Thursday, September 15, 2016

Weird War II

by Richard Denham

The Second World War has captured the imagination like no other in history. It was the first ‘People’s War’, in which, because of technology, women and children were in the front line along with the men. The generation who fought it are still with us, although their ranks are thinning daily, and the world in which we live today is shaped to a huge extent by the events of 1939-45.

I have used ‘weird’ to mean extraordinary and have selected topics from that war which I think, for a variety of reasons, are astonishing. Let me be clear, however. I am not, in any sense, laughing at the men, women and children of World War Two. The fact that they could laugh at each other – and themselves – at the time, is in itself, astonishing. Scared to death, they found something – anything – to laugh at. So, bombed shops in London had cardboard signs reading, ‘We’re even more open than usual.’ The arrival of the American GIs in Britain in 1942 gave rise to, ‘Have you heard about the new Utility knickers? One Yank and they’re off!’ In the Reich, there was the German glance, making sure that no one saw you not making the Hitler salute (which American schoolchildren, by the way, had already adopted, by innocent coincidence).

In a bid to end the war against Japan, the Americans perfected the atom bomb, which had the desired effect but created an uneasy nightmare ‘peace’ we live with today. By no means as deadly were the parachuting sheep, the rat bombs, the cat and dog commandos, the ship made entirely of ice, the rifle that could shoot around corners, the tank that was only twelve inches high. All of these were being experimented with and developed by intelligent men and women backed by serious money and even more serious governments. And some of them actually worked!

Then there were the rumours, some spread by black propaganda, some the result of hysteria. Britain, in particular, was paranoid. Winston Churchill believed in 1940 that there were 20,000 members of the Fifth Column, working secretly for Hitler’s Germany behind the scenes. People were known to be signalling to the Luftwaffe with cigarette lighters. German parachutists were floating down over the countryside dressed as nuns. Messerschmitt pilots wore lipstick and rouge. Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, was actually Hitler’s niece. The nonsense went on and on.

Some of the bizarre tales in Weird War Two are actually true. Operation Mincemeat, placing a dead man in the sea off Spain to fool the Germans, really did make them believe an assault would take place miles from where it really happened. A Japanese soldier, unaware that the war was over, actually did surrender on his tiny Pacific island thirty years later. In the Isle of Wight, a middle-aged landlady was really sentenced to death for espionage, even if the penalty was never carried out.


With so many millions caught up in the terrifying events of the 1940s, it is not surprising that weird and wonderful stories and events should come to light. I have tried to be even-handed. Britain, Germany, the United States, Japan, the USSR (as Russia then was) all have the spotlight thrown onto them. And what that light reveals will astonish you.

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  1. Sounds fantastic! This is right up my alley, thanks for sharing:)

  2. I cannot ever recall being scared to death; I was born in London in the 30's Lived in Barking during the war, evacuated briefly to Somerset, but back to Barking in 42. Got to the stage that we didn't even bother going down our air-raid shelter, even when the doodlebugs started to drop around us followed by the V2's. We got out fair share of both.


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