Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts

Khalid Elhassan - September 16, 2019

As history’s greatest conflict ever, the Second World War had no shortage of suffering and hardship and tragedy. At the same time, WWII also had no shortage of fascinating stories, deeds, and events, many of them little known. From the Soviet peasant who went from wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly to ax-maniac, to the Croatian labor agitator who became a sublime hero, to the Syrian brown bear who became a Polish corporal. Following are forty things about some fascinating but lesser-known WWII facts and events.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Germans pouring into the Soviet Union at the start of Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Encyclopedia Britannica

40. The Russian Soldier Who Went Ax Murdering Maniac on the Nazis

The summer of 1941 was a bad time for the Red Army and its soldiers. The recent sudden German onslaught, Operation Barbarossa, had caught the Soviets off guard and inflicted catastrophic losses upon them. As Red Army casualties mounted and reeling Soviet military personnel retreated in disarray, an unheralded soldier, Dmitry Ovcharenko, found himself among the millions caught up in the calamity. A few weeks into the German invasion, however, Ovcharenko managed to pull off an act of sheer brutality and bloody-mindedness that set him apart and made him an early Soviet war hero.

The son of a carpenter, Ovcharenko was born in 1919 in a Ukrainian peasant village. He grew into a mild-mannered young man, whom acquaintances described as lacking a vicious bone in his body, and the type of who would not hurt a fly. He quit school in fifth grade to make a living in his village, caring for cattle, cutting and storing hay, and attempting to learn the craft of carpentry from his father. Everyday life in his village required handiness with an ax – which ended up serving him well. Drafted into the Red Army when he turned 21, all Ovcharenko wanted was to serve his term and then return to his village to get married and raise a family. Then the Nazis invaded in June of 1941, and Ovcharenko’s plans went up in smoke. It did not take him long to make the invaders pay.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Retreating Red Army soldiers during Operation Barbarossa. Imperial War Museum

39. Ovcharenko Was More Dangerous With an Ax Than With a Rifle

In mid-July of 1941, a few weeks after the German invasion, Dmitry Ovcharenko was in southern Ukraine, serving in the 389th Regiment of the 176th Infantry Division. He had already been wounded once, so was given light duty and was entrusted with a cart, to bring up supplies from the rear to his comrades on the front. Unbeknownst to Ovcharenko, however, the front had moved, and on July 13th, 1941, he turned a bend in the road, only to find himself face to face with dozens of Germans. An enemy soldier quickly seized Ovcharenko’s rifle, then an officer came up to interrogate him. Unfortunately for the Germans, Ovcharenko’s cart had an ax, which he suddenly seized mid-interrogation, and used it to lop off the German officer’s head in one sweep.

As the shocked Germans tried to process what had just happened, Ovcharenko dove into the cart, pulled out some hand grenades and began lobbing them at the enemy soldiers. Within a few seconds, the ground was covered with 21 dead and dying Germans, and the rest scattered. Hefting his ax, Ovcharenko gave chase. He caught up with another enemy officer from behind, and lopped off his head as well with an ex. The now thoroughly demoralized and terrified Germans – most likely reaching echelon troops rather than front-line soldiers – had no thoughts of fighting back. Instead, they gave in to blind panic and fled in terror.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Dmitry Ovcharenko. Bashny

38. Ovcharenko Becomes a Soviet Hero

Dmitry Ovcharenko eventually grew tired of chasing the Germans with an ax, and returned to his cart, whose surroundings were now a field of carnage. He collected all the maps and documents and weapons off the dead Germans, loaded them in the cart, and delivered them to the HQ of the 389th Regiment. When he explained what had happened, Ovcharenko was not believed at first – not until his comrades inspected the scene of his one-man rampage, and saw the gruesome evidence scattered all over the place.

Having killed 21 German soldiers with grenades and beheaded two German officers with an ax, Ovcharenko was awarded a Hero of the Soviet Union decoration. As a military historian put it: “Ovcharenko showed wit and extraordinary courage, taking advantage of the confusion of the Germans. I think that he was a man of unbending will, devoted to his duty, land, and homeland. And striving to liberate his native land from fascist invaders by any means“. Dmitry Ovcharenko fought on until the war’s final year, when he was seriously wounded during the liberation of Hungary. He died of his wounds on January 28th, 1945.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Wojtek while still a cub, with Polish soldiers in Iran. Business Insider

37. The Polish Fighting Bear

In the spring of 1942, the Polish II Corps, accompanied by Polish war refugees, was passing through Iran en route from the Soviet Union to the Mediterranean Theater. On April 8th, some of the soldiers came across an Iranian boy who had found a Syrian brown bear cub – its mother had recently been shot by hunters. On the spur of the moment, the Poles bought the cub, which was raised for the next three months at a Polish refugee camp near Tehran, before it was donated to one of the Polish II Corps’ units.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Wojtek the bear. Quora

The young bear was initially fed on condensed milk, before graduating to fruits and honey and marmalade. His favorite repast, however, was beer, which became his reward for good behavior. He also enjoyed smoking – or eating – cigarettes, especially while drinking coffee. Named Wojtek, a diminutive of a Slavic term meaning “Happy Warrior”, the bear became a beloved mascot who often cuddled up to and slept with the soldiers at night. He accompanied his comrades through Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. When the unit prepared to move to Italy, however, red tape threatened to keep Wotjek behind: British authorities refused to let him board a transport, because of regulations prohibiting pets and mascots. So the Poles officially enlisted the bear as a private in the 22nd Artillery Supply Company.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Wotjek’s exploits earned him a place on his unit’s official badge. Wikimedia

36. Wojtek, The Bear Corporal

To make his enlistment in the free Polish forces official, private Wojtek was given his own paybook, assigned a rank and serial number, and lived with his comrades in tents or in a special wooden crate. He was no mere mascot, however: Wotjek actually gave credible service during the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. During that engagement, when his comrades conveyed munitions to the front, Wojtek pitched in by carrying 100-pound crates of artillery shells – a feat that usually took 4 men – and stacking them on trucks without dropping a single one.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
93-year-old former Polish soldier Wojciech Narebski in Krakow, in front of a monument of brown bear Wojtek, his fellow servicemen during World War II – November 14, 2018. Edition MV

Wojtek’s performance at Monte Cassino earned him a promotion to corporal. Higher-ups also approved his depiction, carrying an artillery shell, as the official emblem of his unit. Wojtek survived the war and then accompanied his comrades to Scotland, where they were demobilized in 1947. By then, he had become popular with the locals, so he was given to the Edinburgh Zoo, where he spent the rest of his life. Corporal Wojtek was often visited by former comrades from the war and became a popular figure on BBC TV children’s programs. He died in 1963, at age 21.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
August Landmesser. Quora

35. The Man Who Refused to Follow the Crowd

August Landmesser was a German shipyard worker from Hamburg, who is best known for appearing in a 1936 photograph in which he conspicuously stood out from the crowd by refusing to perform a Nazi salute. Born in 1910, August had joined the Nazi Party at age 21, but was kicked out four years later when he fell in love with and got engaged to a Jewish woman, Irma Eckler. The couple were prevented from marrying by the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, which forbade marriage and intercourse between Aryans and Jews. They had a daughter out of wedlock later that year. Thus, when the photo that made Landmesser famous was taken, he did not bother hiding his disdain for the Nazis.

Unfortunately, the story did not have a happy ending. Landmesser tried to flee with his daughter and pregnant wife to Denmark in 1937, but they were stopped at the border and turned back. He was charged with violating the Nuremberg Laws, but got off with a warning. However, when he refused to abandon his wife and family, he was sent to a concentration camp in 1938. His wife was also sent to a concentration, where she was most likely murdered in 1942. Landmesser was released in 1941, and drifted into menial jobs until 1944, when he was drafted into a penal battalion. He was killed in action, fighting in Croatia on October 17th, 1944. Landmesser and Eckler were survived by two daughters, who survived the war in an orphanage.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
The 6-inch Fort Nepean gun that fired the first shot of WWI. Wikimedia

34. The Australian Fortification That Fired the First Allied Shots of WWI and WWII

The first Allied shots of both WWI and WWII were fired not in Europe or even the Northern Hemisphere, but on the opposite side of the globe, in Australia. In both cases, the shots were fired from Fort Nepean, a defensive facility whose construction began in 1873, as a means of protecting the entrance to Port Phillip in Victoria. On August 5th, 1914, soon after receiving news that war had been declared, a German ship in Port Phillip, the SS Pfalz, tried to slip out. A 6-inch gun from Fort Nepean fired a shot across her bow, which convinced the Pfalz to turn around and surrender.

Incredibly, the same Australian defensive facility also ended up firing the first Allied shots of the next world war. At 1:30 AM on September 4th, 1939, just hours after war was declared, a vessel passed by Fort Nepean. The fort’s personnel called upon the ship to identify itself, but when it failed to immediately do so, orders were given to fire a shot across the bow. This time around, however, Fort Nepean’s target turned out to be a friendly ship, the Australian freighter SS Woniora. Still, although it had turned out to be a huge mistake, Nepean had once again fired the opening Allied shot of WWII.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Some of Chardakhlu’s heroes. Quora

33. The Soviet Union’s Most Decorated Village

During WWII, an unheralded Armenian mountain village, Chardakhlu, sent about 1250 of its residents to fight the Nazis. Out of those who saw action during the conflict, 853 were awarded medals, including seven Heroes of the Soviet Union. Twelve of them ended up as generals. Two from the small mountain community eventually ended up in the highest echelons of the Soviet military: Ivan Bagramyan became a Marshall of the Soviet Union, and Hamazasp Babadzhanian became the Red Army’s Chief Marshall of Armored Forces.

In short, nearly every man sent to war by Chardakhlu returned with a medal on his chest – or did not return at all. Understandably, the village’s heroic contribution was a source of immense pride for its inhabitants after the war, but Chardakhlu eventually came to a bleak ending. Although inhabited by ethnic Armenians, the village lay within the borders of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. When the Soviet Union began to crumble, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought each other in a nasty conflict marked by ethnic cleansing on both sides. During one bout of fighting, all Armenians were expelled from Chardakhlu, thus severing the village from those who had contributed so much to its history.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Wrecked German armor in Normandy. AR Gunners

32. Did Hitler’s Beauty Sleep Save the Allies on D-Day?

D-Day, June 6th, 1944, was the ultimate do-or-die moment of truth for the Western Allies in WWII. After years of painstaking preparations, involving millions of men and millions of tons of material, failure was simply not an option. While outright victory was beyond Germany’s reach by the summer of 1944, a failed Allied invasion of France might just have set the stage for a negotiated settlement, in which Hitler carved up Europe with the war’s other brutal dictator, Josef Stalin.

Germany’s only chance to beat back the Allies in Normandy depended upon an immediate armored counterattack, but Hitler had reserved to himself alone the authority to release German armor in case of an Allied invasion. However, when the first reports of an invasion arrived, as early as 4 AM on D-Day, Hitler was asleep, and his aides dared not wake him. At 7 AM, Field Marshall Rundstedt, the man on the spot, dared take the initiative by ordering two armored division into action. He was swiftly slapped down by Hitler’s HQ, telling him he had to wait for the Fuhrer’s orders. It was not until 4 PM, when Hitler finally roused himself to take action, that he authorized armor to reinforce Normandy’s defenders. By then, it was too late: the invaders had already survived the worst of it, and a beachhead had been established.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Recruits entering Voroshilov Barracks in Moscow on June 23rd, 1941, one day after Germany’s invasion of the USSR. Ria Novosti

31. Over Two-Thirds of Soviet Males Born in 1923 Did Not Survive WWII

Soviet babies born in 1923 had a dismal future ahead of them. They emerged into an impoverished country that had recently endured almost four years of WWI, followed by three more years of the even bloodier Russian Civil War. While millions died from war, millions more died from starvation and the epidemics attendant upon war. In a society that lacked modern sanitation, adequate healthcare, or basic immunization, the rates of infant and childhood mortality were shockingly high. The survivors of the 1923 cohort were just 9, when the USSR faced another major famine in 1932. They were 14 when Stalin’s Great Terror began in 1937, and 18 when the Nazis invaded in 1941 – just in time for conscription into the Red Army.

Caught off guard by the massive German invasion, the Soviets barely hung on by the skin of their teeth in 1941, and there was hardly any time to adequately train new conscripts. So the young men of 1923 served as cannon fodder, and were rushed to the front with weapons they barely knew how to use. Understandably, their casualty rates were horrific. All in all, about 3,400,000 male babies were born in the USSR in 1923. By the time WWII had ended, only 1,100,000 survivors remained: a mortality rate of 68%.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Tsutomu Yamaguchi. All That Is Interesting

30. WWII’s Luckiest or Unluckiest Man?

The morning of August 6th, 1945, found Mitsubishi Heavy Industries employee Tsutomu Yamaguchi going about his work while on an out-of-town business trip. Unfortunately, that trip had taken him to Hiroshima, so he was there when an American B-29 dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on that city. The blast blinded him temporarily, ruptured his eardrums, and inflicted serious burns on his upper body. Nonetheless, Yamaguchi survived, and after spending the night in an air raid shelter, he left the devastated Hiroshima the following day and returned home. Unfortunately, home for Tsutomu Yamaguchi happened to be Nagasaki.

Heavily bandaged, he reported for work on the morning of August 9th, and was in the midst of describing the Hiroshima atomic blast to a supervisor, when a B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. This time around, Yamaguchi was about two miles from ground zero, so he was not as badly hurt as he had been in Hiroshima. However, between the shock and possible radiation sickness, he ended up throwing up for a week while suffering a high fever. Yamaguchi might have been one of history’s unluckiest individuals, considering that had an atomic bomb dropped on him – twice. He might also have been one of history’s luckiest individuals, seeing as how he survived having an atomic bomb dropped on him, twice. Either way, Tsutomu Yamaguchi recovered fully and lived until 2010, when he died at the ripe old age of 93.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. History Daily

29. The Double Nuked

Tsutomu Yamaguchi’s experience of surviving two atomic bombings might have been quite extraordinary, but as things turned it, while what had happened to him was rare, it was not unique. Incredibly, there were literally hundreds of people who were atomically bombed in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although up to 200,000 people perished in the nuclear explosions and in their aftermaths, at least 200 survivors of the Hiroshima explosion had sought refuge in Nagasaki, only to face the same fate again, just a few days later.

In 2006, a documentary called Twice Survived: The Doubly Atomic Bombed of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was produced, and screened at the United Nations. The documentary’s producers had managed to track down 165 individuals who had been in Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945, when that city had been nuked, then ended up in Nagasaki when that city experienced the same fate three days later on the 9th. The Japanese, who coined the term hibakusha (“atomic bombed”) to describe the survivors of the atomic bombings, refer to those double survivors as the nijyuu hibakusha (“double atomic bombed”).

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Republic P-47 Thunderbolts in flight. Saint Louis Post Dispatch

28. The Jug That Scared the Bejeezus Out of the Germans

The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, nicknamed “the Jug”, was WWII’s heaviest fighter airplane. 8 tons when fully loaded for ground attack, and 10,000 pounds empty, it was 50 percent heavier than the P-51 Mustang, and almost twice as heavy as the Spitfire. Ironically, the Thunderbolt began as a light interceptor, but between proposal and prototype, requirements and minds changed, and a heavy fighter emerged. Initial designs called for a small fighter with a liquid-cooled engine, but when the Army raised concerns, designers turned to an air-cooled, and exceptionally powerful for its day, engine. The powerful engine meant the plane no longer needed to be small, and so its size grew, resulting in a heavy fighter.

Weight and bulky appearance were deceiving, however: the P-47 was fast, capable of matching the Mustang’s 440 mph top speed, with one late war variant reaching 473 mph. The extra weight increased the P-47’s durability, and made it dive faster – a great asset that allowed Thunderbolts to overtake fleeing enemy fighters, or to break off contact and flee themselves if necessary. Deployed to Europe in 1942 and seeing its first combat in 1943, the Thunderbolt was utilized primarily in bomber escort duties, and gained a reputation for ruggedness because its robust airframe and air-cooled radial engine allowed it to absorb significant combat damage and still bring plane and pilot back home.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
A P-47 equipped with rockets for ground attack. Warfare History Network

27. The Jug Was America’s Most Used Fighter of WWII

One significant drawback that the P-47 Thunderbolt had when compared to the P-51 Mustang was range: at 800 miles, the Thunderbolt’s range was only half that of the Mustang’s 1600 miles. So the P-47 was gradually phased out from its bomber escort role as the longer-ranged P-51 Mustangs began to arrive. The Thunderbolt then found a new niche as a ground attack fighter, in which role it 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 the most used American 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 are also credited with destroying about 6000 armored vehicles, 9000 locomotives, and 86,000 trucks.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
An Avro Lancaster dropping ‘Windows’, or chaff, seconds before releasing its bomb load. AR Gunners

26. WWII’s Heaviest Bomber

Britain’s most successful bomber of WWII was the Avro Lancaster, which first flew in 1941 and entered operational service in February of 1942. From early on, Bomber Command grew enamored with the Lancaster, and made plans to make it the mainstay of Britain’s strategic bombing campaign. As soon as it became available in numbers, it began displacing the Royal Air Force’s other heavy bombers, the Halifax and Sterling, to become Britain’s principal bombers in the second half of the war. They were capable of carrying the war’s heaviest payload, a 22,000 lbs bomb, exceeding the 20,000 lbs maximum payload of the bigger and more advanced B-29 – an airplane twice as heavy as the Lancaster.

Another reason why Bomber Command preferred Lancasters was that its predecessor and competitor the Halifax, had a bomb that was compartmentalized, which limited the size of the individual bombs it could carry. By contrast, the Lancasters had a long and unobstructed bomb bay. That allowed them to carry the RAF’s biggest bombs, such as the 4000 lbs “Cookie” and 12,000 lbs “Tall Boy”. Specially modified Lancasters could also carry the 22,000 lbs “Grand Slam” – the heaviest payload of any WWII bomber. When fully loaded, a single Lancaster could carry nearly five times as much bomb tonnage as that typically carried by a B-17 Flying Fortress. By war’s end, Lancasters had carried 64% of the tonnage dropped by RAF Bomber Command during the conflict.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Bombed out Cologne in WWII. Wikimedia

25. The Lancasters Put a Serious Hurting on German Cities

On strategic bombing raids, Avro Lancasters usually carried a mix of large high explosive bombs, such as 2000 lbs bombs or 4000 lbs and heavier “blockbusters”, plus clusters of smaller incendiaries. The idea was that the big bombs would tear open buildings, then the incendiaries would start fires in their now well-ventilated innards. The blockbusters would hopefully have also ruptured the city’s water mains, making firefighting difficult or impossible. That allowed individual fires to coalesce into larger conflagrations that, if conditions were ripe, could produce firestorms in which hurricane-strength walls of flame and whirling tornadoes of fire would sweep and dance through cities. Such conflagrations could kill tens of thousands by burning them to cinders or, as the stories-high inferno sucked oxygen out of the air, by asphyxiating those whom the flames had not touched.

Lancasters were capable of great precision by WWII standards. Equipped with ground-mapping radar, by 1944 they could bomb at night with higher accuracy than American bombers could during the day. In the runup to D-Day, Lancasters accurately bombed communications and transportation targets such as bridges and rail yards. In addition to strategic bombing, Lancasters were used by the 617 Squadron, “The Dam Busters”, immortalized in the book and movie of the same name, for special operation aerial attacks, such as breaching the Ruhr dams in 1943. Lancasters flown by the 617 Squadron also sank the battleship Tirpitz in 1944 with 12,000 lbs “Tall Boys”, and were used in Operation Manna towards war’s end, a mercy mission that dropped food into Holland to avert widespread starvation.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Operation Tannenbaum. Automatic Ballpoint

24. The German Invasion of Switzerland

When France surrendered in 1940, the Swiss found themselves completely surrounded by Axis-controlled territory. One of the major aims of the irredentist Nazis was to gather all ethnic Germans into a single country, and that included the German-speaking Swiss. However, the German-speaking Swiss turned out to feel a stronger attachment to their French and Italian-speaking fellow countrymen, than they did to Germany and Germans. That appalled Hitler, who opined that “Switzerland possessed the most disgusting and miserable people“, and that the Swiss were “a misbegotten branch of our Volk‘. He considered democratic Switzerland an anachronism and ordered plans drawn for its conquest and absorption into the Third Reich. The result was Operation Tannenbaum (see map, above), which envisioned a two-stage conquest with 21 German divisions, a force later deemed excessive and downsized to 11, plus 15 Italian divisions.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Modified Operation Tannenbaum. Automatic Ballpoint

First, conventional attacks from Austria, southern Germany, and occupied France, assisted by paratroops dropped behind Swiss lines, would overrun the lower-lying parts of Switzerland where most of the population and economic activity was located. To the south, Italians were to mount holding operations. Once the important parts of Switzerland were conquered, follow-up attacks were to be made against Swiss army remnants in the “National Redoubt” – a fortified zone in Switzerland’s mountainous south. The Swiss army planned to take advantage of topography by retreating into the mountainous part of their country. However, most Swiss did not live high up in the mountains, but in the lower parts of the country in valleys and foothills that were readily accessible to attacking Germans.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Swiss soldiers during WWII. War History Online

23. Fortunately, Operation Tannenbaum Was Never Carried Out

Cutoff up in the mountains, one can only guess how long Swiss soldiers might have been able to offer sustained resistance if the Germans had invaded. Partisan and guerrilla warfare would have been an option. However, that would have required the Swiss to be markedly different from other Western Europeans whose countries were occupied during the war, but who exhibited little willingness to risk the massive reprisals and atrocities the Nazis were willing to inflict on restive conquered subjects. Bad as Nazi rule was, the Germans did not treat Western Europeans as atrociously as they did the Eastern European Slavs. Western Europeans thus never felt that their backs were to the wall and that they had nothing to lose, to the same extent as did, e.g.; the Soviets or Yugoslavs, who responded with a fierce and widespread partisan resistance that had no equivalent in Western Europe.

It is unlikely that the Germans would have treated the Swiss, whom they viewed as fellow Germans to be incorporated into their Reich as fellow citizens, with anything approaching the severity that triggered widespread resistance in the East. More likely, the Swiss would have received even better treatment than that meted out to other Western Europeans. Fortunately, the order to invade was never given. While it would have been emotionally gratifying for Hitler to invade, there was no immediate necessity: Switzerland had no aggressive designs and was surrounded on all sides by Axis territory, there was no security threat of occupation by the Allies to use it as a base for attacking Germany. Switzerland also had no resources that were not readily available to the Germans via trade, and the Swiss banking system, combined with Swiss neutrality, made the country a convenient center for currency exchange and other international financial transactions.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Making a tank look like a truck. Obscure Histories

22. The Magicians Who Helped Beat Rommel

In the runup to the Battle of El Alamein in 1942, Axis and British forces faced each across a narrow strip of desert. It was a battlefield bounded to the north by the Mediterranean Sea, and to the south by the Qattara Depression, which was impassable to armor and wheeled vehicles. Within those narrow confines, the British set out to deceive the Axis commander, Erwin Rommel, about the location of their upcoming attack. So they came up with a misdirection plan, Operation Bertram, to hoodwink the Desert Fox. That was particularly important, because Rommel faced fuel shortages which made redeployment of most of his troops, particularly the Italians, difficult or even impossible once the fighting began. Wherever Rommel deployed his forces, that is where most of them would remain during the battle, so the British set out to trick him into deploying them in the wrong place.

The British planned to attack in the north, and to conceal that, they created a specialist unit known as the Camouflage, Development, and Training Centre (CDTC). Its personnel were cobbled together from stage magicians, filmmakers, painters, sculptors, and architects, whose task was to flummox the enemy. The CDTC set out to hide the actual troop and materiel buildup in the north, make what buildup could not be concealed appear slower than it actually was, and convince the enemy that the main attack would fall upon the southern sector of the line and not the northern.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Dummy vehicles and a fake water filing station behind British lines in 1942. Wikiwand

21. Operation Bertram: Stage Magic on a Grand Scale

To trick the Axis at El Alamein into thinking that they would attack in the south instead of the north, the British went into stage magic-type misdirection in a big way. As a preliminary, the Germans were fed misinformation via turned spies. Simultaneously, using the tricks of stage magic, the British built wood and canvass contraptions to fool Axis aerial reconnaissance by making concentrations of armor appear like trucks. Other mockups were rigged to make transport trucks look like menacing concentrations of tanks. To misdirect the buildup of supplies and munitions, the CDTC set up fake ammunition dumps. With water being the most precious resource in the desert – one whose concentration in a particular place offered a strong thing that something major was planned there – the British built a 200-mile dummy water pipeline to the southern sector of the Alamein line.

The deception worked, and when the Battle of El Alamein commenced with a massive artillery bombardment on the night of October 23rd, 1942, the enemy commanders were surprised that the British Eighth Army’s main thrust came in the north, and not in the south as had been expected. As had been predicted, fuel shortages prevented the Axis from effectively redeploying troops from the southern sector to reinforce and meet the threat to the north. The battle ended in a complete British victory, and a retreat that culminated 6 months later in the complete surrender of all Axis forces in North Africa.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
The Great Panjandrum. Imperial War Museum

20. The Great Panjandrum

As Allied commanders made their plans for D-Day, one of their major concerns was how to go about clearing obstacles on the invasion beaches. One British brainstorm to accomplish that task was The Great Panjandrum: a large drum stuffed with a ton of explosives, and affixed to rocket-propelled wheels. It was something straight out of Looney Tunes. The idea was to ignite the rockets from a platform at sea, and the angled rockets attached to the wheels would cause them to rotate rapidly. That rapid rotation would propel and launch the contraption at targets and obstacles on shore, blowing them up and clearing the way for follow-on troops, who would land hot on the Great Panjandrum’s heels.

The device was supposed to be developed in secrecy in order to spring a surprise on the Germans. However, testing was conducted on a beach popular with vacationers, so the trials were witnessed by huge crowds. The design’s flaw emerged at the first trial run in 1943: when the rockets were ignited and The Great Panjandrum was launched, it made its way up the beach before rockets on one of the wheels malfunctioned, causing the device to careen wildly off course. The problem persisted with additional trials, as it proved impossible to get the rockets on both sides to ignite at the same time or to keep firing simultaneously. Still, the device’s designers persisted.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
The Great Panjandrum veering out of control. Benedante

19. The Great Panjandrum’s Epic Run

After weeks of troubleshooting, The Great Panjandrum’s developers returned to the beach, after attaching a third wheel to the device to improve stability. It was another embarrassment, as the device hurtled toward the beach, only to double back and turn back to sea towards the launching craft. In the meantime, some rockets detached from the Great Panjandrum’s wheels and launched themselves at observers on the beach, whistling over their heads or exploding underwater nearby. Returning to the drawing board, the Great Panjandrum’s designers worked out the bugs, and figuring that they finally had it under control, conducted a final demonstration in front of a gathering of admirals and generals. As described in a BBC documentary: “At first all went well. Panjandrum rolled into the sea and began to head for the shore, the Brass Hats watching through binoculars from the top of a pebble ridge […]

Then a clamp gave: first one, then two more rockets broke free: Panjandrum began to lurch ominously. It hit a line of small craters in the sand and began to turn to starboard, careering towards Klemantaski, who, viewing events through a telescopic lens, misjudged the distance and continued filming. Hearing the approaching roar he looked up from his viewfinder to see Panjandrum, shedding live rockets in all directions, heading straight for him. As he ran for his life, he glimpsed the assembled admirals and generals diving for cover behind the pebble ridge into barbed-wire entanglements. Panjandrum was now heading back to the sea but crashed on to the sand where it disintegrated in violent explosions, rockets tearing across the beach at great speed.” Unsurprisingly, the project was immediately scrapped over safety concerns.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Quisling (black suit, bottom left), with Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler and other Nazi officials. Quora

18. WWII’s Most Infamous Traitor

Norwegian army officer and right-wing politician Vidkun Quisling (1887 – 1945) led a fascist party in the 1930s, but it met with little success. He betrayed his country to the Nazis during WWII and collaborated with its German conquerors who, after rejecting him early in their occupation as too seedy even for them, finally relented to his entreaties and placed him in charge of a puppet government on their behalf. The son of a pastor, Quisling’s life had a promising start that gives little hint of coming ignominy. He did well in school, and graduated from the Norwegian Military College with the highest-ever score since its inception. He was sent to the USSR as a military attache in 1918, and became Norway’s military expert on all matters of Russia.

In 1922, Quisling worked on League of Nations humanitarian relief efforts in Ukraine and exhibited considerable administrative talent and skill. While there, he also met and married two Russian women in quick succession. The second marriage, which lasted until his death, was either bigamous or unofficial. Discharged from the army during a period of cutbacks, Quisling traveled throughout Europe for much of the 1920s. He returned to Norway in 1929, and launched a political career marked by anti-Semitic, anticommunist, and anti-liberal positions. Joining a movement called “Rise of the Nordic People“, he became Norway’s defense minister from 1931 to 1933. In 1933, the Nazis’ victory in Germany inspired Quisling to launch a Norwegian fascist party, and appoint himself its Fuhrer.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Quisling with Himmler. Cotton Boll Conspiracy

17. From Unsuccessful Fascist to Infamous Traitor

Fascism did not catch on in Norway like it had done in Germany, and Quisling’s fascist party never won more than 2% of the vote. That made him increasingly bitter and frustrated with his countrymen. In late 1939, Quisling flew to Berlin, met with Hitler, and offered to assist the Germans if they tried to seize Norway. The Nazis, aware of his lack of support in Norway, were noncommittal. When Germany invaded Norway in 1940 and its government fled into exile, Quisling opportunistically tried to set up a collaborationist government, but he was ignored by all, including the German occupiers. It took two years of wheedling before the Nazis finally recognized him in 1942 as Norway’s “Minister-President” of a puppet regime. In that position, Quisling did all he could to please his masters, including eager cooperation in their deportation of Norway’s Jews to the death camps.

Captured after the war, he was tried by the Norwegians and convicted of treason, murder, and embezzlement. He was executed in October 1945. His name became synonymous with collaboration and treason, and to this day, a “Quisling” is routinely used as an epithet to denote somebody worse than a run-of-the-mill traitor. Worse than calling somebody a “Benedict Arnold”, a Quisling is a traitor of the lowest, grubbiest, and most despicable kind. The type who would lord it over and repress his own people on behalf of an enemy, and who is eager to please a foreign occupier with shameless displays of boot-licking obsequiousness.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Andrey Vlasov. Executed Today

16. From Soviet Hero to Fighting For Hitler

Quisling might have been exceptional in the grubbiness of his treason, but WWII produced plenty of other traitors. One such was Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov (1900 – 1946), who had been one of Joseph Stalin’s favorite Red Army generals. He ended up turning on the Soviet dictator during WWII, and switching sides after his capture by the Germans in 1942. Throwing in his lot with the Nazis, Vlasov turned coat and fought for the Germans against the Soviet Union at the head of the so-called Russian Liberation Army. It was quite the turnaround for Vlasov, who had been drafted into the Red Army in 1919, and fought in its ranks during the Russian Civil War, during which he distinguished himself. Rising steadily through the officer ranks, he earned a reputation for his ability to whip poor units into shape.

In 1930, Vlasov improved his career by joining the Communist Party, and in 1938, he was sent to China as a Soviet military adviser to its generalissimo, Chiang Kai-Shek. When Germany invaded the USSR in 1941, Vlasov was a mechanized corps commander in Ukraine. Fighting his way out of multiple encirclements, Vlasov was among the few generals who got their units to safety. His skill and aggressiveness brought him to Stalin’s attention, who summoned him in November of 1941, and promoted him to command an army in Moscow’s defenses. Vlasov and his army played a key role in keeping the Germans out of Moscow, and in January, 1942, he spearheaded the counteroffensive that pushed the Germans 100 miles from the Soviet capital. He earned decorations and acclaim, plus the admiration of Stalin, who promoted Vlasov to deputy commander of the Volkhov Front, 300 miles northwest of Moscow.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Andrey Vlasov with Heinrich Himmler. Signal

15. Vlasov’s Turn to Treason

After the Red Army beat back the Nazis from the gates of Moscow, Vlasov was put in charge of the 2nd Shock Army after its commander fell ill. However, Vlasov’s army got cut off and encircled as it advanced towards Leningrad, and was destroyed in June of 1942. Vlasov escaped temporarily, but was captured 10 days later. In captivity, he agreed to switch sides. Taken to Berlin, he and other Soviet traitors began drafting plans for a Russian provisional government and for recruiting a Soviet turncoat army. In 1943, Vlasov wrote an anticommunist leaflet, millions of copies of which were dropped on Soviet positions. Using Vlasov’s name, the Nazis recruited hundreds of thousands of Soviet defectors, forming them into a so-called Russian Liberation Army. However, although nominally under Vlasov’s command, the Russian Liberation Army was kept strictly under direct German control, with Vlasov exercising little or no authority.

His only combat against the Red Army took place while in charge of a turncoat division near the Oder river in February of 1945, during the war’s closing stages. Vlasov was then forced to retreat to German-controlled Czechoslovakia. There, in May of 1945, a few days before war’s end, Vlasov’s division turned coat once again, this time against the Germans and in support of a Czech uprising. At war’s end, he attempted to escape to the Western Allies’ lines, but Soviet forces caught him hiding under blankets in a car. Vlasov was flown to Moscow and held in its dreaded Lubyanka prison, where he underwent torture for months. He was tried for treason in the summer of 1946 along with 11 of his leading subordinates. All were found guilty and sentenced to death, and on August 1st, 1945, Vlasov and his fellow turncoats were hanged.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Swordfish from HMS Illustrious cripple the Italian fleet in Taranto. Charles David Cobb

14. Before Pearl Harbor, There Was Taranto

History’s first use of carrier airplanes to attack defended warships occurred on the night of November 11 – 12, 1940. That was when the British Royal Navy launched 21 obsolescent Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious against the Italian fleet anchored at Taranto. The Italian ships were protected by torpedo nets, surrounded by barrage balloons and antiaircraft guns, and thought they were immune. In the days preceding the attack, RAF photo-reconnaissance confirmed the presence of the Italian fleet in Taranto, and identified the various ships’ locations, especially the battleships. Final plans were then formed, and a strike force was prepared. A first wave of 12 Swordfish biplanes, half armed with torpedoes and the other half with bombs and flares, was launched from the Illustrious at 9 PM, November 11th, followed by a second wave of 9 Swordfish 90 minutes later.

The leading Swordfish dropped illumination flares, then bombed the port’s oil storage facilities while other planes launched torpedoes at anchored battleships. The second wave arrived shortly before midnight, dropped flares, and launched torpedoes. In under two hours, the biplanes struck three battleships and several cruisers, and severely damaged the port’s installations, for the loss of two planes and four crewmen. The Italians lost half their capital ships that night, and the following day, transferred their surviving ships to the greater safety of Naples. It was a raid that revolutionized warfare, and changed the course of history by ushering in the ascendancy of naval aviation and the aircraft carrier over battleships. Other navies took a keen interest in what the British had done at Taranto, and Japanese observers of the Imperial fleet in particular paid close attention. US Navy observers did not, to America’s detriment a year later at Pearl Harbor.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Type 94 Nambu. Wikimedia

13. The Japanese Had The War’s Worst Pistol

Japan’s WWII-era Type 94 Nambu Pistol was a disaster. Basic maintenance was difficult because it was overly complex and had too many parts, making disassembly and assembly awkward. It could fire unintentionally if jarred. It had no hammer, but used a firing pin instead – a weak firing pin that broke easily. When firing, accurate aiming with the sights could be impossible because the front blade atop the muzzle and the rear ‘v’ were often misaligned. The pistol had too many parts, which made cleaning and daily upkeep overly onerous. It had a small grip, and a correspondingly small magazine that held only 6 rounds. And the magazine, which was held in place by bolt pressure inside the pistol, was hard to reload and insert, and often disengaged and came loose if the pistol was jarred, placed on a hard surface, or simply inserted into a holster.

To add to the design defects, the Type 94 Nambu had manufacturing defects stemming from poor workmanship and inadequate quality control in the production plants. The parts were not finely machined and did not fit well with each other, which led to frequent jamming. The biggest problem, however, which made the Type 94 one of history’s most dangerous pistols, was its tendency to discharge unintentionally. The cause was a sear bar located outside the pistol that could easily snag on the user’s holster or uniform. If that happened while a round was chambered, and the pistol was then jostled, wiggled, or placed on a hard surface in a manner that depressed the sear bar, it could discharge accidentally, even with the safety switch in the ‘on’ position.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Vladimir Petlyakov. Russobras

12. The Bomber Designed in a Gulag

With 11,427 planes rolling out of the factories, the Pe-2 was the Soviet Union’s most-produced twin-engine aircraft of WWII. A fast, maneuverable, and resilient airplane, it performed functions similar to the better-known British Mosquito. Versatile, the Pe-2 proved itself in a variety of tasks: in addition to their main role as light bombers, Pe-2s were also successful in reconnaissance, heavy fighter, and night fighter assignments. The plane, which was quite advanced for its day, was initially designed in prison as a fighter by the aeronautical engineer Vladimir Petlyakov, who had been swept into the gulag during Stalin’s purges and was highly motivated to earn a pardon.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Petlyakov Pe-2s in action. World War II Wiki

Prototypes flew in late 1939, and Petlyakov and his design team got to see their plane from the roof of their prison as it flew for the crowds outside during the 1940 May Day parade. However, the Red Air Force changed its mind after seeing the German Blitzkrieg, and decided that it had a greater need for dive bombers. So it ordered Petylakov to change his design from a fighter to a dive bomber, and gave him a mere 45 days to get it done. Getting out of the gulag was a great motivator, so Petlyakov worked his tail off to get it done and turned in the new design as requested. That seems to have warmed the cockles of Stalin’s heart, because the Soviet dictator was so pleased that he ordered Petlyakov freed.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Pe-2 pilot Olga Shirnina. Media Drum World

11. The Pe-2 Performed As Advertised

The first Pe-2s entered service in the spring of 1941, but most ended up destroyed on the ground during the early days of Operation Barbarossa, the surprise German invasion of the USSR. However, by late 1941, when the German advance was finally halted and the Soviets regrouped, Pe-2s began appearing in numbers, and and proving their worth as elusive and highly accurate light bombers. The Soviets were unique among WWII belligerents in that that they made significant use of women in combat, and many Pe-2s were flown by females. Indeed, various Pe-2 squadrons were even commanded by women.

Pe-2 squadrons frequently devastated German supply and troop convoys by first destroying the lead vehicles to block the road, working over the rest of the stalled column, then fleeing before German fighters arrived. Another favored tactic was known as the “Carousel”, in which Pe-2s circled a target, making repeated diving attacks until they ran out of munitions or were forced to scatter by the arrival of German fighter protection. However, as the war progressed, the Soviets began to wrest aerial supremacy and Pe-2s came to operate under an increasingly effective umbrella of Soviet fighters. Pe-2s played a significant role from late 1941 onwards, from the Battle of Moscow, to Stalingrad, to Kursk, and helped pave the way for the Soviet juggernaut as it rolled to Berlin.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Scale comparison of a Panzer VIII Maus vs a Panzer I and a Panzer III. Pintrest

10. The Giant Mouse

Hitler liked big things. Really, really, big things. Both during and in the decades since the Nazi era, shrinks have had a field day parsing the significance of the Fuhrer‘s obsession with bigness, but whatever its root, it produced some ridiculously huge weapons. One such was the Panzer VIII Maus (“Mouse”), the biggest and heaviest tank ever built, measuring about 33 feet long, 12 feet wide, 12 feet high, and weighing almost 200 tons. The Maus’ secondary armament was a 75 mm coaxial gun instead of a machine gun, while its main gun was a 128 mm monster capable of destroying any Allied tank at ranges of up to 2.2 miles. Even that was not enough for Hitler, who thought that a 128 mm looked like a toy gun on a Maus, and insisted that it be armed with a 150 mm gun instead.

The Maus’ huge size and heavy weight came at a correspondingly heavy price that made it nearly useless. The tank was too heavy for most bridges, so it had to resort to crossing rivers either by wading through fords where available, or driving over the river’s bottom while using a snorkel for ventilation. Additionally, simply getting the Maus moving was a problem, as it was no easy task developing an engine and drive train that was powerful enough to propel 200 tons of metal on the ground at any appreciable speed, yet small enough to fit inside the tank. In the end, the maximum speed achieved during trials was 8 mph on a hard surface.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
A Panzer VIII Maus captured by the Red Army. Wikimedia

9. The Big Mouse in Action

The Panzer VIII Maus was intended to spearhead German attacks. It would smash through any opposition and destroy all enemy armor it came across while remaining impervious to damage from any tanks whose path it crossed. With 9.4 inches of turret armor, 8 inches of hull front armor, 7 inches of hull side armor, and 6 inches of rear armor, the Maus was largely immune from Allied tanks, whose shells would simply bounce off the big behemoth. However, it was built in 1944, by which time the Allies not only had aerial superiority on both the Western and Eastern fronts but well-nigh complete aerial supremacy over the battlefield.

That Allied aerial supremacy was bad news for the Maus, because it did not have enough armor up top to protect it from armor-piercing bombs or rockets dropped or fired from above. Ultimately, only two Panzer VIIIs were ever built, so the Maus’ only accomplishment was to highlight Hitler’s irrational obsession with big things and super weapons. The Fuhrer was incapable of understanding relative cost-effectiveness, and that “normal” weapons might accomplish the same task as super weapons at a fraction of the cost, thus freeing up scarce resources for other uses that could have better served the German war effort.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Stalin and Churchill. Russia Beyond

8. Churchill Wanted to Fight the Soviets as Soon as Germany Surrendered

As the war in Europe was drawing to a close in 1945, Winston Churchill was growing increasingly frustrated with Stalin. Specifically, the British Prime Minister was becoming exasperated by Soviet intransigence regarding Eastern Europe, which Stalin clearly aimed to turn into a Soviet empire. With each passing day, it was becoming more and more clear just how worthless had been Stalin’s promises to allow the Eastern Europeans – and most importantly from Churchill’s perspective, the Poles – to decide their own fates via democratic elections. Britain had gone to war in order to defend Polish independence, but at war’s end, Stalin was riding roughshod over the Poles, keeping the third of their country he had annexed in 1939 in cooperation with the Germans, reducing them to a Soviet client state, and extinguishing their freedom and independence.

Churchill saw the fate of Poland as a matter touching upon British honor, so he ordered his generals to draw up plans to attack the Red Army as soon as Germany surrendered. He had a nebulous goal of pushing the Soviets back to their borders or at least forcing them to treat Poland fairly. Churchill’s generals presented him with Operation Unthinkable, whose title indicates what the generals thought of the Prime Minister’s idea. Two versions were offered, an offensive and defensive one. The offensive envisaged a surprise attack on the soviets in July, 1945, intended to force Stalin to give Poland a “fair deal”. The defense envisaged a British defense of Western Europe after America withdrew from the continent. Either one would have led to disaster.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
The Red Army during WWII. Quora

7. Operation Unthinkable

In planning Operation Unthinkable, Churchill’s generals had to consider that the Red Army had 10 million men available in the summer of 1945. The Soviets outnumbered the British and Americans in Europe 4:1 in men, and 2:1 in tanks – and superior tanks at that. The Allies had an advantage in the air, but even that was subject to challenge, as the Red Air Force by 1945 had formidable fighter and ground attack arms. Moreover, the Red Army in 1945 was not the hapless rabble it had been in 1941 when the Germans invaded, but had grown into a veteran and battle-hardened force that had won bigger campaigns against significantly greater opposition than the Allies had faced. In a nutshell, Churchill’s generals concluded that it would be ill-advised, because far from being a pushover, the Soviet military in 1945 was dangerous, vicious, and very big.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Army positions at the end of WWII in Europe. Wikimedia

If war broke out, Churchill’s generals opined, it was more likely to end with the Red Army conquering all of continental Europe, rather than getting chased back to the USSR. More importantly, it was pointed out, Britain on her own stood no chance against the Soviets, and the US had no incentive to attack them – especially not over Poland and Eastern Europe. Standing up for Poland might have been a point of honor for Churchill, but few in the British government, and fewer still in that of the US, thought Poland or Eastern Europe was worth an even greater war against the Soviet Union than the one they had just concluded against Germany. Unlike Britain, America had never guaranteed Poland’s territorial integrity, nor had it entered WWII in order to defend Polish sovereignty. Presented with the preceding, Churchill grudgingly let the matter drop, and Operation Unthinkable was archived.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
B-25 Mitchells in flight formation. World War Photos

6. WWII’s Best Medium Bomber?

The twin-engined B-25 Mitchell, named in honor of military aviation advocate Billy Mitchell, was America’s most-produced medium bomber of WWII, with almost 10,000 manufactured. A versatile and durable airplane that could absorb significant punishment and keep flying, the Mitchell was designed in response to a 1939 Air Corps solicitation that called for an airplane that could carry a 2400 lbs bombload at a speed of 300 mph, and drop it 1200 miles away. The B-25, which first flew in 1940 and entered service in 1941, exceeded the bombload and range requirements, with 3000 lbs for 1350 miles, and came close to the solicited speed by flying at 272 mph.

Later versions flew faster than 300 mph, were capable of carrying bombloads of more than 5000 lbs, and, with drop tanks, had a range of over 3000 miles. Such a long-range made B-25s ideal for the vast expanses of the Asian and Pacific Theaters, and it was there that most Mitchells served during the war. Their first major operation was the Doolittle Raid in April of 1942, when B-25s were flown off aircraft carriers to bomb Tokyo. In addition to boosting American morale at a time when it really needed a boost, that raid caused the Japanese high command such loss of face that it set in motion what turned out to be a catastrophic attempt to seize Midway a few months later.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
A B-25 taking off from the deck of the USS Hornet to carry out the Doolittle Raid. Wikimedia

5. The Versatile B-25

The B-25 was a versatile airplane, which allowed it to perform a variety of roles such as interdiction, close air support, and especially in Burma, battlefield isolation and destruction of communication links. Mitchells were initially intended for medium-altitude level bombing, but turned out to be ineffective over the dense vegetation of Asia and the Pacific. So the B-25s came down, and ended up performing superbly in low-level attacks with parachute-retarded bombs that slowed their descent, and thus allowed the Mitchells to exit the blast zone before detonation. Ground attack versions equipped with up to 18 forward-firing .50 caliber machine guns were also employed in strafing runs that shredded their targets.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
A B-25 skip bombing a Japanese destroyer off the coast of China in 1945. Rare Historical Photos

B-25s were just as versatile at sea, where they proved lethal against Japanese shipping in skip-bombing attacks. On those missions, Mitchells skimmed the waves before releasing their bombs to skip over the water’s surface – just like a skipping stone – to their targets. In North Africa and the Mediterranean, B-25s were used in ground support, and in the Italian Campaign, they were employed in severing the enemy’s rail and road links. The US Army Air Force did not use B-25s in France and Northwestern Europe, but the RAF received 900 Mitchells through Lend-Lease and put them to good use in ground support roles, as did the Free French.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Stjepan Filipovic’s last moments. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

4. The Partisan Who Went to the Gallows While Spitting Defiance at the Nazis

Croatian partisan Stjepan Filipovic was born in 1916 in what came to be Yugoslavia after WWI, and left home at age 16 to become a metalworker. In 1937, he became a workers’ rights activist, but when that activism landed him a year in jail, he upped the radicalism ante and became a full-blown communist when he was released in 1940. When Germany invaded and overran Yugoslavia in 1941, the new Red Filipovic joined the partisan resistance against the Nazi occupiers. He was posted to a guerrilla unit near Valjevo, in today’s Serbia, and was made responsible for recruitment and for securing arms. Filipovic excelled in his duties and showed considerable promise, so by the end of 1941 was put in charge of an entire partisan battalion.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Stjepan Filipovic Statue. Kostatadic

However, the Nazis captured Filipovic in February of 1942, and sentenced him to publicly hang in Valjevo’s town square. At death’s door, he had the courage and presence of mind to seize the moment and defy his captors. Mounting the gallows and with the hangman’s noose around his neck, Stjepan Filipovic defiantly thrust his hands in the air and struck a dramatic pose that was captured on camera. Urging the gathered crowd to continue the struggle against the Nazi oppressors and their Yugoslav collaborators, he cried out just before he was hanged: “Death to fascism, freedom to the people!” – a partisan slogan that Filipovic’s martyrdom helped popularize. After the war, Filipovic was designated a national hero of Yugoslavia. A monumental statue was erected in Valjevo in his honor, replicating his Y-shaped pose in an artistically classic rendition reminiscent of a Goya painting.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
New American recruits being issued their gear. National Archives

3. It Took A Magic Carpet to Bring America’s Troops Back Home

As late as 1939, even as war raged in Asia and the clouds of conflict lowered over Europe, America had a tiny Army of roughly 170,000 men. Although some rearmament steps were taken before December 7th, 1941, it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to finally rid America of her isolationist tendencies. The rude entry into the war forced the country to begin the Herculean process of shifting from peacetime footing to that of total war, and beating plowshares into swords, America mobilized as never before. The industry was retooled from civilian pursuits such as manufacturing lipstick casings, and converted to pumping out bullet cartridges; from producing typewriters to turning out tanks; and from assembly lines rolling out family sedans to rolling out heavy bombers by the thousand.

More importantly, America mobilized her most precious asset: her manpower and the flower of her youth. By 1945, the US had put 16 million men in uniform – a figure that if prorated to current population, would be the equivalent of putting about 40 million Americans in the military today. At war’s end, there were more than 8 million US servicemen stationed overseas, scattered all over the globe. Most of them were eager to return home, and most of their loved ones wanted them back yesterday. Bringing them back as soon as possible, however, was going to be a tall order. So the authorities came up with Operation Magic Carpet, to return American servicemen to their homes as soon as possible.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
A discharge center. America in WW2 Magazine

2. Early Planning For Magic Carpet

Even as troop transport ships crossed the Atlantic and Pacific in 1943, laden with the men who would help free the world from the scourges of Nazism, Fascism and Japanese militarism, the War Department and the War Shipping Administration (WSA) were drawing plans for their eventual return. Hundreds of cargo ships were converted into troops transports, and a point system was created to prioritize who would come back first, based on factors such as length of service overseas, combat duty, and dependents back home.

Implementation of Magic Carpet began in June of 1945, when the first ships laden with servicemen crossed the Atlantic from Europe to the US. The American buildup in Europe had averaged about 150,000 troops shipped across the Atlantic per month. After the war ended, Magic Carpet reversed that tide, bringing US servicemen back at an astonishing rate that averaged 435,000 men per month during a 14-month stretch. A monthly repatriation peak was reached in December of 1945, when over 700,000 personnel were brought back from the Pacific Theater alone.

Russia’s Rambo and Other Fascinating WWII Figures and Facts
Returning American troops in the hangar of the aircraft carrier USS Wasp. Time Magazine

1. Returning Home on a Magic Carpet

To maintain the pace of Magic Carpet, the number of ships employed steadily grew from the initial 300 requisitioned at the start of the operation. They ranged in size from small vessels with a carrying capacity of only 300 troops, to behemoths such as the luxury liners Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, converted during the war into troop transports capable of carrying 15,000 servicemen. Daunting and complex as it was, Magic Carpet was completed relatively quickly. By September of 1945, 1.4 million servicemen, nearly all of them from the European Theater, had been repatriated. By December 1st, 1945, the WSA had successfully repatriated over 3.5 million personnel. By February of 1946, repatriation from the ETO was, by and large, completed. Things were different in the Pacific Theater: planners had expected the war there to last into 1946, so Japan’s sudden surrender in August of 1945 complicated things.

Welcome as Japan’s early surrender was, it caught those responsible for Magic Carpet flat-footed. They were already in the midst of repatriating millions of troops from Europe, and there were not enough troop transports to simultaneously repatriate millions of servicemen from both the European and Pacific theaters. So the War Department improvised, and had the US Navy chip in. By official fiat, combat ships were designated troop transports, and vessels from Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) to destroyers to cruisers to battleships to aircraft carriers were crammed full of returning troops. It was messy, and often uncomfortable, but it worked. It took almost four years for America to deploy over 8 million servicemen overseas, but thanks to Operation Magic Carpet, it took only 14 months to reverse the torrent, and return most of them back home.


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

Automatic Ballpoint – Operation Tannenbaum: Hitler‘s Invasion of Switzerland

Boeing – Historical Snapshot: B-25 Mitchell Bomber

Business Insider, September 26th, 2018 – The Story of Wojtek, the 440 Pound Bear That Fought the Nazis in WWII, Is Being Made Into a Movie

Buzzfeed – 10 Interesting Facts About World War II That You Might Not Know

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

Encyclopedia Britannica – Andrey Vlasov

Encyclopedia Britannica – Lancaster Heavy Bomber

Firearm Blog – The Worst Pistol Ever: Type 94 Nambu

Harrison, Mark., Europe-Asia Studies 55:6, 2003 – Counting Soviet Deaths in the Great Patriotic War

History of War – Operation Bertram

Libcom – Stjepan Filipovic: Everlasting Symbol of Anti-Fascism

Military Factory – Petlyakov Pe-2

National Archives – Operation Unthinkable

National Naval Aviation Museum – Magic Carpet Ride

News Corp Australia Network, June 6th, 2014 – Did a Power Nap Cost Adolf Hitler Victory in WWII?

Second World War History – Operation Judgment (Taranto)

Sydney Morning Herald, August 5th, 2014 – First Allied Shot of WWI Remembered a Century On

Tank Encyclopedia – Panzer VIII Maus

War History Online – Russian Rambo of WWII

Wikipedia – August Landmesser

Wikipedia – Tsutomu Yamaguchi

Wired, January 28th, 2015 – Well That Didn‘t Work: The Rolling Rocket Bomb Designed to Kill Nazis Almost Killed a Dog Instead