Lesser Known Facts About World War II

Lesser Known Facts About World War II

Khalid Elhassan - November 4, 2019

World War II, the greatest conflict in human history, was fought on a massive scale that boggles the imagination, with over 100 million combatants directly engaged in fighting that spanned the globe. The war’s seemingly insatiable maw chewed out and spat out victims by the hundreds of millions, including up to 70 million soldiers and civilians dead, and many times that number wounded. It was an event chock full of fascinating details, but because of its sheer scale, many such details have slipped through the cracks of common knowledge, and for most people, they are little known today. Following are twenty such fascinating but lesser known WWII details.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
Fu-go balloon firebomb. Pintrest

20. The Japanese Plan to Burn the American Northwest

Late in the war, the Japanese launched 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. The planners’ dearest hope was 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 the first weapons ever with an intercontinental range. In that respect, they preceded both the American B-36 Peacemaker bomber and the Soviet R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
The Fu-go balloon firebomb attack on North America. National Geographic

The first Fu-Go 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, and soon, others were found as far away as Wyoming and Montana. To avoid panic, authorities in the US and Canada imposed a news blackout on the fire balloons. That kept civilians from panicking, and also kept the Japanese in the dark about the impact of their campaign. 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, so they gave up and abandoned it in April of 1945.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
Elyse Mitchell. Quora

19. The First Successfully Deployed Inter-Continental Weapon in History Failed to Produce Widespread Devastation, But Did Produce a Tragedy

May 5th, 1945, was a beautiful spring day in the American Northwest. The nice weather inspired Reverend Archie Mitchell, the new minister of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in the small woodland town of Bly, Oregon, to organize an impromptu picnic. So he decided to take five kids from his Sunday school class, ranging in age from 11 to 14, to a designated picnic area in the pine forests of the nearby Gearhart Mountain. The pastor’s wife of two years, Elyse Winters Mitchell, was five months pregnant with the couple’s first child, and although feeling slightly unwell, she decided to accompany her husband in the hope that the fresh air would do her good.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
Memorial to the victims of the Fu-go explosion in Bly, Oregon. Quora

Upon arrival, Mitchell began to unload the lunches from his car, when one of the kids spotted a strange white canvas on the floor. Elyse called to her husband “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 tell the kids not to touch the balloon, but it was too late. A huge explosion rocked the mountainside, instantly killing Elyse, her unborn child, and the five kids. Those unfortunates were the only casualties of the Fu-Go Operation.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
The Normandie dock in 1942. Wikimedia

18. The Commando Raid That Wrecked Germany’s Naval Strategy in the Atlantic

Germany’s conquest of France in 1940 gave it control of the French Atlantic coast and ports, with great consequences for the war at sea. During the First World War, the German navy had been confined to the Baltic and North Sea. To break out into the Atlantic, it would have had to run the gauntlet of British-controlled waters in either the English Channel, or the naval chokepoints of the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap north of Scotland. In WWII, by contrast, the capture of France’s Atlantic ports allowed the German navy to operate directly on the Atlantic.

One of the most important Atlantic naval facilities was the Normandie drydock in St Nazaire. It was the only Axis-controlled drydock on the Atlantic that could accommodate the giant German battleships Bismark and Tirpitz. Its loss would ensure that if those battleships broke into the Atlantic Ocean and suffered damage there, they would not be able to return for repairs at a convenient haven on the Atlantic. Instead, they would be forced to return all the way back to Germany, through choke points controlled by the superior British navy. So on March 28th, 1942, the British launched Operation Chariot: a surprise attack against the Normandie drydock, carried out by British Commandos.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
HMS Campbeltown, wedged atop the Normandie dock gates, and being inspected by Germans oblivious to its deadly cargo. Bundesarchiv Bild

17. Wrecking Germany’s Greatest Atlantic Port

The British Commandos of Operation Chariot were carried in a flotilla of 18 small craft, intended to be their ride back home after the mission. They were accompanied by an obsolete destroyer, HMS Campbeltown, packed with well-concealed delayed-action explosives. Upon reaching St Nazaire, the Campbeltown rammed the gates of the Normandie drydock, and came to rest above them at an angle. The Germans were ignorant of the destroyer’s deadly cargo, so they concentrated on fighting the Commandos, who were attacking other vital targets in St Nazaire. In heavy exchanges of fire, the Germans destroyed almost all the British small craft that was supposed to take the Commandos back home. Stranded, the Commandos tried making their way inland, but most were killed or captured after their ammunition ran out.

Heavy losses were suffered by the raiders: 169 were killed, and 215 were captured. They also lost 13 motor launches, a torpedo boat, a gunboat, and two airplanes. It was worth it, however. Later that day, after things had quieted down and the Germans began cleanup efforts, swarming aboard the HMS Campbeltown resting above the dry dock gates, the destroyer’s hidden cargo of delayed action explosives detonated. The massive blast killed hundreds of Germans, and wounded hundreds more. It also put the Normandie drydock out of commission for the rest of the war. The damage was so extensive, as a matter of fact, that it took five years after the war was over before the drydock was back in service.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
Ernest Borgnine. Pintrest

16. The Gap-Toothed Gunner’s Mate

One of Hollywood’s most beloved character actors, Ernest Borgnine had an endearing gap-toothed smile that earned him a place in the hearts of millions. He had notable supporting roles in movies such as From Here to Eternity, China Corsair, and The Wild Bunch, and won a Best Actor Oscar for his lead in 1955’s Marty. He also had TV success in the 1980s’ series Airwolf, and the 1960s’ McHale’s Navy. His success playing US Navy Commander McHale in the TV series was owed in no small part to the fact that, in real life, Borgnine had actually spent a decade in the Navy.

After graduating high school in 1935, Borgnine was selling vegetables on the street when he saw a Navy recruitment poster, and decided that being a sailor beat his current occupation. He enlisted and ended up aboard the destroyer/ minesweeper USS Lamberton, until his honorable discharge in October of 1941. A few months later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and Borgnine reenlisted soon thereafter. He spent the war patrolling the Atlantic coast aboard the USS Sylph, on antisubmarine duty, until his discharge in 1945 as a Gunner’s Mate, 1st Class.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
A Iosef Stalin 2. Tanks Encyclopedia

15. The Red Army’s Heavy Tank

In 1941, Germany’s dedicated armor-killing tank, the Panzer III, had a 37mm gun whose shells simply bounced off the Soviet heavy KV tanks. The Germans quickly upped their firepower, upgraded their Panzer IVs with more powerful antitank guns, and in 1942, rushed the Panzer VI Tigers into service with powerful 88mm guns. Against the Tigers’ thick armor, especially up front, the KV’s 76.2mm gun proved largely ineffective. Moreover, the slow KVs were unable to maneuver and close in quickly, like lighter T-34s could, to fire at the Tigers from closer ranges and at weaker spots so as to inflict damage. With a weak gun that could not damage the German heavy tanks, and armor that could be penetrated by the Tigers from long range, the rationale for the KV disappeared: it was far more expensive than the T-34, but lacked greater combat performance to justify the greater cost.

So the Soviets upped their heavy tank game with the Iosef Stalin (IS) line, developed to replace the KV heavy tank family and address its shortcomings. The IS proved a success during the war and went on to set the template for Soviet tanks for decades. To cope with the tougher threat environment while fulfilling the KV’s designated role as a breakthrough tank, the IS line was designed with thick sloped armor to counter 88mm shells. IS tanks had thicker armor than the KV, but because of a better layout were lighter and faster than KVs, as well as lighter than Tigers and Panthers, and had a lower silhouette. IS tanks were equipped with powerful guns that, while intended primarily to fire high explosive shells at infantry strong points and bunkers, were also capable of taking out Tigers and Panthers.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
Iosef Stalin 3. Defense Talk

14. Development of the Iosef Stalin

The IS grew from an interim evaluation tank, a KV armed with an 85mm gun. The increased firepower was good, but the KV’s armor was inadequate, so the Red Army issued directives for a new tank design to be armed with an 85mm gun, but better armored than the KV. The result was the 85mm gun IS-1, which entered service in 1943, retaining the KV’s running gear and hull, but with greater armored protection thanks to a welded turret. In 1944, IS-1s were succeeded by the IS-2, armed with a 122mm gun that had separate shell and powder charges, resulting in a slow rate of fire of only 1.5 rounds a minute initially, later improved to 3 or 4 rounds. The huge shells and powder charges meant that fewer could be stored, and IS-2s were limited to 28 shells on board, usually 20 HE and 8 antitank.

Slow rate of fire and fewer shells were balanced by devastating power, as the 122mm gun could penetrate a German Panther’s front armor at 2700 yards, and its side armor from 3800 yards. By contrast, a Panther would have to close into 870 yards to penetrate the IS-2’s turret, and 660 yards to penetrate its front armor. Against the Tiger, testing showed that the IS-2’s gun could penetrate its turret at 1600 yards, and its front armor from 660 yards. The IS-2 was even more effective against infantry, as its 122mm high explosive shells proved murderous against strong points and bunkers. At a pinch, the 122mm HE shells could also be fired at German tanks, and if they struck, no matter the distance, the explosion could cause cracking and even tear off the front armor’s weld. The mechanical shock could disable the enemy tank even without penetrating its armor.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
Erwin Rommel in North Africa. The North African Campaign

13. The British Attempt to Do In Rommel

Ever since his arrival in North Africa in February of 1941, Erwin Rommel had been bad news for the British, giving them nothing but grief and headaches. So they decided to assassinate him. The result was Operation Flipper, a daring Commando raid carried out on the night of November 17-18, 1941, against Rommel’s HQ. Had it succeeded in killing or capturing its target, it would have cut short the career of the celebrated Afrika Korps commander, before he had gotten around to doing the worse he would end up doing to the British. Unfortunately, the raid failed to reduce the Desert Fox to a bit of historic trivia and footnote before he had fully established himself as a warfare legend.

The raid also sought to disrupt the Axis command on the eve of Operation Crusader, an offensive intended to lift the siege of Tobruk and relieve a garrison that had been cut off and surrounded there, and eliminate the Axis threat to Egypt and the Suez Canal once and for all. It was thought that eliminating the brilliant German general who had chased the British out of Libya and led the Axis to Egypt’s border would be a good start. So Commandos were directed to kill or capture Rommel at his residence in a headquarters villa in the Libyan town of Bayda; destroy a nearby intelligence center and wireless station; attack the nearby headquarters of an Italian division, and destroy other targets of opportunity in the vicinity.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
British Commandos at Rommel’s headquarters during Operation Flipper. Deviant Art

12. Operation Flipper Succeeded – Except For One Thing

A pair of submarines set out from Alexandria on November 10th, 1941, carrying 59 Commandos between them. They reached their landing site on the night of November 14th, where an advance team that had been parachuted earlier awaited them. One submarine landed its contingent, but the other was struck by a squall and ran aground, with the result that only 7 of its Commandos reached shore, while the rest were stranded. With the available attack force thus drastically diminished, the mission was redacted and reduced to only attacking Rommel’s headquarters and that of the Italian division.

The Commandos headed off for their targets on November 15th, and despite heavy rains, reached their attack positions on the night of the 17th. At midnight, they struck in a meticulously executed attack – and discovered that they had been acting on poor intelligence: Rommel was not at the HQ, but was in Italy, where he had been since November 1st. He would not return to the field until November 18th – the day after the raid. Only 3 German supply officers and an enlisted soldier were killed, and a fuel depot was destroyed. In exchange, the raiders were wiped out, with only two Commandos managing to evade pursuit and reach British lines 37 days later. All the rest were either killed or captured.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
An Italian manned torpedo. Wikimedia

11. The Italian Frogmen in Alexandria

During WWII, the Italian military did not exactly cover itself in glory. Indeed, the Italians came out of the conflict with a pretty poor reputation for all things martial, much of it well-earned. However, there were some Italian units that performed quite well during the conflict. None more so than the elite outfit of specially trained frogmen known as the Decima Flottiglia MAS, or “10th Assault Vehicle Flottila” – a force of underwater commandos who worked with battery-powered 22-foot-long manned torpedoes.

Their torpedoes had a speed of 2.5 miles and a range of 10 miles, were submersible to a depth of about 100 feet and carried a detachable 660-pound explosive charge. On December 3rd, 1941, an Italian submarine left La Spezia, Italy, carrying three manned torpedoes. It stopped at the island of Leros in the Aegean, where it picked up three crews of two men each to man the torpedoes. Submarine and frogmen then set course for the harbor of Alexandria, Egypt – the British Royal Navy’s Mediterranean headquarters and main base – to conduct one of WWII’s most daring attacks, carried out with great skill and courage.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
Launch of Italian frogmen from an Italian submarine on the outskirts of Alexandria Harbor, by Ivan Berryman. World Naval Ships

10. The Frogmen Devastate British Ships in Alexandria

Between agents in Alexandria and aerial reconnaissance, the Italians had an accurate picture of the harbor’s defenses, which included shore artillery and machinegun emplacements, minefields, net barriers, and intense patrolling on water as well as ashore. The sole entrance was sealed with an antisubmarine net that was only removed to allow authorized vessels to enter or exit the harbor. The raiders lurked underwater near the entrance to the harbor, and snuck in on December 19th, 1941, when the barrier nets were temporarily removed to allow three British destroyers to enter. The frogmen quickly followed the destroyers in. Steering their manned torpedoes, the crews separated, each to their assigned target – the battleships HMS Valiant and Queen Elizabeth, and an aircraft carrier that turned out not to be present, so the crew assigned to attack it settled on the tanker Sagona, instead.

Evading the extensive protections within the harbor, the raiders maneuvered their vessels above or below torpedo nets, until they reached their targets. Diving beneath the ships, the frogmen removed the warheads from their torpedoes, and attached them to the bottom of the enemy hulls. They then set timers for the explosives to go off at 6 AM and beat a retreat. One crew was spotted and captured as soon as they surfaced inside the harbor, while the other two crews swam ashore and made it into Alexandria, where they were captured by Egyptian police a few days later. The explosives went off on time, and both battleships suffered extensive damage that kept them out of action for a year, while the tanker was destroyed, and a destroyer refueling from it at the time suffered significant damage.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
A De Havilland Mosquito. ThoughtCo

9. The Air Raid That Freed Hundreds From the Clutches of the Gestapo

Early in 1944, word reached Britain that the Gestapo planned to liquidate hundreds of French Resistance prisoners held in the Amiens prison, starting with a mass execution of over 100 prisoners on February 19th, 1944. An air strike to breach the prison’s walls and allow the inmates an opportunity to escape was requested, and the RAF’s Second Tactical Air Force drew up plans for Operation Jericho. The Amiens prison was a conspicuous building with high walls, in an open area adjacent to the long and straight Albert-Amiens road, so finding it was easy. The difficulty, in the days before precision bombs, was to blast its outer walls and kill many guards, without destroying the prison and killing too many prisoners. Some prisoners would inevitably die in the bombing, but it was reasoned that they were doomed anyhow, and the risk of death in a breakout attempt was better than the certainty of execution.

The plane most suitable for the job was the de Havilland Mosquito multi-role combat aircraft. The mission was repeatedly postponed because of poor weather, but on February 18th, 1944, one day before the scheduled mass executions, it had to be now or never. Despite heavy snow and fog, eighteen Mosquitoes took off from southern England and linked up with escorting 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. It was tricky, but the raiders pulled it off.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
Mosquitoes during Operation Jericho. Swa Fine Art

8. The Jericho Raid Was a Success – Then It Became a Controversy

The Jericho Raid’s leading Mosquitoes were to bomb and breach the prison’s outer walls, and the rest were to bomb the guard barracks and cafeteria. The raid was timed for lunchtime, to catch as many German guards as possible as they sat dining. The Mosquitoes arrived at noon, and dropping 500 lb bombs with delayed fuses to allow the raiders time to fly out of the blast zone before detonation, breached the outer walls. Then the guardhouse was struck and destroyed, killing its occupants along with collateral damage to prisoners nearby. Once prisoners were observed pouring out of the breached walls, the raiders flew back home.

The operation was a tactical success, but the results were mixed: the bombing was pinpoint accurate by the era’s standards, and the walls were successfully breached, allowing the prisoners an opportunity to escape. At the cost of three Mosquitoes and two escorting fighters, 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 actually planned mass executions of the Amiens prisoners.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
George Patton. Mountain Democrat

7. The French Town That Honored an American Latrine

George S. Patton led the US Third Army in a great sweep during the summer of 1944, that ended up liberating a big chunk of France. It was not Patton’s first time fighting in France: he had been there during WWI. In that earlier conflict, Patton had received a visit from a local village mayor, who tearfully asked why he had not been told a Doughboy had died nearby. As Patton described it: “Being unaware of this sad fact and not liking to admit it to a stranger, I stalled until I found out that no one was dead. However, he insisted that we visit the ‘grave’“. When the Americans got there, they found a freshly covered pit with sticks forming a cross and holding a plaque that read “Abandoned Rear”.

It was all a huge misunderstanding, as the French had mistaken the crossed sticks for the religious symbol, and “Abandoned Rear” for the deceased soldier’s name. “Abandoned Rear” was actually the designation for a covered latrine, to warn others from digging in that spot. “I never told them the truth“, wrote Patton. Decades later, he passed through the same village and was given a hearty procession by the locals. They took him to the long-buried latrine, which the villagers had dutifully maintained over the years with all the dignity due a fallen soldier.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
Eddie Chapman mug shots. History

6. The English Criminal Who Hoodwinked the Germans

Eddie Chapman led a rollicking and adventurous life – most of it on the wrong side of the law – whose highlights included becoming the only Englishman ever awarded a German Iron Cross. He was a thief, safebreaker, crook, and all-around career criminal, who was recruited by German intelligence during WWII. Unbeknownst to them, Chapman was actually working for the British. He fed his German handlers false information that wrecked the effectiveness of Hitler’s “Vengeance Weapons” assault on London, and saved the lives of thousands of Londoners.

Chapman was raised in a dysfunctional family, and was a delinquent from the start. He enlisted in the British Army at age 17, but deserted after a few months. When the army caught up with him, he was convicted, sentenced to prison, and given a dishonorable discharge. Upon his release, Chapman turned to crime to support a gambling habit and a taste for fine drinks. In 1940, the Germans captured the British Channel Islands, where they found Chapman in a prison, serving a two-year sentence for burglary. He volunteered to work for them, so the Germans freed him, and trained him in explosives, sabotage, and other clandestine skills. They then parachuted him into Britain in 1942, with orders to destroy a bomber factory. Things did not turn out the way Chapman’s German handlers had intended.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
Agent Zigzag, a biography about Eddie Chapman. Google Books

5. Chapman Foils Hitler’s Vengeance Weapons

Eddie Chapman was arrested soon after parachuting into Britain, and he immediately offered to become a double agent for British intelligence. Considering that the alternative was probably death by hanging as a traitor, it is unclear how much of that offer was driven by patriotic altruism and how much by an animal instinct for survival. Whatever his motives, Chapman was given the codename “Agent Zigzag”, and a plan was hatched to fake the bomber factory’s destruction. It convinced the Germans, and raised Chapman in their esteem. From then on, Chapman’s reports, carefully fed him by British intelligence, were treated as gospel by his German handlers. The Germans eventually recalled Chapman, and gave him a hero’s welcome.

Soon after D-Day, Chapman was awarded an Iron Cross, then sent back to Britain to report on the effectiveness of the German V1 and V2 rocket strikes on London. Under British control, Chapman sent the Germans inflated figures about deaths from their rockets, while deceiving them about their actual impact points. That led the Germans to shift the rockets’ aim points, causing them to fall on lower population density parts of London, with correspondingly fewer casualties. After WWII, Chapman continued his colorful life. He got into smuggling, moved to the colonies, and started a farm. Then, in violation of the Official Secrets Act, he published his wartime exploits in The Eddie Chapman Story (1953); Free Agent: Further Adventures of Eddie Chapman (1955); and The Real Eddie Chapman Story (1966). Those books formed the basis for a 1967 movie, Triple Cross.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
Yogi Berra in the US Navy. Bronx Pinstripes

4. Yogi Berra Quit Baseball to Join the Navy

An 18-time All-Star and 10-time World Series winner (more than any other player in MLB history), Yogi Berra is one of only five players to have ever won the American League MVP three times. After his playing days were over, Berra went into coaching and managing. Between 1947 and 1981, Berra was a player, coach, or manager, in every New York team that made it to the World Series. All in all, he appeared in 22 World Series, and won 13 of them. Less known about Yogi Berra is that he took a break from baseball to fight in WWII.

The New York Yankees signed up Yogi Berra in 1942, but he decided to trade in the white jersey with blue pinstripes for navy blue, and joined the US Navy. He ended up serving as a gunner’s mate aboard the USS Bayfield, an attack transport. On D-Day, June 6th, 1944, Berra served on detached duty aboard a Navy rocket boat, lobbing missiles and firing machine guns at German positions on Omaha Beach. He was also sent to Utah Beach, to support the GIs there. Berra’s craft came under enemy fire, but luckily for him and for baseball, he escaped injury.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
Yogi Berra’s D-Day rocket boat. Yogi Berra Museum

3. Yogi Berra Shot Down an Airplane on D-Day. Unfortunately, It Was American

D-Day was quite the thrill for Yogi Berra, who was 19 at the time, and relished every moment of what he saw as an exciting adventure. As he described it decades later: “Being a young guy, you didn’t think nothing of it until you got in it. And so we went off 300 yards off beach. We protect the troops. If they ran into any trouble, we would fire the rockets over. We had a lead boat that would fire one rocket. If it hits the beach, then everybody opens up. We could fire one rocket if we wanted to, or we could fire off 24 or them, 12 on each side. We stretched out 50 yards apart. And that was the invasion. Nothing happened to us. That’s one good thing. Our boat could go anywhere, though. We were pretty good, flat bottom, 36-footer“.

Yogi Berra’s craft lingered off Normandy after D-Day, furnishing further support to the expanding Allied beachhead there. The Luftwaffe could do little to disrupt the Allied effort, but what little it did was enough to make people jumpy. Naval vessels off the beachhead were instructed to fire on any airplane that flew below a certain height, so Berra and his crew mates shot down a plane that appeared suddenly below the clouds. Unfortunately, it turned out to be American. Luckily for the pilot, he managed to bail out, and was fished out of the water by Berra’s boat.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
Kirk Douglas. Wikimedia

2. Spartacus Almost Got Killed in WWII

Kirk Douglas caught the acting bug in kindergarten when he recited a poem, and reveled in the audience’s applause. He was unable to afford college, so he talked the dean of St. Lawrence University’s drama program into letting him attend in exchange for working on campus as a janitor and gardener. After graduation, Douglas got into stage acting, and had barely started getting himself established in the theater, when WWII broke out. He tried to join the Army Air Forces, but when the airmen turned him down, he joined the Navy in late 1941.

Douglas attended the US Navy’s midshipman school in Notre Dame, and upon graduation, he was commissioned an ensign. He was sent to the Pacific Theater, where he served as a communications officer aboard USS PC-1137, a submarine chaser. He spent most of 1942 and 1943 hunting Japanese submarines, and while doing that, Douglas suffered severe internal injuries when a depth charge exploded prematurely. He spent months in a hospital, before he was medically discharged in 1944.

Lesser Known Facts About World War II
Units of the 14th Armored Division liberating a POW camp, a few weeks after the Task Force Baum fiasco. US National Archives

1. Patton Did Worse Than Slap His Soldiers Around

The brown stuff hit the fan for General George S. Patton during the Sicilian Campaign, when he accused a PTSD-suffering soldier in a hospital of cowardice, slapped him around, and threatened to shoot him. He repeated the disgraceful performance a few days later 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 war’s end, Patton had an even worse, but lesser-known scandal, in which he got dozens of GIs killed for personal reasons. 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.

Task Force Baum’s raid ended catastrophically: all tanks and vehicles were lost, and only 35 men made it back, with the rest being 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 declined to punish 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 would have wrecked Patton under normal circumstances. However, FDR died that same day, and his 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.


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

Bronx Pinstripes – On This Day in History: Yogi Berra Takes Part in D-Day

Brown, Anthony Cave – Bodyguard of Lies (1975)

Combined Ops – Operation Chariot: St. Nazaire, 28th March, 1942

Daily Beast – D-Day’s Forgotten African American Heroes: One

Daily Beast – These Black Soldier Fought For America. It Didn’t Protect Them From Jim Crow

Daily Beast – The Black Heroes Who Protected US Troops on D-Day

Defense Media Network – Decima Flottiglia Mas and Operazione EA3: The Raid on Alexandria

Hervieux, Linda – Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, At Home and At War (2015)

Imperial War Museum – The Incredible Story of the Dambusters Raid

MacIntyre, Ben – Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman, Lover, Betrayer, Hero, Spy (2007)

Mortimer, Gavin – Kill Rommel! Operation Flipper 1941 (2014)

Mountbatten, Louis – Combined Operations: The Official History of the Commandos (2018)

New Scientist, November 3rd, 2014 – Myths and Reality of the Nazi Space Rocket

Patton, George S. – War as I Knew It (1995 Edition)

Reel Rundown – Kirk Douglas: 9 Amazing Things About Hollywood’s Favorite ‘Spartacus’

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

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

Warfare History Network – Operation Jericho: Mosquito Raid on Amiens Prison

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

Wikipedia – Mitsubishi G4M

Wikipedia – Raid on Bardia