Complimenting our fact-files on Spitfire, Churchill, Hitler and Stalin, Military Times has compiled a list of frequently baffling facts about the Second World War.
Many of these have been widely reported and circulated, entering the annals of modern folk-lore. Yet like all legends, they have been embellished over time, either by hyperbole or simple miss-reporting.
Whilst there are many more beguiling facts and figures equally worthy of inclusion, we have narrowed it to down to a selection of ten.
In the process, we have sought to debunk some of the myths, surrounding these events.
1. The Third Streich
It is said that lightning never strikes the same place twice. The Norwegian merchant-seamen Birger Lunde would perhaps disagree. Lunde was not only sunk by German U-Boats an incredible three times in consecutive years, but miraculously survived to tell the tale, living on to the age of 82.
His first encounter occurred in May 1941, whilst serving aboard the cargo ship Taranger, as second mate and radio operator. 250 miles off Iceland, and headed for America for artillery modifications to strengthen the vessel, she was met by a U-Boat which “shelled us until the ship literally fell apart.” They were rescued from the lifeboat a couple of days later by the British Navy.
Less than a year later, February 1942, his ship, Blink, was torpedoed. His lifeboat would capsize several times. Following several deaths amongst the crew, hallucinations due to fatigue and a dearth of supplies, and battles with sharks, the few remaining survivors were picked up by an American ship.
Returning to the waters, again as second mate and radio operator, his vessel, Oregon Express, was hit by a torpedo in 1943 whilst cruising in convoy in the Atlantic. This time he didn’t make it into a lifeboat, instead suffering a broken collarbone, ribs, and injuries to his back. Thankfully for Lunde he was spotted by a Danish ship, before ended up in New York.
2. German U-Boat trounced by Royal Flush
It is often reported across various sources that a malfunctioning toilet sank the German submarine U-120. In fact this claim is erroneously attributed; the sub in question was actually the much larger U-1206, which was fitted with an advanced, yet complicated ‘deepwater high-pressure toilet’.
As the name suggests, the new sanitation device was designed for use at a significant depth. So complicated was the drainage procedure, however, that specialised technicians were trained to do it.
The incident occurred on 14th April 1945, 8 miles off the coast of Peterhead, Scotland, whilst cruising at a depth of 200 feet. Due to misuse, the head started flooding rapidly, obliging the captain, Karl-Adolf Schlitt to surface.
She was spotted and subsequently bombed by British patrols. Again, faced with no other palpable option, Schlitt scuttled the U-boat. One crewman died, three drowned and a further 46 were captured by the British.
In a final epilogue to the story, the wreck was found by BP in the 1970s, whilst surveying underwater pipelines. The discovery provides an alternative theory for the U-boat’s demise; the fatal leak may have resulted from a collision with another wreck at the same site.
3. Collect 200 Marks as you pass Go!
35,000 Allied prisoners of war escaped German and Italian camps during World War II. Some people may be surprised to learn that the board game Monopoly was responsible for at least a third of these.
The Red Cross sent POWs special ‘prison escape kits’ disguised as standard monopoly boxes. The specialised kits were marked by a red dot – appearing to the uninitiated as a mere printing glitch – in the free parking square.
Contents included: authentic German currency hidden amongst the Monopoly money, a tiny compass embedded into the dog counter, a metal file sandwiched inside the board itself, and silk maps of the prison and its locality sealed inside the hotel pieces. Silk could not only be compressed to a small size, but more importantly, it would not rustle like a paper map which may potentially alert guards of escape.
The manufacturers, John Waddington Ltd, were specially commissioned to create these kits for the British Secret Service. POWs were generally allowed to play board games to pass the time, making the monopoly box the perfect ruse. In a similar innovation, RAF pilots were issued with playing cards which could be soaked in water, revealing maps when unfolded.
Incidentally, in standard issue Monopoly sets during the war, the dice were replaced with a cardboard spinner due to the short supply of normal materials.
4. Island invasion catastrophe
On 15th August 1943, almost 35,000 American and Canadian troops stormed the island of Kiska to repel a Japanese invasion force; 21 men died in the ensuing pandemonium and crossfire. Little did they know, however, that the island was in fact unoccupied. Kiska, the Aleutian Island, an America territory since 1867, had been captured by the Japanese the previous June. Although the island off Alaska was not particularly strategically important in itself, the psychological impact of Japan claiming American soil made its recapture even more desirable.
In addition to the 21 fatalities, a recorded 130 suffered trenchfoot, whilst many more were injured either in the confusion, or as a result of Japanese ‘booby traps’ that had been left on the island.
Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Navy’s top command was known by the abbreviation of CINCUS (or ‘sink us’). Naturally the name was later changed.
5. The WWII origins of Fanta
Fanta, the fizzy, sugar-based drink owned by Coca Cola, symbolic of the ‘American dream’, actually began its life in Nazi Germany.
Various conspiracy theories sporadically arise over this story, some claiming that the drink was conjured up by the Nazi war machine to counter American permeation of popular consumer culture. One could reasonably argue that the negative propaganda inherent in mass consumption of an American import would be damaging – potentially to both parties. This line of reasoning leads some to suggest that both Coke and Fanta were really the same product, only branded differently for the respective markets.
However, other symbolic American brands, Ford being the obvious example, had little qualms in articulating their proud relationship with Hitler’s Germany.
In reality, the drink was developed not by the Nazis, but independently by Max Keith, head of Coca Cola’s German operations, a pragmatic solution to the problem of getting Coke ingredients into Germany. Its ingredients varied, depending on which by-products were available from German factories at the time.
The drink proved popular, and was adopted by Coca Cola internationally post-war.
In another allusion to Coca Cola’s wartime influence, it is reported that the drink was so integral to the America war-effort that the US Army took 3 bottling plants with them into North Africa.
During the Second World War, the US Army had more ships than the US Navy.
7. The Price to Pay
The effects of war are both far-reaching and enduring. Britain was still paying off its WWII debts owed to America and Canada as recently as 2006. The final instalment of $83.25 was wired to America on the last day of business, 2006; it was actually 6 years late, due to intermittent financial difficulties, having negotiated a 50 year payment plan in 1950. Britain was reportedly three months shy of bankruptcy when the war finally drew to a close, mid-1945.
8. A Wooden Performance?
It has been claimed that during the war, Academy Awards were made out of wood, as opposed to the traditional plated bronze or Britannia alloy trophies. In actual fact this is a fallacy. Whilst it is true that metal trophies were suspended for three years owing to a shortage, the replacements were actually made of painted plaster. “Following the war, the Academy invited recipients to redeem the plaster figures for gold-plated metal ones.”
9. Churchill takes a bow (and arrow)
Traditionalist Lieutenant Colonel John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill, or ‘Mad Jack’ as he was known, fought in World War II using a longbow and sword. Churchill – of no apparent relation to his namesake – once asserted that “any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.”
10. I Don’t Do Requests
In 1942, American radio DJs were prohibited from airing requests of listeners. It was feared by the War Department that enemy spies might embed secret intelligence messages, hence broadcasting valuable information to be picked up by other agents.
The BBC is known to have used the same technique to deliver encrypted messages to the Resistance and other allies across Europe.