Hannah Szenes was one of thirty-two Jews from Palestine who parachuted into Europe as members of the British Army in the spring of 1944. Their goal was to rescue other Jews, although their British leaders emphasized that this objective must be secondary to reconnaissance tasks and enabling the escape of captured Allied airmen. After working with partisans in Yugoslavia, Hannah attempted to cross the border into her native Hungary, but was captured and executed five months later, aged just 23. A passionate Zionist and a gifted writer during her brief lifetime, Hannah is remembered as a national heroine in Israel.
Hannah Szenes (also known as Hannah Senesh) was born in Budapest on 17 July 1921. Her father, a journalist and playwright, died when she was six, but Hannah inherited his gift for writing, becoming a talented poet and regular diarist as she matured. Although the Szenes family were assimilated Jews, Hannah experienced anti-Semitism first-hand when she enrolled at a private high school in the early 1930s and was forced to pay triple tuition fees because of her religion. An intelligent and studious pupil, she became increasingly interested in Zionism, the movement to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Emigrating to Palestine
In September 1939, the same month that the Second World War broke out, Hannah’s dream of travelling to Palestine became a reality. Despite her strong academic performance, she chose to enrol in the Nahalal Agricultural School instead of a traditional university, as she firmly believed that Jewish youth should build the new country. She became particularly interested in poultry farming and after two years of study, joined a new kibbutz near the ruins of an ancient Roman city, between Tel Aviv and Haifa.
As news of the war and the increasing persecution of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe trickled through to Palestine, Hannah grew ever more concerned for her brother George, who was studying in Paris, and for her mother, who was still living in Budapest. Despite the natural beauty of the kibbutz’s location, Hannah failed to find contentment in her new work and longed to actively assist her compatriots in Hungary. In 1943 she joined the Haganah (an underground Jewish military force) and was subsequently accepted for a British Army mission that would enable her to travel back to Central Europe. Her seemingly fearless nature, particularly when it came to parachute training, earned the respect and admiration of her fellow volunteers.
D-Day, 6 June 1944, a date that altered the course of history, saw the largest amphibious invasion ever launched. Led by troops from the US, Great Britain and Canada, and involving Allied divisions from across the globe, the invasion of Occupied France, codenamed Operation Overlord, had been years in the planning and subject to the utmost secrecy.
The Americans, it was decided, would land on the two western beaches in Normandy, codenamed Utah and Omaha; while the British would attack via the middle and eastern beaches, codenamed Gold and Sword; and between these two, the Canadians would land at Juno.
At 5.50, on 6 June, the 1,738th day of the war, 138 Allied ships, positioned between three and thirteen miles out, began their tremendous bombardment of the German coastal defences. Above them, one thousand RAF bombers attacked, followed in turn by one thousand planes of the USAAF. Between them, the aircrews flew 13,688 sorties over the course of D-Day alone.
From their ships, soldiers, weighed down with weapons and seventy pounds of equipment, scaled down scramble nets and into their flat-bottomed landing craft. It took over three hours for the vessels to traverse the eleven or so miles to the coast. The men, trembling with abject fear, shivering from the cold and suffering from severe seasickness, endured and held on as their tightly-packed vessels were buffeted by six-foot high waves and eighteen-miles per hour winds. At 6.30, the first US troops landed on Omaha and Utah beaches.
One of the most spectacular Allied successes of World War Two was the evacuation of more than three hundred thousand British, French, and Belgian troops from Dunkirk between May 27 and June 4, 1940 . The men had been cut off and surrounded by the German army, and would have been slaughtered or captured if not for a hastily assembled flotilla of more than eight hundred military and civilian vessels, which achieved what became known as the Miracle of Dunkirk.
Among the troops fighting to hold off the Germans and make the evacuation possible were the 7th and 8th Battalions of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, part of the 51st Highland Division. Their officers read them these orders: “You will hold this position; you will either be killed, wounded or made a prisoner of war.” (Pictured: Jocks of the 51st Highland Division in France 1940).
At 3 p.m. on June 5, twenty-six-year old Lieutenant J. E. M. Atkinson of the 7th Battalion, surrounded by German troops who had just shot off his wristwatch, surrendered near the French town of Saigneville. He was not alone. After Dunkirk, the 51st Division was charged with recapturing the Abbeville bridgehead on the Somme, but they were overwhelmed and suffered heavy casualties, and on June 12, their commander Major General Victor Fortune surrendered at St. Valéry-en-Caux. In The General Danced at Dawn, George Macdonald Fraser tells of the remnants of his regiment of the Gordon Highlanders singing “We’re No Awa’ to Bide Awa’” “as they waited for the end.”
‘If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.’
Considered one of the greatest war photographers, Robert Capa’s images, especially those taken during the Spanish Civil War and the D-Day landings, are among the iconic images of the twentieth century.
Born Andre Friedmann in Budapest on 22 October 1913, Robert Capa had, by the age of eighteen, turned into a political radical, opposed to the authoritarian rule of Hungarian regent, Miklós Horthy. In 1931, Friedmann was arrested and imprisoned by Hungary’s secret police. On his release, after only a few months, he moved to Berlin where he studied journalism and political science while working part time as a dark room apprentice. In 1933, alarmed by the rise of Nazism, Friedmann, who was Jewish, moved to Paris.
Famous American photographer
Two years later, while in Paris, Friedmann met Gerta Pohorylle, a German Jew who had also fled Hitler’s Germany. Together they worked as photojournalists, fell in love and, in an attempt to make their work more commercially appealing, pretended they both worked for the famous American photographer, Robert Capa. Friedmann took the photos, Pohorylle hawked them to the news agencies and credit was given to the fictional Robert Capa. (The name ‘Capa’ was chosen as homage to the American film director, Frank Capra.)
The Falling Soldier Continue reading
What were the Secret Intelligence Service and Churchill up to in Caxton Hall, Caxton Street and Westminster in London during the 1930s?
Every street in London has a story to tell. Some stories might be as simple as a birth or a death, a lasting legacy originating from someone coming into the world or someone leaving. The blue plaques which adorn many London buildings will happily point you in the direction of these important locations. But there is another type of London history. There are locations around the city which are wrapped in intrigue. Homes and hotels which have altered the course of the country’s history with little to no fanfare. While it might be important to know where an old poet breathed his last, those with a historical interest might be fascinated to discover the history which hides within some of the subtler city walls.
In terms of threats to the country, there were few which were more feared than the Nazis. The waging of the Second World War was a caustic and exhausting campaign, fought in the fields of France, in the skies above the city, on sea, sand and snow. But it was also the birth of modern spying. The war was a global concern, but the heart of the British effort was born in a clandestine series of locations in West London. Caxton Hall, Caxton Street and Westminster saw the arrival of British spying, and the creation of the vaunted SIS.
The birth of spies
Espionage in the British Isles has its roots in the end of the Victorian era. The Secret Service Bureau was established in 1909 with the intent of evaluating the capabilities of the German Navy. This service became formalised and evolved as the First World War began to take hold, with the branch devoted to foreign investigations becoming known as MI6. Although the service achieved middling results, it was able to collect a great deal of intelligence in neutral countries.
Paul Joseph Goebbels was the third of five children born to a Catholic family in Germany, on 29 October 1897. An educated and intelligent man, he swiftly rose through the ranks of the Nazi Party in the 1920s, ultimately becoming the Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, and one of Hitler’s closest associates. A man of below average height, Goebbels was occasionally referred to as ‘the Poison Dwarf’ and was the force behind the indomitable National Socialist propaganda machine. As the Third Reich crumbled in the final days of World War Two, the Führer named Goebbels as the next Chancellor, a position he held for just one day.
Rise to Prominence
Although of an eligible age to fight, Joseph Goebbels had a club foot that prevented him seeing action during World War One and gave him a permanent limp, facts he resented greatly throughout his life and endeavoured to disguise. He wrote a novel, and studied philosophy and literature and was awarded his doctorate from Heidelberg University in 1921.
Goebbels joined the Nazi Party in 1922 and after ascending to the rank of Gauleiter of Berlin within four years, he was appointed the party’s propaganda minister in 1929. He edited a weekly newspaper called Der Angriff (The Assault) and also drew attention to National Socialist principles through provocative speeches. In 1933, following Hitler’s assumption of power, he became the Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.
In spite of his own club foot and diminutive stature, Goebbels ardently preached the physical superiority of the Aryan master race. With control over all media channels and cultural output in the Third Reich, Goebbels oversaw the dissemination of Nazi racial ideology to the masses; from celebrations of classical German culture and history, to warnings about the dangers that Jews and other supposedly subversive peoples posed to society.
Goebbels’ Anti-Semitism Continue reading
Oskar Schindler was born into a German family in the Czech Sudetenland on 28 April 1908. He joined the Nazi Party at the age of 30, following the absorption of the Sudetenland into the Third Reich. Nearly forty years after his death, he is remembered as a ‘good Nazi’ who saved an estimated 1,200 Polish Jews from almost certain death in concentration camps during World War Two. His posthumous fame is largely due to the 1993 blockbuster film Schindler’s List.
The Emalia Factory
An enterprising businessman, Oskar Schindler recognised the lucrative opportunities that war could present and took over an enamelware factory in Krakow in the autumn of 1939, shortly after the outbreak of World War Two. This was within the Generalgouvernement area of Poland, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were forcibly resettled by occupying Nazi forces. Officially named the Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik, his factory became more commonly known as Emalia.
Anti-Semitic feeling and action in Poland escalated swiftly following the Nazi invasion. Mass shootings were carried out throughout the country and those Jews who survived the exodus from their homes were crowded into sealed ghettoes. Although Schindler remained a member of the Nazi Party, he became increasingly opposed to the violent persecution of Jews and by late 1942, 370 Jews from the Krakow ghetto were among the workers employed in his factory.
Besides enamelware, Schindler’s factory also manufactured ammunitions. As ammunitions were vital to the German war effort, Schindler argued that the Jews employed in Emalia were indispensable if high production levels were to be maintained, thus preventing their deportation to labour and extermination camps. He protected his workers while the Krakow ghetto was liquidated in March 1943 by allowing them to remain in the factory overnight and subsequently established his own sub-camp, so they would not be subjected to harsh forced labour in nearby Plaszow.
As D-Day approached, training intensified. Troops were told only what they needed to know; they certainly had no idea about when or where they’d be going into action. Troops trained embarking and disembarking from landing craft. (The flat-bottomed Landing Craft, Assault vessels (LCA) weighed ten tons each, could carry thirty-eight men and travel up to ten knots per hour, while the much larger Landing Ship, Tank, LST, carried three hundred men and sixty tanks. Both vessels could sail right onto a beach.)
It was at one such training exercise, one that involved the use of live ammunition, that tragedy struck. 23,000 American troops, the entire invading force of Utah beach, and 300 vessels were rehearsing on Slapton Sands in South Devon on 27 and 28 April 1944 in an exercise codenamed Tiger designed to acclimatize troops as accurately as possible to what they could expect at Utah during the real thing, right down to a number of pretend dead bodies strewn around. Six villages in the area had seen the evacuation of their 3,000 inhabitants. They’d been told they would, one day, be allowed back. But when, no one knew.
30,000 acres of land around Slapton Sands, chosen because of its similarities to the intended target area of Utah beach, had been sealed off with barbed wire and sentries. On the 27th, during Exercise Tiger, poor communication resulted in a number of troops being fired upon by their own ships. (Pictured: US troops in training for the Normandy Landings.)
28 April 1944
Born in Texas into a family of German immigrant pacifists, Dwight Eisenhower, the third of seven boys, was brought up in Kansas. He attended the West Point Military Academy, graduating in 1915. Although he rose to the temporary rank of lieutenant colonel during the First World War, during which he spent most of his time training tank crews, he never saw any action; a drawback, as he saw it, that caused him embarrassment and was later used against him.
After the war Eisenhower continued to work in the tank arm, befriending George Patton and sharing his views on the importance of mobility. While stationed in France, he wrote a guide to the battlefields of the Great War, as it was still known.
From 1933 he worked with General Douglas MacArthur, moving with him to the Philippines in 1935, where he stayed until 1939. More senior staff work ensued and in 1941 he was made Brigadier General. When the USA entered the Second World War Eisenhower worked in the War Plans Office, which he eventually headed.
Despite his lack of frontline experience he was made US Theater Commander in Europe in June 1942. As such, he had overall command of the Torch landings in North Africa in November, and thereafter the Anglo-American armies which invaded Italy. In December 1943 he became Supreme Allied Commander for Europe – a role in which his deft political skills were more important than his military ones. Somehow he managed to operate successfully between such egos as Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Patton and Bernard Montgomery. He emerged from the war a full five star General, highly regarded by all sides.
Following the liberation of Nazi-occupied France, Eisenhower favoured a ‘broad thrust’ into Germany rather than the quicker but riskier narrow front favoured by Montgomery.