Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts

Khalid Elhassan - April 27, 2020

Jumping out of an airplane with a parachute is risky enough. Jumping out of an airplane or bomber plane without a parachute? The latter, for obvious reasons, is not recommended. However, many airmen during World War II were forced by dire necessity to jump, or fall, out of airplanes thousands of feet up in the air, without parachutes. The overwhelming majority died upon impact, but a lucky few managed to miraculously survive. Following are forty things about those instances and other fascinating but lesser-known World War II episodes and facts.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
A doomed B-17 on fire over Nis, Yugoslavia, in 1944. War History Online

40. Deadly Skies

For the Western Allies’ fighting men in Europe, few jobs were more dangerous than serving in a bomber crew. Especially so in the days before Allied fighters secured aerial supremacy over Europe’s skies, when bomber losses were horrific. In 1943, for example, some American Eighth Air Force bomber groups recorded a 400 percent turnover in personnel in just three months. At the time, bomber crews were tasked with a 25-mission tour of duty, but most never made it past their fifth mission.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
A B-24 of the 783rd Squadron, 465th Bomb Group, 15th Air Force, bursting into flame and coming apart after taking a flak hit in 1944. Imgur

Things were even more horrendous for British bomber crewmen. Out of a total of 125,000 who flew for RAF Bomber Command, over 55,000 were killed – a 44.4% death rate. A further 8,400 were wounded in action, and nearly 10,000 were taken prisoner, for a total loss rate of 58%. Amidst the carnage, there were some amazing survival stories – such as those of airmen who somehow survived falls without parachutes from miles up in the air.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Flight Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade. Super Curioso

39. The Indestructible Alkemade

It’s not the falling from high up that kills you, it’s the sudden stop at the end that does you in. The preceding is a good rule of thumb, but like most rules, it has some exceptions. One such was RAF Flight Sergeant Nicholas Stephen Alkemade (1922 – 1987), who on the night of March 24th, 1944, was serving as a rear gunner in an Avro Lancaster heavy bomber.

Part of No. 115 Squadron RAF, Alkemade’s Lancaster was returning from a nighttime bomber raid that had plastered Berlin, when it was attacked by a Ju 88 configured as a night fighter. The attack set Alkemade’s plane aflame, and it began to spiral out of control. Alkemade’s parachute was burned in the fire. With the flames licking towards him, he jumped out of bomber, preferring to die by impact rather than get burned to death. He fell 18,000 feet to the ground, but as seen below, survived.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Nicholas Alkemade’s fall. La Brujala Verde

38. Surviving a Three Mile Fall

Somebody was watching out for Nicholas Alkemade when he jumped without a parachute into the night sky from a height of more than three miles. He fell into a stand of pine trees, then onto soft snow covering the ground. Trees and snow broke and cushioned his fall. Alkemade discovered that he was alive, that he could move his arms and legs, that nothing was broken, and that the only injury he suffered was a sprained leg.

He was captured and interrogated by the Gestapo, who disbelieved his claims until they found and investigated his bomber’s wreckage. Alkemade spent the rest of the war in a POW camp, where his survival story made him a celebrity. After the war, he made a living in the chemical industry, and was featured on Just Amazing, a British TV series about people who pulled off extraordinary feats of daring or survived against incredible odds.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Staff Sergeant Alan Magee poses for the camera halfway into the tight confines of a B-17’s ball turret. Historic Wings

37. Survived a Fall From 18,000 Feet? Here, Hold My Beer…

Alan Eugene Magee (1919 – 2003) joined the United States Army Air Force immediately after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. After completing aerial gunnery training, he became a B-17 ball turret gunner, and was sent to join the Eighth Air Force in Britain.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
B-17 crew positions. WW2 Investigations

He joined the crew of a Flying Fortress nicknamed Snap! Crackle! Pop! that was part of the 360th Bomb Squadron of the 303rd Bomb Group. Magee’s seventh mission, on January 3rd, 1943, was a daylight raid against Saint-Nazaire in France. It ended with him falling over 22,000 feet from his B-17, without a parachute.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
303rd Bomb Group B-17s flying through heavy flak. Historic Wings

36. Falling Four Miles Without a Parachute

While bombing U-boat pens in Saint-Nazaire, Alan Magee’s ball turret took a flak hit that rendered it inoperative. Exiting, he discovered that his parachute had been shredded. Before he had time to contemplate the implications, another flak hit destroyed the B-17’s right-wing, started an uncontrollable fire, and set the plane spinning towards the earth. While crawling towards the plane’s front, Magee blacked out due to lack of oxygen, and unconscious, fell out of the dying plane.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Crew of the Snap! Crackle! Pop!. Reddit

He plummeted for four miles, crashed through Saint-Nazaire railroad station’s glass roof, which shattered and observed some of the impact, then slammed into the station’s floor. He was injured, but alive.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Saint-Nazaire’s railway station before the war. Historic Wings

35. Battered, But Breathing

Alan Magee’s fall left him a bloody mess. In addition to 28 shrapnel wounds he took in the B-17, he sustained damage to his lung, kidney, nose, and eye, had several broken bones, plus a nearly severed right arm. Nonetheless, he had miraculously survived.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Saint-Nazaire monument honoring Alan Magee and his crewmates. Aerosteles

Magee spent the rest of the war in a POW camp, until he was liberated in 1945. In 1993, on the 50th anniversary of his fall, Saint-Nazaire erected a monument in honor of Magee and the crew of Snap! Crackle! Pop!

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
An Ilyushin Il-4 bomber. Flickr

34. Survived a Fall From 22,000 Feet? Here, Hold My Vodka…

British airman Nicholas Alkemade survived a fall without a parachute from 18,000 feet, and American airman Alan Magee survived one from 22,000. Soviet airman Ivan Mikhailovich Chisov (1916 – 1986) topped both records by surviving a fall without a parachute from 23,000 feet.

It happened in January of 1942, while Lieutenant Colonel Chisov was serving as a navigator in an Ilyushin Il-4 bomber that was jumped by German fighters. The bomber was wrecked and spun out of control, so Chisov exited at a height of 23,000 feet. He had a parachute, but fearing that the nearby German fighters would shoot him, he decided to refrain from opening it until he got close to the ground. However, lack of oxygen in the thin air so high up caused him to black out. Unconscious, he continued all the way down without deploying his parachute.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Ivan Chisov. Wikimedia

33. A 23,000 Foot Fall

Ivan Chisov plummeted 23,000 feet from his stricken Il-4, before hitting the ground at an estimated speed of 120 to 150 miles per hour. Luckily, he hit the edge of a snowy ravine, whose snow absorbed and dissipated enough impact energy to keep the Soviet airman alive.

Chisov bounced from the ravine’s edge and slid, rolled, and ploughed his way to the bottom. He was seriously hurt, including spinal injuries and a broken pelvis. However, he was alive. He underwent surgery, and spent a month hospitalized in critical care. He was a tough Russian, however, and three months after his dramatic fall, Chisov was back in the air, flying more bombing missions against the Nazis.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
German officer candidates in 1938. Pintrest

32. WWII Could Have Started In 1938 Instead of 1939

In 1938, Hitler was dead set on invading Czechoslovakia. Accordingly, the German military draw up an invasion plan, codenamed Fall Gruen, or Case Green. If the plan had been executed, WWII would probably have started a year earlier than it actually did, and Germany would likely not have fared as well as she did in 1939 and 1940.

The plan was an all-or-nothing gamble that would have sent 37 German divisions to attack the heavily fortified Czechs while leaving only 11 divisions to protect Germany from potential French and/or Polish attacks. At the time, Poland had a million-man army, while the French had nearly a million men on the Maginot Line alone, aside from their field army. Britain could quickly throw in another 200,000, with hundreds of thousands more to follow within a few months.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Hitler to seal the Munich Agreement. Times of Israel

31. WWII Would Have Looked Very Different If Case Green Had Been Executed

In 1938, when Hitler contemplated invading Czechoslovakia, Germany had not completed her rearmament. As a result, the German military was not yet the juggernaut that smashed Poland in 1939 and the Western Powers in 1940. The Luftwaffe lacked the ability to strike Britain in 1938, the Kriegsmarine had few submarines, and the Wehrmacht as yet had few of the signature tanks that would spearhead the 1939 and 1940 blitzkriegs.

The Fuhrer’s plan to invade Czechoslovakia in 1938 was so risky, that German generals plotted to assassinate Hitler if the order to launch Case Green was issued. Unfortunately, Hitler ended up annexing Czechoslovakia without a fight because the Western Powers chose appeasement rather than confrontation. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin and his French counterpart, Edouard Daladier, sold out the Czechs in Munich in exchange for Hitler’s promises to behave.

Read More: The Terror of the London Blitz.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Hitler salutes German troops as they march into Poland, less than a year after the Munich Agreement. 4 Plebs

30. Hitler’s Bloodless Seizure of Czechoslovakia Gave Germany a Huge Boost

When Hitler broke his Munich promises and war broke out less than a year later, Germany was in a stronger position, while Britain and France were relatively weaker. In 1938, the Allies could have fought while benefiting from the Czechs, whose well-trained and well-equipped military was hunkered behind strong fortifications, supported by a formidable domestic armaments industry. In 1939, the Czech military was no longer an asset in the Western Powers’ column, and the Czech armaments industry was churning out weapons for Germany.

Indeed, a significant portion of German armaments during the war, especially early in the war, came from Czech factories. Indeed, Czech tanks such as the 38(t) played a significant role in the German conquests of Poland, Norway, and Western Europe, with 6 Panzer divisions armed with the 38(t) until 1942.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Panzer 38(t). Panzer Garage

29. The Czech Tank That Fueled the Blitzkrieg

Most people who are topically familiar with WWII armor know of the conflict’s best-known tanks: American Shermans, Russian T-34s, and German Tigers and Panthers. Long before those German heavy tanks made an appearance, however, the famous blitzkrieg of the early war was conducted with tanks that are little known today. One such tank was not even German, but Czech: the Panzerkampfwagen 38(t).

Designed by the Czech engineering firm CKD, and used by the Germans after their 1939 occupation of Czechoslovakia, the 38(t) proved an effective light tank that played a significant role in the blitzkrieg and Germany’s early WWII successes. It performed well during the invasion of Poland, the onslaught on Western Europe, in North Africa, and the invasion of the USSR.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
A Panzer 38(t) in the Eastern Front, 1941. Bundesarchiv Bild

28. Czech Tank Design Outdid That of the Germans

The 38(t)’s hull was riveted and compartmentalized, and the Czech light tank’s most distinctive feature was a simple leaf suspension system and big road wheels that lowered costs and made for easy maintenance. It was simple, effective, well-designed and well built, and not plagued by the glitches and problems stemming from over-engineering that affected many German-designed tanks.

Armament consisted of a 37mm gun that was quite respectable in 1939, with 90 rounds. That was supplemented by two machine guns: one in a ball mount to the right of the 37mm gun that could be coupled to it to fire coaxially, or aimed and fired independently. The other machine gun was hull-mounted and operated by the radio operator.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
A restored Jagdpanzer 38(t). Tank Encyclopedia

27. The Little Tank That Could

The Czech 38(t) had better protection and anti-tank capabilities than equivalent German light tanks of the early war, such as the Panzer I and Panzer IIs. So the Germans employed the Czech tanks more aggressively in infantry support and in dealing with other light tanks and armored vehicles. The 38(t)s were not designed to spearhead breakthroughs or take on main battle tanks, but once breakthroughs had been achieved, the Czech tanks came into their own. Penetrating deep into the enemy rear, 38(t)s wreaked havoc far and wide.

By 1942, advances in tank designs and changed battlefield conditions had rendered the 38(t) obsolete, and tank production was halted. Chassis production continued, for use in the Marder III and the Hetzer, or Jagdpanzer 38(t), tank destroyers, while surviving 38(t)s were withdrawn from frontline service for use in security and convoy escort duties.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
George S. Patton. Europe Remembers

26. General Patton’s Nepotism Got Hundreds Killed, Captured, or Wounded

A firestorm erupted and surrounded General George S. Patton during the Sicilian Campaign, when he accused a PTSD-suffering soldier in a hospital of cowardice. He then slapped him around, and threatened to shoot him. Patton repeated the disgraceful performance a few days later with another GI in another hospital.

When the scandal broke, it nearly got Patton cashiered. He survived, and went on to perform superbly a year later in France and Germany. However, towards the war’s end, Patton had an even worse, but lesser-known scandal, in which he got dozens of GIs killed. It happened in late March of 1945, when Patton ordered Task Force Baum, comprised of 314 men, 16 tanks, and dozens of other vehicles, to penetrate 50 miles behind German lines. Their task: liberate a POW camp that housed Patton’s son-in-law. Few returned from the mission to save Patton’s relative.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
The 14th Armored Division liberating a POW camp a few weeks after the Task Force Baum fiasco. US National Archives

25. The Destruction of Task Force Baum

Task Force Baum’s raid ended catastrophically: all of the tanks and vehicles were lost, and only 35 men made it back. The rest were killed or captured. Eisenhower was furious at Patton’s misuse of military personnel and assets for personal reasons, and reprimanded him. In light of his valuable services, however, Eisenhower refrained from punishing Patton beyond the reprimand.

A reporter got wind of the scandal, and when the story first broke in a major publication on April 12th, 1945, it could have wrecked Patton. However, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died that same day, and the president’s demise eclipsed all other news. The scandal got little traction, and when Patton died a few months later, the story became a mere historic footnote.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Admiral Yamamoto. Japan National Diet Library

24. Nailing Yamamoto

The United States naval intelligence intercepted and decrypted a coded Japanese message on April 14th, 1943, which began: “On April 18 CINC Combined Fleet will visit RXZ, R__, and RXP in accordance with the following schedule…” The CINC Combined Fleet referred to was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese Navy’s most capable commander and the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The intercepted message revealed that Yamamoto would fly from Rabaul to Bougainville in the Solomon Islands on April 18th, arriving at 8 AM, Tokyo time, in two medium bombers, escorted by six Zero fighters. The information swiftly worked its way up the chain of command to the President, and FDR’s response was “get Yamamoto“.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Operation Vengeance’s flight paths. Thing Link

23. Operation Vengeance

Taking advantage of the intercepted message revealing Yamamoto’s schedule, planning commenced for killing the Japanese admiral blamed for the Pearl Harbor attack. The result was the aptly named Operation Vengeance. The operation, which sought to shoot down Yamamoto’s plane, had to be precisely timed. Fortunately, the Japanese admiral was known for his punctuality.

Much as the US Navy wanted Yamamoto dead at the hands of its own personnel, the admiral flight route was beyond the range of American naval airplanes. However, it was within the range of US Army Air Force P-38 Lightning fighters that had recently been deployed to Guadalcanal. Accordingly, 16 Lightnings, equipped with drop tanks for extra range, were sent on a 600 mile roundabout flight to meet Yamamoto’s plane as it arrived at Bougainville on April 18th, 1943.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
A P-38G Lightning of the 339th Squadron, 347th Fighter Group, shoots down a G4M1 bomber carrying Pearl Harbor mastermind Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto on April 18th, 1943. Jack Fellows/ASAA

22. Clockwork Precision

Operation Vengeance went like clockwork. The P-38 Lightnings skimmed the ocean at 50 feet to avoid detection – a need that also necessitated swinging wide of the islands between Guadalcanal and Bougainville and the watchers therein. The Lightings arrived at the planned interception point within one minute of Yamamoto. The American fighters, armed with 20mm cannon and .50 caliber machine guns, attacked. While a kill team of four P-38s fell upon the two medium bombers carrying the admiral and his staff, the remaining Lightnings took on the escorting Zeros and flew cover to fend off any fighters scrambled from local airfields.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Wreckage of Yamamoto’s bomber in a Bougainville jungle. Wikimedia

Within minutes, both Japanese bombers were sent spiraling in flames to crash into the jungle below, with no survivors. The P-38s then broke off contact. Avoiding detection no longer a necessity, they flew a 400-mile straight line flight back to Guadalcanal, which they reached after completing a 1000 miles long mission. The Japanese located Yamamoto’s crashed bomber the following day, and his corpse was recovered from the wreckage.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Amiens Prison. British Pathe

21. Springing Imprisoned Resistance Fighters With Precision Bombing

The Gestapo rounded up many members of the French Resistance in northern France in 1943, and locked them up in the Amiens Prison. In early 1944, word got out that the Germans planned to liquidate their prisoners, starting with a mass execution of over 100 prisoners on February 19th, 1944. A precision airstrike to breach the prison’s walls and allow the inmates an opportunity for a mass jailbreak was requested. Accordingly, the RAF’s Second Tactical Air Force drew up plans for Operation Jericho.

Finding the prison was easy: it was a conspicuous building with high walls in an open area by the long and straight Albert-Amiens road. The difficulty, in pre-smart bomb days, was in dropping bombs to blast the outer walls and kill many guards, without destroying the prison and killing too many prisoners. Planners realized that some or many prisoners would die in the bombing. However, they were marked for execution anyhow: possible death in a breakout attempt was better than the certainty of execution.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
De Havilland Mosquitoes. Skaarup

20. Picking the Right Plane

Allied planners determined that the plane most suitable for the precision strike on the Amiens Prison was the de Havilland Mosquito. Poor weather kept delaying the mission, but on February 18th, 1944, one day before the scheduled mass executions, it was finally now or never. Despite heavy snow and fog, eighteen Mosquitoes took off from southern England and linked up with escorting Typhoon fighters over the English Channel.

Flying low, the attackers took a circuitous route until they reached the town of Albert, northeast of Amiens, then followed the long and straight Albert-Amiens road to approach the prison from that direction. The plan was for the leading Mosquitoes to bomb and breach the prison’s outer walls, followed by other Mosquitoes bombing the guard barracks and cafeteria. The raid was timed for lunchtime, to catch as many guards as possible as they sat dining.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Operation Jericho. Military History Tours

19. A Needless Mission?

The raiders arrived at noon, and dropping 500-pound bombs with delayed fuses to allow the Mosquitoes to fly out of the blast zone before detonation, successfully breached the outer walls. Then the guardhouse was struck and destroyed, killing its occupants along with some prisoners in the vicinity. Once prisoners were observed pouring out of the breached walls, the raiders departed and flew back home.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Aftermath of Operation Jericho. Ecos de Segunda Guerra

The mission was a tactical success, but the results were mixed. By the era’s standards, the bombing was pinpoint accurate, and the walls were successfully breached, allowing the prisoners an opportunity for a jailbreak. At the cost of three Mosquitoes and two Typhoons, 50 Germans were killed, but so were 107 of the 717 prisoners. 258 prisoners escaped, but 182 were recaptured. Controversy erupted after the war when some in the Resistance disputed that they had requested the bombing. Additionally, no evidence emerged that the Germans had planned mass executions of the Amiens prisoners.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
A Junkers Ju 88. World Warbird News

18. The Underrated Ju 88

When people think of WWII German bombers, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the Ju 87 Stuka. However, while the Stuka was a terrifying dealer of death early in the war, its reign was relatively brief. Its weaknesses were revealed during the Battle of Britain, when it became clear that against skilled and determined fighter opposition, Stukas were little more than flying coffins. The real workhorse of Germany’s bombers throughout most of the war was the Junkers Ju 88 medium bomber.

The twin-engine Ju 88 had originally been intended as a fast bomber that could outrun fighters. That proved futile, because between the time when the Ju 88 was designed and the time when it was deployed, fighter speeds had increased significantly. Nonetheless, the Ju 88 succeeded as a versatile airplane that performed multiple roles, including level bomber, dive bomber, torpedo bomber, mine layer, as well as reconnaissance, heavy fighter, and night fighter.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
A flight of Ju 88s over Greece in 1943. Bundesarchiv Bild

17. The Ju 88s’ Coming Out Party

The Ju 88 bomber was just beginning operational deployment when WWII began. As a result, it only saw limited service during the invasion of Poland in 1939. It played a greater role during the invasion of Norway in April of 1940, in both ground and anti-shipping roles, and saw significant service during the Battle of France a month later.

Ju 88s contributed their fair share to the German victory in France. However, they also suffered high losses because of wing design defects that led to instability and accidents – failings that were exacerbated by inadequate crew training. The shortcomings were addressed with a retraining program and the introduction of longer wingspans with rounded edges to improve handling. The Ju 88s were still being modified to address the shortcoming revealed during the Battle of France, when they were thrust into action in the Battle of Britain.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Ju 88s. Pintrest

16. The Luftwaffe’s Workhorse Bomber

Ju 88s performed better than other German bombers during the Battle of Britain. However, they remained vulnerable when stripped of fighter protection, and still suffered from a variety of bugs. By battle’s end an improved version of the bomber that resolved the design shortcomings, the A-4, was introduced. With a 5500-pound bomb capacity and a 311 m.p.h. speed, the A-4 was the successful template upon which all future Ju 88s variants were based.

The improved Ju 88s performed exceptionally well in the 1941 invasion of the USSR. In addition to level bombing, a shortage of Stukas necessitated the use of Ju 88s as dive bombers – a role they performed well. In the Baltic, Ju 88s inflicted heavy losses on Soviet shipping. Ju 88s also met with success in Italy, where they proved exceptionally lethal against allied shipping. The Junkers Ju 88 was the most successful twin-engine German bomber of the war, and roughly 16,000, with dozens of variants, were produced during the conflict. That was more than any other German twin-engine airplane.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Hanna Reitsch flying an Fl 61 helicopter inside a sports arena in 1938. Monash

15. History’s First Operational Production Helicopters

In pre-WWII years, and during the conflict, Germany had the world’s most advanced helicopter technology, and took the global lead in design and development. Germans built the world’s first practical helicopter, and the first helicopter production line. One of the pioneering test pilots was Hanna Reitsch, Germany’s most famous female aviatrix and test pilot, and a dedicated Nazi. She first rose to fame by flying a helicopter around Berlin’s Great Hall – history’s first indoor helicopter flight.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
An Fa 223. WW2 in Pictures

Test flights convinced the German military that helicopters were viable instruments of war. So Germany began producing the Focke-Achegilis Fa 223 Drache (“Dragon”), which first flew in August of 1940, and entered production in 1941. It had a 40-foot-long fuselage, powered by a 1000 horsepower radial engine, hooked to a pair of 39-foot 3-bladed rotors on either side of the fuselage. It could cruise at 110 m.p.h., and reach an altitude of 23,000 feet. It could also haul a 2200 lbs load to an altitude of 8000 feet, while cruising at 75 m.p.h.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
An Fl 282 Kolibri. Pintrest

14. The Hovering Hummingbird

Germany also built a light helicopter, the single-seat Flettner Fl 282 Kolibri (“Hummingbird”), which first flew in 1941 and entered production in 1942. The Kolibri’s fuselage was made of steel tubes, over which fabric was stretched, and it came with a fixed 3-wheel tricycle undercarriage. The newer Fl 282 was a more reliable machine than the pioneering Fa 223, requiring maintenance only once every 400 operational hours, compared to the Fa 223’s need for an overhaul every 25 hours.

The German navy also built small, portable helicopters, to be carried aboard ship and flown for short-range reconnaissance. After the war, captured German helicopters were shipped to the US for testing. The Flettner’s rotor design formed the basis for what became the world’s first gas turbine helicopter in 1951, in a version of the American K-225 helicopter.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
A prototype V-3 Cannon in 1942. Bundesarchiv Bild

13. Hitler’s Super Gun

In May of 1943, the Germans began work on new superguns, capable of firing hundreds of rounds an hour over an extremely long distance. An underground complex was dug in the Pas de Calais in northern France, across the narrowest stretch of the English Channel separating Nazi-occupied Europe from England, to house the Vergetlungswaffe 3 (“Vengeance Weapon 3”). Their name shortened to the V-3 Cannon, the super guns were to target London, which the Nazis hoped to destroy.

The underground V-3 complex was to include over 165 kilometers of tunnels, dug by German workers and slave laborers. The tunnel network was to be linked to 5 inclined shafts, in which 25 huge gun tubes were to be laid, all aimed at central London. The V-3s were to fire 10 projectiles a minute, 600 rounds per hour, 24 hours a day, raining devastation down upon and wrecking London. As Winston Churchill later commented, if the Nazis had pulled it off, it would have been history’s most destructive conventional attack ever against a city.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
V-3 Cannon. History Net

12. London Catches a Lucky Break

The Allies were completely in the dark about the V-3 program. Reconnaissance flights did spot the activity surrounding the Pas de Calais complex, but analysts assumed the photos depicted a potential launching base for V-2 rockets. V-2s were worrisome in of themselves, however, so the site was subjected to frequent Allied bombing from late 1943 onwards.

The raids seriously disrupted construction, and forced the Germans to abandon parts of the complex. The remainder of the site was seriously damaged in July, 1944, in a raid that used heavy ground-penetrating bombs, which burrowed deep beneath the surface before detonating. The underground explosions wrecked and collapsed the tunnel system, and buried hundreds of workers and technicians. Construction was halted as the Allies advanced up the coast from Normandy to the Pas de Calais. The abandoned V-3 complex fell to advancing Canadian troops in September, 1944. It was only then that the Allies discovered just how big a threat the complex had actually posed, and just how lucky London had been.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Fu-Go balloon firebomb. Pintrest

11. Japan’s Plan to Torch America

With defeat staring them in the face late in the war, the Japanese were desperate to lash out at the United States. So they came up with the Fu-Go (“Code Fu”) weapon: hydrogen balloons carrying 70 pounds of explosives or incendiaries. Planners calculated that when released in Japan, the jet stream would carry the balloons over the Pacific Ocean until they reached North America, where their bombs would drop on cities, forests, and farms. Japanese planners hoped that the balloon-borne bombs would ignite devastating wildfires in the heavily forested Pacific Northwest, wreak havoc, and cause widespread panic.

The technology was brilliant in its utilization of cheap materials to launch a simple device capable of reaching an enemy’s homeland, thousands of miles away. The Fu-Go fire balloons were technically history’s first weapons with an intercontinental range. In that respect, they preceded both the American B-36 Peacemaker bomber and the Soviet R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Known landing sites of Fu-Go firebomb balloons. National Geographic

10. The Fu-Go Fizzles

The first Fu-Go bomb-laden balloon was released on November 3rd, 1944, followed by 9300 more in subsequent months. Planners calculated that about 10% of them would make it across the Pacific to North America. Within days, the first balloon was found floating near Los Angeles. Soon, others were found as far away as Wyoming and Montana. To avoid a panic, American and Canadian authorities imposed a news blackout on the fire balloons.

That not only kept civilians from panicking, but also kept the Japanese in the dark about their campaign’s impact. The greatest hoped-for effect, the sparking of massive wildfires in the forested Pacific Northwest, never materialized because unusually heavy rains kept the forest too damp to ignite. Between that and the news blackout, the Japanese eventually concluded that the Fu-Gu campaign had been a complete flop, and abandoned it in April, 1945.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Memorial to the victims of the Fu-Go explosion in Bly, Oregon. Quora

9. Fu-Go’s Sole Casualties

On May 5th, 1945, Reverend Archie Mitchell of Bly, Oregon, decided to take advantage of the nice spring weather by organizing an impromptu picnic. So he took five children from his Sunday school class to a picnic area in nearby Gearhart Mountain. His wife, Elyse Winters Mitchell, five months pregnant with the couple’s first child, decided to accompany her husband.

Upon arrival, Mitchell began unloading the lunches from his car, when one of the kids spotted a strange white canvas on the floor. Elyse called out: “Look what we found. It looks like some kind of balloon“. Mitchell turned around and saw the kids and his wife gathered in a tight circle around the oddity, about 50 yards away. He remembered warnings he had heard on the radio, and opened his mouth to warn against touching the balloon, but it was too late. A huge explosion rocked the mountainside, instantly killing Elyse, her unborn child, and the five kids. They were the sole casualties of the Fu-Go Operation.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
A P-47 equipped with rockets for ground attack. Warfare History Network

8. The War’s Heaviest Fighter

The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter was exceptionally huge by the standards of WWII. Also nicknamed “The Jug”, the P-47 was the conflict’s heaviest fighter, clocking in at 8 tons when fully loaded in its ground attack role, and 10,000 pounds empty. It was 50 percent heavier than the P-51 Mustang, and almost twice as heavy as the Spitfire. Despite its weight, the P-47 was fast, capable of matching the Mustang’s 440 m.p.h. top speed, with one late war variant reaching 473 m.p.h. However, it had a shorter range, at 800 miles, than the Mustang’s nearly 1600 miles.

Ironically, the P-47 had originally been intended as a light interceptor. However, between proposal and prototype, requirements and minds changed, and a heavy fighter emerged. Initial designs were for a small fighter with a liquid-cooled engine, but when the Army raised concerns, designers turned to an air-cooled engine that was exceptionally powerful for its day. The powerful engine meant the plane no longer needed to be small, and so its size grew, resulting in a heavy fighter with a respectable range.

Related: Top 10 Fighter Planes of World War II.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Flight of P-47s. St. Louis Post Dispatch

7. Big, Tough, and Fast

The P-47’s increased weight reduced its rate of climb. However, that only mattered for an interceptor which had to scramble at a moment’s notice when word arrived of an incoming raid, to swiftly climb to the enemy bombers’ altitude. By 1943 when Thunderbolts first saw combat, there was no longer a significant enemy bomber threat that urgently required a fighter with interceptor characteristics. Additionally, the extra weight had its own benefits, increasing the P-47’s durability, and making it faster in the dive. The latter was a great asset that enabled Thunderbolts to overtake fleeing enemy fighters, or to break off contact and flee themselves if necessary.

Deployed to Europe in 1942 and seeing their first combat in 1943, Thunderbolts were utilized primarily in bomber escort duties. They soon gained a reputation for ruggedness because their robust airframe and air-cooled radial engine allowed them to absorb significant combat damage, and still bring planes and pilots back home.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
P-47. War History Network

6. Finding a New Niche in Ground Attack

P-47s were gradually withdrawn from their bomber escort role as longer ranged P-51 Mustangs began to arrive. The Thunderbolts then found a new niche as ground attack fighters, in which role they excelled, wreaking havoc on airfields, locomotives, and road traffic. Indeed, when fully loaded in its fighter-bomber configuration, a single P-47 could deliver about half the payload of a B-17 heavy bomber. And when equipped with rockets, a salvo from a P-47 was equivalent to a battery of 155 mm howitzers.

The Thunderbolt was America’s most used fighter of the war, with nearly 16,000 manufactured. During its production run, improvements were made, with each modification adding to the P-47’s speed, power, range, and maneuverability. During the final year and a half of the war, P-47s comprised nearly half of all US fighters in groups posted overseas. P-47s flew over half a million sorties, during which they shot down about 4000 enemy airplanes from the skies and destroyed another 3000 on the ground. They also destroyed 6000 armored vehicles, 9000 locomotives, and 86,000 trucks.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
German troops marching past the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Bundesarchiv Bild

5. Ruining Hitler’s Paris Vacation

Throughout his life, Adolf Hitler fancied himself a man of art and architecture. Indeed, growing up, the future German dictator had dreamt of becoming an artist or architect. His greatest hope had been to gain admission to the prestigious Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, and the rejection of his application – twice – was the most devastating setback of Hitler’s youth.

So when Paris fell to the German blitzkrieg in 1940, Hitler made a beeline for the captured French capital. He sought to not only savor his victory, but to also savor the City of Light’s art and architecture. However, Parisian members of a nascent French Resistance anticipated that move, and decided to deprive the conqueror of that small satisfaction.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Hitler posing in front of the Eiffel Tower. Business Insider

4. Sabotaging the Eiffel Tower’s Elevator

The Fuhrer looked forward to gazing at a captive Paris from atop the Eiffel Tower. However, members of the French Resistance figured that Hitler and the Nazis would derive great pleasure from surveying the French capital from that perch. So to deprive them of that satisfaction, they cut the lift cables for the tower’s elevator cars.

Without an elevator, the only way left to reach the top of the Eiffel Tower was a strenuous climb of 1500 steps. Hitler, in his 50s and not in the best of shape, decided to do without. Instead of treating himself to a view of Paris from atop the Eiffel Tower, the Fuhrer had to settle for posing for photos with Paris’ iconic symbol in the background.

Also Read: Hitler Tours The City of Love (1940)

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Soviet Marines waving a banner over territory captured from Japan in 1945. Granger Collection

3. The Long Lost Soldier

Ishinosuke Uwano, born in 1922, was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII. He was posted to the garrison of the then-Japanese southern half of Sakhalin Island in 1943 – the northern half belonged to the Soviet Union. In August of 1945, the USSR declared war on Japan and successfully invaded and seized Southern Sakhalin, despite fierce Japanese resistance.

After Japan surrendered, the Soviets shipped the surviving Japanese of the Sakhalin garrison to POW camps in Siberia. There, they labored for years, until repatriated to Japan in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Uwano was not included in their numbers. In subsequent years, his family received reports of scattered sightings of him in Sakhalin. It was suspected that he had gone into hiding in the rugged and harsh terrain after he found himself cut off and behind enemy lines.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Ishinosuke Uwano. NBC News

2. Finding Uwano

The last reported sighting of Ishinosuke Uwano in Sakhalin was received by his relatives in 1958, thirteen years after the war had ended. No more was heard of him after that date. In 2000, Uwano’s family recorded his disappearance in accordance with a law for registering as war dead Japanese military personnel who did not return after the conflict had ended.

Then in 2006, it was discovered that Uwano, by then 83 years old, was still alive, and living in the Ukraine. At some point, it seems he had reconciled himself to Japan’s defeat and surrendered to the Soviets. Between the Soviet Union’s paranoid penchant for excessive secrecy, exacerbated by Cold War tension, as well as bureaucratic ineptness, neither the Japanese government nor Uwano’s family were notified.

Highlights during WWII and Other Lesser Known Historical Facts
Uwano upon his return to Japan. Fyens

1. “Ukraine Has Become My Homeland”

After his eventual release from Soviet imprisonment, Ishinosuke Uwano had settled in the USSR instead of returning to Japan. He got naturalized as a citizen, ended up living in the Ukrainian SSR, married, and had three children. It was only after he asked Ukrainian friends to contact the Japanese government, which then sent officials to interview him in Kiev, that the story of his survival came out.

A hiccup emerged when Uwano sought to visit Japan in order to pray at his parents’ graves, reconnect with his family, and see once more his birth country’s famous cherry blossoms. Because he had been declared dead in 2000, Uwano was technically no longer a Japanese citizen. He was allowed to visit Japan, but only as a visiting Ukrainian citizen traveling on his Ukrainian passport. Not that Uwano minded. As he told reporters, he had no plans to live in Japan. “Ukraine has become my homeland”, he said.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Albuquerque Journal, February 3rd, 2004 – Man Survived 22,000 Foot Fall From Bomber

Cradle of Aviation Museum – Aviation Darwinism: The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt

Defense Media Network – Nazi Rotors: German Helicopter Development 1932-1945

Defense Media Network – Operation Vengeance: The Mission to Kill Admiral Yamamoto

Encyclopedia Britannica – P-47

Fishman, Jack – And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Secret World War II Allied Operation That Saved D-Day and Unleashed the Greatest Mass Prison Escape in History (1983)

Historical Resources Org – Hitler’s Directive for Operation Green

Historic Wings – The Miracle of Saint Nazaire

Hogg, Ian V. – German Artillery of World War II (2002)

Imperial War Museum – Life and Death in Bomber Command

Japan Times, April 28th, 2006 – Long Lost Soldier, 83, Returns to Ukraine

La Brujala Verde – The World War II Airmen Who Survived Falls From Thousands of Feet High

Military Factory – Junkers Ju 88 Medium Bomber

Military Factory – World War 2 Helicopters

New York Times, April 19th, 2006 – 60 Years After the War, Japanese Soldier Returns

Neatorama – The Indestructible Alkemade

Tank Encyclopedia – Panzerkampfwagen 38(t)

Task and Purpose – Balloon Bombs: How Japan Killed Americans at Home in WWII

We Are the Mighty – Patton Once Sent 300 Men to Rescue His Son-in-Law From a Nazi Prison

Vintage News – Eiffel Tower’s Cables Were Cut So That Hitler Would Have to Climb the Steps to the Top

War History Online – Operation Jericho: A Rescue Mission Which Turned Into a Bloodbath

Wikipedia – Fall Grun (Czechoslovakia)

Wikipedia – Operation Vengeance

Wikipedia – V-3 Cannon