The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures

Khalid Elhassan - April 15, 2024

One of World War II’s most famous images, that is seen as iconic today, was hardly noticed by anybody during the conflict. One of the war’s greatest technological breakthroughs, the world’s first ballistic missile, was intended to wreak havoc and destruction. It did less than it creators sought, and after the war, more good than they had imagined. Below are twenty one things about those and other lesser known aspects of significant WWII facts and figures.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
‘We Can Do It!’ poster. US National Archives

21. The We Can Do It! Poster

The “We Can Do It!” is one of the most iconic images associated with WWII today. During the war itself, however, hardly anybody saw that poster or even knew it existed. The image was not created by the US government as inspirational propaganda for the public at large. Instead, it was commissioned by Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company and targeted at its workers. Produced by graphic artist J. Howard Miller in 1943, it was part of a series of posters that were displayed for two weeks in some Westinghouse factories, before it was taken down. Nowadays, the poster is seen as a symbol of female empowerment, to the effect that women are strong and can do whatever they put their minds to. When Westinghouse commissioned it, though, the poster was intended to get female factory workers to work harder and follow orders.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
Companion poster to ‘We Can Do It’. Wikimedia

The “It” in the poster is clarified by a companion poster, in which a male manager counsels: “Any Questions About Your Work? Ask Your Supervisor“. In context, the poster was a paternalistic exhortation to female employees that all was possible, so long as they were team players and followed orders. Also, the woman depicted and often referred to as Rosie the Riveter was not a riveter. The posters were displayed in factories that produced helmet liners, a process that involves no riveting. It was largely forgotten, until 1982, when the Washington Post Magazine ran an article about posters in the National Archives that included We Can Do It! Nearly four decades after WWII, the poster finally gained notice, and went viral. It was depicted on the cover of Smithsonian Magazine, was featured in a US post stamp, and was misinterpreted – or reinterpreted – by feminists as a call for female empowerment.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
A Rosie putting rivets on a dive bomber in 1943. Library of Congress

20. The Real Life Rosie the Riveter

As seen above, the We Can Do It! Poster had nothing to do with Rosie the Riveter. However, there was a real life woman, Rosalind P. Walter, nee Palmer (1924 – 2020), who inspired the Rosie the Riveter meme. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor thrust America into WWII, a teenaged Rosalind joined the war effort as an airplane factory riveter. Rosalind broke speed records on the production line, and advocated for equal pay for female factory workers. The New York Times ran an article about her that inspired a 1942 hit song, Rosie the Riveter, in honor of the working women who fueled America’s war effort.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter. Amazon

The Rosie the Riveter meme took off, and became a stand-in for the millions of women who headed to the factories that supplied and supported the men in the field. In 1943, a Saturday Evening Post cover displayed a Norman Rockwell painting of a Rosie the Riveter, with a Mein Kampf beneath her feet. As to the original Rosie the Riveter, Rosalind P. Walter, already born into money, married into even more money, and became a renowned socialite and philanthropist. Among other things, she donated millions to help fund PBS, and became a trustee of both Long Island University and the American Museum of Natural History.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
Junkers Ju 87 Stukas. Dioramas and Models

19. The Flawed Stuka

The Stuka dive bomber, with its inverted gull wings and nerve-wracking shriek as it dove on targets, became the blitzkrieg’s symbol, and terrified soldiers and civilians alike. The Battle of Britain exposed its vulnerability when operating beyond an umbrella of German aerial superiority. In the right conditions, though, Stukas continued to wreak havoc until war’s end. The Stuka was designed in secrecy in 1933, back when Germany still pretended to comply with the Treaty of Versailles and its prohibition of a German air force. A prototype was built in Sweden, smuggled into Germany in 1934, and test flown in 1935. The inverted wings improved the pilot’s ground visibility, and allowed a shorter and sturdier undercarriage while retaining sufficient ground clearance for the propeller. Ju 87A Stukas were tested during the Spanish Civil War. The Ju 87B version with which Germany entered WWII was typically armed with a 500 kilogram bomb.

It had wind-driven sirens known as “Jericho Trumpets” that emitted an intimidating and demoralizing wail when the plane dove. The effect was enhanced by cardboard sirens on the bombs. Bombload was increased to 1800 kg in the upgraded Ju 87D, which entered service in 1941. The Ju 87G, which became operational in 1943, carried two armor-piercing 37mm cannons in lieu of bombs. It proved especially lethal against tanks, whose thinner top armor was vulnerable to attacks from above. The Stuka’s greatest asset was its pinpoint accuracy by WWII standards – in the hands of an experienced pilot, it could destroy a zigzagging target. Germany’s most decorated serviceman of the war, Hans-Ulrich Rudel, is credited with destroying 519 tanks, over 800 vehicles, 150 artillery positions, damaging a battleship, sinking a cruiser, a destroyer, 70 other seacraft, and downing 9 airplanes, mostly while flying a Stuka.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
Churchill, FDR, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference, 1945. History Network

18. Churchill’s War End Brain Fart

In the spring of 1945, as the war in Europe drew to a close, Winston Churchill was exasperated by Soviet intransigence regarding Eastern Europe, which Stalin clearly aimed to turn into a Soviet empire. Britain had gone to war in order to defend Polish independence. At war’s end, however, Stalin rode roughshod over the Poles. He kept the third of their country he had annexed in 1939 in cooperation with the Germans, reduced them to a Soviet client state, and extinguished their freedom and independence. Churchill saw the protection of Polish rights as a matter that touched upon British honor. So he ordered his generals to draw up plans for an attack on the Soviets soon as Germany surrendered. The goal was to push them back to the USSR’s borders, or at least force them to treat Poland fairly.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
Red banner raised over the Reichstag and a ruined Berlin in 1945. Rare Historical Photos

Churchill’s generals presented him with Operation Unthinkable, whose title indicates what they 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 defensive envisaged a British defense of Western Europe after America withdrew from the continent. The Soviets had 10 million men available in the summer of 1945. They 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.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
Army positions in May, 1945. Wikimedia

17. The Unthinkable Operation Unthinkable

The Soviet military by 1945 was not the hapless rabble it had been in 1941 when the Germans invaded. It 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 to pick a fight with the Soviets. Far from being a pushover, the Red Army in 1945 was dangerous, vicious, and very big. If war broke out, it was more likely to end with the Red Army’s conquest of all of continental Europe, rather than with the Red Army getting chased back to the Soviet Union’s borders.

More importantly, Churchill’s generals pointed out, Britain on her own stood no chance against the Soviets. The US had no incentive to attack them – especially not over Poland and Eastern Europe. To stand up for Poland was a point of honor for Churchill. However, few in the British government, and fewer still in that of the US, thought Poland or Eastern Europe were 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 such unwelcome facts, Churchill grudgingly let the matter drop, and Operation Unthinkable was archived.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
German troops march past the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Bundesarchiv Bild

16. The French Debacle in 1940

The French had been traumatized by World War I and by the devastation suffered by the parts of their country that had been fought over. So they devised a plan to avoid a repetition in case of a future war against Germany. The Maginot Line would secure the Franco-German border to the south, while the bulk of the mobile French army was stationed in the north. It would advance into Belgium soon as the Germans attacked, to fight as far forward and outside of France as possible. The French had adequately fortified the south, and amassed enough mobile forces in the north to keep the Germans from bursting into France via that route. However, they ignored a stretch of wooded terrain in the center, the Ardennes Forrest. They figured it was impassable for tanks, and so they kept it lightly defended.

The Germans figured the Ardennes was actually passable for tanks, so they massed the bulk of their armor against that sector. When the blitzkrieg burst through the Ardennes and raced to the English Channel to sever France’s armies in the north from the rest of the country, the French were caught wrong footed. Their mobile forces were advancing into Belgium, and couldn’t be turned around in time to stop the Germans pouring out of the Ardennes. The French also lacked adequate reserves to send in and plug the widening gap. Collapse quickly followed, and the same country that two decades earlier had fought the Germans for four bloody years and emerged victorious in WWI, capitulated and signed a humiliating surrender after just 40 days’ fighting in WWII.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
Aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Japan Times

15. The Turning of the Tide in the Pacific

The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 had been overseen by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander of the Combined Japanese Imperial Fleet. Yamamoto, a prophet of the naval air power that devastated Pearl Harbor, was the Japanese Navy’s dominant figure. A determined and aggressive commander, he drew bold and imaginative plans. He also possessed the kind of strong leadership that ensured such plans were embraced by his subordinates, who idolized Yamamoto and strove to execute his orders with vigor and skill. A chess champion of the Japanese Navy, he also became an excellent poker player while studying and serving as an attaché in America. US intelligence judged him “exceptionally able, forceful and quick thinking“. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese under Yamamoto went on a rampage, and won stunning victories.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
Yamamoto. Japan National Diet Library

The Japanese wanted a battle of annihilation, like the 1905 Battle of Tsushima that had decided the Russo-Japanese War, then negotiate a favorable peace. Pearl Harbor was a success, but no Tsushima, so the Japanese figured an invasion of Midway Island might lure what’s left of the US Navy to show up for a climactic showdown. However, US cryptanalysts had cracked Japanese codes and knew of the upcoming attack. Moreover, the Americans had more carriers in the Pacific than expected – one had been transferred from the Atlantic, and another that had been damaged in an earlier battle and was expected to take months to fix, was rushed back into service after 48 hours of repairs. The Japanese had expected to deal with only one or two American fleet carriers. Instead, they would face three carriers, and an alert enemy waiting in ambush rather than one caught off guard.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
Dauntless dive bombers about to attack during the Battle of Midway. Wikimedia

14. A Dramatic Victory

The Japanese launched a carrier strike against Midway on the morning of June 4th, 1942. They inflicted significant damage, but a second strike was necessary. While their aircraft were recovered and readied, the Japanese learned of the presence of American carriers. Midway wasn’t going anywhere, and the destruction of enemy aircraft carriers was more important. So orders were given to switch bombs from ones intended for ground targets, to anti-ship bombs and torpedoes. In the meantime, the American carriers had launched their own aircraft against the Japanese. First to arrive were Devastator torpedo bombers – slow planes that had to fly low, steady, and straight, to launch their torpedoes. 41 Devastators attacked without fighter escort. 35 were shot down, and not a single hit was scored. While the American torpedo bombers were getting slaughtered, a flight of American Dauntless dive bombers was lost, trying to locate the Japanese.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
Japanese carriers on fire at the Battle of Midway, by Paul Nagata. Worth Point

They had neared the point beyond which they wouldn’t have enough fuel to return to their carriers, but their commander persisted. He was rewarded by spotting a lone Japanese destroyer below. Guessing that it was heading to rejoin its fleet, he used its wake as an arrow. It led him straight to the Japanese fleet. And a Japanese fleet caught at the worst possible time for an attack from dive bombers. The carriers were rearming and refueling, so their decks were full of bombs and torpedoes and fuel. There was also no fighter cover – the Japanese fighters had gone down to intercept and destroy the torpedo bombers that had attacked at low level. They hadn’t yet regained altitude when the American dive bombers showed up high above and dove down. Within five minutes, three of the four Japanese aircraft carriers were burning. The fourth was sunk later that day.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
German soldiers fighting their way through the ruins of Stalingrad. Bundesarchiv Bild

13. Breaking the Spell of German Invincibility at Stalingrad

The 1942 German summer offensive sought to capture the Soviets’ oil fields in the Caucasus. Stalingrad was intended as the easternmost anchor of a line between the rivers Don and Volga, to protect the advance into the Caucasus from attack in the rear. However, the symbolism of a city named after Stalin grabbed the attention of the egomaniacal German and Soviet warlords, and what began as relatively unimportant morphed into a major showdown. Hitler poured more and more resources to capture the city. The Soviets’ fierce resistance and the Germans’ fierce attacks were initially based on the symbolism of the city’s name. However, the Soviets soon saw greater potential, and began to think big. The Germans remained focused on the fight for the city, with its capture as an ultimate end. The Soviets saw the defense of the city as simply a means to a more ambitious end.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
German prisoners captured at Stalingrad. Life Magazine

The Red Army fed enough forces and supplies into Stalingrad to keep the battle going and the Germans engaged. In the meantime, they massed huge armies hundreds of miles to either side. They were intended for a pincer attack, Operation Uranus, to bag the Germans inside the city and the Axis armies guarding their flanks. Operation Uranus went like clockwork. The Soviets smashed through the Italian, Romanian, and Hungarian armies protecting the Germans in Stalingrad, and within four days, the Soviet pincers met. The disaster was made worse by Hitler’s insistence that the Germans inside Stalingrad stay put and fight it out until relieved by a rescue force, rather than try and break out. No rescue came. By the time the last Germans in Stalingrad surrendered in February, 1943, the Axis had suffered 728,000 casualties, and the German military’s spell of invincibility was broken.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
Launch of a V2 rocket. Wikimedia

12. A Weapon That Was Simultaneously a Brilliant Feat of Technology, and a Waste of Resources

The German V2 rocket, or “Vengeance Weapon 2”, was the world’s first ballistic missile. It carried a ton of explosives to the edge of space, then descended at unstoppable supersonic speeds to detonate on its target. It was a brilliant, advanced, and revolutionary feat of technology. It was also one of history’s most wastefully expensive weapons. From its first operational launch against enemy targets in September, 1944, to Germany’s surrender nine months later, roughly 3000 V2s were fired. They did not all reach their targets, but even if they had, at one ton of explosives per warhead, that would have been 3000 tons of explosives dropped on enemy cities over nine months. During the same period, the RAF routinely dropped more than 3000 tons of explosives on German cities in single nighttime bombing raids. American bombers also frequently exceeded that 3000 ton total in single bombing raids during the daytime.

The Allied explosive delivery tools were reusable and thus far more economical. Most of the Allied bombers returned to base, reloaded, and returned the next day or night to again drop more than 3000 tons of explosives on German cities, and repeated the process dozens of times. Moreover, during its nine months of firing, the 3000 tons of explosives dropped by the V2 killed 2754 people. Most were not soldiers, but civilians whose deaths, while tragic, did not impede the Allied war effort by much. By contrast, it is estimated that over 20,000 workers, mostly slave laborers toiling in horrific conditions, died while manufacturing the V2. That gave the V2 the tragic distinction of being perhaps the only weapons system in history whose production cost more lives than did its actual use. Thus, when contrasting the cost with the results, the V2 literally produced little bang for the buck.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
Scale comparison of a Panzer VIII Maus vs a Panzer I and Panzer III. Pinterest

11. Hitler’s Super Tank

The Panzer VIII Maus was the heaviest tank ever built. It measured about 33 feet long, 12 feet wide, 12 feet high, and weighed nearly 200 tons. Its secondary armament was a 75 mm coaxial gun instead of a machine gun. Its main gun was a 128 mm monster capable of destroying any Allied tank at ranges of up to 2.2 miles. It was increased at Hitler’s insistence to 150 mm, because the Fuhrer thought the 128 mm looked like a toy gun on the Maus. Unfortunately for the Germans – and fortunately for the Allies – 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 in order to cross rivers it had to either wade through fords where available, or drive over the river’s bottom while using a snorkel for ventilation. Additionally, to simply get the Maus moving was a problem. It was no easy task to develop an engine and drive train that were 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 eight miles per hour on a hard surface.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
A Panzer VIII Maus. War Thunder

10. Too Big to Be Useful

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

The Maus might have had sufficient armor against weapons fired from the ground. However, it did not have sufficient armor up top to render it immune from armor piercing bombs or rockets dropped or fired from above. Ultimately, the Panzer VIII Maus was symptomatic of Hitler’s irrational obsession with big things and super weapons. He was indifferent or unable to understand their relative cost effectiveness compared to other “normal” weapons that could accomplish the same task at a fraction of the cost. Reliance on such pedestrian weapons would have freed up scarce resources for other uses that could have better served the German war effort.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
V3 cannon. History Net

9. Hitler’s Super Gun

In 1942, a German ballistics engineer named August Conders convinced Hitler that he had come up with a design for a super gun that just might knock Britain out of the war. Conders’ gun had a 417 foot barrel, from which an elongated projectile that weighed hundreds of pounds would be fired. As it made its way through the barrel, the shell would be accelerated by the successive detonation of 32 more charges, and exit with a muzzle velocity of 4920 feet per second. The supergun’s shells would travel almost 100 miles. As Conders put it to the Fuhrer, if they were placed near the English Channel, the superguns could hit London. 50 such guns that launched 3000 rounds a day could devastate central London and destroy a 15 square miles area of the British capital.

The results from a prototype that used a 20mm gun showed promise, so the go-ahead was given to scale up the research and development for the project to wreck London. In May, 1943, Albert Speer, the Reich Minister for Armaments and War Production, gave his boss a bit of good news amidst the gloom caused by many of the Fuhrer’s failed endeavors. Hitler was informed that work had begun on the new super guns that could fire hundreds of rounds an hour and hurl their special projectiles over extremely long distances. An underground complex was dug in the Pas de Calais in northern France, across the narrowest stretch of the English Channel that separated Nazi occupied Europe from England.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
A prototype V3 cannon in 1943. Bundesarchiv Bild

8. A Gargantuan Gun

The V3’s site lay six miles inland – estimated to be safe from seaborne commando raids and British Royal Navy guns – and 103 miles from central London. It would house the Vergetlungswaffe 3, German for “Vengeance Weapon 3”. The super guns, whose name was shortened to the V3 Cannons, and also known as “The London Cannons”, were to be aimed at the British capital, which Hitler hoped to destroy. The underground complex was to include over 165 kilometers of tunnels, dug by German workers and slave laborers. The network of tunnels was to be linked to 5 inclined shafts, in which 25 huge gun tubes were to be laid, all aimed at central London. A similar complex would be built nearby, and once both were completed, 50 superguns would wreak havoc upon the enemy capital.

As designed, the V-3 superguns were to fire 10 explosive projectiles that weighed 310 pounds each, with a 55 pound explosive charge. Two batteries were planned, and if they went all out, they would be able to fire 600 rounds per hour, 24 hours a day, and rain devastation down upon and wreck London. As Winston Churchill later commented, if the Nazis had managed to pull it off, it would have been history’s most destructive conventional attack ever launched against a city. The Allies were completely in the dark about the V-3 program, and their intelligence utterly failed to detect the project. Allied reconnaissance flights spotted the activity around the Pas de Calais complex, but analysts assumed that the photos depicted a potential base for the launch of V1 or V2 rockets.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
American GIs pose with a captured V3 projectile. Museum of Unnatural Mystery

7. How London Got Lucky

Luckily for London, V1s and V2 rockets were worrisome in of themselves and worthy of attention. So although the Allies were ignorant about the supergun project, they went ahead and subjected the site to frequent bomb raids anyhow from late 1943 onwards. The Allied aerial raids in the Pas de Calais area disrupted the construction of the structures needed to house the supergun project, and the Germans were eventually forced to abandon parts of the planned complex. The rest of the site was seriously damaged in July, 1944, in a raid that used heavy ground penetrating bombs, that burrowed deep beneath the surface before they detonated. The underground explosions wrecked and collapsed the tunnel system, and buried hundreds of workers and technicians. In the meantime, various development bugs had slowed the pace of the project.

Even when all went well, the V3’s shells failed to reach the intended muzzle velocity of over 4900 feet per second, and barely exceeded 3300 feet. Trials in May, 1944, fired shells to a range of 55 miles – impressive, but not enough to reach London from France. A July test failed catastrophically when a shell was fired 58 miles, only for the gun barrel to burst in the process. Construction was finally halted for good as the Allies made their way up the coast from Normandy to the Pas de Calais, and the abandoned V3 compounds fell to Canadian troops in September of 1944. It was only then that the Allies discovered just how big a threat the complex had actually posed, and just how lucky London had been to dodge that menace.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
Winston Churchill giving the V for victory sign on November 10th, 1942. International Business Times

6. WWII’s Bengal Famine

The British Empire had long justified itself with the claim that it governed for the benefit of its colonized subjects. Its conduct during the Bengal Famine of 1943 gave the lie to such pretenses. In the years before the famine, many Bengalis had barely eked out a subsistence from their lands, supplemented by imported rice, mainly from Burma. When the Japanese conquered Burma in 1942, Bengal was cut off from those imports, and the precarious existence of millions of Bengalis was tipped over into famine. It was made worse by the British colonial authorities’ decision in 1942 to adopt a preemptive scorched earth policy in parts of Bengal that they feared the Japanese would overrun after they conquered Burma.

That entailed a “Denial of Rice” policy. It came down to the removal or destruction of rice and other foodstuffs in Bengali districts that had a surplus. With traditional rice imports from Burma cut off, and home grown surpluses destroyed by the British, famine roared through Bengal. Relief efforts were hampered by Churchill’s decision to divert food shipments intended for the starving Bengalis to already well-supplied British soldiers in the Mediterranean. The result was one of the darker moments in a war full of darkness. In order to add to the stockpiles of food in Britain, ships loaded with wheat sailed past Indian cities whose streets were littered with the corpses of those starved to death.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
Victims of the 1943 Bengal Famine. Herd

5. Winston Churchill’s Ugly Side

Offers of Canadian and American food aid to the starving Indians were turned down by Churchill’s government, even as it prohibited India from using its own sterling reserves or its own ships to import food. Indeed, India was made to export over 70,000 tons of rice in the first half of 1943, while millions of Indians starved to death. When the government in Delhi sent the Prime Minister a telegram informing him of the devastation and that millions of Indians were dying, Churchill replied churlishly: “Then why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?” The Viceroy of India described Churchill’s attitude towards India as “negligent, hostile, and contemptuous“. Churchill was unrepentant, however.

In addition to being shockingly callous about the millions of deaths sure to result from his orders, Churchill seemed viciously gleeful about the predictable consequences when they actually occurred. As he put it, referring to the deaths of millions of Bengalis under his watch: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits“. That was the essence of colonialism: an imbalance of power between colonists and colonized. It created dynamics whereby respected figures such as Winston Churchill, widely praised for their moral virtues, could engage in morally reprehensible conduct without any qualms. It allowed the government that ruled both Indians and Britons to callously tolerate famine in India, even as it remained sensitive to British views that bread rationing in wartime Britain was an intolerable imposition.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
General George S. Patton. Wikimedia

4. General George S. Patton’s Less Iconic Aspects

George S. Patton was America’s most famous fighting general of WWII. He led the US Seventh Army in North Africa and Sicily, and commanded the Third Army as it stormed through France, across Germany, and into Czechoslovakia. A man of contradictions, Patton was a hard charging, profane, and often obnoxious figure. He also had a softer side, and liked to write poetry – although not very well. And then there was the crazy side, in which this great general convinced himself that he was some kind of eternal soldier, who had been reincarnated numerous times over the millennia as a warrior. In short, Patton was a man of extremes. He also elicited extreme reactions: people loved or hated him. He gave the latter plenty to hate, as his wartime exploits were often marred by controversies caused by his propensity to abuse his authority and those under his command.

One incident from 1943, in which he slapped sick soldiers, almost cost him his career. It paled in comparison to another incident in 1945, hurriedly swept under the rug, in which Patton got hundreds of his men killed, wounded, or captured, because of nepotism. General Patton’s best-known controversy occurred during the 1943 Sicilian Campaign. On a hospital visit, he came across a PTSD-suffering soldier who was also burning up with malarial fever. Seeing no visible wounds on the GI, Patton flew into a rage, accused the unfortunate man of cowardice, slapped him around, and threatened to shoot him. The great general repeated the disgraceful performance a few days later in another hospital, and physically assaulted another PTSD-suffering soldier. When the scandal broke, it nearly got Patton cashiered from the US Army. Fortunately, General Dwight D. Eisenhower protected Patton and gave him a chance to command another army in France.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
Patton’s son in law, John K. Waters. Alchetron

3. Nepotism Kills

Patton did not learn the lesson about abuse of power. In 1945, he had a worse, but lesser-known scandal, in which he got hundreds of GIs killed, wounded, or captured, for personal reasons. It happened in March, 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 mission: to liberate Hammelburg POW camp, which housed Patton’s son-in-law, John K. Waters. Task Force Baum’s raid ended catastrophically. All tanks and vehicles were lost, and of 314 participants, 32 were killed, and most of the rest were wounded or captured. Only 35 men made it back. The worst part of it was that the mission was totally unnecessary.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
The liberation of Hammelburg POW camp by the 14th Armored Division, two weeks after the Task Force Baum debacle. US National Archives

Patton’s beloved son-in-law, for whom the great general had gotten the beloved sons, brothers, and fathers of many Americans killed or injured, had never been in any danger. Hammelburg was liberated two weeks after the Task Force Baum fiasco. When Eisenhower found out, he 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. Shortly thereafter, a reporter got wind of the scandal. When the story first broke in a major publication on April 12th, 1945, it would have wrecked Patton under normal circumstances. However, President Roosevelt 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 affair was reduced to a mere historic footnote.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
Male and female French Resistance members in the summer of 1944. All That is Interesting

2. The Romanticized Resistance

WWII’s resistance movements in Western Europe were heroic, and were deservedly romanticized. However, their extent and importance has often been exaggerated. A common myth has it that resistance in Western Europe was widespread, and that its efforts tipped the balance in the Allies’ favor, spelling the difference between victory and defeat. It is true that Eastern European resistance movements, such as the Soviet and Yugoslav partisans, contributed materially to victory with intense sabotage and guerrilla activities. However, the greatest contribution of Western Europe’s resistance lay in intelligence gathering: their sabotage and guerrilla efforts were negligible. It took great courage, and the men and women of the Western European resistance risked their lives on a daily basis. However, their impact was more symbolic than substantive.

The actual impact of the resistance in Western Europe is that it contributed more to the locals’ pride and self-esteem after the war for having done something, than to the actual winning of the war. The disparity between the resistance movements in Eastern Europe and the Balkans versus those of Western Europe is due to the manner in which the German occupiers treated their conquered subjects in different parts of Europe. Jews excepted, German occupation of Western Europe, while severe, never approached the levels of psychotic cruelty and mindless brutality meted out to the conquered in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

The Real Rosie the Riveter and Other Lesser Known Iconic WWII Facts and Figures
A French Resistance cell in Corsica, 1942. The Economist

1. Resistance in Western vs Eastern Europe

Western European civilian populations in the main did not exhibit a willingness to risk the horrific reprisals and atrocities the Germans were prepared to inflict upon restive subjects. It was not due to lack of courage, but lack of incentive. Because they were not treated as atrociously as were, e.g.; Soviet or Yugoslav civilians, Western Europeans’ backs were not as much against the wall to where they felt they had nothing to lose. An exception were Western Europe’s communists, who made a drastic turn from acquiescence to German occupation during the period of Russo-German friendship to fierce resistance after Hitler attacked the USSR,

As a result, noncommunist Western Europeans under Nazi occupation never flocked to the resistance in the kinds of numbers that transformed it into a mass popular movement as happened in the Balkans and the USSR. During the war, the resistance in Western Europe was not as widespread or intense as is often depicted in film or fiction. Far more people were willing to accept German occupation and make the best of a bad situation, than were willing to resist and risk German vengeance. E.g.; far greater numbers of Frenchmen collaborated with the German occupiers than joined the Resistance, whose numbers only boomed following the successful D-Day landings, after which late arrivals swelled the resistance ranks.


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


Atkinson, Rick – The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (2007)

BBC – How Churchill Starved India

Bird, William L. – Design for Victory: World War II Posters on the American Home Front (1998)

Bloch, Marc Leopold Benjamin – Strange Defeat (1968)

Boyne, Walter J. – Clash of Wings: Air Power in World War II (1994)

Christofferson, Thomas Randy and Michael Scott – France During World War II: From Defeat to Liberation (2006)

Clark, Alan – Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-45 (1965)

Cracked – 4 Icons of World War II That are Big Ol’ Lies

Forty, George – German Tanks of World War Two (1988)

History Collection – 10 Anti-Japanese Propaganda Films From WWII Filled With Racist Messages

King, Benjamin, and Kutta, Timothy – Impact: The History of Germany’s V-Weapons in WWII (1998)

Mukerjee, Mudhursee – Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II (2011)

New Scientist, September 3rd, 2014 – Myths and Realities of the Nazi Space Rocket

New York Times, March 4th, 2020 – Rosalind P. Walter, 95, First ‘Rosie the Riveter’ and a PBS Funder, Dies

Parshall, Jonathan B., and Tully, Anthony P. – Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (2005)

Prange, Gordon William – Miracle at Midway (1982)

Rhetoric and Public Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Winter 2006) – Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and Misconception in J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!” Poster

Robert, Geoffrey – Victory at Stalingrad: The Battle that Changed History (2008)

Roberts, Walter R. – Tito, Mihailovic, and the Allies 1941-1945 ­(1987)

Smith, Peter – The Junkers Ju 87 Stuka: A Complete History (2011)

Tank Encyclopedia – Panzer VIII Maus

Task Force Baum – The Hammelburg Raid

UK National Archives – Operation Unthinkable

Walker, Jonathan – Operation Unthinkable: The Third World War: British Plans to Attack the Soviet Empire, 1945 (2013)