12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame
12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame

Mike Wood - December 1, 2017

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame
Jasper Maskelyne. Maskelyne Magic.

7 – Jasper Maskelyne

This list has been heavy on British eccentrics, whether they be sword-wielding pseudo-Scotsmen or umbrella-toting, bowler-hatted paratroopers, and our next entry might be the wackiest of the lot. Certainly, if Jasper Maskelyne had known was Jack Churchill and Digby Tatham-Warter had been up to, you can bet that he would have done something even more mad to make himself stand out. Maskelyne was a born performer and relentless self-publicist, as well as a noted teller of tall tales, so we must take many aspects of his life with a pinch of salt, but if even half of them are true then he deserves his place on this list.

Unlike so many of our previous entrants, he was not from a military background, though he was certainly performing in his own family business when he came to prominence. Jasper Maskelyne was the son and grandson of two of the most famous stage magicians in Britain and followed his conjuring ancestors into the trade, appearing to great success all over the country in the 1930s, starring in films and publishing books on the performance of magic. When war came, he volunteered for the Royal Engineers with the idea that he might put his talents to work for the war effort – with one tale being that he made a German dreadnought appear in the River Thames to convince his superiors of his worth.

He was assigned to camouflage, but paid little attention in training and was convinced that he was more talented than his peers: in fact, some of the other recruits reported that, predictably, he was poor in military affairs though very entertaining when they were relaxing in the evenings. Nevertheless, he was posted to North Africa and set about training infantry there in techniques to evade capture and disguising vehicles.

One later biographer described his time in North Africa as “either absolutely central (if you believe his account and that of his biographer) or very marginal (if you believe the official records and more recent research)”, and there is – as one might expect from a magician – quite some doubt about just how much he did. According to Maskelyne, he was responsible for feats as grand as making the Suez Canal disappear (which he did by shining lights upwards from the water to dazzling German fighter planes), making entire armies appear to be somewhere else via an elaborate system of dummy tanks and soldiers and relocating the entire city of Alexandria. Other reports say that the Suez Canal trick was merely planned and never executed, the dummy machinery plan was simply to labor intensive to have actually have been carried out and that by the end of the war, Maskelyne was doing nothing more vital to the military effort than what he had been busy with before the war: he was entertaining the troops with his stage magic.

If anything, the greatest deception that Maskelyne pulled off might well have been convincing people that he was important: his name lives on as one of the most unusual stories of the Second World War, despite there being little to no concrete proof that he did any of the things that he said he did. As any good conjurer know though, a great magician never reveals his tricks. And if the British Army were successfully able to make whole canals and cities disappear, then it was some trick indeed: and one not to be shared too widely.

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame
Witold Pilecki in Auschwitz. Marina Amaral.

8 – Witold Pilecki

Above we have told the story of the bravery of Charles Coward, the British soldier who smuggled himself into Auschwitz for one night and helped scores of Jews to escape from the death camp. If his bravery bordered on madness, then that of Witold Pilecki is truly insane: where Coward managed to spend one night in Auschwitz, Pilecki volunteered to be sent there indefinitely in an attempt to raise a resistance movement there and subsequently escape. Unbelievably, he managed to do both.

Pilecki was a commander of a cavalry platoon in the Polish Army when war broke out and, when the Polish government surrendered, he refused to stand down and continued fighting the Nazis as a partisan. He was one of the founders of the Tajna Armia Polska, the first iteration of the Polish resistance and in 1940, he produced an audacious plan to get himself sent to Auschwitz to gather information about the situation there and arrange a rudimentary resistance movement. The higher-ups of the Polish Resistance agreed and Pilecki was given permission to go out during a Nazi raid and get himself arrested.

It bears mentioning that at the time of Witold Pilecki’s scheme, there was hardly any concrete knowledge of the death camp system: Auschwitz was known to exist, of course, but not many people knew what was taking place there and Pilecki was intent on finding out. In the camp, he was sent out on work battalions and managed to set up the ZOW, a united resistance movement across the German prison system. Through this, Pilecki and his comrades were able to leak out information about what was taking place in Auschwitz, even setting up a covert radio station to broadcast the numbers of arrivals at the camp, as well as smuggling in extra rations. Pilecki managed to contract pneumonia during his time undercover, but retained his strength sufficiently to escape in 1943 after two and a half years spent at Auschwitz. He made his flight in the middle of an April night, overpowering the man sent to guard them, severing communications networks and then making their way out.

Once out, Pilecki linked up with the TAP – now called the Home Army – and recommenced resistance activity, coordinating ZOW organization from the outside and writing a report that broke open Auschwitz to the wider world: known as Witold’s Report, it was the first detailed description of the death camps that had been received by the Allies. Later, Pilecki was a leader during the Warsaw Uprising – though he initially enrolled as a regular soldier and was only promoted when he finally revealed himself – and found himself again captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp, where he sat out the rest of the war.

Having survived such an ordeal – in and out of Auschwitz, participating in the Warsaw Uprising and then being sent to a Stalag – one might have expected Witold Pilecki to become a national hero, but instead, he would find himself again on the wrong side of history. He aligned himself with the Polish government in exile in London, but on the ground in Poland, the Soviet-backed communist regime was taking power. He lived under assumed names again, but when his identity was discovered, Pilecki was arrested by the communist secret police and executed in 1948. When the verdict in his show trial was announced, he told the judge that “I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would rather feel joy, than fear.” It would not be until the fall of Communism in Poland in 1989 that Witold Pilecki would get the recognition that his sacrifices deserved.

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame
Tommy Macpherson in regimental tartan. The Times.

9 – Tommy Macpherson

We have heard the tale of Jack Churchill, the bagpipe and Claymore-toting maniac who fought in the Highland Regiment, but he was not the only Scottish-themed crazy in the British Army. Forgetting for a moment that Jack Churchill wasn’t actually Scottish, the honor of the maddest Scot in the Second World War might well go to Tommy Macpherson, otherwise known as the Kilted Killer. Macpherson, a native of Edinburgh and a former Scottish rugby international, was one of the most decorated soldiers of the war, picking up, among other honors, the Military Cross, the Croix de Guerre three times and the Legion d’honneur.


Macpherson was a borderline aristocrat, having been educated at one of Scotland’s most expensive schools and gained a commission as an officer into the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, and was sent to North Africa as a reconnaissance man. His team found themselves cut loose while attempting to prepare a landing site for an attack on Erwin Rommel’s headquarters and were captured by the Germans – though not after walking over a hundred miles in just their shorts, without food, water or a map. He attempted to escape after escape for two years, eventually managing to free himself: whereupon he reported straight back for duty and was sent on a top-secret mission to help the French Resistance.

Tommy Macpherson was parachuted into southern France in June 1944, all the while wearing his full battle dress and kilt. He later wrote, “Just as I arrived I heard an excited young Frenchman saying to his boss, ‘Chef, chef, there’s a French officer and he’s brought his wife!” Their mistaking me for a woman wearing a skirt was an easy error to make. As a British officer parachuted into a resistance situation…your only authority was your own personality, which I had tried to reinforce with my kilt and a degree of flamboyance”.

He was a remarkably effective resistance fighter: he destroyed infrastructure and was a constant thorn in the side of the Germans, brazenly driving around in a car emblazoned with a Union Jack and a French Resistance flag. He killed countless enemy combatants, earning himself a personal bounty on his head as well as a nickname: “the Kilted Killer”.

Macpherson continued his assault for months until the Axis forces in the Auvergne were surrounded by Allies and surrendered. It is reported that he drove through machine-gun fire in his Highland battle dress to give the surrender notice to the Germans, totally unarmed and – unbeknownst to his adversaries – with no authority to do so. He simply told them that a barrage was on its way and the Germans believed him, giving up en masse.

After the war, Tommy stayed in the army and found himself promoted through various Scottish regiments of the British Army, eventually retiring as a Colonel of the Gordon Highlanders. He retired in 1968, was knighted by the Queen in 1992 and died in 2014, having published his memoirs, entitled Behind Enemy Lines.

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame
Douglas Bader attempts to swivel his prosthetic legs into a fighter plane. WW2 Gravestone.

10 – Douglas Bader

There are soldiers who are mad because they are brave and others whose eccentricities lead them to appear insane to others. But of all those that we have spoken of here, there is one whose madness was simply to be taking part at all: Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader. Bader was a flying ace with 22 credited aerial victories, a national hero in Britain and one of the most famous soldiers of the war, respected by both enemies and comrades alike. Moreover, he did this all despite having lost both of his legs.

Bader first joined the Royal Air Force in 1928, joining their officer training college, but regularly sailed close to the wind with authority, drawing censure for racing cars and motorbikes while also finishing almost last in his class. His tendency towards thrill-seeking would have drastic consequences: after qualifying as a pilot he was often reprimanded for performing dangerous air acrobatics and in December 1931, he crashed his plane at an air show and lost both of his legs. He was invalided out of the RAF and worked for an oil company for several years, though he would write letters to the Air Ministry asking to be allowed back in. When war came in 1939, he got his wish.

When he returned to the air, Bader proved himself quickly to be an exceptional talent. Many suspected that his amputated legs actually assisted him in the air: when many pilots would blackout because of the g-forces caused by flying, he would not, as the blackouts were caused by blood rushing from the head to the feet and, without feet, he was not affected as much. He was promoted to flying the famed Spitfire planes, the symbol of the Royal Air Force, participating in air cover for the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain.

His success was exceptional: his unit, 242 Squadron, was responsible for 62 aerial victories in the Battle of Britain and Bader was given the Distinguished Flying Cross. Disaster, however, was around the corner. Bader was shot down in August 1941 and parachuted to safety, but only after his prosthetic leg had become entangled in his plane. When in captivity, the Germans respected him so much that Göring himself gave permission for a replacement leg to be sent from Britain to Germany.

Bader refused to cave while in a prisoner of war camp. He would continually attempt to escape – despite, of course, being on prosthetic legs – and when unable to, would hurl abuse at the prison guards. He was eventually moved to Colditz Castle, the most secure Stalag in Germany, where he sat out the war. Such was his esteem back home that, when the British organized a flypast to celebrate victory, Bader was chosen to lead it.

After the war, Bader somewhat sullied the great reputation that his flying had built. A movie of his life, Reach for the Sky, was released and furthered his fame, but many came to associate the lead actor of the film with the man himself: where the screen portrayal had been a demure, quiet man, the real Bader was anything but, with a foul mouth and strident opinions. His later political support for Apartheid and white-supremacist governments in Rhodesia did not help his public image, while he would correspond with several of his former adversaries from the Luftwaffe, many of whom were unrepentant Nazis, something which appeared to matter little to Bader. Nevertheless, when he died in 1982, he was feted by the British public as a leader of the gallant resistance of World War Two.

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame
Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik. The Daily Mirror.

11 – Jan Kubis & Jozef Gabcik

Some of the craziest soldiers, as we have seen, are those who are most willing to put themselves in the path of danger without any regard for their own safety. In that regard, the names of Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik will go down as some of the most lunatic around. Their bravery and dedication to the cause of Czech liberation will go down through the ages and, since we’re discussing lunatic behavior, perhaps so will the actions of their victim, Reinhard Heydrich, also known as the Butcher of Prague.

Jan Kubis & Jozef Gabcik were picked from a whole range of Czech and Slovak officers by the British intelligence services to carry out the attack, which was designed to destabilize the Nazi regime in Czechoslovakia and inspire the locals there to form a resistance movement similar to that was active in Poland, France and Holland. The pair had shown their fighting chops previously: Kubis had served with distinction against the Nazis as part of the French Foreign Legion and had found himself in Britain after the capitulation of France, while Gabcik had trained as a paratrooper in the UK and beat out 20 competitors to be picked for the task.

Their target was Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi leader in Prague. Heydrich was up there with the very worst of the Nazis: he had founded the SD, the Nazi intelligence agency, had chaired the Wannsee Conference in which the Holocaust was decided upon and had to led the forces which had summarily executed those who showed resistance to the Nazi war machine in Czechoslovakia. It was not for no reason that he was known as “The Butcher of Prague”.

Kubis and Gabcik were parachuted into Prague in December 1941 and spent months researching how best to attack Heydrich. They ascertained that – despite being the most hated man in Czechoslovakia – he drove to work every day in an open-topped car with just one driver. They picked a suitable curve in the road, where he would be forced to slow down, and, when he came past, sprang out. Gabcik attempted to open fire but his gun stalled and ruined the element of surprise, but Kubis was more successful: as Heydrich attempted to return fire at Gabcik, Kubis launched a briefcase stuffed with grenades at the car and it exploded. Neither of the Czechs knew that their attack had worked and fled – both were also injured by the blast – and only discovered the next day that Heydrich had been hit heavily. The Butcher of Prague eventually died, although historians attribute it as much to poor medical care after the attack as to anything caused by the attack itself.

Nevertheless, their attack had had its intended effect and now the retribution began. Hitler was dissuaded from killing 10,000 Czechs as a punishment and instead thousands were sent to the concentration camps, including those from the ancestral homes of the perpetrators. Kubis and Gabcik, however, had one last stand left in them. They holed themselves up in an Orthodox Church in the center of Prague and, along with two other Czech resistance members, took on 750 SS soldiers. They held out for six hours, withstanding tear gas and machine guns, only for their refuge in the crypt of the church to be flooded with water. They took down an estimated 14 SS men and injured 22 more before Gabcik killed himself and Kubis was mortally wounded. The pair would go on to be feted by both Czechs and Slovaks, and their bravery was never forgotten in their native lands.

12 Crazy Soldiers from World War Two Who Could Have Put Rambo to Shame
Bhanbhagta Gurung. Wikipedia.

12 – Bhanbhagta Gurung

Our final military madman is one that few will have heard of, but whose bravery to the point of insanity is nye on unbelievable. Bhanbhagta Gurung was a Gurkha, a Nepalese soldier contracted to the British Army and – in a very competitive field – perhaps the greatest Gurkha of them all. He was a Victoria Cross recipient, the highest honor that a member of the British Army can receive, as well as being awarded the Star of Nepal, the equivalent honor in his native land.

Gurung won his award in 1945, at the tail end of the war, when fighting against the Japanese in Burma, while pinned down with sniper fire. His citation for the Victoria Cross tells the story: In Burma, on 5th March, 1945, a Company of the 2nd Gurkha Rifles attacked an enemy position known as Snowden East. On approaching the objective one of the, sections was forced to ground by very heavy Light Machine Gun, grenade and mortar fire, and owing to the severity of this fire was unable to move in any direction.

While thus pinned, the section came under accurate fire from a tree sniper some 75 yards to the South. As this sniper was inflicting casualties on the section, Rifleman Bhanbhagta Gurung, being unable to fire from the lying position, stood up fully exposed to the heavy fire and calmly killed the enemy sniper with his rifle, thus saving his section from suffering further casualties. The section then advanced again, but when within 20 yards of the objective was again attacked by very heavy fire.

Rifleman Bhanbhagta Gurung, without waiting for any orders, dashed forward alone and attacked the first enemy fox-hole. Throwing two grenades, he killed the two occupants and without any hesitation rushed .on to the next enemy fox-hole and killed the Japanese in it with his bayonet. Two further enemy fox-holes were still bringing fire to bear on the section and again Rifleman Bhahbhagta Gurung dashed forward alone and cleared these with bayonet and grenade.

During his single-handed attacks on these four enemy fox-holes, Rifleman Bhanbhagta Gurung was subjected to almost continuous and point-blank Light Machine Gunfire from a bunker on the North tip of the objective. Realizing that this Light Machine Gun would hold up not only his own platoon which was now behind him, but also another platoon which was advancing from the West, Rifleman Bhanbhagta Gurung for the fifth time went forward alone in the face of heavy enemy fire to knock out this position.

He doubled forward and leaped on to the roof of the bunker from where, his hand grenades being finished,’ he flung two No. 77 smoke grenades into the bunker slit. Two Japanese rushed out of the bunker partially blinded by the smoke. Rifleman Bhanbhagta Gurung promptly killed them both with his Khukri (the traditional Gurkha sword). A remaining Japanese inside the bunker was still firing the Light Machine Gun and holding up the advance of No. 4 Platoon, so Rifleman Bhanbhagta Gurung crawled inside the bunker, killed this Japanese gunner and captured the Light Machine Gun.”

The citation later went on to describe Gurung’s “complete disregard for his own safety” – bravery that only a madman would show.

 

Sources For Further Reading:

History Collection – Mud, Blood, and Death: Photos That Show the Realities of Trench Warfare

National Public Radio – Meet the Man Who Sneaked into Auschwitz

History Extra – The World’s Deadliest Sniper: Simo Häyhä

Owlcation – World War 2 History: Leo Major, the One-Eyed One-Man Army

Outonu – Pilecki: The Man Who Unveiled the Holocaust and Ended Up Executed by The Communists

All That’s Interesting – How Charles Coward Rescued Jewish Prisoners from The Nazis and Became Known As ‘The Count of Auschwitz’

War History Online – Maj. Tommy Macpherson, the “Kilted Killer” Who Tackled a Panzer Division on His Own!

History UK – Douglas Bader, The Double-Amputee Flying Ace of The Battle of Britain

Kafkadesk – On This Day, in 1942: Operation Anthropoid Was Carried Out By Jozef Gabčík And Jan Kubiš

The Independent – Bhanbhagta Gurung VC: Soldier Who Saved Fellow Gurkhas

The Himalayan Times – Gurkha Officer Reminisces About Heroics of His Grandfather

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