World War II
On June 12, 1942, Anne Frank, was a young Jewish girl living in Amsterdam. It was her thirteenth birthday, and as a gift, she was given a diary. Diaries have long been a big deal for girls. I know very few of those in my generation who didn’t have one. Most of those who received them, did little with them. I know that my diary (which I still have, by the way) contains mostly the gibberish of a young girl…mostly bored with the idea of journaling the meager events of my life…or at least that is how I saw them at the time. Looking back, I wish I had maybe taken the whole journaling/diary thing more seriously, because my life, while not as intense as that of Anne Frank, did have meaning, and those events that might have been considered important to my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren have been, for the most part, lost to the forgetfulness of childhood.
Many of us have heard of, read about, or seen the movie about the events of Anne Frank’s short life. One short month after receiving her diary, Anne and her family went into hiding from the Nazis in rooms behind her father’s office. Anne’s sister, Margot, received a call-up notice around 3pm on July 5, 1942. The Frank family had planned to go into hiding on July 16, 1942, but they decided to leave immediately so that Margot would not have to be deported to a “work camp.” The family left a false trail indicating that they had gone into hiding in Switzerland. According to Anne’s diary, Margot kept a diary of her own, but no trace of Margot’s diary has ever been found. This and her time in the hands of the Nazis was the main period of her diary, because as we know, Anne did not survive the Holocaust into which she and her family had been dragged. The hiding place was not discovered immediately, of course, and for the next two years, the Franks and four other families were hidden, fed, and cared for by Gentile friends. They lived in an annex, whose entrance was hidden behind a moveable bookcase. Following a tip in 1944, the families were discovered by the Gestapo. The Franks were taken to Auschwitz, where Anne’s mother died. Friends in Amsterdam searched the rooms and found Anne’s diary hidden away. They had hoped to save any personal items, so they could be returned to the family, should any of them survive.
Anne and her sister were sent to another camp, Bergen-Belsen, where Anne died a month before the war ended. Anne’s father survived Auschwitz, and after much soul searching, he published Anne’s diary in 1947 as “The Diary of a Young Girl.” The book has been translated into more than 60 languages. Had it not been for World War II, the Holocaust, and Anne’s tragic death from Typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in February 1945, the diary would have most likely have been published, or even written in the way that it was. The reality is that most diaries aren’t immensely interesting. Most are written by young girls with drama queen emotions, who are bored with their lives, because they are certain that nothing cool happens. Anne’s diary was interesting, because she wasn’t sure how long her life would be, and she wanted to know everything…before it was too late.
Not everyone was surprised at the coming murders of the Jews during the Holocaust. People hoped that the rumors were wrong, and that maybe they war would end before things got that bad, but most knew that if something wasn’t done, things were going to get ugly at some point. In the end, the non-Jews were forced to make a decision…take a stand, or stand by and watch millions of people die.
A Danish ambulance driver in Copenhagen, Denmark huddled over a local phone book, circling Jewish names. He had heard that all of Denmark’s Jews were going to be deported, and he knew this was his “moment of truth.” He knew he had to warn every one of these people, before it was too late. He wasn’t alone. Hundreds of everyday Danes sprang into action in late September 1943. They all had one collective goal in mind…to help their Jewish friends and neighbors escape the horrors they knew were coming.
The plan was amazing. Hundreds of people helped Jewish people sneak out of Copenhagen and other towns. They quickly headed toward Danish shores and into the crowded holds of tiny fishing boats. Denmark was about to pull off a spectacular feat…the rescue of the vast majority of its Jewish population. Within a few hours of learning that the Nazis intended to wipe out Denmark’s Jews, nearly all of the Danish Jews had gone into hiding. Within a few days, most of them had escaped Denmark to neutral Sweden. In the end, over 90% of the Danish Jews were snatched out of the hands of Adolf Hitler and his goons, and it was all thanks to ordinary Danes, most of whom refused to accept credit for their ations. I call it a miracle, and the participants…angels!!
The German forces invaded Denmark in April 1940. The Danish government, rather than suffer an inevitable defeat by fighting back, didn’t resist the Nazi hoard. Instead, the Danish government negotiated with the Germans to insulate Denmark from the occupation. In the negotiations, the Nazis promised to be lenient with the country, respecting its rule and neutrality…like they would ever keep that promise. By 1943, tensions had reached a breaking point. Workers began to sabotage the war effort and the Danish resistance ramped up their efforts to fight the Nazis. In response, the Nazis told the Danish government to institute a harsh curfew, forbid public assemblies, and punish saboteurs with death. The Danish government refused, so the Nazis dissolved the government and established martial law.
The Nazis had always been a forbidding presence in Denmark, but now they began really making their presence known. Like everywhere else, the Danish Jews were to be their first targets. The Holocaust was spreading across occupied Europe, and without the protection of the Danish government, which had done its best to shield Jews from the Nazis after realizing that the Nazi promises were worthless, Denmark’s Jewish population was in danger. In late September 1943, the Nazis got word from Berlin that it was time to rid Denmark of its Jews. As was typical for the Nazis, they planned the raid to coincide with a significant Jewish holiday…in this case, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Marcus Melchior, a rabbi, got word of the coming raid, and in Copenhagen’s main synagogue, he interrupted services. Melchior said, “We have no time now to continue prayers. We have news that this coming Friday night, the night between the first and second of October, the Gestapo will come and arrest all Danish Jews.” Melchior told the congregation that the Nazis had the names and addresses of every Jew in Denmark, and urged them to flee or hide.
Denmark’s panicked Jewish population sprang into action, but against all odds, so did its Gentiles. Hundreds of people spontaneously began to tell Jews about the upcoming action and help them go into hiding. It was, in the words of historian Leni Yahil, “a living wall raised by the Danish people in the course of one night.” It was amazing, and it can only be classified as a miracle. The Gentile people of Denmark were taking their lives into their own hands too, but they did not care, nor did they consider the cost. All they saw was the horrific injustice of the Nazi plan, and they could not abide by it.
No pre-existing plan had been put in place by the Danish people, but the Jewish people needed their help and nearby Sweden offered an obvious haven to those who were about to be deported. Sweden was still neutral and unoccupied by the Nazis, and they were a fierce ally. It was also close. Some areas of Denmark were just over three miles away from the Swedish coast. Once across, the Jews could apply for asylum there. The Danish culture has long been seafaring, in fact since Viking times. That said, there were plenty of fishing boats and other vessels to spirit Jews toward Sweden. But Danish fishermen were worried about losing their livelihoods and being punished by the Nazis if they were caught. So, rather than put their countrymen in peril, the resistance groups that swiftly formed to help the Jews managed to negotiate standard fees for Jewish passengers, then recruit volunteers to raise the money for passage. That way the fishermen got paid for their risk. The average price of passage to Sweden cost up to a third of a worker’s annual salary.
As often happens, there were fishermen who took advantage of the situation, but more who refused pay, acting without regard to personal gain. Boats were used for some 7,000 Danish Jews who fled to safety in neighboring Sweden. Passage was a terrifying ordeal. Jews gathered in fishing towns, hid on small boats, usually 10 to 15 at a time, giving their children sleeping pills and sedatives to keep them from crying, and struggled to maintain control during the hour-long crossing. Some boats, like the Gerda III, were boarded by Gestapo patrols. Gas came from strange sources. Careful rationing by groups like the “Elsinore Sewing Club,” a resistance unit, helped a few hundred Jews make the crossing.
There were failures sadly. In Gilleleje, a small fishing town, hundreds of refugees were being cared for by locals, when the Gestapo arrived. A collaborator had betrayed a group of Jews hiding in the town church’s attic. Eighty Jews were arrested. Others never got word of the upcoming deportations or were too old or incapacitated to seek help. In the end, about 500 Danish Jews were deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto. Of the 500 who were deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto, only 51 did not survive the Holocaust. Still, it was the most successful action of its kind during the Holocaust. Some 7,200 Danish Jews were ferried to Sweden.
The rescue was not without German help either. God can reach people even in such a corrupt government. Werner Best, the German who had been placed in charge of Denmark, apparently tipped off some Jews to the upcoming action and subtly undermined the Nazis’ attempts to stop the Danes from helping Danish Jews. Another helpful factor was that Denmark was one of the only places in Europe that had successfully integrated its Jewish population. Although there was anti-Semitism in Denmark before and after the Holocaust, the Nazis’ war on Jews was largely viewed as a war against Denmark itself.
Curon Venosta was a village in northern Italy located in South Tyrol. Curon Venosta’s disappearance was not a mystery. The village suffered the same fate as numerous other towns over the years. The alpine village fell victim to the formation of a large man-made lake. The land was purchased and alpine village inundated shortly after World War II due to the construction of a dam. The officials had decided that they would join two smaller per-existing lakes into one large man-made lake.
Originally, plans were made to make a smaller artificial lake dated back to the year 1920. Then, in July 1939 a new plan was introduced for a 75 foot deep lake, which would unify two natural lakes. The point of joining the lakes together was to create a hydroelectric dam. The creation of the dam started in April 1940, but due to World War II and local resistance, the project did not finish until July 1950.
The new larger lake had a capacity of 120 million cubic meters, making this artificial lake the largest lake in the province and its surface area of 2.5 square miles makes it also the largest lake above .6 miles in the Alps. During the project, 163 houses and nearly 1.300 acres of cultivated land was flooded. The structures were not torn down, they were just vacated and flooded. The entire village of Curon Venosta is still down there, filled with sand. All that remains of the old Curon Venosta is the tip of a bell tower, standing in the middle of the lake. As a consolation to the angry villagers, a new village was built at a higher elevation.
The 14th-century church steeple was left to stand as a historic memorial, and was restored in 2009 to repair cracks. During the winter months, the lake freezes over, and people enjoy a walk right up to the spire. A legend says that during winter one can still hear church bells ring, but in reality the bells were removed from the tower on July 18, 1950. The village of Curon Venosta was once a village of hundreds of people, and then it was sacrificed in the name of energy. Now, 70 years later, the lake was drained to perform some repairs to the dam. The people living in the area talked about how strange it was to walk in the ruins of the village they hadn’t seen in seven decades. Of course the sight of the village was temporary, and when the work was done, the village disappeared once again.
Through the years, Russia, also known as the Soviet Union and the USSR, has been sometimes ally and sometimes enemy of the United States. World War I and World War II found the Soviet Union once again on the side of good as a part of the Allied Forces. The main countries in the Allied powers of World War I were France, the British Empire and the Russian Empire. The main Allied powers of World War II were France, Great Britain, the United States, China, and the Soviet Union. So in these two wars anyway, the United States and Russia were on the same side. The three principal partners in the Axis alliance in World War II were Germany, Italy, and Japan. They were joined by Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Thailand, who also signed the Tri-Partite Pact as member states.
On May 12, 1942, Soviet forces under the command of Marshal Semyon Timoshenko attacked the German 6th Army from a vulnerable point established during the winter counter-offensive. After a promising start, the offensive was stopped on May 15th by massive airstrikes. There were a number of critical Soviet errors by several staff officers and by Joseph Stalin, who failed to accurately estimate the 6th Army’s potential and overestimated their own newly raised forces, facilitated a German pincer attack on May 17th which cut off three Soviet field armies from the rest of the front by May 22nd. The Soviet Army was hemmed into a narrow area, and the 250,000-strong Soviet force inside the pocket was exterminated from all sides by German armored, artillery, and machine gun firepower, as well as 7,700 tons of air-dropped bombs. After six days of encirclement by the German Army, the Soviet resistance ended as their troops were killed or taken prisoner. It was a devastating loss for the Soviets.
The Counter-offensive of the Second Battle of Kharkov, was called Operation Fredericus, and was launched by the Axis forces in the region around Kharkov against the Red Army Izium bridgehead offensive, and was conducted from May 12 to May 28, 1942, on the Eastern Front during World War II. The objective was to eliminate the Izium bridgehead over Seversky Donets, also known as the “Barvenkovo bulge,” which was one of the Soviet offensive’s staging areas. A winter counter-offensive drove German troops away from Moscow, but depleted the Red Army’s reserves. The Kharkov offensive was next Soviet attempt to expand their strategic initiative, although it failed to secure a significant element of surprise. The battle ended up being an overwhelming German victory, with 280,000 Soviet casualties compared to just 20,000 for the Germans and their allies. The German Army Group South pressed its advantage, encircling the Soviet 28th Army on June 13 in Operation Wilhelm and pushing back the 38th and 9th Armies on June 22.
During World War II, the Allies used a number of spies, many of them women, but none of them could compare to Virginia Hall, who was considered by the Nazis to be the “most dangerous of all Allied spies.” I can’t think of a greater honor for a spy. It seems to me that the women spies were really the best spies of the war. Maybe it was because they just didn’t expect the women to be spies. That was a big advantage. Virginia Hall had one other thing that made it seem impossible to think of her as a spy…a prosthetic leg, which created a bit of a limp. It was the leg that earned Hall her other name…Limping Lady.
Born to wealthy parents in Baltimore, Maryland in 1906, Hall was expected to marry well, and become a wife and mother, but she had other plans. Describing herself as “cantankerous and capricious, Hall set her sights on being a diplomat after studying in Paris and falling in love with France, but out of 1500 US diplomats, only 6 were women, and Hall was turned down several times. Still hoping, she took a job as a clerical worker and the US Embassy in Warsaw, Poland. Then tragically, a hunting accident on a trip to Turkey, followed by gangrene infecting the leg, caused it to require amputation, which also disqualified her from the US Foreign Service. It was a crushing blow. She decided to resign from her job and move to Paris in 1939, just as World War II was erupting.
Hall’s life took a dramatic turn on May 10, 1940, when Germany invaded France. Volunteering to drive ambulances for the French army during the six-week long Battle of France, Hall transported wounded soldiers from the front line, while dodging fire from German fighter planes overhead. With the French surrender, Hall traveled to London to support the British war effort there. As she traveled, she impressed an undercover agent who put her in touch with a senior officer in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was Winston Churchill’s new secret service. Female operatives were not employed By the SOE, but after six months of failing to infiltrate a single new agent into France, they decided to send Hall to France as the SOE’s first female agent in the country. In the end, she would spend nearly the entire war in France, first as a spy for Britain’s SOE and later for the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Special Operations Branch.
Hall had a bit of a sense of humor, especially when it came to her heavy wooden leg, even nicknaming it Cuthbert. The leg was no obstacle to Hall’s courage either, nor her determination to defeat the Nazis, whom she bitterly hated. Hall used everything at her disposal while undercover in France, and proved herself “exceptionally adept at eluding the Gestapo as she organized resistance groups, masterminded jailbreaks for captured agents, mapped drop zones, reported on German troop movements, set up safe houses, and rescued escaped POWs and downed Allied pilots.” Like many veterans of that era, Even years after the war, Hall rarely talked about her extraordinary career. She attributes the habit to her years as a spy. She once said, “Many of my friends were killed for talking too much.”
Spy networks were amazingly able to hide in plane site, and when Hall arrived in the Vichy region of France in August 1941, it was under the cover story of being a war correspondent for the New York Post newspaper. Following her arrival in Toulouse, Hall established a resistance network called HECKLER, which gathered information about German troop movements and helped downed British pilots escape to safety. Following her work in Toulouse, she traveled to Lyon, where she helped coordinate activities of the French Resistance. Her plans changed when the United States entered the war. As a US citizen, she could be considered a traitor for working for the British spy networks, because the United States had been considered neutral. Hall was forced underground, but continued operating in France for another 14 months. A good spy needs to have a variety of disguises at the disposal, and Hall became adept at changing her appearance on a moment’s notice. She was also known by multiple aliases. She needed to be almost invisible, at least to the enemy. The Germans, at least early in the war, didn’t think that a woman was capable of being a spy. What a serious miscalculation that turned out to be!!
Hall’s extraordinary effectiveness amazed the SOE commanders and helped change their minds about women operating in combat zones. A year after Hall began working undercover, the SOE finally decided to send more female agents into the field. Hall’s abilities paved the way for more women to serve their countries in this important capacity. It also quickly put women spies, and Hall specifically, on the radar for the Gestapo. Soon, the hunt for “the Limping Lady” was on. They knew only her from a composite sketch, which was to her advantage. Their internal communications declared: “She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her.” Gestapo agents…including notorious investigator Klaus Barbie, who would later be awarded the Iron Cross for torturing and executing thousands of resisters…closing in on her after the Germans seized control of Vichy France in November 1942, Hall was forced to escape to Spain.
To escape France was no easy task. It meant a three day journey on foot in heavy snow across the Pyrenees mountains. The trek was made even more challenging with an 8-pound artificial leg bound to her body with straps and a belt at the waist. At one point, she jokingly mentioned in a message to the SOE that she was concerned that “Cuthbert” would cause problems during her escape. In a funny twist, the receiver of the message didn’t recognize the nickname she used for her prosthetic. SOE headquarters responded, “If Cuthbert is giving you difficulty, have him eliminated.” In the end, it wasn’t “Cuthbert” that caused her problems. When she arrived in Spain, she was arrested and imprisoned for illegally entering the country. Hall was an inmate for six weeks before an inmate being released was able to get word to American officials in Barcelona about her presence so they could arrange her release. She finally made it back to London in January 1943, where she was quietly made a honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire.
Following her imprisonment, the SOE refused to send her back to France, because they thought was too dangerous with her high profile. That decision was unacceptable to Hall, who decided to join the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was just establishing their own intelligence operation in France. The Nazi troops were everywhere by that time, so Hall took even more extreme measures to disguise herself. Among them, a French milkmaid, causing her to need to have a rather scary dentist grind down her lovely, white American teeth. In the Haute-Loire region of central France, she disguised herself as an elderly milkmaid and got to work on her radio, coordinating airdrops of arms and supplies for the resistance fighters who were blowing up bridges and sabotaging troop trains, and reporting German troop movements to Allied forces.
Her second tour in France in 1944 and 1945 was even more successful than her first, and at its peak, her network consisted of 1,500 people. With the Germans constantly attempting to track her radio signals, Hall stayed on the move, camping out in barns and attics. As D-Day approached, Hall was operating as a guerrilla leader, and she armed and trained three battalions of French resistance fighters for sabotage missions that helped paved the way for the Allied invasion. One of her many radio reports shows the breadth of her missions. She stated that her team had destroyed four bridges, derailed freight trains, severed a key rail line, and downed telephone lines. By the war’s end, Hall had spent over three full years operating undercover behind enemy lines and, in the words of an official British government report at the end of the war, she was “amazingly successful.”
After the war, when the OSS was dissolved, it became the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Hall became an intelligence analyst. For her wartime service, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palme by France and became the only civilian woman during WWII to be awarded a Distinguished Service Cross by the US, which recognizes exceptional valor and risk of life in combat. President Harry Truman wanted to have a public ceremony for the presentation of the medal, but Hall requested a private ceremony instead, saying that she was “still operational and most anxious to get busy.” Hall worked at the CIA until she retired in 1966 and took quiet pride in her service to her country, although she always maintained a wry sense of humor about it. Her response to receiving the Distinguished Service Cross was, “Not bad for a girl from Baltimore.”
While in Haute-Loire, Hall had met and fallen in love with an OSS lieutenant, Paul Goillot, who worked for her. In 1957, the couple married after living together off-and-on for years. Hall went on to head the CIA. The other four heads were men. Hall was code named Marie and Diane, but the Germans gave her the nickname Artemis, and the Gestapo reportedly considered her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.” Because of her artificial foot, she was also known as “the limping lady.” She died on July 8, 1982 at the age of 76 in Barnesville, Maryland.
Many people know that April 20th is Hitler’s birthday, not that most of us would celebrate that fact. Nevertheless, for the Allies in World War II, at least on April 20, 1945, that day meant something. Not because it was Hitler’s birthday…no, it was because the Allies had a plan. The Germans had been in control in much of Italy, and their advancement had to be stopped. As always, there were multiple campaigns planned on any given day in the war. One planned attack, called Operation Corncob, was to send Allied bombers into Italy to begin a three-day attack on the bridges over the rivers Adige and Brenta to cut off the German lines of possible retreat on the peninsula. They knew that Hitler would be otherwise occupied, it being his birthday and all…and so he was.
Hitler was actually occupied for more reasons than just his birthday, as Soviet artillery had begun shelling Berlin at 11am on his 56th birthday. Preparations were being made to evacuate Hitler and his staff to Obersalzberg to make a final stand in the Bavarian mountains, but Hitler refused to leave his bunker. So, Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler left the bunker for the last time. Operation Herring had begun the day before, with American aircraft dropping Italian paratroopers over Northern Italy, and with Operation Corncob came the other half of the attack, which was to remove the bridges and thereby halt the expected retreat of the German forces. I doubt if Hitler knew anything about these attacks, I’m sure his mind was on his upcoming suicide, a death which some say didn’t really take place, and a fact which we will never know for sure.
The Allied attacks of April 1945 on the Italian front, were intended to end the Italian campaign and the war in Italy, and to decisively break through the German Gothic Line, the defensive line along the Apennines and the River Po plain to the Adriatic Sea and swiftly drive north to occupy Northern Italy and get to the Austrian and Yugoslav borders as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, German strongpoints, as well as bridge, road, levee and dike blasting, and any occasional determined resistance in the Po Valley plain slowed the planned sweep down. Allied planners decided that dropping paratroops into some key areas and locales south of the River Po might help wreak havoc in the German rear area, attack German communications, and vehicle columns, further disrupting the German retreat, and prevent German engineers from blowing up key structures before Allied spearheads could exploit them. Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery, commander of the Commonwealth 8th Army, had a number of Italian paratroopers at hand for the task.
Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler celebrated his 56th birthday with a traditional parade and full celebration, while a Gestapo reign of terror took the lives by hanging of 20 Russian prisoners of war and 20 Jewish children, at least nine of which were under the age of 12. All of the victims had been taken from Auschwitz to Neuengamme, the place of execution, for the purpose of medical experimentation. Hitler and his Third Reich didn’t fully understand it then, but they were finished, and the end was coming quickly.
Henri Honoré Giraud was a French general and a leader of the Free French Forces during the Second World War until he was forced to retire in 1944. Giraud was born on January 18, 1879 the son of Louis and Jeanne (née Deguignand) Giraud. His father was a coal merchant. Born to an Alsatian family in Paris, Giraud graduated from the Saint-Cyr military academy and served in French North Africa. During World War I, Giraud was wounded and captured by the Germans, but managed to escape from his prisoner-of-war camp. It was the first time he escaped, but not the last. After World War I ended, Giraud returned to North Africa and fought in the Rif War. During that war, he was awarded the Légion d’honneur. The Légion d’honneur (or Legion of Honour) is the highest French order of merit, both military and civil. It was established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, and it has been retained by all later French governments and régimes.
When World War II began, Giraud was a member of the Superior War Council. He strongly disagreed with Charles de Gaulle about the tactics of using armored troops that were planned. Giraud was made the commander of the 7th Army when it was sent to the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. He was able to delay German troops at Breda on May 13th. The badly depleted 7th Army was then merged with the 9th Army. While the troops were trying to block a German attack through the Ardennes, Giraud was at the front with a reconnaissance patrol when he was captured by German troops at Wassigny on May19th. A German court-martial tried Giraud for ordering the execution of two German saboteurs wearing civilian clothes, but he was acquitted and taken to Königstein Castle near Dresden, which was used as a high-security POW prison. He would be held there for two years.
Not one to just sit around, Giraud began carefully planning his escape. He learned German and memorized a map of the area. He painstakingly made a 150 feet rope out of twine, torn bedsheets, and copper wire, which friends had smuggled into the prison for him. Using a simple code embedded in his letters home, he informed his family of his plans to escape. I doubt if they were surprised, as it would not be the first time he escaped his captors. Finally on April 17, 1942, he was ready. Königstein Castle was built on a hilltop, with steep cliff on one side. After shaving off his moustache and covering his head with a Tyrolean hat to disguise himself, Giraud lowered himself down the cliff of the mountain fortress. He discretely travelled to Schandau where he met his Special Operations Executive (SOE) contact, who provided him with a change of clothes, cash, and identity papers. Thus began the series of tactics designed to get Giraud to the Swiss border by train. By now, the border guards had been informed of his escape and were on the alert for him. Giraud walked through the mountains until he was stopped by two Swiss soldiers, who took him to Basel. Eventually, he was able to slip into Vichy France, where he was finally able to make his identity known. He tried unsuccessfully to convince Marshal Pétain that Germany would lose, and that France must resist the German occupation. His views were rejected, but at least the Vichy government refused to return Giraud to the Germans. Returning him would have been a death sentence, because Hitler had ordered Giraud’s assassination upon being caught. Giraud went to North Africa via a British submarine, and joined the French Free Forces under General Charles de Gaulle. He eventually helped to rebuild the French army.
In January 1943, Giraud took part in the Casablanca Conference along with Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, and Franklin D Roosevelt. Later in the same year, Giraud and de Gaulle became co-presidents of the French Committee of National Liberation, but Giraud lost support and retired in frustration in April 1944. After the war, Giraud was elected to the Constituent Assembly of the French Fourth Republic. He remained a member of the War Council and was decorated for his escape. He published two books, “Mes Evasions” (My Escapes, 1946) and “Un seul but, la victoire”: Alger 1942–1944 (A Single Goal, Victory: Algiers 1942–1944, 1949) about his experiences. He died in Dijon on March 11, 1949.
When thinking of spies, our minds might logically think of James Bond 007 or some of the NCIS shows, but we somehow don’t think of women…at least not very often. Nevertheless, the truth is there are many women who are spies, and some of them were in the era of World War II. These women were gutsy. They faced danger defiantly. Jannetie “Hannie” Schaft was a Dutch resistance fighter during World War II. She could have done like so many others, and obediently taken the oath of loyalty to the Nazis. Her life would have gone on somewhat like it had before.
Schaft was born in Haarlem, which is the capital of the province of North Holland. Her mother was Aafje Talea Schaft (née Vrijer), who was a Mennonite woman. Her father, Pieter Schaft was attached to the Social Democratic Workers’ Party. Schaft led a sheltered life, because her parents were very protective of her following the death of her older sister. Her sheltered upbringing did not affect her personality. She was as bold and defiant as ever. When the Nazis wanted the people to swear allegiance to them, Schaff refused to do so. Instead, she joined Raad van Verzet, a resistance group with a communist ideology. I find it hard to think about communism being considered better than socialism, but many have considered it so. In her work for Raad van Verzet, Schaft spied on soldier activity, aided refuges, and sabotaged targets. She was very capable, and feared by many. Her work gained her the reputation as “the girl with the red hair.” While it was only a nickname, it would end up being her downfall.
Having a reputation based on the color of your hair could be a good thing. All you have to do is color your hair, and you have the perfect disguise…right? Well, it did work for a time. Schaft colored her hair to cover up the red, but then she was captured by the Nazis. They had no idea who they had, but as her hair began to grow out they quickly figured it out. Once the Germans discovered that they had the legendary spy and resistance fighter in captivity, I’m sure she was brutally beaten and tortured for information. Schaft was then executed on April 17, 1945. Schaft was never a quitter and she wouldn’t quit now. Defiant to the end, she began taunting the soldier who shot her in the head, but merely grazed her. She said, “I can shoot better than that.” The second shot killed her, but not before leaving an everlasting impression on her captors and witnesses. Schaft was just 24 years old when she died. She was given a state funeral after the war, attended by Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch royal family.
When RMS Titanic went down on April 15, 1912, after hitting an iceberg on April 14, 1912, it was a very different time than it is today. The sinking of a ship is a terrible tragedy, and often, there is so much panic. In 1912, there was a hard and fast rule in a shipwreck situation…women and children first. The only men allowed in the lifeboats were men needed as auxiliary seamen to man the lifeboats. Charles Herbert Lightoller was born March 30, 1874 into a family that had operated cotton-spinning mills in Lancashire since the late 18th century. His mother, Sarah Jane Lightoller (née Widdows), died of scarlet fever shortly after giving birth to him. His father, Frederick James Lightoller, emigrated to New Zealand when Charles was 10, leaving him in the care of extended family. Lightoller was a British Royal Navy officer and the second officer on board the RMS Titanic. He was also the most senior member of the crew to survive the Titanic disaster. Lightoller was the officer in charge of loading passengers into lifeboats on the port side. It was no easy task, because people were in a severe state of panic. Other seamen were launching lifeboats that were not filled to capacity, and since the ship did not have nearly enough lifeboats for all the people onboard. It is possible that orders that specifically said, “women and children only” may have been the reason so many lifeboats were launched before they were filled to capacity. I’m not sure if that is true or not, but if it was the case, it is a very sad revelation. It is also possible that as many as 400 more people could have been rescued, had the order been worded just slightly different. Nevertheless, Lightoller was following the orders as given to him, and not questioning the command.
When all the lifeboats were launched, and the crew and remaining passengers knew the Titanic was surely going down, Lightoller and his fellow officers “all shook hands and said ‘Good-bye’” as they saw the last lifeboat off. Lightoller then dove into the frigid water from the bridge choosing to take his chances in the water, rather than the ship. Miraculously he managed to avoid being sucked down along with the massive ship. He clung to an nearby overturned lifeboat until the survivors were rescued. Lightoller was the last person pulled aboard the Carpathia and the highest-ranking officer to survive the wreck. One might imagine that surviving the greatest maritime disaster of the 20th century would have made Charles Lightoller give up the sea forever, but he was not a man to let a little thing like having a ship ripped out from under him end his adventures at sea. No, he was not even close to being done with the sea.
Following his survival of the shipwreck of Titanic, Lightoller went on to serve as a commanding officer of the Royal Navy during World War I, Lightoller was given command of his own torpedo boat. He was decorated twice for gallantry for his actions in combat, including sinking the German submarine UB-110. He emerged from the Great War as a full naval Commander. Lightoller retired after the war, but couldn’t leave the sea behind entirely. He and his wife bought their own boat in 1929. They called it Sundower and spent the next decade cruising around northern Europe and carrying out the occasional secret surveillance mission for the Admiralty when the Germans began preparing for war again.
Though Lightoller was retired by the time World War II started, he provided and sailed as a volunteer on one of the “little ships” that played a part in the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation. Rather than allow his motoryacht to be requisitioned by the Admiralty, he and his son Roger and a young Sea Scout named Gerald Ashcroft, crossed the English Channel in Sundowner to assist in the Dunkirk evacuation. The boat was licensed to carry just 21 passengers, but Lightoller and his crew brought back 127 servicemen. On the return journey, Lightoller evaded gunfire from enemy aircraft, using a technique described to him by his youngest son, Herbert, who had joined the RAF and been killed earlier in the war. Gerald Ashcroft later described the incident, “We attracted the attention of a Stuka dive bomber. Commander Lightoller stood up in the bow and I stood alongside the wheelhouse. Commander Lightoller kept his eye on the Stuka till the last second – then he sang out to me “Hard a port!” and I sang out to Roger and we turned very sharply. The bomb landed on our starboard side.” So, years after his first lifesaving event, Lightoller was once again saving lives in an emergency. Many people would be surprised to learn that he even had a yacht, but the sea was still a part of him. At the time of the evacuation Lightoller’s second son, Trevor was a serving Second Lieutenant with Bernard Montgomery’s 3rd Division, which had retreated towards Dunkirk. Unbeknownst to his dad, Trevor had already been evacuated 48 hours before Sundowner reached Dunkirk.
After the Second World War, Lightoller managed a small boatyard in Twickenham, West London, called Richmond Slipways, which built motor launches for the river police. Lightoller died of chronic heart disease on December 8, 1952, aged 78. He was a long-time pipe smoker, and he died during London’s Great Smog of 1952, which took the lives of many elderly people with breathing issues. His body was cremated, and his ashes were scattered at the Commonwealth “Garden of Remembrance” at Mortlake Crematorium in Richmond, Surrey.
For some reason, when I think of Prisoner of War (POW) camps, I think of a place far away in a war zone, and there were some there, but as they filled up, the prisoners had to be moved to other areas. In addition to that, we needed men to work in the United States because our men were overseas fighting. The prisoners could be put to work in the fields to help grow needed foods for the country, as well as the troops. That idea was a bit foreign to me, especially when I heard that there was just such a camp that was practically in my backyard…even if I wasn’t born at the time. It’s just odd when history collides with your own neighborhood.
During World War II, the Greeley, Colorado POW camp had prisoners from Germany and Austria. The camp was built in 1943, and the first prisoners came in 1944. The camp was a self-contained town in itself. It had a fire station, hospital, theater, library, and classrooms. It also had electricity, water, and sewers. The prisoners who were held in the POW camps in the United States were treated well. This country wasn’t into the torture methods that the Axis of Evil nations were.
Many of the prisoners worked in the fields and paid money, for their labor, to take home with them. They were also given the chance to have fun. They had soccer teams. They dyed their t-shirts different colors using homemade dyes from vegetables. They had classes in English, German, and Mathematics. Some men were in the camp orchestra and others sang in choir. In many ways, the lives these men lived in the POW camps was better than the lives they lived at home…or at least during the war.
The Greeley POW Camp 202, was almost like a coveted assignment. It was the place the prisoners wanted to be sent. When new prisoners came to the camp, they would try to find men from their hometowns…hoping others had been as blessed as they felt to be there. The story is told that, “The old prisoners would toss out gum or paper with their names and address. One day a father and son found each other from the tossed notes.” These reunions were such a blessing for the prisoners. The guards were well liked. In fact, when one of the guards got married, the prisoners cooked their wedding night dinner for them. These good guards found favor with the prisoners.
I like to think that POW camps in and run by the United States were and are more civilized than those camps owned and run by other countries, but I don’t suppose all of them were run as compassionately as the Greeley POW Camp. We hear nightmare stories of Guantanamo Bay, and I’m sure there are others that weren’t so great. Still, I suppose things depend on the prisoners to a great degree. It is harder to show kindness to a prisoner who orchestrates a terrorist attack against our nation, killing thousands of innocent people, that it is to be compassionate to a soldier who is simply following orders, but is otherwise a kind and gentle person.