There were amazing pilots on both sides of World War I. One fighter pilot who really stood out as a superstar was Baron von Richthofen, known to the world as the Red Baron. The Red Baron was born on May 2, 1892, into a family of Prussian nobles. Growing up in the Silesia region of what is now Poland, he lived the kind of life you would expect of a nobleman. He passed the time playing sports, riding horses, and hunting wild game, a passion that would follow him for the rest of his life. As was common and on the wishes of his father, Richthofen was enrolled in military school at age 11. Many people felt that military school would provide the best discipline and training, especially if one were going to be an officer. Shortly before his 18th birthday, he was commissioned as an officer in a German cavalry unit.
Richthofen transferred to the Air Service in 1915, and in 1916 he became one of the first members of fighter squadron Jagdstaffel 2. He was a natural and quickly distinguished himself as a fighter pilot. Then, in 1917 became the leader of Jasta 11. He would go on to lead the larger fighter wing Jagdgeschwader I, which was also known as “The Flying Circus” or “Richthofen’s Circus” mostly because of the bright colors of its aircraft, but maybe because of the way the unit was transferred from one area of Allied air activity to another. When units were moved, it was like a travelling circus. They moved and often set up in tents on improvised airfields.
Between September 1916 and April 1918, he shot down 80 enemy aircraft. That was more than any other pilot during World War I. The Red Baron once wrote, “I never get into an aircraft for fun. I aim first for the head of the pilot, or rather at the head of the observer, if there is one.” He was well known for his crimson-painted Albatros biplanes and Fokker triplanes, and the “Red Baron” by 1918, Richthofen was regarded as a national hero in Germany, and strangely, Richthofen was even respected by his enemies, which is very rare indeed.
Loyal to the end, Richthofen received a fatal wound while flying over Morlancourt Ridge near the Somme River, just after 11:00am on April 21, 1918. He had been pursuing, a Sopwith Camel piloted by Canadian novice Wilfrid Reid “Wop” May of the Number 209 Squadron, Royal Air Force. May had just fired on the Red Baron’s cousin, Lieutenant Wolfram von Richthofen. When he saw his cousin being attacked, the Red Baron flew rescue him. He fired on May’s plane, causing him to pull away, then he chased May across the Somme. The Baron was spotted and briefly attacked by a Camel piloted by May’s school friend and flight commander, Canadian Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown. Brown had to dive steeply at very high speed to intervene, and then had to climb steeply to avoid hitting the ground. Richthofen turned to avoid this attack, and then resumed his pursuit of May.
During this final stage in his pursuit of May, Richthofen was hit by a single .303 bullet through the chest, severely damaging his heart and lungs. He would have bled out in less than a minute. Now pilotless, the plane stalled and went into a steep dive. It hit the ground in a field on a hill near the Bray-Corbie Road, just north of the village of Vaux-sur-Somme. This was in a sector defended by the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). The plane bounced heavily when it hit the ground, and the undercarriage collapsed. The fuel tank was smashed before the aircraft skidded to a stop. Several witnesses, including Gunner George Ridgway, reached the crashed plane and found Richthofen already dead, and his face slammed into the butts of his machine guns, breaking his nose, fracturing his jaw and creating contusions on his face.
Number 3 Squadron AFC’s commanding officer Major David Blake, who was responsible for Richthofen’s body, regarded the Red Baron with great respect. It was Blake who was responsible for organizing the funeral, and he decided on a full military funeral. Richthofen’s body was buried in the cemetery at the village of Bertangles, near Amiens, on April 22, 1918. Six of Number 3 Squadron’s officers served as pallbearers, and a guard of honor from the squadron’s other ranks fired a salute. Allied squadrons stationed nearby presented memorial wreaths, one of which was inscribed with the words, “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe.” It was an extremely respectful way to care for the body of the enemy, and for that, I have much respect for the Number 3 Squadron. Even though this man was the enemy, they knew he was just doing his job, as they would do theirs. It wasn’t personal, it was just war. In 1975 the body was moved to a Richthofen family grave plot at the Südfriedhof in Wiesbaden.
When I think of war and of the largest offensive in United States history, I don’t picture a battle in World War I. Nevertheless, I should. The Meuse–Argonne offensive, which was also called the Meuse River–Argonne Forest offensive, the Battles of the Meuse–Argonne, and the Meuse–Argonne campaign, depending on who you were, was a major part of the final Allied offensive of World War I that stretched along the entire Western Front. The offensive ran for a total of 47 days, from September 26, 1918, until the Armistice of November 11, 1918, and it was the largest in United States military history, past or present.
The offensive involved 1.2 million American soldiers, and as battles go, it is the second deadliest in American history. During the course of the battle, there were over 350,000 casualties including 28,000 German lives, 26,277 American lives, and an unknown number of French lives. The losses involving the United States were compounded by the inexperience of many of the troops, the tactics used during the early phases of the operation, and in no small way…the widespread onset of the global influenza outbreak called the “Spanish flu.” The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, also known as the Great Influenza epidemic, was an exceptionally deadly global influenza pandemic caused by the H1N1 influenza A virus. The pandemic affected an estimated 500 million people, or approximately a third of the global population. It is estimated that 17 to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million people lost their lives, which probably increased the deaths during the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
The Meuse–Argonne was the principal engagement of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) during World War I, and it was what finally brought the war to an end. It was the largest and bloodiest operation of World War I for the AEF. Nevertheless, by October 31, the Americans had advanced 9.3 miles and had cleared the Argonne Forest. The French advanced 19 miles to the left of the Americans, reaching the Aisne River. The American forces split into two armies at this point. General Liggett led the First Army and advanced to the Carignan-Sedan-Mezieres Railroad. Lieutenant General Robert L Bullard led the Second Army and was directed to move eastward toward Metz. The two United States armies faced portions of 31 German divisions during this phase. The American troops captured German defenses at Buzancy, allowing French troops to cross the Aisne River. There, they rushed forward, capturing Le Chesne, also known as the Battle of Chesne (French: Bataille du Chesne).
In the final days, the French forces conquered the immediate objective, Sedan and its critical railroad hub in a
battle known as the Advance to the Meuse (French: Poussée vers la Meuse), and on November 6, American forces captured surrounding hills. On November 11, news of the German armistice put a sudden end to the fighting. That was fortunate for the armies, but for my 1st cousin twice removed, William Henry Davis, it was six days too late. He lost his life on November 5, 1918, on the west bank of the Meuse during these battles. He was just 30 years old at the time.
During World War II and even earlier really, Adolf Hitler was in the middle of his plan to take over the world. He was ruthless, and when he invaded a country, he didn’t care how many people died, as long as he got his way. The Battle of France took place between May 10, 1940 and June 25, 1940. The surrender of France to the Nazis in 1940 was a complex situation. The German invasion left metropolitan France at the mercy of Nazi armies. Really, once Paris fell on June 14, 1940, the German conquest of France was complete. Part of the problem was that Marshal Henri Petain replaced Paul Reynaud as prime minister and proved to be a weak leader who announced his intention to sign an armistice with the Nazis.
While not very well known at the time, French General Charles de Gaulle, made a broadcast on June 18, 1940, to France from England, where he would help with the resistance. The Appeal of June 18 was the first speech made by Charles de Gaulle after his arrival in London in 1940 following the Battle of France. The speech was broadcast to Vichy France by the radio services of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). This speech is considered to have marked the beginning of the French Resistance in World War II. It is regarded as one of the most important speeches in French history. General de Gaulle said in his speech, “The leaders who, for many years, were at the head of French armies, have formed a government. This government, alleging our armies to be undone, agreed with the enemy to stop fighting. Of course, we were subdued by the mechanical, ground and air forces of the enemy. Infinitely more than their number, it was the tanks, the airplanes, the tactics of the Germans which made us retreat. It was the tanks, the airplanes, the tactics of the Germans that surprised our leaders to the point to bring them there where they are today.
But has the last word been said? Must hope disappear? Is defeat final? No!
Believe me, I speak to you with full knowledge of the facts and tell you that nothing is lost for France. The same means that overcame us can bring us to a day of victory. For France is not alone! She is not alone! She is not alone! She has a vast Empire behind her. She can align with the British Empire that holds the sea and continues the fight. She can, like England, use without limit the immense industry of United States.
This war is not limited to the unfortunate territory of our country. This war is not finished by the battle of France. This war is a world wide war. All the faults, all the delays, all the suffering, do not prevent there to be, in the world, all the necessary means to one day crush our enemies. Vanquished today by mechanical force, we will be able to overcome in the future by a superior mechanical force.
The destiny of the world is here. I, General de Gaulle, currently in London, invite the officers and the French soldiers who are located in British territory or who would come there, with their weapons or without their weapons, I invite the engineers and the special workers of armament industries who are located in British territory or who would come there, to put themselves in contact with me.
Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished.”
His work with the French Resistance made Charles de Gaulle almost a household word in France. It gave the people hope for freedom. The French Resistance fought to the death to beat the Nazis. This makes me think of current times, and all the freedoms that we have lost. These lessons from the French Resistance are valuable to this day. Never give up. You only lose a battle when you quit fighting. We must never quit fighting.
Animals have been used in most wars for different purposes. Some animals were messengers, like the carrier pigeon. Some were for warning, like the dog, which also served as a soldier in a fight situation. They are very loyal, and will do their best to save their master. These types of animals were to be expected to a degree, but during World War II, there was a certain cat, named Oscar, also known as Oskar, and ultimately known as Unsinkable Sam, because this cat managed not only to serve in both the Kriegsmarine, but also the Royal Navy. The cat’s original name is unknown, but the name “Oscar” was given by the crew of the British destroyer HMS Cossack, when that crew rescued him from the sea following the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck. The name “Oscar” was given to the cat, and was derived from the International Code of Signals for the letter ‘O’ which is code for “Man Overboard” (the German spelling “Oskar” was sometimes used since he was a German cat). For Oscar to survive the sinking of the Bismarck was amazing, but it was not the end of his story.
As you know, war is a tough time to be on a ship. There is no guarantee that the ship will make it through the war, and if a ship goes down in a battle, it usually takes some, if not all of the crew with it. A cat would usually have little chance of survival on a ship that is sinking, but someone forgot to tell Oskar that. Oskar was a black and white patched cat. It is thought that he was originally owned by one of the crewman of the German battleship Bismarck and was on board the ship on May 18, 1941 when the ship set sail on Operation Rheinübung (German for Rhine Exercise). It was the Bismarck’s only mission. On May 27, 1941, the Bismarck was sunk after a fierce sea-battle. The sinking took with it most of the crew. Out of a crew of 2,100 men, only 115 from her crew survived…and one cat. Hours after the sinking, Oscar was found floating on a board and picked from the water by the British destroyer HMS Cossack.
The crew of the Cossack decided that since Oscar was used to being on a ship, he could just stay with them. So, Oscar “served” on board Cossack for the next few months as the ship carried out convoy escort duties in the Mediterranean Sea and north Atlantic Ocean. On October 24, 1941, Cossack was escorting a convoy from Gibraltar to Great Britain when she was severely damaged by a torpedo fired by the German submarine U-563. The surviving crew were transferred to the destroyer HMS Legion, and an attempt was made to tow the badly listing Cossack back to Gibraltar. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperative, and as it worsened, the task became impossible and had to be abandoned. On October 27, a day after the tow was slipped, Cossack sank to the west of Gibraltar. The initial explosion had blown off one third of the forward section of the ship, killing 159 of the crew, but Oscar survived, and was taken to Gibraltar. To say that a cat has nine lives is almost an understatement when it came to Oscar.
Following the sinking of Cossack, Oscar was given the nickname “Unsinkable Sam” and was soon transferred to the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, which by coincidence was instrumental in the destruction of Bismarck, along with Cossack. This assignment was not going to prove safer for Sam, and one might begin to wonder if he should be given another shore assignment…for the sake of the ships. When the Ark Royal was returning from Malta on November 14, 1941, it too was torpedoed, this time by U-81. Again they attempted to tow Ark Royal to Gibraltar, but they were unable to stop the inflow of water, so the attempt was futile. The carrier rolled over and sank 30 miles from Gibraltar. The good news was that due to the slow rate of the sinking, all but one crew member were able to be evacuated, along with, of course, Unsinkable Sam. The survivors, including Sam, who had been found clinging to a floating plank by a Motor Launch and described as “angry but quite unharmed,” were transferred to HMS Lightning and the same HMS Legion which had also rescued the crew of Cossack. Legion would itself be sunk in 1942, and Lightning in 1943. The life of a ship in wartime was not a safe one.
After the third ship sank under Sam’s paws, it was decided that maybe he shouldn’t be on a ship, so he was transferred first to the offices of the Governor of Gibraltar and then sent back to the United Kingdom, where he saw out the remainder of the war living in a seaman’s home in Belfast called the “Home for Sailors.” I think Sam had earned his place there. Sam died in 1955. A pastel portrait of Sam, which was titled “Oscar, the Bismarck’s Cat” by the artist Georgina Shaw-Baker is on display in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
Of course, as with all war stories, some authorities question whether Oskar/Sam’s biography might be a “sea story,” because for example, there are pictures of two different cats identified as Oskar/Sam. It is my opinion that whether it is true or not, it lends a lighthearted note to the otherwise tragic stories of war, and therefore, I choose to believe it is true.
Johannes “Macky” Steinhoff was a fighter ace, flying a Luftwaffe fighter plane, during World War II. He was also a German general, and NATO official. Most of the Luftwaffe pilots did not survive to fly operationally throughout the entire World War II period of 1939 to 1945, but Steinhoff managed to do so. One of the highest-scoring pilots with 176 victories, Steinhoff was one of the first to fly the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter in combat as a member of the Jagdverband 44 squadron led by Adolf Galland. Steinhoff received the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords, and later received the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany and several foreign awards including the American Legion of Merit and the French Legion of Honour. Steinhoff also played a role in the Fighter Pilots Conspiracy when several senior air force officers confronted Hermann Göring late in the war.
Steinhoff was born on September 15, 1913 in Bottendorf, Thuringia, the son of an agricultural mill-worker and his traditional housewife. He had two brothers, Bernd and Wolf, and two sisters, Greta and Charlotte. Steinhoff was promoted to Second Lieutenant on 1 April 1936. He married his wife Ursula on April 29, 1939 and they had a son, Wolf and a daughter, Ursula.
One would think that being one of the first pilots to fly a new airplane would be a huge honor, but flying the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter was risky. It wasn’t necessarily that it crashed any more often than any other plane, but the Messerschmitt Me 262 had a rather huge flaw. The fuel tanks were located in front, under, and behind the pilot. That meant that in a crash situation with fuel on board, the pilot was immediately trapped in an inferno. As a member of Jagdverband-44 (JV-44), flying a Messerschmitt Me 262, Steinhoff was permanently disfigured after receiving major burns across most of his body when he crashed after a failed takeoff. It was such a strange situation. His flight leader’s left wheel had blown out causing him to turn and make a sharp left turn, careening into Steinhoff and causing him to run off the runway, at which point, the fuel tanks ruptured. On that fateful day, Steinhoff and the men he was going up with that day were armed with an experimental under wing rocket which among with the cannon ammunition Steinhoff was carrying. It made escape all the more difficult due to the amount ordnance exploding around him. According to ace fighter pilot and member of JV-44 Franz Stigler, “In a matter of seconds, Steinhoff had turned into a human torch.” Steinhoff was left with horrible scarring for the rest of his life and his chances of survival were slim. Against all odds, he pulled through in the end and retired as a four star general in the new German Air Force at age 59.
After his retirement, he joined the West German government’s Rearmament Office as a consultant on military aviation in 1952 and became one of the principal officials tasked with building the German Air Force during the Cold War. He became the German Military Representative to the NATO Military Committee in 1960, served as Acting Commander Allied Air Forces Central Europe in NATO 1965–1966, as Inspector of the Air Force 1966–1970 and as Chairman of the NATO Military Committee 1971–1974. In retirement, Steinhoff also became a widely read author of books on German military aviation during the Second World War and the experiences of the German people at that time. On February 21, 1994, Steinhoff died in a Bonn hospital from complications arising from a heart attack he suffered the previous December. He was 80, and had lived in nearby Bad Godesberg.
Adolf Hitler was always trying to find a way to infiltrate the nations of the world, because his ultimate goal was to control the world. Most of us would think that he was mostly active in the nations around Germany, and that might be a correct statement, but Hitler also had his sights on the United States. In 1942, Hitler ordered the defense branch of the German Military Intelligence Corps initiated a program to infiltrate the United States and destroy industrial plants, bridges, railroads, waterworks, and Jewish-owned department stores. His ultimate plan was to sabotage all of these, thereby shackling the United States so they would not be an effective enemy in World War II.
The Nazis hoped that their sabotage teams would be able to slip into America at the rate of one or two every six weeks…going unnoticed as simple illegal aliens. The first two teams, made up of eight Germans who had all lived in the United States before the war, departed the German submarine base at Lorient, France, in late May. On a heavily foggy June 12, 1942, just before midnight, a German submarine reached the American coast off Amagansett, Long Island. A team was deployed, rowing to the shore in an inflatable boat. Just as the Germans finished burying their explosives in the sand, John C Cullen, a young US Coast Guardsman, came upon them during his regular patrol of the beach. The leader of the team, George Dasch, bribed the suspicious Cullen, and he accepted the money, promising to keep quiet.
At first I found myself feeling angry at the “traitor” John C Cullen, who had sold out his country by accepting a bribe, but then I found out that Cullen was not only not a traitor, but he was a hero and a patriot in every way. As soon as Cullen passed safely back into the fog, he ran two miles back to the Coast Guard station and informed his superiors of his discovery. After retrieving the German supplies from the beach, the Coast Guard called the FBI, which launched a massive manhunt for the saboteurs, who had fled to New York City.
The saboteurs, Dasch and Ernest Burger, were unaware that the FBI was looking for them, but they decided to turn themselves in and betray their colleagues. It might have been because they were afraid they would be captured after the botched landing. On July 15, Dasch called the FBI in New York, but incredibly they failed to take his claims seriously. Dasch decided to travel to FBI headquarters in Washington DC. On July 18, the same day that a second four-man team successfully landed at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, Dasch turned himself in. He agreed to help the FBI capture the rest of the saboteurs.
With Dasch’s help, Burger and the rest of the Long Island team were picked up by July 22, 1942 and by July 27, 1942 the whole of the Florida team was arrested. To preserve wartime secrecy, President Franklin D Roosevelt ordered a special military tribunal consisting of seven generals to try the saboteurs. At the end of July, Dasch was sentenced to 30 years in prison, Burger was sentenced to hard labor for life, and the other six Germans were sentenced to die. The six condemned saboteurs were executed by electric chair in Washington DC, on August 8, 1942. The situation was handled so quickly, that it is almost shocking to me. Two more German spies were caught after a landing in Maine in 1944. No other instances of German sabotage within wartime America has come to light. We assume that there were no others, but I don’t suppose we will ever know for sure. Nevertheless, no sabotages were ever carried out during that time.
The atrocities the Nazis put the Jewish people and other minorities through in the camps, is well known to be horrible, but many people don’t know the half of it. Hitler had a number of camps in which to imprison these people that he had decided were “undesirable” for one reason or another. Some were even German people, who disagreed with Hitler’s ideas. They became the political prisoners. They were treated no better than their minority counterparts. Disagreeing with Hitler was a fatal choice for the most part.
Mauthausen was the main political concentration camp in Austria. Mauthausen was not an extermination camp like Auschwitz-Birkenau. Nevertheless, it is estimated that about 100,000 people died at Mauthausen between its inception in 1939 and May 5, 1945, when it became the last camp liberated by the Allies. Sadly, like most of the camps, the liberation came just hours or days too late for some of the prisoners. These unfortunate ones died just prior to the liberation. Their strength gave out, just when rescue was so close.
Mauthausen was a little bit different than the other camps. Probably the greatest difference was the fact that the camp was in close proximity to a rock quarry. Near the quarry was a set of rock stairs known as the Stairs of Death. Most of us couldn’t imagine how a set of stairs could be considered such an instrument of death, that they would become infamous, but that is exactly what these stairs did, and it is shocking. One of the survivors of Mauthausen gave this account saying, “Inmates were given light clothing and wooden (clogs) and put to work in the stone quarry. This involved carrying heavy stones up 180 steps, known as the “staircase of death” because of the beatings, shootings and fatal accidents to which the crowded mass of inmates was exposed to there. The food was totally inadequate for the heavy labor performed, and a stay in Mauthausen was indeed synonymous with “extermination by work.”
Apparently, climbing the stone steps carrying heave stones was not the normal work performed at Mauthausen, but rather a deliberate punishment and death. The unfortunate prisoner or group of prisoners who made the guards angry, found out just how horrific this particular punishment was. One of the most famous incidents involved 47 Allied aviators transported to the camp. These men were essentially murdered in September 1944. Maurice Lampe, a French political prisoner, testified at Nuremberg saying, “For all the prisoners at Mauthausen, the murder of these men has remained in their minds like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. This is how it was done: at the bottom of the steps they loaded stones on the backs of these poor men and they had to carry them to the top. The first journey was made with stones weighing 25 to 30 kilos (55 to 65 pounds) and was accompanied by blows. Then they were made to run down. For the second journey, the stones were even heavier; and whenever the poor wretches sank under their burden, they were kicked and hit with a bludgeon. Even stones were hurled at them… In the evening when I returned from the gang with which I was then working, the road which led to the camp was a bath of blood… I almost stepped on the lower jaw of a man. Twenty-one bodies were strewn along the road. Twenty-one had died on the first day. The twenty-six others died the following morning…”
The sight of it was enough to make the description difficult for a man who had seen his share of horrific scenes in his lifetime. Anyone who had been in the camps, or through the camp, or involved in liberating the camps knew first hand the viciousness of the Nazi regime. Once they witnessed these atrocities, they could never forget what they saw. It was a scene that shaped them for the rest of their lives.
Sometimes an evil leader can come in and before anyone realizes it, the danger that came in with him is real. Unfortunately, not every elected leader is a good one, and when an elected leader, begins to do things like taking away the guns of the people and undermining the police, you find out just how bad they really are. Hitler was that kind of elected leader, and worse. By May of 1934, Hitler had been the chancellor of Germany for 16 months, and the dictator for 14 months. Less than a month after Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, he calls on elements of the Nazi party to act as auxiliary police. The SS (Schutzstaffel), initially Hitler’s bodyguards, and the SA (Sturmabteilung, the German Assault Division), who were the street fighters or Storm Troopers of the Nazi party, now operated as the private army of the Nazi party. SS chief Heinrich Himmler also turned the regular (nonparty) police forces into an instrument of terror. He helped forge the powerful Secret State Police (Geheime Staatspolizei), or Gestapo. These non-uniformed police used ruthless and cruel methods throughout Germany to identify and arrest political opponents and others who refused to obey laws and policies of the Nazi regime. It had taken less than a year to change everything for the people of Germany, who no longer had a say in their own lives.
While he had control, it was still not enough for the insane chancellor. Hitler, as we all know, would go on to annihilate millions of the Jewish people, as well as anyone else he considered an “undesirable” person. While I’m sure the leaders of the German government considered themselves safe, they would find out just how wrong they were on the Night of the Long Knives…also known as a Blood Purge, or putsch in German. By definition, a blood purge is “the elimination en masse by massacre or execution of individuals considered to constitute an untrustworthy or undesirable element within a party or movement. the elimination en masse by massacre or execution of individuals considered to constitute an untrustworthy or undesirable element within a party.” Hitler had decided that some of his own leaders, his trusted associates, could not be trusted. Maybe he was right, but he didn’t really have proof of his doubts. Nevertheless, He decided that there needed to be a blood purge and the Night of the Long Knives was born.
On June 30, 1934, it began, and continued on until July 2, 1934. During the purge of the Night of the Long Knives (Nacht der langen Messer) Hitler and the Nazi regime used the Schutzstaffel (SS) to deal with the perceived problem of Ernst Röhm and his Sturmabteilung (SA) brownshirts (the original Nazi paramilitary organization). The first thing Hitler did was to take out…or defund the police. Believe it or not, that took out the last protection of the people. He also took out past opponents of the party, thinking that they might organize against them. It is estimated that at least 85 people were murdered, but many historians think that the death toll was likely in the hundreds. Most of those killed were members of the SA, other victims included close associates of Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen, several Reichswehr (German Army) generals…one of whom, Kurt von Schleicher, was formerly the Chancellor of Germany. Hitler also took out their associates. Gregor Strasser, Hitler’s former competitor for control of the Nazi Party was the next to go. At least one person was killed in a case of mistaken identity, sadly, and several innocent victims were simply killed because they “knew too much.” The Night of the Long Knives…was Hitler’s insane revenge on anyone who dared to oppose him, or even to appear to oppose him.
Recently I read a novel that was based on a true story, called “The Alice Network,” by Kate Quinn. Knowing the book was a novel, I assumed that it was entirely fictional, but then I began to wonder, so I researched “The Alice Network” for myself. I found that “The Alice Network” was a very much true story, even if some of the characters in the story were fictional. The head of the Alice Network, Louise Marie Jeanne Henriette de Bettignies, was very much a real person.
Louise Marie Jeanne Henriette de Bettignies was born on July 15, 1880 to Henri de Bettignies and Julienne Mabille de Poncheville. She was fluent in French and English, with a good mastery in German and Italian. It made her a perfect candidate for the spy network. Louise became a French secret agent who spied on the Germans for the British during World War I using the pseudonym of Alice Dubois, hence “The Alice Network.” She had under her direction, a number of men and women who mainly worked in the area of Lille, in German occupied France. Her people listened inconspicuously to the talk of the German soldiers when they were not aware, and therefore, not careful to guard their tongues. The gleaned intel was then passed to couriers, of which Louise was one, to be transported by car, train, or on foot to the military leaders they worked for. It was a dangerous occupation, but the spies in the network wanted to serve in the war effort, and this was their chance.
Spies in “The Alice Network” and other such networks, went to work in jobs that were basically normal everyday jobs. They became waitresses, singers, shop workers, all in areas frequented by the enemy. They swallowed their disgust, in order to become almost invisible to the Germans. They never told anyone that they spoke German, because the Germans felt comfortable talking in front of these people who, they thought, couldn’t understand a word they said. It gave the spy networks just the edge they needed. Some spies, like Louise, spent time in makeshift hospitals writing letters in German dictated by dying Germans to their families. Dying men aren’t always careful with the information they give. A wealth of information was passed from these networks to the intelligence officers, and it often proved to be invaluable.
Louise lived with her sister, Germaine at 166 rue d’Isly. From October 4 to 13, 1914, by turning the only cannon that the Lille troops had, the defenders succeeded in deceiving the enemy and holding them for several days under an intense battle that destroyed more than 2,200 buildings and houses, particularly in the area of the station. Louise de Bettignies, aged 28, making full use of the four languages she spoke, including German and English. Through the ruins of Lille, she ensured the supply of ammunition and food to the soldiers who were still firing on the attackers. Then, since she had been a citizen of Lille since 1903, Louise made the decision in October 1914, to engage in resistance and espionage. Due in part to her ability to speak French, English, German, and Italian, she ran a vast intelligence network from her home in the North of France on behalf of the British army and the MI6 intelligence service under the pseudonym Alice Dubois. This network provided important information to the British through occupied Belgium and the Netherlands. The network is estimated to have saved the lives of more than a thousand British soldiers during the 9 months of full operation from January to September 1915.
“The Alice Network” of a hundred people, mostly in forty kilometers of the front to the west and east of Lille, was so effective that she was nicknamed by her English superiors “the queen of spies.” She smuggled men to England, provided valuable information to the Intelligence Service, and prepared for her superiors in London a grid map of the region around Lille. When the German army installed a new battery of artillery, even camouflaged, this position was bombed by the Royal Flying Corps within eight days. Another opportunity allowed her to report the date and time of passage of the imperial train carrying the Kaiser on a secret visit to the front at Lille. During the approach to Lille, two British aircraft bombed the train and emerged, but missed their target. The German command did not understand the unique situation of these forty kilometers of “cursed” front (held by the British) out of nearly seven hundred miles of front. One of her last messages announced the preparation of a massive German attack on Verdun in early 1916. The information was relayed to the French commander who refused to believe it. Incredible!!! After all her success, this worthless French commander refused to believe her. Idiot!!
Louise was arrested by the Germans on October 20, 1915 near Tournai. On March 16, 1916, in Brussels, she was sentenced to forced labor for life. After being held for three years, she died on September 27, 1918 as a result of pleural abscesses poorly operated upon at Saint Mary’s Hospital in Cologne. Her body was repatriated on February 21, 1920. On March 16, 1920 a funeral was held in Lille in which she was posthumously awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor, the Croix de guerre 1914-1918 with palm, and the British Military Medal, and she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Her body is buried in the cemetery of Saint-Amand-les-Eaux.
Sometimes, it’s a close call that saves the life of a person, because a difference of inches could have meant the difference between life and death. That was the case for young Corporal Adolf Hitler when he was temporarily blinded on October 14, 1918, by a gas shell that was close enough to temporarily blind him, but unfortunately for the rest of the world, not close enough to kill him. The British shell was part of an attack at Ypres Salient in Belgium, and in the aftermath, Hitler found himself evacuated to a German military hospital at Pasewalk, in Pomerania. Of course, Hitler considered this a great good fortune, with the exception of the temporary blindness. I find myself wishing that the shell had been closer, because the difference of inches could have changed the world, and especially the victims of the Holocaust.
Like many young men of the period, Hitler was drafted for Austrian military service, but when he reported, he was turned down due to lack of fitness. In the summer of 1914, Hitler had moved to Munich. When World War I began, he asked for and received special permission to enlist as a German soldier. It all seemed like a noble thing to do. Hitler was a member of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment. He traveled to France in October 1914. There, he saw heavy action during the First Battle of Ypres, earning the Iron Cross that December for dragging a wounded comrade to safety. These things rather surprise me, give Hitler’s reputation for thinking only of himself.
Over the course of the next two years, Hitler took part in some of the fiercest struggles of the war, including the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the Second Battle of Ypres and the Battle of the Somme. He was wounded in the leg by a shell blast on October 7, 1916, near Bapaume, France. Following his hospital stay. Hitler was sent to recover near Berlin, after which he returned to his old unit by February 1917. According to Hans Mend, a comrade of Hitler, he was given to rants on the dismal state of morale and dedication to the cause on the home front in Germany. According to Mend, “He sat in the corner of our mess holding his head between his hands in deep contemplation. Suddenly he would leap up, and running about excitedly, say that in spite of our big guns victory would be denied us, for the invisible foes of the German people were a greater danger than the biggest cannon of the enemy.” It would seem that Hitler’s crazed mind was beginning to present itself. As I look at a picture of Hitler as a young man, I wonder what happened to him that changed him so much. Yung Hitler didn’t look like the crazed, evil dictator the world knew
Hitler continued to earn citations for bravery over the next year, including an Iron Cross 1st Class for “personal bravery and general merit” in August 1918 for single-handedly capturing a group of French soldiers hiding in a shell hole during the final German offensive on the Western Front. Then, on October 14, 1918, Hitler received the injury that put an end to his service in World War I. He learned of the German surrender while recovering at Pasewalk. Hitler was furious and frustrated by the news. He said, “I staggered and stumbled back to my ward and buried my aching head between the blankets and pillow.” Hitler felt he and his fellow soldiers had been betrayed by the German people. I’m amazed that he did not put them in the camps too. In 1941, Hitler as Führer would reveal the degree to which his career and its terrible legacy had been shaped by the World War I, writing that “I brought back home with me my experiences at the front; out of them I built my National Socialist community.”
When I think of what might have been, but for a difference of inches, I find it very ironic. If that shell had hit just a few inches closer, perhaps Hitler would have died a hero in his nation, before he could become the epitome of evil…to the world, and to many of his own people. I suppose World War I and II, as well as the other wars, would have still happened, but maybe, quite likely, the Holocaust would not have happened. Just a few inches. If only.