incompetence in history was lost to the Japanese early in the war. Many of the guns on the territory were cemented in facing an expected sea-borne invasion and when the Japanese came by land there was nothing that could be done.
Alistair was taken into captivity. The Japanese treated their prisoners appallingly. They considered surrender so dishonourable, that to fail to fight to the death was justification for a complete lack of humanity.
Alistair was sent to the notorious Burma Railway, better known as the Death Railway, so high was the death rate amongst the prisoners forced to build it. Like thousands of others, Alistair was tortured, suffered from cholera and terrible hunger.
He survived, only to be transported to a ‘hell ship’, a series of transports that were so vile that cannibalism had been reported among the poor, starving souls who travelled to Japan on board.
The ship was torpedoed and sunk. Suffering from burns and choking in oil, he found a raft, and survived without food or water for five days.
Alistair was picked up by a Japanese Whaler, and immediately sent to work in the mines before he was interned on the outskirts of Nagasaki – he was there when the second atomic bomb devastated the city and ended the war.
Alistair now lives in Dundee and enjoys ballroom dancing. He is one of the most extraordinary examples of the human spirit surviving terrible privations in history.