The Great Panjandrum was supposed to be developed in secrecy in order to spring it as a surprise on the Germans. However, testing was carried out on a beach popular with vacationers, so secrecy was shot from the start. The testing was witnessed by huge crowds, who marveled at the weird device.
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.
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. Figuring that they finally had it under control, the device’s proponents scheduled a final demonstration in front of a gathering of admirals and generals. As it turned out, the earlier embarrassments were destined to be eclipsed by the ignominy of the weird device’s final test.
As a BBC documentary described Great Panjandrum’s Final Test: “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 onto the sand where it disintegrated in violent explosions, rockets tearing across the beach at great speed.” Unsurprisingly, the weird project was immediately scrapped over safety concerns.
It was the spring of 1942, and 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. Amidst the horrors of WWII, it was the start of a cute – and cutely weird – relationship between a bear and the Polish military.
Initially, the young bear was fed condensed milk, before graduating to fruits and honey and marmalade. What he liked most, 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 Polish unit prepared to move to Italy, however, red tape threatened to keep Wojtek behind: British authorities refused to let him board a transport, because of regulations prohibiting pets and mascots. So the Poles came up with a weird, but effective, solution: they officially enlisted the bear as a private in the 22nd Artillery Supply Company.
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: Wojtek 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.
Wojtek the bear’s performance at Monte Cassino earned him a promotion to corporal. By then, a bear in the Polish military was no longer as weird as it had been at first. Higher-ups approved a depiction of Wojtek, carrying an artillery shell, as the official emblem of his unit. The bear corporal survived the war, then accompanied his comrades to Scotland, where they were demobilized in 1947.
By the time the Polish unit was demobilized, Wojtek 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 programs. He died in 1963, at age 21.
US President Ronald Reagan had a sunny disposition and demeanor, that went hand in hand with his implacable detestation of communism and the USSR. His single-minded focus on challenging what he termed “The Evil Empire”, and dragging the Soviets into an arms buildup competition that its economy could not sustain, contributed greatly to the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse. However, there was one weird field where Reagan was more than happy to cooperate with our communist rivals: fighting extraterrestrials.
As Mikhail Gorbachev recounted, he was strolling around a garden with Reagan during the 1985 Geneva Summit, when Reagan blurted out of the blue: “What would you do if the United States were suddenly attacked by someone from outer space? Would you help us?” Gorbachev replied that the USSR would help us out against ET. That greatly pleased the American president – apparently, the threat of alien attack had been gnawing at Reagan, a lifelong sci-fi nerd, for years.
These days, we are used to the notion of honoring and lauding those killed in war. That can be readily seen in the solemnity surrounding the various memorials of the Unknown Soldier around the world, or in the reverence and care attendant upon the upkeep of war cemeteries. Doing anything that disrespects the revered fallen is a taboo and something that is simply not done.
However, it was not always like that. Take the Battle of Waterloo, 1815, which ended decades of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and established the broad outlines of European geopolitics for nearly a century. Weird as it might sound to modern ears, the bodies of the fallen of that battle, as seen below, ended up getting sold as fertilizer.
10. “Indebted to the Bones of Their Children For Their Daily Bread“
Centuries ago, those killed in action were not usually honored. Instead, they were stripped of valuables. Those “valuables” included their very corpses. The dead of Waterloo had their teeth pulled out, to get fashioned into dentures. Waterloo was such a bonanza for Britain’s denture industry, that sets made of human teeth were known as “Waterloo dentures” for years afterwards.
Even their bones – like the bones of those killed in other Napoleonic battles such as Austerlitz and Leipzig – were shipped to Britain, and ground into fertilizer. Back then, many people did not think that there was anything weird about using the bodies of the fallen heroes of one of the country’s most iconic battles as fertilizer. As a correspondent wrote in The Observer in 1822: “the good farmers of Yorkshire are, in a great measure, indebted to the bones of their children for their daily bread“.
9. The Weird Scam That Snowballed Into Human Sacrifice
Lying and scamming have many drawbacks, not least among them the difficulty of keeping the deception going once suspicions are aroused. When that happens, one option for the scammer is to simply cut and run. Another is to double down, and defend the original lie and scam with more lies and scams. The latter option could easily snowball, as illustrated by a series of weird events that took place in the small Mexican town of Yerba Buena, Tamaulipas.
Brothers Santos and Cayetano Hernandez, two small-time crooks, arrived there in 1962, and convinced the impoverished and mostly illiterate inhabitants that they were prophets of the old-time Aztec gods, and would lead them to hidden treasure. By the time it was over, things had gone seriously awry, and descended into a grisly cult that cut out the hearts from the chests of its still-living victims, then drank their blood.
Santos and Cayetano Hernandez took advantage of the gullibility of Yerba Buena’s residents, who bought the crooked brothers’ claims to be prophets of the Aztec gods. The scammer siblings established a religious sect whose members met in nearby caves, and they reduced their followers, male and female, to sex slaves whom they abused in drug-fueled orgies.
As time went by, however, some of the victims grew impatient at constantly getting screwed – figuratively and literally – by the Hernandez brothers, who were taking their sweet time in revealing the hidden Aztec treasured. So the siblings decided to double down on the weird, and up the ante by recruiting some help to help keep the scam going. They found it in Magdalena Solis, a Monterrey prostitute whom they coached into pretending to be a reincarnation of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, and Magdalena’s brother, Eleazar Solis, who also doubled as her pimp.
Santos and Cayetano Hernandez brought Magdalena Solis and her brother Eleazar to Yerba Buena, and introduced her as the reincarnated goddess Coatlicue. Magdalena embraced her role enthusiastically. Too enthusiastically, as it turned out: she developed a religious delusion, became convinced that she really was Coatlicue, and took over the cult.
The Hernandez brothers had been content to exploit their followers for sex. However, the new leader, Magdalena Solis, was into sadomasochism. Before long, things took a turn for the gruesome and the gruesomely weird. When two members tried to leave the cult, Magdalena ordered them murdered. That was bad enough, but then she began demanding human sacrifices, claiming that she needed the blood to keep her young forever.
As the reincarnation of the goddess Coatlicue, Magdalena Solis devised a human sacrifice ritual, in which her followers brutally beat, burned, cut, and maimed a victim. They then drained his or her blood into a chalice and drank it down while using marijuana and peyote. The blood-filled chalice first went to Magdalena, who then passed it on to her “high priests”, the Hernandez brothers, then to her own brother Eleazar, and finally to the remaining cult members.
Things finally began to unravel in May of 1963, when a fourteen-year-old kid was wandering around, and saw something weird that halted him in his tracks: a human sacrifice ritual being performed in a cave. Shocked at what he had witnessed, he ran over fifteen miles to the nearest police station. The policemen were skeptical, but the following day, they sent an investigator over to take a look. He and the kid headed out to see the caves – and neither was ever seen alive again.
The disappearance of a cop while investigating the claims of weird and grisly goings-on in Yerba Buena convinced the authorities to take the matter seriously. Police and soldiers flooded the town, and Magdalena Solis and her brother Eleazar were arrested. In the meantime, Cayetano Hernandez was killed by a disgruntled cult member. Santos Hernandez and many other cultists barricaded themselves in caves and were killed in shootouts with soldiers and police.
After the dust settled down, Mexican authorities uncovered the bodies of eight cult victims, including that of the police investigator and the kid who had first tipped off the cops. Magdalena and her brother were tried, convicted, and sentenced to fifty years behind bars, while many of her surviving followers were sentenced to thirty years.
Try as one might, it is hard to come up with a more British-sounding name than Major Allison Digby Tatham-Warter (1917 – 1993). A British Army paratrooper, Tatham-Warter indulged in the weird quirk of going into battle carrying an umbrella. The son of a wealthy landowner who died when Tatham-Warter was eleven from the lingering effects of WWI injuries, he graduated from Sandhurst – Britain’s West Point – in 1937.
Tatham-Warter served in India, where he lived it up, enjoying what rich British scions of the day did, like tiger hunting and pig-sticking. When WWII broke out in 1939, he did not go out of his way to seek an active assignment that would take him away from his fun. However, his brother was killed in the Battle of El Alamein in 1942, and upon hearing the news, Tatham-Warter volunteered for active service with the Parachute Regiment. It set him on the path to becoming a legend.
Upon joining the paratroopers, Tatham-Warter was put in charge of a company in the 1st Airborne Division. It did not take long before he built a reputation, such as by procuring a Dakota airplane to fly his fellow officers to a posh party in London’s Ritz Hotel. However, although Tatham-Warter partied hard, he also worked hard, and his company was chosen to spearhead the attempt to seize the Arnhem Bridge in Operation Market Garden on September 17th, 1944.
Tatham-Warter was worried about radios’ unreliability, so he trained his men to respond to Napoleonic era bugle calls. He also had trouble remembering passwords and came up with an innovative and weird solution: carry an umbrella. He reasoned that even if he forgot a password, any paratrooper who saw him would immediately realize that “only a bloody fool of an Englishman” would carry an umbrella into battle.
2. Charging Into Battle While Wearing a Bowler Hat
Upon landing near Arnhem, Tatham-Warter led his company to the bridge. He and his men wound their way through backstreets, to avoid German armored cars on the main thoroughfares. In heavy fighting over the next few days, he was often seen strolling through the wrecked town, wearing a paratrooper’s red beret instead of a helmet, with a pistol in one hand, and an umbrella in the other.
Tatham-Warter’s umbrella actually came in handy, when a German counterattack placed armor on the Arnhem Bridge. He led his men in a charge, bearing a pistol and his trusty umbrella, and adding to the weird scene by wearing a bowler hat. He reportedly even managed to disable a German armored vehicle by thrusting his umbrella through its viewport, poking out the driver’s eye or otherwise incapacitating him.
Operation Market Garden called for the paratroopers to hold the Arnhem Bridge for two days, until relieved. However, the relief force got stuck, and after eight days, a wounded Tatham-Warter and the surviving paratroopers surrendered. The weird adventures were not over yet, however. He was sent to a hospital, but once the German nurses were out of sight, he snuck out. A friendly local woman put him in touch with the Dutch Resistance, who furnished Tatham-Warter with civilian clothes and fake identity documents that described him as a deaf-mute. He then spent weeks bicycling around, helping the Resistance.
During those escapades, Tatham-Warter helped push a German car out of a ditch without arousing suspicion. Eventually, he gathered about 150 Allied soldiers on the lam in the Dutch countryside and led them to the safety of friendly lines. Allison Digby Tatham-Warter was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, and after the war, he settled in Kenya, where he lived out his days as a safari operator until his death in 1993.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading