Not what that one’s up to

“It is my earnest hope—indeed, the hope of all mankind—that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past, a world founded upon faith and understanding, a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance and justice. Let us pray that peace be now restored to the world and that God will preserve it always.” – General Douglas MacArthur at the Japanese surrender ceremony, September 2, 1945, The World War II Desk Reference, Douglas Brinkley and Michael E. Haskew, eds.

No going back

“Of 71 major Japanese cities, four had escaped major damage in the war—Kyoto, Kokura, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Because Kyoto housed sacred religious shrines, President Truman removed it from consideration as a site. In the end, the target that was chosen was Hiroshima, a manufacturing city of 350,000 residents, because of a vast military installation, a large T-shaped bridge that the bombardier could use as a target, and the supposed absence of Allied prisoner-of-war camps in the area. In the days preceding the bomb drop, U.S. bombers blanketed the city with leaflets warning the inhabitants to leave. . . . The bomb exploded 1,900 feet above Shima Hospital in Hiroshima’s midsection with a force equal to 12,500 tons of TNT. A blinding light brightened the sky, and a dark cloud spread for three miles in diameter. From the midst arose a white mushroom cloud. Within one second, four square miles of Hiroshima disappeared and 80,000 people died. City residents were vaporized by the intense 300,000-degree Centigrade heat, which imprinted their shadows on sidewalks and bridge structures. Shortly after the explosion, a radioactive black rain started falling on the city. . . . The copilot, Captain Robert A. Lewis, stared at the frightening explosion and muttered, ‘My God, what have we done?’ “ – “Dropping of the Atomic Bombs,” The World War II Desk Reference, Douglas Brinkley and Michael E. Haskew, eds.

Wake up, we’re about to be bombed

“The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to use female pilots in combat. . . . The 588th Night Bomber Regiment, which flew ancient Polikarpov PO-2 biplanes, became known as the Nachthexen, or Night Witches, a name given to them by the German soldiers against whom they flew daring night attack missions. . . . To avoid detection the female pilots would fly close to the German positions at high altitude and cut their engines, then make a gliding attack over enemy lines. Unless radar detected them, the fabric-covered airplanes gave no warning until the sound of the wind in the rigging wires reached the ground.” – The World War II Desk Reference, Douglas Brinkley and Michael E. Haskew, eds.

Quality, not quantity

“Although the number of American Indians in the Marine Corps never exceeded 800 during the war, 375 to 420 of them performed a unique service in the Pacific theater, beginning at the battle of Guadalcanal in 1942. Military leaders decided to use the Navajo language—a language virtually unknown except to the relatively small number of people who spoke it—as a code. Navajo code talkers were communications personnel who transmitted messages between air and ground units, between ships and shore stations, between frontline armor or artillery positions and rear headquarters, and among infantry command posts—all in the Navajo language. The Japanese were never able to decipher the code, and the Navajo code talkers became a legendary group of men.” – The World War II Desk Reference, Douglas Brinkley and Michael E. Haskew, eds.

The house of the rising sun

“Japanese society permitted a young woman to teach, nurse, or work in the textile industry, but once her marriage was arranged, she was expected to quit work and concentrate on raising a family. But by the summer of 1943, after Japanese military expansion in Asia had been halted and the Allies were gaining the upper hand, tradition fell victim to military necessity. Once the ancient social barriers had fallen, Japanese women and schoolgirls performed hard and sometimes hazardous physical labor in steel mills and coal mines. They often worked 12- to 16-hour shifts in unheated factories.” – The World War II Desk Reference, Douglas Brinkley and Michael E. Haskew, eds.

For all the good it did them

“Hitler’s Third Reich was slow to consider women for active roles in the war effort much less put them in uniform. The main reason was that Nazi ideology saw a woman’s primary role as a mother, and as a result, the government was loath to use women in any industrial or military setting. In 1935, the Nazi hierarchy set up the Lebensborn (“fountain of life”) program to produce a “master race” of pure Aryans (tall, blond, and light-skinned). Members of the League of German Girls were encouraged to mate with officers and men of the Schutzstaffel (SS), Hitler’s elite bodyguard, and their offspring were nurtured in a series of baby farms at resort hotels and villas in idyllic Bavarian settings.” – The World War II Desk Reference, Douglas Brinkley and Michael E. Haskew, eds.

Resistance was not futile

“Women played crucial roles, with many emerging as leaders, in the Resistance movements across German-occupied Western and Eastern Europe from 1940 to 1945. Tens of thousands of women joined the Resistance, and they came from all walks of life—housewives, businesswomen, students, stage performers, and princesses. They fought bravely with guerrilla bands, helped to sabotage enemy installations and communications lines, carried messages, gathered intelligence, and organized escape routes for refugees and downed Allied flyers. In Poland, for example, women fought and died in the tragic Warsaw uprisings of 1943 and 1944. Some 100,000 Yugoslav women were in the ranks of Marshal Josip Broz Tito’s famed Partisans in Yugoslavia. Of these, 25,000 died.” – The World War II Desk Reference, Douglas Brinkley and Michael E. Haskew, eds.

They were not to be trifled with

“When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Soviets mobilized their women swiftly. . . . an estimated 800,000 women served in the Soviet armed forces. The Soviet Union was the only country in World War II to send uniformed women into combat. About a third of the women soldiers received instruction in handling mortars, machine guns, or automatic rifles; another 300,000 served in antiaircraft batteries, in which they performed all duties, while still others fought as tankers, field artillery gunners, and even snipers. Although the Red Army had a few all-female ground combat units, most army women served in integrated formations. More than 100,000 Soviet servicewomen were decorated during the war, including 91 who received the highest award for valor. While Soviet women on the ground fought and suffered through the great, bitter campaigns against the German army on the Eastern front from 1941 to 1945, others made history as fighter and bomber pilots. They were the first women to fly in combat.” – The World War II Desk Reference, Douglas Brinkley and Michael E. Haskew, eds.

She even had her own song

“One of the enduring symbols of the contribution of women in World War II was Rosie the Riveter, a smiling girl in overalls and a bandana who represented the many thousands of women toiling in war plants from coast to coast, and who exhorted others to join them. These women, who filled the ranks of civilian jobs left empty by men serving in the armed forces, were an essential element in Allied victory.” – The World War II Desk Reference, Douglas Brinkley and Michael E. Haskew, eds.

Pretty maids all in a row

“Despite the immediacy of the German threat in 1940, Great Britain was slow to mobilize its women for war. At first, the country depended on volunteerism to fill its women’s auxiliaries, but a low response convinced Parliament to pass a law in December 1941 requiring young unmarried women to register for national service. Most went to work in munitions plants, but 125,000 were drafted into the armed forces. Another 430,000 volunteered.” – The World War II Desk Reference, Douglas Brinkley and Michael E. Haskew, eds.

Doing the right thing

“The Germans allowed the Danish civil service to maintain control of most of the country’s legal and domestic affairs but an active resistance against Nazi occupation developed and engaged in acts of sabotage. In early 1943, Hitler curtailed Denmark’s relative independence and ordered the SS to round up and deport the country’s 8,000 Jews. Denmark’s Jews consisted of 6,500 assimilated Danes and about 1,500 émigrés from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. The Germans planned to seize these Jews on a single night, October 1, 1943. Working with extraordinary speed, the Danes smuggled virtually the entire Jewish population onto small vessels and transported them across the narrow Øresund Strait to neutral Sweden, where they were welcomed and kept safe until they were returned to their homes at the end of the war. The Danes paid terribly for their kind act. The Germans set off a wave of terror, arresting scores of alleged saboteurs and rounding up and shooting Danish citizens without pretense of trial.” – The World War II Desk Reference, Douglas Brinkley and Michael E. Haskew, eds.

Answering the call

“I joined the army ‘cause there wasn’t anything else around. Not just for a colored man but for anyone. I had a large family, and we were really poor. I knew the army would give me three meals a day and a little pay, so I joined up. . . . I knew that the service wasn’t much better than where I was in terms of racism, but a full belly could take away some of the bitterness. I got clothes, a place to live, and a little money and even got some training on some heavy equipment. I don’t think I would have gotten that anywhere else but in the service. It was segregated, but I felt that I was doing something better with my life instead of just slowly wasting away. When I went in, we weren’t at war. I just wanted three squares a day, some spending money, and a roof over my head.” – Harry Kempt, U.S. Army, 93rd Combat Engineers (quoted in The World War II Desk Reference, Douglas Brinkley and Michael E. Haskew, eds.)


“Because the unemployment rate in 1939 averaged about what it had been in 1931, some economists argue that the New Deal had failed to both put people back to work and to enhance private investment. However, others argue forcefully that the appeal and success of the New Deal had less to do with economics than with the expansion of political power by the central government. Still others argue that the New Deal was really about hope, and that Roosevelt and his programs helped stabilize the nation. What, then, is the legacy of the New Deal and Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Although the New Deal did not end double-digit unemployment, it did increase the power of the presidency and the central government. Moreover, it changed the focus of the national political debate. The New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt changed the ways that people view the role of the state in American life. The Great Depression forced Americans to wonder whether a system of free market capitalism was capable of bringing both economic growth and economic stability. Whether the Depression was a failure of capitalism or a failure of government policies, the U.S. economy ever since has felt, for better or worse, the guiding hand of government far more than before the nation’s economy collapsed in the early 1930s.” – “The New Deal,” The World War II Desk Reference (Douglas Brinkley and Michael E. Haskew, eds.)

Prisoners of the state

“The radio announced that Hitler had come out of his safe bomb-proof bunker to talk with the fourteen to sixteen year old boys who had ‘volunteered’ for the ‘honor’ to be accepted into the SS and to die for their Führer in the defense of Berlin. What a cruel lie! These boys did not volunteer, but had no choice, because boys who were found hiding were hanged as traitors by the SS as a warning that, ‘he who was not brave enough to fight had to die.’ When trees were not available, people were strung up on lampposts. They were hanging everywhere, military and civilian, men and women, ordinary citizens who had been executed by a small group of fanatics.” – Dorothea von Schwanenflügel, Laughter Wasn’t Rationed

What ever is the point of it all

“In the middle of this twenty-first century some backpacker yet unborn may chance upon this place, recall vaguely that it was the scene of ‘a famous victory’ and wonder, like Old Kaspar after Blenheim, what was the point of it all. He should know that El Alamein was the place where at last—and even before Stalingrad—the most voraciously effective war-machine in history, and the gangster regime it served, was stopped in its tracks and then turned back.” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein

Just say no

“For three days most men had slept very little, and now fatigue was beginning to take its toll. Major Flatow, the stocky Yorkshire Territorial who had named his tank ‘Attila’, had been told with the rest of his regiment to take the benzedrine pep-pills they had been issued. These amphetamines, whose pre-war use had been pioneered by long-haul pilots, were freely issued to the British army and navy though, acting on the advice of their medical officers, some units refused to take them. After the initial high, which could take effect about half an hour after ingestion, benzedrine users were often beset by hallucinations of the kind later generations would know as ‘bad trips’. Flatow’s was mild, if perplexing: why should a man on a bicycle be riding across the desert towards his Sherman? Other hallucinations were less benign. A lieutenant shot down several German soldiers with a tommy-gun when they tried to rush his tank leaguer after dark, only to learn that they were the crew of a knocked-out Sherman seeking the sanctuary of their own lines. Luckily, his aim was not as sharp as his heightened imagination. The same officer also spent several minutes trying to rouse a man lying in the path of his tank, before he realized he was talking to the dead. In the middle of heavy shell-fire a sergeant turned up alongside a tank in a jeep and calmly informed its crew that it was ‘only a scheme’ (an exercise) and they could go back. Meanwhile, their colonel saw a map in the sky, complete with grid lines.” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein

Herr General’s final ride

“[General} Stumme went missing and the Panzerarmee became a headless beast, able to snarl and lash out locally but without the guiding intelligence to co-ordinate its responses to the British. At first light on the 24th [of October, 1942], Stumme, having received precious few situation reports from his army, set out to find out what was happening. He was accompanied by his driver, Corporal Wolf, and Colonel Büchting, a signals officer who wanted to see how quickly he could restore the field-telephone system. Stumme decided against taking an escort and a wireless vehicle to keep in touch, saying that he intended to go only as far as the HQ of the 90th Light, just behind the front line on the coast. Finding divisional HQ no better informed than army headquarters, Stumme decided to get closer to the front. How could a man who had stepped into Rommel’s boots do otherwise? There are two versions of what happened next. One has it that Stumme’s car was hit by a strafing fighter, the other that, on a deserted stretch of road, he strayed too close to Morshead’s Australians and came under anti-tank and machine-gun fire. Whatever it was that hit them, Oberst Büchting received a mortal head wound and Wolf turned his vehicle so violently that he failed to notice that the valiant if corpulent Stumme had fallen out. It was some time before Wolf discovered that he had mislaid the boss. By then he was several kilometres from the scene of the attack. Initially, it was feared that the Australians might have sent out a patrol and captured Stumme, but his body, with no visible wounds, was eventually recovered the following day and the cause of his death established as a heart attack. Whether he suffered it before or after his car was hit was never established.” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein

Face the other way

“Here we will stand and fight; there will be no further withdrawal. I have ordered that all plans and instructions dealing with further withdrawal are to be burnt, and at once. We will stand and fight here. If we can’t stay here alive, then let us stay here dead.” Lieutenant-General Bernard Law Montgomery, upon taking command of the British Eighth Army, August 13, 1942 (quoted by John Bierman and Colin Smith in The Battle of Alamein)

Drop and give me fifty

“Montgomery had always shown indulgence towards his men’s need for what he liked to call ‘horizontal refreshment.’ When his battalion was serving in Egypt, he had made sure that the Alexandrian brothels were managed in a way that would leave the Warwicks in good health. But when he tried the same thing in France in November 1939, he nearly got the sack. Alarmed at the incidence of venereal disease in his division, he issued written orders that condoms should go on sale at NAAFI canteens and that the men should be urged to use the cleaner brothels in Lille. [General Lord] Gort was outraged by such candour and vowed to make Montgomery withdraw the order. Even granted the prevailing British hypocrisy on sexual matters in the 1930s, it was ludicrous for an army commander to become involved in such trivia, even more so when he was hopelessly wrong. Montgomery dug his heels in and refused to withdraw the offending order. In the end, Brooke, then Montgomery’s corps commander, intervened, persuading him that Gort meant business and would send him back to England if he didn’t back down.” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein

Elizabeth Carver was her name

“In the summer of 1937, while on the beach at Burnham-on-Sea, Betty was bitten on the foot by some kind of insect. Blood-poisoning set in and she was admitted to a local hospital. At first Montgomery, busy with manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain, failed to realize how sick she was. But as her condition worsened he was soon making regular 200-mile round trips to visit her. The septicaemia spread. Only the coming war would bring into general use the antibiotics which might have cured it. As a last resort the leg that had received the bite was amputated. Even this failed to save her. After almost two months of suffering, Betty Montgomery died in her husband’s arms on 19 October 1937. He had just read the 23rd Psalm to her. Montgomery was heartbroken. ‘I was utterly defeated. I began to search my mind for anything I had done wrong, that I should have been dealt such a shattering blow . . . my soul cried out in anguish against this apparent injustice. I seemed to be surrounded by utter darkness.’ ” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein (ellipsis in original)

We’ll have none of that in this army

“In an order to Rommel dated 13 June 1942, Hitler referred to ‘numerous German political refugees with Free French forces’ who should be ‘immediately wiped out in battle’. Where they escaped being killed in battle they were to be shot out of hand ‘unless they have to be temporarily retained for the extraction of information’. Hitler forbade this order being passed on in writing, enabling Rommel to make an ambiguous response. ‘We know what to do with this, gentlemen,’ he reportedly told his staff, crumpling the message form on which the order arrived. Quite apart from ethical considerations, to shoot prisoners would have gone against Rommel’s practice of encouraging the enemy to surrender by cultivating a reputation for magnanimity.” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein

Maybe they’ll give you a medal

“While the opposing armies faced each other, motionless, along the Gazala line, a small and highly unconventional unit was in training under conditions of the tightest security at Mersa Matruh, 320 miles to the east. Its members wore German army uniforms, carried German weapons and German identification papers, drilled in German and gave and received orders in German. Even off duty they addressed each other only in German; yet all were members of the British army and, except for their two officers and two instructors, were Palestinian Jews of either German or Austrian origin. The unit to which these men belonged was styled the Special Interrogation Group (SIG), a formation whose very existence was so nebulous that it was sometimes incorrectly referred to as the Special Intelligence Group or the Special Investigation Group. Its progenitor and commander was Captain Herbert Cecil Buck, MC . . . . The SIG’s purpose was to raid behind the lines disguised as German troops. This was a triply dangerous business. To operate behind the lines was risky enough; to do so wearing the enemy’s uniform and in violation of the Geneva Conventions carried the risk of summary execution in the event of capture; to be so captured and identified as a Jew could only compound the offence. Among the very few British special forces officers who knew of the SIG’s existence it was known as Bertie Buck’s Suicide Squad.” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein

Not everyone’s cup of tea

“In desert war—then and subsequently—the tank is the primary weapon, an armour-plated monster spewing fire and destruction as it plunges straight ahead to its objective. Or so it seems to the ‘poor bloody infantry’ as they deploy, naked and horribly exposed, across an unforgiving landscape of rock, grit and thorns. To the men inside the tanks, the advantages of speed, armour plate and fire-power seem not nearly so clear-cut. When the hatch is closed for action and the engine reaches its optimum heat, it becomes stiflingly hot and the combined stench of fear, fuel, sweat, cordite and machine oil can be overpowering. The outside world is visible only through slits in the armour, and what little can be seen is often obscured by swirling clouds of dust. The crew characteristically consists of a driver, a gunner, a radio operator and a commander. They cannot see each other’s faces and must communicate by intercom. The charge may be exhilarating but there is always the fear of being trapped inside a metal tomb if one’s machine is disabled by a thrown track or, even worse, hit by armour-piercing enemy fire, causing its ammunition to explode and its fuel tanks to ignite. This was known as ‘brewing up’, an experience never to be forgotten by those fortunate enough to survive it.” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein

Early recycling

“We all had dysentery and that was worse than the enemy fire. During daylight you couldn’t leave your hole to relieve yourself. Still, when the Germans dropped ‘surrender leaflets’ they made good toilet paper. Your tin hat came in handy, too. You could use it as a shovel, a cooking pot, a toilet and a wash basin. Two boots made a good pillow. We had two litres of water a man a day and little except bully beef to eat; we ate it at night when it was cold and not too greasy. But there was always plenty of tea—a great morale-booster, with Carnation milk and lots of sugar.” – Private John Youden, 2/13th Australian Infantry (quoted by John Bierman and Colin Smith in The Battle of Alamein)

Nothing a shot can’t clear up

“Among the Allied military, the better-smelling fleshpots of Cairo and Alexandria were not the exclusive preserve of headquarters staff. A field officer taking a well-earned break from the desert could share facilities with ‘the gabardene swine’ of GHQ, as many front-line soldiers called them, and, if so inclined, pick up one of the attractive Nicoles and Babettes—Frenchified daughters of the Greek, Armenian, Jewish or Coptic middle classes—who, for the price of a meal, a few drinks and a box of chocolates, were often willing to offer the lonely warrior an hour or two of sweet consolation. For Other Ranks, the attractions offered by Cairo were more basic. The rancid bars, live shows and urine-and-carbolic-reeking brothels of the Wagh el Birket red light district did a roaring trade, as did the official VD Centres that were set up by GHQ to ensure that pox and clap did not produce more casualties than enemy fire.” – John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein